The use of the Chinese renminbi (Rmb) as a payment currency for international trade continues to decline, despite China’s past efforts to internationalise the currency.
The Rmb fell from being the fifth most used global currency in June 2015 to the sixth in June 2017, while its share of international payments declined from 2.09% to 1.98% over the same period, according to new data from Swift.
This is despite the Rmb gaining a place in the IMF’s Special Drawing Rights (SDR) currency basket in October 2016, which is generally an indicator that a currency is a recognised reserve currency by international institutions.
In fact, the chatter over the Rmb’s internationalisation has quietened drastically. Few are expecting its growth to improve radically in the coming years, except perhaps those financial institutions with vested interest in it doing so.
The economic situation in China has fluctuated in recent months: exports were up 11.3% in June, with imports rising 17.2% in dollar terms, year-on-year. GDP growth also beat expectations in quarter two, expanding by 6.9%. But this was after a sluggish start to the year, in which exports experienced a number of months of decline. These will have been an important factor in the decline of the Rmb: less outbound trade naturally converts to lower usage of China’s currency, but many of the problems are structural.
Fitch Ratings attributes the decline to “policies to contain capital outflows and ongoing concerns over currency depreciation”, saying that this will hold internationalisation back in the short term. Capital controls will have a huge impact on efforts to remove currency from China and thus, naturally impact the data.
Furthermore, China was downgraded by Moody’s to a sovereign rating of A1, although the general view is that this will not have a huge impact on the currency’s performance.
“China has managed to deal with the capital outflows situation quite effectively and the risks to further Rmb weakness have been mitigated. Even the Moody’s downgrade of China’s sovereign rating to A1 has barely dented sentiment in the Chinese financial markets. Instead, it has triggered some pre-emptive actions that resulted in a short episode of massive tightening in interbank liquidity in the CNH market,” says Christy Tan, head of markets strategy at the National Australia Bank in Singapore.
Some Rmb evangelists are hanging their hopes of the currency’s promotion on China’s One Belt, One Road (OBOR) policy, a huge infrastructure programme which will see more than US$100bn invested in transport and trade links spanning Asia Pacific, Europe and Africa.
“Lately, OBOR and the new SDR basket including Rmb launched by the IMF have an important underlying signal. That is, today, Rmb internationalisation is not only driven by the Chinese government, but a collaboration among global market participants,” says Jim Wai Kee, general manager of global markets at the Industrial and Commercial Bank of China.
This view holds that projects will be financed in Rmb, and therefore the currency will internationalise. It’s a view shared by Vina Cheung, head of Rmb internationalisation at HSBC, who says: “Rmb internationalisation and OBOR go hand in hand. Through this initiative, Chinese companies will make increasing amounts of overseas investment, some of which will be denominated in Rmb. Some of the fundraising required for OBOR initiative will be denominated in Rmb.”
Given that OBOR has been around since 2013, this view seems quixotic at best, naive at worst. Surely if it was going to spawn the currency’s international growth we would have seen signs of this by now? In conversations with trade financiers and traders in Asia, few share this optimism.