The increasing drift toward a ‘currency war’ should worry just about everyone. And it is remarkable given that we already went through this in the 1930s – a collective disaster for all involved, and which everyone realized afterwards was a huge error. Yet here are on the cusp of another round of beggar-thy-neighbor devaluation rounds as everyone seeks to export their way out of the recession.
In case you don’t know the history, start here. Just about everyone learns this story in Econ 101, but here is the quick version: The Great Depression struck in 1929, and everyone panicked. In that sort of adverse environment, everyone starts to save. This is individually rational, as savings represent a hedge against suddenly increased uncertainty about the future. You see that same thing today in the US as Americans are suddenly saving again to pay off their housing and credit card debt in order to get financially sounder. Unfortunately, as people save, they are not spending, and their spending ultimately creates jobs. When you buy stuff at Walmart, a whole slew of people got their jobs to bring you whatever it is that you just bought. This is the well-known paradox of thrift: while it is rational for you the individual to save ask a hedge against the future, if everyone does that, then our collective future gets that much worse because all that missing consumer spending (demand) eventually creates unemployment (less need for supply). Again, this is what is happening today in the US. As Americans retrench on their spending very suddenly and sharply (household savings rates have jumped something like 5% in 24 months), you get a consequent drop in the need for supply. That in turn means you don’t need so many workers to make that supply anymore, so people get fired. US unemployment has therefore suddenly spiked as savings rates spiked.
One good way out of this recessionary trap (high savings –> high unemployment –> worsening economy –> even more fear about the future –> more savings) is to export to others. If others buy your stuff, then you keep all the employment (to supply the foreigners’ demand), but your own consumer can still continue to save. It is a tempting way out that squares the mathematical circle in which, in a closed economy, savings must equal unemployment. But with exports, you can have your cake and eat it too; ie, the economists’ expression ‘export your way out of a recession.’ Now, a good way to make your exports cheaper is for your currency to be cheap against other currencies. Then your stuff is cheaper for foreigners to buy. It is therefore tempting for governments in recession to intervene artificially in currency markets to keep their currencies cheap, indeed maybe even undervalued (China today). Because a cheaper currency means cheaper exports means a quicker route out of recession. And in the 1930s, everybody tried to do this. But just like the paradox of thrift, if everyone tries to cheapen their currency, then no one’s currency becomes cheaper, and very quickly you can get a cycle of government-forced exchange rate devaluations across the board as everyone tries to get a price advantage over everyone else. We call this ‘beggar-thy-neighbor.’
It is now universally acknowledged by just about everyone (except Marxists I suppose) that this was a disaster that lengthened the Great Depression considerably. This intellectual consensus lies behind the creation of the IMF, and the IMF museum (next to the lobby in the Fund building) walks the visitor through this in excellent detail.
And now we are doing it all over again.
So much for learning from history and all that…
This time it is mostly Asians to blame. China, SK, and Japan all intervene regularly (‘fine-tuning’ they call it in SK) to keep their currencies lower than the market would otherwise say. China of course is the worst, and it is leading to some genuinely desperate policy ideas on what to do.
This leads me to two conclusions. First, it is evidence that global governance (GG) continues to fail. The G-20 squabbling over exchange rates so perfectly fits what we know states shouldn’t do, yet they are doing it anyway. This – along with the astonishing, ‘I-don’t-give-a-damn-what-the-world-thinks’ Bush unilateralism – tells me that GG was a dream of the 1990s that is fading fast. Second it tells me that the only answer is cultural change in Asian attitudes toward imports. For decades, a trade surplus (and if necessary, an undervalued currency) were not just natural outcomes of market processes, but an explicit statist-developmental goal wrapped in nationalism. A trade surplus is a mark of national pride and success in the world, and if Asian consumers must be punished with high prices and higher savings to get it, then so be it. In Korea, I see this ‘imports-are-bad’ everyday; contrast that with the American love of cheap Chinese stuff at Walmart. Given that barrier to Asian rebalancing is a cultural one – getting Asians to accept imports without mercantilist-nationalist distaste – that rebalancing is likely to take a long time. Culture changes slowly.