Inflation in China is not necessarily a bad thing

Yesterday, the release of key economic indicators in China produced headlines like this: China Targets Inflation as Economy Runs Hot. The table below lists the full release, including the consensus expectations (Bloomberg’s survey) for each statistic. (Here is the link for the actual data release.)

As you can see, the survey undershot the actual results across many of the releases, including that for GDP and inflation (CPI). The surge in the CPI, 1.9% y/y in December versus 1.4% y/y expected, attracted a lot of attention. According to the Economist, Helen Qiao and Yu Song at Goldman Sachs points out that prices may be on an (increasingly) upward trajectory:

The recent rise in inflation was caused mainly by higher food prices as a result of severe winter weather in northern China. In many cities, fresh-vegetable prices have more than doubled in the past two months. But Helen Qiao and Yu Song at Goldman Sachs argue that it is not just food prices that risk pushing up inflation: the economy is starting to exceed its speed limit. If, as China bears contend, the economy had massive overcapacity, there would be little to worry about: excess supply would hold down prices. But bottlenecks are already appearing. Some provinces report electricity shortages, and stocks of coal are low. The labour market is also tightening, forcing firms to pay higher wages.

The final sentence is very important – a tight labor market will lead to higher wages (the data on wages is 4 months old, so I will not plot it out). This suggests, completely by inference on my part, that prices pressures will be the wage-price spiral type – this can quickly get out of hand.

To be sure, the inflation surge was driven primarily by food prices, up 5.3% over the year; but with retail sales growing at a rate of 17.5% over the year and broad money growing at a 27.7% pace in 2009, prices hikes are bound to spread. We already saw inflation pressures building in the trade balance. Now I get to my chosen post-point: why is inflation in China necessarily a bad thing?

The inflation pop sparked a lot of market angst yesterday. Of course, this is just a single data point; but if inflation does build, and the government insists on maintaining its tight peg against the $US, then inflation will do what US consumers and Asian savers have not: reverse trade flows.

Specifically, and holding all else equal, sizable inflation in China would drive up the value of its real-exchange rate (REER), where the REER is the nominal exchange rate adjusted for relative prices in China versus its trading partners – faced by the Chinese.

As illustrated in the chart above, the REER has been on a downward trajectory throughout 2008, but remains elevated compared to its 2006 levels. The real exchange rate is the single-most important factor in determining trade flows. An inflation-driven growth in the real value of the Chinese yuan (REER) would effectively, and eventually, drop China’s export share with key trading partners.

Rebecca Wilder

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