Flash forward. Geithner will meet Monday with Chinese officials in Washington and try to persuade them to let the value of their currency rise relative to the dollar in part as a way of lifting U.S. trade. That would, by the simple math of foreign exchange markets, weaken the dollar — in pursuit of economic advantage.
This contrast reflects a fundamental contradiction in the U.S. approach toward the dollar. The government has put in place a range of policies that make the dollar likely to decline in value over time. But no one in a position of authority can really admit it, because of politics and the possibility of a bad reaction in financial markets.
In a volatile day on global financial markets Thursday, the dollar rose against the euro but fell against the yen, and prices for oil and other commodities had their steepest one-day drop in two years.
For the U.S. economy, a declining dollar creates winners and losers. A falling dollar makes U.S. manufacturers and farmers more competitive on global markets, which can help create jobs. But it also makes imported goods, such as oil, more expensive, causing consumers pain when buying gasoline or foreign-made clothing, computers and automobiles.
U.S. officials do not see their efforts to persuade China to let its currency rise as an attempt to weaken the dollar, but rather they say they want currency values to more closely reflect economic fundamentals and to reduce the imbalances in the world economy that contributed to the financial crisis.
As the dollar has declined 9 percent since November against other major currencies — a reversal of its run-up during the financial crisis — policymakers in both parties have continued to avow that a mighty dollar stands for a mighty nation.
“A strong dollar represents a strong economy and a strong country,” former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty, a leading candidate for the Republican presidential nomination, said in a recent Fox News interview critical of the Obama administration’s dollar policies.
A rapid decline in the dollar could diminish its role as the world’s preeminent currency — used in many international transactions and valued by investors as a safe place to store wealth — and undercut U.S. economic reach. After all, the rise of the dollar as the world’s leading currency occurred as the United States was emerging as the world’s preeminent power a century ago.
But to the people involved in making U.S. economic policy, the political emphasis on a strong dollar can be frustrating because it ignores the reality that movements in the dollar are a key way that the global economy adjusts to shifting conditions.