Friday, May 6, 2011

“Currency Manipulation” Will Continue, Despite G20

Last month, the G20 finally agreed on the specific factors that would be used to determine whether a country was manipulating its currency. Despite being watered-down (by the usual suspects), the so-called “scorecard” is nonetheless extremely substantive. Unfortunately, the resolution will be backed only by “peer pressure,” rather than any kind of real enforcement mechanism, which means that in practice it is basically worthless.

While the proximate goal of the resolution is to eliminate exchange rate manipulation, it’s ultimate goal is to minimize the risk of another economic/financial crisis. Towards that end, a country’s “budget deficit levels, the external imbalance and private savings rates” will be closely scrutinized, and will be warned if any of these factors reach levels that are deemed to be unsustainable. The idea is that an early warning system will prevent the global economy from reaching a point of disequilibrium that is so severe that crisis would be impossible to avert.

Of course, the problems with this program are manifold. First of all, there are no concrete numbers. For example, it’s not clear how large a country’s national debt or trade deficit has to reach before it receives a phone call and slap on the wrist from the G20. In fact, you could argue that the same imbalances that precipitated the crisis are largely still in place, which means that some countries should have been warned yesterday.

Second, there is no meaningful enforcement mechanism. That means that countries that disregard the resolution don’t really have anything to fear, other than the wrath of investors. In other words, if governments and Central Banks know that they can manipulate their exchange rates with impunity, what’s to stop them? Look at Japan: its public debt is the highest in the world. It runs a perennial trade surplus. Its citizens are notorious savers. And yet, when the Yen rose to a record high, which you might expect from such an imbalanced economy, the G7 (in this case) took the unusual step of pushing the Yen down. I’m not saying this wasn’t the right thing to do, but what kind of signal does this send to other rule breakers.

While all emerging market countries took an active interest in exchange rates (and seek to exert some control over their currencies), China is certainly Public Enemy #1, and is the clear target of the “currency manipulation” talk. To its credit, the People’s Bank of China (PBOC) has permitted the Chinese Yuan to appreciate 20% against the Dollar (probably 30% when inflation is taken into account) over the last few years. Meanwhile, both internal government statisticians and the IMF expect its current account surplus to narrow to a mere 5% in 2011, as its economy slowly rebalances.

In this sense, I think China is a case in point that the best enforcement mechanism is reality. Specifically, China has reached a point where it cannot continue to pursue an economic policy based on exports, without spurring inflation and causing the inefficient allocation of domestic capital (such as in real estate). It must raise interest rates and accept the continued appreciation of the RMB is an unavoidable byproduct.

The same goes for other countries that attempt to hold their currencies down. If they can get away with it, then so be it. If not, I can guarantee that it won’t be the G20 that forces them to change.

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