It now appears that the United States has finally succeeded in its efforts to destroy confidence in the U.S. dollar. Given the currency’s reserve status, its ubiquity in financial markets, and the economic power and political position of the United States, this was no easy task. However, to get the job done Washington chose the right man: Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke. Thanks to Bernanke’s herculean efforts, investors across the globe have now been fully weaned from their infantile belief that the U.S. dollar will remain the ultimate safe haven currency.
The proof of Ben’s success can be seen in comparing how the foreign exchange markets reacted to the recent crisis in the Middle East with how they reacted to the financial crisis of 2008. Back then, investors looking for safety abandoned their foreign currency positions and piled into the U.S. dollar (the market for U.S. Treasury Bonds in particular). As a result of these fund flows, the U.S. dollar surged 20% from August to November 2008.
However, during this latest round of global destabilization the dollar experienced no such rally. In fact, the greenback shed about 5% of its value since the Tunisia revolution began in December of 2010. The reason should be clear; the Fed has placed international investors on notice that it will unleash even greater doses of dollar debasement at the first whiff of additional economic weakness, deflation threat, or dollar appreciation. Just this week, Bernanke once again made clear that despite what he considers to be a better growth outlook at home and abroad, and spreading global inflation, the United States will not pull back from monetary accommodation, even as other nations conspicuously do so. The architect of U.S. monetary policy has stated explicitly that dollar debasement will continue for the indefinite future.
Knowing this, why would any international investor seeking a “safe haven” choose to park assets in U.S. sovereign debt? If Bernanke is to be believed, continued economic weakness in the U.S. will cause low-yielding Treasuries to lose value due to inflation while the weakening dollar erodes the underlying value of the bond in real terms. This is a one-two punch that sane investors will seek to avoid. It is no coincidence that a record percentage of U.S. Treasury auctions are now being bought by central banks, for whom sanity is a lowly consideration.
But in reality, the Fed has much less influence over the dollar’s value than do central bankers in Beijing. There is little disagreement among economists that without Chinese support, the dollar would be a dead duck. But for the last twenty years or so the monetary arrangement that pegged the yuan against the dollar served the interests of both countries. The U.S. enjoyed a flood of cheap imports, the benefits of ultra-low interest rates, and a strong currency. The Chinese received a booming export economy, which accounted for about a third of the country’s GDP, and the ownership of a significant portion of the future of the United States. To maintain this peg, the People’s Bank of China had to print trillions of yuan and perpetually hold more than $1 trillion U.S. dollars in reserve.
But recently, having led to rampant money supply growth and inflation in China, the peg has become more trouble than it’s worth, particularly from the Chinese perspective. The latest reading on YOY money supply growth has China’s M2 increasing by 17.2%; which has helped send their reported CPI up 4.9% YOY.
Inflation in China is pushing up the prices of its exports. According to the latest survey released February 14th from Global Sources (a primary facilitator of trade with Greater China), export prices of various China products are likely to increase in the months ahead, especially if the cost of major materials and components continues to soar. The survey of 232 Chinese exporters revealed that 74% of respondents said they boosted export prices in 2010. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported in early January that its China import price index rose 0.9% in the fourth quarter after holding steady for the previous 18 months. And Guangdong, the biggest exporting province, said recently that it would increase minimum wages by around 19% this March.
But here is the rub; China maintains its peg in order to keep export prices from rising in dollar terms. But the peg is now causing export prices to rise anyway. As a result, the policy is a dead letter. The simple fact is that the threat to China’s exports will exist whether they let their currency appreciate or not. But a strong currency offers the benefit of greater domestic consumption, while a weaker currency offers nothing.
The Chinese government will take the path that preserves and balances their economy while enriching their entire population, rather than go down the road to never ending inflation. For China the realistic hope is that the greater purchasing power of a strong currency will enable their growing middle class to supplant U.S. consumers as the end market for China’s own manufacturing efforts. However, for the U.S. the challenge will be to develop a diversified manufacturing base in an expeditious manner before surging interest rates, a plummeting dollar and soaring inflation overwhelm the economy.
The dollar’s recent reaction to the turmoil in the Middle East and China’s inflation problem illustrate that we have come to a watershed moment in American history. The decade beginning in 2010 should prove to be the decade in which the U.S. dollar loses its status as the world’s reserve currency. As bad as that blow may be, the loss may provide the shock needed to get our economy back on a sustainable path. The real danger lies in refusing to adapt to the changing environment. Our current economic stewards are acting as if the dollar’s status is written in stone, when in fact it’s hanging by a thread.