[REVISED] Who Touched My RMB?

It’s always interesting to see how economic predictions and financial manipulations fail in China. The ridiculously high population/resource ratio turns China into a hungry giant that can easily overturn any rules: the Wall Street tycoons lost to Chinese housewives during the “gold battle”; Chinese government tried to stop the housing market’s craziness but ended up being one of the biggest obstacle to the success of taming the market. The list goes on and on.

And now it’s the RMB issue again. Bear with me if this topic is becoming increasingly boring for you. As the RMB’s behavior is totally going against the theory, it’s tempting to looking into the reasons behind all the weirdness.

Ever since the year of 2005, RMB has been appreciating internationally while depreciating domestically.


Picture source: XE


Picture source: Trading Economics

As explained clearly in this about.com thread, the value of a currency should be synchronized domestically and internationally. On one hand, when the exchange rate of RMB goes up, in theory, the demand of RMB will increase, leading to a decrease in the amount of liquidity, therefore the inflation will be alleviated, and eventually the value of RMB will go up. On the other hand, a higher value of RMB attracts investment from oversea, which will lead to a higher demand of RMB in the foreign exchange market and therefore drive up its exchange rate. However, historical data suggested differently: internationally up, domestically down. Why?

It’s a known fact that RMB was long undervalued in the foreign exchange market because of the government’s intervention. As Beijing gradually loose the leash, the exchange rate is bound to increase. So it must be the inflation, which comes from within the country, that’s causing the mismatch problem.

About the inflation, the government claims that “there exists measurement error that skews the statistical data”, and “the CPI data doesn’t fully reflect the reality”. Of course these official speech is too ambiguous to be believed, let alone the “CPI misreporting” can be interpreted both ways. As I see it, this inflation is due to the governments’ over-manipulation to the economy.

This manipulation is not the usual fiscal and monetary policy we’ve seen everyday. The level of governmental intervention in China is much higher than that. Since it’s difficult to explain this in theory, I’ll demonstrate it with China’s “land finance” example.

By constitution, all lands of China are owned by the central government. Therefore, Chinese government has control over the real estate pricing. To stimulate the local economy, local governments make huge spending every day, which almost always yields to budget deficits. To compensate the deficit, the most effective way is to sell the lands that are owned by the government. This is when things get crazy: since the government has control over the lands’ price, it can sell a certain piece of land at an extremely high price. And thanks to the heated housing market, there’s always a buyer. As a result, the price of houses almost doubles every year. House owners’ pockets are therefore inflated. The liquidity drastically increase in the market, and hence the inflation.

This kind of government intervention to the economy is not something foreseeable from the textbook, and the “land finance” is merely one piece of the puzzle. In a not-so-liberal economy, the government’s overexertion of its power to gain short-run benefit is clearly bringing problems to the economy. The mismatch of RMB value is one such example. What’s next? How to prevent these problems from happening in the future? Beijing needs to give better answers to these questions.