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International currency war under way

The Bank of Japan’s decision yesterday to further reduce its close to zero interest rate looks suspiciously like one of the opening shots in an exchange rate war that will intensify the problems besieging the already weakened major economies.

In dropping below its lower limit of 0.1%, and looking at a small programme of quantitative easing (QE) (aka printing more money), Japan managed to get the yen to fall on currency markets. This has the effect of making its exports cheaper.

But Tokyo didn’t start it. They just followed Brazil’s finance minister who, on Monday, took measures to hold down the value of the real. Guido Mantega warned:

We’re in the midst of an international currency war, a general weakening of currency. This threatens us because it takes away our competitiveness.

Both Japan and Brazil pre-empted the widely expected “return to QE2” – a sequel to the fading effects of the previous programme of money creation by the now struggling Obama administration. Washington wants the dollar to fall to give its exports an edge.

So the alarm bells are ringing at the International Monetary Fund, which is warning that the “recovery” has run out of steam. IMF head Dominique Strauss-Kahn told the Financial Times:

There is clearly the idea beginning to circulate that currencies can be used as a policy weapon. Translated into action, such an idea would represent a very serious risk to the global recovery.

It’s not long since world’s leaders in government, banking and finance came together to hammer out the agreements that enabled at least the semblance of a co-ordinated programme of measures designed to restart lending and bring about a return to growth.

Whilst the previous concerted action is credited with averting a financial and economic Armageddon, its effects are best described as a phony recovery. And that is now over. The optimism induced by unprecedented measures couldn’t and didn’t overcome the uncontrollable logic of the capitalist system of production.

The global crisis may have erupted in the financial system but its roots are elsewhere. Throughout its short period of existence on the planet, the capitalist system has been racked by contradictory forces. Competitive pressures have obliged companies to invest in productivity enhancements which, whilst giving the front runners a temporary advantage, inevitably reduce costs, prices and profits for all.

To offset the tendency for profits to fall, greater volumes of every product have to be cranked out and sold, and the pressure for even more productivity accelerates and accentuates the growing economy.

This irresistible objective logic created the globalising corporations that came to dominate the world. And when the surging millions of cars, computers and mobile phones overwhelmed the market, a house of (credit) cards and mountains of debt were created so that consumers could buy them up. At least until we, and the rest of the economy found ourselves drowning in that very same debt.

Optimism is now being replaced with realism. Cuts in government spending to reduce the budget deficits they’ve accumulated over years of trying to keep growth on track are just one part of the story.

The phony recovery allowed manufacturers to restock their warehouses and showrooms, but there’s still not, and won’t be enough buyers. So the factories that restarted production after the 2008 collapse will go back onto short time and no time.

Competition for the remaining market will sharpen, and the intensification in the rate of exploitation will prove truly shocking, sparking social unrest to match. These are the objective laws which shape the decisions in the boardrooms and in government buildings.

Successful resistance will depend on individuals and communities creating new forms of democracy – People’s Assemblies with the power to terminate the web of contracts and property relationships that tie workers to capitalist employers and ensnare us all in debt. The system of profit-chasing growth must be torn up at its roots. Let’s compost capitalism!

Gerry Gold
Economics editor
6 October 2010

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