Over the last year, the dollar lost ground against most major currencies, and as a New York-based foreign correspondent, I took the news like other people would celebrate a raise or a promotion. Many people spend part of their breakfasts checking the Dow or their mutual funds—I look at the euro and the Mexican peso. I need to know the exchange rate to figure out how much I'll be paid.
During the five years that I've been living in New York, the fortunes of my bank account have been affected by the ups and downs of the dollar just as much as by the highs and lows of the economy or problems in the magazine industry. I have learned to be alert: If the euro is strong against the dollar, I should milk my Spanish clients as much as I can, because a piece that pays a paltry sum in euros represents a new jacket for me. When the trend moves in the other direction, and the dollar is king, as was the case a year ago, it's usually bad news. Those are the times when I have to use my exchange-rate-victim speech: "This euro-dollar thing has gotten crazy," I e-mail across the Atlantic. "Why don't we just set the price of the forthcoming pieces in dollars? You know, until the whole situation clears up." (That last caveat is essential, because it lets me switch back to euros when things change.)
Freelancers aren't the only ones obsessed with the exchange rate, of course: A friend who is on the payroll of a Spanish newspaper is absolutely convinced that the euro creeps up against the dollar at the beginning of each month and dips back down just when her euro-denominated paycheck is calculated and deposited. She claims that in some of these months, she has lost more than $200 paying for dinners and cab fares with strong dollars then receiving weaker dollars a couple of weeks later.
All this wrangling is even trickier when dealing with countries whose currencies are not as strong as the euro. A year ago, the Mexican peso lost almost 30 percent of its value against the dollar. My Mexican editors, for whom I had been writing for years with no major bumps (our prices were always set in dollars), suddenly started sending me horrid e-mails saying that where they used to pay $700, they would now pay $450, and $500 pieces had been reappraised at $300. I told them that my Brooklyn landlord was expecting dollars from me, not Mexican pesos. "We know, we know," they replied. "But you've seen what's been going on with the dollar and the peso. This is the best we can do." As a powerless freelance writer, subject to the whims and moods of editors and currencies, I did what I had to do: I caved. I accepted the new prices and worked just as hard for less money.
But I kept an eye on the exchange-rate tables. I even set up a widget on my Mac's dashboard showing up-to-the-minute rates for the euro, the Mexican peso, and the Argentine peso—the currencies of my three main clients—so I could keep track of them. Six months after being downgraded by the Mexicans, I noticed that the peso had recovered a good chunk of its value. I started to submit invoices for larger amounts that reflected the peso's newfound strength. Sometimes I told my genial and sympathetic editors, and sometimes I didn't. After all, I was just reclaiming something that I thought belonged to me.
It worked. Most of the invoices were accepted. Today, the Mexican peso is close to where it was a year ago, and so are my rates.
My professional relationship with Argentina, the country where I was born and grew up, has also been heavily influenced by market fluctuations. For a couple of years after moving to New York, I couldn't work for Argentine news outlets, because the Argentine peso had become so weak that—this will sound terribly vain, but I assure you, it isn't—they couldn't afford me. Inflation, that monster, saved me. The Argentine government decided that a little inflation wouldn't be so bad if it helped to boost the economy (or overheat it, depending on your point of view), and local prices went up while the Argentine peso maintained its value (around three pesos per dollar). For a couple of years, I went back to writing for the Argentine media—my mother, a devoted fan, liked this very much—and I was paid relatively well. But last year, the government decided to let the peso weaken again, and even my how-low-can-you-go rates were out of reach for them. Now I do only vanity projects in Argentina. A couple of months ago, I received a piddling sum for a long profile and an interview with a winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, which was featured in one of the country's main book sections. It didn't make me rich, but I loved doing it, and my mom was very happy.
Since the dollar has been falling, my inner accountant should be smiling again. But this time the mood is a little different. The stubbornness of the recession and the crisis in the magazine industry are challenges that even the loopiest exchange-rate windfall can't solve. When you have work, it's fun to play with currency and scrape an extra $100 here or there. But when there are no assignments, zero euros is always going to equal zero dollars.