We all learn the limbo

And the dollar continues on down. The Economist scratches its head and figures ‘well, it had too’…
Plumbing the depths
Dec 29th 2004

The dollar has hit another record low against the euro. It is set for further falls against major currencies in the coming year, even though American interest rates will rise

FORECASTING exchange rates, warns Alan Greenspan, the chairman of the Federal Reserve, has a success rate no better than calling the toss of a coin. But the dollar keeps coming up tails. At the start of 2004, holders of America’s currency had to part with $1.25 to buy a euro. At year’s end, they must fork out another dime or more. On Wednesday December 29th, it cost over $1.36 to buy a single euro, a fresh record.

The cause of the dollar’s decline is hardly a mystery: private investors have become less eager to finance America’s huge current-account deficit. The deficit widened slightly in the third quarter of 2004, to a record $165 billion, or 5.6% of GDP in that period.

America’s Federal Reserve gives information on monetary policy and statements by Alan Greenspan. See also the US Treasury Department. The People’s Bank of China, the Bank of Japan and the European Central Bank give economic statistics and publish statements on monetary policy. The Institute for International Economics posts research and policy briefs on exchange rates and monetary policy.

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About Global Agenda

These record deficits are adding to America’s foreign debts at an alarming rate. But as yet, America still earns more from its foreign assets than it pays on its foreign liabilities. That is about to change. As interest rates rise, refinancing America’s debt will become more costly. Goldman Sachs forecasts that net foreign-investment income is likely to shift to a sizeable deficit during 2005, growing thereafter. The investment bank estimates that, if America’s current-account deficit remains steady as a share of GDP and interest rates average 5% in future, net foreign debt-service payments will reach 4% of GDP by 2020—a significant drag on American living standards.

To avoid shelling out such large sums to foreigners, America will, ultimately, have to rely more on its own savings and less on savings imported from abroad. The country as a whole saved just 1.7% of national income in the first nine months of 2004. Households saved just 0.7%.

The dollar’s decline may force America to embrace thrift, argues Goldman Sachs. As the dollar falls, foreigners will demand more American goods. This will put pressure on America’s manufacturers, which are already operating at 78% of capacity. As supply is stretched, inflationary pressures will build. The Federal Reserve will raise interest rates, curbing domestic demand, and thus creating room for an export boom. The higher interest rates will thus promote the saving America has so sorely lacked.

This process has barely begun. Over the past two years, the dollar has lost almost 23% against the euro. But it has shed less than 13% against a broader basket of currencies (see chart), and it has not lost a cent against China’s yuan. As a matter of official policy, the Chinese currency has remained within a tight range around 8.28 to the dollar for the past decade. Forecasting the intentions of China’s policymakers may actually be harder than calling a toin coss. But many are trying. Offshore markets, for example, allow speculators to make a bet on the value of the yuan in 12 months time. At the moment, punters reckon you will get just 7.8 of them for your dollar this time next year.

Against the yen, the dollar is actually slightly stronger than it was in late November. The Bank of Japan has not intervened in the foreign-exchange markets since March, but the threat to do so remains. Japan’s finance minister, Sadakazu Tanigaki, gave warning this week that his country’s authorities would monitor foreign-exchange markets over the New Year holiday, a time when trading is thin and official buying can make a big difference.

If Japan’s finger is on the trigger, the European Central Bank (ECB) seems prepared to sit on its hands. Jean-Claude Trichet, president of the ECB, has lived with strong currencies before. As president of France’s central bank in the years before euro entry, he was dubbed “the ayatollah of the franc fort” for his unflinching support of a strong national currency. Indeed, for much of 1995, a weighted basket of the franc and the 11 other currencies that formed the euro was worth almost as much against the dollar as it is now.

In his press conferences, Mr Trichet has made it clear that recent rises in the single currency are unwelcome. But he has dwelt at greater length on the danger of rises in energy prices. His chief duty, as he sees it, is to convince firms and workers that inflation will remain well contained, despite the oil price spike of the autumn. It is a confidence game: if he can convince them an inflation spiral won’t happen, then it won’t. The strong euro will actually add to his credibility, by curbing the price of imports.

Besides, the hard men of hard money believe that weak currencies make life too easy for firms and politicians. Devaluing the currency provides an unsatisfying alternative to deregulating and restructuring the economy. An overvalued currency, on the other hand, leaves uncompetitive firms and tentative politicians with “no place to hide”, as Eric Chaney of Morgan Stanley puts it. They must reform or perish.

“You cannot devalue your way to prosperity,” says John Snow, America’s treasury secretary, somewhat hypocritically. The year to come may reveal whether Europe can revalue its way to the same end.

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