07 July 2007

Currency and Chrysler

The senior of my two home state Senators, Christopher Dodd, has a bill pending before the U.S. Senate that would in effect declare the People's Republic of China guilty of "currency manipulation," and would demand that it be pressured into allowing convertibility and free float.

http://dodd.senate.gov/index.php?q=node/3690

The idea is this: if the yuan were made convertible and allowed to float freely, traders and investors around the world would want to hold some of their assets in yuan, or yuan-denominated assets, in preference to, say, U.S. dollars. They'd convert, the value of the yuan vis-a-vis the dollar would increase, and that would reduce the corporate advantage of buying Chinese products or raw materials or outsourcing the manufacturing work there. This (Dodd's view implies) would assist U.S. manufacturers and employees.

The new Chrysler/Chery deal is likely to add appeal to this argument. Just as Chrysler itself is "coming home" in a sense, rescued from those darned Germans, it's outsourcing assemblage to China. Like the kid who comes home from college just long enough to drop off his laundry and then is out gallivanting.

I was speaking to an authority on China's economy earlier this week. He said, "The U.S. makes a good many products, but what we make best is a virtue out of necessity." In the Bretton Woods period, 1944 - 1970, fixed exchange rates were the international norm. The value of the US dollar was pegged to gold and the value of other currencies were pegged to the dollar. That situation wasn't sustainable, and Richard Nixon famously "closed the gold window." The move was a raction to a monetary crisis, not the quasi-religious conversion to the ideal of freely-floating currencies!

Yet in the decades since, the necessity (as it was then) of letting the dollar float has become an ideal, and a central pillar of US foreign/economic policy. Everybody's currency should float freely against everybody else's! The notion that China should adhere to something analogous to the old Bretton Woods system, insofar as it can unilaterally instate it, has become a blasphemy, a manipulation.

There is also something delicious about the fact that it's Dodd, given his reputation as one of the last of the unapologetic liberals, who should pick up a Nixonian banner in this way.

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