Europe struggles with heftier US dollar

European leaders have few good words -- and plenty of hard ones -- to say about President Reagan's economic policies, because of their impact across the Atlantic.

Topping the list of irritants are high US interest rates, which hurst Western Europe almost as much as they do the American housing and auto industries.

The strong dollar fostered by these high interest rates creates a paradoxical situation:

Oil prices for Americans are stable, because of the inability of the OPEC cartel to raise prices in the face of a worldwide glut of petroleum.

The 13 members of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) charge Europeans (and everyone else) the same price for oil as Americans are charged.

Yet the real cost of oil for Europe has climbed sharply, almost as though OPEC had continued to hike prices as it did during 1979-80.

How can this be? The answer lies in the growing strength of the US dollar against major European currencies, partly a result of high American interest rates.

Since the beginning of the year, according to the Morgan Guaranty Trust Company of New York, the dollar has gained more than 13 percent on a trade-weighted average against a "basket" of foreign currencies, including the Canadian dollar, Japanese yen, and seven European moneys.

In individual cases the change is even more striking. The British pound has lost 22 percent against the dollar, the West German mark nearly 20 percent, the French franc 21 percent, and the Japanese yen roughly 14 percent.

A West German importer, for example, now has to spend 20 percent more in deutsche marks to buy a given American product than he did at the beginning of 1981.

OPEC sets the price of its oil in dollars -- Saudi Arabia $32 a barrel, the other cartel members higher. A West German company importing OPEC oil has to pay 20 percent more in deutsche marks to buy, say, a million dollars worth of oil than he did last January.

The same is true in varying degree for other industrial nations, depending on the extent to which their currencies have lost ground against the US dollar.

In real terms, in other words, the price of oil has gone up for peoples of other industrial powers, but not for Americans.

This is the reverse of the situation prevailing through much of the 1970s, when a weak dollar and strong Japanese and European currencies made OPEC oil, if not a bargain, at least cheaper for Japanese and Europeans than for Americans.

Basically more troubling to European governments is the adverse impact of high American interest rates on the grave social problem of unemployment in Europe, especially among young people. As in the United States, so in Europe, the brunt of joblessness is falling on youth. The problem in Europe is acute because the postwar baby boom there came some years later than in the US.

This means that schools and universities now are pouring more young people into the job market than European economies readily can absorb.

"The inability to provide young people with present work and a hopeful future ," says Ivor Richard, "sows doubts among them."

Mr. Richard, Common Market commissioner for employment, social policy, and education, foresees the "pauperization of large segments of [European] society," unless people are put back to work.

Socialist governments, as in France, would like to spend more public money on job creation and urge their private sector firms to do the same. More conservative regimes, as in West Germany -- faced with the need to trim government spending -- want more private sector investment.

All this costs money, which must be borrowed at a time when European interest rates -- responding to American rates -- generally are high.

To keep their currencies from falling even farther against the dollar, European central banks have pumped up their domestic interest rates, to make it more attractive for capital to stay at home. This militates against business borrowing and expansion, just as it does in the US. European leaders press President Reagan -- so far in vain -- to take steps to bring down US interest rates and thereby help Europe.

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