The rancorous argument about global payment imbalances and the yuan’s valuation is exposing a surprising and dangerous economic illiteracy among policymakers and commentators.

Before pressing China to allow a maxi-revaluation of the yuan, western commentators need to think through the consequences carefully. The idea that devaluing the dollar (and by extension euro and yen) will cause payment imbalances to disappear and boost employment in the West with little or no impact on inflation and living standards is a pipe dream.

First some notes about terminology. Proponents generally phrase their argument in terms of an appreciation of the yuan (which keeps the focus on the alleged currency manipulators in China). But it could just as easily be recast as a depreciation of the dollar (which is a much more controversial formulation, highlighting the fact that the exchange rate problem reflects U.S. weakness as much as China’s strength).

Since most observers assume bilateral relationships between the dollar and other major currencies would not alter significantly, China is in fact being pressed to permit a balanced depreciation of the dollar, euro, yen and other major currencies.

Finally, we are not talking about small changes but very large ones. Observers have suggested the dollar might be overvalued as much as 25-50 percent. Devaluing it 5 percent is unlikely to cause a substantial adjustment in China’s trade surpluses with the United States and globally and will not remove the political tensions and the root of the crisis.
Only a very large reduction in the dollar’s value over a period of years, in effect a “maxi-devaluation”, could hope to adjust the relative trade performance of the two countries.