Tuesday, November 16, 2010

A Financial Plumber Speaks In Favor of Managed Trade

At the end of last month, John Cochrane wrote a great editorial in the Wall Street Journal entitled Geithner's Global Central Planning. I wrote about it here. So Geithner & Co.'s nonsensical ideas about global trade central planning, in concert with exchange rate management, is not news.

Never the less, Geithner recently wrote another defense of these bad ideas in the Journal. It was the same basic set of themes, i.e., set balance of trade flow targets, get other countries to appreciate their currencies so the US can depreciate its dollar.

Cochrane exposed them as stupid and unfounded theories then, and nothing has changed about his critique in the past three weeks.

However, there's a deeper issue here, as well. That is the question of Geithner's credibility. As I have written in prior posts, there's nothing in Geithner's background to suggest that he is anything but a financial systems plumber. When he's had a significant policy-level position, such as running the New York Fed, he botched the job. Remember, in that capacity, he let himself be out-maneuvered by Goldman Sachs and a couple of French banks, resulting in his using taxpayer dollars to fully repay those parties for their AIG exposure.

I don't recall Geithner authoring oft-cited, learned papers concerning international trade theory. Or theories of currency policy and management.

In fact, everything about his recent articles attempting to defend his wacky notions of international trade and currency valuations smacks of expediency and, as Cochrane notes, unfounded, un-normed concepts prone to political manipulation.

Frankly, I just don't think Geithner, a guy who couldn't even do his taxes correctly, or manage to hire a competent accountant, has the mental horsepower to comprehend the current dilemma of US monetary and economic officials.

Back some years ago, I believe in the late 1980s, in a Wall Street Journal editorial, a respected economist made the insightful observation that nations had only two policy levers- monetary and fiscal- with which to attempt to affect three phenomena- domestic economic growth, domestic inflation, and international trade balances. The latter former lever, monetary policy, is typically given the double duty of governing inflation and international trade and currency policies.

Stronger currencies, following from low monetary base growth and/or higher interest rates, tend to hurt economic exports and often bring in foreign investment flows. Pro-growth monetary policies, such as our current weakening dollar and zero interest rates, aid exports but cause global investors to seek other instruments. As a reserve currency, these policies do even more damage by causing global holders of dollars, as a store of value and commonly-accepted medium of exchange, to seek more stable exchange media.

This is where, in past times, gold was used as the third lever to automatically affect international trade flows and valuation. Not coincidentally, monetary base growth, being backed by gold, was restricted from over-expansion by the knowledge that a cheaper currency would only hurt a nation when foreign holders of that currency redeemed it for now-cheaper gold.

Geithner's transparent attempts to force global investors and other countries to overlook US devaluation of the dollar and management of trade flows to our benefit haven't fooled anyone. But, then, what do you expect from a guy who, as a financial plumber, is trying to work beyond his capabilities?

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