China’s road towards Currency Internationalization
China is the world’s second biggest economy, largest exporter and second largest importer. Yet China’s currency, the Renminbi (RMB), accounts for less than 1% of global FX turnover. The Chinese authorities have been making concerted efforts since late 2008 to internationalize the Renminbi by trying to increase its use in international trade and investments. Their efforts are paying off as RMB settled trade has grown since late 2010 and accounts for 8-10% of all international trades at present. The following highlights some major successes of their efforts:
• From October 2010 to June 2012 value of RMB payments grew by 17 times. Currently 91 countries are processing renminbi payments.
• Hong Kong is the dominant offshore centre for RMB trading accounting for around 80% of all renminbi payments; share of Singapore, Taiwan are also significant. UK is positioning itself as a major offshore trading centre for renminbi.
• RMB is world’s 15th most traded currency accounting for 0.45% market share and third biggest currency in issuance of Letters of Credit with a share of 4%.
Three FX markets exist for RMB: onshore CNY market which is tightly controlled, offshore CNH market in Hong Kong which is relatively free, and USD denominated non-deliverable forward market. The currency sometimes trades at different rates in the CNY and CNH markets and many firms, especially large ones with subsidiaries outside borders, use it to conduct exchange rate arbitrage in these two markets. Given that China’s currency is not fully liberalized, this arbitrage sometimes is not settled by market forces and it creates pressure on the currency, as was evident late last year. Some therefore argue that significant proportion of RMB settlement comes from speculation in the two markets while imports are still invoiced and mostly settled in US dollar.
Bank of China Hong Kong (BOCHK) and Bank of China, Macau, are the only two entities approved to clear offshore RMB transactions. Other banks can engage in offshore RMB business through agreement with BOCHK, or through relationship with other banks which have existing agreement with BOCHK. This presents an opportunity for many regional and international banks to tap into this burgeoning market of RMB clearing and trade related services. Moreover, two of the world’s biggest exchanges, the Hong Kong Exchange (HKEx) and the CME Group, recently announced plans to launch offshore yuan futures in Hong Kong by the end of 2012. This is likely to facilitate exporters and importers hedge their currency risks, especially now that the currency is showing some volatility. The forwards market at present is very efficient with tailor made contracts; therefore some think currency futures may not gain traction immediately among traders. However, along with importers and exporters who use currency futures and forwards to hedge exposure, this will also attract asset managers and other financial institutions as the contracts will be standardized and tradable at the exchanges. The outcome of these initiatives remains to be seen, but these moves are likely to further strengthen China’s efforts towards Renminbi internationalization.
It must be mentioned that in spite of these developments, there are challenges with China’s efforts to internationalize the RMB. At a broad level, RMB is mostly used to settle imports, but not exports. Even in imports, invoicing is often done in US dollars while settlement happens in RMB. It is argued many Chinese corporations use the different currency markets (CNH-CNY) to engage in speculative activities and not that much for pure trade purposes. This effectively allows for interest rate speculation between the two markets as well.
Many of these problems are intertwined as China has traditionally had very strict capital control, and the internationalization of renminbi is taking place before fully liberalizing its interest rate, exchange rate or capital account. Therefore how China attempts to internationalize its currency and manages its key rates at the same time will be closely watched.