October 17, 2017
The Demise of Dollar Diplomacy
by Barry Eichengreen*
Pundits have been saying last rites for the dollar’s global dominance since the 1960s – that is, for more than half a century now. But the pundits may finally be right, because the greenback’s dominance has been sustained by geopolitical alliances that are now fraying badly.
WASHINGTON, DC – 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 US trade deficit, and then the global financial crisis of 2008.
Yet through all of this, the dollar’s international role has endured. As my coauthors 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 many currency traders, 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 little to erode the attractiveness of the dollar in international markets.
America First–Then What is Future of the US Dollar in the Trumpian Era?
Central banks still hold US 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, US 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 US 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 under-appreciated 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 US State Department official 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% 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 US 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. President Donald Trump has painted himself into a strategic corner: he needs a concession from North Korea on the nuclear-weapons issue in order 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.
How big is the U.S. National Debt?
The best way to understand these large numbers? We believe it is to represent them visually, by plotting the data with comparable numbers that are easier to grasp.
Today’s data visualization plots the U.S. National Debt against everything from the assets managed by the world’s largest money managers, to the annual value of gold production.
1. The U.S. national debt is larger than the 500 largest public companies in America.
The S&P 500 is a stock market index that tracks the value of the 500 largest U.S. companies by market capitalization. It includes giant companies like Apple, Exxon Mobil, Microsoft, Alphabet, Facebook, Johnson & Johnson, and many others. In summer of 2016, the value of all of these 500 companies together added to $19.1 trillion – just short of the debt total.
2. The U.S. national debt is larger than all assets managed by the world’s top seven money managers.
The world’s largest money managers – companies like Blackrock, Vanguard, or Fidelity – manage trillions of investor assets in stocks, bonds, mutual funds, ETFs, and more. However, if we take the top seven of these companies and add all of their assets under management (AUM) together, it adds up to only $18.9 trillion.
3. The U.S. national debt is 25x larger than all global oil exports in 2015.
Yes, countries such as Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and Russia make a killing off of selling their oil around the world. However, the numbers behind these exports are paltry in comparison to the debt. For example, you’d need the Saudis to donate the next 146 years of revenue from their oil exports to fully pay down the debt.
4. The U.S. national debt is 155x larger than all gold mined globally in a year.
Gold has symbolized money and wealth for a long time – but even the world’s annual production of roughly 3,000 tonnes (96 million oz) of the yellow metal barely puts a dent in the debt total. At market prices today, you’d need to somehow mine 155 years worth of gold at today’s rate to equal the debt.
5. In fact, the national debt is larger than all of the world’s physical currency, gold, silver, and bitcoin combined.
That’s right, if you rounded up every single dollar, euro, yen, pound, yuan, and any other global physical currency note or coin in existence, it only amounts to a measly $5 trillion. Adding the world’s physical gold ($7.7 trillion), silver ($20 billion), and cryptocurrencies ($11 billion) on top of that, you get to a total of $12.73 trillion. That’s equal to about 65% of the U.S. national debt.
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 US troop levels on the Korean Peninsula and in Asia in general, With that, the US security guarantee for Asia will weaken, in turn providing China an opportunity to step into the geopolitical breach.
And where China leads geopolitically, its currency, the renminbi, is likely to follow.
*Barry Eichengreen is Professor of Economics at the University of California, Berkeley, and a former senior policy adviser at the International Monetary Fund. His latest book is Hall of Mirrors:The Great Depression, the Great Recession, and the Uses – and Misuses – of History.