Dollar's Fall Is Felt Around The Globe

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By Anthony Faiola
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, December 24, 2007

The sharp decline of the U.S. dollar since 2000 is affecting a broad swath of the world's population, with its drop on global markets being blamed at least in part for misfortunes as diverse as labor strikes in the Middle East, lost jobs in Europe and the end of an era of globe-trotting rich Americans.

It marks a shift for Americans in the global economy. In times of strength, a mightier dollar allowed Americans to feed their insatiable appetite for foreign goods at cheap prices while providing Yankees abroad with virtually unrivaled economic clout. But now, as the United States struggles to fend off a recession, observers say the less lofty dollar is having both a tangible and intangible diminishing effect.

"The dollar was the dominant force in world economics for 100 years -- we had no competition," said C. Fred Bergsten, an American economist and director of the Washington-based Peterson Institute for International Economics. "There was no other economy close to the size of the United States. But all that is now changing."

The dollar is down more than 40 percent against the euro over the past seven years, taking a particularly sharp drop last month. Despite a bit of a rebound in recent weeks, the dollar is still off nearly 12 percent since Jan. 11, when it hit its peak for 2007.

For now, that drop is allowing the U.S. economy to reap rewards. American products have become exceedingly competitive, boosting exports ranging from Caterpillar tractors to Boeing jumbo jets that are now relative blue-light specials in the global marketplace. Using the same logic of chasing cheaper local production costs that has driven many U.S. factories to China, a few iconic European companies, including Airbus, are set to shift some manufacturing lines to the United States.

But for untold millions worldwide, the weak dollar has emerged as a troubling dark spot. Take Ngengi Mungai, a Nairobi coffee exporter trapped between the weaker dollar and the rapidly appreciating Kenyan shilling -- which gained as much as 12 percent against the dollar this year amid an export-driven economic surge across much of Africa. His coffee sales overseas, as with the bulk of global commodities, are priced in weaker dollars. But he must then convert them into stronger shillings to cover his local costs for local labor, materials, even the clothes on his back. It has cut sharply into his annual income.

"Basically," Mungai said, "it's bad."

It has left many wondering whether the dollar has lost its bling for good. Even rapper Jay-Z dissed the dollar in his recent video, "Blue Magic." In scenes celebrating the excess of wealth in Manhattan's shimmering glass canyons, the cameras cut repeatedly not to images of $100 bills -- but of crisp, 500 euro notes.

Though still the primary choice for global reserves and commodities, some countries have begun to diversify their dollar holdings, while a nascent push is afoot to re-price some commodities in currencies other than the dollar. In May, Kuwait dropped its currency peg to the dollar and other oil-rich Gulf states have threatened to follow. Perhaps most telling: In recent months, the euro surpassed the dollar as the currency with the largest global circulation.

In very real terms, it has forced Americans to rethink their lust for foreign goods. Sales of luxury, British-made Jaguars and Land Rovers, for instance, are declining in the United States because of the weak dollar, while fewer North American tourists -- a 10 percent drop in the third quarter of 2007 compared with the same period last year -- treated themselves to trips to England.

The chink in the dollar's armor has dealt a blow to American pride -- at least to the kind of pride that comes with buying power.

Nowhere is that more visible than with Americans overseas. "It's changed our lifestyle," said Lauren Amlani, 48, who moved to Paris from California with her husband and young son in March 2006. "A meal with pizza and drinks for the three of us comes to over $75. That's ridiculous!"


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© 2007 The Washington Post Company

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