trade imbalances

Chris Giles

Last week Mervyn King, Bank of England governor, and Dominique Strauss Kahn, managing director of the International Monetary Fund spoke about international policy co-ordination. Both speeches are worth reading. Though this is not their intention, both speeches also highlight how difficult it will be to get an agreement on a co-ordinated solution to global imbalances.

Remember, global trade imbalances were an important contributor to the financial and economic crisis because huge amounts of money, which flowed to the US searching for yield, ultimately found its way to borrowers who were wholly unsuitable via lots of dodgy dealing in the financial sector.

In the depth of the crisis, world leaders came together to co-ordinate economic policy to ensure that recession did not become depression. Protectionism was largely avoided; monetary policy moved to unorthodox territory, and fiscal policy moved into super-stimulus mode. As Mr Strauss Kahn said:

“In sum—during the heat of the crisis, the benefits from co-operation were evident, and the costs of cooperation were small.”

But such co-operation diminished as recession became recovery and squabbling has replaced co-ordinated activity at the G20 level. Countries are now engaged in a tortuous discussion of how to measure global imbalances because this distracts them from having to disagree about what to do about them. Read more

Malaysia might be the next in a long series of central banks turning to reserve requirements. The central bank held the overnight policy rate today at 2.75 per cent for the third meeting, as expected. Inflation ran at just 2.2 per cent in the year to December.

Bank Negara Malaysia signalled, however, that it would consider tools other than rate rises to mop up excess liquidity. “Large and volatile shifts in global liquidity are leading to a build up of liquidity in the domestic financial system,” said the Bank, continuing: Read more

Chris Giles

Keeping the show on the road became the G20′s main achievement at the acrimonious Seoul summit in November. But if you have to keep pedaling to stop the global trade imbalances bicycle from toppling, a new speech by Andy Haldane of the Bank of England demonstrates that the road ahead is uphill.

It is difficult to say much fresh about trade imbalances. Everyone knows they are big; they are a threat to the global economy; they played a part in the recent crisis; and countries fundamentally disagree over who is responsible for their existence and who should change policies to reduce their threat.

But Mr Haldane has an interesting stab at the subject, showing he has ambitions extending considerably outside his current responsibility for financial stability.

As a current account deficit must, by definition, also represent a situation where investment is greater than savings (and vice versa), he Read more

Chris Giles

In September 2009 I blogged about the similarities between the Pittsburgh G20 framework for strong, stable and balanced global growth and the 2007 International Monetary Fund multilateral consultations, noting that when global leaders were wrong to say their commitments to get rid of imbalances were new or made significant progress.

Today it is genuinely déjà vu all over again as the “Seoul Action Plan” papers over long-standing divisions on currencies and trade imbalances. Leaders have been doing their best to say the summit was not a failure and that the engine of global economic cooperation is still firing on all cylinders.

What is the evidence? According to the G20 it is this new passage about indicative guidelines in the communique. Read more

Robin Harding

The renminbi is 17 per cent undervalued against the dollar while the yen is 8 per cent overvalued…

William Cline and John Williamson at the Peterson Institute for International Economics have done a service to the currency wars debate by releasing an update to their estimates of fundamental equilibrium exchange rates (FEERs) for various countries against the dollar in a very interesting policy briefRead more

China’s trade surplus is beginning to rise again and the government has made only “limited progress” in rebalancing its economy towards domestic consumption, the World Bank said on Wednesday. The bank also upgraded its forecast for growth this year by half a percentage point to 10 per cent, but said that interest rates needed to rise further if inflationary expectations were to be kept in check.

The bank’s quarterly report on China is closely watched and was largely upbeat on the short-term prospects for the economy, despite fears over the summer about a possible hard landing. However, amid fierce international debates about China’s currency policy which could come to a head at next week’s G20 summit in South Korea, the bank cautioned that China needed to make a big push on its agenda of structural reforms if it was to reduce its large external surplus. “Rebalancing will not happen by itself – it will require substantial policy adjustment,” the report said.

There are two massive fixed exchange rate blocs operating in the world economy today, and both of them face severe strains and conflicts. The eurozone is beset by problems which are typical of fixed rate blocs in the past, with the main surplus country (Germany) refusing to increase aggregate demand, thus forcing the deficit countries to reduce demand in order to stay within the currency arrangement. This, they appear willing to do, or at least to try.

Meanwhile, the China/US bloc also has a (nearly) fixed exchange rate, and once again the surplus country (China) is refusing, or is unable, to expand domestic demand enough to eliminate the trade imbalance. But, in this case, the deficit country (the US) is increasingly unwilling to accept the consequences, and is adopting policies which are designed to break up the bloc altogether. Two blocs with somewhat similar problems, but very different responses and outcomes for the deficit countries.

In making this analogy, it is of course important to accept that the institutional arrangements surrounding the world’s two major blocs could hardly be more different, with the eurozone established as a single currency area, while the Sino/US bloc is officially a linked but flexible exchange rate area. But the critical feature of both areas is that nominal exchange rate adjustments are not permitted to equilibrate trade imbalances within either of the two blocs, so a persistent pattern of large current account imbalances has emerged. Germany and China are the two economies where chronic surpluses have emerged, while the Club Med economies and the US have the corresponding chronic deficits. Read more

Stephanie Flanders reminds us that it takes two to tango in her latest blog post. The story concerns proposals that might fine euro members for failing to keep public finances within certain boundaries. Over to Ms Flanders:

There would be fines in the region of 0.2% of GDP for countries who borrow too much, and also smaller financial penalties for countries that don’t try hard enough to improve their competitiveness.

I’m told that competitiveness would be measured by a “persistent current account imbalance”. But as this blog has pointed out many times, it takes two to create a current account gap: if one country has a deficit, someone else must have a surplus.

In fact, all the signs are that the new system will have the same asymmetry that we see in the global economy more generally. Countries with deficits are pressured to reform, but the countries with surpluses are under no pressure to change their policies at all.

 Read more

Alan Beattie

Somewhat as predicted, or at least predicted by me, Tim Geithner went as far as he could go in suggesting that various options were on the table for trying to push the Chinese into letting the exchange rate rise without giving any hostages to fortune.

The Murphy-Ryan bill (similar to Schumer-Graham in the Senate) got respectful attention and the possibility of support, though no commitment. Naming China as a currency manipulator, though, seems still to be off the tableRead more

“A strengthening in the fiscal balance by 1 percentage point of GDP is, on average, associated with a current account improvement of 0.2–0.3 percentage points of GDP.” This is the conclusion from a top notch set of researchers, posted on VoxEU.

With renewed focus on global trade imbalances, this may be of interest to policymakers currently looking at exchange rates. The finding holds across emerging and developed economies, though the “association is significantly higher when output is above potential.” Food for thought.

Alan Beattie

No doubt in a valiant attempt to feed our insatiable curiosity ahead of time, some excerpts from Tim Geithner’s written testimony and prepared oral statement have come out tonight, before Thursday’s appearance in front of two Congressional committees. The key passage:

“We are concerned, as are many of China’s trading partners, that the pace of appreciation has been too slow and the extent of appreciation too limited. We will take China’s actions into account as we prepare the next Foreign Exchange Report, and we are examining the important question of what mix of tools, those available to the United States and multilateral approaches, might help encourage the Chinese authorities to move more quickly.”

It’s not explosive stuff but it does show that: 1) the administration is considering (or at least wants to give the impression that it is considering) a range of options, which could include classifying exchange rate undervaluation as an illegal export subsidy or taking a case to the WTO; 2) It is not a given that the Treasury will repeat its previous decision to resist naming China as a manipulator in the twice-yearly currency report. Read more

Alan Beattie

Big day on the Hill on Thursday as Mr Secretary does the rounds talking about China: the Senate banking committee in the morning and the House of Reps ways and means committee (which spent yesterday on another auto da fe hearing about the Chinese currency) in the afternoon. He faces a Blondinesque balancing act of being mad enough at Chinese foreign exchange intervention to placate angry lawmakers while not committing to precipitous and possibly WTO-illegal action like agreeing to currency tariffs.

Last time he was in this position, on June 10, Geithner rather neatly managed to amplify the complaints of senators in the hope that they would be heard in Beijing without necessarily endorsing them. Nine days later, China unpegged the renminbi. He will most probably try some version of this again on Thursday and hope that puts enough pressure on Beijing to take its foot off the renminbi brake for a while. Would that placate the senators and the congressmen? No. (Appearing in front of congressional committees, Geithner somewhat resembles a put-upon nephew who has been deputed to break some bad news to a gang of irascible uncles.) But would it do enough to stop them forcing currency legislation on to a crowded fall legislative schedule? Probably, yes.

Ralph Atkins

When Wolfgang Schäuble, Germany’s finance minister, next meets his European counterparts, will he be heaped with praise – or brickbats? Germany’s economy is on a roll. It grew by 2.2 per cent in the three months to June, its best quarterly performance since reunification in 1990. But that has not necessarily gone down well with colleagues in other European capitals.

Unnoticed beyond his tiny country’s borders, Jean-Claude Juncker, Luxembourg’s prime minister, earlier this month launched an extraordinary attack on German economic policy, according to the Luxemburger Wort. Germany’s success was based on “wage and social dumping,” Mr Juncker is reported as having said. “The way Germany went about improving its competitiveness, I would not like to see in our country.” Since the launch of the euro in 1999, German workers had seen a meagre 12 per cent rise in wages, whereas his countrymen saw a 41 per cent rise, he went on. Read more

James Politi

Finally, here is the Treasury report on international exchange rate policies.

Originally, the document had been scheduled to be released in mid-April, but it was delayed by the US government as it attempted to negotiate an appreciation in the renminbi while holding off mounting pressure to punish the Chinese from infuriated members of Congress.

As expected, the US is once again not naming China a currency “manipulator”, but only stating that its currency is “undervalued”. That outcome was a foregone conclusion since June 19, when China depegged from renminbi from the dollar, the first step towards appreciation.

In a statement yesterday, Tim Geithner, US treasury secretary, was cautious about the implications of the move. “What matters is how far and how fast the renminbi appreciates,” he said. Read more

Simone Baribeau

For those following the saga:

Last week, Martin Wolf wrote a column on the fable of the grasshopper and the ants as an allegory to import-surplus and export-surplus countries. The new moral: don’t be an ant. Read more

Robin Harding

Martin Wolf’s column today is brilliant even by his normal high standards. This won’t make sense unless you read it but his conclusion is:

What is the moral of this fable? If you want to accumulate enduring wealth, do not lend to grasshoppers.

 Read more

A 15 per cent appreciation of the renminbi would reduce the American trade deficit by just 5 per cent by the end of next year, and the effects would not significantly increase GDP. Read more

Ralph Atkins

In unusually blunt language, the ECB has made clear its fear that governments are not doing enough to put the global economy back on a sustainable growth path – despite international policy initiatives in the past year.

“At the current juncture, global imbalances continue to pose a key risk to global macroeconomic and financial stability . . . The stakes are high to prevent a disorderly adjustment in the future that would be costly to all economies,” it concludes in a special article in its monthly bulletin published on Thursday. Read more on

A new record as Chinese foreign exchange reserves hit $2,450bn – but the rate of increase is slowing, relative to last year.

China already has by far the world’s largest foreign exchange reserves (see comparison). A slowdown has happened before, and did not prevent subsequent growth: during late 2008 and early 2009 reserves were stagnant, actually decreasing in some months. Read more

Alan Beattie

So now it looks like the April 15 deadline for the US Treasury’s currency report is conveniently going to slip, largely because it would look a bit churlish to welcome Hu Jintao to Washington for the April 12-13 nuclear talks and then hang a big scarlet sign saying “MANIPULATOR” round his neck as soon as he steps off the plane. Most likely it will also slip beyond the “strategic and economic dialogue” meeting that the US is having with China in May. And then maybe beyond the G20 at the end of June? Or perhaps, if the US has piped down about the currency for a couple of months, China might announce a float, or a crawling revaluation, some time in June.

But one question is whether Congress is prepared to wait that long. Charles Schumer (Dem, NY, not a fan of China) wants to introduce his bill allowing a limited form of currency retaliation against China by the end of May. The key question for the coming weeks is how much patience Capitol Hill has with waiting both for the currency report and for Beijing to move. Congress might secretly be paragons of patience. But they sure don’t look like it.