By BARRY EICHENGREEN 3/3/11
The single most astonishing fact about foreign exchange is not the high volume of transactions, as incredible as that growth has been. Nor is it the volatility of currency rates, as wild as the markets are these days.
Instead, it’s the extent to which the market remains dollar-centric.
Read the full Foreign Exchange report .
Consider this: When a South Korean wine wholesaler wants to import Chilean cabernet, the Korean importer buys U.S. dollars, not pesos, with which to pay the Chilean exporter. Indeed, the dollar is virtually the exclusive vehicle for foreign-exchange transactions between Chile and Korea, despite the fact that less than 20% of the merchandise trade of both countries is with the U.S.
Chile and Korea are hardly an anomaly: Fully 85% of foreign-exchange transactions world-wide are trades of other currencies for dollars. What’s more, what is true of foreign-exchange transactions is true of other international business. The Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries sets the price of oil in dollars. The dollar is the currency of denomination of half of all international debt securities. More than 60% of the foreign reserves of central banks and governments are in dollars.
The greenback, in other words, is not just America’s currency. It’s the world’s.
But as astonishing as that is, what may be even more astonishing is this: The dollar’s reign is coming to an end.
I believe that over the next 10 years, we’re going to see a profound shift toward a world in which several currencies compete for dominance.
The impact of such a shift will be equally profound, with implications for, among other things, the stability of exchange rates, the stability of financial markets, the ease with which the U.S. will be able to finance budget and current-account deficits, and whether the Fed can follow a policy of benign neglect toward the dollar.
The Three Pillars
How could this be? How could the dollar’s longtime most-favored-currency status be in jeopardy?
See the share of global foreign-exchange transactions involving the dollar, and the dollar’s share of official global foreign-exchange reserves.
To understand the dollar’s future, it’s important to understand the dollar’s past—why the dollar became so dominant in the first place. Let me offer three reasons.
First, its allure reflects the singular depth of markets in dollar-denominated debt securities. The sheer scale of those markets allows dealers to offer low bid-ask spreads. The availability of derivative instruments with which to hedge dollar exchange-rate risk is unsurpassed. This makes the dollar the most convenient currency in which to do business for corporations, central banks and governments alike.
Second, there is the fact that the dollar is the world’s safe haven. In crises, investors instinctively flock to it, as they did following the 2008 failure of Lehman Brothers. This tendency reflects the exceptional liquidity of markets in dollar instruments, liquidity being the most precious of all commodities in a crisis. It is a product of the fact that U.S. Treasury securities, the single most important asset bought and sold by international investors, have long had a reputation for stability.
Finally, the dollar benefits from a dearth of alternatives. Other countries that have long enjoyed a reputation for stability, such as Switzerland, or that have recently acquired one, like Australia, are too small for their currencies to account for more than a tiny fraction of international financial transactions.
But just because this has been true in the past doesn’t guarantee that it will be true in the future. In fact, all three pillars supporting the dollar’s international dominance are eroding.
First, changes in technology are undermining the dollar’s monopoly. Not so long ago, there may have been room in the world for only one true international currency. Given the difficulty of comparing prices in different currencies, it made sense for exporters, importers and bond issuers all to quote their prices and invoice their transactions in dollars, if only to avoid confusing their customers.
Now, however, nearly everyone carries hand-held devices that can be used to compare prices in different currencies in real time. Just as we have learned that in a world of open networks there is room for more than one operating system for personal computers, there is room in the global economic and financial system for more than one international currency.
Second, the dollar is about to have real rivals in the international sphere for the first time in 50 years. There will soon be two viable alternatives, in the form of the euro and China’s yuan.
Americans especially tend to discount the staying power of the euro, but it isn’t going anywhere. Contrary to some predictions, European governments have not abandoned it. Nor will they. They will proceed with long-term deficit reduction, something about which they have shown more resolve than the U.S. And they will issue “e-bonds”—bonds backed by the full faith and credit of euro-area governments as a group—as a step in solving their crisis. This will lay the groundwork for the kind of integrated European bond market needed to create an alternative to U.S. Treasurys as a form in which to hold
get more at The Wall Street Journal 3/2/11 WJS.com