by Patrick Barron
We refer to the dollar as a “reserve currency” when referring to its use by other countries when settling their international trade accounts. For example, if Canada buys goods from China, China may prefer to be paid in US dollars rather than Canadian dollars. The US dollar is the more “marketable” money internationally, meaning that most countries will accept it in payment, so China can use its dollars to buy goods from other countries, not solely the US. Such might not be the case with the Canadian dollar, and China would have to hold its Canadian dollars until it found something to buy from Canada. Multiply this scenario by all the countries of the world who print their own money and one can see that without a currency accepted widely in the world, international trade would slow down and become more expensive. In some ways, its effect would be similar to that of erecting trade barriers, such as the infamous Smoot-Hawley Tariff of 1930 that contributed to the Great Depression.
There are many who draw a link between the collapse of international trade and war. The great French economist Frédéric Bastiat said that “when goods do not cross borders, soldiers will.” No nation can achieve a decent standard of living with a completely autarkic economy, meaning completely self-sufficient in all things. If it cannot trade for the goods that it needs, it feels forced to invade its neighbors to steal them. Thus, a near-universally-accepted currency can be as vital to world peace as it is to world prosperity.
What “Reserve Currency” Really Means
However, the foundation from which the term “reserve currency” originated no longer exists. Originally, the term “reserve” referred to the promise that the currency was backed by and could be redeemed for a commodity, usually gold, at a promised exchange ratio. The first truly global reserve currency was the British pound sterling. Because the Pound was “good as gold,” many countries found it more convenient to hold pounds rather than gold itself during the age of the gold standard. The world’s great trading nations settled their trade in gold, but they might accept pounds rather than gold, with the confidence that the Bank of England would hand over the gold at a fixed exchange rate upon presentment. Toward the end of World War II, the US dollar was given this status by treaty following the Bretton Woods Agreement. The US accumulated the lion’s share of the world’s gold as the “arsenal of democracy” for the allies even before we entered the war. (The US still owns more gold than any other country by a wide margin, with 8,133.5 tons compared to number two Germany with 3,384.2 tons.)
The International Monetary Fund (IMF) was formed with the express purpose of monitoring the Federal Reserve’s commitment to Bretton Woods by ensuring that the Fed did not inflate the dollar and stood ready to exchange dollars for gold at $35 per ounce. Thusly, countries had confidence that their dollars held for trading purposes were as “good as gold,” as had been the British pound at one time.
The Advent of the Fiat Reserve Currency
However, the Fed did not maintain its commitment to the Bretton Woods Agreement and the IMF did not attempt to force it to hold enough gold to honor all its outstanding currency in gold at $35 per ounce. During the 1960s, the US funded the War in Vietnam and President Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty with printed money. The volume of outstanding dollars exceeded the US’s store of gold at $35 per ounce. The Fed was called to account in the late 1960s first by the Bank of France and then by others.
Central banks around the world, who had been content to hold dollars instead of gold, grew concerned that the US had sufficient gold reserves to honor its redemption promise. During the 1960s the run on the Fed, led by France, caused the US’s gold stock to shrink dramatically from over 20,000 tons in 1958 to just over 8,000 tons in 1970. At the accelerating rate that these redemptions were occurring, the US had no choice but to revalue the dollar at some higher exchange rate or abrogate its responsibilities to honor dollars for gold entirely. To its everlasting shame, the US chose the latter and “went off the gold standard” in September 1971. (I have calculated that in 1971 the US would have needed to devalue the dollar from $35 per ounce to $400 per ounce in order to have sufficient gold stock to redeem all its currency for gold.) Nevertheless, the dollar was still held by the great trading nations, because it still performed the useful function of settling international trading accounts. There was no other currency that could match the dollar, despite the fact that it was “delinked” from gold.
Why the Dollar Continued To Be a Reserve Currency
There are two characteristics of a currency that make it useful in international trade: one, it is issued by a large trading nation itself, and, two, the currency holds its value over time. These two factors create a demand for holding a currency in reserve. Although the dollar was being inflated by the Fed, thus losing its value vis-à-vis other commodities over time, there was no real competition. The German Deutsche mark held its value better, but the German economy and its trade was a fraction that of the US, meaning that holders of marks would find less to buy in Germany than holders of dollars would find in the US. So demand for the mark was lower than demand for the dollar. Of course, psychological factors entered the demand for dollars, too, since the US was the military protector of all the Western nations against the communist countries.
Today we are seeing the beginnings of a change. The Fed has been inflating the dollar massively, reducing its purchasing power and creating an opportunity for the world’s great trading nations to use other, better monies. This is important, because a loss of demand for holding the US dollar as a reserve currency would mean that trillions of dollars held overseas could flow back into the US, causing either inflation, recession, or both. For example, the US dollar global share of central bank holdings currently is 62 percent, mostly in the form of US Treasury debt. (Central banks hold interest-bearing Treasury debt rather than the dollars themselves.) Foreign holdings of US debt is currently $6.154 trillion. Compare this to the US monetary base of $3.839 trillion.
Should foreign demand to hold US dollar denominated assets diminish, the Treasury could fund their redemption in only three ways. One, the US could increase taxes in order to redeem its foreign held debt. Two, it could raise interest rates to refinance its foreign held debt. Or, three, it could simply print money. Of course, it could use all three to varying degrees. If the US refused to raise taxes or increase the interest rate and relied upon money printing (the most likely scenario, barring a complete repudiation of Keynesian doctrine and an embrace of Austrian economics), the monetary base would rise by the amount of the redemptions. For example, should demand to hold US dollar denominated assets fall by 50 percent ($3.077 trillion) the US monetary base would increase by 75 percent, which undoubtedly would lead to very high price inflation and dramatically hurt us here at home. Our standard of living is at stake here.
So we see that it is in the interest of many that the dollar remain in high demand around the world as a unit of trade settlement. It is necessary in order to prevent price inflation and to prevent American business from being saddled with increased costs that would come from being forced to settle their import/export accounts in a currency other than the dollar.
Threats To the Dollar as Reserve Currency
The causes of this threat to the dollar as a reserve currency are the policies of the Fed itself. There is no conspiracy to “attack” the dollar by other countries, in my opinion. There is, however, a rising realization by the rest of the world that the US is weakening the dollar through its ZIRP and QE programs. Consequently, other countries are aware that they may need to seek a better means of settling world trade accounts than using the US dollar. One factor that has helped the dollar retain its reserve currency demand in the short run, despite the Fed’s inflationist policies, is that the other currencies have been inflated, too.
For example, Japan has inflated the yen to a greater extent than the dollar in its foolish attempt to revive its stagnant economy by cheapening its currency. Now even the European Central Bank will proceed with a form of QE, apparently despite Germany’s objections. All the world’s central banks seem to subscribe to the fallacious belief that increasing the money supply will bring prosperity without the threat of inflation. This defies economic law and economic reality. They cannot print their way to recovery or prosperity. Increasing the money supply does not and cannot ever create prosperity for all. What is more, this mistaken belief compounds a second mistake; i.e., that savings is not the foundation of prosperity, but rather spending is the key. This mistake puts the cart before the horse.
A third mistake is believing that driving their currencies’ exchange rate lower vis-à-vis other currencies will lead to an export-driven recovery or some mysteriously generated shot in the arm that will lead to a sustainable recovery. Such is not the case. Without delving too deeply into Austrian economic and capital theory, just let me point out that money printing disrupts the structure of production by fraudulently changing the “price discovery process” of capitalism. When this happens, capital is allocated to projects that will never be profitably completed. Bubbles get created and collapse and businesses are suddenly damaged en masse, thus, destroying scarce capital.
Possible Future Scenarios
Because of this money-printing philosophy, the dollar is very susceptible to losing its vaunted reserve currency position to the first major trading country that stops inflating its currency. There is evidence that China understands what is at stake; it has increased its gold holdings and has instituted controls to prevent gold from leaving China. Should the world’s second largest economy and one of the world’s greatest trading nations tie its currency to gold, demand for the yuan would increase and demand for the dollar would decrease overnight.
Or, the long festering crisis in Europe may drive Germany to leave the eurozone and reinstate the Deutsch mark. I have long advocated that Germany do just this, which undoubtedly would reveal the rot embodied in the euro, the commonly held currency that has been plundered by half the nations of the continent to finance their unsustainable welfare states. The European continent outside the UK could become a mostly Deutsch mark zone, and the mark might eventually supplant the dollar as the world’s premier reserve currency.
The underlying problem, though, lies in the ability of all central banks to print fiat money; i.e., money that is backed by nothing other than the coercive power of the state via its legal tender laws. Central banks are really little more than legal counterfeiters of their own currencies. The pressure to print money comes from the political establishment that desires both warfare and welfare. Both are strictly capital consumption activities; they are not “investments” that can pay a return.
In a sound money environment, where the money supply cannot be inflated, the true nature of warfare and welfare spending is revealed, providing a natural check on the amount of funds a society is willing to devote to each. But in a fiat money environment both war and welfare spending can expand unchecked in the short run, because their adverse consequences are felt later and the link between consumptive spending and its harm to the economy is poorly understood. Thus, both can be expanded beyond the recuperative and sustainable powers of the economy.
The best antidote is to abolish central banks altogether and allow private institutions to engage in money production subject only to normal commercial law. Sound money would be backed 100 percent by commodities of intrinsic value — gold, silver, etc. Any money producer issuing money certificates or book entry accounts (checking accounts) in excess of their promised exchange ratio to the underlying commodity would be guilty of fraud and punished as such by both the commercial and criminal law, just as we currently punish counterfeiters. Legal tender laws, which prohibit the use (in many cases) of any currency other than the one endorsed by the state, would be abolished and competing currencies would be encouraged. The market would discover the better monies and drive out less marketable ones; i.e., better monies would drive out the bad or less-good monies.
We need to look at the concept of a reserve currency differently, because it is important. We need to look at it as a privilege and a responsibility and not as a weapon we can use against the rest of the world. If we abolish, or even lessen, legal tender laws and allow the process of price discovery to reveal the best sound money, if we allow our US dollar to become the best money it can — a truly sound money — then the chances of our personal and collective prosperity are greatly enhanced.