People's Bank of China governor Zhou Xiaochuan recently sparked a new round of debate regarding the international monetary regime with his call for a new international reserve currency. While the dollar was not specifically mentioned, it is clear that the proposed new international currency is meant to replace the role that the US currency currently plays. When a senior official of a government that holds about 10% of the US government's marketable debt makes such a statement, people take notice. There also appears to be some international support for governor Zhou's idea, although the U.S. is understandably less enthusiastic. So will we see the U.S. dollar lose its international preeminence anytime soon?
An evaluation of this question must begin with an understanding of why the U.S. dollar is so well regarded globally in the first place. There are four main reasons for this. One, it has, at least until now, been a reliable store of value. Two, it is the most widely accepted means of international payment for goods and services. Third, large, deep, and liquid dollar financial markets exist for savers to invest their money in. And finally, a long period of dominance has allowed the currency to become a part of the international financial trading infrastructure.
The U.S. dollar is the most frequently used currency in international trade today. The fact that the U.S. is the world's largest trading nation is only part of the reason. The value of international trade that is invoiced in dollars is much larger than the total trade conducted by the U.S. and countries with currencies linked to the greenback. This is particularly true in Asia, where many countries bill more than 80% of their exports in dollars.
Large international savers such as the Persian Gulf states and East Asian exporters also find U.S. financial markets most attractive. Partly, this is because Gulf oil exports are paid for in dollars and because it is the most convenient currency with which to intervene in foreign exchange markets for Asian central banks. But more importantly, the U.S. financial markets remain the most efficient place to intermediate global funds. In these markets, particularly the U.S. Treasury market, large amounts of financial assets can be bought and sold without causing large movements in market price. Moreover, due to the narrow differences between buying and selling prices, the costs of transacting in these assets are lower than in any other market. Investing in U.S. financial markets, and also through the dollar in other financial markets, therefore, lowers costs and increases the flexibility of portfolio decisions.
The previous two reasons also give rise to a third factor that keeps the U.S. dollar as the world's currency. The dollar has become an integral part of international financial and commodity markets because it is so frequently used in international trade and investment. In quoting exchange rates, the value of a currency is most commonly stated in terms of the U.S. dollar. Even in actual exchange, the dollar's role is important. A company wishing to exchange Thai baht for New Zealand dollars typically buys U.S. dollars first, before converting them into New Zealand dollars. As a result, the U.S. dollar is involved in one leg in close to 90% of all foreign exchange transactions, compared with less than 40% for the euro and 16% for the Japanese yen.
Similarly, commodities, such as oil and copper, usually have their quotes and their trades executed in U.S. dollars. This prevalence also means that the dollar derivative markets are the most developed for anyone wishing to hedge currency and commodity price risks.
The common factor crucial for the continued validity of the above support for the dollar's international status is confidence in the stability of its purchasing power and confidence in the government to honor its debts. Whether one is a trader or an investor, there is a need to hold the currency on an ongoing basis. People have to believe that it is a good store of value, in that the real effective exchange rate of the dollar is not expected to see large declines over the short to medium term. This belief rests on the strength of the U.S. economy, the independence and checks inherent in key institutions, as well as the prudence and coherence of its policies. If even a significant minority of external creditors has doubts that these factors are no longer true, then the U.S. dollar money and capital markets will become unstable. Real interest rates and equity premiums will rise sharply and the dollar will fall precipitously against other major currencies.
The reason for governor Zhou's proposal is that recent developments have the potential to weaken confidence in the dollar. As the U.S. has the largest trade deficit in dollar terms, its vibrant economy as well as responsible fiscal and monetary policies have supported the value of its currency. These conditions make investments in U.S.-based companies attractive and the government's debt a safe asset to hold. As a result, the U.S. has managed to attract international capital to help maintain its international balance of payments.
This foundation is looking shaky now that the economy has suffered serious damage, budget deficits are expected to rise sharply, and the Federal Reserve is pursuing quantitative easing. Not only have growth prospects dimmed, but inflation risk over the medium term has risen. U.S. policymakers pursuing measures that deal with domestic problems, however, have affected confidence over the longer-term attractiveness of the dollar. But it is still too early to call the end of the pole position of the dollar. And even if it isn't, it is not clear that Zhou's proposed use of the Standard Drawing Rights (SDR) is the right answer anytime in the next few years.
The SDR is an accounting unit that represents a basket of currencies: U.S. dollars (44%), euros (34%), yen and sterling (both 11%). It is neither used in physical nor financial trading, only in the internal accounting of the International Monetary Fund. There is no economic need and, therefore, demand for the unit. It will be difficult to persuade major financial institutions to make expensive investments to change their systems for such trading. It will also be of little use to international savers since it will take a long time, if at all, for SDR financial markets to grow to a reasonable size. Finally, companies involved in international trade will find it difficult to hedge the SDR against the domestic currencies that determine their costs of production.
A more natural alternative to the U.S. dollar is a currency that is already widely used today. Perhaps this is the reason China has signed currency swap agreements with a number of countries recently. However, the yuan is hardly ready for a major international role anytime soon. China's strict capital controls and restrictions on currency convertibility currently prevent such a development. And in the next few years, it is unlikely that policy makers will have sufficient confidence in the Chinese banks to subject them to the large international currency flows that come with an internationalized yuan.
Even more than the U.S., both Europe and Japan face serious demographic challenges that are likely to bring down their medium- to long-term growth. Over a longer horizon, as long as fundamental U.S. economic policies are not changed, the U.S. will continue to have better growth prospects. The truth is that, in the near term, there appears to be no good alternative to the U.S. dollar as an international currency.
It's also far from certain that current conditions in the U.S. economy are sufficiently serious for the world to doubt the stability of the worth of its currency. Even counting a few years of exceptionally large fiscal deficits, it is unlikely that the U.S. government debt will reach that of the Japanese government in relation to their respective GDP. Yet, domestic confidence in the Japanese government's creditworthiness is so strong that it can continue to borrow long term at among the lowest interest rates in the world. These rates are achieved despite maintaining an open capital account that has enabled the Japanese private sector to become one of the world's largest external creditors. Meanwhile, the U.S. government experienced a far higher debt burden than it has now, just after the Second World War. Yet, the dollar continued to grow in international importance at that time.
And the dollar has survived other serious tests as well. In the early 1970s, there was a significant loss of confidence in the U.S. currency, which eventually led to the dollar floating freely against gold. Stagflation in the 1970s also called into question the preeminence of the U.S. economy and the role of the dollar. In both episodes, however, the innovation and flexibility of the country's open economy helped it to return to strong growth, which sparked renewed confidence in the dollar as well.
What could prevent a similar revival are policy mistakes by the U.S. government. The economic position of the U.S. will not emerge unscathed from this financial turmoil. In the near to medium term, we believe some weakening of the dollar's dominance is likely. Only a permanently less-vibrant U.S. economy, however, will ensure a trend decline in the dollar's international importance. If that happens, it will most likely come from a structural shift in U.S. economic policy, for example, if we were to see a much more protectionist international trade regime or excessive regulation of businesses.
These risks could materialize. The rise of unemployment in the country, coupled with the government's weakened finances, has led to rising pressures to put American firms and workers first. The recent U.S. stimulus package, for instance, came with a "Buy American" clause. Meanwhile, public discontent with executive compensation and increased state control over the economy could lead to restrictive policies that could ultimately introduce excessive risk-aversion in firms. Policy mistakes could lead to a period of price instability. Factors such as these could diminish America's growth prospects and the long-term international status of the dollar. But if that day arrives, we believe it will likely stem from developments in the U.S. rather than from efforts abroad.
This article was contributed by Ping Chew, managing director and head of Greater China at Standard & Poor's.
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