Elizabeth Warren Is Right on Currency Values (see Second Addendum)11th June 2019
Elizabeth Warren’s proposal to raise the value of the Chinese yuan and other currencies against the dollar is not getting good reviews in the media from economists. As can be expected, some of the arguments are pretty strange.
As the usually astute Noah Smith tells it in his Bloomberg piece, the problem with the trade deficit is:
“U.S. consumers are consistently living beyond their means, which seems unsustainable.”
The implication is that if the trade deficit were lower than we would be forced to cut back consumption. But the major problem the United States has faced over the last decade, according to many economists, is “secular stagnation,” which is an obscure way of saying, not enough demand.
Contrary to what Smith tells us, U.S. consumers are not living beyond their means, rather we actually need them to spend more money to bring the economy to full employment. To be more precise, we need them to spend more in the domestic economy, to increase demand here as opposed to in our trading partners. (We can also bring the economy to full employment by having the government spend more money on things like health care or a green new deal.)
Smith also disagrees with Warren’s mechanism for getting the dollar down, which involves a mixture of negotiations and threats of countervailing measures. The idea is that the biggest actor is China, who for some reason it is assumed would never agree to raise the value of its currency. CNN raises similar concerns. This view seems badly off the mark.
First, it is assumed in both pieces that China is no longer acting to deliberately keep down the value of the yuan against the dollar, even though most economists now concede that it deliberately depressed the value of its currency to maintain large trade surpluses in the last decade. (They did not acknowledge China’s currency management at the time.)
It is wrong to claim that China is not now acting to keep down the value of the yuan. While it is no longer buying large amounts of dollars and other currencies, it holds a stock of more than $3 trillion in reserves, which is well over $4 trillion if we add in its sovereign wealth fund.
This huge stock of foreign assets has the effect of depressing the value of the yuan against the dollar in the same way that the Fed’s holding of more than $3 trillion is assets helps to keep down interest rates. While few economists question that the Fed’s holding of assets leads to lower long-term rates than would otherwise be the case, they seem to deny that China’s holding of a large stock of foreign assets has similar effects in currency markets.
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