Competing with China

China is now our main economic and political rival. Our proper and honorable response should be to strengthen our side—to be the best that we can be—in the way that one athletic team would fairly compete with another. Instead, we seem to be following the Michael Corleone—God Father—script of knee capping the enemy. Worse still, rather than pulling China into compliance with the international rules of commerce, we are moving toward their failing system of central guidance (industrial policy) of investment.

Deng Xiaoping, who served as the “paramount leader” of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) from December 1978 to November 1989, ended Mao’s repressive economic policies thus freeing up much of the economy under policies dubbed “socialism with Chinese characteristics.” Deng became known as the “Architect of Modern China.” “Since China began to open up and reform its economy in 1978, GDP growth has averaged almost 10 percent a year, and more than 800 million people have lifted themselves out of poverty.” When Xi Jinping took the throne in 2013, China’s annual GDP growth rate was 7.8%. As he increasingly reversed Deng’s economic liberalizations, China’s growth rate has steadily declined and is expected to average 2.8% in 2022. “World Bank – China”

The dramatic economic growth around the world since the start of the industrial revolution is founded in private property and trade. Trade enables individuals (and families) to specialize in what they have a comparative advantage in producing and trade it for what their neighbors are better at. Both are wealthier as a result. “Econ-101-Trade in very simple terms”    “Benefits of free trade”

Following President Richard Nixon’s page turning first visit to the Peoples Republic of China in 1972, when China’s total exports had drifted down from 4.3% of China’s GDP in 1960 ($2.6 billion) to 3.25% ($3.7 billion), until the U.S. formally established full diplomatic relations with the PRC under Deng in 1979, when its total exports were 5.16% of its GDP ($9.2 billion), exports remained a small part of China’s economic output. U.S. diplomatic recognition opened the door to increased trade with China.

At the time, a friend asked me what China could possibly produce that we would want to buy (I swear). While Chica’s exports changed little over those 19 years as a share of its GDP, it increased threefold in dollar value as a result of Chica’s overall economic growth.

Over the next 19 years (1979-1998) following Deng’s economic liberalization, China’s exports rose to 18.34% of its GDP and to $188.8 billion in absolute terms (over 20 times its exports in 1979). Income growth in developing countries normally reflect investment in capital, but in China’s case the larger share of its spectacular growth after its liberalization resulted from the improved efficiency of its resource allocations (increased labor and capital productivity). According to an IMF study “Analysis of the pre- and post-1978 periods indicates that the market-oriented reforms undertaken by China were critical in creating this productivity boom…. Prior to the 1978 reforms, nearly four in five Chinese worked in agriculture; by 1994, only one in two did. Reforms expanded property rights in the countryside and touched off a race to form small nonagricultural businesses in rural areas.” “Why Is China Growing So Fast”

But to maximize the win-win feature of trade, each person/firm must make its decisions about what to produce and trade without distorting outside interference (taxes, subsidies, buy American, etc.). Thus, communities develop rules and norms for “fair” trade. When trade extended beyond the community to the entire world, individuals and countries could maximize the mutual benefits of trade by extending such rules internationally. The U.S. had high protective tariffs on some Chinese goods under the Smoot–Hawley Tariff Act of 1930 (the Reciprocal Trade Agreements Act of 1934 allowed the US President to negotiate bilateral tariff reductions). China had many restrictions on foreign investments in China and a variety of government interventions in its export markets. These restrictive measures needed to be addressed as part of granting China membership in the World Trade Organization (WTO).

From joining the WTO at the end of 2001, China’s $272.1 billion in exports exploded to almost $3,550 billion over the next 19 years (2020), an increase of 13 times (essentially the same share of its GDP as the result of its extraordinary growth in total output). China’s imports followed a similar, but modestly lower, path, raising from 4.4% of GDP ($2.6 billion) to 17.42% of GDP ($3.090 billion) in 2020.  Prior to China’s admission into the WTO what had historically been generally balanced trade (imports and exports generally balanced) rose to a trade surplus of 4.45% in 1997. China sold more abroad than it bought from abroad and bought U.S. debt and property with the resulting surplus. It was hoped and expected that China’s pursuit of an export promotion policy based on an undervaluation of its exchange rate would be reined in by its adoption of WTO rules.

The Peoples Bank of China requested technical assistance from the IMF with complying with WTO requirements. In July 2002 the IMF sent me to discuss and organize the assistance for what was one of my most enjoyable missions (VIP tours of the Great Wall and the Forbidden City and some fabulous dinners). They wanted an American banking supervisor. One of my conditions was that he be given an office with an open door with the rest of the Chinese supervisors. The Deputy Governor approved our agreement, but the Governor vetoed it reflecting the existence of conflicting views on China’s way forward. The primary difference with the officials I talked to was how fast China should liberalize. They all agreed on the direction. The IMF report cited above stated that: “By welcoming foreign investment, China’s open-door policy has added power to the economic transformation. Cumulative foreign direct investment, negligible before 1978, reached nearly US$100 billion in 1994; annual inflows increased from less than 1 percent of total fixed investment in 1979 to 18 percent in 1994.” Direct foreign investment in 1994 was $34 billion and in 2020 it was $253 billion.

China’s gradual liberalization of its restrictions on capital outflows have resulted in larger outflows than inflows since early 2020. Between February and July of this year (2022), China suffered a record net outflow of US$81 billion via the Stock Connect and Bond Connect mechanisms, according to data from the Institute of International Finance (IIF). 

As developing countries catch up to the developed country leaders, their growth rates are expected to slow. But China’s continued heavy government direction of investment, while producing impressive high-speed trains and many thousands of high-rise apartments, and the resulting level of wasteful malinvestment is increasingly taking its toll. After speaking at a People’s Bank of China and Reinventing Bretton Woods conference in Hangzhou in 2014, I continued West to participate in the Astana Economic Forum, in Astana, Kazakhstan, stopping overnight in Urumqi, China, to celebrate my 72 birthday and change planes. Driving from the airport into a lovely Sheraton Hotel in downtown Urumqi, I passed row upon row of empty high-rise apartments (it was evening, and they were all dark) now the source of a major real estate crisis.

When Xi Jinping took over as China’s leader in 2013, the unfinished project of economic liberalization was stopped and put into reverse. The slowing of China’s growth rate accelerated. Clyde Prestowitz reported that: “The CCP [Chinese Communist Party] has long operated the economy on the basis of five year plans. In 2015, the new five year plan included the objective of: Made in China 2025. It listed a range of hi technology items with a target for making them in China by the year 2025. Semiconductors were high on the list, and as an advisor at the time to Intel, I can say that China exerted enormous pressure on that company and many others to move their production of semiconductor chips to China” “Tom Friedman has Biden and China Backward”

We are competing with China just as every firm competes with every other firm. It is mutually advantageous for both economies to grow. It is win win. But neither of us fully plays by the rules of fair trade. What should we do? While adopting policies to strengthen our own economy, we should encourage China to fulfil its WTO obligations. We are doing the opposite. We are taking the God Father mobster approach. As Edward Luce put it in the Financial Times: “Imagine that a superpower declared war on a great power and nobody noticed. Joe Biden this month launched a full-blown economic war on China — all but committing the US to stopping its rise — and for the most part, Americans did not react”  “Containing China is Biden’s Explicit Goal”

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz declared that “Globalisation has been a success story that enabled prosperity for many people. We must defend it…. Decoupling is the wrong answer…. 

We don’t have to decouple from some countries,… I say emphatically we must continue to do business with China.” “Decoupling China wrong answer says German leader”

“Mr. Xi and President Biden should focus their efforts on the future they seek, rather than the one they fear…. If a peaceful — if competitive — coexistence is the ultimate objective, Washington and Beijing do not need to knock each other out to win.” Jessica Chen Weiss in NY Times

We are restricting and reducing trade rather than encouraging its expansion. Not only has President Biden left former President Trump’s unjustified and damaging steel and aluminum tariffs in place (including on Canada) on national security grounds, but we have also directly knee-capped Chinese industries (Huawei, semiconductor chip supplies, etc.). “On 7 October, the Biden administration imposed a sweeping set of export controls that included measures to cut China off from certain semiconductor chips and chip-making equipment. Under these rules, US companies must cease supplying Chinese chipmakers with equipment that can produce relatively advanced chips unless they first obtain a licence.” “What do US curbs on selling microchips to China mean for the global economy”

Historically, such measures, as well as tariffs and bans on certain imports, have been motivated by protecting domestic firms or industries. “The Reign of Polite Protectionism”  The Jones Act of 1917, which forbids shipping goods between US ports in anything other than US built ships, is one of the most useless and embarrassing such laws (ask Puerto Rico). Banning the sale of some items to China can have a military justification but drawing the line between justifiable security concerns and the protection of uncompetitive domestic firms can be difficult. Trump’s 25% tariff on Canadian steel was (but cannot honestly be) justified on national security grounds. Whither justified or not, such restrictions make China and the U.S. (and the rest of the world) poorer. “Next salvo in Biden’s tech war on China expected to aim at quantum computing parts and artificial intelligence software.”  “US mulling bans to stunt China’s quantum computing”  Such restriction are examples of the knee-capping approach to competing with our rivals. “Trade protection and corruption”

But worse still we are now increasingly adopting China’s approach to economic management by the state—so called industrial policy. The recently adopted Inflation Reduction Act, for example, along with measures to reduce carbon omissions, subsidizes the domestic production of solar panels, wind turbines, batteries, and the processing of some critical minerals. A good economic case can be made for encouraging the use of low or non-carbon emitting sources of energy such as with the carbon taxes imposed in Europe. But there is no good case for incurring the higher cost of subsidizing the manufacture of low carbon emitting energy sources in the U.S. The same applies to subsidizing the domestic production of semiconductor chips as is established in this Act. The historical experience with government selection and support of particular products or technologies is not good to say the least. The Trump administration’s promise to buy successful Covid vaccines was a much better and very successful approach to encouraging the private sector.

“French President Emmanuel Macron slammed US trade and energy policies for creating “a double standard” with Europe…. He complained that ‘they allow state aid going to up to 80% on some sectors while it’s banned here — you get a double standard…. It comes down to the sincerity of transatlantic trade….’ The EU has been chafing over the US stimulus package known as the Inflation Reduction Act, which provides subsidies for electric cars made in North America.” “Macron accuses US of trade double standard amid energy crunch”

The financial incentive for corruption in obtaining government financial support is obvious. But even without it, government agents are at best just as good at determining and funding the best new and promising technologies for the future as are private entrepreneurs. The difference is that the private entrepreneurs are risking their own money and the government is risking yours and my money. The vast majority of such undertakings fail. When funded by the government, however, there is less financial pressure to fold and move on when outcompeted by better products. The government landscape is littered with white elephants.  “Questioning industrial policy”

Our China related policies have become damaging to the US and the West in almost every respect. “The China Initiative, launched in 2018 by the administration of former US president Donald Trump, aimed to fight suspected Chinese theft of technical secrets and intellectual property as competition between the two countries intensified…. At least 1,400 US-based ethnic Chinese scientists switched their affiliation last year from American to Chinese institutions,… The US had been ‘losing talent to China for a while and particularly after the China Initiative’,” “1400 US based ethnic Chinese scientists exited American institutions”  Not only do they return with Western technical knowledge but they also return with a fondness for Western values and freedom. Many Chinese retain that fondness and the desire to import more of it into China. We should not kill off those desires.

Doug Bandow offers sound advice: “There is still much for the West to do. The future is not set, and contra Xi’s boastful rhetoric, freedom still is the better bet for the world. Washington should start by addressing its own weaknesses. Free and allied states can constrain the PRC when necessary while cooperating with Beijing when possible, addressing Chinese abuses without adopting the PRC’s authoritarian and collectivist strategies. Americans should continue to engage the Chinese people, especially the young, showing respect for a great civilization while making the case for a free rather than totalitarian society. America can remember the crises she has overcome in the past, and confidently confront the China challenge today.” “Xi plays Mao without the madness”

The Empire and the Dollar

Committee for the Republic Salon

March 24, 2022

Warren Coats[1]

In our multicurrency world, the U.S. dollar is widely used for pricing internationally traded goods, for international payments, and for denominating the assets governments and companies hold as reserves. Why is that and what are its implications for U.S. behavior? What would a better system look like?

In a world of many different national currencies, the payment for international trade has found economy in using an intermediate, so-called vehicle currency to facilitate the exchange of the buyer’s currency into and delivery of the seller’s currency. Following the collapse in 1971 of the dollar-based gold exchange standard overseen by the International Monetary Fund, the dollar continues to dominate in this role. This role has given the United States important political power and financial benefits.

I will quickly review these benefits, and how they have come to encourage the U.S. to exploit them in exercising its international power, the forces that are building to seek an alternative, and the potential for the IMF’s Special Drawing Rights (SDRs) to provide an alternative.

The Dollar’s International Reserve Status

Cross border commerce and investments require a common currency to price and denominate them and the mechanisms for cross border payments. While modern technologies continue to increase the speed and ease and lower the cost of domestic payments of domestic currencies, cross border payments remain relatively slow and costly.

The payment and receipt of a currency is ultimately reflected/settled on the books of that currency’s issuer. If I pay you for something and your account is in a different bank than mine, the transfer of funds from my bank to your bank and to you will pass through a Federal Reserve Bank. My bank’s account at the Fed will be debited and yours will be credited.  A fundamental difference between national and international currencies is that the central bank issuers of national currencies only hold deposits for banks that are domestically licensed, while the issuers of international currencies, such as the Special Drawing Right (SDR) of the International Monetary Fund, hold deposits from banks almost anywhere in the world, enabling the settlement of their payments to enjoy the efficiencies of domestic payments in domestic currencies.

The older gold standard functioned more like an international central bank issuer of currencies but without such an international central bank. Instead, national currencies were tied to gold by virtue of the commitment of central banks on the gold standard to redeem their currency for gold at a fixed price. Thus, any net flow of payments from one country to another was ultimately settled by transferring the ownership of the gold it was fixed to from the deficit to the surplus country. This could occur by debiting the deficit country’s gold account at the New York Federal Reserve Bank and crediting the surplus country’s gold account at the same place or by physically shipping the gold.

In today’s world, cross border payments generally involve the need to exchange one currency for another at exchange rates that fluctuate. To facilitate the comparison of prices of globally traded goods (e.g., oil, gold, copper, and other commodities) they are generally priced in one common currency. The U.S. dollar is the currency most widely used for this purpose (79%). This contributes to the use of the dollar for cross boarder payments as well even when the buyer’s currency differs from the seller’s ultimate currency (the currency paid to its workers, etc.). https://www.federalreserve.gov/econres/notes/feds-notes/the-international-role-of-the-u-s-dollar-20211006.htm

Some economy is brought to the markets for foreign exchange needed for cross boarder payments by using a common so called vehicle currency as a common go between. The adoption by airlines of a hub and spoke model for connecting all airports in a country or the world illustrates the economy of a single or small number of vehicle currencies (hubs) to exchange currency X for currency Y. The U.S. dollar is the most widely used vehicle currency for this purpose. This is supported by and reflected in the dominance of the dollar in invoicing internationally traded goods and in the foreign exchange reserves of banks (central and commercial) around the world. The Euro is the second most used currency in these ways.

In 2021 40.5% of international payments were made in US dollars.  The use of Euros in international payments and in reserves has moved up to second place behind the dollar at 36.7% of payments.  The Pound sterling is a distant third at 5.9%. Having passed the Japanese yen a few years back for fourth place the Chinese RMB achieved 3.2% of international payments in January of this year from almost zero a decade ago. “China’s currency scores a win during the Olympics”  The Federal Reserve has constructed an “aggregate index of international currency usage.” The dollar has remained in the neighborhood of 70% for the last two decades. https://www.federalreserve.gov/econres/notes/feds-notes/the-international-role-of-the-u-s-dollar-20211006.htm

To pay for things with a currency, one must hold some amount of that currency. It is this demand for dollar reserves resulting from the widespread international invoicing and payments in dollars, that underlies foreign financing of US debt. For starters, about half of dollar currency (actual banknotes) are held abroad. That is the extent to which we pay for imports with cash and the sellers just hold the cash. Foreign central banks hold almost 13 trillion dollars in foreign exchange reserves of which over 7 trillion is in U.S. dollars (much of that is held in the form of US government debt). About 60% of the foreign currency claims of banks are dollar claims.

The dollar grew into its vehicle and reserve currency roles because of the size of the U.S. economy and its extensive trade with the rest of the world, the size and liquidity of financial assets denominated in dollars, public confidence in the stability of the dollar’s purchasing power, and in its trusted contract enforcement (rule of law).

U.S. Benefits from reserve currency status

The so-called exorbitant privilege of a reserve currency–the ability to borrow abroad in your own currency–makes it easier for the U.S. government to finance its military and other expenditures with debt. For countries to accumulate dollar reserves they must have a balance of payments surplus, i.e., they must sell more to the U.S. than they buy from the U.S.. As a result, American’s enjoy cheaper imports and the excess of dollars paid for such imports over those paid back for US exports are held in foreign reserves (generally in the form of US treasury debt).

As an aside, it is simply wrong to attribute much of the so-called offshoring of our manufacturing to the above phenomenon. The somewhat lower exchange rate for the dollar needed to generate the surplus China and other countries need for the trade surplus with which they buy American debt, does make imports somewhat cheaper. However, even if the dollar was totally replaced in foreign reserves and trade balanced, we would continue to be better off producing what we export and importing what China and the others produce and sell to us. Freely pursuing our comparative advantages increases our incomes and the incomes of the Chinese and others selling to us. Free trade is win-win. Contrary to the myth, U.S. manufacturing is at an all-time high. (Manufacturing employment is lower because of increased labor productivity). https://www.macrotrends.net/countries/USA/united-states/manufacturing-output

The U.S. dollar’s dominance in global trade and finance contributes to the existence of the American Empire in two ways. It attracts foreign financing of the U.S. government and its military industrial complex thus reducing the burden of the empire on the American taxpayer and it provides a tool by which the U.S. can impose its will on other countries or individuals in managing its empire. Borrowing to pay our government’s bills is politically easier than raising taxes and avoids (or delays) a debate over guns versus butter. 

Three factors now challenge the dollars reserve currency role. 1) Cumbersome payment technology: Existing arrangements for cross border payments via the Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication (SWIFT) are technically crude and outmoded. 2) Weaponization of the dollar: The U.S. has abused the importance of its currency for cross border payments to force compliance with its policy preferences not always shared by other countries, by threatening to block the use of the dollar. 3) Growing risk of a decline in the dollar’s value: The growing expectation of dollar inflation and the skyrocketing increase in the U.S. fiscal deficit are increasing the risk of holding and dealing in dollars.

The first factor–payment technology–is temporary. It is being modernized. While payment technology (ease, speed, security, and cost of making cross border payments) is important, it is not as important as the features of the currency being paid. As a currency, the dollar excels for the reasons given earlier.

The second factor–weaponization of the dollar–has been growing in importance as the U.S. has increasingly sanctioned trade and dollar payments without broad international support–Iran, etc.  The EU has sought work arounds in Euros. China and Russia are building alternative payment arrangement using China’s Renminbi. Even with the dramatic increase in coordinated sanctions against Russia, restricting the use of dollars is less effective than directly blocking trade. https://wcoats.blog/2022/03/04/how-to-stop-russia-in-ukraine/  The broad support for sanctions on Russia more likely increases support from the dollar as the dominant international currency rather than reducing it. On the other hand, those on the other side (e.g., Russia and China) will work harder to find alternatives. The balance of these contradictory forces is difficult to assess.

The third factor has never been taken very seriously until now. At the end of February (2022) the US national debt was over 30.1 trillion dollars or 125% of US output (GDP). Federal government interest payments on its net debt were $426 billion per annum. But with the increase in inflation, interest rates are rising. Uncle Sam’s debt service payments are likely to double or triple over the next five to ten years, rising to 15% to 20% of the Federal budget. The world still expects the US to regain control of its spending, but the risks of default are creeping up. Paul “Samuelson stated in 2005 that at some uncertain future period these pressures would precipitate a run against the U.S. dollar with serious global financial consequences.” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/International_use_of_the_U.S._dollar

It is the second factor, US abuse of its ability to sanction the use of the dollar that is most threatening to push the dollar over the cliff.

The Alternative to the dollar

An internationally defined and issued currency would have a number of advantages over the use of a national currency for cross border payments.

While the value of the dollar has been quite stable for many years, using a basket of major currencies for pricing internationally traded goods and financial instruments would be even more stable. This is what the International Monetary Fund’s unit of account–the Special Drawing Rights (SDR)– offers. The value of one SDR is equal to the current market value of fixed amounts of the US Dollar, Euro, British pound, Japanese yen, and Chinese yuan. Thus, its widespread use for pricing internationally traded goods and financial instruments would provide even greater stability than would any one of these currencies. Every morning when I check movements in the price of oil, I must ask myself whether it was really a change in the price of oil or in the exchange rate of the dollar. See my: “Why the World Needs a Reserve Asset with a Hard Anchor”

The IMF’s SDR can only be held and used by member central banks and a few international bodies. Thus, private SDRs–so called Market SDRs–are needed for payments by the private sector (perhaps issued by the IMF or the BIS). Being issued by an international body, such Market SDRs would have the equivalent of a central bank for settling cross boarder payments allowing the simplifications and economy increasingly available for domestic payments in the domestic currency. `

Moreover, as an internationally issued currency the SDR would be far better protected from the political abuse increasingly experienced with the US dollar and might be expected with the Chinese RMB or other national currencies.

Getting from here to there

But first things first. Before considering the reform of the international monetary system, let’s consider the reform of the dollar–the reform of U.S. monetary policy. The price of the dollar should be fixed to a hard anchor and issued according to currency board rules.

During the heydays of the gold standard (1820-1913) international trade flourished dramatically increasing global incomes and reducing poverty. According to Antoni Estevadeordal, Brian Frantz and Alan M. Taylor “Until 1913 the rise of the gold standard and the fall in transport costs were the main trade-creating forces.” https://www.jstor.org/stable/25053910  However, to cope with WWI, the Great Depression, and WWII, the gold standard failed and was abandoned because of weaknesses in banking systems and because the countries that fixed the value of their currencies to gold did not fully play by the gold standard’s rules.

Under a strict gold standard, the central bank would issue and redeem its currency whenever anyone bought it for gold at the official price of gold. In fact, however, by actively buying and selling (or lending) its currency for other assets whenever it thought appropriate, the Federal Reserve’s monetary liabilities (base money) were partially backed by U.S. treasury bills and other assets. In addition, the fractional reserve banking system allowed banks to create deposit money that was also not backed by gold. The market’s ability to redeem dollars for gold kept the market value of gold close to its official dollar value. However, the gap between the Fed’s monetary liabilities and its gold backing grew until the market (most conspicuously, France) lost confidence in the Fed’s ability to honor its redemption commitment and President Nixon closed the “gold window” in 1971 rather than tighten monetary policy.

Currency Board Rules

A reformed monetary system that returns to a hard anchor (firmly fixed price of the currency for gold or some other asset) should require the Fed to adhere strictly to currency board rules. Such rules oblige a central bank to buy and sell its currency at a set price in response to public demand. Under the Gold Standard, the price of the currency was set as an amount of gold (a gold anchor). For existing currency boards, the price is typically an amount of another currency or basket of currencies. See my book on the establishment of the Central Bank of Bosnia and Herzegovina (“One currency for Bosnia-creating the Central Bank of Bosnia and Herzegovina”).    The Fed would provide the amount of dollars demanded by the market by passively buying and selling them at the dollar’s officially fixed price for its anchor. All traditional open market operations by the Fed in the forms of active purchases and sales of T-bills or other assets would be forbidden.

The Anchor

Another weakness of the historical gold standard was that the price of the anchor, based on one single commodity, varied relative to other goods, services and wages. While the purchasing power of the gold dollar was relatively stable over long periods of time, gold did not prove a stable anchor over shorter periods relevant for investment.

Expanding the anchor from one commodity to a basket of 5 to 10 commodities with greater collective stability relative to the goods and services people actually buy (as measured by, e.g., the CPI index), would reduce this volatility. The basket would consist of fixed amounts of each of these commodities and their collective market value would define the value of one dollar.  There have been similar proposals in the past, but the high transaction and storage costs of dealing with all the goods in the valuation basket doomed them. However, with indirect redeemability discussed next, the valuation basket would not suffer from this problem.

Indirect redeemability

Historically, gold and silver standards obliged the monetary authority to buy and sell its currency for actual gold or silver. If the dollar price of gold in the market was higher than its official price, people would buy gold at the central bank increasing its market supply and reducing the money supply until the market price came down again. These precious metals had to be stored and guarded at considerable cost. More importantly, taking large amounts of gold and silver off the market distorted their price by creating an artificial demand for them. A new gold standard would see the relative price of gold rising over time due to the increasing cost of discovery and extraction. The fixed dollar price of gold means that the dollar prices of everything else would fall (deflation). While the predictability of the value of money is one of its most important qualities, stability of its value, such as approximately zero inflation, is also desirable.

Indirect redeemability eliminates these shortcomings of the traditional gold standard. Indirect redeemability means that currency is issued or redeemed for assets of equal market value rather than the actual anchor commodities.  Market actors would still have an arbitrage profit incentive to keep the supply of money appropriate for its official value.  As the economy grows and the demand for money increases, this mechanism would increase the money supply as people sell their T-bills to the Fed for additional dollars at its official (gold or whatever) price.

Towards a global anchor

The United States could easily amend its monetary policy to incorporate the above features – adopting a government defined value of the dollar as called for in Article 1 Section 8 of the U.S. Constitution and a market determined supply. The Federal Reserve would be restricted by law to passive currency board rules. Additional financial sector stability would be achieved by also adopting the Chicago Plan of 100% reserve requirements against demand deposits. This would be a natural byproduct of the Fed creating a two-tier Central Bank Digital Currency (CBCD) now under consideration.

The gold standard was an international system for regulating the supply of money and thus prices in each country and between countries and provided a single world currency (via fixed exchange rates). Balance of trade and payments between countries was maintained (when central banks played by the rules) because deficit countries lost money (gold) to surplus countries, reducing prices in the former and increasing them in the latter. This led to a flourishing of trade between countries. This was a highly desirable feature for liberal market economies.

The United States could adopt the hard anchor currency board system described above on its own and others might follow by fixing their currencies to the dollar as in the past. The amendments to the historic gold standard system proposed above would significantly tighten the rules under which it would operate and strengthen the prospects of its survival.

However, there would be significant benefits to developing such a standard internationally. One way or the other, replacing the fluctuating exchange rates between the dollar and other currencies with the equivalent of a single currency would be a significant boon to world trade and world prosperity.  Replacing the U.S. dollar as the world’s reserve currency with an international unit would have additional benefits for the smooth functioning of the global trading and payments system.  

In a small step to create an internationally issued currency the IMF created its Special Drawing Right (SDR) in 1969 in the expectation of supplementing the gold-based US dollar. But in today’s world of fiat currencies with floating exchange rates the SDR has several limitations as a reserve currency, most of which can be lived with for a while. The SDR allocated by the IMF can only be held and used by the central banks of IMF member countries and a few international organizations such as the World Bank and BIS. The SDR falls short as a challenger to the US dollar because of the absence of widespread private market use of the unit.

To become a serious supplement to, if not replacement for, the US dollar in the international monetary system the SDR would need to be usable for payments by private sector parties. This would require the creation of private or Market SDRs. This could be done in much the same way banks now create dollar deposits.

Digital SDR currency

As with national currencies, the internationally issued SDR needs a central issuer of the base money version of market SDRs (M-SDRs). The IMF should oversee the develop of a procedure for issuing M-SDRs following currency board rules and backed 100% by official SDRs or by an appropriate mix of sovereign debt of the five basket currencies.

The IMF might establish an IMF trust fund that would issue M-SDRs to AAA or AA international banks upon their request and payment of the equivalent value of one or more of the five basket currencies (and would redeem them under similar arrangements). As with other IMF trusts, the IMF might approach the BIS to operationally manage the issuance and redemption of M-SDRs and the maintenance of the official SDR asset backing (or its equivalent in the five currencies in the valuation basket).

Banks offering M-SDR deposits/currency to their customers would hold an M-SDR reserve backing with the IMF SDR trust fund. The base money M-SDRs issued by the IMF trust fund would perform the same payment settlement function as do central banks for the base money they issue, with the critical difference that its depositors/participants would be global rather than national. This would enable virtually instantaneous final settlement of M-SDR payments globally.

An M-SDR would facilitate and be facilitated by invoicing internationally traded goods and financial instruments in SDRs. More, if not most, internationally traded commodities could and should be priced in SDRs. Cross border borrowing can and should be denominated in SDR starting with bond issues and lending by international development institutions (as is now the case with the IMF, and to a very limited extent the World Bank).  https://www.brettonwoods.org/article/proposal-for-an-imf-staff-executive-board-paper-on-promoting-market-sdrs

To go all the way with SDRs, the IMF’s Articles of Agreement would need to be amended to replace the allocation of SDRs with issuing them according to currency board rules as discussed earlier. Furthermore, the valuation basket that now consists of key currencies would need to be replaced with a commodity basket as outlined in my Real SDR Currency Board proposal: (http://works.bepress.com/warren_coats/25/).

The shift from dollar to SDR international reserves, payments, and invoicing would give the world a more stable currency for all of these purposes. This would further promote trade because of more efficient cross boarder payments thus further lifting incomes around the world. Being an internationally issued and controlled currency, the potential for its political abuse by the U.S. would be greatly reduced. But eliminating the seigniorage that the U.S. now enjoys supplying its currency to the rest of the world, i.e., the foreign financing of some of its debt, would remain without further measures.

As central banks and foreign firms shifted from dollars to SDRs they might simply transfer the US treasury bills (and other US investments) that they now hold to the issuers of the M-SDRs. In that case the U.S. would continue to enjoy its exorbitant privilege of foreign financing in exchange for holding its currency. In this case M-SDRs rather than USD would also be backed by US debt. Thus, rules are need for what currency or assets must be paid to buy M-SDRs and/or what assets M-SDRs are backed by. This could take the form of buying M-SDRs with USD but the issuer exchanging the dollars for a more balanced portfolio of assets. While the SDR value continues to be defined by a basket of currencies, the assets backing issued SDR might reflect the same proportions of the same currencies.

The reduction in this way of the role of the dollar as a reserve currency would be win win. It would provide for more stable and more efficient international trade and payments. It would help demilitarize money and it would modestly increase the cost of US debt finance, hopefully encouraging more careful spending.


[1] Dr. Coats retired from the IMF after 26 years of service in May 2003 to join the Board of Directors of the Cayman Islands Monetary Authority. He was chief of the SDR division in the Finance Department of the IMF from 1982–88 and a visiting economist to the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve in 1979.  In March 2019 Central Banking Journal awarded him for his “Outstanding Contribution for Capacity Building.”  His recent books are One Currency for Bosnia: Creating the Central Bank of Bosnia and Herzegovina; My Travels in the Former Soviet Union; My Travels to Afghanistan; My Travels to Jerusalem; and My Travels to Baghdad. He has a B.A. degree in Economics from U of California, Berkeley, and a Ph.D. in economics from the U of Chicago. He is a fellow of Johns Hopkins Krieger School of Arts and Sciences, Institute for Applied Economics, Global Health, and the Study of Business Enterprise.

A shift in monetary regimes?

By Warren Coats[1]

This Sunday, August 15, is the 50th anniversary of President Richard Nixon’s closing of the gold window as part of the “Nixon Shock.” “Fifty years later Nixon’s August surprise still reverberates”  He announced on that day that the U.S. Treasury would no longer redeem its dollars for gold at $35 an ounce. Over the subsequent few years, the world moved from national currencies whose values were anchored to the market value of gold, to currency values determined by central banks’ regulation of their supply relative to the market’s demand. The value of one currency for another floated in the foreign exchange market. Central banks have deployed various approaches to determining the supplies of their currencies and most have now settled on targeting an inflation rate (often 2% per year) in one way or another.

With the rapidly increasing interest in cryptocurrencies, some have asked whether we are on the brink of another monetary paradigm shift? Specifically, might the dollar be replaced as the dominant international reserve currency. To explore that question we need to understand how the existing monetary systems work and how the widespread use of cryptocurrencies might add to or change these systems.  

In describing the existing and potential future monetary systems, we need to distinguish “money” from the “means of payment.” Money is the asset that people accept in payment of debts or for the purchase of goods and services. The U.S. dollar and the Euro are “money.” The means of payment refers to how money is delivered to the person being paid. Do you personally hand dollar bills and coins to the Starbucks cashier, write out a check (bank draft) and put it in the mail, or electronically transfer “money” from your bank account to an Amazon merchant via eWire, Zelle, Venmo, PayPal, or some other digital payment service? Or perhaps you purchase goods and services with borrowed money (Visa, MasterCard, American Express) that you pay back at the end of each month or over time. Or if you don’t have a bank account (a form of digital money) you might hand-deliver physical currency to a Hawala dealer or a MoneyGram or Western Union office to be electronically transferred to their office nearest to the person you are sending it to, potentially anywhere in the world. If you are paying in a currency that is different than the one the payee wishes to receive, your currency will be exchanged accordingly along the way in the foreign exchange market.

Discussions of cryptocurrencies include both the latest and evolving means of payment (digital payment technologies) as well as new, privately created moneys such as bitcoin, Ethereum, or Ripple.  Private currencies vary enormously with regard to how their value is determined. By private currencies I do not mean privately created assets redeemable for legal tender, such as our bank accounts. When we speak, for example, of the U.S. dollar, we invariably include dollar balances in our bank accounts, dollar payments made via our Visa card, etc. These are all privately produced assets that are ultimately redeemable for Federal Reserve currency or deposits at a Federal Reserve Bank. They are credible claims on the legal tender of the United States. Most U.S. dollars are privately created.

The value of all money is determined by its supply and demand. The demand for money arises from its acceptability for payment of our obligations and the quantity of such obligations (generally closely related to our incomes). Within each country, its legal tender money (e.g., the U.S. dollar in the U.S.) must be accepted by payees. In particular, it must be accepted by the government in payment of taxes.  Truly private currencies (those not redeemable for legal tender, of which there are over 11,000 at last count) have a serious challenge in this regard. Very few people or businesses will accept bitcoin, or any other such private cryptocurrency. As a result, the demand for such currencies for actual payments is very low. The demand for bitcoin, for example, is almost totally speculative–a form of gambling like the demand for lottery tickets. Such private currencies are more attractive in countries whose legal tender is rapidly inflating or has unstable value (e.g., Venezuela). 

The acceptability of a currency in cross border payments raises special challenges. My currency is not likely to be the currency in general use in other countries. Someone in Mexico paying someone in Germany will generally have Mexican pesos and the recipient in Germany will want Euros. The pesos will need to be exchange for Euro in the foreign exchange market. It would be very costly for dealers in the FX market to maintain inventories of and transact in every bilateral combination of the world’s 200 or so currencies. It has proven more economical to exchange your currency for U.S. dollars and to exchange the U.S. dollars for the currency wanted by the payee. The dollar has become what is called a vehicle currency.

The economy of a so-called vehicle currency can be illustrated with languages. Two hundred and six countries are participating in the 2021 Olympic Games in Japan. To communicate with their Japanese hosts participants could all learn Japanese. It is unrealistic to expect the Japanese hosts to learn 205 foreign languages. But what about communicating with their fellow participants from the other 205 countries. For this purpose, English has become the default second language in which they all communicate. Unlike more isolated Americans, most Europeans speak several languages, but one of them is always English. English as the common language is the linguistic equivalent of the dollar as a vehicle currency.  

The rest of the value of money story focuses on its supply. Bitcoin has the virtue of having a very well defined, programmatically determined gradual growth rate until its supply reaches 21 million in about 2040. The supply today (Aug 2021) is 18.77 million. See my earlier explanation: “Cryptocurrencies-the bitcoin phenomena”  The other 11,000 plus cryptocurrencies each have their own rules for determining their supply, some explicit and some rather mysterious. The class of so called “stable coins” are linked to and often redeemable for a specific anchor, sometimes the U.S. dollar or some other currency. The credibility of these anchors varies.

The highly successful E-gold (from 1996-2006) is an example of a digital currency that had well-defined and strict backing and redemption for a commodity at a fixed price. “E-gold”  The supply of such currencies is determined by market demand for it at its fixed price–what I have elsewhere called currency board rules. I describe how currency board rules work in my book about establishing the Central Bank of Bosnia and Herzegovina:   “One currency for Bosnia-creating the Central Bank of Bosnia and Herzegovina”

The dominance of the U.S. dollar in cross border payments reflects far more than its use as a vehicle currency. Many globally traded commodities, such as oil, are priced in dollars and thus payments for such purchases are settled in dollars. Pricing a homogeneous commodity trading in the global market in a single currency makes that market more efficient (the same price for the same thing).  Making cross border payments in dollars (or any other single currency) also avoids the costly need to exchange one for another in the FX market. The dollar is most often chosen because its value is relatively stable, and it has deep and liquid securities markets in which to hold dollars in reserve for use in cross border payments.

So, what are the chances that current cryptocurrency developments might precipitate a shift from the dollar to some other currency and means of payment. Several factors of U.S. policy have heightened interest by many countries in finding an alternative.  Specifically, from my recent article in the Central Banking Journal on the IMF’s $650 billion SDR allocation:

Cumbersome payment technology. Existing arrangements for cross-border payments via Swift are technically crude and outmoded.

The weaponization of the dollar. The US has abused the importance of its currency for cross-border payments to force compliance with its policy preferences that are not always shared by other countries, by threatening to block the use of the dollar.

The growing risk of the dollar’s value. The growing expectation of dollar inflation and the skyrocketing increase in the US fiscal deficit are increasing the risk of holding and dealing in dollars.”  “The IMF’s 650bn SDR allocation and a future digital SDR”

Most central banks are upgrading their payment systems. But the Peoples Bank of the Republic of China (PBRC) is one of the most advanced in developing a central bank digital currency (CBDC), the e-CNY. However, it has little potential for displacing the dollar for several reasons. The Federal Reserve is also modernizing its payment technology, including exploring the design of its own CBDC, and can match China’s payment technology in the near future if necessary. More importantly, China’s capital controls, less developed Yuan financial markets, and less reliable rule of law make the Yuan an unattractive alternative to the dollar. These latter impediments do not apply to the Euro, however. “What will be impact of China’s state sponsored digital currency?”

Rather than looking for another national currency to replace the dollar, there are several advantages to using an international one. These include greater ease in making cross border payments and the reduced risk of political manipulation, or a national currency’s domestic mismanagement.  Bitcoin, for example, can make payments anywhere in the world without being controlled by any one of them. The serious drawbacks of Bitcoin’s blockchain payment technology might be overcome with one or another overlaid technology. But to become a serious currency, bitcoin must be dramatically more widely accepted in payment than it is now. Widespread acceptance in payments could generate the demand to hold them for payments, which would tend to stabilize its very erratic value. This seems very unlikely. A digital gold-based currency, such as the earlier E-gold, would enjoy the advantage of an anchor that is well known and that has enjoyed a long history. However, gold’s value has been very unstable in recent years. Aluminum has enjoyed a very stable price and elastic supply and will be the anchor for Luminium Coin to be launched in the coming weeks: https://luminiumcoin.com/

But the world has already established the internationally issued and regulated currency meant to supplement if not replace the dollar, the Special Drawing Rights of the International Monetary Fund. The IMF has just approved a very large increase in its supply.  “The IMF’s 650bn SDR allocation and a future digital SDR”  The SDR’s value is determined by the market value of (currently) five major currencies in its valuation basket. While all five of these currencies have a relatively stable value, the value of the basket (portfolio) of these five is more stable still. The rules for determining the SDR’s value and supply, as well as its uses, are well established and transparent and governed by the IMF’s 190 member countries. In short, the SDR is truly international. However, it can only be used by IMF member countries and ten international financial institutions such as the World Bank and the Bank for International Settlements.

While the SDR has played a limited useful role in augmenting central bank foreign exchange reserves, it has failed to achieve a significant role as an international currency because of the failure of the private sector to invoice internationally traded goods and financial instruments (such as bonds) in SDRs and the absence of a private digital SDR for payments. If the IMF is serious about making the SDR an important international currency it should turn its attention to encouraging these private sector uses of the unit. “Free Banking in the Digital Age”

In the long run the IMF should issue its official SDR according to currency board rules and anchor its value to the market value of a small basket of commodities rather than key currencies: “A Real SDR Currency Board”


[1] Warren Coats retired from the International Monetary Fund in 2003 where he led technical assistance missions to the central banks of more than twenty countries (including Afghanistan, Bosnia, Egypt, Iraq, Kazakhstan, Kenya, Kyrgyzstan, Serbia, South Sudan, Turkey, and Zimbabwe). He was a member of the Board of the Cayman Islands Monetary Authority from 2003-10. He is a fellow of Johns Hopkins Krieger School of Arts and Sciences, Institute for Applied Economics, Global Health, and the Study of Business Enterprise.  He has a BA in Economics from the UC Berkeley and a PhD in Economics from the University of Chicago.

The New Covid-19 Support Bill

The New Covid-19 assistance bill could add an additional 1.9 trillion dollars to support the fight against Covid-19.  In discussing the 2 trillion dollar CARES Act last April I wrote that: “The idea is that as the government has requested/mandated non-essential workers to stay home, and non-essential companies (restaurants, theaters, bars, hotels, etc.) have chosen to close temporarily or have been forced to by risk averse customers or government mandates, the government has an obligation to compensate them for their lost income. Above and beyond the requirements of fairness, such financial assistance should help prevent permanent damage to the economy from something that is meant to be a temporary interruption in its operation.”  “Econ 202-CARES Act-who pays for it?”  While I referred to the shutdowns as the result of “risk averse customers or government mandates”, it seems that the “blame” lies with sensibly risk-averse customers who stayed home and/or out of public gathering places by their own choice before the government required it. “Lockdowns-job losses”  A key point was that this was not a stimulus bill as output/income fell because its supply fell, not for lack of demand to buy it by consumers.

As total and partial shutdowns will continue for a few more months (or permanently for some unlucky firms) such support (properly targeted) should be continued for a while longer. But at what level and for how long? As I stressed in my April blog, the CARES Act payments to unemployed workers did not create income but rather transferred it out of a diminished pie from those who still had incomes (and could buy the government bonds that raised the money being transferred).  As I noted then and as is increasingly important now, the increased fiscal and monetary support that accompanied these government expenditures will need to be unwound carefully as the economy recovers. Equally important, the further increases in debt and money created by the currently proposed support should not exceed what is “truly” needed. U.S. national debt is already almost 28 trillion dollars, over 130% of GDP.

While CARES Act type support was needed and helpful, it was not always appropriately targeted. It is not the kind of emergency spending that is easy to get fully right.  As time goes on more and more evidence will be collected of abusive uses of these funds. Rather than choosing specific firms and classes of individuals to receive support, implementation of a Guaranteed Basic Income for everyone irrespective of income and situation would provide a better safety net for all situations. “Our social safety net”

In December President Trump signed a $900 billion Covid relief bill providing “a temporary $300 per week supplemental jobless benefit and a $600 direct stimulus payment to most Americans, along with a new round of subsidies for hard-hit businesses, restaurants and theaters and money for schools, health care providers and renters facing eviction.”

President Biden has proposed a new additional $1.9 trillion dollar package. Added to the $900 billion approved in December, this would be 13% of GDP, a VERY large amount.  Ten Republicans have proposed a narrower package of $618 trillion. They would exclude measure not directly relevant to the impact of the pandemic such as raising the minimum wage to $15 per hour (a measure that would be damaging to inexperienced, new job entrance). The Congressional Budget Office has just “estimated that raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour would cost 1.4 million jobs by 2025 and increase the deficit by $54 billion over ten years.” “Minimum wage hike to $15 an hour by 2025 would result 14 million unemployed”

The Democrats’ package would provide $1,400 per person direct cash payments across the board in addition to the $600 provided by the December bill. The Republican proposal would lower the thresholds for receiving assistance to individuals making $50,000 or $100,000 for couples and would provide checks of $1,000 per person.  They were expecting to negotiate a compromise package, which now, unfortunately, seems unlikely, though as this is written discussions continue. There are many individual provisions in the proposed bill. I have not reviewed them. My focus here is on the overall financial size of the proposal.

In an interesting oped in the Washington Post, Larry Summers, former Secretary of the Treasury during the Clinton administration, gently warned that the democrats’ package was excessive and risked rekindling inflation.  He wrote that:

“A comparison of the 2009 stimulus and what is now being proposed is instructive. In 2009, the gap between actual and estimated potential output was about $80 billion a month and increasing. The 2009 stimulus measures provided an incremental $30 billion to $40 billion a month during 2009 — an amount equal to about half the output shortfall.

“In contrast, recent Congressional Budget Office estimates suggest that with the already enacted $900 billion package — but without any new stimulus — the gap between actual and potential output will decline from about $50 billion a month at the beginning of the year to $20 billion a month at its end. The proposed stimulus will total in the neighborhood of $150 billion a month, even before consideration of any follow-on measures. That is at least three times the size of the output shortfall.

“In other words, whereas the Obama stimulus was about half as large as the output shortfall, the proposed Biden stimulus is three times as large as the projected shortfall. Relative to the size of the gap being addressed, it is six times as large….  [Given] the difficulties in mobilizing congressional support for tax increases or spending cuts, there is the risk of inflation expectations rising sharply.” “Larry Summers-Biden-covid stimulus”

The U.S. national debt was $22.7 trillion at the end of 2019 and skyrocketed to $26.9 trillion at the end of 2020. On February 7 it stood at $27.88 trillion or $84,198 per person and $222,191 per taxpayer. This is 130.8% of GDP. This is a very big number. Much of this debt has been purchased by the Federal Reserve resulting in an explosion of its balance sheet and the public’s holdings of money. At the end of 2019 the Federal Reserve assets (the counterpart of which is largely base money–currency held by the public and bank deposits with the Federal Reserve) $4.17 trillion and grew to $7.36 trillion by the end of 2020. In other words, the Federal Reserve bought $3.19 trillion of the $4.2 trillion increase in the national debt. This is a bit of an overstatement because the Fed also bought a modest amount of other debt.  Much of the rest was purchased by foreigners as “the U.S. trade deficit rose 17.7% to $678.7 billion and hit the highest level since 2008.” “The US trade deficit rose in 2020 to a 12 year high”

Because the Federal Reserve now pays banks interest to keep large amounts of their deposits with the Fed in excess of required amounts (excess reserves), the money supply measured as currency in circulation and demand deposits with banks (M1) grew somewhat less than the Fed’s purchases of US debt. In 2020 M1 grew $2.5 trillion, a year in which GDP ended a bit lower than it started.` In part, the public is not spending this money at the rates they normally would because the theaters and restaurants, etc. are closed. A seriously inflated stock market and cryptocurrency values seem to be temporary beneficiaries.

According to Wells Fargo: “We estimate consumers are sitting on $1.5 trillion in excess savings compared to the saving rate’s pre-COVID trend….  After a year of limiting trips, eating at home and putting off doctor appointments, we expect consumers will be eager to engage in many of the in-person services forgone during the pandemic, and spend on gas to get there and clothes to look good doing it. The ample means and eagerness to spend could potentially set off a bout of demand-driven inflation that has not been experienced in decades.”  “Wells Fargo–Poking the Inflation Bear”

As I noted last April, unwinding these monetary and fiscal injections, as is necessary to avoid a significant increase in inflation, will be challenging. And now we are even deeper into debt. As inflation increases nominal interest rates will increase as well and the cost of our huge debt financing with it. While managing the short run impact of the pandemic, the government’s eyes should be on the longer run picture as well.

Econ 201: CARES Act–Who pays for it?

April 11, 2010

Congress has authorized over 2 trillion dollars (so far) to help those harmed by the partial shutdown of the economy undertaken to slow the spread of the SARS-CoV-2 virus, and to facilitate its rapid recovery when it is safe for people to return to work. The idea is that as the government has requested/mandated non-essential workers to stay home, and non-essential companies (restaurants, theaters, bars, hotels, etc.) have chosen to close temporarily or have been forced to by risk averse customers or government mandates, the government has an obligation to compensate them for their lost income. Above and beyond the requirements of fairness, such financial assistance should help prevent permanent damage to the economy from something that is meant to be a temporary interruption in its operation. No good economic purpose would be served, for example, by lenders foreclosing on mortgage and other loans to workers sheltered in place at home with no income with which to service them. Some of the increased spending quite rightly will go to improve our ability to deal with covid-19 directly (expanded hospital capacity, virus testing capacity, vaccine research and development, etc.)

Obviously, it will be impossible to prevent some amount of waste and corruption from such a huge increase in expenditures. Every rent seeker on the planet has been lobbying Congress to get a piece of the action. In the design of these support programs every effort should be made to carefully target them on the people and activities appropriate to the “above objectives, to remove them and their associated distortions of economic resource allocation when the crisis has passed (i.e., keep them temporary), and to provide watchdog oversight of their implementation. Unfortunately, President Trump is already undermining such oversight. “How-trump-is-sabotaging-the-coronavirus-rescue-plan”  Nonetheless, the objective of minimizing the economic damage of a temporary forced shutdown of a significant part of the economy is appropriate.

The question explored here is who will pay for it and how.  The entertainment output of the economy (restaurants, movie theaters, hotels, vacation travel) is to a large extent non-essential, at least for a few months. If those are shuttered, about 20 percent (my guess for purposes of this analysis) of our economic output and the incomes of those producing them will be lost for the duration of the shutdown. A central goal of the “Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and. Economic Security Act” (CARES Act) is to prevent this necessary shutdown from killing that part of the economy and from spilling over into others. The goal is to enable it to restart as quickly and easily as health conditions permit. Thus, idled workers who would not be able to pay their rent/mortgage, or electric bill, or buy food without help should not be evicted for temporary nonpayment etc. The government might pay them for their lost income directly (unemployment insurance) or it might pay their employer to continue paying their wages for non-work under one program or another, thus continuing their health insurance and other benefits. These details are important but not the subject of this note.  The simplest assumption is that they all receive cash payments sufficient to see them through the shutdown (universal basic income, guaranteed minimum income or whatever you want to call it).

The starting fact/assumption is that the economy’s output and thus income is 20 percent or so lower for the next few months than it was a few months ago. Everyone on average has 20 percent less income, but that average consists of those who continue working as before and those sitting at home earning nothing.  If those unemployed are to receive income support (UBI), those still working and those clipping investment coupons must pay for it.  Paying an income subsidy to the unemployed does not create income, it redistributes it.

The $2 trillion plus authorized by Congress for these purposes will be debt financed, i.e. the government will borrow the money (adding to its deficit of $1 trillion for 2020 already budgeted).  So, to examine who pays for this program we must start by asking who will buy this additional debt?  In the past the Chinese and Germans funded an important part of our debts (via their trade surpluses with the US.  “Who-pays-uncle-sam’s-deficits”  China’s current account surplus with the U.S. is now negligible and it and most every other country in the world will have the financing of their own covid-19 expenditures to worry about. Those purchasing the additional Treasury bonds will thus be largely Americans who must shift their spending from other things (other investments or consumption) to the bonds and thus to the incomes of the unemployed these programs are supposed to be helping.  To the extent that new bond buyers are diverting their spending on other financial instruments interest rates on such instruments will tend to rise.

At this point very little money has been disbursed under CARES and no new government bonds to finance it have been issued. As individuals and firms miss rent and debt service payments, their lenders are being squeezed for the funds with which they must service those financing them (this is why we call banks financial intermediaries). Utility companies faced with nonpayments by their customers must borrow to continue paying their own employees, etc.  Scrambling for such funds would drive up interest rates in funding markets where it not for the Federal Reserve’s willingness to provide the needed liquidity. Similarly, with regard to the supply of funds to financial markets (the other side of bank’s balance sheets), normal investors are interrupting or even withdrawing funding in order to cover their own income shortfalls. This again squeezes financial sector liquidity and the flow of funds from lenders to borrowers needed to finance the remaining economic activity.

Enter the Federal Reserve.  In order to supply the missing funds–the missing rent and debt service payments–needed to keep the financial system flowing and in balance–the Fed has supplied almost $2 trillion to banks over the last 6 weeks, largely by outright purchases of treasury securities, though it has also opened a number of lending facilities. Bank reserve deposits at the Fed increased about $1 trillion over this period and M2 grew by about the same amount. On April 9, the Fed announced that it was opening or expanding facilities to support CARES Act objectives with up to another $2.3 trillion (leveraged by Treasury financial support to cover losses on any Fed loans provided in support of the CARES Act).  Federal Reserve Press Releases  This includes support for lending by the Small Business Administration (refinancing of SBA loans), the Main Street Lending Program administered by banks, Primary and Secondary Market Corporate Credit Facilities, and the Municipal Liquidity Facility. These are dramatic expansions of Fed credit operations and the details of eligibility of borrowers and of the facilities’ administration are critically important. Ensuring that this massive government intervention in the economy creates the right incentives for a quick rebound in the economy when it can reopen and that these interventions are indeed temporary will be difficult and is very important. But the question I want to address here is whether this monetary financing on such a huge scale will be inflationary.

Simplifying and reviewing, if economic output/income falls by, say 20 percent, and the loss is shared by those working with those temporarily laid off (or idle) by workers lending money to those idled, the Fed need not be involved. However, as is often the case with fiscal policy, it is simply beyond the administrative capacity of the government to launch and coordinate such a redistribution of income quickly and smoothly enough to avoid the disruptions of credit flows described above. Instead, the Fed has printed the money paid to those idled by shuttering 20 percent of the economy. As a result, the idled workers have their regular income (more or less) from newly printed money, and the rest have their regular incomes, but the economy is producing 80 less for them to buy. The “excess” income constitutes the inflationary potential. If this income is voluntarily saved (i.e. a temporary increase in the demand for money), the increased saving would be indirectly financing the spending of the unemployed. It is not unreasonable to expect this to reflect actual behavior for a shutdown of a month or two. But should it drag on for many months the extra saving held in anticipation of a reopening of restaurants and theaters, etc. will seek other consumption outlets and prices will begin to rise.

With luck, the economy will begin to return to “normal” after a few months and the Fed will begin to withdraw its monetary injection as loans and payment delinquencies are paid off from increased output/income. The artificially preserved incomes will increasingly be spent on restored output without significant inflationary consequences.

But the CARES Act provides for the forgiveness of loans by firms that kept or that rehire their workers promptly. As the Fed sells its treasuries back to the public (or allows them to mature without replacing them), the Treasury will be issuing the additional debt needed to fund the $2 trillion plus of CARES Act expenditures, including the forgiveness of debt described above. In short, to avoid the inflationary consequences that would normally flow from the Fed’s massive increase in the money supply, the monetary financing must be replaced with fiscal debt financing.  It is hard to see where the money will come from to buy such a large increase debt (some, but not much, will probably come from the foreign financing implicit in an increase in our balance of payments deficits, but the rest of the world is now being saturated with its own debt) without an increase in market interest rates, potentially a significant increase in such interest rates. To the extent that financing remains monetary and pushes up prices, the rising inflation rate will be added to nominal market interest rates compounding the pressure of expanding real debt.  The long looming US fiscal debt problem may be near.

Is Trump killing his own re-election?

The Fed (Federal Open Market Committee) is meeting this week to review and set or reset monetary policy.  I don’t know whether it should increase its policy rate, leave it the same or reduce it. https://www.adamsmith.org/blog/returning-to-currencies-with-hard-anchors  The market expects a one quarter percent reduction in the rate.  President Trump is quoted yesterday as saying it should be reduced more than that. WSJ: the confusing Fed

There are several problems with Trump’s statement. One is that if the Fed reduces the rate, its claim to be reacting to the data and its mandate is undercut by the President’s interference. Is the Fed doing what seems best or responding to political pressure?

But if the U.S. economy is heading South, as it may be, it is probably because of the damaging effects on the U.S. and world economies of Trump’s trade wars with almost everyone but especially with China. Trump’s tariffs have imposed significant costs on the American consumers who pay them with higher prices for targeted imports. More importantly, his trade wars have injected significant uncertainty into the continued viability of the global supply chains that have helped lower costs here and abroad and increased world output.  Their retrenchment is lowering world income and pushing many economies, including potentially the U.S. economy into recession. A U.S. recession a year from now will seriously damage Trump’s chances of reelection.

Trump’s wars on trade seem to be motivated by his mistaken belief that the U.S. trade deficit with China, Germany and others reflects unfair trade practices on their part. His misuse of a national security concern to impose protectionist tariffs and restrictions on foreign competitors (protecting inefficient U.S. industries we would be better off allowing competition to shrink) seems motivated by vote buying. https://wcoats.blog/2018/09/28/trade-protection-and-corruption/  The result is a reduction in our income and potentially his electoral defeat. Our trade deficits largely reflect the use of the U.S. dollar in international reserves (which require a deficit to supply them) and our large and growing fiscal deficits (much of which is being financed by China and other trade surplus countries). Trump’s abandonment of government spending restraint is the cause of those twin deficits https://nationalinterest.org/feature/who-pays-uncle-sams-deficits-26417

It’s not that we don’t have real issues with some of China’s trade related practices, but Trump’s approach to addressing them is not productive. Rather than working with the EU and Japan and others who share our concerns to confront China together, he is attacking all of them with threats of more tariffs. Rather than strengthening the WTO, he is weakening it. Rather than using the Trans Pacific Partnership (a significant advance in modern trade agreements) to encourage China to adopt its rules, Trump withdrew the U.S. from the agreement– a huge mistake. The real question is how much more damage will Trump inflict on the world economy before he surrenders and declares victory or is voted out of office. https://wcoats.blog/2019/06/07/the-sources-of-prosperity/

Their Turkey and Ours

“Recep Tayyip Erdogan believes high interest rates are the cause of inflation, not the remedy for it”  The Economist May 19, 2018 “How-turkey-fell-from-investment-darling-to-junk-rated-emerging-market”

During the 1990s the inflation rate in Turkey averaged around 80% per annum varying between 60% and 105%.  Over that period interest rates on its 3-month treasury bills averaged about 30% above the inflation rate reaching almost 150% in 1996.  The economy grew rapidly in real terms with real GDP growth averaging 8% per annum between 1995-7.  But growth depended heavily on borrowing abroad in foreign currencies.  Banks were poorly regulated, and heavily exposed to foreign exchange risk and to government debt.  Obviously, Turkey’s nominal exchange rate depreciated at about the same rate as its inflation rate in order to preserve a stable real exchange rate.

In the wake of the Asian and Russian debt crises in 1997 and 1998 foreign investors became more risk averse and capital inflows into Turkey were reduced sharply slowing down economic growth from 7.5% in 1997 to 2.5% in 1998.  A serious earthquake in Turkey’s industrial heartland in August 1999 further deteriorated Turkey’s economic performance.  The combined impact of the two pushed the economy into a deep recession, shrinking GDP by 3.6% in 1999.

With support from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) in 1999-2003 the Turkish government reigned in its spending and monetary growth and reduced its inflation rate to 10% by 2004. I was a member of the IMF’s Turkey team at that time and remember the long sleepless nights very well. Turkey’s interest rates followed inflation down and, in fact, its real interest rates (nominal interest rate minus its inflation rate) fell from 30% to negative rates as the economy stabilized. During this transition, a number of state owned enterprises were privatized, 18 insolvent banks were intervened, and debt and the financial sector were restructured and strengthened.  Within a few (rough) years the economy was growing rapidly with low inflation and low interest rates.  In 2017 real GDP grew 7.0% though inflation had crept back up to 11.1%.

Following Turkey’s and the rest of the world’s recession in 2009 the country reverted back to its bad old ways.  “Recep Tayyip Erdogan signed a decree easing access to foreign-exchange loans for Turkish companies.  The new rules lifted restrictions that barred companies without revenue in hard currencies from doing such borrowing—as long as the loans exceeded $5 million.”  How Erdogan’s push for endless growth brought Turkey to the Brink

Erdogan observed the low interest rates, low inflation, and high growth and apparently concluded that low interest rates caused low inflation rather than the other way around. Every economist knows that interest rates incorporate the market’s expectation of inflation over the period of a loan in order to establish a market clearing real rate of interest.  In 1996 when a borrower was willing to pay 130% interest and a lender was not willing to accept less it was because they expected 80% to 90% inflation per annum over the life of the loan.  The very high real rate (130% – 80% = 50%) reflects the risk premium of getting it wrong.

Central banks can, if inflation expectations adjust slowly, push real rates down temporarily by lowering nominal market rates below their equilibrium rate.  Doing so, however, increases the rate at which the money supply grows eventually increasing inflation and forcing nominal interest rates higher than they would otherwise have been.

Under political pressure from Erdogan, the central bank of Turkey has kept interest rates lower (and thus money supply growth greater) than are consistent with its inflation target of 5%.  In the last few years inflation has drifted up reaching 11.1% in 2017.  Markets have grown uneasy about the economic situation in Turkey and when the Central Bank failed to increase its policy interest rate last month from 17.75% investors began selling off Turkish bonds and withdrawing funds from the country.  Its exchange rate plummeted.  From January of this year the Turkish lira depreciated from 11.7 per dollar to 16 lira/USD at the beginning of July and to 21 lira/USD on the 22ndof August. Erdogan’s wrong-headed misunderstanding of the role of interest rates is pushing Turkey over the precipice of bankruptcy.

Meanwhile here in the United States, President Trump apparently attended the same school as Erdogan. After breaking a several decades old protocol against commenting on or interfering with the Federal Reserve’s monetary policy when he stated last month that he didn’t want to see the Fed increase its policy interest rate, he did it again a few days ago. “Trump-escalates-attacks-federal-reserve”  Trump’s advice is wrong. The Federal Reserve needs to continue raising its policy rate back toward normal levels (3% to 4%) before inflation momentum becomes any stronger. Real interest rates are still negative (less than the inflation rate).  The Fed should have started increasing rates several years earlier.

Feeding the Swamp

During his filibuster leading to last week’s brief government shutdown, Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) stated that: “When Republicans are in power, it seems there is no conservative party…. The hypocrisy hangs in the air and chokes anyone with a sense of decency or intellectual honesty.” He was protesting the compromise two-year budget just passed by the Senate and awaiting passage in the House. This budget, now signed into law by President Trump, adds over $300 billion in additional government spending this year alone on top of the $1 trillion dollar deficit created by the recently passed tax cut. “Why-did-the-GOP-vote-for-a-budget-busting-spending-bill-because-voters-dont-seem-to-care”

A few congressmen reacted with more principle. “’I’m not only a ‘no.’ I’m a ‘hell no,’ ” quipped Rep. Mo Brooks (R-Ala.), one of many members of the Tea Party-aligned Freedom Caucus who left a closed-door meeting of Republicans saying they would vote against the deal.

“It’s a “Christmas tree on steroids,” lamented one of the Freedom Caucus leaders, Rep. Dave Brat (R-Va.).” “Right-revolts-on-budget-deal”

Why should we worry about adding to the public debt? The “deficit” is the shortfall of tax revenue below expenditures in one year. This is now forecast to average about one trillion dollars in each of the next two years. “Bipartisan-budget-act-cements-return-trillion-dollar-deficits”. Each year these annual deficits add to the outstanding U.S. national “debt” currently at $20.6 trillion dollars. Even before the recent tax cuts and last week’s expenditure increases, the Congressional Budget Office projected Federal debt held by the public at $25.5 trillion or 91.5% of GDP by 2027. But that figure omits debt held by the Federal Reserve, Social Security “trust” fund, and other government entities, which must also be serviced and repaid. When these are included as they should be, gross federal debt is projected to be $30.7 trillion or 110% of GDP by 2027 and 150% of GDP in thirty years and climbing. And to repeat, this is before the recent tax cuts and budget increases.

As our economy grows so does the government’s capacity to carry and service (pay the interest on) the debt. But on the basis of existing laws and policies our debt will grow faster than the economy forever. But of course that is impossible. At some point taxes must be increased or expenditures cut, or the government defaults on its debt. In fact the problem is worse than these figures suggest because they fail to include the future taxes or borrowing needed to cover unfunded government liabilities. These are commitments, such as future Social Security pension payments, for which existing financing falls short. For example, Social Security payments already exceed its annual revenue from the wage taxes of current workers and the so-called trust fund will run dry in fifteen years. That will add still more to the deficit and the debt.

Indeed, there are times when deficits are ok and even helpful. When the economy goes into recession the government should allow the deficit that naturally results from falling tax revenue and increasing safety net spending. These are referred to as automatic stabilizers. However, we are currently not now in that phase of the business cycle. We are now at its peak and if the government is to achieve fiscal balance over the cycle it must run budget surpluses at the peak to pay for the deficits during the slumps. The U.S. should now have a budget surplus and not the huge deficit presently experienced and projected. The White House’s announcement today (Monday) that it is giving up on the traditional Republican goal of a balanced budget in ten years is hardly a surprise when we are starting with a large deficit at the peak of the business cycle. https://www.washingtonpost.com/business/economy/white-house-budget-proposes-increase-to-defense-spending-and-cuts-to-safety-net-but-federal-deficit-would-remain/2018/02/12/f2eb00e6-100e-11e8-8ea1-c1d91fcec3fe_story.html?utm_term=.514757e9c8de&wpisrc=al_news__alert-politics–alert-national&wpmk=1

Senator Paul was rightly angry that not only was the need to face and correct this untenable future kicked down the road yet again, but the process of doing so was corrupt. Votes were bought by sticking in special tax and spending breaks for the constituents and friends of individual congressmen—the old earmarks by another name. “Budget-deal-retroactively-extend-several-expired-tax-provisions”. While it is true that the bipartisan budget deal wouldn’t have passed without these bribes, it shouldn’t have passed. Instead of draining the swamp the Republicans have joined with the Democrats to feed it. “In-big-reversal-new-trump-budget-will-give-up-on-longtime-republican-goal-of-eliminating-deficit”. And more repulsive is the fact that these are the same Republicans who rallied against spending during the Obama years. This is the hypocrisy Senator Paul lamented.

Congress has failed yet again to prioritize it’s spending to match the resources that taxpayers are willing to pay. The moral corruption of this way of doing business was reestablished and reinforced. As another example of blatant corruption, Presidents have rewarded (paid off) large contributors with Ambassadorships to nice places like London, Paris, and Rome (to name a few) for decades. This is pure corruption for which the country pays with lower quality representation and diplomacy than would be provided by Foreign Service professionals. Unfortunately we have grown used to it and barely notice it. This is dangerous.

All individual government expenditures and programs look worthwhile to at least some people, but at the expense of what? What do taxpayers or investors or other government programs give up to finance them. These are not easy choices and decisions but it is the job of our representatives to make these judgments in the best interests of the country as a whole. That is probably expecting more than they are capable of delivering, but it is their job. Those of you of Generation X, Y and Z will have to pay for this so you are the ones with an incentive to do something about it. We need more Rand Pauls. “The-5-biggest-losers-from-the-2018-budget-deal-are…”

SALT—More press nonsense on tax reform

The elimination of State and Local Tax (SALT) deductions from the proposed tax reforms working their way through Congress has become a hot topic. Fine, but please keep the discussion honest. Sadly my local newspaper, The Washington Post, is not setting a good example: “In-towns-and-cities-nationwide-fears-of-trickle-down-effects-of-federal-tax-legislation”

First a word about tax reform vs tax reduction. We are now in the 9th year of economic recovery, one of the longest on record. It won’t go on forever. Ideally the Federal government’s budget should balance its expenditures and revenue over the business cycle. That allows for aggregate demand stimulating deficits during business downturns. These deficits result from so called automatic stabilizers—the fall in tax revenue from the fall in taxable income plus increased transfer payments to the unemployed. But a cyclically balanced budget also requires budget surpluses during the business expansion phase. The U.S. economy is now fully employed (in fact, unfilled vacancies exceed those looking for work). The Federal Reserve has finally increased inflation to its target rate of 2%. We should now have budget surpluses to make room for the deficits that will follow during the upcoming downturn.

But our fiscal situation is much worse than that. The large increase in “entitlement” expenditures for my greedy generation as we retire (greatly increasing unfunded social security and health benefits) will push our fiscal debt held by the public, now at 77% of our Gross Domestic Product (GDP), to over 150% of GDP within 30 years if current laws remain unchanged. See the figure below.

Taxes will either need to be increased (not reduced) or entitlement expenditures reduced (which means increased less than current law provides). My point is that reducing tax revenue at this time is irresponsible without at least matching expenditure cuts. The proposed tax reforms now in congress would increase the debt by $1,500 billion dollars over the next ten years on a static forecast basis, meaning without taking into account the increased growth and thus tax revenue that might result from the tax reforms, which no one expects to wipe out all of the static forecast of $1,500 billion.

Fed debt      Congressional Budget Office forecasts

While it is irresponsible to cut tax revenue at this time, it is highly desirable to reform how that revenue is raised. The existing taxes distort the economy and thus reduce our incomes in a number of ways. They grant favors to many special interest groups via allowing them to deduct specific expenditures from their taxable incomes (i.e. from the tax base). These so called tax subsidies encourage activities over what the private economy would otherwise under take. One very damaging example is the deduction of interest payments by businesses and individuals, which has encouraged excessive borrowing and indebtedness. The most popular of these is the mortgage interest deduction by homeowners. This tax subsidy benefits homeowners relative to renters, i.e. it benefits the wealthier at the expense of the poor. How well meaning middle and upper income American’s can justify this with a straight face is beyond me.

But what about the SALT deductions? By eliminating such deductions, i.e. by broadening the tax base, the same revenue can be raised with a lower tax rate. Other things equal (such as revenue), lower tax rates are good because they influence taxpayer decisions less. For example, companies are more likely to invest in the U.S. rather than abroad if the corporate tax rate is reduced from its current 35%, virtually the highest in the world, to 20%, which is closer to the rate in most developed countries.

Reducing tax subsidies to state and local governments is also good because it reduces an artificial encouragement for larger state and local government expenditures. If Californians are willing to pay more state taxes for larger state expenditures they are welcome to do so. But there can be no justification for transferring federal tax revenue from states with lower expenditures and matching taxes to California and other high spending states. To a large extent the existing SALT deductions transfer income from poorer states to wealthier ones. Who can support that with a straight face?

How information is presented can have a significant effect on how it is understood or viewed. How did Renae Merle and Peter Jamison of The Washington Post (see link above) report the proposed elimination of the SALT deduction? They reported that, “In San Diego County, the elimination of what is commonly called the “SALT” deduction could affect about a third of households, said Greg Cox, a member of the board of supervisors. The average middle-income resident would lose a $16,000 deduction.” They failed to note that the third of households affected are the wealthiest third. According to CNBC: “More than half of taxpayers who are earning $75,000 and above claim SALT deductions on their federal income tax returns as do more than 90 percent of taxpayers who make $200,000 or more.”

share of SALT

Furthermore, the figure $16,000 is misleading in two respects. The loss of a $16,000 deduction would increase taxes for a single person earning $200,000 annually by $5,280 at the current tax rate of 33%. However, broadening the tax base by eliminating the SALT and other deductions allows raising the same revenue with a lower tax rate. To measure the actual tax impact both effects must be combined. Current congressional proposals are to reduce the rate for the above person to 25%, which would result in an increased tax of $4,000. None of this would affect the poor directly. I assume that Renae Merle and Peter Jamison were just careless rather than letting their biases get the best of them, but you can make your own judgment.

The SALT deduction cannot be justified on either economic or fairness grounds, but there is sadly a good chance congress will cave in to the pressure from the wealthier states to keep it or at least some of it.