More today with the print edition of the Economist going on-line:
The Disappearing Dollar
Many American policymakers talk as though it is better to rely entirely on a falling dollar to solve, somehow, all their problems. Conceivably, it could happen—but such a one-sided remedy would most likely be far more painful than they imagine. America's challenge is not just to reduce its current-account deficit to a level which foreigners are happy to finance by buying more dollar assets, but also to persuade existing foreign creditors to hang on to their vast stock of dollar assets, estimated at almost $11 trillion. A fall in the dollar sufficient to close the current-account deficit might destroy its safe-haven status. If the dollar falls by another 30%, as some predict, it would amount to the biggest default in history: not a conventional default on debt service, but default by stealth, wiping trillions off the value of foreigners' dollar assets.
The dollar's loss of reserve-currency status would lead America's creditors to start cashing those cheques—and what an awful lot of cheques there are to cash. As that process gathered pace, the dollar could tumble further and further. American bond yields (long-term interest rates) would soar, quite likely causing a deep recession. Americans who favour a weak dollar should be careful what they wish for. Cutting the budget deficit looks cheap at the price.
The Passing of the Buck?
Mr Greenspan may not be the only central banker to have become bearish on the dollar. Markets have been rattled by concerns that foreign central banks might reduce their holdings of American Treasury bonds. Last week, officials at the central banks of both Russia and Indonesia said that their banks were considering reducing the share of dollars in their reserves. Even more alarming were reports that China's central bank, the second-biggest holder (after Japan) of foreign-exchange reserves, may have trimmed its purchases of American Treasury bonds.
The current-account deficit is now being financed by foreign central banks and short-term money. In the year to mid-2004, foreign central banks financed as much as three-fifths of America's deficit. The recent purchase of reserves by central banks is unprecedented. Global foreign-exchange reserves (65%, remember, are denominated in dollars) have risen by $1 trillion in just 18 months. The previous addition of $1 trillion to official reserves took a decade. These purchases of dollars have nothing to do with the prospective returns in America, but are aimed at holding down the currencies of the purchasing countries.
The dollar did indeed fall sharply in the late 1980s, but with few ill effects on the economy. So why worry more now? One good reason is that the current-account deficit, currently running at close to 6% of GDP, is almost twice as big as at its peak in the late 1980s, and on current policies it will keep widening. Second, in the 1980s America was still a net foreign creditor. Today it has net foreign liabilities and these are expected to reach $3.3 trillion, or 28% of GDP, by the end of 2004.
In any case, the current-account deficit cannot be corrected by a fall in the dollar alone: domestic saving also needs to rise. The best way would be for the government to cut its budget deficit. That would reduce America's need to borrow from abroad, and so mitigate the fall in the dollar and rise in bond yields that will otherwise be demanded by investors. If combined with stronger growth abroad, then the current-account deficit could slowly shrink. America's growth would be depressed by tax increases or spending cuts, but there would be no need for recession. If, on the other hand, the government fails to cut its budget deficit, the dollar will fall more sharply and bond yields will rise. America's housing bubble might then burst and consumer spending would certainly slow sharply.
Exchange rates against the Dollar
These are not positive signs. It's a good thing that our government is focused on tackling these difficult problems...oh, wait...