The U.S. dollar’s status as the global reserve currency is diminishing, which reduces the power that U.S. leaders have over the global economic system. In this episode, hear highlights from recent Congressional testimony during which financial elites examine the current status of the global financial system and what Congress is being told to do to address perceived threats to it (and to their own power).
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June 7, 2023
House Financial Services Committee
- Dr. Tyler Goodspeed, Kleinheinz Fellow, Hoover Institution at Stanford University
- Dr. Michael Faulkender, Dean’s Professor of Finance, Robert H. Smith School of Business at University of Maryland
- Dr. Daniel McDowell, Associate Professor, Maxwell School of Citizenship & Public Affairs at Syracuse University
- Marshall Billingslea, Senior Fellow, Hudson Institute
- Dr. Carla Norrlöf, Senior Fellow, The Atlantic Council and Professor, University of Toronto
34:05 Dr. Tyler Goodspeed: In 2022, as the Ranking Member highlighted, 88% of all foreign exchange transactions by value involved the United States Dollar, a figure that has been roughly constant since 1989, which is testament to the substantial path dependence in international currency usage due to large positive network externalities. As the Ranking Member also highlighted, 59% of all official foreign exchange reserves were held in US dollars, which is down from a figure of 71.5% in 2001. By comparison 31% of all foreign exchange transactions by value involve the Euro, which is the second most commonly transacted currency, which accounted for 20% of official foreign exchange reserves.
34:50 Dr. Tyler Goodspeed: The fact that 90% of all foreign exchange transactions continue to involve the United States dollar, and that global central banks continue to hold almost 60% of their foreign exchange reserves in US dollars confers net economic benefits on the United States economy. First, foreign demand for reserves of US dollars raises demand for dollar denominated securities, in particular United States Treasury’s. This effectively lowers the cost of borrowing for US households, US companies, and federal, state and local governments. It also means that on average, the United States earns more on its investments in foreign assets than we have to pay on foreign investments in the United States, which allows the United States to import more goods and services than we export. Second, foreign demand for large reserves of US dollars and dollar denominated assets raises the value of the dollar and a stronger dollar benefits us consumers and businesses that are net importers of goods and services from abroad. Third, large reserve holdings of US currency abroad in effect constitutes an interest free loan to the United States worth about $10 to $20 billion per year. Fourth, the denomination of the majority of international transactions in US dollars likely modestly lowers the exchange rate risks faced by US companies. Fifth, the given the volume of foreign US dollar holdings and dollar denominated debt, monetary policy actions by foreign central banks generally have a smaller impact on financial conditions in the United States than actions by the United States Central Bank have on financial conditions in other countries.
36:40 Dr. Tyler Goodspeed: However, the benefits of the US dollar’s global reserve status are not without costs. The lower interest rates in the United States benefit US borrowers, especially the federal government. They also lower returns to US savers. In addition, though a stronger dollar benefits US consumers and businesses that net import goods and services from abroad, it does also disadvantage US firms that export goods and services abroad as well as firms that compete against imported goods and services. Furthermore, the perception of the US dollar as a safe haven asset means that demand for the dollar tends to increase in response to adverse macroeconomic events that are global in nature. As a result, the competitiveness of US exporters and US firms that compete against imported goods and services are likely to face an increased competitive disadvantage at times of elevated global macroeconomic stress.
37:35 Dr. Tyler Goodspeed: However, despite these costs, studies generally find that the economic benefits of the dollar’s prominent global status outweigh the costs, providing a modest net benefit to the United States economy. This does not include the substantial benefit to which the chairman referred of the United States dollar’s centrality in global transactions, allowing the United States to utilize financial sanction tools when appropriate in support of national security objectives.
44:50 Dr. Daniel McDowell: With little more than the stroke of the President’s pen or through an Act of Congress, the US government can use financial sanctions to impose enormous economic costs on targeted foreign actors, be they individuals, firms, or state institutions, by freezing their dollar assets or cutting them off from access to the banks through which those dollars flow. The consequences for individual targets, known as specially designated nationals or SDNs, are severe, significantly impairing targets capacity to participate in international trade, investment, debt repayment, and depriving them of access to their wealth. Over the last two decades, the United States has used the tool of financial sanctions with increasing frequency. For example, in the year 2000, just four foreign governments were directly targeted under a US Treasury Country Program overseen by the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC). Today that number is greater than 20, and if we include penalties from secondary sanctions the list gets even longer. The more that the United States has reached for financial sanctions, the more it has made adversaries and foreign capitals aware of the strategic vulnerability that stems from dependence on the dollar. Some governments have responded by implementing anti-dollar policies measures that are designed to reduce an economy’s reliance on the US currency for investment in cross-border transactions. But these measures sometimes fail to achieve their goals. Others have produced modest levels of de-dollarization. Notable examples here include Russian steps to cut its dollar reserves and reduce the use of the dollar and trade settlement in the years leading up to its full scale invasion of Ukraine, or China’s ongoing efforts to build its own international payments network based on the Yuan, efforts that have taken on a new sense of urgency as Beijing has become more aware of its own strategic vulnerabilities from Dollar dependence.
47:05 Dr. Daniel McDowell: The United States should reconsider the use of so-called symbolic financial sanctions. That is, if the main objective of a tranche of sanctions is to signal to the world or to a domestic audience that Washington disapproves of a foreign government’s policy choices, other measures that can send a similar signal but do not politicize the dollar system ought to be considered first. Second, the use of financial sanctions against issuers of potential rival currencies in particular, China and its Yuan should face a higher bar of scrutiny. Even a small targeted sanctions program provides information to our adversaries about their vulnerabilities, and gives them time to prepare for a future event when a broad US sanctions program may be called upon as part of a major security crisis, when such measures will be most needed. Finally, whenever possible, US financial sanctions should be coordinated with our allies in Europe and Asia, who should feel as if they are key stakeholders in the dollar system and not vassals to it. Such coordinated efforts will prevent our friends from seeking to conduct business with U.S. adversaries outside of the dollar system and send a message to the whole world that moving activities into secondary currencies, like the Euro or the Yen, is not a safe haven.
48:35 Marshall Billingslea: I’ll say at the outset that I agree with you and others that to paraphrase Mark Twain, reports of the dollar’s demise have been greatly exaggerated. That said, we need to remind ourselves that in the 16th century the Spanish silver dollar was the dominant currency, in the 17th century it was Dutch florins, in the 18th century it was the pound sterling. The link between a nation’s currency and its role as the relatively dominant political actor on the world stage is pretty clear. And that is why people like Lula from Brazil, Putin and Xi all aspire to undercut the role of the dollar as the global reserve currency.
50:00 Marshall Billingslea: If we look at what Russia did in the run-up to its further invasion of Ukraine, they began dumping ownership of treasury bonds in 2018. In that year, they plummeted from $96 billion and holdings down to $15 billion and they also started buying large amounts of gold. China is now, as the Ranking Member has observed, embarking on its own its own gold buying spree. I haven’t seen the data for May, but April marked the sixth straight month of Chinese expansion in its gold holdings, and I’m not sure I believe the official figures. We have to recall that China is the dominant gold mining player around the world and half of those gold mining companies are state-owned. So the actual size of China’s war chest when it comes to gold reserves may be far higher. In fact, I suspect inevitably far higher than official numbers suggest. Last year China also started dumping its treasuries. 2022 marked the largest or second largest decrease on record, with a drop of about $174 billion, and China stood at the lowest level since 2010. In terms of its holdings, though, this past March they did reverse course. This bears close watching because a sell-off may be a strong indicator of planned aggression.
51:20 Marshall Billingslea: The sheer size of the Chinese economy dwarfs what we’ve been contending with in the form of Iran, Russia, and so on. And one of the first things that the Biden administration did in the wake of Russia’s attack was start sanctioning Russian banks and de-SWIFTing them. That’s one thing when you’re going after an economy smaller than the size of Texas; it’s quite another when you consider that out of the 100 largest banks in the world, China has 20, and all four of the top four are Chinese banks. And that is why many within the Treasury contended when I was there, and they will contend to this day, that these Chinese banks are simply too big to sanction. I don’t agree that we can allow that to stand but I do believe we have to start taking very swift action to put us in a situation where we could take punitive measures on these banks if necessary.
54:10 Dr. Carla Norrlöf: I will note that the Dollar’s dominance is not quite as strong amongst private actors and private markets as it is with governments. In private transactions, it averages about 45% of the world’s total. That includes FX transactions, but also things like issuance of international debt, securities, and cross-border banking.
54:55 Dr. Carla Norrlöf: The Chinese Yuan poses no immediate threat to dollar dominance. It accounts for roughly 3% of overall reserves. So far China has been successful in promoting the Yuan with its trade partners, but the Yuan is scarcely used by countries outside trade with China. China is a potential long term challenger due to its active pursuit of trade and investment relationships. If the Yuan is increasingly used by third countries, it will pose a greater threat to the dollar.
55:30 Dr. Carla Norrlöf: And in addition to these external threats, there is also a domestic threat. Flirting with the possibility of a voluntary default puts dollar dominance at risk. What should the US do to maintain dominance, to curb the domestic threat? Congress should consider creating an alternative mechanism for resolving political differences on government spending and its consequences.
56:00 Dr. Carla Norrlöf: To rein in external threats the United States should, whenever possible, implement multilateral sanctions in support of broadly endorsed goals to shore up the liberal international order. This is likely to limit dollar backlash.
59:40 Marshall Billingslea: The thing I do worry — I come back to this fact that they’ve been buying a lot of gold — that one of the things that they could do, which would be very concerning, if they wind up having larger reserves of gold than we believe, is they could start issuing Yuan or gold denominated, gold-backed Yuan contracts and that would further their ambition for introducing the Yuan onto the world stage.
1:05:00 Marshall Billingslea: China considers the actual composition of its foreign exchange reserves to be a state secret. So they don’t publish and they they view it as a criminal offense to try to obtain that information in terms of the balance of how much is gold, how much Dollar or Euro denominated. But the numbers I’ve seen suggest that still at this moment, about 50% to 60% of their Foreign Exchange reserves are still in Dollars or Euros, which means that they are at high risk of sanctions; we can affect them. The problem is that that war chest that they’ve built up is enormous. It’s more than $3 trillion that they have in Foreign Exchange reserves. Compare that with what Russia had at the onset of its assault, which was around $680 billion, of which we managed to freeze overseas half of it, but Russia is still keeping its economy going despite the Biden administration sanctions. So imagine how they’re going to be able to continue with that sizable war kitty in Beijing if they do decide to go after the Taiwanese.
1:09:00 Dr. Tyler Goodspeed: Short term I think the risk is that we continue to see diversification away from the dollar, PRC continuing to push other countries to use trade inverse invoicing and Renminbi, that they continue to promote the offshore Renminbi market, that they continue to promote or force bilateral clearing. Longer term, I think the bigger risk is that foreign investors no longer perceive the United States federal government debt to be as safe and risk free as it is today perceived.
1:41:20 Dr. Daniel McDowell: The demonstration of US control over the actual flow of dollars, of communication, absolutely provides information to adversaries to prepare for events where they may face similar circumstances. And so I think what we’re seeing is China, we’re seeing Russia, we’re seeing other countries try to create alternative payments networks. Russia has its own SPFS payment messaging system. It’s quite small. It was launched in 2014, not coincidentally, after the initial round of sanctions targeting Russia. In terms of CIPS, China’s cross border payments network, Belarus announced it was having banks join immediately following the 2022 sanctions. So what I’m saying is there’s a pattern between when the United States mobilizes control over the pipes and the messaging of cross-border payments and adversaries looking for alternatives. It doesn’t mean they’re using them, but they’re getting plugged into the system as at least sort of a rainy day option in the event of a future targeting.
1:45:35 Dr. Daniel McDowell: I look at China not just as a typical country, because I think they’re an alternative service provider. Most countries fall into alternative service users; they’re looking for an alternative to the dollar. China, you could perhaps put Europe in this as well, are the only two sort of economic BLOCs capable, I think, of constructing an attractive enough cross-border payments network that could attract those alternative service users that are looking for that network. And so that’s why I think again, with China, there should be a higher bar of scrutiny.
2:02:20 Dr. Tyler Goodspeed: As deficits mount and as the debt burden rises above 100%, I think the Congressional Budget Office has it ending the budget window at about 119% of our economy, then we will probably observe an acceleration of diversification away from the dollar as a hedge. Again, I don’t see another single currency displacing the dollar as the major international currency or as the major reserve currency, but continued diversification.
May 25, 2023
House Financial Services Committee
- Jesse M. Schreger, Associate Professor of Business, Columbia Business School
- Mark Rosen, Partner, Advection Growth Capital and former Acting Executive Director, International Monetary Fund (IMF)
- Daniel F. Runde, Senior Vice President, Center for Strategic & International Studies(CSIS)
- Rich Powell, Chief Executive Officer, ClearPath & ClearPath Action
- Daouda Sembene, Distinguished Nonresident Fellow, CGD and CEO, AfriCatalyst
39:55 Mark Rosen: The IMF is the global lender of last resort to countries that are in economic distress. IMF borrowers usually have a balance of payments problem, are running out of foreign exchange reserves, and so cannot meet their obligations. The IMF negotiates a set of economic policies with the borrower in government to alleviate the crisis, and, conditional on the government implementing the agreed policies, provides a loan in tranches, normally over a three year period.
41:00 Mark Rosen: The biggest challenge the IMF faces today is China which, as we’ve heard, has lent vast sums to emerging market and low income countries in a non-transparent and irresponsible manner. Many IMF members are now struggling to repay China.
42:05 Mark Rosen: The United States is the largest shareholder in the IMF and has veto power over certain key decisions and it’s critical that the US continues to maintain its ownership of more than 15% which enables it to have this veto power.
42:20 Mark Rosen: China for some time, has been pressing for an increased quota share at the IMF. However, given its irresponsible lending, and then willingness to provide debt relief to developing countries, this is not the time to reward China with increased ownership at the Fund. Two other issues I’d like to focus on are anti-corruption and the catalytic role of the private sector in the work of the IMF. Corruption is a severe problem for many emerging market countries, which do not have strong institutions that can confront and root out corruption. The IMF is certainly doing a much better job than it did historically on anti-corruption, but I believe it’s critical that it continues to make anti corruption laws and policies front and center in the conditions of its lending programs, as well as a focus of its technical assistance. Only by reducing corruption will many of these countries be able to attract the vast amount of private sector investment which is potentially available and remains the ultimate key to reducing poverty. Establishing a rule of law, including laws to protect private property is key to unlocking this investment. And it should be a focus of the IMF and World Bank to encourage these countries to improve the rule of law and to fight corruption. If they do that, emerging market countries can attract private capital and grow rapidly as many countries that have followed that path have already done so successfully.
44:45 Daniel Runde: Multilateral development banks, MDBs, under US and Western leadership are one way that we can respond with something. The United States built and strengthened the MDB system. MDBs provide money, advice, data and convening power to help developing countries solve problems. If the US exerts its influence over these institutions, they are forced multipliers of a US-led global system. If we disregard our leadership role, then other actors, including China, can exert influence over them. The World Bank Group is a series of institutions: it lends money to national governments, it has a private sector arm, and has an insurance arm. There are a series of other regional development bank’s including the InterAmerican Development Bank, the Asian Development Bank — Taiwan is a member of the Asian Development Bank — the African Development Bank and the EBRD, the European Bank for Reconstruction Development Bank, focused mainly on countries that used to be behind the Iron Curtain. The United States has been instrumental in creating the majority of these institutions and remains the largest, or one of the largest, shareholders of every afformentioned MDB. Since the founding of these institutions, the US has used its shareholding power to shape the policies and activities of MDBs in indirect support of American foreign policy.
47:10 Daniel Runde: What role does China play in the MDBs? They’re a shareholder. China continues to borrow from the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank. That is crazy. That needs to stop. China is a shareholder. Also, Chinese firms can bid on MDB projects. China wins a lot of in terms of dollar value, a lot of the dollar value of World Bank contracts. Something to take a look at.
47:35 Daniel Runde: How does the Belt and Road figure into the MDBs? You all have heard of the Belt and Road. Infrastructure is now a strategic issue. China’s Belt and Road Initiative is a combination of construction and financing projects for roads, airports, and energy around the world. Unfortunately for us, BRI is an ambitious project that speaks to the hopes of China’s friends and potential friends. To counter the BRI, the US needs a positive alternative that says more than, “Don’t work with China.” Right? That’s not a strategy. We’ve got to have an alternative.
1:12:50 Rep. Andy Barr (R-KY): How do we end China’s eligibility to borrow from the World Bank? Daniel Runde: The Asian Development Bank has said they’re going to end their eligibility by 2025. We should absolutely hold them to that. There is a temptation for the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank to continue to loan for a couple of reasons. One is they say, “Well, this is a window into how we can understand China better.” There’s lots of other ways to understand China better. And or this is a way for us to — for a bunch of lending reasons that they do it. You all have the power of the purse, you have an ability, I think you should have blunted conversations with the administration about this. I suspect it’s an open door, but it’s going to require, I think, some pushing from Congress. I would encourage this committee to push the administration on ending lending to China.
1:14:30 Jesse Schreger: So fundamentally right now, the Renminbi is not yet positioned to compete with the US dollar for a number of reasons. First and foremost, the reason that the dollar plays the role it does in the international financial system is it provides the global safe asset. You’re confident, except for the upcoming debt ceiling, that you will always be paid back if you own US dollars. That’s fundamentally what you know. When you contemplate investing in China and holding Chinese Renminbi as reserves, you’re not necessarily sure that you’re gonna be able to turn that piece of paper into the goods and services that you need or intervening in FX markets.
1:21:15 Jesse Schreger: First and foremost, what China is trying to do is essentially convince countries around the world that the Renminbi is an alternative asset to invoice your trade and to invest in. And so on the investment side, they’ve been working very hard to actually allow in foreign capital, encouraging foreign central banks to hold Renminbi denominated bonds as their reserves. And on the trade side, they’re encouraging firms to invoice, basically price their goods, in Renminbi. There’s a few areas in which they’ve had challenges there. So first, we actually don’t know who are holding most of these Renminbi denominated assets. What you can see is after the US sanctioned Russia back in 2014, it was the Russian Central Bank that effectively announced they were moving out of US dollar denominated assets and into Renminbi, so they did that publicly. And so China has effectively been trying to attract foreign capital of that form and a lot of the reasons for that is that China finds itself vulnerable in the dollar-based financial system. And so what I would say the fundamental area in which the United States can assure the dominance of the dollar is making everyone understand that US Treasuries are the world’s safe asset that there is no state of the world in which the United States can or will default.
2:03:25 Jesse Schreger: I think the real way in which people start being able to issue and borrow in Renminbi is when people start thinking in terms of the goods that they need to buy and consume are in Renminbi. Fundamentally, most countries around the world, if they issue a bond in Renminbi, the calculation they have to do is then “okay, I’m going to take my renminbi and convert it into US dollars to buy the thing in which I need.” And so while actions in the US financial system are certainly going to affect other countries decisions to borrow in Renminbi, the kind of underlying challenges in Chinese financial markets and fundamentally the lack of goods priced and sold in Renminbi are going to continue to hold back kind of a growth of this market for a while. And in particular, the fact that many countries are reluctant to try to raise money inside of China’s liquid onshore capital markets for, effectively, fear of capital controls. If you’ve raised renminbi in China, you can’t get that out and to your projects the way you can if you raise money in the US in dollars.
2:14:55 Daniel Runde: The business model of the World Bank is they lend money to richer countries with a pretty good credit rating and then they cross subsidize that by lending to poor countries with a poor credit rating. My view is, China can finance its own development, we should stop this practice. I think the Asian Development Bank has sort of gotten the memo, but the World Bank has not fully gotten the memo and they’ll give you kind of World Bank-y answers to this sort of thing. We got to stop it. Rep. Zach Nunn (R-IA): Mr. Runde, I could not agree with you more. And you highlighted earlier, you know, by 2025, China should graduate from this program. I’d offer that 25 is two years too late. We can start funneling them off that now. Daniel Runde: I agree, sir. Rep. Zach Nunn (R-IA): I think you’re in the right spot. Thank you.