How to handle the falling dollar

October 9th, 2012

October 28, 2007

The falling dollar generates anxiety almost everywhere. Americans and those dependent on American growth worry about the proverbial “hard landing” as inflation and interest rates rise with a weakening dollar, causing asset prices and output to fall. Europeans and others with currencies that float freely against the dollar worry that their currencies will bear a disproportionate share of the dollar’s decline and appreciate too far, leading to competitiveness problems. The falling dollar risks rising inflation, asset bubbles and the loss of macroeconomic control in countries that have tied their currencies to the dollar’s sagging mast.

The dollar’s decline may provoke anxiety but it should not be a surprise to anyone who has followed the global economy in recent years. History suggests that periods when a country’s economy turns down, short-term interest rates are declining and financial strains are increasing are likely to be periods when a nation’s currency depreciates. Moreover the US current account has for years now been financing consumption rather than investment, with the financing coming increasingly from debt rather than equity and shorter rather than longer-term debt.

There is nothing very new about a decline in currency of a country running a large current account deficit and whose economy is softening. But in important respects the situation of the dollar is almost without precedent.

The vast majority of the US current account deficit is now being funded by central banks accumulating reserves as they seek to avoid appreciation of their home currencies. While the US dollar is usually viewed as a floating rate currency, substantial and critical parts of the world economy operate with currencies pegged to dollar parities or at least managed with them in mind.

This suggests the need for rethinking traditional approaches to dollar policy at a time when the global economy is more vulnerable than it has been since 1998.

The Clinton administration approach of asserting the desirability of a strong dollar based on strong fundamentals while allowing its value to be set on foreign exchange markets was highly successful in its time and has largely been followed by the Bush Treasury. But it is insufficient in the current world, where the dollar’s trade-weighted exchange rate is to an important extent managed abroad. Some means of engagement must be found with those who have yoked their currencies and so their financial policies to that of the US.

The US has responded in an ad hoc way by carrying on a “strategic dialogue” with China – by far the largest economy with an exchange rate linked to the dollar – backed by congressional threats to address exchange rate issues using the tools of trade policy and references to communiqués from the Group of Seven leading industrial nations. In reality the dialogue is anything but strategic. Like so much of American international policy in recent years, it seems to confuse the firm statement of legitimate desire with the serious conduct of diplomacy.

Think of the questions Chinese policymakers must ask themselves. What is the highest US priority – global financial stability or market access for well-connected US firms? Can the US take yes for an answer or is it a certainty that a new president will insist in 18 months on a new set of economic diplomacy accomplishments with China? In which areas, if any, is the US prepared to adjust its policies in response to global interests? Given that the Chinese authorities have presided over nearly double-digit annual growth for a generation, do US officials who make assertions about what is in China’s interest have the experience and knowledge of China that should cause their views to be taken seriously? Why is China being singled out? How could China – even if it wished to – act in ways that the US prefers without appearing to yield to international pressure?

Maintaining global financial stability and the role of the dollar requires a more strategic approach – a task that, given the political calendar, is likely to fall to the next US administration.

The G7 process has lost its focus on exchange rate issues over the years as its member governments stopped trying to manage their rates. In any event, the G7 is something of an anachronism in the current international context.

It needs to be radically reinvented, starting with a change in its composition. Yet its history – particularly in its early years, when it focused heavily on macroeconomic and exchange rate policies – is instructive. Two principles stand out.

First, any new approach must be premised on the desirability of a strong, integrated global economy that benefits the citizens of all countries, not on the idea that economists or politicians can calculate “fair” exchange rates.

The right and potentially effective case for adjustments in the current alignment of exchange rates relies on their unsustainability and the distortions they induce in macroeconomic policies, not on ideas of fairness to workers.

Second, multilateralism is better politics and economics than unilateralism but it must not become an excuse for inertia. Any new group should be as large as necessary and no larger, should meet with some frequency and should include central bankers. It should be analytically informed but everyone should know that key decisions will ultimately be taken by senior officials in the national interest, not by international organisations.

The stakes are high. Well-managed finance cannot on its own make a country stable and prosperous, let alone the world. But history tells us that poorly managed finance foments instability and economic insecurity.

The writer is the Charles W. Eliot professor at Harvard University

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2012.