This morning we got yet another disappointing number for the Chinese economy as the Purchasing Manager Index (PMI) dropped to 47.7 – the lowest level in 11 month. I have little doubt that the continued contraction in the Chinese manufacturing sector is due to the People’s Bank of China’s continued tightening of monetary conditions.
Most economists agree that the slowdown in the Chinese economy is having negative ramifications for the rest of the world, but for most economist the contraction in the Chinese economy is seen as affecting the rest of world through a keynesian export channel. I, however, believe that it is much more useful to understand China’s impact on the rest of the world through the perspective of monetary analysis. In this post I will try to explain what we could call the Sino-monetary transmission mechanism.
China is a global monetary superpower
David Beckworth has argued (see for example here) that the Federal Reserve is a monetary superpower as “it manages the world’s main reserve currency and many emerging markets are formally or informally pegged to dollar. Thus, its monetary policy gets exported to much of the emerging world. “
I believe that the People’s Bank of China to a large extent has the same role – maybe even a bigger role for some Emerging Markets particularly in Asia and among commodity exporters. Hence, the PBoC can under certain circumstances “dictate” monetary policy in other countries – if these countries decide to import monetary conditions from China.
Overall I see three channels through which PBoC influence monetary conditions in the rest of the world:
1) The export channel: For many countries in the world China is now the biggest or second biggest export market. So a monetary induced slowdown in the Chinese economy will have significant impact on many countries’ export performance. This is the channel most keynesian trained economists focus on.
2) Commodity price channel: As China is a major commodity consumer Chinese monetary policy has a direct impact on the demand for and the price of commodities. So tighter Chinese monetary policy is causing global commodity prices to drop. This obviously is having a direct impact on commodity exporters. See for example my discussion of Chinese monetary policy and the Brazilian economy here.
3) The financial flow channel: China has the largest currency reserves in the world . This means that China obviously is extremely important for demand for global financial assets. A contraction in Chinese monetary policy will reduce Chinese FX reserve accumulation and as a result impact demand for for example Emerging Markets bonds and equities.
For the keynesian-trained economist the story would end here. However, we cannot properly understand the impact of Chinese monetary policy on the rest of the world if we do not understand the importance of “local” monetary policy. Hence, in my view other countries of the world can decide to import monetary tightening from China, but they can certainly also decide not to import is monetary tightening. The PBoC might be a monetary superpower, but only because other central banks of the world allow it to be.
Pegged exchange rates, fear-of-floating and inflation targeting give PBoC its superpowers
I believe it is crucial to look at the currency impact of Chinese monetary tightening and how central banks around the world react to this to understand the global transmission of Chinese monetary policy.
Take the example of Malaysia. China is Malaysia’s second biggest export market. Hence, if PBoC tightens monetary policy it will likely hit Malaysian exports to China. Furthermore, tighter monetary policy in China would likely also put downward on global rubber and natural gas prices. Malaysia of course is a large exporter of both of these commodities. It is therefore natural to expect that Chinese monetary tightening will lead to depreciation pressures on the Malaysian ringgit.
Officially the ringgit is a freely floating currency. However, in reality the Malaysian central bank – like most central banks in Asia – suffers from a fear-of-floating and would clearly intervene directly or indirectly in the currency markets if the move in the ringgit became “excessive”. The financial markets obviously know this so even if the Malaysian central bank did not directly intervene in the FX market the currency moves would tend to be smaller than had the Malaysian central bank had a credible hands-off approach to the currency.
The result of this fear-of-floating is that when the currency tends to weaken the Malaysian central bank will step in directly or indirectly and signal a more hawkish stance on monetary policy. This obviously means that the central bank in this way decides to import Chinese monetary tightening. In this regard it is import to realize that the central bank can do this without really realizing it as the fear-of-floating is priced-in by the markets.
Hence, a fear-of-floating automatically will automatically lead central banks to import monetary tightening (or easing) from the monetary superpower – for example the PBoC. This of course is a “mild” case of “monetary import” compared to a fixed exchange rate regime. Under a fixed exchange rate regime there will of course be “full” import of the monetary policy and no monetary policy independence. In that sense Danish or Lithuanian monetary policy is fully determined by the ECB as the krone and the litas are pegged to the euro.
In regard to fixed exchange rate regimes and PBoC the case of Hong Kong is very interesting. The HK dollar is of course pegged to the US dollar and we would therefore normally say that the Federal Reserve determines monetary conditions in Hong Kong. However, that is not whole story. Imagine that the Federal Reserve don’t do anything (to the extent that is possible), but the PBoC tighens monetary conditions. As Hong Kong increasingly has become an integrated part of the Chinese economy a monetary tightening in China will hit Hong Kong exports and financial flows hard. That will put pressure the Hong Kong dollar and as the HK dollar is pegged to the US dollar the HK Monetary Authority will have to tighten monetary policy to maintain the peg. In fact his happens automatically as a consequence of Hong Kong’s currency board regime. So in that sense Chinese monetary policy also has a direct impact on Hong Kong monetary conditions.
Finally even a central bank that has an inflation inflation and allow the currency to float freely could to some extent import Chinese monetary policy. The case of Brazil is a good example of this. As I have argued earlier Chinese monetary tighening has put pressure on the Brazilian real though lower Brazilian exports to China and lower commodity prices. This has pushed up consumer prices in Brazil as import prices have spiked. This was the main “excuse” when the Brazilian central bank recently hiked interest rates. Hence, Brazil’s inflation targeting regime has caused the central bank to import monetary tightening from China, while monetary easing probably is warranted. This is primarly a result of a focus on consumer price inflation rather than on other measures of inflation such as the GDP deflator, which are much less sensitive to import price inflation.
The Kryptonite to take away PBoC’s superpowers
My discussion above illustrates that China can act as a monetary superpower and determine monetary conditions in the rest of the world, but also that this is only because central banks in the rest of world – particularly in Asia – allow this to happen. Malaysia or Hong Kong do not have to import Chinese monetary conditions. Hence, the central bank can choose to offset any shock from Chinese monetary policy. This is basically a variation of the Sumner Critique. The central bank of Malaysia obviously is in full control of nominal GDP/aggregate demand in Malaysia. If the monetary contraction in China leads to a weakening of the ringgit monetary conditions in Malaysia will only tighten if the central bank of Malaysia tries to to fight it by tightening monetary conditions.
Here the case of the Reserve Bank of Australia is telling. RBA operates a floating exchange rates regime and has a flexible inflation target. Under “normal” circumstances the aussie dollar will move more or less in sync with global commodity prices reflecting Australia is a major commodity exporter. In that sense the RBA is showing no real signs of suffering from a fear-of-floating. Furhtermore, As the graph below shows recently the aussie dollar has been allowed to weaken somewhat more than the drop in commodity prices (the CRB index) would normally have been dictating. However, during the recent Chinese monetary policy shock the aussie dollar has been allowed to significantly more than what the CRB index would have dictated. That indicates an “automatic” monetary easing in Australia in response to the Chinese shock. This in my view is very good example of a market-based monetary policy.
If the central bank defines the nominal target clearly and allows the currency to float completely freely then that could works “krytonite” against the PBoC’s monetary superpowers. This is basically what is happening in the case of Australia.
As the market realizes that the RBA will move to ease monetary policy in response to a “China shock” the dollar the market will so to speak “pre-empt” the expected monetary easing by weakening the aussie dollar.