The change may seem minuscule. But for those who follow China's currency, 0.8% is practically a bonanza.
That's how much the Chinese yuan has appreciated against the dollar in the last week, its fastest pace in almost a year.
Monday showed no signs of slowing down as China's central bank set its so-called parity exchange rate at 6.395 yuan for each dollar, giving the Chinese currency a value of 15.64 U.S. cents, a record high. (The bank sets the rate in the morning before every currency trading session and allows the yuan to strengthen or weaken 0.5%.)
The yuan has gained 3.1% against the greenback this year and 6.8% since June 2010, when China depegged its currency from the dollar. Many analysts had expected the yuan to climb just over 6% for the year, but the last few days may give them reason to revise on the upside.
The uptick in appreciation is welcome news to trading partners who have long argued that China unfairly undervalues its currency to boost its exports. Reinforcing that view, China last weekreported its largest trade surplus in more than two years.
Diplomacy may be at play as well. The yuan's strengthening comes right before Vice President Joe Biden's arrival in China this week. The last time the so-called redback grew this fast was last September, when Washington was preparing a report on China's currency regime.
But more than anything, analysts say, the strengthening yuan has to do with China's growing battle with inflation, which hit a 37-month high in July, stoking fears of social instability the cost of food.
A mightier yuan would make imports cheaper and rein in the nation's over-abundant money supply.
The recent downgrade of U.S. government debt by Standard & Poor's has also raised doubts in Beijing about the merits of running large trade surpluses, which increase China's foreign-currency reserves. With few other viable ways to invest that money, China has accumulated about $1.2 trillion in U.S. Treasuries.
In a recent research note, Daniel Hui, a senior foreign exchange strategist at HSBC, said of the yuan's quickening appreciation:
[I]t is increasingly likely that this is going beyond just macro factors, and that domestic politics is becoming increasingly important.
We have long viewed [foreign exchange] policy as ultimately being the outcome of a domestic political process. Now, the U.S. sovereign downgrade by S&P as well as the seemingly increased potential for a third round of quantitative easing is stoking real debate [in China] as to the broader costs and benefits of China's choice of exchange rate policy. This, alongside recent domestic discontent, may have been enough to shift [foreign exchange] policy away from the previous stance, becoming more permissive and lessening the requirement for such large accumulation of dollars. If so, this new, accelerated pace of appreciation could last for some time.
The trend could also mean that China's central bank, which favors liberalizing the country's financial sector, is gaining ground against pro-export forces -- namely rich coastal provinces and their patron in the central government, the Ministry of Commerce.
The ministry has said that a sharp appreciation of the yuan would leave millions of factory workers out of jobs.
But Li Jie, head of the Reserves Research Institute at the Central University of Finance and Economics in Beijing, disagrees, telling The Times last week that a stronger yuan would help the country's manufacturers by reducing raw-material prices and wages.
"It would easily offset the pain of having more expensive exports," Li said.
Money and Company
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