There are good reasons why it has been a while since I last wrote about wine and the dollar’s foreign exchange value. A lot of things have shaken up the pattern of wine sales here in the U.S. market, especially the channel-shifting that occurred during the covid pandemic and uneven return to what we laughingly call “normal.”
Many factors shaped the pattern of international wine imports and exports, too, especially supply chain bottlenecks that saw the cost of container shipments zoom up by a factor of ten (when you could find a container) and have now settled back down to roughly pre-pandemic levels.
Falling Dollar, Bouncing Dollar
The exchange rate has been a factor in the wine market through all of this, but it wasn’t really the important factor in most cases. The dust has settled enough now, however, that we need to think about the dollar’s value once again.
Although the situation can vary from currency to currency, the overall trend for the U.S. dollar in the last year has been down (see the graph above of the USD versus the EUR). The dollar fell sharply through the end of January and has bounced up and down a bit but has been in a downward trend since then.
A cheaper dollar makes imports more expensive since each greenback buys fewer units of foreign exchange. U.S. exports benefit because a cheaper USD means a lower cost to foreign buyers. It takes a while for the impact of an exchange rate change to be felt, but if the change is sustained, the impacts eventually come around.
Falling Dollar in Perspective
What should we make of the recent dollar decline? One good source of analysis is the Economist magazine’s “Big Mac Index” of currency values. The clever folks at the Economist have found that comparing the local currency costs of Big Mac sandwiches in different countries can provide insights into exchange rate conditions. Some currencies are “overvalued,” which means that they buy more Big Macs (and other stuff) abroad than they do at home. Market forces should push these currencies down in relative value over time.
That, more or less, is the story of the dollar in the last year. The dollar’s relatively high value encouraged some Americans to travel abroad and those who stayed home to buy lots of imports because the dollar’s strength made foreign things seem cheap. Inevitably, as they sold dollars and bought foreign currencies, the dollar fell in value relative to those currencies.
The dollar’s fall is a bit surprising because U.S. interest rates have been rising steadily this year and that usually creates an incentive for foreign investors to buy up dollars, offsetting the trade effects. But many other countries have boosted their interest rates, too, so the investment impact is less than you might expect. Perhaps the combination of the downward overall trend plus the periodic interest rate increases account for some of the trampoline bounce shown in the graph at the top of the page.
Where does the dollar stand today? As of August 3, when the Economist report went to press, the dollar was about four percent undervalued compared to the Euro, so it is not unreasonable to expect a bit of a bounce. It was seven percent undervalued relative to the Argentina peso, but I suppose that is using the semi-fictional official exchange rate. There is a special cheaper ARS rate for wine designed to encourage exports and of course, the black market rate is even lower.
Incredibly, the official ARS-USD exchange rate, which was approaching 300 pesos per dollar when the Economist report went to press, is now hovering around 350 peros per dollar after a sharp devaluation in response to destabilizing election results. (The exchange rate on the street is nearly twice as many pesos per dollar as the official number.) The graph below shows how quickly conditions have deteriorated for Argentina’s currency.
Over and Under
If the exchange rate isn’t a big factor in U.S. wine trade with Europe (but probably is a factor encouraging imports from Argentina because of the special exchange rate), then what about the rest of the world? The Economist study suggests that Southern Hemisphere wine producers have an exchange rate advantage when exporting to the U.S. market because their currencies are undervalued.
The New Zealand dollar, for example, is undervalued compared to the USD by 9.7 percent. This makes their popular wines even more competitive in the Sauvignon Blanc category, which is one of the few parts of the wine market that has experienced growth recently. The Australian dollar is undervalued by ten percent.
Undervaluation is the flip side of overvaluation. The currency is relatively cheap on the foreign exhange market, so foreign buyers get a good deal, but imported goods and services are more expensive. Both sides of the coin involve trade-offs. You get cheaper imkports if your currency is overvalued, but better export performance if it is undervalued.
Chile’s currency is undervalued by 16.7 percent in the Economist study, with the number for the South African rand an incredible 49.7 percent. Such large currency distortions are potentially very important in parts of the wine market where cost differences are critical.
Export Market Impacts
The analysis above has focused on how the exchange rate affects U.S. imports of wine, but it is important to note that American wine producers also compete with foreign producers (who also compete with each other) for exports to other countries, especially the Eurozone and Great Britain. The value of major southern hemisphere currencies is so low, if the Economist analysis is correct, that the dollar needs to fall a good deal more to make American wines competitive abroad. That’s not likely to happen.
What does the future hold? In the long run, over-valued currencies should fall in value and under-valued ones rise. But lots can happen long before the long run arrives, so don’t hold your breath. I will check in again on this topic when the next Economist report is released.