“It’s almost like the timing belt on the global growth engine is a bit off or the cylinders are not firing as they should.”
That’s from WTO chief economist Robert Koopman, and it’s a quote we’ve used on a number of occasions. Koopman is referring to the fact that for several years in a row, the rate of growth in global trade has lagged GDP growth. That’s a problem for two reasons: 1) GDP growth is hardly robust as it is, and 2) before the recent downturn, the last time trade growth underperformed the rate of economic expansion was two decades ago.
As WSJ noted last autumn, trade growth has averaged just 3% per year. That’s half of the 1983-2008 average.
“It’s fairly obvious that we reached peak trade in 2007,” Scott Miller, trade expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington, D.C., think tank told the Journal.
Since then, the evidence has continued to pile up that global trade has flatlined. Freight volume in the US fell for the first time in three years in November, while monumental declines for Class 8 truck sales vividly demonstrate the extent to which commerce is simply grinding to a halt across the US economy. As for global trade, well, the Baltic Dry speaks for itself.
“It is worse than in 2008. The oil price [is low] and freight rates are lower. The external conditions are much worse,” Maersk CEO Nils Andersen said, just last month. Maersk Line - the company's golden goose and the world's largest container operator - racked up $182 million in red ink last quarter alone.
In this environment the “answer” has been competitive devaluation - i.e. a currency war. Although this is, in the end anyway, a zero sum game, until recently there was still some hope that key EMs could rely on devlaued currencies to help cushion their current accounts from the slowdown and restore some semblance of balance and competitiveness.
However, it would appear that, as outlined above, the link between output and trade growth might have been severed sometime in the post-crisis world. If that's the case, the FX wars may be largely futile and what looks like an undervalued currency might have much, much further to fall - or could simply decline in virtual perpetuity. That's a rather disconcerting proposition to say the least. Especially for EM.
Below, find excerpts from a new note out of Deutsche Bank where FX strategist Gautam Kalani believes the fundamental relationships officials all take for granted and use to justify the whole "devalue our way to propsperity" line may no longer hold.
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From Deutsche Bank
1) Is the currency war futile? It looks increasingly so.
The fundamental currency-current account relationship is as follows: large currency undervaluation current account improvement currency appreciation. The first link describes the ‘currency war’ argument, whereby a weaker currency leads to an exports pickup and thus a boost to growth. The second link underlines how current account improvement in response to a large undervaluation is an important channel through which large undervaluations can trigger FX appreciation.
There is a concern that this competitive devaluations channel (the first link) may have broken down (to a large extent) because of the collapse in global trade. Global growth today is generating much less trade growth than in the past (chart below). As a result, currency adjustment is not enough to spur growth significantly because global trade is increasingly less important to the overall makeup of GDP. This raises the possibility that the currency war is largely futile, as currency depreciation does not give much of a boost to exports/growth, and certainly much less impetus than in the past.
2) What is the implication of a futile currency war for EM FX? Beware of going long currencies purely on the basis of fundamental undervaluation.
Focusing on EM, lingering growth concerns further increase the perceived need for currency depreciation. However, since currency depreciation does not translate easily into exports improvement, more currency adjustment is probably required than in the past to obtain the same growth/current account impetus; currencies must be more undervalued before substantially improving the current account. In sum, a significant undervaluation of an EM currency may not be sufficient to drive appreciation via the current account channel; rather, even more currency adjustment may be required for some undervalued currencies.
Current accounts, especially in LatAm but also in high-yielding EMEA, still reflect excessive domestic absorption. Improvements have been limited despite large scale FX depreciation. Further, what current account improvement has taken place has been mainly on account of import compression rather than exports – perhaps FX weakness has played some role in this as imports become more expensive with a weaker currency, but a majority of it reflects demand slowdown in EM. Therefore, for currencies running large current account deficits, more FX adjustment may be on the cards before undervaluations start providing material support.
3) Which currencies to be wary of going long purely on the basis of fundamental undervaluation? In EMEA, ZAR stands out as an example.
If global trade growth has collapsed and the currency war is futile, a currency that is heavily undervalued on a fundamental model like BEER or PPP could easily become more undervalued. In this context, the FEER model, which estimates misalignments based purely on the distance of the cyclically- adjusted current account balance from its long-term average, could provide an appropriate warning signal. That is, one should be wary about long a currency on the basis of BEER undervaluation if it is also showing FEER overvaluation, as FEER overvaluation signals that the current account balance is still below its long-term average and therefore has not adjusted by ‘enough’.
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We've said it before and we'll say it again: central banks better figure out how to print trade, and fast.