Is monetary easing (devaluation) a hostile act?

One of the great things about blogging is that people comment on your posts and thereby challenge your views and at the same time create new ideas for blog posts. Therefore I want to thank commentator Max for the following response to my previous post:

“I don’t think exchange rate intervention is a good idea for a large country. For one thing, it’s a hostile act given that other countries have exactly the same issue. And it can’t work without their cooperation, since they have the power to undo the intervention.” 

Let me start out by saying that Max is wrong on both accounts, but I would also acknowledge that both views are more or less the “consensus” view of devaluations and my view – which is based on the monetary approach to balance of payments and exchange rates – is the minority view. Let me address the two issues separately.

Is monetary easing a hostile act?

In his comment Max describes a devaluation as a hostile act towards other countries. This is a very common view and it is often said that it is a reflection of a beggar-thy-neighbour policy for a country to devalue its currency. I have two comments on that.

First, if a devaluation is a hostile act then all forms of monetary easing are hostile acts as any form of monetary easing is likely to lead to a weakening of the currency. Let’s for example assume that the Federal Reserve tomorrow announced that it would buy unlimited amounts of US equities and it would continue to do so until US nominal GDP had increased 15%. I am pretty sure that would lead to a massive weakening of the US dollar. In fact we can basically define monetary easing as a situation where the supply of the currency is increased relative to the demand for the currency. Said, in another way if the currency weakens it is a pretty good indication that monetary conditions are getting easier.

Second, I have often argued that the impact of a devaluation does not primarily work through an improvement in the country’s competitiveness. In fact the purpose of the devaluation should be to increase prices (and wages) and hence nominal GDP. An increase in prices and wages can hardly be said to be an improvement of competitiveness. It is correct that if prices and wages are sticky then you might get an initial real depreciation of the currency, however that impact is not really important compared to the monetary impact. Hence, a devaluation will lead to an increase in the money supply (that is how you engineer the devaluation) and likely also to an increase in money-velocity as inflation expectations increase. Empirically that is much more important than any possible competitiveness effect.

A good example of how the monetary effect dominates the competitiveness effect: the Argentine devaluation in 2002 actually led to a deterioration of the Argentine trade balance and what really was the driver of the recovery was the sharp pickup in domestic demand due to an increase in the money supply and money-velocity rather than an improvement in exports. See my previous comment on the episode here. When the US gave up the gold standard in 1933 the story was the same – the monetary effect strongly dominated the competitiveness effect.

Yet another example of the monetary effect of a devaluation dominating the competitiveness effect is Denmark and Sweden in 2008-9. It is a common misunderstanding that Sweden grew stronger than Denmark in 2008-9 because a sharp depreciation of the Swedish krona led to a massive improvement in competitiveness. It is correct that Swedish competitiveness was improved due to the weakening of the krona, but this was not the main reason for Sweden’s relatively fast recovery from the crisis. The real reason was that Sweden did not see any substantial decline in money-velocity and the Swedish money supply grew relatively steadily through the crisis.

Looking at Swedish exports in 2008-9 it is very hard to spot any advantage from the depreciation of the krona. In fact Swedish exports did more or less as badly as Danish exports in 2008-9 despite the fact that the Danish krone did not depreciate due to Denmark’s fixed exchange rate regime. However, looking at domestic demand there was a much sharper contraction in Danish private consumption and investment than was the case in Sweden. This difference can easily be explained by the sharp monetary contraction in Denmark in 2008-9 (both a drop in M and V).

Furthermore, let’s assume that the Federal Reserve announced massive intervention in the FX market to weaken the US dollar and the result was a sharp increase in US nominal GDP. Would the rest of the world be worse off? I doubt it. Yes, the likely impact would be that for example German exports would get under pressure as the euro would strengthen dramatically against the dollar. However, nothing would stop the ECB from also undertaking monetary easing to counteract the strengthening of the euro. This is what somebody calls “competitive devaluations” or even “currency war”. However, in a deflationary environment such “currency war” should be welcomed as it basically would be a competition to print money. Hence, the “net result” of currency war would not be any change in competitiveness, but an increase in the global money supply (and global money-velocity) and hence in global nominal GDP. Who would be against that and in a situation where the global economy continues to contract and as such a currency war like that would be very welcomed news. In fact we can not really talk about a “war” as it would be mutually beneficial. So I say please bring on the currency war!

Is global monetary cooperation needed? No, but…

This brings us to Max’s second argument: “And it can’t work without their cooperation, since they have the power to undo the intervention.

This is obviously related to the discussion above. Max seems to think a devaluation will not work if it is met by “competitive devaluations” from all other countries. As I have argued above this is completely wrong. It would work as the devaluation will increase the money supply and money-velocity even if the devaluation has no impact on competitiveness at all. As a result there is no need for international monetary cooperation. In fact healthy competition among currencies is exactly what we need. In fact every time the major nations of the world have gotten together to agree on realigning exchange rates it has had major negative consequences.

However, there is one argument for international coordination that I think is extremely important and that is the need for cooperation to avoid “competitive protectionism”. The problem is that most global policy makers perceive devaluations in the same way as Max. They see devaluations as hostile acts and therefore these policy makers might react to devaluations by introducing trade tariffs and other protectionist measures. This is what happened in the 1930s where especially the (foolish) countries which maintained the gold standard reacted by introducing trade tariffs against for example the UK and the Scandinavian countries, which early on gave up the gold standard.

Unfortunately Mitt Romney seems to think as Max

Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney has said that his first act as US president would be to slap tariffs on China for being a “currency manipulator”. Here is what Romney recently said:

“If I’m president, I will label China a currency manipulator and apply tariffs” wherever needed “to stop them from unfair trade practices”

The discussion above should show clearly that Romney’s comments on China’s currency policy is economically meaningless – or rather extremely dangerous. Imagine what would be the impact on the US economy if China tomorrow announced a 40% (just to pick a number) revaluation of the yuan. To engineer this the People’s Bank of China would have to cause a sharp contraction in the Chinese money supply and money-velocity. The result would undoubtedly throw China into a massive recession – or more likely a depression. You can only wonder what that would do to US exports to China and to US employment. Obviously this would be massively negative for the US economy.

Furthermore, a sharp appreciation of the yuan would effectively be a massive negative supply shock to the US economy as US import prices would skyrocket. Given the present (wrongful) thinking of the Federal Reserve, that might even trigger monetary tightening as US inflation would pick up. In other words the US might face stagflation and I am pretty sure that Romney would have no friends left on Wall Street if that where to happen and he would certainly not be reelected in four years.

I hope that Romney has some economic advisors that realize the insanity of forcing China to a massive appreciation of the yuan. Unfortunately I do not have high hope that there is an understanding of these issues in today’s Republican Party – as it was the case in 1930 when two Republican lawmakers Senator Reed Smoot and Representative Willis C. Hawley sponsored the draconian and very damaging Smoot-Hawley tariff act.

Finally, thanks to Max for your comments. I hope you appreciate that I do not think that you would like the same kind of protectionist policies as Mitt Romney, but I do think that when we get it wrong on the monetary impact of devaluations we might end up with the kind of policy response that Mitt Romney is suggesting. And no, this is no endorsement of President Obama – I think my readers fully understand that. Furthermore to Max, I do appreciate your comments even though I disagree on this exact topic.

PS if you want to learn more about the policy dynamics that led to Smoot-Hawley you should have a look at Doug Irwin’s great little book “Peddling Protectionism: Smoot-Hawley and the Great Depression”.

Update: Scott Sumner has a similar discussion of the effects of devaluation.
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