Renminbi (RMB) and its confounding trilemma tradeoffs

Let’s hear a story on China and its currency.

In 2015 only, China’s official foreign exchange reserves lost 512.7 billion US
dollar. The rapid depletion of the foreign reserves in 2015 led to a turnaround of public opinions, from whether there is welfare loss in having excess foreign reverses, to whether the foreign exchange reserves were adequate. Yet, despite a backdrop of shrinking FX reserve, trade balance was in huge surplus, so was the non-financial foreign direct investment into China. When the overall capital flows into China was largely inflows, a fall in FX reserve implied capital outflows from within China which more than offset inflows from aboard into it current account.

In fact, since Jul 2010, CDC was already expecting a strong demand for Treasury and Corporate bonds denominated in RMB, of which from the chart, there was a strong uptake of issuance and support from the domestic market. In 17 Aug 2010, China announces a pilot program to let overseas financial institutions invest yuan in the interbank bond market. It starts with foreign central banks, clearing banks for cross-border yuan settlement in Hong Kong and Macau, and other international lenders involved in trade settlement. china reserve 2015But that trend didn’t last for more than a year and capital outflows from within started appearing from 2011 (from Macau and HK). This was understandable, given locals worries of China’s slowing economy. Shanghai Composite Index had fell more than 1/3 from 2010 to 2014. In Dec 2014, Caixin manufacturing PMI fell below 50. This trend of China shifting away from the manufacturing sector was well captured in documentaries [CNA Get Real: China’s Left behind] that showed the raising cost of manufacturer labours in China as standards of living improve, and the capitalistic mindset of manufacturers, led to companies moving their manufacturing base into countries where labour is cheaper, such as Vietnam. General output prices were falling as inflation was below 2% from 2014.

china shcompcaixin PMIchina inflation

In 16 Dec 2011, China roll out Phase 1 of RMB QFII in a bid to further liberalise their capital accounts. That said, the roll out of phases were done gradually over time in a “trial and error” approach with updating of rules that aim to reduce the amount of capital becoming short-term capital or “hot money”, since such flows can change direction at the drop of an interest rate and can cause severe volatility for the Yuan. Examples are a stringent quota approval relative to the fund’s AUM and principle lock up period of 3 months (repatriation can be 100% of principal and on daily basis now). This was a win-win solution for both China seeking to promote the globalisation use of Yuan while encouraging capital repatriation, and accredited foreign investors seeking diversification in a less correlated financial market. In 2014, the Shanghai – Hong Kong Stock Connect launch allowed non-accredited investors to be exposed to China’s blue chips A-shares. Still there are restrictions on capital flow given RMB 13 Billon daily quota on the Northbound and Southbound respectively which is transparent to the public.

But before the capital accounts were further liberalise with Stock Connect at 17 Nov 2014, China widen its Yuan trading band to 2% from 1% at Mar 2014. While this change was taken by policymakers as a more open capital account in response to repeated urging from IMF, market participants had a different view. As mentioned above, the widening of Yuan trading band came during a time of weakening manufacturing sector and economic growth and a resulting depletion of foreign reserve. Due to the late development of China and an unsynchronised economic cycle with the U.S. where there was expectations of Fed hiking rates and hence a broad based USD strength, there was a build up of expectations that Yuan will depreciate. 

Premier Li Keqiang said “The yuan depreciated only slightly versus the dollar, but it has gained sharply against other currencies. China’s economy and trade are no longer strong; why should the yuan be strong?” He also repeatedly ruled out depreciation, but increased risks to economic growth, exacerbated by recent stock market turmoil, increased pressure to reverse course. Their comments, which offer a rare insight into the argument going on behind the scenes in Beijing, suggest there is pressure for an overall devaluation of almost 10 percent. china gdp.png

Reason being, China’s exports have suffered greatly from the relentless appreciation of its real effective exchange rate (REER) resulting from the tight peg of Yuan to USD. Yuan REER is anti cyclical with its real GDP growth rate, where REER increases with increasing downward pressure on its economy. Such anti-cyclical doesn’t help improve China’s export during bad times, but a 2% trading band allows the market to self adjust Yuan to a more favourable rate for China’s exporters.

But why would PBOC insist keeping a strong Yuan in the past?

  • to support the country’s transition from an export and investment-driven economy to one led by consumer spending
  • stronger Yuan boosts purchasing power, helps Chinese firms to borrow and invest abroad, and encourages foreign firms and governments to increase their use of Yuan e.g. Singapore gradual appreciation and strong SGD incentivise FDI

Likewise, China wouldn’t be ready for a transition to an economy reliant on domestic demand as well, if economic growth is falling, hence the turnabout on keeping a strong Yuan.

In fact, the growing deviation of the Yuan REER from the GDP growth rate stems from the de facto pegging-to-US-dollar exchange rate regime, more so after July 2014, when currencies of major developed economies and emerging economies universally depreciated to a large extent against the US dollar. This flaw from the old exchange rate regime of pegging to the USD was a main reason that China pushed through Yuan reforms, despite being surrounded in an uncertain environment where countries are going into non-standard monetary policies to avoid deflation. China showed that they were more determined for a 7% GDP growth rate than keeping their credibility for a stable exchange rate. 

Pegging a domestic currency to an inflation proof currency like USD could help a country contain inflation and hence its purchasing power. It works for small economies, where US is their major trading partner but not likewise for US, but it doesn’t work for a large economy where both countries are mutually major trading partners. This is especially so when China’s manufacturing is export reliant and China cannot change its economy from manufacturing to service oriented in a night, in which a strong Yuan then becomes useful. In that aspect, China Development Bank has plans to connect countries whose economies are manufacturing oriented with the ‘New Silk Road’ so that the shift in economy orientation can take place. Yet, plunge in oil prices crippled its African and oil-reliant recipients in paying off its loans but did little harm as these oil rich countries will guarantee a supply of oil to China in the future.

At 11 Aug 2015, PBOC devalues the yuan by weakening its daily fixing by a record 1.9 percent (within its latest 2% band), sparking the biggest selloff since 1994. A new method to determine the reference rate is introduced, with market makers who submit contributing prices being told to consider the previous day’s close, foreign-exchange demand and supply, as well as changes in major exchange rates. SHCOMP dropped drastically, erasing all the gains it had due to the launch of Stock Connect. This is due to currency mismatch in the foreign investors balance sheet, where their SHCOMP assets are denominated in RMB whereas their liabilities to finance their purchases are not in RMB. Deterioration of their balance sheet makes it harder for them to get favourable financing terms which led to a selloff on SHCOMP. Moreover, a weaker Yuan also erodes the purchasing power of Chinese consumers, especially so given the high number of millionaires in China, and lead to more capital outflow by converting Yuan into USD. Yuan depreciated close to 7 from 6.20 Yuan per dollar eventually which is about 13%. 

This tested the credibility of the government to steady the decline in Yuan, which state-owned banks did sold USD on behalf of PBOC to stem the free fall, but only did so within the 2% trading band. This let to the rapid depletion of the foreign reserves in 2015. Yet this intervention contradicted with the widening of Yuan trading band as a way to loosen its rein on fixing the Yuan. On top of that, in an effort to stabilize the market, the authorities damaged their own standing by taking extreme measures, banning major shareholders from selling shares and launching criminal investigations into “malicious” short-sellers.

This bad experience and inconsistencies from the government, in which they did not kept a promise of a strong stable currency, crushed the credibility foreign investors had towards China, especially with the change in stance from keeping a strong Yuan to achieving its 7% growth rate, but gave domestic exporters the much needed price competitiveness as well as putting upward inflationary pressures on the economy without reducing its benchmark interest rate. However, this put downward inflationary pressure on China’s mutually large trading partners as they are still combating low inflation, which led to US accusing China of starting a currency war. The best defense for China to its accusers that its been active in curbing the depreciation of Yuan is a large loss in FX reserves. Hm.. But why didn’t US accuse EU or Japan for using negative monetary policy rates to devalue their currency by a large extent to gain export price competitiveness?

Observers pointed that the fixing is taken more as a policy signal rather than a reflection of the underlying foreign exchange supply and demand. An implementation of a more market-oriented fixing would bring the yuan closer to becoming a market-determined currency and narrow the current spot-fix spread. Indeed, as it turned out to be, a 2% widening of band when Yuan was near 1% band low was a signal that PBOC did not want to defend the band supporting Yuan. This change in stance was support as China’s central bank, on 24 Oct 2015, cut its 1y benchmark deposit rate by 25bp to 1.50% and its RRR by 50bp, and another 50bp cut on RRR for banks the lend to agricultural firms and SME, as recent growth dipped below 7%. While China’s change of stance on Yuan had negative spillovers onto its major trading partners whom China exports to, it only affected countries who have large exports to China. Smaller countries being an import-dependent country with little exports to China, did not faces lower export competitiveness but may suffer losses on its RMB investments.

Eventually, as a first step to depegging Yuan from the US dollar, near the end of 2015, at Dec 11, China Foreign Exchange Trade System (CFETS) unveiled the CFETS RMB Index which added 11 new currencies to make the basket representative of its 24 trading partners. Most notably, KRW got a 10% weight in influencing Yuan with US dollar losing 4% weight in Yuan’s trade-weighted basket. The spot, forward and swap bilateral trading between RMB and KRW is launched in the interbank foreign exchange market only later at 27 Jun 2016. This facilitates the use of KRW and RMB in cross-border trade and investment settlement and meet the needs of economic entities to lower currency conversion cost. If were look below, Yuan trade-weighted basket is still overweight on USD, EUR and JPY, but this gap could be closed with more trades between countries.


Who are China’s biggest trading partners?

Below is a list highlighting 15 of China’s top trading partners in terms of export sales. That is, these countries imported the most Chinese shipments by dollar value during 2016. Also shown is each import country’s percentage of total Chinese exports.

  1. United States: US$388.1 billion (18.3% of total Chinese exports)
  2. Hong Kong: $292.2 billion (13.8%)
  3. Japan: $129.5 billion (6.1%)
  4. South Korea: $94.7 billion (4.5%)
  5. Germany: $65.8 billion (3.1%)
  6. Vietnam: $61.6 billion (2.9%)
  7. India: $58.9 billion (2.8%)
  8. Netherlands: $57.7 billion (2.7%)
  9. United Kingdom: $56.3 billion (2.7%)
  10. Singapore: $45.8 billion (2.2%)
  11. Taiwan: $40.4 billion (1.9%)
  12. Malaysia: $38.5 billion (1.8%)
  13. Thailand: $37.7 billion (1.8%)
  14. Australia: $37.6 billion (1.8%)
  15. Russia: $37.5 billion (1.8%)

Over two-thirds (68.1%) of Chinese exports in 2016 were delivered to the above 15 trade partners.

China increased its exports to Vietnam by the greatest percentage, up by 277.8% from 2009 to 2016. In second place was Thailand via its 183% gain followed by Russia (up 114.2%), India (up 98.6%), Taiwan (up 97%) and Malaysia (up 96.3%).

After a widening of trading band, QFII and Stock Connect – freer cross-border flows of capital and less control over its exchange rate – China finally got approval from IMF representing 188 member nations that Yuan meets the standard of being “freely usable” and will join the Special Drawing Rights (SDR) basket on Oct 1 2016. Yuan’s devaluation was not only for stronger GDP growth, but also for international prestige and a flagrance of its currency and economy liberalisation. 

Besides, in 2009, China had deepened the liquidity of RMB both onshore and offshore by having bilateral currency swap agreements (swap lines) with 31 counterparties. The stated intention of these swap lines is to support trades and investments (being quoted in Yuan, without any cross currency like USD) and promote the globalisation of the use of Yuan (part of banks reserve requirement). This led to a rise in offshore RMB bond primary issuance where foreign companies rise debt in CNH either for using it for trading and investments in China or swapping into other currencies (less likely, though, countries like Argentina, with a bad reputation on defaulting on foreign currency debt, USD in particular, issue RMB debt for swapping to other currencies for imports). Given China’s small small debt market in foreign currencies, its likely that its CCBS widens into further positive basis. This is  a progress of the development of risk development tools for reducing RMB currency and maturity mismatches, as well as building blocks for pricing a wide range of financial risk instruments.

The offshore market, although small at 1% to onshore, is a truer reflection of Yuan’s value, owing to the absence of a trading band and constant PBOC intervention. The presence of dual offshore and onshore Yuan before Yuan achieve full convertibility has many advantages. CNH move can be a way of the market  communicating to PBOC the actual float value relative to a free capital movement economy and monetary autonomy (given RMB bond issuance), whereas CNY can be PBOC communicating its intention to stem further devaluation or allow it to float, which it says so when it moves to converge to CNH. 

Now that Yuan is a step closer to becoming a globalised currency, will China allow its currency to be volatile to the speculative, irrational whims of the market?

The moral of the story is that a country has to be credible and consistent with its action, especially when its a large economy involved in exports and imports and capital flow. And doing so requires the country to know that there are trade offs among policy objectives, in this case: China might have traded credibility for policy convenience. A simplified framework is the impossible trinity. The idea is a country can only choose 2 objectives and trade off the last objective: one market variable needs to be a floating plug in absorb the imbalances in supply and demand.



Post World War II, major economies in Europe and Asia suffered tremendous losses and only the USA unscathed. Seeking a stable international financial system for reconstruction, Bretton Woods system was formed. Currencies of major economies were pegged to the dollar, which was pegged to the gold. Each economies retained monetary policy autonomy, while international capital flow were stringently controlled. Then, it was simply a dilemma between having an autonomous monetary policy for the central bank to hold brakes on its own economy cycle, or free capital flow to tap on foreign investment but also risk outflows to a faster growing economy. Then, exports and imports were less than what we have now in a globalised economy, and most countries started from the same ground. So the obvious choice was to have monetary autonomy.


However, as the rising of Germany and Japan, US dollar was seen as overvalued, especially so after spending on the Vietnam War worsen the overvaluation. Eventually, the Bretton Woods system was abolished. major developed countries chose open capital accounts and independent monetary policies while abandoned the objective of stable exchange rates and adopted float exchange rate regimes.


When the European Union was formed, the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, Tony Blair, decided that UK will not use the Euro dollar. UK has a 5 economic tests that was to be satisfied before UK accepts EUR.

  1. Business cycles and economic structures must be compatible enough that the United Kingdom could live with EU interest rates (giving up monetary autonomy)
  2. The system must have sufficient flexibility (think of a ‘divergence buffer’) to deal with both local and aggregate economic problems
  3. What impact would entry into EMU have on the competitive position of the UK’s financial services industry, particularly the City’s wholesale markets?
  4. In summary, will joining EMU promote higher growth, stability and a lasting increase in jobs?

The UK didn’t want to abandon its monetary policy autonomy as well as its fiscal policy due to UK being forced to meet the Euro convergence criteria that includes maintaining a debt-to-GDP ratio of not more than 60%. However, those who became part of the EMU opted for a pegged exchange rate to Euro and free capital flow, abandoning monetary autonomy. This was tolerable for them because their industries were closely tied to Germany’s, and business conditions rose and fell in tandem. A fear of abandoning GBP for EMU was in part due to a earlier failed experiment.

The currency snake

Meanwhile the first tentative steps towards a European currency were taking place – 1972 saw the first efforts to fix the pound to other European currencies.

At the start of the year the four major European Economic Community [EEC] currencies – sterling, the deutschemark, the French franc and the Italian lira – formed the so-called ‘snake’. The economic bloc then floated their currencies together on the markets, each country having responsibility for the stability of its currency within parameters.

The experiment failed, though, not long off the ground. Sterling dropped out after only six weeks, weaker than ever, bowing to the dictates of the markets. Currency markets were just too volatile to fix the exchange rates together without damaging the British economy.

However, in reality, the exchange rate can be maintained to float within a certain band by partly sacrificing the autonomy of monetary policy or even be kept stable temporarily by forsaking independent monetary policy in a certain short period. This is tested by policymakers when the exchange rates are tested with depreciation pressures, considering monetary policies have lag time and their effects are more than often unclear, and in contrast, the exchange rate fluctuations conspicuously impact in real time. As we saw above, China seemed to have circumvented the impossible trinity. China has capital control such as limiting quota on the Stock Connect, lock in period for QFII, as well as curbing down outflows from high net worth individuals such as M&A activities. China has a fix on its exchange rate but its a soft peg with a wide trading band around the fix. China was also able to increase or lower interest rates without too much impact on the exchange rate as its consumption is more export than domestic driven. 

However, that said, in a more open, globalised world, keeping a controlled capital flow is harder, especially when China’s economy is export dependent. More financial integration implies less exchange rate stability or less domestic stability, or both. This reduce the trilemma to a dilemma: keeping exchange rate autonomy or interest rate autonomy. Both can be considered monetary policy tools to maintain stable inflation and prevent a overheating or simulate a deflationary economy. (So what if its a closed capital account? He miss opportunity to channel savings to more profitable investments and giving up opportunity to diversify and spread risk)

Monetary tools to express policy: domestic interest rate vs. exchange rate

A flexible exchange rate helps to eliminate one-way bets (trending in one direction on the backdrop of a divergence of policies or economies) and act as an economic shock absorber by being range bound as inconsistencies in divergence appear (think US late fed hike). However, keeping a flexible exchange rate when domestic inflation is much higher than elsewhere will erode its purchasing power with a devaluation, which China avoided by selling foreign currencies from its trade balance surplus to peg to a trade weighted basket.

Likewise, setting a domestic interest rate that is lower than the trade-weighted average interest rate will apply depreciation pressure on domestic currency. This assumes that capital flow is free and foreign investors are able to access and borrow the lower yielding domestic currency and domestic investors able to access and lend higher yielding foreign currency abroad, in which a carry trade is feasible with spots only and there is demand for the higher yielding currency as a funding currency. However, as mention in my previous post, FX forward curve will arbitrage away this to a residual basis. This basis has been argued to speed up currency value depreciation and overshooting behaviour. This is the reason for governments to have more stringent control on short term than long term capital accounts.

Note: Setting domestic interest rate without a floating exchange rate is ineffective as a stabilisation tool. A flexible exchange rate is a better stabiliser for an open economy, especially a small, import dependent economy. 

Since 2010-2011, China inflation was above 2% and the economy was overheating. A speedy way to show serious intent to control inflation is to peg the Yuan to a stable monetary anchor. That means, exporters loss it price competitiveness in international trade to slow down growth and rise in cost of living. By PPP, a higher inflation relative to a trading partner will have downward pressure on the its currency relative to its trading partner. Vice versa, pegging to a country with a lower inflation is equivalent to applying upward pressure on her currency. Because of the unsynchronised economic cycle, US inflation was picking up and became higher than that of China’s which was crawling down. When inflation fell below 2%, growth below 7% and the country which has the biggest weight in its pegged trade-weighted basket of currency has a divergence in inflation cycle, China will find it more costly to continue pegging to an unsynchronised and imbalance weighted trade-weighted basket of currencies.

So why did China chose to peg Yuan to a trade weight basket than setting domestic interest rates, given its out of sync economy?

Ans: China was unable to maintain complete monetary autonomy.

To retrace the story a bit… When US rates fell to zero in 2008 and money flooded into China, helping to fuel an asset and debt bubble of enormous proportion. The sudden increase in foreign reserve had appreciation pressure on Yuan, which were already squeezing exporters profit margin then, had the PBOC desperately sterilized the inflows of capital with a large-scale issuance of PBOC notes i.e. reverse its earlier sales of Yuan from foreign reserve by repackaging them into bonds to remove them from open market and replace them with a government obligation to pay interest. Of course, buyers of the sterilised bonds were high net worth locals who seek higher yields compared to near zero yields in US.

This led to a fast build-up of debt held by the domestic market, but was necessary. The issue is that money-supply growth and hence inflation (7.7% in May 2008) would explode without sterilisation, and this would crush its export and generally increase the cost of goods of end product manufacturers using components supplied from China (which is not helpful as its does not increase foreign companies profit and increase employment aboard, but only pass imported inflation to end consumers). Alternatives to sterilisation that reduce money supply growth besides hiking domestic interest rates (that increase carrying cost for currency mismatched balance sheet, attract more capital inflow) was implemented i.e. administered liquidity absorption tools. Since January 2007 the minimum reserve ratio has been raised 16 times, from 9% to 17.5%. But it cannot climb much higher without hurting banks’ profits. The cost of stemming present money supply growth was to be realised 8 years later.

china debt to gdp.png

Given the enormous amount of debt, Chinese debtors need low rates so as to help service interest payments and avoid bankruptcy. However, if Chinese households and corporate investors are offered lower rates in China when US is rising rates, there would be capital flight and currency instability. If the PBOC forgoes monetary independence and drives rates higher, Chinese debtors will face financial difficulties, thereby slowing economic growth. But if the PBOC lowers rates too much, there may be a sizable capital flight that could quickly diminish China’s 3 trillion USD foreign exchange reserves which would ultimately force China to float its currency.

In December 2016, the PBOC shifted away from interest servicing costs towards currency stability. Facing higher US rates, the PBOC effectively gave up monetary independence. Although the PBOC did not announce a rate hike, the central bank’s delay in injecting funds elevated interest rates across a wide number of financial instruments, given repo agreements are secured and has lower interest and acts as a interest rate floor for unsecured loans. Yields on bonds, trusts, and loans spike. This episode elevated the costs of financing to non-financial debtors in China seeing their earnings after interest squeeze, except domestic banks who instead earn on higher net interest margin (assuming it has hedged its currency mismatch).

While PBOC didn’t change its monetary base by sterilising its intervention to appreciation (sold bonds in domestic currency, bought bonds in foreign currencies) it introduced a growing currency mismatch on its foreign currency asset and domestic currency liabilities, which will widen the accounting loss if its currency appreciate in the future. Unfortunately, PBOC also had a positive carrying cost as its domestic interest rate was higher at around 4-5% relative to near 0% for Fed and negative rates for ECB.

It seems like, rather than circumventing the impossible trinity, China, for now, has sacrificed both free capital flows (capital controls on outflow and foreign M&A), breaking the promise it had made to the IMF on getting SDR eligibility, and monetary autonomy (to control hot money outflow in face of higher US rates) in order to preserve currency stability.More currency stability results in less domestic monetary stabilisation. For the domestic market, exporters already got a much depreciated Yuan but could be lower, but debtors have to find ways to repay quickly or face higher daily financing cost.

As we saw above, there are very difficult tradeoffs in maintaining a loose rein in each corner of the trilemma i.e. China has issues in all 3 corners, and may hinder private sector incentives to develop appropriate hedging capacity (deepening forward/NDF counterparties for exchange rate stability vs. deepening REITS and equities options/warrants for domesitc monetary stability). As a matter of fact, currency crises often break out in countries with intermediate exchange regimes, when one market variable needs to absorb a huge economic shock. Intermediate exchange rate regimes between pegs and floats are unstable in a globalised world we live in now with free capital movement, and they would be pressured to shift to a corner exchange rate regimes (China is force to have a pegged stable exchange rate only).

In fact, some argued that there should be no worries floating the RMB (choosing B):

  • China has a low domestic debt in foreign currencies, partly a outcome of a devaluation and expectations of further depreciation that led to a deleveraging process on foreign currencies, where debtors rush to repay the loans in foreign currencies early
  • Improving export price competitiveness will improve China’s structural deflation, a outcome of companies constantly seeking cheaper labour for their manufacturing and lower global demand. But the risk of managing a volatile price level of input commodities and profit on sales abroad will be transfer to exporters too i.e. with instruments to hedge currency risk. This moves away from government needing to accumulate reserves for intervention. But in exceptional circumstances, central bank intervention is necessary, as foreign exchange markets are prone to overshooting and that exchange rates diverge from the optimal corner solutions for lengthy periods. Persistent wide CCBS and carry trades are evidence to the inability of floating exchange rate to fully correct adjustments in input inflation and interest rate differentials.
  • With a stronger trade balance, China would have a surplus of foreign reserve to offset the capital flight downward pressure on its economy. This complements with existing control on capital outflow from companies.

In conclusion, China has missed its opportunity to exit the pegged exchange rate smoothly because there is no longer credibility in the economy. The least bad option for the government now is to push forward structural reforms to boost credibility in the economy as soon as possible. Then the reform on the exchange-rate policy could be considered (in the long run, rather than pegging to the US dollar, the RMB exchange rate regime should conform to the structural trend). A credible appreciation stance on RMB will attract investors to invest in RMB denominated assets and debts and increase long term net capital inflow, which is needed to offset the falling current account surplus contribution to foreign reserve while it transforms its economy away from manufacturing to consumer driven. Of course, it will take a long time for China to reach the stage of US where its Treasury notes and bonds are deemed safe assets and it is able to maintain a neutral balance of payment despite a large current account deficit.


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