2010-11-08

World trade needs to be rebalanced - here's my suggestion

International trade has been around for centuries and has been the creator of both good and bad world economic conditions. What has evolved now, though, is a trade and capital imbalance that is one of the causes of the current economic crisis. If a new economic order is to be created out of this mess, world trade and capital flows need to change.

In the bad old days, mercantilism ruled the waves and nations would compete against each other to gain the best export advantages. This was a self destructive process, since it resulted in trade tariffs and quotas. Mercantilism was part of a broader scheme called "economic nationalism" which saw international trade as a win/lose battle against other nations. Instead of fighting against another nation with armies, countries would fight each other economically. Fortunately economists appeared whose arguments proved beyond reasonable doubt that international trade was actually a win/win - though with a number of caveats.

Sadly, mercantilism is still around. It is practised most notably by China and Japan, with a number of smaller nations (eg Singapore) jumping in. When one nation has a mercantilist trade policy in world trade, the result is a large trade surplus. This trade surplus generates large amounts of foreign currency, which the countries then use to reinvest back into their trade partners. So in Japan and China's case, their trade surplus with the United States leads to large US dollar profits which, rather than being converted into Yen, are reinvested back into the United States. It is a circular process which creates a "virtuous cycle" - US demand for Japanese & Chinese goods leads to US Dollar profits for Japan & China, which leads to reinvestment of these profits back into the United States, which results increased domestic US demand, which results in increased demand for Japanese & Chinese goods. The problem is that this "virtuous cycle" has been exposed as just another bubble that is in the process of bursting.

Theoretically, mercantilism has been abolished. The Word Trade Organisation and its members take a very dim view of member countries setting up trade barriers or quotas. Japan and China get around it however, thanks to the actions of their Central banks. Instead of creating trade barriers, the Central banks of Japan and China sell their own currency and purchase US government bonds (treasuries). This keeps the Yen and the Yuan/Renmimbi cheaper while simultaneously making the US dollar more expensive. With cheap domestic currencies and a customer country with an expensive currency, Japan and China naturally end up having a trade surplus with the United States. Having a cheap currency allows the development of cheap labour thus undercutting any competition from US based companies.

This situation is reflected in a fairly basic economic indicator called the Current account. Nations which have a Current account surplus are nations who receive large amounts of foreign currency for goods and services they sell, as well as from investments that they have in foreign nations. Nations which have a current account deficit are nations who borrow lots of money from nations with current account surpluses.

It is best to look at the current account as an accounting measurement. If our world economy consists of two countries, and country one has a $1 billion current account surplus, then the other country will have a $1 billion current account deficit. You can't have these two nations in this model both running current account deficits or both running current account surpluses. When we take this model to the wider world we realise that one nation's current account deficit is another nation's current account surplus.

So which is better? It might sound better to have a current account surplus, but this is actually mercantilist thinking. In reality they are just as good or just as bad as each other. If we think that the US current account deficit is bad, then we must conclude that the Japanese current account surplus is bad too.

The problem with running large, long term current account imbalances is that, over time, the economy becomes "geared". In the case of the United States, the economy has been "geared" towards the importation of goods and services, it has become "geared" towards borrowing money from overseas - in short, it is an economy that is geared towards consumption and borrowing. By contrast, China and Japan have been "geared" to complement the United States - they are geared towards producing goods and services, and they are geared towards saving. In short, Japan and China are geared towards production and saving.

The figures for these three countries are stark. The United States is running a current account deficit of 3.3% of GDP; Japan is running a current account surplus of 3.3% of GDP; China is running a current account surplus of 4.9% of GDP. Smaller economies have even more notable imbalances (eg Singapore with a current account surplus of 18.4% of GDP, Turkey with a current account deficit of 5.4% of GDP)

Now of course China and Japan DO purchase goods and services from the United States, and people in China and Japan DO borrow money from the United States, and the United States DOES manufacture goods that it exports to China and Japan, and the United States DOES save money. But what we're talking about here is the net result. Just because the United States gets most of its manufactured goods from China and Japan doesn't mean that the United States doesn't manufacture anything. What I'm trying to point out here is that in the back and forth of buying and selling and borrowing and investing that makes up international trade, that current accounts reflect an overall, net position. This means that various industries within these countries stand to gain from any changes in the exchange rate, whichever way it goes.

But the problem with gearing is that any changes in the exchange rate will impact both consumer-friendly nations and producer-friendly nations. Just as investment bubbles will inflate, burst and destroy wealth in the form of stock market busts or property busts, so too can it happen on an international scale. The US, for example, has been running as a consumer-friendly nation for a long time and, as a result, the bubble is about to burst. The United States is naturally the world's financial capital, yet debt has ballooned out of control over the years. The GFC is the beginning of the end of the consumer-friendly United States. Steps need to be taken to gear the United States into a more producer-friendly economy. This doesn't mean becoming mercantilist and running a current account surplus, but it does mean policies to ensure a balanced current account.

The current accounts of Japan and China should therefore no longer be running at a surplus, but should become balanced (ie neither surplus nor deficit) over the long term. This means that the current account of the United States should no longer be running at a deficit, but should become balanced as well. Put simply, the United States needs to produce more and consume less, and save more and borrow less. On the other side of the coin, this means that China and Japan needs to consume more and produce less, and borrow more and save less.

Retooling the United States to become a more producer friendly economy will be painful and it will take time (ie years) to bear fruit. Similarly, retooling Japan and China to become more consumer friendly will be painful too, and will take a similar amount of time to bear fruit.

One solution to the problem of international trade and current account imbalances is to have a common currency. That is what Europe has done with the creation of the Euro. Within the Eurozone, current account differences do occur: Germany has a current account surplus, Spain has a current account deficit. But that doesn't really matter since comparative advantages are very real in international trade, while internal current account issues within the Eurozone will be dealt with by the market without having problems caused by differing currencies. What does matter is the Eurozone's current account overall (presently a current account deficit of 0.4%, which is close to being balanced)

But since the chances of Japan, China or the United States joining the Eurozone (and all that such a joining would entail) is virtually none, another solution must be found.

The solution I have is for the creation of a new international trading agreement that ensures all member nations have balanced current accounts. This would involve the creation of national currency boards in each member nation whose role will be the maintenance of a balanced current account (as opposed to the traditional role of a currency board to maintain a fixed exchange rate). If a nation has a current account deficit, as the United States does, then the currency board (acting with various government bodies like the central bank and/or treasury) will sell off its local currency and purchase foreign currencies on the foreign exchange market, most obviously the currencies of nations who run current account surpluses. Of course these currency boards will have a reciprocal arrangement with the currency boards of the nations they are dealing with. So in the case of the United States and Japan, the US currency board would sell off US dollars and purchase Yen, while the Japanese currency board would sell off US dollar and purchase Yen as well - with the eventual aim of ensuring a balanced current account between the US and Japan.

This system still allows floating currencies but the forex market will be initially dominated by the actions of national currency boards buying and selling currencies in order to create balanced current accounts throughout. This would be better than instituting fixed exchange rates or returning to a gold standard. Since the currency boards will be operating with their respective central banks, money creation by fiat followed by the selling of this currency will be one way to devalue a currency. These currency boards would then only act to ensure a balanced current account. So long as a balanced current account is maintained for their nation or currency zone, they will stay out of the forex markets. Long term current account maintenance will, however, result in regular forays into the forex market - but each foray being only as large as it needs to be to maintain a balanced current account.

Moreover, the more nations which join this agreement, the more natural comparative advantages between nations can be maintained. Rather than ensuring that each nation has a balanced current account with every other nation, the agreement will simply ensure that member nations have a balanced current account overall. For example, in an international economy of three nations, nation A might have a $500 billion current account deficit with country B, country B might have a $500 billion current account deficit with country C, while country C has a $500 billion current account deficit with country A. In this situation, each nation has an unbalanced current account with individual nations, but the overall result is a balanced current account for each of the three nations.

Once this situation is imposed, international trade and capital flows will be easier for the market to handle, since the market will act in the knowledge that currency values will only move within a certain band - and that band will be determined by the currency board and only acted upon according to the status of the current account. There will be less market speculation and more real trade being achieved. This should also result in more predictable, more sustainable economic growth for all nations involved. The win/lose attitude of mercantilism should be replaced by the win/win of balanced international trade.


Addendum

Of course the theory I am working with here is that balance ensures better economic conditions for all. Ensuring that nations (or more correctly, currency zones) run balanced current accounts is one "pillar" of the new economic order that I see should emerge over the next few decades. These three pillars are:
  • Each currency zone has a balanced current account - neither current account surplus nor current account deficit over the long term.
  • Each currency zone has governments that run balanced budgets over the long term - neither budget surplus nor budget deficit over the long term
  • Each currency zone maintains absolute price stability - neither inflation nor deflation over the long term.
I believe that if these three pillars are set up and maintained, the chances of devastating economic downturns (eg great depression / GFC) will be minimised.

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