The U.S. dollar has strengthened against pretty much every major currency over the past year. That feels like good news—and in some ways it is. It means that investors worldwide are betting that the U.S. economy is strong; it's also nice if you've been planning a get-away to the French countryside.
And intuitively it just feels like a strong U.S. currency is a good thing, and a weak one is bad. Last year, the plot of the action flick Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit turned on a (mild spoiler alert) Dr. Evil-like plot to tank the greenback's value.
But at this moment a too-strong dollar may be the bigger worry.
That is the context behind all the headlines you may be seeing these days about so-called "currency wars." In a currency war, countries don't try to take down other nations' currencies. Instead, they cut the value of their own currencies, in order to make their products cheaper and stoke demand. When one currency falls, that means somebody else's currency has to go up. Lately, the U.S. has been that somebody else.
Why is the dollar going up? Central banks around the world, from Europe to Japan to Mexico, have been doing what our own Federal Reserve did following the financial crisis, buying up bonds and aggressively seeking to hold down their interest rates. They're not only doing this to lower the relative value of their currencies—nobody has actually declared a currency war—but it has had that side effect. With yields on 10-year German bonds at just 0.3%, U.S. Treasuries that are paying almost 2% look like a better deal.
When investors seek to hold U.S. assets, that pushes up the buck too.
And there's reason to think the dollar will keep getting stronger for a while, says Wells Fargo Securities senior economist Sam Bullard. The U.S. economy looks pretty good right now compared with the rest of the world. The American gross domestic product, for instance, grew by 4.6%, 5%, and 2.6% over the past three quarters, while the eurozone muddled through with growth rates at 0.3% or lower. Our unemployment rate is down to 5.7%, while in the eurozone it is stubbornly stuck over 11%.
As a result, the Federal Reserve has begun to put out hints that it will raise short-term interest rates sometime in 2015, the first increase since the Great Recession. Again, that should make dollar-denominated assets relatively more attractive. And a strong dollar trend could feed on itself—the more stable the dollar looks, the more people will want to to invest in the U.S. "Investing over here if you're foreign company committing capital is more attractive since returns will get translated into your home currency at a more favorable rate," says Bob Landry, a portfolio manager at USAA Investments.
Still, whenever there are winners, there are also losers.
Who's losing out? For a start, multinational corporations with significant businesses overseas. Procter & Gamble and its shareholders, for instance, endured disappointing earnings last year and announced that the consumer goods behemoth doesn't expect to enjoy sales growth this year due to the dollar's strength.
A strong dollar generally makes U.S. exports less attractive—consumers with euros and yen are finding our products more expensive. The ISM manufacturing new export orders index fell in January to its lowest level since the fall of 2012. That's bad news for anyone who works in manufacturing, or any other business that hopes to sell to global markets.
Overall, Bullard says, a strong dollar should be "a net drag on overall GDP in 2015." Perhaps Jack Ryan could have saved himself the trouble.