The Trump administration’s zero-sum approach to international relations is now spilling over from trade to currency wars. After spending the best part of his 2016 campaign and the first three years of his presidency railing against foreign countries taking advantage of the United States on trade, Trump and his administration have started complaining in the past few months about currency manipulation. In doing so, it is bringing us back to the 1990s, or even the 1930s.
Since World War Two and the Bretton Woods agreements that established the post-war dollar-centric global financial system, the dollar has been the pre-eminent vehicle (reserve/international) currency. The dollar accounts for over 60% of global foreign exchange reserves and 80% of world trade is dollar-denominated, as are 100% of the global transactions in oil and other commodities. Moreover, the chronic U.S. external deficits have provided global markets with abundant dollar liquidity.
I returned to Europe this week to hear views from the other side of the pond, as US trade policy continues not just to pivot, but to spin. There is no doubt that a major reset of key trading relationships is now underway with implications for currencies worldwide. As the US economy seems to be outpacing growth everywhere except in China and India, will US monetary policy have unintended global spillover effects, especially for emerging markets? And more direct effects from trade policy in developed nations? European PMI figures announced today are down to 2-year lows.
One of the oft-repeated themes of Candidate (then President) Trump is that the world has been taking advantage of us at every turn, and that China is the main culprit. The evidence presented is that China has been systematically manipulating its currency to boost its exports and discourage imports, thus contributing to the massive U.S trade deficit. However, the evidence is a dollar short and a couple of years late. If anything, China has been struggling in the past 18 months to prevent its currency from depreciating too rapidly.
Recent actions by Chinese authorities to rein in stock market volatility, depreciate the RMB and generally arrest actions they view as adverse to achieving requisite GDP growth raise questions that may end up overshadowing the worry about the economy’s fundamentals.
Authorities’ actions are giving rise to questions about the credibility of those who make the decisions and the capacity of those who advocate reforms to withstand pressures to achieve 7% GDP growth at all costs.