What Does the Devalued Yuan Mean for the U.S.?
17 August 2015
A look at China’s unexpected move & its potential impact. China has surprised global investors by weakening the yuan almost 5%. Its central bank may even weaken it further.1,5 Why did the PRC make this move? Its long-booming economy is in a slump. Most notably, Chinese exports have taken a major fall. In July, they were down 8.3% year-over-year. By depreciating the yuan, China is trying to help its exports maintain their competitive edge.2 Some of China’s other economic indicators have also disappointed lately. Chinese imports have retreated for nine straight months, slipping 6.1% for June and another 8.1% in July. The pace of retail sales in China slowed to a 15-year low in July. Producer prices in the PRC suffered their largest annualized slip since 2009 last month. Lastly, the nation’s economy may grow less than 7% this year – which would be the worst showing since the 1990s.1,2 How may this impact America? The effects could be felt in several areas of our economy, and there could be some positives as well as negatives. The Federal Reserve might decide to postpone a rate hike. Our central bank appears committed to raising interest rates before the year ends, perhaps as early as next month. A repeatedly devalued yuan might make the Fed think twice about that, however. China has effectively strengthened the dollar versus the yuan, making Chinese imports to America cheaper. That could lower consumer inflation pressure, and since annualized inflation in this country is already low, there would be less incentive for the Fed to raise rates. That would be bad news for savers but better news for some mortgage holders.3 Consumers could benefit more than businesses. As referenced above, a weakened yuan makes imported goods from China less expensive for Americans. Conversely, it also makes it that much harder for U.S. businesses to sell their products in the PRC, as Chinese consumers will have reduced purchasing power.3 You may see less hiring. A mightier greenback relative to the yuan means new hurdles for U.S. businesses in China, which could cut into earnings growth. While scores of American firms sell directly to Chinese consumers, others have strong ties to Chinese factories: look at Apple, which outsources the production of its iPads and iPhones to the PRC. A devalued yuan essentially whittles down the income U.S. businesses create in China and makes outsourced manufacturing costlier for American firms. You can draw a fairly direct line here: less income and lower earnings for American businesses could lead to slimmer payrolls. In particular, firms in the technology, energy and materials sectors could be impacted.1,3 Oil & gas could become even cheaper. Oil is a dollar-denominated commodity, so a newly weakened yuan will test China’s demand for it. A stronger dollar relative to the yuan means that oil and oil-based products will be costlier in China. The Chinese might react by decreasing oil consumption. If China’s demand for oil lessens, that would help to keep oil prices low and American drivers would likely see lower gas prices as well.3 How about the markets? Equities seem to have regained their footing. When the PRC started devaluing the yuan on August 11, Wall Street read the move as a distress signal. The Dow opened with a triple-digit drop August 11 and lost 212 points for the day. On August 12, it took an even bigger fall at the open on news of the yuan weakening again, but it was down just 0.33 points at the close. The week’s subsequent trading days brought no further dives at the opening bell. Looking at the global picture, the DAX, CAC 40, Nikkei 225, and Shanghai Composite were all up 1% or more shortly after they opened Thursday.4,5 As for the forex market, the yuan has certainly sunk versus other key currencies. By August 13, it had lost nearly 3% against the dollar over the past five trading days, and almost 5% against the euro.6 Is a global currency war about to heat up? The People’s Bank of China insists it does not seek to start one. A Barclays client report released August 13 noted the PBC “downplaying the need for a weaker yuan” at a press conference and refuting claims it wanted to devalue the currency at least 10% to support exports. Yi Gang, one of the PBoC’s deputy governors, stated that there was “no basis for a persistent weakening in the yuan… and that the aim of the PBoC is to have the market determine the exchange rate.”5 If the yuan does keep sliding and global markets slump significantly, the Federal Reserve and the European Central Bank could react supportively, providing investors with some reassurance. A weakened yuan presents another challenge to the Fed’s plans to tighten.