Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Unintended Consequences of Monetary Policy

Today's news reported that China's foreign exchange reserves have risen to $2.85 trillion (yes, trillion, not billion), an increase of 20% over the past year. This is almost triple the next highest amount of foreign reserves held by a central bank (Japan, at $1.04 trillion). At the same time, China's trade balance narrowed over the past year. In other words, China's increased holdings of foreign reserves don't come from a net increase in exports.

Many commentators blame China's low exchange rate for the yuan, which it depresses in order to protect its exporters. But if net exports aren't increasing, something else is going on. A prime suspect is the carry trade, in which speculators borrow dollars made cheap by the Fed's easy money policies and convert them into yuan in order to profit from China's rising interest rates. The dichotomy in interest rates between China (high) and America (low) gives capital the incentive to flee the U.S. for higher returns in China. The fact that China has recently loosened trading restrictions in the yuan, allowing it to be traded in Hong Kong and now the U.S., only makes such capital flight easier. The Chinese central bank will levitate rates further in order to combat accelerating inflation in China, so the disparity with America will only increase.

China's high interest rate/low yuan exchange rate strategy exacerbates economic imbalance. The high rates will predictably draw in foreign capital, and the low exchange rate for the yuan will only aggravate the phenomenon by making it cheap in forex terms to buy high interest rate yuan obligations. But the Federal Reserve's easy money policy heightens incentives for speculators to invest the dollars it's printing in China rather than America. Such a capital outflow would help explain why inflation has been so low in the U.S., notwithstanding the Fed's 'round the clock money printing operation. Capital outflow detracts from whatever stimulus effect the Fed's quantitative easing program might have. Although unintended, QE is boosting China's forex reserves. The Chinese want to eat their cake and have it, too. So does the Fed, hoping that printing money will spur growth without inflation. But it isn't spurring much growth, and is producing inflation in China. That does nobody much good.

Monetary policy is heightening the imbalance between China and America. The Fed doesn't intend this, and the Chinese surely recognize the dangers as well. But China can't turn on a dime away from an export driven economy, and the Fed clearly will persist in QE come hell or high water. So we shouldn't expect things to change much in the foreseeable future.

No comments: