Beggaring thy neighbour has consequences. Neighbours might turn around and bite back.
China and the United States are already locked in an intractable and multilayered currency war. That has not escalated much yet beyond a little barbed rhetoric (although if China want to get a meaningful return on the trillions of dollars of American paper they are holding, one can only suspect that there will be some serious escalation as the United States continues to print, print, print, a behaviour that China and China’s allies are deeply uncomfortable with).
But Brazil are already escalating.
When the Brazilian economy began to stall last year, officials in Latin America’s largest country started pulling pages from the playbook of another major developing nation: China.
They hiked tariffs on dozens of industrial products, limited imports of auto parts, and capped how many automobiles could come into the country from Mexico — an indirect slap at the U.S. companies that assemble many vehicles there.
The country’s slowdown and the government’s response to it is a growing concern among U.S. officials worried that Brazil may be charting an aggressive new course — away from the globalized, open path that the United States has advocated successfully in Mexico, Colombia and some other Latin American nations, and toward the state-guided capitalism that the United States has been battling to change in China. As the world economy struggles for common policies that could bolster a still tentative recovery, the push toward protectionism by an influential developing country is seen in Washington as a step backward.
“These are unhelpful and concerning developments which are contrary to our mutual attempts” to strengthen the world economy, outgoing U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk wrote in a strongly worded letter to Brazilian officials that criticized recent tariff hikes as “clearly protectionist.”
And Brazilian officials are very, very clear about exactly why they are doing what they are doing:
Brazilian officials insist the measures are a temporary buffer to help their developing country stay on course in a world where they feel under double-barreled assault from cheap labor in China and cheap money from the U.S. Federal Reserve’s policy of quantitative easing.
“We are only defending ourselves to prevent the disorganization, the deterioration of our industry, and prevent our market, which is strong, from being taken by imported products,” Brazil’s outspoken finance minister, Guido Mantega, said in an interview. Mantega popularized use of the term “currency war” to describe the Federal Reserve’s successive rounds of easing, which he likened to a form of protectionism that forced up the relative value of Brazil’s currency and made its products more expensive relative to imports from the United States and also China.
How long until other nations join with Brazil in declaring trade measures against the United States is uncertain, but there may be few other options on the table for creditors wanting to get their pound of flesh, or nations wishing to protect domestic industries. After all, the currency wars won’t just go away; competitive devaluation is like trying to get the last word in an argument. The real question is whether the present argument will lead to a fistfight.