A Monetary Solution to Trade Imbalances? Gilder and the Gold Standard

The wait continues regarding the tax reform proposal to come out of the White House and be taken up by Congress. Despite the headlines dominated by more peripheral matters, tax reform is shaping up to be one of the cruxes to the success of the new administration. It is not simply a matter of reducing tax rates, or eliminating loopholes, or otherwise rendering the tax code more transparent and equitable, as important as those things might be. It turns out that tax reform is also crucial to combat the out-of-kilter trade arrangements that not only are strangling the US economy but also are perpetuating inequitable and exploitative terms of trade, at both ends of the trade relation, for both developed and developing countries.

How is tax reform relevant to this question? By virtue of one of the key proposals now being discussed: the border adjustment tax. We discussed this, and its importance in terms of trade relations, in a previous post.  As of this writing, the prospect of its being incorporated into the tax reform proposal taken up by Congress is up in the air. One report even speaks of it being on “life support.” If it, or something like it, does not come along, something else, most likely more draconian, will probably take its place. Something more like traditional protectionism.

But there are other proposals being floated likewise intended to counteract the cockeyed trade regime with which the world is now saddled. Conservative icon George Gilder has one for us that merits consideration. Gilder’s focus of late has been money, as evidenced by his 2016 book The Scandal of Money: Why Wall Street Recovers but the Economy Never Does. The burden of the argument is that floating exchange rates are the bane of the modern economy; our economic issues can only be rectified by a return to the gold standard. Floating exchange rates, in this version, are the product of government-controlled money, and as the Friedrich Hayek-authored epigraph has it, “The source and root of all monetary evil [is] the government monopoly on the issue and control of money.”

In his book, one of the claims Gilder makes is that the accusation against China as being a currency manipulator, is specious. Quoting John Mauldin, Gilder asserts that “Trump and all those who prattle on about Chinese currency manipulation have the economic comprehension of a parakeet” (p. 40). But Gilder, at least on this score, has had a change of heart. Writing in The Federalist, Gilder confesses “I was wrong.” Trump’s economic comprehension, apparently, does exceed that of a parakeet. In fact, he is on to something – though he does not quite know what. “World trade is no longer expanding for a reason, and Trump has put his finger on it. That reason is a combination of crazy quilt trade pacts, disguising wild and wooly monetary manipulation.”

So Gilder puts his finger on what Trump already put his finger, refining what he implies is a wooly argument. It is not the “crazy quilt trade pacts” that are the problem, so much as the “wild and wooly monetary manipulation” that they ostensibly conceal. Gilder’s vision is of a world in which speculators in the currency trade generate deranged exchange rates, wild swings that make a mockery of economic fundamentals. “Currency trading is a speculative orgy that fails to correspond at all with relative productivities of workers, or comparative advantages between countries, or purchasing power parities between different markets.”

For example, US workers have lost their jobs – because the Japanese yen went from 80 to the dollar to 300 to the dollar and back, and because the euro has fluctuated 20% vis-a-vis the dollar: “A worker who lost a job because of the global economy might as well have been hit by lightning. No rhyme or reason explained it. What we call a crisis of trade is really a scandal of money.” NAFTA was a big mistake, not because of the specifics of the deal, but because it led to Mexican peso devaluation: “No entrepreneurial creativity or worker efficiency or technological virtuosity could dent the overwhelming impact of the drastic relentless change in the unit of account. It emitted—as Ross Perot put it—a ‘giant sucking sound’ symbolizing a major reorganization of North American manufacturing. Yet the entire costly and tempestuous change was mostly an effect of monetary speculation.”

Hence, the global trade imbalances which have precipitated the mass transfer of production and capacity and thus jobs have been caused by floating exchange rates. The solution, as one might surmise from such a diagnosis, is to eliminate them. “So long as central banks possess the power to change currency values virtually at will, free trade cannot be either fair or efficient.”

Let us take note at this point, that we have added a person of interest to the list of currency malefactors. To the currency traders, the “10 international banks that do 77 percent of the exchanges,” Gilder has added central bankers. But this does not yet exhaust Gilder’s list. Where are the politicians? Here they are: “With money controlled by politicians in the guise of central bankers, it cannot serve as an objective measuring stick of commerce.” So central bankers are really politicians – essentially giving us three categories of malefactors. Which is why Gilder endorses Hayek’s assertion that it is government-run money that we are dealing with.

Gilder’s solution: “We Need A New Bretton Woods Agreement. ” Let’s take a look at that. Bretton Woods was the post-World War II monetary arrangement whereby the dollar, tethered to gold, served as the reserve currency for the countries of the world’s various domestic currencies. We will be exploring the concept of a reserve currency more fully in a future blog post (for now, these posts will suffice). The idea of a reserve currency is to function as “real” money in the banking system, so that monetary issue is limited to some multiple of reserve currency holdings. In other words, in the Bretton Woods framework, domestic currency issues were restricted by the amount of dollars held by the banking system, mainly the central bank. The amount of dollars, in turn, was restricted by the requirement of gold redeemability, with the price of gold fixed at $35 per ounce.

This would eliminate both inflation and deflation: “The best way to obviate both inflation and deflation is a global agreement to tie currencies to gold in the spirit of Bretton Woods.”

For all the respect I have for Mr. Gilder’s work – and it is a lot: his Wealth and Poverty made a permanent impression on my thinking, back when I was a wet-behind-the-ears Peace Corps volunteer – I think he claims too much here. The problem is that he posits precisely what he needs to demonstrate: that a commodity money standard, such as the gold standard, brings with it price stability. Certainly, tying domestic currencies to gold would eliminate their fluctuations vis-à-vis one another, but that is not the same thing as saying that prices would cease fluctuating. Quite the contrary.

During its heyday in the 19th century, the gold standard operated in terms of the so-called “automatic mechanism,” with gold flows settling imbalances between trading regions. Not between countries per se, but regions – because in the framework of the gold standard, borders vanish and the participating countries become locked into a single economic unit. At least, theoretically; practice was different, as we shall see.

So then, where countries tied their currencies to gold, and gold flows were allowed to occur without hindrance, and where corresponding trade flows of goods, services, labor, likewise were allowed to occur without hindrance, there you had the properly functioning automatic mechanism. And within this mechanism, gold flows are triggered by interest rates. Where interest rates are high, there gold flows. What leads to shifts in interest rates? Economic performance. Interest rates are raised where economic performance is lagging, and reduced were economic performance is buoyant.

What was the result of such actions? It has everything to do with the reserve function of gold in this system. The money supply is tied to gold; the more gold held by banks, the more money could be issued (a healthy multiple was considered to be two to three times the amount of gold reserves). Gold inflows allowed for monetary expansion, hence increased lending and thus increased investment and expenditure, while gold outflows reduced the money supply, tightened lending conditions, and throttled economic growth. In this way, economic regions were kept in balance: where growth was occurring it would automatically be restrained, and where contraction was occurring, the economy would automatically be stimulated.

Trade imbalances could not arise under such a system, but there was a price to pay: inflation and deflation. Where the money supply was allowed to expand, there you had inflation; and where the money supply was forced to contract, there you had deflation. Inflation and deflation was built into the gold standard with its automatic mechanism. Mr. Gilder’s assertion that a gold standard eliminates price fluctuations is totally mistaken. A gold standard functions precisely by triggering inflation and deflation.

There is more. The broader economy, in this system, is tied to the amount of gold held in reserve. In other words, economic growth, population growth, and attendant phenomena depended upon the vagaries of gold mining production as to whether they could even occur or not.

But of course, the 19th century was also the age of the social question, the silver question, the labor question, the suffrage question. All of these questions were tied to the gold standard with the restriction it inherently placed upon economic growth. The labor movement arose in response to that restriction, as did expansion of suffrage: for politicians realized that much hay was to be made by appealing to that ever-expanding voting bloc of disgruntled workers subjected to the whims of gold flows and gold reserves.

In response to incessant social and political agitation, there came the institution of central banking, the goal of which was to mediate between these social forces, on the one hand, and the dictates of the automatic mechanism, on the other. Increasingly, the pound sterling was considered to function as a substitute for gold, enabling money supplies to expand accordingly. But like the post-WW2 dollar standard, this made the world dependent upon sterling, and countries like Germany chafed under that dependency. The sterling standard gave the UK an “exorbitant privilege,” as they say, and provoked rivalry with Germany that ultimately led to the First World War.

Things got even worse in the aftermath, as war reparations along with the devastations of war led to the ascendancy of the US, which, in accordance with the dictates of the day, received in payment mountains of gold. But despite copious amounts of lip service, the automatic mechanism was not allowed to reassert itself. Instead, it was during the 1920s that the entire ideology of “price stability” and “full employment” began to be developed and implemented by central bankers, and the key to this was to keep all that gold from entering the financial system, provoking an unsustainable boom, or, even worse, allowing it to flow back to the countries from whence it came, as those countries tried to export their way to prosperity. The US, of course, had always practiced protectionism and now continued to do so, essentially consigning countries like Germany to relative penury and sowing the seeds for the Second World War.

What needs to be realized is that any system of currency which short-circuits the feedback mechanism (Jane Jacobs’ term) of currencies vis-à-vis one another, like the gold standard did, only substitutes another feedback mechanism. If one does not wish for fluctuating exchange rates, one should welcome the inflation-deflation whipsaw, because that is the alternative means for rectifying imbalances. And where such a whipsaw mechanism is politically unfeasible, as in any developed democracy it will be unfeasible, then the alternative is stagnation, as imbalances are allowed to build up on bank balance sheets in the form of unredeemed debt.

These are our alternatives. There are no others. The dream of a return to the gold standard should be laid to rest. Besides, the likelihood that such apparitions from the grave will be given new life is probably zero. Let’s spend our time talking about feasible alternatives.

More on the gold standard can be found in these posts and in these excerpts from my book Follow the Money: The Money Trail Through History. More on floating exchange rates can be found in these posts.

The Border Adjustment Tax The Way Forward, or Regrettable Sidetrack?

The persistent trade deficit being run by the US, which is the major manifestation of the lopsided global trading system, has to be dealt with to ward off economic disaster. The reason for this is outlined specifically in this previous post, and generally in these posts. It is a sad but revealing commentary that it has taken this long to get someone in charge who at least acknowledges the problem and promises to rectify it. The question now is, how to go about it?

In another previous post, I argued that the best way to do so would be not to impose tariffs and a protectionist regime (for more on tariffs, see these posts as well). Of course, if President Trump follows through on his threats against certain supposed recalcitrants and does so, he would only be acting in quintessentially American fashion, for during the course of the first hundred-plus years of the Republic, such tariffs were the chief source of revenue for the US government.

Such tariffs are also a blunt instrument that have significant economic disadvantages. Beyond that, they do not contribute to any kind of smooth transition toward a better framework for global trade, which is what is ultimately needed. As I argued in “Trumponomics and the Great Rebalancing” (singling out China), “such a tariff would dislocate whole industries and so undermine economic growth in the short to medium term. In the longer term, a tariff might lead to a functioning economy in the US, as domestic industry restored itself to some level of its former glory, but it would damage China severely, without providing any mitigating mechanism to enable it to begin producing for the domestic economy on a sustainable basis.”

The goal, then, is not to create more economic distress, but less. This is a tall order in a global economy erected upon, and addicted to, the divorce of production from consumption. We need to restore the balance between production and consumption, and so enable the financing of consumption out of production, and not out of indebtedness. But how?

The “Great Rebalancing” will have to be achieved, first, by identifying the factors that lead to imbalances, and secondly, implementing policies that constructively deal with those factors.

Michael Pettis, an author to whom I have often referred, provides us with a competent summary of the structural factors which have deranged trade relations.[1] These factors go far beyond measures like currency manipulation and tariffs, which obviously have a direct impact on trade. Policy measures with an indirect impact are as great a problem, for they function precisely as a tariff or a devalued currency would.

The basic goal of these policies is underconsumption. In order to promote exports, a country imposes policies upon its population causing production to exceed consumption. It thus imposes a form of forced saving. Macroeconomic accounting tells us that production (Gross Domestic Product) = consumption + saving – investment; as such, an increase in saving is accompanied by a reduction in consumption, assuming investment stays the same. The non-consumed production is thus left over, to be exported. As Pettis explains, “Anything that reduces consumption … without changing total production or total investment, must cause an increase in exports relative to imports” (The Great Rebalancing, section entitled “Trade Intervention Affects the Savings Rate”).

One of the policies that makes this happen is “financial repression.” This is basically the Japanese model, and has been followed by other Asian Tiger economies, particularly China. In this policy variant, the banking and financial system is essentially controlled by the government, which dictates interest rates and allocates loans according to its own criteria. The upshot is that lenders (consumers) are paid below-market interest while borrowers (business) are charged below-market interest. For all intents and purposes, this is a subsidy to business, a wealth transfer from consumers. It is also a restriction on consumption in favor of production, and so a generator of structural net exports.

How to deal with this? It helps to realize that these countries by now have come to realize the shortcomings of this model. After all, it is one of the reasons the Japanese economy has tanked since 1990. But weaning a country away from it is another matter, as so many vested interests are involved in maintaining it.

Another – and for this article, very important – method is the Value-Added Tax (VAT). VAT is a consumption tax and as such provides for a structural surplus of production over consumption. And given the high levels at which such a tax is often levied (e.g., 21% in the Netherlands) it constitutes a severe form of consumer repression. Consumers thus bear the brunt of a policy that favors exports over domestic consumption.

VAT includes yet another element making it even more favorable to exporting countries. This is called border adjustment. In this arrangement, VAT is “adjusted” depending upon whether goods are exported or imported: goods that are exported are exempted from domestic VAT, while goods that are imported are assessed VAT.

VAT thus acts as both an export subsidy and an import barrier. Therefore, it has a double effect on trade relations: the fact that it suppresses consumption acts, as we have seen, as an export stimulant; and the effective boost it gives to exports through border adjustment likewise acts as an export stimulant.

For these reasons, countries that make use of VAT enjoy a great advantage as far as terms of trade are concerned. And countries that don’t are left holding the bag, as it were, for that advantage held by exporting countries is the mirror image of the disadvantage at which non-VAT countries are placed.

It comes as no surprise that this setup, putting non-VAT countries[2] generally and the US in particular at such a disadvantage, receives such severe criticism. Progressive political commentator Thom Hartmann puts it like this: “Germany is not alone in this [border-adjusted VAT]. Japan, South Korea, China, Taiwan, and most European nations do the same thing. The only developed country without a VAT tax to use as an effective tariff is the USA – we’ve become the international village idiots. Nothing protects our workers or manufacturers, which is just fine with the big transnational corporations making billions exporting our jobs.”

The obvious thing to do would be to implement a similar border-adjusted consumption tax in the US. The problem with this is that it would introduce the same sort of onerous tax arrangement that countries in, e.g., Europe labor under. A 21% tax on most goods and services, such is holds in the Netherlands, forms a real drag on household spending, and disproportionately affects lower income classes (which means that, in the parlance, consumption taxes are regressive).

An interesting side note: what sparked the Dutch Revolt against Spain in the 16th century was not religious intolerance or political domination – it was the imposition of a 10% sales tax, Alva’s Tenth Penny tax. An unkind interpretation would be that the Dutch might suffer their consciences to be oppressed, but not their pocketbooks! Nowadays, however, the tables have been turned: freedom of conscience is protected while pocketbooks are rifled.

The long-term goal would be gradually to reduce or eliminate VAT in favor of other tax regimes that are not so oppressive both to economies abroad and to lower income classes domestically. But what to do in the meantime? How can the US in particular achieve some sort of harmonization within this ubiquitous tax framework?

Thankfully, a VAT does not look to be in the offing. But another proposed tax reform might achieve a similar goal. I refer to the so-called Border Adjustment Tax (BAT) put forward by the House GOP as part of a wide-ranging tax reform plan. Reportedly it is under consideration by the Trump administration in conjunction with Congressional Republicans, although Pres. Trump has referred to it as “too complicated,” going on to say, “Anytime I hear border adjustment, I don’t love it. Because usually it means we’re going to get adjusted into a bad deal. That’s what happens.”

The proposed BAT is a bit complicated, but is also widely misunderstood. The border-adjustment part makes it comparable to VAT, but rather than being a tax on goods and services, it is a tax on business income – corporate earnings. That in itself puts this tax into another category. The tricky part is the border adjustment facility being added to it.

The BAT would eliminate the deduction companies currently enjoy when they import goods, including intermediate goods – goods that are used in the manufacture of other goods – but especially consumer goods purchased for resale. That would take away part of the advantage companies have had by importing cheap foreign manufactures. It would also take away some of the advantage retailers like Wal-Mart have had in terms of price competitiveness, which is why Wal-Mart opposes the measure.

In this way the BAT would act as an import barrier, in the same way that VAT does. By the same token, the BAT would exempt from taxation earnings from goods sold abroad. And that would act as a stimulus to exports, for if business earnings from exports are exempt from taxation, that would lower the price of exported goods, making them more competitive on the world market.

There is concern that this new regime would run afoul of current World Trade Organization (WTO) regulations. The WTO makes a distinction between indirect (consumption) tax and direct (income) tax. According to its rules, indirect taxes may be border adjusted, but direct taxes may not be. Thus, by virtue of this agreement, the US with its tax code has been disadvantaged against most of the rest of the world, another example of the “bad deals” Donald Trump says the US has been making.

But in effect the BAT works as a consumption tax. The House GOP’s proposal (as explained in the Better Way Tax Policy Proposal) argues as much: this “cash-flow tax approach for businesses… reflects a consumption-based tax.” And because it does, “for the first time ever, the United States will be able to counter the border adjustments that our trading partners apply in their VATs.” Harvard economist Martin Feldstein likewise argues that this objection is a red herring. “So what are they going to say, you can’t have a VAT?”

A bigger concern is that the BAT will lead to a stronger dollar, which in turn would have a negative impact on the trade balance, negating the advantage provided to exports. The argument is that stronger demand for US exports will increase demand for dollars to purchase those exports, while weaker US demand for imports will shrink the number of dollars being brought onto foreign exchange markets, likewise increasing the price of dollars there.

I don’t believe this argument has much merit, because it only looks at one element of what would be a complex interaction of causes and effects. As we explored above, a key mechanism behind trade balances is domestic policy that reduces consumption while holding production and investment steady. In this case, the leftover production has to be sold abroad, automatically producing a trade surplus (or reduction in a trade deficit). This is the effect VAT has had on global trade for all these years. Therefore, if such an effect were predominating, then all the countries gaining a trade advantage by implementing border-adjusted VAT would subsequently have lost that advantage as their currencies appreciated. But this has not been the case. Quite the contrary: their trade surpluses have been unremitting.

The truth is, if the US likewise introduces a tax which acts like a consumption tax and thus reduces consumption vis-à-vis production, it would similarly affect the trade balance by offsetting the advantage other countries have had in promoting underconsumption. The net effect will be to reduce trade imbalances; exchange rates will have to find a new equilibrium, hopefully without the manipulations in which central banks love to engage. The following step would be to repair the divorce of production from consumption by gradually removing such underconsumption-oriented policies. Equal underconsumption is offsetting, but no underconsumption is the ultimate goal. If, along with this, central banks show restraint, and countries likewise scale back their various systems of financial repression, the global trading order just might plod along toward the rebalancing it so desperately needs.

[1] In The Great Rebalancing: Trade, Conflict, and the Perilous Road Ahead for the World Economy (Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2013).

[2] Go here for a list of countries that implement VAT (160 countries), or that do not (41 countries).