Mitt Romney is promising to declare China a currency manipulator on “day one” of his new administration. Why? Ostensibly, because Mr. Romney, like so many others, believes that the Chinese are somehow interfering with the foreign-exchange markets and holding the exchange rate of their currency (confusingly called both the yuan and the remnibi) below its “true” value. But the other day, Mary Anastasia O’Grady, a member of the editorial board of the avidly pro-Romeny Wall Street Journal, wrote an op-ed piece (“Ben Bernanke: Currency Manipulator” ) charging that Bernanke is no less a currency manipulator than those nasty Chinese Communists. Why? Well, that was not exactly clear, but it seemed to have something to do with the fact that Mr. Bernanke, seeking to increase the pace of our current anemic recovery, is conducting a policy of monetary expansion to speed the recovery.
So, is what Mr. Bernanke is doing (or supposed to be doing) really the same as what the Chinese are doing (or supposed to be doing)?
Well, obviously it is not. What the Chinese are accused of doing is manipulating the yuan’s exchange rate by, somehow, intervening in the foreign-exchange market to prevent the yuan from rising to its “equilibrium” value against the dollar. The allegation against Mr. Bernanke is that he is causing the exchange rate of the dollar to fall against other currencies by increasing the quantity of dollars in circulation. But given the number of dollars in circulation, the foreign-exchange market is establishing a price that reflects the “equilibrium” value of dollars against any other currency. Mr. Bernanke is not setting the value of the dollar in foreign-exchange markets, as the Chinese are accused of doing to the dollar/yuan exchange rate. Even if he wanted to control the exchange value of the dollar, it is not directly within Mr. Bernanke’s power to control the value that participants in the foreign-exchange markets attach to the dollar relative to other currencies.
But perhaps this is too narrow a view of what Mr. Bernanke is up to. If the Chinese government wants the yuan to have a certain exchange value against the dollar and other currencies, all it has to do is to create (or withdraw) enough yuan to ensure that the value of yuan on the foreign-exchange markets falls (or rises) to its target. In the limit, the Chinese government could peg its exchange rate against the dollar (or against any other currency or any basket of currencies) by offering to buy and sell dollars (or any other currency or any basket of currencies) in unlimited quantities at the pegged rate with the yuan. Does that qualify as currency manipulation? For a very long time, pegged or fixed exchange rates in which countries maintained fixed exchange rates against all other currencies was the rule, not the exception, except that the pegged rate was most often a fixed price for gold or silver rather than a fixed price for a particular currency. No one ever said that simply maintaining a fixed exchange rate between one currency and another or between one currency and a real commodity is a form of currency manipulation. And for some 40 years, since the demise of the Bretton Woods system, the Wall Street Journal editorial page has been tirelessly advocating restoration of a system of fixed exchange rates, or, ideally, restoration of a gold standard. And now the Journal is talking about currency manipulation?
So it’s all very confusing. To get a better handle on the question of currency manipulation, I suggest going back to a classic statement of the basic issue by none other than John Maynard Keynes in a book, A Tract on Monetary Reform, that he published in 1923, when the world was trying to figure out how to reconstruct an international system of monetary arrangements to replace the prewar international gold standard, which had been one of the first casualties of the outbreak of World War I.
Since . . . the rate of exchange of a country’s currency with the currency of the rest of the world (assuming for the sake of simplicity that there is only one external currency) depends on the relation between the internal price level and the external price level [i.e., the price level of the rest of the world], it follows that the exchange cannot be stable unless both internal and external price levels remain stable. If, therefore, the external price level lies outside our control, we must submit either to our own internal price level or to our exchange rate being pulled about by external influences. If the external price level is unstable, we cannot keep both our own price level and our exchanges stable. And we are compelled to choose.
I like to call this proposition – that a country can control either its internal price level or the exchange rate of its currency, but cannot control both — Keynes’s Law, though Keynes did not discover it and was not the first to articulate it (but no one else did so as succinctly and powerfully as he). So, according to Keynes, whether a country pegs its exchange rate or controls its internal price level would not matter if the price level in the rest of the world were stable, because in that case for any internal price level there would be a corresponding exchange rate and for every exchange rate there would be a corresponding internal price level. For a country to reduce its own exchange rate to promote exports would not work, because the low exchange rate would cause its internal prices to rise correspondingly, thereby eliminating any competitive advantage for its products in international trade. This principle, closely related to the idea of purchasing power parity (a concept developed by Gustav Cassel), implies that currency manipulation is not really possible, except for transitory periods, because prices adjust to nullify any temporary competitive advantage associated with a weak, or undervalued, currency. An alternative way of stating the principle is that a country can control its nominal exchange rate, but cannot control its real exchange rate, i.e, the exchange rate adjusted for price-level differences. If exchange rates and price levels tend to adjust to maintain purchasing power parity across currency areas, currency manipulation is an exercise in futility.
That, at any rate, is what the theory says. But for any proposition derived from economic theory, it is usually possible to come up with exceptions by altering the assumptions. Now for Keynes’s Law, there are two mechanisms causing prices to rise faster in a country with an undervalued currency than they do elsewhere. First, price arbitrage between internationally traded products tends to equalize prices in all locations after adjusting for exchange rate differentials. If it is cheaper for Americans to buy wheat in Winnipeg than in Wichita at the current exchange rate between the US and Canadian dollars, Americans will buy wheat in Winnipeg rather than Wichita forcing the Wichita price down until buying wheat in Wichita is again economical. But the arbitrage mechanism works rapidly only for internationally traded commodities like wheat. Many commodities, especially factors of production, like land and labor, are not tradable, so that price differentials induced by an undervalued exchange rate cannot be eliminated by direct arbitrage. But there is another mechanism operating to force prices in the country with an undervalued exchange rate to rise faster than elsewhere, which is that the competitive advantage from an undervalued currency induces an inflow of cash from other countries importing those cheap products, the foreign cash influx, having been exchanged for domestic cash, becoming an additional cause of rising domestic prices. The influx of cash won’t stop until purchasing power parity is achieved, and the competitive advantage eliminated.
What could prevent this automatic adjustment process from eliminating the competitive advantage created by an undervalued currency? In principle, it would be possible to interrupt the process of international arbitrage tending to equalize the prices of internationally traded products by imposing tariffs or quotas on imports or by imposing exchange controls on the movement of capital across borders. All of those restrictions or taxes on international transactions prevent the price equalization implied by Keynes’s Law and purchasing power parity from actually occurring. But after the steady trend of liberalization since World War II, these restrictions, though plenty remain, are less important than they used to be, and a web of international agreements, codified by the International Trade Organization, makes resorting to them a lot trickier than it used to be.
That leaves another, less focused, method by which governments can offer protection from international competition to certain industries or groups. The method is precisely for the government and the monetary authority to do what Keynes’s Law says can’t be done: to choose an exchange rate that undervalues the currency, thereby giving an extra advantage or profit cushion to all producers of tradable products (i.e., export industries and import-competing industries), perhaps spreading the benefits of protection more widely than governments, if their choices were not restricted by international agreements, would wish. However, to prevent the resulting inflow of foreign cash from driving up domestic prices and eliminating any competitive advantage, the monetary authority must sterilize the induced cash inflows by selling assets to mop up the domestic currency just issued in exchange for the foreign cash directed toward domestic exporters. (The classic analysis of such a policy was presented by Max Corden in his paper “Exchange Rate Protection,” reprinted in his Production, Growth, and Trade: Essays in International Economics.) But to borrow a concept from Austrian Business Cycle Theory, this may not be a sustainable long-run policy for a central bank, because maintaining the undervalued exchange rate would require the central bank to keep accumulating foreign-exchange reserves indefinitely, while selling off domestic assets to prevent the domestic money supply from increasing. The central bank might even run out of domestic assets with which to mop up the currency created to absorb the inflow of foreign cash. But in a rapidly expanding economy (like China’s), the demand for currency may be growing so rapidly that the domestic currency created in exchange for the inflow of foreign currency can be absorbed by the public without creating any significant upward pressure on prices necessitating a sell-off of domestic assets to prevent an outbreak of domestic inflation.
It is thus the growth in, and the changing composition of, the balance sheet of China’s central bank rather than the value of the dollar/yuan exchange rate that tells us whether the Chinese are engaging in currency manipulation. To get some perspective on how the balance sheet of Chinese central banks has been changing, consider that Chinese nominal GDP in 2009 was about 2.5 times as large as it was in 2003 while Chinese holdings of foreign exchange reserves in 2009 were more than 5 times greater than those holdings were in 2003. This means that the rate of growth (about 25% a year) in foreign-exchange reserves held by the Chinese central bank between 2003 and 2009 was more than twice as great as the rate of growth in Chinese nominal GDP over the same period. Over that period, the share of the total assets of the Chinese central bank represented by foreign exchange has grown from 48% in December 2003 to almost 80% in December 2010. Those changes are certainly consistent with the practice of currency manipulation. However, except for 2009, there was no year since 2000 in which the holdings of domestic assets by the Chinese central bank actually fell, suggesting that there has been very little actual sterilization undertaken by the Chinese central bank. If there has indeed been no (or almost no) actual sterilization by the Chinese central bank, then, despite my long-standing suspicions about what the Chinese have been doing, I cannot conclude that the Chinese have been engaging in currency manipulation. But perhaps one needs to look more closely at the details of how the balance sheet of the Chinese central bank has been changing over time. I would welcome the thoughts of others on how to interpret evidence of how the balance sheet of the Chinese central bank has been changing.
At any rate, to come back to Mary Anastasia O’Grady’s assertion that Ben Bernanke is guilty of currency manipulation, her accusation, based on the fact that Bernanke is expanding the US money supply, is clearly incompatible with Max Corden’s exchange-rate-protection model. In Corden’s model, undervaluation is achieved by combining a tight monetary policy that sterilizes (by open-market sales!) the inflows induced by an undervalued exchange rate. But, according to Mrs. O’Grady, Bernanke is guilty of currency manipulation, because he is conducting open-market purchases, not open-market sales! So Mrs. O’Grady has got it exactly backwards. But, then, what would you expect from a member of the Wall Street Journal editorial board?
PS I have been falling way behind in responding to recent comments. I hope to catch up over the weekend as well as write up something on medium of account vs. medium of exchange.
PPS Thanks to my commenters for providing me with a lot of insight into how the Chinese operate their monetary and banking systems. My frequent commenter J.P. Koning has an excellent post and a terrific visual chart on his blog Moneyness showing the behavior over time of the asset and liability sides of the Chinese central bank. Scott Sumner has also added an excellent discussion of his own about what Chinese monetary policy is all about. I am trying to assimilate the various responses and hope to have a further post on the subject in the next day or two.