By Dr. Warren Coats
Dr. Coats is retired from the International Monetary Fund, where he was Assistant Director of the Monetary and Capital Markets Department.
In an article titled, “When the Ideas of Thinkers and Great Statesmen Are Perverted,” John Tamny offers what he calls “a semi-brief response” to a Wall Street Journal op-ed by Sean Rushton from the Jack Kemp Foundation, “Monetary reform would rebalance trade.”
Mr. Tamny wastes no time in launching his attack with the following: “Worse were the myriad factual inaccuracies, including a Bretton Woods monetary agreement that took place after World War II. Except that it took place in 1944.” This is his only valid criticism in his not so brief discussion. As we all know, the Bretton Woods conference was in anticipation of the end of WWII and did not actually take place “after” the war. Devastating, right?
Mr. Tamny launches his more substantive critic by noting that, “To be clear, all trade balances. Always.” Whether that balance is healthy or not, however, depends on its composition. Mr. Rushton’s article is about that composition. He discusses the implications of the fact that one of the ways in which we pay for what we import is by exporting U.S. dollars. The others are exporting U.S. debt (largely government) and the ownership of American firms and other private assets. Many countries wish to hold our dollars (it is the primary international reserve asset held by central banks) because so much of world trade is priced in and paid for with USDs.
Given all the many factors that determine what we import and export, the global demand for USD as a reserve asset makes our trade deficits larger than they would otherwise be in order to supply (export) those dollars. Tamny correctly notes that “the U.S. has run ‘trade deficits’ for longer than it’s been the United States.” Obviously such deficits were not the result of the world’s demand for U.S. currency. “The U.S. always ran trade deficits precisely because it’s long been an attractive destination for investment.” In other words, other countries sold us more than they purchased in goods and services (our trade deficit) in order to earn the dollars to invest in the U.S.
But times have changed. Today, and since the U.S. left the gold standard in early 1970, most of the dollars earn abroad from our trade deficits (their surpluses) are invested in U.S. treasury securities. In short, dollars earn abroad via our trade deficits (in addition to accumulating dollars in foreign exchange reserves) are now largely invested in financing our government’s deficit spending. Even Mr. Tamny would not argue that this inflow of investment in the U.S. is contributing to our increased growth and productivity.
On the contrary, Tamny seems to be arguing exactly that. He says that: “we have a so-called “trade deficit” as a country precisely because the U.S. is a magnet for investors the world over. When we “export” shares in American companies that are routinely the most valuable in the world.” He seems to applaud selling our firms to foreigners when our government crowds out the domestic financing of our industries in order to finance our irresponsible government deficits.
Mr. Tamny is not content to label Mr. Rushton’s analysis false. He calls it “obnoxiously false” and “comically false.” Unfortunately these labels apply more accurately to Mr. Tamny.
Rushton claims and provides evidence that U.S. fiscal discipline weakened when Nixon closed the gold window. “No longer bound by fixed exchange rates and dollar convertibility, the U.S. government’s fiscal discipline broke down.” Obviously other political and demographic factors have also contributed to the alarming increases in U.S. deficits, but no longer needed to defend the dollars exchange rate removed an important constraint. To rebut Rushton’s claim and data, Tamny notes that our deficits were even higher during WWII. Truly. I am not making this up.
Turning to the dollar’s role as an international reserve asset, Mr. Tamny notes that Mr. Rushton “argues that thanks to ’high global demand,’ the ’dollar’s international position is always stronger and U.S. interest rates are lower than they would be otherwise.’” Added to all of the other factors influencing the composition of our external financial flows (our balance of payments), the world’s demand for dollars in their foreign exchange reserve holdings must increase their trade surplus (our trade deficits) or their investments in the U.S., either of which will appreciate the dollar’s exchange rate and lower interest rates in the U.S. relative to what they would other wise be. Mr. Tamny doesn’t get this. He says that Mr. Rushton “wants us to believe that a devaluation of the income streams paid out by the U.S. Treasury actually made them more attractive to investors.” I don’t really know what he means by that either.
Another of Mr. Tamny’s “obnoxiously and comically false,” or perhaps merely nonsensical statements is that: “if we ignore the obvious, that the sole purpose of production is to import as much as possible….” If he is relating production to imports, he presumably means producing for export. What we import must be paid for one way or another, i. e., by exports of goods and services, U.S. dollars for reserves, U.S. government debt, or ownership of U.S. firms.
I leave it to the reader to sort out what Mr. Tamny might mean by: “the path to a lower ’trade deficit’ is only possible if we’re willing to accept being much poorer.”
As a parting shot, Tamny mischaracterizes the views of the late Jack Kemp. Here’s what Kemp actually said, speaking in 1987:
“Why do we keep having these cycles? I believe it has to do with the burdens and privileges of the dollar’s unique international role. First, the extra demand for dollars puts a premium on their value that makes American exports less competitive. And on world markets, only a few cents means the difference between a sale and a loss. This increases our merchandise trade deficit.
“Second, the dollar’s role helps fuel Congress’s deficit spending. Foreign central banks buy U.S. Treasury securities to hold as reserves and to keep their currencies from rising—almost $100 billion in the last year and a half. This amounts to a special ‘line of credit’ that lets Congress spend resources that would otherwise be used to farm or manufacture for export. President Reagan used to say that to get Congress to spend less you have to reduce its allowance. Well, we may have reduced its allowance but we haven’t taken away its charge card. That’s one reason why every tax dollar is spent without cutting the deficit.
“Trying to compete in world markets under these conditions is like trying to run a race with a ball and chain around your ankle. We face a constant choice between giving in to pressure to let the dollar fall at the risk of inflation, or keeping interest rates high at the expense of a trade deficit and growing pressure for protectionism. This dilemma will continue until we stabilize the dollar, end the inflation/deflation cycle, and bring down interest rates with the right kind of monetary reform.”