China's Yuan Ambitions

China is playing a growing role in discussions over solutions to current economic problems. Much of the talk has focused on money -- whether Premier Wen Jiabao's concerns about the value of China's U.S. treasury investments, or the People's Bank of China's paper floating the idea of a de-dollarized international monetary system. Up to now, one limit to China's ability to contribute to global monetary reform has been its own currency policy, particularly the fact that the yuan is not convertible. However, now there are tentative signs that's starting to change.

Beijing has signed currency swap agreements with six central banks: Hong Kong, Indonesia, Korea, Malaysia, Belarus and most recently Argentina. These swaps permit those central banks to sell yuan to local importers in those countries who want to buy Chinese goods. This is particularly useful for importers struggling to obtain trade finance as a result of the financial crisis. As such, it's consistent with China's desire to participate in the Group of 20's efforts to support trade financing.

China has long wanted its currency to play a more important role in the global financial system. These swap arrangements come in the context of that broader policy aim. The broader policy goal also has a more practical function in reducing currency exposure and transaction costs for Chinese exporters. The rise in the yuan's value relative to the dollar in early 2008 was a reason why some Chinese exporters went bankrupt. The ability to settle trade in yuan would reduce this risk in the future.

Certainly the swaps should not be mistaken for full yuan convertibility. Details are scarce, but it appears the yuan cannot be sold for other currencies, in particular, the dollar. Neither can they be used by the other countries as part of their reserves to defend their own currencies, unlike the recent swap agreements several countries have signed with the United States Federal Reserve. In large part this is because the yuan is not fully convertible. Hong Kong remains the only place where it is possible to open yuan deposit accounts, and even there daily deposits and withdrawals are capped.

Yet while the swap arrangements do not signal full convertibility, they are an important step in that direction. Even better, the Chinese authorities appear to have accelerated the reform schedule in recent months to suggest that the prospect of partial convertibility, especially between China and its major regional trading partners, may be closer than many believe.

China's State Council announced its intention in December to permit businesses in specific provinces to settle international trade-related transactions in yuan with specific trading partners. Guangdong province can settle in yuan with Hong Kong and Macau, while Guangxi and Yunnan provinces can settle in yuan with members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.

These are trial schemes that have yet to start, and it is still unclear how they will differ in practice from the swap agreements already in place. Hong Kong's experiments with yuan convertibility will be the most important to watch. China has a tendency to use the territory as a laboratory for financial reforms. So, the State Council's clarification on the yuan-settlement trial scheme in Hong Kong, expected soon, and the response of Hong Kong's business community, will be a good indicator of what the rest of the world can expect.

The transformation of the yuan into a global currency has begun. It will not be an overnight change, but the change may take place faster than expected. The economic crisis has provided China with a window of opportunity to leverage its relative stability and status as a trade surplus country to extend yuan credit to deficit countries globally.


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