Europe May Drop Out of U.S. Fight With China Over Yuan

Monday, 29 Mar 2010 01:25 PM

 

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If Washington picks a fight with China over the weakness of the state-managed currency, it will do so without European reinforcement, not least because the euro has weakened in tandem with Greece's debt crisis.

Preparation of a U.S. Treasury report that could potentially brand China a "currency manipulator" is rekindling tensions with Beijing prior to mid-April publication and raises questions as to how broad international support will be if things turned uglier.

The saber-rattling is growing in volume since U.S. lawmakers said they were crafting proposals to allow import duties to be slapped on Chinese goods on the grounds that American jobs are being lost and Beijing must now budge.

Despite the fact that governments in Europe also believe the yuan is undervalued, giving China an unfair edge in global trade competition, there appears to be little appetite here to up the ante simply because tempers are fraying in Congress, potentially weakening the U.S. diplomatic push.

Additionally, negotiations on an aid plan for Greece not only eclipsed most other policy issues in recent months but also exposed strains among euro zone governments that will hardly sharpen desire to renegotiate their position on China so soon.

"The view here (in Europe) is that this is a red flag to the Chinese. They sense it's not going to be very productive," said an official involved in preparation of a meeting of G20 finance ministers that will bring all sides together later this month.

German Economy Minister Rainer Bruederle signaled last week that Berlin understood nothing would happen overnight. He told export executives Berlin wanted to see a fully flexible Chinese foreign exchange rate "one day" but that he realized the shift would be difficult for China.

Likewise, EU trade commissioner Karel De Gucht highlighted the contrast with the United States when he said in comments to the Financial Times newspaper: "At this moment, it is less of a political issue in Europe."

China and the United States have been at odds in 2010 over many other issues such as Google's decision to defy Chinese Internet censorship, Tibet, U.S. weapons sales to Taiwan, and sanctions against Iran over its nuclear program.

For many industrialists, the focus is often on more concrete issues of export access to China markets than the less tangible benefits a stronger yuan should confer in terms of the relative price competitiveness of euro zone firms on world markets.

While important, the diplomatic subtleties of how hard China can be cajoled into yuan appreciation is one of many considerations and the list of other motives has if anything lengthened, strengthening the case for further soft-peddling from Europe's perspective, officials and economic analysts say.

The most obvious is that the Greek debt crisis has produced a positive by-product to the extent that the euro exchange rate has weakened in tandem, providing some relief in theory even if it may prove temporary.

That, as French Finance Minister Christine Lagarde has said, can only be considered welcome news by euro zone exporters.

"Given the 15 percent fall we've seen in the value of the euro since July 2008 against the yuan as well as the pressing domestic issues facing the region at present, it is hardly surprising that Eurozone politicians have little appetite to tackle Chinese currency policy issues at present," said Simon Derrick, currency analyst at Bank of New York Mellon.

The euro has shed about eight percent versus the yuan since this year alone, primarily because it has retreated by roughly similar amount against the dollar, to which the yuan is pegged right now.

More strikingly, for much of the decade before the downturn and collapse in global trade in 2008, exports from the euro zone to China appear to have risen more or less continuously in spite of the yuan's increasing weakness vis a vis the euro.

Another development the Europeans should worry about is that a broad Asian exchange rate appreciation could in fact trigger a further bout of dollar weakness versus the euro, Brendan Brown, chief economist at Mitsubishi (UFJ) Securities, said.

"It is better to keep quiet and hope that the Chinese get away with only small currency changes," said Brown. "European exporters are doing very well anyway."

China revalued the yuan by 2.1 percent against the dollar in July 2005 and then let it climb nearly another 19 percent before calling a halt in mid-2008 to help exporters weather the global financial crisis.

Europe if anything had more cause for complaint during that period because the reform did not lead to a yuan rise versus the euro. Indeed the euro rose roughly 10 percent versus the yuan in that period.

But in 2009, when the industrialized world was struggling to pull out of recession, China offered Europe a helping hand. Euro zone exports to China grew four percent while exports to Britain and the United States fell close to 20 percent, according to data collated by EU statistics office Eurostat.

That, combined with the desire to avoid public sparring and play for yuan appreciation in the longer term, may explain why European Central Bank President Jean-Claude Trichet and other senior euro zone officials had little to show from their last visit to China to discuss the matter back in November.

Trichet is more likely worried that China's currency policy is not sustainable in the long-term if Beijing is serious about efforts to achieve a more balanced global economy and to discuss the necessary adjustments in the G20 forum.

There too, there is no mood to rush at China over the issue.

Canadian finance minister Jim Flaherty, whose country hosts a G20 summit later this year, said this week "there's no point in sweeping important issues under the rug."

But in private, G20 officials, including from Canada, have cautioned against expecting any kind of currency pronouncements before June or maybe even November, when another G20 summit is scheduled in South Korea.

And even if it proves to be a blip, China is tipped to post a trade deficit in March that would be the first since April 2004, which Beijing could at the very least exploit as proof that caution is needed when calling for yuan change.

"Although the timing of the (trade deficit) announcement may be political, the trend toward a sustained trade deficit is very real," Albert Edwards of Societe Generale banks global strategy team said in a note.

© 2014 Thomson/Reuters. All rights reserved.

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