With the English pound plummeting toward parity with the dollar, fine British woolens and top-quality china become bargains for Americans visiting London this winter.
For stay-at-homes, the best French champagne this new year has turned more affordable, with the strong U.S. dollar pushing prices down by about $2 a bottle in Washington liquor stores.
But the same economic forces that lower the prices of foreign-made goods, bringing a flood of imports into the United States, make it harder for American manufacturers to sell their products overseas. Even the most competitive of them reported last year that they were being thrown for losses in international markets by the strong dollar, which has soared 41 percent since 1980.
According to most government and private analysts, the overvalued dollar bears the major responsibility for 1984's record trade deficit, expected to total $130 billion when the December figures are released at the end of this month and grow to about $140 billion this year.
Imports flooded into this country in record amounts, increasing about 27 percent last year over 1983, when the trade deficit set the previous high of $69.4 billion. Exports, on the other hand, increased in 1984 by a much smaller amount, about 8 percent, despite the economic recovery as the strong dollar made American-made products more expensive overseas.
Federal Reserve Board Chairman Paul A. Volcker called the continuing trade deficits one of the few black clouds on an otherwise rosy economic horizon for the United States. He said they "undermine" key industries and create "enormous pressures" for protectionism.
"I don't think a trade deficit of $130 billion is indefinitely sustainable," Volcker said at a luncheon meeting recently at The Washington Post.
Volcker is not alone in fearing that a rise of protectionism may result from record trade deficits. U.S. Trade Representative William E. Brock has predicted that protectionist pressures on the Reagan administration from Congress and U.S. industries will intensify in 1985.
The Reagan administration has "done pretty well so far" in resisting protectionism, Volcker commented.
But Michael Evans of Evans Econometrics predicted that the continued high dollar and the accompanying high trade deficit "will spawn a new round of protectionism." He suggested that American machinery manufacturers, "where foreign competition is eating us alive now," will be the next industry to win import restraints.
Already this year, the Senate Finance Committee has asked the International Trade Commission to open a new investigation to see if the American footwear industry is being injured by soaring imports. The ITC threw out a footwear industry complaint last year on the grounds that companies were making a profit -- mostly because of their import activities. But 80 factories closed in 1984, throwing 5,000 workers off the job and intensifying pressure on Congress to do something about the trade deficit.
One proposal being pressed by some industries calls for a law imposing a new tax on imports -- as high as 25 percent -- as a way to cut both trade and budget deficits.
The administration opposes an import surcharge, and the proposal currently has little support in Congress. But it has the potential to take off as a quick fix to the country's two toughest and most basic economic problems, if the trade deficit grows and the White House and Congress are unable to agree on a way to cut the budget deficit.
The Reagan administration imposed import restraints last year on steel, tightened restrictions on textile imports and continued so-called voluntary restraints on sales of Japanese-made cars. Evans said that the effect of these quotas will help keep this year's trade deficit down to about $140 billion -- a slowdown in its rate of growth, considering that last year's deficit will be almost twice as high as 1983's deficit of $69.4 billion.
"It won't go up too much more because of those quotas, but that's bad enough," he said.
While the Reagan administration is now free of election-year political pressures, there are strong concerns in this country and overseas that more potentially protectionist moves are in the wings. Attempts to restrict imports by quotas or tariffs are considered likely to trigger trade squabbles between the United States and its allies
Last year ended with settlement of a dispute between the United States and the European community over imports of steel pipe and tubes, while the new year opened with President Reagan and Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone meeting in Los Angeles to discuss U.S.-Japanese trade frictions.
Japan's trade surplus with the United States is expected to reach $34 billion for 1984, renewing strong complaints by American businessmen that their highly competitive manufactured products are being frozen out of the lucrative Japanese market.
The Reagan-Nakasone meeting honed in on four sectors in which the Americans believe they can succeed in the Japanese market if given a fair chance. This list, which the administration emphasized is not exclusive, is headed by sophisticated telecommunications equipment, followed by high technology electronics, paper and pulp products, and prescription drugs and medical equipment.
All these are sensitive areas for the Japanese, but Reagan administration officials estimate that opening Japan's markets to U.S. products can increase American imports by $10 billion. While that will not erase America's trade deficit with Japan, it will shave it down to a less critical level.
There is a plus side to America's trade deficit, as the flow of cheap imports has served to dampen inflationary pressures in this country and force American industries to become more competitive. One Japanese businessman, for instance, questioned whether General Motors Corp. would have committed $5 billion for its revolutionary Saturn project if it weren't being pressed by competition from Japan.
Through its imports, moreover, the United States has been the locomotive pulling the rest of the world into economic recovery. "The rest of the world has benefited from the United States' ability to import," Volcker said.
Most economists, nonetheless, believe that the trade deficit has done more harm than good to the American economy.
"An overvalued dollar and soaring import demand have created a dangerous imbalance in the U.S. economy. Record-setting deficits are now impeding an otherwise strong economy," said Sara Johnson, an international trade specialist with Data Resources Inc.
She said that the high dollar will begin to decline gradually this year. She predicted a meager 0.2 percent drop this year, with a much healthier 7.8 percent drop in 1986 and a decrease of 5.4 percent in 1987.
The dollar decline will combine with the already imposed quotas and a slowdown in economic growth to hold down the trade deficit, Johnson said.
But the import flood already has taken its toll of American industries. Much of the capital goods boom in the United States, for instance, bypassed American makers and went instead to overseas suppliers as imports surged 45.6 percent last year. Imports accounted for as much as 61 percent of last year's increase in business equipment investment alone, raising their share of the U.S. market to 26 percent from 1983's 19 percent.
The machine tool industry was hit by a 32 percent increase in imports, the Commerce Department reported, with as much as three-fourths of the most sophisticated machining centers coming from overseas. At the same time, the strong dollar and weak foreign economies kept the industry's exports flat.
Johnson said that a slowdown in economic growth in the last part of 1984 cut down the rate of imports and projected that the growth of real imports will slow down from 29.2 percent in 1984 to 9.2 percent this year.
This still means more foreign products coming into the country to compete with goods made in America.
An unanswered question, though, is whether Reagan administration import restraints will work to stem foreign competition in industries such as steel, where the history of past agreements shows that other countries will rush in to fill the gap created by the quotas.
A 1982 import restraint agreement with the European Community, for example, created a new group of suppliers to the American market as Third World countries, such as South Korea, raced to fill the vacuum with increased exports. Many steel analysts anticipate the same thing happening this year, forcing the White House either to ignore its pledge or to impose a new round of import restraints on other suppliers.
The guessing game is which country will be the new Korea in 1985.