Incumbency, it is often said, confers many advantages.
Sitting U.S. presidents certainly have reaped its benefits – in the past 80 years, only three have been unseated.
Most economists believe the same benefits apply to reserve currencies. Yes, the U.S. dollar may one day be supplanted as the leading international currency, the thinking goes, but that day is many decades away.
Then again, maybe not.
A new working paper from the National Bureau of Economic Research that looks more closely at the dollar’s own rise to the top in the 20th century suggests, among other things, that “the advantages of incumbency are not all they are cracked up to be.”
By looking at the currency denomination of foreign public debt issued by 33 countries from 1914 to 1946, the authors – University of California-Berkeley professor Barry Eichengreen and Livia Chitu and Arnaud Mehl of the European Central Bank – find that dollar-denominated bonds were nearly equal to those priced in sterling by the late 1920s. That’s about two decades earlier than the date assumed by previous scholars.
When stripping out Commonwealth countries that had strong commercial and political links with Britain, the dollar overtook sterling in 1929.