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The US Dollar Is Not Weak By Keith Long

In 2004, The USD Was Falling, But the Dollar Was Never Weak!

Germany's long term economic policy has been to cultivate a permanent trade surplus by saving more, and consuming less. But there is another side to their trade surplus/high savings rate story. Growth in Germany is 1/3rd that in the US, while unemployment is double, productivity is similarly a fraction of what it is in the US. High taxes, over regulation, and a pension system that is in deep trouble, are costs that contribute to the broad structural deficiencies that hold the German economic machine back.

This comparison of the leading economy in euro land with America is an over simplified attempt to call attention to the importance of understanding the dynamics behind a country's strengths and weaknesses which, in the end, are reflected in currency values. So the Euro has been rising and the USD has been falling. What gives?

For starters, I believe we all can agree that the Euro's rise is less a story of Euro strength and more really a story about the dollar's fall. Dollar bears argue that long overdue structural reforms in the US need to be embraced now, and they point to a looming 6% trade deficit, as well as other issues that now seem to be threatening a disorderly collapse in USD values worldwide. My point of view is that the USD fall has been, bottomline, in a cyclical move lower from a previously over valued level in 2002 when the Euro was only worth 85 cents.

At this point the next long term move in the dollar is in large part dependent on the answer to one question:Does the US need structural reforms, or is it the other nations of the world who are under consuming and under producing that need structural reforms in order to restore balance to the global economy and to currencies as well?

In a modern environment of economic interdependence, money flows from around the globe increasingly affect individual, corporate and national wealth through nothing more than the changing value of currency relationships {forex is a $1.3 Trillion/day market}. Currency traders who understand the dynamics behind these changing foreign exchange values will profit consistently and substantially. Those who have drawn the wrong conclusions about the underlying forces of currency valuations are destined to be on the wrong side of currency trades and their losses will enrich those who have been right!

In today's foreign exchange environment one currency continues to occupy centerstage as the world's reserve currency--the US dollar. Gold and oil are priced in dollars. The dollar is involved in 85% of all currency transactions {Euro 37%, Yen 16%} and central banks the world over accumulate dollars as a necessity for stablizing the exchange value of their respective national currencies. Offshore central banks finance over 50% of the US trade deficit that way. Three out of four dollars now in circulation are held overseas. And today as we see the US dollar falling farther and farther, we know that the rising price of gold and the recent $50+ price of oil are each in great measure reactions to this current and anticipated further decline of the USD. In fact Saudi Arabia is letting it be known that it plans to adjust the new baseline price for its oil up from $25 to $35. Saudi Arabia has also been selling some of its dollar reserves in favor of the euro. There have been stirrings that China is substituting the euro for some dollars in its huge cash reserve accounts. Net, net, if markets see this trend continuing, the USD is certainly headed still lower. There is also more and more credible talk that the euro will replace the dollar as the world's reserve currency. After all the Euro now has a 20% stake as the reserve currency of choice by the world's central bankers, up from 13% a short time ago.

Counter intuitively, we find the strengthening euro is not a welcome development throughout much of europe and the world. Indeed today as we begin 2005 and find the Euro at historic high levels, up fully 50% from its lows of 2002, German Chancellor Gerhard Schroder is saying the new level of the Euro is worrisome for the German economy. The French Foreign minister is calling for an international conference to develop coordinated policies {read intervention} to staunch the Euro's climb against the dollar. ECB President Issing is troubled and has asked europe's consumers to start spending to help the eurozone avoid recession.

And europe is not alone in concerns about their currencies' sudden appreciation vs the USD. The Japanese Yen is up 25% and in reaction, Japan spent $147 billion in the first quarter alone of last year selling its Yen mostly for dollars in another of its periodic and futile attempts to manipulate currency values. China is poised to raise its Yuan's peg with the USD since the dollar's decline has dragged the dollar-pegged Chinese currency lower with it and the falling Yuan now threatens to ignite inflation in China's already over heated economy. So as the Euro, Yen and other international currencies continue their rise in value as a counterpoint to the dollar's decline, there are economic costs at work.

It seems that in practice the world over, international economies, but not always their political leaders, prefer a weak dollar. Indeed, in a chorus that has grown stronger of late, the global political community is increasingly lamenting how our new era of globalization has become far too US-centric, and calls have become more urgent to fix a serious global imbalance. The source of this global imbalance of course must be America! "The US consumer is consuming too much, he needs to stop that!"

Indeed, the emerging consensus in the popular and financial press which after studying all of this has announced that there are 3 reasons for the USD move lower since 2002, all pointing to the US. Too much consumption {leading to a record US trade deficit} with its flipside, a low domestic savings rate. And third, the US trade deficit's twin--a growing government budget deficit has become a dollar negative and is now contributing to a precipitous erosion in demand for the dollar.

There is an abundance of opinion among those who follow currency markets that indeed the fall in the dollar is due to these kinds of structural issues that call out for America to reform. America must consume less, raise taxes and save more. And so their answer to the question, "Is the USD weak?" is an emphatic yes because the US economy's structure is weak!

There is A Different Opinion!

The one thing to remember about currency markets is that just like water, they seek their own level. They inevitably find a balance and these protests against the Euro's strength suggests to me that the Euro is not quite ready to step up and dislodge the USD as a replacement in the global scheme of things for right now. It also suggests to me that the dollar's decline is cyclical and the USD therefore, even though it is falling, is not weak.

Nevertheless, there is reason to believe that markets are increasingly seeing the USD as now at a permanently lower plateau than in the past, and I agree. So let's revisit the pivotal question for currency trader's. "Is the USD weak, or is it falling in a normal cyclical adjustment?" We need to look closely at what is behind this dollar's move lower if we are going to be ahead of what's happening in the currency markets in 2005 and understand these dynamics so we can then profit in currency trades. Note:The Federal Reserve US dollar index of 26 leading currencies ranks the dollar's decline from Feb. 2002, at 14%. That was from what many consider to be an overvalued level with the Euro trading at less than 85 cents per dollar at one time. Today this basket of currencies shows the USD at the same level it was in 1994! In other words, it is in sync with past USD cyclical moves lower.

Despite the many statistics that show current USD valuations within historical ranges, many governments, political leaders, economists and currency traders believe the US is facing a crisis and must balance its trade account, reduce consumption at home and return to the balanced federal budget it had in 2000-2001. In the absence of such reforms, the US invites a disorderly collapse of the dollar which is certain to lead to global economic chaos

From the point of view of the international political community higher taxes would be an ideal answer and contribute to all three remedies. They would reduce consumption and thus help the import skewed trade deficit plus also help point toward a balanced federal government budget! They want to see taxes raised, consumers spend less and a slower growth rate in the US. It sounds like they want the German experience as the model for the US. Dollar bears and their adherents are prepared to short the USD until they can begin to see their remedies finding traction in the US economy. But currency traders who buy into these prescriptions will be on the wrong side of the USD trade in the long run. Dollar bears as they continue to sell dollars will have a long wait for any profits in anticipation of a collapse of the USD.

As a resident, citizen and student of the American economy, I can tell you, neither the trade nor budget deficits in the US are going into balance anytime soon. More to the point, barring a catastrophe, it is virtually impossible to see them doing anything more than narrow marginally. The domestic savings rate similarly is not going to rival the eurozone's 9% level, nor Japan's 6% for the foreseeable future. In fact, unless the American shopper miraculously morphs into a parsimonious European or Japanese clone {something that is not going to happen}, the annual American savings rate will not be surpassing even 3% anytime soon from its current 1% lows.

Quickly let's look at each one of these "concensus" causes for the USD's fall and learn why so many currency traders are jumping to the wrong conclusions about the USD, and we will see in the event, opportunities open up for us to profit from being on the other side of the trade, that is, long the USD. The question for currency traders is "When to buy the USD, not 'if'."

A Reality Check Of The Bearish USD Analysis Does Not "Bear Up"

For those who say the dollar's decline should be understood as a reflection of an economy burdened by structural weakness {and there are many prominant economists who do}, as opposed to a currency that is in a cyclical move lower, then it would seem that the structural defects which dollar bears allude to must be able to "bear up" under a reality check. We know the US economy has grown at 4% in 2004. We also know that between 1974 and 1994, productivity was about the same as in the eurozone now--1.5%. But with the onset of the productivity gains from US corporate investment in IT beginning in 1995, US productivity has more than doubled for the last decade, and in 2003 and 2004, printed 4% gains, almost triple euro land's levels.

Even though the Federal Reserve policies on interest rates gave US borrowers real negative interest rates, inflation in the US is as low as the euro zone's is--2%. So on balance, we see the economic foundation of the USD neither defective nor needing reform. The US economy has low inflation, soaring productivity and high economic growth, all much better than historic trends, and all are projected to maintain those levels for as far as the eye can see. Of course, unemployment, is much lower than the eurozone, and trending lower. But what about these structural problems within the US?

Low Savings Rate

The savings rate figure is the simplest of statstics to explain and understand. Accountants add up total wages earned, subtract consumer spending and what is left over they call "savings." This savings rate number as a measure of consumer wealth, consumer income, or even as a loose approximation of consumer financial status in the US is only a small piece of the puzzle, and has too often been used in a misleading way.

You cannot assess savings in America without factoring in housing. Three out of four Americans own homes and like the overall American economy itself, the US housing market has been rising at an historic pace. The move up has been so strong that housing sales and price levels continued to print new highs right through the economic recession of 4 years ago.

And even the much talked about "wealth effect" in the pre-recession, pre-bubble economy in the US it turns out was mostly a benefit not of stock market gains leading up to the March 2001 bubble, but of appreciation in housing values and mortgage refinancing at historic low interest rates {which generated widespread "cash outs--cash payments after refinanciing because of the much lower interest rates}.

So it turns out that even though there was an equity market bubble, and a recession in 2001 {not to mention the World Trade Center attack}, nevertheless the booming economic structure in the US was solid, built as it was on new higher levels of productivity from IT, housing wealth and low inflation. The recession, precipitated by the Fed's higher rate policies was, as I noted on my radio show at the time, a "good recession" and a necessary one brought on by the over exhuberance of an economic and investment "boom" underlying the US economy. Fed Chairman Greenspan has said the reason he raised rates was because businesses were investing too much in high tech and at an unsustainable rate. In other words--the US had too much of a good thing. High productivity, low inflation, robust consumer spending and the US's growing home ownership profile are not structural defects for any economy, they are the things every economy seeks to affirm its strength.

Now as 2005 begins and with the recession far behind it, the US quite clearly presents itself as an economy that is stable and poised to consolidate its upward growth track, and with that will go increased demand for her currency, the US dollar.

Which Leads Us To The Trade Deficit.

As someone living in America, I have confirmed for you that for over a decade Americans have been living in an environment of low inflation, dramatically improving unemployment, low interest rates, skyrocketing real estate values, strong economic growth and an IT revolution that offers falling prices on many of the latest and most appealing high tech recreation and entertainment products available from all over the world. Imports from foreign sources have been low priced thanks to a strong dollar monetary policy in the US and taxes have been on a declining trend. One has to ask the dollar bears, "Why wouldn't the American consumer spend and buy more and more imports?" With interest rates at historic lows, housing wealth fueling personal savings {though not counted as savings in the savings rate}, inflation low and low priced imports from europe and asia abundantly available, it would be odd if they weren't spending, and given the moribund growth in Japan and Europe, the 2nd and 3rd largest economies in the world, it would be impossible for the US not to have a trade deficit. Americans are major importers for the world and that fact contributes mightily to international economic growth, but it also leaves America with a trade deficit.

So bottomline? The call for consumer demand to retrench in the US is a call that will never be heard. It is like whistling in the wind. It is not going to happen, and further, a large trade deficit must be understood as "part of the bargain" resulting from a strong consumer driven US economy which is also stimulating global economic growth. Don't forget, the international economy is US-centric because of the US consumer.

Finally, let's look at the federal budget deficit in Washington.

The US government budget deficit is an easy issue to evaluate in terms of its relationship to currency values. To begin with, the best, most informed estimate of future tax revenues needed to balance congressionally appropriated expenditures is reasonably accurate for at most, 60 days out. Budget deficit estimates have a notoriously short shelf life!

As the 2005 fiscal year began in October, 2004, the only thing that was certain is that the real budget deficit will be no where near its original working estimate. It never is! The Congressional Budget Office, the White House Office of Management & Budget, and every economist who follows federal budgets, none of them projected the budget surpluses of 2000/2001. Indeed, most contemporary estimates were being changed weekly during that period, as tax revenues exploded from the hot US economy at that time.

That being said, the idea of a balanced budget is a principle that the US should embrace. The 2005 budget at a projected deficit of $500 billion will pressure interest rates in the US higher. But higher interest rates are USD positive. On the other hand, a $500 billion deficit will increase the need for higher taxes, which subtract from savings and investment growth, and so that is dollar negative. But then we have to think about higher taxes which is what the dollar bears are prescribing to strengthen the dollar and help the US address the issues they see dragging the dollar down, and so higher taxes from their perspective are dollar positive!

I want to note that it actually would be dollar positive, and significantly so, should the US congress adopt a "paygo" rule, like it had when the congress posted the surpluses of a few years ago. The Paygo rule requires an offset in any new discretionary spending from either an increase in taxes or reduction in other spending, thus maintaining a stricter discipline over the budget. If the markets were to see a balanced federal budget in the US's future, they would anticipate more investment in the US and at lower interest rates and that will attract buyers to the USD.

The truth is, that at the end of the day a balanced budget is dollar positive while budget deficits affect the dollar exchange rate only in a marginal way, so long as they exist in an environment of strong growth and low inflation, which we find in the US currently. With declining unemployment and a base of high productivity we can discount the federal budget deficit at these levels in terms of significantly affecting USD currency values.

So it is quite apparent here in my "World of Currencies," that the structural strength of the US economy preempts a disorderly dollar collapse crisis that dollar bears project. Apart from that, the supposed structural causes of the USD's decline, its trade deficit, savings rate and government deficit are non starters as targets for reform, and more importantly, not structural weaknesses after all. Forcing the American consumer to spend less through higher taxes would wreck the US economy and in the process derail global economic growth. The global imbalances from an admittedly US-centric international economic environment are real, but they can best be addressed by greater consumption and other structural reforms in the international community of the sort the German model is resisting. The two points of view about where reforms must occur next are in fact, the two sides of the USD trade.

The market will declare the bottom for the USD as soon as it finishes making up its mind of how low that bottom should be, given its new recognition now of the permanent status of a large US trade deficit.. The Eur/USD level of $1.40 and USD/JPY of 100 Yen, may not be the low point for the dollar, but if theyare not, they are awfully close. The USD is falling, the US dollar is not weak!

see http://www.forxprofit.com/

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