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The Story of War and Peace in the Currency Markets

There is a story of war and peace in the contemporary currency markets. It has a main plot and many subplots. As yet, the story is without end. That may come sooner than many now expect.

The narrator today has a more challenging job than the teller of the story about neutral, Entente, and Central Power currencies during World War I. (See Brown, Brendan “Monetary Chaos in Europe” chapter 2 [Routledge, 2011].)

Today’s Russia war (whether the military conflict in Ukraine or the EU/US-Russia economic war) is not so all-pervasive in global economic and monetary affairs, though it is doubtless prominent. The monetary setting of the story today is much more nuanced than in World War I when the prevailing expectation was that peace would mark the start of a journey where key currencies eventually returned to their prewar gold parities.

In the 1914–18 conflict, any sudden news of a possible end to the conflict—as with the peace notes of President Woodrow Wilson in December 1916—would cause a sharp fall of the neutral currencies (Swiss franc, Dutch guilder, Spanish peseta), a big rise in the German mark and Austrian-Hungarian crown, and lesser rises in sterling and the French franc. Today, in principle, a sudden emergence of peace diplomacy would most plausibly send the euro and British pound higher on the one hand and the Canadian dollar, US dollar, and Swiss franc lower on the other hand.

Mutual exhaustion and military stalemate are a combination from which surprise diplomatic moves to end war can emerge. These circumstances apply today.

Ukraine is falling into an economic abyss—much of its infrastructure reportedly destroyed and its government is resorting to the money printing press to pay its soldiers (see Kenneth Rogoff et al., “Macroeconomic Policies for Wartime Ukraine,” Center for Economic and Policy Research, August 12, 2022). General economic aid from Western donors (as against military aid) is running far short of promises. All these pictures of Russian munitions stores on fire may or may not have excited some potential donors, but they have not heralded any breakthrough.

The human toll—both amongst military personnel and civilians—fans Moscow propaganda that the US and UK are willing to conduct their proxy war against Russia down to the life of the last Ukrainian soldier.

Meanwhile there are these presumably leaked stories in the Washington Post about how President Volodymyr Zelensky betrayed the Ukrainian people by not sharing with them in late 2021 and early 2022 the US intelligence alerts about a looming Russian invasion. According to the stories, many Ukrainians resent that they were not warned by their government and do not accept its shocking excuses (for example, to prevent a flight of capital out of the country).

Is all this preparing ground for a possible power shift in Kiev that might favor an early diplomatic solution even in time for President Joe Biden to claim credit ahead of the midterms? Western Europe will be spared some pain this winter if the initial ceasefire agreement includes a provision that Moscow desist from turning off the gas pipelines.

The purpose here is not to predict the war’s outcome but to describe a peace scenario that is within the mainstream and to map out how the rising likelihood of its realization would influence currency markets.

The main channel of influence on currencies would be the course of the EU/US-Russia economic war. A ceasefire would excite expectations of big relief to the natural gas shortage in Western Europe.

Prices there for natural gas would plunge. In turn, that would lift consumer and business spirits, now depressed by feared astronomic gas bills and even gas rationing this winter. Massive programs to relieve fuel poverty, financed by monetary inflation, would stop in their tracks. The European Central Bank (ECB) could move resolutely to tighten monetary conditions as the depression fears faded.

We could well imagine that the peace scenario would mean the European economies in 2023 would rebound from a winter downturn. That would coincide with the US economy sinking into recession as the “Powell disinflation” works its way through—including continued bubble bursting in the tech space and residential construction sector plus a possible private equity bust.

A big rise of the euro under the peace scenario, though likely, is not a slam-dunk proposition. Russia might delay turning the gas pipelines back on until there is an assurance about its central bank’s frozen deposits in Western Europe. There has been chatter from the top of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) down that a reparations commission would sequester these.

More broadly, it could be that most European households are not cutting back their spending to the extent assumed in the consensus economic forecasts. Many individuals may have never believed that the high natural gas prices would persist beyond this winter. Then they faced, in effect, a transitory rather than permanent tax rise. Economic theory suggests that such transitory taxes, paid in this case to North American natural gas producers, have much less impact than permanent ones on spending.

There are still the deep ailments of the euro. How can the ECB ever normalize monetary conditions when so much of the monetary base is backed by loans and credits to weak sovereigns and banks (see Brendan Brown, “ECB’s Long Journey into Currency Collapse Just Got a Lot Shorter,” Mises Wire, July 23, 2022)?

In principle, the US dollar, and even more so the Canadian dollar, would lose from peace as they have gained from war. Both have obtained fuel from the boom in their issuing country’s energy sector. In neither country has there been aggregate real income loss due to the economic war—in fact, there has been a gain in the case of Canada. A further positive for the US dollar has been the boom in the US armaments sector—and this should continue beyond a ceasefire.

Peace will not deflect Europe from seeking to diversify its energy supplies away from Russia and to North American gas and to renewables. But we can imagine that in the long-run, Germany could have a comparative advantage in the renewable space; and North America could lose potential sales outside Europe to Russian gas at discounted prices. Russia is widely expected to prioritize a vamped-up construction program for LNG (liquid natural gas) terminals. These will enable the export of its natural gas to world markets.

Bottom line: peace is likely to be a negative for the US dollar. But transcending this influence is the huge issue of how and when US monetary inflation regains virulence.

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Brendan Brown
Brendan Brown is senior fellow (non-resident) Hudson Institute. As an international monetary and financial economist, consultant, and author, his roles have included Head of Economic Research at Mitsubishi UFJ Financial Group.
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