November 27, 2009

The Weakening Dollar

After the American Century

For much of the twentieth century the American dollar was the benchmark currency. Whenever a crisis arose, world investors moved money into the dollar. For decades, the dollar was a good investment for anyone living in an inflation-prone economy, like those in Latin America or Africa. Likewise, because the dollar was stable, it was the preferred currency in the oil market.

The apparent rock-like stability of the dollar began to weaken already in the 1970s, when President Richard Nixon took the dollar off the gold standard. Until then, at least for very large investors, one could redeem dollars in gold. After then, the dollar was a little less rock-like, but on the whole was the preferred currency in any crisis. One could see this again in the wake of the financial collapse during the fall of 2008. Even though American banks were largely responsible for the sudden downturn, many people around the world instinctively moved money into the dollar.

Those days are over, and probably over forever. Rationally speaking, the dollar is not a smart investment at the moment. It has been declining in value for months, and has reached its lowest point in 14 years against the Japanese yen. The current interest rate on dollar savings accounts is also very low, so that even assuming the dollar's decline ends soon, nevertheless, the rate of return is better in the Euro zone.

The Chinese, meanwhile, are keeping their currency artificially weak, as a way to stimulate exports and continue building up already massive foreign reserves. In effect, the United States is letting its currency fall in value for the same reason, to stimulate exports and dampen the desire for imports. But China is way ahead in this race to the bottom, while Japan and Europe are both being hurt. Because China and to a lesser extent the United States have weak currencies, both Japanese and European goods cost more - forcing some factories to close or to move overseas where labor costs are lower. Japan and Europe have higher unemployment and fewer exports because their currency is too strong.

This is a dangerous game for all concerned. As President Obama pointedly told the Chinese leadership on his state visit, Asian economies need to play by the same rules as the rest of the world. Asian consumers, particularly in China, need to buy more, and their currencies should be worth more, to bring the world's economic system into balance.

For the United States, the danger is that it will soon be forced to increase interest rates in order to fund its growing national debt. This will increase the dollar's value, but it will also slow or halt economic recovery. This in turn will reduce American demand for foreign goods, as the economy stagnates.

Unfortunately, precisely this scenario (in which the US weakens) might be what China wants. For if it comes to pass, then China's massive holdings in American dollars will increase in value, while the US itself will grow slowly or not at all. The Chinese economy might then outpace US growth by 5% or more per year, until, in perhaps a decade, perhaps less, the US currency would enter a more definitive decline.

I hope this scenario is wrong. Should it prove at all accurate, then the dollar's reign as the world's reserve currency might not last longer than about 2020. Clearly this is not a happy thought for anyone with a pension or investments in the United States. Just as importantly, the relative decline of the US economy vis-a-vis the rest of the world will soon necessitate a major realignment that takes account of new players: Brazil, India, Indonesia, and most of all, China.