Jan 6, 2017

Undervalued currency of China and learnings for India

China maintains an undervalued currency which is one of the key reasons for trade surplus of China with most trading partners. It has also led to huge forex build up over the years. While China's undervalued currency has faced criticism from trading partners, the public policy choice of this tool for development of China is not well appreciated. The use of currency undervaluation as a tool to gain export advantage has decreased over time for China due to multiple factors and I doubt it the current level of Chinese currency is as undervalued as it used to be. Yet, as a policy lesson it is illuminating to analyse the effects.
China has used the currency as a policy tool to empower itself; it is just incidental that this policy has done damage to trading partners. The undervalued currency of China acts as a direct subsidy for exports. A 20% undervaluation of currency is equivalent to 20% direct subsidy support in terms of export price. Given that China has usually maintained an undervaluation of a quarter to a third of its price, Chinese exports have enjoyed this subsidy. In addition, an undervalued currency acts as a tax on imports into the country, leading to further favourable change in terms of trade. 

China has used currency as an evolutionary policy response against stifling conditions imposed upon it from WTO and other bilateral/multilateral arrangements. If one looks at China's growth decades, it can be seen that the late 70s and early 80s growth right up until mid 90s rode on the active state support to the manufacturing industries. Heavy structural change towards industrialisation was led by the state, leading to rapid increase in productivity in the manufacturing sector. During this period, China maintained heavy import restrictions, provided subsidies to industries, and incentivised investments into the manufacturing sector in the country. The strategy worked and led to creation of world beating manufacturing sector in China. The scale of industrialisation met and surpassed advanced industrialised nations within two decades. None of the above steps that China took to support its domestic industry were compatible with WTO, and therefore China didn't come onboard at the time of WTOs inception in 1995. 

While China prepared for joining WTO during late 90s, (it ultimately joined WTO in 2001) it realised that the earlier strategy of direct subsidy and import restrictions would not work. Therefore it resorted to an undervalued currency strategy which was not countervailable under existing WTO rules. The decade from late 90s onwards till very recently, China maintained an undervalued currency, thus helping its manufacturing sector weather the gradual withdrawal of direct subsidies and state support that fell foul with WTO provisions. This strategy ensured that Chinese industries continued with the state cushion while appearing to follow all WTO rules. Even today, currency policy cannot be countervailed under WTO. It was the protest by trading partners, and problem of burgeoning forex reserves that made China do a partial rethink. 

In contrast, Indian manufacturing industries were not well prepared to withstand global onslaught once the gates were opened under WTO, especially from competitors like China. Wherever Indian government provided even semi decent support, Indian manufacturing industries showed good results. For example, in auto and auto ancillaries industries Indian government had made provision for incentivising localisation, mandated joint venture requirements for direct investments in the sector, and had levied heavy import duties on fully assembled imports during the 90s. While these provisions fell foul with WTO rules later on and had to be removed, these policy steps during formative years helped our auto and engineering sector thrive. Similarly, in pharma sector, Indian patent laws allowed the industries to operate and copy generics and derivatives despite TRIPS, and today India's pharma sector has done exceedingly well. On the other hand, electronic hardware manufacturing sector in India was opened up to the world from initial days under Information Technology Agreement of WTO, and no meaningful support was provided during the early days and today we are struggling in electronics manufacturing. 

Lest I be misunderstood, the argument is not about infant industry protection or supporting protectionist policies of the yore or even to recommend currency devaluation as a potent tool for India. It is about the need for policy makers to carefully analyse the options available as policy tools whenever an industry is being subject to inorganic changes such as globalisation, treaties, change in import policies, state support introduction or withdrawal etc. To cite an example from recent times, the imposing of anti dumping duties on imported steel in order to protect the steel industry in India has bled the engineering and auto sector by raising input costs on them. It appears that policymakers did not do a good cost-benefit analysis, and therefore helping one sector is harming another. If steel sector needed to be protected, one needs to build in adequate protection for engineering sector which needs imported steel. 

Chinese policymakers were indeed smart to introduce currency devaluation while they withdrew from direct subsidies. It was a policy option they had in hand and they exercised it very well to their advantage. That's a lesson for policymakers worldwide.