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Now, a Trade War — Is a Shooting War Next?

Now, a Trade War — Is a Shooting War Next?

A popular thesis since the 1930s is that a natural progression exists from currency wars to trade wars to shooting wars. Both history and analysis support this thesis.

Currency wars do not exist all the time; they arise under certain conditions and persist until there is either systemic reform or systemic collapse. The conditions that give rise to currency wars are too much debt and too little growth.

In those circumstances, countries try to steal growth from trading partners by cheapening their currencies to promote exports and create export-related jobs.

The problem with currency wars is that they are zero-sum or negative-sum games. It is true that countries can obtain short-term relief by cheapening their currencies, but sooner than later, their trading partners also cheapen their currencies to regain the export advantage.

This process of tit-for-tat devaluations feeds on itself with the pendulum of short-term trade advantage swinging back and forth and no one getting any further ahead.

After a few years, the futility of currency wars becomes apparent, and countries resort to trade wars. This consists of punitive tariffs, export subsidies and nontariff barriers to trade.

The dynamic is the same as in a currency war. The first country to impose tariffs gets a short-term advantage, but retaliation is not long in coming and the initial advantage is eliminated as trading partners impose tariffs in response.

Trade wars produce the same result as currency wars. Despite the illusion of short-term advantage, in the long-run everyone is worse off. The original condition of too much debt and too little growth never goes away.

Finally, tensions rise, rival blocs are formed and a shooting war begins. The shooting wars often have a not-so-hidden economic grievance or rationale behind them.

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