China Again Throws Weight Against Dollar as Reserve Currency, Calls for IMF Solution

The optimists that have long assumed that the dollar will continue to reign supreme due to lack of alternatives have just have their sanguine views challenged as China threw down the gauntlet on coming up with an alternative, non-country-specific, reserve currency.

The US in fact had this option at the time of Bretton Woods and opted instead for a dollar fixed rate standard with the dollar backed by gold. You know how that movie ended. Being the reserve currency requires that the sponsoring nation run current account deficits to get enough currency in circulation for it to serve as a trade vehicle. That’s why China and the EU are not keen about the idea of someday having the reserve currency. Both are wedded to being exporters, or at least not being importers.

But the Bretton Woods system came apart due to gaping fiscal deficits in the 1960s: substantial military commitments, made worse by Vietnam, a big uptick in social spending, plus the space program. It was evident that we had issued more dollars than we had gold to back it up. So Nixon ended convertibility and floated the dollar, a defacto devaluation. Other countries, which faced a big drop in exports engaged in compensatory government spending. That plus the oil shock, and the result was inflation in most advanced economies in the 1970s.

Many had assumed that the China talk on moving to a special drawing rights regime, or a similar approach was just that, talk to serve as a bargaining chip in negotiations. Surely the Chinese would not jeopardize the value of their dollar holdings!

Well, that simply isn’t a rational view of things. The proper way is to construct a decision tree and look at the attractiveness of various moves going forward. The FX reserves are a sunk cost. Continuing to support the greenback long term is a losing strategy, It just digs the Chinese into a bigger hole. The Chinese want their cake of a continued trade surplus without the attendant costs of supporting the dollar, and more important, continued US hegemony (yes I hate that word, but it fits here), Even if they face FX losses in an SDR regime if they insist on continued large trade surpluses, they’d have much more influence over IMF than they do over the US policies.

The practical impediments to an SDR regime is the lack of deep trading markets for investments, But the transition from sterling as reserve currency to the dollar was a protracted, messy, and disorganized affair. The Chinese prefer order and particularly want a fixed rate (or at least narrow float as they have now) regime. They see floating rates as destabilizing and as bad for trade. They increase uncertainty which deters investment.

Again, this may simply be more insistent posturing. The Chinese tend to be frontal. But if nothing else, the Chinese are signaling that they are not happy with the status quo and expect change. The US simply has not been with that program. And we don’t seem to have other ready ways to placate the Chinese. We’ve nixed deals we considered politically sensitive, to their outrage, and will continue to guard our advanced military technology. It isn’t clear what China wants in the way of gives and gets here. Again, this may be playing to a domestic audience, but negotiators can get locked into what was initially mere playing to the gallery.

This salvo coming now is also going to be perceived to constrain US fiscal deficits if we need a second stimulus package (likely). I tend to buy the analysis that the spending shortfall is large enough that this isn’t the inflationary monster that it is perceived to be. However, the fly in the ointment is first, that we have already thrown so much firepower into the sinkhole of the financial system with perilous little effect (restructuring debt, shorting up certain borrowers directly, reining in the banks, and smaller capital infusions would have been a much better course of action). In particular, the Fed efforts to create a zillion facilities to shore up TBTF markets that have become important channels for credit extension muddies the picture considerably. Monetary easing without fixing the financial system was unproductive in Japan. We would have been better off with less desperate monetary measures (dropping Fed funds to ZIRP land) and more fiscal stimulus, but that horse is out the gate and in the next county (before credit vigilantes protest, the object in my policy fantasy would NOT have been to offset teh demand fall, I see deleveraging as necessary, but to keep it from being violent and disruptive. We have achieved the latter end, or at least it looks that way now, but at an unduly high cost and with a difficult exit).

From Bloomberg:

China’s central bank renewed its call for a new global currency and said the International Monetary Fund should manage more of members’ foreign-exchange reserves, triggering a decline in the U.S. dollar.

“To avoid the inherent deficiencies of using sovereign currencies for reserves, there’s a need to create an international reserve currency that’s delinked from sovereign nations,” the People’s Bank of China said in its 2008 review released today. The IMF should expand the functions of its unit of account, Special Drawing Rights, the report said.

The restatement of Governor Zhou Xiaochuan’s proposal in March added to speculation that China will diversify its currency reserves, the world’s largest at more than $1.95 trillion. Chinese investors, the biggest foreign owners of U.S. Treasuries, reduced holdings in April after Premier Wen Jiabao expressed concern about the value of dollar assets….

“It’s extremely unlikely the dollar will be replaced as the reserve currency,” said Glenn Maguire, chief Asia-Pacific economist at Societe Generale SA in Hong Kong. “A currency needs to be internationalized and that requires a fully convertible capital account, which China doesn’t have. The second is that it needs to be adopted.”…

On June 13, Russian Finance Minister Alexei Kudrin reassured investors of the country’s confidence in the greenback by saying it was “still early to speak of other reserve currencies.” Brazilian Finance Minister Guido Mantega said on June 10 the government’s decision to switch some reserves into IMF bonds wasn’t aimed at weakening the dollar.

Federal Reserve holdings of Treasuries on behalf of central banks and institutions rose by $68.8 billion, or 3.3 percent, in May, the third most on record, Bloomberg data show.

China has started to pare its holdings, trimming them by $4.4 billion to $763.5 billion in April, the first monthly reduction since February 2008, according to U.S. Treasury Department data. Figures for May have yet to be released.

“There may be signs here of tensions mounting between the PBOC’s economic concerns over China’s holdings of dollars and the Chinese government’s diplomatic reasons for doing so,” Stephen Gallo, head of market analysis at Schneider Foreign Exchange in London, wrote in an e-mail…

IMF First Deputy Managing Director John Lipsky said on June 6 it’s possible to take the “revolutionary” step of making SDRs a reserve currency over time.

SDRs were created by the IMF in 1969 to support the Bretton Woods exchange-rate system that collapsed in 1971. They act as a unit of account rather than a currency. The cash is disbursed in proportion to the money each member nation pays into the fund.

The value of SDRs are based on a basket of currencies, shielding them from swings in a single currency. One SDR is valued at $1.54. China is proposing the basket be broadened. The current weighting is: 44 percent for the dollar, 34 percent for the euro and 11 percent each for the yen and the pound. It doesn’t include the yuan.

The dollar’s dominance of global finance buffeted developing nations last year. Investors abandoned emerging markets after the September bankruptcy of Lehman Brothers Holdings Inc. eliminated demand for all but the safest, most easily traded assets, such as Treasuries and the dollar. A shortage of the U.S. currency forced central banks to pump reserves into their economies.

“The excessive reliance on the credit of several sovereign currencies have added to the extent of risks and crises,” the central bank report said. “A currency with stable value in the long term is required.”

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3 Responses to "China Again Throws Weight Against Dollar as Reserve Currency, Calls for IMF Solution"

  1. God of Finance   June 26, 2009 at 6:49 pm

    God of FinanceEarthlings, listen up. I am your God, stupid, not him, your God of Finance. I, as you know …hadn’d been with you as long; only 700 years since Emperor Kublai Khan started paying paper instead of silver money. Of course scoundrels immediately started to cheat with faked look-alikes but the punishment was sufficient to deter these devious beings to spoil my coming-out party, heard of Death-by-a-Thousand-Cuts.I was once almost dead, chained by these little rules that they called regulations and destroyed over half of the planet by the halfling who called himself Marx. Devilish wasn’t he; the you-know-who compensated for his you-know-what by that gigantic beard. I was then freed by that odd couple, Ron and Margaret, I thought; but it was she, I believe, said “can do business”. Sorry to say it, but it is true that I am a fickle god and there had been many upheavals, not only in the land of my origin in the Yuan empire but also in much of the new European ones like that has-been Holy Roman province of the Tulip fields, the kill-all-the-Reds British South Seas, the new-paradigm swamps of the French Mississippi, the Versailles victimized Weimar, and of course the blindly blissful 1929 New York. Well, admit it; you are living in one!Contrary to common belief, I do not usually strike a touch of anger unannounced. There were some unchained souls like M. Roubini, Shiller, and even this halfling Krugman; all gentlemen of immense intelligence, and almost my ego, surely would have spoiled my next party, had it not been for your, say, l’armour d’argent. Ah, the causes. It was actually quit simple depiste what your weatherman tells you; I naturally live in your economy, which usually has a productive side, and a financial side. Like, some work and put food on the table, and others count it. So long as the two are balanced, the financial side supports the productive side and the productive side puts more demand on the financial side, which creates the wealth, you know, things like that shining suit on your chest, the sleek iPod in your pocket, and even that seedy establishment, you call it the mall, that you frequent.But unlike me, who is divine, you are only human. Every so often, especially with Ron and Margaret in business, you mistake the shenanigans as “Financial Innovation” – something like “efficient finance” actually produces real wealth by counting it many times. It happens like this. Production gets you feeling rich; you then juice it up by borrowing. Being low in intelligence and high on greed, you are carried away by borrowing so much, until that is, there is nowhere to borrow, only debts to repay, if you can repay at all. Your losses are also piling up at the same time.But, but, but… This time it’s different! You have a New Economy. I have these gifts to you of these talented banksters. Your friendly neighbourhood bankers, if you still remember them, and your scholarly central bankers, you see, are no longer your ally; much now mine and more of his, you know, the one who is denoted 666.I always had this small column of i-banksters, but this splendid army, I have to thank your Green spinomist, and your weatherman in many a fine season. They gave me the shadow-banksters, and with their aid, I won over these your-smiling-uncle-banksters with huge bonuses and you-know-you-don’t-understand giant pay-packages. To make it certain, I make sure they are paid each year-end so I can have my joyous party on year 5. Even your dignified officials, you know the ones you elect, are in my banksters’ pockets. How do you think they are elected? Not to mention their Italian white shoes, English hand-tailored pinstrips, and trophy blondes around the elbows.You know you cannot win, but still tempted to jump in with these NYSE TRAPs; I deliberately stir them up each quarter so you feel you have no choice. With each passing high-and-low, you feel your gut churn and churn, and I just watch on the sidelines with amusement. Just to magnify my drama, I reward your greed with higher-and-higher highs, and of course, when the end comes, I direct a tsunami on your fine behind.Like all gods, I cannot have mercy. I will have to punish you hard until you are pants down. I remember in 1929, those who feared me jumped and many a window had been thrown on the streets. This year, there hadn’t been a lot of that, only that little puddle of French red, but still it wasn’t fun. The thing is, if you are illusory thinking you all can get ahead by counting money, instead of producing it, you will be very sorry indeed. Like this year, your economy is really lopsided; so many counting, so few producing, and all are greedy.It looks like, all over again, nothing is learned. Your weatherman, he was a bean counter, wasn’t he, is telling you that great for your taxes, you will be on it again; it is all very predictable. What is going to happen is just going to be “the same old game of the same people, intoxicated with the same old drug, pushing around the same amount of real money and each taking a same amount of little cut and then pushes it to the next stop”. After enough of that go-around, you know there won’t be any cuts left but for the one on your tummy, almost sounds familiar. Oh really, it is not even the same amount of real money, remember you will have to repay your debts. When you are sorry again these more years, don’t say I haven’t told you so.

  2. George Fiala   June 26, 2009 at 7:07 pm

    How come nobody remembers Triffin and his paradox?

  3. Tom e   June 28, 2009 at 10:19 am

    The Chinese dollar bashing and world currency proposals are just a smoke screen for a stealth devaluation by China against non-dollar pegged countries. The Chinese are willing to take a hit in the short run on the value of their dollar fixed income assets in order to spur exports and create jobs. Nothing concentrates the mind of party members like millions of angry unemployed people roaming the streets and countryside. They know in the long run that the dollar will bounce back.I believe that this plot was hatched in conjunction with the US Chamber of Commerce when they flew to China after Obama was elected to convince the Chinese not to devalue the RMB against the dollar. It appears that a consensus was made for China to bash the dollar which would give them an indirect devaluation against non-dollar pegged countries AND give the US a stealth devaluation AND make the Obama administration look BAD for having a collapsing currency and runaway gasoline prices (when the dollar goes down, oil goes up in the US, Obama’s popularity goes down). Sort of a win, win, win for the china, chamber of commerce/multinational, Republican Party Junto.The commodity exporting countries are going along with this because a weak dollar pushes up commodity prices. The Japanese know what is going on and have tried to talk the dollar up. The Europeans are oblivious to what is happening, perhaps blinded by glee with the US bashing. This whole thing is one slick trick.