Do trade wars loom?

With countries around the globe struggling to recover from recession, many seem to believe that the answer lies in a growth in exports. But how can this be achieved? A simple solution is to lower the exchange rate.

Under a pegged exchange rate, the currency could be devalued. Alternatively, if the country’s inflation is lower than that of other countries, merely leaving the exchange rate pegged at its current level will bring about a real devaluation (in purchasing-power parity terms).

Under a floating exchange rate, one answer would be to lower interest rates. This would involve open market operations to support the lower rate and that would increase the money supply. But with central banks’ interest rates at virtually zero, it is not possible to lower them further. In such circumstances a solution would be a deliberate policy of increasing the money supply through “quantitative easing”. For example, the USA is considering a second round of quantitative easing (known as “QE2”). This would tend to push down the exchange rate of the dollar.

But stimulating exports through devaluation or depreciation is a zero-sum game globally. If currency A depreciates against currency B, currency B necessarily appreciates against currency A. Country A’s gain in exports to Country B are an increase in imports for Country B. It is logically impossible for every currency in the world to depreciate! Yet depreciation is exactly the policy being pursued by countries such as Japan, South Korea and Taiwan, all of which have directly intervened in the currency markets to lower their exchange rates. And, in each case of course, other countries’ currencies have an equivalent appreciation against them.

Economists and politicians in the USA argue that the dollar is fundamentally over valued against the Chinese yuan (or ‘renminbi’ as it is sometimes called). They are calling on China to revalue by far more than the 2% increase since June 2010. But what if China refuses to do so? On 29 September the House of Representatives passed a bill giving the executive branch the authority to impose a wide range of tariffs on imports from China. The bill was passed with a huge majority of 348 to 79.

So is this the start of a trade war? Many in the USA argue that China is already waging such a war by giving subsidies to a wide range of exports. And that war is hotting up. China has just announced that it is imposing traiffs ranging from 50% to 104% on various poultry imports from the USA. And if it is a trade war, will there be any winners? The following articles investigate.

Global recovery’s weakness raises possibility of trade war Guardian, Larry Elliott (4/10/10)
Tension mounts as China and US trade insults over currency Independent, Stephen Foley (1/10/10)
Is the world in a trade war? Time Magazine blogs: The Curious Capitalist, Michael Schuman (29/9/10)
Trade War Is Here – and We’ve Disarmed The Huffington Post, Robert Kuttner (3/10/10)
US House Passes Anti-China Trade War Bill, Barry Grey (1/10/10)
Currencies the key to market’s next move BBC News, Jamie Robertson (3/10/10)
A Message for China New York Times (30/9/10)
Taking On China New York Times, Paul Krugman (30/9/10)
Krugman Makes Two Powerful Arguments Against “Taking on China” Wall Street Pit, Scott Sumner (2/10/10)
Why the U.S. can’t win a trade war with China The Globe and Mail (Canada), Carl Mortished (4/10/10)
China-Japan trade war looms CTV News (Canada), Mark MacKinnon (23/9/10)
IMF chief’s warning of currency war ‘real threat’ BBC News, interview with Dominique Strauss-Khan, head of the IMF (7/10/10)
Could disputes over currency levels lead to a depression? BBC World Service, interview with Robert Zoellick (8/10/10)
China stands firm over yuan move BBC News, Andrew Walker (9/10/10)
What to do about China’s currency? Washington Post (10/10/10)
How to stop a currency war The Economist (14/10/10)
What’s the currency war about? BBC News, Laurence Knight (23/10/10)
Nominally cheap or really dear? The Economist (4/11/10)


  1. Why are competitive devaluations globally a zero sum game while global trade wars are a negative sum game?
  2. What are the arguments for and against using tariffs as a means of stimulating recovery?
  3. Why has quantitative easing so far had a more discernible effect on asset prices than on the real economy?
  4. Do a search on “Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act” of 1930 and describe its impact on the global economy in the 1930s. Are there any parallels today?
  5. How is it possible for massive trade surpluses and deficits to persist and yet for individual countries’ exchange rates and overall balance of payments to be in equilibrium?
  6. Are global trade imbalances widening, and if so why?
  7. What would determine the size of the effect on the US balance of trade of an appreciation of the yuan?