Why the dollar’s fall is not to be welcomed
Congenital optimists see the dollar’s fall as part of a necessary rebalancing of the world economy. Without a change in exchange rates, the US current account deficit is on an explosive path. It could widen from its current 5-6 per cent of US gross domestic product to 8 per cent in 2008 and 12 per cent in 2010.
In reality, deficits of this magnitude are not something that foreigners would willingly finance, especially in so far as they reflected chronic budget deficits rather than high levels of private investment. At some point foreign investors would pull the plug, and the dollar and the US economy would come crashing down. A smooth and moderate decline in the dollar that narrows the US current account now is thus preferable to a sudden and potentially catastrophic fall later.
The question is whether or not it is already too late for a smooth adjustment. The current account is the difference between savings and investment. Narrowing the US deficit will therefore require some combination of increased savings and lower investment. The falling dollar will bring this about by tending to drive interest rates up. As Asian central banks curtail their purchases of US Treasury securities and sell some of their existing holdings, there will be upward pressure on US Treasury yields.
Moreover, as the dollar falls, there will be upward pressure on US import prices and more inflationary pressure generally. In response, the Federal Reserve will have to raise interest rates faster than currently expected. Higher interest rates will make borrowing more expensive and slow investment growth. They will have a negative impact on asset valuations, including house prices. US households, no longer living off capital gains, will have to start saving again. With investment down and saving up, the current account deficit will narrow.
Unfortunately, this happy observation is not the end of the story. A significant decline in both consumption and investment will mean a recession in the US. This conclusion is so obvious that the only question is why the markets are not forecasting it already.
The answer, presumably, is that investors do not believe that the dollar’s decline will produce a significant increase in inflation. The historical data say that a 10 per cent fall in the dollar produces 3 additional percentage points of inflation, which in turn implies a 450 basis-point increase in the discount rate. Clearly, we have not seen anything like this yet. Treasury inflation-protected securities spreads (the difference between yields on conventional Treasury securities and Tips) suggest only a modest increase in inflationary expectations. Maybe the “new economy” has rendered the US economy more flexible and resilient so that the traditional relationship between dollar depreciation and inflation no longer holds. Perhaps, then, fears of significantly higher interest rates are exaggerated.
But even if this observation is correct, it just means that the dollar will have to fall further to generate enough inflationary pressure to force the Federal Reserve to raise interest rates. At the root of the dollar’s decline is the view that the US current account deficit is unsustainable. Foreigners will therefore keep selling dollars until it narrows. This in turn means that the dollar will keep falling until US inflation heats up to the point where the Fed does indeed have to raise interest rates. The implication, that the US economy will slow or more likely succumb to recession, is unavoidable.
The question is whether there is anyone to take up the slack. For the world economy to avoid a serious downturn, less consumption and investment in the US will have to be offset by more consumption and investment elsewhere. But where? Europe is stagnant, and the European Central Bank has shown no awareness of the need for monetary stimulus. China is cooling off, and it will cool off more as it allows its currency to strengthen. Japan’s modest recovery will disappoint now that it has to raise taxes to control its own spiralling debt. Countries outside the Group of Four nations (the US, the UK, Japan and Germany) are simply too small to make a difference.
The implication is that the correction of the US current account deficit that is now getting under way will mean a recession not just for the US but for the rest of the world. The optimists who are welcoming the dollar’s fall should think again.
The writer is professor of economics and political science at the University of California, Berkeley
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