Economist Stephen Roach wants to take a baseball bat to Paul Krugman for his accusations that China is a currency manipulator.

John Mauldin also took Krugman to task on March 20 in The Threat To Muddle Through.

If the Chinese allowed the renminbi to rise, would that make the USA better off? That is the contention of a cabal of critics from Senators to Nobel laureates. Paul Krugman wants to see a 25% tariff on Chinese goods. Today we examine that idea, and look at the real problems that we face. If only it were so easy. The numbers just don’t add up. The fault, dear Brutus…

What Krugman argues is that we should pay more for Chinese goods, so that we will buy less of their goods. As if we wouldn’t buy the same goods from Vietnam or Brazil or Pakistan, if those goods were cheaper than Chinese goods. For the life of me, I can’t see how substituting goods from foreign countries other than China helps our trade deficit.

Are we going to start targeting the currencies of every nation that runs a surplus with us? What about Europe? And Great Britain? Their currencies are dropping against the dollar, in the case of England rather precipitously. Are they pursuing mercantilist policies, Senator Schumer [in reference to his recent scandalous press conference]? What happens when the euro goes to parity against the dollar (and it will!) because the Europeans are having trouble getting their act together? Are we going to demand they force the euro to rise? Tell the ECB to raise rates and shove the whole euro area into an even worse recession?

Do you think Japanese businessmen believe the yen is too strong, and we should make the dollar stronger against the yen? What are we going to do in three years when the yen is at 150 on its way to 300 because Japan is getting ready to hit the wall, due to their massive government deficits? Accuse the Japanese of mercantilism and try and force them to revalue the yen?

Maybe Canada should put a 25% tariff on US goods, because their dollar has risen by almost 40% against ours in the last few years. That would teach us a lesson. It would also destroy trade and a very good relationship.

It is a dicey damn world we live in. We are coming to the end of the debt super cycle, as I have written elsewhere in this letter. It is a very perilous time. Things are going to be hard enough. We have a huge problem with deleveraging and controlling our fiscal deficits, not just in the US but in the entire developed world. Starting trade wars is the absolutely worst possible thing to do. For the US to even suggest that such a policy is reasonable is the worst possible kind of message. Where are the adults in the administration?

They are not the only one who disagrees with Krugman. I did so on March 17 in Pressure Increasing on China to Revalue Yuan; What Can Go Wrong?

Looking At Half The Equation

Krugman conveniently ignores one side of the equation.

A sinking dollar is good for exports, however, given China’s regulatory policies as noted in Business Sours on China, it’s not at all clear exports to China would rise by much. Indeed, I suspect that China’s regulatory restrictions are a far bigger impediment to trade than currency fluctuations.

Furthermore, one cannot (or at least should not) ignore what would happen to the price of imports. A falling currency is not a free lunch.

While I agree with Krugman that China would not dump US Treasuries, the idea that the U.S. has China over a Barrel is preposterous. Mutual deadly embrace with unbalanced winners and losers is more like it.

Shock Effect

Let’s consider the global shock effect of a sudden large revaluation of the Renmimbi. The key is the RMB does not float. To get a 40% rise in valuation, China must buy or sell unlimited amounts of RMB against the dollar to maintain the desired price. That might mean a huge hike in Chinese interest rates to make holding the RMB attractive.

In turn, sharp interest rate hikes would likely cause a huge slowdown in China, decreasing China’s demand for imports. This is yet another factor that Krugman and those crying “currency manipulator” miss.

And should the US impose a revaluation via tariffs, I would like to point out a little thing called Smoot-Hawley.

By the way, I am all in favor of a huge slowdown in China. I think China is on an unsustainable course, and the sooner and harder China slows the better for everyone in the long run.

However, the consequences of such a slowdown would be huge on the commodity exporters like Canada and Australia. Moreover, a slowdown in trade would slow global consumption.

I happen to think those are necessary adjustments along with more debt writeoffs, but believers in free lunches and Keynesian claptrap sure won’t see it that way.

Hopefully this gives you a bit more of an idea as to just what might go wrong with all these simplistic “the Yuan is 40% undervalued – so label China a currency manipulator” ideas floating around.

Not As Simple As Krugman Thinks

Color me skeptical when 99% of economists think Renminbi (RMB) would soar if China floated the currency. Since when have 99% of economists ever been correct?

Baseball bats aside, China is not as simple as Krugman makes it out to be. Michael Pettis agrees as well.

Please consider How will an RMB revaluation affect China, the US, and the world?

Although Premier Wen noted again in his speech Sunday that China is “worried” about the value of its US dollar reserves, perhaps as a warning that China would counteract any US trade move by selling off USG bonds, Krugman doesn’t seem especially worried about this threat.

He may be right. Aside from the fact that it is not clear how China can dump Treasury bonds, he claims that it would only help the Fed in its quantitative easing, and would probably do far more damage to Europe (since China would presumably have to buy euros) than to the US.

The latter point is almost certainly correct. China’s selling dollars and buying something else would allow the US to get even more bang for its protectionist buck, probably at poor Europe’s expense. I would also add that the main long-term impact of dumping USG bonds might be no more than to cause a liquidation of Chinese assets at very low prices, and an equivalent transfer of wealth from China to the US (or to others likely at some point to buy cheap dollar assets).

My Comment: On that score Krugman, Pettis, and I agreed. China is not about to dump US treasuries.

Where I disagree with Krugman is with his claim that the chance of triggering a trade war is small. …

The logic behind a prediction of trade war is almost unchallengeable, and the two countries are simply the two most visible in a world in which trade tensions must inexorably rise. Just ask the Germans and their European partners. Trade relationships will continue to get much worse, largely because the cost of trade war for high-deficit countries is so much lower than for high-surplus countries, and there seems to be no real attempt on either side to tone down aggressive actions or rhetoric. We seem to be caught in a downward spiral, and the longer it goes on the harder it is for anyone not to participate.

My Comment: On that score I sided, in advance with Pettis.

To return to the People’s Daily article, I think many in China have argued that a revaluation of the RMB may have a significant effect on China’s trade surplus without having an equivalent effect on the US trade deficit. The same would be true of tariffs on Chinese goods. In either case, say many in Beijing, China loses, but the US doesn’t gain, so why is the US so determined to force this outcome?

I think this claim is probably correct. An RMB revaluation in itself might not have as big an impact on the US deficit as many think.

My Comment: Again I sided in advance with Pettis.

By the way if China is forced to revalue the currency too quickly, it will have to enact countervailing policies — lower interest rates, suppress wages, increase credit and subsidies — to protect the economy from falling apart, and these will exacerbate other imbalances that may be even worse than the currency misalignment.

My Comment: Once again I sided with Pettis.

Will a decline in China’s trade surplus cause the US trade deficit to decline?

Not necessarily. Beijing has pointed out many times that a contraction in the Chinese trade surplus does not necessarily mean an equivalent contraction in the US trade deficit. All it requires is an equivalent contraction in the rest of the world’s net trade deficit. This could easily happen with an improvement in the trade balances of Vietnam, Mexico, Korea or anyone else, enough fully to absorb the reduction in China’s trade surplus. In that case, the US trade balance does not improve, and the US gets none of the employment benefit of the RMB revaluation. China will simply import fewer jobs from abroad and some other countries will import more, or export fewer, jobs.

Remember that if the RMB revalues, this is the same as if all the currencies of the rest of the world depreciate. This will cause a shift in the rest of the world so that households will see a small reduction in their real income, and non-Chinese producers in the tradable goods sector will see a small increase in their competitiveness vis a vis the rest of the world (largely because Chinese producers becomes less competitive). This will reduce non-Chinese consumption and increase non-Chinese production, and the distribution of these changes among different countries, including the US, will depend on a vast array of factors.

Of course the cynic in me says getting a global solution will prove impossible. Each country that benefits in the short term from stonewalling on any aspect of the complex adjustment process will do so. So I guess that just leaves trade war. This is the year of the Tiger, after all.

Michael Pettis is the only person I know who writes posts as long as I do. This exacerbates my problems in commenting on them. Rest assured there is much more in the article to read. So do yourself a favor and read it.

When it comes to choosing sides, I would rather find myself on the side of Pettis than Krugman. In this case, I landed solidly with Pettis, Stephen Roach, and John Mauldin.

Mike “Mish” Shedlock
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