The Telegraph, London
Sunday, September 26, 2010
States accounting for two-thirds of the global economy are either holding down their exchange rates by direct intervention or steering currencies lower in an attempt to shift problems on to somebody else, each with their own plausible justification. Nothing like this has been seen since the 1930s.
“We live in an amazing world. Everybody has big budget deficits and big easy money but somehow the world as a whole cannot fully employ itself,” said former Fed chair Paul Volcker in Chris Whalen’s new book Inflated: How Money and Debt Built the American Dream.
“It is a serious question. We are no longer talking about a single country having a big depression but the entire world.”
Premier Wen Jiabao confesses that China’s ability to maintain social order depends on a suppressed currency. A 20pc revaluation would be unbearable. “I can’t imagine how many Chinese factories will go bankrupt, how many Chinese workers will lose their jobs,” he said.
Plead he might, but tempers in Washington are rising. Congress will vote next week on the Currency Reform for Fair Trade Act, intended to make it much harder for the Commerce Department to avoid imposing “remedial tariffs” on Chinese goods deemed to be receiving “benefit” from an unduly weak currency.
Japan has intervened to stop the strong yen tipping the country into a deflation death spiral, though it too has a trade surplus. There is suspicion in Tokyo that Beijing’s record purchase of Japanese debt in June, July, and August was not entirely friendly, intended to secure yuan-yen advantage and perhaps to damage Japan’s industry at a time of escalating strategic tensions in the Pacific region.
Brazil dived into the markets on Friday to weaken the real. The Swiss have been doing it for months, accumulating reserves equal to 40pc of GDP in a forlorn attempt to stem capital flight from Euroland. Like the Chinese and Japanese, they too are battling to stop the rest of the world taking away their structural surplus.
The exception is Germany, which protects its surplus ($179bn, or 5.2pc of GDP) by means of an undervalued exchange rate within EMU. The global game of pass the unemployment parcel has to end somewhere. It ends in Greece, Portugal, Spain, Ireland, parts of Eastern Europe, and will end in France and Italy too, at least until their democracies object.
It is no mystery why so many states around the world are trying to steal a march on others by debasement, or to stop debasers stealing a march on them. The three pillars of global demand at the height of the credit bubble in 2007 were – by deficits – the US ($793bn), Spain ($126bn), UK ($87bn). These have shrunk to $431bn, $75bn, and $33bn respectively as we sinners tighten our belts in the aftermath of debt bubbles.. The Brazils and Indias of the world are replacing some of this half trillion lost juice, but not all.
East Asia’s surplus states seem structurally incapable of compensating for austerity in the West, whether because of the Confucian saving ethic, or the habits of mercantilist practice, or in China’s case by the lack of a welfare net. Their export models rely on the willingness of Anglo-PIGS to bankrupt themselves.
So we have an early 1930s world where surplus states are hoarding money, instead of recycling it. A solution of sorts in the Great Depression was for each deficit country to devalue, breaking out of the trap (then enforced by the Gold Standard). This turned the deflation tables on the surplus powers – France and the US from 1929-1931 – forcing them to reflate as well (the US in 1933) or collapse (France in 1936). Contrary to myth, beggar-thy-neighbour policy was the global cure.
A variant of this may now occur. If China continues to hold down its currency, the country will import excess US liquidity, overheat, and lose wage competitiveness. This is the default cure if all else fails, and I believe it is well under way.
The latest Fed minutes are remarkable. They add a new doctrine, that a fresh monetary blitz – or QE2 – will be used to stop inflation falling much below 1.5pc. Surely the Fed has not become so reckless that it really aims to use emergency measures to create inflation, rather preventing deflation? This must be a cover-story. Ben Bernanke’s real purpose – as he aired in his November 2002 speech on deflation – is to weaken the dollar.
If so, he has succeeded. The Swiss franc smashed through parity last week as investors digested the message. But the swissie is an over-rated refuge. The franc cannot go much further without destabilizing Switzerland itself.
Gold has no such limits. It hit $1300 an ounce last week, still well shy of the $2,200-2,400 range reached in the late Medieval era of the 14th and 15th Centuries.
This is not to say that gold has any particular "intrinsic value"’. It is subject to supply and demand like everything else. It crashed after the gold discoveries of Spain’s Conquistadores in the New World, and slid further after finds in Australia and South Africa. It ultimately lost 90pc of its value – hitting rock-bottom a decade ago when central banks succumbed to fiat hubris and began to sell their bullion. Gold hit a millennium-low on the day that Gordon Brown auctioned the first tranche of Britain’s gold. It has risen five-fold since then.
We have a new world order where China and India are buying gold on every dip, where the West faces an ageing crisis, and where the sovereign states of the US, Japan, and most of Western Europe have public debt trajectories near or beyond the point of no return.
The managers of all four reserve currencies are playing fast and loose: the Fed is clipping the dollar; the Bank of England is clipping sterling; the European Central Bank is buying the bonds of EMU debtors to stave off insolvency, something it vowed never to do just months ago; and the Bank of Japan has just carried out two trillion yen of “unsterilized” intervention.
Of course, gold can go higher.