During the early years of the global financial crisis, exchange rates were the least interesting part of the macroeconomic debate.
A French proposal in 2011 for a sweeping reform of the international monetary regime went nowhere. Today, the subject has become the focus of intense anxiety — and with good reason.
Currency wars are a reminder of the fragility of the process of globalization.
As one part of that process begins to appear unacceptably painful, demand for political intervention rises and the entire system risks beginning to unravel.
The expectation that interest rates in the United States will rise is driving up the value of the dollar, even as monetary easing in Japan and Europe is pushing down the yen and the euro.
Over the last year, the euro has lost more than a fifth of its value relative to the dollar and there is no sign that the trend will reverse anytime soon.
The euro’s depreciation has been greeted with delight by Europe’s business leaders but in the US, where the dollar’s gains are threatening to choke off economic recovery, officials at the Federal Reserve are expressing signs of concern.
The swing in exchange rates could have an impact that extends far beyond the short-term rebalancing of the global marketplace.
US President Barack Obama is negotiating with Asian countries over the Trans-Pacific Partnership and with Europe over the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership.
The dollar’s rapid rise will play into the hands of his protectionist critics in a hostile and increasingly obstructionist Congress.
Indeed, surges in the dollar’s value have long coincided with increased political pressure for trade protectionism.
After all, the most obvious way to compensate for the apparent overvaluation of a country’s currency is by imposing import restrictions.
In the mid-1980s, the dollar’s appreciating exchange rate undermined US competitiveness, inaugurating a period of rapid and painful de-industrialization.
At that time, the major competitive threat was from Japan and American politicians faced intense pressure to respond.
In 1985, the US Senate unanimously approved a resolution condemning Japan’s unfair trade practices and called on President Ronald Reagan to act to curb imports.
This was followed by a bill proposing a special levy on countries running large bilateral trade surpluses with the US.
If anything, today’s exchange rate swings are likely to be more extreme and last longer than the surge in the dollar’s value in the 1980s or the volatility of the 1930s, when countries competed to devalue their currencies in the aftermath of the financial crash that triggered the Great Depression.
The problem is what is known as carry trade, a common financial strategy in which an investor borrows money in a currency subject to a low interest rate in order to buy assets in a currency subject to a higher rate.
The interest rate differential, often combined with high amounts of leverage, provides a profit when the loans are paid off.
When exchange rates are stable and predictable, the carry trade is relatively safe.
But this is rarely the case. For starters, the practice has the tendency to push exchange rates further apart as investors sell the currency in which they borrowed to make their purchases.
This creates an incentive to take on more debt because the real value of the loan is likely to be lower when the time comes to repay it.
Large corporate borrowers engaged in carry trade consider themselves sophisticated investors, capable of predicting when exchange rates are about to reverse.
Unfortunately, this only increases the risk, boosting the possibility of a sudden reversal as money pours back into the borrowed currency in an attempt to repay loans before the exchange rate soars to loss-generating levels.
And hedging against such a reversal merely builds up risk elsewhere in the international financial system.
The dangers are very real.
In the 1980s, governments responded to large exchange rate swings through active intervention, intentionally driving the dollar’s value down in 1985, only to try to stabilize it 18 months later.
These initiatives served a political purpose — holding off the protectionists — but they also caused serious financial instability, contributing to a major stock-market crash in October 1987.
There is one historical precedent that could serve as a model, should we be able to muster the political will to consider it.
In the 1930s, John Maynard Keynes championed limits on the movement of capital in order to blunt the more damaging consequences of globalization.
The equivalent today would be to introduce regulations on carry trade. Policymakers would do well to consider this option before it is too late.
Copyright: Project Syndicate
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