Capital Mobility as Trojan Horse

In my Jacobin piece on finance, I observed in passing that financial commitments across borders — what’s sometimes called capital mobility — enforce the logic of markets on national governments. This disciplining role has been on vivid display in the euro area over the past few years. Here, courtesy of yesterday’s Financial Times, is a great example of the obverse: If a state does want to resist liberal “reforms”, it needs to limit financial flows across the border.

The headline in the online edition spells it right out:

Renminbi stalls on road to being a global currency. New capital controls lead to doubt, especially over hopes of forcing economic reform.

The print edition is wordier but even clearer:

Renminbi reaches its high water mark. Fresh capital controls cast doubt over the push to increase the global use of its global currency. But what does that mean for the Chinese policymakers who saw it as a ‘Trojan horse’ to force through economic reform?

The whole article is fascinating. On the substance it’s really quite good — anyone who teaches international finance or open-economy macroeconomics should bookmark it to share with students. Along with the political-economy question I’m interested in here, it touches on almost all the most important points you’d want to make about what determines exchange rates. [1]

The article’s starting point is that for most of the past decade, international use of the Chinese renminbi (Rmb) has been steadily increasing. Some people even saw a future rival to the dollar. For most of the period, the renminbi was appreciating against the dollar, and the Chinese government was loosening restrictions on cross-border financial transactions. But recently those trends have reversed:

The share of China’s foreign trade settled in its own currency has shrunk from 26 per cent to 16 per cent over the past year while renminbi deposits in Hong Kong — the currency’s largest offshore centre — are down 30 per cent from a 2014 peak of Rmb1tn. Foreign ownership of Chinese domestic financial assets peaked at Rmb4.6tn in May 2015; it now stands at just Rmb3.3tn. In terms of turnover on global foreign exchange markets, the renminbi is only the world’s eighth most-traded currency — squeezed between the Swiss franc and Swedish krona — barely changed from ninth position in 2013.

What appeared to be structural drivers supporting greater international use of the Chinese currency now appear more like opportunism and speculation.

Large financial outflows — including capital flight by Chinese wealthholders and currency speculators reversing their bets — have led the renminbi to lose 10 percent of its value against the dollar over the past year or so. The Chinese central bank (the People’s Bank of China, or PBoC) has had to use a substantial part of its dollar reserves to keep the renminbi from depreciating even further.

… the PBoC remains active in the foreign exchange market as buyer and seller. Over the past 18 months, this has mostly meant selling dollars from foreign exchange reserves to counteract the depreciation pressure weighing on the renminbi.

This strategy has been expensive, contributing to a decline in reserves from $4tn in June 2014 to $3.1tn at the end of November. Defenders of the PBoC believe such aggressive action to curb depreciation has been worth the price because it prevented panic selling by global investors. Critics counter that costly forex intervention has merely delayed an inevitable exchange-rate adjustment.

For years, the IMF, US Treasury and other outside experts have urged China to embrace a floating exchange rate. In theory, such a step should eliminate the need to tighten capital controls or to spend precious foreign reserves on propping up the exchange rate. Instead, the currency would weaken until inflows and outflows balance.

In the age of Trump, it’s worth stressing this point: The Chinese central bank has been intervening to make the renminbi stronger, not weaker — to keep Chinese goods relatively expensive, not cheap. This has been true for a while, actually, although you can still find prominent liberals complaining about China boosting its exports through “currency manipulation”.  Also, as the article notes, the Washington Consensus line has been that China should end foreign-exchange interventions and abolish capital controls, allowing the renminbi to depreciate even further.

For most countries, continuing to spend down reserves would be the only alternative to uncontrolled depreciation. But China, unlike most countries, has maintained effective controls over cross-border financial flows, so it has another option: limiting the ability of households and businesses to trade renminbi claims for dollar ones.

The State Administration of Foreign Exchange, the regulator, last week said it would continue to encourage outbound investment deals that support the country’s efforts to transform its economy… But the agency said it would apply tighter scrutiny to acquisitions of real estate, hotels, Hollywood studios and sport teams.

That will probably mean fewer food-additive tycoons buying second-tier UK football clubs. It also suggests a crackdown on fake trade invoices, Hong Kong insurance purchases and gambling losses in Macau — all channels used to spirit money out of China. …

“They are trying to squeeze out all the low quality or suspicious or fraudulent outbound investment. But they have also made it clear they support genuine high-quality investment,” says Mr Qu.

These moves come on top of other limits on financial outflows. This passage highlights a couple additional points. First, effective controls on financial flows require controls on cross-border transactions in general. Second, there’s no sharp line between macro policy aimed at the exchange rate or other monetary aggregates, and micro-interventions aimed at channeling credit in particular directions.

Now to the political economy point:

China’s recent moves to tighten approvals for foreign acquisitions by Chinese companies, as well as other transactions that require selling renminbi for foreign currency, cast further doubt on China’s commitment to currency internationalisation.

“There is a fundamental conflict between preserving stability and allowing the freedom and flexibility required of a global currency,” says Brad Setser, senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and a former US Treasury official. “Now that the cost is becoming clear, Chinese policymakers may be realising they are not willing to do what it takes to maintain a global currency. Capital controls certainly set back the cause of renminbi internationalisation but they may well be the appropriate step given the outflow pressures.”

As a topic for banking conferences and think-tank seminars, renminbi internationalisation could not be beaten. It offered a way to express dissatisfaction with the US dollar-dominated monetary system, as laid bare by the 2008 financial crisis, while signalling an eagerness to do business with China’s large, fast-growing economy.

For China’s reform-minded central bank, however, renminbi internationalisation … offered something else: a Trojan horse that could be used to persuade Communist party leaders in Beijing and financial elites to accept reforms that were, in reality, more important for China’s domestic financial system than for the renminbi’s international status. Since 2010, when the internationalisation drive began, many of those reforms have been adopted…

This is the dynamic we’ve seen over and over. Real or imagined pressure from the outside — from international creditors , institutions like the IMF, “the markets” in general — is needed to push through a liberal agenda that would not be accepted on its own merits. This is true in China, with its multiple competing power centers and effective if disorganized popular protests, just as it is for countries with more formally democratic political systems. What’s unusual about China’s case is that the “reform” side may no longer be winning.

What’s  unusual about this article is that it’s spelled out so clearly. “Trojan horse”: Their words, not mine.

The article continues:

The totem of currency internationalisation also served as justification for China’s moves over the past half-decade to open up its domestic financial markets to foreign investment, a process known as capital account liberalisation, that has been crucial to the global push of the renminbi. If foreign investors are to hold large quantities of China’s currency, they must have access to a deep and diverse pool of renminbi assets — and the peace of mind of knowing that they are free to sell those assets and convert proceeds back into their home currency as needed.

Again, thinking of classroom use, this is a nice illustration of liquidity preference.

Until last week, regulators had also steadily loosened approval requirements for foreign direct investment, in to and out of the country.  But those reforms occurred at a time when capital inflows and outflows were roughly balanced, which meant that liberalisation did not create strong pressure on the exchange rate. Now, the situation is very different. Beijing faces a stark choice. Either row back on freeing up capital flows — as it has already begun to do this year — or relinquish control of the exchange rate and accept a hefty devaluation.

We used to talk about a trilemma: A country cannot simultaneously peg its currency, set interest rates at the level required by the domestic economy, and allow free financial flows across its borders. At most you can manage two of the three. But it’s becoming clear that for most countries it’s  more of a dilemma: If you allow free capital mobility, you can’t control either the exchange rate or domestic credit conditions. International financial shifts are so large, and so unpredictable, that for most central banks they’ll overwhelm anything that can be done with conventional tools.

And when you accept free capital mobility, with its dubious rewards, it’s not just control over interest rates and exchange rates you’re giving up. In the absence of  controls over international financial flows, the whole range of economic policy — of public decisions in general — is potentially subject to the veto of finance. If you need foreign wealth-owners to voluntarily hold your assets, the only way to keep them happy — so goes the approved catechism — is to adopt the full range of market-friendly reforms. The FT again:

Economists argue that the fate of renminbi internationalisation ultimately depends on far-reaching economic reforms rather than short-term responses to rising capital outflows.

The list of course starts with privatization of state-owned companies and continues with deregulating finance.

“When you reimpose capital controls after having rolled them back, it can sometimes have a perverse effect,” says Mr Prasad… “What they need to do is something much harder — actually to get started on the broader reform agenda and show that they are serious about it. Right now the sense is that there is very little happening on other reforms.”

This is what it comes down to: If China is going to reach the grail of international-currency status, it is going to have to focus on the “reform” agenda dictated by financial markets — it’s going to have to earn their trust and prove it is “serious.” What exactly are the benefits of that status for China? It’s far from clear. (Of course it’s an attractive prospect for Chinese individuals who own lots of renminbi-denominated assets.) But it doesn’t matter as long as it serves as a seemingly objective basis for continued liberalization, which otherwise might face serious resistance.

“The question is which is to be the master — that’s all.”

 


 

[1] It doesn’t, of course, mention uncovered interest parity, the idea that interest rate differences between currencies exactly offset expected exchange rate changes. This doctrine dominates textbook discussion of exchange rate movements but plays no role in any real-life discussion of them.

What to Do about the Trade Deficit: Nothing

Roosevelt Institute has a new roundup of policy advice for the next administration. There is a lot of useful stuff in there, which perhaps I’ll post more on later. My own contribution is on international trade. Here’s the summary:

It is natural to look to measures to improve the trade balance — through a weaker dollar, or through tariffs or other direct limits on imports — as a way to raise demand and boost output and employment. While the U.S. has done little to boost net exports in recent decades, there is increasing public discussion of such measures today…

We argue that while the orthodox view is wrong about trade being macroeconomically neutral, measures to improve the U.S. trade balance would nonetheless be a mistake. All else equal, a more favorable trade balance will raise demand and boost employment. But all else
is not equal, thanks to the special role of the U.S. in the world economy. The global economy today operates on what is effectively a dollar standard: The U.S. dollar serves as the international currency, the way gold did under under the gold standard. In part for this reason, the U.S. can finance trade deficits indefinitely while most other countries cannot. For many of our trade partners, any reduction of net exports would imply unsustainable trade deficits. So policies intended to improve the U.S. trade balance are likely to instead lead to lower growth elsewhere, imposing large costs on the rest of the world with little or no benefits here.

We do not deny that the trade deficit has negative effects on demand and employment in the U.S., but we argue this is only a reason to redouble efforts to boost domestic demand. The solution to the contractionary effects of the trade deficit is not a costly, and probably futile, effort to move toward a trade surplus, but rather measures to boost investment in both the public and private sector.

You can read the rest of my piece here.

There were a couple figures that didn’t make it into the final piece. Here is one, showing the stability of the international role of the dollar over the past 20 years.

dollars

The dotted line shows the share of central bank reserves held in dollars (source). The heavy line shows the share of foreign-exchange transactions that involve the dollar (source). About two-thirds of foreign exchange reserves are held in dollars, and close to 90 percent of foreign-exchange transactions involve the dollar and some other currency. These shares have not diminished at all over the past 20 years, despite continuous US trade deficits.

In my opinion, the international role of the dollar makes it exceedingly unlikely that the US could face a sudden outflow of foreign investment. (And given that US liabilities are overwhelmingly dollar-denominated, it is not clear what the costs of such an outflow would be.) It also makes it highly unlikely that the US can achieve balanced trade through conventional measures, unless we come up with some other mechanism to provide the rest of the world with dollar liquidity.

Links for April 12

Maybe I should aspire to do a links post like this once a week. Today is Tuesday; is Tuesday a good day? Or would it be better to break a post like this into half a dozen short ones, and put them up one at a time?

Anyway, some links and thoughts:

 

Public debt in the 21st century. Here is a very nice piece by DeLong, arguing that over the next 50 years, rich countries should see a higher level of public expenditure, and a higher level of public debt, and that even much higher debt ratios don’t have any important economic costs. There’s no shortage of people making this general case, but this is one of the better versions I’ve seen.

The point that the “sustainability” of a given deficit depends on the relation between interest rates and growth rates has of course been made plenty of times, by people like Jamie Galbraith and Scott Fullwiler. But there’s another important point in the DeLong piece, which is that technological developments — the prevalence of increasing returns, the importance of information and other non-rival goods, and in general the development of what Marx called the “cooperative form of the labour process” — makes the commodity form  less and less suitable for organizing productive activity. DeLong sees this as an argument for a secular shift toward government as opposed to markets as our central “societal coordinating mechanism” (and he says “Smithian market” rather than commodity form). But fundamentally this is the same argument that Marx makes for the ultimate supercession of capitalism in the penultimate chapter of Capital.

 

Short-termism at the BIS. Via Enno Schroeder, here’s a speech by Hyun Song Shin of the BIS, on the importance of bank capital. The most interesting thing for my purposes is how he describes the short-termism problem for banks:

Let me now come back to the question as to why banks have been so reluctant to plough back their profits into their own funds. … we may ask whether there are possible tensions between the private interests of some bank stakeholders versus the wider public interest of maintaining a soundly functioning banking system… shareholders may feel they can unlock some value from their shareholding by paying themselves a cash dividend, even at the expense of eroding the bank’s lending base.

As many of the shareholders are asset managers who place great weight on short-term relative performance in competition against their peers, the temptation to raid the bank’s seed corn may become too strong to resist. … These private motives are reasonable and readily understandable, but if the outcome is to erode capital that serves as the bank’s foundation for lending for the real economy, then a gap may open up between the private interests of some bank stakeholders and the broader public interest.

Obviously, this is very similar to the argument I’ve been making for the corporate sector in general. I especially like the focus on asset managers — this is an aspect of the short-termism story that hasn’t gotten enough attention so far. People talk about principal-agent problems here in terms of management as agents and shareholders as principals; but only a trivial fraction of shares are directly controlled by the ultimate owners, so there are plenty of principal-agent problems in the financial sector itself. When asset managers’ performance is evaluated every year or two — not to mention the performance of the individual employees — the effective investment horizon is going to be short, and the discount rate correspondingly high, regardless of the preferences of the ultimate owners.

I also like his diplomatic rejection of a loanable-funds framework as a useful way of thinking about bank lending, and his suggestion that the monetary-policy and supervisory functions of a central bank are not really distinct in practice. (I touched on this idea here.) The obligatory editorializing against negative rates not so much, but I guess it comes with the territory.

 

Market failure and government failure in the euro crisis. This piece by Peter Bofinger gets at some of the contradictions in mainstream debates around the euro crisis, and in particular in the idea that financial markets can or should “discipline” national governments. My favorite bit is this quote from the German Council of Economic Experts:

Since flows of capital as well as goods and services are market outcomes, we would not implicate the ‘intra-Eurozone capital flows that emerged in the decade before the crisis’ as the ‘real culprits’ …Hence, it is the government failures and the failures in regulation … that should take centre-stage in the Crisis narrative.

Well ok then!

 

Visualizing the yield curve. This is a very nice visualization of the yield curve for Treasury bonds since 1999. Two key Keynesian points come through clearly: First, that the short-term rate set by policy has quite limited purchase on the longer term market rates. This is especially striking in the 2000s as the 20- and 30-year rates barely budget from 5% even as the short end swings wildly. But second, that if policy rates are held low enough long enough, they can eventually pull down market rates. The key Keynes texts are here and here; I have some thoughts here, developed further here.

 

Trade myths. Jim Tankersley has a useful rundown in the Washington Post on myths about trade and tariffs. I’m basically on board with it: You don’t have to buy into the idolatry of “free trade” to think that the economic benefits of tariffs for the US today would be minimal, especially compared with the costs they would impose elsewhere. But I wish he had not bought into another myth, that China is “manipulating” its exchange rate. Pegged exchange rates are in general accepted by orthodoxy; for much of modern history they were the norm. And even where exchange rates are not officially pegged or targeted, they are still influenced by all kinds of macroeconomic policy choices. It’s not controversial, for instance, to say that low interest rates in the US tend to reduce the value of the dollar, and thereby boost US net exports. Why isn’t that a form of currency manipulation? (To be fair, people occasionally suggest that it is.) I heard Joe Stiglitz put it well, at an event a year or two ago: There is no such thing as a free-market exchange rate, it’s just a question of whether our central bank sets it, or theirs does. And in any case, the Bank of China’s purchase of dollars has to be considered alongside China’s capital controls, which — given the demand of wealthy Chinese for dollar assets — tend to raise the value of the renminbi. On net, the effect of Chinese government interventions has probably been to keep the renminbi “artificially” high, not low. (As I’ve been saying for years.)

 

The politics of the minimum wage. Here is a nice piece by Stephanie Luce on the significance of New York’s decision to raise the minimum wage to $15. Also in Jacobin, here’s Ted Fertik on why our horrible governor signed onto this and the arguably even more radical paid family leave bill.

It would be a great project for some journalist — I don’t think it’s been done — to explore how, concretely, this was won — the way the target was decided, what the strategy was, who was mobilized, and how. In mainstream press accounts these kinds of reforms seem to spring fully formed from the desks of executives and legislators, midwifed by some suitably credentialed experts. But when you dig beneath the surface there’s almost always been years of grassroots organizing before something like this bears fruit. The groups that do that work tend to avoid the press, I think for good reasons; but at some point it’s important to share with a wider public how the sausage got made. My impression in this case is that the key organizing work was done by Make the Road, but I’d love to see the story told properly. I haven’t yet read my friend Mark Engler’s new book, This Is an Uprising, but I think it has some good analysis of other similar campaigns.

Lessons from the Greek Crisis

The deal, obviously it looks bad. No sense in spinning: It’s unconditional surrender. It is bad.

There’s no shortage of writing about how we got here. I do think that we — in the US and elsewhere — should resist the urge to criticize the Syriza government, even for what may seem, to us, like obvious mistakes. The difficulty of taking a position in opposition to “Europe” should not be underestimated. It’s one of the ironies of history that the prestige of social democracy, earned through genuine victories by and for working people, is now one of the most powerful weapons in the hands of those who would destroy it. For a sense of the constraints the Syriza government has operated under, I particularly recommend this interview with an unnamed senior advisor to Syriza, and this interview with Varoufakis.

Personally I don’t think I can be a useful contributor to the debate about Syriza’s strategy. I think those of us in the US should show solidarity with Greece but refrain from second-guessing the choices made by the government there. But we can try to better understand the situation, in support of those working to change it. So, 13 theses on the Greek crisis and the crisis next time.

These points are meant as starting points for further discussion.  I will try to write about each of them in more detail, as I have time.

Continue reading Lessons from the Greek Crisis

Default and the Dollar

Government shutdown, debt ceiling deadline just around the corner. Were you watching this show when it was first on, in the summer of 2011? People were predicting that even the possibility of a technical default (which almost happened), or credit-rating downgrade (which did happen, on Aug. 11) should lead to a sharp rise in US interest rates and a fall in the dollar. Neither of these things took place. There were some interesting discussions why not, which are worth revisiting now.

Here is something I wrote at the time:

How is it possible that a downgrade in federal debt could increase demand for it? One obvious reason is that it could increase the political pressure for austerity, making lower growth more likely, and owners of financial assets might recognize this.
But there’s another explanation, which is the that federal debt is a kind of Giffen good. This Baseline Scenario post makes one version of the argument. Here’s my version. 

Wealthholders choose their portfolio to maximize risk-adjusted return, but subject to a survival constraint such that expected probability of returns at each future time t falling below some floor is subjectively zero (less than epsilon, we can say.) The existence of this kind of floor is one of the central things that distinguishes the Minskyan view of the world. (Minsky would talk here about cashflows rather than returns, but the logic is the same.) 

Now suppose the riskiness of the portfolio increases. Then to keep the distribution of returns from crossing the floor, investors need to shift toward lower-risk assets. This is true even if the increased riskiness of the portfolio came from the lower risk assets themselves. 

Here’s another way of looking at it, more in the spirit of Holmstrom and Tirole. Making a risky/illiquid investment requires holding a greater quantity of money-like assets to ensure a zero (or less than epsilon) probability of the investment pulling you below your survival constraint. In effect, this lowers the return on the investment, since the total return has to be calculated on the cost of the asset itself plus the cushion of money-like assets you need to purchase along with it. If safe assets are less safe, you have to hold more of them to cushion the same risky asset. This means that an increase in the riskiness of safe assets implies a shift in demand toward safe assets and away from risky ones.

I also wrote this, about the appreciation of the dollar following the downgrade:

There was a very interesting piece from the BIS recently about why a fall in the price of US assets may be associated with an appreciation of the dollar. (It’s the McCauley chapter in the linked document.) They argue that many purchasers of dollar assets wanted the asset, not the foreign-exchange risk, so they hedged it by simultaneously selling the dollar forward, or otherwise issuing a dollar liability of equal value to the asset. But this means if the value of the US asset declines, they are overhedged, they now have a short position in the dollar. To get rid of that foreign-exchange risk they have to liquidate the dollar liability, which means buying dollars. 

If this sort of hedging were universal, it would have somewhat counterintuitive implications for the exchange rate. Changes in demand for dollar assets would then have no effect on the value of the dollar. And changes in the dollar value of US assets would induce opposite-signed changes in the value of the dollar. According to the BIS, this kind of hedging is very common among European investors in US assets, but not at all common among US purchasers of foreign assets — for US purchasers, the foreign-exchange risk is part of the asset, not something they want to get rid of.

I don’t see any reason to have a strong prior that hedging the forex risk cannot be common among purchasers of foreign assets. If it is common, this sort of “perverse” movement of exchange rates in response to asset-price changes is not just possible, but predictable. And if the hedging is asymmetric, as the BIS study suggests, then we would expect a global rise in asset prices to lead to a decline in the value of the dollar, and a global fall in asset prices to lead to a rise in the price of the dollar.  

Going a step beyond the BIS study, I think there’s a sociological element here. Actual portfolio choices are very seldom made by the ultimate owners, they’re made by intermediaries who are typically specialists of some kind. Now if, let’s say, European purchasers of US equities are largely made by intermediaries, who specialize in equities (domestic and foreign), then they’re going to want to hedge the forex risk — that’s not what they have the expertise to manage. Whereas if US purchases of European equities are largely made by intermediaries who specialize in European or in general foreign assets (equities and otherwise) then they are not going to want to hedge the forex risk, managing it is part of how they get their returns. And I think this question is going to depend on the specific kinds of financial institutions that have developed historically in each place, you can’t deduce it from any underlying tastes or endowments.  

But in any case I think we have to accept that it’s perfectly possible for a decline in the value of US assets to lead to a rise in the value of the dollar, even if it seems implausible at first glance.

Exchange Rates and Trade Flows in Asia

A bit more on shifting trade flows following the 1997 Asian Crisis.

Enno Schroeder, whose decomposition  of European trade flows I’ve mentioned here before, was kind enough to do a similar exercise for the four Asian crisis countries. His results are here; below I present them in graphical form below.

The conventional story, as we all know, is that relative prices drive trade flows. The Asian countries, in this view, moved from deficits to surpluses after 1997 because abandoning their currency pegs and devaluing made their exports cheaper and their imports more expensive. I’ve been suggesting a different story: Relative prices were relatively unimportant in the post-1997 move to surpluses, with the improved trade balance mostly or entirely a matter of lower imports resulting from the deep fall in income in the crisis. Looking at the picture in more detail suggests a more complex but in some ways even stronger version of my earlier story.

Some context: Suppose a country reduces its total import bill. As a matter of accounting, this reduction can be broken up into some mix of lower total quantity of goods bought, a smaller fraction of those goods being imports, and a lower price of the imported goods. Similarly for exports, any increase can be broken up into higher incomes in a country’s export markets, a greater market share there for our exports, and higher export prices. So the overall trade balance — here expressed as the ratio of total export value to total import value — can be decomposed into the change in relative expenditure growth, the expenditure switch between the home country’s goods and the rest of the world’s; and the change in the relative price of home goods compared with foreign ones. (Note that relative price presumably affects trade volumes, but it also affects trade value directly — for given trade volumes, if a country’s imports are more expensive it will spend more on imports.) The cumulative contribution of each of these components is shown in the figures below, along with the nominal exchange rate. (The exchange rate is the nominal rate for July of each year, from the BIS.)

The heavy black line is the actual trade balance. Again, since the balance here is expressed as the ratio of exports to imports, a value of 1 means balanced trade. The other three solid lines show the cumulative contributions of each component to the changes in trade flows after 1996; the values represent how the trade ratio would have changed from that factor alone. Yellow is expenditure switch, from the rest of the world’s goods to the home country’s; this includes both home country switch from imports to domestic goods, and foreign country shift toward the home country’s exports. Green is income growth in the country’s trade partners relative to the home country. The solid red line is the terms of trade. The dotted red line shows the cumulative change in the nominal exchange rate; this isn’t directly a contribution to the change in trade flows, but it’s useful to know how closely the change in the terms of trade tracks the exchange rate.

It’s convenient to think of the difference between the black line and the green line as the change in competitiveness.

The immediate effect of a devaluation is to make the home country’s goods cheaper in the rest of the world, and the rest of the world’s goods more expensive in the home country. The direct effect of this is to move the trade balance further toward deficit — a descending red line in the figures below. But in the conventional story, the change in price leads to a more than proportionate change in quantity — a rise in exports and/or a fall in imports — so that the overall trade balance improves. This should show up here as a rise in the yellow line steeper than the fall in the red one. Income growth doesn’t really come into the conventional story, so the green line should be flat.

This is not what we see. Even in terms of this simple decomposition, the post-crisis experience of each of the four Asian NICs was different, but none of them fit the standard story. Devaluations don’t reliably translate into changes in the terms of trade, and changes in the terms of trade don’t reliably translate into changes in trade flows. The income-trade balance link, on the other hand, looks quite reliable. In terms of the debate taking place elsewhere in econ blog land, this is a case where “hydraulic Keynesianism” looks pretty good.

Thailand is the clearest picture.

In the 1997 devaluation, the baht lost about a third of its value; the fall in the terms of trade — the price of Thai exports relative to imports — was less than proportionate, but still substantial. You can see this in the red lines at the bottom. But there was no expenditure switch at all. The flat yellow line shows that expenditure on foreign goods out of a given Thai income, and expenditure on Thai goods out of a given income elsewhere, did not change at all in the ten years after the crisis. (More precisely, expenditure in Thailand shifted toward domestic goods, while Thailand lost ground in its export markets; the two effects approximately canceled out.) Given that Thai goods were getting cheaper relative to foreign goods, the lack of net expenditure switch toward Thai goods should have led to deeper deficits. The only reason Thailand moved from deficit to surplus, is the decline in expenditure in Thailand relative to expenditure in its trading partners. The close match between the black and the green line in the figure, means that essentially the whole change in Thailand’s trade balance is explained by the change in relative growth rates; there was no net switch toward Thai goods from foreign goods.

Indonesia is in some ways even a starker example:

Here we see a very deep devaluation, but again only a moderate change in the terms of trade, and an even smaller response of trade volumes. As in Thailand, the trade balance basically tracks relative income growth. The difference between these two cases is where the devaluation-trade flows link fails. In Thailand, the devaluation did reduce the price of exports relative to imports, but demand was not price-elastic enough for the change in prices to improve the trade balance. (In other words, the Marshall-Lerner-Robinson condition appears not to have been satisfied.) In Indonesia, the even larger devaluation — the rupiah lost almost 80 percent of its value — failed to change relative prices of traded goods, so demand elasticities did not come into play. This is partly because of high inflation in Indonesia following the devaluation, but not entirely – the rupiah fell by nearly half in real terms. But there was no change in the price of Indonesia’s exports relative to its imports. If you want an example of a devaluation not working, this is a good one.

Korea, by contrast, looks superficially like the devaluation success story.

As I mentioned in the previous post, Korea was the only one of these countries where export growth in the decade after 1997 was as fast as in the decade before. And as the figure here shows, there was a substantial shift expenditure toward Korean goods following the crisis; alone among the four countries, Korea achieved its immediate post-crisis improvement in trade balance mainly through favorable expenditure switch rather than solely through a fall in income (though that contributed too.) But over time, Korea’s terms of trade continued to deteriorate, without any further favorable expenditure switch; meanwhile, Korean growth slowed relative to its trade partners. By 2007, expenditure shares were back at 1997 levels; to the extent that Korea’s trade balance was more favorable, it was only because spending was lower relative to its trade partners. Of course the surpluses it had run in the meantime had allowed the accumulation of substantial foreign exchange reserves. But if the goal is to use a lower exchange rate to achieve a permanent shift in trade balances, Korea post-1997 cannot be considered a success.

I should emphasize here: Slower relative expenditure growth in Korea does not mean slow growth in absolute terms. In fact, Korea (and, to varying degrees, the other three) did enjoy strong post-crisis recoveries. But because by far the largest trading partner for these countries is China — taking about 25% of their exports — even fairly strong growth translated into low relative growth. In other words, rapid growth in China implied growing exports in the NICs even in the absence of any competitiveness gains.

Finally, the one country that did achieve a lasting improvement in competitiveness, Malaysia.

In the immediate crisis period, Malaysia looks like Thailand and Indonesia: A deep devaluation fails to pass through to the relative prices of traded goods, and there is no expenditure switching; instead, the entire burden of raising the trade balance falls on slower growth in domestic expenditure. In the case of Malaysia, domestic expenditure fell by an astonishing 28 percent in 1997, a collapse in economic activity that has few precedents — neither the US in the 1930s nor any Euro-crisis country comes close. But in the case of Malaysia, unlike the other three countries, growth subsequently accelerated relative to its trade partners, reflected in the downward sloping green line; at the same time, there was a continued expenditure switch in favor of Malaysian goods, reflected in the upward slope of the yellow line. What’s especially striking about this competitiveness success story is that the favorable expenditure switch happened despite a rising price of of Malaysia’s exports relative to its imports.

To continue with this analysis properly, one would want to disaggregate imports and exports by sector or industry. And would want to study, for each country, the institutional and legal changes that influenced trade flows in the decade after 1997. But failing that, it’s at least worth understanding what the aggregate numbers are saying. It seems to me that they are saying this:

Even a very deep devaluation, as in Indonesia, is not guaranteed to change the relative prices of a country’s imports and exports.

Even if a devaluation is passed through to relative prices, as in Thailand, price elasticities may not be large enough to produce a favorable change in the trade balance.

Even if a devaluation moves relative prices, and demand is price-elastic enough for the price change to move the trade balance in the right direction, as in Korea, a short-term improvement in competitiveness may not persist.

When countries do achieve a long-term improvement in competitiveness, like Malaysia, they don’t necessarily do so through a relative cheapening of exports compared to imports. On the contrary: If the Marshall-Lerner condition is not satisfied, then a relative increase in the price of a country’s exports will raise export earnings. In the case of Malaysia, improved terms of trade (that is, a rise in the price of its exports relative to its imports) account for about half the long-run improvement in its trade balance.

The Asian precedent does not make a Greek (or Spanish, or Portuguese, or Irish) devaluation look like an obviously good idea.

—-

One other thing, if even real exchange rate changes are not passed through to traded-good prices in the destination country, then they must be showing up as changes in exporter profit margins. This shifts the focus from demand responses to supply responses, which I would argue are  more institutionally mediated. As you can tell if you’ve read this far, I am sympathetic to the “elasticity-pessimist” strand of Post Keynesian thought. But on the other side Robert Blecker has a strong argument for a strong effect of exchange rate changes, focusing on the role of export-industry profits in financing investment. Blecker’s paper, in my opinion, is more convincing the straightforward “prices matter” view of exchange rate changes. But it also suggests a certain asymmetry: low profits induce exit from tradable sectors, especially for countries with Anglo-American market-based financial systems, more reliably than high profits encourage entry.

UPDATE: The fact that even large exchange rate changes produce relatively small movements in the relative prices of traded goods is well-known in the empirical trade literature. See for example here. I should have made this clearer.

The Mirage of Devaluation

The papers are full of the rupee crisis. India’s worst economy in decades, supposedly.

The silver lining, according to this morning’s FT, is that the fall in the rupee should eventually boost exports. After all, after the the 1997 Asian crisis, “countries like Thailand and Malaysia enjoyed export-led recoveries following wrenching devaluations.” Is that so?

The devaluation part is right — all these countries saw their currencies fall steeply when they abandoned their pegs in the second half of 1997, typically losing about half their value against the dollar. The supposed export-led recoveries are a different story.

Annual growth of export volumes and average rates for the decades before and after 1997, Malaysia and Thailand. Source: IMF.

The solid lines in the figure above are the annual growth rates of export volumes. The dotted lines are the average rates for the ten years prior to and following the 1997 crisis. As you can see, export growth was substantially slower after the crisis than before — in both Malaysia and Thailand, export growth after devaluation was about half the previous pace. In Indonesia, whose currency fell even more, export growth essentially ceased — from 8 percent annual rates before 1997 to less than 1 percent in the decade following. And these are volumes; given the devaluation, foreign exchange earnings did even worse. In Thailand, for instance, exports earnings in dollars were still lower in early in 2002 than they had been before the crisis, almost five years before. For Indonesia, export earnings were still at their pre-crisis levels as late as 2004. This is about as far from an export boom as you can get.

You can argue, I suppose, that without the devaluations export performance would have been even worse. But you cannot claim that faster export growth following the devaluations boosted demand, because no such faster growth occurred.

It’s really remarkable how much the devaluation-export growth link is taken for granted in discussions of foreign trade. But in the real world, for whatever reason, the link is often weak or nonexistent.

Practical policymakers seem to have an easier time grasping this than economists. There’s a reason why falling currencies are seen as major problems in much of the developing world, even though they supposedly should boost exports. And there’s a reason, presumably, why the leaders of Syriza, hardly slaves to conventional wisdom, have ignored the advice from progressive American economists that Greece would be better off out of the Euro.

Demand and Competitiveness: Germany and the EU

I put up a post the other day about Enno Schroder’s excellent work on accounting for changes in trade flows. Based on the comments, there’s some confusion about the methodology. That’s not surprising: It’s not complicated, but it’s also not a familiar way of looking at this stuff, either within or outside the economics profession. Maybe a numerical example will help?

Let’s consider two trading partners, in this case Germany and the rest of the EU. (Among other things, having just two partners avoids the whole weighting issue.) The first line of the table below shows total demand in each — that is, all private consumption, government consumption, and investment — in billions of euros. (As usual, this is final demand — transfers and intermediate goods are excluded.) So, for instance, in the year 2000 all spending by households, firms and governments in Germany totaled 2.04 trillion euros. The next two lines show the part of that expenditure that went to imports — from the rest of the EU for Germany, from Germany for the rest of the EU, and from the rest of the world for both. The final two lines of each panel then show the share of total expenditure in each place that went to German and rest-of-EU goods respectively. The table looks at 2000 and 2009, a period of growing surpluses for Germany.

2000 2009
Germany Demand 2,041 2,258
Imports from EU 340 429
Imports from Rest of World 198 235
Germany Share 74% 71%
EU ex-Germany Share 17% 19%
EU ex-Germany Demand 9,179 11,633
Imports from Germany 387 501
Imports from Rest of World 795 998
Germany Share 4% 4%
EU ex-Germany Share 87% 87%
Ratio, Germany-EU Exports to Imports 1.14 1.17
EU Surplus, Percent of German GDP 2.27 3.02

So what do we see? In 2000, 74 cents out of every euro spent in Germany went for German goods and services, and 17 cents for goods and services from the rest of the EU. Nine years later, 71 cents out of each German euro went to German stuff, and 19 cents to stuff from the rest of the EU. German households, businesses and government agencies were buying more from the rest of Europe, and less from their own country. Meanwhile, the rest of Europe was spending 4 cents out of every euro on goods and services from Germany — exactly the same fraction in 2009 as in 2000.

If Germans were buying more from the rest of the EU, and non-German Europeans were buying the same amount from Germany, how could it be that the German trade surplus with the rest of Europe increased? And by nearly one percent of German GDP, a significant amount? The answer is that total expenditure was rising much faster in the rest of Europe — by 2.7 percent a year, compared with 1.1 percent a year in Germany. This is what it means to say that the growing German surplus is entirely accounted for by demand, and that Germany actually lost competitiveness over this period.

Again, these are not estimates, they are the actual numbers as reported by EuroStat. It is simply a matter of historical fact that Germans spent more of their income on goods from the rest of the EU, and less on German goods, in 2009 than in 2000, and that the rest of the EU spent the same fraction of its income on German goods in the two years. Obviously, this does not rule out the possibility that German goods were becoming cheaper relative to the rest of Europe’s, if you postulate some other factor that would have reduced Germany’s exports without a growing cost advantage. (This is not so easy, since Germany’s exports are the sort of high-end manufactures which usually have a high income elasticity, i.e. for which demand is expected to rise over time.) And it is also compatible with a story where German export prices fell, but export demand is price-inelastic, so that lower prices did nothing to raise export earnings. But it is absolutely not compatible with a simple story where the most important driver of German trade imbalances is changing relative prices. For that story to work, the main factor in Germany’s growing surpluses would have to have been expenditure switching from other countries’ goods to Germany’s. And that didn’t happen.

NOTE: This my table, not Enno’s. The data is from Eurostat, while he uses the Penn World Tables, and he does not look at intra-European trade specifically.

UPDATE: There’s another question, which no one asked but which you should always try to answer: Why does it matter? The truth is, a big reason I care about this is that I’m curious how capitalist economies work, and this stuff seems to shed some light on that, in terms of both the specific content  and the methodology. But more specifically:

First, seeing trade flows as driven by income as well as price fits better with a vision of economy that has many different possible states of rest. It fits better with a vision of economies evolving in historical time, rather than gravitating toward an equilibrium which is both natural and optimal. In this particular case, there is no reason to suppose that the relative growth rates consistent with full employment in each country are also the relative growth rates consistent with balanced trade. A world in which trade flows respond mainly to relative prices is a world where macropolicy doesn’t pose any fundamentally different challenges in an open economy than in a closed one. Whatever mechanisms operated to ensure full employment continue to do so, and then the exchange rate adjusts to keep trade flows balanced (or appropriately unbalanced, for a country with a good reason to export or import capital.) Whereas when the main relationship is between income and trade, they cannot vary independently.

Second, there are important implications for policy. Krugman keeps saying that Germany needs higher relative prices, i.e., higher inflation. Even leaving aside the political difficulties with such a program, it makes sense on its own terms only if there is a fixed pool of European demand. To say that the only way you can have an adequate level of demand in Greece is for prices to fall relative to Germany, is to accept, on a European or global level, the structural theory of unemployment that Krugman rejects so firmly (and rightly) for the US. By contrast if competitiveness didn’t cause the problem, we shouldn’t assume competitiveness is involved in the solution. The historical evidence suggests that more rapid income growth in Germany will be sufficient to move its current account back to balance. The implications for domestic demand in Germany are the opposite in this case as in the relative-prices case: Fixing the current account problem means more jobs and orders for German workers and firms, not  higher inflation in Germany. [1]

So if you buy this story, you should be more pessimistic about a Greek exit from the euro — since there’s less reason to think that flexible exchange rates will lead to balanced trade — but more optimistic about a solution within the euro.

I don’t understand why, for economists like Krugman and Dean Baker, Keynesianism always seems to stop at the water’s edge. Why does their analysis of international trade always implicitly [2] assume a world economy continually at full capacity, where a demand shortfall in one country or region implies excess demand somewhere else? They know perfectly well that the question of unemployment in one country cannot be reduced to the question of who is getting paid too much; why do they forget it as soon as exchange rates come into the picture? Perhaps it’s for the same reasons — whatever they are — that so many economists who support all kinds of domestic regulation are ardent supporters of free trade, even though that’s just laissez-faire at the global level. In the particular case of Krugman, I think part of the problem is that his own scholarly work is in trade. So when the conversation turns to trade he loses one of the biggest assets he brings to discussions of domestic policy — a willingness to forget all the “progress” in economic theory over the past 30 or 40 years.

[1] A more reasonable version of the higher-prices-in-Germany claim is that Germany must be willing to accept higher inflation in order to raise demand. In some times and places this could certainly be true. But I don’t think it is for Germany, given the evident slack in labor markets implied by stagnant wages. And in any case that’s not what Krugman is saying — for him, higher inflation is the solution, not an unfortunate side effect.

[2] Or sometimes explicitly — e.g. this post has Germany sitting on a vertical aggregate supply curve.

What Drives Trade Flows? Mostly Demand, Not Prices

I just participated (for the last time, thank god) in the UMass-New School economics graduate student conference, which left me feeling pretty good about the next generation of heterodox economists. [1] A bunch of good stuff was presented, but for my money, the best and most important work was Enno Schröder’s: “Aggregate Demand (Not Competitiveness) Caused the German Trade Surplus and the U.S. Deficit.” Unfortunately, the paper is not yet online — I’ll link to it the moment it is — but here are his slides.

The starting point of his analysis is that, as a matter of accounting, we can write the ratio of a county’s exports to imports as :

X/M = (m*/m) (D*/D)

where X and M are export and import volumes, m* is the fraction of foreign expenditure spent on the home country’s goods, m is the fraction of the home expenditure spent on foreign goods, and D* and D are total foreign and home expenditure.

This is true by definition. But the advantage of thinking of trade flows this way, is that it allows us to separate the changes in trade attributable to expenditure switching (including, of course, the effect of relative price changes) and the changes attributable to different growth rates of expenditure. In other words, it lets us distinguish the changes in trade flows that are due to changes in how each dollar is spent in a given country, from changes in trade flows that are due to changes in the distribution of dollars across countries.

(These look similar to price and income elasticities, but they are not the same. Elasticities are estimated, while this is an accounting decomposition. And changes in m and m*, in this framework, capture all factors that lead to a shift in the import share of expenditure, not just relative prices.)

The heart of the paper is an exercise in historical accounting, decomposing changes in trade ratios into m*/m and D*/D. We can think of these as counterfactual exercises: How would trade look if growth rates were all equal, and each county’s distribution of spending across countries evolved as it did historically; and how would trade look if each country had had a constant distribution of spending across countries, and growth rates were what they were historically? The second question is roughly equivalent to: How much of the change in trade flows could we predict if we knew expenditure growth rates for each country and nothing else?

The key results are in the figure below. Look particularly at Germany,  in the middle right of the first panel:

The dotted line is the actual ratio of exports to imports. Since Germany has recently had a trade surplus, the line lies above one — over the past decade, German exports have exceed German imports by about 10 percent. The dark black line is the counterfactual ratio if the division of each county’s expenditures among various countries’ goods had remained fixed at their average level over the whole period. When the dark black line is falling, that indicates a country growing more rapidly than the countries it exports to; with the share of expenditure on imports fixed, higher income means more imports and a trade balance moving toward deficit. Similarly, when the black line is rising, that indicates a country’s total expenditure growing more slowly than expenditure its export markets, as was the case for Germany from the early 1990s until 2008. The light gray line is the other counterfactual — the path trade would have followed if all countries had grown at an equal rate, so that trade depended only on changes in competitiveness. When the dotted line and the heavy black line move more or less together, we can say that shifts in trade are mostly a matter of aggregate demand; when the dotted line and the gray line move together, mostly a matter of competitiveness (which, again, includes all factors that cause people to shift expenditure between different countries’ goods, including but not limited to exchange rates.)
The point here is that if you only knew the growth of income in Germany and its trade partners, and nothing at all about German wages or productivity, you could fully explain the German trade surplus of the past decade. In fact, based on income growth alone you would predict an even larger surplus; the fraction of the world’s dollars falling on German goods actually fell. Or as Enno puts it: During the period of the German export boom, Germany became less, not more, competitive. [2] The cases of Spain, Portugal and Greece (tho not Italy) are symmetrical: Despite the supposed loss of price competitiveness they experienced under the euro, the share of expenditure falling on these countries’ goods and services actually rose during the periods when their trade balances worsened; their growing deficits were entirely a product of income growth more rapid than their trade partners’.
These are tremendously important results. In my opinion, they are fatal to the claim (advanced by Krugman among others) that the root of the European crisis is the inability to adjust exchange rates, and that a devaluation in the periphery would be sufficient to restore balanced trade. (It is important to remember, in this context, that southern Europe was running trade deficits for many years before the establishment of the euro.) They also imply a strong criticism of free trade. If trade flows depend mostly or entirely on relative income, and if large trade imbalances are unsustainable for most countries, then relative growth rates are going to be constrained by import shares, which means that most countries are going to grow below their potential. (This is similar to the old balance-of-payments constrained growth argument.) But the key point, as Enno stresses, is that both the “left” argument about low German wage growth and the “right” argument about high German productivity growth are irrelevant to the historical development of German export surpluses. Slower income growth in Germany than its trade partners explains the whole story.
I really like the substantive argument of this paper. But I love the methodology. There is an econometrics section, which is interesting (among other things, he finds that the Marshall-Lerner condition is not satisfied for Germany, another blow to the relative-prices story of the euro crisis.) But the main conclusions of the paper don’t depend in any way on it. In fact, the thing can be seen as an example of an alternative methodology to econometrics for empirical economics, historical accounting or decomposition analysis. This is the same basic approach that Arjun Jayadev and I take in our paper on household debt, and which has long been used to analyze the historical evolution of public debt. Another interesting application of this kind of historical accounting: the decomposition of changes in the profit rate into the effects of the profit share, the utilization rate, and the technologically-determined capital-output ratio, an approach pioneered by Thomas Weisskopf, and developed by others, including Ed WolffErdogan Bakir, and my teacher David Kotz.
People often say that these accounting exercises can’t be used to establish claims about causality. And strictly speaking this is true, though they certainly can be used to reject certain causal stories. But that’s true of econometrics too. It’s worth taking a step back and remembering that no matter how fancy our econometrics, all we are ever doing with those techniques is describing the characteristics of a matrix. We have the observations we have, and all we can do is try to summarize the relationships between them in some useful way. When we make causal claims using econometrics, it’s by treating the matrix as if it were drawn from some stable underlying probability distribution function (pdf). One of the great things about these decomposition exercises — or about other empirical techniques, like principal component analysis — is that they limit themselves to describing the actual data. In many cases — lots of labor economics, for instance — the fiction of a stable underlying pdf is perfectly reasonable. But in other cases — including, I think, almost all interesting questions in macroeconomics — the conventional econometrics approach is a bit like asking, If a whale were the top of an island, what would the underlying geology look like? It’s certainly possible to come up with a answer to that question. But it is probably not the simplest way of describing the shape of the whale.
[1] A perennial question at these things is whether we should continue identifying ourselves as “heterodox,” or just say we’re doing economics. Personally, I’ll be happy to give up the distinct heterodox identity just as soon as economists are willing to give up their distinct identity and dissolve into the larger population of social scientists, or of guys with opinions.
[2] The results for the US are symmetrical with those for Germany: the growing US trade deficit since 1990 is fully explained by more rapid US income growth relative to its trade partners. But it’s worth noting that China is not: Knowing only China’s relative income growth, which has been of course very high, you would predict that China would be moving toward trade deficits, when in fact it has ben moving toward surplus. This is consistent with a story that explains China’s trade surpluses by an undervalued currency, tho it is consistent with other stories as well.