December 15, 2019

What’s at Risk if the U.S. Stumbles Into a Currency War

Similarly, the Trump administration’s decision Monday to name China a currency manipulator — for allowing the value of its currency to fall — does not align with how mainstream economists view China’s move.

With the economy slowing in China, in part because of the trade wars, market forces tend to push its currency lower. But the People’s Bank of China has defended the currency from big drops, aiming to prevent capital from flowing out of the country or destabilizing the world economy.

The “manipulation” that took place Monday morning wasn’t artificially depressing the Chinese currency to seize advantage with trade partners, but engaging in less manipulation in order to allow it to fall closer to its market-determined rate.

There is a more nuanced case to be made against Chinese currency policy — that it did intervene for years to push down the value of its currency, ending in the early 2010s, and that Chinese economic might was built on an unfair practice. But the Trump administration’s announcement focuses on the more recent actions, in which different economic rationales apply.

There is also a paradox for President Trump. Because of the dollar’s unique role as the global reserve currency, when panic sets in overseas, money tends to flow into United States Treasury bonds, which are viewed as the safest assets on earth. But that movement tends to prop up the value of the dollar and push overseas currencies lower.

In other words, the more chaos he injects into the global economy by trying to pressure China, Europe and others not to depreciate their currencies, the more upward pressure there will be on the dollar, undermining those efforts.

That is potentially the worst of both worlds. When the dollar rises on currency markets because the United States economy is booming, it may be hard on American export industries, but at least it takes place in the context of strong growth.

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