Whether it's the 1930s or the 2010s, depressions are the only casualties in a currency war
I don't know how it compares to peeing in your bed, as one anonymous senior Fed official put it, but a currency war is one of the surest ways to end a global slump. Despite what you may have heard, it was a big part of what stopped the vicious circle of the Great Depression.
Currency wars are the best type of wars. Nobody dies, and everybody can recover, as long as everybody plays along. Here's how it works. One country devalues its currency -- in other words, prints money -- which, in a time of weak global demand, puts pressure on other countries to do the same, lest they lose out on trade. Then another country devalues, and so on, in a cascade of looser money. It's the invisible hand pushing for expansionary monetary policy when it's needed most.
But there are a few caveats. For one, a currency war only makes sense during a global depression when short-term interest rates are mostly stuck at zero. It's about boosting monetary stimulus when conventional methods are out of ammo. For another, devaluing forever (a là China) is not a sustainable growth strategy. It might make sense for developing nations to subsidize export industries early on, but, eventually, this will only cause imbalances to build up, while robbing the domestic population of purchasing power. And finally, there's a risk that a currency war could turn into a trade war. In other words, countries will retaliate to expansionary monetary policy not with expansionary monetary policy of their own, but with tariffs. Presumably that's what our silver-tongued senior Fed official was getting at with this head-scratcher of a quote:
Devaluing a currency is like peeing in bed. It feels good at first, but pretty soon it becomes a real mess.
This fear of a currency war begetting a trade war is certainly serious, but it's made to sound more serious thanks to some bad history. Here's the erroneous story you might have heard (especially now that Japan's talk of more aggressive easing has revived fears of a currency war):
After the Great Crash of 1929, countries abandoned the gold standard and devalued their currencies in a beggar-thy-neighbor battle to the bottom. This currency war turned into a trade war, with countries eventually resorting to tariffs and counter-tariffs, as they tried to grab a hold on an ever-shrinking pie of demand. The consequent collapse in world trade is what made the Great Depression so great, and set the stage for the trade war to turn into an actual one.
Scary stuff. But not quite true. The reality is the trade war started before the currency war, and the latter jump-started recovery wherever it was tried. The infamous Smoot-Hawley tariff in the U.S., the first salvo in the trade war to come, was actually passed in June 1930, more than a full year before any country devalued its currency. It wasn't until September 1931 that Britain abandoned the gold standard ... and that's when things get a bit complicated. It's hard to accuse Britain of "competitive" devaluation here, because it had no choice but devaluation; it had simply run out of gold. Nonetheless, other countries responded to Britain's increased competitiveness by increasing their trade barriers; in this case, the currency war, such as it was, did exacerbate the ongoing trade war, as Gavyn Davies of the Financial Times points out.
But then a funny thing happened. The punishment for Britain's economic weakness was a recovery. Ditching gold gave Britain (and everybody else who did so) the freedom to pursue more aggressive monetary and fiscal policies than the "rules of the game" of the gold standard had allowed.* As you can see in the chart below (via Brad DeLong) from Barry Eichengreen's magisterial work on the depression, Golden Fetters, recovery followed devaluation everywhere. There was no reward for financial orthodoxy in the 1930s. The countries that stayed with the gold standard the longest, the so-called Gold Bloc of France, Belgium, and Poland, were the last to begin growing again. In other words, the currency war didn't deepen the depression; it ended it.
And that brings us to one last, stupid question. How did beggar-thy-neighbor policies kickstart growth even after world trade had already collapsed? In other words, how did stealing a trade advantage help so much when there wasn't much trade to steal? Well, it's not entirely, or even mostly, about stealing trade. Indeed, as Scott Sumner points out, the U.S. trade balance actually worsened in 1933 after FDR took us off gold, even as the economy quickly reversed its death-spiral and began a virtuous cycle. It's easiest to frame devaluation as grabbing demand from abroad, but it's really about increasing demand at home. Devaluation means printing money, and more money during a liquidity trap means more demand, period. It also allows more stimulus spending than a fixed-exchange rate system (like the gold standard) would. The next time you hear someone lamenting the "destructive devaluations that followed the Great Depression," remember to ask them -- what was so destructive about ending the most destructive depression in modern history?
The only thing we have to fear is fear of currency wars itself. Depressions are the only casualties in these kind of conflicts.
* There were two exceptions. The gold standard did not constrain looser monetary policy in the U.S. and France in the early years of the depression, as both had more than enough gold to back more credit growth, but chose instead to sterilize their gold inflows out of fear of nonexistent inflation in the face of actual deflation. This stockpiling drained everybody else of gold, and consequently made staying on the gold standard impossible. Even the U.S. and France had to eventually abandon it to reverse years of deflation.
It happened gradually—and until the U.S. figures out how to treat the problem, it will only get worse.
It’s 2020, four years from now. The campaign is under way to succeed the president, who is retiring after a single wretched term. Voters are angrier than ever—at politicians, at compromisers, at the establishment. Congress and the White House seem incapable of working together on anything, even when their interests align. With lawmaking at a standstill, the president’s use of executive orders and regulatory discretion has reached a level that Congress views as dictatorial—not that Congress can do anything about it, except file lawsuits that the divided Supreme Court, its three vacancies unfilled, has been unable to resolve.
On Capitol Hill, Speaker Paul Ryan resigned after proving unable to pass a budget, or much else. The House burned through two more speakers and one “acting” speaker, a job invented following four speakerless months. The Senate, meanwhile, is tied in knots by wannabe presidents and aspiring talk-show hosts, who use the chamber as a social-media platform to build their brands by obstructing—well, everything. The Defense Department is among hundreds of agencies that have not been reauthorized, the government has shut down three times, and, yes, it finally happened: The United States briefly defaulted on the national debt, precipitating a market collapse and an economic downturn. No one wanted that outcome, but no one was able to prevent it.
Learning how to bond with my daughter, who found comfort in the familiarity of being alone, has come through understanding reactive attachment disorder.
My hands hover over the computer keyboard. They are trembling. I hold down the shift key and type the words with intention, saying each letter aloud: “R-e-a-c-t-i-v-e A-t-t-a-c-h-m-e-n-t D-i-s-o-r-d-e-r.” The words “reactive attachment disorder” are memory beads I gather into a pile and attempt to string along on a necklace.
I think back to when Judith, my neighbor who is a psychiatrist, offhandedly threw out the term the first time she met Julia. We were talking about babies who start their lives in orphanages, and she mentioned the disorder. She wasn't suggesting that my daughter Julia showed any signs, but she’d said it was a well-known problem with children who’d been adopted from Romanian orphanages in the '80s and '90s. I remember nodding my head and thinking, Shut up, Judith. We got Julia young. It shouldn't be an issue.
Unexpected discoveries in the quest to cure an extraordinary skeletal condition show how medically relevant rare diseases can be.
When Jeannie Peeper was born in 1958, there was only one thing amiss: her big toes were short and crooked. Doctors fitted her with toe braces and sent her home. Two months later, a bulbous swelling appeared on the back of Peeper’s head. Her parents didn’t know why: she hadn’t hit her head on the side of her crib; she didn’t have an infected scratch. After a few days, the swelling vanished as quickly as it had arrived.
When Peeper’s mother noticed that the baby couldn’t open her mouth as wide as her sisters and brothers, she took her to the first of various doctors, seeking an explanation for her seemingly random assortment of symptoms. Peeper was 4 when the Mayo Clinic confirmed a diagnosis: she had a disorder known as fibrodysplasia ossificans progressiva (FOP).
The June 23 vote represents a huge popular rebellion against a future in which British people feel increasingly crowded within—and even crowded out of—their own country.
I said goodnight to a gloomy party of Leave-minded Londoners a few minutes after midnight. The paper ballots were still being counted by hand. Only the British overseas territory of Gibraltar had reported final results. Yet the assumption of a Remain victory filled the room—and depressed my hosts. One important journalist had received a detailed briefing earlier that evening of the results of the government’s exit polling: 57 percent for Remain.
The polling industry will be one victim of the Brexit vote. A few days before the vote, I met with a pollster who had departed from the cheap and dirty methods of his peers to perform a much more costly survey for a major financial firm. His results showed a comfortable margin for Remain. Ten days later, anyone who heeded his expensive advice suffered the biggest percentage losses since the 2008 financial crisis.
The International Monetary Fund’s Christine Lagarde asks leaders to proceed in “the most efficient, predictable way.”
The Brexit decision was “heartbreaking for those of us who are truly Europeans,” said Christine Lagarde, the managing director of the International Monetary Fund, on Sunday evening. And she offered a plea for global leaders, asking them to restore certainty to an uncertain situation.
Markets usually get things right—but they got the result of the Brexit vote very, very wrong. Its failure to predict the Brexit produced a sudden plunge in the pound that was “violent, brutal, immediate, massive,” she said, it also showed the fundamental resilience of the system. “There was no panic, despite the fact that markets had not anticipated that vote … and the central bankers did the job that they were prepared to do just in case,” she insisted, flooding the markets with liquidity.
Shedding pounds is usually a losing battle—research suggests it’s better to just focus on building a healthy lifestyle.
“My own history of yo-yo dieting started when I was 15 and lasted about three decades,” said Sandra Aamodt, a neuroscientist and the author of Why Diets Make Us Fat, on Saturday at Spotlight Health, a conference co-hosted by the Aspen Institute and The Atlantic. “I lost the same 15 pounds pretty much every year during that same period, and gained it back regular as clockwork.”
This is a classic tale—the diet that doesn’t take, the weight loss that comes right back. The most recent, extreme, highly publicized case was that of the study done on contestants from the reality show The Biggest Loser, most of whom, six years after losing 100 to 200 pounds, had gained most of it back, and had significantly slowed metabolisms.
The results of the referendum are, in theory, not legally binding.
Lest we think the Euroskepticism displayed this week by British voters is new, let me present a scene from the BBC’s Yes, Minister, a comedy about the U.K. civil service’s relationship with a minister. The series ran from 1980 to ’84 (and, yes, it was funny), at a time when the European Union was a mere glint in its founders’ eyes.
The Europe being referred to in the scene is the European Economic Community (EEC), an eventually 12-member bloc established in the mid-1950s, to bring about greater economic integration among its members.
In many ways, the seeds of the U.K.’s Thursday referendum on its membership in the European Union were sown soon after the country joined the now-defunct EEC in 1973. Then, as now, the ruling Conservative Party and opposition Labour, along with the rest of the country, were deeply divided over the issue. In the run-up to the general election the following year, Labour promised in its manifesto to put the U.K.’s EEC membership to a public referendum. Labour eventually came to power and Parliament passed the Referendum Act in 1975, fulfilling that campaign promise. The vote was held on June 5, 1975, and the result was what the political establishment had hoped for: an overwhelming 67 percent of voters supported the country’s EEC membership.
How the Brexit vote activated some of the most politically destabilizing forces threatening the U.K.
Among the uncertainties unleashed by the Brexit referendum, which early Friday morning heralded the United Kingdom’s coming breakup with the European Union, was what happens to the “union” of the United Kingdom itself. Ahead of the vote, marquee campaign themes included, on the “leave” side, the question of the U.K.’s sovereignty within the European Union—specifically its ability to control migration—and, on the “remain” side, the economic benefits of belonging to the world’s largest trading bloc, as well as the potentially catastrophic consequences of withdrawing from it. Many of the key arguments on either side concerned the contours of the U.K.-EU relationship, and quite sensibly so. “Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union or leave the European Union?” was, after all, the precise question people were voting on.
The city is riding high after the NBA final. But with the GOP convention looming, residents are bracing for disappointment.
Cleveland’s in a weird mood.
My son and I attended the Indians game on Father’s Day, the afternoon before game seven of the NBA Finals—which, in retrospect, now seems like it should be blockbustered simply as The Afternoon Before—when the Cavaliers would take on the Golden State Warriors and bring the city its first major-league sports championship in 52 years.
I am 52 years old. I’ve lived in Northeast Ohio all my life. I know what Cleveland feels like. And it’s not this.
In the ballpark that day, 25,269 of us sat watching a pitcher’s duel, and the place was palpably subdued. The announcer and digitized big-screen signage made no acknowledgement of the city’s excitement over the Cavaliers. There were no chants of “Let’s Go Cavs,” no special seventh-inning-stretch cheer for the Indians’ basketball brothers, who play next door in the Quicken Loans Arena, which in a few weeks will host the Republican National Convention.