Key Currency: The Money War

Debt crises cripple the global economy, yet what is the key currency of the world? Dollars and euros are down for the count — the Chinese Yuan does not yet play as large a role as it would like. Probably all must brace themselves for a new model.

Debt crisis, fear of recession, currency battle — the tremors of the world economy have catapulted gold in the direction of $2,000. Yet the luster of the precious metal has a dark side: Confidence in paper money is dwindling. The dollar and euro lost across the board against the currencies of emerging countries. The Swiss franc is so strong that the Swiss bank of issue wants to end its upward flight. Japan’s monetary watchdogs are also struggling to stop the record dash of the yen.

The fall of the dollar can be read less in comparison to the euro than in comparison to the yen and franc — or better yet, the price of gold. The power of the greenback as the global currency is in danger. No wonder — the U.S. lives notoriously above its means. The country only escaped national bankruptcy by allowing more debt. The government in Washington is kicking a $14.3 trillion mountain of debt down the road, because the U.S. unfailingly consumes more than it produces — at the expense of its creditors, with China and Japan leading the way.

The Asians lend the U.S. money so that they can buy their smartphones and computers. However, the deal, at one time advantageous to both sides, is fragile. America squandered a lot of credit in the past years — first the crash of the new economy, then the bubble in the real estate market, finally the ratings agency Standard and Poor’s punished the U.S. for its credit addiction and downgraded its rating. It is a proper disgrace for the economic superpower. Commentators in Beijing already imagine America in a “period of decline,” as economist Xia Bin, who advises the Chinese cabinet and central bank, recently warned. China, the U.S.’s largest creditor, is showing concern.

A safe haven for the abundant monetary reserves is not at all easy to find. The most obvious choice would be the euro, but the Europeans have their own problems. The attempt to combat the problems in Greece, Ireland and Portugal by forcing these countries to pile new debt upon old via credit may be considered failed. In addition, the hard plan of cuts that was imposed upon the governments is crippling any growth. Now the crisis threatens to strike Spain and Italy as well.

The basic problem of the common currency area has not been solved: The German economy can boom, while Spain slides into recession. Still, the euro members have no possibility of reacting with a suitable monetary policy. Only fiscal policy or adjustment of prices and salaries remain as options. This not only puts national governments to a crucial test, but also the monetary union as a whole.

The debt crises have awakened the mistrust of investors toward both the U.S. and Europe. Yet their role as reserve currencies remains untouched. The values of the three leading reserve currencies of the world have remained approximately the same. According to data from the International Monetary Fund, the dollar leads with a share of 61 percent, the euro amounts to 26 percent and the yen to four. These three leading currencies total more than 90 percent of world monetary reserves. Gold, the Chinese Yuan or the Swiss franc play unimportant minor roles.

This also applies to places other than the balances of the central banks. In the raw materials markets of the world, business is transacted in dollars. Of course, China would like to go shopping with its own currency — under more favorable conditions. Yet it must pay with dollars. The financial markets also reflect the power of the dollar. Wall Street still sets the pace of the world stock markets. Large segments of the academic elite and business leaders were educated at American universities.

And yet the dollar as the world currency is down for the count. Barry Eichengreen, Professor at the University of California Berkeley, describes this in “The Rise and Fall of the Dollar.” For 100 years the U.S. currency was the predominant payment method in the world. Now this status is coming to an end. The U.S. is down for the count believes Eichengreen, courtesy of the astonishing upsurge of emerging countries like China, Brazil or India. They are increasingly taking larger portions of world trade away from the U.S.; hence, the importance of the dollar could also sink.

Skeptics like Eichengreen fear that the decline of the U.S. currency could be accompanied by the decline of the large economic power. In the meantime, the upcoming competition is sharpening its knives. Not to be forgotten in Washington is the interview between The Wall Street Journal and China’s government and party boss, Hu Jintao, who prophesied for Barack Obama a redistribution of global power. The world currency system with the dollar at the center is a “product of the past” adjudged the Chinese statesman.

The People’s Republic itself wants to rise to a country with a key global currency in the long term. Then other countries would have to hold the Yuan as a reserve currency — instead of dollars or euros. Yet the Chinese will still need many years to internationalize their currency so that it will become interesting to investors and banks of issue.

At this time, the people’s currency with the portrait of Mao cannot even be freely converted into another currency. To keep its exports reasonable, China links up the exchange rate of its currency to the dollar. A network of capital controls largely seals the country off from the global stream of money. China would need to free its currency from this corset and, in fact, politicians are dissolving the first restrictions. Private businesses are permitted to legally invest money overseas to a limited extent. Here and there deals outside the country are paid for with Yuan. Hong Kong is being developed into an international stock exchange center. It is an arduous process that is just at the beginning.

Hardly anyone counts on the Yuan to replace the dollar as the global currency soon. The euro is also no convincing alternative, but it is the middle choice for all those nations of the world that would like to reduce their dependence on the U.S. currency. Before the euro becomes an equal partner to the greenback, large tasks stand before Europe: It must get its debts under control and closely coordinate the economic and budget policies of its members.

If the dollar is no longer fulfilling its role as a stable world currency, the euro is only moderately in demand due to its chronic deficit in institutional creditworthiness and the grand vision of a Chinese key currency is only attainable in the far future, then a pragmatic solution immediately suggests itself: The central banks dissolve their too close attachment to the dollar and reallocate to the euro (today), Yuan (tomorrow) and also a little in gold. The first indication of this can already be seen as the emerging countries ramp up their precious metal reserves. In the future, U.S. economist Eichengreen also sees a world in which there will be several parallel currencies.

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About Sandra Alexander 451 Articles
I have retired after 33 years teaching German at a high school in suburban Philadelphia and am now teaching undergraduate German courses at a small, private college in Philadelphia. I have an M.A. in German and keep my German language skills current by translating. I hope to someday translate novels from German into English or maybe even write my own novel.

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