Milton Friedman used to talk about an interest rate fallacy – that people confuse low interest rates with easy monetary policy. However, I believe that we today are facing an even bigger fallacy – the exchange rate fallacy.
The problem is that many commentators, journalists, economists and policy makers think that exchange rate movements in some way are a zero sum game. If one country’s currency weakens then other countries lose competitiveness. In a world with sticky prices and wages that is of course correct in the short-term. However, what is not correct is that monetary easing that leads to currency depreciation hurts other countries.
Easing monetary conditions is about increasing domestic demand (or NGDP). In open economies a side effect can be a weakening of the country’s currency. However, any negative impact on other countries can always be counteracted by that country’s central bank. The Federal Reserve determines nominal GDP in the US. The Bank of Mexico determines Mexican NGDP. It is of course correct that strengthening of the Mexican peso against the US dollar can impact Mexican exports to the US, but the Fed can never “overrule” Banxico when it comes to determining NGDP in Mexico. This of course is a variation of the Sumner Critique – that the fiscal multiplier is zero if the central bank directly or indirectly targets aggregate demand (through for example inflation targeting or NGDP level targeting). Similarly the “export multiplier” is zero as the central bank always has the last word when it comes to aggregate demand. For a discussion of the US-Mexican monetary transmission mechanism see here.
At the core of the problem is that most people tend to think of economics in paleo-Keynesian terms – or what I earlier have termed national account economics. Luckily not everybody thinks like this. A good example of somebody who is able to understand something other than “national account economics” is former Swiss central banker Philipp Hildebrand.
Hildebrand has a great comment on FT.com on why there is “No such thing as a global currency war”.
Here is Hildebrand:
As finance ministers and central bankers make their way to this week’s Group of 20 leading nations meeting in Moscow, some of them may find it impossible to resist the temptation to grab headlines by lamenting a new round of “currency wars”. They should resist, for there is no such thing as a currency war.
This is because central banks are simply doing what they are meant to do and what they have always done. They set monetary policy consistent with their domestic mandates. All that has changed since the crisis is that central banks have had to resort to unconventional measures in an effort to revive wounded economies.
In the US, for example, the unemployment rate is 2 percentage points above its postwar average. In the UK, output remains 3 per cent below its level at the end of 2007.
In both of these countries, the remits given to the central banks make their responsibility clear: to take action to provide economic stimulus. The US Federal Reserve, for example, has responsibility to “promote effectively the goals of maximum employment, stable prices and moderate long-term interest rates”. In the UK, the Bank of England’s main objective is to maintain price stability. But subject to that, it is required to “support the economic policy of Her Majesty’s government, including its objectives for growth and employment”.
Japan’s problems are different in nature, and longer in the making. Japanese inflation has been negative, on average, for well over a decade. It is an environment that would not be tolerated in any other developed economy. The recently signalled desire for inflation of 2 per cent is hardly a leap towards monetary unorthodoxy, let alone an act of war.
One can sympathise with emerging economies with floating exchange rates, which may feel they are bearing too much of the burden of adjustment. But surely the answer is not for developed economy central banks to turn away from their remits. Rather, it is for emerging economies to focus their own monetary policy on sensible domestic remits, with their exchange rates free to be determined in the market.
There is one small and particularly open economy where sustained currency movements were not merely the consequence of conventional or unconventional monetary policy measures but where the central bank opted to influence the exchange rate directly. In September 2011, when I was chairman of the Swiss National Bank, it announced that it would no longer tolerate an exchange rate below 1.20 Swiss francs to the euro – and to enforce that minimum rate it would be prepared to buy foreign currency in unlimited quantities.
If Mexico had a problem with US monetary easing then Banxico could simply copy the policies of SNB – and put a floor under USD/MXN. However, I doubt that that will be necessary as Mexican inflation is running slightly above Banxico’s inflation target and the prospects for Mexican growth are quite good.
The monetary policy battles that have been fought and continue to be fought in so many economies are domestic ones. They are fights against weak demand, high unemployment and deflationary pressures. A greater danger to the world economy would in fact arise if central banks did not engage in these internal battles. These monetary battles are justified and fully embedded in legal mandates. They are not currency wars.
“Experience from previous, politically induced depreciations show that they don’t normally lead to a sustained increase in competitiveness,” Weidmann said. “Often, more and more depreciations are necessary. If more and more countries try to depress their currency, it will end in a depreciation competition, which will only produce losers.”
In consequence of the competitive advantage gained by a country’s manufacturers from a depreciation of its currency, any such depreciation is only too likely to meet with recriminations and even retaliation from its competitors. . . . Fears are even expressed that if one country starts depreciation, and others follow suit, there may result “a competitive depreciation” to which no end can be seen.
This competitive depreciation is an entirely imaginary danger. The benefit that a country derives from the depreciation of its currency is in the rise of its price level relative to its wage level, and does not depend on its competitive advantage. If other countries depreciate their currencies, its competitive advantage is destroyed, but the advantage of the price level remains both to it and to them. They in turn may carry the depreciation further, and gain a competitive advantage. But this race in depreciation reaches a natural limit when the fall in wages and in the prices of manufactured goods in terms of gold has gone so far in all the countries concerned as to regain the normal relation with the prices of primary products. When that occurs, the depression is over, and industry is everywhere remunerative and fully employed. Any countries that lag behind in the race will suffer from unemployment in their manufacturing industry. But the remedy lies in their own hands; all they have to do is to depreciate their currencies to the extent necessary to make the price level remunerative to their industry. Their tardiness does not benefit their competitors, once these latter are employed up to capacity. Indeed, if the countries that hang back are an important part of the world’s economic system, the result must be to leave the disparity of price levels partly uncorrected, with undesirable consequences to everybody. . .
How much better the world would be had the central bankers of today read Cassel and Hawtrey and studied a bit of monetary history. Hildebrand did, Weidmann did not.
PS if the Fed and the BoJ’s recent actions are so terrible that they can be termed a currency war – imagine what would happen if the Fed and the BoJ had decided appreciate the dollar and the yen by lets say 20%. My guess is that we would be sitting on a major sovereign and banking crisis in the euro zone right now. Or maybe everybody has forgot the “reverse currency war” of 2008 when the dollar and the yen strengthened dramatically. Look how well that ended.
Is monetary easing (devaluation) a hostile act?
Bring on the “Currency war”
The Fed’s easing is working…in Mexico
Mises was clueless about the effects of devaluation
The luck of the ‘Scandies’
Exchange rates and monetary policy – it’s not about competitiveness: Some Argentine lessons
Fiscal devaluation – a terrible idea that will never work