Why the U.S. Has Launched a New Financial World War -- and How the Rest of the World Will Fight Back
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Such inflows do not provide capital for tangible investment. They are predatory, and cause currency fluctuation that disrupts trade patterns while creating enormous trading profits for large financial institutions and their customers. Yet most discussions of exchange rate treat the balance of payments and exchange rates as if they were determined purely by commodity trade and "purchasing power parity," not by the financial flows and military spending that actually dominate the balance of payments. The reality is that today's financial interregnum - anarchic "free" markets prior to countries hurriedly putting up their own monetary defenses - provides the arbitrage opportunity of the century. This is what bank lobbyists have been pressing for. It has little to do with the welfare of workers.
The potentially largest speculative prize of all promises to be an upward revaluation of China's renminbi. The House Ways and Means Committee is backing this gamble, by demanding that China raise its exchange rate by the 20 per cent that the Treasury and Federal Reserve are suggesting. A revaluation of this magnitude would enable speculators to put down 1 per cent equity - say, $1 million to borrow $99 million and buy Chinese renminbi forward. The revaluation being demanded would produce a 2000 per cent profit of $20 million by turning the $100 million bet (and just $1 million "serious money") into $120 million. Banks can trade on much larger, nearly infinitely leveraged margins, much like drawing up CDO swaps and other derivative plays.
This kind of money already has been made by speculating on Brazilian, Indian and Chinese securities and those of other countries whose exchange rates have been forced up by credit-flight out of the dollar, which has fallen by 7 per cent against a basket of currencies since early September when the Federal Reserve floated the prospect of quantitative easing. During the week leading up to the IMF meetings in Washington, the Thai baht and Indian rupee soared in anticipation that the United States and Britain would block any attempts by foreign countries to change the financial system and curb disruptive currency gambling.
This capital outflow from the United States has indeed helped domestic banks rebuild their balance sheets, as the Fed intended. But in the process the international financial system has been victimized as collateral damage. This prompted Chinese officials to counter U.S. attempts to blame it for running a trade surplus by retorting that U.S. financial aggression "risked bringing mutual destruction upon the great economic powers.
From the gold-exchange standard to the Treasury-bill standard to "free credit" anarchy
Indeed, the standoff between the United States and other countries at the IMF meetings in Washington this weekend threatens to cause the most serious rupture since the breakdown of the London Monetary Conference in 1933. The global financial system threatens once again to break apart, deranging the world's trade and investment relationships - or to take a new form that will leave the United States isolated in the face of its structural long-term balance-of-payments deficit.
This crisis provides an opportunity - indeed, a need - to step back and review the longue duree of international financial evolution to see where past trends are leading and what paths need to be re-tracked. For many centuries prior to 1971, nations settled their balance of payments in gold or silver. This "money of the world," as Sir James Steuart called gold in 1767, formed the basis of domestic currency as well. Until 1971 each U.S. Federal Reserve note was backed 25 per cent by gold, valued at $35 an ounce. Countries had to obtain gold by running trade and payments surpluses in order to increase their money supply to facilitate general economic expansion. And when they ran trade deficits or undertook military campaigns, central banks restricted the supply of domestic credit to raise interest rates and attract foreign financial inflows.