Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Central Bank problems - US investments, growth v/s inflation, Exchange rate hurdle

I am hearing repeated instances of global central banks now focussing on growth. Earlier, amdist the whirlwind shock wave of global economic downturn and rising oil prices, central bankers chose to slow the economy with a use of lagged monetary policy instruments. Now as oil and commodity prices subside, central banks look to fan the growth fires again. I believe most of it is a farce. Particularly so in case of China. Brad DeLong links to James Fallow's take on China in two parts first part and second part here. I think James Fallow has mis-interpreted the situation.
Formula economics
Emerging economies learnt the formula for growth in the past decade. It involved promoting investment and job creation, encouraging spending thereby triggering a virtuous cycle of development. This formula is great to initiate or prime the economy - but it is poor mechanism for transmission of wealth across income classes. Savings and host of economic factors ensure that the distribution of wealth so generated is lop-sided favouring the higher-income class.
The mistake
Most of the economies seems to have decided that answer to rising in-equality is in faster-higher-better priming. Partly, they cast their economies in the mould of market-share winning corporates. And like corporates these economies are intent on keeping "costs" down. The resultant "profits" were enormous and increasing. But there was a little difference with normal corporates. The employees of normal corporates interact back with the market. But employees of this nation-corporate only interact with themselves. (Either because of direct or indirect trade barrier like managed exchange rates) Therefore the higher profits could not be channeled into stake-holders - due to fear of inflation. So these had to be invested somewhere. So it is that this enormous forever-swelling pool of money found its way into US assets. Pushing the US consumer to carry this "little" extra burden. Then the unthinkable happened - US broke down - it was the last (Yuan) straw that broke the US back.
Where will Central banks find growth?
Now central banks are looking for growth. Now the same old principles wont apply. US consumer is not going to take any more burden. New consumers will have to be introduced into the system. China and India - these two countries who can inject tremendous amount of vitality into the system because of sheer numbers. But at current exchange rates both China and India are too small to carry the burden of US consumer.
Exchange rate correction will wipe out USD investment
As mentioned in yesterday's post, exchange rate revaluation will impact at least 2 trillion of China holdings. Opening the domestic market to world will further deplete this reserve. China will find itself in apparantly bad situation (first-order effect is pain). Fundamentally however this situation will better address the income discrepancy than its current policy - through third and fourth order effects. Yet can any country set aside the pain. I doubt - rather this will trigger a battle for consumer.
A confusing implication
Now there is a reverse implication of this. The "real" savings estimated in terms of purchaing power of future goods - will decline so long as exchange rate barriers dont break. This while savings are actually rising and inflation is low - and exchange rates are pegged. Anecdotally we can see amount of money required to maintain lifestyle is increasing faster than what inflation and wealth increase are telling us.
Key take-away
Exchange rate is key hurdle - from multiple sides - in addition to conventional fundamental reasons. There is going to be lot of pressure on Yuan at-least. Thats why my higher conviction on Yuan appreciation.

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Notes:
#) Some ideas half -developed - but important to highlight so posted half-baked.
#) James Fallow asked straight questions - I call them level 1 questions - we need to ask level 2 questions. E.g. relative pay-of to Chinese worker should be made in PPP terms or relative to China income distribution.
#) Just as I finished this I get this amazing article at Vox by Robert Dekle, Jonathan Eaton and Samuel Kortum. Will comment on it later.