I have been giving the issue of devaluation a bit of attention recently. In my view most people fail to understand the monetary aspects of currency moves – both within a floating exchange rate regime and with managed or pegged exchange regimes.
I have already in my post “Exchange rates and monetary policy – it’s not about competitiveness: Some Argentine lessons” argued that what we should focus on when we are talking about the effects of devaluation is the impact on the money supply and on money-velocity rather than on “competitiveness”. In my post “Mises was clueless about the effects of devaluation” I argued that Ludwig von Mises basically did not fully comprehend the monetary nature of devaluations.
The failure to understand the monetary nature of devaluation often lead to a wrongful analysis of the impact of giving up pegged exchange rates or leaving a currency union – or for that matter giving up the gold standard. It also leads to a very wrong analysis of what has been called “competitive devaluations” – a situation where different countries basically are moving to weaken their own currencies at the same time. This discussion flared up in the second half of 2010 when (the expectations of) QE2 from the Federal Reserve triggered a strengthening of especially a number of Emerging Market currencies. Many EM central banks moved to counteract the strengthening of their currencies by cutting interest rates and intervening in the FX markets – basically undertaking QE on their own. Brazilian Finance Minister Guido Mantega even talked about currency war (and he has apparently just redeclared currency war…)
However, the term “currency war” is highly misleading. In a world of depressed global NGDP and deflationary tendencies there is no problem in competitive devaluations. The critiques would argue that not all countries can devalue and that the net impact on global economic activity therefore would be zero. This, however, is far from right. As I have earlier argued devaluation is not primarily about competitiveness, but rather about the impact on monetary conditions. Hence, if countries compete to devalue they basically compete to increase the money supply and velocity. This obviously is very positive if there is a general global problem of depressed nominal spending. Hence by all means bring on the currency war! Furthermore, it should be noted that in a situation where there is financial sector problems it is likely that the transmission mechanism would work much stronger through the FX channel than through the credit channel. See my related post on this here.
Imagine this highly unrealistic scenario. The ECB tomorrow announces a target for EUR/USD of 1.00 and announce it will buy US assets to achieve this target. The purpose would be to increase the euro zone’s nominal GDP by 15% and the ECB would only end its policy once this target is achieved. As counter-policy the Federal Reserve announces that it will do the opposite and buy European assets until EUR/USD hits 1.80 and that it will not stop this policy before US NGDP has been increased by 15%. Leave aside the political implications of this (the US congress would freak out…) what would happen? Well basically the Fed would be doing QE in Europe and ECB would be doing QE in the US. EUR/USD would probably not move much, but I am pretty sure inflation expectations would spike and global stock markets would increase strongly. But most important NGDP would increase sharply and fast hit the 15% target in both the euro zone and the US. Obviously this policy could lead to all kind of unwarranted side-effects and I would certainly not recommend it, but it is a illustration that we should not be too unhappy if we have “friendly” currency war. By “friendly” I mean that the currency war does not trigger capital restrictions and other kind of interventionist policy and that is clearly a risk. However, it is preferable to the present situation of depressed global NGDP.
A currency war begins, simply enough, when a country decides to push down the value of its currency. This means either printing money or just threatening to print money. A cheaper currency makes exports cheaper, and more competitive exports means more growth and happier people. Well, everybody except people in other countries who were just undersold and lost exports. That’s why economists call this kind of devaluation a “beggar-thy-neighbor” policy: Countries boost exports at the expense of others.
This sounds bad. Rather than cooperating, countries are fighting over trade. But in this case, some fighting is good, and more fighting is better. Countries that lose exports want to get them back. And the best way to do that is to devalue their own currencies too. This, of course, causes more countries to lose exports. They also want to get their exports back, so they also push down their currencies. It’s devaluation all the way down. All thanks to economic peer pressure.
The downside of devaluation is that no country gains a real trade advantage, and weaker currencies means the prices of commodities like oil shoot. But — and here’s the really important part — devaluing means printing money. There isn’t enough money in the world. That’s the simple and true reason why the global economy fell into crisis and has been so slow to recover. It’s also the simple and true reason why the Great Depression was so devastating. We know from the 1930s that such competitive devaluation can turn things around.
War is good if it creates more of something you want. A “charity war” between friends is good because it leads to more donations. A currency war is good because it leads to more money. If war is politics by other means, a currency war is stimulus by other means.
So true, so true. So next time somebody starts to worry about “currency war” please tell them that is exactly what we want and for those countries where monetary policy is not too tight tell them to let their currencies appreciate. It will not do them harm. Is monetary policy is already too loose currency appreciation will be a welcomed tightening of monetary conditions.
PS you obviously don’t want to see competitive devaluations in a world of high inflation. That is what happened during the 1970s, but we can hardly talk of high inflation today – at least not in the US and the euro zone.