About Greenback, good reading...

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Forget the dollar; even redbacks would be better

At the risk of being confused with a supermodel, I'm not sure I want to be paid in dollars anymore.

Our good ol' greenback isn't the robust currency it once was, and as its value falls in the world market, the number of dollar defectors is rising.

On Monday, reports surfaced that Gisele Bundchen, the Brazilian-born supermodel, was insisting she be paid in almost any currency except U.S. dollars. Gisele and I aren't the only ones who doubt the dollar. Warren Buffett and Bill Gates do, too. Great minds, and all that.

A litany of financial folly is catching up with our currency, combined with the administration's de facto weak dollar policy.

The dollar has lost 34 percent of its value since 2001, and currency forecasters predict the decline will continue because of global concern that last month's interest rate cuts by the Federal Reserve and softening home sales point to larger economic woes for the U.S.

Just this week, the dollar fell to record lows in world currency markets as writedowns for bad debts mounted at big financial institutions such as Citigroup and Merrill Lynch.

The big fear, though, isn't that business columnists and supermodels will turn their back on the dollar, it's that dollar-holding countries will.

China, for example, has amassed much of its reserves in dollars, and it now sees those cash piles losing value.

Political murmuring from China calling for the government to buy more euros and fewer dollars sparked global concern, adding to the dollar's decline this week.

Facing trade sanctions over what many economists contend is the manipulation of its currency, the yuan, China has threatened to dump massive amounts of dollars on the world market, a move that could send the greenback into a free fall.

Meanwhile, South Korea is diversifying its currency holdings, too. Bloomberg News reported last month that a key state-run bank plans to sell as much as $1 billion in U.S. bonds.

Broad implications

As the global denominator of choice, the dollar's slide has broad implications.

Oil, for example, is priced in dollars. As the dollar falls, Americans face sharper increases in gasoline prices than consumers in Europe, where the stronger currency blunts the rise at the pump.

In September, Saudi Arabia refused, for the first time, to cut interests rates along with the U.S. Federal Reserve, which may be a sign that the kingdom is turning to other currencies to shield its economy from the dollar's fall, London's Telegraph newspaper reported.

Russian President Vladimir Putin last year called for a Russian stock exchange that would trade oil in rubles, and Iran, which now collects about 85 percent of its oil payments in currencies other than the dollar, recently struck a deal with Japan to sell oil in yen.

Such moves may be early signs that emerging world oil powers are trying to break the dollar's hold on the global energy market.

Not everyone, of course, minds the weak dollar. U.S. companies that export goods like it because it makes their products more competitive in world markets.

As consumers, though, we are all hurt by a weak dollar because it drives up the cost of imported goods and can indirectly affect the cost of domestic ones as well.

Unfortunately, there's not much that can be done about the weak dollar without worsening the economic slowdown already under way.

Strengthening the dollar requires boosting our exports relative to our imports. But doing that by policy would likely have the painful side effect of driving down wages in the U.S. and pushing us into a recession, economists say.

The administration, of course, would rather preside over a wimpy dollar than a broad economic malaise.

So while officials will talk about a strong dollar, they're willing to accept the economic fallout of a weak dollar as the lesser of two evils.

How about redbacks?

Since we seem unable to exercise fiscal restraint, to reduce our spending on imports and curb the flood of dollars into the world markets, the value of a buck will continue to fall.

What currency, then, would I prefer to be paid in? Well, pick one. What about Texas redbacks, the currency of the old republic?

They weren't worth much at the time they were issued, but given the dollar's descent, they may make a comeback.

Even the Canadian dollar, known as the loonie and long the butt of currency jokes the world over, is worth more in U.S. dollars than it ever has been.

Some might argue it's only appropriate I take my pay in loonies.

Loren Steffy is the Chronicle's business columnist. His commentary appears Sundays, Wednesdays and Fridays. Contact him at loren.steffy @chron.com. His blog is at http://blogs.chron.com/lorensteffy/.

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