A bank employee counts Chinese one-hundred yuan banknotes in Hong Kong, China. (Photographer: Brent Lewin/Bloomberg)

U.S. Presses China for Stable Yuan as Trade Talks Progress, Sources Say

(Bloomberg) -- Sign up for Next China, a weekly dispatch on where the nation stands now — and where it's going.

The U.S. is asking China to keep the value of the yuan stable as part of trade negotiations between the world’s two largest economies, a move aimed at neutralizing any effort by Beijing to devalue its currency to counter American tariffs, people familiar with the ongoing talks said.

Officials from the two countries are discussing how to address currency policy in a “Memorandum of Understanding” that would form the basis of a deal that ultimately will have to be approved by President Donald Trump and his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping, according to several people involved in and briefed on the discussions.

While the precise wording remains unresolved, a pledge of yuan stability has been discussed in multiple rounds of talks in recent months and both sides have tentatively agreed it will be part of the framework of any final deal. Negotiations resume Tuesday in Washington and are scheduled to continue through Friday as a March 1 deadline for higher U.S. tariffs approaches.

A spokesman for the U.S. Trade Representative’s office, which is leading talks for the White House, didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.

China’s currency climbed to its highest level in two weeks, strengthening 0.5 percent to 6.7270 per dollar as of 10:28 a.m. local time. The Australian dollar -- whose economy is closely linked to China’s -- earlier climbed 0.6 percent against the greenback.

Tariff Tool

A key enforcement tool would be U.S. tariffs. The Trump administration has been clear in its talks with Beijing that any attempt to depreciate the yuan -- a strategy aimed at offsetting existing U.S. duties on Chinese imports -- would be met with more or higher American tariffs, according to two of the people briefed on the discussions.

What Our Economists Say...

“A U.S. desire for a commitment to a stable yuan to ensure Beijing doesn’t try to depreciate away the impact of higher U.S. tariffs is understandable. It’s just not practical, and could create more problems for both sides.”
-- Chang Shu and David Qu, Bloomberg Economics
For the full note click here

The bilateral standoff saw the yuan fall over 5 percent in 2018, raising speculation that China was deliberately weakening its currency to offset the impact of tariffs. The yuan has rebounded nearly 2 percent year-to-date, after sliding to a decade-low against the dollar in late October.

A U.S. request for Beijing to keep the yuan from depreciating is also potentially difficult to square with Trump and past U.S. administrations’ calls for China to adopt more market-driven reforms and complaints that Beijing manipulates its currency to gain a trade advantage.

Political Target

China’s foreign-exchange intervention has long been a political target in the U.S. and Trump vowed to declare China a currency manipulator during his 2016 campaign. After two years in office, his Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin hasn’t found grounds to do so but has continued to monitor the yuan closely.

The U.S. has also increasingly insisted on currency provisions in trade agreements. The renegotiated Nafta now awaiting approval from Congress requires the U.S., Canada and Mexico not to engage in currency devaluations for competitive advantage. The Obama administration persuaded Japan and other counties to make a similar pledge as part of its negotiations for the Trans-Pacific Partnership.

A yuan deal with China is likely to be important for Trump’s domestic politics, too. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer has been a long-standing advocate of using trade sanctions to respond to alleged Chinese currency manipulation.

©2019 Bloomberg L.P.