Renminbi revaluation.

Be careful what you wish for, you just might get it.

The U.S. Congress has been trying to get the Chinese to allow their currency, the renminbi (or yuan), to appreciate versus the U.S. dollar. Timothy Geithner, our Treasury Secretary, rushed off to the far east to broker such a deal a couple of days ago.

Whereas most see this as a wonderful beginning, I believe it will end in tears.

Chinese currency is called renminbi. The word means “people’s currency” (in direct contradiction of those who believe China has anything to do with capitalism). It’s more commonly and historically called the yuan (which means round, after the shape of coins).

The Chinese peg their currency to the dollar. This means they buy and sell dollars and yuan to keep the 2 currencies marching in lockstep. The yuan was pegged to the dollar from 1997-2005 at 8.27 yuan to the dollar. It was allowed to float somewhat freely (“managed peg”) from 2005 to 2008, where it appreciated (in a very controlled manner) from 8.27 to 6.83 (fewer yuan to dollars means the yuan is going up in value). That managed peg lasted until the crisis of 2008, when it was put back on a fixed peg at 6.83 yuan to the dollar, and remains there still.

The Chinese are not mean-spirited in pegging their currency. They partially do it to maintain their trading relationship to the U.S. It’s easier to conduct trade, both for people in the U.S. and China, when you know what the exchange rate will be. They also peg their currency because they are a controlled economy. In other words, they don’t have the mechanisms to let their economy manage itself because it’s not a free market.

Many think this gives China an unfair advantage (sarcastic comment: just like it gives Alabama an unfair advantage over Michigan to have the dollar in Alabama the same as the dollar in Michigan). Such folks believe we must force China to remove its peg so we can compete more “fairly” (unless, of course, the people in Congress think they are losing, then they don’t want it to be fair).

I don’t believe forcing China to revalue its currency will be all good news.

It will be good for U.S. companies who compete with China. If Chinese and U.S. companies are competing for the same business, China has an advantage by manipulating its currency. But, China does not compete with the U.S. for high-end manufacturing, they compete with the U.S. at the low end, mostly. So, it will benefit low-end manufacturing in the U.S.

But, this will be bad for U.S. consumers. Letting the yuan appreciate will make all those Chinese goods we buy cost more (and we buy a LOT of Chinese goods). It also means China will have a more valuable currency to compete with U.S. dollars in buying goods all over the globe. In other words, it will lead to higher prices for commodities, goods, probably everything.

A small minority of U.S. businesses, with buddies in the Congress, will benefit at the expense of the vast majority of U.S. consumers and higher-end U.S. businesses. Isn’t that nice.

The fallout will not be pretty, to be frank. It’s bad for bonds because it means higher interest rates. And, those higher rates will hit U.S. consumers, U.S. businesses, and, of course, the biggest debtor of all: the U.S. government.

It will be good for commodity investments. It will be good for U.S. businesses in competition with Chinese businesses. That seems like more downside than upside to me.

To top it off, it won’t solve the U.S.’s fiscal problems–it will make them worse. Higher interest rates and inflation will not reduce the U.S.’s debt, or reduce our burden of future social programs. Nor will it help employment. For every new job in low end manufacturing, we’ll lose 2 or more elsewhere. It will lead to larger public finance problems, and sooner.

The U.S.’s problem is that it spends too much and it pays with debt. That’s not China’s fault. We need to save more, spend less, and make products that others want. We won’t beat China with low-end manufacturing, but we can at the high-end. But, a depreciating dollar relative to an appreciating yuan won’t help that.

No, getting the Chinese to allow the yuan to appreciate will not help the U.S., it will help China. Is that what we really want?

Nothing in this blog should be considered investment, financial, tax, or legal advice. The opinions, estimates and projections contained herein are subject to change without notice. Information throughout this blog has been obtained from sources believed to be accurate and reliable, but such accuracy cannot be guaranteed.