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Repatriation

November 23, 1998

Tags The FedMoney and BanksFinancial MarketsGlobal EconomyU.S. EconomyMonetary TheoryMoney and Banking

Here is a news piece from Investor's Business Daily (Nov. 23, 1998) dealing squarely with one of the most interesting monetary issues of the day. The author quotes some well-known Austrian economists to help sort it all out.


Are the vast amounts of U.S. currency held overseas a threat to the U.S.
economy?

Whether for spending or saving, most Russians prefer the dollar to their own
rocky currency. Some 40 billion U.S. dollars are now held there.

And who can blame them? With inflation spinning out of control over the last
few years, Russians have seen their ruble-priced wealth vanish.

The dollar is the preferred cash all over the world. People in Russia, Latin
America and Asia stuff dollars - not local currencies - into their
mattresses.

The Federal Reserve has a pretty good track record of managing the money
supply. The Fed has tended to keep inflation low.

That's in contrast to most Third World countries. Even Western Europe, which
is far from Third World status, has a long history of monetary mischief.

Further, the U.S. probably is No. 1 when it comes to political stability.
And the two oceans that lie on each side of the North American continent are
a buffer from hostility. The picture - and history - in Europe is quite the
opposite.

''In many ways, the international economy now operates on a dollar
standard,'' said David Blitzer, chief economist at Standard & Poor's.

What's wrong with that? As long as those dollars stay in foreign hands, not
much. But if those dollars start coming back to the U.S., the result could
be a severe case of inflation here.

The government says that more than half of all U.S. currency is held
overseas.

That helps explain one of the big economic mysteries of the '90s: Why is
U.S. inflation so low despite big growth in the money supply?

The money supply is now growing faster than the economy, and has been for
some time. That's a recipe for inflation, according to monetarist models.
When money grows faster than output, there are too many dollars chasing too
few goods. That's when prices soar.

''Those models seemed to work for a long time,'' said Stephen Slifer, chief
U.S. economist at Lehman Brothers. ''But in the '80s they broke down.''

No one doubts that at some point too much money will drive up prices, but
economists don't know exactly where that point is.

''Monetarism assumed the demand for money is fairly constant,'' said Ian
Shepherdson, chief U.S. economist at High Frequency Economics. ''But we now
know that demand isn't constant.''

Demand for dollars climbed in the '80s and '90s. Much of that demand came
from overseas, where people can hold foreign currencies for the first time.

Cash held by foreigners isn't chasing U.S. goods, and it isn't funding U.S.
firms. So the prices of houses, cars and pencils shouldn't be affected, this
argument goes.

''The Fed should basically just ignore those dollars when making monetary
policy,'' said Bruce Bartlett, a senior fellow at the National Center for
Policy Analysis.

If we subtract that foreign-held cash from monetary statistics, Bartlett
says, it's clear that the money supply isn't growing as fast as Fed numbers
seem to show.

If the money supply is too tight, it can cause deflation because there's too
little money chasing too many goods.

In that event, the Fed should open the spigot a little more and create
enough dollars to meet both foreign and domestic demand, say many
economists.

Yet not all experts accept that advice.

''It's dangerous for the U.S. to count on foreign demand to support monetary
expansion,'' said Joseph Salerno, an economist at Pace University. ''That
demand is sensitive, and could change quickly.''

Some think the euro might take a bite out of dollar demand.

''The European Monetary Union is explicitly trying to get some of the
dollar's market,'' said Jeffrey Herbener, an economist at Grove City College
in Grove City, Pa.

''They are printing 500-euro notes, larger than the $100 bills popular on
the black market,'' Herbener said. ''The idea is that these larger notes
will be more attractive than the $100 bill because it will take fewer of
them for large transactions.''

Problems in the U.S. economy could also cause foreigners to cough up their
dollars.

They could spend those dollars on other currencies or use them to buy goods
from abroad. As those dollars start moving across borders, they would
eventually find their way back to the U.S. And if they return here to buy
goods, that would spark inflation.

That's happened before. In the '70s, inflation and devaluation robbed the
dollar of value, and foreigners rushed to get rid of their greenbacks.

Most economists don't think foreigners will lose their hunger for dollars,
and even if they do, the Fed has the tools to deal with it.

''But the Fed would deal with that inflation by tightening the money supply,
by raising interest rates,'' Salerno said.

And that might cause a recession. Yet slowing the growth of the money supply
now would also likely plunge the economy into a recession. It would be
foolish to wreak such havoc to prevent price inflation that might never
come, say most economists.

That view is short-sighted, Salerno says.

''It would be wiser to tighten now. If we wait, the money supply will just
grow more, and cause more distortions and bring an even worse recession when
the Fed does act,'' Salerno said.

(C) Copyright 1998 Investors Business Daily, Inc.


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