Americans crossing borders groan in dismay as they exchange their dollars for less and less in other currencies. Holidays in Europe, for instance, that once seemed reasonably priced have become the opposite. At home, the cost of imported goods has risen. And currency analysts say the dollar’s decline may continue for the foreseeable future because of a number of factors including the policies of the U.S. government.
The "shrinking" dollar isn’t just an issue for people in the United States. Roger Leeds with the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies notes some global repercussions. "The dollar is unquestionably the dominant currency in the world’s economy as measured by various indicators such as trade oil is invoiced (priced) in dollars and most other commodities are invoiced in dollars," he says. "It’s also the major international reserve currency, which means that most central banks hold their foreign exchange reserves in dollars."
What determines the value of the dollar and every other currency? Simply put, it’s the price they are bought and sold in the global currency market place, reflecting supply and demand. Brian Dolan at GAIN Capital in New York says the value of the dollar or any currency also reflects the underlying financial circumstances of the country behind it.
"The easiest way is to make an analogy -- currency as the "stock" of a country," he says. "So just as a stock’s performance (price) is going to depend on the performance of that company so, too, will a currency appreciate or depreciate depending on the economic prospects, the political prospects, the interest rate prospects of a given economy."
Seen in that light, there are a number of factors that have combined to drive down the dollar. Beginning in 2000, the United States underwent an economic slowdown and a decline in the stock market, which analysts say made foreign investing in U.S. companies less attractive than during the "boom" years of the late 1990’s. Another factor is the U.S. government, which in fiscal 2004 incurred a record budget deficit of nearly $413 billion as it waged war in Iraq, a global war against terror and other costly expenditures. There is also the $592 billion trade deficit -- more than 5% of the U.S. economy’s total value -- run up last fiscal year as Americans bought far more outside the country than they sold abroad.
Economists say the trade or "current account" imbalance can be addressed by a "cheaper" dollar that makes U.S. exports more competitive on the world market. But President Bush and Treasury Secretary John Snow continue to say they support a "strong" dollar. Josh Bivens of the Economic Policy Institute in Washington says that won’t solve the trade problem.
"Everyone realizes that we have to worry about the trade deficits now," he says. "They’ve just gone as far as they can go. They’re not sustainable. But yet they don’t want to give up the "strong dollar" part and they can’t have it both ways. If you want to do something about the U.S. trade deficit, you have to accept a lower value for the dollar."
Mr. Bivens says the Bush administration’s talk of a "strong" dollar is mainly intended to maintain foreigners’ confidence in the U.S. economy so they will continue to invest.
Much of the concern over the trade imbalance has centered on China, which ties the value of its currency, the yuan, to the dollar. John Williamson at the Institute for International Economics in Washington says this has enabled Beijing to remain a dominant exporter. "When the dollar decreases in value, the Chinese currency rides it down," he says. "And so, that means that Chinese exports become more competitive in the rest of the world."
China has resisted pleas to break its currency’s link to the dollar in order to continue its economic expansion. But the dollars it accumulates are spent in part on buying U.S. government securities that finance the budget deficit. What worries some analysts is that foreign investors such as China may become reluctant to support Washington’s debt. If that happens, a crisis could develop that would force the U.S. government to raise interest rates on bonds substantially. Those analysts say Wall Street stocks and other private U.S. investments may be driven down as a result, possibly triggering a recession.
Whatever the dollar’s ultimate price, economists and currency traders say in unison that any shifts in the value of the dollar and other currencies must be orderly and gradual to prevent market "shocks" that can ripple worldwide.