The unholy trinity in open economy macroeconomics is pretty simple. It's impossible for a country to do the following three things at the same time:
1) Maintain a fixed exchange rate
2) Maintain an open capital market
3) Run an independent monetary policy
One of the issues with macroeconomic policy coordination right now is that different countries have chosen different options to sacrifice. China, for example, has never opened its capital account. The United States, in pursuing quantitative easing, has basically chucked fixed exchange rates under the bus, no matter how many times Tim Geithner utters the "strong dollar" mantra
in his sleep to reporters.
These policies are generating a fair amount of blowback from the rest of the world, forcing President Barack Obama to defend the Fed's actions. And it appears that the developing countries are mostly following China's path towards regulating their capital account to prevent exchange rate appreciation and the inward rush of hot money.
How does this end? I think it's gonna end with a lot more capital controls for a few reasons:
1) It's the political path of least resistance;
2) Capital controls are seen as strengthening the state;
3) The high-growth areas of the world don't need a lot of capital inflows to fuel their continued growth.
What intrigues me is how the financial sector responds to a situation in which their freedom of action in emerging markets becomes more and more constrained. It's possible that they could pressure the Fed to change its position in the future. It's also possible, however, that big firms could see these controls as a useful barrier to entry for new firms.
My money is on the former response, however.
According to Bloomberg, Brazilian Finance Minister Guido Mantega would like the real to stop appreciating and for the rest of the world to cooperate on currency matters:
Brazil's real dropped the most in two weeks after Finance Minister Guido Mantega raised taxes on foreign inflows for the second time this month to prevent appreciation and protect exports from what he called a global "currency war."
Brazil, Latin America’s largest economy, raised the so- called IOF tax on foreigners' investments in fixed-income securities to 6 percent from 4 percent. It also boosted the levy on money brought into the country to make margin deposits for transactions in the futures market to 6 percent from 0.38 percent…
"This currency war needs to be deactivated," Mantega told reporters. "We have to reach some kind of currency agreement.” …
Mantega cited the Plaza Accord of 1985, when governments agreed to intervene to devalue the U.S. dollar against the yen and the German deutsche mark, as the kind of agreement that might be required. International policy makers failed to narrow their differences on intervention in currency markets during the International Monetary Fund’s annual meeting this month.
Hey, you know, I bet the G-20 would be a decent forum for Mantega to foster this kind of cooperation. It's a good thing that there's a G-20 Finance Ministers meeting this weekend in Seoul.
Brazilian Finance Minister Guido Mantega will not attend a meeting of Group of 20 member-country finance officials in South Korea this week, a Finance Ministry spokesman said Monday.
The spokesman said Mantega would remain in Brazil while the government studies possible introduction of foreign exchange policy measures to curb the strengthening of the country's currency, the real.
Brazil's government will be represented at the meeting by Finance Ministry International Affairs Secretary Marcos Galvao and Central Bank International Affairs Director Luiz Pereira.
Is this rank hypocrisy by Mantega? Not entirely. It's something worse -- a judgment by Brazil's policy principals that more will be accomplished by staying in Brasilia to stem the tide of inward capital flows than to go to Seoul to seek a multilateral solution to the current lack of macroeconomic policy coordination.
There's plenty of blame to go around on this, but if Brazil thinks the G-20 is not going to accomplish much… then the G-20 is a dead forum walking.
The past week has seen an escalating series of news stories about a looming "currency war," as country after country tries to drive their currency downward, the United States blames China as the source of original sin on this, and China
pisses off yet another country responds by digging in its heels, and the IMF wrings its hands.
If you need to read one article on why things are going down the way they are, it's Alan Beattie's excellent survey in the Financial Times of how countries as responding to this situation:
Washington is looking for allies -- particularly among the emerging economies, who complain about their own competitiveness and volatility problems -- in its campaign for exchange rate flexibility. Trying to take on Beijing single-handed makes the US vulnerable to the charge that it is a lone complainant blaming its own profligate shortcomings on the country that is kind enough to lend it money, holding the best part of $1,000bn in U.S. Treasury bonds…
Yet despite U.S. claims of broad support, backing appears sporadic…
[S]ome U.S. policymakers privately complain that European backing is patchy and tends to go up and down with the euro. In the first half of the year the euro was pushed lower by the gathering Greek crisis, by early summer falling 17 per cent below its January level. Focused on local difficulties, and with the German export machine powering ahead, European officials saw little need to take on Beijing over currencies and had little energy to do so…
Across the emerging economies, the plan of attack seems to be to keep quiet and pass the ammunition. Despite widespread recognition of the distortions China’s exchange rate policy appear to be causing, governments have generally preferred unilateral intervention to a public slanging match.
True, in April the governors of the Reserve Bank of India and the Central Bank of Brazil complained that Beijing was hurting their exporters.
But recently Celso Amorim, Brazil’s foreign minister, told Reuters: "I believe that this idea of putting pressure on a country is not the right way for finding solutions." Significantly, he added: "We have good co-ordination with China and we’ve been talking to them. We can’t forget that China is currently our main customer…"
With the prospect of diplomatic progress limited, currency policy in the U.S. and Europe may end up being conducted through domestic monetary policy. If, as seems possible, the U.S. Federal Reserve, the Bank of Japan and the European Central Bank return to quantitative easing in order to boost growth, their currencies are likely to weaken -- as the yen briefly did after the Bank of Japan’s announcement of looser monetary policy this week.
So, to sum up:
1) Every country is free-riding/buckpassing on this issue, hoping that the United States can dislodge China on its own.
2) The international regimes designed to prevent free-riding like this -- namely the G-20 and the IMF -- are not up to this task. [What about the WTO? -- ed. Fuggedaboutit.]
3) The source of China's rising power is not its hard currency reserves or its command over scarce rare earths, but its burgeoning domestic market.
4) Ironically, the United States and other countries want China to accelerate the growth of its domestic market, which would in turn give it more power. Even more ironically, China doesn't want to do this right now.
5) The sum effect of all of this will be a series of uncoordinated interventions into currency markets that will increase market volatility, political posturing, and eventually lead to the erection of capital and/or trade controls.
Developing… in a very disturbing manner.
MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images
A few days ago Brazil's finance minister mentioned the phrase "international currency war." The Financial Times' Jonathan Wheatley and Peter Garnham are all over it.
An “international currency war” has broken out, according to Guido Mantega, Brazil’s finance minister, as governments around the globe compete to lower their exchange rates to boost competitiveness.
Mr Mantega’s comments in São Paulo on Monday follow a series of recent interventions by central banks, in Japan, South Korea and Taiwan in an effort to make their currencies cheaper. China, an export powerhouse, has continued to suppress the value of the renminbi, in spite of pressure from the US to allow it to rise, while officials from countries ranging from Singapore to Colombia have issued warnings over the strength of their currencies.
“We’re in the midst of an international currency war, a general weakening of currency. This threatens us because it takes away our competitiveness,” Mr Mantega said. By publicly asserting the existence of a “currency war”, Mr Mantega has admitted what many policymakers have been saying in private: a rising number of countries see a weaker exchange rate as a way to lift their economies.
A weaker exchange rate makes a country’s exports cheaper, potentially boosting a key source of growth for economies battling to find growth as they emerge from the global downturn.
The proliferation of countries trying to manage their exchange rates down is also making it difficult to co-ordinate the issue in global economic forums.
South Korea, the host of the upcoming G20 meeting in November, is reluctant to highlight the issue on the gathering’s agenda, also partly out of fear of offending China, its neighbour and main trading partner.
On the other hand, South Korea is putting together an awesome ice sculpture for the summit. Seriously.
The FT's Alan Beattie details the abject lack of policy coordination and its implications in further detail:
Aside from China, whose intervention is one of the main causes of the global currency battle, several big economies have been intervening for some time. Switzerland started unilateral intervention against the Swiss franc last year for the first time since 2002 and did not sterilise it by buying back in the domestic money markets what it had sold across the foreign exchanges.
In common with several east Asian countries, South Korea, host of the Group of 20 summit, has been intervening intermittently to hold down the won during the course of this year. Deliberately weakening a currency while running a strong current account surplus has raised eyebrows in Washington.
Recently it was revealed that Brazil itself, which has been expressing concern since last year about inflows of hot money pushing up the real and unbalancing the economy, had given authority to its sovereign wealth fund to sell the real on its behalf.
The resort to unilateralism bodes ill for US hopes of assembling an international coalition of countries at the forthcoming G20 meeting to put pressure on China over its interventions to prevent the renminbi rising. While most of the countries currently intervening would be likely to welcome a revaluation of the renminbi, few emerging market governments seem to want to stand up to China publicly – barring sporadic criticism such as that from Brazilian and Indian central bankers earlier this year.
Last week Celso Amorim, Brazil’s foreign minister, said that he did not want to become part of an organised campaign. Following a meeting of the Brics countries – Brazil, Russia, India and China – in New York, he told Reuters: “I believe that this idea of putting pressure on a country is not the right way for finding solutions.”
Mr Amorim added: “We have good co-ordination with China and we’ve been talking to them. We can’t forget that China is currently our main customer.” Brazil exports commodities to China. (emphasis added)
It's also possible that Brazil and others fear a security dilemma kind of response from China. Either way, this demonstrates that, on the economic front, China's deterrent power is formidable (even if its compellence power has been exaggerated).
Now, there are some who argue that this kind of beggar-thy-neighbor policy could be a blessing in disguise, because it might amount to massive monetary easing. I tend to side with Michael Pettis, however:
[W]e know how that game ends. In 1930, following France’s very successful 1928 devaluation and Britain’s tightening of trade conditions within the Commonwealth, the world’s leading trade-surplus nation passed the Smoot-Hawley tariffs in a transparent attempt to gain a greater share of dwindling global demand. This would have been a great strategy for the US had no one noticed or retaliated, but of course the rest of world certainly noticed, and all Smoot-Hawley did was accelerate a collapse in global trade which, not surprisingly, hurt trade surplus countries like the US most.
We seem to be following the same path, and in a beggar-thy-neighbor world any country that does not participate in retaliatory policies will suffer. The only question is which retaliatory policy. I suspect that countries that can intervene in the currency and manipulate domestic interest rates will select those polices as the most efficient way of intervening in trade. Countries that cannot will almost certainly resort to trade tariffs. And it is probably too late for global policy coordination to make much of a difference.
To be fair, the demand for global policy coordination since 2008 has been much higher than normal. That said, it seems that on this issue, the G-20 has fallen flat on its face.
Developing … in a very depressing way. Literally.
This week Japan has provoked the ire of the United States and Europe by unilaterally intervening in currency markets to depreciate the yen against other major currencies. Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan has responded to these criticisms by
telling the US and EU to go suck a lemon stating that further "resolute actions" would be taken on this front.
This comes on the heels of mounting U.S. frustration with China's "go-slow" policy on letting the yuan appreciate against the dollar. [What do you mean by "go slow"?--ed. Let's put it this way: the tortoise thinks that China is being pokey on this question.]
So, is this the beginning of beggar-thy-neighbor? Will other countries start intervening in foreign exchange markets to gain a competitive advantage for their export sectors?
The New York Times' Hiroko Tabuchi thinks not, because Japan can't unilaterally devalue its currency like in the old days:
It is unlikely, though, that intervention by Japan alone will sway currency markets in the long term. The global volume of foreign exchange trading has grown rapidly in recent years, which prevents intervention by a single government from countering bigger market trends.
Other countries are unlikely to help Japan’s cause, because they need to keep their own currencies weaker to bolster exports. A weak currency makes a country’s exports more competitive and increases the value of overseas earnings.
Much of the yen’s weakening came from investors selling the currency on expectations that the Japanese government would be more active in keeping the yen in check. Japan did not disclose how much it had spent in currency transactions, but dealers put the initial amount at 300 billion to 500 billion yen ($3.5 billion to $5.8 billion).
But as Switzerland found this year, a single government’s efforts to weaken its currency can prove futile. Switzerland abandoned that effort, after its central bank had lost more than 14 billion Swiss francs ($14 billion) in foreign currency holdings in the first half of the year, after a fall in the euro’s value ate into the bank’s reserves.
The Swiss franc is also seen by investors as a relative haven and has also strengthened amid global financial unrest. This month, the franc hit a record high against the euro.
Hmmm.... maybe. Japan's economy is much larger than Switzerland, so I'm not sure the comparison holds up. The real problem, however, appears to be that countries perceived of as "safe havens" wind up with overvalued currencies.
This little parable also makes me wonder whether we might see beggar-thy-neighbor policies in a different guise this time around. This is going to sound a little crazy, but here goes: rather than explicit exchange rate intervention, what if countries decided to play fast and loose with Basle III and other measures to strengthen financial integrity?
This really does sound crazy -- it suggests that governments would be willing to tolerate a higher risk of domestic banking collapse in order to avoide being a "safe haven" status for capital. That said, think of how much Europe benefited from the depreciation of the euro due to the Greek crisis. Basle III, by taking so long for banks to meet standards allow those countries with more insolvent financial institutions **cough** Germany **cough** to take their own sweet time in having them meet new capital adequacy standards. This would allow Germany to have the euro stay relatively cheap without abandoning its anti-inflationary zeal.
Now, in all likelihood, not even the Germans would purposefully do this. This is crazy talk. What I'm suggesting, however, is that there is more than one way for a country to have its currency depreciate, and these policies are substitutable. Looking only at explicit exchange rate intervention might be just a bit too narrow. And if more countries find more ways of keeping their currency undervalued, well then, the days of beggar-thy-neighbor would have arrived.
So I see Paul Krugman has thrown his lot in with the neoconservatives who disdain multilateral institutions and prefer bellicose unilateralism when they confront a frustrating international situation.
His op-ed today is about China's currency manipulation. ... again. After explaining that China has less leverage than is commonly understood on the foreign economic policy front (gee, where have I heard that before), he closes with the following:
In 1971 the United States dealt with a similar but much less severe problem of foreign undervaluation by imposing a temporary 10 percent surcharge on imports, which was removed a few months later after Germany, Japan and other nations raised the dollar value of their currencies. At this point, it’s hard to see China changing its policies unless faced with the threat of similar action — except that this time the surcharge would have to be much larger, say 25 percent.
Whoa there, big fella!! That's a nice but very selective reading of international economic history you have there.
It's certainly true that the dollar was overvalued back in 1971. What Krugman forgets to mention -- and see if this sounds familiar -- is that the Johnson and Nixon administrations contributed to this problem via a guns-and-butter fiscal policy. They pursued the Vietnam War, approved massive increases in social spending, and refused to raise taxes to pay for it. This macroeconomic policy created inflationary expectations and a "dollar glut." Foreign exchange markets to expect the dollar to depreciate over time. Other countries intervened to maintain the dollar's value -- not because they wanted to, but because they were complying with the Bretton Woods system of fixed exchange rates. Nixon only went off the dollar after the British Treasury came to the U.S. and wanted to convert all their dollar holdings into gold.
In other words, the United States was the rogue economic actor in 1971 -- not Japan or Germany.
So, how about acting multilaterally first before engaging in unilateral action that alienates America's friends and allies alike?
To be fair to Krugman, many of the multilateral processes appear to be stymied, as Keith Bradsher explains in this NYT front-pager:
Beijing has worked to suppress a series of I.M.F. reports since 2007 documenting how the country has substantially undervalued its currency, the renminbi, said three people with detailed knowledge of China’s actions....
Last September, Presidennt Obama, President Hu Jintao of China and other leaders of the Group of 20 industrialized and developing countries agreed in Pittsburgh that all the G-20 countries would begin sharing their economic plans by November. The goal was to coordinate their exits from stimulus programs and prevent the world from lurching from recession straight into inflation.
The G-20 leaders agreed that the I.M.F. would act as intermediary.
But two people familiar with China’s response said that the Chinese government missed the November deadline and then submitted a vague document containing mostly historical data. These people said that China feared giving ammunition to critics of its currency policies at the monetary fund and beyond. Both people asked for anonymity because of China’s attitudes about its economic policies.
That last part oabout the G-20 process is particularly disturbing, given that this was supposed to be the venue through which macroeconomic imbalances were supposed to be addressed. So maybe Krugman is right and unilateral is the way to go?
I don't think so. The big difference between the end of the Bretton Woods era and the current Bretton Woods II situation is the distribution of interests. In 1971, everyone was opposed to a continuation of U.S. policies. This time around, there appears to be a growing consensus that China is the rogue economic actor.
If Krugman gets to repeat himself, then so do I:
[T]he United States is not the country that's hurt the most by this tactic. It's the rest of the world -- particularly Europe and the Pacific Rim -- that are getting royally screwed by China's policy. These countries are seeing their currencies appreciating against both the dollar and the renminbi, which means their products are less competitive in the U.S. market compared to domestic production and Chinese exports.
So why should the U.S. act unilaterally? Why not activate an international regime that does not include China but does include a lot of other actors hurt by China's currency policy?
Am I missing anything?
MIKE CLARKE/AFP/Getty Images
The Chinese government has begun drafting tax and spending policies to stimulate the economy after third-quarter growth of 9 percent, the slowest pace since an outbreak of Sars in 2003.... As part of the new policy, the State Council announced that it would increase export tax rebates for everything from labor-intensive products like garments and textile to high-value products like mechanical and electrical products. Banks will be encouraged to lend more money to small and medium-size enterprises and support programs will be drafted to help farmers, the government said.... Increased export tax rebates will make Chinese exports even more competitive in the United States and Europe, particularly as China has intervened heavily in currency markets to halt any further appreciation of China’s currency since mid-June. But with the United States heavily dependent on China to buy the Treasury bonds needed to finance a bailout of the American financial system, the Bush administration has stopped criticizing China’s trade and currency policies.To be fair to Beijing, other expansionary policies are being pursued. Still, given the country's strong fiscal position, and given China's overreliance on export growth to fuel its job creation, I'm not sure that export tax rebates are the way to go here. I strongly encourage China-watchers to let me know if I'm overreacting.
Daniel W. Drezner is professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.