Mitchell’s Musings 5-1-2017: Currency Manipulation 101

29 Apr 2017 3:18 PM | Daniel Mitchell (Administrator)

Mitchell’s Musings 5-1-2017: Currency Manipulation 101


Daniel J.B. Mitchell


Candidate Trump famously promised that - when elected president - he would declare China to be a currency manipulator. More recently, after meeting with president of China Xi Jinping (and apparently asking for his help on the North Korea problem), he declared that China no longer manipulates its currency. Some observers see this shift as a confirmation that the president tends to believe the last person who talks with him. Others see it as a sign of presidential learning that the world is more complicated than he had thought and that seemingly-unrelated problems (such as currency policy and North Korea) are in fact linked.


There is another issue beyond the varied analyses of presidential behavior. It’s not clear what “currency manipulation” is supposed to be. In principle, it could mean that if a country’s official monetary institution (Central Bank, Treasury) buys and sells its currency in the foreign exchange market to affect its market price, that country is manipulating its currency. Actually, many countries take some actions in foreign exchange markets to influence their exchange rates. For example, any country which has a fixed exchange rate with another country can only do so by offering to buy and sell its currency at the desired exchange rate in unlimited amounts. (The alternative is to abandon your domestic currency – as all the euro-zone countries have done – and use some other currency.) But there are many lesser forms of targeting or influencing the exchange rate.

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The International Monetary Fund (IMF) maintains a database of different currency policies followed by its member countries, as can be seen on the table above.[1] The details of what the various categories mean are not important. What is important is that only those countries listed as having currencies that are “freely floating” are not engaged in some form of buying and selling of their currencies to influence their exchange rates. So if intervening in the exchange market is deemed to be “currency manipulation,” most countries do it.


China, in particular, is said by the IMF to follow policies such that its exchange rate’s “flexibility is limited vis-à-vis (a)… basket of currencies.” Its overall currency policy is classified under “other managed arrangements,” i.e., not freely floating. The IMF also reports a variety of Chinese controls on capital transactions.[2] In short, it is hard to make a case that China’s currency is not being “manipulated” if by that word you mean the following of various official policies aimed at influencing the exchange rate.


Of course, there are legalities involved in the definition of currency manipulation. The IMF has an Article VIII which contains rules about exchange rates and what countries are allowed to do about them. But not all member states accept those obligations. And there are relatively few restrictions with any teeth. As a practical matter, your view on whether currency manipulation is occurring depends heavily on what you want to see. It’s in the eye of the beholder.


However, the complaint by candidate Trump really didn’t directly deal with currency policy. The complaint was that China was running a large trade surplus with the U.S. (its exports to the U.S. exceeded its imports from the U.S.), and that this situation was displacing jobs in the U.S. manufacturing sector. Whether the trade imbalance resulted from currency manipulation by some definition or from something else didn’t much matter.


The fact is that a country can run a trade surplus or deficit with some other country or with the rest of the world as a whole, even if it has a totally laisser-faire policy towards its exchange rate. There is nothing inherent in a freely floating exchange rate policy that precludes trade imbalances, positive or negative. Put more strongly, the charge of currency manipulation was in some sense irrelevant to candidate Trump’s complaint about the manufacturing impact.


Economists like to point to an identity from the national income accounts as the ultimate insight into determination of trade imbalances. Under national income accounting, or at least a simplified version of it, national product = national income. That is, the value of what is produced is distributed ultimately as income to someone, essentially to labor (via wages and benefits) and to capital (via interest, dividends, etc.). In addition, some income is intercepted as tax receipts by the government. On the product side:


National Product = Consumption + Investment + Government Purchases + Exports – Imports


(Note that we subtract imports from the National Product since although they may be bought as domestic consumption, investment, or government goods and services, they are not produced domestically.)


On the income side:


National Income = Consumption + Private Saving + Taxes


That is, the recipients of income either spend it, or the save it (don’t spend it), or they have it taxed away.


Since National Product = National Income, we end up with:


Private Saving + (Government Purchases – Taxes) = Exports – Imports


The term in parentheses, Government Purchases – Taxes, can be seen as the national public sector budget, i.e., public saving (which can be positive or negative). So ultimately:


National Saving – Investment = Exports – Imports


This equation, again, is an identity – it is always true because of the way we define national income and product. Because it is an identity, some folks mistakenly believe it shows that exchange rates have nothing to do with the trade balance. But that error is another story. What we do learn from this identity is that any policy that affects national saving (public or private) and/or affects national investment will have some effect on the trade balance. So, again, the presence or absence of a currency manipulation policy is really not the heart of the president’s previous dispute with China.


Similarly, if the U.S. were to follow a policy to bring the trade balance to zero (exports = imports), it would necessarily have some impact on national saving and/or investment. There would be complicated effects on income distribution and welfare. There would be winners and losers. Ultimately, to be meaningful, the identity tells us that “currency manipulation” is best viewed as a portfolio of economic policies (which can include direct intervention in foreign exchange markets) that – in the Chinese case – produces a chronic and large trade surplus with the U.S.


As has been discussed in prior musings, you can argue that much of what happened in the long run to U.S. manufacturing involved technological change, not trade. “Much of,” however, is not the same as no trade effect at all. You can argue that even if addressing the trade issue taken by itself is worth doing, if China will resolve the North Korean problem, not addressing the trade imbalance is trade-off worth making.


In fact, China’s perceived foreign policy interest with regard to North Korea has long been defusing, as opposed to resolving, the conflict. And its perceived economic interest is in not having the U.S. take unilateral action on trade. In the end, how is current trade policy with China any different that it was under Obama, Bush, and Clinton? Indeed, removing “currency manipulation” – whatever that might mean – from negotiations with China has created less leverage than possessed by the prior three presidents.

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[1] https://www.imf.org/~/media/Files/Publications/AREAER/AREAER_2016_Overview.ashx.

[2] See page 58 of the IMF online publication listed in footnote [1].

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