Why Trump won't be branding China a currency cheater

Trump slams China as currency manipulator
Trump slams China as currency manipulator

The odds of President Trump fulfilling his campaign promise to label China a currency manipulator within his first 100 days are quickly diminishing.

One of Trump's top economic advisers, Stephen Schwarzman, chairman of the Blackstone Group, waived off the possibility that China would meet the necessary criteria to be designated a currency cheater.

The Trump administration's first currency report is set to be released in mid-April and will outline whether major U.S. trading partners are gaming their currencies.

"I would doubt that would happen," Schwarzman told Bloomberg Television on Tuesday, when asked whether China would be given that designation in Treasury's next report.

Related: Trump's quick wins on China trade won't wipe out the deficit

President Trump promised on the campaign trail to be tough on China on trade and to label the country a currency manipulator on his first day in office. So far, he hasn't followed through on either of those vows. He also failed to mention the issue publicly during Chinese President Xi Jinping's visit to the U.S. earlier this month.

Instead, administration officials and advisers have softened their rhetoric.

Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said in February he didn't want to leap to any immediate conclusions about China's currency practices until after a thorough review by the agency was complete.

"We have a process with Treasury, where we go through and look at currency manipulation across the board," said Mnuchin, in his February interview with CNBC. "We'll go through that process. We'll do that as we have in the past. We're not making any judgments until we continue that process."

Treasury releases its report to Congress twice a year. The agency has developed criteria to determine if any country is manipulating its currency. If it does, the president would begin a dialogue with the country and seek possible penalties.

Related: Trump's constant trashing of China over its currency could backfire

The last report released by Treasury in October found that six countries -- China, Japan, Korea, Germany, Taiwan and Switzerland -- met two of the three criteria. The last time the U.S. designated a country a currency cheater was China in 1994.

A Treasury spokesman said Tuesday the agency is still "in the process" of making its assessment of the currency practices of China and other major trading partners.

Schwarzman said the issue of China didn't come up during a second meeting he chaired of the president's strategy and policy forum at the White House on Tuesday. The panel of business leaders included JPMorgan Chase (JPMPRA) CEO Jamie Dimon and BlackRock CEO Laurence Fink.

China has been criticized for years by other countries for its heavy-handed efforts to keep the yuan undervalued.

Charles Schumer, the Senate Democratic leader from New York, also called on Trump to keep his pledge.

"He promised that on day one he would make China a currency manipulator," Schumer told reporters on a conference call Tuesday. "With the flick of a pen, he could send a strong message to the Chinese government."

Many economists and investors say that China doesn't meet the Treasury's criteria because its current account surplus has shrunk.

Fred Bergsten, a senior fellow at the Peterson Institute of International Economics, said over the past two years China has not been intervening to keep its currency weak against the dollar. Instead, the country has been working to keep its currency from getting weaker and to keep the dollar from getting stronger.

"President Trump backed off because he realized that China was no longer a currency manipulator," said Bergsten, according to a transcript of a recent interview with the think tank. Instead, he said Chinese leaders are "now actually helping out in achieving his goal of limiting US trade deficits."

Still, Schumer said while Beijing may "not [be] manipulating their currency now, no one has any doubt... that if it suited them to manipulate again, they would in the future."

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