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The economics, finance, and business worlds are kind of up in arms over U.S. Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin’s suggestion earlier this week that a weaker U.S. dollar would be good for the American economy.

I say “kind of up in arms” because Mnuchin’s remarks were more nuanced than generally reported; because financial markets in particular seem to be on steroids and have barely reacted; and because he took pains afterwards to profess his confidence that, despite its recent falling value, nothing fundamental had changed to undermine the greenback’s historic appeal to investors. Indeed, just a little while ago, President Trump stated that he “ultimately” wants to see a strong dollar

I say “up in arms” to some extent because, the President’s newest words notwithstanding, no American Treasury Secretary has ever said anything remotely like this in public for decades; because Mnuchin’s original words looked suspiciously consistent with what the establishments in these interconnected economic worlds abhor as the Trump administration’s protectionist instincts on trade policy (because all else equal, a weak dollar promotes U.S. exports and curbs U.S. imports); and because dollar strength (and the big U.S. trade deficits it’s encouraged) has long been a cornerstone of the global economy, and a major growth engine for the numerous countries that rely on selling to Americans to promote their own output and employment. (Hence many of them fiddle around with their own currencies’ values to make sure they can sustain these strategies.) Many strong dollar proponents also claim that a weaker American currency could dangerously stoke inflation (especially by boosting import prices) and deter investment inflows into the United States.

But two crucial points are Missing in Action in the tumult sparked by Mnuchin’s remarks. One should be obvious but can’t be repeated often enough, especially in these current overwrought times: You can have too much and too little of a good thing. An overly weak dollar would cause major problems for the U.S. economy. So would an overly strong dollar. Therefore, the key is not to assume either extreme (especially in the absence of any evidence that they’re around the corner) but to figure out a dollar level that achieves the best combination of benefits.

The second has been much less much widely recognized even in calmer periods, but it’s closely related to my longstanding point about the importance of the quality of American growth. As I’ve written frequently, growth based largely on production and the growing incomes it generates place the economy on the soundest foundation. This approach may not always produce the fastest growth, but it fosters the growth that tends to last longest, and that’s least likely to inflate bubbles that then collapse into economic and financial crises).

Such disasters, as we should have learned, stem from growth largely based on borrowing and consuming – i.e., on shopping sprees that eventually can’t be paid for responsibly, and can only continue by racking up enormous debts. And other than legitimate (though clearly overblown nowadays) concerns about inflation, that’s a main reason why folks in finance – and everyone on their payroll in the U.S. government and the rest of Washington – like the strongest possible dollar. Until the merry-go-round stops, they make tons of money by lending to those borrowers.

Here’s where the dollar’s value comes in. A strong-ish greenback tends to result in that borrowing and consuming brand of growth. A weak-ish dollar tends to result in the healthier kind of growth. And as indicated by this chart showing the change in the dollar’s value (also called the exchange rate) against other currencies, only looked at over the shortest possible period could the dollar nowadays be called weak or even weakening. Over a much longer period, it’s obviously still well in “strong territory.” 

And it’s no coincidence, as I’ve also written, that although the U.S. economy seems to be making some slight progress toward creating healthier growth, it still has way too long a way to go – especially given that the current recovery from the crises and the painful recession that followed is now more than eight years old.

The lessons, then, look clear. If you only care about the fastest growth possible regardless of its makeup or the longer-term consequences, and/or if you think finance should be the dominant part of the American economy, you’ll join the chorus of critics scolding Mnuchin for even hinting that some further dollar decline wouldn’t be a disaster for the nation. If you’d like the economy to steer clear of near-meltdowns like the one experienced just about a decade ago, you’ll be applauding what still looks like a subtle call from him for a somewhat weaker dollar.

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