The Surreal Life of the U.S. Dollar

Like a trashy reality TV show, the dollar is being watched by the world with unceasing scrutiny and a guilty fascination with the drama of it all.

Over the past several weeks, however, the dollar became the protagonist in a masterpiece of international intrigue and cinematic twists of fate that read like a Hollywood script.

Act 1, Scene 1
As the sequel opens, we're following two Japanese men on a train ride through the Italian Alps, approaching the Swiss border. Although they declare nothing at customs, Italian authorities take a closer look. Inspecting a briefcase, agents discover a hidden compartment, containing original bank documents and a sum of U.S. Treasury bonds greater than Italy's entire foreign reserve holdings. As riveting as this opening scene sounds, this is no work of fiction.

Hang on ... it gets better.

At $134 billion, the value of recovered bearer bonds would have made the smuggling duo the fourth-largest holders of U.S. debt (after Russia). The riches were greater than those spent to bail out AIG (NYSE: AIG  ) , and the federal guarantees backing Bank of America (NYSE: BAC  ) . Such sums may have lost their shock value, but $134 billion is greater than the entire market capitalizations of giants like Google (Nasdaq: GOOG  ) and Apple (Nasdaq: AAPL  ) . The stakes were high for Italy as well, which could have claimed 40% of the value under Italian law ($53 billion).

Alas, the U.S. Treasury has determined that the bonds are forgeries.

What in the world would possess these two guys to think they could unload such a vast sum of U.S. bearer bonds (which haven't been issued since 1982)? Don't counterfeiters usually stick to smaller denominations to avoid the hazards of careful authentication? What were those "original bank documents" all about? Incredibly, we may never find out. One website following the story cited a reader's translation of a Japanese article, which allegedly reveals that the bond smugglers have been released, with their whereabouts unknown. Hollywood, are you taking notes? This is amazing stuff!

Back to our protagonist
Meanwhile, just as these events were coming across the newswires, Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner happened to be in Italy for a meeting with the G-8 finance ministers. In the weeks and months before this meeting, political leaders and central bank officials from several of these nations had hammered the dollar with bold actions and cautionary remarks about insurmountable debt and the need for a new global reserve currency regime.

Total foreign demand for U.S. debt decreased by $44 billion in April versus March, including net declines in holdings from China, Japan, Russia, and Brazil. According to Andrew Busch, forex strategist with BMO Capital Markets: "While it may seem that they are going to continue to buy US dollars and buy US debt, they are telling the world they are actively seeking alternatives." China has indicated a desire to acquire $50 billion in bonds issued by the International Monetary Fund (IMF), while Russia and Brazil will each purchase $10 billion. Issued in a basket of member currencies called SDRs, these bonds represent a means to diversify away from dollar holdings.

Now, let's survey some dollar-related rhetoric. Last month, the finance chief for the Democratic Party of Japan advised that his nation cease purchases of U.S. debt unless that debt is denominated in yen. In December, the president of a Japanese ratings agency urged "drastic measures" to help bail out the U.S. economy through debt cancellations, noting that "it's difficult for the U.S. to borrow its way out of this problem." Russian President Dmitry Medvedev has not been subtle, with repeated calls for a new global currency regime to challenge the pre-eminence of the greenback. On June 6, Medvedev's finance minister, Alexei Kudrin, suggested the Chinese yuan could become an important reserve currency within a decade.

Fast-forward
Before the screen fades to black, we return to the most recent G-8 financial summit in Italy. During that meeting, a marked shift in dollar rhetoric could be observed from the likes of both Russia and Japan. Kudrin stressed that the dollar is in "good shape," and that it's "too early to speak of an alternative." Japan's Finance Minister went much further, stating: "Our trust in U.S. Treasuries is absolutely unshakable" and "we have complete faith in U.S. economic and fiscal policy."

The greatest movies leave part of the story untold, and in this case the audience is left to imagine what prompted such timely cheerleading from divesting creditors during our hero's hour of need. In my Foolish imagination, I can't help picturing a scene like the one described by U.S. legislators when Geithner's predecessor Hank Paulson scared them into supporting the TARP bailout last September. Clearly, no one wants to see the dollar fall too fast, even if that deterioration is looking inevitable.

Of course, our sequel ends with a momentary victory for the dollar. With rhetorical help from Japan and Russia, the USDX recovered back above the 0.80 mark, SPDR Gold Shares (NYSE: GLD  ) shaved a couple of bucks from last week's highs, and miners like Yamana Gold (NYSE: AUY  ) and Kinross Gold (NYSE: KGC  ) continued their retreat from recent heights.

Stay tuned
With the world heavily invested in the fate of the dollar, I expect future releases in this series to yield box-office gold. Critics, however, may not be so kind, since protagonists by convention are supposed to prevail in the end, and I suspect the dollar won't make it out unscathed.

Further Foolishness:

Fool contributor Christopher Barker can be found blogging actively and acting Foolishly within the CAPS community under the username TMFSinchiruna. He owns shares of Yamana Gold and Kinross Gold. Google is a Motley Fool Rule Breakers pick. Apple is a Motley Fool Stock Advisor recommendation. The Motley Fool's disclosure policy prefers romantic comedies.


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