Tag: foreign currency

The Good Side of Bad News in Europe

What does the Greco-Euro currency/debt crisis mean for the U.S. economy?

Nearly everyone except the uniquely wise economist John Cochrane assumes very bad “contagion” effects –on U.S. banks, exports and particularly U.S. manufacturing.

This echoes identical anxieties while the world went through a far more dramatic Asian currency crisis after  July 1997,  and a Russian debt crisis the following May.

The most widely ignored effect of that crisis, however, was to depress foreign demand for oil, and thus slash oil prices to U.S. buyers from $25 a barrel in early 1997 to $11 by the end of 1998.

Oil is a major input into the manufacturing process (e.g., chemicals and plastics), and a major cost of distribution (trucks, trains and airplanes).  It is also a major determinant of the cost of all energy sources used in making other goods such as aluminum and paper.   When marginal costs go down, it becomes profitable to expand production.

At the height of the Asian/Russian crises, the table below shows that U.S. manufacturing output  rose by more than 10 percent. It’s an ill wind that doesn’t blow somebody some good.

Looking at the same phenomenon from the other side, every recession but one (1960) was preceded by a big increase in the price of oil. For oil importers like the U.S., cheaper oil is definitely better.

During the last big foreign currency/debt crisis, the real growth of U.S. Gross Domestic Purchases (the home-grown portion of GDP) jumped by 4.7% in 1997 and 5.5% in 1998.  Yet the Fed cut interest rates three times in October and November of 1998 because of what was happening in other countries.

The table  show what happened to the price of oil and to U.S. manufacturing from June 1997 to December 1998. The middle column is the price of a barrel of West Texas crude, and the column to the right is the U.S. industrial production index for the manufacturing sector.

1997-06    19.17    87.80
1997-07    19.63    88.12
1997-08    19.93    89.69
1997-09    19.79    90.45
1997-10    21.26    90.98
1997-11    20.17    92.05
1997-12    18.32    92.52
1998-01    16.71    93.36
1998-02    16.06    93.31
1998-03    15.02    93.13
1998-04    15.44    93.68
1998-05    14.86    94.25
1998-06    13.66    93.53
1998-07    14.08    92.96
1998-08    13.36    95.40
1998-09    14.95    95.11
1998-10    14.39    95.96
1998-11    12.85    96.08
1998-12    11.28    96.63

In recent weeks, as the debt and currency problems in Euroland hit the front page, the price of crude oil fell by about 20 percent.

Once again, as in 1997-98, everyone may be watching the wrong ball in the wrong court.

The Chinese Currency Issue Is No Longer

In its first statutory, semi-annual report on foreign currency practices, the Obama Treasury Department refrained from designating China a “currency manipulator,” further affirming the view that an aggressive, sticks-only approach to the bilateral trade relationship advocated (mostly) by campaigning politicians is simply untenable. After serving more than 5 years as a great source of bilateral trade tension, the Chinese currency issue is dead.

Senator Obama and presidential candidate Obama both talked tough about Chinese currency practices, identifying an undervalued yuan as a source of unfairness to U.S. producers and an important cause of the bilateral trade imbalance. Treasury Secretary-designate Geithner, during his confirmation hearing in January, reiterated President Obama’s commitment to dealing with the issue before the Senate Finance Committee:

President Obama - backed by the conclusions of a broad range of economists – believes that China is manipulating its currency. President Obama has pledged as President to use aggressively all the diplomatic avenues open to him to seek change in China’s currency practices. While in the U.S. Senate he cosponsored tough legislation to overhaul the U.S. process for determining currency manipulation and authorizing new enforcement measures so countries like China cannot continue to get a free pass for undermining fair trade principles.

Those who relied on hyped-up media accounts of Geithner’s testimony, which generally homed in on the terms “aggressively,” “tough,” and “enforcement” in the above passage to imply that Obama would take action against China on this matter, are probably utterly surprised that Treasury balked yesterday. But those who read the rest of Geithner’s response to the question may have noticed this broad canvas for inaction:

The question is how and when to broach the subject in order to do more good than harm. The new economic team will forge an integrated strategy on how best to achieve currency realignment in the current economic environment.

Those last two sentences of Geithner’s response contained the answer—nearly three months beforehand—to the question of whether Treasury would label China a manipulator. And, taken in its entirety, the response is a perfect summation of the distinctions between criticizing policy as a challenger and being responsible for policy as the guy in charge. You can talk tough as a challenger because you don’t have to account for the consequences of your actions. But when you are responsible for the consequences of potentially incendiary policy changes, circumspection is a rediscovered virtue.

As President Obama knows by now, the consequences of simply labeling China a “currency manipulator” (let alone attempting to do something remedial about it) would undermine broader U.S.-China relations, invite recriminations, inspire potentially adverse policy changes in China, and would inject heaps of uncertainty into global currency and financial markets. Besides, as yesterday’s Treasury report concludes, the yuan continues to appreciate against the dollar, the government’s accumulation of foreign reserves has decelerated, and policies are in place to encourage greater domestic consumption in China and to reduce the economy’s reliance on exports.

I remain hopeful that this distinction between Obama the president and Obama the candidate will become and remain evident in U.S. trade policy more broadly.