Dollar Spasms

Under the Gold Standard, the leading economies of the world, through their monetary authorities, agreed to maintain the “mint price” of gold fixed by standing ready to buy or sell gold to meet any supply or demand imbalance. Furthermore, the central bank (or equivalent in those days) had to maintain stores of gold sufficient to back the circulating currency (at the agreed convertibility rate). The currency was strictly convertible into gold at the fixed parity. So this was a convertible, fixed exchange rate system.
We no longer have this system, but orthodox economics is still based largely predicated on this gold standard construct, which is why notions of “affordability” and “sustainability” still dominate our economic discourse. In reality, we operate under a fiat currency system (where government alone declares money to be legal tender), which means that the notion that US dollar weakness is a harbinger of national insolvency is ludicrous.

Under the warped logic of neo-classical economics, there may be no interest rate that is high enough to counter expectations of losses due to depreciation and possible default, which means that there will be no alternative but to urgently restore reserves of foreign currency either through renegotiation of foreign debt obligations, international donor assistance or default, especially given our supposedly “reckless” and “irresponsible” government spending, which is supposedly robbing future generations of growth and prosperity.

Let’s all take a deep breath here: Whilst the dollar index has fallen some 15% from the high recorded earlier this year, it is still above the lows sustained at the height of the credit crisis reached about a year ago. The greater concern is that the market’s irrational obsession with “national solvency” will engender a panicked response from policy makers where the Fed actually raises rates in defence of the greenback.

Given that labor underutilization is now in excess of 16 per cent in the US (combined unemployment, underemployment and hidden unemployment) and capacity utilization is in the 60-65 per cent range rather than 90 per cent range sends one very clear message – the deficit is not large enough. In fact, it is symptomatic of weaker spending power and concomitantly lower economic growth. (”Good government spending” more or less seeks to fill private output gaps; “bad government spending” is a consequence of government not taking responsibility for filling the spending gap and instead letting this occur via the automatic stabilisers). By extension, the scenario of ever-increasing deficits is unlikely because as economy heats up, deficit shrinks and turns to surplus (as during the Clinton years and also the 1920s).

Consequently, the correct policy response is to spend until we get to full employment. That is the only consequence of large government deficits — insolvency is not possible. Your social security check will never bounce in a country issuing debt in its own freely floating non-convertible currency.
The reality is not so much that the US is inflating, so much as that the rest of the world is deflating relative to the dollar. Import prices are still generally falling, inflation remains quiescent and private credit growth is now contracting. These are hallmarks of deflation, not inflation. Additionally, the US is not borrowing in a foreign currency (in contrast to Iceland or Latvia or the Asian countries during the 1997/98 emerging markets’ crisis), so it does not face an external funding constraint.

What about China? True, there may be some indications that there is some shifts in terms of private portfolio preferences. Perhaps the Chinese don’t want to buy as many dollars as they did before. Perhaps hedge funds are now laying on a big “short dollar” trade in the markets. These are one-off portfolio preference shifts and it seems inadvisable for US policy makers to respond to every single vicissitude of changing market sentiment. That way leads to Latvia and economic implosion.

According to the G20 communiqué, those countries running current account deficits, most notably the U.S., would have to define ways to boost savings. Nations running surpluses – China, Germany and Japan, among others – would detail how they propose to reduce any reliance on exports. The U.S. would likely need to commit to a sharp deficit reduction by government. Europe would need to commit to improving competitiveness. That could mean introducing “labour market reforms” (an interesting choice of language here), which generally is code for being able to sack workers and destroy the power of trade unions.

The collective impact of these measures? We want more domestic led consumption in Asia and the EU (especially Germany), but then the two largest economic areas (the US and Europe) would have to deflate their economies. The former, by reducing the public net spending which would thwart the goal of “boosting” saving, and the latter, by widespread shedding of workers and the resulting collapse in consumption (and rising deficits via the automatic stabilizers as welfare payments and crime rose).

It is therefore unclear as to whether these “reforms” will actually achieve the goal of reducing global imbalances.  But they will create untold economic misery. Just ask any Argentinean. So, in regard to the dollar, what is our advice to US policy makers? Do nothing. In the words of the English poet, John Milton, “They also serve, who only stand and wait”.

MARSHALL AUERBACK is a market analyst and commentator. He is a brainstruster for the Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt Institute. He can be reached at MAuer1959@aol.com


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Marshall Auerback is a market analyst and a research associate at the Levy Institute for Economics at Bard College (www.levy.org).  His Twitter hashtag is @Mauerback

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