The Art of Currency War

It’s been 3 years since the G7 made a serious call for the Yuan to appreciate. But not much has happened since then (apart from a complete meltdown in the global financial system) except for the global trade imbalances to worsen. We are now faced with the distinct possibility of more currency mayhem as markets reach another tipping point.

We are starting to hear more overt language from both officials and the general media about the potential for currency way, namely competitive devaluations, capital controls and other measures to shift currencies to where they should be or where officials would like them to be. Sovereign states have always messed with their currencies whether to screw their own people or other nations. It’s always about self-interest. But at some point the beggar they neighbour approach fails and we race to the bottom. There is no doubt that China is the key here but it’s played a very smart hand and has the US over a barrel. The geo-political arm wrestle is at full bore here and we don’t get to see much of it in the news. At some point though the surplus nations must adjust their currencies to bring the trading world back into equilibrium otherwise the whole system will fall apart. Keynes predicted this would happen and its been a 70 year work in progress. Kondratiev would be impressed.

The question is why hasn’t that happened already. You would imagine that a country with a trade deficit and an ongoing current account deficit (swollen by interest on borrowings to cover the trade deficit) would see its currency weaken and surplus countries would see the opposite. THis change in currency rates would, other things being equal, reverse the flow of trade and all would be rebalanced. On paper maybe but in the real “free market” that doesn’t happen. Why? Because deficit countries tend to have higher interest rates (in order to attract the capital it needs to pay off its debts) and those higher yields attract more and more capital looking for a home. So we have the ludicrous situation of one country lending another country the money to buy its goods…….that is not a recipe for long term success….unless you happen to be running a criminal organisation where your goal is to get your clients hooked on the product…..

It’s also known as debt slavery. And it must stop.

So does this mean we are headed for a new Plaza/Louvre Accord? I think that will be very difficult to achieve at the moment. It’s unlikely the Chinese would accept a single focus on the Yuan. It would almost be better to completely realign the whole global currency system where all surplus/deficit currency rates were realigned to new levels. The obvious problem (other than agreeing new rates) is that there would be nothing to stop markets moving rates right back. This suggests capital controls may come into play (Brazil is already trying something here with its bond market) perhaps in the manner of Malaysia.

More over steps such as currency intervention can be a problem unless the stars are aligned in your favour. Trying to weaken a surplus currency is next to impossible as the SNB found to their chagrin when buying huge amounts of Eur/Chf at a time when the market was actually desperate for Chf. The Japanese are repeating the same mistake as the Swiss by intervening, cutting rates, increasing liquidity and generally flapping about in the Yen. At this point in time they have made no progress at all. Why? Because the market wants to own surplus currencies and not the $. At some point $/Yen will collapse which will suit the US though probably not the Japanese.

For deficit countries with an appreciating and overvalued currency like New Zealand there may be better opportunities for influence. More on that net time.

For now though begun the currency wars have.