The Chinese Proposal for a New Global Super Currency Nouriel Roubini | Jun 26, 2009 As I discussed a few weeks ago in a New York Times op-ed the Chinese are flexing their muscles on the question of the global reserve currency system dominated by the dollar.
With the revision of the SDR basket (so far including only dollar, euro, yen and pound) coming to the table next year it is clear that the Chinese will push for including the renminbi in the new SDR basket. And senior Brazilian policy sources suggest in private that, if the RMB is included in the SDR, so should the Brazilian Real as there is already a much deeper bond market for Real debt and as - unlike China - Brazil has a more liberalized capital account. And the Russians are now openly pushing for commodity currencies - the Canadian and Australian dollar but also the Ruble - to be included in the SDR basked. And the BRICs are on record pushing for the IMF to issue SDR denominated debt.
So the process that will lead - in the medium-long term - to a challenge of the US dollar as the major global reserve currency has started. The US creditors - the BRICs, the Gulf states and others - are becoming increasingly alarmed that the US will deal with its unsustainable fiscal path via inflation and debasement of the value of the dollar via depreciation. So they will not sit idly waiting for this to happen: they are already diversifying into gold, into resources (as China purchases mines and energy, mineral and commodity resources all over the world) and into shorter term maturity US Treasuries that have less market risk than longer term Treasuries. With two-thirds of US Treasuries, being held by non-residents and the average maturity of such government debt down to 4.5 years, the risk of a refinancing crisis and disorderly fall in the dollar will increase over time unless the US presents a credible plan for medium term fiscal consolidation.
Increasingly it is clear that unless such reduction in fiscal deficits occurs the incentive to continue monetizing them will increase. In the short run such massive monetization has not been inflationary as money velocity has collapsed and as the slack in goods and labor markets is still rapidly rising. But over time - late 2010 and 2011 - deflationary pressures will lead to an increase in expected inflation and then in actual inflation if monetization of persistently large fiscal deficits continues. Indeed some in the US argue that wiping out the real value of public debt and dealing with the private sector debt deflation through a bout of double digit inflation may be the most desirable way to reduce the overhang of public and private debt. While such arguments have many flaws as inflation will have serious collateral damage one cannot rule out that the US will use inflation and depreciation as a way out of its public and private debts. Greenspan's concerns about the long term inflationary effects of large US budget deficits - expressed today in a FT op-ed - go along the same lines. Thus, our creditors' nervousness about the eventual debasement of the US dollar has some increasing validity.
And here again is the full text of my recent NYT op-ed in case you missed it the first time:
From The New York Times:
THE ALMIGHTY RENMINBI?
By Nouriel Roubini
May 13, 2009
THE 19th century was dominated by the British Empire, the 20th century by the United States. We may now be entering the Asian century, dominated by a rising China and its currency. While the dollar status as the major reserve currency will not vanish overnight, we can no longer take it for granted. Sooner than we think, the dollar may be challenged by other currencies, most likely the Chinese renminbi. This would have serious costs for America, as our ability to finance our budget and trade deficits cheaply would disappear.
Traditionally, empires that hold the global reserve currency are also net foreign creditors and net lenders. The British Empire declined and the pound lost its status as the main global reserve currency when Britain became a net debtor and a net borrower in World War II. Today, the United States is in a similar position. It is running huge budget and trade deficits, and is relying on the kindness of restless foreign creditors who are starting to feel uneasy about accumulating even more dollar assets. The resulting downfall of the dollar may be only a matter of time.
But what could replace it? The British pound, the Japanese yen and the Swiss franc remain minor reserve currencies, as those countries are not major powers. Gold is still a barbaric relic whose value rises only when inflation is high. The euro is hobbled by concerns about the long-term viability of the European Monetary Union. That leaves the renminbi.
China is a creditor country with large current account surpluses, a small budget deficit, much lower public debt as a share of G.D.P. than the United States, and solid growth. And it is already taking steps toward challenging the supremacy of the dollar. Beijing has called for a new international reserve currency in the form of the International Monetary Fund special drawing rights (a basket of dollars, euros, pounds and yen). China will soon want to see its own currency included in the basket, as well as the renminbi used as a means of payment in bilateral trade.
At the moment, though, the renminbi is far from ready to achieve reserve currency status. China would first have to ease restrictions on money entering and leaving the country, make its currency fully convertible for such transactions, continue its domestic financial reforms and make its bond markets more liquid. It would take a long time for the renminbi to become a reserve currency, but it could happen. China has already flexed its muscle by setting up currency swaps with several countries (including Argentina, Belarus and Indonesia) and by letting institutions in Hong Kong issue bonds denominated in renminbi, a first step toward creating a deep domestic and international market for its currency.
If China and other countries were to diversify their reserve holdings away from the dollar, and they eventually will, the United States would suffer. We have reaped significant financial benefits from having the dollar as the reserve currency. In particular, the strong market for the dollar allows Americans to borrow at better rates. We have thus been able to finance larger deficits for longer and at lower interest rates, as foreign demand has kept Treasury yields low. We have been able to issue debt in our own currency rather than a foreign one, thus shifting the losses of a fall in the value of the dollar to our creditors. Having commodities priced in dollars has also meant that a fall in the dollar value doesn't lead to a rise in the price of imports.
Now, imagine a world in which China could borrow and lend internationally in its own currency. The renminbi, rather than the dollar, could eventually become a means of payment in trade and a unit of account in pricing imports and exports, as well as a store of value for wealth by international investors. Americans would pay the price. We would have to shell out more for imported goods, and interest rates on both private and public debt would rise. The higher private cost of borrowing could lead to weaker consumption and investment, and slower growth.
This decline of the dollar might take more than a decade, but it could happen even sooner if we do not get our financial house in order. The United States must rein in spending and borrowing, and pursue growth that is not based on asset and credit bubbles. For the last two decades America has been spending more than its income, increasing its foreign liabilities and amassing debts that have become unsustainable. A system where the dollar was the major global currency allowed us to prolong reckless borrowing.
Now that the dollar position is no longer so secure, we need to shift our priorities. This will entail investing in our crumbling infrastructure, alternative and renewable resources and productive human capital, rather than in unnecessary housing and toxic financial innovation. This will be the only way to slow down the decline of the dollar, and sustain our influence in global affairs.
Nouriel Roubini is a professor of economics at the New York University Stern School of Business and the chairman of an economic consulting firm.