The ‘dollar bloc’ was never an optimal currency area and now it is falling apart

Global stock markets are in a 2008ish kind of crash today and I really don’t have much time to write this, but I just want to share my take on it.

To me this is fundamentally about the in-optimal currency union between the US and China. From 1995 until 2005 the Chinese renminbi was more or less completely pegged to the US dollar and then from 2005 until recently the People’s Bank of China implemented a gradual managed appreciation of the RMB against the dollar.

This was going well as long as supply side factors – the opening of the Chinese economy and the catching up process – helped Chinese growth.

Hence, China went through one long continues positive supply shock that lasted from the mid-1990s and until 2006 when Chinese trend growth started to slow. With a pegged exchange rate a positive supply causes a real appreciation of the currency. However, as RMB has been (quasi)pegged to the dollar this appreciation had to happen through domestic monetary easing and higher inflation and higher nominal GDP growth. This process was accelerated when China joined WTO in 2001.

As a consequence of the dollar peg and the long, gradual positive supply shock Chinese nominal GDP growth accelerated dramatically from 2000 until 2008.

However, underlying something was happening – Chinese trend growth was slowing due to negative supply side headwinds primarily less catch-up potential and the beginning impact of negative labour force growth and the financial markets have long ago realized that Chinese potential growth is going to slow rather dramatically in the coming decades.

As a consequence the potential for real appreciation of the renminbi is much smaller. In fact there might be good arguments for real depreciation as Chinese growth is fast falling below trend growth, while trend itself is slowing.

With an quasi-pegged exchange rate like the renminbi real depreciation will have to happen through lower inflation – hence through monetary tightening. And this I believe is part of what we have been seeing in the last 2-3 years.

The US and China is not an optimal currency area and therefore the renminbi should of course not be pegged to the dollar. That was a problem when monetary conditions became excessively easy in China ahead of 2008 (and that is a big part of the commodity boom in that period), but it is an even bigger problem now when China is facing structural headwinds.

Yellen was the trigger

Hence, the underlying cause of the sell-off we have seen recently in the Chinese and global stock markets really is a result of the fact that the US and China is not an optimal currency area and as Chinese trend growth is slowing monetary conditions is automatically tightened in China due to the quasi-peg against the dollar.

This of course is being made a lot worse by the fact that the Fed for some time has become increasingly hawkish, which as caused an strong appreciation of the dollar – and due to the quasi-peg also of the renminbi. And worse still – in July Fed chair Janet Yellen signaled that the Fed would likely hike the Fed funds rate in September. This to me was the trigger of the latest round of turmoil, but the origin of the problem is a structural slowdown in China and the fact China is not an optimal currency area.

China should de-peg and Yellen should postpone rate hikes

Obviously the Chinese authorities would love the Fed to postpone rate hikes or even ease monetary policy. This would clearly ease the pressures on the Chinese economy and markets, but it is also clear that the Fed of course should not conduct monetary policy for China.

So in the same way that it is a problem the Germany and Greece are in a monetary union together it is a problem that China and the US are in a quasi-currency union. Therefore, the Chinese should of course give up the dollar peg and let the renminbi float freely and my guess is that will be the outcome in the end. The only question is whether the Chinese authorities will blow up something on the way or not.

Finally, it is now also very clear that this is a global negative demand shock and this is having negative ramifications for US demand growth – this is clearly visible in today’s stock market crash, massively lower inflation expectations and the collapse of commodity prices. The Fed should ease rather than tighten monetary policy and the same goes for the ECB by the way. If the ECB and Fed fail to realize this then the risk of a 2008 style event increases dramatically.

We should remember today as the day where the ‘dollar bloc’ fell apart.

PS I have earlier argued that China might NEVER become biggest economy in the world. Recent events are a pretty good indication that that view is correct and I was equally right that you shouldn’t bet on a real appreciation of the renminbi.


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  1. Collin

     /  August 24, 2015

    Of China and the US are not an optimal currency union as we don’t the fiscal budgets and we don’t have the freedom of labor. But how is this Janet Yellen’s Fault for signalling September rate increases. If we have learned anyting about the Fed, the market like shadow puppets of future moves to cushion the blow of changes. (Although Volker is BIG hero today, but he caught hell for Saturday Night Speical years ago.)

    Why is not China fault for PEG to the dollar?

  2. James Alexander

     /  August 24, 2015

    Excellent post. Was thinking the same, hopefully complementary.

  3. talldave2

     /  August 24, 2015

    Suspect NGPLT becomes more important when labor force is declining, that monetary policy is non-neutral to growth below 2%, and that this is one reason why Japan has been struggling.

    • Yeah, I think that is a very good point and this is as you write exactly Japan’s problem. The “natural” interest rate might have drop to zero or even below Japan due to negative demographics and China is certainly facing a similar problem.

  4. B Cole

     /  August 25, 2015

    Good blogging–but Yellen should not only cut rates but go to lower IOER and QE.

  5. Yet the Economist and PBS are using the Big Mac index to tell us the Chinese currency is (deliberately) and significantly undervalued …

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