October 17, 2013 6:28 pm

A globalised renminbi can transform both China and London

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The Chinese will see how the lifting of controls is linked to economic success, says Danny Quah
An employee packs bundles of Renminbi banknotes at a branch of the Bank of China in Hefei, Anhui province in this February 8, 2010 file photo. Companies gambling on yuan appreciation are distorting Chinese trade statistics, creating a monetary policy headache for Beijing officials and complicating government plans to liberalise the capital account©Reuters

This week George Osborne announced steps to make London a global trading hub for China’s currency. If the internationalisation of the renminbi proceeds and the chancellor of the exchequer’s plan succeeds, London will – so it is hoped – again flourish as a leading financial centre. The nature of that flourishing could well differ from what we saw before 2008, but the prosperity will feel the same. Can it happen? Yes. Will it happen? That depends on a number of considerations. Will it be a good thing? Almost surely.

Too often, when observers say renminbi internationalisation will never happen, what they mean is they cannot imagine the renminbi – with less than 3 per cent share of world official currency reserves – undermining the exorbitant privilege enjoyed by the US dollar as the world’s reserve currency.

But neither internationalisation of China’s currency nor London’s benefiting from it require that to happen. These are both relatively modest undertakings. They hinge on just one thing: the currency simply has to become a force in global currency markets.

True, this will require renminbi use in the financial markets to exceed single-digit shares. By how much? Well, to paraphrase singer Miley Cyrus, no one’s got that memo yet. But already the renminbi’s share is rising on pretty much all measures of world currency use. That is what matters.

To understand whether this will continue, we need to think about the risks and opportunities that arise from world markets accepting the renminbi more widely.

Even without full official convertibility, the currency is already significant. Full convertibility could occur overnight by fiat if the Chinese authorities thought the moment propitious.

Confidence and trust in China’s management of the renminbi are higher than in US management of the dollar or European Central Bank management of the euro. The supposed absence in China of market transparency, government flexibility and the rule of law have little bearing on acceptance of its currency. Only perceptions of risk and return matter – and government dysfunction in the US is doing everything possible to convince the world that dollar risk is significant.

China has a population about four times that of the US and an economy only half its size. It trades as much with the rest of the world as the US does. And the potential for continued economic growth remains strong. There are problems but also solutions. China invests more than many observers think reasonable but its western regions remain poorer than significant parts of Africa, and its capital stock and infrastructure per worker remain low. It no longer has a particularly young workforce – but its 340m elderly people quietly doing tai chi in the park will make for a more stable society than a similar number of young men with poor job prospects. Yes, there is a “middle-income trap” in the developing world, but all the countries that have found sensible ways to escape it had characteristics exactly like China has today.

Since 1980, the nation has steadily pulled the world’s economic centre from west of London to east of the Mediterranean. Through all this, the city’s position as a place worthy of confidence and trust, as an intellectual and cultural centre and a hub for learning and higher education, has remained constant. But, given the shift in global economic performance, it is an anomaly that the renminbi is not yet a significant force in world currency markets: the pressure for it to become one is strong.

Beijing knows it. It has warmed to the idea of making London a renminbi global trading hub. It has also established the Shanghai free-trade zone, where international finance is carried out under liberal global rules, which has the notable support of Premier Li Keqiang.

The Shanghai free-trade zone promises to do for China and global finance what the Shenzhen special economic zone did for China and the global manufacturing supply chain. The rest of the country will see how closely entwined are modern economic success and the lifting of controls on information flows, as well as currency flows – in Shanghai, in London. That will be significant, not just for London’s prosperity but also for pointing to how China itself will change.

The writer is a professor at the London School of Economics

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