What Is This Thing Called “Currency Manipulation?”

Over the past few years, I have written a number of posts (e.g., here, here and here) posing — and trying to answer — the question: what is this strange thing called “currency manipulation?” I have to admit that I was actually moderately pleased with myself for having applied ideas developed by the eminent Australian international-trade and monetary economist Max Corden in a classic paper called “Exchange Rate Protection.” Unfortunately, my efforts don’t seem to have pleased – even minimally – Scott Sumner who, in a recent post in his Econlog blog, takes me to task for applying the term to China.

Now I get why Scott doesn’t like the term “currency manipulation.” The term is thrown around indiscriminately all the time as if its meaning were obvious. But the meaning is far from obvious. The term is also an invitation for demagogic abuse, which is another reason for being wary about using it.

A country can peg its exchange rate in terms of some other currency, or allow its exchange rate against all other currencies to float, or it can do a little of both, seeking to influence its exchange rate intermittently depending upon a variety of factors and objectives. A pegged exchange rate may be called a form of intervention (which is not — repeat not —  a synonym for “manipulation”), but if the monetary authority takes its currency peg seriously, it makes the currency peg the overriding determinant of its monetary policy. It is not the only element of its monetary policy, because the monetary authority has another policy objective that it can pursue simultaneously, namely, its holdings of foreign-exchange reserves. If the monetary authority adopts a tight monetary policy, it gains reserves, and if it adopts a loose policy it loses reserves. What constrains a monetary authority with a fixed-exchange rate in loosening policy is the amount of reserves that it is prepared to forego to maintain that exchange rate, and what constrains the monetary authority in tightening its policy is the interest income that must forego in accumulating non-interest-bearing, or low-interest-bearing, foreign-exchange reserves.

What distinguishes “currency manipulation” from mere “currency intervention?” Borrowing Max Corden’s idea of exchange-rate protection, I argued in previous posts that currency manipulation occurs when, in order to favor its tradable-goods sector (i.e., exporting and import-competing industries), a monetary authority (like the Bank of France in 1928) chooses an undervalued currency peg corresponding to a low real exchange rate, or intervenes in currency markets to reduce its nominal exchange rate, while tightening monetary policy to slow down the rise of domestic prices that normally follows a reduced nominal exchange rate. Corden points out that, as a protectionist strategy, exchange-rate protection is inferior to simply raising tariffs on imports or subsidizing exports. However, if international agreements make it difficult to raise tariffs and subsidize exports, exchange-rate protection may become the best available protectionist option.

In his post, “Nominal exchange rates, real exchange rates and protectionism,” Sumner denies that the idea of currency manipulation, and, presumably, the idea of exchange-rate protection make any sense. Here’s what Scott has to say:

The three concepts mentioned in the title of the post are completely unrelated to each other. So unrelated that the subjects ought not even be taught in the same course. The nominal exchange rate is a monetary concept. Real exchange rates belong in course on the real side of macro, perhaps including public finance. And protectionism belongs in a (micro) trade course.

The nominal exchange rate is the relative price of two monies. It’s determined by the monetary policies of the two countries in question. It plays no role in trade.

Scott often cites sticky prices as an important assumption of macroeconomics, so I don’t understand why he thinks that the nominal exchange rate has no effect on trade. If prices do not all instantaneously adjust to a change in the nominal exchange rate, changes in nominal exchange rates are also changes in real exchange rates until prices adjust fully to the new exchange rate.

Protectionism is a set of policies (such as tariffs and quotas) that drives a wedge between domestic and foreign prices. Protectionist policies reduce both imports and exports. They might also slightly affect the current account balance, but that’s a second order effect.

A protectionist policy causes resources from the non-tradable-goods sector to shift to the tradable-goods sector, favoring some domestic producers and disfavoring others, as well as favoring workers specialized to the tradable-goods sector. Whether it affects the trade balance depends on how the policy is implemented, so I agree that raising tariffs doesn’t automatically affect the trade balance. To determine whether and how the trade balance is affected, one has to make further assumptions about the distributional effects of the policy and about the budgetary and monetary policies accompanying the policy. Causation can go in either direction from real exchange rate to trade balance or from trade balance to real exchange rate.

In the following quotation, Scott ignores the relationship between the real exchange rate and the relative pricesof tradables and non-tradables. Protectionist policies, by increasing the relative price of tradables to non-tradables, shift resources from the non-tradable-goods to the tradable-goods sector. That’s the sense in which, contrary to Scott’s assertion, a low real-exchange rate makes enhances the competitiveness of one country relative to other countries. The cost of production in the domestic tradable-goods sector is reduced relative to the price of tradable goods, making the tradable-goods sector more competitive in the markets in which domestic producers compete with foreign producers. I don’t say that increasing the competitiveness of the domestic tradable-goods sector is a good idea, but it is not meaningless to talk about international competitiveness.

Real exchange rates influence the trade balance. When there is a change in either domestic saving or domestic investment, the real exchange rate must adjust to produce an equivalent change in the current account balance. A policy aimed at a bigger current account surplus is not “protectionist”, as it does not generally reduce imports and exports, nor does it drive a wedge between domestic and foreign prices. It affects the gap between imports and exports. . . .

A low real exchange rate is sometimes called a “competitive advantage”, although the concept has absolutely nothing to do with either competition or advantages. It’s simply a reflection of an imbalance between domestic saving and domestic investment. These imbalances also occur within countries, and no one ever worries about regional “deficits”. But for some odd reason at the national level they become a cause for concern. Some of this is based on the mercantilist fallacy that exports are good and imports are bad.

This is where Scott turns his attention to me.

Here’s David Glasner:

Currency manipulation has become a favorite bugbear of critics of both monetary policy and trade policy. Some claim that countries depress their exchange rates to give their exporters an unfair advantage in foreign markets and to insulate their domestic producers from foreign competition. Others claim that using monetary policy as a way to stimulate aggregate demand is necessarily a form of currency manipulation, because monetary expansion causes the currency whose supply is being expanded to depreciate against other currencies, making monetary expansion, ipso facto, a form of currency manipulation.

As I have already explained in a number of posts (e.g., here, here, and here) a theoretically respectable case can be made for the possibility that currency manipulation can be used as a form of covert protectionism without imposing either tariffs, quotas or obviously protectionist measures to favor the producers of one country against their foreign competitors.

I disagree with this. There is no theoretically respectable case for the argument that currency manipulation can be used as protectionism. But I would go much further; there is no intellectually respectable definition of currency manipulation.

Well, my only response is that I consider Max Corden to be just about the most theoretically-respectable economist alive. So let me quote at length from Corden’s essay “Macroeconomic and Industrial Policies” reprinted in his volume Protection, Growth and Trade (pp. 288-301)

There is clearly a relationship between macroeconomic policy and industrial policy on the foreign trade side. . . . The nominal exchange rate is an instrument of macroeconomic policy, while tariffs, import quotas, export subsidies and taxes and voluntary export restraints can all be regarded as instruments of industrial policy. Yet an exchange-rate change can have “industrial” effects. It therefore seems useful to clarify the relationship between exchange-rate policy and the various micro or industrial-policy instruments.

The first step is to distinguish a nominal from a real exchange-rate change and to introduce the concept of “exchange-rate protection. . . . If the exchange rate depreciates to the same extent as all costs and prices are rising (relative to costs and prices in other countries) there may be no real change at all. The nominal exchange rate is a monetary phenomenon, and it is possible that it is no more than that. A monetary authority may engineer a nominal devaluation designed to raise the domestic currency prices of exports and import-competing goods, and hence to benefit these industries. But if nominal wages quickly rise to compensate for the higher tradable-goods prices, no real effects – no rises in the absolute and relative profitability of tradable-goods industries – will remain. Monetary policy can influence the nominal-exchange rate, and possibly can even maintain it at a fixed value, but it cannot necessarily affect the real exchange rate. The real exchange rate refers to the relative price of tradable and non-tradable goods. While its absolute value is difficult to measure because of the ambiguity of the distinction between tradable and non-tradable goods, changes in it are usually – and reasonably – measured or indicated by relating changes in the nominal exchange rate to changes in some index of domestic prices or costs, or possibly to the average nominal wage level. This is sometimes called an index of competitiveness.

A nominal devaluation will devalue the real exchange rate if there is some rigidity or sluggishness either in the prices of non-tradables or in nominal wages. The nominal devaluation will then raise the prices of tradables relative to wage costs and to labour-intensive non-tradables. Thus it protects tradables. This is “exchange-rate protection”. It protects the whole group of tradables relative to non-tradables. It will tnd ot shift resources into tradables out of non-tradables and domestic demand in the opposite direction. If at the same time macroeconomic policy ensures a demand-supply balance for non-tradables – hence decreasing aggregate demand (absorption) in real terms appropriately – a balance of payments surplus (or at least a lesser deficit than before) will result. This refers to the balance of payments on current account since the concurrent fiscal and monetary policies can have varying effects on private capital inflow.

If the motive for the real devaluation was to protect tradables, then the current account surplus will be only a by-product, leading ot more accumulation of foreign exchange reserves than the country’s monetary authority really wanted. Alternatively, if the motive for the real devaluation was to build up the foreign-exchange reserves – or to stop their decline – then the protection of tradables will be the by-product.

The main point to make is that a real exchange-rate change has effects on the relative and absolute profitability of different industries, a real devaluation favouring tradables relative to non-tradables, and a real appreciation the opposite. A nominal exchange-rate change can thus serve an industrial-policy purpose, provided it can be turned into a real exchange-rate change and that the incidental effects on the balance of payments are accepted.

This does not mean that it is an optimal form of industrial policy. . . . [P]rotection policy could be directed more precisely to the industries to be protected, avoiding the by-product effect of an undesired balance-of-payments surplus; and in any case it can be argued that defensive protection policy is unlikely to be optimal, positive adjustment policy being preferable. Nevertheless, it is not difficult to find examples of countries that have practiced exchange-rate protection, if implicitly. They have intervened in the foreign-exchange market to prevent an appreciation of the exchange rate that might otherwise have taken place – or at least, they have “leaned against the wind.” – not because they really wanted to build up foreign-exchange reserves, but because they wanted to protect their tradable-goods industries – usually mainly their export industries.

Scott again quotes me and then comments:

And the most egregious recent example of currency manipulation was undertaken by the Chinese central bank when it effectively pegged the yuan to the dollar at a fixed rate. Keeping its exchange rate fixed against the dollar was precisely the offense that the currency-manipulation police accused the Chinese of committing.

Because currency manipulation does not exist as a coherent concept, I don’t see any evidence that the Chinese did it. But if I am wrong and it does exist, then it surely refers to the real exchange rate, not the nominal rate. Thus the fact that the nominal value of the Chinese yuan was pegged for a period of time has no relevance to whether the currency was being “manipulated”. The real value of the yuan was appreciating.

One cannot conclude that an appreciating yuan means that China was not manipulating its currency. As I pointed out above, and as Corden explains, exchange-rate protection is associated with the accumulation of foreign-exchange reserves by the central bank. There is an ambiguity in interpreting the motivation of the central bank that is accumulating foreign-exchange reserves. Is it accumulating because it wants to increase the amount of reserves in its vaults, or are the increased holdings merely an unwelcome consequence of a policy being pursued for other reasons? In either case, the amount of foreign-exchange reserves a central bank is willing to hold is not unlimited. When the pile of reserves gets high enough, the policy causing accumulation may start to change, implying that the real exchange rate will start to rise.

The dollar was pegged to gold from 1879 to 1933, and yet I don’t think the US government was “manipulating” the exchange rate. And if it was, it was not by fixing the gold price peg, it would have been by depreciating the real value of the dollar via policies that increased national saving, or reduced national investment, in order to run a current account surplus. In my view it is misleading to call policies that promote national saving “currency manipulation”, and even more so to put that label on just a subset of pro-saving policies.

As in the case of the Bank of France after 1928, with a fixed exchange rate, whether a central bank is guilty of currency manipulation depends on whether the initial currency peg was chosen with a view toward creating a competitive advantage for the country’s tradable-goods sector. That was clearly an important motivation when the Bank of France chose the conversion rate between gold and the franc. I haven’t studied the choice of the dollar peg to gold in 1879.

If economists want to use the term ‘currency manipulation’, then they first need to define the term. I have not seen any definitions that make any sense.

I’m hoping that Corden’s definition works for Scott. It does for me.


12 Responses to “What Is This Thing Called “Currency Manipulation?””

  1. 1 JKH June 29, 2017 at 6:20 am

    As a point of logic, it seems that exchange rate policies can only be implemented as market actions necessarily aimed first at influencing the nominal rate, or inactions (fixed or floating) – notwithstanding the importance and objectives aimed at ultimate real rate effects in any case. So it seems a strange point of view from which to argue that the nominal dimension is not important to policy.

    The debate around the applicability of the word “manipulation” does seem like an exercise mostly in difficult semantics, revolving around various complex examples of trade and foreign exchange effects.


  2. 2 Hugo André June 30, 2017 at 5:37 pm

    On the subject of interactions between nominal and real exchange rates you could refer Prof. Sumner to Mussa’s influential 1968 paper “Nominal Exchange Rate Regimes and the Behavior of Real Exchange Rates: Evidence and Implications”.

    It shows that nominal exchange rates are very highly correlated with their real counterparts. Ironically, given Sumner’s views, it has been argued that this is the strongest piece of evidence in favor of wage/price rigidity because the data is so hard to explain without reference to some rigidity.


  3. 3 Benjamin Cole July 2, 2017 at 5:59 am

    Excellent blogging.

    BTW, this issue of current account trade surpluses and deficits is complicated by foreign capital flows into real estate.

    ” [P]rotection policy could be directed more precisely to the industries to be protected, avoiding the by-product effect of an undesired balance-of-payments surplus;”–Max Corden

    Click to access sr541.pdf

    Would that we could generate a trade surplus!

    The above cite is a serious study done by Andrea Ferrero, and he (roughly) concludes current account trade deficits lead to house price appreciation. This is due to property zoning (the supply cannot expand much) and yet more demand.

    Curiously, Scott Sumner pointed out that Americans would not be upset at foreign trade if we made manufactured houses and shipped them off and sold them to the Chinese, resulting in balanced trade.


    But when foreign capital does not but the shippable manufactured housing and instead competes for artificially scarce resources, you get problems. BTW, see Australia, Vancouver CA and Great Britain…and the USA. What is happening to homeownership in all those places is disconcerting.

    When China recently imposed certain capital controls, house prices in Vancouver fell by 25%!

    This business of zoned real estate throws a huge monkey wrench into the “trade deficits don’t matter” crowd. There is additional scholarly work emerging on just how destructive property zoning is to economic growth.

    Property is ubiquitous, used by every business, industry and household. It is also the conduit through which much money supply enters the economy, through bank lending.

    I think we have gotten to the point where monetary and macroeconomic policy must be made with a clear and upfront understanding of the structural impediments of property zoning.

    It is just make-believe to construct monetary and macroeconomic policy without accommodating the reality of ubiquitous property zoning,


  4. 4 Hugo Evans July 5, 2017 at 1:52 pm

    The ‘stickiness’ that gives you your (dynamic?) wedge between nominal and real exchange rates. Can we not be more specific? That extra margin accruing to tradables from nominal devaluation, which are priced in dollars, at the cost of wages across all sectors (priced in local currency), – what then happens to that? For wages to be bid up, we assume some density of labour market institutions / labour market tightness, but that and these are fairly thin on the ground these days, east, west, north, and south. If you can’t identity a plausible mechanism whereby wages can respond to nominal depreciation, then surely its game on for central bank led surplus trade policy, and the race to bottom vis a vis the dollar.


  5. 5 George H. Blackford July 15, 2017 at 12:51 pm

    I think that back in 1902 Hobson more or less cut through the semantics when he articulated the problem the West faces with regard to China today:

    “It is here enough to repeat that Free Trade can nowise guarantee the maintenance of industry, or of an industrial population upon any particular country, and there is no consideration, theoretic or practical, to prevent British capital from transferring itself to China, provided it can find there a cheaper or more efficient supply of labour, or even to prevent Chinese capital with Chinese labour from ousting British produce in neutral markets of the world. What applies to Great Britain applies equally to the other industrial nations which have driven their economic suckers into China. It is at least conceivable that China might so turn the tables upon the Western industrial nations, and, either by adopting their capital and organisers or, as is more probable, by substituting her own, might flood their markets with her cheaper manufactures, and refusing their imports in exchange might TAKE HER PAYMENTS IN LIENS UPON THEIR CAPITAL, REVERSING THE EARLIER PROCESS OF INVESTMENT UNTIL SHE GRADUALLY OBTAINED FINANCIAL CONTROL OVER HER QUONDAM PATRONS AND CIVILISERS. This is no idle speculation. If China in very truth possesses those industrial and business capacities with which she is commonly accredited, and the Western Powers are able to have their will in developing her upon Western lines, it seems extremely likely that this reaction will result.” John Atkinson Hobson, Imperialism, A Study, 1902.


  6. 6 David Glasner August 6, 2017 at 11:13 am

    Again my apologies for the tardiness of these responses.

    JKH, I agree, but I think the relevant distinction is between the immediate target (nominal rate) and the intermediate target (real rate).

    Hugo, I don’t think that I have ever read Mussa’s paper, but I agree that nominal and real exchange rates are correlated. But there are reasons other than wage/price rigidity that can account for the correlation. Corden’s explanation of exchange rate protection can work even without wage/price rigidity.

    Benjamin, Thanks. I agree that property zoning is often terribly destructive, I’m not sure that I agree that it has the macroeconomic effects that you attribute to it, but I just haven’t given it a lot of thought. I will try to see if I can make some headway thinking about those macro effects.

    Hugo, The point of exchange rate protection is to reduce total domestic spending while depreciating the nominal exchange rate, those two effects simultaneously depreciate the equilibrium real exchange rate by reducing the relative price of non-tradables to tradables. That effect persists along as the central bank is willing to accumulated additional foreign exchange reserves or can find ways to increase the domestic demand for the monetary base.

    George, Interesting quote from Hobson. The mechanism requires that China be able to impose nearly perpetual forced saving and low wages on its workers.


  7. 7 George H. Blackford August 6, 2017 at 2:09 pm

    I would put it a bit differently: The mechanism requires that China (and other countries that rely on export-led growth) be able to impose nearly perpetual forced dissaving on the export sector of their economy, irrespective of what happens to domestic wages, and that the process is only perpetual if it can be maintained perpetually.

    It seems to me that the problem is that this kind of foreign-sector imbalance cannot be maintained perpetually in that it inevitably ends in a financial crisis (or, historically, a war) that eventually brings it to an end.


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About Me

David Glasner
Washington, DC

I am an economist in the Washington DC area. My research and writing has been mostly on monetary economics and policy and the history of economics. In my book Free Banking and Monetary Reform, I argued for a non-Monetarist non-Keynesian approach to monetary policy, based on a theory of a competitive supply of money. Over the years, I have become increasingly impressed by the similarities between my approach and that of R. G. Hawtrey and hope to bring Hawtrey’s unduly neglected contributions to the attention of a wider audience.

My new book Studies in the History of Monetary Theory: Controversies and Clarifications has been published by Palgrave Macmillan

Follow me on Twitter @david_glasner


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