What is going to happen to the value of the U.S. dollar as the coronavirus crisis unfolds? That was the question that a couple of wine economists (I was one of them) were asked in a zoom meeting back in May.
The dollar’s going to stay strong, we both said. That’s what happens in a crisis. Investors rush to the safety and security of the dollar whenever there is uncertainty and risk. Ironically, the dollar sometimes rises even when the U.S. is the source of the uncertainty, but that’s another story.
Up and Down Economics
Zoom ahead a few weeks to the start of August. The dollar’s value unexpectedly fell dramatically in July as this chart from x-rates.com shows — the largest monthly drop in a decade. The sudden exchange rate change will affect the economy directly and indirectly in many ways — some even believe that it has contributed to the somewhat puzzling situation in the stock market, where values have risen recently despite bad economic and pandemic news. The cheaper dollar makes dollar-denominated financial assets cheaper for foreign buyers, who look for capital gains when the currency eventual rebounds.
What happened? Why? And why does it matter for the wine industry?
Some people believe that a strong dollar is good and a weak dollar is bad, but the truth is that exchange rate shifts create many positive and negative forces and the net effect depends on the economic environment at the given point in time and your particular circumstances. The strong dollar of the last few years, for example, made wine imports cheaper in dollar terms and discouraged wine exports — both big negatives for U.S. growers and producers.
But the strong dollar also tended to reduce the cost of equipment and supplies used in U.S. wine production including vineyard and cellar machinery, bottles, capsules, corks, and so on. The strong dollar also indirectly benefited the U.S. companies that import and distribute foreign wine and the on- and off-premise firms that sell it. Wine has a long supply chain and so there are complex exchange rate effects.
The falling dollar tends to reverse all this by increasing the cost of imported wine and wine production supplies and making U.S. exports relatively cheaper abroad. If you run a vineyard in California, the reduced competition from imports is good news. If you run a distributor that specializes in imports this is more bad news in a year with lots of bad news to digest.
Elementary, My Dear Watson
Although the falling dollar caught me by surprise because I focused on the crisis effect, others who watched exchange rate fundamentals might have seen it coming. That’s because there were indications that the U.S. dollar was over-valued and ripe for a fall at some point.
When we say that a currency is over-valued, we mean that the exchange value is such that the currency purchases more abroad than it does at home. If you travel to Europe, for example, and your euro purchases seem cheap in terms of their dollar equivalent, it is an indication that the dollar is over-valued (and the euro under-valued).
The Economist newspaper keeps track of how much currencies are over- or under-valued using their famous Big Mac index. As this graph shows, as of June 2020 the Economist index suggested that U.S. dollar was over-valued compared to all but three (Sweden, Lebanon, and Switzerland) of the currencies that the newspaper tracks.
The British pound was 25% under-valued relative to the dollar. Other wine country currencies: Canadian dollar (-11%), Euro (-16%), Australia (-19%), New Zealand (-23%), Argentina (-38%), Chile (-39%), and South Africa (-67%). Logically, the U.S. dollar would need to fall quite a lot to restore equilibrium between the currency’s internal and external purchasing power.
In my experience, the Big Mac index is a reasonably good predictor of long-run exchange rate tendencies, but there are many other factors that impact the exchange rate in the short term. In particular, the flight to safety that many of us expected seemed very likely to overwhelm the trade-based adjustments that the Big Max index is based on.
None of the Above
But an article in last weekend’s Financial Times suggests that there is more going on than adjustment based on “burgernomics.” Faith in the U.S. as a safe harbor in the storm has weakened, according to the article, because of what is seen as a very poor response to the pandemic. The coronavirus continues to spread, the economy remains very weak, the Federal Reserve is running short of tools, and Congress is gridlocked. And have you heard that there is an election coming up? The eurozone looks like a calmer, safer haven by comparison.
Safer yet, in some eyes, is gold, which isn’t tied to any particular country. Buying gold is a way to vote “none of the above” regarding major currencies. (There’s also Bitcoin, but that’s another story;)
The price of gold hit a record high of $1983 per troy ounce last week. The high price is the result of some investors looking for safety and others making speculative purchases. Demand for gold for use in jewelry and so forth is down because of the pandemic’s impact on sales of the finished products.
Looking ahead, it is difficult to know where the dollar will go next. Financial markets tend to over-shoot — to zoom too high when they are rising and over-state declines. So it will take a while to know whether July’s dollar decline will persist or if the currency will bounce back quickly.
So pay attention to the risks that exchange rate variability produces. Many wineries will find their exposure to exchange rate risk is small and difficult to identify. But if you have substantial foreign currency costs or revenue streams, you might think about hedging strategies to insure to some degree against unfavorable movements. And everyone ought to consider counter-party risk: are the people who owe you money exposed to increased risk? Will it affect their ability to fulfill their obligations?