The dollar has clearly been under pressure this year. Most of the graphs of it that you have seen probably look like the first graph below, which shows what the dollar has done against two indexes since the start of the year. The blue line is how the greenback has fared against the major currencies like the Euro and the Yen, and the red line includes those, but also looks at how it has fared against a much broader collection of currencies.

Since March 9th, the day the market hit bottom — and the dollar hit its high for the year — it is down 14.4% against the major currencies and down 11.5% against the broad basket of currencies.

This has a number of implications. For starters, anyone from outside the country has seen nice gains if they invested in the U.S. market, but not nearly as eye-popping as the returns that domestic investors have seen. It also means that commodity prices have gone up much less for people based in Europe or Japan than they have for people in the U.S. Yes, the price of oil is up in Yen and Euros this year, but not by nearly as much as in the U.S.

There are those (many with very large soapboxes) who would have you believe that the decline in the dollar is a crisis. I, however, beg to differ.

While in the big picture over time it is not desirable to have the currency constantly devalued, at this point the decline is not likely to cause major problems. The major downside to a falling dollar is that it makes our imports more expensive, and thus can contribute to inflation. This is particularly true in the case of oil, which tends to rise as the dollar falls. After all, why should the price of oil for someone in France or Japan go down just because the dollar is weak?

However, right now such inflation is just offsetting deflation in other parts of the economy. The biggest weighting in the CPI is owner’s equivalent rent, or what it would cost you to rent a home identical to the one you own next door to your house. It makes up almost 24% of the overall CPI. Add in the rent that people pay to landlords if they don’t own a house and the figure gets close to 30%. It is part of core inflation, so if you strip out food and energy prices it is almost 40% of the core basket of goods.

Due to the weak housing market, and rapidly rising rental vacancy rates, rents are likely to be under substantial pressure for some time to come.

There is one currency, though, that the dollar has not declined against, and that is the Chinese Yuan, since the Chinese peg it to the dollar. Since we import a lot of goods from China, the decline in the dollar is not going to cause inflation in those prices.

The upside is that it means that our exports are much more competitive. This applies even in China, since we are often going head to head, not against local Chinese companies, but against European or Japanese firms. More exports mean more jobs, and a lower trade deficit.

Remember that net exports are a direct input into the GDP calculations. With an unemployment rate of 10.2% and rising, getting the economy moving again is a FAR higher priority than fighting inflation during a time of major deflationary pressures.

Since many U.S. companies have substantial operations abroad, or export goods, the decline in the dollar means a major tailwind to their earnings, since the euro they earned is worth more in dollars today than the euro they earned a few months ago was worth then. For the S&P 500 as a whole, more than 40% of the earnings come from abroad. For many companies like Coca Cola (KO) and Colgate Palmolive (CL), it is much higher than that.

One also has to take a longer-term look. The dollar has been slipping against both indexes since 2001, but there was a huge and sharp counter-trend rally a year ago as the world economy saw the wheels come off. The U.S. has always been a safe haven in times of distress, and around the world people flocked to pull their money out of Pounds and Rupees as they tried to find a safe place to hide in the turmoil.

The dollar still has not returned to the lows it saw early last year. Seeing the dollar decline as a crisis is sort of like seeing the decline in the TED spread as a crisis. It is not — it is a sign that things are getting back to normal.

Also, the dollar has suffered far greater declines in the past with no major ill effects on the economy. To believe that a 14.4% decline in the dollar today is going to cause major havoc in the economy, then one must remember the last half of the 1980’s — when the dollar fell by almost 40% against other major currencies — as a period of economic disaster. Somehow that is not my recollection of the time.

Given the chronic trade deficits this country is running, and has been running for a long time, a weak dollar might not be good, but it is necessary. The last quarter we ran a trade surplus in was the 3Q of 1980. That’s right, when Jimmy Carter was in the White House.

While recently the trade deficit has come down, it was still 2.71% of GDP in the third quarter. That is still an awful number for our long-term economic health. However, it looks great when you consider that the trade deficit has averaged 4.575 of GDP so far this century and was over 5% of GDP for three straight years, from the second quarter of 2004 through the second quarter of 2007.

It is the trade deficit that determines how indebted we are to the rest of the world, not the fiscal deficit. We have run up big debts to the rest of the world, resulting in China for example owning over $1.5 Trillion in T-notes. In return, we got all the stuff that line the shelves of Wal-Mart (WMT). Now the credit card statement has come and we have to start paying. As the dollar falls it means we get to pay that debt back cheaper. We have to make and sell less stuff overseas compared to the stuff that was made abroad and sent here.

Now, other countries might not be all that happy about it, but what are they going to do? Sell their dollars so we can repay even cheaper? As long as the decline in the dollar is gradual and orderly, it will help boost the economy. The stock market realizes this. The fact that the market bottomed on the same day the dollar peaked out was no coincidence.
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