Saturday, August 23, 2014

America’s Opposing Futures

I recently learned something interesting: American international finance economists and American domestically oriented macroeconomists have very different – indeed, opposing – views of the likely consequences of America’s huge current-account deficit. International finance economists see a financial crisis as likely, followed by a painful and perhaps prolonged recession in the United States. Domestically oriented macroeconomists, by contrast, see a forthcoming fall in the value of the dollar not as a crisis, but as an opportunity to accelerate growth.

Domestically oriented macroeconomists look at the situation roughly like this: at some point in the future, foreign central banks will become less willing to continue buying massive amounts of dollar-denominated securities in order to prop up the greenback. When they cease their large-scale dollar-purchase programs, the value of the dollar will fall – and it will fall hard.

But, according to this view, as the dollar’s value declines, US exports will become more attractive to foreigners and American employment will rise, with labor re-allocated to the newly-vibrant export sector. It will be like what happened in Britain after it abandoned its exchange-rate peg and allowed the pound to depreciate relative to the Deutschmark , or what happened in the US in the late 1980’s, when the dollar depreciated against the pound, the Deutschmark , and – most importantly – the Japanese yen.

International finance economists see a far bleaker future. They see the end of large-scale dollar-purchase programs by central banks leading not only to a decline in the dollar, but also to a spike in US long-term interest rates, which will curb consumption spending immediately and throttle investment spending after only a short lag.

To be sure, international finance economists also see US exports benefiting as the value of the dollar declines, but the lags in demand are such that the export boost will come a year or two after the decline in consumption and investment spending. Eight to ten million people will have to shift employment from services and construction into exports and import-competing goods, implying that structural unemployment will rise.

Moreover, there may be a financial panic: large financial institutions with short-term liabilities and long-term assets will have a difficult time weathering a large rise in long-term dollar-denominated interest rates. This mismatch can cause financial stress and bankruptcy just as easily as banks’ local-currency assets and dollar liabilities caused stress and bankruptcy in the Mexican and East Asian crises of the 1990’s and in the Argentinean crisis of this decade.

When international finance economists sketch this scenario, domestically oriented macroeconomists respond that it sounds like a case of incompetent monetary policy. Why should the Federal Reserve allow long-term interest rates to spike just because other central banks have ceased their dollar-purchase programs? Should not the Fed step in and replace them with its own purchases of long-term US Treasury bonds, thereby keeping long-term interest rates at a level conducive to full employment?

To this, international finance economists respond that the Fed does not have the power to do so. When forced to choose between full employment and price stability, the international finance economists say that the Fed will choose price stability, because its institutional memory of the 1970’s, when inflation ran rampant, remains very strong. Therefore, since a fall in the value of the dollar raises import prices, and thus functions as a negative shock to the supply side of the economy, the Fed will have to raise, not lower, interest rates, and sell, not buy, bonds.

Serious economists whom I respect enormously find themselves taking strong positions on opposite sides of this debate. I’m not wise enough to say which side is right, but I certainly know which side I hope is wrong.

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