In normal times, current account surpluses of countries that are either structurally mercantilist – that is, have a chronic excess of output over spending, like Germany and Japan – or follow mercantilist policies – that is, keep exchange rates down through huge foreign currency intervention, like China – are even useful. In a crisis of deficient demand, however, they are dangerously contractionary.
Countries with large external surpluses import demand from the rest of the world. In a deep recession, this is a “beggar-my-neighbour” policy. It makes impossible the necessary combination of global rebalancing with sustained aggregate demand. John Maynard Keynes argued just this when negotiating the post-second world war order.
In short, if the world economy is to get through this crisis in reasonable shape, creditworthy surplus countries must expand domestic demand relative to potential output. How they achieve this outcome is up to them. But only in this way can the deficit countries realistically hope to avoid spending themselves into bankruptcy.
Some argue that an attempt by countries with external deficits to promote export-led growth, via exchange-rate depreciation, is a beggar-my-neighbour policy. This is the reverse of the truth. It is a policy aimed at returning to balance. The beggar-my-neighbour policy is for countries with huge external surpluses to allow a collapse in domestic demand. They are then exporting unemployment. If the countries with massive surpluses allow this to occur they cannot be surprised if deficit countries even resort to protectionist measures.
(For a similar argument by Michael Pettis, see this earlier post).
Dani Rodrik has a related worry, that America's propensity to import reduces the effectiveness of any stimulus because a significant portion of the spending will be on imported goods. That is, the marginal propensity to import reduces the simple spending multiplier (which he guestimates at 1.8):
Now suppose that we had a way to raise the multiplier by more than half, from 1.8 to 2.8. The same fiscal stimulus would now produce an increase in GDP of $2.8 trillion--quite a difference. Nice deal if you can get it.
In fact you can. It is pretty easy to increase the multiplier; just raise import tariffs by enough so that the marginal propensity to import out of income is reduced substantially (to zero if you want the multiplier to go all the way to 2.8). Yes, yes, import protection is inefficient and not a very neighborly thing to do--but should we really care if the alternative is significantly lower growth and higher unemployment? More to the point, will Obama and his advisers care?
Being the open economy that it is, I fear that the U.S. will have to confront this dilemma sooner or later. In an environment where the dollar has already appreciated against the Euro and even more significantly against emerging market currencies, fiscal stimulus here will produce an even larger current account deficit. If American consumers decide to spend 40 cents of a dollar of additional income on cheap imports from China and other foreign countries, the multiplier will be a mere 1.3. How long will it take before politicians of all stripes cry foul over the leakage through the trade account and the "gift to foreigners" that this represents? And they will have Keynesian logic on their side.
One would hope that a decline in the Dollar - though not too abruptly, please - could be an adjustment mechanism (even if panic-induced demand for US Treasuries has moved the Dollar in the other direction lately) but Chinn and Wei's finding that flexible exchange rates do not facilitate current account adjustment suggests otherwise. That's counter-intuitive, but I guess I shouldn't be too surprised; some of my own work has studied another aspect of the "exchange rate disconnect" puzzle.