WASHINGTON – Mark Twain never actually said “Reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated.” But the misquote is too delicious to die a natural death of its own. And nowhere is the idea behind it more relevant than in discussions of the dollar’s international role.
Pundits have been saying last rites for the dollar’s global dominance since the 1960s — that is, for more than a half-century now. The point can be shown by occurrences of the phrase “demise of the dollar” in all English-language publications catalogued by Google.
The frequency of such mentions, adjusted for the number of printed pages per year, first jumped in 1969, following the collapse of the London Gold Pool, an arrangement in which eight central banks cooperated to support the dollar’s peg to gold. Use of the phrase soared in the 1970s, following the collapse of the Bretton Woods system, of which the dollar was the linchpin, and in response to the high inflation that accompanied the presidencies of Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter in the 1970s.
But even that spike was dwarfed by the increase in mentions and corresponding worries about the dollar starting in 2001, reflecting the shock of the terrorist attacks that September, the mushrooming growth of the U.S. trade deficit, and then the global financial crisis of 2008.
Yet through all of this, the dollar’s international role has endured. As my co-authors and I show in a new book, the share of dollars in the foreign-currency reserves held by central banks and governments worldwide hardly budged in the face of these events.
The greenback remains the dominant currency traded in foreign exchange markets. It is still the unit in which petroleum is priced and traded worldwide, Venezuelan leaders’ complaints about the “tyranny of the dollar” notwithstanding.
To the consternation of currency traders the world over, the value of the dollar fluctuates widely, as its rise, fall and recovery in the course of the last year have shown. But this does precious little to erode the attractiveness of the dollar in international markets.
Central banks still hold U.S. Treasury bonds because the market for them is the single most liquid financial market in the world. And Treasury bonds are secure: The federal government has not fallen into arrears on its debt since the disastrous War of 1812.
In addition, U.S. diplomatic and military links encourage America’s allies to hold dollars. States with their own nuclear weapons hold fewer dollars than countries that depend on the U.S. for their security needs. Being in a military alliance with a reserve currency-issuing country boosts the share of the partner’s foreign exchange reserves held in that currency by roughly 30 percentage points. The evidence thus suggests that the share of reserves held in dollars would fall appreciably in the absence of this effect.
This underappreciated link between geopolitical alliances and international currency choice reflects a combination of factors. Governments have reason to be confident that the reserve-currency country will make servicing debt held by its allies a high priority. In return, those allies, by holding its liabilities, can help to lower the issuer’s borrowing costs.
Here, then, and not in another imbroglio over the federal debt ceiling this coming December, is where the real threat to the dollar’s international dominance lies. As one anonymous official at the U.S. State Department put it, President Donald Trump “does not seem to care about alliances and therefore does not care about diplomacy.”
South Korea and Japan are thought to hold about 80 percent of their international reserves in dollars. One can imagine that the financial behavior of these and other countries would change dramatically, with adverse implications for the dollar’s exchange rate and U.S. borrowing costs, were America’s close military alliances with its allies to fray.
Nor is it hard to imagine how this fraying could come about. Trump has painted himself into a strategic corner: He needs a concession from North Korea on the nuclear weapons issue to save face with his base, not to mention with the global community.
And, for all of Trump’s aggressive rhetoric and posturing, the only feasible way to secure such a concession is through negotiation. Ironically, the most plausible outcome of that process is an inspections regime not unlike the one negotiated by Barack Obama’s administration with Iran.
To get there, Trump’s administration will have to offer something in return. The most obvious bargaining chip that could be offered to make the North Korean regime feel more secure is a reduction in U.S. troop levels on the Korean Peninsula and in Asia in general, With that, the U.S. security guarantee for Asia will weaken, in turn providing China an opportunity to step into the geopolitical breach.
And where China’s power elite leads geopolitically, its currency, the renminbi, is very likely to follow.
Barry Eichengreen is a professor at the University of California, Berkeley and the University of Cambridge. His latest book is “Hall of Mirrors: The Great Depression, the Great Recession, and the Uses — and Misuses — of History.” © Project Syndicate, 2017