Now that the dollar has dropped 43% from its high against the euro, the process of global financial rebalancing is seriously underway. The United States’ trade and current account deficits have begun to shrink relative to American and world GDP. Asian current account surpluses are about to start to shrink as well, especially if growth slows markedly in America in the aftermath of the end of its housing boom.
At the moment, Europe is feeling most of the pain, as the euro’s value has risen furthest and fastest against the dollar. But Latin America and Asia will start to feel distress as well, as the decade-long US role as the global economy’s importer of last resort comes to an end.
As long as imbalances of world trade and capital flows unwind slowly and smoothly, the magnitude of any global economic distress should be relatively small. Of course, it will not seem small to exporters and their workers who lose their American markets, or to Americans who lose access to cheap capital provided by foreigners. But the next few years are certain to bring up a more threatening and more serious political-economic problem than the unwinding of global imbalances.
Yes, the US might enter a small recession – the odds are roughly 50-50 of that happening. Yes, an American recession might spill over to the rest of the world and cause a worldwide recession. And yes, global economic growth over the next five years is unlikely to be as rapid as growth in the last five years. A formal recession, however, is not an overwhelming probability, and is likely to be small. The prospect of a truly hard landing – that global investors wake up one morning, suddenly recognize the US current account’s cannot be sustained, dump dollars, and bring about a crash of the global economy – is becoming less likely with each passing day.
Under two plausible scenarios – both concerning China – the unwinding of global imbalances could cause regional if not global depression. In the first scenario, China continues to attempt to maintain full employment in Shanghai, Guangzhou, and elsewhere not by stimulating domestic demand but by trying to boost exports further by keeping the renminbi stable against the dollar and falling in value against the euro.
The effort to maintain the dollar-renminbi exchange rate at a level approved by China’s State Council has already led to an enormous increase in the Chinese economy’s financial liquidity. The consequences of this are now manifested in property and stock market inflation, but not yet in rampant and uncontrolled consumer price inflation – at least for now. But if China does not accelerate the renminbi’s revaluation, the world might see a large burst of consumer inflation in China in the next two or three years. If so, the consequences will be a choice between the destructive runaway inflation familiar from much of post-WWII Latin America and stagflation. The fall-out from this scenario, however, would be largely confined to Asia.
The second scenario is more dangerous for the entire world. In this scenario, once again China continues to attempt to maintain full employment by keeping the renminbi undervalued. But this time, the Chinese government manages to restrain domestic inflation, so America’s trade deficit with Asia stops falling and starts rising again, as does Europe’s, while Latin America finds itself priced out of its export markets. Five or six years hence, the world economy faces the danger that it faced two years ago, although the fear this time is not of a sudden crash in the dollar’s value, but of a sudden crash in the value of the dollar and the euro against Asian currencies.
Four years ago, I would have said that the principal source of international economic disorder was made in America. That has passed as a result of the dollar’s decline and the ebbing political strength of right-wing populist factions in the US that seek ever-greater redistribution to the rich fueled by ever-increasing tax cuts and ever-rising long-term deficits.
Today, the principal source of international economic disorder is made in China, owing to factions inside its government that hope to avoid a more-rapid appreciation of the renminbi’s value. I cannot judge the strength of these factions, or whether they know that the falling US current account deficit and dollar may lessen the urgency of adjustment in the rest of the world, but not in China.
Richard Nixon’s treasury secretary, John Connally, once told a group of European leaders that while the dollar was America’s currency, its misalignment was Europe’s problem. Today, the misalignment of the dollar – and the euro – against the renminbi and other Asian currencies is increasingly becoming Asia’s problem.