U.S. won’t cite China as currency manipulator

China undervalues its currency in order to gain competitive advantage around the world. Everyone understands that and it needs to change, but the question in the United State is how to effectively change it. The Obama administration is taking the gradual approach:

The Obama administration on Tuesday declined to label China a currency manipulator after seeing recent increases in the value of the yuan compared to the dollar.

The decision angered some manufacturing groups, which have accused Beijing of artificially holding down the value of its currency to gain trade advantages. A cheaper yuan makes Chinese goods less expensive when they are shipped to the United States. It also makes U.S. goods more expensive in China. Both could increase the U.S. trade deficit with China, which is on pace to hit a record high this year.

The Treasury Department said the yuan has appreciated 12 percent against the dollar in the past 18 months, after adjusting for inflation. In addition, the department said in a semi-annual report that China promised at two high-level meetings last month to make the yuan’s exchange rate more flexible.

Still, yuan is “substantially undervalued” and its appreciation “is insufficient and more progress is needed,” the report noted. The department will “press for policy changes that yield greater exchange rate flexibility” and “level the playing field.”

This will likely end up being a campaign issue as Mitt Romney and other GOP candidates are hammering Obama over China. But progress is being made.

Robert Samuelson takes on China’s economic tactics

It’s obvious to most people that China isn’t playing fair on global trade, but few people can get to the heart of the problem like Robert Samuelson. He describes how China uses tactics like subsidies, currency manipulation and technology transfer to gain advantage. Then he closes:

It’s important to make several qualifications. First, Americans shouldn’t blame China for all our economic problems, which are mostly homegrown. Indeed, the ferocity of the financial crisis discredited U.S. economic leadership and emboldened China to pursue its narrow interests more aggressively than ever. Second, the point should not be (as Chinese allege) to “contain” China’s growth; the point should be to modify its economic strategy, which is predatory. It comes at others’ expense.

The U.S. response has been mostly carrots — to pretend that sweet reason will convince China to alter its policies. Last week, Presidents Obama and Hu exchanged largely meaningless pledges of “cooperation.” Alan Tonelson of the U.S. Business and Industry Council, a group of manufacturers, says U.S. policy verges on “appeasement.” We need sticks. The practical difficulty is being tougher without triggering a trade war that weakens the global recovery. Still, it’s possible to do something. The Treasury could brand China a currency manipulator, which it clearly is. The administration could move more forcefully against Chinese subsidies. America’s present passivity encourages China’s new world order, with fateful consequences for the United States and everyone else.

I think the current administration is in a bind, as the economic crisis has made it much more difficult to take a hard line with China and risk a trade war. Perhaps President Obama can reset the relationship and alter China’s behavior. If not, he will soon need to get tough with them.

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