We hate you guys.” This was how Luo Ping, a senior official at the China Banking Regulatory Commission, vented his frustration at the US in 2009. He and others in China believed that, as the US Federal Reserve printed money to resuscitate American demand, the value of China’s vast US Treasury bond holdings would plunge along with the dollar.
“Once you start issuing $1tn-$2tn . . . we know the dollar is going to depreciate so we hate you guys – but there is nothing much we can do,” Mr Luo told a New York audience.
At times, adopting the renminbi is portrayed as a snub to the US. Russian politicians have called for a “de-dollarisation” of their economy after sanctions imposed by the US and EU in response to Moscow’s annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea.
Such are the easy wins. Creating a genuine world currency will be much harder, rubbing up against the central paradox of China’s emergence: its political system relies on control while acceptance into global free markets needs liberalisation.
Institutions that hold renminbi have precious little scope to invest them. China has opened only tiny apertures for foreign investors in its domestic capital markets, promoting instead an offshore renminbi capital market that is as yet minuscule in comparison with its US dollar counterpart.
Jonathan Anderson, economist at the Emerging Advisors Group, estimates that in mid-2013 total capital market assets freely available to international investors in US dollars were worth $55tn; in euros, $29tn; in yen, $17tn; and, in sterling, $9tn. The renminbi offered a mere $250bn. “That is about 0.1 per cent of the global market, putting the renminbi on a par with the Philippine peso and just a bit higher than the Peruvian nuevo sol,” Mr Anderson wrote.
Of course, Beijing could throw open its capital markets but doing so might leave it at the mercy of the type of capital outflow that precipitated the Asian financial crisis in the late 1990s. It would also require the opening up of its state-owned banks, local government bond issuers and state companies to scrutiny from foreign investors.
So reasserting one form of control would entail sacrificing another: winning a measure of freedom from the “dollar zone” and the concurrent influence of the Fed would imply inviting in the oversight of global capitalism, the rules of which were written under Pax Americana.