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Friday, March 2, 2012

The Depreciating Dollar: Economic Effects and Policy Response

Craig K. Elwell
Specialist in Macroeconomic Policy

A trend depreciation of the dollar since 2002 raises concern among some in Congress and the public that the dollar’s decline is a symptom of broader economic problems, such as a weak economic recovery, rising public debt, and a diminished standing in the global economy. However, a falling currency is not always a problem, but possibly an element of economic adjustments that are, on balance, beneficial to the economy.

A depreciating currency could affect several aspects of U.S. economic performance. Possible effects include increased net exports, decreased international purchasing power, rising commodity prices, and upward pressure on interest rates; if the trend is sustained, the United states may also experience a reduction of external debt, possible undermining of the dollar’s reserve currency status, and an elevated risk of a dollar crisis.

The exchange rate is not a variable that is easily addressed by changes in legislative policy. Nevertheless, although usually not the primary target, the dollar’s international value can be affected by decisions made on policy issues facing the 112th Congress, including decisions related to generating jobs, raising the debt limit, reducing the budget deficit, and stabilizing the growth of the federal government’s long-term debt. Also monetary policy actions by the Federal Reserve, over which Congress has oversight responsibilities, can affect the dollar.

The exchange rate of the dollar is largely determined by the market—the supply and demand for dollars in global foreign exchange markets associated with the buying and selling of dollar denominated goods, services, and assets (e.g., stocks, bonds, real property) on global markets. In most circumstances, however, international asset-market transactions will tend to be dominant, with the size and strength of inflows and outflows of capital ultimately determining whether the exchange rate appreciates or depreciates.

A variety of factors can influence the size and direction of cross-border asset flows. Of principal importance are the likely rate of return on the asset, investor expectations about a currency’s future path, the size and liquidity of the country’s asset markets, the need for currency diversification in international investors’ portfolios, changes in the official holdings of foreign exchange reserves by central banks, and the need for and location of investment safe havens. All of these factors could themselves be influenced by economic policy choices.

To give Congress the economic context in which to view the dollar’s recent and prospective movement, this report analyzes the evolution of the exchange rate since its peak in 2002. It examines several factors that are likely to influence the dollar’s medium-term path, what effects a depreciating dollar could have on the economy, and how alternative policy measures that could be taken by the Federal Reserve, the Treasury, and the 112th Congress might influence the dollar’s path.

Date of Report: February 23, 2012
Number of Pages: 24
Order Number: RL34582
Price: $29.95

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