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Global Imbalances: The Choice of the Exchange Rate-indicator is Key

Policy brief by UNCTAD, 2011

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The path towards a more stable, balanced and equitable global economy received an important boost in recent days. In December 2010 in Seoul, the G-20 leaders acknowledged the need for a co-ordinated multilateral response to global trade imbalances and asked for “indicative guidelines composed of a range of indicators” which “would serve as a mechanism to facilitate timely identification of large imbalances that require preventive and corrective action to be taken”(paragraph 9 of the Seoul Summit Declaration). This is very much in line with UNCTAD's recent proposals (see, for example, Policy Brief No 17, published prior to the summit). UNCTAD recommended the use of the Real Effective Exchange Rate (REER) as a practical and effective indicator to differentiate between sustainable and unsustainable trade imbalances. This policy brief argues that a REER based on unit labour costs (the premium of nominal wages over productivity for the economy as a whole) is better suited to grasp changes in competitiveness than one based on consumer price inflation. The latter misses out important elements of the catching-up process of developing countries and may result in significant misinterpretation for some important emerging economies like China.

N° 19, January 2011


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A simple rule for aligning exchange rates
UNCTAD has argued in recent years for the rule of
Real Effective Exchange Rates as a simple and viable
system for averting exchange rate mis-alignment and
the prevention of carry trade based on currencies. As
described in Policy Brief 17, the REER rule would be
enforced by multilateral agreement on the appropriate
pattern of exchange rates and by direct central bank
action to maintain this pattern.
At least two important technical problems need to be
addressed in order to implement such a scheme. A
central problem is the determination of the level and
range of nominal exchange rates as a starting point of
this mechanism. Determining the appropriate “original
equilibrium exchange rate”, will require a detailed
investigation into the absolute purchasing power of all
currencies. UNCTAD will develop a proposal to address
this question in due course. This Policy Brief focuses on
the second problem - identifying the right indicator to be
used as the basis for the real exchange rate calculation.
The charts below show that there can be significant
differences in the measurement of the real exchange
rate, depending on whether it is calculated on the
traditional basis of changes in the consumer price index
(CPI) or on changes in unit labour costs (ULC). The
charts depict these two indicators for the four biggest
countries in terms of economic power as measured
by GDP, using 1995 (a year with low trade imbalances
among the G-20) as the base year. On both counts, the
real exchange rates of Japan and Germany indicate a
significant gain of competitiveness compared to the
base year. Despite the persistent surpluses of these
two economies and the recent nominal appreciation
of the Japanese Yen, their real exchange rates did not
significantly appreciate in the subsequent years. On
the other hand, the US dollar appreciated sharply in
real terms between 1995 and 2001, together with high
and further rising current account deficits. Although
the United States has been on a path to recover its
competitiveness since then, the level of 1995 has only
again been reached in 2008. For these three countries
the two measures move more or less in tandem,
indicating that urgent policy action is required to reduce


imbalances by realigning nominal exchange rates to the
domestic cost level.
For China, however, the situation is different. China
experienced a widening deviation between the two
measures for the reasons explained below. The CPI-
based REER rose less than the ULC-based REER and
has remained reasonably constant since the end of the
1990s, interrupted by a phase of depreciation in the
mid-1990s. To some extent this trend may have been
influenced by the different weights used to calculate
the Chinese CPI, which some observers believe require
updating. By contrast, however, the ULC-based REER
appreciated sharply since 1994. It rose consistently
and strongly between 2000 and 2010, indicating an
overall loss of competitiveness of some 40 percent
in these years. While the data used for this exercise
does not cover the whole of the Chinese labour force,
there are strong indications from several sources that
wages in the Chinese economy have risen quickly in
recent years. An important gauge of this trend is boom-
ing private consumption, which would not have been
possible without strongly rising nominal and real wages.


FDI is the key to understanding the real
appreciation of the Chinese currency
The divergence between the two indicators has to
be fully understood before China can be accused of
unfair competition and an “undervaluation”. Based on
the ULC-REER China is the only country among the
four specifically identified in this brief where the rising
surplus on the current account coincides with the
expected loss of competitiveness. This discrepancy
is less surprising when the particularities of China’s
economic development over the past two decades are
considered. China is the only country among this group
where activities based on foreign direct investment
(FDI) dominate export and import behaviour. More
than 60 per cent of all Chinese exports emanate from
affiliates of foreign firms. Most of them use China
as a host location because production there allows
technology incorporating high labour productivity to be
combined with low absolute wages. This combination
warrants extraordinarily high profit margins and allows


Global imbalances: The choice
of the exchange rate-indicator is key
The path towards a more stable, balanced and equitable global economy received an important boost
in recent days. In December 2010 in Seoul, the G-20 leaders acknowledged the need for a co-ordinated
multilateral response to global trade imbalances and asked for “indicative guidelines composed of a range
of indicators” which “would serve as a mechanism to facilitate timely identification of large imbalances that
require preventive and corrective action to be taken”(paragraph 9 of the Seoul Summit Declaration). This
is very much in line with UNCTAD’s recent proposals (see, for example, Policy Brief No 17, published prior
to the summit). UNCTAD recommended the use of the Real Effective Exchange Rate (REER) as a practical
and effective indicator to differentiate between sustainable and unsustainable trade imbalances. This policy
brief argues that a REER based on unit labour costs (the premium of nominal wages over productivity for
the economy as a whole) is better suited to grasp changes in competitiveness than one based on consumer
price inflation. The latter misses out important elements of the catching-up process of developing countries
and may result in significant misinterpretation for some important emerging economies like China.




companies using this production hub to conquer global markets by
means of lower costs and prices. Even if nominal and real wages and
the ULC rise strongly, as they did in China during the last ten years,
there is a significantly larger margin for foreign producers in China to
keep prices low to gain market shares than for producers using the
same technology located in developed economies.
A huge amount of so-called greenfield-investment in fixed capital is
searching for cheap factors of production, and in particular cheap
labour. This kind of FDI moves technologies with a high capital intensity,
or at least a capital intensity much higher than hitherto applied in the
low-wage countries. If labour in these countries is mobile or wages
are set centrally and are following the domestic productivity trend, the
overall level of wages in the country of destination is influenced by the
import of this kind of FDI slowly, namely to the extent of the impact that
an individual investment has on the overall level of productivity.
In this case, unit labour costs for a single production unit applying the
new imported technology will normally drop remarkably. For example,
an average industrial production site in Germany has a productivity
(value added per hour) of 40 Euros per hour and average hourly wages
(including all sorts of labour taxes) of 27 Euros. The unit labour costs
are 0.67 (27 divided by 40). Moving such a production to a low cost
location like China or India may cut the average wage to be paid by
the foreign investor to a twentieth of the German level, i.e., 1.35 Euros
per hour. Even if the productivity of the imported plant is not as high
as in Germany, due to losses incurred by less skilled workers or lack
of efficient logistics in the developing country location, the new level
of unit labour costs realized will be much lower than in Germany. This
implies that products can be either sold on the world market at very low
prices or at “normal” prices, realized with high profit margins. If more
and more intermediate products are relocated to the low wage country
the overall cost level will drop significantly to reach its maximum once
the whole production chain is relocated.
As unit labour costs are the most important determinant of
competitiveness between countries and regions with less mobile
labour, the monopoly rents or the gains in market shares that the
foreign investor is able to realize by cutting prices up to the full extent
of the possible cost reduction are extraordinary. In China, the overall
economy booms and FDI is an important contributor to the visibly
huge jumps in productivity in the overall economy, which induces
sharply rising nominal and real wages. However, even in such cases
the monopoly position of the foreign investor recedes only slowly as
the process of catching-up takes many years or even decades, given


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the low original level of wages and the low domestic capital stock
compared to the most advanced economies.
The absolute competitive advantage enjoyed by foreign investors who
are able to combine high technology with low wages in a low-wage
environment is an advantage vis à vis those competitors with the same
level of capital equipment in advanced economies and vis à vis those
competitors enjoying low prices of labour in developing economies
but having no access to high level technology. Consequently, the
strategy of some early catching-up developing countries in Asia (Japan
and Korea) and of China to combine the advantage of having a well
educated but low paid labour force with imported high technology (in
China mainly driven by FDI, in the other countries by industrial policy)
is without parallel. Undervaluation is not a necessary complement for
the success of such a strategy.


Conclusion
Accusations against China as a violator of trade rules, as raised by Fred
Bergsten (FT, 29.11.2010) and many other prominent economists,
based on the mere fact that the nominal exchange rate is fixed, are
baseless. Real effective exchange rate changes are the most reliable
measure to estimate the impact of domestic costs on trade flows and
imbalances. Even if some uncertainty concerning the validity of the
data is taken into account, China has undoubtedly experienced a
significant, real appreciation in recent years. Nominal wages and real
wages have been rising much faster in relation to productivity than
in other big countries. Given the special circumstances of China as a
hub of manufacturing production employing the highest technology
globally available, the ULC-based REER provides the most reliable
information on the country’s competitiveness. If, as occurred in China,
labour costs increase sharply in relation to productivity, the effect
will show up in either a loss of market share or a loss of profitability
compared to the past. On both accounts, competitiveness is reduced
in relation to producers in other countries with a lower increase in
labour costs. If the REER based on a price index remains un-
changed, the economic situation of producers who choose to accept
falling profit margins to maintain their trade volumes deteriorates.
To “find a mechanism to facilitate timely identification of large
imbalances that require preventive and corrective action” is crucial
for the future of world trade. Trade cannot be made an effective tool
to foster growth and reduce poverty if the global community fails to
find such a mechanism, which must be based on sober theory and
thoughtful analysis.




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