G-20 Barking Up the Wrong Tree

If the G-20 is going to be nothing more than a talking shop on economic issues, they ought to at least talk about the economic problems that really matter, and the ones that they can do something about.  Not that currency values don’t matter — they are actually very important.  And it is interesting to see them getting some attention after the media ignored, for example, that an overvalued dollar was the main cause of the United States’ loss of nearly a third of its manufacturing jobs over the last decade.

But we are many years if not decades away from a multilateral agreement on currencies.  It took the Great Depression and World War II to get us the Bretton Woods system of fixed exchange rates, and the current group of governments will never resolve something this difficult when they can’t even come up with a coherent analysis of the problem.

First things first.  The most immediate problem facing the world economy is that the high-income economies — including the United States, Europe, and Japan — are barely recovering from their recessions.  The International Monetary Fund (IMF) pointed this out in their semi-annual World Economic Outlook last month, noting that the recoveries of the high-income economies “will remain fragile for as long as improving business investment does not translate into higher employment growth.”  Unfortunately this is everybody’s concern because these countries make up the majority of the world’s economy.

Now this is something that the G-20 governments could actually do something about, not least because some of them are actively making things worse.  The European authorities — which include the European Commission, the European Central Bank, and the IMF (which is subordinate to these authorities in Europe) — are choking off recovery in Spain, Ireland, Greece, Portugal and other countries.  Ireland’s borrowing costs just jumped 3 percentage points in the last three weeks — from 6 percent to a potentially explosive 9 percent — because its austerity policies are having the predictable effect of tanking the economy.  Spain just racked up zero growth for the third quarter and hardly any for the whole year, with unemployment at 20 percent.  In just the last six months, the IMF has had to lower the forecast for GDP growth in Greece from negative 2 to negative 4 percent, for the same reasons; and if all goes well according to their austerity plan, Greece will have a debt of 144 percent of GDP in 2013, up from 115 percent in 2009.

It is with great irony that any of these governments or authorities now complain when the U.S. Federal Reserve actually does something right.  The Federal Reserve’s “quantitative easing,” or creating money and using it to buy long-term government bonds, is exactly what any responsible central bank should do when their national economy is this depressed.  Unfortunately, because long-term rates are already extremely low, the impact of an additional $600 billion of purchases over the next six months is likely to be minimal.  But the Fed’s action lowers the United States’ net debt burden, since the interest payments on the debt that the Fed buys will now revert to the U.S. Treasury.

By “monetizing” this debt — and therefore getting rid of this interest burden on it — the Fed has created more space for the President and Congress to provide some badly needed stimulus spending.  If China, with an economy less than three-quarters the size of the United States (less than half at current exchange rates), can commit to $735 billion of investment in low-carbon energy over the next decade, what do you think the United States could do to reduce climate disruption while providing some jobs for our 15 million (officially) unemployed?

So if anyone wants to complain about what the U.S. government is currently doing or not doing to the world economy, first complaints should go to the Congress and the President, who have failed to provide the necessary fiscal stimulus — not the Fed.  The best thing that the European Central Bank could do is imitate the Fed, and help the weaker Eurozone economies restore economic growth rather than pushing them back towards recession.

Some countries are worried that the Fed’s maintaining low long-term rates will send too much money into their own economies, seeking a higher return, and driving up the value of their currencies.  But these governments can reduce these inflows with capital controls, including taxes on various forms of incoming investment.

This whole threat of “currency wars” and a plunge into the protectionist abyss is quite exaggerated.  For more than a decade we have been repeatedly warned of a protectionist nightmare, threatening to grind the world economy to a halt, if the Doha Round of the World Trade Organization did not make progress.  But the negotiations to liberalize trade and commerce went nowhere while world exports more than doubled in just the five years from 2002-2007.  When the crash finally came, it had nothing to do with protectionism — if anything, it had more to with liberalization in the financial sector.

The most immediate threat to the world economy at present comes not from “currency wars” or protectionism, but from overly conservative, dogma-driven macroeconomic policies.  It’s a shame that this wasn’t a major item on the G-20 agenda.

Mark Weisbrot is co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research, in Washington, D.C.  He received his Ph.D. in economics from the University of Michigan.  He has written numerous research papers on economic policy, especially on Latin America and international economic policy.  He is also co-author, with Dean Baker, of Social Security: The Phony Crisis (University of Chicago Press, 2000) and president of Just Foreign Policy.  This article was first published in the Guardian and republished by CEPR on 12 November 2010 under a Creative Commons license.

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