RMB ‘internationalization’ is one of the most discussed issues in China’s economic policy. But many claims regarding the extent of RMB internationalization are greatly exaggerated and the practical proposal to attempt to achieve it, capital account convertibility of the RMB, is extremely dangerous for China’s economic and social stability. To eliminate false estimates and policies, it is, therefore, necessary first to accurately establish the facts regarding the real international role of the RMB and then analyze what consequences flow from these.
Those wishing to present a highly exaggerated picture of the degree of RMB internationalization frequently do this by presenting percentage growth figures. This gives a misleading impression because it fails to mention that such growth rates look impressive merely because they are calculated starting from extraordinarily low levels. To take a typical example, the proportion of RMB payments carried out in the US in April 2014 had risen by 100% compared to a year earlier. This sounds spectacular – until it is noted that the rise was only to 0.04% of all worldwide currency transactions!
A sense of reality is immediately injected if its noted that in April 2014 the RMB accounted for only 1.4% of international payments – globally, RMB payments are entirely marginal. Furthermore even this very low figure exaggerates the RMB’s internationalization because a large percentage of the payments are merely between mainland China and Hong Kong.
To illustrate the real situation, start with China’s strongest area internationally – trade. By the end of 2013, 8.7% of world trade was denominated in RMB – but the dollar’s share was almost 10 times as high at 81%. Furthermore, the RMB figure was artificially flattering as around 80% of RMB payments were for Hong Kong. Excluding Hong Kong RMB payments were marginal. For example, by April 2014 only 2.4% of China and Hong Kong’s trade with the US, China’s largest single country export market, was in RMB.