Beggar Thy Neighbor

 

In the deserts of Sudan,
And the gardens of Japan,
From Milan to Yucatan,
Every woman, every man,

In the dock of Tiger Bay
On the road to Mandalay
From Bombay to Santa Fé
Over hills and far away

Hit me with your rhythm stick,
It’s nice to be a lunatic!

Ian Dury, 1978

“The euro”, opined JC Juncker, head of the euro-group of finance minister on Tuesday, “is dangerously high”.

If the currency is ‘dangerously high’, one must assume that the ability of euro area residents to buy more goods and services with their income from abroad than previously has somehow made them poorer. This is the tortured logic of the “currency warriors” that are popping up everywhere these days.

We point you to Ludwig von Mises’ retort to this nonsense, which we included in a post on the Japanese currency ninjas yesterday.

Bloomberg reported on Juncker’s remark:

“The euro’s 8 percent gain against the U.S. dollarin the past six months is posing a fresh threat to the European economy just as it shows signs of escaping the debt crisis, said Jean-Claude Juncker, who leads the group of euro-area finance ministers.

Echoing policy makers from Switzerland to Japan in bemoaning strong exchange rates, Juncker late yesterday called the euro’s value “dangerously high” after the 17-nation currency this week traded above $1.34 against the dollar for the first time since February last year.

 

(emphasis added)

So this absurdity is ‘echoed’ all over the globe, but it is not only policymakers making the argument, they are supported in this by a number of bien pensants in the economics profession:

 

“Harvard University professor Martin Feldstein, long a critic of the euro, said on Jan. 5 that European policy makers should consider a coordinated approach to weaken the euro as a way to rally growth via exports.

“A lower euro would make each of the euro-zone countries more competitive relative to the countries outside the euro zone,” Feldstein said.”

 

There you have it. Even in Harvard they just know somehow that once your money buys less, you’ve actually become richer. It seems to be the modern-day version of the philosopher’s stone. Alchemists everywhere recommend it!

The astonishing breadth of this movement becomes clear as the article continues:

 

“Policy makers from many of the world’s leading economies have entered the new year advocating weaker currencies as an impulse for stronger economic growth with monetary and fiscal policies running out of room. Switzerland is already blocking the franc’s appreciation against the euro, while newly elected Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s campaign to spur growth and seek a more aggressive central bank has driven down the yen.

Bank of England Governor Mervyn King said on Nov. 14 that while he never called for changes in exchange rates, sterling’s increase over the previous year was “not a welcome development.” The Bank of Canada said on Dec. 4 that “persistent strength” in its dollar was hobbling exports.”

 

(emphasis added)

Oh good, so they’re at least all of one mind, right? There are several small problems with this idea though: Let us hypothetically assume that we have entered Orwell-land (‘war is peace!’) and one can actually get richer by lowering the value of one’s currency. One problem is obviously that not everybody can do it at the same time. If one wants to cheapen one’s currency, other currencies must by necessity increase in value. The next problem is how does one go about it? How can one’s currency become worth less than that issued by others? The only solution seems to be to increase its supply – at a rate that exceeds that of the competition. This process is also known as ‘inflation’. So in other words, what the wise gentlemen listed above are all advocating is that one should attempt to get rich by means of inflation.

Pure genius! No-one has ever thought of that one! No, wait, a few people have:

 

bernanke-von-havensteinRudolf von Havenstein, Ben Bernanke … making the nation richer by means of inflation

(Photo via Wikimedia Commons)

 

220px-John_Law-Casimir_Balthazar_mg_8450The modern era grand-daddy of inflationism: John Law. It somehow didn’t work out well when he tried it.

(Painting by Casimir Balthazar)

 

This recent global eagerness to devalue has now alarmed Russia, as well as Sweden, Norway and South Korea.

 

“The world is on the brink of a fresh “currency war,” Russia warned, as European policy makers joined Japan in bemoaning the economic cost of rising exchange rates.

“Japan is weakening the yen and other countries may follow,” Alexei Ulyukayev, first deputy chairman of Russia’s central bank, said at a conference today in Moscow.

The alert from the country that chairs the Group of 20 came as Luxembourg Prime Minister Jean-Claude Juncker complained of a “dangerously high” euro and officials in Norway and Sweden expressed exchange-rate concern.

The push for weaker currencies is being driven by a need to find new sources of economic growth as monetary and fiscal policies run out of room. The risk is as each country tries to boost exports, it hurts the competitiveness of other economies and provokes retaliation.

Yesterday “will go down as the first day European policy makers fired a shot in the 2013 currency war,” said Chris Turner, head of foreign-exchange strategy at ING Groep NV in London.”

(emphasis added)

How can anyone read this and not roll on the floor with laughter? “We’re going to retaliate by making ourselves poorer than you have just made yourself!”

Is this some kind of Kwakwaka’wakw potlatch? In case you’re wondering what that is:

 

“Some groups, such as the Kwakwaka’wakw, used the potlatch as an arena in which highly competitive contests of status took place. In some cases, goods were actually destroyed after being received.”

 

Here is what the Scandinavians and South Koreans had to say:

 

“In Norway, Finance Minister Sigbjoern Johnsen said in an interview that a strong krone challenges the economy and that the government must ease pressure on the Norges Bank to avoid krone strengthening by conducting a “tight” fiscal policy. Norges Bank Deputy Governor Jan F. Qvigstad said yesterday that if the krone remains strong until policy makers meet in March, “that of course has an obvious effect on the interest rate.”

That pushed the currency, which has emerged as a haven from the European crisis, to its lowest level in more than two months versus the euro.

Meantime, Riksbank Deputy Governor Lars E. O. Svensson said today that a strong Swedish krona would be “yet another reason” to lower borrowing costs. He last month argued for a deeper cut than the 0.25 percentage point move to 1 percent that colleagues supported. “It’s obvious that the economy would manage better in this very difficult, weak economy with a lower rate and a weaker krona,” Svensson said in Stockholm.

Elsewhere, Bank of Korea Governor Kim Choong Soo said Jan. 14 that a steep drop in the yen could provoke an “active response to minimize any negative impacts on exports and investor confidence.”

 

(emphasis added)

For the Riksbank deputy governor it is “obvious” that a strong currency is bad, and that the “economy would manage better” without it. He neglects to mention why that should be so, but then again, why should he? It is after all “obvious”!

For a brief period, a currency devaluation will tend to boost exports, but whatever advantage is derived from this will soon disappear as prices in the devalued currency catch up. So where does this crazy idea that one can devalue oneself to prosperity come from?

 

The Mercantilist View of the World

It is a shibboleth among economic policymakers and many economists that in trade, it is better for a nation to have a “surplus” than a “deficit”. This misconceives a basic economic truth. A trade by definition only takes place when both parties to the trade find it beneficial. Ipso facto, there can only be winners in trade.

Another major error underlying this way of thinking is the assumption that national borders have economic significance. However, “nations” do not trade with each other. Although everybody tends to talk about nations and their capitals as though they were living beings (as in: “Brussels hints at devaluation”; “Seoul is not amused”; etc.), they are not. Trade is not between nations, it is between individuals. It makes exactly as much sense to belly-ache about the trade deficit between the US and Japan as it would to worry about the trade deficit between Muck City, Alabama, and Deadhorse, Alaska.

The problem is that Mercantilism, a philosophy and policy that once severely retarded economic development in continental Europe (especially in France), when it was vigorously pursued in the 17th century, apparently continues to be seen as somehow “correct in principle”. However, it is based on a fundamental fallacy, namely that in trade, one man’s gain is another man’s loss.

Mercantilism is not based on any economic theory as it were. Similar to inflation, it does produce profits for a tiny minority though, so all arguments that have ever been forwarded in its favor were originally cooked up by said minority (in the main established businesses that wanted ‘protection’ from competition). In the longer run, the economic damage it inflicts can be so debilitating though that even those that initially profit from its implementation can end up impoverished.

The main propagator of Mercantilism in France in the 17th century was the controller-general of finances, Jean-Baptiste Colbert. He certainly grew personally rich, but by the time he died he was hated like few other men in France. Among his best-known bon-mots is one that shows that he did not grasp the difference between money and wealth: “It is simply, and solely, the abundance of money within a state which makes the difference in its grandeur and power.”

 

472px-Colbert1666French mercantilist Jean-Baptiste Colbert. Another of his famous sayings was: “The art of taxation consists in so plucking the goose as to obtain the largest amount of feathers with the least possible amount of hissing” – and he obtained plenty, much of which went to finance the endless wars of the Sun King, Louis XIV.

(Painting by Philippe de Champaigne)

 

It should be obvious that if economics really were a zero-sum game in which one party always loses what another gains, there could never be any economic progress at all. Nevertheless, the world’s economic policymakers have apparently all concluded that devaluation and currency wars are the way to go and that economic laws can be safely ignored.

We stand in awe before this monumental display of economic ignorance.

 

JunckerJean-Claude Juncker, modern-day European mercantilist.

(Photo source: untraceable, The Web)

Gold-1The one currency they cannot devalue is incidentally doing quite well – via StockCharts – click for better resolution.

 

“Der Juncker in seinem grünen Janker,

blickte finster aus seinem Fenster

als wir auf seinem Anwesen unser Unwesen trieben”

 

 

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12 Responses to “The Currency War Idiocy”

  • mc:

    The third (or 8th or 5456th) irony of this matter is that the result of devaluing currency, increasing exports, and running a current account surplus, is the accumulation of foreign exchange reserves of other fiat currencies. After some time (see China) these imbalances can add up to a significant fraction of a country’s GDP held in the bank so-to-say. Yet Japan, Switzerland, etc do all they can to prevent this giant risk from decreasing because they want to keep their own currency weakened. It becomes an unwindable trade when the size of the exchange reserve becomes too large, particularly when the political “benefits” of a weak currency have cemented themselves in the public’s mind. The pressure will be forever on to weaken further and face the consequences later. However, the currency issues with the Euro, Yen, Dollar, etc will still rear their ugly head when/if the profligate spending of those in power eventually results in problems. At this point, the Yuan, Yen, and many lesser currencies are de facto backed by the dollar and euro. What would happen to those if, say, the Euro went parabolic following a withdrawl of northern Europe?

  • jimmyjames:

    There too are goods a country has to import. Japan is an example, as they have to import virtually all their minerals and energy

    ****************

    I’ve never understood that one-
    If Japan wants to export cheaper goods-then why not have a really strong currency and simply pass over the savings from cheaper imports to the export side and discount the price-

  • May they all drown before they reproduce and pass on their lies. It might make sense to have a strong currency so you can attract some capital. It appears to me this is nothng but a systematic method of hiding bank losses, allowing the fraud to continue. it takes credit across lines to produce trade deficits. Credit in the form of capital flows or lending of wealth. I believe the true differential in currencies has more to do with the need of them to match liabilities in international finance.

    There too are goods a country has to import. Japan is an example, as they have to import virtually all their minerals and energy. With Bernanke and the madmen of the Fed at work, devaluing the yen against the dollar and the dollar against oil is going to produce a real shock to the Japanese economy. They just might change their minds quickly and their leaders again.

  • box-down-by-the-riviera:

    there are only two important players in the world. via currency games, exporters, and then countries, tax revenues.

    the voters are killed either way by their own producers and goveneurs.

    a funny kind of socialism really.

    von mise me, please! ’tis a hell hole out there.

  • Crysangle:

    “However, it is based on a fundamental fallacy, namely that in trade, one man’s gain is another man’s loss. ”

    How about trade me your vote (and control of the states finances) , for security .

    Even simpler , trading bullets.

    Is it any wonder that most governments are calling out for an inflationary monetary policy as they are the main benefactors , and it suits fine to paint it with a tinge of nationalism in the process – ‘if it were not for so and so (who happen to be partisan in the higher scheme of things) , we would not have to print’ .

    If it were not for wars , we may have remained on the gold standard too , but no , we had to print to stimulate or control the effort .

    Where does that leave us – I suggest but do not know , that the strife will be domestic , as it is not fully and openly directed at another power. During this uncertainty there will always be the temptation to channel the domestic frustration abroad via war. That way the inflationary devaluation is compensated by the spoils – the expansion of influence and control , as well as soothing the poorly defined domestic need for redemption of circumstance .

    I understand the deceipt of the AGW debate , it is not proven either way , but maybe you should enlighten your readers with a proper look at resource limits (especially energy) and their effects on the value of currency , trade , productivity , and so on, as well .

    • Crysangle:

      Will start the debate with one article :

      http://www.peakprosperity.com/blog/80506/really-really-big-picture

      There are many views on the topic , which is diverse , but deserving .

      • JasonEmery:

        Cry–Lot’s of good info there. You see a lot of the same stuff at ‘The Oil Drum’ and other sites. I don’t think we’ll have to worry about running out of oil soon, however.

        I think we’re headed for a hyperinflationary crash, in a year or two. If so, I believe we’ll see a big drop in oil demand. In fact, we’re already seeing a big drop in gasoline usage in the USA. http://www.mcoscillator.com/learning_center/weekly_chart/americans_really_are_using_less_gas/
        What do you think that chart will look like when gasoline is $15/gal?

        There has been so much misallocated capital, it is going to take a couple of decades to straighten everything out, I predict. By then, who knows, maybe there will be some big breakthroughs in new energy technology?

        • Crysangle:

          If there is high inflation for the dollar or western currencies they will be worth less , which is maybe just the same as a loss of faith in the value of trade with those nations . In return oil would become more tradable to other nations , the demand is there always and expanding , the only time supply has been reduced voluntarily was to raise prices above around the 70$ mark , which fitted with mideastern producers national expenditures . I view oil as a key global currency , and exporters are buying geopolitical strength with the choice of country they export to . I haven’t thought through properly what their reaction would be to a currency crisis , we would have a big change of pattern in trade and productivity thrown into the bargain I suppose , as well as the value of surplus holdings of China and Saudi . In the west we have plenty of space to reduce oil/energy usage if necessary so I don’t think oil will just ‘run out ‘ , its price will keep increasing until it becomes worthwhile or necessary to cut back usage . That might take the form of efficiencies or other technology becoming competitive to the new higher price , have heard that stand alone PV is now at grid parity for example. We don’t have to worry too much , countries which rely on the price of fertilizers to maintain their population fed do , India is a good example of heavy, maybe unsustainable, subsidy to that end. In fact many countries are in raw difficulty to supply basic needs . I will not even start to predict how the world will adjust , it is just too complex , I would hope that we are all given a slow enough intro and room to adapt , though by the look of things energy prices are carrying the main price inflationary effects of currency debasement through to us, and they are not too concerned about business cycles or anything else that might be upset along the way, just as the stock market has lost track of real earnings , just as debt has lost track of possibility of proper repayment . Main added problem is that competition for limited resources can be quite fierce too , if governments are reliant on the status quo of their country being maintained through feeding the existing infrastructure with energy from a certain source , they find themselves in a difficult position when competition increases . So either some regions give up on their predicted expansion or the west cedes some of its supply , or a combination and new technology , or possible conflict . Just too big a topic in itself , start interweaving national and international politics and so on and it just gets even more complicated . People will have to adapt as best they might – would be good to have a realistic official (independently verified) assessment of all of this that would help society as a whole choose , I say official as that is what a large part of any society listens to mostly.

          • JasonEmery:

            Cry said, “I haven’t thought through properly what their reaction would be to a currency crisis , we would have a big change of pattern in trade and productivity thrown into the bargain I suppose , as well as the value of surplus holdings of China and Saudi …..”

            I’m not sure about Pater, but a lot of pundits think that the inevitable end game to loss of empire status is war. I just don’t see us going to war against China, Russia, or Iran, however. There is only one country that fits the bill for a declining empire that needs trillions of dollars worth of resources just to make a dent in its liabilities pile: Saudi Arabia. This also jives with ‘oil as currency’ view.

            It won’t be difficult to concoct a justification. We could be ‘saving’ S.A. from terrorists, or similar.

            • Crysangle:

              For now Saudi is well onboard with the west , talk of depegging has been quelled , arms contracts remain lucrative , political middle eastern coordination remains good, as does cooperation in choice of supply of oil . Saudi is its own entity however , and though heavily influenced by the US in particular , is certainly not one with it , that has to be made clear . In fact we are talking of the main center of Islamic influence world wide , and the choice of US over Islam is not a question worth considering . Controlled and justified influence may be tolerated , but dominance would likely be fleeting .

              Have to consider that a war with Iran or China would not necessarily be directly initiated by the will of the US. Does the US really know how hard it is pushing Iran, war is as likely from misjudgment or lack of knowledge and understanding , or as the phrase goes , war is deceipt . I place the two countries together , you could place Japan and the US together also maybe with regards to China . Iran and Pakistan are building ties too , and so on , and there is a fine line keeping Iraq in ‘order’ also in terms of balancing the different sectorial claims within and without of the country , and Syria too , Russia did not hold back too much with Georgia . Lebanon, Israel, Palestinian territories , Egypt , Turkey , Korea, Taiwan , India and many more have their disputes … the list goes on and I try not to think of it too much . It is nothing like what you read about – if you ever happened to get caught in a conflict you would find the power , the energy , that moves the show is nothing you could have ever been taught about . People are subjects of it , the objectives are kept secret , and the objective view is written later depending on the outcome.

              • JasonEmery:

                Let me clarify my remark on war. I should have said that it is possible that we go to war with just about anybody out there outside of NATO. However, in terms of a country to go after specifically to prop up our fiscal and monetary position, there is only one, Saudi Arabia. Look at Iraq or Afghanistan. Those wars have been a huge drain on the Treasury. It is possible, or perhaps probable, that they are serving some hidden agenda, like keeping everyone in line using the USA dollar as the world reserve currency.

                At some point there will be a run on the dollar. As $12 or $13 trillion held in foreign hands is pushed from its present resting spot into gold, non-dollar fiat, non-dollar denominated instruments, and tangible goods, hyperinflation will assert itself in the USA. Do our leaders sit on their hands or go out into the world to acquire assets?

                If the USA was a net food importer, that would really complicate matters, but we’re not. That makes it easy. Go after the biggest concentration of assets on the planet: the Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia.

                The only alternative, as I see it, is some sort of new Bretton Woods type conference to peacefully design and implement a new world order. I’m not an advocate of one world socialism, but it seems like it is coming, by accident or design.

                • Crysangle:

                  I understood what you were saying Jason , but as long as Saudi is willing to trade principally with the west and peg its currency , as well as synchronize its political policy with the west , the access to the existing oil is pretty much guaranteed on friendly terms . If the US currency goes AWOL though , who knows what will be going on, though I expect Saudi would stay with the west – it is its only guarantor regards Iran (and China) , and I don’t expect it to change that stance overnight . Saudi might feel obliged to divert its supply to the middle east itself at some point , for political reasons , and domestic consumption is very high , though I imagine it would try to keep in the western sphere at the same time . Even the result of the Arab Spring is far from certain, and it is always possible the middle east ends up with a hard religious line of government which is hostile to US relations . You only have to look at the previous history of Iraq, or Egypt even to find these turns in sentiment (which if you are familiar with the local views are not all that surprising) . If the US does overtly step into that it would have a lot on its hands .

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