The buck doesn’t stop here; it just keeps falling

By TOM RAUM, Associated Press Writer

7/6/2008 9:29 AM

WASHINGTON – Things in the U.S. sure are tough. Brother, can you spare a euro? Signs saying “We accept euros” are cropping up in the windows of some Manhattan retailers. A Belgium company is trying to gobble up St. Louis-based Anheuser-Busch, the nation’s largest brewer and iconic Super Bowl advertiser.

The almighty dollar is mighty no more. It has been declining steadily for six years against other major currencies, undercutting its role as the leading international banking currency. The long slide is fanning inflation at home and playing a major role in the run-up of oil and gasoline prices everywhere.

Vacationing Europeans are finding bargains in the U.S., while Americans in Paris and other world capitals are being clobbered by sky-high tabs for hotels, travel and even sidewalk cafes. Northern border-city Americans who once flocked into Canada for shopping deals are staying home; it’s the Canadians flocking here now.

Everything made in America _ from goods to entire companies _ is near dirt cheap to many foreigners. Meanwhile, American consumers, both those who travel and those who stay at home, are seeing big price increases in energy, food and imported goods. The dollar has lost roughly a quarter of its purchasing power against the currencies of major U.S. trading partners from its peak in 2002.

Since oil is bought and sold in dollars worldwide, the devalued dollar has made the recent surge in energy prices even worse for Americans, leading to $4 gasoline in the United States. Analysts suggest that of the $140 a barrel that oil fetches globally, some $25 may be due to the devalued dollar.

Further declines in the dollar will add to oil’s appeal as a commodity to be traded.

Oil, suggests influential energy consultant Daniel Yergin, is “the new gold.”

The limp greenback has had one big benefit to the U.S. economy: Since it makes American goods cheaper overseas, it has helped manufacturers who export and other U.S. based companies with international reach. Exports have been one of the few bright spots in an otherwise darkening U.S. economy.

Franklin Vargo, vice president of international economic affairs at the National Association of Manufacturers, welcomes the dollar slide, as do members of his organization.

“We can see that, when the dollar’s not overpriced, that people around the world want American goods and our exports are going gangbusters now,” he said.

He doesn’t see the dollar as undervalued. He sees it as having being overpriced in the 1990s _ and what’s happened since as something along the lines of a correction.

Still, Vargo acknowledges the dollar’s decline has brought a measure of pain to some consumers. “As the dollar has gone down in value, that has added to the dollar cost of oil. No question. So having the dollar decline is not unambiguously a plus. That’s why we say there’s got to be a balance there somewhere. What we want is a Goldilocks dollar. Not too strong, not too weak. But just right. And only the market can determine that,” Vargo said.

Mark Zandi, chief economist at Moody’s Economy.com, said expanding exports due to a weak dollar are “an important source of growth, but it doesn’t add a lot to jobs, it doesn’t mean very much for the average American household. For the average American, for the average consumer, these are pretty tough times.”

The loss of the dollar’s purchasing power and international respect has some experts worrying that the euro might one day replace the dollar as the so-called primary reserve currency. And that could trigger a dollar rout as foreign governments and international investors flee from U.S. Treasury bonds and other dollar-denominated investments.

Making matters worse: The gaping U.S. current-account deficit _ the amount by which the value of goods, services and investments bought in the U.S. from overseas exceeds the amount the U.S. sells abroad _ and the low levels of domestic savings means that foreigners must purchase more than $3 billion every business day to fund the imbalance.

Since roughly half of the nation’s nearly $10 trillion national debt is held by foreigners, mostly in Treasury bills and bonds, such a withdrawal could have enormous consequences.

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