Decades of free and open trade have caused considerable harm to America’s family farmers and ranchers and rural communities. The trade deficit has ballooned to record levels, and U.S. manufacturers are struggling to compete with cheaper imports, forcing them to shutter factories that employ thousands of rural Americans. Even though agricultural exports remain high, farmers’ incomes are on the decline.
To be sure, this is a complicated problem. Many factors go into pricing and demand for exports. But there is something that the government can—and should—do to ease the pressure on farmers and manufacturers and realign our trade relationships with the rest of the world: reduce the value of the U.S. dollar.
The strong dollar causes problems for America’s family farmers, ranchers and rural communities. One of the fundamental reasons we have such a large trade deficit in this country is because everything we produce is frequently priced well beyond competing products from other countries. When the value of the dollar is high compared to foreign currencies, it makes U.S. products and commodities more expensive abroad while pushing down prices at home. It also makes the United States a more attractive export market for foreign manufacturers who can often easily undercut domestic producers.
The benefits of U.S. currency realignment are increasingly gaining attention. President Donald Trump and Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Elizabeth Warren have been talking about the issue on the campaign trail. And now Sens. Tammy Baldwin and Josh Hawley have introduced a bill that would take a measured, commonsense approach to realigning the value of the dollar. The Competitive Dollar for Jobs and Prosperity Act (CDJPA) would enact a “market access charge” (MAC) on foreign purchases of U.S. stocks, bonds, and other assets. This is intended to curb foreign investments that are driving up the value of the dollar and gently nudge our currency back in balance with the rest of the world. The MAC would be set by the Federal Reserve Board, the same entity that sets interest rates, and would be gradually adjusted until the dollar is at a more competitive rate with foreign currencies.
While officials in Washington sometimes like to talk up the “strong dollar,” many other countries have put in place monetary and fiscal policies that inhibit increases in the value of their currencies—policies that are accepted in the world trading order.
Just how overvalued is the dollar? Last month, the International Monetary Fund said it was between 6 and 12 percent higher than it should be . A senior economist at the Economic Policy Institute, meanwhile, says the dollar is as much as 30 percent overvalued. Even a small decline in the value of the dollar could help with the competitiveness of U.S. exports, which would drive up demand and, in turn, prices.
That could mean a big boost for Americas family farmers and ranchers, who have long recognized that something is out of line. The value of U.S. agricultural exports was at the fourth and second high levels on record in 2017 and 2018, respectively, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture data. But as net farm income heads into a six-year decline of nearly 50%, it’s clear those export sales have done little to boost farmers' bottom lines. What farmers and ranchers need more than exports, is higher prices for what they are selling. Realigning the dollar would help: a one percent decline in the value of the dollar could lead to as much as a 2.5 percent increase in the prices of certain crops.
The U.S. position in the world trading environment has fundamentally changed. For years, American family farmers and ranchers have been promised that exports are the ticket to prosperity. But that hasn’t happened. Now, as a country we have decided that trade deficits matter and are concerned about our future amid factory closings and farm bankruptcies.
It is time to fight back. It is time to act to realign the U.S. dollar so that U.S. products are competitive in world markets.
Roger Johnson is a third-generation farmer and the 14th president of National Farmers Union. NFU, the oldest general farm organization in the United States, represents 200,000 family farmers and ranchers.