It is unfortunate that Donald Trump seems closer to the mark on China and trade than many economists and people who write on economic issues for major news outlets. Today, Eduardo Porter gets things partly right in his column telling readers "Trump isn't wrong on China currency manipulation just late." The thrust of the piece is that China did in fact deliberately prop up the dollar against its currency, thereby causing the U.S. trade deficit to explode. However, he argues this is all history now and that China's currency is properly valued.
Let's start with the first part of the story. It's hardly a secret that China bought trillions of dollars of foreign exchange in the last decade. The predicted and actual effect of this action was to raise the value of the dollar against the yuan. The result is that the price of U.S. exports were inflated for people living in China and the price of imports from China were held down.
Porter then asks why the Bush administration didn't do anything when this trade deficit was exploding in the years 2002–2007. We get the answer from Eswar Prasad, a former I.M.F. official who headed their oversight of China:
"'There were other dimensions of China’s economic policies that were seen as more important to U.S. economic and business interests,' Eswar Prasad, who headed the China desk at the International Monetary Fund and is now a professor at Cornell, told me. These included 'greater market access, better intellectual property rights protection, easier access to investment opportunities, etc.'"
Okay, step back and absorb this one. Mr. Prasad is saying that millions of manufacturing workers in the Midwest lost their jobs and saw their communities decimated because the Bush administration wanted to press China to enforce Pfizer's patents on drugs, Microsoft's copyrights on Windows, and to secure better access to China's financial markets for Goldman Sachs.
This is not a new story, in fact I say it all the time. But it's nice to have the story confirmed by the person who occupied the I.M.F.'s China desk at the time.
Porter then jumps in and gets his story completely 100 percent wrong:
"At the end of the day, economists argued at the time, Chinese exchange rate policies didn’t cost the United States much. After all, in 2007 the United States was operating at full employment. The trade deficit was because of Americans’ dismal savings rate and supercharged consumption, not a cheap renminbi. After all, if Americans wanted to consume more than they created, they had to get it somewhere."
Sorry, this was the time when even very calm sensible people like Federal Reserve Board Chair Ben Bernanke were talking about a "savings glut." The U.S. and the world had too much savings, which lead to a serious problem of unemployment. Oh, we did eventually find a way to deal with excess savings.
Anyone remember the housing bubble? The demand generated by the bubble eventually pushed the labor market close to full employment. (The employment rate of prime age workers was still down by 2.0 percentage points in 2007 compared to 2000 — and the drop was for both men and women, so skip the problem with men story.)
Yeah, that bubble didn't end too well. So much for Porter's no big deal story.
But what about the present, are we all good now?
Porter is right that China is no longer buying reserves, but it still holds over $3 trillion in reserves. This figure goes to well over $4 trillion if we include its sovereign wealth fund. Is there a planet where we don't think this affects the value of the dollar relative to the yuan?
To help people's thought process, the Federal Reserve Board holds over $3 trillion in assets as a result of its quantitative easing program. I don't know an economist anywhere who doesn't think the Fed's holding of assets is still keeping interest rates down, as compared to a scenario in which it had a more typical $500 billion to $1 trillion in assets.
Currencies work the same way. If China offloaded $3 trillion in reserves and sovereign wealth holdings, it would increase the supply of dollars in the world. And, as Karl Marx says, when the supply of something increases, its price falls. In other words, if China had a more normal amount of reserve holdings, the value of the dollar would fall, increasing the competitiveness of U.S. goods and services, thereby reducing the trade deficit.
At the beginning of the piece, Porter discusses the question of China's currency "manipulation." (I would much prefer the more neutral and accurate term "currency management." There is nothing very secret here.) He tells readers:
"It would be hard, these days, to find an economist who feels China fits the bill."
Perhaps. Of course it would have been difficult to find an economist who recognized the $8 trillion housing bubble, the collapse of which wrecked the economy. As the saying goes, "economists are not very good at economics."