Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Here Comes the Chinese Yuan

What evidence have I got that the United States has mis-used its responsibility as the provider of the reserve currency of the world?

Look at the morning papers.

“Singapore Aims to be Renminbi Trade Hub,” in the Financial Times (

In the first article we learn that Singapore has moved to become the first overseas center for trading the renminbi.  It was learned that Beijing will designate a Chinese bank to clear renminbi trades thereby allowing banks in Singapore direct access to the Chinese currency. 

In the second article we learn that China’s central bank is changing its rules so as to make it easier to bring funds raised offshore back onto the Chinese mainland.  This would mean that companies and governments could fund bonds and the purchase of goods in Hong Kong and the Chinese could move those monies around both into China and out to the rest of the world.

Although there seems to be no rush to make the Chinese currency fully convertible into other currencies, most analysts see this as just another step toward the Chinese currency playing a larger and larger role in world trade and finance. 

In the Financial Times article the authors claim that “The People’s Bank of China is pushing for a greater role for the renminbi in global trade and investment to reduce China’s almost total reliance on the US dollar.”

As is typical of Chinese strategy, there is no real hurry to achieve full convertibility and global position for their currency.  The move is slow and steady, building toward inevitability.  We need to remember this as the slow, patient, ascension of China proceeds in the twenty-first century.

No other country has really threatened the position of the United States dollar as a reserve currency since World War II.  This has been of great benefit to the United States and has allowed the US government to get away with a lot of things in international financial markets that it could not have done if it had not had the world’s reserve currency. 

Still, the failure of the United States to act in a fully responsible way relative to its providing the world’s reserve currency seems to finally be catching up with it. 

Beginning in the 1960s, the United States government began fifty years of credit inflation.  The first victim of this prolificacy was the international gold standard, which ended on August 15, 1971 when president Richard Nixon announced that the value of the dollar would now be floated in the foreign exchange markets. 

The second victim was the purchasing power of the United States dollar.  A dollar that could purchase a dollar’s worth of goods and services in 1960 could only purchase about fifteen cents worth of goods and services in 2011.  That is, the purchasing power of the dollar declined by 85 percent during this fifty year time period!

The third victim was the value of the United States dollar in the foreign exchange markets.  Since the United States dollar was floated, the value of the dollar against the currencies of other major trading partners has declined by about 35 percent.  It has declined by even more against the currencies of other countries the US trades with. 

The United States has profited greatly over the past fifty years or so by having its currency serve as the reserve currency of the world.  Treasury Secretary Geithner drew on this fact the other day when he claimed that the world was still very comfortable buying US Treasury securities. 

Yet the confidence of the world Geithner claimed for the purchase of US Treasury securities is sadly tarnished by the performance of the United States dollar in world foreign exchange markets.  The United States has benefitted from its position as the supplier of the reserve currency, but it has abused its responsibility of being the supplier of this reserve currency by following a path for fifty years of fiscal and monetary policy that undermined the value of the currency.

Now, there is a rising star in the world that threatens the position of the United States dollar.  As I remarked above, the Chinese currency still has a long way to go to dethrone the United States dollar.  What we must notice, however, is that the fault lines seem to be forming.

It will be interesting to see what the leaders of the United States government do as this situation becomes clearer. 

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