The U.S. dollar continues to slide on international currency markets. Actually, slide is too polite a word: “Nosedive” seems like a more apt description of the greenback’s behavior in recent weeks. Some economists now worry that a “hard landing” — a crash in the dollar’s value — is the chief threat to the international economy. Governments have to be ready for the uncertainty that has become one of the main ingredients of the new economic order.
The reasons for the dollar’s tumble are readily apparent. The U.S. economy is slowly emerging from recession, and economists fear a “double dip” — another slide into recession. After recording 6 percent growth in the first quarter, a slowdown is inevitable. Scandals on Wall Street have eroded investor confidence, which adds to worries over unrealistic profit projections. Market gyrations — the Nasdaq index has fallen below its Sept. 11 level — have scared away foreign investors. Hanging over the entire situation is the fear of another terrorist attack.
Last year’s tax cut eroded the U.S. fiscal balance, and war has compounded the drain on government resources. A year ago, politicians were debating what to do with a $1 trillion budget surplus. Most recently, the Congressional Budget Office has forecast a budget deficit of $150 billion this year and that is expected to climb to $171 billion in 2003. Those forecasts are going to be revised upward next month. Ominously, the U.S. government is about to run out of money. Legislation to raise the debt ceiling is stalled in Congress as politicians maneuver to blame the other party. Another fiscal derailment is a very real possibility.
Finally, there is the trade deficit. The U.S. has been the engine of the global economy since 1995, serving as the “consumer of last resort.” Japan’s growth, anemic as it has been, and that of the other Asian economies since 1998, owes much to the American consumer who has happily lived beyond his or her means. The most recent figures put the trade deficit at a record $35.9 billion in April. For the first quarter of 2002, the U.S. current account deficit also hit a record high of $112.5 billion; that was a sharp increase over the fourth quarter of 2001, as well as the estimates of economists surveyed by the Department of Commerce.
American profligacy now requires about $1.5 billion in capital inflows each day to satiate the appetite for goods. A loss of confidence about the value of those investments — in real terms or because of declining exchange rates — makes financing the debt yet more difficult. The result has been the dollar slide of recent weeks. Last week, the dollar hit its lowest value against the euro since March 2000, and ended the week down 2.9 percent against the currency. Jitters prompted investors to pull out of the U.S. market, which pushed the Dow down and compounded worries. Declining expectations are a self-fulfilling prophecy.
The dollar’s drop poses particular problems for Japan. Exports have been one of the few bright spots for the economy; an appreciation of the yen would hurt the competitiveness of Japanese exports at a critical time, and undercut the value of repatriated foreign exchange earnings. Japan’s official position is that it is against “excessive movements” in foreign exchange markets. To that end, the Bank of Japan has intervened five times since May 22 to keep the yen from appreciating too quickly, most recently earlier this week when the currency hit 120.80 to the dollar, its lowest level since early November.
Unfortunately, the BOJ’s action resembles that of King Canute, who tried to hold back the tides. Japan cannot counter the tectonic forces at work in the global economy. Economic fundamentals are driving currency markets. Japan’s economy is slowly recovering and the U.S. is readjusting to purge its excesses. Fearful of a recession, the U.S. Federal Reserve Board is likely to continue cutting interest rates, which will push down the dollar’s value even more since it leaves investors with even less incentive to purchase U.S. paper. Intervention cannot halt those processes.
Readjustment is inevitable. While Japanese companies prefer the additional competitive advantage conferred by a weak yen, there can be too much of a good thing. The strong dollar has undercut U.S. corporate competitiveness, which exacerbates the trade deficit. Europe and Asia, especially Japan, need to stimulate their own domestic demand. Relying on the U.S. has created dangerous instability in the international economy. Of course, the U.S. has to impose some discipline on its own unruly consumers. America’s reluctance to do that is no excuse for us to indulge in similar excesses.
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