The People’s Bank of China (PBOC) devalued the renminbi yesterday in the latest sign that market forces continue to weaken in the world’s second largest economy.
Exports have fallen. Growth is likely far slower than the official 7% rate. Electricity usage is down. Steel production has declined. Infrastructure investment yields less impact. Even demographics highlight a shrinking workforce (enter the robots). And then there’s the stock market, largely divorced from the underlying economy and gyrating like hips at a hula hoop competition.
Currency devaluation will do little to reverse these trends.
As a short term fix it may help exporters whose goods are now cheaper to buy abroad, slow capital flight (it costs more to convert renminbi into other currencies) and potentially attract more foreign investment into the country (a U.S. dollar today buys more renminbi than a dollar yesterday).
But the underlying economic uncertainty in China’s partial transition to domestic led growth will continue to weigh heavily on the minds of international investors and policymakers alike.
If China truly wants to make the renminbi a global reserve currency the PBOC will have to reverse itself and let the currency float freely like the yen, euro and pound. That requires giving up managing a trading band around a fixed daily rate. Economic conditions would have to improve significantly before moves in that direction resume (almost certainly a gradual step-by-step process).
None of this means a hard landing for China’s go-go economy, but resorting to a currency devaluation highlights the limited policy options left for a government navigating increasingly choppy waters.
Remaining moves (and ones largely ignored to date) include government heavily investing in a social safety net, improving health care coverage and promoting more affordable housing. That will allow households to free up some of their savings to spend and spur new business creation.
Until this happens expect more partial solutions and continued volatility.