|"Won't you be my Teddy Bear?"|
In November 2008, I was sharing a cab in Chicago with Larry Summers, the former Treasury secretary and a fellow economic adviser to the president-elect. To help prepare me for the interviews and the hearings to come, Larry graciously asked me questions and critiqued my answers.
When he asked about the exchange rate for the dollar, I began: “The exchange rate is a price much like any other price, and is determined by market forces.”
“Wrong!” Larry boomed. “The exchange rate is the purview of the Treasury. The United States is in favor of a strong dollar.”
For the record, my initial answer was much more reasonable. Our exchange rate is just a price — the price of the dollar in terms of other currencies. It is not controlled by anyone. And a high price for the dollar, which is what we mean by a strong dollar, is not always desirable.
Some countries, like China, essentially fix the price of their currency. But since the early 1970s, the United States has let the dollar’s value move in response to changes in the supply and demand of dollars in the foreign exchange market. The Treasury no more determines the price of the dollar than the Department of Energy determines the price of gasoline. Both departments have a small reserve that they can use to combat market instability, but neither has the resources or the mandate to hold the relevant price away from its market equilibrium value for very long.
In practice, all that “the exchange rate is the purview of the Treasury” means is that no official other the Treasury secretary is supposed to talk about it (and even he isn’t supposed to say very much). That strikes me as a shame. Perhaps if government officials could talk about the exchange rate forthrightly, there would be more understanding of the issues and more rational policy discussions…
STRANGELY, every politician seems to understand that it would be desirable for the dollar to weaken against one particular currency: the Chinese renminbi. For years, China has deliberately accumulated United States Treasury bonds to keep the dollar’s value high in renminbi terms. The United States would export more and grow faster if China allowed the dollar’s price to fall. Congress routinely threatens retaliation if China doesn’t take steps that amount to weakening the dollar.
But in the very next breath, the same members of Congress shout about the importance of a strong dollar. If a decline in its value relative to the renminbi would be beneficial, a fall relative to the currency of many countries would help even more in the current situation.
To say this openly risks being branded not just an extremist but possibly un-American. Perhaps it is time for a more adult conversation.