Thursday, April 22, 2010

Exchange Rate Conundrum

There is a great deal of talk about pressurizing China to appreciate its currency. The talk is bunk. The idea behind Chinese currency appreciation is not simply about China but it is about an exchange rate regime change. Asking China to let its currency appreciate in isolation will achieve nothing.

The old regime, dominated by US Dollar and other western currencies, was installed through higher savings and purchasing power (ability and intent). The intent to consume remains strong in the western economies. But the ability is seriously impaired due to lack of savings. So the old regime is falling unless we do something about it.

On the other side, a new regime is yet to emerge. China and eastern countries have higher savings rate (ability to spend), but seem to be lacking the intent. It is believed that the savings rate is excessive and may translate into consumption. Michael Pettis, professor from Peking University, believes this savings rate cannot rapidly translate into consumption. The savings are earmarked for social security, pension and education. Thus the demand that we expect from China or other eastern countries will not be that high. In other words, to be a strong consumer for the world, China will need much higher savings and purchasing power.

A rising currency can reinforce purchasing power for any economy. Importing capital goods becomes cheaper. Importing key raw materials becomes easier. There are lot of cost efficiencies that are generated. However, it exposes the economy to competition from overseas. It means employment is threatened. If economy has large population at lower incomes then it reduces consumption at national level. This is a good move for an economy where income pyramid is fatter in middle. It is natural that China would feel threatened by such a move.

There is other way to sustain the economy in appreciating currency environment. This stems from Porter’s competitive advantage of nations. Economies should start building sustaining competitive advantages. Low labour cost is not a sustainable advantage; rather it is a self-cancelling strategy over long term. The answers lie in Germany, in all likelihood.

In sum, it is time to establish a new regime based on fundamentals rather than managed currencies.  In such a regime, those with purchasing power will have stronger currencies than those without. There has to be global agreement on this regime to make it effective. Without it, we are going to wander aimlessly as far as exchange rate scenario is concerned.

My book "Subverting Capitalism & Democracy - Systemic faults that caused the financial crisis" is available on Amazon.