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Tuesday, June 17, 2008


central bank policies pressing limits, increasing friction

i've long wondered about the efficacy of the eurpeam monetary union which produced the euro. for the better part of two millennia, europeans have been periodically attempting to reconstruct the commercial unity of roman empire. none have succeeded, and it's hard to know why the euro should succeed where others have failed.

now that it is faced with real duress -- really its first stress test -- it is interesting to note the sensitivity of geographic, economic and cultural fault lines within the eurozone.

Ordinary Germans have begun to reject euro bank notes with serial numbers from Italy, Spain, Greece and Portugal, raising concerns that public support for monetary union may be waning in the eurozone's anchor country.

Germany's Handelsblatt newspaper says bankers have detected a curious pattern where customers are withdrawing cash directly from branches, screening the notes to determine the origin of issue. They ask for paper from the southern states to be exchanged for German notes.

... People clearly suspect that southern notes may lose value in a crisis, or if the eurozone breaks apart. This is what happened in the US in the Jackson era of the 1840s when dollar notes from different regions traded at different values.

... Inflation touches a very sensitive nerve in Germany. Holger Schmeiding, from Bank of America, said the country had suffered two traumatic sets of inflation in living memory, first in Weimar in 1923 and then in 1948.

"People suffered a 90pc haircut on financial assets in the currency reform of 1948. The inflationary effects of two world wars were catastrophic," he said.

A group of leading German professors warned at the outset of EMU that the euro would tend to be weaker than old Deutsche Mark, and that it would fuel inflation over time. German citizens were never given a vote on the abolition of the D-Mark, which had become a symbol of Germany's rebirth after the war.

Many have kept a stash of D-Marks hidden in mattresses to this day. A recent IPOS poll showed that 59pc of Germany now had serious doubts about the euro.

any monetary union is a compromise between disparate economies. the united states remains under the dollar even though monetary policies do not uniformly address the varying conditions of california, illinois, florida and new york. the difference may simply be one of nationalism -- but that is a very big difference.

however, the dollar zone can reasonably be said to include a wide variety of dollar-pegged economies -- not the least of which is china. and the dollar zone unity too is breaking apart at the seams.

Senior Chinese officials are publicly and loudly rebuking the Americans on their handling of the economy and defending their own more assertive style of regulation.

Chinese officials seem to be galled by the apparent hypocrisy of Americans telling them what to do while the American economy is at best stagnant. China, on the other hand, has maintained its feverish growth.

Some officials are promoting a Chinese style of economic management that they suggest serves developing countries better than the American model, in much the same way they argue that they are in no hurry to copy American-style multiparty democracy.

In the last six weeks alone, a senior banking regulator blamed Washington’s “warped conception” of market regulation for the subprime mortgage crisis that is rattling the world economy; the Chinese envoy to the World Trade Organization called on the United States to halt the dollar’s unchecked depreciation before the slide further worsens soaring oil and food prices; and Chinese agencies denounced a federal committee charged with vetting foreign investments in the United States, saying the Americans were showing “hostility” and a “discriminatory attitude,” not least toward the Chinese.

Chinese officials are expressing their disdain in forums around the world. Last month, Liu Mingkang, the chairman of the China Banking Regulatory Commission, delivered a lecture at the British Museum in London in which he blamed the American government for the subprime mortgage crisis that came close to freezing Western debt markets and required extensive intervention by the Federal Reserve. The turmoil, he said, was “counteracting the course of global civilization.”

“Does moneymaking or doing business justify the regulators in ignoring their duty for prudential supervision and their job of preventing misbehavior?” he said.

One of Mr. Liu’s colleagues, Liao Min, told the newspaper The Financial Times in late May that the “Western consensus on the relation between the market and the government should be reviewed.”

“In practice, they tend to overestimate the power of the market and overlook the regulatory role of the government, and this warped conception is at the root of the subprime crisis,” said Mr. Liao, director general of the commission.

but the heavy ammunition is buried on page two.

... [T]he Americans allowed the dollar to plunge in value. That angered the Chinese, which keeps most of its $1.76 trillion in foreign reserves in dollars. Chinese officials have accused the Americans of mismanaging the dollar at a time when Washington is still pressing China to appreciate the renminbi to narrow the trade deficit.

This month, the Chinese envoy to the World Trade Organization said in Geneva that the United States had failed to safeguard the value of its currency, worsening the pain for people around the world who pay high oil and food prices in dollars.

The envoy, Sun Zhenyu, also said the United States was engaging in protectionism by imposing unfair duties on Chinese goods and subsidizing American products.

Also this month, several Chinese institutions submitted sharp critiques to the Treasury Department of proposed new regulations relating to foreign investment in the United States. Some of the remarks were scathing.

“The regulations still include some sections and procedures which reflect the enshrouded protectionism, an obvious contradiction to the spirit of free competition the U.S. has championed since long time ago,” wrote the China Securities Regulatory Commission.

The commission said the proposed regulations reflected a “self-evident hostility” and “discriminatory attitude” to certain types of foreign investments and “will ultimately hurt enthusiasm of foreign investment in the U.S.

in other words, if you wish to see us continue to finance your current account deficit, you must not threaten us with the soft default of currency devaluation and step in to defend the dollar. or else.

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