4 November 2011

Why is the Euro so Strong?

With chaos in the negotiations with Greece, rumours of potential bankruptcy in Italy, and real concerns about the economies of Portugal and Spain, you would expect the currency that binds all these countries together to be falling through the floor. The graphic indicates that, over the past calamitous year, the range of movement has been between 1.48 and 1.28, and that at the value of the euro is hardly any lower than it was a year ago.

I was stung by a comment on one of my blogs from last week, complaining that I was being incomprehensible and jargonistic, so here I am going to explain simply why I think this is the case. This comes down to a discussion about what I have been calling for several years the 'currency wars'. When faced with hard times countries seek to return to growth and one means of doing this is to increase the volume of exports. Having a weaker currency makes your exports cheaper to the countries who buy them. So countries have been deliberately reducing the value of their currencies.

There are various ways of doing this. Some commentators claim that the US policy of quantitative easing is deliberately designed to achieve this end. Certainly, putting a lot of extra currency into circulation should reduce the inherent value of that currency. A more obvious way is just to lower your interest rates: since interest rates are effectively the price of money, this is an automatic means of making your money cheaper and causing its value relative to other currencies to fall.

To keep some sort of idea of the relative value of different currencies we need a standard, sometimes called the numeraire. In the 19th century gold was used as this standard, but this had all sorts of distorting effects on economic activity - primarily the fact that you couldn't increase economic activity unless bare-chested chaps deep in the bowels of the earth were digging up enough of a golden metal, which was frankly completely irrational, although emotionally appealing.

At Bretton Woods, the conference where the victors in the Second World War negotiated the shape of the world economy in the decades to follow, it was agreed, reluctanctly, to allow the dollar to take this role and to become the world's reserve currency. The consequences were hugely beneficial to the US in terms of imports, but ultimately destroyed its productive economy.

As the power of the dollar wanes, the other currencies that traders consider strong enough to take the role of a global reserve currency - the Japanese Yen, the Swiss Franc, the euro, and even sterling itself - have all become more attractive. This explains why we are not facing the speculative attacks that Greece is, not the performance of George Osborne at international conferences. As each currency becomes attractive to traders seeking a safe haven, the authorities that control its value seek to undermine it, since they do not want to suffer the export problems that result from having a highly valued currency.

In this form of reserve currency, the euro is still an attractive option and its interest rate of 1.5% now seems high by comparison with just 0.5% in the UK and 0.25% in the US. In addition, its competitors in terms of being the currency of last resort would resist its value falling too far, since that would require them to take more of the strain. This has led to the currency wars, which are a form of trade war in disguise. Because such wars cause international tensions, a solution that involves the creation of a neutralreserve currency, run for the benefit of the world's people and not an individual state, has long been my preferred option.

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