I suspect that few variables will tell us more about the course of the global economy, and perhaps global policy, than the evolution of Chinese and U.S. exports. Sometimes the most important indicators are simple and straightforward.
China’s exports matter for a simple reason: they could provide the basis for a true change in the narrative around China’s currency.
I tend to think controls can play a role in stabilizing expectations. The trade account doesn’t signal an underlying overvaluation of the yuan. China’s goods surplus is quite substantial. And China’s exports, as the chart below shows, have outperformed U.S. exports both during the period of dollar weakness (05 to 13) and in the recent period of dollar strength (chart uses a volume index, Chinese data starts in 05).
With an ongoing trade surplus, the right exchange rate is ultimately a function of the scale of outflows—and those are in part determined by expectations about what others are likely to do. If everyone wants out and can get out, it is rational to try to get out first. That is why the controls could work, especially as the nominal return on safe assets in China (still) exceeds the nominal return on safe global assets. There is also a normative judgment here too: a new China shock from a significant further depreciation against the basket and against the dollar would not help the global economy, and would add to the already considerable risks of trade conflict.
At the same time, there are likely to be limits to how tight the controls can be. It should be relatively easy for China, if it wants too, to keep its state banks from running up their foreign assets. And to keep state-run financial institutions from buying U.S. corporate bonds for their portfolio. It is far harder to control the activities of China’s export sector. Chinese exporters will be far more likely to sell their dollars and euros for yuan if the exporters believe that there is real two-way risk on the currency.
And one thing that could convince the exporters that they risk losing out if they hold their export proceeds abroad is a run of decent trade data. China’s November exports were pretty strong—China releases its own export volume data with a month lag, and the latest data shows that exports were up 8% in November. In today’s global environment that is a solid increase—though the November increase needs to be evaluated in light of October’s weak numbers. December data (out Friday) will be interesting.
And U.S. exports matter for a host of reasons.