I am sick and tired of hearing about “currency war” – and so is Philipp Hildebrand

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.

 So true, so true. Central banks are in the business of controlling nominal spending in their own economies to fulfill whatever domestic mandate they have.
Over the last couple of months the Federal Reserve and Bank of Japan have moved decisively in the direction of monetary easing and all indications are that the Bank of England is moving in the same direction. That is good news. Hildebrand agrees:

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.

Obviously the side effect of monetary easing from the major central banks of the world (with the horrible exception of the ECB) is that other countries’ currencies tend to strengthen. That is for example the case for the Mexican peso as I noted above. With currencies strengthening these countries are importing monetary tightening. However, that can easily be counteracted (if necessary!) by cutting interest rates or conducting quantitative easing. Hildebrand again nails it:

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.

Hildebrand concludes:

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.

 Again Hildebrand is right. In fact I would go much further. What some calls currency war in my view is good news. We are not in a world of high inflation, but in a world of low growth and quasi-deflationary tendencies. The world needs easier monetary policy – so if central banks around the world compete to print more money then this time around it surely would be good news.
Unfortunately in Europe central bankers fail to understand this. Here is Bundesbank chief Jens Weidmann:
“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.”
Dr. Weidmann – monetary easing is not about creating hyperinflation. Monetary depreciation is not about “competitiveness”. What we need is easier monetary policy and if the consequence is weaker currencies so be it. At least the Bank of Japan is now beginning to pull the Japanese economy out of 15 years of deflation. Unfortunately the ECB is doing the opposite.
Maybe Dr. Weidmann could benefit from studying monetary history. A good starting point is Ralph Hawtrey. This is from Hawtrey’s 1933 book “Trade Depression and the Way Out” (I stole this from David Glasner):

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.

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Related posts:

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

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

This is from CNB.com:

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.

swedkexports
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.

SWDKcons

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.

swdkinvest

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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