Colin Barr

Following the money in banking, economics, and Washington

Does the dollar dig inflation?

March 22, 2011: 6:30 AM ET

Maybe Ben Bernanke isn't such a debaser after all.

For six months critics have been screaming that Bernanke's loose policy would set off massive inflation and destroy the value of the dollar. Dump-the-dollar calls have picked up lately, with the dollar index near a 52-week low and inflation expectations rising a bit.

Everyone has their secrets

But what if all the yelling is wrong and the Fed's pursuit of modest inflation doesn't doom the dollar? What if the dollar is actually more allergic to anemic growth?

It's hard to say for sure because there are so many factors in currency trading, ranging from monetary policy to trade flows to economic growth. Yet it's clear that higher inflation alone doesn't mean a weaker dollar.

Consider the two dollar trading regimes in the past quarter century: the rising dollar world of 1988-2001, and the falling dollar world since.

You might assume consumer price inflation has been higher in the latter period. Calls to can Bernanke and complaints about higher food and energy prices certainly suggest this -- as does the memory of the 1990s as a disinflationary boom.

Yet the CPI averaged 3.2% in the rising-dollar period and 2.4% since, Bank of America economist Ethan Harris says. So much for the supposedly irreversible dangers of printing.

"If this shift from discipline to 'debasement' is increasing inflation, the impact is being swamped by other developments," Harris writes. "Moreover, if critics are right and the Fed is increasing its debasement of the dollar, why has the dollar leveled off in the last few years?"

In part, of course, the answer there is that the dollar has to rise and fall against something, and the euro area is not exactly setting any financial stability records lately either.

But you can also rationalize the dollar's rise during the 1990s and its fall during the past decade by looking first at U.S. growth, which was strong then and has been weak lately. Even now you could argue the dollar's weakness fails to appreciate U.S. growth potential – particularly vis a vis Japan's yen, which was hitting new highs before last week's intervention.

"The dollar doesn't always get a lot of credit for the growth story here in the U.S.," says MF Global currency analyst Jessica Hoverson.

To that end the euro, for all its political problems and bailout fears, is trading at a 52-week high against the dollar. The European Central Bank has signaled it expects to start raising interest rates next month, in a bid to cool rising commodity prices.

In a world where $4 gasoline is coming soon, that sounds like a rare bit of clear-headed resolve from weaselly central bankers. But Harris, recalling what happened when the ECB raised rates in 2008 in response to that summer's oil spike, says detractors would do well to see how this latest inflation-scare movie turns out before bashing Bernanke.

"For some, this episode is evidence that Bernanke is an über dove on inflation," writes Harris. "To us it is evidence that he is a better judge of the risks around the outlook than his critics."

Not that that's saying much, really.

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Follow me on Twitter at @ColinCBarr.

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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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