The Trump Treasury Department released its first review of major economy foreign exchange policies after a bilateral summit with China and before the IMF spring meeting, with no Asian partner called a manipulator while Latin America was dropped from coverage altogether. It followed new criteria from 2015 legislation concentrating analysis on countries with at least a $20 billion trade surplus, a current account one at minimum 3 percent of GDP, and annual currency unilateral intervention of 2 percent of output. No country met all three criteria and the report noted reduced interference the past two years, but questioned whether the shift was just a temporary response to capital outflow trends. It reiterated the claim during the campaign that the US has been “unfairly disadvantaged” by artificial distortions and placed China, Japan, Korea and Taiwan and Germany and Switzerland on respective regional monitoring lists. The US current account gap was shaved to 2.5 percent of GDP in the second half of 2016, but the net international investment position slumped to an $8 trillion deficit. The world economy expanded 3 percent, the slowest rate in a decade, and global demand distribution remains “highly imbalanced.” Fiscal and monetary policy can correct the tilt but structural reforms, particularly greater competitive access for private versus state-owned firms should be a priority. Chinese capital flight last year was due to local rather than foreign investor exit, including outward direct allocation by big government companies, but new limits have diminished the pace. Outside China net emerging market inflows continued into the last quarter, but currency performance was mixed, with a 15 percent Mexican peso depreciation, while the Taiwan dollar and India rupee were up almost 5 percent against the dollar. The first quarter of this year solidified appreciation tendencies, but global reserves fell marginally to $11 trillion at end-2016 as China and big oil exporters sold off holdings. The figures cannot distinguish between valuation adjustments and interventions, and future reporting and statistical efforts should redress the discrepancy, Treasury urges.
China’s large scale one-way anti-appreciation moves lasted a decade and harmed American workers and business, but from mid-2015 to February 2017 Beijing sold an estimated $800 billion to resist opposite depreciation direction. The authorities still must improve communications and transparency and open further to US goods and services while boosting domestic consumption, the analysis warns. During his recent Florida visit President Xi pledged further banking and securities industry liberalization, but observers pointed out the same commitment from Obama administration economic dialogues yet to permit rule-based majority foreign ownership. Korea too continues to run an outsize current account surplus, and the IMF believes the won is undervalued. Intervention in the spot and forward markets was $6.5 billion or 0.5 percent of GDP, reserves are triple short-term external debt and operations should only occur in “exceptional circumstances.” Taiwan has a pegged exchange rate and its dollar jumped 7 percent versus the greenback in the first quarter. Foreign currency purchases in 2016 were $1 billion/month, and outside experts put undervaluation at 25 percent. It is not an IMF member so does not publish the same reserve data as all other big Asian emerging economies to potentially flag irregularities.