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Global Currency Meltdown

By: 
John Browne
Thursday, October 14, 2010

As the recession and resultant stimulus packages add to higher unemployment and increasing public-sector deficits, the government is seeking to boost the value of overseas earnings that are accrued by US corporations. To aid in this effort, the Fed is being pressured to erode the value of the US dollar, thereby making foreign sales more lucrative in nominal terms. But this form of stealth protectionism will fail just as surely as more overt trade barriers.

Like all commodities, the relative value of currencies is influenced by reward, risk, and future expectations.

The interest rate earned by holding a particular currency represents the ‘reward’ end of the equation. Assuming similar risk profiles, money tends to flow towards the currencies with higher interest rates.

Relative risk is in the eye of the beholder and often is difficult to quantify. In the main, investors view a nation’s balance of payments deficit as a major risk factor in evaluating the relative value of its currency.

Another long-term measure of risk is government debt as a percentage of Gross Domestic Product (GDP). If a large national trade deficit is accompanied by a relatively large debt-to-GDP ratio, the level of risk is increased.

Given the current state of the global economy, it should be clear to all that the US dollar is being priced higher than is warranted and the Chinese yuan is priced lower.

For over a decade, China has exported into an American market that was open and receptive to cheap products. In response to the demand for these new products, the Chinese yuan should have risen sharply against the US dollar to balance the massive Chinese trade surpluses.

However, the Chinese have pegged the yuan to the dollar, preventing a natural rebalancing of the two currencies from taking place. Not only has this generated a politically dangerous and economically unsound trade imbalance, but it has made the dollar appear stronger than it should,given the frail state of the American economy.

Left alone, internal pressures and common sense would have driven the Chinese government to eliminate the peg. To understand why, consider this: even if China didn’t accept one more dollar, any attempt to spend its massive reserves would cause the dollar to drop like a stone. How long should we expect them to keep digging themselves into this hole?

Unfortunately and quite predictably, Washington isn’t allowing the market to naturally correct. Instead, the Fed is attempting to devalue the currency by the printing press. Now we can expect not only the deluge of foreign exchange reserves to flood our economy, but also additional dollar tsunamis emanating from our own central bank. This makes a tragic situation worse, and risks instigating a full-blown trade war between the world’s largest consumer and its largest producer.

Meanwhile, other countries whose economies are heavily dependent on trade, such as Japan, Switzerland, and South Korea, are finding their exports hit hard by the simultaneous devaluations of the US dollar and the Chinese yuan.

On October 2nd, the Financial Times (FT) headline was: “France Pushes for Currency Accord”. It was reported that even China was supportive of the French initiative. Then, on October 5th, the FT headline was: “Call for Global Currencies Agreement”. This time the call was from a group of some 420 of the world’s leading bankers. Finally, on October 6th, the FT headline was: “IMF Chief Warns on Exchange Rate Wars”. Clearly, certain government leaders and bankers are aware of the risks of competitive currency devaluations. The question is whether parliamentary politicians will support currency stability in the face of increasing recession. The two most influential central banks – the Fed and People’s Bank of China – certainly aren’t setting a good example for the rest.

Only when currencies are allowed to float freely will trade imbalances be corrected. Washington’s attempt to force the issue is only doing harm to the world economy by introducing uncertainty and punishing the prudent. The Fed has gone radioactive, setting off a global currency meltdown. Perhaps only gold can truly shield investors from the fallout.