Wednesday , November 14 2018
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Every day it gets worse

Summary:
Little did we know that during the golden 1990s we were complaining about things that would look utterly trivial in retrospect. The sheer stupidity of the 21st century is so mind-boggling it leaves me almost speechless. But not quite. Consider the “problem” of currency manipulation. Let’s start with the fact that currency manipulation is a strange term to apply to a hodgepodge of government policies that may or may not impact the current account balance. For instance, you might say that “currency manipulation” is almost the sole purpose of having a central bank. There are some smarter economists who do worry about currency manipulation. But when you read their work, it’s pretty clear that what actually concerns them is “saving manipulation”—when countries enact policies that

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Little did we know that during the golden 1990s we were complaining about things that would look utterly trivial in retrospect. The sheer stupidity of the 21st century is so mind-boggling it leaves me almost speechless.

But not quite.

Consider the “problem” of currency manipulation. Let’s start with the fact that currency manipulation is a strange term to apply to a hodgepodge of government policies that may or may not impact the current account balance. For instance, you might say that “currency manipulation” is almost the sole purpose of having a central bank.

There are some smarter economists who do worry about currency manipulation. But when you read their work, it’s pretty clear that what actually concerns them is “saving manipulation”—when countries enact policies that boost the national saving rate. These policies can “improve” the current account balance. And not all such policies, rather they worry most about a subset of relatively ineffective policies, such as swapping domestic assets for foreign assets. (I’m not saying these policies have no effect; I just don’t see how it could be very large.)  They tend not to worry as much about far more effective pro-saving policies, in the fiscal/tax area.

The Netherlands and Switzerland have CA surpluses of 10% of GDP, while Singapore’s is 20% of GDP.  Does anyone seriously believe those are due to “currency manipulation”?

Even the economists who do worry about currency manipulation find the criteria set by the US government to be absurd:

Congress’s criteria to assess if a country is interfering in its currency are: A minimum $20 billion trade surplus with the U.S., a current account surplus in excess of 3 percent of gross domestic product, and repeated intervention in currency markets.

I’ve got an idea!  Instead of labeling countries “currency manipulators” when they accumulate $20 billion surpluses with the US, how about labeling then “currency manipulators” when they, umm, manipulate their currencies?

I’ll tell you why not.  Because that would force us to actually define currency manipulation in a way that could be measured.  And that would expose the fact that what really concerns us is saving manipulation.  No, not even saving manipulation, it’s current account surpluses in other countries that actually concern us.  No, not even that, it’s bilateral deficits with other countries that concern us.  And of course bilateral deficits have nothing to do with currency manipulation in any meaningful sense of the term. Indeed they have nothing to do with anything meaningful at all.   What’s the bilateral trade deficit between New York and New Jersey?

Trump took office saying he would label China a currency manipulator from day one.  He’s failed to deliver on that promise, just as he’s failed to repeal Obamacare, secure the border, reduce the trade deficit, or stop the rest of the world from laughing at us.  He failed because the Trump’s own Treasury department wasn’t able to find evidence that China is a currency manipulator, despite using a silly set of criteria that are strongly biased toward finding China guilty, such as the provision that it’s not OK to run a $20 bilateral surplus with the US.

But it’s even worse.  Not satisfied with the fact that the Treasury’s own criteria show that China is not a currency manipulator, they are thinking of changing the criteria so that the evidence will match the predetermined verdict—guilty as charged:

Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin is open to changing how the U.S. determines which nations are gaming their currencies, a move that could give President Donald Trump the chance to officially brand China a foreign exchange-rate manipulator as he seeks leverage to redefine trade terms between the world’s largest economies.

One method Mnuchin would consider: Using a 1988 trade act with a broad definition of currency manipulation to designate a country a manipulator, even if the label isn’t warranted by specific tests under a 2015 law, he said. The other would be to change the criteria that help establish whether a country is engaging in competitive devaluation of its currency, according to Mnuchin.

Treasury applies three tests to measure whether a country should be labeled a currency manipulator. The framework of the criteria is provided by Congress, but the specific thresholds in the tests are at Treasury’s discretion.

Again, foreign current account surpluses are not a problem for the US.  But if you disagree with me and agree with those pundits who do worry about current account imbalances, you should be focusing on the Eurozone and Japan and Switzerland, which really do have big CA surpluses, not China, whose CA is nearly balanced.

Trump seems determined to launch a cold war against China, a country with an economy that will be twice as large as the US economy by 2035.  In the old days, militaristic countries would engage in warfare by inventing some silly pretext—say demanding that a smaller neighboring country apologize for some imagined slight.  Trump wants a cold war with China, and demands the federal bureaucracy find some sort of fig leaf to justify it.  Why not point to China’s bad human rights record in Xinjiang?  Unfortunately, mentioning human rights would simply highlight Trump’s embarrassingly friendly relationship with the Russians and the Saudis, despite their war crimes in the Ukraine and Yemen.  So Trump needs to seek out an economic rationale for war with China.  In this post-truth world, currency manipulation is as good as any.


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Scott Sumner
Scott B. Sumner is Research Fellow at the Independent Institute, the Director of the Program on Monetary Policy at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University and an economist who teaches at Bentley University in Waltham, Massachusetts. His economics blog, The Money Illusion, popularized the idea of nominal GDP targeting, which says that the Fed should target nominal GDP—i.e., real GDP growth plus the rate of inflation—to better "induce the correct level of business investment".

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