Mnuchin and Manipulation of Money

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US Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin already finds himself hemmed in on all sides.

Domestic constraints come from the promises that he and President Trump have made and the laws of arithmetic.    How, for example, is he ever going to be able to reconcile the specific tax proposals that candidate Trump campaigned on with the promise of the “Mnuchin rule” that taxes won’t be cut for the rich?  That is even harder than the traditional conundrum that faces Republican Treasury Secretaries: having to explain how massive tax cuts (to which they are truly committed) can be reconciled with a reduction in the budget deficit (to which they claim to be committed).

Many of his predecessors found that they had more latitude in the international part of their job than the domestic part.  Their voice would often receive more respectful hearings from their foreign counterparts on the international stage, at multilateral meetings like the recent G-20 gathering in Baden-Baden, than from domestic political players in Washington.

But Mnuchin will have a harder time in the international context.  To begin with, the current Administration has indicated in many ways that it no longer wants the job of leader of the global system.  The leader is the one who persuades other countries that certain agreed-upon rules, such as an open trading system, are in everybody’s interest.  The Trump administration has no interest in playing that role.  Its view is that the appropriate thing to do in international negotiations is to make unilateral demands.

It is fortunate that Mnuchin realized that the scheduled opportunity to name China a currency manipulator comes in April, when the biannual Treasury report to Congress is due, rather than, the day that Trump assumed the presidency as promised.  But he should pass on the opportunity.  He needs to explain to his boss that China is no longer manipulating its currency, preferably in time for Trump’s meeting with Chinese President Xi Jin Ping, scheduled for April 6-7, at Mar-a-Lago.   President Trump has explicitly re-asserted his earlier campaign allegations of manipulation by the Chinese.

“Deal-makers” don’t do well with ill-informed bluster that they are subsequently forced to back down on.  This principle was illustrated when Trump challenged the “One-China” policy in December but was then unsurprisingly forced to reverse himself, in a February 9 phone call with President Xi.  Unpredictability is not always an advantage, as he seems to think.  Chinese know the difference between a bargaining chip and loss of face.  Trump is now that much weaker in dealing with China.  A leader who has a very good brain should learn the lesson.

Is China manipulating its currency?  The language regarding “manipulating exchange rates” originated in a 1977 decision by IMF members. Of the various criteria to determine whether a country is guilty of intentional manipulation to gain competitive advantage and frustrate balance of payments, the sine qua non is the systematic purchase of foreign exchange reserves to push down the value of the national currency (“protracted large-scale intervention in one direction in the exchange market”).  The other two criteria are the partner’s current account balance and the value of its currency (e.g., judged by international price competitiveness relative to an appropriate benchmark).

Those are the three criteria in international law.   The US Treasury’s biannual reports to Congress on foreign exchange policies of major trading partners were originally mandated in a 1988 law, later “intensified” in a 2015 law.  The Treasury is directed to include the country’s bilateral trade balance vis-a-vis the US as one of the three criteria, even though bilateral balances per se play no role in either the IMF rules or economic logic.  (That the US runs bilateral trade deficits with many countries has far more to do with factors other than their currency policies.  For one thing, the US runs a trade deficit overall because it has a low rate national saving.  This is bound to worsen under Trump fiscal policies.)  A statistical analysis of Treasury decisions regarding whether to name countries as possible manipulators in particular reports shows a significant role for the US unemployment rate in election years, along with the bilateral balances.

It is true that the RMB was undervalued in 2004 (by roughly an estimated 30%), according to a wide variety of criteria.  But as of today China no longer qualifies as a currency manipulator under any of the three internationally accepted criteria:  exchange rate level, trade balance, and use of foreign exchange reserves.  The RMB appreciated 37% between 2004 and 2014 (on a real broad trade-weighted basis).  Its trade surplus, after peaking at 9% of GDP in 2007, then adjusted to the receding price competitiveness: the surplus has been less than half that level each year since 2010.

Furthermore in 2014 – as the Chinese economy slowed relative to the US economy — China’s capital inflows turned to capital outflow.  As a result the overall balance of payments went into deficit.  Foreign exchange reserves peaked in July of that year and have been falling since then.  The People’s Bank of China, far from pushing the renminbi down, has spent a trillion dollars of reserves over the last three years trying to support the currency in the foreign exchange market, by far the largest such intervention in history.  The authorities have also tightened controls on capital outflows, again with the objective of resisting depreciation. They have succeeded, in the sense that despite some adverse fundamentals the RMB has continued to be one of the world’s more appreciated currencies, second only to the dollar and a few others that are even stronger.

These points are not new.  True, it took a while for most American commentators to notice the sea change in China’s foreign exchange market.  By now it has been three years and most observers have figured it out.  But not the US president.

Some other Asian countries meet one or the other of the manipulation criteria.   Korea’s trade surplus has been running at around 7% of GDP and its current account even higher; but it is not piling up foreign exchange reserves the way it was several years ago.  Similarly with Thailand.  It is not clear if there is an Asian country that meets all the criteria.

Peter Navarro, director of Trump’s new National Trade Council points the finger at Germany, saying it “continues to exploit other countries in the EU as well as the U.S. with an ‘implicit Deutsche Mark’ that is grossly undervalued”.   It is true that Germany’s trade surplus is a big 8% of GDP and the current account surplus close to 9%, which is indeed excessive.   But Germany has not had its own currency since the mark gave way to the euro in 1999. The European Central Bank has not operated in the foreign exchange market in many years; and when it did, the intervention was to support the euro, not push it down.

Given the absence of direct foreign exchange intervention among G-7 countries, those who allege currency manipulation suggest that some governments are doing other things to keep their currencies undervalued, particularly expanding the money supply.  Of course central banks do engage in monetary stimulus knowing full well that one effect is likely to be a depreciation of its currency and a stimulus to its exports.  But one has to keep pointing out that:

  • Countries have the right to use monetary policy to respond to domestic economic conditions.
  • In normal cases, it would require a mind-reader to know whether currency depreciation was a major motivation for the action,
  • A successful monetary stimulus will also raise income through domestic channels and thereby raise imports, so that the net effect on the trade balance could go either way, and
  • If other countries don’t like the exchange rate and trade balance results, they are free to undertake monetary expansion of their own.

In 2010-11, these were the arguments that were given (correctly) in defense of the Fed’s quantitative easing and the dollar’s depreciation, when Brazilian leaders accused the US of waging “currency wars.”  They are just as valid when other countries are the ones needing monetary stimulus.

The Trump administration’s accusation against Germany is a uniquely foolish instance of manipulation allegations.  It is true that the European Central Bank responded to the 2008-09 global recession (belatedly) by lowering interest rates and undertaking quantitative easing, and that this contributed to a depreciation of the euro.  But it has been plain for all to see that Germany has consistently opposed the ECB’s monetary stimulus.  One does not have to read the minds of the German officials to see that a charge of manipulation would be nonsense.

Other forces have been working to weaken foreign currencies against the dollar.  Perhaps the biggest in the last five months has been Donald Trump  himself.  His talk of raising tariffs against Mexico, China, and other trading partners has worked to depreciate those currencies against the dollar.  The proposal for a Border Adjustment Tax has the same effect.  Finally, Trump has promised big tax cuts and they are likely to pass Congress — though he unintentionally delayed his tax plans substantially, by putting Obamacare repeal first.   The result (not promised) will be a rapid acceleration in the national debt, which will probably force up interest rates, the dollar, and the trade deficit.

The multilateral calendar includes a G-7 leaders meeting in Sicily in May and a G-20 summit in Hamburg in July.  Mnuchin’s unenviable task is to acquaint Trump with reality by then.

[A shorter version appeared at Project Syndicate, March 22, 2017.  Comments can be posted there.]

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Let the US Fiduciary Rule Go Ahead

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The quantity of financial regulation is not quite as important as the quality.  One must get the details right.  The case of the US “fiduciary rule” strongly suggests that President Trump will not get the details right.

Could Dodd-Frank be improved?

Earlier this month, amid the flurry of tweets and other executive orders, the new occupant of the White House issued an executive order directing a comprehensive rethinking of the Dodd-Frank financial reform of 2010.

One can imagine various ways to improve the current legislation.   The most straightforward would be to restore many of the worthwhile features of the original plan that Republicans have undermined or negated over the last seven years.  (Most recently, the House this month voted to repeal a Dodd-Frank provision called “Publish What You Pay,” designed to discourage oil and mining companies from paying bribes abroad.  Score one for the natural resource curse.)

In theory, one might also attempt the difficult and delicate task of modifying, for example, the Volcker Rule, so as to improve the efficiency tradeoff between compliance costs for banks and other financial institutions, on the one hand, and the danger of instability in the system, on the other hand.  Some in the business community are acting as if they believe that Trump will get this tradeoff right.  I see no grounds whatsoever for thinking so.

In particular, the financial system has been strengthened substantially by such features of Dodd-Frank as higher capital requirements for banks, the establishment of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, the designation of Systemically Important Financial Institutions, tough stress tests on banks, and enhanced transparency for derivatives.  If these features were undermined or reversed, it would raise the odds of a damaging repeat of the 2007-08 financial crisis down the road.

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Looking Back on Barack

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At the end of his time in office Barack Obama merits an enumeration of some of his many accomplishments.   The recollection should start as he started, on January 20, 2009: the pilot taking the cockpit just when the plane was in an uncontrolled dive.

The circumstances were the most adverse faced by any new president in many decades.  Two ill-conceived and ill-executed foreign wars were underway, which had done nothing to bring to justice the mastermind of September 11, 2001.  He inherited an economy that was in free-fall, whether measured by the seizing up of finance markets, the fall in GDP, or the hemorrhaging of employment.  (The rate of job loss was running ran at 800,000 per month.)  True, Franklin Roosevelt inherited the Great Depression and Abraham Lincoln took office just as the Civil War broke out.   But what other president has come in facing both an economic crisis and a national security crisis?

The rapid policy response to the economic crisis included — in addition to aggressive and innovative monetary easing by the Federal Reserve — the Obama fiscal stimulus (the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, passed by the Democratic Congress in February 2009) and rescue programs for the financial system and the auto industry.  Republicans were near unanimous in opposing the stimulus. And almost everybody was critical of the rescue programs – either urging nationalization of the banks and auto firms, on the one hand, or urging letting them go out of existence on the other.  There was and is insufficient recognition of how the Obama Administration succeeded, against all odds, at making the middle path work:  jobs were saved, while shareholders and managers suffered consequences of their mistakes  and the government got its money back after the recovery.

Most importantly, the free-fall ended promptly.  The timing and clarity of the turnaround is much more visible than one would think by listening to debates on what was the right counterfactual to evaluate the effect of Administration policies.  Economic output in the last quarter of 2008 had suffered a shattering 8.2 % p.a. rate of decline and job loss had been running at more than 600,000 per month.  Output and employment began to level out almost immediately after the February stimulus program.  The bottom of the recession came in June 2009; output growth turned positive in the next quarter.  Job creation turned positive early in 2010 and employment growth subsequently went on to set records all the way through the end of Obama’s time in office, adding more than 15 million jobs.

By the last half of Obama’s second term, the unemployment had fallen by half, to below 5% (2015 and 2016), wages were rising (by 2.9% nominal over the 12 months to Dec. 2016); and real median family income was finally growing too (by a record 5.2% in the most recently reported year, with lower-income groups advancing even more).

It is certainly true that the recovery was frustratingly long and slow.  Reasons include the depth and financial nature of the 2007-08 crash and the early reversal of the fiscal stimulus after the Republicans took back the Congress in the 2010 election and blocked Obama’s further efforts.   2011-14 are the years when the economy really could have used infrastructure spending and (the right) tax cuts.  But it would seem that Republicans only support fiscal stimulus when they are the ones in the White House — including when the economy is no longer in recession.

Obama’s other two biggest accomplishments in those first two years before the Congress starting blocking everything he tried were the Dodd-Frank financial reform bill and the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare).  In both cases, the reforms would have been better without a succession of steps by the opposition party to weaken them, both at the stage of passing the legislation and subsequently.

But each of those important reforms nonetheless succeeded in moving the country more clearly in the right direction than most people realize.  Dodd-Frank in a variety of ways helped make less likely a repeat of the 2007-08 financial crisis. Among other things, it increased transparency for derivatives, raised capital requirements for banks, imposed additional regulations on “systemically important” institutions, and, per the suggestion of Senator Elizabeth Warren, established the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB).  Obamacare has succeeded in giving health insurance to 20-million-plus Americans who lacked it (for example, due to pre-existing conditions) and the cost of health care contrary to most predictions and perceptions slowed noticeably.

In the area of foreign policy, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq were  intractable.   But the President made the tricky decisions that resulted in the elimination of Osama bin Laden (a goal in which George W. Bush had lost interest, in his eagerness to invade Iraq).  In 2015, just as the press was saying Obama was a lame duck, he achieved a string of foreign policy successes: a much-needed nuclear agreement with Iran, normalization of relations with Cuba, agreement on the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), and important progress to address global climate change via a breakthrough with China.

Needless to say, the man who assumes the Presidency this month has said he will reverse most of these initiatives, if not all.  In some cases, he will do exactly that. TPP is certainly dead, at least for the time being.  (And four years from now will probably be too late to revive it, as East Asian countries may by then have responded to America’s withdrawal from the region by joining China’s trade grouping instead.)

In other cases, real-world constraints will make it harder for Mr. Trump to translate crowd-pleasing sound-bites into reality.  Repealing Obamacare is apparently top of the list.  But the Republicans are likely to be stymied by the absence of an alternative that does not take health insurance away from those 20 million Americans nor raise the net cost.  Some important innovations, such as the switch to electronic patient record-keeping and more emphasis on preventative care, are bound to survive in any case.  Perhaps the eventual outcome will be relatively minor changes in the substance of the Affordable Care Act, together with a new name – the analog of building a big beautiful wall on a quarter-mile of the Mexican border as a sort of stage set suitable for photo opportunities.

Similarly, it is hard to see how pushing harder on China would produce desirable results.  To take the most ironic example of ill-informed policy positions, if the Chinese authorities were to acquiesce to Mr. Trump’s demands that it stop manipulating its exchange rate, its currency would depreciate and its competitiveness would improve.

Similarly, if the Administration tries to carry out its promise to tear up the nuclear agreement with Iran, it will quickly find that US sanctions are ineffective without the participation of our allies.  Iran could rapidly renew and accelerate its nuclear program.  That is what happened with North Korea when George W. Bush essentially tore up the “agreed framework” upon taking office in January 2001.

Do the voters hold presidents accountable?   Bush made other serious mistakes in economic and foreign policy as well in those early years, of course, with the predictable consequences for the economy, budget, and national security.  Yet his poll numbers soared in his first term.

Conversely President Obama’s popularity sagged during much of his eight years.  Yet he leaves office with substantially higher poll ratings than most presidents at this stage and – unusually – with much higher ratings than his successor, let alone his predecessor at the end.  So apparently the person who occupies the White House does eventually receive the credit he is due for the intelligence of his policies and the content of his character.  It just takes longer than it should.

[A shorter version of this column appeared at Project Syndicate.  Comments can be posted there.]

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