“A nation’s exchange rate is the single most important price in its economy.” Paul Volcker
The value of the United States dollar is heading to the lows it reached in the summer of 2008. My belief is that the value of the dollar will reach these lows in the fall and then proceed to even lower levels in 2010.
The reason given for the current decline? The U. S. economy is getting stronger and the recession (Bernanke) is “very likely over.” In other words, uncertainty and, consequently, the financial market’s perception of risk are declining. A simple measure of the risk the financial market perceives is the interest rate spread between Baa-rated bonds and Aaa-rated bonds. The near term peak, 338 basis points, in this spread occurred in November 2008, a time when all hell was breaking lose in the financial markets. In recent weeks this spread has narrowed to about 120 basis points, a level that has not been seen since January 2008, one month after the current recession is said to have begun.
Financial markets are relatively calm and so market participants can direct their attention to some of the longer term issues that still have to be addressed in the world.
Of particular interest is the economic policy stance of the United States and not just the recent reprieve from economic collapse. The crucial elements? First, there is the massive amount of government debt that is projected to accumulate over the next ten years: maybe $10 trillion in additional debt; maybe $15 trillion; maybe more. Second, there is the Federal Reserve balance sheet that currently shows over $2 trillion in assets, substantially more than the $840 billion in asset the Fed held as late as August 2008.
This is a tremendous cloud hanging over the financial markets!
We know that the value of the United States dollar rose in late 2008 because of the crisis in world financial markets. Almost everyone concerned contends that this move came about as financial market participants moved to what they considered to be less risky assets, and that move brought them to U. S. Treasury securities and the U. S. dollar. This concern over risk was exhibited in the Baa-Aaa spread.
But, now with the strengthening of the U. S. economy and other economies around the world and with the calming of the financial markets, investors are moving their money out of dollar denominated assets. And, they are once again focusing upon the fundamentals of the economic policy of the United States government.
And what are the fundamentals? Just looking at the numbers one would have a difficult time telling the difference between what the Bush 43 administration did and what the Obama administration is doing. During the Bush 43 administration, there were massive increases in the federal debt and the Federal Reserve kept interest rates extremely low for an extended period of time. Now in the Obama administration we are seeing massive increases in the federal debt and the Federal Reserve is keeping interest rates extremely low for an extended period of time.
This is not a financial mix that participants in international financial markets like.
Let’s take a look at the historical record. We start during the Nixon administration because until August 1971 the value of the dollar was fixed in value relative to other currencies. But, once the value of the dollar began to fluctuate we saw some very consistent behavior in the currency markets. During the Nixon administration the gross federal debt increased at an 8.5% annual rate. The value of the dollar declined by 12.7% during this time period.
In the period between 1978 and 1992, the gross federal debt rose at a 12.6% annual rate. The value of the dollar only declined by 4.6%, but we must remember that during this time there was the period that Paul Volcker was the chairman of the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System and short term interest rates were pushed above 20%. As a consequence, the value of the dollar actually rose during the early part of the period even though the federal debt was continuing to increase. However, it was all downhill for the value of the dollar after 1985.
The exception to the other periods of time examined here was the 1992 to 2000 period. During that time the gross federal debt rose at a miserly annual rate of 3.6% and the value of the dollar actually rose by 16% during this period. By the end of the Clinton administration, the federal budget was actually showing a surplus.
Now we get back to Bush 43. During the 2001 to 2009 period the gross federal debt rose at an 8.5% annual rate. From January 2001 through to January 2009, the value of the dollar declined by 23.0%! (Through one stretch, the value of the dollar actually declined by more than 40%.)
With substantial budget deficits forecast into the foreseeable future, the Obama administration is causing the gross federal debt to continue to increase at annual rates that are relatively high by historical standards. The result? Since January 20, 2009, the value of the dollar against major currencies has declined by about 10.5%; the value of the dollar against the Euro has declined by more than 12%
I don’t believe that the current declines in the value of the dollar are just a result of the strengthening of the United States economy. To me, the fall in the value of the dollar is just a continuation of the market’s response to the general economic and fiscal policies of the latter part of the 20th century. Since at least 1971, the United States government has consistently deflated the value of the dollar.
In 1971, President Richard Nixon, as he embraced deficit spending, said that we had all become Keynesians. Unfortunately, he was right then and I fear that he is still right about the policy makers now in charge in Washington! Because of this I cannot see any long term relief in sight for the dollar. The debt of the federal government will continue to increase at a very rapid pace and the value of the dollar will continue to decline.