Sunday, January 23, 2011

The Fed and Foreign Policy

The Fed's easy money policies have spurred inflation and rising real estate prices in China. China's informal link of the yuan to the dollar in effect imports U.S. monetary policy into China. Even though the slack in the U.S. economy from the Great Recession has held prices down here, the red hot Chinese economy reacted to excess liquidity by pushing up prices there.

The Chinese have a deep fear of inflation, having experienced far worse in their four millenia of existence as a civilization than anything Americans have seen. They're imposing monetary constraints, and even resorting to price controls. The Fed is meeting this Tuesday and Wednesday, and is expected to continue running its money printing press at full throttle. With its inflationary implications for the yuan, the Fed's current stance provides China a reason to de-link the yuan from the dollar. Once the yuan is de-linked, China can regain control of its own monetary policies.

The dissatisfaction of Chinese consumers with inflation has much more influence on Beijing's thinking than all the haranguing of the U.S. and European governments. Thus, the yuan is edging up in value, and is becoming more freely tradeable in international currency markets. Its continued rise against the dollar can be expected, albeit at a carefully managed rate. Among other things, a rising yuan makes it easier for China to buy oil and other commodities traded in dollars. Greater Chinese demand would push up the dollar-denominated price of those commodities.

This will be a mixed bag for America. As the yuan rises, U.S. exports to China may increase, creating jobs here. But a falling dollar also means a loss of buying power. America imports a lot from China, and as the yuan rises, those imports become more expensive. Cheaper substitutes may be available in some instances--Southeast and South Asia offer lower cost alternatives for manufacturing clothes. But the manufacture of high tech components that go into computers, cell phones, PDAs, tablet computers and what not can't easily be shifted to new suppliers. And rising oil and other commodities prices have obvious implications for American consumers. A rising yuan, bottom line, means falling wealth levels in America.

It may be that the Fed intends to engineer a drop in the dollar's value. That would be one way it can discharge its statutory mandate to foster full employment. America's wealth levels during the past decade were puffed up by the profligate borrowing that funded the nation's consumption. Debt-fueled "prosperity" can't go on indefinitely, and America's wealth was at risk for a fall.

As the dollar drops against the yuan, the Chinese government will take losses on its vast portfolio of dollar-denominated investments. It would likely be willing to take these losses in order to hold inflation in check and keep its citizens from becoming overly restive.

Many Americans would consider jobs for some of the unemployed at the expense of less buying power for all to be a fair trade. High unemployment has many social costs, ranging from increased government spending to discouraging consumption to familial distress and breakdowns. Fair or not, however, as the yuan rises, American living standards could be squeezed.

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