Leading specialists in international economics from the Nixon and Carter administrations yesterday singled out the high value of the dollar in relation to other world currencies as America's "most critical trade problem" and listed it as a major cause of the current recession.
In testimony before a House Ways and Means subcommittee, Peter G. Peterson, former president Nixon's Commerce secretary, blamed an overvaluation of the dollar, especially in relation to the yen, for fueling the United States' record merchandise trade deficit.
"The deterioration of the trade balance was far greater than the decline in the housing or automobile industries, and has been the single most important cause of the current recession," added C. Fred Bergsten, assistant Treasury secretary for international economics in the Carter administration.
Both men -- who are associated in the Institute for International Economics where Bergsten is the director and Peterson chairman of the board -- predicted that the merchandise trade deficit could reach $100 billion by next year, far higher than Reagan administration projections. Martin Feldstein, chairman of the president's Council of Economic Advisers, said in mid-November that the 1983 trade deficit would be between $60 billion and $70 billion.
Peterson, board chairman of Lehman Brothers Kuhn Loeb Inc., added that the burgeoning trade gap could account for between 1 billion and 2 billion lost job opportunities and suggested that the administration and Congress should concentrate on trade problems rather than a road and bridge rebuilding program, which would add only 300,000 jobs.
The subcommittee intended to focus on the yen-dollar imbalance, which leading U.S. business executives have complained makes it easier for Japanese imports to come here and which hurts America's chances of competing in other countries. However, Peterson and Bergsten broadened the problem to what they estimated was the 20 to 25 percent overvaluation of the dollar in relation to all currencies. They agreed that the yen-dollar imbalance is crucial, however.
Peterson said, "A correction of the dollar-yen misalignment is the central problem now confronting U.S. trade policy." The yen has risen about 10 percent against the dollar in the past month, from a rate of about 280 to the dollar to 249 to the dollar yesterday, which Peterson saw as "a hopeful sign" but not necessarily a decisive one. He said the proper rate should be about 200 to the dollar.
He said that, at 275 yen to the dollar, a Toyota cost about $5,000 on the American market; at 190 to 200 yen to the dollar, the same car cost $1,500 more. "That would, of course mean that fewer Toyotas and more Fords, Chryslers, GM and AMC cars would be sold," Peterson added.
But he said quick-fix, protectionist solutions such as domestic content legislation before Congress -- which is designed to keep Japanese cars out of the country -- would do more harm than good and are "far worse than the original disease."
Instead, the United States should concentrate on reducing its own debt and on persuading the Japanese that correcting the current yen-dollar gap "is the cardinal policy objective for the foreseeable future," Peterson said. This could involve active intervention by both governments as well as freeing Japan's capital markets and making the yen a major currency in world trade.