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The global economy: How to stop a currency war

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Keep calm, don’t expect quick fixes and above all don’t unleash a trade fight with China.

IN RECENT weeks the world economy has been on a war footing, at least rhetorically. Ever since Brazil’s finance minister, Guido Mantega, declared on September 27th that an “international currency war” had broken out, the global economic debate has been recast in battlefield terms, not just by excitable headline-writers, but by officials themselves. Gone is the fuzzy rhetoric about co-operation to boost global growth. A more combative tone has taken hold (see article). Countries blame each other for distorting global demand, with weapons that range from quantitative easing (printing money to buy bonds) to currency intervention and capital controls.

Behind all the smoke and fury, there are in fact three battles. The biggest one is over China’s unwillingness to allow the yuan to rise more quickly. American and European officials have sounded tougher about the “damaging dynamic” caused by China’s undervalued currency. Last month the House of Representatives passed a law allowing firms to seek tariff protection against countries with undervalued currencies, with a huge bipartisan majority. China’s “unfair” trade practices have become a hot topic in the mid-term elections.

A second flashpoint is the rich world’s monetary policy, particularly the prospect that central banks may soon restart printing money to buy government bonds. The dollar has fallen as financial markets expect the Federal Reserve to act fastest and most boldly. The euro has soared as officials at the European Central Bank show least enthusiasm for such a shift. In China’s eyes (and, sotto voce, those of many other emerging-market governments), quantitative easing creates a gross distortion in the world economy as investors rush elsewhere, especially into emerging economies, in search of higher yields.

A third area of contention comes from how the developing countries respond to these capital flows. Rather than let their exchange rates soar, many governments have intervened to buy foreign currency, or imposed taxes on foreign capital inflows. Brazil recently doubled a tax on foreign purchases of its domestic debt. This week Thailand announced a new 15% withholding tax for foreign investors in its bonds.

Jaw-jaw, please

For now, these skirmishes fall far short of a real currency war. Many of the “weapons” look less menacing on closer inspection. The capital-inflow controls are modest. In the rich world only Japan has recently resorted to currency intervention, and so far only once. Nor is there much risk of an imminent descent into trade retaliation. Even in America, tariffs against China are still, with luck, a long way off—both because the currency bill is milder than it sounds and because it has yet to be passed by the Senate or signed by Barack Obama.

Still, there is no room for complacency. Today’s phoney war could quickly turn into a real dogfight. The conditions driving the divergence of economic policies—in particular, sluggish growth in the rich world—are likely to last for years. As fiscal austerity kicks in, the appeal of using a cheaper currency as a source of demand will increase, and the pressure on politicians to treat China as a scapegoat will rise. And if the flood of foreign capital intensifies, developing countries may be forced to choose between losing competitiveness, truly draconian capital controls or allowing their economies to overheat.

What needs to happen is fairly clear. Global demand needs rebalancing, away from indebted rich economies and towards more spending in the emerging world. Structural reforms to boost spending in those surplus economies will help, but their real exchange rates also need to appreciate. And, yes, the Chinese yuan is too low (see article). That is hurting not just the West but also other emerging countries (especially those with floating exchange rates) and indeed China itself, which needs to get more of its growth from domestic consumption.

It is also clear that this will not be a painless process. China is right to worry about instability if workers in exporting companies lose their jobs. And even reasonable choices—such as the rich world’s mix of fiscal austerity and loose monetary policy—will have an uncomfortable impact on small, open emerging economies, in the form of unwelcome capital inflows. This flood of capital will be less devastating to them than the harm they would suffer if the West descended into deflation and stagnation, but it can still cause problems. Read more in The Economist


Written by Theophyle

October 16, 2010 at 4:43 pm

3 Responses

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  1. The global economy: How to stop a currency war « Politeía Digest…

    I found your entry interesting do I’ve added a Trackback to it on my weblog :)…

    World Wide News Flash

    October 16, 2010 at 8:09 pm

  2. The global economy: How to stop a currency war « Politeía Digest…

    Here at World Spinner we are debating the same thing……

    World Spinner

    October 17, 2010 at 11:49 am

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