Joe Stiglitz’s latest column at Project Syndicate warns the US against starting a trade war over China’s exchange rate.
Even in absolute value, Saudi Arabia’s multilateral merchandise surplus of $212 billion in 2008 dwarfs China’s $175 billion surplus; as a percentage of GDP, Saudi Arabia’s current-account surplus, at 11.5% of GDP, is more than twice that of China. Saudi Arabia’s surplus would be far higher were it not for US armaments exports.
In a global economy with deficient aggregate demand, current-account surpluses are a problem. But China’s current-account surplus is actually less than the combined figure for Japan and Germany; as a percentage of GDP, it is 5%, compared to Germany’s 5.2%.
China recognizes that its currency needs to appreciate over the long run, and politicizing the speed at which it does so has been counterproductive. (Since it began revaluing its exchange rate in July 2005, the adjustment has been half or more of what most experts think is required.) Moreover, starting a bilateral confrontation is unwise.
Since China’s multilateral surplus is the economic issue and many countries are concerned about it, the US should seek a multilateral, rules-based solution. Imposing unilateral duties after unilaterally labeling China a “currency manipulator” would undermine the multilateral system, with little payoff. China might respond by imposing duties on those American products effectively directly or indirectly subsidized by America’s massive bailouts of its banks and car companies.
No one wins from a trade war. So America should be wary of igniting one in the midst of an uncertain global recovery – as popular as it might be with politicians whose constituents are justly concerned about high unemployment, and as easy as it is to look for blame elsewhere.