The Role of the U.S. In the Global Financial System

The Role of the U.S. In the Global Financial System

photo: ctj71081

The mandate of the Federal Reserve is clear: “…promote effectively the goals of maximum employment, stable prices and moderate long-term interest rates.” How to achieve those goals, of course, has been the subject of great debate: should the central bank use interest rates or monetary aggregates? should it rely on rules or discretion? The ongoing controversy within the U.S. over the benefits and costs of globalization opens up the issue of the geographic scope of the Fed’s responsibilities: does the Fed (and for that matter the U.S. Treasury) need to worry about the rest of the world?

Stanley Fischer, Federal Reserve Vice Chair (and former first deputy managing director of the IMF) sees a role for limited intervention. Fischer acknowledges the feedback effects between the U.S. and the rest of the world. The U.S. economy represents nearly one quarter of the global economy, and this preponderance means that U.S. developments have global spillovers. Changes in U.S. interest rates, for example, are transmitted to the rest of the world, and the “taper tantrum” showed how severe the responses could be. Therefore, Fischer argues, our first responsibility is “to keep our own house in order.” It also entails acknowledging that efforts to restore financial stability can not be limited by national borders. During the global financial crisis, the Fed established swap lines with foreign central banks so that they could provide liquidity to their own banks that had borrowed in dollars to hold U.S. mortgage-backed securities. Fischer cautions, however, that the Fed’s global responsibilities are not unbounded. He acknowledges Charles Kindleberger’s assertion that international stability can only be ensured by a financial hegemon or global central bank, but Fischer states, “…the U.S. Federal Reserve System is not that bank.”

The U.S. did hold that hegemonic position, however, during the Bretton Woods era when we ensured the convertibility of dollars held by central banks to gold. We abandoned the role when President Richard Nixon ended gold convertibility in 1971 and the Bretton Woods system subsequently ended. Governments have subsequently experimented with all sorts of exchange rate regimes, from fixed to floating and virtually everything in between.

While many countries do not intervene in the currency markets, others do, so there is a case for a reserve currency. But perhaps more importantly, we live in an era of global finance, and much of these financial flows are denominated in dollars. The offshore dollar banking system, which began in the 1960s with the Eurodollar market, now encompasses emerging markets as well as upper-income countries. This financial structure is vulnerable to systemic risk. Patrick Foulis of The Economist believes that “The lesson of 2007-08 was that a run in the offshore dollar archipelago can bring down the entire financial system, including Wall Street, and that the system needs a lender of last resort.”

Are there alternatives to the U.S. as a linchpin? The IMF is the international agency assigned the task of ensuring the provision of the international public good of international economic and financial stability. Its track record during the 2008-09 crisis showed that it could respond quickly and with enough financial firepower to deal with global volatility (see Chapter 10). But it can only move when its principals, the 189 member nations, allow it to do so. The Fund’s subsequent dealings with the European nations in the Greek financial crisis demonstrate that it can be tripped up by politics.

Is China ready to take on the responsibilities of an international financial hegemon? Its economy rivals, if not surpasses, that of the U.S. in size, and it is a dominant international global trader. China’s financial footprint is growing as well, and the central bank has established its own series of swap lines. This past year the renminbi was included in the basket of currencies that are used to value the IMF’s Special Drawing Rights. But the government has moved cautiously in removing capital account regulations in order to avoid massive flows in either direction, so there is limited liquidity. Chinese debt problems do not encourage confidence in its ability to deal with financial stress.

The Federal Reserve is well aware that international linkages work both ways. Fed Chair Janet Yellen cited concerns about the Chinese economy last fall when the Fed held back its first increase in the Federal Funds rate. And Fed Governor Lael Brainard believes that the global role of the dollar and the proximity to a zero lower bound may amplify spillovers from foreign conditions onto the U.S.

Whether or not the U.S. has a special responsibility to promote international financial stability may depend in part on one’s views of the stability of global capital markets. If they are basically stable and only occasionally pushed into episodes of excess volatility, then coordinated national policies may be sufficient to return them to normalcy. But if the structure of the global financial system is inherently shaky, then the U.S. needs to be ready to step in when the next crisis occurs. Andrés Velasco of Columbia University believes that “Recent financial history suggests that the next liquidity crisis is just around the corner, and that such crises can impose enormous economic and social costs. And in a largely dollarized world economy, the only certain tool for avoiding such crises is a lender of last resort in dollars.”

Unfortunately, if a crisis does occur it will take place during a period when the U.S. is reassessing its international ties. Donald Trump, the presumptive Republican candidate, achieved that position in part because of his argument that past U.S. trade and finance deals were against our national interests. He shows little interest in maintaining multilateral arrangements such as the United Nations. Trump has announced that he would most likely replace Janet Yellen because of her political affiliation. It is doubtful that the criteria for a new Chair would include a sensitivity to the international ramifications of U.S. policies.

The interest of the U.S. public in international dealings has always waxed and waned, and Trump’s nomination is a sign that we are in a period when many believe we should minimize our engagement with the rest of the world. But this will be difficult to do as long as the dollar remains the predominant world currency for private as well as official use. Regardless of domestic politics, we will not escape the fallout of another crisis, regardless of where it starts. It would be better to accept our international role and seeks ways to minimize risk than to undertake a futile attempt to make the world go away.