Mises Daily: Tuesday, December 10, 2013 by Patrick Barron
What the media calls a “currency war,” whereby nations engage in competitive currency devaluations in order to increase exports, is really “currency suicide.”
National governments persist in the fallacious belief that weakening one’s own currency will improve domestically-produced products’ competitiveness in world markets and lead to an export driven recovery. As it intervenes to give more of its own currency in exchange for the currency of foreign buyers, a country expects that its export industries will benefit with increased sales, which will stimulate the rest of the economy. So we often read that a country is trying to “export its way to prosperity.”
Mainstream economists everywhere believe that this tactic also exports unemployment to its trading partners by showering them with cheap goods and destroying domestic production and jobs. Therefore, they call for their own countries to engage in reciprocal measures. Recently Martin Wolfe in the Financial Times of London and Paul Krugman of the New York Times both accuse their countries’ trading partners of engaging in this “beggar-thy-neighbor” policy and recommend that England and the US respectively enter this so-called “currency war” with full monetary ammunition to further weaken the pound and the dollar.
I am struck by the similarity of this currency-war argument in favor of monetary inflation to that of the need for reciprocal trade agreements. This argument supposes that trade barriers against foreign goods are a boon to a country’s domestic manufacturers at the expense of foreign manufacturers. Therefore, reciprocal trade barrier reductions need to be negotiated, otherwise the country that refuses to lower them will benefit. It will increase exports to countries that do lower their trade barriers without accepting an increase in imports that could threaten domestic industries and jobs. This fallacious mercantilist theory never dies because there are always industries and workers who seek special favors from government at the expense of the rest of society.
Economists call this “rent seeking.”
A Transfer of Wealth and a Subsidy to Foreigners
As I explained in Value in Devaluation?, inflating one’s currency simply transfers wealth within the country from non-export related sectors to export related sectors and gives subsidies to foreign purchasers.
It is impossible to make foreigners pay against their will for the economic recovery of another nation. On the contrary, devaluing one’s currency gives a windfall to foreigners who buy goods cheaper.
Foreigners will get more of their trading partner’s money in exchange for their own currency, making previously expensive goods a real bargain, at least until prices rise.
Over time the nation which weakens its own currency will find that it has “imported inflation” rather than exported unemployment, the beggar-thy-neighbor claim of Wolfe and Krugman. At the inception of monetary debasement the export sector will be able to purchase factors of production at existing prices, so expect its members to favor cheapening the currency. Eventually the increase in currency will work its way through the economy and cause prices to rise. At that point the export sector will be forced to raise its prices. Expect it to call for another round of monetary intervention in foreign currency markets to drive money to another new low against that of its trading partners.
Of course, if one country can intervene to lower its currency’s value, other countries can do the same. So the European Central Bank wants to drive the euro’s value lower against the dollar, since the US Fed has engaged in multiple programs of quantitative easing. The self-reliant Swiss succumbed to the monetary debasement Kool-Aid last summer when its sound currency was in great demand, driving its value higher and making exports more expensive. Lately the head of the Australian central bank hinted that the country’s mining sector needs a cheaper Aussie dollar to boost exports. Welcome to the modern version of currency wars, AKA currency suicide.
There is one country that is speaking out against this madness:
Germany. But Germany does not have control of its own currency. It gave up its beloved Deutsche Mark for the euro, supposedly a condition demanded by the French to gain their approval for German reunification after the fall of the Berlin Wall. German concerns over the consequences of inflation are well justified. Germany’s great hyperinflation in the early 1920’s destroyed the middle class and is seen as a major contributor to the rise of fascism.
As a sovereign country Germany has every right to leave the European Monetary Union and reinstate the Deutsche Mark. I would prefer that it go one step further and tie the new DM to its very substantial gold reserves. Should it do so, the monetary world would change very rapidly for the better. Other EMU countries would likely adopt the Deutsche Mark as legal tender, rather than reinstating their own currencies, thus increasing the DM’s appeal as a reserve currency.
As demand for the Deutsche Mark increased, demand for the dollar and the euro as reserve currencies would decrease. The US Fed and the ECB would be forced to abandon their inflationist policies in order to prevent massive repatriation of the dollar and the euro, which would cause unacceptable price increases.
In other words, a sound Deutsche Mark would start a cascade of virtuous actions by all currency producers. This Golden Opportunity should not be squandered. It may be the only non-coercive means to prevent the total collapse of the world’s major currencies through competitive debasements called a currency war, but which is better and more accurately named currency suicide.
Note: The views expressed in Daily Articles on Mises.org are not necessarily those of the Mises Institute.
Patrick Barron is a private consultant in the banking industry. He teaches in the Graduate School of Banking at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, and teaches Austrian economics at the University of Iowa, in Iowa City, where he lives with his wife of 40 years. Read his blog. Send him mail. See Patrick Barron’s article archives.