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Congressional Research Service, "China's Currency: An Analysis of the Economic Issues", July 22, 2013

This CRS report was written by Wayne M. Morrison (specialist in Asian Trade and Finance) and Marc Labonte (specialist in Macroeconomic Policy).
July 22, 2013

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China’s policy of intervening in currency markets to limit or halt the appreciation of its currency, the renminbi (RMB), against the U.S. dollar and other currencies has been an issue of concern for many in Congress over the past decade who view it as one of several distortive economic and trade policies that are used to convey an unfair competitive advantage to Chinese producers and exporters. They charge that China’s currency policy is intended to make its exports significantly less expensive, and its imports more expensive, than would occur if the RMB were a freely-traded currency. They argue that the RMB is significantly undervalued against the dollar and that this has been a major contributor to the large annual U.S. trade deficits with China and a significant decline in U.S. manufacturing jobs in recent years.  

China began to peg the RMB to the dollar in 1994 at about 8.28 yuan (the base unit of the RMB) per dollar and kept the rate constant through July 2005, when, under pressure from its major trading partners, it moved to a managed peg system and began to allow the RMB to gradually appreciate over the next three years. In July 2008, China halted RMB appreciation because of the effects of the global economic crisis on China’s exporters. It resumed RMB appreciation in June 2010. From July 2005 through June 2013, the RMB appreciated by 34% on a nominal basis against the dollar and by 42% on a real (inflation-adjusted) basis. Over the past few years, China’s current account surplus has declined, and its accumulation of foreign exchange reserves has slowed—factors that have led some analysts to contend the RMB is not as undervalued against the dollar as it once was.

The effects of China’s currency policy on the U.S. economy are complex. If the RMB is undervalued (as some contend), then it might be viewed as an indirect export subsidy which artificially lowers the prices of Chinese products imported into the United States. Under this view, this benefits U.S. consumers and U.S. firms that use Chinese-made parts and components, but could negatively affect certain U.S. import-competing firms and their workers. An undervalued RMB might also have the effect of limiting the level of U.S. exports to China than might occur under a floating exchange rate system. The United States is also affected by China’s large purchases of U.S. Treasury securities. China’s intervention in currency markets causes it to accumulate large levels of foreign exchange reserves, especially U.S. dollars, which it then uses to purchase U.S. debt. Such purchases help the U.S. government fund its budget deficits and help keep U.S. interest rates low. These factors suggest that an appreciation of the RMB to the dollar benefits some U.S. economic sectors, but negatively affects others.

The effects of the recent global financial crisis have refocused attention on the need to reduce global imbalances in savings, investment, and trade, especially with regard to China and the United States, in order to avoid future crises. Many economists contend that China should take greater steps to rebalance its economy by lessening its dependence on exports and fixed investment as the main drivers of its economic growth, while boosting the level of domestic consumer demand (which would increase Chinese imports). A market-based currency policy is seen as an important factor in achieving this goal.  

Currency bills aimed at addressing China’s currency policy have been introduced in every session of Congress since 2003. The House approved a currency bill in the 111th Congress and the Senate passed one in the 112th Congress. Currency legislation has been proposed in the 113th Congress, including H.R. 1276 and S. 1114. In recent years, congressional concerns about undervalued currencies have moved beyond China to include those of several other countries as well.

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