Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Yuan Watch : 'Stable' is in the eye of the beholder

By Kevin Hamlin and Li Yanping

Dec. 10 (Bloomberg) -- China’s exports fell for the first time in seven years, more evidence that recessions in the U.S., Europe and Japan are driving the world’s fourth-largest economy into a slump.

“The figures are horrifying,” said Lu Zhengwei, chief economist at Industrial Bank Co. in Shanghai. “Plunging imports show that on top of faltering global demand, domestic demand is also shrinking as the economy cools.”

Imports fell by the most since at least 1995, when Bloomberg data began, as commodity prices declined and weakness in manufacturing and construction cut demand for raw materials. The previous decline was seven years ago.

“These are absolutely dreadful numbers,” said Mark Williams, an economist with Capital Economics Ltd. in London. “It will stoke speculation that the government will force a depreciation of the yuan. Further cuts in interest rates are pretty much inevitable.”

A breakdown in global trade finance may have been as damaging as waning demand, Williams added.

The yuan’s biggest one-day decline in three years on Dec. 1 prompted speculation that China may allow its currency to depreciate, helping exporters by making their products cheaper in overseas markets.

The central bank pledged today to maintain a “moderately loose” monetary policy and aid small businesses, in a statement after a three-day annual meeting in Beijing where China’s leaders set economic policy.

Tax cuts, a “stable” yuan and extra efforts to create jobs will be part of efforts to maintain “stable and relatively fast growth” and ensure social stability, China National Radio said after the meeting. Policy makers will keep reducing rates, along with the amount of money that lenders are required to park with the central bank as reserves, said Paul Cavey, an economist with Macquarie Securities in Hong Kong.

Gains by the yuan against the dollar will stall at least through the first half of next year, he said.

The yuan may weaken as much as 10 percent against the dollar, Morgan Stanley said last week. Commerce Minister Chen Deming denied that China would rely on the currency to help exporters, saying that “the cause of the current problem with exports is shrinking demand, not problems with currencies.”

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