Currency Wars Are Trade Wars

Paul Krugman is all for currency wars, but not trade wars:

First of all, what people think they know about past currency wars isn’t actually true. Everyone uses some combination phrase like “protectionism and competitive devaluation” to describe the supposed vicious circle of the 1930s, but as Barry Eichengreen has pointed out many times, these really don’t go together. If country A and country B engage in a tit-for-tat of tariffs, the end result is restricted trade; if they each try to push their currency down, the end result is at worst to leave everyone back where they started.

And in reality the stuff that’s now being called “currency wars” is almost surely a net plus for the world economy. In the 1930s this was because countries threw off their golden fetters — they left the gold standard and this freed them to pursue expansionary monetary policies. Today that’s not the issue; but what Japan, the US, and the UK are doing is in fact trying to pursue expansionary monetary policy, with currency depreciation as a byproduct.

There is a serious intellectual error here, typical of much of the recent discussion of this issue. A currency war is by definition a low-level form of a trade war because currencies are internationally traded commodities. The intent (and there is much circumstantial evidence to suggest that Japan at least is acting with mercantilist intent, but that is another story for another day) is not relevant — currency depreciation is currency depreciation and still has the same effects on creditors and trade partners, whatever the claimed intent.

Krugman cites Barry Eichengreen as evidence that competitive devaluation does not necessarily mean a trade war, but Eichengreen does not address the issue of a trade war directly, much less denying the possibility of one.  Indeed, while broadly supportive of competitive devaluation Eichengreen notes that the process was “disorderly and disruptive”.

And the risks of disorder and disruption are still very real today.

As Mark Thoma noted in 2010:

While the positive effects a currency war produced in the 1930s are unlikely to reappear, there is a chance of large negative effects such as a simultaneous trade war or the breakdown of the international monetary system, so let’s hope a currency war can be avoided.

The mechanism here is very simple. Some countries — those with a lower domestic rate of inflation, like Japan — have a natural advantage in a currency war against countries with a higher domestic rate of inflation like Brazil and China. If one side runs out of leverage to debase their currency because of heightened domestic inflation, their next recourse is to resort to direction trade measures like quotas and tariffs.

And actually, the United States and China in particular have been engaging in a low-level trade and currency war for a long time.

As I noted last year:

China and Russia and Brazil have all recently expressed deep unease at America’s can-kicking and money-printing mentality. This is partly because American money printing has exported inflation to the world, as a result of the dollar’s role as the global reserve currency, and partly because these states already own a lot of American debt, and do not want to be paid off in hugely-debased money.

Since I made that statement, there has been a great lot of debasement without any great spiral of damaging trade measures. But with the world locked into ever greater monetary and trade interdependency, and with fiery trade rhetoric continuing to spew forth from the BRIC nations, who by-and-large seem to continue to believe that American money-printing is damaging their interests, and who in the past two years have put together a new global reserve currency framework, it would be deeply complacent to believe that the risks of a severe trade war have gone away.

(Unfortunately, Krugman and Eichengreen both seem to discount the reality that Okun’s law has broken down, and that monetary expansion today is supporting crony industries, and exacerbating income inequality, but those are another story for another day)

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Junkie Recovery

A bad jobs report that left headline unemployment above 8% — and much worse when we dig under the surface and see that the real rate is at least 11.7%, if not 14.7% or an even higher figure when we take into account those who have given up looking and claimed disability — has made QE3 seem like an inevitability for many analysts.

Reuters:

U.S. Treasuries rallied on Friday after a weaker-than-expected August U.S. jobs report boosted hopes that the Federal Reserve would buy more bonds to help shift the economy into a gear that could create higher employment.

Goldman Sachs:

We now anticipate that the FOMC will announce a return to unsterilized asset purchases (QE3), mainly agency mortgage-backed securities but potentially including Treasury securities, at its September 12-13 FOMC meeting. We previously forecasted QE3 in December or early 2013. We continue to expect a lengthening of the FOMC’s forward guidance for the first hike in the funds rate from “late 2014” to mid-2015 or beyond.

Jim Rickards:

Fed easing on Sept 13th is a done deal.

Nouriel Roubini:

Quite dismal employment report confirming anemic US economic growth. QE3 is only a matter of when not whether, most likely in December.

Gold has shot up, too, the way it has done multiple times when the market has sensed further easing:

The thing I can’t get my head around, though, is why the Federal Reserve are even considering a continuation of quantitative easing. Here’s why:

If the point of the earlier rounds of quantitative easing was to ease lending conditions by giving the financial system a liquidity cushion, then quantitative easing failed because the financial system already has a huge and historically unprecedented liquidity cushion, and lending remains depressed. Why would even more easing ease lending conditions when the financial sector is already sitting on a massive cushion of liquidity?

If the point of the earlier rounds of quantitative easing was to discourage the holding of treasuries and other “safe” assets (I wouldn’t call treasuries a safe asset at all, but that’s another story for another day) and encourage risk taking, then quantitative easing failed because the financial sector is piling into treasuries (and anything else the Fed intends to buy at a price floor) in the hope of flipping assetsto the Fed balance sheet and eking out a profit.

If the point of quantitative easing was to provide enough  liquidity to keep the massive, earth-shatteringly large debt load serviceable, then quantitative easing succeeded — but the “success” of sustaining the crippling debt load is that it remains a huge burden weighing down on the economy like a tonne of bricks.  This “success” has turned markets into junkies, increasingly dependent on central bank liquidity injections. After QE3 will come more and more and more easing until the market has either successfully managed to deleverage to a sustainable level (and Japan’s total debt level as a percentage of GDP remains higher than it was in 1991, even after 20 years of painful deleveraging — so there is no guarantee whatever that this will occur any time soon), or until central banks give up and let markets liquidate. Quantitative easing’s “success” has been a junkie recovery and a zombie market.

As I see it, the West’s economic depression is being directly caused by an excessive total debt burden — just as Japan’s has been for twenty years; the bust occurred on the back of a huge outgrowth of debt and coincided with the beginning of a painful new era of deleveraging. And the central bank response has been to preserve the debt burden, thus perpetuating the problems rather than allowing them to clear in a short burst of deflationary liquidation as was the norm in the 18th and 19th centuries.

Central banks have been given ample opportunity to demonstrate the effectiveness of reflationism. And yet economic activity remains depressed both in the West and Japan.