Tiptoeing to Freer Markets – China and the Shanghai Pilot Free Trade Zone

Shanghai Waterfront


I apologize to all those who regularly read these posts.  They have, unfortunately, failed to be regular recently.

But I have been out there in the wide world – first in Russia at the St. Petersburg Summit and all last week in China. I shall report more on both these trips in the near future.

I did want to report, however, on an interesting experiment now underway – at least as of Sunday September 29th – China’s Shanghai pilot free trade zone (FTA).The FTA, it appears, is the cutting edge of the new leadership’s effort to bring more market and less regulation to China’s economy.  The FTA is 29 square kilometres in the north eastern section of Shanghai – stringing together areas of docks, hangars and warehouses in the Pudong district.

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“Creeping Urgency” Still



The New York Times article today, “Leaders Say the They Expect Agreement on Aid for Spanish Banks This Year.” called leaders decision-making as “creeping urgency”.  So where are European Leaders?  Well kinda where they were months ago.   Leaders have agreed to set up a Eurozone bank supervisor, among other things, but the current agreement leaves unclear when the new bank supervisor will be fully in place.  That is critically important because without the bank supervisor in place, European Stability Mechanism (ESM) funds will not be available to struggling banks, especially in Spain.  So while the EU leaders will seek to “spin” the agreement as success, the lack of clarity around the regulatory startup is trouble.

And why is the date for the start of this new banking supervisor still so unclear?  Well, the problem is a German election in 2013 where German Chancellor Merkel doesn’t want to have to defend the use of ESM funds directly to the sagging banking sector in Spain.  So while the European Commission urged that the banking supervisor be up and operating by the start of the year – January 2013, it is pretty evident that European politics will not permit that.  So some of Europe’s most fragile banks are unlikely to be under this new European supervisor.  In fact Germany has insisted that the extension of regulation of Eurozone banks be done in stages.    That too appears to be a product of national politics.  The German local and state banks are not eager to be regulated by this new ECB bank supervisor.

And the determination to bring Greece into line in a austerity program that is well off track appears to have made no progress either.   And there other supervisory and budgetary issues that EU leaders have been unable to resolve.

Notwithstanding the “comforting” words of leaders in the Eurozone, the bank supervisory issue – that was generally perceived by officials and observers to be reasonably straightforward – is being delayed.   Leaders have to be assuming – at least hoping – that global markets will not render their own judgment on the failure of Eurozone leaders to resolve the continuing sovereign and banking debt issues.  That kind of gamble well may not pay off.

The only good thing that may arise from this lack of collective political will is that there is no immediate prospect of a G20 Leaders meeting.  Att least at the moment G20 leaders are not to gather until September 2013 though finance ministers and central bankers will gather well before this.  If such a summit were planned we could once again witness an agenda largely hijacked by Europe’s apparent determination not to take the necessary action to resolve the debt issues stalking at least Europe.

Meanwhile watch global markets!

Image Credit:  CNNMoney.com


Local or Global

Notwithstanding the mandate (?) the G8 – or more likely the G7  leaders – expressed concern over the consequences of a continuing debt crisis in Europe especially in Greece.  Apparently President Obama raised concern over the decline of the euro and the possible impact on US exports.

The Greek debt crisis highlights two features of the current global governance system.  First – and possibly rather obviously – the debt crisis in Greece reminds us how integrated the global economy is.  Debt in Greece impacts interest rate spreads in other European  countries namely the other PIIGS – Portugal, Ireland, Italy and Spain raising concern over their own significant debt loads.  And with American concerns over exports there is a corresponding concern in Europe over the sustainability of the debt load in the United States.

The second – maybe less obvious feature of the crisis – seems to suggest the opposite of this tight interdependence  – where should the locus of  debt resolution lie. The Europeans have involved the IMF in the debt crisis.  The IMF has much experience in dealing with debt and the threat of sovereign default.  But the IMF should not be drawn in to guarantee Greek debt.  For the nub of the Greek debt problem is the unwillingness of the Europeans – principally the French and the Germans – to reschedule Greek debt.   The problem is political.  The  Europeans have put off resolving the rescheduling of the Greek debt. Dealing with this problem requires the institutions holding the debt – mainly French and German banks – to take a “haircut”.  Thus the Greek debt issue is principally a European one.  Neither the G8 states – nor the G20 states – or the IFIs, need to be dragged into financially supporting this European debt problem.

Let’s not turn the IFIs and others into the Irish government saving the Irish banks from rescheduling.

Meanwhile – The Beat Goes On

My last blog post The Inflation Tiger Rising concerned the rising tide of inflation in the BRICS countries – and the government efforts in China and Brazil to rein inflation in.

This post examines the other side of that coin – the impact of the US dollar on global prices and interest rates. A recent article by Tom Lauricella at The Wall Street Journal (see “Dollar’s Decline Speed Up, With Risks for the US” (April 23, 2011) chronicles the decline of the US dollar.

The US dollar as we all know is the international reserve currency.  Most international transactions, and much of the key international pricing – oil for example – is done in US dollars.

The US dollar has declined 1 percent in the past week against a basket of of currencies, repeating a similar drop of the week before.  In the past week the dollar as measured by the ICE US dollar index hit its lowest point since the lowest point of the index on March 16, 2008 – the Index fell to 70.698 (the Index had begun in 1973 after the demise of the Bretton Woods System of fixed rates at 100.).  Just before the 2008 global financial crisis the dollar had lost some 40 percent of its value against the basket of 6 currencies including the Pound, Euro, Canadian dollar and Japanese Yen.  This low point in 2008 represented a a steady decline of six-years of the dollar’s value.  As noted above, the Index is approaching that low once again.

The US dollar depreciation is a product of a low and continuing interest rate policy and the the growth differentials with the emerging market countries.  The rising price of oil is also a product of the depreciating dollar adding to inflation fears in the US.  The inflation impulse in the BRICS could add another element in the decline of the dollar as well, of course, the fears of the US deficit and debt and the fears that US politics will make reaching a sensible deficit strategy almost impossible.

The declining US dollar has led China officials to allow a steady appreciation of the renminbi in the last few weeks.  While US officials have urged a significant appreciation in the renminbi,  it leads Chinese officials to be less needful of purchasing US dollar debt with China’s now outsized $3 trillion exchange surplus.

The vicious as opposed virtuous cycles of exchange remain.

The Inflation Tiger – Rising

The announced inflation rate for China signaled again the emergence of inflation as a serious global economic issue.  At the moment it lies principally with large emerging market countries notably in China, India and Brazil.

The Chinese government has targeted 4 percent.  But China’s consumer prices rose at 5.4 percent on a year-on-year basis in March.  This level represents the biggest inflation jump since July 2008.

Meanwhile in India inflation rose at almost 9 percent in March after rising 8.3 percent in February.

Finally, in Brazil the consumer price benchmark rose to 6.44 percent, which is the fastest rate in 2 years.

These major emerging economies are responding with increases in interest rates.  Thus, China’s central bank announced recently its fourth increase in cash reserves for the large banks in China.  These banks must now set aside 20.5 percent  of their cash reserves representing an increase of half percent.  It is then hoped that banks in will reduce their loans to take account of the need to retain larger cash reserves.

Brazil raised its central bank rate to 12 percent representing a quarter point increase – this after two previous increases of a half percentage each.  This interest rate is the highest of any major economy.

All these emerging markets, and others, plus developing countries are experiencing significant increases in food prices as well as energy prices.  The interest rates and inflation rates appear to contrast with the traditional economies – the US core rate rose at 1.2 percent, though the CPI is at 2.7 percent and Europe with a 2.7 percent increase though this represents the highest rate in two years. This increase though significantly lower than the large emerging markets has prompted an interest rate rise by the European Central Bank.

The rising emerging market rates – have helped fuel the appreciation of their currency – the Real has risen some 40 percent since early 2009.  Yet this interest rate efforts  – to deal with inflation – have had the perverse effect of only further encouraging capita inflows precisely what the the Brazilian government, for example, has been trying to staunch since it only causes the currency to further appreciate.  China does not suffer from this vicious cycle only because its currency is managed – indeed presumably significantly undervalued – as argued by US officials and others.

Where does this leave the large emerging markets.  For China the rising inflation may encourage a more rapid appreciation of its currency. Wage and product price increases may likely follow and the virtual circle where China growth and lower pricing may come to an end.  China may well export inflation as well as goods.  India may do the same.

For Brazil there are strong voices urging that the Brazilians need to shift to their own form of managed currency (see Roberto Luis Troster’s  Feature of the Week at the Munk School Portal) to constrain the vicious cycle of inflation and interest rate hikes leading to further currency appreciation.

The Inflation Tiger is indeed dangerous.

Step by Step – Building Global Governance

So the G20 Finance Ministers and Central Bankers met this weekend in Paris to coordinate efforts on the question of global imbalances.  Overcoming the deep skepticism in the global financial press especially, it appears the meeting took the first step in a long and arduous effort to build a system, which would tackle global economic imbalances and avert the next crisis.

The discussion of progress often seems like a witnessing a tug of war.  The folks – reporters and analysts – at the FT, the WSJ and the NYT, especially, but not only, are quick to minimize progress and to forecast failure.  With progress these  same reporters grudgingly admit advance but declare the need to make significantly greater progress to ensure effective policy.  And while it may be true that far greater coordination is required to avert a future economic crisis, still the skepticism is annoying and undermines the effort to – I  suspect – assess the positive effort being made.

All that aside it does appear that material progress was made by the G2o Finance and Central Bankers this last weekend.  It is interesting to note that such progress appears to have been made notwithstanding China’s objections to identify the factors that  all countries could examine to determine if there were countries in trouble.

While China apparently insisted and the communique did not include precisely “real exchange rates” or “current account imbalances” the language of the communique includes language to, “take due consideration of exchange rate, fiscal, monetary and other policies.” Even this less precise language seems to be a victory of sorts since the communique appeared to have removed “exchange rates” altogether at the insistence of the Chinese only to be reinstated at the insistence of the US, Germany and the United Kingdom (See Ralph Atkins and Quentin Peel, “G20 strikes compromise on global imbalances,” FT, (February 19-20, 2011).

So where do the G20 go from here?  Well the Framework Working Group (FWG) – chaired by India and Canada – moves forward to an April deadline.  Ironically the Group will meet in Beijing and at that time hopes to conclude the “indicative guidelines” for each of the selected economic indicators.  In addition the IMF has be tasked to provide a G20-wide assessment of these policies in time for the G20 Leaders Conference in November in Cannes France.

So the policy progress continues notwithstanding that national interests do not converge on global imbalances.  What is apparent however, is that there is no reduction of the this debate to a clash between the West and the Rest – not even the BRICs.  It would appear that China is isolated on  its exchange rate policy.   Brazil and the other large emerging market countries are not in the China camp.  Brazil has spoken out strongly on currency manipulation – read that as the China fixed exchange – and the US quantitative easing.

Brazil is determined to raise the need for a new additional international reserve currency.   Brazil, according to its Finance Minister Guido Mantega wants to expand the use of special drawing rights (SDRs) and to include both the Chinese renminbi and the Brazilian real in the SDR basket along with the US dollar, the euro, the yen and the British pound.

The US remains fixed – if not fixated – on the renminbi and the failure of Chinese authorities to allow the renminbi to appreciate more rapidly.

And Germany is determined that the analysis of global imbalances not be locked into ‘hard’ limits.

National interests remain divergent – but global governance progress is being made – nonetheless.

The ‘Drug’ of External Trade

Notwithstanding the assurances from China on exchange rate and valuation, the current account surplus that was just announced by the Chinese government has jumped dramatically.  In a WSJ article it is reported that China’s second quarter surplus was $USD72.9 billion a 35 percent increase from a year earlier.  The announcement from SAFE (State Administration of Foreign Exchange) was that China’s trade surplus had reached $102.3 billion. This figure represents a doubling from a year earlier.

The second quarter numbers signaled a major rebound from the first quarter when the current account surplus was down 32 percent from a year earlier. It would appear with this announcement  of third quarter figures that China’s external current account surplus is returning to levels reached before the 2008 global financil crisis.

With figures reaching 7.2 per cent of gross domestic product that all the discussion of redirecting China’s economy to greater domestic consumption is to be kind – ‘premature’.  It would appear that China’s foreign  exchange reserve are now about $USD2.65 trillion.  This very large figure puts pressure on China’s authorities to address exchange rates and should be putting pressure on these officials to accelerate efforts to finalize “indicative guidelines” for the global imbalances discussions at the G20.

If not ‘currency war’ the expression coined by the Brazilians to describe the current global imbalances may be proven not to be wrong.

The BRICs work on lending to nations in distress

Since January the IMF has been working on the issuing of a first bond issue.  The bonds would be denominated in SDRs, with a maturity of 1 year and offered to Central Banks. Speculation has been rife for some time that the BRIC countries would be the principal purchasers of such bonds. The BRIC countries – Brazil, Russia, India and China met together just several days ago to work on possible terms of the bonds.  It is noteworthy that the BRICs again are seen as a self actualizing group and it appears that all are prepared to lend to the IMF in this way though it appears that the BRICs would prefer that their be a secondary market for the bonds to improve their liquidity.

While the BRIC targeting is noteworthy in and of itself, it would appear additionally that the bond issue is a means for the BRICs to contribute to nations in distress but also to avoid providing longer term commitments to the IMF.  Some, like Cornell’s Eswar Prasad, formerly the chief of the financial studies division in the research department of the IMF, see the bond issue as a means to put pressure on the IMF and leading members to increase the voting shares of countries Continue reading

The Bad News Continues

This week finance ministers are meeting at the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank (WB).  In advance of the meeting the IMF release a Report yesterday that raised the total projected losses from the global financial crisis to banks and other financial institutions to $USD 4.05  trillion.  That’s a big number and few steps have been taken by the institutions to write down those amounts.

To date the IMF has loaned $55 billion to to countries such as Iceland, Ukraine, Hungary, Serbia, Romania, Belarus and Latvia. In a continuing effort to identify the impact on emerging countries in either the G5 or the N11 a November arrangement to loan funds to Pakistan was concluded.  Mexico has just concluded (March 24, 2009)  a flexible credit Continue reading