Monday, October 01, 2012

Currency Manipulation and the Politics of Neo-Mercantilism

At the local stock market forum, the Stock Market Pilipinas I had been asked to comment about the currency manipulation charges hurled against China.

For starters, as per Wikipedia’s definition of currency intervention, otherwise known as exchange rate intervention or foreign exchange market intervention, is the purchase or the sale of the currency on the exchange market by the fiscal authority or the monetary authority, in order to influence the value of the domestic currency. (bold emphasis mine)

In brief, the employment of currency/foreign exchange/exchange rate interventions implies that both monetary and fiscal authorities of ALL nations are currency manipulators.
(chart from Bloomberg)

As evidence, considering that international reserves assets (excluding gold) are at record highs mainly through the expansion of central bank balance sheets (via unsterilized interventions) these means that all central banks have been manipulating their respective currencies.
The growth of central bank balance sheets includes Asia and the Philippines. (Bank of International Settlements)
Such concerted balance sheet expansions has also been reflected on the state of money supply growth. (chart from Mao Money, Mao Problems)

Fund manager David R. Kotok of Cumberland Advisors has a good narrative of why the growing concerns over dollar debasement are valid.

Mr. Kotok writes, (bold emphasis mine)
The dollar maintains its reserve currency status because it is the least worst of the major four currencies – the US dollar, the British pound, the Japanese yen, and the euro.  All four of these currencies are now suffering the effects of a stimulative, expansive, and QE-oriented monetary policy.

We must now add the Swiss franc as a major currency, since Switzerland and its central bank are embarked on a policy course of fixing the exchange rate between the franc and the euro at 1.2 to 1.  Hence the Swiss National Bank becomes an extension of the European Central Bank, and therefore its monetary policy is necessarily linked to that of the eurozone… 

When you add up these currencies and the others that are linked to them, you conclude that about 80% of the world’s capital markets are tied to one of them.  All of the major four are in QE of one sort or another.  All four are maintaining a shorter-term interest rate near zero, which explains the reduction of volatility in the shorter-term rate structure.  If all currencies yield about the same and are likely to continue doing so for a while, it becomes hard to distinguish a relative value among them; hence, volatility falls.

The other currencies of the world may have value-adding characteristics.  We see that in places like Canada, Sweden, and New Zealand.  But the capital-market size of those currencies, or even of a basket of them, is not sufficient to replace the dollar as the major reserve currency.  Thus the dollar wins as the least worst of the big guys.

Fear of dollar debasement is, however, well-founded.  The United States continues to run federal budget deficits at high percentages of GDP.  The US central bank has a policy of QE and has committed itself to an extension of the period during which it will preserve this expansive policy.  That timeframe is now estimated to be at least three years.  The central bank has specifically said it wants more inflation.  The real interest rates in US-dollar-denominated Treasury debt are negative.  This is a recipe for a weaker dollar.  The only reason that the dollar is not much weaker is that the other major central banks are engaged in similar policies.
Given the high concentration of exposure by the world’s banking system on these four major international reserves currencies (US dollar, British pound, Japanese Yen, and the euro), this means that policies of ancillary central banks has to adjust in accordance to the policies of these major international reserve currencies.

In short, policies by the US mostly dominate on the policies of global central banks. Alternatively this suggest that the US has been the world’s biggest 'currency manipulator'.

While it is also true that some peripheral currencies has differentiating factors as pointed above, the point is that these currencies don’t have enough market depth to replace the incumbent international reserve currencies.

As caveat, such premises remain conditional on the absence of a currency crisis. Abrupt changes to the current setting should be expected if or once a currency crisis should occur.

Yet the fundamental issue is to understand the role of role of central banks. As Mises Institute founder Llewellyn Rockwell Jr. recently wrote, (
First, they serve as lenders of last resort, which in practice means bailouts for the big financial firms. Second, they coordinate the inflation of the money supply by establishing a uniform rate at which the banks inflate, thereby making the fractional-reserve banking system less unstable and more consistently profitable than it would be without a central bank (which, by the way, is why the banks themselves always clamor for a central bank). Finally, they allow governments, via inflation, to finance their operations far more cheaply and surreptitiously than they otherwise could.
The bottom line is that currency manipulation, through inflationism, is the essence of the paper money legal tender based central banking.

So what’s the hullabaloo over China as "currency manipulator"?

Well, “currency manipulation” has been no less than a popular sloganeering of “us against them” politics meant to attain political goals.

Such political goal has been subtly designed for the protection of the privileged business interests allied with the political class through trade restrictions or through the transformation “of the economy from roughly laissez-faire to centralized, coordinated statism” as the great dean of Austrian school of economics Murray N. Rothbard pointed out.

This is called neo-mercantilism.

In the 80s, rising Japan had been painted as a threat to American economic standings, such that hate and envy based politics echoed the call for neo-mercantilist protectionism, again from Professor Rothbard,
Protectionism, often refuted and seemingly abandoned, has returned, and with a vengeance. The Japanese, who bounced back from grievous losses in World War II to astound the world by producing innovative, high-quality products at low prices, are serving as the convenient butt of protectionist propaganda. Memories of wartime myths prove a heady brew, as protectionists warn about this new "Japanese imperialism," even "worse than Pearl Harbor." This "imperialism" turns out to consist of selling Americans wonderful TV sets, autos, microchips, etc., at prices more than competitive with American firms.

Is this "flood" of Japanese products really a menace, to be combated by the U.S. government? Or is the new Japan a godsend to American consumers? In taking our stand on this issue, we should recognize that all government action means coercion, so that calling upon the U.S. government to intervene means urging it to use force and violence to restrain peaceful trade. One trusts that the protectionists are not willing to pursue their logic of force to the ultimate in the form of another Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
With Japan suffering from a humongous bubble bust that has led to a lost decade, today such political bogeyman has shifted to China.

The mainstream (mostly representing captured interests) has used all sorts of highly flawed and deceptive technically based assumptions and theories as cheap labor theory, cheap currencies, global savings glut, global imbalances and others to divert or camouflage the public’s attention from the unintended consequences from serial interventionist domestic policies and bubble monetary policies by riling up or conjuring emotive nationalist or xenophobic sentiment.

Gullible public opinion are easily swayed due to either the dearth of economic understanding or because they are blinded from the obsession to politics.

As the great Ludwig von Mises pointed out (OMNIPOTENT GOVERNMENT p.183)
People favor discrimination and privileges because they do not realize that they themselves are consumers and as such must foot the bill. In the case of protectionism, for example, they believe that only the foreigners against whom the import duties discriminate are hurt. It is true the foreigners are hurt, but not they alone: the consumers who must pay higher prices suffer with them.
And part of that reality has not entirely been about achieving some dubious trading objectives but to expand credit, again for political goals.

Again the Professor von Mises, (Human Action)
While the size of the credit expansion that private banks and bankers are able to engineer on an unhampered market is strictly limited, the governments aim at the greatest possible amount of credit expansion. Credit expansion is the governments' foremost tool in their struggle against the market economy. In their hands it is the magic wand designed to conjure away the scarcity of capital goods, to lower the rate of interest or to abolish it altogether, to finance lavish government spending, to expropriate the capitalists, to contrive everlasting booms, and to make everybody prosperous.
The politics of neomercantilism exploits economic patsies and the politically blind in the name of nationalism for the benefit of political class, vested interest groups and or their cronies at the expense of society.

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