The Rise And Fall And Rise And Fall Of King Dollar, Part 1

The Wall Street Journal, recently, in The Return of the Greenback, observed that “the resurgent dollar has logged its longest winning streak in 17 years, rising against a broad basket of currencies for nine straight weeks.”  This has led to, perhaps irrational, exuberance from supply side titans Larry Kudlow and Steve Moore.

Cheapening the dollar is a bad thing, unequivocally.  It does not necessarily follow that making the dollar dearer is a good thing.  And there is a frequently unnoticed factor at work: the dollar’s status as the world reserve currency.  Dr. Jared Bernstein, senior fellow with the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, and, previously, chief economist to Vice President Biden and executive director of the White House Task Force on the Middle Class, boldly claims that the dollar’s reserve currency status has cost America 6 million jobs.  This is a startling, and potentially important, claim.

We live in a world monetary system that makes the U.S. dollar its official reserve currency.  About 60%  of international central bank reserves are Yankee dollars. Some, both right and left, in America and abroad, consider the reserve currency status of the dollar a bug in the software of our world monetary system. Getting this fixed is, in the opinion of some consequential thinkers, of capital importance for the generation of quality jobs, and equitable prosperity, in America and the world.

The reserve currency status of the dollar, particularly as a potential factor in wage stagnation, has profound political implications.  Dispirited voters yearn for leadership that actually understands how to get the economic tide to lift all boats again.  Notwithstanding his promotion of some marked policy differences with this columnist, this columnist says three cheers for Dr. Bernstein for squarely pushing the reserve currency question into play.

Dr. Bernstein stirred up a healthy argument in an August New York Times op-ed entitled Dethrone ‘King Dollar.’  Bernstein:

[T]he new research reveals that what was once a privilege is now a burden, undermining job growth, pumping up budget and trade deficits and inflating financial bubbles. To get the American economy on track, the government needs to drop its commitment to maintaining the dollar’s reserve-currency status.

Bernstein draws on an interesting, and thoughtful, paper by economist Kenneth Austin in The Journal of Post Keynesian Economics. Austin dramatically illustrates the explosion of international dollar reserves and explores the possible significance to our economy.  Bernstein performs a signal public service by placing this into the policy discourse. Bernstein:

Mr. Austin argues convincingly that the correct metric for estimating the cost in jobs is the dollar value of reserve sales to foreign buyers. By his estimation, that amounted to six million jobs in 2008, and these would tend to be the sort of high-wage manufacturing jobs that are most vulnerable to changes in exports.

Bernstein’s proposal drew a tart riposte at Café Hayek from Don Boudreaux and another from the Heritage Foundation’s Daily Signal by Bryan Riley and William Wilson. 

Shortly after Bernstein’s proposed dethroning of ‘King Dollar’ Larry Kudlow and Steve Moore, in their NRO column, joyfully celebrated The Return of King Dollar:

[W]hen the dollar crashed in the 1970s — especially relative to gold — the economy collapsed into a crippling stagflation. From 1999 to 2009, the dollar index dropped by almost 40 percent, with only a brief surge between 2004 and 2006. The economy and wages were sluggish at best.

The relationship between a strong currency and prosperity is lost on the many nations that adhere to the mercantilist model whereby a devalued currency supposedly gives a country a competitive edge by making exports cheaper. …

Kudlow and Moore deserve praise for their opposition to cheapening the dollar.  That said, cheering on a “strong” dollar intellectually is akin to calling for a longer inch or a heavier ounce as a recipe to — magically — make us richer.

No.  What is needed is a high integrity, meticulously defined, dollar.

A dollar at the mercy of a freelancing Fed, subject to being whipsawed in value, up or down, is a barrier to commerce.  Money, by definition, is a medium of exchange, a store of value and — not be overlooked — a unit of account.  There are many empirical data tending to show that only by meticulously maintaining the definition of the unit — for example, by defining the dollar by grains of gold and making it legally convertible thereunto — can good job creation, and equitable prosperity, consistently be achieved.

There is a deep, fascinating, historical context.  It extends even to the use of the regal metaphor.  Therein rests an irony wrapped in a controversy inside some history.

The history? Keynes employed a regal metaphor (applied to gold rather than currency) in his 1930 tract Auri Sacra Fames in which he writes

… gold, originally stationed in heaven with his consort silver, as Sun and Moon, having first doffed his sacred attributes and come to earth as an autocrat, may next descend to the sober status of a constitutional king with a cabinet of Banks….

The irony? Keynes explicitly mistrusted the Fed.  Keynes did not wish to endow the U.S. Federal Reserve with the power that, under then-prevailing circumstances which no longer need apply, a return to the gold standard would have entailed.  Keynes, in his 1923 essay, Alternative Aims In Monetary Policy:

It would be rash in present circumstances to surrender our freedom of action to the Federal Reserve Board of the United States. We do not yet possess sufficient experience of its capacity to act in times of stress with courage and independence. The Federal Reserve Board is striving to free itself from the pressure of sectional interests; but we are not yet certain that it will wholly succeed. It is still liable to be overwhelmed by the impetuosity of a cheap money campaign.

Keynes expressed wariness of the risk of currency depreciation (better known as inflation). Sure enough, eventually the Federal Reserve indeed became “overwhelmed by the impetuosity of a cheap money campaign.”  The Fed cheapened its product — Federal Reserve Notes — by 85% since 1971 (and by about 95% since the Fed’s inception).

A dollar today is worth a 1913 nickel and a 1971 nickel and dime.  This gives a whole new meaning to the phrase “nickeled and dimed to death.”

Cheapening of money is very bad for business.  It is really, really, terrible for labor.  Ron Paul, call your office: Keynes proved quite right to be dubious about the Fed.

Why do so few of the economists who exalt Keynes share his tough-mindedness toward the Fed?  Why do so few grasp the irony of their mesmerized adulation of an institution with such a mediocre (and sometimes catastrophic) track record? Many acorns have fallen far from the tree.

One of the factors in play involves one of the standard tropes of mercantilism, to which Kudlow and Moore allude: the intentional depreciation of a national currency to gain unfair trade advantage.  This is what classically was called a “beggar-thy-neighbor” policy.  The neighbor, in this instance, is America. Forbes Media chairman, and Editor-in-Chief, Steve Forbes, and columnist Nathan Lewis, both gold standard advocates, are zealous critics of mercantilism (as is this columnist).

Steve Forbes (with Elizabeth Ames) in their recent book Money: How the Destruction of the Dollar Threatens the Global Economy and What We Can Do About It observes:

The neo-mercantilists of the twentieth century may have thought that floating exchange rates would allow countries to correct perceived imbalances with their rivals and bolster their domestic economies.  But the monetary system they created was more volatile than the one they had destroyed, with balance harder than ever to achieve.

The turmoil of the post-Bretton Woods era is what sent European nations scurrying for the shelter of a stable currency, setting the stage for the euro.  The explosion of currency trading it has wrought has become a huge source of fees for banks.  It has helped produce the market swings and giant windfalls so decried by Occupy Wall Street and others.  In this dangerous world, monetary policy is deployed as a frequent weapon, nearly always with destructive consequences.”

Nathan Lewis writes, in his column Keynes and Rothbard Agree: Today’s Economics is Mercantilism:

All of today’s premier economic policies, notably monetary manipulation and floating fiat currencies, attempts to “manage the economy” via government deficit spending, and the never-ending concern over “imbalances” in trade, are straight-up Mercantilism.

We really won’t make much progress in our economic understanding until this is recognized. The entirety of today’s Mercantilist agenda should be discarded; first, at an intellectual level, and then at the level of public policy. Britain did this, and went from an economic backwater overshadowed by tiny Holland, to the birthplace of the Industrial Revolution and the center of the largest empire of the nineteenth century.

Forbes and Lewis are skeptical about the power of manipulating currency to achieve trading advantage.  The intramural dispute among gold standard advocates around the current account, however, is of mostly academic significance.  The respective camps respectfully agree as to most of the disorders caused by paper money.  They agree that the remedy to our “Little Dark Age” of wage stagnation lies in the definition of the dollar by gold.

Businessman/scholar Lewis E. Lehrman, founder and chairman of the Lehrman Institute (whose monetary policy website this columnist professionally edits) too is an outspoken critic of mercantilism.  Lehrman is the leader of a group of thinkers influenced by the works of his mentor Jacques Rueff, influential French monetary official, public intellectual (Mont Pelerin society member), and iconic classical gold standard advocate.

As for the unjustly obscure Rueff, keen monetary observer Robert Pringle, author of The Money Trap states in his influential blog of the same name:

[Rueff] would have predicted the Global Financial Crisis and economic catastrophe of the past seven years – and would certainly have attributed it to the absence of an international monetary system worth the name. He would have been equally critical of the flawed construction of the euro.

He saw that the globalizing trading regime was fundamentally at odds with mercantilist monetary and exchange rate policies: one aspired to universality and openness, the other pointed to particularization and separation.

More generally, monetary nationalism, unleashed by the absence of a global standard for money, is inconsistent with a liberal order.

Reserve currency status of the dollar, the more emphatically when the dollar is not defined by and redeemable in a fixed weight of gold, is a form of monetary nationalism inconsistent with a liberal order.  And according to Bernstein reserve currency status also is costing millions of jobs.

What are some of the costs of the “exorbitant privilege” as the dollar’s reserve currency status was called by then finance minister of France Valery Giscard d’Estaing?  Ought now America to give the exorbitant privilege a gold watch and send it into retirement?

To be continued.

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