Currencies: war, tragedy or farce?

February 8, 2011

Call it what you like — war, tragedy or farce — but the disagreement over global currency exchange rates shows no sign of coming to a peaceful negotiated agreement.

Asked last week if loose Federal Reserve monetary policy was to blame for inflation in emerging markets, Ben Bernanke stoutly denied that it was anything to do with him, maintaining in central banker-speak that he’d been tucked up in bed at home at the time.

“I think it’s entirely unfair to attribute excess demand pressures in emerging markets to U.S. monetary policy, because emerging markets have all the tools they need to address excess demand in those countries,” the Fed chief told reporters assembled at the National Press Club in Washington.

“It’s really up to emerging markets to find appropriate tools to balance their own growth.”

Now on the face of it, that statement is a nonsense: regardless of emerging markets, like say, China, having tools at their disposal to put out the fire of domestic inflation, it is still possible, even likely, that Fed policy is partly responsible for widespread commodity price pressures.

Bernanke is right that rising living standards in emerging markets play an important role in price pressures and right too to point out that emerging markets have unused tools at their disposal.

“They can, for example, use monetary policy of their own. They can adjust their exchange rates, which is something that they’ve been reluctant to do in some cases,” Mr Bernanke said.

Bernanke argued that inflation in the U.S. did not yet appear to be a threat while high rates of unemployment were. Unsaid in this is that China’s policy of artificially keeping the yuan cheap has played a role in high rates of U.S. unemployment.

The U.S. stepped up its rhetoric against Chinese policy in a report from the Treasury Department last week, stopping short of labeling China a currency manipulator but calling the yuan “substantially undervalued” and complaining that “progress thus far is insufficient and that more rapid progress is needed.”

China for its part seems utterly unlikely to do very much to substantially address the issue of a weak yuan, based both on its track record and recent body language.

The truth is that this is a dangerous and destructive way to manage competing global interests, dangerous both in terms of the threats of inflation and hunger and destructive in the ways that Chinese policy has helped to distort the global economy over the past decade, albeit with a massive helping hand from overly loose U.S. policy.

No one should expect the rest of the world to sit by as the dueling Chinese and American policies spray stray bullets into the crowd.

French Finance Minister Christine Lagarde on Sunday was forthright, blaming a, for her, highly inconvenient strength in the euro on the U.S and the Chinese.

“We must reform the international monetary system so that the euro is not caught in the middle, hit by the expense of trade-offs between two currencies that are deliberately weak,” Ms. Lagarde said in an interview on French television.

And while the word “China” did not pass his lips, U.S. Treasury Secretary Geithner’s meaning was clear on Monday on a visit to Brazil:

“Brazil is seeing a surge in capital inflows. This is happening for two reasons. First, investors around the world see Brazil growing at a faster pace and offering higher rates of return relative to other major economies. But these flows have been magnified by the policies of other emerging economies that are trying to sustain undervalued currencies, with tightly controlled exchange rate regimes.”

That is both true and not true; Chinese policy is terrible for Brazilian industry, threatening to turn the country into a larder for natural resources while suppressing other exports, but a lot of the money which is flooding the country and pressuring its currency upward is part of a huge carry trade that is directly attributable to U.S. monetary policy.

In this way perhaps the real risk of the currency skirmishes is that all countries are so focused on getting their share of global growth that they fail to take individual steps to control inflation, and thus allow it to grow rapidly in a way that proves difficult to control.

It does not have to work out that way; an inflation shock that does not become self-reinforcing will kill asset returns but whittle down debts in a very useful way.

The truth though is many countries are all trying to control the same knife at the same time and that is a tough way to whittle.

(At the time of publication James Saft did not own any direct investments in securities mentioned in this article. He may be an owner indirectly as an investor in a fund. Email:


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[...] Currencies: war, tragedy or farce?Reuters Blogs (blog)Now on the face of it, that statement is a nonsense: regardless of emerging markets, like say, China, having tools at their disposal to put out the fire of … [...]

[...] Currencies: war, tragedy or farce?Reuters Blogs (blog)Now on the face of it, that statement is a nonsense: regardless of emerging markets, like say, China, having tools at their disposal to put out the fire of … [...]

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