The US dollar’s hegemony is looking fragile

The modernisation of China’s exchange-rate system could deal the currency a painful blow

The mighty US dollar continues to reign supreme in global markets. But the greenback’s dominance may well be more fragile than it appears, because expected future changes in China’s exchange-rate regime are likely to trigger a significant shift in the international monetary order.

For many reasons, the Chinese authorities will probably someday stop pegging the renminbi to a basket of currencies, and shift to a modern inflation-targeting regime under which they allow the exchange rate to fluctuate much more freely, especially against the dollar. When that happens, expect most of Asia to follow China. In due time, the dollar, currently the anchor currency for roughly two-thirds of world GDP, could lose nearly half its weight.

Considering how much the United States relies on the dollar’s special status – or what then-French Finance Minister Valéry Giscard d’Estaing famously called America’s “exorbitant privilege” – to fund massive public and private borrowing, the impact of such a shift could be significant. Given that the US has been aggressively using deficit financing to combat the economic ravages of COVID-19, the sustainability of its debt might be called into question.

The long-standing argument for a more flexible Chinese currency is that China is simply too big to let its economy dance to the US Federal Reserve’s tune, even if Chinese capital controls provide some measure of insulation. China’s GDP (measured at international prices) surpassed that of the US back in 2014 and is still growing far faster than the US and Europe, making the case for greater exchange-rate flexibility increasingly compelling.

A more recent argument is that the dollar’s centrality gives the US government too much access to global transactions information. This is also a major concern in Europe. In principle, dollar transactions could be cleared anywhere in the world, but US banks and clearing houses have a significant natural advantage, because they can be implicitly (or explicitly) backed by the Fed, which has unlimited capacity to issue currency in a crisis. In comparison, any dollar clearing house outside the US will always be more subject to crises of confidence – a problem with which even the eurozone has struggled.

Moreover, former US President Donald Trump’s policies to check China’s trade dominance are not going away anytime soon. This is one of the few issues on which Democrats and Republicans broadly agree, and there is little question that trade deglobalization undermines the dollar.

Chinese policymakers face many obstacles in trying to break away from the current renminbi peg. But, in characteristic style, they have slowly been laying the groundwork on many fronts. China has been gradually allowing foreign institutional investors to buy renminbi bonds, and in 2016, the International Monetary Fund added the renminbi to the basket of major currencies that determines the value of Special Drawing Rights (the IMF’s global reserve asset).

In addition, the People’s Bank of China is far ahead of other major central banks in developing a central-bank digital currency. Although currently purely for domestic use, the PBOC’s digital currency ultimately will facilitate the renminbi’s international use, especially in countries that gravitate toward China’s eventual currency bloc. This will give the Chinese government a window into digital renminbi users’ transactions, just as the current system gives the US a great deal of similar information.

Will other Asian countries indeed follow China? The US will certainly push hard to keep as many economies as possible orbiting around the dollar, but it will be an uphill battle. Just as the US eclipsed Britain at the end of the nineteenth century as the world’s largest trading country, China long ago surpassed America by the same measure.

True, Japan and India may go their own way. But if China makes the renminbi more flexible, they will likely at the very least give the currency a weight comparable to that of the dollar in their foreign-exchange reserves.

There are striking parallels between Asia’s close alignment with the dollar today and the situation in Europe in the 1960s and early 1970s. But that era ended with high inflation and the collapse of the post-war Bretton Woods system of fixed exchange rates. Most of Europe then recognized that intra-European trade was more important than trade with the US. This led to the emergence of a Deutsche Mark bloc that decades later morphed into the single currency, the euro.

This does not mean that the Chinese renminbi will become the global currency overnight. Transitions from one dominant currency to another can take a long time. During the two decades between World Wars I and II, for example, the new entrant, the dollar, had roughly the same weight in central-bank reserves as the British pound, which had been the dominant global currency for more than a century following the Napoleonic Wars in the early 1800s.

So, what is wrong with three world currencies – the euro, the renminbi, and the dollar – sharing the spotlight? Nothing, except that neither markets nor policymakers seem remotely prepared for such a transition. US government borrowing rates would almost certainly be affected, though the really big impact might fall on corporate borrowers, especially small and medium-size firms.

Today, it seems to be an article of faith among US policymakers and many economists that the world’s appetite for dollar debt is virtually insatiable. But a modernization of China’s exchange-rate arrangements could deal the dollar’s status a painful blow.

 Kenneth Rogoff is professor of economics and public policy at Harvard University. He was the chief economist of the International Monetary Fund from 2001 to 2003.

Bitcoin and Beyond

The surging price of the world’s best-known cryptocurrency has made some investors rich and prompted skeptics to point to the excesses of the current bull market. Central bank digital currencies (CBDCs) may offer a surer route to greater financial inclusion, but are policymakers and the public prepared for this potentially radical innovation?

In this Big Picture, Harvard University’s Kenneth Rogoff thinks that the COVID-19 pandemic could accelerate the emergence of CBDCs, and outlines two ways in which monetary policymakers could introduce them. The case for a digital dollar, however, is far from clear-cut, says Barry Eichengreen of the University of California, Berkeley, not least because fear that a digital renminbi will challenge the greenback’s global dominance is overblown. But New York University’s Nouriel Roubini makes the case that CBDCs could replace both an inherently crisis-prone banking system and worthless private cryptocurrencies such as Bitcoin.

Chatham House’s Jim O’Neill is similarly unimpressed by the Bitcoin hype, and explains why cryptocurrencies like it will never be anything more than speculative vehicles. For that reason, says Willem H. Buiter of Columbia University, only those with a robust appetite for risk and the wherewithal to absorb heavy losses should consider investing in them. By contrast, Brian Armstrong of cryptocurrency exchange Coinbase argues that cryptocurrencies with strong consumer-privacy protections should be a key feature of the post-pandemic recovery.

Either way, conclude Katharina Pistor of Columbia Law School and Co-Pierre Georg of the University of Cape Town, central banks may soon need to expand their remit and develop a new regulatory infrastructure to manage both public and private digital currencies.

The Case for Deeply Negative Interest Rates

Only monetary policy addresses credit throughout the economy. Until inflation and real interest rates rise from the grave, only a policy of effective deep negative interest rates, backed up by measures to prevent cash hoarding by financial firms, can do the job.

CAMBRIDGE – For those who viewed  as a bridge too far for central banks, it might be time to think again. Right now, in the United States, the Federal Reserve – supported both implicitly and explicitly by the Treasury – is on track to backstop virtually every private, state, and city credit in the economy. Many other governments have felt compelled to take similar steps. A once-in-a-century (we hope) crisis calls for massive government intervention, but does that have to mean dispensing with market-based allocation mechanisms?

Blanket debt guarantees are a great device if one believes that recent market stress was just a short-term liquidity crunch, soon to be alleviated by a strong sustained post-COVID-19 recovery. But what if the rapid recovery fails to materialize? What if, as one suspects, it takes years for the US and global economy to claw back to 2019 levels? If so, there is little hope that all businesses will remain viable, or that every state and local government will remain solvent.

A better bet is that nothing will be the same. Wealth will be destroyed on a catastrophic scale, and policymakers will need to find a way to ensure that, at least in some cases, creditors take part of the hit, a process that will play out over years of negotiation and litigation. For bankruptcy lawyers and lobbyists, it will be a bonanza, part of which will come from pressing taxpayers to honor bailout guarantees. Such a scenario would be an unholy mess.

Now, imagine that, rather than shoring up markets solely via guarantees, the Fed could push most short-term interest rates across the economy to near or below zero. Europe and Japan already have tiptoed into negative rate territory. Suppose central banks pushed back against today’s flight into government debt by going further, cutting short-term policy rates to, say, -3% or lower.

For starters, just like cuts in the good old days of positive interest rates, negative rates would lift many firms, states, and cities from default. If done correctly – and recent empirical evidence increasingly supports this – negative rates would operate similarly to normal monetary policy, boosting aggregate demand and raising employment. So, before carrying out debt-restructuring surgery on everything, wouldn’t it better to try a dose of normal monetary stimulus?

A number of important steps are required to make deep negative rates feasible and effective. The most important, which no central bank (including the ECB) has yet taken, is to preclude large-scale hoarding of cash by financial firms, pension funds, and insurance companies. Various combinations of regulation, a time-varying fee for large-scale re-deposits of cash at the central bank, and phasing out large-denomination banknotes should do the trick.

It is not rocket science (or should I say virology?). With large-scale cash hoarding taken off the table, the issue of pass-through of negative rates to bank depositors – the most sensible concern – would be eliminated. Even without preventing wholesale hoarding (which is risky and expensive), European banks have increasingly been able to pass on negative rates to large depositors. And governments would not be giving up much by shielding small depositors entirely from negative interest rates. Again, given adequate time and planning, doing this is straightforward.

Negative interest rates have elicited a blizzard of objections. Most, however, are either fuzzy-headed or easily addressed, as I discuss in my 2016 book on the past, present, and future of currency, as well as in related writings. There, I also explain why one should not think of “alternative monetary instruments” such as quantitative easing and helicopter money as forms of fiscal policy. While a fiscal response is necessary, monetary policy is also very much needed. Only monetary policy addresses credit throughout the economy. Until inflation and real interest rates rise from the grave, only a policy of effective deep negative interest rates can do the job.

A policy of deeply negative rates in the advanced economies would also be a huge boon to emerging and developing economies, which are being slammed by falling commodity prices, fleeing capital, high debt, and weak exchange rates, not to mention the early stages of the pandemic. Even with negative rates, many countries would still need a . But a weaker dollar, stronger global growth, and a reduction in capital flight would help, especially when it comes to the larger emerging markets.

Tragically, when the Federal Reserve conducted its 2019 review of policy instruments, discussion of how to implement deep negative rates was effectively taken off the table, forcing the Fed’s hand in the pandemic. Influential bank lobbyists hate negative rates, even though they need not undermine bank profits if done correctly. The economics profession, mesmerized by interesting counterintuitive results that arise in economies where there really is a zero bound on interest rates, must share some of the blame.

Emergency implementation of deeply negative interest rates would not solve all of today’s problems. But adopting such a policy would be a start. If, as seems increasingly likely, equilibrium real interest rates are set to be lower than ever over the next few years, it is time for central banks and governments to give the idea a long, hard, and urgent look.

That 1970s Feeling

Policymakers and too many economic commentators fail to grasp how the next global recession may be unlike the last two. In contrast to recessions driven mainly by a demand shortfall, the challenge posed by a supply-side-driven downturn is that it can result in sharp drops in production, generalized shortages, and rapidly rising prices.

CAMBRIDGE – It is too soon to predict the long-run arc of the coronavirus outbreak. But it is not too soon to recognize that the next global recession could be around the corner – and that it may look a lot different from those that began in 2001 and 2008.

For starters, the next recession is likely to emanate from China, and indeed may already be underway. China is a highly leveraged economy, it cannot afford a sustained pause today anymore than fast-growing 1980s Japan could. People, businesses, and municipalities need funds to pay back their out-size debts. Sharply adverse demographics, narrowing scope for technological catch-up, and a huge glut of housing from recurrent stimulus programs – not to mention an increasingly centralized decision-making process – already presage significantly slower growth for China in the next decade.

Moreover, unlike the two previous global recessions this century, the new coronavirus, COVID-19, implies a supply shock as well as a demand shock. Indeed, one has to go back to the oil-supply shocks of the mid-1970s to find one as large. Yes, fear of contagion will hit demand for airlines and global tourism, and precautionary savings will rise. But when tens of millions of people can’t go to work (either because of a lockdown or out of fear), global value chains break down, borders are blocked, and world trade shrinks because countries distrust of one another’s health statistics, the supply side suffers at least as much.

Affected countries will, and should, engage in massive deficit spending to shore up their health systems and prop up their economies. The point of saving for a rainy day is to spend when it rains, and preparing for pandemics, wars, climate crises, and other out-of-the-box events is precisely why open-ended deficit spending during booms is dangerous.

But policymakers and altogether too many economic commentators fail to grasp how the supply component may make the next global recession unlike the last two. In contrast to recessions driven mainly by a demand shortfall, the challenge posed by a supply-side-driven downturn is that it can result in sharp declines in production and widespread bottlenecks. In that case, generalized shortages – something that some countries have not seen since the gas lines of 1970s – could ultimately push inflation up, not down.

Admittedly, the initial conditions for containing generalized inflation today are extraordinarily favorable. But, given that four decades of globalization has almost certainly been the main factor underlying low inflation, a sustained retreat behind national borders, owing to a COVID-19 pandemic (or even lasting fear of pandemic), on top of rising trade frictions, is a recipe for the return of upward price pressures. In this scenario, rising inflation could prop up interest rates and challenge both monetary and fiscal policymakers.

It is also noteworthy that the COVID-19 crisis is hitting the world economy when growth is already soft and many countries are wildly overleveraged. Global growth in 2019 was only 2.9%, not so far from the 2.5% level that has historically constituted a global recession. Italy’s economy was barely starting to recover before the virus hit. Japan’s was already tipping into recession after an ill-timed hike in the value-added tax, and Germany’s has been teetering amidst political disarray. The United States is in the best shape, but what once seemed like a 15% chance of a recession starting before the presidential and congressional elections in November now seems much higher.

It might seem strange that the new coronavirus could cause so much economic damage even to countries that seemingly have the resources and technology to fight back. A key reason is that earlier generations were much poorer than today, so many more people had to risk going to work. Unlike today, radical economic pullbacks in response to epidemics that did not kill most people were not an option.

What has happened in Wuhan, China, the current outbreak’s epicenter, is extreme but illustrative. The Chinese government has essentially locked down Hubei province, putting its 58 million people under martial law, with ordinary citizens unable to leave their houses except under very specific circumstances. At the same time, the government apparently has been able to deliver food and water to Hubei’s citizens for roughly six weeks now, something a poor country could not imagine doing.

Elsewhere in China, a great many people in major cities such as Shanghai and Beijing have remained indoors most of the time in order to reduce their exposure. Governments in countries such as South Korea and Italy may not be taking the extreme measures that China has, but many people are staying home, implying a significant adverse impact on economic activity.

The odds of a global recession have risen dramatically, much more than conventional forecasts by investors and international institutions care to acknowledge. Policymakers need to recognize that, besides interest rate cuts and fiscal stimulus, the huge shock to global supply chains also needs to be addressed. The most immediate relief could come from the US sharply scaling back its trade-war tariffs, thereby calming markets, exhibiting statesmanship with China, and putting money in the pockets of US consumers. A global recession is a time for cooperation, not isolation.