Deja Vu – Part 3, Lessons from the US economy,1979-1985

26 Dec

In my last blog entry I mentioned three US currency policy decisions over the years 1979 to 1995 ( Each decision was a response to the decreasing returns in US industry. In this blog entry I will outline each of these decisions in greater detail.

As mentioned the 70’s saw Nixon embark on a policy of federal deficits and extreme monetary ease. One aim of the policy was to lower the value of the dollar in order to sustain the competitive position of US manufacturing. This policy helped the US ride the 1974-5 oil crisis. On the one hand the policy was a great success vis-à-vis US manufacturing. Nonetheless, such extreme Keynesian measures lead to over production and over capacity. In addition, it prevented the much needed exit (what Brenner calls “the medicine of shakeout”) of many lower return companies from the market place. The upshot was an overall continued decrease in returns, which eventually dis-incentivised manufacturers from increasing output. With massive deficits (i.e. increased money supply), and little to no increase in output, the US began to suffer inflation. Simultaneously and related, massive deficits led to run on the USD, threatening its status as a global reserve currency.

Before we see how the US tackled this issue, let’s pause and understand that this dynamic sounds rather similar to the US today. Today the US is running a policy of extreme monetary ease, MASSIVE federal deficits, and has relatively uncompetitive manufacturing compared with countries like China. It led to inflation in the late 70’s. The risks of inflation in the coming years ia fairly apparent wouldn’t you say? In addition I believe today’s policy is aimed at helping US exporters/manufacturers, whether it’s explicitly stated or not.

In 1979/1980 the US enacted the Reagan-Thatcher Monetarist revolution, which reduced corporate taxes, increased unemployment, and removed controls on capital. The aim of the policy was to provide the US economy with a serious dose of “the medicine of shakeout” and purge the US economy of the low profit manufacturing firms that had become an ill of previous Keynesian expansionism, thereby controlling inflation and the currency. However, this time the pendulum had swung too far the other way. Record interest rates and the associated rising USD almost caused a US crash with the threat of contagion.

How did the US (and the global economy) get out of this situation? The government started the Reagan military buildup – purely Keynesian in nature, though most right-wingers would feel queasy to admit it! In addition Reagan enacted a program of huge tax cuts for the wealthy. These 2 policies combined did offset the government’s tight monetarist policies, yet they equally reopened US trade and current account deficits. The deficits required to pay for the military buildup were in fact larger than the deficits in the late 70’s. However, the combination of high US interest rates ensured there was no run on the dollar this time. In fact the currency (aided by a push of capital flows from the Japanese) appreciated considerably.

The Reaganites liked the combination of high interest rates and low inflation. Why? It played to the theme on increased the strength of US financing capital. However, it caused severe pain to US manufacturing. Under extreme pressure from congress, the Whitehouse was forced into a U-turn.

On 22 September 1985 the G5 met to sign the Plaza accords, under which the G5 powers agreed (under US pressure) to relieve the stress on US manufacturing by reducing the USD exchange rate. Over the coming few years the US administration passed a number of pieces of protectionist legislation (including the Omnibus Trade and Competition Act of 1985, and the Structural Impediments Act of 1989). Whilst simultaneously closing home markets to foreign imports the US was forcing its exports and FDI onto overseas markets.

So we see a continued US policy of not dealing with the real structural issue of lowering returns and non-competitiveness. Ford, Nixon, Carter, and even Reagan continued a policy of using the US currency as a band aid to be placed over a brewing problem. We know that since the late 80’s the US has continued in the same vein as we are facing similar structural issues today, and similar short-term currency play and Keynesian remedies are being used by the Feb and President Obama’s administration. As I’ve said before, this pattern of behavior is not a good sign that the US will deal with its structural issues. I will stress again that I am not against a band aid, as long as a real medicine is given in combination.

In the next blog entry I will hope to conclude my economic history lesson. But this is a blog about China, so I will be putting this history in the context of Chinese production and trade. In a nutshell I can already see that the US’s failure to deal with the issue of its lowering returns is a boon for the Chinese, in both the short and long-term future. More next time!

See you all in 2011.

Happy New Year

乔恩 (




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