Benn Steil


A graphical take on geoeconomic issues, with links to the news and expert commentary.

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Dr. Strangelove or: How China Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Dollar

by Benn Steil and Dinah Walker
currency wars

China has since 1994 operated some form of currency peg, harder or softer, between its yuan and the U.S. dollar. While China’s state-run Xinhua news agency has in recent years railed against U.S. management of the dollar, and has called for “a new, stable, and secured global reserve currency,” this week’s Geo-Graphic illustrates why China has little incentive to press for such a thing. Read more »

Greece Hurtles Toward Its Fiscal Cliff

by Benn Steil and Dinah Walker

The United States marches solemnly towards its fiscal cliff, awaiting only the command from the Goddess of Reason to halt. Unfortunately for Greece, that country plugged its ears back in March.

Like the United States, Greece made prior commitments on spending and taxation in order to bind itself to the mission of deficit reduction. Unlike the United States, Greece left itself little means to unbind itself. As shown in the graphic above, its massive debt restructuring in March only reduced its debt-to-GDP ratio from 170% to 150%, but in the process made further significant restructuring much more difficult. Read more »

China’s “Helping Hand” Won’t Help Germany

by the Center for Geoeconomic Studies

Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao recently hinted teasingly that China might buy more risky-country European debt; a “helping hand,” he called it.  Yet even if China follows through, it is unlikely to increase its intended purchases of European debt but rather just change the composition.  China’s euro purchases have increased dramatically over the past two years (we estimate these to be ¾ of reserves purchased in excess of the change in China’s U.S. asset holdings).  Most of this can be presumed to have been invested in German bunds, Europe’s closest thing to U.S. Treasurys.  Chinese euro purchases over the coming twelve months equivalent to those of the previous twelve months could cover the entire 2012 net financing needs of Portugal, Ireland, Italy, Greece, and Spain (PIIGS), as the figure above shows.  Every euro China invests in new PIIGS debt, however, can be expected to come at the expense of bunds.  Such a diversion would push up German interest rates—precisely what Germany wants to avoid by resisting eurobond issuance—without giving Germany any greater say over eurozone fiscal policies.  Chancellor Merkel therefore gains little, if anything, in making political concessions to secure Wen’s “helping hand.”

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Why You Need American Dollars to Mint Australian Ones

by the Center for Geoeconomic Studies

All countries with central banks exercise monetary sovereignty, right?  Nobel economist Paul Krugman certainly thinks so.  “Wow,” he wrote, after reading Benn Steil and Manuel Hinds say otherwise in the Financial Times on May 24, “Have these guys ever talked to anyone in Sweden, which doesn’t need euros to create more kronor?” Fortunately, we have the data, which is better than talk.  Since Mr. Krugman throws Australia into the mix, we will too.  As the figures above illustrate, when the Swedish and Australian central banks expanded credit dramatically during the recent financial crisis their net foreign assets plummeted.  And this is not merely a crisis effect, as the three decades of Australian data show. So it turns out that you do indeed need euros and (American) dollars to create kronor and Australian dollars.  A country that plows on creating credit without them eventually becomes a ward of the IMF.

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Why China Should Revalue


China will hit a “growth wall” within the next three years, according to NYU economist Nouriel Roubini. The country’s reliance on fueling GDP growth through exports is unsustainable. He argues that China needs to revalue its currency so as to allow a transition from export-led to domestic demand-led growth. “The real income of households is going to increase, and they’re going to consume more. You export less and you consume more.” Is he right? Though there are more ways than one to skin this cat – domestic reforms that would facilitate faster rising Chinese wages, as advocated by Stanford economist Ronald McKinnon, are one way to fuel greater household spending – the data do indicate that Roubini is correct. As this week’s Geo-Graphic shows, when the renminbi appreciated significantly between 2005 and 2008 Chinese export growth slowed and household spending growth rose. This trend reversed after the pace of appreciation subsequently fell dramatically. This suggests that the Chinese government’s most recent five year development plan, which states that the government “must persist in the strategy of expanding domestic demand and maintaining steady and relatively fast development,” should include currency revaluation as a component policy element. Read more »

China’s Currency Head Fake


In the run-up to the June G20 summit in Toronto, China came under significant U.S. pressure to loosen its currency peg to the dollar. “The administration constructively set the G20 meeting as an important juncture for China to change its inflexible currency practices,” said Sander Levin, chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee on June 16th. “If China does not act and the administration does not respond thereafter, the Congress will act.” Then one week before the summit, China announced that it would relax the peg, and indeed the renminbi (RMB) began to rise. The political tension dissipated. Yet since July 2nd, five days after the summit, the RMB has ceased rising. It would appear that the much lauded Chinese currency pledge was a pre-summit head fake. Read more »

China Is Not Helping Its Manufacturers


Chinese trade officials are reluctant to change China’s dollar-peg currency policy, citing concerns over the fate of exporters. Vice Commerce Minister Zhong Shan has argued that exporters will fail if the currency appreciates because profit margins are often less than 2%. However, when China International Capital Corporation (CICC) performed an analysis evaluating the effect of a hypothetical 5% increase in the value of the RMB against the dollar, by comparing decreases in revenue with the cost savings from cheaper imports, they found that most manufacturing sectors’ profitability actually increased. But as Chen Deming, the Minister of Commerce, has said, ‘we also have our own employment and stability to think about.’ Decreases in revenue suggest reduced employment, which Chinese officials appear unwilling to accept. Maintaining the peg can also, at least temporarily, prop up facilities that would not be profitable at a higher exchange rate. Supporting ventures that are unprofitable at equilibrium exchange rates will not, however, foster economic growth over the long run. Read more »

Japan’s Big Currency Bet


Because foreign currency reserves are viewed as a form of insurance, the risks of excess reserves are often overlooked. Japan holds reserves equal to 20% of GDP, more than it could possibly need for insurance purposes. These holdings make up a foreign asset portfolio that is subject to exchange rate risk. However, this risk is hidden because Japan’s reserves are primarily held in U.S. dollars and their value is reported in U.S. dollars. So as the local and global purchasing power of the dollar falls there is no change in the reported value of the reserves. As shown in the chart, Japan’s reserves increased by over $100 billion since June 2007, but fell by nearly ¥20 trillion when measured in local currency terms – over 4% of GDP. The risk of large losses in national wealth is even greater for China, whose reserves make up 50% of GDP. This risk will become apparent as and when China allows the renminbi to appreciate, in line with market pressures. Read more »

China’s Dollar Addiction



China has accumulated a massive stock of U.S. dollar reserves in recent years. Statements of concern from China regarding the risk that U.S. economic policy might undermine the future purchasing power of these assets has fuelled the market’s concern that China may shift away from dollar purchases. Yet the chart shows that over the 12 months ending in July 2009 China accumulated more dollar-denominated assets, mainly U.S. Treasuries, than foreign assets in total. Despite its rhetoric, China has thus far taken no actions to wean itself off of the dollar. Read more »

The Yuan



China has long pegged its currency to the Dollar.  After the USD started to depreciate against many currencies in 2002, expectations emerged that China would move away from a tight dollar peg.  Following China’s reforms in 2005, the Yuan appreciated by over 20% against the dollar.  However, since July 2008, the Yuan has been stable against the dollar, leading to expectations, illustrated by the forward price, that China’s repeg will persist. Read more »