The Dollar, Oil Prices and Exports: Lessons of Recent History

Business news pages are suddenly full of hand-wringing about how the rising dollar threatens to slash U.S. exports and economic growth.  “The strong dollar is the biggest threat to economic recovery,” warns one reporter.  Others quote White House chief economist Jason Furman saying “the strong dollar is undoubtedly a headwind” for the U.S. economy.

It’s not that simple.

dollar and exports

The graph above compares real U.S. exports with the trade-weighted exchange rate.  The dollar was rising much faster in 1995-2000, when both exports and the economy were growing at an impressive pace.  Exports eventually fell with recession, as always.  But it is much harder to blame the recession on exchange rates than on interest rates – the Fed pushed the fed funds rate 4.7 percentage points above core inflation.   

From 2001 to 2007, the dollar fell and exports rose.  That pattern might appear to justify recent lobbying for a lower dollar were it not for the familiar connection between oil prices and the dollar.  As the dollar fell, the price of West Texas crude soared from $19 a barrel in December 2001 to over $133 in June-July 2008.  Every postwar recession except 1960 was preceded by a spike in oil prices, and the Great Recession turned out to be no exception.

The dollar weakened at the start of this recovery, but related inflation cut average real wages by 1.5% in 2011 and 0.6% in 2012.   As the dollar firmed up, by contrast, real wages rose by 0.7 % in 2013 and 0.8% in 2014.

The recent rise in the dollar has merely brought it back to about where it was in 1998 or 2006, which were not bad years.  The latest exchange rate gyrations are dominated by self-inflicted wounds to the euro and yen, but U.S. exports to the EU are only 1.3% of GDP, and exports to Japan are 0.4% of GDP.

U.S. multinationals have complained about “translation losses” – the fact that profits of subsidiaries in Europe or Japan will be less valuable when translated into dollars.  But that is equally true for earnings of European and Japanese firms too (and for their stock prices when translated into dollars). And multinationals often leave foreign earnings abroad, due to the uniquely foolish U.S. tax if offshore earnings are brought home.  

The weakened euro and yen will raise the cost of living and cost of production for citizens of the afflicted countries (including the price of oil and other commodities).  It is true that such expertly planned impoverishment of such large economies can scarcely benefit the global economy. If other countries want to make their money less trustworthy and less desirable, however, there is not much we can do about that.  

Upcoming Fiscal Deadlines

The federal government’s debt ceiling will return on Monday following a 14 month suspension. This is the first of many important fiscal deadlines that Congress must consider before the end of the calendar year. These deadlines represent opportunities for Congress to control spending growth and reform entitlement programs.

Below is a list of the major fiscal deadlines:

  • Debt Ceiling: The federal debt ceiling limits the amount of outstanding federal debt. When the debt ceiling returns on March 16, it will be approximately $18.1 trillion. Congress is not expected to raise the limit this weekend, so the Treasury Department will have to use its flexibility to fit the debt within that limit. With these Treasury procedures, the Congressional Budget Office expects that congressional action can be put off until October or November.
  • Sustainable Growth Rate: The Sustainable Growth Rate (SGR or “doc fix”) was passed in 1997 and attempts to control Medicare spending growth. If Medicare grows faster than the legislated formula, reimbursements to doctors are cut. However, Congress has never let the cuts go into effect. The current relief from cuts expires on April 1. If Congress doesn’t act, reimbursements would be cut by 20 percent. Congress is expected to pass a short-term patch, the 18th time it will have done so in 13 years.
  • Budget Resolution: The House of Representatives and the Senate are supposed to pass the annual budget resolution by April 15. The budget resolution sets the broad trajectory of spending for the upcoming fiscal year. Both chambers are expected to release their budget drafts during the week of March 16 to give themselves several weeks to work through this process and provide an opportunity to reconcile the two proposals.
  • Highway Trust Fund: The Highway Trust Fund will become insolvent on May 31. For a number of years, the Highway Trust Fund has spent more than it collects in revenue from the federal gas tax. Its current annual imbalance is $14 billion. Congress will need to figure out a way to balance the trust fund’s spending and revenue.

A Message from Cato’s Center for the Study of Science

As we’ve mentioned before on the Cato blog, over the past few weeks some members of Congress have been sending letters of intimidation to researchers whose scientific findings were politically inconvenient to the members’ policy proposals. First, seven scientists working at public universities were harassed by Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-AZ). This was followed by letters to 100 organizations, ranging from private companies to think tanks, attempting to create a whisper campaign of allegations of impropriety. My boss, Cato CEO John Allison, received one of these letters.

Mr. Allison’s response to the letter he received from Sens. Ed Markey (D-MA), Barbara Boxer (D-CA), and Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) is reproduced below the jump.

We at the Center for the Study of Science, as with the rest of the Cato Institute, are very proud not only of the quality of the work we produce but also of our values—and those morals compel us to not bow to those using their authority as a weapon to silence legitimate scientific inquiry.

The actions of these members of Congress are exactly why Cato’s Center for the Study of Science was founded: the government wishes to use science as a weapon to increase its political power, then use that political power to create a more convenient political climate. We wish to change this climate of fear into one of truth—and we would like to extend an invitation to Sens. Markey, Boxer, and Whitehouse to join us.

Global Warming: Good for Bad and Bad for Good?

Another day, another negative impact from pernicious global warming caused by humanity’s relentless quest for self-betterment.

Today, it is our coffee supply that is in jeopardy. Earlier this week, global warming was melting mummies in Chile. Last week, it was blamed for war in Syria. Turns out that global warming is a highly selective beast—it only harms the things we love, while enhancing the things we don’t.

Penguins? Polar bears? Songbirds? Coffee?

Harms. Harms. Harms. Harms.

Jellyfish? Poison ivy? Ragweed? War?

Helps. Helps. Helps. Helps.

Mummies are sort of a special case.  If they were roaming around attacking people, we’d imagine that global warming would empower them. But in this case, the mummies are harmlessly laying around in the (apparently poorly climate-controlled) vaults in a museum in Chile.  There, they are a natural treasure. So, predictably, global warming is causing harm. 

Did Common Core Do That? We Don’t Actually Know

Common Core supporters love to accuse opponents of peddling misinformation, and sometimes opponents do. On the flip side, Core supporters are frequently guilty not only of peddling deceptive information of their own, but promising the world without sufficient evidence to justify it. A new report from Harvard’s Paul Peterson – generally a pretty sober analyst – comes a bit too close to making such a leap, strongly suggesting that the Common Core has caused appreciable improvement in the rigor of state standards.

Based on a rough trend of decreasing differences between the percentage of students scoring “proficient” on state tests and on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, Peterson and co-author Matthew Ackerman report that state standards are rising. In other words, “proficient” on state tests is looking more like presumably high-flying “proficient” on the “Nation’s Report Card.”

Between 2011 and 2013, “20 states strengthened their standards, while just 8 loosened them,” Peterson and Ackerman report. To what do they attribute this? “A key objective of the CCSS [Common Core] consortium – the raising of proficiency standards – has begun to happen.” In case the text of the report didn’t make the attribution of success to the Core clear, the report’s subhead intoned that, “commitments to the Common Core may be driving the proficiency bar upward.”

At the very least, there should be a huge emphasis on “may,” and the Core probably shouldn’t be mentioned at all.  

Indeed, Peterson and Ackerman’s results could suggest that the Common Core actually dampened rigor. According to the report, of the four states that never adopted the Core, Texas and Virginia raised their standards while Alaska and Nebraska stood pat. That means 50 percent of non-adopters lifted their standards and 50 percent stood their ground. None went backward. Among Core adopters, in contrast, eight states, or 18 percent, lowered their standards; 19, or 42 percent, stood still; and only 18, or 40 percent, raised their bars. (I exclude Minnesota, which adopted the English standards but not the math, and West Virginia, for which data were unavailable. Among adopters I include Indiana and Oklahoma, which eventually dropped out but were Core states as of 2013.)

Furman’s Folly: Nostalgia about 1973 and Nonsense about the Bottom 90 Percent

Jason Furman, chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers, set out to explain “middle-class economics” in the Wall Street Journal, March 11, in an earlier Vox blog and in a presentation to National Association of Business Economists (NABE), as well as the first chapter of the Economic Report of The President

The intent is to make the recent economy look healthier (massaging 2.3-2.4 percent growth for 2013-14 into 2.7 percent), and to claim that “subpar” 2010-14 income gains for the middle class (generously defined as the bottom 90 percent) are not due to a subpar recovery but to something that has gone on ever since 1973.  His Wall Street Journal article complains of “the decades-long trend of slower income growth for the middle class.”

Furman says, “Congressional Budget Office data (with a minor extrapolation) show, median U.S. incomes are up 17 percent since 1973.”  Actually, CBO data start with 1979 and end with 2011, so it takes more than minor extrapolation to extend that back to 1973 or forward to 2013.  CBO estimates show real after-tax median income rising from $45,400 in 1983 to $68,000 in 2008 (in 2011 dollars), but not yet back to the 2008 level by 2011. Making up a number for 1973 can’t undo stagnation after 2008. 

He continues: “But from 1948-73, median incomes rose 110 percent, according to broadly comparable Census estimates.”  Yet the two series aren’t remotely comparable.  Unlike pre-tax “money income” from the Census Bureau, the CBO subtracts federal taxes (middle-income tax rates were nearly cut in half since 1981) and includes rapidly increased health and other in-kind benefits from employers and government (Medicaid, SNAP, CHIP and housing allowances). 

The Iran Policy Clownshow

I’ve been talking about U.S.-Iran policy to groups around the United States for about eight years now. Many members of these groups—World Affairs Councils, university groups, local groups interested in Middle East policy—disagree with my general take on Iran and the Middle East, but I’ve always gotten a fair hearing and good questions.

Given that, it’s been both amusing and depressing to watch the political spectacle that’s been happening in Washington this week. It all began when Bill Kristol’s favorite senator, Tom Cotton (R-AR), got 46 of the other 53 Republican Senators to join him in signing an “open letter to the leaders of the Islamic Republic of Iran,” trying to scare the clerical leadership away from a diplomatic deal by threatening to scotch it themselves once Barack Obama is out of office. Cotton, a Harvard Law grad, was subsequently chided on his understanding of the U.S. Constitution both by the Iranian foreign minister, Javad Zarif, as well as by Jack Goldsmith, a conservative lawyer who worked on the legal aspects of the war on terror for the George W. Bush administration.

In response to media inquiries, GOP Senators gave embarrassing explanations of the letter. Most absurd was Cotton’s protestation that the letter was intended to help produce a better deal. This claim is absurd not because the causal pathway from this letter to a better deal is dubious (although it is), but because Cotton has made perfectly clear that his goal is the destruction of negotiations, not improving them. As he remarked at a January Heritage Foundation event:

the end of these negotiations isn’t an unintended consequence of Congressional action, it is very much an intended consequence. A feature, not a bug, so to speak.