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Growth, currencies and interest rates | 14th April 2015

Four trade challenges to monetary policy  |  Short summary:

 

The Fed needs to be careful about the next monetary steps it takes because:

  1. The growth effects of Quantitative Easing (QE) in Europe are yet to be felt, if indeed they will be
  2. Neither China nor Korea’s trade surplus with the US is the Fed’s biggest concern in emerging Asia
  3. The weak yen is not boosting Japan’s exports to the US and is not responsible for its surplus
  4. Monetary policy is not the answer to trade and growth imbalances, but has unintended consequences

 

Context

In its bi-annual report to Congress, the US Department of the Treasury, International Affairs, assessed the macroeconomic policies of its major trading partners to see if inappropriate activities are being used to manipulate the balance of trade with the US. It urged the governments of Germany, China, South Korea and Japan to do everything in their power to eliminate global economic imbalances by focusing on reducing their trade surpluses with the US and halting practices of competitive devaluation against the US dollar. Against a backdrop of strong US growth and weaker growth elsewhere, the report argued that addressing these imbalances through structural reform, monetary and fiscal policy was the only way of ensuring that the G20 balanced global growth targets were met.

 

Four trade reasons why monetary policy alone can’t create real growth:

 

1  |  The growth effects of QE in Europe are yet to be felt, if indeed they will be

The immediate effect of QE has been to push European equity markets to new highs and push down the value of the euro against the USD. It is unlikely to create real, export-led growth since the correlation of the euro with Europe’s trade is positive (i.e. an increase in the value increases trade). Where it does have an effect on boosting trade, it is likely to be felt most strongly in Germany. This will potentially exacerbate the problem of its trade surplus, particularly with the US (Figure 1).

 

2015-04-14_growthCurrenciesInterestRates_fig01_v01

Figure 1  |  Monthly Value of German Exports to the US (USDm), June 2001 – December 2015 vs. EUR-USD, Last Price Monthly, June 2001 – March 2015
Source  |  DeltaMetrics 2015, Bloomberg

 

The chart shows a positive correlation (0.67): in other words, as the value of the euro increases, so too do exports. This reflects the relative exchange rate inelasticity of trade between Germany and the US. Growth in exports from Germany to the US has been modest over the past two years and the sharp reduction in the value of the euro does not appear to be likely to make much difference to its trade balance with the US.

The weaker euro is unlikely to impact Europe’s or, more specifically, Germany’s trade surplus with the US. Indeed, it is also unlikely to lead to greater demand without an accompanying non-monetary policy in Europe, such as infrastructural spending and structural reform to boost both demand and competitiveness.

 

2  |  Neither China nor South Korea’s trade surplus with the US is the Fed’s biggest concern in emerging Asia

The yuan is kept within a 2% peg of the US dollar and, as such, has been increasing its value since the end of 2004 when the currency was first allowed to float. More recently, March 2015, the yuan has appreciated against the US dollar giving rise to speculation that the peg is about to be loosened or removed completely (Figure 2).

 

2015-04-14_growthCurrenciesInterestRates_fig02_v01

 

Figure 2  |  Monthly Value of Chinese Exports to the US (USDbn) vs. USD-CNY Spot Price, Last Price Monthly, June 2001 – December 2015
Source  |  DeltaMetrics 2015, Bloomberg

 

The impact of the appreciation of the yuan is to suggest that Chinese exports to the US may flatten slightly during 2015. This provides some cause for optimism around the size of its trade surplus with the US. Of greater concern from a US perspective may be Russia’s decision to price oil and gas deals with China in yuan. This suggests that the yuan’s role as a trade finance currency is growing and that there will be further strengthening of the currency. This is likely to be a result of both a loosening of the peg and the role of the yuan as a trade finance currency. The threat of a stronger yuan and the prospect of a future currency war may be more unpalatable than the trade surplus now.

The won is slightly different in that it is only very weakly correlated with South Korea’s exports to the US at -0.46. In other words, any devaluation by the Korean monetary authorities is unlikely to have much, if any, impact on its trade surplus with the US. Given the speed that the Kospi has picked up since QE in Europe has prompted greater liquidity, the US would do well to look at the consequences of capital outflows and rising dollar-denominated debt as Asia’s slowdown works through. Priced in local currencies, such as the won, the markets look buoyant; priced in dollars, the rises are less substantial and represent both a loss in earning and pose a threat when dollar-denominated debt has to be repaid.

 

3  |  The weak yen is not boosting Japan’s exports to the US and is not responsible for its surplus

Japan’s QE programme has resulted in a substantial devaluation of the yen against the US dollar. However, this has not had the desired impact of increasing all exports to the world or the US in particular (Figure 3). Export-led growth has not materialised despite substantial QE-induced devaluation since the onset of Abenomics.

 

2015-04-14_growthCurrenciesInterestRates_fig03_v02

 

Figure 3  |  Monthly Value of Japanese Exports to the US vs. USD-JPY Spot, Last Price Monthly, June 2001 – December 2015
Source  |  DeltaMetrics 2015, Bloomberg

 

In fact, if anything, exports to the US from Japan have been falling ever since the start of the most recent phase of QE in Japan. Alongside this, Japan’s imports from the US have been increasing and could grow by nearly 5% in 2015 as a result of Japan’s greater external energy dependency after Fukushima.

 

4  |  Monetary policy is not the answer to trade and growth imbalances, but has unintended consequences

The US Fed is now in a bind: its challenge is not the monetary policy of its trading partners, it is the unforeseen consequences of its next monetary moves. The US dollar is strong and while some of this is because the US economy itself is doing well compared with other economies, its strength is more than partly due to the fact that markets are speculating on when the Fed will put up rates. Fuelled by both QE and uncertainty around the announcement of a rise in rates, it is likely that the USD and the euro will reach parity imminently, if not by the end of April then during May. Similarly, the yen is hitting new lows against the USD.

The euro and the yen’s values are already distorted by the effects of QE. Alongside this, any increase in interest rates will exacerbate the dollar’s strength against the currencies of all its major trade partners except China. While currencies weaken, equity markets including the Dax, Nikkei, the HSI and the Kospi continue bull runs that are the direct result of large amounts of liquidity made cheaper, not just by low interest rates, but also by weaker currencies. The result will undoubtedly be aggravated by a rise in US rates: a strong US dollar is not necessarily the best for the US in the long run if corporate earnings, confidence and exports falter.