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.