On China’s Renminbi

Michael Pettis

As my reference to the Japanese yen might suggest, I am pretty skeptical about the likelihood of this happening, at least with some of the more excited predictions. So, by the way, is the ADB, whose recent report (“The Future Global Reserve System — An Asian Perspective”), suggests that by 2035, the RMB may comprise about 3 to 12 per cent of international reserves. This is a pretty reasonable prediction, in my opinion, and far from the more feverish claims we see reported almost daily.

If the renminbi ever becomes a major trading or reserve currency, it is going to take a long time for this to happen and will require a radical transformation of the Chinese economy and the role of the government. This may seem like a surprising statement. After all nearly every week we see reports about a new breakthrough for the renminbi, and almost every day someone important somewhere speculates publicly about what the world will be like when (never if) the renminbi displaces the dollar.

But away from all “qualitative” arguments about why this is unlikely, and there are many, I think there is a problem with the arithmetic of reserve currency accumulation. If the rest of the world is going to use the renminbi as a reserve or trading currency, clearly it needs a mechanism by which to accumulate renminbi. This is something on which a surprisingly large share of people who talk about the future of reserve currencies don’t seem to focus.