The dollar’s Tinkerbell moment
Repeat after me: “I believe in a strong dollar as the primary global reserve currency, I believe in a strong dollar as the primary global reserve currency.”
Better hope it works, because the current debate over a far-in-the-future new monetary system may bring on a here-and-now dollar selloff and a whole new leg of the crisis.
Sadly, what worked when the children espoused their faith in Tinkerbell may not for a currency backed by the full faith and credit of a debtor nation which has socialised its banking system’s risk and needs to sell trillions in further debt to pay that and other bills.
Russia, India and, most significantly, China have all questioned the U.S. dollar’s central role in global trade and currency reserve management in the run-up to this week’s meeting of the Group of Eight industrialized nations in Italy. The future, it seems, is not greenback.
Russian President Dmitry Medvedev termed the system based on the dollar “flawed.” Suresh Tendulkar, a top Indian economic advisor said he was telling India to reduce the dollar’s weighting in setting the value of the rupee, comparing the situation to the classic “prisoner’s dilemma.”
It’s a good comparison, and as such makes his advice, and his choosing to make it public, puzzling. In the prisoner’s dilemma, two people are held for a crime and, being held apart, must decide whether to rat the other out. If both remain silent, they each get six months’ jail time, if one implicates the other he goes free and the other gets ten years, if both turn on one another they both get five years.
If holders of U.S. dollars can somehow maintain confidence in the currency, the value of their reserves will be protected, but the temptation to get a first mover’s advantage and get out while the getting is good may be overwhelming, though it will only work for that individual if everyone else more or less keeps faith.
Because, if they don’t the selloff could be so disorderly and damaging to the global economy that it will make concerns over the value of reserves look silly.
China, for its part, seems to be furiously paddling in both directions at the same time; saying that the dollar will retain its central status for “years to come” while also doing things like setting up a system to allow companies to settle cross border trades in yuan.
Writing in a newspaper published by the Chinese central bank, Li Ruogu, Chairman of the state-run Export-Import Bank of China said that Special Drawing Rights (SDRs), a unit of account used by the International Monetary Fund, could be molded to serve as a more representative global settlement unit, based on a basket of currencies. This echoes suggestions made by Chinese officials in March and can leave little doubt that the Chinese are preparing for a very different future.
“The financial crisis caused the global economy to suffer heavy losses and it also let us clearly see how unreasonable the current international monetary system is,” Li, a former central bank vice governor, said.
WHAT’S THE ALTERNATIVE?
He’s right, the old set up under which China kept its currency weak and U.S. borrowing rates lower than they otherwise would be made it too easy for the U.S. to load up on debt and almost surely was the fundamental underlying driver that led to the sub-prime mortgage crisis. It created conditions under which the huge risk management failure within banking was more likely. After all, when money is cheap and people are desperate for a bit extra yield, bad loans will begin to look safe.
Of course there are no credible current alternatives to the dollar at this point; not the euro, which might fracture or grow, or the yen or even the Chinese yuan.
And there is the danger: the very knowledge that the current dispensation is under review, and for extremely sound reasons, means that there is a small but dangerous chance that it unravels, that holders of dollars and buyers of U.S. debt lose faith leading to an uncontrolled fall in the dollar and in dollar-based assets.
It is all very similar to the banking crisis. A bank is only sound so long as we believe it to be, and the dollar, given the U.S’s weak fundamental position is only strong and worth holding so long as holders keep faith.
Really all we are observing is the continuation of the banking crisis on another plane. Last year the world lost faith in the U.S. banking system. The U.S., feeling it had no alternative, stepped up as effective guarantor of its banks and its financial system.
Well and good, and here’s hoping it works. It only will succeed however if faith in the U.S. and its dollar remain.
(At the time of publication James Saft did not own any direct investments in securities mentioned in this article. He may be an owner indirectly as an investor in a fund.)