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China Does What Europe Couldn’t

close-up of 100-yuan bills

When their economies ran off the rails in the aftermath of the financial crisis, eurozone countries like Greece, Spain, Portugal and Ireland found themselves trapped in a currency that refused to decline in keeping with their prospects.

China is not caught in that same trap. Ultimately, that’s a good thing for everyone.

From the way stock and commodity markets reacted after China’s surprise devaluation of the yuan last week, you might have thought the country’s sudden change of heart about its exchange-rate policy was the first step on the road to disaster. But it is also a step that we have wished eurozone nations could take in order to let their downtrodden and less-productive economies begin to revive themselves.

Both of these reactions can’t be correct at the same time. In all likelihood, it was the initial reaction to China’s action that was wrongheaded.

In fairness, it wasn’t so much that the yuan was abruptly reduced by 2 percent against the dollar, or that it continued to slide in the days that followed (though braked by repeated interventions by the Chinese central bank), that spooked the markets. The markets mainly reacted instead to the Beijing authorities’ apparent concession that their economy, which they have hitherto bragged is essentially recession-proof, is struggling more than they are willing to let on. But we already knew that.

In fact, China is no more immune to the business cycle than any other country. It is entirely possible, if not likely, that the nation’s political and economic rigidity will make the eventual adjustment much more extreme, perhaps on the order of what Japan endured after its property bubble burst at the start of the 1990s.

Economists outside China have debated what served as the immediate catalyst of Beijing’s decision to devaluate its currency. There are a variety of potential causes. For instance, China has pursued a bid to get the International Monetary Fund to recognize the yuan as a reserve currency; letting the markets steer the yuan more directly indeed drew cautious praise from the IMF. The devaluation also followed news of decreasing exports and shrinking currency reserves, both of which this move might help.

Nobody will benefit if the wheels fall off the Chinese economic locomotive entirely. So any hint of true flexibility, such as the government’s decision to allow the yuan to move toward a more appropriate level, is a good thing. The moaning that immediately arose from some quarters here in the United States about “currency manipulation” and unfair policy is largely bogus. It was the yuan’s artificial tie to the dollar, which has appreciated sharply against other European and Asian currencies in countries where China sells most of its goods, that was the true manipulation - and the Chinese were essentially manipulating it to their own detriment. Of course they will stop doing that as soon as it hurts them. At the very least, they will try to mitigate the manipulation’s effects.

China almost certainly does not plan to allow big swings in the yuan’s value, even now. The yuan’s daily trading value is restricted to 2 percent above or below a rate set by the People’s Bank of China, and that restriction seems unlikely to change. But by moving that band significantly, Beijing has tacitly admitted a need for a slightly closer correlation between their currency’s value and their economy’s reality. It’s a start.

There is a lot wrong with the Chinese economic and political system. The idea that its economy can only move in one direction is false, and always was. China isn’t recession-proof. It’s just that anyone in China who has the nerve to declare a recession is in progress, if and when one comes - in fact, that day might already have arrived - is apt to be fired at best, or even jailed. So nobody says it. But that doesn’t mean it won’t happen anyway.

The Chinese currency adjustment is not exactly what we’d call market-friendly, but at least it is a nod to reality and a constructive step that we would have urged on almost any other nation in similar conditions. If you want to worry about China, there are much better targets for that worry than the overdue and thus-far modest drop in the value of its currency.

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