By Ranjan X. Roy
Yesterday, as Americans paid their taxes and partied like it was 1773, China took yet another action little noticed in the American media, but with major long term implications. China finalized a deal with Argentina, arranging a $10.2bn currency swap of their respective currencies (70bn CNY/38bn ARS). While Michele Bachmann and the like were up in arms after Zhou Xiaochuan, Governor of the People’s Bank of China (PBoC), suggested that SDRs could potentially function as a new global reserve currency, this particular story appears to have garnered little attention from those paranoid of a “one world currency“. However, this development is of crucial strategic importance and should be recognized by US policymakers as a development that must be addressed, rather than proposing legislation that doesn’t even begin to make any sense.
The move will allow Argentineans to directly access Chinese Yuan for trade, rather than having to settle in US Dollars. Previously, as the USD has been the primary reserve currency for international trade, an importer would have to cross two “spreads”, first converting ARS to USD, and then the USD to CNY (just imagine having to go to the airport currency exchange twice just to buy a souvenir). The Argentine Central Bank is explaining the move as a “contingency plan to bolster liquidity amid the global financial crisis,” but this vague statement is better explained by Passport at Foreign Policy:
As Xinhua reports, the Argentines can essentially use the RMB as extra cash to pay for imports. But one might note that, since the Yuan is not a convertible currency, the money can only be used to purchase goods from — you guessed it — China, potentially giving a boost the Dragon’s ailing export sector.
China’s economy has suffered along with the rest of the world since they have long been reliant on export-led growth, and in this market, major trading partners just aren’t importing any more. And so this currency swap is shrewd move for China, in that it has the dual effect of both promoting Chinese exports to Argentina, while also allowing this trade to be settled in Yuan rather than Dollars. Michele Bachmann’s paranoia meter should have been turned up a notch, since with this move, China has slowly begun initiating a shift away from the USD while simultaneously increasing its economic presence in an unfamiliar region. It marks yet another step towards full convertibility of the Yuan. While the swap shouldn’t incite outright panic, US policymakers need to recognize these coordinated actions in the broader context. This isn’t just about the US Dollar: it’s about our leadership role in these regions.
This swap is the sixth of its kind since this past December, with South Korea, Malaysia, Indonesia, Hong Kong and Belarus all coming to similar arrangements with the PBoC, totaling 650bn CNY ($95bn USD). Note that last fall, as the Federal Reserve “stepped it up” and arranged currency swaps with many central banks, including swaps worth $30bn USD with both Brazil and Mexico, economies like Argentina were left out. Romero and Barrionuevo at the NYT have documented a number of additional coordinated initiatives China is taking in nations generally ignored by the US, including direct loans to Ecuador and Venezuela.
Both the rise of China’s presence globally, along with the eventual shift away from the USD as the sole reserve currency, are generally accepted as longer-term eventualities. In the meantime, the United States must recognize that it is in our interest to get our own house in order while not ignoring nations that have looked to us for leadership in the past, rather than turning inward and resorting to protectionism.