Currency Wars: This Time, Is It for Real?

In his presidential campaign in 1928, Herbert Hoover promised to help impoverished farmers by increasing tariffs on agricultural products; after the election, he also asked Congress to reduce tariffs on industrial goods. In April 1929, well before Black Thursday, U.S. Representative Reed Smoot, a Republican from Utah, introduced a bill that passed the House in May. The bill increased agricultural and industrial tariffs at levels that had not been seen for a century. This was a relatively benign beginning of what would become one of the most tragic policy measures of the 1930s. Within a few months of the bill being passed in the Senate as the Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act, other countries in response raised their own trade barriers, which started a vicious circle of contracting world trade flows and economic activity, and rising unemployment from 1930 to 1933.

There are three main lessons from the policies mentioned above: 

  1. “Beggar-my-neighbor” policies are bad.
  2. Bad policies can have tragic consequences.
  3. Beware of benign measures that can ignite uncontrollable chain reactions.

Indeed, these lessons have been in every policymakers’ mind since the Lehmann Brothers failure. In fact, the creation of the G-20 was a spectacular effort by the major economies of the world to cooperatively answer the challenges raised by the most severe financial crisis since the 1930s. The G-20 coordinated the management of strong macroeconomic policies, including huge deficits and easy monetary policies. These were bold decisions but not radical, and those who condemned government intervention have been rebutted by the urgency of these measures. And it is now widely acknowledged that these unconventional measures successfully avoided the transformation of the Great Recession into another Great Depression.

In the U.S., the recovery is at best shaky, unemployment is artificially reduced by the growing number of discouraged workers who have stopped looking for work, and the median income is dramatically lagging.

Today, there are reasons of hope that have been eloquently described by Roger Altman [1]: it can be argued that in the U.S., and to a lesser degree in Europe, the crisis has inspired significant reforms that have pushed the economy closer to a sound and sustainable growth trajectory. However others rightfull so object that enormous challenges are still facing the populations and their respective governments. The price paid for curing the damages of the global financial crisis is extremely high everywhere. In the U.S., the recovery is at best shaky, unemployment is artificially reduced by the growing number of discouraged workers who have stopped looking for work, and the median income is dramatically lagging. In Europe, austerity is the name of the game in every country except Germany and despair is growing among the populace. Japan has been stuck for two decades in deflation. Many citizens around the world feel that the efforts have gone too far, yet the benefits and retribution have benefitted too few. Electoral frustrations are on the rise as demonstrated in Italy where Mario Monti’s wise policies have been followed by the success of the Five Stars Movement of Beppe Grillo. Italy turning ungovernable is a bad sign for democracies. Could we see a comeback of desperate national policy experiments like the ones that democracies were progressively pushed to adopt after facing insurmountable difficulties in the early 1930s?

Now, a really radical policy experiment is already taking shape in Japan with the introduction of what has been named “Abenomics” after the name of the newly-elected prime minister, Shinzo Abe. It has taken only one election and one nomination at the head of the Bank of Japan to really revolutionize monetary policy. This revolution can be qualified in two ways, one benign, one threatening.

There is first reason to rejoice. After two decades of failed policies, it’s finally good to see bold politicians ready to do whatever it takes to extract Japan from its deflationary trap. Should Mr. Abe succeed, he would unclench the domestic brakes to economic growth, which deflation has so lengthily opposed: declining prices in effect are discouraging consumption (goods will be better and cheaper tomorrow, why spend now?) and investment (facing massive excess capacity of production and weak final demand, why invest now?). The new mission of the governor of the Bank of Japan is to raise inflationary expectations to 2 percent, which would make Japan converge with the world average inflationary trend and monetary policy. Demand would restart and Japan would contribute to an improved global economic outlook. This is the view that the IMF chief recently endorsed. As expected, Mr. Kuroda last week unveiled a much more aggressive package of quantitative easing than what we have previously witnessed, with a view to double the monetary base. Japan’s central bank will buy more long-term government bonds, pushing private investors to invest more in risky assets. Since the election, the Nikkei has risen 34 percent. Different polls and surveys suggest that the public is positively reacting to Mr. Abe’s promises.

Is success already underway? That would be good news for Japan and for the world. But it is clearly too soon to celebrate because this virtuous circle can simply fail to happen. No central bank until now has ever tried to raise inflationary expectations and no one knows if this can turn to be a practical and manageable reality. Inflationary expectations could also easily turn out of control. Before exercising traction on the economy, they could impose higher interest rates that would have devastating consequences for the Japanese Treasury in the management of a huge public debt (more than twice the size of the GDP). But there is something worse than the risk of Abenomics having poor or adverse domestic consequences.

The other side of Abenomics is currency management, a much less propitious theme for a government to communicate in the weeks leading up to the IMF Spring Meetings in Washington. This aspect of the policy is not only bold, it’s actually radical. As a candidate, Mr. Abe made extremely clear that he was willing to help the manufacturing sector by depreciating the yen and that monetary policy would be designed with this goal in mind. Remember that Japan, despite all its woes, remains a formidable exporter with an external surplus close to ¥650 billion in February (approximately $6.5 billion). As my fellow economists at Brookings have recently shown [2], the Japanese bilateral surplus with the U.S., which is $23 billion according to reported trade statistics, would dramatically increase by 60 percent and reach $36 billion if measured in added-value terms. Mr. Abe’s message was well received by investors who quickly after the election started to short the yen. As a result, the yen has slumped 21.5 percent in the past five months— the worst (or the best?) performance among the currencies of the developed economies. Following last week’s announcement that the Bank of Japan was really acting to debase monetary policy, the yen weakened beyond 99 yen per dollar and dropped against 15 major currencies.

A weakening yen also poses challenges for China, complicating the China’s strategy to reach its 8 percent target growth for this year; it could also trigger huge capital flows into China destabilizing the delicate control of financial stability

This is where Mr. Abe and Mr. Smoot cross ways: both are local politicians inspired by the difficulties facing their countries; both are willing to use every available policy tool to soften these difficulties; neither is willing to shock the global economy, which has never been the case when arguing in favor of protectionism or competitive devaluations. But these measures are nonetheless radical because they have the potential to ignite uncontrollable chain reactions. South Korea for one already declared itself very concerned by this aggressive policy, which is totally understandable. For instance, when Toyota and Sony take some advantage of Abe’s policy, the ones that would likely be first to suffer are Hyundai and Samsung. South Korea has vital interests at stake and, over In the last five months, it has been struggling with a pernicious appreciation of its currency. A weakening yen also poses challenges for China, complicating the China’s strategy to reach its 8 percent target growth for this year; it could also trigger huge capital flows into China destabilizing the delicate control of financial stability; SAFE, the financial institution that manages China’s huge official reserves, last week published its yearly report for 2012. Commenting on the global environment, the report emphasized that “a yen’s depreciation can’t solve Japan’s structural problem, … [but] could turn out of control and trigger a suspicion about its sustainability,… and finally have dangerous spill-over-effects”[3]. Chinese officials at the Boao Forum also expressed similar concerns.

We still don’t know the end. Hope is that we could see the positive interpretation of a bold Japanese policy experiment contributing to a better functioning world economy. Experience should nonetheless make us cautious. What the movement by the Bank of Japan does is to increase an already huge excess liquidity, inundating global markets. In addition, the Japanese government has added a dangerous touch of currency manipulation. Both aspects should be alerts for the IMF rather than too quickly fuel the artificial satisfaction of promises regarding higher inflationary expectations and increased domestic demand. In the end, competitive devaluations always prove inefficient and dangerous because they inevitably provoke reactions and retaliations. “Currency wars” have made headlines from time to time in the recent years but these were skirmishes. This time it could be for real, and this should be a major concern for the United States. It is a great thing that Japan recently expressed interest in joining the Trans-Pacific Partnership, but these are words with long delayed potential results. A more constructive and immediate task is to continue the cooperative global approach of exchange rate policies and to strongly discourage any temptation of national radical policy experiments. This should be a central issue next week during the IMF Spring Meetings in Washington.

[1] Roger C. Altman: “The Fall and Rise of the West”, Foreign Affairs, January-February 2013

[2] Kemal Dervis, Joshua Meltzer and Karim Foda: “Value-Added Trade and its Implications for International Trade Policy”, Brookings Opinion, April 2, 2013