Credits in the U.S. balance of payments give rise to a demand for dollars. Debits reflect the supply of dollars. Together, they determined the exchange rate for the dollar. So far, so good. Everybody knows that.
Then why is it that virtually all the commentary on the dollar on financial TV and in blogs fails to mention the balance of payments when discussing the dollar? The dollar is considered super-important these days while the balance of payments isn’t considered important enough to mention. That’s like saying the price is important, but supply and demand don’t matter.
Instead, a strong dollar is treated as both the evidence of U.S. economic strength and a major cause of it. A weak dollar reflects and causes economic weakness. This relationship is either taken as self evident or is based on historical periods when the economy and the dollar were strong together or weak together. Unfortunately, these conclusions are the opposite of what economy theory teaches.
Other things equal, a primary result of an exogenous weakening of the dollar is an increase in foreign demand for U.S. exports, since they are now cheaper in terms of foreign currencies. A weaker dollar also makes foreign exports (U.S. imports) more expensive in dollar terms. Therefore, the weaker dollar will stimulate U.S. exports and depress U.S. imports. This increase in net exports (U.S. exports minus imports) adds to total spending as measured by GDP. If GDP is at recession levels, a weaker dollar helps pull us out of recession.
I don’t deny that many other economic variables have an influence on these relationships. However, the relative price change brought about by changes in the exchange rate are considered dominant among economists who study the matter.
The positive jolt to domestic GDP caused by a depreciating home currency is well known all over the world. That is why during a global slump such as we are in today we have to guard against competitive devaluations where each country tries to boost its economy through depreciation or devaluation which has the opposite effect on its trading partners. The term of art is “beggar thy neighbor” policies, sometimes called “beggar my neighbor” policies.
While the competitive advantages of currency depreciation are widely understood around the world, most of the talking heads on financial TV seem to believe that the opposite is true for the United States. They imply that a stronger dollar will lead to a stronger economy and a stronger economy will lead to a stronger dollar.
Apparently forgotten is the pressure U.S. officials put on China in the not-too-distant past to let the yuan appreciate, which would effectively depreciate the dollar against the yuan. I wasn’t in favor of pressuring China on that point, but at least those who did understood that a more expensive yuan and less expensive dollar would help restore more balance to trade between those countries. Today’s proponents of dollar appreciation are pulling in the opposite direction. It is amazing to me that China has completely turned the tables on us by arguing that it is us with the weak currency while touting their own artificially weak currency (roughly pegged to the dollar and protected also by exchange controls) as a potential reserve currency.
I’m changing focus now. Pay attention.
While a weaker currency helps a country pull out of a recession, a strong currency is beneficial if there is no recession, or shortage of aggregate demand. A strong currency relative to those of your trading partners helps consumers by making imported goods and services cheaper in the domestic currency. The added competition from imports also lowers the price of many domestically produced goods and services. A strong currency puts pressure on producers, exporters, and potential exporters to remain competitive, which isn’t always possible. Businesses may fail and jobs may be lost.
A strong currency generally harms producers and exporters. To repeat: a strong currency generally helps consumers and harms producers.
So, how do you choose which group to help?
The answer is you don’t. Under our system of market-determined exchange rates, the rules-of- the-game call for hands off. Keep the float clean, not dirty. Government tinkering with a floating currency opens it up to intense lobbying by pressure groups that is best avoided.
In the quandary of whether to favor consumers or producers, importers or exporters, a couple of points should help. One is no matter what we do for a living, we are all consumers. Even those harmed as producers will be helped as consumers. Another question to ponder is this: Who is an economy for, consumers or producers? I think the answer is consumers. This is similar to the question, do we work to eat or eat to work? Or, do we import to export or do we export to import. I think the unstated consensus in a democracy is we work to eat and we export to import. Consumption is the end; production is the means. A more totalitarian government, like China, is usually tempted toward mercantilism, which includes a higher priority on exports than imports.
So, my conclusion is there is a strong argument to be made for a strong currency. It just doesn’t apply in the midst of a deep recession when the main problem is inadequate aggregate demand. Many people who don’t acknowledge that are, in my opinion, trying to avoid sounding “Keynesian.”
I’ve said this many times before. My position on a strong dollar is similar to St.Augustine’s position on chastity in his famous prayer: “Lord, make me chaste, but not just yet.” My prayer is, “Lord give us a strong dollar, but not just yet.”