UBUD, Bali — Earth to China-bashers: Beijing should not be blamed for America’s trade deficits or for the weakness of the dollar. Those that believe so are confusing symptoms with causes. Other elements of conventional wisdom have it that there is some choice as to whether the exchange value of the dollar will rise or fall.
To this end, the Bush administration has been criticized for a devaluation policy that involves “talking” down the value of the dollar. Meanwhile, its penchant for tax cuts is blamed for larger fiscal deficits. But in this case, blame should fall on the U.S. Congress for pork-laden spending that is pushing the government ever deeper into debt.
There is good reason to be concerned with the U.S. trade deficit. It is expected to rise to 6 percent of gross domestic product and hit a record $600 billion this year, up from $496.5 billion last year and $421.7 billion in 2002.
But America’s relentlessly wider current account deficit and the decline of the dollar are the result of the loose monetary policies of the Fed. In this sense, the dollar’s decline was set into motion in the recent past and is an inevitable result of interest rates set so low for so long. Over time, relative increases in money supply set the purchasing power of monies that in turn sets the underlying exchange rate.
And so it is that choices made by Beijing or Tokyo can only have a short-term impact on the dollar. Chinese actions to favor the euro will inspire corrective actions by buyers and sellers to move the dollar back toward the underlying rate of exchange.
Even if China and Japan allow their currencies to appreciate on exchange markets, the dollar’s slide will only be slowed temporarily. Such moves will not change the underlying fundamentals that set the relative valuation of global currencies.
This is because a rate of exchange depends upon relative increases in money supply relative to increases in the production of real goods and services. Even if the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries, or China and other countries, move away from holding U.S. assets, the dollar would only be weakened temporarily unless there is a change in the underlying rate of exchange.
Misdiagnoses that blame fiscal deficits and trade imbalances for the flagging fortunes of the dollar encourage another round of policy mistakes. And they fan the flames of protectionism while creating unnecessary antagonism between U.S. trading partners, who rig their exchange rates in hopes of engineering trade advantages for local exporters.
The simple matter is that the balance of payments does not determine exchange rates. The underlying rate of exchange is set by the relative purchasing power of monies. And it is the supply and demand of currencies on foreign exchange markets that determines the relative purchasing power of monies.
Consider that exchange rates are the prices paid whereby one currency is used to purchase another. Currency values are determined by increases in the supply of money relative to how much real output is produced. Just as the purchasing power of goods is determined by supply and demand, so it is for the “price” of money.
With a fixed supply of money, increased production of output means that producers find there are less units of money to cover the increased amount of goods. As such, the purchasing power of money will increase since each currency unit will buy more goods.
If there is a larger stock of money relative to given amount of output, the purchasing power of money must fall since there will be fewer goods for each currency unit. In simple terms, the purchasing power of money is set by the relative scarcity of money in terms of real output.
It is somewhat surprising that there is so much hubbub over reports of national balance of payments. After all, they do not merit more attention than do the accounting conditions of households or businesses. This is because there is no conceptual difference in market exchange between buyers and sellers within a country and those that reside in different countries.
Households and businesses have “balance of payments” statements, since companies and individuals are like countries in having to pay for imports by exporting. The activity of selling goods to other individuals within one country is like “exporting” them away from one’s own sphere. Producers exchange goods for money and use it to buy imported goods from other producers.
Similarly, buyers “import” goods from others whether they live near their home or in some distant locale. Individual or countries act as exporters and importers. When I sell the fruits of my labor (export) to my neighbor, I earn the means to buy (import) other items.
Shortfalls in exports of countries or households or businesses must be balanced either by using existing savings or by borrowing. When households or companies cannot honor their debts, the financial consequences matter little to other individuals in their communities. But governments and central banks actively monkey with markets so that their policies inflict substantial damage to an economy by perpetuating imbalances.
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