China Finally Adopts Market-Based Value for its Currency, But We May Not Like the Results

For indispensable reporting on the coronavirus crisis, the election, and more, subscribe to the Mother Jones Daily newsletter.


For years the United States has been complaining that China artificially undervalues its currency, which makes their exports cheaper and gives them a trade advantage over American firms. In response, China has gradually let the renminbi rise. By 2015, it had roughly reached fair market value—though not all American politicians agreed about that.

But then the Chinese economy started going sour. Exports were down. The stock market crashed. Growth slowed. What to do? Answer: devalue the renminbi. But instead of doing it by fiat, pretend that you’re merely responding to market forces:

Every morning, Beijing sets a target for the trading of its currency against the U.S. dollar, then allows investors to buy and sell the currency for 2 percent more or less. Tuesday’s change relaxes the government’s control over setting that rate. The midpoint will now be set at the market’s closing rate for the previous day.

….Now, market forces could pressure the currency to depreciate rather than appreciate, making Chinese products comparatively cheaper….In China, the depreciation will be a boon for exporters and heavy industry, but bad news for companies that depend on imported goods. Shares of Chinese airlines plummeted on Tuesday, as analysts predicted that the higher cost of oil in U.S. dollars would weigh on their earnings.

It’s convenient to have a market-based policy as long as that produces a devaluation of the currency. But will Chinese authorities stick to this policy even when it means the renminbi will appreciate? Good question.

So what does it all mean? Here are a few obvious thoughts:

  • This is yet another vote of no confidence in the Chinese economy. When you put together everything that Chinese authorities have done over the past six months, I’d say they’re close to full-scale panic.
  • Investors are likely to push the renminbi even lower, and this is going to make life harder on anyone in China with dollar-denominated debt. This includes lots of local governments who have been financing the housing boom, which means this devaluation could hasten the housing bust everyone has been waiting for.
  • This will be a political issue in the US, but a tricky one. China is manipulating its currency to its own advantage—boo! hiss!—but has also adopted a policy that allows the renminbi’s value to be dictated by market forces—which is what we’ve been demanding all along. It will be interesting to see how all the Republican presidential candidates decide to respond to this.

Generally speaking, I think this should be taken as bad news. The world economy remains fragile, and if the Chinese economy is falling into recession—as the Chinese themselves seem to believe—it will affect all of us. And not in a good way. Stay tuned.

DEMOCRACY DOES NOT EXIST...

without free and fair elections, a vigorous free press, and engaged citizens to reclaim power from those who abuse it.

In this election year unlike any other—against a backdrop of a pandemic, an economic crisis, racial reckoning, and so much daily crazy—Mother Jones' journalism is driven by one simple question: Will America move closer to, or further from, justice and equity in the years to come?

If you're able to, please join us in this mission with a donation today. Our reporting right now is focused on voting rights and election security, corruption, disinformation, racial and gender equity, and the climate crisis. We can’t do it without the support of readers like you, and we need to give it everything we've got between now and November. Thank you.

DEMOCRACY DOES NOT EXIST...

without free and fair elections, a vigorous free press, and engaged citizens to reclaim power from those who abuse it.

In this election year unlike any other—against a backdrop of a pandemic, an economic crisis, racial reckoning, and so much daily crazy—Mother Jones' journalism is driven by one simple question: Will America move closer to, or further from, justice and equity in the years to come?

If you're able to, please join us in this mission with a donation today. Our reporting right now is focused on voting rights and election security, corruption, disinformation, racial and gender equity, and the climate crisis. We can’t do it without the support of readers like you, and we need to give it everything we've got between now and November. Thank you.

We Recommend

Latest

Sign up for our free newsletter

Subscribe to the Mother Jones Daily to have our top stories delivered directly to your inbox.

Get our award-winning magazine

Save big on a full year of investigations, ideas, and insights.

Subscribe

Support our journalism

Help Mother Jones' reporters dig deep with a tax-deductible donation.

Donate