The Dollar-Fifty-Six Euro

[ Posted Wednesday, November 28th, 2007 – 11:41 UTC ]

When some Americans travel to Europe these days, they are shocked at the anti-American (or more precisely, anti-Bush) attitudes expressed by the Europeans. Me, I'm used to that sort of thing, so when I heard such sentiments on my recent vacation, they didn't surprise me much. But what did shock me was the airport currency exchange counter. To buy one Euro on the day I arrived, it cost me $1.56.

It seems I was unlucky enough to be traveling during the week the Euro hit a historic high against the dollar. I have to admit, it was my first time in the "Eurozone" -- the group of countries who have adopted the Euro (€) as their currency. I had previously visited London since the Euro's introduction, but since the U.K. refuses to give up the pound sterling, I didn't handle Euros at all. Until now.

The reason a dollar-fifty-six is a shocking price for one Euro is that when it was introduced, the Euro traded around one-for-one with the U.S. dollar. It fluctuated a bit, between about $0.85 and $1.15, but during the transition period it averaged out at about even. One dollar equaled one Euro. But the really shocking thing is: this wasn't that long ago.

In the fall of 2002, one dollar could still buy you one Euro. This was one year after 9/11, during which time the value of the Euro had only changed by about ten cents. Since that time, for roughly the last five years, the dollar has gotten progressively weaker, and the Euro has gotten progressively stronger.

Put another way, it takes 50% more dollars to buy European goods than it did five years ago. Or, if you prefer, the dollar has lost one-third of its value in that time.

Now, admittedly, I am no economist and don't pretend to fully understand the complexities of the world currency trading market. But does it really take one to know that something is wrong with this picture?

The way I understand things (any economists out there, feel free to correct me if I'm wrong), other countries buy U.S. dollars on the trading markets for various reasons, one of the biggest being their "foreign reserves." Countries hedge their own currencies against disaster by holding onto other countries' money as a "reserve." It's kind of like investing in a company, but instead of shares of stock you get "shares" (dollars, for instance) of "the U.S. economy" (America's future prospects). When America's future prospects in the world economy look good, the dollar gets stronger and it costs other countries more of their own currency to buy one. When America's future prospects look dim, then the dollar weakens. And it costs a dollar fifty-six to buy a Euro.

Adept students of history will point out that the fall of 2002 was when we pretty much announced to the world that we were going to invade Iraq. While (again) I'm not an economist, I would think that might have something to do with the situation. But our Middle East adventure isn't the only thing driving the dollar down. The high price of oil, our subprime mortgage mess, the Fed's interest rates, inflation, our national budget deficits, our trade imbalance, and many other things are taken into consideration.

Whatever the reason, for the past five years the dollar has been sliding in a big way. Take a look at this chart of the Euro's relative strength against the dollar for the past 37 years to see which way the trend line is heading. While it is true that we're only a bit below where we were in 1995, you'll remember that the late 90s were a boom time for the U.S. economy, which explains the dollar's subsequent recovery. However, very few economists are predicting a boom time right around the corner for the U.S. economy today. Most of them are nervously hinting that the opposite might be a more accurate prognostication.

Now, while it is true that economists' predictions are mostly not worth squat (common joke in the industry: "economists have predicted ten of the last three recessions!") and should be viewed with the same skepticism as any fortuneteller's advice; if it's true that a recession might be just around the corner for the U.S., then that is not going to help the dollar at all. I may be looking back in a few years at "how cheap" Euros were for "only" $1.56, in other words. [Boy, that was a depressing sentence to type.]

The real worry is that other countries, at some point, will decide the dollar is a bad bet altogether, and either stop buying them for their reserves or (even worse) dump all their dollar reserves on the open market to exchange them for something more stable... like Euros, for instance.

This hasn't happened yet, but signs are pointing to other countries at least considering this sea change. In 2007 the Euro has hit a new high as a percentage of the world's reserve currency (25.6%), but although the dollar has dropped a bit from its high of around 71%, it's still a comfortable 64.8% which is not even at the low of 59% reached in 1995. The Euro, in other words, still has a long way to go before it replaces the dollar in the world's bank vaults.

But we shouldn't be all that complacent about the prospects for the future. There are two enormous events which could spell disaster for the dollar. The first is if China decides to destroy our economy by dumping all its dollars (and their vast amount of U.S. national debt holdings) on the market, causing a glut. If there's a glut of dollars being sold, the price would collapse. I even wrote about this scenario as part of my Hallowe'en horror story this year, because it is indeed a scary thing.

The second thing which could cripple the dollar would be if the world's oil markets decided to start trading in Euros instead of in dollars. Right now, every barrel of oil sold worldwide is sold in dollars, to make trading easier. But if OPEC decided that the dollar's value was so volatile that they wanted something more stable, like the Euro, then a vast amount of the world's economy would switch from dollars to Euros almost overnight. This, too, would likely cause wild fluctuations in the dollar's relative value.

But while both of these doom-and-gloom scenarios may happen soon... then again, they may not. As I've already said, economists' predictions are mostly bunk, and I'm not even an economist. I'm just a guy who occasionally goes to Europe and notices when my dollars become smaller (much smaller!) at the exchange booth.

The strangest manifestation of the weak dollar in Europe right now is the hordes of European shoppers coming to America (New York City, mostly) to do their Christmas shopping. While some are Euro-yuppies who are buying foreign goods for their chic value (the same way we buy European products because they're "cooler" than American products), many are simply looking for a bargain. Imagine that -- even with the price of roundtrip airfare added in, it is still cheaper to do your Christmas shopping in New York than at home in Europe, because the dollar is so weak. That's kind of an astounding concept.

Predictions are that over one million Europeans will make this shopping trip before Christmas. The "New York shopping spree" is so popular right now, they're giving them away on the radio. While driving to the Dublin airport to catch my flight back home, I heard a morning radio show that was eerily familiar (without the Irish accents, they could have been any American city's "morning zoo" show -- they really have the format down pat), and they were running a dial-in contest for a New York shopping holiday.

Is this to be America's future?

Bargain basement to the world?


[Note: In case you missed it, while I was away I ran a series of transcripts of campaign speeches from each of the Democratic presidential candidates. Tired of blathering and pontificating from pundits? Want to know what the candidates are actually saying? Feel like thinking for yourself? Then check it out! It's all conveniently in one place for you to intelligently compare all the candidates.]


Cross-posted at The Huffington Post


-- Chris Weigant


One Comment on “The Dollar-Fifty-Six Euro”

  1. [1] 
    fstanley wrote:

    I am not very hopefull about the near future of the dollar now that we are about to enter a crazy election year when nothing is expected to get done in Congress.


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