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Cooking the Books 2: Towards an economic crash?

Imbalances pose risk of recession’” ran a headline in the Times on 28 April. The US has a huge balance of payments deficit heading for 7 percent of national income this year, explained another article. In turn, Asia has built up vast current account surpluses and foreign exchange reserves.

The balance of payments is basically the balance between payments coming into a country from the sale abroad of its exports (visible and invisible) and payments going out to pay for its imports (visible and invisible). A deficit exists when imports exceed exports. To pay for exports from the country, dealers in other countries have to acquire the countrys currency while importers into the country have to acquire foreign currency. If a country has a balance of payments deficit, the demand for its currency will be less than that for foreign currencies, so its currency will tend to fall in value (whether through formal devaluation or through floating downwards). The opposite will be the case for a country with a balance of payments surplus; the value of its currency will tend to rise.

Given the US payments deficit and the Asian countries surplus, what would normally happen is that the dollar would fall and the Asian currencies rise in value. That this has not happened yet to any great extent is because the countries involved find the present situation to be in their interest. The Asian countries, especially China, with their undervalued currencies benefit from being able to export more (because the price of their exports is lower than it would normally be, making them more competitive), while the US benefits from the Asian countries using part of their surpluses to fund the US government by lending it money (through purchasing its Treasury Bills).

There is a general recognition in international capitalist circles that this situation cannot continue indefinitely that, sooner or later, in one way or another, the exchange rate adjustments must take place. The big question is how. The ideal solution of a relatively stable adjustment, according to Mervyn King, the Governor of the Bank of England appearing before the House of Commons Treasury Committee, would be for this to happen gradually over ten years in fits and starts.

But he went on to outline another possible scenario:

You can certainly imagine cases where the sharp fall in exchange rates could well lead to a fall-off in financial stability, and start to lead to a disorderly adjustment which could be very costly and might involve recessions in some countries.

Some critics of capitalism are arguing that this is what is inevitably going to happen (for instance, Loren Goldner in an article at predicting an inflationary blow-out). This is certainly a possibility, as King admits. But it is not inevitable. Kings other scenario for a relatively stable adjustment is also a possibility.

Monetary matters are the froth and bubbles on the real economy. Even so, mismanaging them can provoke an economic crash that might not otherwise occur. But mismanagement is not inevitable. Slumps are only inevitable when caused by movements in the real economy.