The renminbi’s journey to the world

As China’s currency becomes more popular internationally, the country will have less need to hold US dollar assets.

China currency
China has made progress in the use of the renminbi (RMB) as a settlement currency [GALLO/GETTY]

Recently, HSBC bank released an upbeat survey predicting that China’s currency, the renminbi (RMB), will become one of three global settlement currencies (alongside the dollar and euro) sometime this year. It seems that the RMB’s internationalisation has been progressing without anyone really noticing. The key remaining questions concern whether or not the RMB will become an important international currency anytime soon, and whether it is poised to pose a serious challenge to the US dollar’s domination of the international monetary system.

An international currency is used and held beyond the issuing country’s borders, and plays the role of unit of account, medium of exchange, and store of value for residents and non-residents alike. Certainly, there are many potential benefits for China to be gained from the RMB’s internationalisation:

  • Elimination of exchange-rate risks to which Chinese firms are exposed;
  • Greater funding efficiency for Chinese financial institutions, thus strengthening their competitiveness in global financial markets;
  • A boost to China’s trade with its neighbours, owing to the reduction in transaction costs;
  • Less need for China to hold US dollar assets and risk capital losses on the country’s foreign-exchange reserves;
  • Eventual status as one of the world’s major reserve currencies, which would provide China more freedom to manoeuvre in domestic and international economic policy.

China’s enthusiasm, since 2009, for RMB internationalisation partly reflects its frustration with the lack of progress in reforming the international financial architecture, and with the state of regional financial cooperation. Chinese officials believe that RMB internationalisation is a way for China to set its own agenda without being overly constrained by external conditions beyond its control.

Thus far, China has made significant progress in the use of the RMB as a settlement currency, in the issuance of RMB-denominated bonds, and in signing currency-swap agreements with foreign central banks. RMB deposits in Hong Kong are growing exponentially.

Despite these achievements, however, RMB internationalisation could still easily go awry. For example, various incentives have been provided to encourage enterprises to use the RMB to settle transactions. But, with an undervalued exchange rate and strong expectations for the RMB to appreciate in the future, foreign importers of Chinese products refuse to use the RMB to settle transactions, while foreign exporters are happy to accept RMB. As a result, even with the same trade balance, China ends up with more foreign-exchange reserves, though using the RMB as a settlement currency is supposed to reduce their accumulation.

Indeed, so far, RMB internationalisation has shown a clear pattern of asymmetry – and not only as a settlement currency for China’s imports – but not for exports. While RMB-denominated bonds meet strong demand, non-residents have no great incentive to issue them. And, while foreign lenders are happy to extend RMB loans, they are not welcome by foreign borrowers. Given strong expectations of RMB appreciation, internationalisation will inevitably lead to a serious currency mismatch, with possibly detrimental consequences for China’s welfare.

A more fundamental problem for RMB internationalisation is what it implies for China’s capital controls. Although the internationalisation of a currency is not tantamount to capital-account liberalisation, the degree of internationalisation is conditional on capital-account liberalisation. In fact, internationalisation of the RMB has opened a new hole in China’s wall of capital controls. The large increase in RMB deposits in Hong Kong is a case in point.

When a currency endures a prolonged process of one-way appreciation, speculative capital aimed at exchange-rate arbitrage is bound to seek all chances to flow in. Hot money will increase currency appreciation pressure and complicate macroeconomic management. The profit-taking by speculators at the end of the game will lead to huge welfare losses to the recipient country, in this case China.

Fear of hot money was the main reason why China refused to de-peg the RMB from the dollar until July 2005. While China did decide to allow the RMB to appreciate gradually after that, it has relied on capital controls to prevent hot money from flowing in. The controls are leaky, to be sure, but they have worked (so far), which is why China has effectively maintained macroeconomic stability over the years.

The key objective of China’s capital controls is to prevent non-residents from holding domestic RMB-denominated assets that are unrelated to trade and long-term capital flows. But RMB internationalisation encourages non-residents to hold more RMBs and RMB-denominated assets. As a result of RMB internationalisation, RMB deposits held by Hong Kong residents have reached RMB370bn ($57bn), and the amount may reach RMB1 trillion by the end of the year.

One might wonder what difference there is between hot money and RMB deposits held by non-residents. The answer depends on why non-residents hold these deposits. The attraction of the RMB should come from China’s strong economic fundamentals and faith in its economy. If it comes from expectations of RMB appreciation, the success of RMB internationalisation can be easily reversed and will cause more problems for China’s monetary authority to solve in the future.

Fortunately, China’s monetary authority has already noticed the subtlety of the distinction between legitimate demand for RMB-denominated assets and hot money. This means that the pace of RMB internationalisation could become more measured than international investors have expected.

While internationalisation of the RMB is necessary (and inevitable), it should be guided by market principles and pursued in a cautious manner. To get the sequence of policy adjustments right is vital. In any case, the RMB’s path to becoming a truly international currency promises to be a bumpy one.

Yu Yongding, currently President of the China Society of World Economics, is a former member of the monetary policy committee of the Peoples’ Bank of China and former Director of the Chinese Academy of Sciences Institute of World Economics and Politics.

A version of this article first appeared on Project Syndicate.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.