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Congressional Research Service, "China's Currency: A Summary of the Economic Issues", October 1, 2010

This CRS report was written by Wayne M. Morrison (specialist in Asian Trade and Finance) and Marc Labonte (specialist in Macroeconomic Policy).
October 1, 2010

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Over the past several years, the Chinese government has maintained a policy of intervening in currency markets to limit or halt the appreciation of its currency, the renminbi (RMB) against other major currencies, especially the U.S. dollar. This policy appears to be largely intended to keep China’s export industries competitive internationally and to attract foreign direct investment (FDI), which have been major factors behind China’s rapid economic growth. Critics charge that this policy constitutes a form of currency manipulation that is intended to make Chinese exports cheaper, and imports into China more expensive, than they would be under a floating exchange system. Some claim that China’s currency policy is a major cause of the large U.S. trade imbalance with China and the loss of numerous U.S. jobs. Many Members of Congress have urged the Obama Administration to designate China as a “currency manipulator” in order to pressure it to let the RMB appreciate, and several bills have been introduced (including H.R. 2378, S. 1254, S. 1027, and S. 3134) which seek to address China’s currency policy. On September 29, 2010, the House approved an amendment in the nature of a substitute to H.R. 2378 (by a vote of 348 to 79). The bill would attempt to apply U.S. countervailing laws to certain fundamentally undervalued currencies.

From July 2005 to July 2008, the RMB was allowed to gradually appreciate against the dollar, rising by about 21% over this period. However, once the effects of the global economic crisis began to become apparent, China halted appreciation of the RMB to the dollar in an effort to limit job losses in industries dependent on trade. From July 2008 to late June 2010, China kept the exchange rate of the RMB at roughly 6.83 yuan (the base unit of the RMB) to the dollar. On June 19, 2010, the Chinese central bank stated that, based on current economic conditions, it had decided to “proceed further with reform of the RMB exchange rate regime and to enhance the RMB exchange rate flexibility.” Events following the announcement demonstrate that a flexible RMB exchange rate could move both up and down over short periods of time. By September 23, the RMB had appreciated by about 1.9% to 6.7 yuan. Many U.S. officials have criticized the slow pace of RMB’s appreciation.

Many economists have argued that RMB appreciation is an important factor in helping to rebalance the world economy. They have also urged China to implement policies to make consumer demand, rather than exports and fixed investment, the main sources of economic growth. Some see RMB appreciation as a way of boosting China’s imports, which could contribute to a faster global economic recovery. While Chinese officials acknowledge the need to rebalance the economy, they have strongly resisted international pressure to appreciate and reform the currency, calling it “protectionism.” Some attribute this policy to concerns by the Chinese government that implementing policy changes too rapidly could lead to social instability.

While the Obama Administration has pushed China to appreciate its currency, it has also encouraged it to continue purchasing U.S. Treasury securities. China is the largest foreign holder of U.S. Treasury securities, which totaled $847 billion as of July 2010. Some analysts contend that, although an appreciation of China’s currency could help boost U.S. exports to China, it could also lessen China’s need to buy U.S. Treasury securities, which could push up U.S. interest rates. It could result in higher prices of Chinese-made goods for U.S. consumers, as well as for Chinese-made inputs that U.S. firms use in their production. Many economists contend that, even if China significantly appreciated its currency, the United States would still need to increase its savings and reduce domestic demand (particularly the budget deficit), and China would have to lower its savings and increase consumption, in order to reduce trade imbalances in the long run.

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