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Exchange-rate reform under study
( 2003-10-21 10:39) (China Daily)

Signs are growing that China may embark on a long-awaited programme to reform the country's exchange-rate regime despite its determination not to revalue the yuan.

Experts believe the move, which serves China's long-term goal of setting up a free-floating currency mechanism, is part of the Chinese Government's major efforts to ease mounting international pressure for a stronger yuan.

As the first signal of the emerging trend, Chinese President Hu Jintao has agreed to set up a joint panel to study the obstacles in the way of floating the yuan.

The decision to establish a study group came following Hu's meeting with his US counterpart George W. Bush on the sidelines of the Asia-Pacific summit in Bangkok.

A senior Bush administration official was quoted by Reuters as saying US Treasury experts would be dispatched to Beijing for talks to identify the specific steps needed to move towards a floating exchange rate.

Chinese researchers said the government move demonstrates the country's sincerity in heeding other countries on economic and trade issues.

In response to growing calls for a yuan appreciation, Beijing has taken a host of positive measures such as increasing imports, lowering export tax rebates and encouraging more domestic enterprises to invest abroad.

US manufacturers have been complaining that an undervalued Chinese currency, which has been pegged at a rate of about 8.28 to the US dollar since 1994, is giving the country's exports an unfair price advantage.

Beijing, however, is determined to defend the basic stability of the yuan while insisting that the price advantage is mainly based on cheaper labour costs rather than an undervalued currency.

Li Yang, director of the Centre for Financial Studies at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, said the reform to improve the rate mechanism of renminbi has been put on the agenda.

The researcher, also a member of the Monetary Policy Committee of the People's Bank of China (PBOC), the central bank, said the aim of the exchange-rate regime reform is to let the market decide the exchange rate of the yuan.

China follows the market-based, single and managed floating exchange-rate system, which is considered to be consistent with the current status of the country's development, financial regulation and the sustainability of its enterprises.

Li said the exchange-rate regime reform is expected to be pushed ahead on three fronts: easing controls on the capital account; reducing the central banks' intervention in the exchange market and gradually expanding the trading band of the yuan.

It may take five to 10 years to complete the reform, according to the researcher.

Although the government intends to finally scrap foreign-exchange controls, it has not issued an official timetable.

In a November 1993 government document on financial reform approved by the State Council, China's cabinet, the country officially set the goal of implementing full convertibility of the yuan while marketizing the exchange-rate system.

Financial experts believe that the reform would have made great progress had there been no slow-down caused by the Asian financial crisis in 1997.

In an earlier interview, Zhou Xiaochuan, the PBOC governor, said the free-floating currency regime cannot be achieved unless the country first put into place a free-trade system, full opening-up of the capital account and a more competitive banking sector.

In general, the preparation work for deepening financial reforms should come before a free-floating currency mechanism, Zhou said.

But he added that it does not mean the whole process will not allow any flexibility, implying that the exchange-rate regime reform may be kicked off ahead of schedule.

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