Spectacular is the only word for the skyrocketing U.S. dollar, which continues to be the centerpiece of the international monetary system. The dollar has become the standard of value, the principal medium for transactions and for reserves. Gone are the old days, when governments looked to gold -- or Swiss francs -- as a security "crutch."
The most remarkable thing, to some, is that the dollar keeps going higher even though the American budget deficit has proved intractable and our trade deficit is running about $130 billion annually -- developments that soon will put this country high on the list of debtor countries.
Nonetheless, during the past week, the dollar's climb pushed the British pound down to $1.10 at one time, with every sign that a penny-for-penny parity with the dollar is not out of the question, especially if crude oil prices continue to weaken.
As American tourists have discovered, the value of the French franc, in recent years worth 20 cents or more, is now down to a thin dime.
And West Germany, fighting to regain its economic balance, saw the deutsche mark plunge to 3.20 to the dollar, which means that the mark, worth about 50 cents in the heyday of the German economic boom of the 1960s and 1970s, is down to only about 31 cents.
"For most economists and bankers, this strength is still a puzzle," as investment counselor Geoffrey Bell wrote the other day. "Consequently, many argue that the American currency is bound to plunge 20 to 30 percent at some stage, bringing higher interest rates, inflation and possible recession.
"This analysis is wrong and has been wrong for the past few years," Bell said.
As agitated European and Japanese finance ministers met here with Treasury Secretary Donald T. Regan, the operative question articulated by all was: How much longer can the dollar keep on its sky-high course? As Bell observed, most experts have been forecasting a decline (modest to steep), especially as interest rates started down in the latter half of 1984.
But as this reporter wrote on Sept. 9, 1984, "The dollar could defy the experts and stay close to its stratospheric level for a long time, even if interest rates decline." The reasoning then -- that the relative strength of the American economy was a more significant determinant of exchange rates than relative interest levels -- still holds true.
Europe's economies, although perking up very slightly from last year, lag far behind the pace here and in Japan, and there is almost nothing on the horizon to suggest a major change. According to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, of the 4 million to 5 million net jobs to be created in the industrial world between the end of 1984 and mid-1986, 80 percent will be in the United States.
Emil van Lennep, the former head of the OECD, observed last fall on his final official visit to Washington that so long as European and Japanese investors can make handsome profits out of investments here, the inflow of foreign capital will continue, regardless of interest rates.
On Wednesday at the National Press Club, economist Henry Kaufman said that "it is difficult to imagine that the dollar will turn down any time soon." The often pessimistic Kaufman predicted an acceleration of the U.S. economy this year; he sees a real growth rate of 4 to 5 percent, continued low inflation, and a widening of the gap between American and European economic performance.
"I don't see the vitality in Europe to challenge the American economy, nothing that is going to revitalize the continent. Until that happens, the dollar is going to remain strong," Kaufman said.
If the Bell and Kaufman perspectives are correct, the world is face to face with a knotty problem for which there is no quick fix. Intervention to bolster the price of sagging currencies is a temporary palliative, but may have to be applied more willingly than the Reagan administration has acknowledged, simply to counter freewheeling speculative forces in the currency markets.
The extreme strength of the dollar forces most of the European countries to keep their interest rates higher than they would like, simply to prevent a panicky flight from their own currencies. That discourages economic expansion that would cut distressingly high unemployment rates.
Meanwhile, the huge American trade and current account deficits pump out hundreds of billions of dollars abroad. Put simply, we are borrowing, in huge amounts, the savings of the rest of the world. Foreign businessmen and individuals are, for the moment, happy to invest that money here -- but at some time, as economist Stephen Marris points out, "the outer limits . . . will be reached. . . . At that point, the United States will have to stop going further into debt."
For American companies, the high dollar rates constitute a nightmare, making it difficult -- sometimes impossible -- for them to compete with foreign producers, even if they score big gains in boosting industrial productivity. That pushes them to locate production facilities abroad. At the same time, the strong dollar has been a boon to consumers because it stimulates low-priced imports.
Clearly, a substantial reduction in the U.S. budget deficit, on the order of the $50 billion mentioned as desirable by Federal Reserve Chairman Paul A. Volcker, is one remaining hope. The Fed probably would be willing to lead the way toward lower interest rates in this circumstance, presumably halting the rise in the dollar, if not weakening it modestly.