Only the Weak Survive

Published on Project Syndicate, by Nouriel Roubini, of Roubin.com, Oct. 14, 2010.

TOKYO – The risk of global currency and trade wars is rising, with most economies now engaged in competitive devaluations. All are playing a game that some must lose.

Today’s tensions are rooted in paralysis on global rebalancing. Over-spending countries – such as the United States and other “Anglo-Saxon” economies – that were over-leveraged and running current-account deficits now must save more and spend less on domestic demand. To maintain growth, they need a nominal and real depreciation of their currency to reduce their trade deficits. But over-saving countries – such as China, Japan, and Germany – that were running current-account surpluses are resisting their currencies’ nominal appreciation. A higher exchange rate would reduce their current-account surpluses, because they are unable or unwilling to reduce their savings and sustain growth through higher spending on domestic consumption.   

Within the eurozone, this problem is exacerbated by the fact that Germany, with its large surpluses, can live with a stronger euro, whereas the PIIGS (Portugal, Ireland, Italy, Greece, and Spain) cannot. On the contrary, with their large external deficits, the PIIGS need a sharp depreciation to restore growth as they implement painful fiscal and other structural reforms … //

… Expectations of aggressive QE by the Fed have already weakened the dollar and raised serious concerns in Europe, emerging markets, and Japan. Indeed, though the US pretends not to intervene to weaken the dollar, it is actively doing precisely that via more QE.

The BoJ and the BoE are following suit, putting even more pressure on the eurozone, where a stubborn ECB would rather kill any chance of recovery for the PIIGS than do more QE, ostensibly owing to fears of a rise in inflation. But that is a phantom risk, because it is the risk of deflation, not inflation, that haunts the PIIGS.

Currency wars eventually lead to trade wars, as the recent US congressional threat against China shows. With US unemployment and Chinese growth both at almost 10%, the only mystery is that the drums of trade war are not louder than they are.

If China, emerging markets, and other surplus countries prevent nominal currency appreciation via intervention – and prevent real appreciation via sterilization of such intervention – the only way deficit countries can achieve real depreciation is via deflation. That will lead to double-dip recession, even larger fiscal deficits, and runaway debt.

If nominal and real depreciation (appreciation) of the deficit (surplus) countries fails to occur, the deficit countries’ falling domestic demand and the surplus countries’ failure to reduce savings and increase consumption will lead to a global shortfall in aggregate demand in the face of a capacity glut. This will fuel more global deflation and private and public debt defaults in debtor countries, which will ultimately undermine creditor countries’ growth and wealth. (full text).

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