Q: Why’s the dollar in freefall? A: Robert Fisk.

Tumultuous times for the dollar this week. Gold has hit an all-time high three days in a row (this morning it’s at $1,045  troy ounce – it was only $990 on 29 September) while WTI oil is up at $71.50 a barrel todaycompared to $66 just over a week ago – both commodities head upwards when the greenback’s going the other way. So what was going on? Over to the NYT for the stocks and bonds report in Wednesday’s paper:

Investors clamored to buy pretty much anything on Tuesday — as long as it was not the dollar. A seven-month slide in the value of the dollar gained force as investors migrated to other markets and fretted over a report that crude oil could one day be priced in other currencies, hobbling the dollar’s role as a vehicle for global trade.

Whatever would give investors that idea, you wonder? Answer:

A report on Tuesday in The Independent, a British newspaper, suggested that China, France, Japan and Russia were in secret talks with Persian Gulf countries to abandon the dollar for international trade in oil and replace it with a basket of currencies and gold.

The Independent? Not the FT, not the WSJ, but the Independent? Yup, the FT’s Alphaville blog says so too:

The Independent appears to have rocked the world on Tuesday with its Robert Fisk exclusive exposing a secret plot by international central banks to topple the US dollar.

So what on earth did he say that managed to move markets on the other side of the Atlantic?

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The next reserve currency

Last week’s G8 saw more rumblings of dissatisfaction from China about the US dollar’s continuing role as the world’s reserve currency: State Councillor Dai Bingguo said in a statement to the G8+5 that,

We should have a better system for reserve currency issuance and regulation, so that we can maintain relative stability of major reserve currencies’ exchange rates and promote a diversified and rational international reserve currency system.

This is the latest in a series of such statements from China, building on Wen Jiabao saying he was “worried” about China’s stash of US T-bills in March, central bank governor Zhou Xiaochuan‘s essay on reform of the international monetary system a couple of weeks later, and then China’s $120bn contribution to an Asian emergency currency pool in May – potentially an important step towards an “Asian IMF”.

So if / when the dollar does lose its perch as the world’s reserve currency – something that isn’t likely to happen in the short term, admittedly – then what are the candidates to replace it? Continue reading

The Beijing Consensus

dollar_yuan

Back in March, I flagged up the significance of a proposal from Zhou Xiaochuan, China’s central bank governor, for the dollar to be replaced as the world’s reserve currency with a new, more multilateral system based on Special Drawing Rights – and noted that his proposal harked back explicitly to discussions at the Bretton Woods summit in 1944.

As Ngaire Woods points out over at the GEG blog, this is just one component of a Chinese strategy for pursuing power shift in the international monetary order.  Another is the increasingly emphatic Chinese tone on the need for IMF reform – with Wen Jiabao making clear back in March that much-needed additional Chinese contributions to the IMF would be contingent on more voice for developing countries.

Now, another important plank of their reform drive has been unveiled: a new $120 billion emergency currency pool based on the existing Chiang Mai initiative.  Details according to the WSJ:

The initiative aims to create a network of bilateral currency-swap arrangements among Asean and the three East Asian countries. Asean includes Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam.

Japan, South Korea and China will provide 80% of the $120 billion currency pool and Asean members the remaining 20%. Japan will contribute $38.4 billion, while China, including Hong Kong, will also offer $38.4 billion. South Korea will provide $19.2 billion. Under terms of the program, smaller Asian economies will be able to borrow larger amounts in proportion to their contributions than the more-developed economies.

As Ngaire observes, proposals in the late 1990s for a new Asian Monetary Fund were publicly torpedoed by the US, but it’s the bilateral swap arrangements that Asian nations started to agree then that have grown into the initiative announced yesterday.  And, she stresses,

It is worth highlighting that while China is politely offering something to the IMF (it announced a contribution of $40 billion), it has just announced an almost equivalent contribution ($38.4 billion) to the Asian pool.

All this creates useful independence from the IMF, she continues:

…the ASEAN+3 countries have created for themselves an alternative to borrowing from the IMF. Their arrangements actually use the IMF as a monitor, but crucially guard control (within the region) over their shared reserves. It has emerged in no small part because countries in the region see the IMF as a useful but American instrument of economic coordination.

More Chinese big ideas

Earlier this week, I did a post on Chinese central bank governor Zhou Xiaochuan’s essay calling for the replacement of the dollar as the world’s reserve currency.  Today’s FT contains another instalment of big picture thinking from China on the global economy – this time from Yu Qiao, an economics professor at Tsingua University’s School of Public Policy and Management.

Like Zhou, Yu is explicit on Chinese worries about the potential erosion of the value of their rather large stash of US dollars – $1,200 billion of T-bills alone.  “Most of Mr Obama’s stimulus spending is devoted to social programmes rather than growth promotion,” he notes, “which may exacerbate America’s over-consumption problem and delay sustainable recovery”.

What’s more, he continues, that could in turn end up doing exactly what Tim Geither was worried about in the wake of Zhou’s essay: an erosion of the dollar’s role as reserve currency.  Here, interestingly, there’s what looks like a signal of preparedness to moderate the position set out in Zhou’s essay. Yu says explicitly that,

No other international monetary system offers a viable alternative. However, we can make the main reserve currency power more accountable by creating an instrument to help manage the global crisis.

Admittedly, Yu is an academic and not a member of the government.  But it’s very hard to imagine that a senior Chinese professor would directly contradict his government’s position, on such an acutely political issue, in a time of such severe risks, in the FT, the day before the G20 summit, without clearance.  At the same time, using this approach avoids losing face for Zhou – and may signal a willingness to talk, rather than a definite climbdown.

So what does Yu propose as an alternative way of safeguarding China’s assets, if not reform of the dollar’s reserve currency role?

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Bretton Woods 2: now we’re talking

Just before the Washington G20 summit in November last year, David and I co-wrote a paper entitled A Bretton Woods 2 Worth of the Name.  As the title implied, we were politely sceptical of some of the political rhetoric then flying around, comparing the G20’s discussions about bank capitalisation with the rather more far-reaching discussions held at the Mount Washington Hotel in 1944.

Now, though, things are getting more interesting.  Two days ago, Zhou Xiaochuan – the governor of China’s central bank – quietly published a paper on the People’s Bank of China website, entitled Reform the International Monetary System.  It opened like this:

The outbreak of the current crisis and its spillover in the world have confronted us with a long-existing but still unanswered question, i.e., what kind of international reserve currency do we need to secure global financial stability and facilitate world economic growth, which was one of the purposes for establishing the IMF?

Later, Zhou continues that:

The desirable goal of reforming the international monetary system, therefore, is to create an international reserve currency that is disconnected from individual nations and is able to remain stable in the long run, thus removing the inherent deficiencies caused by using credit-based national currencies.

Now this line of thinking really does take us straight back to Bretton Woods – and in particular to Keynes’s proposal for a new global currency called the bancor, and a new global institution called the International Clearing Union (ICU). Continue reading