Capital Flows and Currency Exchange

Posted by PITHOCRATES - March 10th, 2014

Economics 101

(Originally published July 30th, 2012)

Before we buy a Country’s Exports we have to Exchange our Currency First

What’s the first thing we do when traveling to a foreign country?  Exchange our currency.  Something we like to do at our own bank.  Before leaving home.  Where we can get a fair exchange rate.  Instead of someplace in-country where they factor the convenience of location into the exchange rate.  Places we go to only after we’ve run out of local currency.  And need some of it fast.  So we’ll pay the premium on the exchange rate.  And get less foreign money in exchange for our own currency.

Why are we willing to accept less money in return for our money?  Because when we run out of money in a foreign country we have no choice.  If you want to eat at a McDonalds in Canada they expect you to pay with Canadian dollars.  Which is why the money in the cash drawer is Canadian money.  Because the cashier accepts payment and makes change in Canadian money.  Just like they do with American money in the United States.

So currency exchange is very important for foreign purchases.  Because foreign goods are priced in a foreign currency.  And it’s just not people traveling across the border eating at nice restaurants and buying souvenirs to bring home.  But people in their local stores buying goods made in other countries.  Before we buy them with our American dollars someone else has to buy them first.  Japanese manufacturers need yen to run their businesses.  Chinese manufacturers need yuan to run their businesses.  Indian manufacturers need rupees to run their businesses.  So when they ship container ships full of their goods they expect to get yen, yuan and rupees in return.  Which means that before anyone buys their exports someone has to exchange their currency first.

Goods flow One Way while Gold flows the Other until Price Inflation Reverses the Flow of Goods and Gold

We made some of our early coins out of gold.  Because different nations used gold, too, it was relatively easy to exchange currencies.  Based on the weight of gold in those coins.  Imagine one nation using a gold coin the size of a quarter as their main unit of currency.  And another nation uses a gold coin the size of a nickel.  Let’s say the larger coin weighs twice as much as the smaller coin.  Or has twice the amount of gold in it.  Making the exchange easy.  One big coin equals two small coins in gold value.  So if I travel to the country of small coins with three large gold coins I exchange them for six of the local coins.  And then go shopping.

The same principle follows in trade between these two countries.  To buy a nation’s exports you have to first exchange your currency for theirs.  This is how.  You go to the exporter country with bags of your gold coins.  You exchange them for the local currency.  You then use this local currency to pay for the goods they will export to you.  Then you go back to your country and wait for the ship to arrive with your goods.  When it arrives your nation has a net increase in imported goods (i.e., a trade deficit).  And a net decrease in gold.  While the other nation has a net increase in exported goods (i.e., a trade surplus).  And a net increase in gold.

The quantity theory of money tells us that as the amount of money in circulation increases it creates price inflation.  Because there’s more of it in circulation it’s easy to get and worth less.  Because the money is worth less it takes more of it to buy the same things it once did.  So prices rise.  As prices rise in a nation with a trade surplus.  And fall in a nation with a trade deficit.  Because less money in circulation makes it harder to get and worth more.  Because the money is worth more it takes less of it to buy the same things it once did.  So prices fall.  This helps to make trade neutral (no deficit or surplus).  As prices rise in the exporter nation people buy less of their more expensive exports.  As prices fall in an importer nation people begin buying their less expensive exports.  So as goods flow one way gold flows the other way.  Until inflation rises in one country and eventually reverses the flow of goods and gold.  We call this the price-specie flow mechanism.

In the Era of Floating Exchange Rates Governments don’t have to Act Responsibly Anymore

This made the gold standard an efficient medium of exchange for international trade.  Whether we used gold.  Or a currency backed by gold.  Which added another element to the exchange rate.  For trading paper bills backed by gold required a government to maintain their domestic money supply based on their foreign exchange rate.  Meaning that they at times had to adjust the number of bills in circulation to maintain their exchange rate.  So if a country wanted to lower their interest rates (to encourage borrowing to stimulate their economy) by increasing the money supply they couldn’t.  Limiting what governments could do with their monetary policy.  Especially in the age of Keynesian economics.  Which was the driving force for abandoning the gold standard.

Most nations today use a floating exchange rate.  Where countries treat currencies as commodities.  With their own supply and demand determining exchange rates.  Or a government’s capital controls (restricting the free flow of money) that overrule market forces.  Which you can do when you don’t have to be responsible with your monetary policy.  You can print money.  You can keep foreign currency out of your county.  And you can manipulate your official exchange rate to give you an advantage in international trade by keeping your currency weak.  So when trading partners exchange their currency with you they get a lot of yours in exchange.  Allowing them to buy more of your goods than they can buy from other nations with the same amount of money.  Giving you an unfair trade advantage.  Trade surpluses.  And lots of foreign currency to invest in things like U.S. treasury bonds.

The gold standard gave us a fixed exchange rate and the free flow of capital.  But it limited what a government could do with its monetary policy.  An active monetary policy will allow the free flow of capital but not a fixed exchange rate.  Capital controls prevent the free flow of capital but allows a fixed exchange rate and an active monetary policy.  Governments have tried to do all three of these things.  But could never do more than two.  Which is why we call these three things the impossible trinity.  Which has been a source of policy disputes within a nation.  And between nations.  Because countries wanted to abandoned the gold standard to adopt policies that favored their nation.  And then complained about nations doing the same thing because it was unfair to their own nation.  Whereas the gold standard made trade fair.  By making governments act responsible.  Something they never liked.  And in the era of floating exchange rates they don’t have to act responsibly anymore.

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Abenomics appears to have Failed in Japan just as Keynesian Economics has Failed everywhere it has been Tried

Posted by PITHOCRATES - March 9th, 2014

Week in Review

The Keynesians were applauding Shinzō Abe’s economic plans for Japan.  To end the never-ending deflationary spiral they’ve been in since the late Nineties.  His Abenomics included all the things Keynesians love to do.  And want to do in the United States.  Expand the money supply through inflationary monetary policy.  Devalue the yen to make their exports cheaper.  Lower interest rates into negative territory.  Quantitative easing.  And lots of government spending.  The kinds of things that just makes a Keynesian’s heart go pitter pat.

They kicked off Abenomics in 2013.  And how are things about a year later?  Not good (see Japan’s deficit hits record as economic growth slows posted 3/9/2014 on BBC News Business).

Japan’s current account deficit widened to a record 1.5tn yen ($15bn; £8.7bn) in January, the largest since records began in 1985.

In further bad news, the country’s economic growth figures were also revised downwards…

The sluggish growth and growing deficit come just before a planned sales tax increase, scheduled to take effect in April.

They did weaken the yen.  Making it worth less than other currencies so those currencies could get more yen when they exchanged their currencies to buy those Japanese exports.  Of course, when Japanese exchanged their yen for those other currencies they got less of those other currencies in return.  Requiring more yen to buy those now more expensive imports.  Thus increasing their trade deficit.

Japan is an island with a lot of people.  They have to import a lot of their food, energy and natural resources as they have little on their island.  So the weaker yen just made everything more expensive in Japan.  Which, of course, lowered GDP.  As those higher prices reduced the amount of buying their consumers could do.

Japan’s greatest problem is her aging population.  And they have just about the oldest population in the world.  As the youth have slammed the brakes on having children.  So you have massive waves of people leaving the workforce the government is supporting in retirement.  And fewer people entering the workforce to pay the taxes that support those retirees.  Which, of course, forces higher tax rates on those remaining in the workforce.  Further reducing the amount of buying their consumers can do.  And no amount of Abenomics can change that.

Abenomics did not deliver what the Keynesians thought it would.  Because Keynesian economics (aka demand-side economics) just doesn’t work.  If it did Japan never would have had a Lost Decade to begin with.  For it was Keynesian economics that gave Japan that asset price bubble in the first place.  Which burst and deflated into the Lost Decade.

What Japan needs is a return to classical economic principles.  Focusing more on the supply side.  Lower tax rates and reduce regulation.  Let the market set interest rates.  Restore the policies that introduced ‘Made in Japan’ to the world.  They need to make their capitalism more laissez-faire.  If they do they can create the kind of economic activity that just might be able to support the generation who created the ‘Made in Japan’ label in their retirement.  But you must have robust economic activity.  So robust that lower tax rates can produce greater tax revenue.  The supply-side economics way.

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The Chinese Communists to embrace Free Market Capitalism more than President Obama

Posted by PITHOCRATES - December 21st, 2013

Week in Review

During the Eighties Democrats said the Japanese economy was the smart way to go.  Government partnering with business.  With government helping to make that messy capitalism more ordered and manageable.  Improving economic efficiency.  And economic output.  But all that government intervention and cronyism brought on a deflationary spiral.  Japan’s Lost Decade.  Which they’re still trying to recover from.

Over the last decade Democrats said the Chinese economy was the smart way to go.  Government partnering with business.  With government helping to make that messy capitalism more ordered and manageable.  Improving economic efficiency.  And economic output.  But it doesn’t appear the Chinese agree with them (see China factories stuck in cruise control by Charles Riley posted 12/15/2013 on CNNMoney).

After a long period of steady progress and faster growth, China’s factories have lost some momentum in the final months of the year…

…analysts said that sluggishness in the manufacturing sector suggests economic growth has started to weaken, a trend that will continue into next year…

China’s party leaders have spent much of the year plotting a course for economic reform that aims to deliver results by 2020.

Beijing’s plan calls for opening its financial markets and promoting greater foreign investment. The leadership also hinted at changes in how companies file for stock market listings, the introduction of a bank deposit insurance scheme and an acceleration of interest rate liberalization.

The roadmap seeks to roll back government control of state-owned enterprises and allow for greater competition with private firms.

The Chinese export economy created economic activity.  But the key to that was their low labor costs.  With the power of the state keeping labor costs low.  Which helped to make their exports inexpensive.  But it did not help grow a middle class.  Which meant all of China’s economic growth relied on those exports.  And when nations were suffering anemic economic growth those export sales fell.  And without a prosperous middle class there was nothing to replace those sales.  Causing the Chinese economy to lose momentum.

And what is China doing to regain that momentum?  Reduce the role of government in the economy.  Unlike President Obama.  Which could forever change the balance of power in the world.  For if the Chinese privatize their economy while the Americans strangle theirs with more government involvement the Chinese economy will grow greater and overtake the American economy.  Allowing the Chinese communist do something the Soviets could never do.  Beat America economically.  Because the Chinese communists embraced free market capitalism more than President Obama.

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Free Trade, the Corn Laws and The Economist

Posted by PITHOCRATES - September 8th, 2013

Week in Review

Today the political left attacks capitalism as being unfair.  And mean.  Whereas they laud government intervention into the free market.  To level the playing field.  And to redistribute income.  To help those who can’t be as successful as others.  They support unions.  And oppose free trade.  Because free trade lowers prices for consumers.  By breaking up monopolies.  And giving them choice.  Free trade is an essential element of capitalism.  But the fight to make people’s lives better with free trade wasn’t easy.  As people who got rich with government-protected high prices opposed free trade (see Why did The Economist favour free trade? by C.R. posted 9/6/2013 on The Economist).

IN NINETEENTH century Europe and America, debates over whether tariffs or free trade produced the most economic growth dominated the political scene. Up until the early 1840s, protection appeared to be winning the argument. In Britain, high tariffs were imposed on agricultural imports in 1819, by legislation known as the Corn Laws. The ideas of Friedrich List, a German economist who argued that tariffs boosted industrial development through the protection of infant industries, were gaining ground, particularly in the United States. One Pennsylvanian legislator even joked in 1833 that the dictionary definition of man should be changed to “an animal that makes tariff speeches” so frequently were they heard.

Against this atmosphere, James Wilson founded The Economist in 1843 to campaign for free trade. His first target was to repeal the Corns Laws in Britain. He argued:

They are, in fact, laws passed by the seller to compel the buyer to give him more for his article than it is worth. They are laws enacted by the noble shopkeepers who rule us, to compel the nation to deal at their shop alone.”

The UAW got very generous contracts with the Big Three during the Fifties and the Sixties.  Raising the price of cars.  Which wasn’t a problem when they were the only ones making cars.  But then came the imports.  Which told the people how much more they were paying than these articles were worth.  And started buying the imports.  As they did those generous pay and benefit packages became more difficult to pay.  So the Big Three lobbied for tariffs on those less costly imports.  And got them.  Raising the price of the imports.  Forcing Americans to deal with the Big Three alone.  And buy their more costly cars.

More people bought cars than made them, though.  And the people who made the cars were better paid than most Americans.  So these tariffs forced poorer people to spend more on a car leaving them less for their families.  So richer people could have more.  This is what tariffs do.  They allow fewer people to have more.  While more people have to do with less.  So fewer buy more.  While more buy less.  Because there are more people who buy cars than make them these tariffs, then, reduce economic activity.  And because the Big Three didn’t have to figure out how to give more for less to their customers they didn’t.  Giving their customers ‘rust buckets’ in the Seventies.  Something else that tariffs do.  Lead to inferior goods.  Because if the government forces people to buy from you then the quality of what you sell doesn’t matter.

Wilson believed that protectionism caused “war among the material interests of the world”, in other words, war between nations and classes. A high tariff regime was no longer economically “productive”; Britain was stuck in an economic depression in the early 1840s. In contrast, free trade produced “abundance and employment”. It was appropriate for Britain’s economy where “a large proportion of the population and property depended on commerce and industry alone”. On the other hand, List’s ideas about protection were dismissed as unnecessary “swaddling clothes” for a mature economy, such as Britain’s.

The Economist’s early views on free trade were strongly influenced by the classical economists Adam Smith and David Ricardo, as Ruth Dudley Edwards, a historian, has pointed out. Wilson, like Smith, realised that trade was a two way exchange. Countries needed to “increase imports to increase exports” to boost economic growth. Consumers, Smith argued in the Wealth of Nations, should buy products from where they were cheapest. All protection did was create monopolies, which were “a great enemy to good management”. Ricardo took Smith’s ideas further, arguing that all countries benefit from free trade by producing what they were best at relative to other countries.

That’s what the Big Three wanted.  A monopoly on cars sold in America.  And there is only one way to get one.  The government has to create them.  Hence the Big Three’s request for tariff protection.

David Ricardo’s comparative advantage said nations should make what they can make best and trade for those things they can’t.  For example, if two countries can both make one thing but one can do so at lower costs they can make more of them for the same costs.  Giving them a larger surplus to trade for other things.  While the other nation will consume more resources to build the same quantity leaving less to make the other things they need.  While having fewer things available for export.  So if you try to make things you can’t make efficiently you end up consuming more resources to have less.  Whereas the nation that makes only what it can make best ends up consuming fewer resources that are then available to make other things.  And they have more things to trade.  Leading to a higher standard of living.  And if their trading partners do likewise they, too, experience a higher standard of living.

Free trade leads to greater economic activity.  Which made Britain wealthy.  Allowing them to extend their empire for another 70 years or so.  Despite the warnings of the rich landowners who said repealing the Corn Laws would cause harm.  Instead, repealing the Corn Laws led to greater economic activity.  And less costly food. Allowing people to feed their families more easily.  The only harm suffered was to the profits of the big landowners.  Who lost their monopoly.  And could no longer charge more than their food was worth.

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A Weakening Dollar is giving Boeing a Trade Advantage over Airbus

Posted by PITHOCRATES - June 23rd, 2013

Week in Review

Before you can buy from a foreign country you have to exchange your currency fist.  For example, if you’re in China and want to buy some aircraft from Boeing or Airbus, you have to exchange you currency first.  Exchange Chinese yuan for U.S. dollars.  Or exchange Chinese yuan for euros.

Now if both Boeing and Airbus have a plane that meets all of their needs leaving price as the only consideration, they have two things to consider.  Price, obviously.  And the current exchange rate.  For if the U.S. dollar is weaker compared to the euro they will get more dollars than euros when exchanging their currency.  Giving the Americans a trade advantage.  Because if the dollar is weaker than the euro the Chinese yuan will buy more from Boeing than it will from Airbus.  A situation that actually exists now.  And it concerns Airbus (see Airbus CEO Concerned Over Euro/USD Exchange Rate Affecting Exports by David Pearson posted 6/20/2013 on 4-traders).

Airbus Chief Executive Fabrice Bregier Thursday said he remains concerned about the strength of the euro against the U.S. dollar which could limit the European plane-maker’s export-reliant growth despite strong demand for passenger jets particularly from Asia.

The CEO has previously expressed concern that the euro’s rise against the dollar could force the company to seek extra cost cuts or savings.

The aircraft market is a world market.  An aircraft manufacturer’s export sales will be greater than their domestic sales.  So a weak currency benefits them.  Which is why governments like to weaken their currencies.  Especially if they depend on robust export sales.  But the down side to that is that a weaker currency will raise prices everywhere else.  So, yes, exports will grow.  But people will lose purchasing power.  As their money won’t buy as much as it once did.

Because the Chinese yuan will buy more from Boeing than it will from Airbus they have to somehow lower the price of their planes to offset that advantage Boeing has. Which means they will have to find costs they can cut.  Find savings elsewhere.  Or watch Boeing sell more planes.

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Currencies, Exchange Rates and the Gold Standard

Posted by PITHOCRATES - June 17th, 2013

Economics 101

Money is a Temporary Storage of Value that has no Intrinsic Value

Giant container ships ply the world’s oceans bringing us a lot of neat stuff.  Big televisions.  Smartphones.  Laptop computers.  Tablet computers.  The hardware for our cable and satellite TVs.  Toasters.  Toaster ovens.  Mixers and blenders.  And everything else we have in our homes and in our lives.  Things that make our lives better.  And make it more enjoyable.  These things have value.  We give them value.  Some have more value to one than another.  But these are things that have value to us.  And because they have value to us they have value to the people that made them.  Who used their human capital to create things that other people wanted.  And would trade for them.

When we first started trading we bartered with others.  Trading things for other things.  But as the economy grew more complex it took a lot of time to find someone who had what you wanted AND you had what they wanted.  So we developed money.  A temporary storage of value.  So we could trade the valuable things we created for money.  That money held the value of what we created temporarily while we looked for something that we wanted.  Then we exchanged the money we got earlier for something someone had.  It was just like trading our thing for someone else’s thing.  Only instead of spending weeks, months even years meeting hundreds of thousands of people trying to find that perfect match we only needed to meet two people.  One that exchanges money for the thing we have that they want.  And another who has what we want that they will exchange for our money.  Then that person would do the same with the money they got from us.  As did everyone else who brought things to market.  And those who came to market with money to buy what others brought.

Money is a temporary storage of value.  Money itself doesn’t have any intrinsic value.  Consider that container ship full of those wonderful items.  Now, which would you rather have as permanent fixtures in your house?  Those wonderful things?  Or boxes of money that just sit in your house?  You’d want the wonderful things.  And if you had a box of money you would exchange it (i.e., go out shopping) for those wonderful things.  Because boxes of money aren’t any fun.  It’s what you can exchange that money for that can be a lot of fun.

Devaluing your Currency boosts Exports by making those Goods less Expensive to the Outside World

So there is a lot of value on one of those container ships.  Let’s take all of that value out of the ship and place it on a balancing scale.  Figuratively, of course.  Now the owner of that stuff wants to trade it for other stuff.  But how much value does this stuff really have?  Well, let’s assume the owner is willing to exchange it all for one metric ton of gold.  Because gold is pretty valuable, too.  People will trade other things for gold.  So if we put 1 metric ton of gold on the other side of the balancing scale (figuratively, of course) the scale will balance.  Because to the owner all of that stuff and one metric ton has the same value.  Of course moving a metric ton of gold is not easy.  And it’s very risky.  So, instead of gold what else can we put on that scale?  Well, we can move dollars electronically via computer networks.  That would be a lot easier than moving gold.  So let’s put dollars on the other side of that scale.  Figuratively, of course.  How many will we need?  Well, today gold is worth approximately $1,380/troy ounce.  So after some dimensional analysis we can convert that metric ton into 32,150 troy ounces.  And at $1,380/troy ounce that metric ton of gold comes to approximately $44.4 million.  So that container ship full of wonderful stuff will balance on a scale with $44.4 million on the other side.  Or 1 metric ton of gold.  In the eyes of the owner they all have the same value.

Moving money electronically is the easiest and quickest manner of exchanging money for ships full of goods.  These ships go to many countries.  And not all of them use American dollars.  But we can calculate what amounts of foreign currency will balance the value of that ship.  Or one metric ton of gold.  By using foreign exchange rates.  Which tell us the value of one currency in another currency.  Something that comes in pretty handy.  For when, say, an American manufacturer sells their goods they want American dollars.  Not British pounds.  Danish kroner.  Or Russian rubles.  For American manufacturers are in the United States of America.  They buy their materials in American dollars.  They pay their employees in American dollars.  Who pay their bills in American dollars.  Go shopping with American dollars.  Etc.  For everyday American transactions the British pound, for example, would be un-useable.  What these American manufacturers want, then, are American dollars.  So before a foreigner can buy these American exports they must first exchange their foreign currencies for American dollars.  We can get an idea of this by considering that container ship full of valuable stuff.  By showing what it would cost other nations.  The following table shows a sampling of foreign exchange rates and the exchanged foreign currency for that $44.4 million.

foreign currencies and exchange rates

If we take the US dollars and the Exchanged Currency for each row and place them on either side of a balancing scale the scale will balance.  Figuratively, of course.  Meaning these currencies have the same value.  And we can exchange either side of that scale for that container ship full of valuable stuff.  Or for that metric ton of gold.  Why are there such large differences in some of these exchange rates?  Primarily because of a nation’s monetary policy.  Many nations manipulate their currency for various reasons.  Some nations give their people a lot of government benefits they pay for by printing money.  Which devalues their currency.  Some nations purposely devalue their currency to boost their export sector.  As the more currency you get in exchange for your currency the more of these exports you can buy.  Most of China’s great economic growth came from their export sector.  Which they helped along by devaluing their currency.  This boosted exports by making those goods less expensive to the outside world.  But the weakened yuan made domestic goods more expensive.  Because it took more of them to buy the same things they once did.  Raising the cost of living for the ordinary Chinese.

The Gold Standard made Free Trade Fair Trade

Some economists, Keynesians, approve of printing a lot of money to lower interest rates.  And for the government to spend.  They think this will increase economic activity.  Well, keeping interest rates artificially low will encourage more people to buy homes.  But because they are devaluing the currency to keep those interest rates artificially low housing prices rise.  Because when you devalue your currency you cause price inflation.  But it’s just not house prices that rise.  Prices throughout the economy rise.  The greater the inflation rate (i.e., the rate at which you increase the money supply) the higher prices rise.  And the less your money will buy.  While the currencies at the top of this table will have exchange rates that don’t vary much those at the bottom of the table may.  Especially countries that like to print money.  Like Argentina.  Where the inflation is so bad at times that Argentineans try to exchange their currency for foreign currencies that hold their value longer.  Or try to spend their Argentine pesos as quickly as possible.  Buying things that will hold their value longer than the Argentine peso.

Because printing fiat money is easy a lot of nations print it.  A lot of it.  People living in these countries are stuck with a rapidly depreciating currency.  But international traders aren’t.  If a country prints so much money that their exchange rate changes every few minutes international traders aren’t going to want their currency.  Because a country can’t do much with a foreign currency other than buy exports with it from that country.  A sum of highly depreciated foreign currency won’t buy as much this hour as it did last hour.  Which forces an international trader to quickly spend this money before it loses too much of its value.  (Some nations will basically barter.  They will exchange their exports for another country’s exports based on the current exchange rate.  So that they don’t hold onto the devalued foreign currency at all.)  But if the currency is just too volatile they may demand another currency instead.  Like the British pound, the euro or the American dollar.  Because these stronger currencies will hold their value longer.  So they’ll buy this hour what they bought last hour.  Or yesterday.  Or last week.  There is less risk holding on to these stronger currencies because Britain, the European Central Bank and the United States aren’t printing as much of their money as these nations with highly devalued currencies are printing of theirs.

This is the advantage of gold.  Countries can’t print gold.  It takes an enormous expense to bring new gold to the world’s gold supply.  It’s not easy.  So the value of the gold is very stable.  While some nations may devalue their currencies they can’t devalue gold.  A nation printing too much money may suffer from hyperinflation.  Reducing their exchange rate close to zero.  And when you divide by a number approaching zero the resulting amount of currency required for the exchange approaches infinity.  Weimar Germany suffered hyperinflation.  It was so bad that it took so much money to buy firewood that it was easier and less expensive to burn the currency instead.  This is the danger of a government having the ability to print money at will.  But if that same country can come up with a metric ton of gold that person with the container ship full of wonderful stuff would gladly trade it for that gold.  Even though that person will not trade it for that country’s currency.  This was the basis of the gold standard in international trade.  When nations backed their currencies with gold.  And kept them exchangeable for gold.  Forcing nations to maintain stable currencies.  By maintaining an official exchange rate between their currency and gold.  If that nation devalued its currency the market exchange rate will start to move away from the official exchange rate.  For example, say the official rate was $40/troy ounce.  But because they printed so much of their currency they devalued it to where it took $80 to buy a troy ounce on the open market.  So a nation could take $80 dollars of that devalued currency and exchange it for 2 troy ounces of gold from that nation.  The official exchange rate forcing the nation to give away 2 troy ounces of gold for $80 when the real market exchange rate would only have given them 1 troy ounce.  So devaluing your currency would cause gold to flow out of your country.  And the only way to stop it would be to decrease the size of your money supply.  Undoing the previous inflation.  To bring the market exchange rate back to the official exchange rate.  Which is why the gold standard worked so well for international trade.  Nations could not manipulate their currency to get a trade advantage over another nation.  Making free trade fair trade.  Something few say today.  Thanks to currency manipulators like China.

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Federal Reserve System, Great Depression, Banking Crises, Gold Reserves, Gold Exchange Standard, Interest Rates and Money Supply

Posted by PITHOCRATES - July 31st, 2012

History 101

The Gold Exchange Standard provided Stability for International Trade

Congress created the Federal Reserve System (the Fed) with the passage of the Federal Reserve Act in 1913.  They created the Fed because of some recent bad depressions and financial panics.  Which they were going to make a thing of the past with the Fed.  It had three basic responsibilities.  Maximize employment.  Stabilize prices.  And optimize interest rates.  With the government managing these things depressions and financial panics weren’t going to happen on the Fed’s watch.

The worst depression and financial panic of all time happened on the Fed’s watch.  The Great Depression.  From 1930.  Until World War II.  A lost decade.  A period that saw the worst banking crises.  And the greatest monetary contraction in U.S. history.  And this after passing the Federal Reserve Act to prevent any such things from happening.  So why did this happen?  Why did a normal recession turn into the Great Depression?  Because of government intervention into the economy.  Such as the Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act that triggered the great selloff and stock market crash.  And some really poor monetary policy.  As well as bad fiscal policy.

At the time the U.S. was on a gold exchange standard.  Paper currency backed by gold.  And exchangeable for gold.  The amount of currency in circulation depended upon the amount of gold on deposit.  The Federal Reserve Act required a gold reserve for notes in circulation similar to fractional reserve banking.  Only instead of keeping paper bills in your vault you had to keep gold.  Which provided stability for international trade.  But left the domestic money supply, and interest rates, at the whim of the economy.  For the only way to lower interest rates to encourage borrowing was to increase the amount of gold on deposit.  For with more gold on hand you can increase the money supply.  Which lowered interest rates.  That encouraged people to borrow money to expand their businesses and buy things.  Thus creating economic activity.  At least in theory.

The Fed contracted the Money Supply even while there was a Positive Gold Flow into the Country

The gold standard worked well for a century or so.  Especially in the era of free trade.  Because it moved trade deficits and trade surpluses towards zero.  Giving no nation a long-term advantage in trade.  Consider two trading partners.  One has increasing exports.  The other increasing imports.  Why?  Because the exporter has lower prices than the importer.  As goods flow to the importer gold flows to the exporter to pay for those exports.  The expansion of the local money supply inflates the local currency and raises prices in the exporter country.  Back in the importer country the money supply contracts and lowers prices.  So people start buying more from the once importing nation.  Thus reversing the flow of goods and gold.  These flows reverse over and over keeping the trade deficit (or surplus) trending towards zero.  Automatically.  With no outside intervention required.

Banknotes in circulation, though, required outside intervention.  Because gold isn’t in circulation.  So central bankers have to follow some rules to make this function as a gold standard.  As gold flows into their country (from having a trade surplus) they have to expand their money supply by putting more bills into circulation.  To do what gold did automatically.  Increase prices.  By maintaining the reserve requirement (by increasing the money supply by the amount the gold deposits increased) they also maintain the fixed exchange rate.  An inflow of gold inflates your currency and an outflow of gold deflates your currency.  When central banks maintain this mechanism with their monetary policy currencies remain relatively constant in value.  Giving no price advantage to any one nation.  Thus keeping trade fair.

After the stock market crash in 1929 and the failure of the Bank of the United States in New York failed in 1930 the great monetary contraction began.  As more banks failed the money they created via fractional reserve banking disappeared.  And the money supply shrank.  And what did the Fed do?  Increased interest rates.  Making it harder than ever to borrow money.  And harder than ever for banks to stay in business as businesses couldn’t refinance their loans and defaulted.  The Fed did this because it was their professional opinion that sufficient credit was available and that adding liquidity then would only make it harder to do when the markets really needed additional credit.  So they contracted the money supply.  Even while there was a positive gold flow into the country.

The Gold Standard works Great when all of your Trading Partners use it and they Follow the Rules

Those in the New York Federal Reserve Bank wanted to increase the money supply.  The Federal Reserve Board in Washington disagreed.  Saying again that sufficient credit was available in the market.  Meanwhile people lost faith in the banking system.  Rushed to get their money out of their bank before it, too, failed.  Causing bank runs.  And more bank failures.  With these banks went the money they created via fractional reserve banking.  Further deflating the money supply.  And lowering prices.  Which was the wrong thing to happen with a rising gold supply.

Well, that didn’t last.  France went on the gold standard with a devalued franc.  So they, too, began to accumulate gold.  For they wanted to become a great banking center like London and New York.  But these gold flows weren’t operating per the rules of a gold exchange.  Gold was flowing generally in one direction.  To those countries hoarding gold.  And countries that were accumulating gold weren’t inflating their money supplies to reverse these flows.  So nations began to abandon the gold exchange standard.  Britain first.  Then every other nation but the U.S.

Now the gold standard works great.  But only when all of your trading partners are using it.  And they follow the rules.  Even during the great contraction of the money supply the Fed raised interest rates to support the gold exchange.  Which by then was a lost cause.  But they tried to make the dollar strong and appealing to hold.  So people would hold dollars instead of their gold.  This just further damaged the U.S. economy, though.  And further weakened the banking system.  While only accelerating the outflow of gold.  As nations feared the U.S. would devalue their currency they rushed to exchange their dollars for gold.  And did so until FDR abandoned the gold exchange standard, too, in 1933.  But it didn’t end the Great Depression.  Which had about another decade to go.

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Capital Flows and Currency Exchange

Posted by PITHOCRATES - July 30th, 2012

Economics 101

Before we buy a Country’s Exports we have to Exchange our Currency First

What’s the first thing we do when traveling to a foreign country?  Exchange our currency.  Something we like to do at our own bank.  Before leaving home.  Where we can get a fair exchange rate.  Instead of someplace in-country where they factor the convenience of location into the exchange rate.  Places we go to only after we’ve run out of local currency.  And need some of it fast.  So we’ll pay the premium on the exchange rate.  And get less foreign money in exchange for our own currency.

Why are we willing to accept less money in return for our money?  Because when we run out of money in a foreign country we have no choice.  If you want to eat at a McDonalds in Canada they expect you to pay with Canadian dollars.  Which is why the money in the cash drawer is Canadian money.  Because the cashier accepts payment and makes change in Canadian money.  Just like they do with American money in the United States.

So currency exchange is very important for foreign purchases.  Because foreign goods are priced in a foreign currency.  And it’s just not people traveling across the border eating at nice restaurants and buying souvenirs to bring home.  But people in their local stores buying goods made in other countries.  Before we buy them with our American dollars someone else has to buy them first.  Japanese manufacturers need yen to run their businesses.  Chinese manufacturers need yuan to run their businesses.  Indian manufacturers need rupees to run their businesses.  So when they ship container ships full of their goods they expect to get yen, yuan and rupees in return.  Which means that before anyone buys their exports someone has to exchange their currency first.

Goods flow One Way while Gold flows the Other until Price Inflation Reverses the Flow of Goods and Gold

We made some of our early coins out of gold.  Because different nations used gold, too, it was relatively easy to exchange currencies.  Based on the weight of gold in those coins.  Imagine one nation using a gold coin the size of a quarter as their main unit of currency.  And another nation uses a gold coin the size of a nickel.  Let’s say the larger coin weighs twice as much as the smaller coin.  Or has twice the amount of gold in it.  Making the exchange easy.  One big coin equals two small coins in gold value.  So if I travel to the country of small coins with three large gold coins I exchange them for six of the local coins.  And then go shopping.

The same principle follows in trade between these two countries.  To buy a nation’s exports you have to first exchange your currency for theirs.  This is how.  You go to the exporter country with bags of your gold coins.  You exchange them for the local currency.  You then use this local currency to pay for the goods they will export to you.  Then you go back to your country and wait for the ship to arrive with your goods.  When it arrives your nation has a net increase in imported goods (i.e., a trade deficit).  And a net decrease in gold.  While the other nation has a net increase in exported goods (i.e., a trade surplus).  And a net increase in gold.

The quantity theory of money tells us that as the amount of money in circulation increases it creates price inflation.  Because there’s more of it in circulation it’s easy to get and worth less.  Because the money is worth less it takes more of it to buy the same things it once did.  So prices rise.  As prices rise in a nation with a trade surplus.  And fall in a nation with a trade deficit.  Because less money in circulation makes it harder to get and worth more.  Because the money is worth more it takes less of it to buy the same things it once did.  So prices fall.  This helps to make trade neutral (no deficit or surplus).  As prices rise in the exporter nation people buy less of their more expensive exports.  As prices fall in an importer nation people begin buying their less expensive exports.  So as goods flow one way gold flows the other way.  Until inflation rises in one country and eventually reverses the flow of goods and gold.  We call this the price-specie flow mechanism.

In the Era of Floating Exchange Rates Governments don’t have to Act Responsibly Anymore

This made the gold standard an efficient medium of exchange for international trade.  Whether we used gold.  Or a currency backed by gold.  Which added another element to the exchange rate.  For trading paper bills backed by gold required a government to maintain their domestic money supply based on their foreign exchange rate.  Meaning that they at times had to adjust the number of bills in circulation to maintain their exchange rate.  So if a country wanted to lower their interest rates (to encourage borrowing to stimulate their economy) by increasing the money supply they couldn’t.  Limiting what governments could do with their monetary policy.  Especially in the age of Keynesian economics.  Which was the driving force for abandoning the gold standard.

Most nations today use a floating exchange rate.  Where countries treat currencies as commodities.  With their own supply and demand determining exchange rates.  Or a government’s capital controls (restricting the free flow of money) that overrule market forces.  Which you can do when you don’t have to be responsible with your monetary policy.  You can print money.  You can keep foreign currency out of your county.  And you can manipulate your official exchange rate to give you an advantage in international trade by keeping your currency weak.  So when trading partners exchange their currency with you they get a lot of yours in exchange.  Allowing them to buy more of your goods than they can buy from other nations with the same amount of money.  Giving you an unfair trade advantage.  Trade surpluses.  And lots of foreign currency to invest in things like U.S. treasury bonds.

The gold standard gave us a fixed exchange rate and the free flow of capital.  But it limited what a government could do with its monetary policy.  An active monetary policy will allow the free flow of capital but not a fixed exchange rate.  Capital controls prevent the free flow of capital but allows a fixed exchange rate and an active monetary policy.  Governments have tried to do all three of these things.  But could never do more than two.  Which is why we call these three things the impossible trinity.  Which has been a source of policy disputes within a nation.  And between nations.  Because countries wanted to abandoned the gold standard to adopt policies that favored their nation.  And then complained about nations doing the same thing because it was unfair to their own nation.  Whereas the gold standard made trade fair.  By making governments act responsible.  Something they never liked.  And in the era of floating exchange rates they don’t have to act responsibly anymore.

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The Chinese Economy is mostly Bad Investments, Savings and little Domestic Consumption

Posted by PITHOCRATES - May 26th, 2012

Week in Review

The Chinese economic juggernaut is losing steam.  The communist 5-year plans in infrastructure projects isn’t having the magic it once did.  Exports are down thanks to a worldwide recession.  And worse of all for Keynesians everywhere savings are outpacing consumption.  People across China are acting responsibly.  And this just won’t do (see Chinese urged to spend more, save less by Mure Dickie posted 5/25/2012 on The Washington Post).

Yet with China’s economy slowing — to a relatively modest annual rate of 8.1 percent growth in the first quarter — some observers fret that consumption could be faltering. Retail spending in April was weaker than expected. And while Wen Jiabao, the premier, last week signaled action to shore up growth, the government appears to have set its policy focus on promoting investment rather than consumption…

Indeed, [Andrew] Batson [research director at GK Dragonomics] suggests that the present slowdown could promote a much-heralded rebalancing of China’s economy, away from reliance on increasingly unproductive investment to a healthier consumption-driven model.

While the government has long talked of such a shift, the proportion of gross domestic product accounted for by investment actually soared to 46 percent in 2010, while household consumption’s share of GDP slumped to just 35 percent…

So China’s investment is increasingly unproductive.  Perhaps their high-speed train program isn’t the only black hole for their investment capital to disappear in.  The Chinese have invested a fortune in their high-speed trains but so far that has been an investment earning a negative return.  Sure, it created a lot of jobs but their high-speed trains can’t turn a profit.  So far they’re only accumulating debt.  But they keep spending this money.  Adherents to Keynesian economics that they are.  For the Keynesians say anything that puts more money into a workers pocket is good.  Because that worker will spend that money.  Even if we pay him to dig a ditch.  And then pay him to fill it back in.  Or pay him to build a very costly high-speed railway that the people don’t need.  Or can ever pay for itself.  A Keynesian will say that’s good.  Because it will give the worker money.  And that worker will spend that money.  Thus increasing consumption.  Unless that worker does something stupid like put it in the bank.

Some economists say the government needs to do more to promote this rebalancing in a country where citizens still save a far larger proportion of their incomes than do their counterparts in developed economies…

Lower-income consumers also save fiercely. In the village of Wuti in northern Hebei province, house builder Li Moxiang and his farmer wife aim to set aside $3,150 or more a year to help raise their future grandchild — even though stingy state-set interest rates mean such savings are constantly eroded by inflation…

A big motivation for such saving is the lack of a social security system to cushion Chinese in old age or ill health. Serious illness or accident often spells household bankruptcy. For most rural people, children have to play the role of pension provider.

In a report this week, the World Bank said fiscal measures to support consumption — including targeted tax cuts, social welfare spending and other social expenditures — should be Beijing’s top priority as it seeks to avert an economic “hard landing.”

Some economists would like to see mass privatization to shift wealth out of the dominant and domineering state sector.

Keynesians hate savings.  They want people to spend their money.  And not be responsible and save for their retirement.  Or to save to pay for any unexpected expenses.  Why they hate savings so much that they constantly inflate the currency to dissuade you from saving.  For if you do save you’ll only see inflation eat away the value of your savings.  Sort of like putting an expiration date on your money.  Telling you saving is for fools.  That consumption is the smart way to go.  And so what if you can’t afford food or housing in your retirement.  Or pay for medical care.  That’s what family is for.  So you can be a burden to them.

Right now the social democracies of Europe are imploding from the massive debts they incurred from their social spending.  And the World Bank is encouraging Beijing to increase their social spending.  To be as irresponsible as the Europeans were.  Unbelievable.  Europe is burning because of the social expenditures they can no longer afford to pay.  And the people are rather reluctant to give up.  So when the government tries to live within their means with a touch of austerity the people reply with riots.  And this is what the World Bank is advising the Chinese to do.

History repeats.  For everything the Chinese are doing, or trying to do, or are being advised to do has been done by every nation with a spending and debt problem.  Sure, China is still enjoying 8% GDP growth.  But a lot of that growth is from building stuff that the market isn’t demanding.  Consumer spending in China is only at 35%.  With the worldwide recession hurting Chinese exports that leaves that 35% as a large component of their market-driven spending.  And you can rarely sustain economic growth from making stuff the market isn’t demanding.  Instead this artificial growth usually leads to some kind of a bubble.  And a painful recession to correct the mess the government made while artificially increasing economic output.

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Mercantilism, Royal Navy, Napoleon, Pax Britannica, Corn Laws, David Ricardo, Comparative Advantage, European Union and NAFTA

Posted by PITHOCRATES - May 22nd, 2012

History 101

Mercantilism gave Britain the Royal Navy which Ushered in the Pax Britannica

Great Britain had a rough go of it at the end of the 18th century.  They lost their American colonies in the American Revolutionary War.  A war that started over the issue of taxation to pay for the previous Seven Years’ War.  So instead of securing new revenue to pay down old debt they incurred new debt.  The French Revolution closed out the century.  Causing concern for some in Britain that their monarchy may be the next to fall.  It didn’t.  For the constitutional monarchy and representative government in Britain was a long cry from the absolute monarchy that they had in France.  So revolution did not come to Britain.  But war did.  As the French expanded their revolution into a European war.  Pulling the British back into war with their old enemy.

With a large conscripted French Army and the concept of total war France made total war.  Napoleon Bonaparte won a lot of battles.  Conquered much of Europe.  Even marched back and conquered Paris.  Proclaimed himself emperor of France.  And continued waging war.  Including an ill-conceived invasion of Russia.  Which marked the beginning of the end for Napoleon.  And the French Empire.  Weakened from war France saw her old nemesis, Great Britain, rise as the first superpower since the Roman Empire.  And like the Romans’ Pax Romana Britain entered a century of peace.  Pax Britannica.

The reason the British could do this was because of their mercantile past.  They set up colonies and international trade networks.  And they used the proceeds from that lucrative trade to finance the greatest naval power then in the world.  The Royal Navy.  And the Royal Navy would help keep the peace in the Pax Britannica.  She became the world’s policeman.  Making the world safe for trade.  Especially on the high seas.  But then something interesting happened.  She broke from her mercantile past.  Because they saw the shortcomings of mercantilism.  One of which produced wealthy landowners at the expense of a hungry population.

When the British repealed the Corn Laws in 1846 Food Prices fell and the Standard of Living Rose 

The British Corn Laws were a series of laws protecting those who grew cereal crops.  The stuff we grow that has edible grains.  Corn, rice, wheat, barley, etc.  What we call staple crops as they form the basic sustenance of humans everywhere.  We grow these in greater abundance than all other foods.  And when you look at the grain size you come to one realization.  It takes a lot of land to grow these crops.  And who owns large tracts of land?  The landowning aristocracy.  A small group of people with a lot of wealth.  And a lot of political influence.  Hence the Corn Laws. 

The Corn Laws were legislation with one goal.  To prevent the British people from buying less expensive food.  By either forbidding any importation of cheaper grains until the domestic price had reached a certain price level.  Or adding tariffs to the less expensive imports so the landowners could still sell their grains at higher prices.  Thus preserving their wealth.  And they made specious arguments about how lower-priced food was actually bad for the people.  For it was just a way for manufacturers to maximize their profits.  For if food was cheaper they could pay their workers less.  Being the greedy bastards that they were.  So the only fair thing to do was to keep food prices high.  To keep the living wage high.  To force manufacturers to pay their workers more.  You see, the only way to help the poor and middle class was to let the wealthy landowners become even wealthier.  By keeping the price of the food they sold high.

Opposition grew to the Corn Laws.  People studied the works of their fellow countrymen.  Adam Smith and David Hume (both Scottish).  And the Englishman David Ricardo.  All great economists and thinkers.  Who were all proponents of free trade.  Ricardo’s Comparative Advantage basically proved the case of free trade over the protectionism of mercantilism.  Eventually the political power of the landowners could not overcome the economic arguments.  Or a famine in Ireland.  And, in 1846, they repealed the Corn Laws and adopted free trade.  Food prices fell.  Leaving people with more disposable income.  To purchase the goods the Industrial Revolution was making.  Increasing their standard of living.  While small famers had to leave their farms being unable to farm efficiently enough to pay their bills at the prevailing prices.

The Success of NAFTA proves David Ricardo’s Comparative Advantage

Mercantilists and other opponents to free trade like to point at the human costs.  Small farmers losing their farm.  Just so they can preserve some semblance of privilege to protect the high prices in their industry.  But it was becoming more and more difficult to make the argument that the masses were better off paying higher prices.  Because they’re not.  Lower consumer prices increase the standard of living for everyone.  Higher living standards create healthier living conditions.  And reduces child mortality.   For the greatest killer of children in the world is poverty.

The British were both a military and an economic superpower during the 19th century.  But someone was chasing her.  The Untied States.  Who was feeling her economic oats.  Her economy would catch up and surpass the British.  Making it the mightiest economic power of all time.  How did this happen?  Two words.  Free trade.  The United States was the largest free trade zone in the world.  The economic advantages of all those states trading with each other freely across their state borders made Europe stand up and take notice.  And in response created treaties that ultimately led to the European Union and the Eurozone.  To replicate the large free trade zone of the United States.

Back across the Atlantic the Americans, Canadians and the Mexicans took it up a notch.  And created the North American Free Trade Agreement.  NAFTA.  Extending the free trade that existed in each of their countries across their international borders.  The mercantilist fought against this.  Because protectionism, restrictions and tariffs helped the privileged few protect the high prices in their industry.  In America they talked about a great sucking sound as all American jobs went to low-wage Mexico.  Some manufacturers did move to Mexico.  Primarily because like the small farmers in Britain after the repeal of the Corn Laws they could no longer sell at prices to meet all of their costs.  But it was not as the mercantilists predicted.  Yes, imports increased.  In 2010 they were up 235% from pre-NAFTA 1993.  But exports were up, too.  Some 190% for the same period.  Proving Ricardo’s Comparative Advantage.  By focusing on what we do best and trading for everything else all countries do better.

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