Foreign Exchange Market

So is this euro crisis good or bad for China?

PUBLISHED : Monday, 24 May, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 24 May, 2010, 12:00am

Ever since Greece's debt crisis erupted, business people, investors and policymakers in Hong Kong and on the mainland have been scratching their heads in an effort to work out what Europe's problems mean for this part of the world.

At first, analysts argued that Europe's injuries were largely internal and that the impact in Asia would be minimal. After all, China's economic rebound was being driven almost entirely by domestic demand, thanks to the government's stimulus programme.

At the same time, the Beijing government's finances looked relatively sound - certainly compared with European basket cases such as Athens or Rome - while China's financial system was still protected from international upheavals by capital controls.

And although the euro zone was China's largest export market last year, buying 20 per cent of its goods shipments, the crisis-hit countries of Portugal, Italy, Greece and Spain - the so-called Pigs - accounted for only 3 per cent of total exports.

In any case, the analysts concluded, China's export industries were increasingly being fuelled by demand from other emerging markets, so a debt crisis in Europe should have little, if any, impact on business in Greater China.

Over the past few weeks that blase attitude has gone out the window, as the deepening European crisis has driven a sharp increase in investor risk aversion which has hammered Hong Kong's stock market and prompted the cancellation of a clutch of high-profile share offerings.

Yet although the turmoil in Europe is clearly affecting markets in East Asia, analysts are still divided over the likely impact on underlying economic activity, with some saying the effects could be benign and others warning the fall-out could be highly damaging for the region.

Proponents of the first view repeat the point about the relative unimportance of Europe's Pigs as a market for China's exports. They argue that the danger of a credit drought, with European banks slashing their lending to companies in Asia, has been largely averted by this month's Euro750 billion (HK$7.32 trillion) EU-IMF lifeline.

As a result, the optimists say the main consequence of the European crisis for East Asian economies should be to damp down external demand, which should decrease the danger of overheating, especially in China.

That effect is already showing up. The general increase in investors' risk aversion has contributed to a deep drop in commodity prices. In recent weeks, the price of crude oil has fallen by almost 20 per cent. Meanwhile, double-digit price declines in other commodities, including industrial metals, have led to an easing in the producer inflation pressures that were squeezing margins for many Chinese manufacturers.

Thanks to Greece, say the optimists, the need for policy tightening in China is less urgent, which makes the economic recovery look more sustainable.

Other observers are less sanguine. These more pessimistic souls point out that the recent slump in the euro has driven a trade-weighted appreciation of the yuan against a weighted basket of currencies from China's main trading partners (see the charts below). That broad-based appreciation has given China's Ministry of Commerce fresh ammunition in its long battle to resist any revaluation of the yuan against the US dollar.

Given Beijing's long-standing preference for maintaining an exchange rate anchor at times of international financial turmoil, more observers now expect Beijing to retain its de facto peg to the dollar, at least for the time being.

That could cause problems. Depressed demand in Europe and a weak euro look set to drive a marked rise in the euro zone's trade surplus with the United States.

That will make it more difficult for Washington to engineer a rebalancing of its own economy, which in turn means that US politicians are likely to redouble their pressure on China to appreciate the yuan against the dollar and to open the mainland's domestic market to US exports.

Trade tensions are already running high. Now, the European crisis, instead of helping to cool China's overheated economy, could end up making China's international economic relations a great deal more difficult.