The True Gold Standard (Second Edition)
Chinese officials are understandably angry about the irresponsible brinkmanship demonstrated by their American counterparts in recent weeks. Unfortunately, anger counts for little in international finance. The danger facing the US is that after Tuesday’s debt deal any sense of urgency over a dire fiscal situation will dissipate. The danger for China is that it does not learn the right lesson – namely, that now is the time to end its dependency on the US dollar.
China is worried about the possibility of a US default for obvious reasons. As the largest foreign holder of US Treasuries, either a default or a downgrade would bring huge losses. Even after this week’s debt deal, however, the risk remains that US debt will continue to grow to the point where its government is left with no option but to inflate the burden away. While there is little China can do about its existing Treasury holdings, it can rethink past policies – and ask both how it fell into this trap, and how it might free itself.
China has run a current account surplus and a capital account surplus almost uninterruptedly for more than two decades. Inevitably this has led to an accumulation of foreign reserves. It is clear, however, that running these surpluses persistently is not in China’s best interests. A developing country, with per capita income ranking below the 100th in the world, lending to the world’s richest country for decades is not reasonable. Even worse is the fact that, as one of the largest foreign direct investment-absorbing countries in the world, China essentially lends money it borrowed at a high cost back to its creditors, by buying US Treasuries, rather than importing goods and services.
China holds a large stash of dollar-denominated foreign assets, as well as significant amounts of renminbi-denominated liabilities. Clearly this currency structure of assets and liabilities makes its net international investment position very vulnerable to any devaluation of the dollar against the renminbi.
The Chinese government has admitted that its foreign-exchange reserves have already exceeded its needs. It has tried various measures to slow down the growth of these reserves and protect the value of its existing stock. This has included demand stimulation, allowing the renminbi to appreciate gradually and creating sovereign wealth funds. It has also promoted reform of international monetary systems and the internationalisation of the renminbi. Sadly, none of these has worked. With large capital inflows and a current account surplus, China’s foreign exchange reserves have continued to rise rapidly.
These policies failed because they did not address the real cause of the rapid increase in foreign exchange stocks, namely state intervention aimed at controlling the pace of renminbi appreciation. The question is: what losses is China willing to bear in its foreign exchange reserves in order to slow the pace of the renminbi appreciation?
One further factor is that any losses in the financial assets held by China will not be realised until their holders decide to cash out. If the US government continues to pay back its public debt, and China continues to pack its savings into US securities, this game may continue for a very long time. However, the situation is ultimately unsustainable. The longer it continues, the more violent and destructive the final adjustment will be.
If there is any lesson China can draw from the US debt ceiling crisis, it is that it must stop policies that result in further accumulation of foreign exchange reserves. Given that many large developed countries are simply printing money (and the recent rumours are that the US might return to quantitative easing) China must realise that it can no longer invest in the paper assets of the developed world. The People’s Bank of China must stop buying US dollars and allow the renminbi exchange rate to be decided by market forces as soon as possible. China should have done so a long time ago. There should be no more hesitating and dithering. To float the renminbi is not costless. However, its benefits for the Chinese economy will vastly offset those costs, while being favourable to the global economy as well.
A few days before the famous Bretton Woods monetary conference in July 1944, John Maynard Keynes, the UK’s lead negotiator, had one of his legendary dust-ups with his American counterpart, Harry Dexter White. It was over the role of the US dollar in the postwar world.
The Federal Reserve’s dramatic 0.5 per cent interest rate cut on September 18 was greeted with euphoria in the stock market, which soared 5 per cent in the two weeks that followed. This fact itself was hailed as vindication for a Fed that felt Jim Cramer’s pain, and gave the world the cheaper dollars the market guru shrieked for in CNBC’s (and YouTube’s) most memorable “Mad Money” segment ever.
To those who worry about inflation, the Fed could point to crunching credit as a danger to growth, and ipso facto a force for disinflation. Waiting for the numbers to prove it would just be reckless dithering.
We have sympathy for Ben Bernanke, Fed chairman, and company. The job of a price fixer is never easy. What should money cost? For most of human history this was easy: once you fixed a conversion factor with gold, you just sat back and let the forces of supply and demand do their stuff. But since the collapse of the Bretton Woods currency regime (the last vestige of thousands of years of commodity money), discretion has been the watchword. Nine smart folks at the Fed board have taken over the job of deciding what the price of money should be. If the hagiography and hatred showered on Mr Bernanke’s predecessor, Alan Greenspan, is any indication, that price should be wisely wiggled down to make jobs, up to prick bubbles and now, apparently, back down to offset losses on millions of bad credit decisions.
So, are our cheaper dollars now at the right price? In the coming months, all eyes will be on the consumer price index for the answer.
Unfortunately, there are circumstances in which excessive monetary creation can destabilise the economy while the rate of CPI inflation remains low. These tend to be present when the danger of monetary destabilisation is at its highest because people have lost faith in the ability of money to keep its value through time.
A discussion between Martin Wolf, James Stodder and John D. Mueller about global economic policy including the need for a global currency to counter current account deficits between countries.