Wednesday, November 17, 2004

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China’s currency peg to the U.S. dollar prevents correction of the U.S. trade imbalance and imperils the U.S. dollar’s role as the international reserve currency.

In the post World War II period, the dollar took over the reserve currency role from the British pound, because the supremacy of U.S. manufacturing guaranteed U.S. trade surpluses. The British pound lost its role due to debts from two world wars, loss of empire, a run-down industrial base and socialist attack on U.K. business.

The reserve currency conveys unique advantages on the favored country. As the reserve currency, the U.S. dollar is guaranteed a high level of demand. Foreign central banks hold their reserves in dollars, and countries are billed in dollars for their oil imports, which requires other countries to buy dollars with their currencies.

As a reserve currency fulfills world needs in addition to the functions of a domestic currency, the favored country can hemorrhage debt for a protracted period on a scale that would promptly wreck any other country’s currency.

This advantage is a two-edged sword, however, because it permits the reserve country to behave irresponsibly by running large trade and budget deficits. When the tide turns against the reserve currency, its exchange value collapses.

The reason for the collapse is the huge stock of reserve currency held by foreigners. When other countries conclude that their hoards of dollars represent claims that the United States cannot meet, dollar dumping begins. Financing for U.S. debt dries up; interest rates rise; imported goods become unaffordable and living standards fall.

Flight from the dollar is already underway. During the past two years, the U.S. dollar has declined 52 percent against the new European currency, the Euro. This decline is striking in view of the sluggish European economy and the fact that many analysts regard the Euro as merely a political currency.

Indeed, the dollar is declining against all currencies that have any international standing: the British pound, the Canadian dollar, the Australian dollar and even against the Japanese yen, despite Tokyo’s intervention to support the dollar.

Overcome by hubris and superpower delusion, U.S. policymakers are unaware of America’s peril. Economists and pundits are equally in the dark.

Economists believe that decline in the dollar’s exchange value will correct the U.S. trade deficit by reducing imports and increasing exports. Once upon a time, a case could be argued for this logic. But that was a time before U.S. corporations took to outsourcing jobs and locating production for U.S. markets offshore.

U.S. imports of goods and services rise each time a U.S. factory moves offshore or a U.S. job is outsourced. Goods and services produced offshore by U.S. corporations for U.S. customers count as imports and worsen the trade deficit. The United States cannot reduce its trade deficit by increasing sales to China of goods made by U.S. firms in China. As Charles McMillion, president of MBG Information Services, concisely summarizes, “Outsourcing is export substitution.”

It is amazing that U.S. policymakers and economists do not understand that dollar devaluation is meaningless as long as China keeps its currency pegged to the dollar.

America’s greatest trade imbalance is with China. In 2000, the U.S. merchandise trade deficit with China became larger than the chronic U.S. trade deficit with Japan. By 2003, the U.S. trade deficit with China was almost twice as large as the U.S. deficit with Japan: $124 billion versus $66 billion. This year, the U.S. trade deficit with China is expected to be $160 billion, a 29 percent increase from last year.

This imbalance cannot be corrected as long as China maintains the peg. As the dollar falls against the Euro and other currencies, the Chinese currency falls with it, thus maintaining China’s advantage over U.S. goods in world markets.

Both the Clinton and Bush administrations are guilty of permitting China to maintain a grossly undervalued currency that sucks productive capacity out of the United States. The combination of cheap Chinese labor and an undervalued currency are destroying U.S. middle class living standards.

As America’s industrial base erodes, so does its competitiveness and ability to close its trade deficit through exports.

Currency markets cannot correct the undervalued Chinese currency, because China does not permit its currency to be traded and there are insufficient stocks of Chinese currency in foreign hands with which to form a currency market.

Sooner or later, the peg will come to an end — perhaps when China fulfills its WTO obligation to let its currency float. When the peg ends, it will deliver a severe shock to U.S. living standards. Suddenly, Chinese manufactured goods — including advanced technology products — on which the United States is now dependent will cost much more. Overnight, shopping at Wal-Mart will be like shopping in high-end department stores.

China accounts for a quarter of the U.S. trade deficit and for one-third of the U.S. deficit in manufactured goods, is the second largest source of U.S. imports after Canada and is America’s third largest trading partner as conventionally measured. Despite these facts, the U.S. government does not publish full current account data for China, instead lumping China in with “Other Countries in Asia and Africa.” This keeps the magnitude of the problem out of sight.

Canada and Mexico rank as the United States’ two largest “trading partners” because of double counting in the measure of imports and exports. For example, the full value of auto bodies shipped across the borders to Canada and Mexico for assembly operations are counted as “exports” when they leave the United States and as “imports” when they return.

In contrast, U.S. “trade” with China involves almost no double counting of component parts.

Recently, Goodyear Tire and Rubber Co. declared its intention to close all U.S. plants and to manufacture offshore for U.S. markets. Each time the United States loses an industry, America’s export potential declines and America’s imports rise. This scenario guarantees a rising trade deficit and the end of the dollar’s reserve currency role.

Paul Craig Roberts is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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