The Trump-Yellen policy mix is the perfect excuse for Trump’s protectionism

It is hard to find any good economic arguments for protectionism. Economists have known this at least since Adam Smith wrote the Wealth of Nations in 1776. That, however, has not stopped president-elect Donald Trump putting forward his protectionist agenda.

At the core of Trump’s protectionist thinking is the idea that trade is essentially a zero sum game. Contrary to conventional economic thinking, which sees trade as mutual beneficial Trump talks about trade in terms of winners and losers. This means that Trump essentially has a Mercantilist ideology, where the wealth of a nation can be measured on how much the country exports relative to its imports.

Therefore, we should expect the Trump administration to pay particularly attention to the US trade deficit and if the trade deficit grows Trump is likely to blame countries like Mexico and China for that.

The Yellen-Trump policy mix will cause the trade deficit to balloon

The paradox is that Trump’s own policies – particularly the announced major tax cuts and large government infrastructure investments – combined with the Federal Reserve’s likely response to the fiscal expansion (higher interest rates) in itself is likely to cause the US trade deficit to balloon.

Hence, a fiscal expansion will cause domestic demand to pick up, which in turn will increase imports. Furthermore, we have already seen the dollar rally on the back of the election Donald Trump as markets are pricing in more aggressive interest rate hikes from the Federal Reserve to curb the “Trumpflationary” pressures.

The strengthening of the dollar will further erode US competitiveness and further add to the worsening the US trade balance.

Add to that, that the strengthen of the dollar and the fears of US protectionist policies already have caused most Emerging Markets currencies – including the Chinese renminbi and the Mexican peso – to weaken against the US dollar.

The perfect excuse

Donald Trump has already said he wants the US Treasury Department to brand China a currency manipulator because he believes that China is keeping the renminbi artificial weak against the dollar to gain an “unfair” trade advantage against the US.

And soon he will have the “evidence” – the US trade deficit is ballooning, Chinese exports to the US are picking up steam and the renminbi continues to weaken. However, any economist would of course know that, that is not a result of China’s currency policies, but rather a direct consequence of Trumponomics more specifically the planed fiscal expansion, but Trump is unlikely to listen to that.

There is a clear echo from the 1980s here. Reagan’s tax cuts and the increase in military spending also caused a ‘double deficit’ – a larger budget deficit and a ballooning trade deficit and even though Reagan was certainly not a protectionist in the same way as Trump is he nonetheless bowed to domestic political pressures and to the pressures American exporters and during his time in offices and numerous import quotas and tariffs were implemented mainly to curb US imports from Japan. Unfortunately, it looks like Trump is very eager to copies these failed policies.

Finally, it should be noted that in 1985 we got the so-called Plaza Accord, which essentially forced the Japanese to allow the yen to strengthen dramatically (and the dollar to weaken). The Plaza Accord undoubtedly was a contributing factor to Japan’s deflationary crisis, which essentially have lasted to this day. One can only fear that a new Plaza Accord, which will strengthen the renminbi and cause the Chinese economy to fall into crisis is Trump’s wet dream.



China: It just got worse – more bad news and more policy mistakes

It is becoming increasingly clear that the Chinese authorities are mismanaging the economic and financial situation and the risk that the authorities will to cause something to blow increases day by day.

First we had the ill-advised attempts to prop up the falling Chinese stock market by the Chinese authorities essentially buying stocks and by to some extent banning the selling of stocks.

Now the Chinese authorities are trying something even more stupid – shooting the messenger:

Chinese authorities have arrested nearly 200 people for alleged online rumor-mongering about China’s stock market turmoil and a recent, deadly chemical factory explosion in Tianjin.

Among the arrested is Wang Xiaolu, a journalist for financial publication Caijing Magazine, “who has been placed under ‘criminal compulsory measures’ for suspected violations of colluding with others and fabricating and spreading fake information on securities and futures market,” according to Chinese state media.

This smells of desperation and signals to global investors that the Chinese authorities really are clueless about what is going on in the economy and in the markets.

Obviously the Chinese stock markets are not falling because of “rumours”, but this is the well-known behavior of many governments around the world – when the markets are going up it is because of the great policies of the government, but when they are going down it is because of the evil actions of “speculators”.

Meanwhile the Chinese authorities are continuing to claim that everything is fine and that real GDP is growing above 7%. However, looking at all other indicators of Chinese growth it is clear that the Chinese economy is slowing fast and is growing much less than 7%.

Just take two sets of data published today. First of all, the final Caixin/Markit manufacturing purchasing managers’ index (PMI) dropped to 47.3 in August – the lowest reading since March 2009 and down from 47.8 in July.

Second and equally telling South Korean exports dropped as much as 14.7% y/y in August – much more than the consensus expectation of a 5.9% y/y drop. China of course is a key market for South Korean exports and South Korean export normally is a very good indicator of Chinese manufactoring activity.

Given the kind of drop in the Chinese stock markets we have seen in August and what the commodity markets are telling us and given the macroeconomic data coming out it is pretty hard to avoid the conclusion that China was hit by a “sudden stop” in August as we saw a serious escalation of the currency and capital outflows.

This is of course also what we have been seeing in the currency markets, where the Chinese authorities have been forced to allow the renminbi to weaken. The forward markets are telling us that more devaluations should be expected.

To make things worse we today got yet another policy failure when the People’s Bank of China (PBoC) in yet another attempt to make the problems go away announced that it will try to limit capital outflows by imposing a reserve requirement on financial institutions trading in foreign-exchange forwards for clients. This is essentially a form of currency controls.

This is of course just another attempt of trying to shoot the messenger. The markets are telling us that more devaluations are coming. How do you manage that problem? Shot down the market. Again this smells of panic and the likely consequence is to further escalate the outflows rather than the opposite.

But it not only smells of panic – it also is doing a lot of harm to the Chinese economy. Maybe paradoxically the small stepwise devaluations of the renminbi have signaled to the markets that more devaluations are coming and as a result this has escalated currency and capital outflows.

As a result the PBoC has had to do even more intervention in the currency markets to prop up the renminbi. This of course is essentially monetary tightening and the consequence will be a further slowdown of the Chinese economy and likely also more financial distress.

Let the RMB float!

This is also an important lessons to other “peggers”. There is no such thing as a small devaluation. Either you maintain your peg or you let you currency float.

So to me there is really only one way out of this problem for the Chinese authorities – stop the shenanigans and let the renminbi float freely!

This likely would lead to a major drop in the Chinese currency in the near-term, but the alternative is that the outflows continues and if the PBoC continues to intervene and continues to introduce draconian anti-market measures (such as jailing journalists and banding FX and equity selling) and then the crisis will just deepen.

The developments in the past few weeks have reminded us all that China really still very much is an Emerging Markets and that the Chinese authorities are much less in control of events than many people believed.

The Chinese authorities had it easy as long as the structural tailwinds kept the capital flows coming in and the US kept monetary policy easy. However, now we are seeing a sharp structural slowdown in the Chinese economy, currency outflows and an effective tightening of US monetary conditions. As a consequence it is becoming more and more evident that the Chinese authorities are not the supermen that they sometimes have been made up to be.

As I argued in my previous blog post this is essentially the ‘dollar bloc’, which is falling apart. If the Chinese authorities continues to try to fight the inevitable – a fairly large renminbi depreciation – then a lot more harm will be done to the Chinese economy and the risk of full-scale financial crisis increases dramatically.

We have it all here – monetary strangulation through a badly constructed monetary regime, political mismanagement and when the story of this crisis will be written I don’t doubt there will be lots of talk of moral hazard and cronyism as well. In fact when I watch the actions of the Chinese authorities I am reminded of the way the Suharto regime in Indonesia (mis)handled the crisis in 1997-98.

It was the same finger-pointing at “evil speculators” and the introduction of draconian and ill-advised methods to prop up the currency. In the end it all failed – the central bank was forced to allow a major devaluation, but only after an ill-fated attempt to prop up the currency more or less had blown up the financial system and caused a major contraction in the economy. And it was of course also an end of the Suharto regime (probably the most positive effect of the crisis).

The Chinese Communist party today should remember how and why Suharto’s regime fell apart. China can still avoid a Indonesian style crisis, but then the Chinese authorities should stop copying Suharto’s policies.

Don’t bet on a real appreciation of the renminbi

It rarely happens, but Scott Sumner and I do sometimes disagree on something.

Not surprisingly this time it is on a (mostly) non-monetary matter – the long-term outlook for the Chinese economy.

In my recent post I argued that China might NEVER become the largest economy in the world. Scott – a self-proclaimed Sinophile – strongly disagree with my claim. Here is Scott:

I have several problems with this argument.  First, if Lars really feels PPP is wrong, and that we should use nominal figures, then he should not be talking about China having recently grown at 7 to 7.5% per year.  In PPP terms China may have been growing at 7.5% vs. 2% in the US, but in nominal terms the gap is far wider, due to the Balassa-Samuelson effect.  China’s real exchange rate has appreciated strongly over the past decade.  So if Lars is right that nominal exchange rates are the right test, then China’s been catching up to the US at a rate far faster than either Lars or I assume. And in that case China’s nominal growth could slow dramatically and yet still be growing far faster than the US (where trend NGDP growth is now about 3%, in my view.)  Lars avoids this problem by assuming the Balassa-Samuelson effect will suddenly come to a screeching halt, whereas I think the yuan is headed to 4 to the dollar.  He also assumes a 3% RGDP growth rate for the US, whereas I believe it will be closer to 1.2%, growing over time to perhaps 2% in a few decades.

Other than it is a bit paradoxical that Scott aka Mr. NGDP is so eager to dismiss using nominal terms rather than real terms when it comes to comparing the absolute size of an economy the real disagreement comes down to whether there is a Balassa-Samuelson effect or not. According to the the BS effect relatively poorer countries – such as China – will see its exchange rate appreciate in real terms relative to richer countries such as the US.

In my China-post I assumed that there was no BS effect – and that the relative exchange rate between China and the US in the future would be determined by the Purchasing Power Parity (PPP). This assumption of course means that there is no difference whether we use real or nominal growth rates in GDP when comparing the relative size of the Chinese and the US economy (both measured in US dollars).

I acknowledged in my post that my no-BS effect assumption was a bit brave and I would happily agree that there is nothing theoretically wrong with the Balassa-Samuelson effect. However, I would also say that having worked professionally with forecasting Emerging Markets currencies for nearly 15 years I would be extremely skeptical about its importance of it from an empirical perspective. I will return to that below.

Scott often argues that the markets is the best thing we have to predict the future. I strongly agree with that. Despite of that Scott makes a bold prediction on the outlook for the Chinese renminbi.

Hence, Scott not only predicts a real appreciation of the renminbi, but he also argues “I think the yuan is headed to 4 to the dollar” – hence significant nominal appreciation.

That is an extremely bold prediction given USD/CNY today is trading around 6.15. Said in another way Scott is basically predicting a 50% appreciation of the renminbi! This is in direct contrast to what the markets are predicting. If we for example are looking at a 1-year forward for USD/CHY the market is now predicting around 2% depreciation of the renminbi. So we should ask Scott – do you believe markets are efficient or not?

A look at South Korea and Taiwan tells us we should not expect Chinese real appreciation

There is also another way to think about whether or not we will see a real Chinese appreciation or not in the coming decades and that is by looking at the experience of similar countries. China’s transition and its catching-up process is often compared to South Korea and Taiwan. Therefore, I have looked that the historical development in in the South Korean won and Taiwan dollar.

I have chosen 1990 as my “reference year”. The reason is that at that time South Korea’s and Taiwan’s GDP/capita relative to the US were more or less where Chinese GDP/capita is today compared to the US.

Lets first have a look at South Korea.

Real won.jpg

The first thing we see it that PPP seems to have been a pretty good “predictor” of the long-term development in the won over the long-term. I have calculated PPP based on the relative development in the GDP deflators in South Korea and the US.

But lets return to the question of real appreciation. Has there been a real appreciation of the won (against the dollar) since 1990? The answer is NO. In fact there has been a slight depreciation of the won in real terms.

But of course South Korea went through a major crisis in 1997 so it might be special. So lets instead look at Taiwan.

real TWD

Guess what? Since 1990 the Taiwan dollar has actually depreciated significantly in real terms against the US dollar. Maybe exactly because it has appreciated in the years ahead of 1990.

No matter the reason both the Taiwanese and the South Korean experience tell us that real currency appreciation is no given or automatic part of the catching up process for economies like South Korea, Taiwan or China.

A closer look at the renminbi’s recent real appreciation

In his comment Scott makes the following comment China’s recent appreciation of the renminbi:

“China’s real exchange rate has appreciated strongly over the past decade”

The graph below shows that Scott’s claim is correct.

Real CNY

But the graph also shows that the renminbi was more or less flat against the dollar in real terms from the early 1990s until 2005-6. Hence, we had at least 15 years of economic catch-up without any real appreciation of the CNY at all. Hence, again it is fair to argue that real appreciation does not automatically follow from economic catch-up. The period from 1990 to 2006 shows that quite clearly.

Furthermore, we want to ask ourself whether the real appreciation over the past decade really is a result of economic transition and catching up or something else. Hence, it is quite clear that over this period the People’s Bank of China have tried to curb inflationary pressures by undertaking a managed strengthening of the renminbi against the dollar – both in nominal and real terms. That process might now be coming to an end as the Chinese economy has slowed rather dramatically and inflationary pressures clearly have eased as well – particularly since 2011-12.

Finally let us again return to the examples of South Korea and Taiwan. The graph below shows the real exchanges of South Korea, Taiwan and China (against the US dollar). ‘Year zero’ is 1990 for South Korea and Taiwan, while ‘year zero’ is 2014 for China. Hence, the graph is “calibrated” so all three countries are at a similar income level versus the US in ‘year zero’.



I think the graph is quite telling – the appreciation of the renminbi over the past decade has been fairly similar in size to the appreciation in the in won and the Taiwanese dollar in the decade ahead of 1990. However, as also illustrated above that real appreciation didn’t continue. In fact a decade later both KRW and TWD had depreciated more than 10% in real terms against the US dollar.

This of course is not a prediction for what will happen – it is just an illustration that based on the experience of Taiwan and South Korea there is no reason to expect continued real appreciation of the renminbi.

So my message to Scott is – don’t bet on a real appreciation of the renminbi!

PS Scott uses the term yuan and I here have used the term renminbi. Renminbi is the official name for the Chinese currency and yuan is the main unit of currency.

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