Currency rules must factor in 21st-century trade deals

David Bonior
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It is a rare event indeed when the chief executive officer of the world’s largest asset manager provides a powerful assist to liberal members of Congress. You could even say that he rode to their rescue.

What happened? Larry Fink, the CEO of BlackRock, expressed his worries about the dollar’s rise. He sees it having an impact on far more than just the business prospects of U.S. export industries. These firms now find themselves having to compete with corporations (mainly from Europe and Asia) that can offer considerably lower prices as a result of the profound weakening of their regions’ currencies.

Fink is also concerned about an “erosion in confidence on the part of CEOs with the potential to slow both investment decisions and future growth in the U.S.” In other words, incomes and hiring decisions here in the U.S.— still feeble even years after the global financial crisis — are going to face even more pressure. That is unwelcome news, especially in light of the latest U.S. jobs report by the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

In essence, Fink validates the concerns of those on Capitol Hill who are greatly concerned about the impact that exchange rates have on U.S. economic futures. It is for that reason that key members of Congress, Democrats and Republicans alike, have argued that the U.S. government needs to have a currency strategy as an integral part of any sound trade negotiation strategy. However, the Obama administration has consistently refused to formulate such a strategy.

While it is unlikely that Fink intended to provide direct validation for such congressional concerns, it is just as surely more than sheer coincidence. Call it a matter of strategic alignment, a rare moment when the interests of U.S. workers and executive suites are united in a compelling fashion.

Concerns about the U.S. currency are now a mainstream economic issue. From hereon out, it will no longer be possible to wave them off as a matter of concern of supposedly “leftist” and/or “anti-trade” members of Congress. In answering the question of what should be done, it is important to realize that, compared to the past decade and a half or so when China was the main center of attention in currency matters, Europe now also benefits from a massive depreciation of its currency, making it that much harder for U.S. firms to compete.

Regardless of where one stands on resolving the currency issue, one thing is for sure. The Obama administration’s resolute stance against including enforceable disciplines against currency manipulation in the currently contemplated TPP is untenable. This is as much a concern to workers and unions as it is to CEOs and the firms they head.

Over the past eight months, the U.S. dollar has appreciated faster on a trade-weighted basis than during any similar period since the early 1970s, as PIMCO, another large asset manager, has recently stated. At such a dramatic moment, the dollar’s path must be addressed in any future trade agreements, and most certainly in the TPP. After all, it is being touted as the last big trade deal that will set the rules of the global economy for decades.

As regards specific provisions in trade agreements such as the currently contemplated TPP deal, the negotiating strategy of other nations is well known. All too often, they agree to eliminate their tariffs. But after conclusion of the trade deal, they take back whatever new market access to U.S. firms that agreement might provide by weakening the value of their currency.

It is true that the International Monetary Fund and U.S. Treasury both perform regular calculations on the actual levels by which currencies are manipulated and issue reports to shame the offending nations in public. The problem is, there is no mechanism to force governments to set their currencies straight, or adjust against the subsidies such devaluations provide to their exports.

All the more reason why many in Congress have argued that putting such enforcement in trade treaties like the TPP would once and for all create the level playing field that would allow U.S. firms to compete fairly and win.

Members of Congress have recently been echoed by top economists such as Simon Johnson, former head of the IMF research department, along with Larry Summers and C. Fred Bergsten of the pro-trade Peterson Institute for International Economics. These are hardly people who can be described as opposed to global economic integration via trade agreements.

And yet the Obama administration has chosen to dismiss the legitimate concerns of workers and unions on this issue. Now that powerful CEOs, the IMF and also the president’s former own chief economic adviser have joined the chorus, the administration should reconsider and take action.

David Bonior, a former member of Congress from Macomb County, was House majority and minority whip from 1991-2001.

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