Archive for the 'Currency' Category

Nov 07 2011

Excuse me, China… could you lend us another billion? Understanding the imbalance of trade between China and the United States

The $1.4 Trillion Question – James Fallows – the Atlantic

American consumers are a curious bunch. Up until 2007, the average savings rate in the United States fell as low as 1%, and during brief period was actually negative. What does negative savings actually mean? It means that Americans consume more than they actually produce.On the micro level, the only way to consume beyond ones income is to borrow from someone else to pay for the additional consumption. In other words, savings must be negative for one to consume beyond his or her income. The US is a nation of borrowers, but from whom do we borrow? China, for one…

China is a nation of “savers”, where national savings averages 50% of income. What exactly does this mean? Well, just the opposite what negative savings means; rather than consuming more than it produces, the Chinese consume only about half of what it produces. Here’s how James Fallows, a Shanghai-based journalist, explains the China/US dilemma:

Any economist will say that Americans have been living better than they should—which is by definition the case when a nation’s total consumption is greater than its total production, as America’s now is. Economists will also point out that, despite the glitter of China’s big cities and the rise of its billionaire class, China’s people have been living far worse than they could. That’s what it means when a nation consumes only half of what it produces, as China does.
What happens to the rest of China’s output? Naturally, it’s shipped overseas for Americans and others in the West to consume. The irony is that the consumption of China’s products has been kept affordable and cheap thanks to the actions the Chinese government has taken to suppress the value of the RMB, thus keeping its products cheap and attractive to American consumers.

When the dollar is strong, the following (good) things happen: the price of food, fuel, imports, manufactured goods, and just about everything else (vacations in Europe!) goes down. The value of the stock market, real estate, and just about all other American assets goes up. Interest rates go down—for mortgage loans, credit-card debt, and commercial borrowing. Tax rates can be lower, since foreign lenders hold down the cost of financing the national debt. The only problem is that American-made goods become more expensive for foreigners, so the country’s exports are hurt.

When the dollar is weak, the following (bad) things happen: the price of food, fuel, imports, and so on (no more vacations in Europe) goes up. The value of the stock market, real estate, and just about all other American assets goes down. Interest rates are higher. Tax rates can be higher, to cover the increased cost of financing the national debt. The only benefit is that American-made goods become cheaper for foreigners, which helps create new jobs and can raise the value of export-oriented American firms (winemakers in California, producers of medical devices in New England).

Clearly, a strong dollar is good for America in many ways. The dollar’s strength in the last decade can be credited partially to the Chinese, who have been buying dollar denominated assets in record numbers over the last seven years.

By 1996, China amassed its first $100 billion in foreign assets, mainly held in U.S. dollars. (China considers these holdings a state secret, so all numbers come from analyses by outside experts.) By 2001, that sum doubled to about $200 billion… Since then, it has increased more than sixfold, by well over a trillion dollars, and China’s foreign reserves are now the largest in the world.

China’s purchase of American assets keeps demand for dollars on foreign exchange markets strong, thus the value of the dollar high relative to other currencies, allowing American firms and consumers the benefits of a strong dollars described above.
A nation’s balance of payments consists of the current account, which measures the difference between a country’s expenditures on imports and its income from exports (In 2008 China had a $232 billion current account surplus with the US, meaning the US bought more Chinese goods than China bought of American goods), and the capital account, which measures the difference between the inflows of foreign money for the purchase of real and financial assets at home and the outflows of currency for the purchase of foreign assets abroad. In the financial account, China maintains a deficit (meaning China holds more American financial and real assets than America does of China’s), to off-set its current account surplus.The two accounts together, by definition, balance out… usually. Any deficit in the China’s capital account that does not cover the surplus in its current account can be held as foreign exchange reserves by the People’s Bank of China. The PBOC, however, prefers not to hold excess dollars in reserve, as the dollar’s value is continually eroded by inflation and depreciation; therefore it invests the hundreds of billions of excess dollars it receives from Americans’ purchase of Chinese goods back into the American economy, buying up American assets, with the aim of earning interest on these assets that exceed the inflation rates.

The “assets” the Chinese are using their large influx of dollars to buy are primarily US government bonds. The government issues these bonds to finance its budget deficits, and the Chinese are happy to buy these bonds for a couple of reasons: They are secure investments, meaning that unless the US government collapses, the interest on US bonds is guaranteed income for China. That’s one reason; but the primary reason is that the purchase of these bonds puts US dollars that were originally spent by American consumers on Chinese imports right back into the hands of American consumers (via government spending or tax rebates), so they can continue buying more Chinese imports.

The Chinese demand for dollar denominated financial assets, including government bonds, corporate stocks and bonds, and real assets like real estate, factories, buildings and so on, has resulted in a long period of a strong dollar. If the Chinese ever decided to stem the flow of dollars into American assets, the dollar’s value would plummet to record lows, leading to high inflation and eventually a balancing of America’s enormous current account deficit with China and the rest of the world.

However, a falling dollar is the last thing China wants to see happen, for two reasons: One, it would make Chinese imports more expensive thus less attractive to American households, thus harming Chinese manufacturers and slowing growth in China. Two, US dollars are an asset to China. Its $1.4 billion of US debt would evaporate if the dollar took a major plunge. To China, this would represent a loss of national wealth; in effect all that “savings” that makes China so unique would disappear as the dollar dived relative to the RMB. For these reasons, it seems likely that China will continue to be a willing buyer of America’s debt, thus the financier of Americans’ insanely high consumptive lifestyle.

Discussion Questions:
  1. Many people in America are terrified that the Chinese might dump their dollar holdings. What would happen to the value of the US dollar if China decided to change its foreign reserves to another currency?
  2. Why is it very unlikely that China will do this? In other words, how does the status quo benefit China as well as the US?
  3. How do American households benefit from China’s financing of the government’s budget deficits? In what way to they suffer from this arrangement?
  4. Do you think America can continue to finance its budget deficits through the continued sale of debt to foreigners forever? Why or why not?

152 responses so far

Sep 06 2011

Stability – the greatest Swiss virtue?

BBC News – Swiss National Bank acts to weaken strong franc

The Swiss pride themselves on their long history of stable democracy, domestic tranquility and international neutrality. The stability of the Swiss state and the Swiss economy is heralded as one of its greatest virtues. But in the last few months, particularly in the first two weeks of August, instability has been more the norm in the Swiss economy due to the rapid appreciation of the Swiss currency, the franc, against the euro and the US dollar, which I blogged about here a couple of weeks ago.

Well, as of this morning, the franc’s ascent looks like it has reached its end, and the value of the franc is set to be pegged at 1.20 francs per euro (or 0.83 euros per franc), which is about 8% below what it was trading at this morning.

The Swiss National Bank (SNB) has set a minimum exchange rate of 1.20 francs to the euro, saying the current value of the franc is a threat to the economy.

The SNB said it would enforce the minimum rate by buying foreign currency in unlimited quantities.

The move had an immediate effect, with the euro rising from about 1.10 francs before the announcement to 1.21 francs.

In a statement, the SNB said: “The current massive overvaluation of the Swiss franc poses an acute threat to the Swiss economy and carries the risk of a deflationary development.

“The Swiss National Bank is therefore aiming for a substantial and sustained weakening of the Swiss franc. With immediate effect, it will no longer tolerate a EUR/CHF exchange rate below the minimum rate of CHF 1.20.

“The SNB will enforce this minimum rate with the utmost determination and is prepared to buy foreign currency in unlimited quantities.”

Against the franc, the euro climbed 9%, the dollar rose 7.7% and sterling gained 7.8% within minutes of the announcment.

NPR’s Planet Money reported on the story from Berlin here:

The instability resulting from the franc’s 30% rise in the value against other major currencies throughout the year is primarily the effect it has had on Swiss exporters. Foreign consumers, who actually buy about 50% of Switzerland’s output, have seen the prices of Swiss goods rise as the value of their own currencies has declined against the franc, reducing demand abroad for Swiss exports, forcing firms in the Swiss export sector to reduce their labor force and otherwise cut costs to compensate for the falling demand for their products. The threat of rising unemployment and falling demand for its output caused the Swiss National Bank and the Swiss government great concern, leading to today’s announcement.

The “deflationary development” mentioned by the SNB refers to a situation in the Swiss economy where the strong franc makes imports appear ever more attractive (and cheaper) to Swiss consumers, and Swiss goods increasingly less attractive to foreign consumers, reducing the demand for Swiss goods overall and forcing Swiss firms to lay off workers and lower their costs and prices to compensate for falling demand. Lower prices for goods and services in Switzerland reduces the incentives for firms to invest in new capital, thus reducing the demand for labor further, threatening to push the Swiss economy into a demand deficient recession. Deflation, defined as a persistent fall in the average price levels of a nation’s goods and services, can result in a downward spiral characterized by rising unemployment, falling demand, lower prices, and increased layoffs in the export sector, further exacerbating the unemployment problem.

The SNB’s decision to peg the franc to the euro will assure that foreign consumers of Swiss goods will not see their prices continue to rise, and Swiss consumers of foreign goods will not see them get any cheaper in coming months, hopefully bringing Swiss households who have recently enjoyed cheap imports back to the Swiss market to buy more Swiss-made goods and services.

Personally, I have mixed emotions about the franc’s peg with the euro. Of course, on one hand I have benefited greatly from the stronger franc, as an American working in Switzerland, earning swiss francs, the stronger currency has meant I can send the same amount of francs home as I always have, but it has translated into larger and larger quantities of dollars. Today, the dollar’s value has risen nearly 8%, meaning this month I will have a bit fewer dollars in my savings account in the United States as I would have before the peg.

As an employee in a Swiss firm, however, my continued employment depends on the continued demand for the service my school is providing, which is education to the children of multi-national corporations operating out of Switzerland. If the franc had continued to rise, the incentive for multi-nationals to locate their offices in Zurich would have become weaker over time, and more firms would have chosen to move their international employees to cities like Paris, London or Frankfurt, reducing demand for my school’s services and threating my own employment and income, just as those workers at other Swiss export firms’ jobs have been threatened in recent months.

Stability is a virtue the Swiss have always prided themselves on. Today’s announcement by the Swiss National Bank will bring greater stability to the Swiss economy, despite the disadvantages it brings to individuals who have enjoyed the benefits of a stronger franc in recent months.

The graph below explains how the SNB will enforce its currency peg against the euro:

Discussion Questions:

  1. How will the weaker Swiss franc help the Swiss economy?
  2. How will certain individuals in Switzerland be harmed by the weaker franc?
  3. How might the weaker franc affect demand for enrollmente at Zurich International School?
  4. What are two possible consequences of the Swiss National Bank making a promise to enforce a pegged exchange rate between the franc and the euro?
  5. Why are pegged or fixed exchange rates sometimes considered less desirable than floating exchange rates, which is when a currency’s value is determined solely by supply and demand on foreign exchange markets?

16 responses so far

Apr 11 2011

“A glimmer of hope” – rising incomes in China lead to rising demand for US exports

A nation’s balance of payments measures all the transactions between the residents of that nation and the residents of foreign nations, including the flow of money for the purchase of goods and services (measured in the current account) and the flow of financial or real assets (measured in the financial or capital account). The sale of exports counts as a positive in the current account, while the purchase of imports counts as a negative. In this way, a nation can have either a positive balance on its current account (a trade surplus) or a negative balance (a trade deficit).

The US has for decades run persistent deficits in its current account. As the world’s largest importer, Americans’ appetite for foreign goods has been unrivaled in the global economy. Of course, this is not to say that the US has not been a large exporter as well. In fact, the US is also one of the largest exporting nations, along with China, Germany and Japan, in the world. However, the total expenditures by Americans on imports has exceeded the country’s income from the sale of exports year after year, resulting in a net deficit in its current account.

So the news that rising incomes in China have fueled a boom in US export sales should come as a relief to US politicians and more importantly, firms in the American export industry:

Last year, American exports to China soared 32 percent to a record $91.9 billion.

A study by a trade group called the U.S.- China Business Council says China is now the world’s fastest-growing destination for American exports.

While United States exports to the rest of the world have grown 55 percent over the past decade, American exports to China have jumped 468 percent.

Most of those exports have come from California, Washington and Texas, which have shipped huge quantities of microchips, computer components and aircraft. But states that produce grain, chemicals and transportation equipment have also benefited.

China, which last year surpassed Japan to become the world’s second largest economy (measured by total output), is soon expected to become the world’s second largest importer as well:

And while much of what China imports is used to make goods that are then re-exported, like the Apple iPhone, Mr. Brasher says a growing share of what China imports from the United States, including cotton and grain as well as aircraft and automobiles, is staying in China.

“You know all those BMW X5 S.U.V.’s that are in China? They’re being imported from the U.S.,” Mr. Brasher said in a telephone interview Thursday. “They’re being made by a BMW factory in South Carolina.”

All this must be good news for the US, right? Growing exports to China must mean a smaller current account deficit, greater net exports and thus stronger aggregate demand, more employment and greater output in the United States. However, this may not be the case. While exports to China grow, the US economy’s recovery has led to a boost in the demand for imports from China as well. So, ironically, even as exports have grown 468 percent in the last decade, the US has still managed to maintain a stunningly large trade deficit with China: 

Last year, China’s trade surplus with the United States was between $180 billion or $250 billion, according to various calculations.

Still, the combination of a weakening American dollar and China’s growing economic clout is likely to bode well for American exports. With China short of water and arable land, exports of crops to China jumped to $13.8 billion last year.

Study the graph below and answer the questions that follow.

Discussion Questions:

  1. What is the primary determinant of demand for exports that has lead to the growth over the last decade seen in the graph above?
  2. What types of goods has China primarily imported from the US in the past? As incomes in China rise, how will the composition of its imports from the US likely change?
  3. How is it possible that the US current account deficit remains as large as it does (as much as $250 billion) despite the growth in exports to China?
  4. The value of China’s currency, the RMB, is closely managed by the Chinese Central Bank to maintain a low exchange rate against the US dollar. How does maintaining a low value of its currency exacerbate the imbalance of trade between China and the US? How would allowing greater flexibility in the RMB’s value help reduce the large imbalance of trade between the two countries?
  5. If the US spent $250 billion more on Chinese goods than China did on US goods in 2010, where did that $250 billion end up? What does China do with the money the US spends on its goods that it does not spend on US goods? Define the financial account and explain the relationship between a nation’s current account balance and its financial account balance.

36 responses so far

Nov 23 2010

Exchange rates and trade: a delicate balancing act, currently out of balance!

FT.com / Asia-Pacific – Renminbi at heart of trade imbalances.

“The Americans get the toys, the Chinese get the Treasuries and we get screwed.” Thus a European Union official once characterised the pattern of Beijing accumulating US assets by selling renminbis for dollars, while nothing stood in the way of a rapid and destabilising appreciation of the euro.

In a world of freely floating exchange rates trade imbalances between countries would ultimately be reduced and eliminated. At least, that’s the belief of those advocating a floating exchange rate between East Asian currencies and the United States.

Here’s how it is supposed to work:

  • Cheap labor and cheap imports from China following China’s joining the world economy 30 years ago led to a rapid increase in demand for Chinese manufactured goods in the US, creating growth, jobs, and rising national income for China.
  • A trade imbalance emerges between the US and China as US spending on imports increases more rapidly than America’s  sale of exports. If the Chinese currency were allowed to float freely on foreign exchange markets, however, this imbalance would be temporary, because…
  • The US current account deficit means, literally, that Americans are supplying more of their dollars in the foreign exchange market, while demanding more Chinese RMB. The forces of supply and demand would naturally lead to an appreciation of the RMB and a depreciation of the dollar.
  • The weaker dollar resulting from the trade deficit with China would eventually make Chinese goods less attractive to Americans. Despite their lower costs of production, the weak dollar makes imported Chinese goods more expensive and less appealing to the American consumer.
  • The strong RMB, on the other hand, makes American produced goods and services cheaper to Chinese consumers, who begin to import more from the US at the same time that Americans demand fewer of China’s products.
  • Through free-floating exchange rates, a current account imbalance is eventually reduced and eliminated as exchange rates adjust to the flows of goods and services between trading partners.

A graphical version of this story is told here:

Floating ER

This, of course, is precisely what has NOT happened, thanks to China’s strict management of the value of the RMB. In order to keep its currency weak, Beijing directly intervenes in foreign exchange markets, “by selling renmenbi for dollars” to accumulate American assets. As seen in the next graph, such interference has the effect of keeping the dollar strong against the RMB.

As any IB student knows, the Balance  of Payments between two countries includes not only the trade in goods and services, but also the flow of real and financial assets, such as government securities, stocks, real estate, factories, and so on, between the countries. China has actively promoted a policy of acquiring such American assets, which keeps demand for dollars strong in China, and supply of RMB high in America, without creating any jobs in manufacturing or services for Americans. China has financed America’s current account deficit by assuring it maintains a capital account surplus!

Put more simply, China has exported goods and services to America, while America has exported ownership of its real and financial assets to China. This is a major area of concern for US policy makers, who would like to see a more balanced current account between the two countries, since it is the export of goods and services that creates jobs for American workers, not the sale of bonds, stocks and real estate.

Discussion Questions:

  1. Why does Europe care about China’s fixed exchange rate with the US dollar?
  2. Do you believe that American demand for Chinese goods would actually decline if the RMB were allowed to appreciate against the dollar? Why or why not?
  3. Besides American workers and firms, who else suffers from a weak Chinese currency? How could China actually benefit from allowing the RMB to strengthen against the dollar?
  4. How does China maintain the RMB’s peg against the dollar without buying large quantities of US exports?

24 responses so far

Oct 26 2009

Exchange rates, currency manipulations, and the balance of trade

FT.com | The Economists’ Forum | Imbalances and undervalued exchange rates: Rehabilitating Keynes

In our year 2 IB Economics class, we are beginning the part of our International Trade unit on exchange rates and the balance of trade . While the market for a particular currency reflects many of the same characteristics as a product market (i.e. upward sloping supply curve, downward sloping demand curve), the consequences of a change the price of a currency (the exchange rate) is far more powerful than a change in the price of a particular good or service in a product market.

How does the value of a country’s currency affect that country’s balance of trade with other countries? To understand this important concept, we first need to know something about the process by which currencies are exchanged when two countries trade. Let’s look at an example:

When an American consumer wants to buy an iPod that was made in China she will have to pay for it in US dollars, since that’s what she earns her wages in from selling her labor in the resource market. Apple now has the consumer’s $300, which gets split up to cover all the costs the company faced in the manufacture, distribution, marketing and sale of the iPod. Part of that $300 (say $100) will go to the manager of the factory in China where it was made.

The factory manager in Shanghai faces his own costs he must cover. He must pay rent on his factory space, interest on the loans he took out to acquire capital, and wages to the workers assembling iPods on his factory floor. The problem is, these costs are all in Chinese yuan, but he’s holding the US dollars that Apple paid him for his iPod. In order to cover his costs, the Chinese factory owner must take the $100 to a Chinese bank and swap it for RMB. The local bank that changes his money now hands the $100 over to China’s central bank (the PBOC) which prints and exchanges RMB to the bank at whatever the prevailing exchange rate is at the time.

Ultimately, China’s central bank will decide what to do with its holding of US dollars. Most of the dollars are loaned back to the United States through China’s purchase of US Treasury securities (the IOUs the US government sells to finance its deficits). China’s voracious demand for US dollar denominated assets keeps the demand for (and the the value of) dollars high on foreign exchange markets, meaning the RMB remains relatively cheap for Americans and therefore Chinese manufactured goods attractive.

China’s policy of exchange rate manipulation has upset many American politicians over the years, who often blame China for America’s shrinking manufacturing sector. A weak RMB means the cost of producing things like iPods in China is far lower than it would be in the US. By keeping demand for dollars high on the foreign exchange markets through its incessant demand for US treasury securities and other financial and real assets, while simultaneously hoarding vast reserves of US dollars in its central bank, thus keeping supply of dollars on foreign exchange markets low (see graph), China has prevented the RMB from appreciating, fueling the growth of the country’s export-manufacturing sector.

China’s currency manipulations may soon ilicit a response from the United States as president-elect Barack Obama takes office next year. Facing a recession and rising unemployment, combined with the recent appreciation of the US dollar, the pressure is on Obama to take immediate action to restore America’s manufacturing sector. According to the Financial Times blog “the Economists’ Forum”:

If the US economy takes a downturn and the dollar continues to strengthen, a resurgence of protectionist pressures is likely. This time around, these pressures could well take the form of unilateral action against competitive currencies. It is noteworthy that President-elect Obama has actively and repeatedly supported action against “currency manipulation.”

The “competitive currency” perceived to pose the greatest threat to America’s inustrial sector is certainly the Chinese RMB. Currency manipulation is a form of protectionism, which in a time of global economic slowdowns poses a larger threat than ever to both developed and developing nations’ economies alike. For this reason, the World Trade Organization may need to employ carrot and stick methods to create incentives for China to liberalize its currency controls and allow the RMB to strengthan against the dollar and other major currencies:

How would this new rule against undervalued exchange rates be incorporated in the WTO? Through negotiation. The (WTO) should place rules on undervalued exchange rates…. The US and EU have been the principal demandeurs for action by China in the past. But it is important to remember that until very recently, a number of developing countries—Brazil, Mexico, Korea, Turkey and South Africa—were affected by the competitive pressure from the undervalued (RMB). Indeed, some months ago, the Indian Prime Minister urged China to follow a more market-based exchange rate policy. For obvious reasons, more emerging market countries have not voiced their concerns, but it is possible that a coalition of affected countries could unite on this issue.

Clearly, Chinese concerns have to be addressed for any new rules to be crafted and commonly agreed… First, China’s major trading partners could pledge granting China the status of a “market economy” in the WTO contingent on it eliminating currency undervaluation and moving to a market-based system. This status would have significant value for China by shielding it against unilateral trade actions such as anti-dumping and countervailing duties by trading partners. Second, as part of radical governance reform of the IMF, which is desirable in itself, China should be offered a substantially larger voting share in the IMF commensurate with its economic status.

Discussion Questions:

  1. How does China continuing to undervalue its currency threaten the industrial economies of its largest trading partners?
  2. What is China’s purpose for maintaining the low value of the RMB relative to the currencies of other nations?
  3. What would be a unilateral protectionist measure an Obama administration may advocate if the WTO refuses to take action against China’s currency manipulations? How would you advise president-elect Obama on the issue of whether to take protectionist action against China in the context of the current economic crisis in America?

103 responses so far

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