Geopolitical Implications If The US $ Loses Its Role As Top International Currency

My post last week suggested that the euro may overtake the US dollar as premier international currency. One might ask why this would matter. Some of the reasons it matters are economic: we would lose the “exorbitant privilege” of being able to finance our international deficits easily. But there are also possible geopolitical implications.

In the past, US deficits have been manageable because our allies have been willing to pay a financial price to support American global leadership;  they correctly have seen it to be in their interests.   In the 1960s, Germany was willing to offset the expenses of stationing U.S. troops on bases there so as to save us from a balance of payments deficit.   The U.S. military has long been charged less to station troops in high-rent Japan than if they had been based at home. Repeatedly the Bank of Japan, among other central banks, has been willing to buy dollars to prevent the U.S. currency from depreciating (late 1960s, early 1970s, late 1980s).   In 1991, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and a number of other countries were willing to pay for the financial cost of the war against Iraq, thus briefly wiping out the U.S. current account deficit.

Unfortunately, since 2001, during the same period that the US twin deficits have re-emerged, we have also lost popular sympathy and political support in much of the rest of the world. Now the hegemon has lost its claim to legitimacy in the eyes of many.  In sharp contrast to international attitudes at the dawn of the century, opinion surveys report that the U.S. is now viewed unfavorably in most countries.    Next time the US asks other central banks to bail out the dollar, will they be as willing to do so as Europe was in the 1960s, or as Japan was in the late 1980s after the Louvre Agreement?  I fear not.

The decline in the status of the pound during the course of the first half of the 20th century was part of a larger pattern whereby the United Kingdom lost its economic pre-eminence, colonies, military power, and other trappings of international hegemony.   As some wonder whether the United States might now have embarked on a path of “imperial over-reach,” following the British Empire down a road of widening budget deficits and overly ambitious military adventures in the Muslim world, the fate of the pound is perhaps a useful caution.   The Suez crisis of 1956 is frequently recalled as the occasion on which Britain was forced under US pressure to abandon its remaining imperial designs.  But the important role played by a simultaneous run on the pound, and President Eisenhower’s decision not to help the beleaguered currency through IMF support unless the British withdrew its troops from Egypt, should also be remembered.

The Euro Could Surpass The Dollar Within 10 Years

Question from The International Economy Survey of Experts:
Ten years from now, which will likely be the next great global currency?

My answer:
Contrary to fevered popular speculation in the 1990s, the yen and the mark never had the potential to challenge the dollar as premier international currency:  their home economies were smaller than the US and their financial markets less well developed and liquid than New York.   The euro, however, is a credible challenger:  Euroland is roughly as big as the United States.  Indeed, evaluated at the most recent exchange rates, the euro economy has just now surpassed the US economy in size.   Also the euro has shown itself a better store of value than the dollar.   These are two of the most important determinants of international reserve currency status.

To be sure, rankings of international currencies change only very slowly.    Although the US surpassed the UK in economic size in 1872, in exports in 1915, and as a net creditor in 1917, the dollar did not surpass the pound as number one international currency until 1945.   In 2005, when Menzie Chinn and I used historical data on central bank holdings of foreign exchange reserves to estimate the determinants, even our pessimistic scenarios did not have the euro overtaking the dollar until 2022.   Thus we could not have asserted that the dollar would be dethroned “ten years from now.”  But the dollar has continued to lose ground.    We have now updated our calculations, particularly to recognize that London is usurping Frankfurt’s role as the financial capital of the euro, notwithstanding that the UK remains outside of EMU.   It is also relevant that — at the most recent exchange rates — the GDP of euroland has surpassed that of the US.   Now we find that the tipping point could come within the ten-year horizon: the euro could overtake the dollar even as early as 2015.

Euro vs. $ in international revenue shares. Simulation of central banks’ reserve holdings: € passes $ around 2015 . Scenario: Only accession countries join EMU in 2010 (UK stays out), but 20% of London turnover counts toward Euro area financial depth, and currencies depreciate at the 20-year rates experienced up to 2007.

Source: Chinn and Frankel (2008, Figure 7).

Recent Republican President’s Aren’t Conservatives; They’re Illiberals

Floyd Norris notes in the New York Times (Feb. 9, 2008, p.B3),“George W. Bush is in line to be the first president since World II to preside over an economy in which federal government employment rose more rapidly than employment in the private sector.”    It is another bit of confirmation of the truth behind a comment that “Joe S.” posted in response to my blog entry of February 6 (“Reagan and Stalin”): “What, pray tell, does the Republican Party have to do with conservatism?”

The liberal and conservative labels are no longer useful.   It’s not that shorthand political labels are never useful; they are, even though individuals resist pigeonholing.

And it’s not just that these particular words have long since lost their original meanings.   Linguistically, “liberalism” of course was supposed to refer to a philosophy of leaving individuals free from interference by government and other entrenched institutions, while “conservatism” was supposed to mean valuing continuity and stability.   But it is a commonplace that Americans use the word “liberal” to mean the opposite of what it meant in the 19th century (which is now often called “neoliberal,” for some reason).

Supporters and detractors alike still considered George W. Bush a conservative, despite the original meaning of the word, when he launched radical departures from longstanding American principles  in the spheres of foreign policy and domestic policy.   The White House has asserted maximal political powers for the executive, and has used these powers to enact virtually unprecedented levels of interventionist policies, ranging from Iraq to domestic citizens’ right to privacy.

But people still seem to think that the Bush Administration also stands for conservatism in the economic sphere as well.   Or some think that President Bush may no longer stand for economic conservatism, but that other Republican politicians do.   I would contend that, not just George W. Bush, but also Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan and (to a lesser extent) George H.W. Bush, all — in sharp distinction from their conservative rhetoric – in practice have been interventionist.  They have all wandered, far from the principles of good neoclassical economics, and far from from the principles of small government and laissez faire.  How far?   Farther than did, for example, Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton.  

The criteria are:
(1) Growth in the size of the government, as measured by employment and spending.
(2) Lack of fiscal discipline, as measured by budget deficits.
(3) Lack of commitment to price stability, as measured by pressure on the Fed for easier monetary policy when politically advantageous.
(4) Departures from free trade.
(5) Use of government powers to protect and subsidize favored special interests (such as the oil and gas sector, among many others).   

Documentation that Republican presidents have since 1971 indulged in these five departures from “conservatism” to a greater extent than Democratic presidents can be found in some writings of mine, listed below.   The name I would give to this set of economic policies, as well as to the parallel abuses of executive power in the areas of foreign policy and domestic policy, is neither “liberal” nor “conservative” but, rather, “illiberal.”

Original: “Republican and Democratic Presidents Have Switched Economic Policies,” in Milken Institute Review, vol. 5, no.1, 1st Quarter, 2003, pp.18-25.

Shortest: “Trading Places” , Financial Times, Sept. 13, 2002.

Most recent: “Responding to Crises,” for 24th Annual Monetary Conference, Cato Institute.   Cato Journal vol. 27, no. 2, Spring/Summer, 2007, pp 165-1708.  

Effective Marginal Tax Rates On Lower-Income American Workers

Following up on my preceding post, I asked my colleague here at Harvard, Jeff Liebman, about the evidence on the effective marginal tax rate facing low-income workers. (Professor Liebman is an expert in this area, which I am not. Incidentally he is also an economic advisor to Barack Obama.) Here is his response:

“Despite the EITC and child credit, the poverty trap is still very much a reality in the U.S. A woman called me out of the blue last week and told me her self-sufficiency counselor had suggested she get in touch with me. She had moved from a $25,000 a year job to a $35,000 a year job, and suddenly she couldn’t make ends meet any more. I told her I didn’t know what I could do for her, but agreed to meet with her. She showed me all her pay stubs etc. She really did come out behind by several hundred dollars a month. She lost free health insurance and instead had to pay $230 a month for her employer-provided health insurance. Her rent associated with her section 8 voucher went up by 30% of the income gain (which is the rule). She lost the ($280 a month) subsidized child care voucher she had for after-school care for her child. She lost around $1600 a year of the EITC. She paid payroll tax on the additional income. Finally, the new job was in Boston, and she lived in a suburb. So now she has $300 a month of additional gas and parking charges. She asked me if she should go back to earning $25,000. I told her that she should first try to find a $35k job closer to home. Also, she apparently can’t fully reverse her decision to take the higher paying job because she can’t get the child care voucher back (the waiting list is several years long she thinks). She is really stuck. She tried taking an additional weekend job, but the combination of losing 30 percent in increased rent and paying for someone to take care of her child meant it didn’t help much either.
The question is what is the policy solution here. Means-tested transfers have to be phased out at some point, so there is no easy answer. I think there are three things we might be able to do — all of which would, as you say, be a better use of revenue than tax cuts for the rich. First, make child-related tax benefits equal for all families (now they are high at the bottom because of the EITC and high at the top because the dependent exemption is more valuable the higher the tax bracket you are in, and the dip in the middle raises marginal tax rates by 21 percent for a family with two kids — so eliminating the dip would get rid of this 21 percent portion of the effective marginal tax rate). David Ellwood and I analyze this first idea. Also Sawicky and Cherry have put forth a similar idea. Second, in designing universal health insurance, we need to be very careful not to phase out income-related premium subsidies over the same income range where all of these other benefits are being phased out. Third, implement a delay between income increases and rent increases in section 8 — allow people to save up a bit before they are hit with the rent increase (I believe I read that some states have been trying out something like this recently, but I am not up to date on these policies). There are some excellent papers that carefully model how the cumulative effects of the welfare system create a poverty trap. But I don’t think either of these papers includes all of the factors facing the woman above — so they would probably indicate that she faced a 60 percent marginal tax rate rather than the 130% (or whatever it really is) rate that she actually faces.”

Fiscal Stimulus: What Do Ronald Reagan and Joseph Stalin Have In Common?

What do Milton Friedman, Ronald Reagan, and the current US Congress have in common with Joseph Stalin?

No, it’s not that they are dead.

Recently I appeared on one of those TV shows where a right-wing host interrupts the guest frequently. (Not that I had realized what it was. I had not heard of the guy, Glen Beck, and the producer had only told me they wanted me to talk about Washington’s reaction to new recession fears.) On the show I said I thought it would be a good idea if the recipients of tax rebates this time around included lower-income Americans, at least those workers who did not make enough to pay income taxes, but who did pay payroll (social security) taxes. This would be in contrast to the last 7 years of tax cuts which have left these people out. The TV host’s reaction was “Welcome to the show Mr. Stalin.” A media watch site called Media Matters for America picked this up, as an egregious comment even by the standards of talk show hosts. Of course the Democratic and Republican leadership of Congress, with the encouragement of the White House, have decided to include precisely these lower-income workers in the tax cuts this time. So I guess they are Stalinists. And Milton Friedman originally proposed the negative income tax, which was enacted as the Earned Income Tax Credit, and became highly successful when expanded by Ronald Reagan (1986) and Bill Clinton (1993). Quite a few Stalinists around!

I think the serious point is that conservatives like to think that they are keenly aware of the adverse effect of marginal tax rates on work incentives. Effective marginal tax rates on lower-income Americans trying to lift themselves out of poverty can be higher than on ultra-wealthy Americans. Yet the fixation of the Republican party from 2001 to 2007 was to make sure that the tax cuts went largely to the upper end and that they excluded workers at the bottom. Incentives are a third argument for tax rebates at the lower end, in addition to the two more familiar arguments we have been hearing: (1) income distribution, and (2) lower-income Americans will spend the money, which is supposed to be the point of the new fiscal stimulus.