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.

Bob Murphy on fiscal austerity – he is nearly right

Bob Murphy has a very good discussion on Econlib about “What Economic Research Says About Fiscal Austerity and Higher Tax Rates”.

Bob has a very good discussion about why the traditional keynesian thinking on monetary policy is wrong and has a good discussion about what Bob terms “Expansionary Austerity”, but what also have been termed expansionary fiscal contractions.

Bob among other points to Giavazz and Pagano’s pathbreaking 1990 study “Can Severe Fiscal Contractions Be Expansionary? Tales of Two Small European Countries.”  Giavazz and Pagano in their paper highlight two cases of expansionary fiscal contractions. That is Denmark 1982-1985 and Ireland 1987-89. In both cases fiscal policy was tightened and the public deficit reduced dramatically and in both cases – contrary to what (paleo?) Keynesian theory would predicted – the economy expanded.

The Danish and Irish cases are hence often highlighted when the case is made that fiscal policy can be tightened without leading to a recession. I fully share this view. However, where a lot of the literature on expansionary fiscal contractions – including Bob’s mini survey of the literature – fails is that the role of monetary policy is not discussed. In fact I would argue that Denmark was a case of an expansionary monetary contraction – a the introduction of new strict pegged exchange rate regime strongly reduced inflation expectations (I might return to that issue in a later post…).

In all the cases I know of where there has been expansionary fiscal contractions monetary policy has been kept accommodative in the since that nominal GDP – which of course is determined by the central bank – is kept “on track”. This was also the case in the Danish and Irish cases where NGDP grew strong through the fiscal consolidation period.

My view is therefore that that fiscal austerity certainly will not have to lead to a recession IF monetary policy ensures a stable growth rate of nominal GDP. This in my view mean that we will have to be a lot more skeptical about austerity for example in Spain or Greece being successful. Spain and Greece do not have their own monetary policy and therefore the countries cannot counteract possible contractionary effects of fiscal austerity with monetary policy. That of course does not mean that these countries should not tighten fiscal policy – in my view there is no other option – but it mean that austerity in these countries are not likely to have the same positive growth effects as in Denmark and Ireland in the 1980s.

Therefore, in my view the future research on expansionary fiscal contractions should focus on the policy mix – what happened to monetary policy during the periods of fiscal consolidation? -instead of just focusing on the fiscal part of the story.

All the cases of expansionary fiscal consolidations I have studied has been accompanied by a period of fairly high and stable NGDP growth and the unsuccessful periods have been accompanied by monetary contractions. My challenge to Bob would therefore be that he should find just one case of a expansionary fiscal contraction where NGDP growth was weak…

PS the discussion above it about the business cycle perspective. Obviously if we take a longer term perspective then supply side factors dominate demand side factors. In these cases I think is it fairly easy to demonstrate that cuts in public spending will increase potential or long-term real GDP growth. I am pretty sure that Bob and I fully agree on this issue – others might not…

 

 

The luck of the ‘Scandies’

This week we are celebrating Milton Friedman’s centennial. Milton Friedman was known for a lot of things and one of them was his generally skeptical view of pegged exchange rates. In his famous article “The Case for Flexible Exchange Rates” he argued strongly against pegged exchange rates and for flexible exchange rates.

Any reader of this blog would know that I share Friedman’s sceptical view of fixed exchange rates. However, I will also have to say that my view on exchange rates policy has become more pragmatic over the years. In fact one can say that I also in this area have become more of a Friedmanite. This could seem as a paradox given Friedman’s passionate defence of floating exchange rates. However, Friedman was not dogmatic on this issue. Rather Friedman saw exchange rate policy as a way to control the money supply and he often argued that small countries might not have the proper instruments and “infrastructure” to properly control the money supply. Hence it would be an advantage for certain countries to “outsource” monetary policy by pegging the currency to for example the US dollar. Hong Kong’s currency board and its peg to the dollar was his favourite example. I am less inclined to think that Hong Kong could not do better than the currency board, but I nonetheless think Friedman was right in the sense that there fundamentally is no difference between using for example interest rates to control the money supply and using the exchange rate.

In his highly recommendable book Money Mischief Milton Friedman discusses the experience with fixed exchange rates in Chile and Israel. Friedman documents Chile’s horrible experience with fixed exchange rates and Israel’s equally successful experience with fixed exchange rates. It is in relation to these examples Friedman states that one never should underestimate the importance of luck of nations. That credo has been a big inspiration in my own thinking and has certainly helped me understand the difference in performance of different economies during the present crisis. It is not only about policy. With the right policies this crisis could have been avoid, but on the other hand despite of less than stellar conduct of monetary policy some countries have come through this crisis very well. Luck certainly is important.

The Scandinavian economies provide an excellent example of this. Denmark and Sweden are in many ways very similar countries – small open economies with high levels of GDP/capita, strong public finances, an overblown welfare state, but nonetheless quite flexible product and labour markets and a quite high level of social and economic cohesion. However, Denmark and Sweden differ in one crucial fashion – the monetary policy regime.

Denmark has a fixed exchange rate (against the euro), while Sweden has a floating exchange rate and an inflation targeting regime. The different monetary policy regimes have had a significant impact on the performance of the Danish and the Swedish economies during the present crisis.

2008-9: Sweden’s luck, Denmark’s misery

When crisis hit in 2008 both Denmark and Sweden got hit, but Denmark suffered much more than Sweden – not only economically but also in terms of financial sector distress. The key reason for this is that while monetary conditions contracted significantly Sweden did not see any major monetary contraction. What happened was that as investors scrambled for US dollars in the second of 2008 they were selling all other currencies – also the Swedish krona and the Danish krone.

The reaction from the Danish and the Swedish central banks was, however, very different. As the Danish krone came under selling pressures the Danish central bank acted according to the fixed exchange policy by buying kroner. As a result Denmark saw a sharp contraction in the money supply – a contraction that continued in 2009 and 2010, but the peg survived. The central bank had “won” and defended the peg, but at a high cost. The monetary contraction undoubtedly did a lot to worsen the Danish financial sector crisis and four years later Danish property prices continue to decline. On the other hand when the demand for Swedish krona plunged in 2008-9 the Swedish central bank allowed this to happen and the krona weakened sharply. Said in another way the Swedish money demand dropped relative to the money supply. Swedish monetary conditions eased, while Danish monetary conditions tightened.

It is often said, that Sweden’s stronger economic performance relative to Denmark in 2008-9 (and 2010-11 for that matter) is a result of the relative improvement in Swedish competitiveness as a result of the sharp depreciation of the Swedish krona. However, this is a wrong analysis of the situation. In fact the major difference between the Swedish economy and the Danish economy has very little to do with the relative export performance. In fact both countries saw a more or less equal drop in exports in 2008-9. The big difference was the performance in domestic demand. While Danish domestic demand collapsed and property prices were in a free fall, domestic demand in Sweden performed strongly and Swedish property prices continued to rise after the crisis hit. The difference obviously is a result of the different monetary policy reactions in the two countries.

This is basically luck – the Danish monetary regime led to tightening of monetary conditions in reaction to the external shock, while the Swedish central bank to a large extent counteracted the shock with an easing of monetary conditions.

2012: The useful Danish peg and the failures of Riksbanken

Today the Danish economy continues to do worse than the Swedish economy, but the luck is changing. And again this has to do with money demand. While the demand for Swedish krona and Danish kroner collapsed in 2008-9 the opposite is the case today. Today investors as a reaction to the euro crisis are running scared away from the euro and buying everything else (more or less). As a result money is floating into both Denmark and Sweden and the demand for both currencies (and Swedish and Danish assets in general) has escalated sharply. So contrary to 2008-9 the demand for (local) money is now rising sharply. This for obvious reasons is leading to appreciation pressures on the Scandinavian currencies.

Today, however, the Danes are lucky to have the peg. Hence, as the Danish krone has tended to appreciate the Danish central bank has stepped in and defended the peg by expanding the money base and for the first time in four years the Danish money supply (M2) is now showing real signs of recovering. This of course is also why Danish short-term bond yields and money market rates have turned negative. The money markets are being flooded with liquidity to keep the krone from strengthening. Hence, the Danish euro peg is doing a great job in avoiding a negative velocity shock. For the first time in four years Danes could be true happy about the peg.

On the other hand for the first time in four years the Swedish monetary policy regime is not work as well as one could have hoped. As the demand for Swedish krona has escalated Swedish monetary conditions are getting tighter and tighter day by day and the signs are pretty clear that Swedish money-velocity is contracting. This is hardly good news for the Swedish economy.

Obviously there is nothing stopping the Swedish central bank from counteracting the drop in velocity (the increased money demand) by expanding the money base and legendary Swedish deputy central bank governor Lars E. O. Svensson has been calling for monetary easing for a while, but the majority of board members in the Swedish central bank seem reluctant to step up and ease monetary policy even though it day by day is becoming evident that monetary easing is needed.

Good policies are the best substitute for good luck

Obviously neither the Danish nor the Swedish monetary policy regime is optimal under all circumstances and this is exactly what I have tried to demonstrate above. The difference between 2008-9 and 2011-12 is the impact on demand for the Danish and Swedish currency and these differences have been driven mostly by external factors.

Obviously one could (and should!) argue that Sweden’s problem today is not the floating exchange rate, but rather the inflation targeting regime. If Sweden instead had been targeting the (future) nominal GDP level then Riksbanken would already had eased monetary policy much more aggressively than has been the case to counteract the contraction in money-velocity.

Finally, it is clear that luck played a major role in how the crisis has played out in the Scandinavian crisis. However, with the right monetary policies – for example NGDP targeting – you are much more likely to have luck on your side when crisis hit.

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Related posts:

Milton Friedman on exchange rate policy #1
Milton Friedman on exchange rate policy #2
Milton Friedman on exchange rate policy #3
Milton Friedman on exchange rate policy #4
Milton Friedman on exchange rate policy #5
Milton Friedman on exchange rate policy #6
Is monetary easing (devaluation) a hostile act?
Danish and Norwegian monetary policy failure in 1920s – lessons for today
“The Bacon Standard” (the PIG PEG) would have saved Denmark from the Great Depression
Bring on the “Currency war”
Exchange rates and monetary policy – it’s not about competitiveness: Some Argentine lessons

Denmark and Norway were the PIIGS of the Scandinavian Currency Union

As the euro crisis continues speculation of an eventual break-up of the euro also continues. There are numerous examples in monetary history of currency unions breaking up. One is the breakup of the Scandinavian Currency Union in 1924.

I have found an interesting paper on this important event in Scandinavian monetary history. In his 2004-paper “The Decline and Fall of the Scandinavian Currency Union 1914 – 1924: Events in the Aftermath of World War I” Krim Talia discusses the reason for the collapse of the Scandinavian Currency Union.

Here is the abstract:

In 1873, Denmark, Norway and Sweden formed the Scandinavian Currency Union (SCU) and adopted the gold standard. The Union worked fairly smoothly during the next thirty years and was partly extended until 1914. The outbreak of World War I triggered a series of events that eventually would lead to the formal cancellation of the union in 1924. The suspension of convertibility and the export prohibition on gold in 1914, opened exchange rate tensions within the union, and acted as a first nail in the SCU’s coffin. Although the countries de facto had their currencies valued at different rates externally, the treaty of 1873 made them tradable at par within the union. This conflict, between de facto situation and de jure regulation, opened arbitrage opportunities for the public; but also resulted in opportunistic behaviour in the relation between the Scandinavian Central Banks. This study of the break-up of the SCU finds that the gold standard functioned as a unifying straitjacket on monetary policy and was an important prerequisite for a monetary union without a common central bank. It also challenges earlier work on the break-up of the SCU, by suggesting that the most important factor behind the centrifugal tensions within the Currency Union was the improved Swedish balance of trade following the outbreak of Word War I. The fact that wartime trade performance differed between the three countries made the currency area face an asymmetric external shock that required an exchange-rate adjustment – causing the fall of the union.

What is the implication for the euro zone? Well, I am not sure, but it might be interesting to have a closer look at the internal trade imbalance in the Scandinavian currency union and compare that to the imbalances that we have seen build in the euro zone during the boom-year prior to 2008. Both Denmark and Norway saw booms (and bubbles) during the first World War years and the early 1920s. In that sense Denmark and Norway looked like today’s PIIGS, while Sweden with it’s increasing trade surplus was the Germany of the Scandinavian currency union. In my previous post I described how insane monetary tightening in Norway and Denmark after 1924 lead to depression, while Sweden avoided depression.

Danish and Norwegian monetary policy failure in 1920s – lessons for today

History is fully of examples of massive monetary policy failure and today’s policy makers can learn a lot from studying these events and no one is better to learn from than Swedish monetary guru Gustav Cassel. In the 1920s Cassel tried – unfortunately without luck – to advise Danish and Norwegian policy makers from making a massive monetary policy mistake.

After the First World War policy makers across Europe wanted to return to the gold standard and in many countries it became official policy to return to the pre-war gold parity despite massive inflation during the war. This was also the case in Denmark and Norway where policy makers decided to return the Norwegian and the Danish krone to the pre-war parity.

The decision to bring back the currencies to the pre-war gold-parity brought massive economic and social hardship to Denmark and Norway in the 1920s and probably also killed of the traditionally strong support for laissez faire capitalism in the two countries. Paradoxically one can say that government failure opened the door for a massive expansion of the role of government in both countries’ economies. No one understood the political dangers of monetary policy failure better than Gustav Cassel.

Here you see the impact of the Price Level (Index 1924=100) of the deflation policies in Denmark and Norway. Sweden did not go back to pre-war gold-parity.

While most of the world was enjoying relatively high growth in the second half of the 1920s the Danish and the Norwegian authorities brought hardship to their nations through a deliberate policy of deflation. As a result both nations saw a sharp rise in unemployment and a steep decline in economic activity. So when anybody tells you about how a country can go through “internal devaluation” please remind them of the Denmark and Norway in the 1920s. The polices were hardly successful, but despite the clear negative consequences policy makers and many economists in the Denmark and Norway insisted that it was the right policy to return to the pre-war gold-parity.

Here is what happened to unemployment (%).

Nobody listened to Cassel. As a result both the Danish and the Norwegian economies went into depression in the second half of the 1920s and unemployment skyrocketed. At the same time Finland and Sweden – which did not return to the pre-war gold-partiy – enjoyed strong post-war growth and low unemployment.

Gustav Cassel strongly warned against this policy as he today would have warned against the calls for “internal devaluation” in the euro zone. In 1924 Cassel at a speech in the Student Union in Copenhagen strongly advocated a devaluation of the Danish krone. The Danish central bank was not exactly pleased with Cassel’s message. However, the Danish central bank really had little to fear. Cassel’s message was overshadowed by the popular demand for what was called “Our old, honest krone”.

To force the policy of revaluation and return to the old gold-parity the Danish central bank tightened monetary policy dramatically and the bank’s discount rate was hiked to 7% (this is more or less today’s level for Spanish bond yields). From 1924 to 1924 to 1927 both the Norwegian and the Danish krone were basically doubled in value against gold by deliberate actions of the two Scandinavian nation’s central bank.

The gold-insanity was as widespread in Norway as in Denmark and also here Cassel was a lone voice of sanity. In a speech in Christiania (today’s Oslo) Cassel in November 1923 warned against the foolish idea of returning the Norwegian krone to the pre-war parity. The speech deeply upset Norwegian central bank governor Nicolai Rygg who was present at Cassel’s speech.

After Cassel’s speech Rygg rose and told the audience that the Norwegian krone had been brought back to parity a 100 years before and that it could and should be done again. He said: “We must and we will go back and we will not give up”. Next day the Norwegian Prime Minister Abraham Berge in an public interview gave his full support to Rygg’s statement. It was clear the Norwegian central bank and the Norwegian government were determined to return to the pre-war gold-parity.

This is the impact on the real GDP level of the gold-insanity in Denmark and Norway. Sweden did not suffer from gold-insanity and grew nicely in the 1920s.

The lack of reason among Danish and Norwegian central bankers in the 1920s is a reminder what happens once the “project” – whether the euro or the gold standard – becomes more important than economic reason and it shows that countries will suffer dire economic, social and political consequences when they are forced through “internal devaluation”. In both Denmark and Norway the deflation of the 1920s strengthened the Socialists parties and both the Norwegian and the Danish economies as a consequence moved away from the otherwise successful  laissez faire model. That should be a reminder to any free market oriented commentators, policy makers and economists that a deliberate attempt of forcing countries through internal devaluation is likely to bring more socialism and less free markets. Gustav Cassel knew that – as do the Market Monetarists today.

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My account of these events is based on Richard Lester’s paper “Gold-Parity Depression in Denmark and Norway, 1925-1928” (Journal of Political Economy, August 1937)

Update: Here is an example that not all German policy makers have studied economic and monetary history.

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