Archive for the 'Foreign exchange markets' Category

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

Jun 10 2009

The almighty bond market: Niall Ferguson’s concerns about the US deficit explained

Harvard Economist Niall Ferguson appeared on CNN’s GPS with Fareed Zakaria over the weekend. Ferguson has stood out among mainstream economists lately in his opposition to the US fiscal stimulus package, an $880 billion experiment in expansionary Keynesian policy. While economists like Paul Krugman argue that Obama’s plan is not big enough to fill America’s “recessionary gap”, Ferguson warns that the long-run effects of current and future US budget deficits could lead the US towards economic collapse. This blog post will attempt to explain Ferguson’s views in a way that high school economics students can understand.

Government spending in the US is projected to exceed tax revenues by $1.9 trillion this year, and trillions more over the next four years. An excess of spending beyond tax revenue is known as a budget deficit, and must be paid for by government borrowing. Where does the government get the funds to finance its deficits? The bond market. The core of Ferguson’s concerns about the future stability of the United States economy is the situation in the market for US government bonds. According to Ferguson:

One consequence of this crisis has been an enormous explosion in government borrowing, and the US federal deficit… is going to be equivelant to 1.9 trillion dollars this year alone, which is equivelant to nearly 13% of GDP… this is an excessively large deficit, it can’t all be attributed to stimulus, and there’s a problem. The problem is that the bond market… is staring at an incoming tidal wave of new issuance… so the price of 10-year treasuries, the standard benchmark government bond… has taken quite a tumble in the past year, so long-term interest rates, as a result, have gone up by quite a lot. That poses a problem, since part of the project in the mind of Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke is to keep interest rates down

There’s a lot of information in Ferguson’s statements above. To better understand him, some graphs could come in handy. Below is a graphical representation of the US bond market, which is where the US government supplies bonds, which are purchased by the public, commercial banks, and foreigners. Keep in mind, the demanders of US bonds are the lenders to the US government, which is the borrower. The price of a bond represents the amount the government receives from its lenders from the issuance of a new bond certificate. The yield on a bond represents the interest the lender receives from the government. The lower the price of a bond, the higher the yield, the more attractive bonds are to investors. Additionally, the lower the price of bonds, the greater the yield, thus the greater the amount of interest the US government must pay to attract new lenders.

crowding-out_11

Ferguson says that the price of US bonds has “taken a tumble”. The increase of supply has lowered bond prices, increasing their attractiveness to investors who earn higher interest on the now cheaper bonds. Below we can see the impact of an increase in the quantity demanded for government bonds on the market for private investment.

crowding-out_3

Financial crowding-out can occur as a result of deficit financed government spending as the nation’s financial resources are diverted out of the private sector and into the public sector. Granted, during a recession the demand for loanable funds from firms for private investment may be so low that there is no crowding out, as explained by Paul Krugman here.

But crowding out is not Ferguson’s only concern. The increase in interest rates caused by the US government’s issuance of new bonds could lead to a decrease in private investment in the US economy, inhibiting the nation’s long-run growth potential. But the bigger concern is one of America’s long-run economic stability. If the Obama administration does not put forth a viable plan for balancing its budget very soon, the demand for US government bonds could fall, which would further excacerbate the crowding-out effect, and eliminate the country’s ability to finance its government activities. In other words, such a loss of faith could plunge the United States into bankruptcy.

crowding-out_21

Fareed Zakaria asks Ferguson:

“Is it fair to say that this bad news, the fact that we can’t sell our debt as cheaply as we thought, overshadows all the good news that seems to be coming?”

Ferguson’s reply:

The green shoots that are out there (referring to the phrase economists and politicians have been using to describe the signs of recovery in the US economy) seem like tiny little weeds in the garden, and what’s coming in terms of the fiscal crisis in the United States is a far bigger and far worse story.

Finally Fareed asks the question everyone wants to know:”What the hell do we do?”

Ferguson:

One thing that can be done very quickly is for the president to give a speech to the American people and to the world explaining how the administration proposes to achieve stabilization of American public finance… the administration doesn’t have that long a honeymoon period, it has very little time in which it can introduce the American public to some harsh realities, particularly about entitlements and how much they are going to cost. If a signal could be sent really soon to the effect that the administration is serious about fiscal stabilization and isn’t planning on borrowing another $10 trillion between now and the end of the decade, then just conceivably markets could be reassured.

Ferguson is saying that only if the Obama administration begins taking serious steps towards balancing the US government’s budget can it hope to stave off an eventual loss of faith among America’s creditors (and thus a fall in demand for US bonds). It will be a while before tax revenues are high enough to finance the US budget. But if the country does not begin working towards such an end immediately, it may find itself unable to raise the funds to pay for such public goods as infrastructure, education, health care, national defense, medical research, as well as the wages of the millions of government employees. In other words, the US government could be bankrupt, and its downfall could mean the end of American economic power.

The power of the bond market should not be underestimated. America’s very future depends on continued faith in its financial stability and fiscal responsibility.

Discussion Questions:

  1. Why do you think the US government has such a huge budget deficit this year? ($1.9 trillion) Previously, the largest budget deficit on record was only around $400 billion.
  2. How does the issuance of new bonds by the US government lead to less money being available to private households and firms?
  3. Do you think investors will ever totally lose faith in US government bonds? Why or why not?
  4. In what way is the government’s huge budget deficit a “tax on teenagers”? In other words, how will today’s teenagers end up suffering because of the federal budget deficit?

To learn more about the power of the bond market, watch Niall Ferguson’s documentary, The Ascent of Money. The section on the bond market can be viewed here:

100 responses so far

Dec 12 2008

The Marshall-Lerner Condition, the J-curve, and the US trade deficit

For a video lesson on the Marshall Lerner Condition and the J-curve, click here: The Marshall-Lerner Condition (HL Only) | The Economics Classroom

Read the following article before reading the blog post below:
Managing Globalization » Business Blog » International Herald Tribune » Blog Archive » Here’s that silver lining, finally

In IB Economics we’ve been studying concepts relating to balance of trade and exchange rates. The Marshall-Lerner Condition and the J-curve are two concepts that explain the relationship between a the exchange rate for a nation’s currency and the country’s balance of trade. (click on the graph to see a larger version)

Common sense might indicate that if a country’s currency (let’s say the US dollar) depreciates relative to other currencies, then this should lead to an improvement in the country’s balance of trade (economists call this the current account). The reasoning goes as such: a weaker dollar means foreigners will have to give up less of their money in order to get one dollar’s worth of American output. At the same time, since the dollar is worth less in foreign currency, imports become more expensive, as Americans have to fork over more dollars for a certain amount of another country’s output; hence, imports should decrease.

Fewer imports and more exports means an improvement in the country’s balance of trade, right? Well, not necessarily. What matters is not whether a country is importing less and exporting more, rather, whether the increase in income from exports exceeds the decrease in expenditures on imports. Here is where the Marshall-Lerner Condition can be applied.

The M-L condition examines the price elasticities of demand for exports and imports of a particular country. Say the US experiences a depreciation of its currency (as it has over the last year or so). If foreigners’ demand for exports from America is relatively elastic, then a slightly weaker dollar should cause a dramatic increase in foreign demand for American output, causing export income in the US to rise dramatically. On the other hand, if American’s demand for imports is highly price elastic, then a slightly weaker dollar should likewise cause Americans’ demand for imports to decrease drastically, reducing greatly American’s expenditures on imports. If the combined elasticities of demand for exports and imports is elastic (i.e. the coefficient is greater than 1), then a depreciation of a nations currency will shift its current account towards surplus. This is the Marshall-Lerner Condition.

Marshall-Lerner Condition: If PEDx + PEDm > 1, then a depreciation or a devaluation of a nation’s currency will shift the the balance on its current account towards surplus.

So what if the Marshall Lerner Condition is not met? Demand for exports and imports may not always be so responsive to changes in exchange rates. Imagine a scenario where a weaker dollar does little to change foreign demand for America’s output. In this case income from exports may actually decline (in real terms, since the dollar is weaker) as the dollar depreciates. Likewise, if Americans’ demand for imports is highly inelastic, then more expensive imports will only minimally affect Americans’ demand for imported goods, in which case expenditures on imports may actually rise as they become more expensive. In this case, where the elasticities of demand for exports and imports are highly inelastic, a depreciation of the currency will actually worsen a trade deficit. Americans’ import expenditures will go up while export income from abroad will decline shifting the current account further into deficit.

In the article above, some data is presented that points to evidence that in the US today, the Marshall-Lerner Condition is in fact being met:

“Exports in the year through September are up by 12 percent from 2006, while the dollar’s trade-weighted exchange rate dropped by only 6 percent. That means foreigners may actually be spending more – even in their own currencies – on American products. It’s a support that the American economy, and in turn the global economy, can really use right now.

Of course, this process isn’t helping the trade deficit too much, No one, it seems, can change Americans’ taste for foreign products. But it does show, for all to see, that the risks of an open economy are at least somewhat balanced by the benefits.”

An increase in exports of 12% in response to a 6% weakening of the dollar indicates a price elasticity of demand coefficient for America’s exports of 2, meaning foreigners are highly responsive to cheaper US goods.

We can assume that Americans’ demand for imports is highly inelastic, as the article hints at when it says, “imports to the United States, including oil, are still rising in volume and value.” If a 6% weaker dollar leads to an increase in expenditures on imports, then demand must be less than one. In order for M-L Condition to be met, PEDx+PEDm must be greater than 1. Clearly, with a PEDx of 2, the condition is met, and a weaker dollar in leading to an improvement in America’s balance of trade with the rest of the world.

Discussion Questions:

    1. What is the J-curve effect? Based on the evidence from the article, where on the J-curve is the US right now?
    2. Is America experiencing an improvement in or a worsening of its current account deficit?
    3. What determinants of demand are fueling America’s ever-increasing expenditures on imports?
    4. What should happen to the elasticity of demand for imports if the dollar remains weak in the long-run? How will this affect America’s position on the J-curve?

 

119 responses so far

Dec 03 2008

How the weak British Pound made my Himalayan ski fantasy a reality!

BBC NEWS | Business | Sterling rebounds from sharp fall

Americans, are you planning a vacation anytime soon? If so, why not visit LOVELY Great Britain! Why, you ask, would ANYONE want to visit the UK in during this wet, cold season? Well, here’s why I’m buying British this year:

I recently booked a Himalayan ski tour in Indian Kashmir organized by a British company. The price? 1400 GBP, which only three months ago was the equivalent of $2800 US! Today, with the newly weak British Pound, my ski trip to India will only cost me $2100*. In the span of just a few months, the dollar price of this amazing Himalayan ski adventure has fallen by $700! Naturally, Americans like myself now have an incentive to buy British!

POUND STERLING v UNITED STATES DOLLAR: December 2007 – December 2008

Chart

What has caused the slide of the Pound in recent months? Here’s the complicated answer:

“The environment of very weak sentiment regarding the domestic economic picture and potential rate cuts alongside equity volatility is keeping sterling very much on the defensive,” said Jeremy Stretch, strategist at Rabobank.

Strategists get paid lots of money to say stuff that 99% of people don’t understand the first time they read it. I get paid very little money to help those people better understand it, specifically, my students. Here’s what Mr. Stretch is trying to say:

A weak economy in Great Britain leads foreign investors to believe that the Bank of England may lower interest rates in the near future. Why would Britain’s central bank lower interest rates? Because lower interest rates create an incentive for consumers and businesses to take out loans from banks and spend money in the economy, which should create new jobs and help prevent a recession in the UK.

If the bank does lower interest rates, this puts “the sterling on the defensive”, in other words, leads to a weakening of the British Pound, as foreign investors looking to put their money where they can earn a decent return on it will be less likely to save in the UK when interest rates fall. “Equity volatility” is a fancy way of saying British stocks have been performing poorly, decreasing their attraction to foreign investors. When saving in British banks becomes less attractive due to expected interest rate cuts, and buying British stocks becomes risky due to their volatility, investors turn to the safest investment in the world, which is… can you guess? United States government bonds!

So how’s this all relate to exchange rates, you ask? Let’s leave this question for readers to answer and discuss in the comments:

Discussion Questions:

  1. How does the expected drop in British interest rates affect the demand for British pounds on foreign exchange markets? What does this do to the value of the pound?
  2. Why does the stability and safety of US government bonds lead to a strengthening of the dollar in times of global economic slowdowns?
  3. How has the recession in the United States further contributed to the weakening of the British pound?


*In fact, I’m too poor to take a ski trip to India this year, I will have to settle for the puny peaks here in the Swiss Alps!

20 responses so far

Jun 01 2008

Purchasing Power Parity – “for the inebriated masses”

pintprice.com – the price of beer anywhere in the world

The theory of purchasing power parity (or PPP) holds that in the long run, the price of a particular basket of goods should adjust across countries and currencies to “cost” the same amount regardless of the currency the goods are denominated in. In other words, one dollar should buy the same amount of “stuff” in the US as it does in Mexico, China, the Netherlands or anywhere else in the world. If a dollar buys MORE in one of these countries once it’s been converted to the local currency, it implies that the local currency is undervalued and should adjust in the long run to achieve parity in the amount it can purchase in dollar terms.

One popular measure of purchasing power parity, devised by the folks at the Economist magazine’s intelligence unit, is the Big Mac Index, which measures the price of McDonald’s Big Macs in over 100 countries where they can be purchased. You can read more about this index here.

The Economist magazine recently reported on an new alternative to its own PPP index, “the Price of a Pint”:

Barflies around the world provide a useful service for their beer-drinking comrades at PintPrice.com. The prices of pints of lager are compared on the basis of anecdotal evidence from beer-drinkers around the world, so figures are regularly updated. There are some surprising results. Beer in Zambia and Burundi seems eye-wateringly expensive considering that they are among the world’s poorest countries. The French overseas départments of Guadeloupe and Martinique charge just about as much as in mainland France. Beer-loving America and Britain fall somewhere in the middle. Happily for sports fans at the Beijing Olympics, a pint in China is just $2.46.

I thought it might be useful to some of our graduating seniors planning their summer vacations or gap years. Pay close attention to the data in this table.


(source: http://www.economist.com/displayStory.cfm?story_id=11333131)

So, if cheap beer is a priority in your vacation decision, it looks like North Korea and Myanmar are ideal destinations. I must say, I am relieved to see that Switzerland, my own new home, is not in the top ten… but it is far from cheap.

The website will tell you the average price of a pint of beer in any country in the world, and then break it down to cities within each country. In Zurich, my soon to be home, a pint costs the equivalent of $6.57 US. Compared to my hometown of Seattle, Washington, where a pint goes for $3.25, that’s exactly double the price! Surprisingly, however, a pint of beer here in Shanghai goes for a shocking $5.15, more than double the Chinese average of $2.35.

Apparently, the price of beer has more to do with the local supply and demand than with relative exchange rates. Where the Big Mac Index offers a rather genuine approach to determining purchasing power parity (since the Big Mac is an identical product sold by the same restaurant facing similar costs in over 100 countries), a pint of beer is a bit more subjective a measure of PPP. Quality of beers clearly differ in locales as diverse as North Korea and Luxembourg, not to mention the incomes of beer drinkers, the number of domestic brewers, excise and value added taxes, consumers’ price elasticities of demand, and so on.

As summer vacation approaches, however, vacation planners may care to take into account the “Price of a Pint” index of purchasing power parity. Clearly, one’s dollars will go much further at bars in some places than others.

I know what you 18 year old American high school grads are thinking, “Mexico or Canada?” You’ll just have to follow the link to find out!

(Disclaimer: Mr. Welker is in no way encouraging his former students to travel to certain places based solely on the cheap price of beer there, merely to avoid places where beer is clearly out of their price range!)

11 responses so far

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