Monday, January 26, 2009

Why Adjust?

. Monday, January 26, 2009

Teutonic Knight, a commenter at Seeking Alpha (where some IPE at UNC posts are syndicated) asks a very good question apropos of this post:

What is the real motivation or perceived benefits to the U.S. of asking to Chinese to re-evaluate the Yuan upward? If say the Yuan is up another 15% (not a hugh magnitude in my view to begin with) then the "cheap" Chinese household goods may just rise 10 to 15% in price.

China and the United States have had a trade imbalance for quite a long time. In theory, when one country (the U.S.) imports more goods from a country (China) than it exports to it, the value of the currency of the importing country (the dollar) sinks relative to the value of the currency of the exporting country (the yuan). At least, this is supposed to happen when the value of currencies is allowed to float. If the value of the dollar sinks relative to the yuan, then imports from China to the U.S. become more expensive, while exports from the U.S. to China become less expensive. Therefore, exports from the U.S. should rise while imports from China should fall. The price mechanism prevents countries from running persistent trade deficits that can have adverse long-run effects on employment.

In the real world version of this example, China has subsidized its exports to make them cheaper, and has then used the proceeds from the trade imbalance to buy U.S. Treasuries and other dollar-denominated assets, thus propping up the dollar and making Chinese imports even more attractive to U.S. consumers. For a long time, the U.S. was more than happy to oblige, because this made it possible for us to extend cheap credit to businesses and consumers without generating a lot of inflation. The U.S. was running at or near full employment, so there seemed to be little short-run downside. China was content with this state of affairs because it allowed them to employ millions of its impoverished citizens in labor-intensive exporting industries, thus raising standards of living for the most people in the shortest amount of time.

However, everyone knew that in the long run this trade imbalance was unsustainable. This is why people like Nouriel Roubini have been predicting a currency crisis in the U.S. for several years now: eventually the dollar was going to have to fall. According to Roubini and others, the bigger the trade imbalance became, and the larger the U.S. national debt grew, the more painful the inevitable transition was going to be. A gradual adjustment is always preferable to a sudden shock, so the U.S. has been cajoling the Chinese to let the yuan rise against the dollar in stages. The Chinese have done this, but the U.S. has been concerned that the process is going too slowly. The Chinese have been reticent to move too quickly and forego the employment gains in their exporting sector.

Now that the U.S. is well below full employment, the matter has become more urgent: we need the dollar to decline some in order to boost our exporting industries and spur employment. Despite interest rates close to zero, the dollar has actually gained value against many of the world's currencies since last Fall. Unfortunately, China is facing a slowdown as well, and they want to keep their employment levels from slipping, so they want to keep the yuan from rising much more in the short run.

And that's basically the state of things right now. It appears that we may be at an impasse. Structural adjustment is needed, but the U.S. is hesitant to force that adjustment through tariffs or capital controls, and China is hesitant to let the yuan fall much further.

Of course, this simplistic explanation ignores all other countries besides China and the U.S., and all other currencies besides the yuan and dollar. The full story is much more complicated, as Russia moves to devalue the rouble, France gets concerned about the shocking weakness of the British pound, and the Japanese yen rises against all major currencies, leading to rising unemployment in the Land of the Rising Sun. In a global recession, nearly all countries are incentivized to devalue their currencies in order to boost employment and stave off deflation. But such competitive devaluation can have devastating consequences for the global economy.


Why Adjust?
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