Daniel W. Drezner

Beggar thy neighbor: it begins?

This week Japan has provoked the ire of the United States and Europe by unilaterally intervening in currency markets to depreciate the yen against other major currencies. Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan has responded to these criticisms by telling the US and EU to go suck a lemon stating that further "resolute actions" would be ...

This week Japan has provoked the ire of the United States and Europe by unilaterally intervening in currency markets to depreciate the yen against other major currencies. Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan has responded to these criticisms by telling the US and EU to go suck a lemon stating that further "resolute actions" would be taken on this front. 

This comes on the heels of mounting U.S. frustration with China’s "go-slow" policy on letting the yuan appreciate against the dollar. [What do you mean by "go slow"?–ed. Let’s put it this way: the tortoise thinks that China is being pokey on this question.]

So, is this the beginning of beggar-thy-neighbor? Will other countries start intervening in foreign exchange markets to gain a competitive advantage for their export sectors? 

The New York Times‘ Hiroko Tabuchi thinks not, because Japan can’t unilaterally devalue its currency like in the old days:

It is unlikely, though, that intervention by Japan alone will sway currency markets in the long term. The global volume of foreign exchange trading has grown rapidly in recent years, which prevents intervention by a single government from countering bigger market trends.

Other countries are unlikely to help Japan’s cause, because they need to keep their own currencies weaker to bolster exports. A weak currency makes a country’s exports more competitive and increases the value of overseas earnings.

Much of the yen’s weakening came from investors selling the currency on expectations that the Japanese government would be more active in keeping the yen in check. Japan did not disclose how much it had spent in currency transactions, but dealers put the initial amount at 300 billion to 500 billion yen ($3.5 billion to $5.8 billion).

But as Switzerland found this year, a single government’s efforts to weaken its currency can prove futile. Switzerland abandoned that effort, after its central bank had lost more than 14 billion Swiss francs ($14 billion) in foreign currency holdings in the first half of the year, after a fall in the euro’s value ate into the bank’s reserves.

The Swiss franc is also seen by investors as a relative haven and has also strengthened amid global financial unrest. This month, the franc hit a record high against the euro.

Hmmm…. maybe. Japan’s economy is much larger than Switzerland, so I’m not sure the comparison holds up. The real problem, however, appears to be that countries perceived of as "safe havens" wind up with overvalued currencies. 

This little parable also makes me wonder whether we might see beggar-thy-neighbor policies in a different guise this time around. This is going to sound a little crazy, but here goes: rather than explicit exchange rate intervention, what if countries decided to play fast and loose with Basle III and other measures to strengthen financial integrity? 

This really does sound crazy — it suggests that governments would be willing to tolerate a higher risk of domestic banking collapse in order to avoide being a "safe haven" status for capital. That said, think of how much Europe benefited from the depreciation of the euro due to the Greek crisis. Basle III, by taking so long for banks to meet standards allow those countries with more insolvent financial institutions **cough** Germany **cough** to take their own sweet time in having them meet new capital adequacy standards.  This would allow Germany to have the euro stay relatively cheap without abandoning its anti-inflationary zeal. 

Now, in all likelihood, not even the Germans would purposefully do this. This is crazy talk. What I’m suggesting, however, is that there is more than one way for a country to have its currency depreciate, and these policies are substitutable. Looking only at explicit exchange rate intervention might be just a bit too narrow. And if more countries find more ways of keeping their currency undervalued, well then, the days of beggar-thy-neighbor would have arrived.

Developing….

 Twitter: @dandrezner

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