The Currency Manipulation Charade

NEW HAVEN – As the US Congress grapples with the ever-contentious Trans-Pacific Partnership – President Barack Obama’s signature trade legislation – a major stumbling block looms. On May 22, the Senate avoided it, by narrowly defeating – 51 to 48 – a proposed “currency manipulation” amendment to a bill that gives Obama so-called “fast-track” authority to negotiate the TPP. But the issue could be resurrected as the debate shifts to the House of Representatives, where support is strong for “enforceable currency rules.”

For at least a decade, Congress has been focusing on currency manipulation – a charge leveled at countries that purportedly intervene in foreign-exchange markets in order to suppress their currencies’ value, thereby subsidizing exports. In 2005, Senators Charles Schumer, a liberal Democrat from New York, and Lindsey Graham, a conservative Republican from South Carolina, formed an unlikely alliance to defend beleaguered middle-class US workers from supposedly unfair competitive practices. Stop the currency manipulation, went the argument, and America’s gaping trade deficit would narrow – providing lasting and meaningful benefits to hard-pressed workers.

A decade ago, the original Schumer-Graham proposal was a thinly veiled anti-China initiative. The ire that motivated that proposal remains today, with China accounting for 47% of America’s still outsize merchandise trade deficit in 2014. Never mind that the Chinese renminbi has risen some 33% against the US dollar since mid-1995 to a level that the International Monetary Fund no longer considers undervalued, or that China’s current-account surplus has shrunk from 10% of GDP in 2007 to an estimated 2% in 2014. China remains in the crosshairs of US politicians who believe that American workers are the victims of its unfair trading practices.

While this argument has great emotional and political appeal, it is deeply flawed, because the United States has an insidious saving problem. America’s net national saving rate – the sum total of household, business, and government saving (adjusted for the depreciation of aging capacity) – currently stands at 2.5% of national income. While that is better than the negative saving rates of 2008-2011, it remains well short of the 6.3% average of the final three decades of the twentieth century.