One thing you can
probably get 99% of economists to agree on is that a global trade war in the
middle of a global recession is a bad idea. If every country increases import
tariffs, hoping to protect its domestic industry from foreign competition,
global trade will fall in all directions, hurting everybody. Put another way,
increased tariffs are a negative-sum game.


To date, we haven’t
seen much in the way of higher trade barriers during this crisis, although you
could argue that some bailouts constitute subsidies favoring local over foreign
companies. Instead, however, we are seeing friction over currency valuations.
If you want to boost your net exports but don’t want to do the obviously
unfriendly thing and increase tariffs, the other option is to devalue your
currency: a weaker currency increases the price of imported goods and reduces
the price of exported goods, hence reducing imports and increasing exports.


Tim Geithner accused
China of “manipulating its currency,” something we’ve heard periodically over
the last several years but not in much in the last few months. (Of course,
Geithner then said that “a strong dollar is in America’s national interest,”
whatever that means.)  Switzerland threatened to intervene on foreign
exchange markets to suppress the value of the Swiss franc. And the French
finance minister criticized the U.K. for letting the pound depreciate.


devaluing your currency is not as bad as import tariffs. If every country tries
to devalue its currency at the same time, exchange rates will remain the same;
this is a zero-sum game in that sense. It’s a little more complicated, because
there are at least two ways of devaluing your currency. One is for the central
government to sell its own currency and buy everyone else’s currency on the
foreign exchange market. The other, however, is to run an expansionary monetary
policy (lower interest rates, more money creation, etc.), which is
inflationary. So one possible outcome is that every country runs an
expansionary monetary policy, exchange rates remain the same, but commodity
prices go up because there is more money floating around. In today’s
environment of low or negative inflation expectations, however, that might not
be such a terrible thing.


But the other side
of competitive currency devaluations is that not all countries are equally well
armed. In particular, countries that use the euro cannot devalue their
currencies, because they don’t control their monetary policy and they don’t
have the scale to intervene significantly on the market for euros. In short,
other countries can devalue their currencies at the expense of Eurozone


Germany, France and
the Scandinavian countries are mounting billion-dollar stimulus plans and
erecting fences to protect their banks. But the peripheral economies are being
left to twist in the market winds.

This is a good
indicator that fears about the Eurozone are going mainstream.


The article first appeared on The Baseline Scenario (