Since late May the dollar has traded in a limited four figure range against the euro - limited and a bit odd. Good American economic news pushes the dollar down; bad news returns it to favor.
May Non Farm Payrolls, unexpectedly positive, gave the dollar a fainting spell. The June numbers, worse than predicted, revived the greenback. Retail sales figures and consumer confidence have gradually returned from oblivion and the value of the dollar ebbed as they rose.
Risk aversion is the standard explanation. Risk capital, or perhaps it is better to name it capital that is averse to risk, is sequestered in Treasury bills and other dollar denominated safe investments when the economic environment looks, well, risky. The demand for these dollar assets pushes the US currency higher as foreign denominated capital enters the currency markets and is converted to dollars. When economic risk is judged to diminish these funds suddenly pour back out of US Treasuries seeking higher returns. Since those returns are often overseas the dollars are changed for foreign assets and the dollar sinks.
This mechanistic and simplified logic may suffice to explain the weak pro and anti-dollar moves that have played back and forth in the currency since late May. But a larger question looms. Why hasn't the dollar benefited from the improvement in the US economy? Currency markets, like equities and futures, are discounting machines. They trade now for where their participants think that currencies, stocks or commodities will be at some point in the near future.
The US economic situation compares favorably with that of any of its major currency trading partners. The financial panic has long since dissipated. The banking system is not going to collapse. Present inflation is benign, whatever the real or imagined fears for 2011 and beyond. The Federal Reserve has restrained its essay into overt monetization. At the last FOMC meeting the Reserve Board declined to add to the $300 billion already allotted for Treasury purchases.
Perhaps the most informative indicator of current Fed thinking is the long neglected M2 money supply. Last fall and spring as the crisis escalated the amount of currency in circulation had jumped at historically unprecedented rates as the Fed pumped liquidity into the economy. But now it seems the Fed has drawn back from the money glut, the increase in M2 has halted and that can only help to contain future inflation.
One year ago the US unemployment rate was 5.5 %, it is now 9.5%. While such numbers are a serious hardship for workers and businesses they are also a sign of the flexibility of the US labor market. Because American firms operate under relatively few restrictions they are free to use labor as they see fit. US firms can restructure and redeploy resources to meet actual demand. When growth returns US firms are often in a better financial condition to rehire. US unemployment rises faster in a recession but it also falls faster and to a lower level under economic growth. Compare the US employment situation to that of the European Monetary Union (EMU).
EMU unemployment has risen from 7.4% a year ago to 9.5% in June, half the amount of the US increase. In Europe it is far harder for firms to eliminate workers and doing so is far more costly. Thus when the recovery begins there are fewer empty places to fill. Companies remain wedded to resource deployment designed for the last expansion with no guarantee that the new cycle will ask for the same product mix. In comparison US firms are able to meet the new economic situation with a far more flexible outlook.
Many secondary US economic indicators have improved substantially in the past months. Housing is stable, purchasing managers indices have recovered and consumer confidence and retail sales are on the mend. This is not to say that the recession is ended or even ending. But that as a comparative lesson the US is arguably in better shape for recovery than its European competitors. When this improved economic situation is joined to the historical ability of the US economy to work its way out of trouble faster and with more emphasis than any other industrialized economy we have to ask again: Why has the dollar declined?
The answer may lie in Washington and the political and economic agenda of the Obama administration. Currency markets are making their own discount judgments on the potential economic effect of the two major initiatives of the administration: the climate change bill and the creation of a government health service.
Irrespective of the political and policy aims of the two pieces of legislation and aside from any opinion on the social and environmental desirability of their stated goals, there is no doubt that both will impose huge economic costs on the US economy. For the climate bill the intention is to apply a proper cost to carbon output. The legislation is designed to impose huge new taxes on any users of carbon. Since almost every consumer or industrial product uses carbon somewhere in the production cycle the economic costs will stretch across the entire economy.
The health service bill cannot be funded without raising taxes and will likely incur large additional deficit spending as well. Few economists advise raising taxes in a recession. A further increase in the already vast Federal deficit could well squeeze out much of credit needed for the private economy and raise the cost of credit for all. Both bills, if passed in present form, seem destined to restrict US economic growth and retard recovery from the recession.
American equities have had a strong recent surge as the passage of these bills has become more problematic. The currency markets will soon notice. If the climate bill fails and the universal health care provision is watered down or put off until next year then restraints on the dollar will fall away and it could follow equities higher.