The world is waiting to see whether China has successfully achieved a soft landing, slowing down the economy from its overheated state of a year ago to a more sustainable rate of growth. Some China-watchers fear it could hit the ground in a crash landing as have other Asian dragons before it. But others, particularly American politicians in this presidential election year, talk only about one thing: the trade balance.
Here the important message is that long-term forces of adjustment are at work in the Chinese economy. Foreign perceptions need to be adjusted as well. It is true that not long ago the yuan was substantially undervalued and China’s trade surpluses were very large. But the situation is changing.
China’s trade surplus peaked at $300 billion in 2008, and has been declining ever since. In fact it even reported a trade deficit in the month of February ($31 billion, its largest deficit since 1998). It is not hard to see what is going on. Ever since the Middle Kingdom rejoined the world economy three decades ago, its trading partners have been snapping up exports of manufacturing goods, because low Chinese wages made them super-competitive on world markets. It was known as the unbeatable “China price.” But in recent years, following the laws of economics, relative prices have adjusted to the demand.
The change can be captured by real exchange rate appreciation. This comprises in part nominal appreciation of the yuan against the dollar, and in part Chinese inflation. Government officials would have been better advised to let more of the real appreciation take the form of nominal appreciation (dollars per RMB). But since they didn’t, it has shown up as inflation instead. (See charts below, which show both nominal and real appreciation, against the dollar or against an index.)
The natural process was delayed. In the first place, as is well-known, the authorities intervened to keep the exchange virtually fixed against the dollar, in the years 1995-2005 and 2008-2010. In the second place, workers in China’s increasingly productive coastal factories were not paid their full value. The economy has not completed its transition from Mao to market, after all. As a result of these two delaying mechanisms, Chinese continued to undersell the world.
But then two things happened. First, the yuan was finally allowed to appreciate against the dollar during 2005-08 and 2010-11, by 25% cumulatively [=17% + 8%]. Second, and more importantly, labor shortages began to appear and Chinese workers at last began to win rapid wage increases. Major cities raised their minimum wages sharply over each of the last three years [FT, Jan. 5]: 22% on average in 2010 and 2011 (somewhat less this year, in response to slowing demand: 8.6 % in Beijing, 13% in Shenzhen and Shanghai). Meanwhile another cost of business, land prices, rose even more rapidly.
As a result, whereas all signs still pointed to a substantially undervalued yuan as recently as four or five years ago, this is no longer the case. One important measure of undervaluation — a comparison of China’s prices with what is normal given the country’s level of income (the so-called Balassa-Samuelson relationship) – showed the renminbi as undervalued against the dollar by as much as 36% on 2000 data (Frankel, 2005) . Even after an improvement in the international price data, Balassa-Samuelson regressions estimated the undervaluation at roughly 30% in 2005 and 25% as recently as 2009. (Others had other ways of estimating undervaluation; see Goldstein, 2004, and those surveyed by Cline and Williamson, 2008.)
The renminbi’s real appreciation against the dollar over the last three years has amounted to 12%, reducing the degree of undervaluation by roughly half, depending on whether one measures it against the dollar or against all countries. More is to be expected, as Chinese relative wages continue to rise. In any case, China’s real exchange rate is already closer to this measure of equilibrium than are most countries’ exchange rates (Cheung, Chinn and Fuji, 2010).
In response to the new high level of costs in the factories of China’s coastal provinces, five types of adjustment are gradually taking place. First, some manufacturing is migrating inland, where wages and land prices are still relatively low. Second, some export operations are shifting to countries like Vietnam where wages are lower still. Third, Chinese companies are beginning to automate, substituting capital for labor. Fourth, they are moving into more sophisticated products, following the path blazed earlier by Japan, Korea, and other Asian countries in the “flying geese” formation. Fifth, multinational companies that had in the past moved some stages of their production process out of the US, or out of other high-wage countries, to China are now moving back. Productivity is still higher in the US, after all. All five of these ways of reallocating resources represent the economic process operating as it should. A sixth seems still to lag behind, despite the consensus in favor of it: expansion of the services sector.
None of this comes as news to most international observers of China. But many Western politicians (and, to be fair, their constituents) are unable to let go of the syllogism that seemed so unassailable just a decade ago: (1) The Chinese have joined the world economy; (2) their wages are $0.50 an hour; (3) there are a billion of them, and so (4) their exports will rise without limit: Chinese wages will never be bid up in line with the usual textbook laws of economics because the supply labor is infinitely elastic. But it turns out that the laws of economics do eventually apply after all — even in China.
My next post will recall the precedent of Japan’s trade balance.
[A version of this post was published by Project Syndicate, which has the copyright.]
Chinese relative prices have risen as much (since 2009) via inflation as via RMB appreciation
(click here for larger image)
Frankel, Jeffrey, 2005, “On the Renminbi,” CESifo Forum, vol.6, no.3, Autumn (Ifo Institute for Economic Research, Munich): 16-21.