From bananas to phones: How cheaper yuan could reverberate

Friday, August 14, 2015, Vol. 39, No. 33

HONG KONG (AP) — China's unexpected move this week to lower the value of its tightly-leashed currency, the yuan, sent shockwaves through global financial markets. The impact on consumers around the world and China's neighbors will take longer to play out but possible winners and losers are already emerging.



Not quite. The effect on prices in shops for clothes or electronics or other China-made products might be limited overall, particularly if the yuan doesn't fall further. On top of that, currency weakness cuts both ways for Chinese manufacturers. A weak yuan could make exports from the world's No. 2 economy cheaper, but that could be offset if a factory uses a lot of imported raw materials, which it has to pay for in dollars or other foreign currency. Chinese manufacturers also face rising labor costs. Lower prices are possible in industries such as clothing and basic toys where international competition is fierce and producers in countries such as China don't have much power to pass on their higher costs to shoppers.



Some analysts say the devaluation could speed the spread of inexpensive Chinese smartphones overseas. Chinese brands such as Xiaomi and Huawei already produce competitively priced handsets with decent displays and performance so a weaker yuan could make them even cheaper or allow Chinese handset makers to offer discounts. On a broader level, it gives Chinese companies a bigger opportunity to raise market share overseas, which poses a "long-term threat" to South Korean companies such as Samsung, said Song Eun-jeong, an analyst at Hi Investment & Securities. She said budget handset makers may enter developed countries earlier than planned if the yuan continues falling.



Stephen Antig, executive director of the Pilipino Banana Growers and Exporters Association, said the yuan's devaluation definitely will have some impact for Chinese consumers and the banana growers in the Philippines who supply them. The Philippines exports around 60 to 70 million boxes of bananas a year to China, with an average price of $5-$10 per box. "With the devaluation of the yuan, they have to pay more for every dollar that they buy and chances are some importers will reduce their purchases of bananas," he said. "But it will depend on how big the devaluation is because they are also buying bananas from Ecuador which are more expensive than what they are buying from us."



Thailand, Malaysia Hong Kong and Taiwan could be among the most vulnerable countries because they are both highly reliant on China's demand for their exports and services while also competing with China in other export markets, Credit Suisse analysts Santitarn Sathirathai and Michael Wan said in a report. They note, for example, that Thailand's loss in market share of hard disk drive production to China over recent years could accelerate if the currency trends continue. At the same time, the southeast Asian country is also at risk because of its reliance on rising numbers of Chinese tourists, who may now find it costlier to travel overseas. Travel and tourism is expected to account for about two-thirds of Thai economic growth this year so "a slowdown in Chinese tourist arrivals is the risk to watch," the analysts wrote.



A weaker currency is generally beneficial for China's exporters because it makes their goods more affordable for overseas buyers. But there are other factors at play so the issue is not clear-cut. The yuan has weakened about 3 percent against the U.S. dollar since Tuesday, not big enough of a move to overcome sluggish global demand and rising costs in China that are hampering the country's manufacturing industry, economists say. Also, the long term impact may be muted because yuan weakness adds pressure on Asian countries, for many of which China is their biggest trading partner, to devalue their own currencies to stay competitive. However, there's little sign yet of a "currency war" in the making, though some Asian currencies have already responded by weakening on their own, most notably the Malaysian ringgit.



Companies competing directly with Chinese rivals may have the most to lose. One big example is the steel industry, with South Korean and Japanese producers bracing for a hit from a weaker yuan. With demand weak at home because of the slowing economy, Chinese steel makers are keen on increasing exports. Yuan weakness would push down the price of Chinese steel, intensifying the supply glut in the global steel market, and driving down prices globally, Mirae Asset Securities said in a report.

Tatsuro Kanno, of Japan's Kobe Steel, said a cheaper yuan could help China boost steel exports to Japan, posing a competitive challenge to Japanese steel mills. "There is concern that weaker yuan could affect the Japanese market in terms of imports from China," Kanno said. He said he's worried "cheaper steel could come in," though he added, "this is probably at least a month away, but it is a concern for the future."