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I’m Bonnie Faulkner. Today on Guns and Butter, Dr. Michael Hudson. Today’s show: De-Dollarizing the American Financial Empire. Dr. Hudson is a financial economist and historian. He is President of the Institute for the Study of Long-Term Economic Trend, a Wall Street Financial Analyst and Distinguished Research Professor of Economics at the University of Missouri, Kansas City. His most recent books include, And Forgive Them Their Debts … Lending, Foreclosure and Redemption from Bronze Age Finance to the Jubilee Year; Killing the Host: How Financial Parasites and Debt Destroy the Global Economy; and J Is for Junk Economics: A Guide to Reality in an Age of Deception. We return again today to a discussion of Dr. Hudson’s seminal 1972 book, Super Imperialism: The Economic Strategy of American Empire, a critique of how the United States exploited foreign economies through the IMF and World Bank. We discuss how the United States has dominated the world economically both as the world’s largest creditor, and then later as the world’s largest debtor, and take a look at the coming demise of dollar domination.
Bonnie Faulkner: Michael Hudson, welcome back.
Michael Hudson: It’s good to be back, Bonnie.
Bonnie Faulkner: Why is President Trump insisting that the Federal Reserve lower interest rates? I thought they were already extremely low. And if they did go lower, what effect would this have?
Michael Hudson: Interest rates are historically low, and they have been kept low in order to try to keep providing cheap money for speculators to buy stocks and bonds to make arbitrage gains. Speculators can borrow at a low rate of interest to buy a stock yielding dividends (and also making capital gains) at a higher rate of return, or by buying a bond such as corporate junk bonds that pay higher interest rates, and keep the difference. In short, low interest rates are a form of financial engineering.
Trump wants interest rates to be low in order to inflate the housing market and the stock market even more, as if that is an index of the real economy, not just the financial sector that is wrapped around the economy of production and consumption. Beyond this domestic concern, Trump imagines that if you keep interest rates lower than those of Europe, the dollar’s exchange rate will decline. He thinks that this will make U.S. exports more competitive with foreign products.
Trump is criticizing the Federal Reserve for not keeping interest rates even lower than those of Europe. He he thinks that if interest rates are low, there will be an outflow of capital from this country to buy foreign stocks and bonds that pay a higher interest rate. This financial outflow will lower the dollar’s exchange rate. He believes that this will increase the chance of rebuilding America’s manufacturing exports.
This is the great neoliberal miscalculation. It also is the basis for IMF models.
How low interest rates lower the dollar’s exchange rate, raising import prices
Trump’s guiding idea is that lowering the dollar’s value will lower the cost of labor to employers. That’s what happens when a currency is devalued. Depreciation doesn’t lower costs that have a common worldwide price. There’s a common price for oil in the world, a common price of raw materials, and pretty much a common price for capital and credit. So the main thing that’s devalued when you push a currency down is the price of labor and its working conditions.
Workers are squeezed when a currency’s exchange rate falls, because they have to pay more for goods they import. If the dollar goes down against the Chinese yen or European currency, Chinese imports are going to cost more in dollars. So will European imports. That is the logic behind “beggar my neighbor” devaluations.
How much more foreign imports will cost depends on how far the dollar goes down. But even if it plunges by 50 percent, even if the dollar were to become a junk currency like the Argentinian or other Latin American currencies, that cannot really increase American manufacturing exports, because not much American labor works in factories anymore. Workers drive cabs and work in the service industry or for medical insurance companies. Even if you give American workers in manufacturing companies all their clothing and food for nothing, they still can’t compete with foreign countries, because their housing costs are so high, their medical insurance is so high and their taxes are so high that they’re priced out of world markets. So it won’t help much if the dollar goes down by 1 percent, 10 percent or even 20 percent. If you don’t have factories going and if you don’t have a transportation system, a power supply, and if our public utilities and infrastructure are being run down, there’s nothing that currency manipulation can do to enable America to quickly rebuild its manufacturing export industries.
American parent companies have already moved their factories abroad. They have given up on America. As long as Trump or his successors refrain from changing that system – as long as he gives tax advantages for companies to move abroad – there’s nothing he can do that will restore industry here. But he’s picked up International Monetary Fund’s junk economics, the neoliberal patter talk that it’s given to Latin America pretending that if a country just lowers its exchange rate more, it will be able to lower its wages and living standards, paying labor less in hard-currency terms until at some point, when its poverty and austerity get deep enough, it will become more competitive.
That hasn’t worked for fifty years in Latin America. It hasn’t worked for other countries either, and it never worked in the United States. The 19th-century American School of Political Economy developed the Economy of High Wages doctrine. (I review this in my book on America’s Protectionist Takeoff: 1815-1914.) They recognized that if you pay labor more, it’s more productive, it can afford a better education and it works better. That’s why high-wage labor can undersell low-wage “pauper” labor. Trump is therefore a century behind the times in picking up the IMF austerity idea that you can just devalue the currency and reduce labor’s wages and living standards in international terms to make the economy more profitable and somehow “work your way out of debt.”
What currency depreciation does do when the dollar is devalued is to enable Wall Street firms to borrow 1% and to buy European currencies and bonds yielding 3 percent or 4 percent or 5 percent, or stocks yielding even more. The guiding idea is to do what Japan did in 1990: have very low interest rates to increase what’s called the carry trade. The carry trade is borrowing at a low interest rate and buying bonds yielding a higher rate, making an arbitrage gain on the interest-rate differential. So Trump is creating an arbitrage opportunity for Wall Street investors. He pretends that this is pro-labor and can rebuild manufacturing. But it only helps hollow out the U.S. economy, sending money to other countries to build themup instead of investing in ourselves. So the effect of what Trump’s doing is the opposite of what he says he’s doing.
Bonnie Faulkner: Exactly. What is the point of driving investment into foreign countries, away from the United States?