Colin Barr

Following the money in banking, economics, and Washington

Enough already about dollar debasement

November 10, 2010: 6:08 AM ET

OK, maybe the dollar's not quite almighty any more. But neither is it the 98-pound weakling it's widely made out to be.

Yes, the greenback has fallen 12% against the yen and a staggering 18% against the euro since early June, when the U.S. economic rebound ran out of gas. Those numbers have provoked alarm in foreign capitals and prompted pundits to claim Fed chief Ben Bernanke was leading the global economy into the abyss with his embrace of easy money.

Grow up to be a debaser?

But beyond the scary-looking headline numbers, the dollar is actually holding more of its value than you'd think -- and maybe even more than is good for us.

The Fed's trade-weighted broad exchange index, which tracks how the dollar trades against two dozen or so global currencies, has fallen just 7% since the euro and yen took off in late spring.

That's obviously still a decent-size decline. Yet even after the recent selling the broad dollar index remains in line with its levels at this time three years ago, when a bubble-addled nation was just coming to grips with the collapse of Alan Greenspan's credit boom.

The index is also flat with its value in August 2008, just before the federal takeover of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac set the wheels in motion for a global financial meltdown.

So those who would tell you Ben Bernanke is consigning us to a future of pushing dollar-filled wheelbarrows around the A&P? You might do well to ignore them.

"The US currency is roughly back to where it was before the global financial crisis (when many of the countries now complaining about a weak dollar were actually doing pretty well)," writes Julian Jessop of Capital Economics. "If this is a 'currency war,' it still seems pretty phony."

This isn't necessarily to reflexively defend quantitative easing, the policy under which the Fed promises to buy $600 billion worth of Treasury bonds over eight months in order to push interest rates down. Skeptics say it could ignite the trade wars Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner has been working assiduously to avoid, while failing to reignite the domestic economy.

"While the few Americans still left in the stock market may see some benefit, quantitative easing will hit Joe Sixpack right in the gas tank and the grocery cart," Joseph Calhoun of Alhambra Investments writes in a recent note.

Stagflation or agflation?

But QE2 isn't the only force at play here. Yes, the dollar is weakening, but commodities are threatening to become a bubble asset class of their own, no matter what currency they're denominated in.

Meanwhile, the reason the euro and the yen have been under such pressure is because they are bearing the brunt both of Bernanke's reflation play and of China's refusal to play by the same rules as most everyone else.

China's yuan is among the currencies that have risen the least against the dollar this year -- which is of course an artifact of China's policy of exporting goods here and then recycling the proceeds into Treasury bonds. China in recent months has started to let the renminbi resume appreciating against the dollar, but progress has been slow, to say the least.

China's decision to continue with this policy, at a time when others in the emerging world are screaming about the dollar's plunge against their floating currencies, isn't just putting a floor under the broad dollar index and sending the yen and euro screaming higher. It's also holding back a deeply troubled U.S. economy, writes Andrew Balls of Pimco.

"The U.S. faces structural as well as cyclical problems and the fact that the U.S. dollar has not been allowed to weaken versus important Asian currencies is one factor frustrating structural adjustment in the U.S.," Balls wrote this week.

It is certainly not the only one. As Balls' colleagues at Pimco have pointed out repeatedly, U.S. politicians must confront the country's glaring deficiencies in areas such as infrastucture and energy policy before we can expect enough good jobs to start popping up here. Someone must also get a grip on the deteriorating U.S. fiscal picture, sooner rather than later.

But policymakers here aren't the only ones who bear responsibility for the muddle that is the global trade picture right now.

"At some point, emerging market countries may decide that the potential benefits of large scale currency interventions are outweighed by the costs, and therefore allow their currencies to appreciate rather than trying to frustrate the process of global rebalancing," Balls writes. "If not, creeping protectionism remains a serious threat."

Hopefully, this is not a something's got to give sort of situation. But even if it is, a look back at the last crisis suggests that it may not be the dollar that will end up taking the brunt of the bad news, however richly deserved it may seem.

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About This Author
Colin Barr
Colin Barr
Senior Writer, Fortune

Colin Barr has covered finance for Fortune.com since November 2007. Previously he was a writer and editor for TheStreet.com, winning a 2006 Society of American Business Editors and Writers award for "The Five Dumbest Things on Wall Street," and for Dow Jones Newswires. He is a 1991 graduate of Penn State and lives in Port Washington, N.Y., with his wife Meena Bose and their two kids.

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