Fifteen Eighty Four

Academic perspectives from Cambridge University Press


One Currency, Two Markets: China’s Attempt to Internationalize the Renminbi

Edwin L.-C. Lai

The Chinese government is trying to internationalize the RMB (renminbi), and this gives rise to at least a few questions. What are the real reasons for this action? Will it succeed? What are the factors working in its favor? What are the impediments? What are the implications for the rest of the world?

The internationalization of the RMB is a process of turning it into a currency widely used internationally as a unit of account, medium of exchange, and store of value. There are several benefits from an internationalization.

First, the exchange rate risks in trade, investment and financial transactions are minimized for Chinese citizens and the government.

Second, there is less reliance on foreign currencies such as the USD, and the associated institutions such as the payment system. China believes that if more of its trade were to be settled in RMB, China’s trade would suffer less under the shortage of the dollar or any other foreign currency. Moreover, the use of RMB for international payments would facilitate them to be handled by a payment system that is under the jurisdiction of China. The use of USD for payments, on the other hand, requires the use of a payment system under the jurisdiction of the US authority.

For national security reasons, China clearly does not want a foreign authority to have too much information about, and control over, the flow of payments into and out of China, which the foreign country could possibly exploit for its own benefit. China learned a first-hand lesson of the risk of conducting business using the dollar payments system in the case of MENG Wanzhou (孟晚舟), the Chief Financial Officer of the Chinese technology giant Huawei, who is still in custody in Canada facing extradition to the US.

Third, being able to borrow internationally in China’s own currency brings an important benefit for China. For the long-term development of China, its firms should be able to freely borrow from foreigners so as to finance their business. However, it would be much safer for Chinese firms to borrow internationally in RMB than to do it in a foreign currency. This would reduce the risk of a mismatch between the currency denomination of the revenue source (which is RMB) and the currency denomination of the debt (which is a foreign currency) of the companies, which can result in bankruptcy of the firms in the face of a sharp depreciation of the RMB when it is under speculative attack. It was this currency mismatch in Asian countries such as Thailand and Indonesia, in the face of a currency crisis, which caused widespread bankruptcy and economic disasters in these countries during the 1997-1998 Asian Financial Crisis.

Fourth, when a currency becomes sufficiently internationalized, the country’s citizens and government might be able to borrow abroad large amounts at low interest rates in the country’s own currency. The US is a case in point. The yields of US Treasury securities are not impressive when compared with other financial instruments. Yet they are widely held by 2 financial institutions and central banks around the world. This is because when the currency of a country is widely used as an invoicing and settlement currency in international trade, it can also more likely be a funding currency, that is, a currency chosen by borrowers to denominate their debts, such as bonds or loans. This is a result of the interest rate being lower due to the high demand for the currency for trade invoicing and settlement.

Fifth, wide international use of the RMB would provide more business for the banking and financial sectors of China. When the RMB is more widely used, it benefits Chinese banks and financial institutions, as the international demand for RMB assets would bring business to domestic financial institutions, as payments in this currency have to be ultimately handled by Chinese banks and financial institutions.

Sixth, is the ability to earn seigniorage from foreign countries (issuing RMB to foreigners in exchange for real goods). When foreigners trust the RMB, they are willing to hold the currency as a medium of exchange and store of value. Thus, they are willing to sell goods to China in exchange for the RMB.

Seventh is political influence. When a currency becomes a major reserve currency for another country, the issuing country of the currency can use it as leverage to exchange for favor from the foreign country.

There is yet another, uniquely Chinese reason for a certain quarter in China to push for internationalization of the RMB. Certain quarters within the Chinese government want to use the capital account liberalization and financial market liberalization that come with RMB internationalization to create pressure for domestic financial sector reform.

In my book, One Currency, Two Markets: China’s Attempt to Internationalize the Renminbi (Cambridge University Press), I explain how the problem with the international monetary system since the demise of the Bretton Woods system and the recent global financial crisis prompted China to seek independence from the dollar standard. One way is to make the RMB a widely accepted currency internationally.

One Currency, Two Markets by Edwin L.-C. Lai

About The Author

Edwin L.-C. Lai

Edwin L. -C. Lai is Professor of Economics at HKUST. He has been Senior Research Economist and Adviser at the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas, a consultant with the World Bank and a...

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