Can America and China Avoid a Currency War?

Although the current poor state of Sino-American relations may make even a very limited currency détente unattainable, such a pact is not outside the realm of possibility. Ultimately, both America and China might see some advantage in taking currency conflict off the table, in the hope of preventing wider damage to themselves and others.

SANTA BARBARA – China’s currency, the renminbi, weakened slightly against the dollar at the start of this week. Around the world, the immediate response was panic. Financial markets tumbled, US President Donald Trump’s administration formally labeled China a currency manipulator, and fears of a new currency war spread like wildfire. To describe all this as an overreaction would be a gross understatement. A currency war has not erupted – at least, not yet.
But the danger is real. Although markets now appear to be recovering somewhat, America and China remain locked in a perilous trade war with no end in sight. The United States is still poised to impose a 10% tariff on some $300 billion worth of Chinese imports. It does not seem unreasonable to suppose that China might then retaliate by engineering a substantial devaluation of its currency. After all, a cheaper renminbi would go a long way toward offsetting the impact of Trump’s tariffs on the prices of Chinese goods in the US.

But, because devaluation would also carry significant risks for China, the country’s leaders will be hesitant to take this step. Many of China’s biggest enterprises have borrowed heavily in dollars, and a weaker renminbi would greatly increase the cost of servicing this external debt. Worse, the prospect of devaluation could spark massive capital flight from China as anxious companies and individuals seek to protect the value of their assets. That is what happened four years ago when the renminbi was allowed to weaken significantly, and the Chinese authorities subsequently had to spend $1 trillion in foreign-exchange reserves to prevent the currency from crashing.

It seems unlikely, therefore, that China is about to declare all-out currency war. What happened earlier this week was much subtler – in effect, a shot across America’s bow. The renminbi was already close to the symbolic level of CN¥7 per US dollar. By setting their daily benchmark rate for the currency at a smidgen below CN¥7, the Chinese authorities created room for currency traders to push the market rate temporarily above CN¥7 – an effective devaluation. Although the actual size of the devaluation was minuscule, the psychological impact was enormous. China was reminding America that it still has many economic arrows in its quiver.

Unfortunately, the Trump administration responded in typical blunderbuss fashion, mistaking the modest Chinese signal for something more sinister. By immediately declaring China a currency manipulator, the US succeeded only in hardening positions on both sides.

To avoid losing face, Chinese leaders may now feel compelled to respond in kind. They could make good on the threat of devaluation, or pull out some of its other arrows. For example, China could

  1. embargo exports of the rare earth minerals that are so vital to America’s tech industry, or prolong its
  2. boycott of US agricultural products. Or it could go beyond the realm of commerce and
  3. stir up trouble in the South China Sea or the Taiwan Strait. In short, relations between the world’s two largest economies could go from bad to much worse.

Can further escalation be avoided? One way to avoid that outcome might be to look to a neutral arbiter to adjudicate the currency issue. The most obvious candidate is the International Monetary Fund, one of whose main functions is to oversee the “rules of the game” in international monetary affairs. All Fund members have pledged to avoid exchange-rate manipulation, and all are formally subject to “firm” Fund surveillance of their currency policies. In principle, if America and China truly want to avoid a monetary conflict, they could ask the IMF to step in to settle matters.

In practice, however, the Fund’s authority is sadly limited. The IMF has no powers to enforce rulings. At best, all it can do is “name and shame” currency manipulators. And in the end, it is hard to imagine either America or China kowtowing to a toothless multilateral organization. Can anyone really picture Trump submitting to the judgment of a bunch of unaccountable international civil servants?

A slightly more realistic option might be a direct bargain between the US and Chinese governments – perhaps also including the European Central Bank and one or two other monetary powers – to achieve some form of currency détente.

There is precedent for such a deal. Back in 1936, following more than a half-decade of uncontrolled competitive devaluations during the Great vDepression, the main financial powers of the day – the US, Britain, and France – agreed to an informal arrangement for mutual exchange-rate stabilization. Jokingly called the “twenty-four-hour gold standard,” the Tripartite Agreement committed each country to give 24 hours’ notice of any change in its currency’s price. Though far from perfect, the pact did manage to restore some semblance of order to monetary affairs.

A similar agreement today would be more difficult to negotiate. In the 1930s, America, Britain, and France were on reasonably good terms. Present-day America and China, by contrast, are strategic adversaries engaged in a trade war, and even a very limited exchange-rate initiative might prove unattainable. Yet it is not outside the realm of possibility. Ultimately, both sides might see some advantage in taking currency conflict off the table, in the hope of preventing wider damage to themselves and others.

Trump Has No Idea What His Tariffs Have Unleashed for Farmers

His trade war will hurt business at a time when the rural population is aging, and it will probably hollow out farm communities.

.. The president is here to trumpet a $12 billion plan to aid American farmers. Why do they need aid? For Iowans, it’s because 33 percent of our economy is tied, directly or indirectly, to agriculture, and Mr. Trump recklessly opened trade wars that will hit “Trump country” — rural America — hardest and that have already brought an avalanche of losses. Indeed, the impact of his tariffs will probably be felt by family farms and the area for generations.
.. Once those markets are gone, they will be difficult to recover. Commodity prices continue to drop, and good weather suggests an excellent crop is in the making, which will drive prices further down.
.. Rural America is going to be hollowed out very quickly. Farms will become consolidated, and towns that are already in trouble will certainly die.

Iowa’s farmers are aging, and younger farmers aren’t replacing them proportionately. Sixty percent of Iowa farmland is owned by people 65 years or older, and 35 percent of farmland is owned by people 75 or older.

.. the average age of the American farmer was 58.3 years. This isn’t because young people in rural America don’t want to farm; it’s because, if it isn’t already the family business, the costs are much too high to allow many of them to get into it.

..  losses and farm consolidation accelerated by Mr. Trump’s tariffs will make the devastating 1980s farm crisis look like a bump in the road as it drives a significant rural-to-city migration.

.. Smaller operations don’t have the capital to weather a trade war and will be forced to sell, most likely to larger operations.

.. Another casualty: our community banks. As farms get larger, farm loans are less likely to be local. A big operation with farms in dozens of counties that maybe even cross state lines probably won’t use local banks for credit.

When our community banks are gone, one of the major economic engines of our small towns will be gone.

.. At a certain point, populations won’t be enough to support rural hospitals and clinics, and they, too, will be gone. Rural hospitals are one of the major employers in the community. Even if you have a good manufacturing company in town, if you lose the hospital, they won’t be able to attract the employees they need.

.. Some of the farmers I speak with are unwavering in support of the president; they’d vote Republican even if Mr. Trump personally slapped the heck out of the preacher at the church potluck. But others are starting to recognize how the economic impact of the tariffs is hitting them personally.

.. Farmers take out lines of credit in the spring — usually due the following Jan. 1 — to pay for seed and other input costs, and then pay the loans back after harvest. Like any other loan, there are consequences to not paying, including losing the farm. Farmers are going to know before the midterm elections if they are going to be able to pay back loans.

.. The larger farm operations and the larger agribusinesses will be hovering, looking for any weakness, and ready to purchase smaller farms. And rest assured, when the Trump payments are made to farmers, the larger operations will be the ones that gobble them up.

.. most rural Republicans aren’t farmers, and many are Fox News devotees. So when they turn on Tucker Carlson or Sean Hannity, the hosts will likely extol the “virtues” of Mr. Trump’s farm policies and tariffs rather than the reality of their failures.

 

 

China Offers to Buy Nearly $70 Billion of U.S. Products to Fend Off Trade Tariffs

Beijing says purchase hinges on whether Trump imposes threatened tariffs

U.S. officials are skeptical of the Chinese offer for several reasons, said people involved with the talks. They argue that Chinese energy purchases would largely divert U.S. sales to other nations and have no overall impact on the U.S. trade deficit. They also aren’t sure that the U.S. could ramp up agriculture production that quickly.

.. China’s offer would benefit the Farm Belt states that helped Mr. Trump win the election in 2016. By promising to buy more American soybeans, corn and other agricultural products, China pledged to ease certain regulations to boost its imports of those goods, the people said.

Liberaltarians

The conservative movement—and, with it, the GOP—is in disarray. Specifically, the movement’s “fusionist” alliance between traditionalists and libertarians appears, at long last, to be falling apart.

.. Libertarian disaffection should come as no surprise. Despite the GOP’s rhetorical commitment to limited government, the actual record of unified Republican rule in Washington has been an unmitigated disaster from a libertarian perspective: runaway federal spending at a clip unmatched since Lyndon Johnson; the creation of a massive new prescription-drug entitlement with hardly any thought as to how to pay for it; expansion of federal control over education through the No Child Left Behind Act; a big run-up in farm subsidies; extremist assertions of executive power under cover of fighting terrorism; and, to top it all off, an atrociously bungled war in Iraq.

This woeful record cannot simply be blamed on politicians failing to live up to their conservative principles. Conservatism itself has changed markedly in recent years, forsaking the old fusionist synthesis in favor of a new and altogether unattractive species of populism.

.. The old formulation defined conservatism as the desire to protect traditional values from the intrusion of big government; the new one seeks to promote traditional values through the intrusion of big government.

.. Just look at the causes that have been generating the real energy in the conservative movement of late: building walls to keep out immigrants, amending the Constitution to keep gays from marrying, and imposing sectarian beliefs on medical researchers and families struggling with end-of-life decisions.

.. the conservative embrace of a right-wing Leviathan has left libertarian-minded intellectuals feeling left out in the cold.

.. New York Post columnist Ryan Sager bemoaned the rise of big-government conservatism and warned that excessive pandering to evangelicals would rupture the movement.

.. Andrew Sullivan denounced the right’s fundamentalist turn in The Conservative Soul: How We Lost It, How to Get It Back.

.. 13 percent of the population, or 28 million voting-age Americans, can be fairly classified as libertarian-leaning.

.. Back in 2000, this group voted overwhelmingly for Bush, supporting him over Al Gore by a 72-20 margin.

.. Markos Moulitsas of Daily Kos fame caused something of a stir by proposing the term “Libertarian Democrat” to describe his favored breed of progressive.

.. Governor Brian Schweitzer of Montana, fellow Montanan Tester, and Virginia Senator-elect Jim Webb—have sounded some libertarian themes by being simultaneously pro-choice and pro-gun rights.

.. if Democrats hope to continue appealing to libertarian-leaning voters, they are going to have to up their game. They need to ask themselves: Are we content with being a brief rebound fling for jilted libertarians, or do we want to form a lasting relationship? Let me make a case for the second option.

.. the prevailing ideological categories are intellectually exhausted. Conservatism has risen to power only to become squalid and corrupt, a Nixonian mélange of pandering to populist prejudices and distributing patronage to well-off cronies and Red Team constituencies.

.. Liberalism, meanwhile, has never recovered from its fall from grace in the mid-’60s.

.. Conservative fusionism, the defining ideology of the American right for a half-century, was premised on the idea that libertarian policies and traditional values are complementary goods.

.. But an honest survey of the past half-century shows a much better match between libertarian means and progressive ends.

.. many of the great libertarian breakthroughs of the era—the fall of Jim Crow, the end of censorship, the legalization of abortion, the liberalization of divorce laws, the increased protection of the rights of the accused, the reopening of immigration—were championed by the political left.

.. capitalism’s relentless dynamism and wealth-creation—the institutional safeguarding of which lies at the heart of libertarian concerns—have been pushing U.S. society in a decidedly progressive direction.

.. The civil rights movement was made possible by the mechanization of agriculture, which pushed blacks off the farm and out of the South

.. Likewise, feminism was encouraged by the mechanization of housework.

Greater sexual openness, as well as heightened interest in the natural environment, are among the luxury goods that mass affluence has purchased.

.. secularization and the general decline in reverence for authority, as rising education levels (prompted by the economy’s growing demand for knowledge workers) have promoted increasing independence of mind.

.. Yet progressives remain stubbornly resistant to embracing capitalism, their great natural ally.

.. Knee-jerk antipathy to markets and the creative destruction they bring continues to be widespread, and bitter denunciations of the unfairness of the system, mixed with nostalgia for the good old days of the Big Government/Big Labor/Big Business triumvirate, too often substitute for clear thinking about realistic policy options.

.. the rival ideologies of left and right are both pining for the ’50s. The only difference is that

  • liberals want to work there, while
  • conservatives want to go home there.

.. Both generally support a more open immigration policy. Both reject the religious right’s homophobia and blastocystophilia. Both are open to rethinking the country’s draconian drug policies. Both seek to protect the United States from terrorism without gratuitous encroachments on civil liberties or extensions of executive power. And underlying all these policy positions is a shared philosophical commitment to individual autonomy as a core political value.

.. their conceptions differ as to the chief threats to that autonomy.

  • Libertarians worry primarily about constraints imposed by government, while
  • liberals worry most about constraints imposed by birth and the play of economic forces.

.. At the same time, some of the resulting wealth-creation would be used to improve safety-net policies that help those at the bottom and ameliorate the hardships inflicted by economic change.

.. Progressive organizations like Oxfam and the Environmental Working Group have already joined with free-market groups in pushing for ag-policy reform.

.. the current subsidy programs act as a regressive tax on low-income families here at home while depressing prices for exporters in poor countries abroad—and, to top it off, the lion’s share of the loot goes to big agribusiness, not family farmers.

.. the president of Cato and the executive director of the Sierra Club have come out together in favor of a zero-subsidy energy policy.

.. cut taxes on savings and investment, cut payroll taxes on labor, and make up the shortfall with increased taxation of consumption. Go ahead, tax the rich, but don’t do it when they’re being productive. Tax them instead when they’re splurging—by capping the deductibility of home-mortgage interest and tax incentives for purchasing health insurance. And tax everybody’s energy consumption.

.. Gore has proposed a straight-up swap of payroll taxes for carbon taxes

.. Greg Mankiw has been pushing for an increase in the gasoline tax.

.. libertarians’ core commitments to personal responsibility and economy in government run headlong into progressives’ core commitments to social insurance and an adequate safety net.

.. Spending on Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security is now projected to increase from about 9 percent of GDP today to approximately 15 percent by 2030.

.. We can fund the Earned Income Tax Credit and other programs for the poor; we can fund unemployment insurance and other programs for people dislocated by capitalism’s creative destruction; we can fund public pensions for the indigent elderly; we can fund public health care for the poor and those faced with catastrophic expenses. What we cannot do is continue to fund universal entitlement programs that slosh money from one section of the middle class (people of working age) to another (the elderly)—not when most Americans are fully capable of saving for their own retirement needs.

.. Instead, we need to move from the current pay-as-you-go approach to a system in which private savings would provide primary funding for the costs of old age.