BuildingTeam Construction Forecast

Value of U.S. Dollar Continues to Slide in June; Value of Canadian Dollar Rises

The U.S. dollar (-0.5% versus the Euro) continued to slide versus most other major international currencies in the month of June 2007. The only significant exception was the value of the U.S. dollar versus the Japanese yen (+1.3%), end of May to end of June. The Canadian dollar made a further advance versus the U.S. dollar in the latest month (+0.6%) and was also up versus most other major currencies. The changes are set out in the accompanying table.

Economic Indicators
Economic Indicators
Economic Indicators
Economic Indicators
Economic Indicators
Economic Indicators

Most Significant Longer-term Changes
Some of the most significant currency changes over the past number of years have been as follows. Both the Canadian and Australian dollars have experienced major increases versus the U.S. dollar (+50% and +70% respectively) over the past four to five years. The Canadian and Australian economies are viewed as heavily resource-dependent by international currency traders. The Euro marched firmly upward versus the U.S. dollar between early 2002 and late 2004, and then essentially leveled off for two years before resuming its climb at the beginning of last year.

The Brazilian Real has also climbed about 80% versus the U.S. dollar, since early 2003. Brazil is self-sufficient in energy thanks to wide-spread adoption of ethanol from sugar cane as a substitute fuel for motor vehicles. The Chinese Yuan has climbed about 9% since it was finally allowed to partially float versus the U.S. dollar beginning in July 2005. The Japanese yen remains an anomaly. It has been falling versus the U.S. dollar since the fall of 2004. Japan has had non-existent or very low interest rates for more than a decade.

Five Main Determinants of Currency Value
A nation’s currency depends on many complicated interactions, but some of the chief determining factors are:

  • real Gross Domestic Product (GDP) growth rate versus other countries;
  • level of interest rates relative to other countries;
  • level of price inflation relative to other countries;
  • the state of government finances (deficits or surpluses);
  • goods and services balance of trade;
  • and the nation’s status as a resource-based economy (i.e., net exporter, self-sufficient or dependent).

Canada is performing relatively well according to the first five of these criteria and its currency is receiving an extra boost from high world oil prices. Over the last couple of years, the Canadian dollar has virtually moved in tandem with the price of oil. Oil and gas net exports have taken over from forestry products and autos as the main source of Canada’s trade surplus. (Canada consistently runs a merchandise trade surplus.)

Current weakness in the value of the U.S. dollar is primarily a function of two factors — a large goods trade deficit and little upward movement in interest rates at a time when many other nations are raising policy-setting rates to combat overheating in their economies.

Three Major Currency Impacts on Construction
As most commodities are priced in U.S. dollars, the U.S. must bear the full impact of commodity price changes. This becomes particularly significant with respect to oil and gas prices. Oil and gas play significant roles in construction as 1) inputs (e.g., plastics and vinyls, roofing material, paint and asphalt); 2) part of the production process (e.g., providing heat in the making of bricks and cement); and 3) to operate equipment and vehicles.

Canada has been partially protected on the commodity-price front by the rise in value of the Canadian dollar. This is not only true with respect to oil and gas, but also applies in terms of other commodities that have a high construction-input component, such as copper in plumbing and wiring. The impact of higher base metal prices has been blunted by the climb in value of the Canadian dollar.

Looking beyond U.S.-Canada domestic supplies, other construction materials can be supplied by foreign sources, where currency movements may be a significant factor in the cost (e.g., cement from Mexico and steel from Spain).

Currency Value or Interest Rates — Establishing the Sequence
There is a close tie-in between currency values and interest rates. Most countries (and most central banks) have learned that the best monetary policy is to adjust interest rates to curb inflation or stimulate growth as warranted. Under this system, which has proven effective in restraining inflation and sustaining economic growth for extended periods of time, currency values are (ideally) allowed to float freely.

However, there comes a crisis-point when a currency’s value can dictate interest rates. History has shown that a particular nation’s currency can begin to fall in such a manner and to such a degree that a measured drop and moderation in policy response are no longer possible. Foreigners begin to withdraw capital in the expectation of further currency declines. (A shortfall in goods and services trade needs to be made up by a net inflow of foreign capital to maintain currency stability).

At that point, interest rates have to be raised and the control of monetary policy slips out of the home government’s hands. This is one future scenario that has been proposed by some analysts in connection with the U.S. economy, due to its large trade deficit. Such an imposed increase in interest rates is difficult on the economy (and construction activity) for an extended period of time.

Currency Value/Foreign Investment/Construction Connection
There is also the matter of the currency value/foreign investment/construction connection. It seems odd that so many foreign takeovers of Canadian firms are being undertaken now when the Canadian dollar is at $0.95 US rather than five years ago when the dollar was at $0.65 US. At that time, Canadian firms were truly bargain-priced.

However, there are several factors which help to explain the current takeover frenzy. 1) Corporate profits around the world have been rising since 2001 and war chests have been built up to finance acquisitions. 2) The jump in commodity prices makes Canadian resource-based firms especially attractive. 3) The rise in value of the Canadian dollar means that there is an added bounce (after currency conversion) to the profits being reported by Canadian firms to their U.S. headquarters. (Many Canadian subsidiaries are “heroes” in the eyes of their U.S. head offices as the Canadian dollar continues its climb.) 4) Ongoing strength in the Canadian dollar will add to the asset value of Canadian capital investment on the part of U.S. investors, and will make Canadian assets relatively more attractive than U.S. assets to all international investors.

There is one additional aspect to foreign takeovers that has implications for construction. One hopes that the battle for control does not leave the acquiring firm so deep in debt that it is unable to undertake major investments that will revitalize the firm and make it more competitive internationally. When the acquiring firm is eager and capable of undertaking the rationalizations and investments that are needed, this can be quite positive for the overall investment climate, construction and the total economy. A prime example of the positive implications of a foreign takeover is occurring in Sudbury, Ontario where Brazilian firm Companhia Vale do Rio Doce (CVRD) has announced its commitment (since taking over Inco) to increase deep recovery of ore deposits.

Story for Another Day
Of course, currency values also have an impact on tourism and the accommodation industry, but that’s a story for another day.

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