The euro is hovering close to parity with the dollar, falling to its lowest level in 20 years and even briefly touching a one-to-one exchange rate with the U.S. currency this week.
It’s a psychological barrier in the markets. But psychology is important, and what the euro’s slide underlines is the foreboding in the 19 European countries using the currency as they struggle with an energy crisis caused by Russia’s war in Ukraine.
Here’s why the euro’s slide is happening and what impact it could have:
WHAT DOES EURO AND DOLLAR PARITY MEAN?
It means the European and American currencies are worth the same amount.
A currency’s exchange rate can be a verdict on economic prospects, and Europe’s have been fading. Expectations that the economy would see a rebound after turning the corner from the COVID-19 pandemic are being replaced by recession predictions.
More than anything, higher energy prices and record inflation are to blame. Europe is far more dependent on Russian oil and natural gas than the U.S. to keep industry humming and generate electricity. Fears that the war in Ukraine will lead to a loss of Russian oil on global markets have pushed oil prices higher. And Russia has been cutting back natural gas supplies to the European Union, which EU leaders described as retaliation for sanctions and weapons deliveries to Ukraine.
Energy prices have driven inflation to a record 8.6% in June, making everything from groceries to utility bills more expensive. They also have raised fears about governments rationing natural gas to industries like steel, glassmaking and agriculture if Russia further reduces or shuts off the gas taps completely.
The sense of doom increased when the major Nord Stream 1 pipeline from Russia to Germany closed Monday for scheduled maintenance, raising fears the Kremlin won’t restart deliveries this month.
“This war is a ‘body-blow’ to Europe,’’ Robin Brooks, chief economist at the institute of International Finance banking trade group, tweeted last week. “It undercuts Germany’s growth model that’s based on cheap Russian energy. Europe is facing a seismic shift, and (the) euro needs to fall to reflect that.’’
WHEN WAS THE LAST TIME THE EURO WAS EQUAL TO THE DOLLAR?
The euro hasn’t been valued below $1 since July 15, 2002. It’s now below $1.01.
The European currency hit its all-time high of $1.18 shortly after its launch on Jan. 1, 1999, but then began a long slide, falling through the $1 mark in February 2000 and hitting a record low of 82.30 cents in October 2000. It rose above parity in 2002 as large trade deficits and accounting scandals on Wall Street weighed on the dollar.
Then as now, what appears to be a euro story is also in many ways a dollar story. That’s because the U.S. dollar is still the world’s dominant currency for trade and central bank reserves. And the dollar has been hitting 20-year highs against the currencies of its major trading partners, not just the euro.
The dollar is also benefiting from its status as a safe haven for investors in times of uncertainty.
WHY IS THE EURO FALLING?
Many analysts attribute the euro’s slide to expectations for rapid interest rate increases by the U.S. Federal Reserve to combat 40-year highs in inflation, which hit an annual 9.1% on Wednesday.
As the Fed raises interest rates, the rates on interest-bearing investments tend to rise as well. If the Fed raises rates more than the European Central Bank, higher interest returns will attract investor money from euros into dollar-denominated investments. Those investors will have to sell euros and buy dollars to buy those holdings. That drives the euro down and the dollar up.
The ECB has announced it will raise interest rates next week and add another increase in September. But if the economy sinks into recession, that could halt the ECB’s series of rate increases. Meanwhile, the U.S. economy looks more robust, meaning the Fed could go on tightening — and widen the rate gap.
American tourists in Europe will find cheaper hotel and restaurant bills and admission tickets. The weaker euro could make European export goods more competitive on price in the United States. The U.S. and the EU are major trade partners, so the exchange rate shift will get noticed.
In the U.S., a stronger dollar means lower prices on imported goods — from cars and computers to toys and medical equipment — which could help moderate inflation.
“The parity makes it easy for us, and a lot more money goes a lot further now, so we can do a lot more on our trip,” said John Muldoon, who was visiting Rome this week from Delaware.
Olivia Navarret, another Rome tourist from Pennsylvania, said the exchange rate meant a shirt she bought was less expensive.
“It’s cheaper to come here and buy stuff,” she said. “So it’s better to come here, I guess, and spend money here than spend money in the U.S.”
American companies that do a lot of business in Europe will see the revenue from those businesses shrink when and if they bring those earnings back to the U.S. If euro earnings remain in Europe to cover costs there, the exchange rate becomes less of an issue.
A key worry for the U.S. is that a stronger dollar makes U.S.-made products more expensive in overseas markets, widening the trade deficit and reducing economic output, while giving foreign products a price edge in the United States.
A weaker euro can be a headache for the European Central Bank because it can mean higher prices for imported goods, particularly oil, which is priced in dollars. The ECB is already being pulled in different directions: It is set to raise interest rates, the typical medicine for inflation, but higher rates also can slow economic growth.