Leverage and Its Discontents
links for 2010-01-07

Where Is My Chinese Consumer Price Inflation?

Every month the People's Bank of China pays 200 billion renminbi to China's exporters to buy up the dollar-denominated assets they have accumulated and so prevent those assets from generating upward pressure on the value of the renminbi. It gets those 200 billion renminbi by borrowing them from the good burghers of Shanghai. By now the central bank owes the good burghers of Shanghai some 16 trillion renminbi. To them, this wealth is nearly as good as cash. It has been piling up for years--and because it is nearly as good as cash, the good burghers of Shanghai should be spending it.

They should be spending it. But the goods that are the counterparts of this financial wealth have been shipped via container to Long Beach. So demand in China should be massively outrunning supply, and China should be seeing strong and rising inflation.

James Hamilton:

Econbrowser: Inflation in China: Why hasn't inflation caught up with a monetary-induced boom in China? One might argue that China's policy of keeping the renminbi cheap amounts to an export subsidy that has been an important factor fueling its growth. But that thesis is puzzling to economists who reason that a cheap-currency policy can only get you so far. Paul Krugman explains:

Consider the real exchange rate, defined as RX = EP*/P, where E is the exchange rate measured as the domestic currency price of foreign currency (so an appreciation of the renminbi is a fall in E), P* is the foreign price level, and P the domestic price level. Basic international macro says that there is a "natural" level of the real exchange rate, determined by trade competitiveness and international capital flows. And the economy "wants" to get to that real exchange rate. If you have a floating exchange rate, you get there via a rise or fall in E. But if you have a pegged rate, there's pressure on prices instead. By deliberately keeping E higher than it would be under floating, China is creating pressures for P to rise; the inflationary pressures are directly related to the exchange rate policy.

So why hasn't domestic inflation in China undone the stimulus from the exchange rate?

I've been forming the opinion that U.S. inflationary dynamics may be more governed by relative price changes than was historically the case, and raise the possibility that China could be ground zero for this phenomenon. Specifically, I'm wondering if the pent-up inflationary pressure takes the form of inducing consumers and businesses in China to try to acquire any hard assets they can, with the result that rather than overall inflation we see remarkable increases in the relative prices of such items.

The fact that our standard models do not appear--so far--to apply to Chinese inflation is yet another disturbing feature of today's world economy.