Questions have been raised about India’s exchange rate policy in the context of growing currency fluctuations and the need to maintain financial stability in the market. More importantly, the management of the Indian rupee by the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) vis-à-vis the Asian currencies, especially the Chinese Yuan, assumes importance. Not only is India a rising power; it has special relations with Asian neighbours and, in particular, has to contend with the role of China in the region and its policy towards the exchange rate for its currency, the Renminbi (RMB) or Yuan. It is not the intention to compare the relative performance of India with China. There are a number of studies on this and the number is increasing day by day. The limited purpose of this paper is to examine the exchange rate policies of two economic powers in the region. The issues have indeed become complex and sensitive after the eruption of the financial crisis which, even after two years, shows no signs of abating. There are no clear answers from the practitioners of the ‘dismal’ science.
When a galaxy of central bank chiefs and reputed economists participated in the annual Symposium at Jackson Hole, Kansas City, Wyoming, U.S.A, (27-28, August), the mood was one of uncertainty bordering on gloom. The earlier meetings used to resemble celebratory reunions of army generals who had won laurels in battles fought earlier. Alan Greenspan was indeed the deity they adored.
It is a sad turn of events. Erstwhile wizards, who handled monetary tools with an iron fist and believed they could slay the monster inflation, were clueless and threw up their hands not knowing where to move1. They unfolded several options and reckoned how each one of them met with road blocks. Sadly, the earlier assurance of monetarists was missing. They could no longer keep faith in the efficacy of their tools to tweak inflation: changes in interest rates, money supplies or reliance on that phenomenon called “inflation expectations.” There was fear that the global economy, especially the U.S., was in the grip of a recession (double dip?); and they could no longer see the “green shoots” which they witnessed in January 2009.
That was the time when the Federal Reserve and the Treasury commenced their massive stimulus programs and to pump in trillions of dollars (taxpayers’ money!) to revive the banks and, thereby, real the economy. For a brief period, they rediscovered the Keynesian panacea and relied on its potency.
From the early days, there was no consensus among the U.S. and EU governments or even within the G-20. The debate on stimulus (and ‘exits’ from stimulus) bordered on a new theology, with the IMF providing convenient studies/papers to suit the arguments from all sides. Not many at Jackson Hole agreed that the stimulus had helped in reviving their economies. However, they were apprehensive about the damage ‘exits’ could cause.
More than any other country, the U.S. needed the stimulus. The EU, in its turn, was more worried about the weakened banking and fiscal systems of its members and the threatening prospects of sovereign debt default. They realized that the PIIGS (Portugal, Italy, Iceland, Greece and Spain) won’t fly soon. They sensed the unfeasibility and the futility of stimulus programs. As a quirk of history, the U.S. was in need of a growing EU economy in its own interests and was aghast at the EU’s threat of early ‘exits.’
The members of the G-20 were mute witnesses to these debates and were becoming marginal players. There was no doubt they were hit by the crisis, though with a time lag. They would soon climb the growth tree relying on their domestic savings and certain favourable developments in the external sector. This led to much talk about the emerging economies (EMEs) providing a boost to the sagging European and American economies. It was rather difficult to unravel whether the EMEs were ‘coupled’ or ‘decoupled.’ It was however evident that they could rock the U.S.-EU boats if they did not cooperate. The OECD banks and financial institutions were in need of opportunities for investment in stocks, securities and other assets which only countries like India or China could provide. Thus, the EMEs were allowed to sup at the High Table with G7/8 leaders. And they signed long-winded statements churned out at the end of G-20 meetings.
In retrospect, except for platitudes, the G-20 did not pay any special attention to the needs of the EMEs. It had ignored the work done by the U.N. Commission on the Financial Crisis under the Chairmanship of Nobel Laureate Joseph Stiglitz. Most of the G-20 debating centered on internecine squabbles between the U.S. and EU2. The last G-20 gathering at Toronto in June 2010 was more obsessed with the Eurozone sovereign crisis than with any of the other burning issues. In a way, it offered evidence of the irrelevance of the G-20 when the Toronto meeting ended with an ambiguous statement which permits every member to undertake whatever stimulus it wants within its means and choice! Press reports credited Dr. Manmohan Singh of India of having played a key role in working out the face saving formula.
Even as these debates and confabulations were gathering steam, global currencies began to gyrate. The Euro, which remained strong until around mid-2008, began to weaken and chiefs of central banks were in disarray. They were driven to safeguard their flanks. The worries were more for Asian countries holding large foreign exchange reserves in U.S. dollar or Euro assets.
China was the prime victim and had every reason to work over time to safeguard its assets valued over $2 trillion with a large portion (70 percent) denominated in U.S. dollar3. There was feverish shuffling of currencies and large volume/value euro assets were turned into dollar assets as safe haven measures even if the returns were low.
It was not surprising that China had to rework its strategies and attempt new pastures. The so-called Brettonwoods-II was aground. Reliance on dollar was no longer a dependable or sustainable option. Unfortunately, in the given global financial scenario, other avenues are not available or extremely limited. Therefore, any new strategy would require a longer horizon. They depend, again, on the cooperative or harmonious (as the Chinese are fond of describing!) approaches of other countries. China cannot hope for these in a world which is gradually turning hostile.
Thus began China’s attack on the dominance of the U.S. dollar as a reserve currency4. Its long term endeavor is to replace the U.S. dollar as a reserve currency with a multi-polar system of major currencies such as dollar, euro and yen acting as reserve currencies. Alongside, it plans an ambitious “long march” towards the internationalizion of the Yuan5. It seeks to calibrate the process by undertaking ‘baby steps.’
Sadly for China, the currency crisis, in combination with its strategies, which are themselves responses to the crisis, led to the renewal of the Yuan dispute. Many had hoped that it was buried in way back in 2005. Sadly, it was again brought center stage leading to one of the ugliest diplomatic battles.
The battle was by and with the U.S. and started way back in 2003 when China started rising in the global economy and its exports began to burgeon. The exports gave it an opportunity to build huge trade surpluses with the U.S. and, concomitantly, growing foreign exchange reserves. Unfortunately for China, this coincided with the years when the U.S. economy began to falter with the ballooning of twin deficits: fiscal and trade. There were other contributory factors such as the outsourcing strategies of multinational corporations, trade integration in Asia, etc. It is not practicable to go into all the ramifications except in passing.6
The long and short of the story is that the U.S. failed in its efforts to put pressure on China to revalue its exchange. Even in the early years when the dispute commenced, the U.S. sought to involve G-7 and the IMF in its efforts to bully China. China would not succumb and kept on repeating that it would not yield to external pressure and, if necessary, undertake changes in its own national interest and at a time of its choosing.
The U.S. was mightily relieved when, in July 2005, China un-pegged the Yuan from the U.S. dollar and linked its value to a basket of currencies. The U.S. Treasury and Senators felt that China had yielded to their pressure and modified its policy. As later developments proved, this was not so.
The shift was both tactical and pragmatic. It was tactical, as China could rid itself of the international branding as a ‘bad’ boy. It could expand its global links, especially with the U.S. in areas such as banking and high tech manufacture. It was pragmatic, as China began to feel confident about its strength and capability to face global partners. The circumstances in the global economy were also propitious.
In the Third China-U.S. Strategic Economic Dialogue (SED) held December 2007, the Yuan rate was not raised at all. Hank Paulson, the then US Treasury Secretary was happy over the Yuan appreciation. In fact, the tables had been turned against the U.S. which was cautioned by China to address the serious implications arising out of its own policies such as the weak dollar, interest rate cuts and the subprime crisis. The SED exhibited a rare U.S.-China camaraderie.7
Sadly, the armistice was short lived. With the eruption of the global financial crisis in August 2008, the ground realities as assessed by China’s authorities, especially the People’s Bank of China (PBoC), had changed.8They felt the need to freeze the Yuan rate to ensure financial stability. From 2005 to 2008 when the Yuan was linked to a basket of currencies, it had appreciated by 21 percent against the U.S. dollar and the rate stood around 6.3 Yuan per dollar. This freezing of the Yuan rate gave birth to renewed bouts of attacks from the U.S. Treasury, Senators and the public.
It was like history repeating itself. This time, the arguments were made sexier with the added charge that China was triggering the global financial imbalances with its Yuan rate policy. Forgotten amid all the din were the heroic efforts made by the IMF and its first Managing Director John Lipsky two years earlier to identify the factors creating imbalances and the steps to be taken by major partners such as the U.S., China, EU, Japan and Saudi Arabia to redress them. Lipsky had worked out what he called “a process” to untangle the imbalances and also assigned specific responsibilities to major players, including the U.S. This time around, the attack was wholly on China as the villain of the piece. The added flavor was that the attack would be undertaken within the framework of the G-20.
It was an attempt by the U.S. to multilateralise the dispute. When the Yuan dispute resurfaced after 2008 with the freezing of its rate, many economists and analysts began to express the view that the U.S. should not deal with the issue bilaterally and exacerbate the already strained relations between the two, but should rather involve other countries adversely impacted by China’s policy. A multilateral approach, rather on the lines of the infamous “coalition of the willing”, could be more effective in dealing with China. Given its nationalist pride and sensitivities, China may find it more acceptable to respond to global pressure than to unilateral pressure from the U.S.
Arvind Subramanian of the Peterson Institute of International Economics (PIIE) was one of the earliest to have suggested multilateral action9. As he explained, “One possibility that remains is for a number of emerging market and developing countries-including South Korea, Indonesia, Thailand, India, Turkey, and Mexico among others-to come together and highlight the impact of China’s exchange rate on their trade competitiveness and hence their ability to manage inflows. The G-20 should be the best forum for these countries to coordinate and articulate their concerns.” “But the message should be conveyed from a broad section of the international community, and not just the United States, that China’s actions have significant externalities.” The idea was to urge that China should not ignore its international responsibilities.
In a later article10, he dismissed the capability of the IMF to handle the dispute and argued that “the World Trade Organisation is a natural forum for developing new multilateral rules.” This was on the reasoning that undervalued exchange rates are de facto protectionist policies because they are a combination of export subsidies and import tariffs. He felt that the WTO carried greater legitimacy with the emerging economies than the IMF. In making the suggestion, he failed to reckon with the impasse in which the Doha Round found itself and, further, the fact that a radical reform of this nature would not secure unanimity among all the members as required under the WTO procedures.
Prof. Easwar Prasad of Cornell University, an experienced China specialist, also advocated a multilateral approach. In his testimony11 to the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission, he suggested, “Elicit the support of other emerging market and developing countries in influencing Chinese currency and other economic policies. Rather than focusing on the effects of China’s currency policy on the U.S.-China bilateral trade balance, the implications of China’s currency policy for its own economic stability and those of other emerging markets should be highlighted.”
U.S. analysts and politicians continued to grope for methods to attack China to resolve the dispute. Suggestions varied from an extreme one of imposing tariffs around 25 percent with the hope that others like the EU would join and China could ultimately be dragged before the WTO. Surprisingly, Paul Krugman jumped into this wagon and wrote an op-ed item for the New York Times12. He referred to the loss of U.S. jobs estimated at 1.4 million and added, “The bottom line is that Chinese mercantilism is a growing problem and the victims of that mercantilism have little to lose from a trade confrontation.” Krugman was faulted by many critics and, sadly, did not realize the global disruption such a move could cause. In any case, his assumption that the EU would follow the U.S. in a U.S.-China trade war was flawed.
There were other analysts who recommended combined action through IMF and the WTO. The premise was that the IMF would assess undervaluation of the Yuan and refer the dispute for settlement through the WTO. These suggestions were either flawed or facile and had not been tested against legal procedures and requirements.
The hearings on China’s Exchange Rate Policy before the Ways and Means Committee of the U.S. Congress held in March 201013 under the Chairmanship of Sander M. Levin offered an opportunity to assess the dimensions of the dispute and the ways to tackle it. Several economists and policy analysts appeared before the committee and gave their views.
Fred Bergsten, Director of Peterson Institute, Washington D.C., provided an Action Plan. The first step is to label China as a currency manipulator and enter into negotiations with it He hoped to get the support of European countries and as many EMEs as possible. With that kind of support, he wanted the group to involve China in ‘ad hoc’ consultations within the IMF. If the consultation failed, the U.S. should ask the IMF’s Executive Board to decide to publish a report criticizing China’s exchange rate policy. He went to add: “Hopefully, with a similarly broad coalition, the United States should exercise its right to ask the World Trade Organisation to constitute a dispute settlement panel to determine whether China has violated its obligations under the WTO.” Even while making this elaborate paper-plan, Bergsten was painfully aware that, “there are technical and legal problems with the WTO rules too.” In truth, he was understating them. As an analyst explained in the columns of Financial Times14, “the third prong of Mr. Bergsten’s attack, a case against China at the WTO involves plunging into murky legalistic swamp.”
Prof. Niall Ferguson was uneasy over any steps in the direction of protectionism at a time of economic fragility. However, he urged the U.S. “to pursue currency realignment on a multilateral rather than solely on a bilateral basis, using the G-20 rather than just a Sino-American “G2” as the appropriate forum.” A year earlier, he was advocating Chimerica, i.e. joint action by China and America as global powers!
There were other experts who also pleaded for a multilateral approach. Mr. Levin took note of them and also complexities attached to the problems. He took a moderate view. Though he felt that multilateral solutions were preferable to bilateral ones, he realized that finding an effective solution was intractable.
By March 2010, the U.S. was leaning on two approaches: one to influence and bring on board the BRIC and the G-20; and the other to use the threat of its Currency Report to brand China as a currency manipulator. It resembled its strategy adopted in the early years of Uruguay Round negotiations when the U.S. used, in parallel, the negotiations route and, along with it, threats of tariffs under section 301 and super 301. Sadly, it did not realize that times were out of joint and the current global conditions were not so favourable.
Initially, there was some cheer. The statements made by India and Brazil in April 2010, prior to Washington Meetings were intriguing. As one news report suggested15, “Speaking ahead of a Group of 20 (G20) meeting scheduled this week end in Washington, the Indian and Brazilian bank heads surprised observers when they aligned themselves with Obama in the diplomatic fray surrounding Beijing’s controversial currency stance.”
RBI Governor Duvvuri Subbarao seems to have told reporters in Mumbai that exports from China to India were outpacing Indian shipment of goods to its northern neighbour “and that obviously is a reflection of differences in the exchange rate management.”
Brazil’s bank president Henrique Meirlles echoed those sentiments at a senate hearing in Brasilia saying, “it’s absolutely critical that China appreciate its currency to ensure equilibrium in the global currency.”
Bloomberg News16went on: “This meeting will be the first test by the U.S. to use a multilateral forum to press China into action on its currency.” It reported Governor Subbarao saying, “If some countries manage their exchange rate and keep them artificially low, the burden of adjustment falls on some countries that do not manage their currency so actively.” He seems to have added, “India will give its opinion if the issue is raised in the G-20 meeting.”
According to Financial Times17, “Indian and Brazilian central bank presidents have made the most forceful statements yet by these countries about case for stronger Chinese currency.”
Joining them was Lee Hsien Loong, Prime Minister of Singapore, who added his country’s support saying it was ‘in China’s own interests’ to have a flexible exchange rate.
Apart from these, there were no reports that any other developing country supported the U.S. on the Yuan issue. (As we narrate in a later part, most of them were against.)
The BRICs meeting held at Brasilia prior to the G-20 Meeting was “divided on global agenda.”18 China’s undervalued currency was a matter of some concern since it eroded the competitiveness of other BRIC countries. However, Brazil’s President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva did not endorse the pre-conference statement made by its central bank chief when he met Hu Jintao. In fact, he used the opportunity to sign massive five-year programs to expand the fast growing trade between the two countries.
Few expected the BRICs, as a group, to pressure Beijing on the issue. It was realpolitik in the truest sense. As a reporter of TIME19 curtly put it, “China is easily the dominant force in the group, both economically and politically, and the BRICs can’t do much without Beijing on board.” The exchange rate issue was not raised in the BRICs meeting. The meeting itself had to end abruptly as China’s Hu had to rush back home on hearing the news about a massive earthquake devastation in North West China. Even in the G-20 held later, the Yuan issue was not raised and was blandly covered with an appeal to members to “maintain flexible rates.”
The disarray was not confined to the BRICs. It had seeped into the G-20 and made it irrelevant. Critics found it to be unwieldy. There was no common cause between the members who varied in size and were at different levels of economic development. It was overloaded with the former G7 and EU countries who did not share the concerns of developing countries. The emergence of the Euro crisis, in recent months, took away what little interest G-20 had over the concerns of EMEs. As a study by the Centre for European Reform 20(CER) described, “Less than 18 months after the initial Washington summit, however, the G20 has almost disappeared from public view. As growth has returned in most countries, the sense of urgency to ‘fix’ the world economy has started to fade.”
There was evidence that many countries were distancing themselves from the Yuan dispute. As one report21 explained, “Policymakers from Bangkok to Tokyo told Reuters they were unwilling to challenge China on the currency, giving Beijing some diplomatic breathing room in the face of pressure from the United States, the euro zone, the International Monetary Fund and others who have said the Yuan is undervalued.”
A senior diplomat from Japan said, “We used to say when the United States sneezes, Japan catches a cold. Nowadays, when China sneezes, Japan catches a cold.” Data revealed that Japan has a third of its overseas production in China and was vulnerable to rise in costs. Japan’s export growth to China, on a three month rolling basis, was at its quickest since 1985 at 55 percent in February, more than three times export growth to the U.S.
South Korea also aligned itself with China and considered Yuan revaluation to be dangerous.
These reports and country responses suggest that the multilateral strategy of attacking China is built on sandy foundations. In attempting it, the U.S. authorities do not seem to take into account the broader trade and exchange integration that has been taking place in Asia and China’s role in it.
A Working Paper22 of the Bank for International Settlements (BIS) went into the trends in China’s exchange rate policy and Asian trade. It observed that a renminbi appreciation reducing exports from the rest of Asia to China should be a concern for many Asian countries, especially if they are not able to compensate for this effect by increasing exports to other destinations. “The threat from a renminbi appreciation largely depends upon the degree of complementarity among Asian exports and also upon the reactions of supply chains.” China’s imports will decrease as a result of an appreciation of its currency. This is explained by “the high degree of vertical integration of the exporting sectors of Asian countries. Such Asian production networks make products from other Asian countries more of a complement to China’s exports than a substitute for them.” The conclusion is that “total exports from Asian countries- and not only exports to China- are negatively affected by a renminbi real appreciation.” These trends should also be related to the strategies of multinational corporations deeply entrenched in manufacturing and related supply chains in Asia. It is not surprising that many Asian countries reacted sharply to the U.S. pressure on China to revalue the Yuan.
Among the Asian developing countries, especially after the Asian crisis of July 1997, there was no attempt engage in competitive beggar-thy-neighbour exchange rate policies. In fact, as a group, they were passive or reactive and responding to the dollar rate which was declining for some years. They had to contend with massive capital flows which were pushing currency values upwards. There was no ready answer to manage the currencies or their rates. The IMF had permitted a medley of permissible pegs, managed pegs, crawling pegs and baskets!
An NBER Working Paper23 found no robust evidence that the speed of current-account adjustment rises with the degree of flexibility of an exchange-rate regime. Over the past decade, China’s real effective exchange rate has moved broadly in line with four other BIICS countries (Brazil, India, Indonesia and South Africa.) Except China (which had a surplus of 9.8% of GDP in 2008, no other BIICS country has run a large surplus on the current account of its balance of payments. South Africa booked deficits of around 7.4% of GDP in 2008. The exchange rates were in line as they were seeking to adjust their currency values vis-à-vis U.S. dollar.
A study by Prof. Helmut Reisen24 was significant. It showed that RMB was undervalued in 2008 by about 60% in PPP terms while the undervaluation was only 12% against the regression-fitted value for China’s income level. “The undervaluation of the renminbi widened by roughly 3 percentage points in 2009 as a result of further rapid convergence of China’s per capita growth relative to the US. Both India and South Africa (which had a current account deficit) were more undervalued in 2008 – by 16% and 20% respectively, according to Balassa-Samuelson benchmark.” This may confirm our hypothesis that there was no competition among EMEs in getting better rates.
The job of managing the exchange rate has been made extremely difficult due to high volatility in global financial markets. Exchange rates are no longer determined by trade flows alone. Unsolicited capital flows dwarf trade volumes and provide challenges to central banks who manage the rate.
A Paper25 published by the Asian Development Bank (ADB) analyses the issues connected with currency management. It takes the view that many emerging economies desire some sort of exchange rate management with a strong bias toward preventing appreciation than depreciation. As the author puts it, there is “fear of appreciation” or “fear of floating in reverse.” The study confirms the existence of an asymmetry in central bank foreign exchange intervention responses to currency appreciation versus depreciation in many emerging Asian economies. “This in turn rationalizes the relative exchange rate stability as well as the sustained reserve accumulation in the region.”
The ADB study goes on to identify what it calls ‘a prisoner’s dilemma’ with regard to exchange rate policies in Asia. The dilemma stems from the view that Asian countries adopting the same export strategy may engage in rate policies which seek to undercut the advantages of rivals. In our view, there is a broad division within Asia. One group consists of countries which are already integrated with China and covered in the BIS Paper referred to earlier. There is another group consisting of countries which is partially connected with China. This group includes countries in South Asia, especially India. As this group is not in the networks which integrate it with China, it may have concerns over China’s policy. This may also explain the circumstances leading to RBI Governor’s statements on the Yuan rate. However, several studies have shown that even the Indian rupee is in effect pegged to the U.S. dollar.
There is a great potential to benefit from a coordinated approach in dealing with monetary and exchange rate policies. This may be done in the context of ongoing negotiations such as Chiang Mai Initiative (CMI) and other moves to introduce Asian common currency units. China seems to be pursuing some of these programs aggressively, especially to make the Yuan a regional currency. India has been lukewarm towards these efforts and has not so far taken an active role to engage in them.
India’s position in the Asian currency market has not been different from other Asian countries as discussed in the ADB Paper.
The economic reforms process commenced in 1991 and the rupee exchange rate was freed in 1993 and the final step towards current account convertibility was taken in August 1994 by further liberalization of invisible transaction and exchange control regulations. Since then, the exchange value of the rupee is determined by the market through demand and supply. However, the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) continues to intervene in the foreign exchange market with the objective of “containing volatility” and thus influencing the currency value.
The rupee exhibited reasonable stability up to mide-1997, when it experienced a mild attack of contagion emanating from the East Asia crisis. Rupee marginally appreciated against the U.S. dollar after 2002-03.Several studies undertaken by the RBI have shown that its intervention in the market in reducing the volatility was effective. One study26 took the view that “the policy of maintaining flexibility of the exchange rate in keeping with evolving market forces of demand and supply without undue volatility as adopted by the Reserve Bank has stood the test of time in sustaining the stability of the external account.”
Some economists do not share this optimism. Two economists27 fault both the Chinese and Indian authorities for pursuing faulty methods to manage currencies through sterilization without adequate monetary reforms such as full capital convertibility.
There is evidence that in effect the RBI was maintaining the rupee value with reference to the dollar only. This was because dollar has been the dominant currency for Indian trade having regard to trade composition. Trade dealings with other countries were also denominated in dollar. This situation is similar to China’s. Even China has been maintaining its dollar peg with due regard to the currency values of Asian countries whose exports pass through China’s supply chain.
We should get back to our story about America’s multilateral strategy to attack China on its Yuan rate policy. The effort was flawed and was based on incorrect understanding of the existing trade/finance networks and the weight China commands in them. The coalition of the willing collapsed. The U.S. postponed its currency Report hoping that China would modify its policy. The issue was not raised in Washington by the G-20.
The threat loomed until the Toronto Meeting of the G-20 in June. A week before the meeting, China reintroduced its earlier system of the Yuan link to a basket of currencies with very limited flexibility. It was acclaimed as a success and the result of global pressure. When the G-20 met at Toronto, the Yuan issue was not mentioned at all. Some members of the G-20 wished include a commendation of China’s policy. China would have none of it.
The sting is in the tail. The IMF held its Executive Board Meeting28 to consider Article IV Consultation with China, a matter which had been held up for four years due to the wrangling with the IMF. The meeting was held on July 26, 2010. There was a clear divide between the developed and developing country Directors. The Directors of developing countries as a group disagreed with the views of the Directors from developed countries, viz. U.S., Germany, France and the U.K. that the Yuan was undervalued. India also voted with the developing country group. It is a clear indication that the multilateral strategy of the U.S. had run aground. It is unclear what new strategy the U.S. will adopt in future and who its allies will be. True to their avocation, U.S. Senators are loud again with their protestations wanting action against China.
(The writer, Mr K.Subramanian, is a former Joint Secretary, Ministry of Finance, Govt of India,New Delhi and is presently Associate of the Chennai Centre for China Studies.Email:email@example.com).