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Given all the talk of a possible breakup of the eurozone and even predictions of the currency's demise, it's not surprising that the euro hit a two-year low against the dollar yesterday. That reflects ongoing concerns about the European debt crisis. Still, a recession across much of the eurozone hasn't stopped the euro from holding up relatively well. We asked NPR's John Ydstie to try to figure out why.
JOHN YDSTIE, BYLINE: To get some help in understanding the euro's relative resilience, I called Mark McCormick, a currency specialist at Brown Brothers Harriman in New York. And to get some context I asked McCormick to calculate the euro's average value compared the dollar over its 13 years of existence.
MARK MCCORMICK: Let's see, against the dollar from 1999 to current, the average is 1.2140.
YDSTIE: So on average over the last 13 year it's taken $1.21 to buy a euro. And now, even in this midst of this crisis, it's worth virtually the same - $1.22. McCormick says that exchange rate pretty accurately captures the relative buying power of the euro compared to the dollar. But he admits it doesn't reflect the risks that the eurozone might crumble as some headlines suggest.
MCCORMICK: It's hard to actually gather up those tail-risks of a doom and gloom scenario and ascertain how that may impact the euro. I think the primary consensus is that the eurozone's going to stay together.
YDSTIE: But that's not Simon Johnson's view. Johnson is a senior fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics in Washington and he thinks currency investors are overvaluing the euro because they aren't pricing in huge downside risks.
SIMON JOHNSON: I don't think that the investors have sufficiently taken on board the risk of a dissolution of the euro. Meaning, if the euro no longer exists as a currency 18 months from now, how are you going to get paid in any contract that specifies in euros?
YDSTIE: And Johnson, who's also a professor at the Sloan School of Business at MIT, thinks the collapse of the euro is a distinct possibility.
JOHNSON: Looking at the prospects of the eurozone itself, I would say they look pretty bleak. That currency union is going to crumble over time.
YDSTIE: Other countries like Russia, Thailand and Argentina have also faced severe financial and economic crises in the past. But, unlike the euro, their currencies plunged as capital fled to safety in other countries. The euro has avoided that fate because parts of the eurozone, like Germany, remain strong, says Johnson.
JOHNSON: What's different now, of course, is that the euro itself is a reserve currency. It's used by central banks. It's used by investors as a form of safe haven.
YDSTIE: That's largely because Germany remains economically strong and Greeks and Spaniards don't have to sell their euros to move their money to safer German banks or government bonds. And in that transaction, the value of the currency doesn't change.
Former IMF chief economist Ken Rogoff adds this perspective. He says while the euro may be close to its long-term value against the dollar, that's partly because the dollar has lost value against most major currencies over the past decade.
KEN ROGOFF: The dollar itself is weak, and if you measure the euro against all its trading partners - China, Latin America, etcetera - then it doesn't look so good. It's actually by some measures at an all-time low.
YDSTIE: And Rogoff, now a Harvard economics professor, says he thinks the euro will fall much further even against the dollar.
ROGOFF: My instinct is that it will go down even as low as 1, on parity with the dollar, maybe within the next year. That's really a distinct possibility.
YDSTIE: But Rogoff cautions that second guessing the currency markets, which are among the largest markets in the world, is a tough game. He says economists are still somewhat mystified as to why many currencies are priced the way they are.
John Ydstie, NPR News, Washington.
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