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Does the Dollar Have a Future?

by MIKE WHITNEY

“If the dollar does indeed lose its role as leading international currency,  the cost to the United States would probably extend beyond the simple loss of seigniorage, narrowly defined.  We would lose the privilege of playing banker to the world, accepting short-term deposits at low interest rates in return for long-term investments at high average rates of return.  When combined with other political developments, it might even spell the end of economic and political hegemony.”

— Economist Menzie Chinn, “Will the Dollar Remain the World’s Reserve Currency in Five Years?”,  CounterPunch 2009

Barack Obama’s economic recovery has been a complete bust. Unemployment is high, the economy is barely growing, and inequality is greater than anytime on record. On top of that, inflation has dropped to 1.2 percent, private sector hiring continues to disappoint and, according to Gallup’s “Economic Confidence” survey, households and consumers remain “deeply negative”.  More tellingly, the Federal Reserve’s emergency program dubbed QE– which was designed to mitigate the fallout from the 2008 stock market crash and subsequent recession–is still operating at full-throttle five years after Lehman Brothers defaulted. This is inexcusable. It’s an admission that US policymakers have no idea what they’re doing.

Why is it so hard to get the economy up and running?  Everyone knows that spending generates growth, so if the private sector (consumers and businesses) can’t spend the public sector (the government) must spend. That’s how sluggish economies shake off recession, through growth.

Spend, spend, spend and spend some more. That’s how you grow your way out of a slump. There’s nothing new or original about this. This isn’t some cutting-edge, state-of-the-art theory. It’s settled science. Economics 101.

So is it any wonder why the rest of the world is losing confidence in the US? Is it any wonder why China and Japan have slashed their purchases of US debt?   Get a load of this from Reuters:

“China and Japan led an exodus from U.S. Treasuries in June after the first signals the U.S. central bank was preparing to wind back its stimulus, with data showing they accounted for almost all of a record $40.8 billion of net foreign selling of Treasuries….

China, the largest foreign creditor, reduced its Treasury holdings to $1.2758 trillion, and Japan trimmed its holdings for a third straight month to $1.0834 trillion. Combined, they accounted for about $40 billion in net Treasury outflows.”  (“China, Japan lead record outflow from Treasuries in June”, Reuters)

While things have improved since August, the selloff is both ominous and revealing. Foreign trading partners are losing confidence in US stewardship because of policymakers erratic behavior. Here’s how former Fed chairman Paul Volcker summed it up:

“We have lost a coherent successful governing model to be emulated by the rest of the world. Instead, we’re faced with broken financial markets, underperformance of our economy and a fractious political climate.”

Naturally, this loss of confidence is going to hurt the dollar vis a vis its position as the world’s reserve currency. But don’t kid yourself, China and Japan want to be the top-dog either.  They’re fine with the way things are right now.  The problem is, it’s looking more and more like the US is not up-to-the-task anymore given the irresponsible way it conducts its business.   And we’re not talking about the government shutdown  either, although that circus sideshow certainly lifted a few eyebrows in capitals around the world.  Foreign leaders have come to expect these tedious outbursts from the lunatic fringe in Congress. But, the fact is, the government shutdown fiasco had very little effect on the bond market. The benchmark 10-year US Treasury shrugged off congress’s screwball antics with a wave of the hand. No big deal. Not so the talk of “tapering” by the Fed, which sent 10-year yields soaring more than 100 basis points to 3 percent in less that a month. Tapering put the fear of god in everyone. The sudden jolt to mortgage rates was enough to put the kibosh on new and existing homes sales putting a swift end to Bernanke’s dream of reflating the housing bubble. The rising long-term rates threatened to push the economy back into recession and wipe out five years of zero rates and pump priming in the blink of an eye.  That’s why China and Co. started to jettison USTs. They figured if the Fed was going to scale back its asset purchases, rates would rise, and they’d be left with a whole shedload of US paper that would be worth less than what they paid for it. So they got out while the gettin’ was good.

So don’t believe the media’s fairytale that Bernanke postponed tapering because the economy still looked weak. That’s nonsense. It was the selloff in USTs that slammed on the brakes.  The Fed actually wants to reduce its purchases because there are humongous bubbles emerging in financial assets everywhere. But how to do it without triggering another crash, that’s the question. The Fed has distorted prices across the board, which is why the main stock indices are climbing to new highs every day on the back of an economy that has less people in the workforce than it did 10 years ago. What a joke. And people wonder why foreign lenders are getting nervous?

What China wants from the United States is simple. They want proof that the US hasn’t lost its mind. That’s all. “Just show us that you still know how to fix the economy and run the system.” Is that too much to ask?

Unfortunately, Washington doesn’t think it needs to answer to anyone. We’re Numero Uno, le grand fromage. “What we say goes!”

Okay. But the only thing that’s going is the US’s reputation, it’s economic dominance, it’s behemoth debt market, and its reserve currency status. Not because the world is rebelling, but because the US is imploding. “Stupid” is a disease that has spread to every part of the body politic. The country is run by crackpots who implement counterproductive policies that weaken demand, boost unemployment, shrink growth leave the rest of the world scratching their heads in bewilderment. This is from Bloomberg:

“While government debt was a haven as the U.S. endured the worst recession in seven decades, primary dealers such as Barclays Plc (BARC) and Goldman Sachs Group Inc. say the gains this month show the Fed’s $85 billion of monthly bond purchases are masking the risk of owning fixed-income securities as the recovery in America takes hold.

“Treasuries are just not worth the risk,” Thomas Higgins, the Boston-based global macro strategist at Standish Mellon Asset Management Co., which oversees $167 billion of fixed-income investments, said in a telephone interview on Oct. 23.” (Bloomberg)

Not worth the risk, indeed, which is why the dollar is getting pummeled mercilessly at the same time. This is from Reuters:

“The dollar fell towards a nine-month low against a basket of currencies on Monday, with more investors selling on growing confidence the Federal Reserve will keep policy accommodative….

Most expect the central bank to delay withdrawing stimulus until March 2014…. The longer the Fed keeps policy accommodative, the more U.S. yields stay anchored, making the dollar less attractive to hold.” (Reuters)

So the dollar isn’t looking too hot either, is it, which is why China and Japan have started to reconsider their holdings. This is from Businessweek:

“U.S. government debt has already lost some of its appeal among foreign investors. They were net sellers of Treasuries for five-straight months ended August, disposing of $133 billion in that span, last week’s Treasury data showed.

The streak is the longest since 2001 as China, the largest overseas U.S. creditor, reduced its holdings to $1.268 trillion, the least since February….With the economy recovering from the depths of that recession, Treasuries may be more vulnerable to a selloff this time.”  (“Treasuries Risk Shown as Fed Distorts Correlation to Stocks”, Businessweek)

Of course, there’s going to be a selloff. Why wouldn’t there be? And probably a panic too to boot.

Look, it’s simple: If the biggest buyer of US Treasuries (The Fed) signals that its either going to scale back its purchases or reduce its stockpile of USTs, then what’s going to happen?

Well, the supply of USTs will increase which will lower prices on US debt and push up rates. Supply and demand, right?

So, if the other participants in the market (aka China and Japan) think the Fed is about to taper, they’re going to try to sell before other investors race for the exits.

The question is: What’s that going to do to the dollar?

And the answer is: The dollar going to get hammered.

The US gov going to have to borrow at higher rates which could tip the economy back into recession. Also, the US could lose the “exorbitant privilege” of exchanging colored pieces of paper for valuable goods and services produced by human sweat and toil.  Isn’t that what’s really at stake?

Of course, it is. The entire imperial system is balanced on a flimsy piece of worn scrip with a dead president’s face on it. All that could change in the blink of an eye if people lose faith in US stewardship of the system.

But, what exactly would the US have to do for foreign countries to ditch the dollar? Here’s how economist and author Menzie Chinn answered that question in an interview in CounterPunch in 2009:

“If the US administration were to pursue highly irresponsible policies, such as massive deficit spending for many years so as to push output above full employment levels, or if the Fed were to delay too long an ending to quantitative easing, then the dollar could lose its position.” (“Will the Dollar Remain the World’s Reserve Currency in Five Years?” An Interview With Economist Menzie Chinn,  Counterpunch)

Funny how Chinn anticipated the problems with winding down QE way back in 2009, isn’t it? His comments sound downright prophetic given Wall Street’s strong reaction.

But we keep hearing that China is stuck with the US and has to keep buying Treasuries or its currency will rise and kill its exports. Is that true or will China eventually split with the dollar?

Menzie Chinn again:

“It is true that each Asian central bank stands to lose considerably, in the value of its current holdings, if dollar sales precipitate a dollar crash. But we agree with Barry Eichengreen  that each individual participant will realize that it stands to lose more if it holds pat than if it joins the run, when it comes to that. Thus if the United States is relying on the economic interests of other countries, it cannot count on being bailed out indefinitely.” (Counterpunch)

Well, that sounds a bit worrisome. But maybe China won’t notice that we’re governed by morons who’ve forgotten how to fix the economy or generate demand for their products. Any chance of that?

No chance at all, in fact, China already has already started its transition away from the dollar. Here’s the scoop from former chief economist for Morgan Stanley Asia, Stephen S. Roach:

“China has made a conscious strategic decision to alter its growth strategy. Its 12th Five-Year Plan, enacted in March 2011, lays out a broad framework for a more balanced growth model that relies increasingly on domestic private consumption. These plans are about to be put into action….

Rebalancing is China’s only option…..With rebalancing will come a decline in China’s surplus saving, much slower accumulation of foreign-exchange reserves, and a concomitant reduction in its seemingly voracious demand for dollar-denominated assets. Curtailing purchases of US Treasuries is a perfectly logical outgrowth of this process…..

For China, this is not a power race. It should be seen as more of a conscious strategy to do what is right for China as it confronts its own daunting growth and development imperatives in the coming years.”  (“China gets a wake-up call from US”, Stephen S. Roach, Project Syndicate via  bangkokpost.com)

In other words, “No hard feelings, Uncle Sam. We just don’t need your fishwrap currency anymore.”

No matter how you cut it, the dollar is going to be facing stiff headwinds in the days ahead. If Roach’s analysis is correct, we can expect a gradual move away from the buck leading to a persistent erosion of US economic and political power.

The end of dollar hegemony means America’s “unipolar moment” may be drawing to a close.

MIKE WHITNEY lives in Washington state. He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion (AK Press). Hopeless is also available in a Kindle edition. He can be reached at fergiewhitney@msn.com.

MIKE WHITNEY lives in Washington state. He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion (AK Press). Hopeless is also available in a Kindle edition. He can be reached at fergiewhitney@msn.com.

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