September 1, 2014

Trade, The Current/Capital Account, and the Value of the Currency

One thing that I notice on the blogs is that I don’t think I have ever seen anyone give a clear description of the external trade account of a country. Nor have I seen anyone give a clear explanation of what determines the value of a given currency. Now, I am sure that you can find some mainstream garbage where the external account always tends toward equilibrium and so forth. But that is obviously useless nonsense and anyone who has ever looked at the trade balances of countries and the currencies of those countries knows it.

Basically the mainstream theory states that if there is a trade deficit in a country two things will happen. First of all, interest rates will rise as the money supply contracts due to money ‘flowing out of the country’. Secondly, the value of the currency will fall in value as the domestic currency saturates foreign exchange markets. A combination of these two dynamics will reestablish equilibrium on the external account. The rise in interest rates will cause investment, GDP and, hence, imports to contract. While the fall in the value of the currency will decrease imports and increase exports.

There is so much wrong with this presentation that it would take a blog post in its own right to pick all the necessary holes in it. The most obvious error is the idea that interest rates would rise when these are obviously set by the central bank. In addition to this currency depreciations will not always correct the trade balance and trade imbalances will not always lead to currency depreciations. I could go on. I won’t.

Anyway, here I more so want to lay out a clear explanation of the external account and, in doing so, describe what determines the value of the currency in a floating exchange rate system like we have today. In fact, I do not need to do much of the heavy lifting here because G.L.S. Shackle has one of the clearest explanations of the external account that I have come across in his book Economics for Pleasure.

Since the book is hard to come by I’ve provided the chapter on the payments system here. I hope it will encourage people to seek it out because it is one of the best overviews of economic theory I have ever read. Shackle was a very gifted writer. Anyway have a quick read of the chapter, it is only a few pages, and then you should have a fair comprehension of the accounting involved.

I assume that you’ve now read the chapter. Good. Let’s turn to what determines the value of the currency in a modern system. The claims that foreigners make within the country that has a trade deficit can, as Shackle says, be either in the form of currency or securities. These are recorded in the capital account of the country running the trade deficit.

Let us break this down slightly. The trade balance is a flow. When the trade balance is in deficit more goods flow into the country than out of the country. A corresponding amount of claims flow out of the country into the hands of foreigners. Now, if the foreigners don’t want to hold these claims they may sell them and then convert the money they receive into money from their own country. This will drive down the price of the currency of the country with a trade deficit and drive up the price of the country with the trade surplus.

But we should be clear: this need not happen. There is every chance that the foreigners will hold the claims on the country running the trade deficit. If they do this there will be no effect on the value of the currency. Why might they do this? Any number of reasons really. Maybe they think that the country is a good investment. Or maybe the government of the surplus country wants to hold foreign reserves.

“But,” the reader might say, “these claims eventually have to be paid back and so the effect will eventually be felt on the currency.” Again, that is not altogether clear. For example, let’s say that all the claims are held in the form of stocks. Now let up say that these stocks were worth a total of $1bn. Basically what has happened is that foreigners have traded goods for these stocks. But what if these stocks half in value? Well then, the whole amount of the claim need not be ‘paid off’.

The key point to take away from this is that in order to understand trade dynamics in the modern world we must appreciate the financial dimension. Mainstream economists are altogether incapable of doing this and it completely blinds them to the real world. For them finance is just a veil. But for Post-Keynesians finance is very, very real. Most of the trade imbalances in the world today can only be understood by taking both finance and politics seriously.

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