Econ 101: Moving money abroad

The Washington Post published an article this morning titled “THREE DOZEN TYCOONS MET PUTIN ON INVASION DAY. MOST HAD MOVED MONEY ABROAD.“Offshore Putin Russia Oligarchs Pandora” It said things like “many of them had been moving their wealth out of the country for years,” and “The money often ends up offshore.” While where income is claimed is important for tax purposes, which is another interesting and complicated story, the abandon with which this story discusses moving wealth around drives us economists up the wall.

Wealth can be physical (factories, stores, etc.) or human (the knowledge or skills of people).  Financial wealth, such as money, is a claim on physical or human wealth. People can move abroad, and many skilled Russian’s are doing so. Moving physical capital abroad is more difficult if even possible. A yacht built in Russia can be sailed off to another country, but not a shopping mall. What this and similar articles generally mean by moving wealth abroad, is, as the headline states, moving money abroad. This is often done to minimize taxation, which is usually based on where income is recorded. “The corporate income tax” That is an interesting subject of its own but not my focus today.

How do people “move money abroad?” Money is rarely moved in suitcases anymore, and a bag full of rubles can’t be spent abroad in most places anyway.  So, let’s take a deeper look at what is really happening when Russian tycoons (or anyone else) “move money abroad.”

The easiest example is when Russian exporters are paid in foreign currency (generally US dollars). If the exporter has a dollar account in a bank abroad (in a US bank to keep it simple) the payment for his export can be deposited directly there by a debit to Shell Oil’s bank account and a credit to the Russian exporter’s US bank account via the normal interbank transfer process. He can hold it there or buy US treasures or other US financial assets. His money is moved abroad by moving (selling) his goods abroad and keeping the payment abroad. This helps explain why Russia is insisting that German and other buyers of its oil must pay in rubles.

To pay for oil or any other Russian export with rubles the foreign buyers must first buy rubles in the foreign exchange market. The increased demand for rubles increases its exchange rate (or keeps it from falling as Russian importers sell rubles for dollars to pay for imports). Russia has made the process of paying dollars then buying rubles simple and almost automatic, but critically the Russian exporter receives ruble. Normally Russian exporters would convert dollar payments into ruble with which to pay for their workers and local suppliers, etc. But by keeping the dollar payment abroad, they have effectively “moved money abroad” by shipping goods (and services) abroad.

If a tycoon’s income/wealth is local (in rubles), and he wants to move it abroad, he can’t just write a check (or SWIFT payment order) to deposit X amount of money in his account with the Bank of America. The funds in his local bank, which will be in rubles, will need to be exchanged for dollars in the foreign exchange market. He (his bank) will deposit his ruble in the ruble account of the seller of the dollars and will receive those dollars in his Bank of America account in the U.S. If the supply of dollars to the foreign exchange market are not being supplied as the result of Russian exports, the increased demand for dollars will depreciate the ruble (increase the ruble price of a dollar). With a balance of imports and exports the ruble/dollar exchange rate should be stable. But a net increase in the movement of money abroad would depreciate the ruble. In short, underlying the movement of money abroad, there is a net movement of goods (exports minus imports) abroad.

If there was a sudden increase in money being moved abroad from Russia (often called capital flight) the ruble’s exchange rate would depreciate and the cost of imports would thereby increase.

Econ 101: Tony Judt on Trade

I just finished listening to the Audible version of Thinking the Twentieth Century, a discussion between Tony Judt and Timothy Snyder, recorded just before Judt died in 2010. Judt was a British-American historian, essayist and university professor who specialized in European history. Snyder is an American author and historian specializing in the history of  Central and Eastern Europe and the Holocaust.

I found Judt to be a very insightful in his area of political and social history expertise but generally off base on economic issues, which is not his field. I fear that his misunderstanding of trade is widely shared so I will set out some important basics as a contribution to better public understanding. “Science” doesn’t dictate policy, but a correct understanding of the economics of trade is essential if one’s value preferences are to lead to policies that produce your desired result.

Judt describes the increase in American wages for manufacturing workers along with their health and pension benefits over the past several decades leading manufacturing firms to outsource their production to the cheaper labor in (for example) China and thus hollowing out American manufacturing.  Almost everything about this description is wrong.

For starters manufacturing output in the U.S. is at an all-time high (prior to Covid shutdowns). Off shorting some of it has not hollowed out U.S. manufacturing.  Because manufacturing output has grown more slowly than the economy overall (the upper line below), its share of GDP has fallen (the lower line). Moreover, because of increased labor productivity in manufacturing, fewer workers are needed to produce this increased output (second chart) thus freeing labor to work in other areas and increasing our overall standard of living.

U.S. manufacturing output

Billions of US $ and Percent of GDP

Data Source: World Bank
MLA Citation: <a href=’https://www.macrotrends.net/countries/USA/united-states/manufacturing-output’>U.S. Manufacturing Output 1997-2021</a>. http://www.macrotrends.net. Retrieved 2021-08-16.

But let’s take a closer look at Judt’s statement. If the U.S. shifts some manufacturing offshore, it must pay for it. Instead of paying American workers it must pay Chinese workers, and firms and shipping companies. Fundamentally, a country’s imports must be paid for by its exports (or by capital inflows from the exporting country). Let’s look carefully at each possibility. To simplify, let’s initially assume that there are no capital flows (cross border investments from one country in another) so that trade in goods and services must balance (i.e., pay for each other).

For starters whether labor is cheaper in China than in the U.S. cannot be determined without considering the exchange rate of the dollar for the Chinese Yuan. If exchange rates (not mentioned by Judt) are flexible (determined freely in the market) the fact of an increase in U.S. imports from China (i.e., the offshoring of U.S. manufacturing to China) will depreciate the dollar/Yuan exchange rate. As U.S. manufacturers sell dollars to buy Yuan with which to pay for the goods they now want to buy from China, Yuan will become more expensive (a depreciation of the exchange value of the dollar). The dollar’s depreciation will have two effects. It increases the cost of Chinese labor to U.S. companies and thus will reduce the cost advantage of Chinese labor and reduce the demand for it by U.S. firms. And it will lower the cost of U.S. exports thus making them more attractive in China. While the adjustments will take time, the dollar depreciation will continue until American exports increase and its imports from China moderate until trade balances–our increased exports pay for our increased imports.

If the exchange rates are fixed, as they were in gold standard days, the adjustment in the real effective exchange rate needed to balance trade takes a different form.  The initial increase in the demand for Chinese products (outsourcing to Chinese workers) are paid for with dollars. But to preserve the fixed exchange rate, the PBRC (Chinese central bank) must buy these dollars with newly created Chinese currency. This increase in the Chinese money supply will lift prices in China making Chinese exports more expensive in the U.S. and U.S. goods cheaper in China. In short, the real exchange rate adjustment needed to balance imports and exports in this case results from a higher inflation rate in China than in the U.S. while in the first case of flexible exchange rates it results from adjustments in the nominal exchanges rates themselves.

A third possibility is for China to take the extra dollars being spent in China and invest them in the U.S. (or elsewhere) This is the capital flow case in which trade itself does not balance.  This was the policy followed by China in the 2000s through 2014. The PBRC would buy the dollars being spent for outsourced Chinese labor (U.S. manufacturers payments to Chinese workers rather than to American ones for the goods they needed) and would invest them in the U.S. If the increase in the Chinese money supply resulting from those dollar purchases was more than was consistent with stable prices in China, the excess money would be sterilized–so called sterilized foreign exchange intervention (the PBRC would create Yuan to buy dollars and would repurchase some of those Yuan back with domestic Chinese securities owned by the PBRC).

To some extent this foreign exchange market intervention by the PBRC was the result of its desire to build up its FX reserves (a kind of insurance policy for exchange rate shocks). However, much of it was to prevent an appreciation of the Yuan that would reduce its exports (it was following an export led development strategy). This policy was much criticized abroad as currency manipulation and ended in 2013-4.  Thus, China has financed a significant part of the U.S. governments fiscal debt. https://nationalinterest.org/feature/who-pays-uncle-sams-deficits-26417

Thus, when someone says that something is cheaper to make in China, remember that it must also be that from China’s perspective, something must be cheaper to make in the U.S. in order to pay for what China sends to us. Both sides benefit and the world grows richer.

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.

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.

Econ 101: What is a strong dollar?

Should the United States seek a strong dollar or a weak dollar? The answer to the previous question appears obvious but what exactly does a strong or weak dollar mean? As I write this the exchange rate of the dollar for the Euro is 0.80 Euros per dollar. Is that strong or weak? Three weeks ago (January 9) a dollar would buy 0.839 Euros. Was that too strong, about right or weak? On what basis should we judge that question? Eleven months ago the rate was 0.95 Euros per dollar. Ten years ago the rate was 0.62 Euro/USD. One thing that is clear is that the rate varies a lot and thus the price of American exports to the rest of the world and of imports by the U.S. from the rest of the world also vary a lot. This makes business planning difficult.

According to Your Dictionary: www.yourdictionary.com/strong-dollar

“strong dollar – Investment & Finance Definition. A situation in which the U.S. dollar can be exchanged for a relatively large amount of another currency. A strong dollar makes exports relatively expensive because foreign purchasers have to pay more, in their currency, for the goods.” This is a somewhat helpful definition.

According to Investopedia, “strongweakdollar”,

“A strong dollar occurs when the U.S. dollar has risen to a level against another currency that is near historically high exchange rates for the other currency relative to the dollar.” This is a useless definition.

Back in the gold standard days, the prices (exchange rates) of most currencies for most other currencies were fixed because the value of each currency was fixed to an amount of gold. It was important in those days for the balance of payments between countries (the net inflows and outflows of a country’s currency as a result of its imports and exports and investment flows) to be roughly balanced over the long run. In fixed exchange rate systems (like the gold standard) a balance of payments deficit was paid for by an outflow of the deficit country’s currency (ultimately gold). The resulting reduction in the money supply of the deficit country would reduce domestic prices, making domestic goods and their export prices cheaper and the domestic prices of imported goods relatively more expensive. Thus in deficit countries their now cheaper exports would increase and their now more expensive imports would decrease. These economic adjustments would correct (eliminate) the imbalance of external payments.

The above summary of the adjustment process under a gold or similar fixed exchange rate world draws on two features of prices and exchange rates. The first is that the prices of American goods to the French, for example, depend on the U.S. dollar prices times the exchange rate of the dollar for the Euro. If either the dollar price of a product increases or the exchange rate of dollars for Euros increases (it takes more Euros to buy a dollar), the product becomes more expensive in France. Similarly, under the same circumstances French goods become cheaper in the U.S. Thus the French will buy less from America and Americans will buy more from France. This will reduce any balance of payments surplus in the U.S. or worsen a balance of payments deficit.

The second feature is that other things equal an increase in the money supply in a country tends to reduce its purchasing power, i.e. to increase domestic prices in general (inflation). So a country with an external balance of payments deficit paid for by an outflow of its currency (gold) will reduce the money supply and thus prices in that country and eliminate the external deficit.

While we are at it, it should be clear that the external balance of payments that matters is between each country and the rest of the world. A balance of payments between the United States and Mexico, to take a random example, is totally irrelevant to whether currencies (gold) are flowing in or out of the U.S. on net.

Consider the balance of payments between one household and the rest of the world. The breadwinner or winners have a large balance of payments surplus with her or their employer(s)—their salaries—and a balance of payments deficit with every one else. The deficit with the grocery store will go on forever and simply doesn’t matter as long as all external deficits don’t excess the surplus with her employer (in the long run). President Trump, please take note.

In fixed exchange rate systems, the terms “strong” or “weak” currencies are generally not used. The overall balance of payments is the important thing. However, a strong currency might mean that it is “over valued” and thus producing a balance of payments deficit that will need to be corrected by a domestic deflation. This is what Greece had to do a few years ago within the single currency Euro area to restore its balance of payments equilibrium. A weak currency might mean the opposite—an undervalued currency that produces a balance of payments surplus, which will be eliminated by the domestic inflation resulting from a net currency inflow. Clearly neither a strong nor a weak currency is desirable. The ideal is a goldilocks middle ground of not too hot and not too cold but just right balance of payments balance.

Where currency exchange rates are not fixed to each other but determined in the foreign exchange market by the supply and demand for currencies, the adjustment of balance of payments surpluses or deficits occurs via adjustments in the exchange rate rather than net flows of currency in and out that increase or decrease domestic prices. Market exchange rates are determined not only by the imports and exports of a country (the trade balance) but also by investment motivated currency flows (capital flows). Thus monetary policy and interest rate differentials between countries can influence where investors chose to invest. If the Federal Reserve increases its policy interest rate and raises market interest rates as a result, unless the ECB also increases its interest rates, some interest sensitive investments are likely to move from Europe to the US, increasing the dollar’s exchange rate with the Euro in the process. The risks attached to investments are also important, and financial market disturbances abroad can often precipitate capital flows into the U.S. even with lower U.S. interest rates (the so called safe heaven phenomenon).

Central bank intervention to influence exchange rates for countries with floating rates is considered a violation of the rules of free trade. But when central banks raise or lower their interest rates without coordinating with other central banks this is exactly what happens. This makes it difficult to know whether a country is playing by the rules or not. But this surely pushes what can be learned in Econ 101 to its limits. You might consider Econ 201.

So what does a strong dollar or a weak dollar mean, and is a strong dollar a good thing? There is a sense in which we might speak of a strong dollar as meaning “a favorable terms of trade”. If a country’s international payments balance at prevailing exchange rates, a higher ratio of export prices to import prices enables the country to import more for given exports than when the (real) exchange rate is “weak.” This reflects higher domestic productivity relative to that of foreign competitors and such strength is clearly a good thing. I assume that this is what Secretary Mnuchin meant in his unfortunate discussion of weak and strong dollars at Davos last week.

If you are up to a deeper plunge, take note of the fact that the widespread use of the U.S. dollar in international reserves requires the U.S. to have a balance of payments deficit in order to supply the world with those dollars. This is one of several reasons why a truly international reserve asset such as the IMF’s SDR should replace the dollar in international reserves. See: “Why the World Needs a Reserve Assets with a Hard Anchor”

 

 

Sound Money

Philadelphia Society Address on Oct 14, 2017

Introduction

Sound money is a necessary but not a sufficient condition for a healthy economy. How can we best achieve and maintain it?

For almost two hundred years the gold standard did a good job of producing sound money but its weaknesses ultimately led to its abandonment and exchange rates were allowed to float.

The movement in the 1980s to independent central banks with a stable price level mandate, such as an inflation target, delivered several decades of sound money—this was called the great moderation. But is came at the expense of increased exchange rate volatility and asset bubbles.

We need to return to a monetary regime with a hard anchor. But money fixed in price to a single commodity, such as gold, will not provide as stable a value as a price fixed to a larger basket of goods.

The discretion of the central bank to control the supply of money should be replaced with market determination of the money supply. To achieve this money should be issued under currency board rules. Specifically the public should be able to buy all of the currency they want at the currency’s official prices and redeem any of it they no longer want at the same price.

The Gold Standard

The essence of the gold standard was the obligation of the issuer of gold backed money to redeem it for gold at an officially fixed price. This limited the amount of money that could be issued.  The United States set the price of fine gold at $19.49 per ounce in 1791 and raised it to $20.69 in 1834. The Gold Standard Act of 1900 lowered it slightly to $20.67.  In 1934, Congress passed the Gold Reserve Act, which raised the price of gold to $35 an ounce and prohibited private ownership of gold in the United States.  Lyndon Johnson’s guns and butter deficit spending over heated the U.S. economy, which raised doubts about the U.S.’s ability to honor its gold commitments. By late 1971 the U.S. no longer had enough gold to honor its redemption commitment, and President Richard Nixon suspended the U.S. commitment to buy and sell gold at its official price. Yet, an official price remained, and was raised to $38.00 per ounce in 1971 and to $42.22 in 1972. In 1974, President Ford abolished controls on and freed the price of gold, which rose to a high of $1,895 in September 2011 before falling back to $1,304 this morning (October 14, 2017). More importantly, as gold has never been very representative of prices in general, prices of goods and services on average in the U.S. rose 500% over the 45 years since Nixon closed the gold window.

Floating Exchange Rates and Inflation Targets

When Nixon closed the gold window he also imposed wage and price controls, which lasted for three years. The dollar no longer had a “hard” anchor. It was no longer redeemable for anything and new policies were needed to regulate its supply. Over this period the Fed implemented monetary policy via adjustments in the overnight interbank lending rate (the Fed funds rate) in light of, among other things, its objectives for the growth of monetary aggregates. When wage and price controls were finally lifted the CPI increased a staggering 12% in 1974.

In the face of the Fed’s persistent over shooting of its narrow and broad money target ranges and the entrenching of higher and higher inflation expectations in wage and price increases, Federal Reserve Board Chairman Paul Volcker led the Board and the Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) on October 6, 1979 in a dramatic change in the Fed’s approach to implementing monetary policy by shifting to an intermediate, narrow money target, operationally implemented via a target for non-borrowed reserves. The new approach required the Fed to relax its Fed funds rate targets and it increased the band set by the FOMC for the Fed funds rate from 0.5% to 4%. However, the fed funds rate rose temporarily to over 22% and GDP fell by over 2% in 1982—actual and expected inflation were reversed and fell below 2.5% by 1983. The new approach had defeated inflation but it was not easy to implement and by the end of 1989 the Fed abandoned it for the more traditional fed funds rate targeting.

At about the same time radical innovations in the development of monetary policy rules were launched by the Reserve Bank of New Zealand, which came to be known as explicit inflation targeting. An inflation target provides a clear and explicit rule that permits flexible operational approaches to its achievement. Given Friedman’s long and variable lags in the effect of monetary policy on prices, setting monetary operational targets (almost always the equivalent of a fed funds rate) must be based on the best model assisted forecast of its consistency with the inflation target one to two years in the future. A longer target horizon provided more scope for smoothing any output gap (employment). Full transparency of the policy and the data and reasoning underlying policy settings is required to gain the benefits of the alignment of market inflation expectations with the policy target.

The RBNZ’s development and adoption of inflation targeting was an important development in the pursuit of rule based monetary policy with floating exchange rates that accommodated flexible implementation. It swept the world of central banking. While the Fed did not adopt explicit inflation targets until 2012, it clearly pursued an implicit inflation target long before that.

Monetary stability, defined as price level stability, improved significantly, but exchange rate volatility increased. The Great Moderation of the 1990s and early 2000s that resulted from more stable domestic prices was followed by the Great Recession. The Great Recession of December 2007 to June 2009 highlighted the failure of inflation targeting to take account of asset price bubbles and “inappropriate responses to supply shocks and terms-of trade shocks”.[1]

What followed can only be described as a nightmare (largely because of the over leverage and other weaknesses in the U.S. financial system). After properly and successfully performing its function of a lender of last resort and thus preventing a liquidity-induced collapse of the banking system, the Fed went on to undertake ever more desperate measures to reflate the economy. These Quantitative Easings (QEs)—quasi-fiscal activities—have been widely discussed and have contributed little to economic recovery.[2]

The conclusion from the above history is that monetary policy is being asked to deliver more than it is capable of delivering. Central banks are generally staffed by very capable people, but they can never know all that they need to know to keep the economy at full employment as employers and jobs keep changing. The quality of forecasting models has greatly improved in recent years, but they remain unreliable. The policy strategy and intentions of the Fed and other inflation targeting central banks have become admirably transparent, but given the uncertainty of its next policy actions, markets remain spooked by every new data release and speech by Fed officials. Yet inflation in the U.S. and Europe remain below the 2% targets of the Fed and of the ECB.

Despite the huge increase in the Fed’s balance sheet, which banks are largely holding as excess reserves at the Fed, monetary growth in the U.S. averaged only about 5.5 to 6% over the past four years or about the same as its long run average (for M2). My assessment of the slow pace and modest size of the economic recovery in the U.S. is that regulatory burdens have discouraged investment while many internet related investments continue to drive down costs of many economic activity (a sort of unrecorded productivity increase).  Easy money is once again inflating asset prices (stocks and to a lesser extend again real estate).  But who knows for sure?

The idea that central banks can micro-manage monetary conditions to smooth business cycles is a conceit. In my opinion, central banks have given their price stability mandates their best shot and failed. The successful, countercyclical management of the money supply with floating exchange rates is simply beyond the capacity of mortals.

Return to a Hard Anchor

The Fed should give up its management of the money supply and return to a system of money redeemable for something of fixed value – a so-called hard anchor for monetary policy. This means linking the value of money to something real and managing its supply consistent with that value (exchange rate). Such regimes do not magically overcome an economy’s many and continuous resource allocation and coordination challenges, but by providing a stable unit in which to value goods and services and to evaluate investment options, and sufficient liquidity with which to transact, such regimes facilitate the continuous adjustments private actors need to make for an economy to remain fully employed and to grow.

But fixed exchange rate regimes, including the gold standard in one of its forms or another, have historically had their problems as well. These problems generally reflected one or the other of two factors. The first was the failure of the monetary authorities to play by the rules of a hard anchor, which is to keep the supply of money at the level demanded by the public at money’s fixed value. The pressure to depart from the rules of fixed exchange rates generally came from fiscal imbalances or mistaken Keynesian notions of aggregate demand management. However, even when central banks aimed actively to match the supply of its currency to the market’s demand with stable prices it proved beyond their capacity to do so.

The second source of failure came from fixing the value of money to an inappropriate anchor. When the exchange rate of a currency is fixed to another currency or to a commodity whose value changes in ways that are inappropriate for the economy, domestic price adjustments can become difficult and disruptive. Fixing the exchange rate to a single commodity, as with the gold standard, transmitted changes in the relative price of gold to prices in general, which imposed costly adjustments on the public.

These historical weaknesses of monetary regimes with hard anchors can be overcome by choosing better anchors and by replacing central bank management of the money supply with market control via currency board rules.

Currency board rules give control of the money supply to the market—to the public. As an example, a strict gold standard operated under currency board rules would increase the money supply whenever the public wanted more and was willing to buy it with gold at the fixed gold price of a dollar. If the public found it held more money than it wanted it would redeem the excess for gold at the same price.

I led the IMF teams that established the Central Bank of Bosnia and Herzegovina with currency board rules, and it functions in exactly this way. It has no monetary policy other than issuing or redeeming its currency for Euro at a fixed exchange rate in passive response to market demand. It has worked very well. I was also involved in establishing currency board rules for the Central Bank of Bulgaria, which has also enjoyed stable money ever since.

The hard anchor should not be just one thing. The relative price of any individual good or commodity will vary relative to prices in general. Thus a small representative basket of goods should be chosen for the anchor. Earlier proposals for broader baskets suffered from the assumption that buying and redeeming the currency should be against all of the items in the basket. That would be cumbersome and storage and security would be costly. Currency board rules should provide for indirect redeemability, by which the currency would be purchased with or redeemed for designated AAA securities (e.g., U.S. Treasury bills) at their current market value.

Exchange Rate Volatility or a Global Currency

A major cost of the current system of floating exchange rates with inflation or other targets is the uncertainly and wide swings of exchange rates. Over the last decade the USD/Euro exchange rate varied over 40 percent. The classical gold standard was associated with a flourishing of foreign trade in part because the gold standard was a world currency, which there for eliminated exchange rate risk. There would be considerable benefit to world trade, economic efficiency, and growth if all or most countries adopted the same hard anchor for their currencies. The International Monetary Fund’s SDR already exists for this purpose but would need to be modified in several important ways in order to operate under currency board rules and to change its valuation basket from a basket of currencies to a basket of goods.

Conclusion

Experience with monetary regimes with floating exchange rates has been mixed. Almost all major currencies have become more stable in the last three decades but at the expense of increased exchange rate and asset price volatility. The United State, as well as most other countries, would benefit from a return to a monetary system with a hard anchor, but fixed to the value of a small basket of goods rather than to just one, and whose supply is determined by the public’s demand via issuing and redeeming it indirectly for a liquid asset of comparable value according to currency board rules. The benefits of such a system would be increased the more widely it was adopted. One of the virtues of the gold standard was that it was global.

Reference

Warren Coats, “Real SDR Currency Board”, Central Banking Journal XXII.2 (2011), also available at http://works.bepress.com/warren_coats/25

________________, “What’s Wrong with the International Monetary System and How to Fix it?” April 20, 2017. https://works.bepress.com/warren_coats/38/

Jeffrey Frankel. “The Death of Inflation Targeting”. Project Syndicate, May 16, 2012.

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[1] Jeffrey Frankel. “The Death of Inflation Targeting”. Project Syndicate, May 16, 2012.

[2] See for example, Warren Coats, “US Monetary Policy–QE3” Cayman Financial Review January 2013.