Brazil, Mexico, Peru, Colombia, Korea, Taiwan, South Africa, Russia and even Poland are either intervening directly in the exchange markets to prevent their currencies rising too far, or examining what options they have to stem disruptive inflows. Goldman Sachs said net inflows have been running at annual rate of $520bn (£329bn) in Asia over the last 15 months, and $74bn in Latin America. Intervention to stop it creates all kinds of problems so the next step may be "direct capital controls", the bank warned. Peter Attard Montalto from Nomura said quantitative easing by the US Federal Reserve and other central banks is incubating serious conflict.
Brazil's real has been one of the world's strongest currencies over the past two years, aggravating a current account deficit nearing 2.5% of GDP. The overvalued exchange rate endangers Brazil's industry, especially companies that compete with Chinese imports. The real has appreciated to 1.7 to the dollar from 2.6 in late 2008, and by almost the same amount against China's yuan.
"Everybody is worried that global growth is fading and they are trying to use exchange rates to protect exports. Brazil has watched as the Asians intervened and feels it can't stand by," said Ian Stannard, a currency expert at BNP Paribas. Brazil has used taxes to slow the capital inflows but the allure of super-yields and the country's status as a grain, iron ore, and commodity powerhouse have proved irresistible. It is a textbook case of the "resources curse" that can afflict commodity producers.
A $67bn share issue by Petrobras has been a fresh magnet for funds, forcing the central bank to buy an estimated $1bn of foreign bonds each day over the past two weeks. Such action is hard to "sterilise" and it can fuel inflation. Japan has begun intervening to stop the yen appreciating to heartburn levels for Toyota, Sharp, Sony and other exporters. A strong yen risks tipping the country deeper into deflation.
Switzerland spent 80bn francs in one month to stem capital flight from the euro, only to be defeated by the force of the exchange markets, leaving its central bank nursing huge losses. Stephen Lewis from Monument Securities said the Fed is playing a risky game toying with more QE. There are already signs of investor flight into commodities. The danger is a repeat of the spike in 2008, which was a contributory cause of the Great Recession. "Further QE at this point may prove self-defeating," he said.
Meanwhile, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, managing director of the International Monetary Fund, tried to play down the fears of a currency war, saying he did not think there was "a big risk" despite "what has been written".
Gold Is The Final Refuge Against Universal Currency Debasement
Plead he might, but tempers in Washington are rising. Congress will vote next week on the Currency Reform for Fair Trade Act, intended to make it much harder for the Commerce Department to avoid imposing "remedial tariffs" on Chinese goods deemed to be receiving "benefit" from an unduly weak currency. Japan has intervened to stop the strong yen tipping the country into a deflation death spiral, though it too has a trade surplus. There is suspicion in Tokyo that Beijing's record purchase of Japanese debt in June, July, and August was not entirely friendly, intended to secure a yuan-yen advantage and perhaps to damage Japan's industry at a time of escalating strategic tensions in the Pacific region.
Brazil dived into the markets on Friday to weaken the real. The Swiss have been doing it for months, accumulating reserves equal to 40% of GDP in a forlorn attempt to stem capital flight from Euroland. Like the Chinese and Japanese, they too are battling to stop the rest of the world taking away their structural surplus.
The exception is Germany, which protects its surplus ($179bn, or 5.2% of GDP) by means of an undervalued exchange rate within EMU. The global game of pass the unemployment parcel has to end somewhere. It ends in Greece, Portugal, Spain, Ireland, parts of Eastern Europe, and will end in France and Italy too, at least until their democracies object.
It is no mystery why so many states around the world are trying to steal a march on others by debasement, or to stop debasers stealing a march on them. The three pillars of global demand at the height of the credit bubble in 2007 were— by deficits— the US ($793bn), Spain ($126bn), UK ($87bn). These have shrunk to $431bn, $75bn, and $33bn respectively as we sinners tighten our belts in the aftermath of debt bubbles.. The Brazils and Indias of the world are replacing some of this half trillion lost juice, but not all.
East Asia's surplus states seem structurally incapable of compensating for austerity in the West, whether because of the Confucian saving ethic, or the habits of mercantilist practice or, in China's case, by the lack of a welfare net. Their export models rely on the willingness of Anglo-PIGS to bankrupt themselves. So we have an early 1930s world where surplus states are hoarding money, instead of recycling it.
A solution of sorts in the Great Depression was for each deficit country to devalue, breaking out of the trap (then enforced by the Gold Standard). This turned the deflation tables on the surplus powers— France and the US from 1929-1931— forcing them to reflate as well (the US in 1933) or collapse (France in 1936). Contrary to myth, beggar-thy-neighbour policy was the global cure.
A variant of this may now occur. If China continues to hold down its currency, the country will import excess US liquidity, overheat, and lose wage competitiveness. This is the default cure if all else fails, and I believe it is well under way.
The latest Fed minutes are remarkable. They add a new doctrine, that a fresh monetary blitz— or QE2— will be used to stop inflation falling much below 1.5%. Surely the Fed has not become so reckless that it really aims to use emergency measures to create inflation, rather preventing deflation? This must be a cover-story. Ben Bernanke's real purpose— as he aired in his November 2002 speech on deflation— is to weaken the dollar.
If so, he has succeeded. The Swiss franc smashed through parity last week as investors digested the message. But the swissie is an over-rated refuge. The franc cannot go much further without destabilizing Switzerland itself.
Gold has no such limits. It hit $1300 an ounce last week, still well shy of the $2,200-2,400 range reached in the late Medieval era of the 14th and 15th Centuries.
This is not to say that gold has any particular "intrinsic value". It is subject to supply and demand like everything else. It crashed after the gold discoveries of Spain's Conquistadores in the New World, and slid further after finds in Australia and South Africa. It ultimately lost 90% of its value— hitting rock-bottom a decade ago when central banks succumbed to fiat hubris and began to sell their bullion. Gold hit a millennium-low on the day that Gordon Brown auctioned the first tranche of Britain's gold. It has risen five-fold since then.
We have a new world order where China and India are buying gold on every dip, where the West faces an ageing crisis, and where the sovereign states of the US, Japan, and most of Western Europe have public debt trajectories near or beyond the point of no return. The managers of all four reserve currencies are playing fast and loose: the Fed is clipping the dollar; the Bank of England is clipping sterling; the European Central Bank is buying the bonds of EMU debtors to stave off insolvency, something it vowed "never to do" just months ago; and the Bank of Japan has just carried out two trillion yen of "unsterilized" intervention.
Of course, gold can go higher.