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No Time for a Trade War

NEW YORK – The battle with the United States over China’s exchange rate continues. When the Great Recession began, many worried that protectionism would rear its ugly head. True, G-20 leaders promised that they had learned the lessons of the Great Depression. But 17 of the G-20’s members introduced protectionist measures just months after the first summit in November 2008. The “Buy American” provision in the United States’ stimulus bill got the most attention. Still, protectionism was contained, partly due to the World Trade Organization.

Continuing economic weakness in the advanced economies risks a new round of protectionism. In America, for example, more than one in six workers who would like a full-time job can’t find one.

These were among the risks associated with America’s insufficient stimulus, which was designed to placate members of Congress as much as it was to revive the economy. With soaring deficits, a second stimulus appears unlikely, and, with monetary policy at its limits and inflation hawks being barely kept at bay, there is little hope of help from that department, either. So protectionism is taking pride of place.

The US Treasury has been charged by Congress to assess whether China is a “currency manipulator.” Although President Obama has now delayed for some months when Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner must issue his report, the very concept of “currency manipulation” itself is flawed: all governments take actions that directly or indirectly affect the exchange rate. Reckless budget deficits can lead to a weak currency; so can low interest rates. Until the recent crisis in Greece, the US benefited from a weak dollar/euro exchange rate. Should Europeans have accused the US of “manipulating” the exchange rate to expand exports at its expense?