Beggar thy currency or thy self – says the good doctor El-Erian?

guerra-cambiaria

Not many countries nowadays seek a strong exchange rate; a few, including systemically important ones, are already actively weakening their currencies. Yet, because an exchange rate is a relative price, all currencies cannot weaken simultaneously. How the world resolves this basic inconsistency over the next few years will have a major impact on prospects for growth, employment, income distribution, and the functioning of the global economy.

Japan is the latest country to say enough is enough. Having seen its currency appreciate dramatically in recent years, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s new government is taking steps to alter the country’s exchange-rate dynamic – and is succeeding. In just over two months, the yen has weakened by more than 10% against the dollar and close to 20% against the euro.

European leaders have already expressed reservations about Japan’s moves. The US auto industry is up in arms. And, a few days ago, Jens Weidmann, the president of the Bundesbank, publicly warned that the world risks a harmful and ultimately futile round of competitive exchange-rate depreciations – or, more bluntly, a “currency war”…

Of course, Japan is not the first country to go down this path. Several advanced and emerging economies preceded it, and I suspect that quite a few will follow it…

One need not be an economist to figure out that, while all currencies can (and do) depreciate against something else (like gold, land, and other real assets), by definition they cannot all weaken against each other. In order for some currencies to depreciate, others must appreciate. Here is where things get interesting, complex, and potentially dangerous…

None of this is unprecedented, and there is a lot of scholarship demonstrating why such beggar-thy-neighbor approaches result in bad collective outcomes. Indeed, multilateral agreements are in place to minimize this risk, including at the International Monetary Fund and the World Trade Organization…

Unlike the old days, the threat of currency wars is not directly related to trade imbalances and balance-of-payments crises. Rather, an important driver is major central banks’ pursuit of experimental measures in order to compensate for policy inadequacies and political dysfunction elsewhere…

The risk is that the phenomenon leads to widespread disruptions, as increasingly difficult national policy challenges stoke regional tensions and the multilateral system proves unable to reconcile imbalances safely. If policymakers are not careful – and lucky – the magnitude of this risk will increase significantly in the years ahead.

Meanwhile, the hypocrisy of nations like the United States and Japan – manipulating their own currencies counter to each other’s national interests becomes a symphony of xenophobia orchestrated by politicians and mass media, each less interested in truth than enhancing power and profit for the interests they serve. And that ain’t you and me.

Internally, they make legitimate points about liquidity, attempting to nudge the economy into something more than desultory bumps.

For even a broader examination of opinion and analysis on the topic, return to Project Syndicate and wander through their “Currency War Drums” Focal Point.

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