Most news outlets are not paying much attention to this story. It does not contain very much drama and no one understands it very well.
Still, the fate of the U.S. dollar is a large story, potentially an enormously important event. Thus, I have occasionally posted about it.
Ten days ago Liam Halligan explained the stakes, clearly and cogently in The Daily Telegraph:
Since then, global commerce has been conducted largely in dollars and leading economies have held the greenback as their primary reserve currency.
The same system remains intact today, with the lion’s share of commercial settlements worldwide still clearing the US banking system – even if the parties involved have nothing to do with the States.
The dollar’s hegemony continues to be cemented, meanwhile, by the operations of the International Monetary Fund and World Bank. Founded at Bretton Woods, they’re both Washington based, of course, and controlled by America, despite some Francophone window-dressing.
The advantages this system bestows on the US are enormous. “Reserve currency status” generates huge demand for dollars from governments and companies around the world, as they’re needed for reserves and trade. This has allowed successive American administrations to spend far more, year-in year-out, than is raised in tax and export revenue.
Thanks to the dollar’s status America enjoys enormous advantages:
So America doesn’t worry about balance of payments crises, as it can pay for imports in dollars the Federal Reserve can just print. And Washington keeps spending willy-nilly, as the world buys ever more Treasuries on the strength of regulatory imperative and the vast liquidity and size of the market for US sovereign debt.
It is this “exorbitant privilege” – as French statesman Valéry Giscard d’Estaing once sourly observed – that has been the bedrock of America’s post-war hegemony. It is the status of the dollar, above all, that’s allowed Washington to get its way, putting the financial squeeze on recalcitrant countries via the IMF while funding foreign wars. To understand politics and power it pays to follow the money. And for the past 70 years, the dollar has ruled the roost.
The situation is not likely to change in the short run, yet change is coming:
Something just took place, though, which illustrates that dollar reserve currency status won’t last forever and could be seriously diluted. Last week, seven decades on from Bretton Woods, the governments of Brazil, Russia, India and China led a conference in the Brazilian city of Fortaleza to mark the establishment of a new development bank that, whatever diplomatic niceties are put on it, is intent on competing with the IMF and World Bank.
It’s long been obvious the BRICs are coming. The total annual output of these four economies has spiralled in recent years, to an astonishing $29.6 trillion (£17.3 trillion) last year on a PPP-basis adjusted for living costs. That’s within spitting distance of the $34.2 trillion generated by the US and European Union combined.
America’s GDP, incidentally, was $16.8 trillion on World Bank numbers, and China’s was $16.2 trillion – within a whisker of knocking the US off its perch. The balance of global economic power is on a knife-edge. Tomorrow is almost today.
Consider also that the BRICs collectively hold sway over 50pc of global currency reserves, rising to almost three-quarters if you take the emerging markets as a whole. The G7 nations between them control only 20pc – and less than 8pc if you exclude Japan.
Among other reasons, the dollar enjoys its status because nations buy and sell petroleum in dollars:
The key to the dollar’s future is petrocurrency status – whether it’s used for trading oil and other leading commodities. Here, too, change is afoot. China’s voracious energy appetite and America’s increased focus on domestic production mean the days of dollar-priced energy look numbered.
Beijing has struck numerous agreements with Brazil and India that bypass the dollar. China and Russia have also set up rouble-yuan swaps pushing America’s currency out of the picture. But if Beijing and Moscow – the word’s largest energy importer and producer respectively – drop dollar energy pricing, America’s reserve currency status could unravel.
That would undermine the US Treasury market and seriously complicate Washington’s ability to finance its vast and still fast-growing $17.5 trillion of dollar-denominated debt.
Even though Russia still does most of its trading in dollars, the markets are moving away from the dollar:
Although the dollar’s reserve status won’t end overnight, the global payments system is now moving inexorably towards that outcome. The US currency accounted for just 33pc of all foreign exchange holdings in 2013, on IMF numbers, down from 55pc in 2001.