How Vietnam Will Avoid Currency ‘Manipulator’ Label, Save its Economy

Vietnam is likely to make concessions to the United States so it can escape a U.S. watch list of possible currency manipulators and head off a hit to its fast-growing economy led by exchange rate-sensitive exports, analysts who follow the country say.

The Southeast Asian country, they forecast, will probably talk to the U.S. side over the next six to nine months, consider approving fewer changes in its foreign exchange rate and accept more high-value American imports.

Those measures would help Vietnam get off the U.S. Treasury’s list of nine countries that Washington will examine further for whether those states are currency “manipulators.” Manipulation implies deliberate state-driven currency rate changes that favor a country’s own exporters and make trade more costly for importers. The U.S. list released in late May added Vietnam, Malaysia and Singapore.

The policy changes might place a speed bump in the economy, which has grown around 6% every year since 2012, but a “manipulator” label could lead to tariffs on Vietnamese goods shipped to the United States and choke economic expansion.

“I think they’ll definitely (take action), because they’re extremely worried about this matter, so they’ll carry out some necessary communications and make some adjustments,” said Tai Wan-ping, Southeast Asia-specialized international business professor at Cheng Shiu University in Taiwan. “If they keep going, to be on this list is disadvantageous for Vietnam.”

Exports and the local currency

Vietnam, a growing manufacturing powerhouse that reels in factory investors from around Asia for its lost costs, posted a $39.5 billion surplus in trade with the United States last year and a $13.5 billion surplus in the first quarter this year.

The same country also adjusts its dong currency exchange rate within a band but trending toward weakness versus the U.S. dollar. That trend favors exporters, a majority of the $238 billion Vietnamese economy.

“The reality is, it’s what we call in economics a dirty float currency. It’s not grossly manipulated — it basically reflects market rate for the dong,” said Adam McCarty, chief economist with Mekong Economics in Hanoi. 

“But it’s sort of controlled to stop big fluctuations, so that the change in the exchange rate month to month is rather small, but it’s always been slowly and steadily in the direction of depreciation of the Vietnamese dong,” McCarty said.

​Inflows of “hot money” into Vietnam, which could hurt exports eventually, sometimes require the country to adjust its foreign exchange rate, Tai said.

Measures to get off the list

Vietnam’s limiting of any further fluctuations would put the U.S. government more at ease, said Rajiv Biswas, Asia-Pacific chief economist at the market research firm IHS Markit.

“The U.S. Treasury did say that Vietnam should reduce its intervention in the exchange rate and let the currency move in line with economic fundamentals,” Biswas said. “If you’re not intervening in your currency, that automatically reduces the risk of being named a currency manipulator.”

But Vietnamese net purchases of foreign currency last year came to just 1.7% of GDP, below the 2% that Washington uses to define “persistent one-sided intervention in the foreign exchange market,” Hanoi-based SSI Research said in a note Monday. Governments can adjust exchange rates by buying or selling foreign currency.

Vietnam, where many of the top companies are state-invested, could reduce the trade balance by buying more “capital intensive equipment” and aerospace goods such as aircraft from the United States, Biswas said.

India left the U.S. list in May after easing a trade surplus, though China – in the thick of a trade dispute with Washington – was kept on it.

There are few other “policy levers” Vietnam can use to answer the U.S. Treasury concerns, said Gene Fang, an associate managing director with Moody’s Investors Service in Singapore.

Negotiations with Washington

Vietnam will probably remain on the U.S. list over at least the next half a year, when the document is due for an update, analysts believe. The two sides are likely to discuss the currency rate and the trade imbalance as Vietnam deliberates its response measures, they say.

Eventually the U.S. government could seek negotiations with Vietnam and place tariffs on Vietnamese exports if it sees fit, Fang said.

“I guess one of the things we could see as a result would be that the U.S. places higher tariffs on Vietnamese exports to the U.S., and that would be certainly negative from a growth perspective,” he said.

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