Blog Post - Views on the Economy and the World

Get Ready for “Reverse Currency Wars”

| May 28, 2022

The US dollar is up 12% against the euro over the last year.  Having moved from 1.21 $/€ in May 2021 to 1.07 $/€ today, the exchange rate seems to be approaching one-to-one parity for the first time.  Europeans are not happy about it. If you think that prices for oil and other commodities are high now in terms of dollars, you should see what they look like in terms of euros.  Get ready for “reverse currency wars.”

The regular sort of currency wars featured countries feeling aggrieved that their trading partners were deliberately pursuing policies to weaken their own currencies.  The feared motive would be gaining unfair advantage in international trade.  The original phrase “currency wars” was a colorful description of what international economists had (more informatively) long called “competitive devaluations” or, when exchange rates float, “competitive depreciation.”

A reverse currency war, then, is the symmetric situation of “competitive appreciation,” in which countries feel aggrieved that their trading partners are deliberately pursuing policies tostrengthen the values of their currencies. The motive is putting downward pressure on their CPIs.

Competitive depreciation arises in a context where everyone’s main macroeconomic goals, in addition to maximizing growth in GDP and employment, prioritize also boosting their trade balances.  This generally describes the last few decades in the world economy.  Competitive appreciation arises in a context where everyone’s main macroeconomic goals, in addition to maximizing growth, emphasize disinflation, that is, reducing their inflation rates (without hurting growth, to the extent possible). This context could describe the period that began in 2021, when inflation has returned as a serious problem in most countries.  The global inflation problem, a return to the 1970s, is likely to persist for some time.

In both cases, competitive depreciation and competitive appreciation, it is of course impossible for everyone to achieve their strategies at the same time — because it is, by definition, impossible for everybody to move their exchange rates in the same direction.  Both cases represent circumstances often perceived as a lack of international cooperation to achieve exchange rate stability, sometimes leading to calls for a new Bretton Woods.

The IMF Articles of Agreement, agreed in 1944 at Bretton Woods, New Hampshire, were written to avoid the competitive devaluations of the 1930s. As amended in 1976, Article IV(1)iii bans each country from “manipulating exchange rates…to gain an unfair competitive advantage over other members…”.

The US has been quick to allege that other currencies are unfairly undervalued.  Congress has since 1988 required the Treasury to send semi-annual reports on whether major trading partners are manipulating their currencies.  China and other Asian countries are the most frequent targets. But Switzerland is also under suspicion, notwithstanding that the Swiss franc is by far the most expensive major currency in the world by other criteria.

In February 2013, the US Treasury spearheaded an agreement among G7 countries that they would refrain from taking steps to depreciate their currencies.  The 2013 agreement is little known; but it worked, in the sense that the members over the last decade have refrained from intervening to sell their own currencies on the foreign exchange market.

China, not a member of the G7, does intervene.  But since2014 it has mostly acted to slow RMB depreciation, not to encourage it.

The phrase “currency wars” was coined by Brazilian leaders in 2010, while complaining about the monetary policies of the US, Japan, and other countries. The accusation this time was not explicit devaluation of the dollar or yen, nor intervention in the foreign exchange market to drive down the prices of these currencies. The allegation was, rather, (i) that the Fed, Bank of Japan, and other central banks had adopted excessively loose monetary policies (which began by cutting their interest rates to zero and then went further with Quantitative Easing), and (ii) that these policies had the deliberate intent of depreciating their currencies, boosting their net exports, and exporting unemployment to their trading partners.

Similarly, nobody today accuses the US authorities of using foreign exchange intervention to strengthen the dollar. The allegation of 2022, rather, is that the Fed’s current upward interest rate path attracts a capital inflow and appreciates the dollar. Thus, an alternative perspective on reverse currency wars is that — in today’s noncoordinated equilibrium — the Fed is forcing up interest rates internationally and so holding global growth below what it could be.

There is ample historical precedent for fears of competitive devaluation, most notably the 1930s, when major powers in sequence each devalued against gold and thereby against each other. Is there historical precedent for competitive appreciation?

It has been argued that the early 1980s were such an example.  When the Fed, under Chair Paul Volcker, raised interest rates sharply to fight inflation, it knew that it would be aided by an appreciation of the dollar.  But the corresponding depreciation of trading partners’ currencies worsened their inflation rates and forced them to raise interest rates as well.  The worry was that, as a result, the world ended up with higher interest rates than were desirable.  The 1985 Plaza agreement to cooperatively bring down the dollar ended this period of competitive appreciation.

Today, the most likely victims of a strengthening dollar are not other major Advanced Economies, but rather Emerging Market and Developing Economies. Many of them have substantial dollar-denominated debts, exacerbated by the fiscal spending that was necessary to fight the pandemic in 2020-21). When the dollar appreciates, the cost of servicing the debts goes up in terms of their own currencies. This “balance sheet effect” is contractionary for the economy. The combination of rising global interest rates and a rising dollar can trigger debt crises, as it did in Mexico in 1982 and 1994.

Not all fears of competitive appreciation are justified (just as not all fears of competitive depreciation in the past have been justified). And not all merit a reform of the international currency system.

Unlike many central banks, the Bank of Japan has kept its monetary policy very loose over the last year, in a continued attempt to raise growth and core inflation, which has still been low.  Its interest rates are still at or below zero. This, at a time when the US is raising interest rates in its attempt to lower inflation.  As one would predict from the widening US-Japan interest differential, the yen has depreciated 15% over the last year against the dollar [from 109 yen/$ in May 2021, to 127 now].

Has this big change in the exchange rate been a problem?  Not really, on net.  The movement has allowed upward pressure on Japanese inflation over the last year, at the same time that it has allowed downward pressure on US Inflation.  That is what both countries wanted, given their respective cyclical positions.  In this light, floating currencies serve the useful purpose of allowing each country to pursue the monetary policy that suits its own circumstances.

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Frankel, Jeffrey.Get Ready for “Reverse Currency Wars”.” Views on the Economy and the World, May 28, 2022,