Goldman's O'Neill says 'something's brewing' with China's currency

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By Simon Kennedy
Bloomberg News
Monday, February 15, 2010

http://www.bloomberg.com/apps/news?pid=20601109&sid=awBSw.3x_gAo&pos=11

PARIS -- Goldman Sachs Group Inc. Chief Economist Jim O’Neill said China may be poised to let its currency strengthen as much as 5 percent to slow the world's fastest growing major economy.

"I have a strong opinion that they're close to moving the exchange rate," O'Neill said in a telephone interview from London after China's central bank told lenders on Feb. 12 to set aside larger reserves. "Something’s brewing. It could happen any time."

Chinese policy makers are seeking to restrain credit growth after their economy grew the fastest since 2007 in the fourth quarter. Banks extended 19 percent of this year's 7.5 trillion yuan ($1.1 trillion) lending target in January as property prices climbed the most in 21 months.

Officials in Beijing have resisted allowing gains in the yuan, having controlled its value since July 2008 after it strengthened 21 percent against the dollar in the previous three years. The status quo has drawn criticism from foreign policy makers who say keeping the currency undervalued has handed China's exporters an advantage and inflated asset bubbles.

O'Neill, who coined the term "BRICs" in 2001, anticipating the boom in the emerging economies of Brazil, Russia, India, and China, said China may allow the yuan to rise as much as 5 percent in a one-off revaluation and to then trade within a bigger band or against a larger basket of currencies. That would help counter international pressure, he said.

"They need to do something to slow the economy down and deal with the inflation consequences," said O'Neill, who forecasts the Chinese economy is growing between 12 percent and 14 percent and will expand 11.4 percent over the year. "The more they do -- and the sooner -- the better."

The World Bank predicts China's economy will grow 9 percent in 2010, faster than global growth of 2.7 percent. The government said last month the 2009 expansion was 8.7 percent.

China's yuan recorded its biggest weekly decline in more than a year last week on speculation importers bought dollars before this week’s Chinese New Year holidays. Vice Commerce Minister Zhong Shan said on Feb. 8 the government may allow the yuan to move in a "small range," while stressing the official stance is to maintain stability in the currency.

The yuan depreciated 0.09 percent last week to 6.8330 per dollar, the biggest loss since the five days ended Jan. 9, 2009. The reserve requirement will rise 50 basis points, or 0.5 percentage point, effective Feb. 25, the People's Bank of China said. The current level is 16 percent for the biggest banks and 14 percent for smaller ones.

Record lending last year and a 4 trillion yuan stimulus package helped China lead the recovery from the deepest global recession since World War II. Investors' concern about investment bubbles in China, and what action the government may take to prevent or deflate them, has mounted this year.

"It will take a multi-faceted approach to slow the economy," Stephen Jen, London-based managing director at BlueGold Capital Management LLP., said in a Feb. 12 interview in which he predicted the yuan will be allowed to gain in the first half of this year.

U.S. President Barack Obama said in a Feb. 9 interview with Bloomberg BusinessWeek that a stronger currency would help China to deal with "a bunch of bubbles" in its "potentially overheating" economy.

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