Laura Tyson, of Morgan Stanley's Board of Directors, Urges Going Slow on China Currency Issue

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Friday, 06 May 2011 15:06

Laura Tyson, the former chair of President Clinton's Council of Economic Advisers, had a column in the NYT today urging patience in addressing the over-valuation of the dollar relative to the Chinese yuan. The heading of the piece identifies Tyson only by her role as a professor at the Haas School of Business at the University of California at Berkeley and her former position in the Clinton administration.

The NYT's identification did not mention that Ms. Tyson is also currently a member of the board of directors of Morgan Stanley. She received almost $350,000 in compensation for her work in this position last year.

This is relevant to the piece because Morgan Stanley has extensive business dealings in China. It is likely that Morgan Stanley would benefit from having the dollar remain high against the Chinese yuan, since this means that its dollar assets will go further in China. In other words, the position being advocated by Ms. Tyson in this piece happens to coincide with the interests of the company on whose board she sits.

It is entirely possible that Ms. Tyson came to her views on the dollar and yuan without any consideration of its impact on Morgan Stanley. However, the NYT should have informed readers of this potential conflict of interest.

As far as the substance, her argument that there is little link between the value of the dollar against the yuan and the U.S. trade deficit with China is weak. When China raised the value of its currency against the dollar in 2005, many other nations followed suit. This led to a substantial decline in the U.S. trade deficit measured as a share of GDP. (The only relevant measure.) It matters little to workers in the United States whether the improvement in the deficit came in trade with China or other countries.

Also the plea for patience must be seen in a context in which tens of millions of workers are unemployed or underemployed with little hope for any improvement in sight. Deficit hawks in both political parties (including many of Ms. Tyson's former colleagues in the Clinton administration) have closed off the option of further fiscal stimulus. The current political context also seems to offer little hope for more expansionary monetary policy.

Given the options, an improvement in the trade balance seems the best hope for a more rapid increase in employment. It is understandable that those struggling to get by in a downturn that resulted from a combination of Wall Street greed and incompetent economic policy may not be as patient as Ms. Tyson.