Thursday, June 11, 2009

The Yuan Takes a Step Forward

It didn't make much of a ripple in the news at the time, but a couple of weeks ago Chinese regulators approved HSBC and Bank of East Asia as the first foreign banks to sell yuan-denominated bonds in Hong Kong.

A spokesman for HSBC China characterized sales of yuan bonds as provding a benchmark that other banks can use for yuan trade settlement, and a spokesman for Standard Chartered in Hong Kong said that the move will promote yuan liquidity. Benchmarks and liquidity will support China's goal to increase the use of the yuan for trade and investment, and to reduce risks of dependency on the US dollar.

As reported on Bloomberg, China announced a pilot project on April 8 to allow international trade settlement in the yuan in Shanghai and four cities in Guangdong province. Although Hong Kong's official currency is the Hong Kong dollar, bank deposits denominated in yuan have been accepted in the city since 2004.

If the process continues, China will eventually establish the enviable position of routinely settling international trades in yuan. Readily pricing trade goods in yuan would reduce China's need to maintain a narrow band on the exchange rate with the US dollar.

While the ability to sell yuan bonds in Hong Kong is hardly the same as making the yuan freely convertible to other currencies, it is a step in that direction. Given the rapid economic growth of China, it seems only a matter of time until the yuan is established as a major international currency. Such an event would be another step in the gradual but inexorable process of lessening the world's dependence on the US dollar as the common unit for pricing in international trade.

Over time, that will mean yet greater erosion in the premium that international banks and traders place on holding dollars -- i.e., more dollar weakness and a decline in American influence relative to developing countries like China.