Special Report: The Currency Wars - Part 1

Tom Tong22/Nov/2010Currency Updates

The setup of the currency wars

Economic Background

Prior to the financial crisis and the subsequent Great Recession, world trade was dominated by two complementary economic blocks. One the one hand, Northern Europe and East Asia consistently run large export surpluses and current account surpluses. On the other, the United States, Southern Europe and some other smaller economies (Australia and New Zealand, among others) run the necessary trade deficits. The net effect of this setup was the continuous accumulation of financial claims on the second block countries by the first block. This accumulation took the form of bulging FX reserves in the case of East Asia, and the accumulation of (mostly) private debts of the deficit countries in the balance sheets of Northern European banks.

The financial crisis of 2008, followed by an unprecedented collapse in world trade, saw a dramatic rebalancing of the world trade accounts. The terrifying few months – from the Lehman collapse in September 2008 to the equity market bottom of March 2009 – saw an unprecedented collapse of world trade and therefore the surpluses and deficits run by both blocks. The coordinated reaction from fiscal and monetary authorities worldwide first stopped, and then reversed the slide. This was obviously a desirable outcome, with the sudden rebalancing of the world accounts through a stoppage of trade flows.

The recovery from the crisis added another cleavage to the above-mentioned economic divide. The economies of developing markets recovered from the crisis much faster than the advanced industrial economies, powered by strong domestic demand and/or significant infrastructure spending packages that the developed countries could not or would not match. As a result, most emerging economies (with the exception of some of the Eastern European countries) have already surpassed their pre-crisis production levels. None of the major G10 countries have done so, and some of them are still far below.

The United States

The US was the epicenter of the world financial crisis. Other countries like Japan and Germany suffered an even greater initial collapse of economic activity than the US. However, the wholesale collapse of the construction sector in the US, plus the very limited effects that the recovery in world trade has had so far on US exports, have caused the unemployment rate in the US to more than double, and, critically, there are no signs that it will come down anytime soon. No other country has seen its employment situation deteriorate to the same extent, with the exception of other European peripheral countries with similarly bloated construction sectors and real estate bubbles.

The dire employment situation, together with an uncomfortably low rate of domestic inflation – combined with the political inability to implement any further fiscal stimulus –has pushed the Fed ever closer to a second round of monetary stimulus. With rates already at zero, this can only take the form of Large Scale Asset Purchases financed with freshly printed money. Of course, flooding the world with newly-printed dollars would have the effect of putting further downward pressure on the dollar. This would tend to both put upward pressure on US inflation and provide further stimulus to the US economy – all to the good, from the US perspective.

The front lines

The United States has long contended that the currencies of some of its developing trade partners, China in particular, were seriously undervalued, amounting to an unfair subsidy to their domestic exporters. The recovery from the crisis has provided further ammunition for US complains. FX reserves of most emerging countries – which had stopped growing or even shrunk during the crisis – are growing again at record pace, as domestic authorities struggle to stop the tremendous appreciating pressure on their currencies brought about by either persistent trade surpluses (e.g., China), massive capital flows from developed-market investors attracted to their strong economic performance (e.g., Brazil) or both (e.g. South Korea).

China runs the largest single trade surplus vs. the United States. Not surprisingly, it has been the focus of much US political anger. US authorities point to the immense and growing Chinese FX reserves, which it acquires by buying up dollars and thus putting downward pressure on the yuan as proof that the yuan is “artificially” undervalued. China disputes this assertion, pointing to the fact that is has resumed allowing the yuan to appreciate very slowly, and also that other countries (Germany and Japan, primarily) have no trouble maintaining or even expanding trade surpluses in spite of appreciating currencies.

US Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner provided a very useful taxonomy for understanding the different currency blocks, following the rough outline given above:

1- Deficit countries – the US dollar

Obviously, the United States dominates this category. Sterling also belongs here, although the near closure of the British trade deficit and the massive budget cuts that are on the pipeline distinguish the UK situation from the US. Were they not part of the Euro currency area, one would have to include here most of Europe’s southern periphery. One may be tempted to include Australia and New Zealand, but their role as commodity producers and China suppliers make their situation a special case.

2 – Developed surplus countries – Japan and Northern Europe

After a decade of almost uninterrupted appreciation against the dollar, no one is seriously arguing that the Japanese yen or the euro (and its peripheral currencies, such as the Scandinavian crowns and the Swiss franc) are undervalued against the greenback. Recent dollar depreciation against these is driven by different approaches to monetary and fiscal policy, rather than capital flows or FX intervention

3- Emerging currencies with flexible exchange rates

Brazil and South Korea would be representative examples. While the Brazilian real and the South Korean won exchange rates are both set in forex markets, both countries are intervening or imposing taxes in order to at least slow down the rate of appreciation. These currencies’ appreciation is driven more by capital inflows (i.e., foreign investors chasing what are perceived as better investment opportunities) than trade flows. Brazil, for instance, is actually running a trade deficit now. Secretary Geithner made it clear that the US does not oppose this kind of intervention to prevent asset bubbles and currency overvaluation.

4- Severely undervalued, non-trade currencies

Clearly, China is the poster child of this category. It runs huge trade surpluses, particularly against the USD. Also, while there is much dispute about the yuan’s level of undervaluation, almost no one disputes that the Chinese currency is too cheap relative to most developed market currencies.

So much for the setup to the currency wars. In the next part of this post we will analyze the potential outcomes of these conflicts.

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Written by Tom Tong

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