McKinnon's Claim that RMB-$ Appreciation Would Not Reduce Trade Imbalances

The International Economy magazine (Winter 2013) asks 16 authorities, “Can Changes in Exchange Rate Valuations Affect Trade Imbalances?“ It is referring to the claim in a recent book by Stanford economist Ron McKinnon that pressure on China to let the renminbi appreciate against the dollar is fundamentally misconceived because such a movement in the exchange rate would not reduce China’s trade surplus nor American’s trade deficit. This is part of an old debate that pre-dates the rise of the China trade problem. Ron has& long claimed that exchange rates don’t determine trade balances because they are “instead” determined by national saving versus investment. I thought PaulKrugmandemolished the argument pretty effectively 25 years ago, with a textbook graph of internal balance versus external balance. But evidently many still fall for the argument (including some of the experts in the TIE symposium). So I try again:

Ron McKinnon has made many important contributions to international macroeconomics over the years. But on this issue, he is simply wrong.

It goes without saying that the current account is equal to the difference between national saving and investment. But it does not follow that we should try to improve the current account in the short run by increasing national saving. Under current conditions, that would send the United States back into recession.

The national saving identity is a tautology: it does not in itself imply causation. True, many of the big movements in the U.S. current account deficit can be explained by changes in national saving: the fiscal expansion of the early 1980s, the investment boom of the late 1990s, and the new fiscal expansion of the 2000s. But the important point is that we care about a lot of things besides just external balance (the trade balance and current account). We care at least as much about internal balance (growth, employment, and inflation). To say that an increase in the budget balance and national saving would improve the trade balance does not imply that this would be good policy or that it is the only way to improve the trade balance.

Of course we need to address the budget deficit in the long run, in balancedsensible ways. But under current circumstances — a still-weak economy, high unemployment, low inflation, rock-bottom interest rates — a reduction in public or private spending would send the economy straight back into recession. That is why the fiscal cliff of January 1, 2013, was such a danger. To observe that the trade balance would have improved if the sharp fiscal contraction had gone fully into effect would have been small consolation for the self-inflicted recession.

The U.S. trade deficit and Chinese trade surplus have diminished and so are today not quite the problems that they were five years ago. But if improving the U.S. trade balance is considered an important goal, then a devaluation or depreciation of the currency is a better tool for the job. (This proposition does not violate the national saving propositions. Nor, on the other hand, does it justify China-bashing.) Because a real devaluation would also raise demand for U.S. products — admittedly with a lag — and thus move us closer to internal balance, it would be a far more appropriate tool for improving the current account under present-day conditions than would cutting national spending or raising taxes.

The World’s Opinion Page

Help support Project Syndicate’s mission

subscribe now

http://prosyn.org/nE6l7F0;
  1. Sean Gallup/Getty Images

    Angela Merkel’s Endgame?

    The collapse of coalition negotiations has left German Chancellor Angela Merkel facing a stark choice between forming a minority government or calling for a new election. But would a minority government necessarily be as bad as Germans have traditionally thought?

  2. Trump Trade speech Bill Pugliano/Getty Images .

    Preparing for the Trump Trade Wars

    In the first 11 months of his presidency, Donald Trump has failed to back up his words – or tweets – with action on a variety of fronts. But the rest of the world's governments, and particularly those in Asia and Europe, would be mistaken to assume that he won't follow through on his promised "America First" trade agenda.

  3. A GrabBike rider uses his mobile phone Bay Ismoyo/Getty Images

    The Platform Economy

    While developed countries in Europe, North America, and Asia are rapidly aging, emerging economies are predominantly youthful. Nigerian, Indonesian, and Vietnamese young people will shape global work trends at an increasingly rapid pace, bringing to bear their experience in dynamic informal markets on a tech-enabled gig economy.

  4. Trump Mario Tama/Getty Images

    Profiles in Discouragement

    One day, the United States will turn the page on Donald Trump. But, as Americans prepare to observe their Thanksgiving holiday, they should reflect that their country's culture and global standing will never recover fully from the wounds that his presidency is inflicting on them.

  5. Mugabe kisses Grace JEKESAI NJIKIZANA/AFP/Getty Images

    How Women Shape Coups

    In Zimbabwe, as in all coups, much behind-the-scenes plotting continues to take place in the aftermath of the military's overthrow of President Robert Mugabe. But who the eventual winners and losers are may depend, among other things, on the gender of the plotters.

  6. Oil barrels Ahmad Al-Rubaye/Getty Images

    The Abnormality of Oil

    At the 2017 Abu Dhabi Petroleum Exhibition and Conference, the consensus among industry executives was that oil prices will still be around $60 per barrel in November 2018. But there is evidence to suggest that the uptick in global growth and developments in Saudi Arabia will push the price as high as $80 in the meantime.

  7. Israeli soldier Menahem Kahana/Getty Images

    The Saudi Prince’s Dangerous War Games

    Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is working hard to consolidate power and establish his country as the Middle East’s only hegemon. But his efforts – which include an attempt to trigger a war between Israel and Hezbollah in Lebanon – increasingly look like the work of an immature gambler.