Column: Root causes of currency wars

Updated: Feb 19 2013, 01:58am hrs
What are the underlying policy choices responsible for the recurring currency disputes

Simon J Evenett

Once dismissed as self-serving grandstanding by the Brazilian finance minister in 2010, claims that the world is closer to a currency war have returned. This time, the proximate cause appears to be the publicly-stated policies of the new Japanese government aimed at shaking off a decades-long economic malaise. Is this another flash in the panor are there deeper factors at work

The recurring currency wars, however, are not random, inconsequential events. Until the economies of the major trading powers recover or there is a significant shift in national policy mixes, we should expect the currency war to keep breaking out like a rash.

There is an air of resignationalmost of inevitabilityto some commentary on todays currency war. Broken down, the argument goes like this. It starts by noting the widely shared view that one of the major lessons from the 1930s is that economic crises such as these require active monetary policy. Pumping liquidity into the banking system, etc, is seen by many as a legitimate role of central banks during crises.

When interest-rate differentials and exchange-rate movements have adverse knock-on effects for trading partners, then accusations of currency war follow. While the major industrial economies remain in the doldrums, differences in timing of monetary policy easing and the like will result in repeated charges of beggar-thy-neighbour policymaking and so the currency war reads like a book with many chapters. Before unpacking this chain of logic a little more, it is first worth noting that the apparent inevitability has led to the five rationalisations for the current currency war.

l The just following orders defence: This defence was put well by Philipp Hildebrand, the former head of the Swiss National Bank, in an oped piece in FT. In his view, central banks havent declared war on trading partners. Rather theyve sought to revive their national economies taking stepsand this is importantthat are entirely consistent with their legal mandates. Of course, critics will hardly be satisfied (a) as the cross-border adverse knock-on effects of monetary easing are what they are, (b) just because something is allowed doesnt mean it is the right thing to do and (c) that this defence demonstrates just how parochial central bank mandates are.

l The no malice defence: In their statement last week the G7 implicitly proffered this defence. Monetary policy that does not seek to target exchange rates is fine on this view. No harm was intended, so whats the problem Critics will point to the adverse effects of monetary easing on trading partners and wont be satisfied with assurances on intent.

l The omelette defence: The omelette defence is the ultimate acknowledgement of the inevitability argument. If you cant make an omelette without breaking a few eggs, and assuming you want an omelette, then accept the fate of the eggs. Seeing their commercial interests and economic recoveries treated as such eggs is exactly what worries policymakers in emerging markets.

l The grabbing headlines counter-attack: It is said that sometimes that attack is the best form of defence. In this case this amounts to arguing that those who raise currency war concerns are trying to deflect criticism away from their own policy choices. Accusations of beggar-thy-neighbour acts by trading partners are merely a smoke screen for failed domestic policies on this view. This weeks news reports suggest that the governments worried about the currency war have spread beyond the usual suspects, so not every critic may be vulnerable to this counter-attack.

l The Connally defence: The omelette defence isnt the only hardball option available to large countries engaging in monetary easing. The fact that prior criticism doesnt appear to have altered central bank behaviour suggests that there may be another element in their calculations. Those engaging in monetary easing and in some cases direct currency intervention (such as the Swiss) may have concluded that their trading partners either wouldnt dare or ultimately wouldnt care enough to retaliate or that the policy options available to harmed trading partners are so unpalatable (such as putting in place capital taxes and controls or resorting to widespread protectionism) that those options would not be implemented. This is a version of the Connally defence named after the US treasury secretary who reacted to European criticism of US economic policy in 1971 by saying: The dollar is our currency, but your problem. On this view, the rest of the world needs to adjust to the reality of monetary easing and live with its consequences. One might ask what assumptions are being made about foreign acquiescence and whether foreign governments see the policy choices before them in the same wayand whether they are right.

Is it possible to design an economic recovery package that takes account of the lessons of history while doing the least possible harmeven potentially benefitingforeign trading partners For sure, some wont like this question, reasoning no doubt as follows: when (not if) monetary easing leads to economic recovery, the associated expansion in corporate and personal spending will increase demand for foreign goods and servicesso in the long run everything will be hunky dory for trading partners, even with monetary easing. Still, the question is a good one because if there are plausible alternatives then (a) maybe the currency war was not inevitable or (b) the decisions not to pursue these policy alternatives points to under-appreciated causes of the currency war.

Taking as given that the effect of monetary easing on the exchange rate will harm, at least in the short run, foreign trading partners, what other complementary measures could have been taken to limit international tensions One such measure would have been to combine monetary easing with expansionary fiscal policy. To the extent that the latter directly or indirectly increased demand for imports then this would have offset, possibly fully, the impact of any currency depreciation by industrialised countries. Seen in this light, no wonder trading partners were worried that currency devaluations that accompanied austerity measures (restrictive fiscal policy) in industrialised economies further harmed their commercial interests. The adoption of austerity measures from 2010 closed the door on policy measures that could have mitigated the international tensions created by go-it-alone monetary easing by in the industrialised countries.

Another road not taken in recent years was far-reaching trade and investment reforms, which would have provided a fillip to trade partners harmed by adverse currency movements. It is worth noting that the unwillingness to further integrate the world markets has exacerbated today currency war.

The root causes of todays currency war lie not just in parochial monetary policy choice but in the backlash against fiscal stimulus packages and the political unviability of trade reform in the major industrialised economies. Pointing fingers at Japan misses the point. The responsibility for this latest outbreak of parochial decision-making goes much deeper.

The author is professor of International Trade, University of St Gallen, and member of the Warwick Commission on the Future of the Multilateral Trading System after Doha.