Saturday, December 02, 2006

The Dollar Crisis

I've been reading a book called 'The Dollar Crisis', which talks about how a rising US trade deficit is unsustainable and is sooner or later likely to be reduced through currency devaluation and general reduction in consumption and import. This will lead to severe repercussions for all export-oriented economies given that they basically survive on exports to the US (the Asian economies are the leaders in this respect, but India will also be affected) as well as other nations, since the world's reserve currency is the US dollar.

A slowdown in US imports will lead to a global slump and perhaps even a recession, creating worldwide stock and property market crashes, among other things. The good news is that prices of goods and services will most likely reduce, but if you're an investor that might not be much to cheer about! Further, if you are one of the many immigrants working in the US, I need not explain how a falling dollar will affect you. The book talks about currency devaluations of the order of 50% or more!!!

Reading all this has got me thinking about the general direction of the Indian economy, as the book provides multiple examples of 'bubble' economies, all of which showed similar trends in the years leading up to the inevitable crashes. We are all most familiar with the dot-com bust and perhaps the Asian crisis, but similar situations have been happening on a fairly regular basis e.g. Japan's bust in the early '90s, from which it is only now recovering...

The 'Crisis' In a Nutshell

Till early in the 20th century, the world followed what was called the 'gold standard', in which their money was backed by gold and, hence, redeemable as such. In such a system no country could afford to have a sustained net trade deficit as that would cause their gold reserves to deplete till it reached a stage when they no longer had enough gold to sustain their economy. Once this stage was reached, their economy would go into a recession and prices and wages would fall till they were low enough for their exports to become cheap so the rest of the world would start importing from them again, allowing their gold reserves to build up once more.

Today's system has no such checks and balances. The international standard is a set of currencies that float in value against each other, with the US dollar as the de facto reserve currency of the world. In such a situation, and with a strong dollar, there is nothing stopping the US from sustaining a large trade deficit (i.e. importing more than it exports). And since it is to the advantage of exporting nations like India, China and the Asian countries to keep their currency values low, they cannot take the US dollars they get from exports and convert them into their own currencies, as that would increase the value of their on currencies and hurt exports.

Therefore, these countries invest them back in the US and state them in the form of national reserves. Thus, the US gets goods and services and pays for them in dollars, which it then gets back in the form of investments. These investments are pumped into the US banking system, which it then lends out, thereby allowing businesses and consumers to buy more things, most of which are imported! This cycle allows the US to continue with a rising trade deficit. Thus, in effect, the US has been buying goods on credit!

This huge US trade deficit has been financing most of the economic growth in the Asian nations and other export-oriented economies, allowing for increased lending and creating jobs and wealth that are leading to economic booms and rising asset values (stocks, property etc). Therefore, a slowdown in US consumption will hurt these economies badly, leading to a very severe recession.

Since the US deficit is underpinned by the willingness of the rest of the world to continue to hold their reserves in dollar instruments, it is only a matter of time before it has to be curtailed as countries begin to get uneasy about the credit-worthiness of the US (after all, it cannot repay infinitely large sums of money) and either withdraw their funds or at least reduce their annual investments. The other possibility is that the US consumer, already neck-deep in debt thanks to all the low-cost credit they have had access to, is no longer able to service increasing debt repayments and chooses to cut back consumption, thereby reducing the extent of US imports.

Both of these scenarios spell doom for the rest of the world, as the net result will be for the US to have to sharply depreciate the dollar against countries with trade surpluses (China, India and the Asian economies) in order to reduce, and eventually reverse, the trade deficit.

The next post will focus on India


MWresearcher said...

Hey , wanna exchange links. It seems we write on quite similar topics. My blog is

Anonymous said...

I doubt that the US can keep buying goods on credit from the rest of the world forever. Take a look at the graphs showing the exchange rate of the US dollar against most major currencies. At some point global investors will realize that it's more profitable to invest in Euros or Pounds than in the US stock market, and then the US economy will definitely be in trouble.