The U.S. Treasury has just taken the extraordinary step of designating China as a currency manipulator, something no administration has done since the days of Bill Clinton.
With the action, the trade war between the U.S. and China has entered a new phase that will likely see both countries stepping up both their rhetoric and actions in the trade dispute that has now dragged on for over a year.
As a result of the ongoing hostilities between the U.S. government and China, the flood of investment dollars that once came from Chinese technology companies and investors into U.S. technology companies has slowed. Acquisitions and investments made by Chinese companies have been unwound over concerns from the Committee of Foreign Investments in the U.S. and tariffs slapped on Chinese imports have hit U.S. stock prices (including in the technology sector).
The news of Treasury’s move comes less than 24 hours after the Chinese government announced a complete halt on U.S. agricultural imports. More significantly, the Bank of China has let the country’s currency slide in value against the U.S. dollar to above the seven-to-one figure that was considered a line-in-the-sand for trade.
Given the escalation, economists’ fears that global markets could slip into a recession within the next nine months are more likely to be realized, according to reports from Morgan Stanley, quoted by CNBC.
“We take its literal message of planned tariffs quite seriously. There’s a pattern of responding to insufficient negotiation progress with escalation,” Morgan Stanley said in an analyst report.
The move to label China as a currency manipulator means that the U.S. will plead its case before the International Monetary Fund to take steps to curb what Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin called “the unfair competitive advantage created by China’s latest actions.”
If anything, China’s actions have actually been to prop up the country’s currency in the face of internal pressures to break the seven-to-one floor that had previously been set on the Renminbi’s value versus the dollar. China’s economy is slowing — in part due to tariffs imposed by the U.S., but also because economies in Europe and Asia are slowing down, which is hitting exports in the country. Indeed, much of the current growth in China’s economy has been fueled by debt-financed big infrastructure projects.
That could change as Chinese goods become cheaper thanks to the falling value of the nation’s currency. However, as Axios notes, what China is doing doesn’t actually fall under the definition of currency manipulation as it’s legally defined.
Because to be a currency manipulator a country needs to spend 2% of its gross domestic product over a 12-month period on currency manipulation. If anything, China was boosting the yuan in the face of calls to reduce its value until the President called for sanctions last week.
Even if the country’s currency devaluation does juice exports, it could have unforeseen consequences on China’s infrastructure spending and could backfire as a tool in the ongoing trade dispute.
A weaker currency means that Chinese consumers and businesses have to pay more for goods and services that are dollar-denominated. It also means that while the country is awash with cash, it could lose its competitive edge in a fight to lure top talent to the country. Losses in spending power could push the developers and programmers the country needs to transition from a manufacturing-focused economy to look elsewhere.
Stock markets are already taking note of the new U.S. action on trade. Futures show the Dow trading down about 350 points and the Nasdaq and S&P 500 indices both trading sharply lower.
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