Monday, June 8, 2009

BRIC, the Dollar, and U. S. Monetary Policy

Over the past several months I have written regularly that the value of the United States dollar will decline over an extended period of time. The basic argument for this is that over the past forty years or so, any country that has run excessive governmental budget deficits and has not had an independent central bank has seen the value of its currency come under pressure in international financial markets. During this time, country after country has had to regain discipline over its fiscal affairs and see to it that its central bank acted more independently of the government’s budgetary affairs.

The United States has not been immune to this pressure throughout this time period. Of recent note, reference has often been made of the pressure the Clinton administration faced early on that resulted in a fiscal discipline that brought about a surplus in the government’s budget in the latter years of the administration. Of course, that discipline completely disappeared in the Bush 43 years supported by a compliant Federal Reserve System. As a consequence the value of the United States dollar decline in a relatively steady fashion from late 2001 through August 2008.

The rebound in the value of the dollar only came about as the world wide financial crisis created a movement toward United States Treasury securities and credit quality. As this movement has subsided, the dollar has shown some weakness once again.

The bet right now is that given the massive budget deficits projected for the next several years the Obama administration will find itself in the same fiscal stance that the Bush 43 administration was. But, even worse, the Federal Reserve has already liquefied the financial system and now seems to be in a position where it has to provide even more liquidity to banks in order to assist the placement of all the new governmental debt coming to market.

As almost everyone knows the Federal Reserve has more than doubled the size of its balance sheet since the first week in September last year going from about $880 billion in assets to around $2,060 billion on June 3, 2009. Total reserves in the banking system have increased by roughly 1,900% since then and excess reserve in the banking system recently have averaged slightly below the size of the whole Federal Reserve balance sheet in that first week of September last year (up from just $2 billion then). The ominous change, however, is that recently the Fed’s holdings of U. S. Treasury securities has begun to rise once again as the Fed has given more support for the bond market. The increase in the Fed’s portfolio of Treasury securities was almost $46 billion from Wednesday May 6 to Wednesday June 3.

So, the Fed has supplied a tremendous amount of liquidity to the banking system that is just sitting out there waiting to see what further solvency shocks it will have to face. (See my post of June 4, 2009, Even though Chairman Bernanke has promised that the liquidity will be removed from the financial system once the need for it goes away, it is hard to see how all these funds will be taken away in a reasonable period of time. Furthermore, if the Federal Reserve is under pressure to support the forthcoming supply of new Treasury issues it is hard to see how it can both reduce its balance sheet while at the same time provide support to the bond market: especially if it has already started with this support.

It, therefore, seems as if there is some justification for participants in international financial markets to be concerned about a further decline in the value of the United States dollar. The scenario unfolding in the United States has all the components to it that international markets reacted against in the past forty years or so. And, the promises of the Obama administration to bring the federal budget under control with savings resulting from the, as-yet, unknown health care program appear to be grossly optimistic, at best.

There is another factor looming on the horizon that has not been present in earlier discussions about the value of the dollar. Over the past forty years or so there never has been a question raised about the role that the United States dollar plays in the international financial system. Over the past six months this topic, something that was unthinkable before, has been raised by the leaders of several countries.

In my estimation we are a long way from de-throning the United States dollar from its lofty position. However, one must take into consideration the fact that this idea is even being seriously floated in the world today. This points up the fact that the fiscal and monetary position of the United States government is being questioned and this only provides additional evidence of the weakness of the dollar in world markets.

The primary concern is being expressed by the BRIC countries, Brazil, Russia, India, and China. These are the countries that are closing the economic gap between themselves and the United States. Not that the United States will lose its Number One position as an economic power: just that these countries are coming on fast to reduce the difference. And, as these nations become more powerful relative to the United States, more and more attention is going to have to be paid to their economic and financial issues and concerns.

The BRIC countries are in a bind right now and the tension is only going to grow. These countries tend to be exporting countries and therefore must accumulate foreign exchange. The United States dollar has been the currency of choice in the past. Now, however, their large dollar holdings are “at risk” because a decline in the value of the dollar will only hurt them. As a consequence they have kept the dollar from falling further than it would have otherwise by buying large amounts of U. S. dollars. In May, the BRIC countries increased foreign reserves by more that $60 billion in an effort keep the dollar from falling further than it did. In fact, these nations are adding to their dollar reserves at their fasted pace ever.

Yet, at present, there is no alternative for them to chose. One analyst has stated that discontent with the dollar is increasing, yet nobody knows what needs to be done. Hence, the frustration with the situation has been expressed by leaders from Russia, China, and Brazil. This feeling has risen to the surface in Germany where last week German Chancellor Angela Merkel verbally took on the central banks of the United States and England for their loose monetary policies.

This is a situation that is only going to get worse before it gets any better. One can talk all they want to about the possibility of inflation and when or if inflation is actually a fear that should be present in the United States at this time. The problem is that the correlation between excessively large governmental budget deficits and loose monetary policy is too high for participants in international financial markets to ignore. Furthermore, the power of the BRIC countries is growing and their needs and desires are going to have to be accounted for. And, within these latter countries there is the stunning rise of China. Given all the economic and financial turmoil in the world, China is probably going to achieve a more prominent world role even faster than anyone expected.

The world has indeed changed. Whereas the United States has not given enough attention over the last forty years to the value of the dollar in international financial markets, it is going to have to do so going forward. The Obama administration cannot afford to casually claim to want a strong dollar and then ignore the fact that it continually declined in value the way Bush 43 did. The rest of the world will not allow this to happen.

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