Making the case for a weaker dollar

Imagine a world with a small current account deficit in the US, a somewhat larger deficit in the eurozone and a not too excessive Asian surplus. In such a world, economic commentators would no longer bang on about global imbalances and would have to find a different subject.

In the long run, such a world would require significant reform of the international monetary system. In the short term, a fall in the dollar’s exchange rate would help get us there. And I note with some satisfaction that it is happening.

A lower dollar is desirable because it would help America achieve the right kind of recovery. The US economy is severely constrained by household and financial sector deleveraging and possibly by a permanent fall in potential growth. In the absence of another housing bubble and consumer boom, an export-led recovery is the best growth strategy the US could employ.

I do not buy the strong-dollar pledges by Tim Geithner, Treasury secretary, and Larry Summers, director of the National Economic Council. They have to say that. It is the official policy line. The bond markets would go crazy otherwise. But a strong dollar is the last thing the US economy needs right now.

There are two further factors that support a weaker dollar. The first is, of course, the double-digit public sector deficit, which has already unnerved investors and which is not going to come down with any haste. The second is monetary policy.

There is little risk of inflation in the short run but a very significant inflation risk beyond the crisis. I doubt the Federal Reserve will set itself a target of a 6 per cent inflation rate, as some US economists are now proposing. But I suspect the Fed will not lean too heavily against the wind, should inflationary pressures emerge.

The latest published comments from Bill Dudley, president of the New York Fed, confirmed my suspicion about the Fed’s asymmetric bias when he said he was more concerned about deflation than inflation and that interest rates would stay low for a long time. This is 2003 and 2004 all over again, except this time the chances are higher that it will end in inflation rather than in a housing and credit bubble.

What about the rest of the world? Would the Europeans, for example, not fight tooth and nail against a weakening dollar? Not necessarily. Just look at the situation from the perspective of the European Central Bank. Ideally, it would like to exit early by withdrawing liquidity support and raising interest rates, but it is severely constrained because many European banks are still dependent on low interest rates and ECB life support operations for their survival.

Fiscal policy is also extremely loose and likely to remain so. From the ECB’s point of view, a strong euro is probably the most effective insurance against resurgent inflation, at a time when interest rate policy remains constrained.

A strong euro would nicely take care of Germany’s persistent current account surplus. The surplus countries will never adopt policies to get rid of their surpluses. The exchange rate will have to do the job for them. Last week’s announcement of a surprise fall in German exports during August tells me that the hopes of another export-led recovery, as in 2006, are unrealistic. I expect a much reduced current account surplus for Germany in the next few years and, for the eurozone, a sizeable, probably not excessive, current account deficit.

The sensible goal of a more balanced world economy is entirely consistent with a weaker dollar and a stronger euro. I am not trying to make a short-term prediction. Foreign exchange markets are crazy, and I have been wrong too many times. But what persuades me that the dollar has further to devalue is the observation that, for once, politics and economics are pushing in the same direction.

Exchange rates cannot solve the problem of global imbalances. They did not in the past. Reform of the global monetary system is necessary for sustained balance. I agree with the views of Fred Bergsten, director of the Peterson Institute for International Economics in Washington, that the world will ultimately have to move to maximum targets for current account imbalances.

In a forthcoming article in Foreign Policy, he proposes a current account deficit ceiling of 3 per cent of gross domestic product for the US. He also argues that a reduced international role for the dollar would be in the best strategic interests of the US as continued imbalances would end up producing intolerable instability, no matter whether they are financed or not.

Several proposals are floating around for how this could be achieved, for example the creation of special reserve baskets or the use of the International Monetary Fund’s special drawing rights. I expect we will see neither but are moving towards a dual system in which the dollar and the euro act as the world’s de facto reserve currencies.

The rise in the euro’s international role, which is already formidable, is not a reflection of the strength of the eurozone economy but of the liquidity of its bond markets and the need of foreign investors to diversify.

It is important not to confuse the international role of a currency and its exchange rate at any particular time. But in the case of the dollar, there is a link. A fall in the dollar’s exchange rate would be a very useful contribution to global balance. A reform of the global monetary system is needed to ensure that imbalances do not return. We are not there yet, not even close. But some of the parameters are slowly falling into place.

By Wolfgang Münchau

Post-Crisis World Institute