China to sit at G7 table to discuss fixed exchange rate

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China's fixed exchange rate has been a hot topic of conversation at recent meetings of finance ministers and central bank governors from the Group of Seven industrialised nations. But for the first time this evening, over dinner in Washington, China will be invited to take part in the discussion.

Jin Renqing, China's finance minister, and Zhou Xiaochuan, the central bank governor, will attend a special session of the G7, a gathering the country has not attended before.

"It is an important development," said David Hale, the Chicago-based economist. "We have seen the G7 trying to influence China's currency regime through their statements. Now they can do it face to face."

However, few G7-watchers expect the meeting to lead to any significant announcements on China's exchange rate policy.

Medley Global Advisors, the international economic and political consultancy, said in a note to clients this week that senior Chinese officials had indicated China would do no more than repeat the message that it was serious about moving to a more flexible exchange rate, but would need more time to do so.

At recent meetings, the G7 communique has called for greater currency flexibility, where it is lacking, to aid the smooth adjustment of global current account imbalances, and China is widely seen as the target.

G7 country officials have indicated that there will be no change in the statement's language on currencies.

China has built up huge foreign reserves - maintaining its exchange rate peg with the dollar - and other emerging Asian countries have followed suit in order to prevent their currencies appreciating against the renminbi.

John Snow, US Treasury secretary, has taken the lead in lobbying China to move to a more flexible exchange rate, reflecting the US current account deficit, election year politics and an effort to keep protectionist pressures at bay.

The International Monetary Fund, in its World Economic Outlook released this week, forecast the US current account deficit at 5.4 per cent this year, and remaining above 5 per cent next year, in spite of past depreciation of the dollar.

The IMF repeated its call for efforts to correct global current account imbalances: greater fiscal discipline in the US, to help reduce its dependence on foreign capital, efforts to promote stronger domestic-demand growth in Japan and the eurozone, and greater currency flexibility in Asia.

The US has tended to point to slow growth abroad as the cause for its current account deficit, while Europeans have blamed fiscal profligacy in Washington. Both sides have agreed, however, on the call for a shift in China's exchange rate policy.

Japan, meanwhile, has been content that the focus on China has kept its own currency regime out of the spotlight.

The Chinese authorities have indicated that, over time, they see the need to introduce a more flexible exchange rate. But there is no timetable and no apparent sense of urgency.

China has said that it will focus on restructuring its banking industry and cleaning up state-run companies before changing its currency regime.

Carl Weinberg, chief economist of High Frequency Economics, points out that many former state-owned companies are operating at a loss and are dependent on soft government loans. Raising interest rates might therefore not be top of the government's agenda.

Medley Advisors suggests that the timetable that China has in mind is to move to a fully-fledged floating currency by 2010.

The high oil price will also be on the G7 agenda. The IMF has indicated that it is a risk to an otherwise strong global economic outlook.

Also on the agenda will be the continuing debate between G7 members on debt relief for Iraq, which this week agreed to a $436m (£242m, €354m) emergency post-conflict programme with the IMF.

The US and UK are pushing for more generous relief for the world's poorest countries - including the possibility of up to 100 per cent debt relief for the highly-indebted poor countries.

It is unlikely that a deal will be hammered out at Friday's meeting, owing to the need to get the other G7 countries on board and because of the different approaches the US and the UK are proposing.

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