Thursday, November 11, 2010


November 11, 2010

How can we hope for any meaningful agreement to rebalance the lop-sided international trade system when heads of state and talking heads, finance ministers and financial gurus condemn deficit countries (i.e. the USA) in terms that ought to be reserved for surplus countries (China in particular)? One key to success at this week’s G-20 summit – and any future endeavor of this sort – is to recognize the fundamental difference in the significance and legal status of weak or weaker currencies.

On the one hand, some countries – China and others today, Japan for a long time in the past –systematically intervene in foreign exchange markets in a way that produces and perpetuates massive imbalances. The evidence of such policies lies in the huge excess foreign currency reserves and persistent trade surpluses. (China acknowledged a monthly surplus with the world of $27.1 billion in October, the second highest level this year. The result is yet another record level for China’s official reserves.)

Such behavior is inconsistent with IMF Article IV, which obligates members not to manipulate exchange rates in ways that prevent the adjustment of unbalanced trade flows and international payments or produce a competitive advantage. The logic is clear: when countries run big surpluses, the exchange rate should be allowed to strengthen so as to reduce the imbalances. Not to do so is a violation of Article IV and a shortsighted assault on the very international trading system that enabled export-oriented countries to grow so successfully. China has not done so.

On the other hand, the United States at long last is changing macroeconomic policies in ways that will, if market forces are allowed to work, produce a weaker dollar for a period of time. At the same time, Americans – individuals and businesses – are deleveraging and substantially increasing their savings. Banks have greatly strengthened their balance sheets and tightened the undisciplined credit expansion of the last decade. Interest rates have been held close to zero. Together, those steps should work to reduce the imbalances that burden the international system. The logic of Article IV also applies: when a country runs persistent trade and current account deficits, its exchange rate should weaken. American policy — which consists of much more than just a weaker dollar -- upholds Article IV and reinforces the flexibility of the international system in the face of massive imbalances.

The contrast between China’s perpetual surplus machine and the United States' self-corrective medicine is as plain as apples and oranges, illegal and legal, destructive and constructive. Those who cry out in horror that the industrial countries shouldn’t attempt to increase their exports fail to understand how markets work and make a mockery of the system from which export-oriented countries have hugely benefitted.

There is no perfect level for exchange rates, interest rates, money supplies, trade balances or current account balances. They must be allowed to rise and fall as necessary to maintain the overall stability of the system. To paraphrase Lord Keynes: “When circumstances change, our policies change. What do you do?” That’s the essence of Article IV. Those who insist on their right to run perpetual surpluses or who want to condemn the US to run perpetual deficits need a remedial course in economics. Without a better understanding of this fundamental economic truth, there is little hope for any lasting positive result from the G-20, now or ever.

Charles Blum

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