The new Japanese government under Shinzo Abe, which took office on 26 December 2012, has been pursuing a policy of weakening the yen. Using a combination of low interest rates, quantitative easing, expansionary fiscal policy and a declared aim of depreciation, the government has succeeded in driving down the value of the yen.
Since mid-November last year, the yen has depreciated by 28% against the dollar, 30% against the euro and 21% against sterling. The effective exchange rate index has fallen by 22% (see first diagram below: click here for a PowerPoint of the diagram).
But will this depreciation succeed in stimulating the Japanese economy and will it improve the balance of trade? The hope is that the falling yen will boost export sales by making them cheaper abroad, and will reduce the demand for imports by making them more expensive in Japan. The balance of trade will thereby improve and higher exports (an injection) and lower imports (a withdrawal) will stimulate aggregate demand and economic growth.
Traditionally Japan has run balance of trade surpluses, but since July 2012, it has been running monthly deficits – the longest run of deficits since 1980. But depreciation cannot be expected to turn this position around immediately. Indeed, theory suggests that the balance of trade is likely to deteriorate before it improves. This is known as the J-curve effect and is illustrated in the second diagram below. As page 768 of Economics, 8th edition states:
At first a devaluation or depreciation might make a current account deficit worse: the J-curve effect. The price elasticities of demand for imports and exports may be low in the short run (see Case Study 25.1 in MyEconLab). Directly after devaluation or depreciation, few extra exports may be sold, and more will have to be paid for imports that do not have immediate substitutes. There is thus an initial deterioration in the balance of trade before it eventually improves. In Figure 25.12 [the second diagram], devaluation takes place at time t1. As you can see, the diagram has a J shape.
Evidence suggests that the first part of the ‘J’ has been experienced in Japan: Japan’s balance of trade has deteriorated. But there is debate over whether the balance of trade will now start to improve. As the article by James Saft states:
But a look at the actual data shows Japanese companies, like British ones during a similar bout of currency weakness in 2008, appear to be more eager to use a newly competitive currency to pad profits through higher margins rather than higher export volumes. Thus far, Japanese exporters appear to be doing just that. Despite yen falls the price of Japanese exports in local currency has barely budged.
“Japanese companies have not actually cut the foreign currency prices of their exports. Just as with the UK exporters, the Japanese have chosen to hold foreign prices constant, maintain market share, and increase the yen value and thus the yen profit associated with yen depreciation,” UBS economist Paul Donovan writes in a note to clients.
The extra profits earned by Japanese companies from export sales may be stockpiled or paid out in dividends rather than reinvested. And what investment does take place may be abroad rather than in Japan. The net effect may be very little stimulus to the Japanese economy.
As stated by Saft above, the UK had a similar experience in the period 2007–9, when sterling depreciated some 27% (see the second diagram). The balance of trade improved very little and UK companies generally priced goods to markets abroad rather than cutting overseas prices.
But times were different then. The world was plunging into recession. Now global markets are mildly growing or static. Nevertheless, there is a danger that the upward slope of the J-curve in Japan may be pretty flat.
Weak yen a boon for investors, not Japan Reuters, James Saft (14/5/13)
Japan’s Trade Data Suggest Even Lower Yen Needed Wall Street Journal, Nick Hastings (22/5/13)
2 Misunderstandings About Japanese Trade Seeking Alpha, Marc Chandler (22/5/13)
Japanese trade deficit widens Financial Times, Ben McLannahan (22/5/13)
BIS effective exchange rate indices Bank for International Settlements
Japan’s balance of trade Trading Economics
UK Trade, March 2013 ONS
- Explain the J-curve effect.
- Why is there some doubt about whether the Japanese balance of trade will improve significantly?
- What will be the consequences for Japanese growth?
- If foreign currency prices of Japanese exports do not change, what will determine the amount that Japan exports?
- What other measures is the Japanese government taking to stimulate the economy? What will determine the size of the multiplier effects of these measures?
- Using data from the ONS plot the UK’s quarterly balance of trade figures from 2007 to the present day. Explain the pattern that emerges.
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 GlobalResearch.ca, 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)
- Why are competitive devaluations globally a zero sum game while global trade wars are a negative sum game?
- What are the arguments for and against using tariffs as a means of stimulating recovery?
- Why has quantitative easing so far had a more discernible effect on asset prices than on the real economy?
- 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?
- 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?
- Are global trade imbalances widening, and if so why?
- What would determine the size of the effect on the US balance of trade of an appreciation of the yuan?
One of the key problems faced by all countries over the past three years has been a lack of consumer demand. Firms face demand from a number of sources and when the domestic economy is struggling and domestic demand is weak, a key source of demand will be from abroad. By this, we are of course referring to exports. However, it was not just one country that plunged into recession: the global economy was affected. So, when one country was suffering from a weak domestic market, it turned to its export market and hence to other countries for demand. However, with these economies also suffering from recession, the export market was unable to offer any significant help. In order to boost exports, governments have tried to make their export markets more competitive and one method is to cut the value of the currency. Japan, South Korea, Thailand, Columbia and Taiwan are just some of the countries using this strategy.
Following these interventions, the Brazilian finance minister has commented that a new trade war has begun. Speaking to a group of industrial leaders in Sao Paulo, Mr. Mantega said:
‘We’re in the midst of an international currency war. This threatens us because it takes away our competitiveness.’
As more and more governments intervene in the currency market in a bid to boost exports, those refraining from intervening will suffer. Furthermore, interest rates throughout the developed world have remained low, as central banks continue their attempts to boost economics. However, this has led vast amounts of money to be transferred into countries, such as Brazil, where there is a better supply of high-yield assets. This has worsened the state of affairs in Brazil, as the Brazilian currency is now thought to be the most heavily over-valued currency in the world. This adversely affects Brazil’s export market and its trade balance. The following articles look at the lastest developments in this new ‘war’.
Currencty ‘war’ warning from Brazil’s finance minister BBC News (28/9/10)
Brazil warns of world currency war Telegraph (28/9/10)
Brazil warns of world currency ‘war’ Associated Press (28/9/10)
Brazil defends exporters in global currency battle Reuters (15/9/10)
Kan defends Japan’s intervention in the currency markets Associated Press (25/9/10)
US and China are still playing currency Kabuki Business Insider, Dian L. Chu (21/9/10)
How to stop a currency war The Economist (14/10/10)
What’s the currency war about? BBC News, Laurence Knight (23/10/10)
Exchange rate data
Exchange rate X-rates.com
Statistical Interactive Database – interest and exchange rates data Bank of England
Currencies BBC News
Currency converter Yahoo Finance
- Demand for a firm’s products comes from many sources. What are they? Illustrate this on a diagram.
- Why is a weak currency good for the export market?
- How will a country’s trade balance be affected by the value of its currency?
- Explain the process by which investors putting money into high-yield assets in countries like Brazil leads to currency appreciation.
- What are the options open to a government if it wants to devalue its currency? What are the advantages and disadvantages of each method?
Hyperinflation in Zimbabwe is no longer news. Indeed the news below that inflation has risen to 2,200% may not even surprise us any more. However, inflation of this level should also mean similar changes in the exchange rate if purchasing power parity is to be maintained. The official exchange rate in Zimbabwe, however, hasn’t changed by anywhere near this amount and there are reports (See Scotsman article below) that the Governor of the Central Bank has even tried to portray a recent devaluation as not really a devaluation at all!
Our mutual friend The Economist (subscription) (12/4/07)
Zimbabwe inflation reaches 2,200% BBC News Online (26/4/07)
Zimbabwe’s inflation rate surges to 231,000,000% Guardian (9/10/08)
A month ago, the hospitals were overflowing. Now they lie empty Guardian (6/12/08)
Hyperinflation in Zimbabwe Wikipedia
How Zimbabwe lost control of inflation Newzimbabwe.com (11/12/09)
||Explain, using diagrams as appropriate, how hyperinflation will affect the exchange rate in Zimbabwe.
||Discuss the likely economic impact of not devaluing the official exchange rate in line with the level of inflation in Zimbabwe.
||Assess possible exchange rate policies that would help reduce the level of hyperinflation in Zimbabwe.