Archive for the 'Trade' Category


Gray markets, PPP and the iPhone in China

Via Felix Salmon, I found this fantastic piece by “Bento” on the take-up of the iPhone in China.

Some background:  When Apple launched the iPhone in China, early sales numbers were disappointing.

Some background to the background:  Under Chinese law, WIFI-enabled phones are illegal, so Apple has to cripple the iPhones they sell in China.

From Bento:

The Chinese have long had access to iPhones. They are for sale at stalls in every cybermall and market in every Chinese city, and come in two varieties: The most expensive ones (at around 6000 RMB in Shanghai for a 16GB 3GS, or 880 USD, depending on your haggling skills) come directly from Hong Kong, where the factory-unlocked model is available from the Apple store for around 4800 RMB. That’s a nice arbitrage play by the stall owner, and everyone is happy. The cheaper model, at around 5000 RMB for a 16GB 3GS, was originally bought locked in the US or Europe, and has been unlocked by the stall owner’s hacker-genius cousin using 3rd-party software. This kind of iPhone is cheaper, because you are on your own when it comes to upgrades and iTunes compatibility.

The distribution model is extensive and robust, and in fact most Chinese buy their mobile phones from stalls like this. There are no iPhone shortages, as prices fluctuate to meet demand. The received wisdom is that around 2 million iPhones are in the Chinese wild; I’ve personally seen a good many of them here in Shanghai, where they are much in evidence among the eliterati. Still, this is a minuscule portion of the 700 million odd phones in use in China, of which a small but growing portion is smartphones.

What can Apple do to grow the number of iPhones on mainland China? Short of lowering prices in Hong Kong (not going to happen) it can do two things: Increase awareness of the iPhone via advertising, and bring the benefits of a Chinese-language App Store to Chinese iPhone owners.

To do either of these, you sort of need to sell the product locally first, though. Apple can’t really go round putting up banners in Chinese tier-3 cities urging consumers to head for the local iPhone aftermarket.
[…]
Apple … is not revenue-sharing with China Unicom, the local vendor, but selling the iPhones outright to them. It is up to China Unicom to flog them in China.

And that’s what China Unicom is trying to do. China Unicom stores all have iPhone banners up; I’ve passed several China Unicom road shows stopping by Shanghai extolling the iPhone. The iPhone is being talked about widely. But so is the fact that the China Unicom iPhone is crippled — the Chinese are sophisticated consumers; forget this at your own peril.

The upshot: anecdotal reports tell of aftermarket prices increasing for Hong Kong iPhones these past few weeks, as demand increased. Clearly, the advertising is working, even if China Unicom’s sales of wifiless iPhones are anaemic.

Arbitrage is clearly still happening — buy for 4800 RMB in Hong Kong, sell for 6000 RMB in Shanghai; that’s a 25% markup and well above any reasonable estimate of transportation costs — so Purchasing Power Parity (PPP) doesn’t even hold within the “one” country, but this is a great example of gray market imports.


The contradictory joys of being the US Treasury Secretary (part 2)

In my last post, I highlighted the apparent contradictions between the USA having both a “strong dollar” policy and a desire to correct their trade deficit (“re-balancing”).  Tim Geithner, speaking recently in Tokyo, declared that there was no contradiction:

Geithner said U.S. efforts to boost exports aren’t in conflict with the “strong-dollar” policy. “I don’t think there’s any contradiction between the policies,” he said.

I then said:

The only way to reconcile what Geithner’s saying with the laws of mathematics is to suppose that his “strong dollar” statements are political and relate only to the nominal exchange rate and observe that trade is driven by the real exchange rate. But that then means that he’s calling for a stable nominal exchange rate combined with either deflation in the USA or inflation in other countries.

Which, together with Nouriel Roubini’s recent observation that the US holding their interest rates at zero is fueling “the mother of all carry trades” [Financial Times, RGE Monitor], provides for a delicious (but probably untrue) sort-of-conspiracy theory:

Suppose that Tim Geithner firmly believes in the need for re-balancing.  He’d ideally like US exports to rise while imports stayed flat (since that would imply strong global growth and new jobs for his boss’s constituents), but he’d settle for US imports falling.  Either way, he needs the US real exchange rate to fall, but he doesn’t care how.  Well, not quite.  His friend Ben Bernanke tells him that he doesn’t want deflation in America, but he doesn’t really care between the nominal exchange rate falling and foreign prices rising (foreign inflation).

The recession-induced interest rates of (effectively) zero in America are now his friend, because he’s going to get what he wants no matter what, thanks to the carry trade.  Private investors are borrowing money at 0% interest in America and then going to foreign countries to invest it at interest rates that are significantly higher than zero.  If the foreign central banks did nothing, that would push the US dollar lower and their own currencies higher and Tim gets what he wants.

But the foreign central banks want a strong dollar because (a) they’re holding gazzilions of dollars worth of US treasuries and they don’t want their value to fall; and (b) they’re not fully independent of their political masters who want to want to keep exporting.   So Tim regularly stands up in public and says that he supports a strong dollar.  That makes him look innocent and excuses the foreign central banks for doing what they were all doing anyway:  printing local money to give to the US-funded investors so as to keep their currencies down (and the US dollar up).

But that means that the money supply in foreign countries is climbing, fast, and while prices may be sticky in the short term, they will start rising soon enough.  Foreign inflation will lower the US real exchange rate and Tim still gets what he wants.

The only hope for the foreign central banks is that the demand for their currencies is a short-lived temporary blip.  In that case, defending their currencies won’t require the creation of too much local currency and they could probably reverse the situation fast enough afterward that they don’t get bad inflation. [This is one of the arguments in favour of central bank involvement in the exchange-rate market.  Since price movements are sluggish, they can sterilise a temporary spike and gradually back out the action before local prices react too much.]

But as foreign central banks have been discovering [1], free money is free money and the carry trade won’t go away until the interest rate gap is sufficiently closed:

Nov. 13 (Bloomberg) — Brazil, South Korea and Russia are losing the battle among developing nations to reduce gains in their currencies and keep exports competitive as the demand for their financial assets, driven by the slumping dollar, is proving more than central banks can handle.

South Korea Deputy Finance Minister Shin Je Yoon said yesterday the country will leave the level of its currency to market forces after adding about $63 billion to its foreign exchange reserves this year to slow the appreciation of the won.
[…]
Brazil’s real is up 1.1 percent against the dollar this month, even after imposing a tax in October on foreign stock and bond investments and increasing foreign reserves by $9.5 billion in October in an effort to curb the currency’s appreciation. The real has risen 33 percent this year.
[…]
“I hear a lot of noise reflecting the government’s discomfort with the exchange rate, but it is hard to fight this,” said Rodrigo Azevedo, the monetary policy director of Brazil’s central bank from 2004 to 2007. “There is very little Brazil can do.”

The central banks are stuck.  They can’t lower their own interest rates to zero (which would stop the carry trade) as that would stick a rocket under domestic production and cause inflation anyway.  The only thing they can do is what Brazil did a little bit of:  impose legal limits on capital inflows, either explicitly or by taxing foreign-owned investments.  But doing that isn’t really an option, either, because they want to be able to keep attracting foreign investment after all this is over and there’s not much scarier to an investor than political uncertainty.

So they have to wait until America raises it’s own rates.  But that won’t happen until America sees a turn-around in jobs and the fastest way for that to happen is for US exports to rise.

[1] Personally, I think the central bankers saw the writing on the wall the minute the Fed lowered US interest rates to (effectively) zero but their political masters were always going to take some time to cotton on.


The contradictory joys of being the US Treasury Secretary

Tim Geithner, speaking at the start of the G-20 meeting in Pittsburgh:

Sept. 25 (Bloomberg) — Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner said he sees a “strong consensus” among Group of 20 nations to reduce reliance on exports for growth and defended the dollar’s role as the world’s reserve currency.

“A strong dollar is very important in the United States,” Geithner said in response to a question at a press conference yesterday in Pittsburgh, where G-20 leaders began two days of talks.

Tim Geithner, speaking in Tokyo while joining the US President on a tour of Asian capitals:

Nov. 11 (Bloomberg) — U.S. Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner said a strong dollar is in the nation’s interest and the government recognizes the importance it plays in the global financial system.

“I believe deeply that it’s very important to the United States, to the economic health of the United States, that we maintain a strong dollar,” Geithner told reporters in Tokyo today.
[…]
Geithner said U.S. efforts to boost exports aren’t in conflict with the “strong-dollar” policy. “I don’t think there’s any contradiction between the policies,” he said.

Which is hilarious.

There is no objective standard for currency strength [1].  A “strong (US) dollar” is a dollar strong relative to other currencies, so it’s equivalent to saying “weak non-US-dollar currencies”.  But when the US dollar is up and other currencies are down, that means that the US will import more (and export less), while the other countries will export more (and import less), which is the exact opposite of the re-balancing efforts.

The only way to reconcile what Geithner’s saying with the laws of mathematics is to suppose that his “strong dollar” statements are political and relate only to the nominal exchange rate and observe that trade is driven by the real exchange rate.  But that then means that he’s calling for a stable nominal exchange rate combined with either deflation in the USA or inflation in other countries.

Assuming my previous paragraph is true, 10 points to the person who can see the potential conspiracy theory [2] implication of Nouriel Roubini’s recent observation that the US holding their interest rates at zero is fueling “the mother of all carry trades” [Financial Times, RGE Monitor].

Hint:  If you go for the conspiracy theory, this story would make you think it was working.

Nov. 13 (Bloomberg) — Brazil, South Korea and Russia are losing the battle among developing nations to reduce gains in their currencies and keep exports competitive as the demand for their financial assets, driven by the slumping dollar, is proving more than central banks can handle.
[…]
Governments are amassing record foreign-exchange reserves as they direct central banks to buy dollars in an attempt to stem the greenback’s slide and keep their currencies from appreciating too fast and making their exports too expensive.
[…]
“It looked for a while like the Bank of Korea was trying to defend 1,200, but it looks like they’ve given up and are just trying to slow the advance,” said Collin Crownover, head of currency management in London at State Street Global Advisors

The answer to follow …

Update: The answer is in my next post.

[1] There better not be any gold bugs in the audience.  Don’t make me come over there and hurt you.

[2] Okay, not a conspiracy theory; just a behind-the-scenes-while-completely-in-the-open strategy of international power struggles.

[1] There better not be any gold bugs on this list.  Don’t make me
come over there and hurt you.

[2] Okay, not a conspiracy theory; just a behind-the-scenes-while-
completely-in-the-open strategy of international power struggles.


On China

Menzie Chinn emphasises that for the purposes of estimating country shares in global GDP, it is necessary to think of them in nominal terms.  On that basis, China is large, but only half the size of the Euro zone and well under half the size of America.  Therefore, he implies, an increase in demand from China won’t really contribute as much to global growth as people might be hoping.

Nevertheless, people do seem to be wondering about China as an engine of global growth in demand.  The reason is simple:  Despite a near catastrophic collapse in world trade, China’s economy is still growing while those of  other export-oriented countries like Japan or Germany are falling precipitously.

Clearly part of the reason for the continued Chinese growth, like in Australia, is the successful use of a fiscal stimulus to boost local demand (the Australian rebound was also helped by the fact that, by not manufacturing much, their decline in investment was offset by a fall in imports and (price) changes in natural resource exports occur with a significant lag).

Brad Setser has explored the Chinese stimulus a little.  He writes:

I initially underestimated the magnitude of China’s stimulus by focusing on the (fairly modest) change in the government’s fiscal balance. It is now clear that the majority of China’s stimulus has been off-budget: the huge increase in lending by state owned banks mattered far more than the change in the budget of the central government. The expected loss on these loans can be considered a form of fiscal stimulus.

Which is a fascinating way to conduct government business.


Paul Krugman wins the Nobel (updated)

There is no doubt in my mind that Professor Krugman deserves this, but who doesn’t think that this is just a little bit of an “I told you so” from Sweden to the USA?

Update: Alex Tabarrok gives a simple summary of New Trade Theory.  Do read Tyler Cowen for a summary of Paul Krugman’s work, his more esoteric writing and some analysis of the award itself.

I have to say I did not expect him to win until Bush left office, as I thought the Swedes wanted the resulting discussion to focus on Paul’s academic work rather than on issues of politics. So I am surprised by the timing but not by the choice.

This was definitely a “real world” pick and a nod in the direction of economists who are engaged in policy analysis and writing for the broader public. Krugman is a solo winner and solo winners are becoming increasingly rare. That is the real statement here, namely that Krugman deserves his own prize, all to himself. This could easily have been a joint prize, given to other trade figures as well, but in handing it out solo I believe the committee is a) stressing Krugman’s work in economic geography, and b) stressing the importance of relevance for economics