Similarly, the Chinese, who at least in theory had accepted that they needed to let their currency rise (and presumably over time move to a more balanced, less export-dependent economy) have similarly gone into full reverse gear. The RMB has now been more or less re-pegged to the dollar, and China is moving in other ways to shore up exporters (such as pressuring banks to lend).
Michael Pettis points to a related, troubling development: other emerging economies are seeking to restore or increase trade surpluses. That in turn means SOMEONE has to import. But the US wants to increase exports (and the move by the Fed to quantitative easing will have the side benefit, from its perspective, of weakening the dollar). Euroland is neither keen nor able to step into the US role of importer of the last (and first) resort (boldface ours):
One consequence of the financial crisis will inevitably be capital outflows from developing countries. The necessary corollary of capital outflows is trade surpluses. Without running a trade surplus no country can consistently support capital outflows, and as obvious as this is, it also seems to be a source of tremendous mystery to many experts and policymakers. Keynes for example pointed this out in his fury at the way Germany was required to post war reparations in the 1920s while its ability to generate export surpluses was all but eliminated by the victorious powers. Capital exports by definition require trade surpluses.
This is just another way of saying that a lot of developing countries that had been running trade deficits will soon be, if they aren’t already, running trade surpluses. Instead of contributing their net demand to the world economy, as they had via their trade deficits, they will now be contributing their net supply.
This will not help the world imbalances. The biggest contributors of net demand are the US and non-Germany Europe, and both of these regions are seeing a rapid decline in their net demand contribution (i.e. their trade deficits are expected to shrink). To adjust to this decline the world needs new sources of net demand or else global production must contract sharply via factory closings and rising unemployment. But the largest net supply country, China, is increasing its export of net supply (its trade surplus has been rising) while several trade deficit countries in Asian and elsewhere are switching to trade surplus or otherwise trying to reduce their deficits.
This cannot be sustainable. We cannot expect production to rise while consumption declines except if it comes with a dangerous rise in forced investment (also known as inventory). The crisis cannot even begin to be considered in its final stages until this issue is resolved.
Pettis addresses another issue, namely, that China’s interest rate cuts will do little for consumers, and will instead exacerbate global imbalances:
For me, interest rate cuts in China will have very different effects than they might in the US. In the US, where a great deal of credit goes to consumption, lowering interest rates can be seen as boosting consumption as much as boosting production. At any rate the US, which contributes the largest amount of excess net consumption to the world and must bring it down, has every reason to focus on production-boosting measures as well as consumption-boosting measures.
But China is different. First of all there is little to no consumer credit in China, so cutting interest rates won’t do much to boost consumption. It might do so indirectly by reducing mortgage payments (Chinese mortgages are all floating-rate mortgages) and perhaps by slowing the decline in real estate prices, but it is not clear how big an effect that might have on increasing consumption, especially since even lower interest rates aren’t likely to create much buying interest for real estate. In fact there is some evidence in China that households may actually contract spending when deposit rates are cut since they need to save more to achieve their precautionary savings targets.
On the other hand with most credit going to investment, lowering interest rates definitely reduces further the cost of production. I know that the idea of lowering interest rates in an economic contraction is firmly entrenched in economic wisdom, and I am taking what may seem like an extremely opposite viewpoint, but I doubt that cutting interest rates is what China needs to do if it is expecting to adjust to the global payments adjustment. Every domestic policy must be aimed at boosting demand, and anything that increases China’s “competitiveness” is a dangerous detour since it can only exacerbate global imbalances and increase the likelihood of trade friction.
In down times, it’s every man for himself. The interesting question is whether these conflicts come to the fore in 2009 or take a bit longer to become acute.
Originally published at Naked Capitalism and reproduced here with the author’s permission.