One of the most heavily debated macro topics is the future of the world’s reserve currency, the seemingly almighty U.S. Dollar.
Neither the fact that scores of prognosticators have been predicting its demise for decades, nor that when the financial going gets tough (as it did during the 2008-2009 financial crisis) everyone wants it, has dissuaded today’s dollar bears from taking a dim view of the greenback’s future.
America’s Exorbitant Privilege
Berkeley Professor Barry Eichengreen’s new book, Exorbitant Privilege, explains the U.S. Dollar’s historic rise from international monetary obscurity prior to World War I, to surpassing British pound sterling in importance by 1924, to its dominant post-World War II position which it continues to occupy today.
Professor Eichengreen opens with the point that while we now live in a multi-polar economic world the financial system and monetary order still revolve around a single currency (the U.S. Dollar).
Some might be surprised to learn that approximately 75% of all $100 bills circulate outside the United States. The reserve currency holdings of the world’s central banks are largely in U.S. Dollars or U.S. Dollar denominated assets (e.g., U.S. Treasuries).
What precisely is the ‘Exorbitant Privilege’ conferred on the United States by the special role its currency plays in the global financial system?
Professor Eichengreen calculates that the U.S. dollar’s status as the world’s reserve currency is worth 3% in U.S. national income per year. In other words, having the world’s dominant reserve currency allows the U.S. to run an annual $500 billion current account deficit.
Some may remember Vice President Cheney’s quip that “deficits don’t matter”, or Nixon Treasury Secretary Connally’s response to foreign governments, critical of the U.S.’s profligate Vietnam and Great Society spending, on how the U.S. Dollar was “our currency, your problem”. It is this ‘Exorbitant Privilege’, a term coined by French leaders in the 1960s who railed against the fact that American paper currency could be exchanged for “real stuff”, which Professor Eichengreen views as unsustainable.
Are Reserve Currencies Analogous to Computer Operating Systems?
Economists explain the U.S. Dollar’s rise and dominance through a principle called ‘network externalities‘ (or ‘network effect’). Similar to how significant interoperability advantages in computing can be achieved through the adoption of a single operating system (e.g., Microsoft Windows), the widespread use of a single currency (the U.S. Dollar, and previously British pound sterling) can lead to mutually beneficial efficiencies.
However, in a world where ‘Currency Converter’ is one of the Top 10 most downloaded smartphone apps, determining exchange rates and making currency conversions can now be performed quickly and simply by a vast number of people. Just as the computing world is moving towards multiple operating systems (i.e., Windows, Mac, Linux, Google, iOS, etc.), Eichengreen believes the world will transition to three principal reserve currencies: the U.S. Dollar, the Euro, and the Chinese Renminbi (Yuan).
The Euro and the Renminbi: Assessing the U.S. Dollar Bridesmaids
On the currency topic du jour, Eichengreen believes that “euro gloom and doom is overdone”. Just as a default by Los Angeles County won’t spell the end of the U.S. Dollar, a default by Greece and/or Ireland won’t bring about an end to the euro.
Germany is the one country, in Eichengreen’s view, which could afford to abandon the euro without suffering catastrophic economic consequences. However, Eichengreen sees this as unlikely. Germany’s next generation of leaders while not having been around for the birth of the EU is nevertheless heavily wedded to the European Project. Further, Germany benefits from a weaker euro via more competitive exports. If Germany were to leave the euro then the reintroduced Deutsche Mark would shoot up in value and risk choking off the German export led economic renaissance currently underway.
When it comes to the Chinese renminbi becoming a reserve currency, Eichengreen acknowledges that China needs to make significant changes. For starters, the renminbi will need to become freely convertible. China will also need to develop deep, liquid capital markets and make fundamental changes to its overall development model.
However, these and other changes may come quicker than many expect. A short time ago there were basically zero Chinese companies settling international transactions in renminbi; now 70,000 do so. Two U.S. multinational companies, McDonald’s and Caterpillar, have issued renminbi-based bonds. Currently most of these changes are occurring in “China’s financial petri dish” (Hong Kong), but China has set a target of making Shanghai a preeminent world financial centre by 2020.
Timing the Decline of the U.S. Dollar?
Eichengreen assigns a very low probability to a sudden collapse of the U.S. Dollar. But could it happen? In short, the answer is yes.
A spat over Taiwan or rising tensions in the Asia Pacific over China building its first world class navy in 600 years could cause China to suddenly stop funding U.S. deficits. A more confident and assertive China is likely to continue to flex its newfound muscles.
However, what Harvard’s Larry Summers termed “The Financial Balance of Terror” is likely to prevent a catastrophic scenario from unfolding. Similar to how President Eisenhower threatened to dump the U.S.’s vast British bond holdings during the 1956 Suez crisis if British forces didn’t leave the peninsula immediately (which they did), Eichengreen believes that China and U.S. officials will attempt to work out their differences through diplomatic back channels as opposed to openly fighting it out in financial markets.
A more likely scenario would be a sudden loss in investor confidence, like the one experienced by Greece last spring, in the U.S.’s ability to get a handle on government spending. Eichengreen notes how U.S. federal debt (a relatively high 75% of GDP) vis-à-vis tax revenues (a relatively low 19% of GDP) are reaching dangerous levels.
From an investment perspective, investors should continue to expect currency volatility under the current U.S. dollar dominated international monetary system. Further, the U.S. Dollar will continue to be the world’s safe haven currency in times of crisis for the foreseeable future. However, according to Eichengreen a change in the international monetary order is all but inevitable within a decade.