It does not take deep analysis to see that February's G7 meeting was more than a little contentious and that economic relations between the United States and Europe are strained. The G7's official communique, though blandly written as always, nonetheless gave a hint of the problem, calling simultaneously for the vaguely contradictory objectives of currency stability and flexibility. Europe is desperate because the pricey euro threatens its export prospects and therefore its fledgling economic recovery. The United States, though paying lip service to a strong dollar policy, likes the improved export prospects promised by a cheap dollar. As if to underscore the differences, remarks by European Central Bank (ECB) President Jean-Claude Trichet about currency stabilization met a response from U.S. Treasury Secretary John Snow that he had no idea what Trichet was referencing.
In many respects, this is an old argument, but today it plays out against the backdrop of a relatively new presence in currency markets: a powerful, if informal, currency bloc has developed between the United States and most of Asia. Its currency links relieve U.S. financial markets of any adverse pressure from the dollar's slide. At the same time, they place an especially heavy burden on Europe and to a slightly lesser extent, Japan. The bloc for the time being gives America all the negotiating advantages.
This dollar bloc developed in the late 1990s after the Asian financial crisis and did so without the active engagement of the United States. Most of Asia simply took a page from Japan's development book, identified exporting to the United States as a primary engine of economic growth, and set out to ensure a price edge for their product in America by pegging their currencies at a cheap rate to the dollar. It might at first seem strange, given America's budget and trade deficits, that these dynamic Asian economies persist in such a connection, but on a practical level, the link should surprise no one. The United States is still the richest consumer market in the world. Asian exporters also can rely on American policymakers, in a way they cannot rely on European policymakers, to promote the consumer's interests. So the Asian states have tied their currencies to the dollar and have given little consideration to other exchange rates.
In the late 1990s, when the dollar rose on foreign exchange markets, the formation of this informal bloc imposed little on Europe or Japan. Indeed, as the Chinese yuan, the South Korean won, the Malaysian ringgit, and others of these currencies floated up with the dollar's rally of that time, Europe and Japan found a measure of relief from the natural price advantages of Asian import competition. The cheap euro and yen of that time gave European and Japanese exporters price advantages over American competitors throughout Asia. Through it all, the developing Asian nations were content to maintain their favorable terms of trade with the targeted American market. Everyone's exports grew at America's expense.
But now that the dollar has fallen, the whole pattern has reversed. Since 2001, the U.S. dollar has led these linked Asian currencies down more than 30 percent against the euro and over 15 percent against the Japanese yen. Relative price advantages accordingly have shifted in favor of dollar bloc products. Europe and Japan have become much more vulnerable than previously to emerging Asia's natural price advantages. At the same time, they have lost their former price advantages over America when selling into the dynamic Chinese and other Asian markets.
International trade statistics do not yet show the effects of these price shifts, but the strain is certainly evident in comments from European officials. Germany's finance ministry has voiced its lack of concern so many times that it is only reasonable to conclude that it is very concerned. German Finance Minister Wolfgang …