Posts Tagged 'Max Corden'

Defining Currency Manipulation for Scott Sumner

A little over a week ago, Scott Sumner wrote a post complaining that I had not yet given him a definition of currency manipulation. That complaint was a little bit surprising to me, because I have been writing about currency manipulation off and on for almost five years already on this blog (here’s my first, my second, and a more recent one). Now, in all modesty, I think some of those posts were pretty good and explained the concept of currency manipulation fairly clearly, so I’m not sure why Scott keeps insisting on the need for a definition. I am more than happy to accommodate him, but before doing so, I want to respond to some comments that he made in his post.

Scott began by quoting at length from my most recent post in which I responded to his criticism of my contention that China has in the past — but probably not the more recent past — engaged in currency manipulation. My basic argument – buttressed by an extended quotation from the world’s greatest living international-trade theorist, Max Corden — was that although nominal exchange rates are determined by monetary-policy choices, such as exchange-rate pegs or targets or nominal quantities of money, while real exchange rates are determined by real forces of resource endowments, technology, and consumer preferences, it is possible for monetary policy — either deliberately or inadvertently — to affect real exchange rates. This did not seem like a controversial argument to make, but Scott isn’t buying it.

Scott examines the following passage from my quotation of Corden:

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.

And he finds it wanting.

I can’t figure out what that means. Taken literally it seems to imply that a nominal depreciation that is associated with a real depreciation is a form of protectionism. But that’s obviously nonsense. So what is he claiming? We know the nominal exchange rate doesn’t matter; only the real rate matters. But currency manipulation can’t be just a depreciation in the real exchange rate, as real exchange rates move around for all sorts of reasons. If a revolution broke out in Indonesia tomorrow, I don’t doubt that the real value [of] their currency would plummet. But no one would accuse Indonesia of currency manipulation.

There is I think some confusion in the way Scott interprets what Corden said. Corden says that if monetary policy is used to depreciate the real exchange rate, then it may be that the monetary policy had a protectionist intent. Scott’s response is that there are many reasons why a real exchange rate could depreciate, and most of them have nothing to do with any protectionist intent. If there is a revolution in Indonesia, the Indonesian real exchange rate will depreciate. Scott asks whether Indonesian revolutionaries are currency manipulators. My answer is: not unless there is a plausible argument that the revolution was intended to cause the real exchange rate to depreciate, and that the a revolution is a moderately efficient way of benefitting those Indonesians who would gain from a depreciated exchange rate. I think it would be hard to make even a remotely plausible argument that starting a revolution would be a good way for Indonesian industrialists to capture the rents from their revolutionary protectionist strategy. But if Scott wants to make such an argument, I am willing to hear him out.

Scott considers another example.

How about a decline in the real exchange rate caused by government policy? Maybe, but I don’t recall anyone accusing the Norwegians of currency manipulation when they set up a sovereign wealth fund for their oil riches. That’s a government policy that encourages national saving and hence boosts the current account. Nor was Australia accused of currency manipulation when they did tax reform in the late 1990s.

OK, fair enough. There are government policies that can affect the real exchange rate. Is every government policy that reduces the real exchange rate protectionist? No. The reduction of the real exchange rate may be a by-product, an incidental consequence, of a policy adopted for reasons that have nothing to do with protectionism. The world is a complicated place to live in.

Then referring to a passage of mine in which I made a similar point, Scott comments.

The term ‘motive’ seems to play a role in the passage above:

If the motive for the real devaluation was to protect tradables, then the current account surplus will be only a by-product, leading to 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.

Scott doesn’t like talking about “motives.”

As an economist, references to “motives” make me very uncomfortable. Let’s take the example of China. Did China’s government try to reduce the real value of the yuan because they saw what happened during the 1997 SE Asia crisis, and wanted a big war chest in case they faced a balance of payments crisis? Or did they do the weak yuan policy to shift resources from domestic industries to tradable goods industries? I have absolutely no idea, nor do I see why it matters. Surely if a concept of currency manipulation has any coherent meaning, it cannot depend on the motive of the policymakers in a particular country? We aren’t mind readers. This is especially true if we are to believe that currency manipulation hurts other countries, as its proponent seem to suggest. How will it be identified?

Scott is mixing up a lot of different issues here, so let me try to sort them out. There are indeed two plausible explanations for China’s vast accumulation of foreign-exchange reserves in the 1990s and in the 20 aughts. One is a precautionary build-up of foreign-exchange reserves to be available in the event of a financial crisis; the other is exchange-rate protection, aka currency manipulation. It’s true; we can’t read the minds of the policy makers, but we can make reasonable assessments of the relative plausibility of either hypothesis, based on the size of the accumulation, the policy steps that were taken to implement and facilitate the accumulation, the public pronouncements of relevant officials, and, if we had access to them, the internal documents upon which policy-makers relied in reaching their decisions. Now obviously, the Chinese government is not about to share their internal documents with me or any outside investigator, but that is a choice made by the Chinese, not some inherent deficiency in the evidence upon which a diligent researcher could potentially rely in making a determination about the motivation for Chinese policy decisions. As an economic historian of considerable accomplishment, Scott is well aware of the kind of evidence that is relevant to evaluating the motives of policy makers, so I can’t help but suspect that Scott is playfully engaging in a bit of rhetorical obfuscation here.

In the spirit of Bastiat, consider the following analogy. Suppose that for years we had been buying bananas from Colombia for 10 cents a pound. American consumers got to eat lots of cheap tasty fruit, which don’t grow well in non-tropical countries. Then in 2018, Trump sends a team of investigators down to Colombia, and finds out that we’ve been scammed. It’s actually not a warm country, indeed quite cool due to its high elevation. The Colombian government had spent millions building giant greenhouses to grow bananas. We’ve been tricked into buying all these cheap bananas from Colombia, which artificially created a “competitive advantage” in the banana industry through subsidies.

Here’s my question: Why does it matter why the Colombian bananas were cheap? If we benefited from buying the bananas at 10 cents a pound, why would we care if the price reflected true competitive advantage or government subsidy? Does the US benefit from buying 10-cent bananas, or not?

Once again, there’s some tactical diversion taking place. The question at hand is whether a protectionist policy could, in principle, be implemented through monetary policy. The answer is clearly yes. But Scott is now inviting us to consider a different question: Do protectionist policies adopted by one country adversely affect people in other countries. The answer is: it depends. Since there are no bananas grown in the US, export subsidies by the Colombian government to their banana growers would not harm any Americans. However, if there were US banana growers who had invested in banana trees and other banana-growing assets, there would be Americans harmed by the Colombian subsidies. It is possible that the gains to American banana consumers might outweigh the losses to American banana growers, but then there would have to be some comparison of the relative gains and losses.

Now Scott comes back to his demand for a definition.

But that’s not all. Even if you convinced me that we should worry about interventionist policies in our trading partners, I’d still want a definition of currency manipulation. There are a billion ways that a foreign government could influence a real exchange rate. Which ones are “manipulation”? It’s meaningless to talk about China depreciating its currency, without explaining HOW. A currency is just a price, and reasoning from a currency change (real or nominal) is simply reasoning from a price change. Which specific actions constitute currency manipulation? I don’t want motives, I need verifiable actions. And [why] does this concept have to involve a current account surplus? Australia’s been running CA deficits for as long as I can remember. Suppose the Aussie government did enough “currency manipulation” to reduce their trend CA deficit from 4% of GDP to 2% of GDP. But it was still a deficit. Would that be “manipulation”. Why or why not?

OK, here it is: currency manipulation occurs when a government/monetary authority sets a particular nominal exchange-rate target which, it believes, will, at current domestic prices, give its export- and import-competing industries a competitive advantage over their foreign competitors, thereby generating a current account surplus. In addition, to prevent the influx of foreign cash associated with current account surplus from raising domestic non-tradable prices and undermining the competitive advantage of the protected tradable-goods sector, the government/monetary authority either restricts the amount of base money created or, more likely, increases reserve requirements imposed on the banking system to create a persistent excess demand for money, thereby ensuring a continuing current account surplus and accumulation of foreign exchange reserves and preserving the protected position of the tradable-goods sector.

Scott continues:

Should we care why a country has a big CA surplus? Suppose Switzerland has a big CA surplus due to high private saving rates, Singapore has a big CA surplus due to high public saving in common stocks, and China has a CA surplus due to high public saving in foreign exchange. What difference does it make? (And I haven’t even addressed Ricardian equivalence, which further clouds these distinctions.)

Whether we should care or not care about exchange-rate protection is a question no different from whether we should care about protection by tariffs or quotas. There is an argument for unilateral free trade, but most of the post-World-War II trend toward (somewhat) freer trade has been predicated on the idea of reciprocal reductions in trade barriers. If we believe in the reciprocal reduction of trade barriers, then it is not unreasonable to be concerned about trade barriers that are erected through currency manipulation as a substitute for the tarrifs, import quotas, and export subsidies prohibited under reciprocal trade agreements. If Scott is not interested in reciprocal trade agreements, that’s fine, but it is not unreasonable for those who are interested in reciprocal trade agreements to be concerned about covertly protectionist policies that are imposed as substitutes for tariffs, import quotas, and export subsidies.

We know that the only way that governments can affect the real exchange rate is by enacting policies that impact national saving or national investment. But almost all policies impact either national saving or national investment. So which of those count as manipulation? Is it merely policies that lead to the accumulation of foreign exchange? If so, then won’t you simply encourage countries to use some other technique for boosting national saving? An alternative policy that avoids having them be labeled currency manipulators?

In principle, there could be other policies aimed at increasing national savings that are protectionist in intent. One would have to look at each possible instance and evaluate it. At least that’s what would have to be done if one believes in reciprocal trade agreements.

There were some other points that Scott mentioned in his post that I will not address now, because the hour is late and I’m getting tired. Perhaps I’ll follow up with a short follow-up post in a day or so. Not promising though.

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A Tutorial for Judy Shelton on the ABCs of Currency Manipulation

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. All of this was explained by the eminent international trade theorist Max Corden  over 30 years ago in a famous paper (“Exchange Rate Protection”). But to be able to make a credible case that currency manipulation is being practiced, it has to be shown that currency depreciation has been coupled with a restrictive monetary policy – either by reducing the supply of, or by increasing the demand for, base money. The charge that monetary expansion is ever a form of currency manipulation is therefore suspect on its face, and those who make accusations that countries are engaging in currency manipulation rarely bother to support the charge with evidence that currency deprection is being coupled with a restrictive monetary policy.

So it was no surprise to see in Tuesday’s Wall Street Journal that monetary-policy entrepreneur Dr. Judy Shelton has written another one of her screeds promoting the gold standard, in which, showing no awareness of the necessary conditions for currency manipulation, she assures us that a) currency manipulation is a real problem and b) that restoring the gold standard would solve it.

Certainly the rules regarding international exchange-rate arrangements are not working. Monetary integrity was the key to making Bretton Woods institutions work when they were created after World War II to prevent future breakdowns in world order due to trade. The international monetary system, devised in 1944, was based on fixed exchange rates linked to a gold-convertible dollar.

No such system exists today. And no real leader can aspire to champion both the logic and the morality of free trade without confronting the practice that undermines both: currency manipulation.

Ahem, pray tell, which rules relating to exchange-rate arrangements does Dr. Shelton believe are not working? She doesn’t cite any. And, what, on earth does “monetary integrity” even mean, and what does that high-minded, but totally amorphous, concept have to do with the rules of exchange-rate arrangements that aren’t working?

Dr. Shelton mentions “monetary integrity” in the context of the Bretton Woods system, a system based — well, sort of — on fixed exchange rates, forgetting – or choosing not — to acknowledge that, under the Bretton Woods system, exchange rates were also unilaterally adjustable by participating countries. Not only were they adjustable, but currency devaluations were implemented on numerous occasions as a strategy for export promotion, the most notorious example being Britain’s 30% devaluation of sterling in 1949, just five years after the Bretton Woods agreement had been signed. Indeed, many other countries, including West Germany, Italy, and Japan, also had chronically undervalued currencies under the Bretton Woods system, as did France after it rejoined the gold standard in 1926 at a devalued rate deliberately chosen to ensure that its export industries would enjoy a competitive advantage.

The key point to keep in mind is that for a country to gain a competitive advantage by lowering its exchange rate, it has to prevent the automatic tendency of international price arbitrage and corresponding flows of money to eliminate competitive advantages arising from movements in exchange rates. If a depreciated exchange rate gives rise to an export surplus, a corresponding inflow of foreign funds to finance the export surplus will eventually either drive the exchange rate back toward its old level, thereby reducing or eliminating the initial depreciation, or, if the lower rate is maintained, the cash inflow will accumulate in reserve holdings of the central bank. Unless the central bank is willing to accept a continuing accumulation of foreign-exchange reserves, the increased domestic demand and monetary expansion associated with the export surplus will lead to a corresponding rise in domestic prices, wages and incomes, thereby reducing or eliminating the competitive advantage created by the depressed exchange rate. Thus, unless the central bank is willing to accumulate foreign-exchange reserves without limit, or can create an increased demand by private banks and the public to hold additional cash, thereby creating a chronic excess demand for money that can be satisfied only by a continuing export surplus, a permanently reduced foreign-exchange rate creates only a transitory competitive advantage.

I don’t say that currency manipulation is not possible. It is not only possible, but we know that currency manipulation has been practiced. But currency manipulation can occur under a fixed-exchange rate regime as well as under flexible exchange-rate regimes, as demonstrated by the conduct of the Bank of France from 1926 to 1935 while it was operating under a gold standard. 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.

When governments manipulate exchange rates to affect currency markets, they undermine the honest efforts of countries that wish to compete fairly in the global marketplace. Supply and demand are distorted by artificial prices conveyed through contrived exchange rates. Businesses fail as legitimately earned profits become currency losses.

It is no wonder that appeals to free trade prompt cynicism among those who realize the game is rigged against them. Opposing the Trans-Pacific Partnership in June 2015, Rep. Debbie Dingell (D., Mich.) explained: “We can compete with anybody in the world. We build the best product. But we can’t compete with the Bank of Japan or the Japanese government.”

In other words, central banks provide useful cover for currency manipulation. Japan’s answer to the charge that it manipulates its currency for trade purposes is that movements in the exchange rate are driven by monetary policy aimed at domestic inflation and employment objectives. But there’s no denying that one of the primary “arrows” of Japan’s economic strategy under Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, starting in late 2012, was to use radical quantitative easing to boost the “competitiveness” of Japan’s exports. Over the next three years, the yen fell against the U.S. dollar by some 40%.

That sounds horrible, but Dr. Shelton conveniently forgets – or declines – to acknowledge that in September 2012, the yen had reached its post-war high against the dollar. Moreover, between September 2012 and September 2015, the trade weighted US dollar index in terms of major currencies rose by almost 25%, so most of the depreciation of the yen against the dollar reflected dollar appreciation rather than yen depreciation.

Now as I pointed out in a post in 2013 about Japan, there really were reasons to suspect that the Japanese were engaging in currency manipulation even though Japan’s rapid accumulation of foreign exchange reserves that began in 2009 came to a halt in 2012 before the Bank of Japan launched its quantitative easing program. I have not kept up on what policies the Bank of Japan has been following, so I am not going to venture an opinion about whether Japan is or is not a currency manipulator. But the evidence that Dr. Shelton is providing to support her charge is simply useless and irrelevant.

Last April, U.S. Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew cautioned Japan against using currency depreciation to gain a trade advantage and he placed the country on a the“monitoring list” of potential currency manipulators. But in response, Japanese Finance Minister Taro Aso threatened to raise the bar, saying he was “prepared to undertake intervention” in the foreign-exchange market.

Obviously, the US government responds to pressures from domestic interests harmed by Japanese competition. Whether such back and forth between the American Treasury Secretary and his Japanese counterpart signifies anything beyond routine grandstanding I am not in a position to say.

China has long been intervening directly in the foreign-exchange market to manipulate the value of its currency. The People’s Bank of China announces a daily midpoint for the acceptable exchange rate between the yuan and the dollar, and then does not allow its currency to move more than 2% from the target price. When the value of the yuan starts to edge higher than the desired exchange rate, China’s government buys dollars to push it back down. When the yuan starts to drift lower than the desired rate, it sells off dollar reserves to buy back its own currency.

China’s government has reserves that amount to nearly $3 trillion. According to Mr. Lew, the U.S. should mute its criticism because China has spent nearly $1 trillion to cushion the yuan’s fall over the last 2½ years or so. In a veiled reproach to Mr. Trump’s intention to label China a currency manipulator, Mr. Lew said it was “analytically dangerous” to equate China’s current intervention policies with its earlier efforts to devalue its currency for purposes of gaining a trade advantage. China, he noted, would only be open to criticism that is “intellectually sound.”

Whether China is propping up exchange rates or holding them down, manipulation is manipulation and should not be overlooked. To be intellectually consistent, one must acknowledge that the distortions induced by government intervention in the foreign-exchange market affect both trade and capital flows. A country that props up the value of its currency against the dollar may have strategic goals for investing in U.S. assets.

Far from being intellectually consistent, Dr. Shelton is rushing headlong into intellectual incoherence. She has latched on to the mantra of “currency manipulation,” and she will not let go. How does Dr. Shelton imagine that the fixed exchange rates of the Bretton Woods era, for which she so fervently pines, were maintained?

I have no idea what she might be thinking, but the answer is that they were maintained by intervention into currency markets to keep exchange rates from deviating by more than a minimal amount from their target rates. So precisely the behavior that, under the Bretton Woods system, she extols wholeheartedly, she condemns mindlessly when now undertaken by the Chinese.

Again, my point is not that the Chinese have not engaged in exchange-rate protection in the past. I have actually suggested in earlier posts to which I have hyperlinked above that the Chinese have engaged in that practice. But that no longer appears to be the case, and Dr. Shelton is clearly unable to provide any evidence that the Chinese are still engaging in that practice.

 [T]he . . . first step [to take] to address this issue [is] by questioning why there aren’t adequate rules in place to keep countries from manipulating their exchange rates.

The next step is to establish a universal set of rules based on monetary sovereignty and discipline that would allow nations to voluntarily participate in a trade agreement that did not permit them to undermine true competition by manipulating exchange rates.

I have actually just offered such a rule in case Dr. Shelton is interested. But I have little hope and no expectation that she is or will be.

Economic Prejudice and High-Minded Sloganeering

In a post yesterday commenting on Paul Krugman’s takedown of a silly and ignorant piece of writing about monetary policy by William Cohan, Scott Sumner expressed his annoyance at the level of ignorance displayed people writing for supposedly elite publications like the New York Times which published Cohan’s rant about how it’s time for the Fed to show some spine and stop manipulating interest rates. Scott, ever vigilant, noticed that another elite publication the Financial Times published an equally silly rant by Avinah Persaud exhorting the Fed to show steel and raise rates.

Scott focused on one particular example of silliness about the importance of raising interest rates ASAP notwithstanding the fact that the Fed has failed to meet its 2% inflation target for something like 39 consecutive months:

Yet monetary policy cannot confine itself to reacting to the latest inflation data if it is to promote the wider goals of financial stability and sustainable economic growth. An over-reliance on extremely accommodative monetary policy may be one of the reasons why the world has not escaped from the clutches of a financial crisis that began more than eight years ago.

Scott deftly skewers Persaud with the following comment:

I suppose that’s why the eurozone economy took off after 2011, while the US failed to grow.  The ECB avoided our foolish QE policies, and “showed steel” by raising interest rates twice in the spring of 2011.  If only we had done the same.

But Scott allowed the following bit of nonsense on Persaud’s part to escape unscathed (I don’t mean to be critical of Scott, there’s only so much nonsense that any single person be expected to hold up to public derision):

The slowdown in the Chinese economy has its roots in decisions made far from Beijing. In the past five years, central banks in all the big advanced economies have embarked on huge quantitative easing programmes, buying financial assets with newly created cash. Because of the effect they have on exchange rates, these policies have a “beggar-thy-neighbour” quality. Growth has been shuffled from place to place — first the US, then Europe and Japan — with one country’s gains coming at the expense of another. This zero-sum game cannot launch a lasting global recovery. China is the latest loser. Last week’s renminbi devaluation brought into focus that since 2010, China’s export-driven economy has laboured under a 25 per cent appreciation of its real effective exchange rate.

The effect of quantitative easing on exchange rates is not the result of foreign-exchange-market intervention; it is the result of increasing the total quantity of base money. Expanding the monetary base reduces the value of the domestic currency unit relative to foreign currencies by raising prices in terms of the domestic currency relative to prices in terms of foreign currencies. There is no beggar-thy-neighbor effect from monetary expansion of this sort. And even if exchange-rate depreciation were achieved by direct intervention in the foreign-exchange markets, the beggar-thy-neighbor effect would be transitory as prices in terms of domestic and foreign currencies would adjust to reflect the altered exchange rate. As I have explained in a number of previous posts on currency manipulation (e.g., here, here, and here) relying on Max Corden’s contributions of 30 years ago on the concept of exchange-rate protection, a “beggar-thy-neighbor” effect is achieved only if there is simultaneous intervention in foreign-exchange markets to reduce the exchange rate of the domestic currency combined with offsetting open-market sales to contractnot expand – the monetary base (or, alternatively, increased reserve requirements to increase the domestic demand to hold the monetary base). So the allegation that quantitative easing has any substantial “beggar-thy-nation” effect is totally without foundation in economic theory. It is just the ignorant repetition of absurd economic prejudices dressed up in high-minded sloganeering about “zero-sum games” and “beggar-thy-neighbor” effects.

And while the real exchange rate of the Chinese yuan may have increased by 25% since 2010, the real exchange rate of the dollar over the same period in which the US was allegedly pursuing a beggar thy nation policy increased by about 12%. The appreciation of the dollar reflects the relative increase in the strength of the US economy over the past 5 years, precisely the opposite of a beggar-thy-neighbor strategy.

And at an intuitive level, it is just absurd to think that China would have been better off if the US, out of a tender solicitude for the welfare of Chinese workers, had foregone monetary expansion, and allowed its domestic economy to stagnate totally. To whom would the Chinese have exported in that case?

 


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.

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