Saturday, October 16, 2010

A little fiddling is fine in terms of our currencies

WHAT contrary times: up the front of the paper we're celebrating the Australian dollar's approach to parity with the greenback; up the back we're worrying about the global currency war. Take both with a grain of salt. The Aussie's latest bout of strength is, of course, a byproduct of the alleged currency war. Perhaps a better term is "competitive devaluation". It seems a lot of countries would like their currency to be weaker than it is.

Or, in China's case, weaker than it should be. At the heart of the "war" is the Americans' long-held belief that the Chinese are holding the value of the yuan lower than it should be and this is disadvantaging US export and import-competing industries, adding to the US trade deficit and reducing its economic growth.

The Yanks are half right. The Chinese are holding their exchange rate too low, fixing its value to the US dollar and revaluing it only very slowly. But the Americans are deluding themselves if they think a higher yuan would solve most of their problems. It would just help a bit.

And they have form in blaming other countries for home-grown problems. Before China became the bogeyman they used to blame all their troubles on an overvalued yen. And they don't seem to have heard of "face". The more they lecture the Chinese in public, the less likely it is they'll get what they want.

What's provoked most of the talk about a currency war is the likelihood the US Federal Reserve is about to engage in another round of "quantitative easing" (colloquially, printing money). It's not clear the primary objective would be to lower the value of the greenback but that's certainly a consequence.

It's more likely the Fed just wants to stimulate the sickly US economy. The US government has little scope for more fiscal (budgetary) stimulus and the official interest rate is already down almost to zero, so printing money is all that's left.

It's done by the Fed buying government bonds from the banks, paying for them by crediting money to (as we'd call it) the banks' exchange settlement accounts with the Fed. Where does this money come from? The Fed creates it from thin air.

The effect of the increased demand for government bonds is to force up their price, which reduces their "yield". (The yield is the interest to be earned on the bond, expressed as a percentage not of the bond's face value but its now-higher market value.)

Because American home buyers and businesses tend to borrow at long-term interest rates, lowering the rate on long-term government bonds tends to push down borrowing rates generally. This should encourage more borrowing and spending. And the extra money in the banks' exchange settlement accounts (where it earns very low interest) should encourage them to do more lending.

The lower yield on long-term government bonds should encourage local financial investors to shift to other, better paying financial assets, including corporate bonds. The higher demand for corporate bonds raises their price and lowers their yield, making it cheaper for big American corporations to borrow for expansion.

(That's how it works in principle. At present, however, US households are trying to reduce their debts, not add to them. And businesses facing weak demand for their products aren't of a mood to expand.)

The lower yields on US government and corporate bonds make US financial investors inclined to take their money overseas in search of better returns. They also make foreign investors more inclined to seek higher yields in countries other than the US (including one down under).

This, of course, causes the US dollar to fall in value. For the past month or so it's been depreciating against other currencies as the financial markets merely anticipate another round of quantitative easing.

Some countries have been trying to prevent their currencies appreciating. The Japanese have spent billions intervening in their foreign exchange market, to little effect. A bunch of Asian countries - South Korea, Taiwan and the south east Asians - have been holding their currencies down with the greenback, mainly because they don't want to appreciate against the yuan.

A few big economies - particularly Britain - have also been making noises about further quantitative easing.

And other countries - including Sweden, Canada and us - have been appreciating against the greenback and any other countries than have succeeded in keeping their exchange rates low.

Why do countries prefer a low exchange rate? Because it makes their export and import-competing industries more price competitive internationally.

This, by the way, explains why only those who buy imports - or go on overseas trips - are pleased to see the Aussie reaching parity with the greenback. Our farmers, manufacturers, tourist operators and education providers hate the idea.

So by how much has the supposed currency war overvalued the Aussie? Not much. We were up at about US92 before the war started and that was caused by our own "fundamentals": commodity prices the highest in a century, quite high interest rates by world standards and a rosy outlook for economic growth.

But even the difference between US92 and parity overstates the extent of any over-

valuation. Everyone focuses on our exchange rate with the US dollar, but the US accounts for less than 9 per cent of our two-way trade (exports plus imports).

The best way to judge what's happening is to look at changes in the Aussie's value against the "trade-weighted index" - a basket of the currencies of our 20 biggest trading partners, with each country's currency weighted according to its share of our two-way trade.

The annually revised weights, adopted this month, are: the yuan, 22.5 per cent (up 4 percentage points); yen, 15 per cent (down 2 points); the euro, 10 per cent; US dollar, 8.5 per cent; Korean won, 6 per cent and Indian rupee, 5 per cent. Then, in descending order: Thai baht, Singapore dollar, New Zealand dollar, British pound, Malaysian ringgit, Taiwan dollar and Indonesian rupiah etc.

Since September 10, we've risen by about 8 per cent against the greenback but only by 4 per cent against the TWI, partly because we've actually fallen by almost 3 per cent against the euro. This says we're not particularly overvalued relative to the fundamentals.

As long as countries merely fiddle with their currencies, it's not too terrible. It's if the currency war turns into a trade war - with the US Congress restricting Chinese imports and the Chinese retaliating - that we should worry.