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Under the Sun | Diminishing optimism over weakening dollar

Everywhere, consumers trying to stretch their cash.

The O'Jays called it the "almighty dollar" in their 1973 hit "For the Love of Money." But the dollar isn't so mighty today. No wonder rapper Jay-Z instead chose stacks of euros to signify a "gangsta's" wealth in his new video.

My wife and I got a lesson in the dollar's devalued status during a visit to Spain in October. We devised a simple, albeit inaccurate, way to determine the true cost of a purchase: Take the price in euros and add 50 percent to convert it to dollars.

We were off a bit then, but the exchange rate now is nearing $1.50 per euro - a magical mark that the European Economic Community could only dream about when its currency became legal tender about six years ago, valued then at less than 90 cents per dollar.

That's right, the dollar's demise mirrors the Bush administration's tenure. Had we known when he was elected what we know now about the Bush economy, Denice and I might have gone abroad to celebrate our 25th anniversary, instead of waiting until our 30th.

Just think, I could have paid a fraction of what I did for the little ceramic donkey I got at an open-air market in Fuengirola; maybe purchased


bottles of Spanish brandy in the duty-free shop at the Madrid airport. Hey, I might have been able to afford one of the smaller Moroccan rugs we saw on a side trip to Tangier.

It's not just overseas travelers, though, whose buying power has been diminished greatly by the devalued dollar. A weakened dollar means it takes more bucks to buy a barrel of oil. Every American feels that when we fill our gas tanks or heat our homes.

Of course, as Johns Hopkins University's Erik Jones and John A. Gans Jr. pointed out in a recent commentary, since the world price of oil is set in dollars, Europeans will be spending fewer euros for fuel and electricity this winter.

Meanwhile in the United States, increased gas prices have led to increased transportation costs, causing consumers to pay more for the food and other goods being trucked to our local supermarkets and other stores. The increased price of goods may cause consumers to spend less this Christmas, which will hardly help an already buffeted national economy.

The National Retail Federation predicts holiday sales this season won't reach the 10-year average increase of 4.8 percent. NRF's prediction of a 4 percent increase in holiday sales this year - to about $474 billion - would represent the slowest holiday sales growth since 2002, when sales rose 1.3 percent.

The NRF forecast is logical. After all, the weak dollar has increased the price of so many foreign-made products that make popular Christmas gifts - TVs, DVD players, computers, watches, clothes, candy, you name it.

The NRF says holiday shoppers spent 3.5 percent less during the Black Friday weekend after Thanksgiving than they did during the same period last year. But discount stores saw a 5-point increase in shoppers, to 55 percent of the total. That's another sign of consumers' trying to stretch their cash.

Jones and Gans believe the dollar's plight has impacted America's troubled housing market. The weak dollar has raised the threat of inflation, leading to higher interest rates on long-term loans and resulting in fewer housing purchases, plus fewer second mortgages to finance home improvements and other purchases.

One bright spot about the devalued dollar should be its impact on the U.S. trade deficit. Cheaper prices should increase sales of American products overseas. But although the trade deficit and U.S. indebtedness are blamed in part for the weak dollar, not all economists agree that reducing the trade deficit would be a good thing.

Take, for example, George Mason University's Donald J. Boudreaux. In a recent commentary for the Christian Science Monitor, he said that, since the trade deficit rises as foreign companies increase their investment in the United States, "a growing U.S. trade deficit signals global optimism about the future of the American economy."

I'm not an economist, so I'm in no position to argue that point. But as a consumer, I can say my optimism about the American economy isn't so great these days. That's why you'll see me among those Christmas shoppers at the discount stores, devalued dollars in hand, doing our best to keep a few in our pockets.