US dollar as the world’s reserve currency–potential problem for the US(II)–today

From Bretton Woods…

It has been almost 40 years since the Bretton Woods fixed exchange rate agreement that served the world well in the years immediately after WWII fell apart.  What’s different today?

–to a new world order

1.  The US is no longer the dominant economic force in the world.

a.  Germany, Japan, and to a lesser extent the UK, have returned to their former great power status.

b.  The major countries of Europe have formed the EU, a loose economic and political confederation aimed at counterbalancing US might and which has encouraged the development of large, multinational firms headquartered there.

c.  China and India have emerged as world economic powers, by some measures bigger than all other countries save the US and Japan.  Brazil is not far behind.  And Russia is reestablishing a more prominent place in the world order.

2.  Periodic crises like the collapse of the European Exchange Rate Mechanism in the early Nineties or the Asian crisis in the second half of that decade have shown that fixed currency regimes without sound economic policies underpinning them are a recipe for disaster.  It has also become clear that the central banks of even the largest economies have much less power in the currency markets than the international commercial banks.  So intervention in the currency markets in pursuit of a national objective have by and large become a thing of the past. Therefore,

3.  Ensuring currency stability has become a function of international coordination of sound money and fiscal regimes.  This has taken on increasing importance as global growth has been more and more driven by world trade.

4.  Currencies are now by and large fiat currencies, no longer convertible into gold or silver, but deriving their value from the economic soundness of the issuer.

5.  The universal good will toward the US stemming from its behavior during and after WWII–which, after all, ended almost 65 years ago–and which permeated the Bretton Woods era, is gone.  A new generation of leaders, none of whom experienced the war itself or the reconstruction period immediately following, is in charge in most countries, including the US.  These leaders, justifiably, see no reason there should be one set of rules of conduct for the US and another for the rest of the world.

Still, the US dollar rules

Nevertheless, Continue reading

What’s up with the Shanghai stock market?–should we be watching?

I guess watching Shanghai can’t be any worse for your financial health than paying attention to  CNBC.  It also sounds cool to be talking about exotic markets.

On the other hand, I don’t think the commentators who have been citing Shanghai weakness as the cause for similar drops in US and European stock markets understand how limited an indicator the Chinese index is.

Although Shanghai is no longer the nursing home for inefficient state-owned enterprises that it used to be, real investment clunkers still abound.  But there’s no bond market to speak of.  With minor exceptions, the Chinese government does not permit its citizens to invest in securities markets abroad, just as it doesn’t allow foreigners to invest in its domestic markets.   So one reason for corporations and individuals in China is that, other than bank deposits, there’s no other place to invest your money.

Another thing to understand is that, despite the infusion of Western knowhow over the past decade or so, Chinese banks are still not independent financial institutions of the type we’re used to here.   Instead, they are arms of the state, run by high-level government employees who are also members of the Communist Party, and who get promoted (an over simplification, but basically true) by doing what the central government tells them.

So when, in the depths of the economic contraction late last year, Beijing devised a stimulus plan and ordered the banks to step up their lending, the banks complied (unlike here in the US)–and lent a lot.

Almost a month ago, China announced that the banks had achieved 75% of their full-year lending quota in the first half.  Beijing also privately told the banks  to take their feet off the accelerator.  Of course, again they complied.

It turns out–no surprise here–that a big chunk of the increased lending was very short term finance that the borrowers used for stock and commodities market speculation.  So the order to slow down lending growth was a signal that unofficial margin lending requirements were about to be tightened up.  This signal was confirmed as short term arrangements matured and were not renewed, creating in effect a gigantic margin call.  Hence the sharp drop in the Shanghai index over the past three weeks.

I think you can make a case that the withdrawal of financing for commodities speculation in China could be a cause for some softness in the price of industrial raw materials.  But the fall in the Chinese stock market is not a harbinger of upcoming problems for the Chinese economy.  On the contrary, the withdrawal of extraordinary stimulus is a signal that China thinks its domestic economy is back to normal.

Margin-related stock market movements usually take several weeks to play out.  If what I’ve said above is correct, and absent any further tightening moves by Beijing, we should see Shanghai settling down in short order.

US dollar as the world’s reserve currency: what it means and why it’s a potential problem for the US (I) Bretton Woods

Two posts

This topic will be in two posts.  In this one, I’ll try to sketch how the post-WWII currency system was set up and why it eventually broke apart.  In the second post, I’ll talk about how I think the present situation compares with that time and how our current federal budget deficit poses a serious threat to US economic power similar to that of the Sixties.

Foreign exchange

In even the simplest world where there are a number of different countries, each with its own currency, but all wanting to trade with one another, the issue of foreign exchange comes up.  The grower of American corn, for example, probably wants to be paid in dollars.  The maker of German printing presses expects to be paid in marks (or, in today’s world, in euros).  The Mexican buyer of either not only wants to know the peso price of each, he needs to have a currency market where he can exchange his pesos for the appropriate foreign currency.

Previous, unofficial, reserve currencies

There have been times in the past when one country has held a leading position in wealth, culture, prestige, military power or something else that has resulted in its currency being used in other countries as well.  In the 18th and 19th centuries, for example, the Spanish real de a ocho (dollar, or piece of eight) was an accepted medium of exchange in large parts of the world.  In the US it was preferred for its greater purity to the output of our own government mints.  During the same period, Spanish gold often formed the basis for many countries’ official foreign currency reserves.

Bretton Woods makes the US dollar the first explicit reserve currency

The idea of using an individual country’s currency as a standard for transactions in many countries took a quantum leap forward after the World War II.  Large portions of the industrial bases of most major combatants had been destroyed in the course of the fighting.  National treasuries were severely depleted by the cost of waging the war, as well.  The United States, however, had emerged from the conflict relatively unscathed and had become, by default if nothing else, by far the most powerful industrial country on earth.

The Bretton Woods agreements ratified shortly after the end of the war established a new world monetary system.   The US volunteered to stand squarely at its center.  The signatories agreed to establish the value of their own currencies in terms of  US dollars at a pre-determined, fixed, exchange rate.  The US, which at that time held over half the world’s official gold reserves, pledged to act as the central currency in the system and provide liquidity to the rest of the world.  It also agreed to anchor the accords to gold, by committing itself to exchange dollars for gold a the fixed rate of $35 per ounce.  In effect, the US became the central banker for the world.

The Bretton Woods collapse

The Bretton Woods arrangement lasted over twenty years before collapsing in 1971, when in the face of sharply depleted gold reserves, the US declared it would no longer exchange dollars for gold at $35 an ounce.

Why the change of heart?–or, the better question, what strains in the fixed rate system caused its collapse?

There were two key ones:

1.  The initial exchange rates had been fixed at a relatively high rate for the dollar, as a way of trying to stimulate growth of export-oriented manufacturing in the countries ravaged by the war.  Twenty years later, thanks in part to the Marshall Plan and other US aid programs, Europe and Japan had reindustrialized.  Their plants were brand-new, and more efficient than the US industrial base, which, was still using, for example, blast furnaces for steel built in the 1800s.  Their countries were growing more rapidly than the US.  In 1970, the exchange rates fixed in the late Forties were no longer appropriate and would have to change.

2.  Since everything in the system was explicitly or implicitly priced in dollars, the US had volunteered to provide enough dollars to the rest of the world to allow world trade to grow.  This outflow of dollars was not necessarily the best thing for the long-term health of the domestic American economy.

More important, Washington soon figured out that its central position gave it an unparalleled opportunity to “game” the system.  If the budget didn’t balance, why raise taxes or cut out some pork barrel projects.  Instead, use our position as the world’s banker to print up a few more dollars to cover the shortfall.  Who would notice?

At first no one did–or grateful for the generosity of the US in helping the world rebuild after the war, they pretended not to notice and just absorbed the “extra” Treasury bonds as part of their national foreign currency reserves.  But by the mid-Sixties, the US government was financing the ambitious social programs of the War on Poverty as well as the war against North Vietnam (as part of the larger Cold War), not by raising the necessary taxes or trimming expense, but by printing a lot more dollars than the system needed or wanted.

As US debts to the rest of the world mounted, foreign governments eventually showed their displeasure at US economic and foreign policy in the only way they could.  They began to liquidate their holdings of US government bonds by cashing them in for gold.

By 1971, this pressure was great enough that the Bretton Woods system fell apart.

Transition to a new order

What took its place?  The outlines of the currency situation we have now.

–US remained the dominant–though no longer the sole–economic power in the world, so the dollar retained its key role in world commerce.

–But the link to the gold price was gone.

–Currency prices were no longer officially fixed, but were allowed to fluctuate based on supply and demand.  –Initially, governments attempted to nudge currencies in the direction they preferred.  But as time passed, the trading desks of large commercial banks grew to dwarf the power of individual government treasurers. As a result, government attempts to set currency policy by establishing a specified rate of exchange in the market began to disappear.

In my next post:  where we are now.

The Next Economic Boom

The Magnus article

I’ve been a big fan of George Magnus, an economist who consults for UBS and contributes to the Financial Times, for a long time. He was one of the first to warn that the financial crisis we are now dealing with would be far worse than the consensus thinks.  Last Friday, in an article in the FT, he argues that “the current consensus about secular stagnation… (could:  read will)…be wrong again.”  He makes three main points:

1.  generally speaking, the main forces creating economic growth are:

–growing labor force

–lowering barriers to the movement of goods and capital

–the interplay of capital investment with technological change.

2.  Over the past thirty years or so, the drivers of economic expansion have been:

–increased female participation in the workforce, especially in the advanced economies of the West

–worldwide trend toward lower interest rates–causing, however, increasing financial leverage

–worldwide efforts to lower barriers to the movement of goods and capital

–technological change, including:  personal computers, enterprise networking hardware and software, and the internet.

Its conclusions Continue reading