Slaughter on the Yuan
By Matthew J. Slaughter
Fact 1: China runs a large and growing trade surplus with the United States. In 2006, the goods-trade surplus exceeded $232 billion. This was an increase from 2005 of $31 billion, an amount larger than the entire deficit just 12 years ago.
Fact 2: China focuses its monetary policy on fixing the exchange value of its currency, the yuan, relative to the U.S. dollar.
Many policymakers and pundits connect these two facts by asserting that an unfairly low value of the dollar-yuan peg is causing the massive bilateral trade imbalance. The 109th Congress introduced 27 pieces of anti-China trade legislation. The current Congress already has over a dozen such bills, many aiming to force an overhaul of China's exchange-rate regime. And late last week dozens of House members were poised to file a Section 301 petition, asking the U.S. Trade Representative to investigate undervaluation of the Chinese yuan.
These misgivings about the dollar-yuan peg are misplaced. Economic theory and data are very clear here on two critical points. Controlling a nominal exchange rate is a form of sovereign monetary policy. And monetary policy, in turn, has no long-run effect on real economic outcomes such as output and trade flows.
Like all other central banks, the People's Bank of China uses its monopoly power over minting its money to control one nominal price. Since 1994 the PBOC has chosen to closely target the dollar-yuan price. In recent times, maintaining this target has required the PBOC to print yuan to buy dollars and thereby accumulate dollar-denominated assets on its balance sheet.
Many central banks today use their sovereign power to fix a nominal short-term interest rate rather than a nominal exchange rate. The U.S. Federal Reserve targets the federal-funds rate; the European Central Bank targets the main refinancing operations rate; and the Bank of Japan targets the overnight call rate. But exchange-rate targets are by no means uncommon. Indeed, in 2005, 55.6% of the world's countries fixed their exchange rates. And many countries have switched their targets over time. From 1945 to 1971, for example, the Federal Reserve targeted the value of the dollar at $35 per ounce of gold....
But hasn't the nominal dollar-yuan peg unfairly driven the long-run rise in trade imbalances? No. The exchange rate that matters for trade flows is the real exchange rate -- the nominal exchange rate adjusted for local-currency output prices in both countries. Supply-and-demand pressures in international markets can, and do, alter not just nominal exchange rates, but also nominal prices for goods and services. And these pressures driving the real exchange rate, in turn, reflect the deep forces of comparative advantage such as cross-country differences in technology, tastes and endowments of labor and capital.