The exchange rate fallacy: Currency war or a race to save the global economy?

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Faced with a stubbornly slow and uneven global economic recovery, more countries are likely to resort to cutting the value of their currencies in order to gain a competitive edge.

Japan has set the stage for a potential global currency war, announcing plans to create money and buy bonds as the government of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe looks to stimulate the moribund growth pace…

Economists in turn are expecting others to follow that lead, setting off a battle that would benefit those that get out of the gate quickest but likely hamper the nascent global recovery and the relatively robust stock market.

This pretty much is what I would call the ‘exchange rate fallacy’ – hence the belief that monetary easing in someway is a zero sum game where monetary easing works through an “unfair” competitiveness channel and one country’s gain is another country’s lose.

Lets take the arguments one-by-one.

“…countries are likely to resort to cutting the value of their currencies in order to gain a competitive edge.”

The perception here is that monetary policy primarily works through a “competitiveness channel” where a monetary easing leads to a weakening of the currency and this improve the competitiveness of the nation by weakening the real value of the currency. The problem with this argument is first of all that this only works if there is no increase in prices and wages. It is of course reasonable to assume that that is the case in the short-run as prices and wages tend to be sticky. However, empirically such gains are minor.

I think a good illustration of this is relative performance of Danish and Swedish exports in 2008-9. When crisis hit in 2008 the Swedish krona weakened sharply as the Riksbank moved to cut interest rates aggressive and loudly welcomed the weakening of the krona. On the other hand Denmark continued to operate it’s pegged exchange rate regime vis-a-vis the euro. In other words Sweden initially got a massive boost to it’s competitiveness position versus Denmark.

However, take a look at the export performance of the two countries in the graph below.

Starting in Q3 2008 both Danish and Swedish exports plummeted. Yes, Swedish dropped slightly less than Danish exports but one can hardly talk about a large difference when it is taken into account how much the Swedish krona weakened compared to the Danish krone.

And it is also obvious that such competitiveness advantage is likely to be fairly short-lived as inflation and wage growth sooner or later will pick up and erode any short-term gains from a weakening of the currency.

The important difference between Denmark and Sweden in 2008-9 was hence not the performance of exports.

The important difference on the other hand the performance of domestic demand. Just have a look at private consumption in Sweden and Denmark in the same period.


It is very clear that Swedish private consumption took a much smaller hit than Danish private consumption in 2008-9 and consistently has grown stronger in the following years.

The same picture emerges if we look at investment growth – here the difference it just much bigger.


The difference between the performance of the Danish economy and the Swedish economy during the Great Recession hence have very little to do with export performance and everything to do with domestic demand.

Yes, initially Sweden gained a competitive advantage over Denmark, but the major difference was that Riksbanken was not constrained in it ability to ease monetary policy by a pegged exchange rate in the same way as the Danish central bank (Nationalbanken) was.

(For more on Denmark and Sweden see my earlier post The luck of the ‘Scandies’)

Hence, we should not see the exchange rate as a measure of competitiveness, but rather as an indicator of monetary policy “tightness”.When the central bank moves to ease monetary policy the country’s currency will tend to ease, but the major impact on aggregate demand will not be stronger export performance, but rather stronger growth in domestic demand. There are of course numerous examples of this in monetary history. I have earlier discussed the case of the Argentine devaluation in 2001 that boosted domestic demand rather exports. The same happened in the US when FDR gave up the gold standard in 1931. Therefore, when journalists and commentators focus on the relationship between monetary easing, exchange rates and “competitiveness” they are totally missing the point.

The ‘foolproof’ way out of deflation

That does not mean that the exchange rate is not important, but we should not think of the exchange rate in any other way than other monetary policy instruments like interest rates. Both can lead to a change in the money base (the core monetary policy instrument) and give guidance about future changes in the money base.

With interest rates effectively stuck at zero in many developed economies central banks needs to use other instruments to escape deflation. So far the major central banks of the world has focused on “quantitative easing” – increasing in the money base by buying (domestic) financial assets such as government bonds. However, another way to increase the money base is obviously to buy foreign assets – such as foreign currency or foreign bonds. Hence, there is fundamentally no difference between the Bank of Japan buying Japanese government bonds and buying foreign bonds (or currency). It is both channels for increasing the money base to get out of deflation.

In fact on could argue that the exchange rate channel is a lot more “effective” channel of monetary expansion than “regular” QE as exchange rate intervention is a more transparent and direct way for the central bank to signal it’s intentions to ease monetary policy, but fundamentally it is just another way of monetary easing.

It therefore is somewhat odd that many commentators and particularly financial journalists don’t seem to realise that FX intervention is just another form of monetary easing and that it is no less “hostile” than other forms of monetary easing. If the Federal Reserve buys US government treasuries it will lead to a weakening of dollar in the same way it would do if the Fed had been buying Spanish government bonds. There is no difference between the two. Both will lead to an expansion of the money base and to a weaker dollar.

“Economists in turn are expecting others to follow that lead, setting off a battle that would benefit those that get out of the gate quickest but likely hamper the nascent global recovery and the relatively robust stock market”

This quote is typical of the stories about “currency war”. Monetary easing is seen as a zero sum game and only the first to move will gain, but it will be on the expense of other countries. This argument completely misses the point. Monetary easing is not a zero sum game – in fact in an quasi-deflationary world with below trend-growth a currency war is in fact a race to save the world.

Just take a look at Europe. Since September both the Federal Reserve and the Bank of Japan have moved towards a dramatically more easy monetary stance, while the ECB has continue to drag its feet. In that sense one can say that that the US and Japan have started a “currency war” against Europe and the result has been that both the yen and the dollar have been weakened against the euro. However, the question is whether Europe is better off today than prior to the “currency war”. Anybody in the financial markets would tell you that Europe is doing better today than half  a year ago and European can thank the Bank of Japan and the Fed for that.

So how did monetary easing in the US and Japan help the euro zone? Well, it is really pretty simple. Monetary easing (and the expectation of further monetary easing) in Japan and the US as push global investors to look for higher returns outside of the US and Japan. They have found the higher returns in for example the Spanish and Irish bond markets. As a result funding costs for the Spanish and Irish governments have dropped significantly and as a result greatly eased the tensions in the European financial markets. This likely is pushing up money velocity in the euro zone, which effectively is monetary easing (remember MV=PY) – this of course is paradoxically what is now making the ECB think that it should (prematurely!) “redraw accommodation”.

The ECB and European policy makers should therefore welcome the monetary easing from the Fed and the BoJ. It is not an hostile act. In fact it is very helpful in easing the European crisis.

If the more easy monetary stance in Japan and US was an hostile act then one should have expected to see the European markets take a beating. That have, however, not happened. In fact both the European fixed income and equity markets have rallied strongly on particularly the new Japanese government’s announcement that it want the Bank of Japan to step up monetary easing.

So it might be that some financial journalists and policy makers are scare about the prospects for currency war, but investors on the other hand are jubilant.

If you don’t need monetary easing – don’t import it

Concluding, I strongly believe that a global “currency war” is very good news given the quasi-deflationary state of the European economy and so far Prime Minister Abe and Fed governor Bernanke have done a lot more to get the euro zone out of the crisis than any European central banker has done and if European policy makers don’t like the strengthening of the euro the ECB can just introduce quantitative easing. That would curb the strengthening of the euro, but more importantly it would finally pull the euro zone out of the crisis.

Hence, at the moment Europe is importing monetary easing from the US and Japan despite the euro has been strengthening. That is good news for the European economy as monetary easing is badly needed. However, other countries might not need monetary easing.

As I discussed in my recent post on Mexico a country can decide to import or not to import monetary easing by allowing the currency to strengthen or not. If the Mexican central bank don’t want to import monetary easing from the US then it can simply allow the peso strengthen in response to the Fed’s monetary easing.

Currency war is not a threat to the global economy, but rather it is what could finally pull the global economy out of this crisis – now we just need the ECB to join the war.

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  1. Benjamin Cole

     /  January 21, 2013

    Great blogging—and who, off the top of their head, would have said the average Swede has upped /his/her consumption 15 percent since 2008?

    Print more money, honey.

  2. faith

     /  January 21, 2013

    Hard to take you seriously if you make simple spelling mistakes. It’s “belief” not “believe”.

  3. Petar Sisko

     /  January 22, 2013

    Great post and thank you! It really puts things into perspective – especially the part with the importing of the easing. I find ECBs not doing anything didnt only hit Eurozone, but it also had consequences outside of the Euro Area. You were mentioning Latvia, but also in my country (Croatia).Would you agree that basically all the countries with pegged exchange rates “imported” ECBs failures to act?
    Now, as Scott Sumner somewhere noted, small open economies don’t always suffer only from monetary shocks, but in these cases they can be hit by real shocks due to strong connection of the economies (I think he was giving an example of wood exports in Latvia), so “domestic” monetary easing will not solve all the demand problems but can help domestic demand, as it did in Sweden (as you showed).

    • Petar,

      I disagree with Scott on this. All demand shocks are monetary shocks and it actually follows from the so-called Sumner critique. Lets say that the demand for wood products increase. That would tend to strengthen the Latvian lat. The central bank then will have to choose whether or not that should lead to an increase in aggregate demand. If the Latvian central bank is targeting an inflation target or an NGDP target then it will off-set the export impulse by targeting monetary policy and as a consequence there would be no impact on aggregate demand.

      However, in fixed exchange rate regime a positive export impluse would tend the central bank to ease monetary policy to keep the currency from strengthening. Hence, it would be the “automatic” monetary easing that causes aggregate demand to increase rather than the positive shock to for example Latvian wood exports. Latvia of course is operating a (quasi) currency board.

      In the case of the ECB it is very clear that countries like Denmark and the Baltics – and partly Croatia – is importing the monetary policy of the ECB and therefore also the monetary policy mistakes of the ECB.

      In the case of Croatia the Croatian central bank (CNB) is not operating a traditional fixed exchange rate regime, but rather a quite unique managed floating exchange rate regime, which at the moment is leading the CNB to import overly tight monetary policy from the ECB. The CNB could at any time get the Croatian economy out of the slump by engiring a weakening of the Croatian kuna.

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