Armageddon Can Wait

CAMBRIDGE – Where are global currencies headed in 2011? After three years of huge, crisis-driven exchange-rate swings, it is useful to take stock both of currency values and of the exchange-rate system as a whole. And my best guess is that we will see a mix of currency wars, currency collapses, and currency chaos in the year ahead – but that this won’t spell the end of the economic recovery, much less the end of the world.

Let’s start by acknowledging that the modern system of floating exchange rates has, on the whole, acquitted itself remarkably well. True, given complex risk factors and idiosyncratic policy preferences, it has been particularly challenging of late to divine the logic underlying big exchange-rate swings. For example, even though the United States was at the heart of the financial crisis, the dollar initially soared.

But, even if exchange rates work in mysterious ways, their cushioning effect is undeniable. The sharp depreciation of the euro after the crisis helped sustain German exports, thereby keeping the eurozone afloat.

Emerging markets’ currencies also collapsed, even in economies with huge foreign-exchange reserves and relatively little debt. Since then, most emerging-market currencies have rebounded sharply. In hindsight, these exchange-rate swings mirrored the initial collapse and subsequent rebound in global trade, helping to mitigate the recession.