Simon Johnson at the Baseline Scenario has a nice piece bemoaning the US pursuit of a rebalancing agenda at the upcoming G20 meeting. I largely agree with Johnson’s tone. Something that sounds nice, but that to which no parties, particularly China and the US, can make a credible commitment. It is, however, keeping some poor staffer at the US Treasury busy 24-7. Johnson’s third point, however, misses some important points:
Where is the evidence that this kind of “imbalance” had even a tangential effect on the build up of vulnerabilities that led to the global financial crisis of 2008-09? I understand the theoretical argument that current account imbalances could play a role in a US-based/dollar crisis, but remember: interest rates were low 2002-2006 because of Alan Greenspan (who controlled short-term dollar interest rates); the international capital flows that sought out crazy investments came from Western Europe, which was not a significant net exporter of capital (i.e., a balanced current account is consistent with destabilizing gross flows of capital); and the crisis, when it came, was associated with appreciation – not depreciation – of the dollar.
I believe Johnson underestimates just how close we came to a destabilizing collapse of the Dollar in 2008. That avoidance of that near collapse was well documented by Brad Setser in his legendary “quiet bailout” series:
…The US had a large external deficit going into the subprime crisis. That means it has a constant need for external financing. Foreigners need to more than just hold their existing claims on the US, they need to add to them. The US responded to the subprime crisis with policies — a fiscal stimulus, monetary easing — designed to support domestic US demand, not to assure ongoing demand for US financial assets. And for a complex set of reasons – ongoing growth in China, energy-intensive growth in the Gulf, limited expansion of supply and perhaps monetary easing in the US — the price of oil has shot up even as the US has slowed. Higher oil prices are likely to push the US trade deficit and the US need for financing up — not down – at least in nominal terms.
So far that hasn’t been a serious problem. Central bank reserve growth has been very strong, most because a couple of big countries are adding to their reserves at an incredible rate. The New York Fed data tells us that a lot of that growth has been channeled into safe US assets. But there are also growing signs that rapid reserve growth is causing some countries — including some big countries — trouble.
Later analysis can be found here. Had it not been for the supporting role that China and other central banks played in financing the US current account deficit, we would have seen a full blown currency crisis, well before the financial crisis of September 2008.
As an aside, the intervention to support the Dollar was also the key event that allowed the US recession to evolve in the pattern envisions by domestic-focused economists, as opposed to those seeped in the traditions of international finance. Brad Delong has a fantastic piece on this issue, including the key assumption failed the internationalists:
Before dinner one evening I was lectured by a prominent Washington-area international finance economist about all the reasons that the 1986-1990 U.S. experience was likely to be a bad guide to the future…
…The Japanese government was willing to buy very large amounts of dollar-denominated assets in the late 1980s to keep the decline in the value of the dollar “orderly.” In so doing, it inflated its domestic credit base and touched off its own property bubble. No foreign government is going to risk this again just because the U.S. would rather that the decline in the dollar was slow and orderly.
I have no doubt that the willingness of central banks to flood the global economy with month in an effort to hold currency pegs contributed greatly to the great commodity price bubble that ultimately sent US real consumption into a tail spin well before the events in the fall of 2008.
As to the G20 proposal itself – easier said than done. Back on the real side of the economy, I believe the US economy is very structurally misaligned, to a disturbing degree. We simply do not make many of the products we want to buy, and have the capacity to make many products – like expensive housing – that no one wants to buy. Moreover, these structural misalignments have been building for at least 15 years, at least partly the consequence of the US strong Dollar policy that gave license for wholesale currency manipulation to support mercantilistic policy objectives. Reversing 15 years of policy in which deep structural shifts occurred will not happen overnight.
Nor do I think the Chinese are interested in making that transition happen. Thomas Freidman has a point here:
China now understands that. It no longer believes it can pollute its way to prosperity because it would choke to death. That is the most important shift in the world in the last 18 months. China has decided that clean-tech is going to be the next great global industry and is now creating a massive domestic market for solar and wind, which will give it a great export platform….So, if you like importing oil from Saudi Arabia, you’re going to love importing solar panels from China.
This restructuring, not so much the financial restructuring, is what I suspect the Administration really wants to address.
Good luck with that.