By Elizabeth MacDonald
Time to listen to Texas Congressman Ron Paul, the lone voice of reason in Congress today who’s got to feel like he’s shouting into a field of cotton with his repeated warnings about the dangers of a collapsing dollar, while the administration goes AWOL on the problem.
The dollar just hit a record intraday low against the euro on reports that consumer confidence levels have dropped to levels not seen since the post-Watergate era. It is down 7% year to date against the Chinese renminbi, it’s weaker than the Japanese yen and the Canadian loonie.
The joke is the greenback is now only stronger than the Mexican pesos and the Zimbabwe dollar, an overstatement for dramatic effect, to be sure.But since hitting a peak in 2002, the dollar has lost about a quarter of its value against a trade weighted basket of currencies.
A weak dollar acts as an anvil around the neck of the US economy and consumers. Rising inflation is essentially a tax on consumers, so are rising energy prices, and that double whammy threatens to undermine the purchasing power of the rebate checks due out in May–backed by printing even more dollars.
A bellwether event of significant import to our nation’s finances happened this past January 1 with little notice. That’s the day the first baby boomer was allowed to retire. A new federal report wearily warns once again for the umpteenth time that the nation faces some $60t in Social Security and Medicare unfunded liabilities alone.
We’ve heard time and again conservatives say deficits don’t matter. To say that deficits don’t matter is like saying ketchup is a vegetable or trees cause pollution.
The $406b we pay annually in interest on the $9t in federal debt alone would rank as the world’s 30th biggest economy.
That annual interest cost surpasses the gross domestic product of Belgium, and is bigger than the GDP of Denmark and Hungary combined. The $406b would cover the annual cost of investigating Medicare fraud.
Stack all those one dollar bills making up our $9t deficit (and that doesn’t include the $60t in unfunded liabilities for Medicare and Social Security) and you would reach the moon and back. “Printing money cannot create wealth, if it could counterfeiting would be legal,” economist Brian Wesbury has said.
Even Milton Friedman, the Nobel Prize-winning economist and a forceful advocate for laissez-faire economics, got so sick of the way central bankers were willy nilly printing money in the ‘70s, he advocated that the government should replace the Federal Reserve with a computer. “Money is too important to be left to central bankers,” he quipped.
Broad zoom: The US economy has spent all of a year and four months in a downturn over the last two and a half decades. During that time we’ve seen a market crash of 22% in 1987, the S&L crisis, four wars, three financial crises (Mexico, Asian flu and Russian debt crises), the blow up of the hedge fund Long Term Capital, two asset bubbles (dot com and telecom). Since the Bush tax cuts of 2003, the US economy added the equivalent of China’s GDP–and government spending has boomed.
Now Federal Reserve chairman Ben Bernanke has both cut rates at a breakneck speed and pumped a massive amount of monetary stimulus into the markets to cure the credit crisis. I still think he is doing his level best to fix a crisis not entirely of his own making. The question now is, will Bernanke yank the liquidity punch bowl when the economy returns to trend growth in 2010 or 2011 as the central bank projects?
Let’s hope so, because the case for a weak dollar is, to me, well, weak. Namely, that a lame greenback softens the housing and credit crises as it fuels profits at US exporters whose goods are now dirt cheap in the eyes of foreign customers. Strong foreign sales at places like Boeing and Caterpillar reportedly added 1.4% to US growth in the second quarter of 2007. But exports make up just 13% of GDP. Consumers make up a larger 70%.
It’s no surprise consumer confidence is as weak as it was in the ’70s. LBJ had promised this country it could have both guns and butter in the ‘60s, so the Federal Reserve gunned the printing presses to pay for spending on entitlement programs and for the Vietnam war. For the first time, too, politicians got their mitts on taxpayers’ Social Security funds, after Democrats passed a so-called “unified budget” in the late ‘60s.
All that spending caused the dollar to nosedive in the 1970s amidst an oil embargo that sent oil costs, priced in dollars, soaring. Paul Volcker, then Fed chairman, enacted rapid rate hikes hitting 21% by 1979, and the Treasury went so far as to sell $6.4b in “Carter bonds,” largely denominated in Deutschemarks, to prop up the dollar. Gold got ripped off its mooring of an average $35 an ounce in the ‘70s, and in 1980 it hit a record $835 an ounce, around $2,250 in today’s prices.
Gold acts as a dew line for inflation. We essentially have a good handle on how much gold there is in the world and potentially below ground. When gold rises in price, it signals we are printing too many dollars, which indicates a concurrent drop in the greenback’s value. Over the last seven years, gold and oil prices have risen in lockstep, up 239% and 267% respectively. If the dollar had also risen in value at the same rate, oil would be selling at about $30 a barrel.
But now central bankers say that because of the weak dollar, they’ve seen capital losses carved out of an estimated $12t worth of dollars they hold in foreign currency reserves. The fear is they may unload their $12t in greenbacks en masse to cut their losses and run–which would really tip the US into a protracted recession. Already reports out of China show government officials there willing to rotate future planned investments out of US treasurys into other investments.
Countries pegged to the dollar are rightly saying, too, that we are exporting inflation to their shores. Saudi Arabia is a land that has had nearly zero inflation since 1998, but recently inflation soared to 7% annually, despite the fact the country is flush with petrodollars.
Congressman Paul rightfully warns us when he says the US government has “systematically undermined” the US dollar by expanding “the money supply at will for financing war or manipulating the economy with little resistance from Congress–while benefiting the special interests that influence government.”
It’s not just the US gunning the mints. Goldman Sachs figures that three-fifths of the world’s broad money supply growth came from emerging economies over the past year or so. Three-fifths. That’s gigantic.
Goldman Sachs says the growth in Russia’s M3 measure of broad money grew 51% over the last year or so, India by 24%, and by 20% in China, Saudi Arabia, South Africa and Brazil. That’s three times as fast as the US and the rest of the developed world, and it’s faster than their GDP growth rates. It’s the fastest pace in decades.
All that loose money is pouring into commodities, stock exchanges around the planet as well as bond markets–it’s largely why our long-term bond yields have been historically low, spurring a dramatic increase in mortgage borrowing, as mortgage rates typically track the 10-year Treasury note.
Watch out here–emerging economies are just as susceptible to minting lots of money due to political pressures, including things like paying for wars, or calming local populations clamoring for higher pay and more jobs.
What can be done stateside?
The administration needs to state more emphatically that it supports a strong dollar. A stronger dollar would draw liquidity back into the credit markets, lower inflation risks, cut oil prices and restart economic growth, notes Bear Stearns economist David Malpass.
Presidential candidates vilify NAFTA and free trade, when the weak dollar is partly to blame for problems like jobs lost to overseas operations, Malpass adds.
“Empires fail because they run out of money, or more accurately, run out of the ability to spend or inflate,” Congressman Paul warns. “We need to control spending, immediately, before it is too late.”