[OPE-L:7659] dollar, gold, CAD

From: Rakesh Bhandari (rakeshb@stanford.edu)
Date: Sat Sep 14 2002 - 12:43:14 EDT

The dollar and the deficit
Sep 12th 2002
 From The Economist print edition

Why the dollar still rules the world-and why the world should be grateful
THE dollar is looking vulnerable. It is propped up not by the 
strength of America's exports, but by vast imports of capital. 
America, a country already rich in capital, has to borrow from abroad 
almost $2 billion net every working day to cover a current-account 
deficit forecast to reach almost $500 billion this year.

To most economists, this deficit represents an unsustainable drain on 
world savings. If the capital inflows were to dry up, some reckon 
that the dollar could lose a quarter of its value. Only Paul O'Neill, 
America's treasury secretary, appears unruffled. The current-account 
deficit, he declares, is a "meaningless concept", which he talks 
about only because others insist on doing so.

The dollar is not just a matter for America, because the dollar is 
not just America's currency. Over half of all dollar bills in 
circulation are held outside America's borders, and almost half of 
America's Treasury bonds are held as reserves by foreign central 
banks. The euro cannot yet rival this global reach. International 
financiers borrow and lend in dollars, and international traders use 
dollars, even if Americans are at neither end of the deal. No asset 
since gold has enjoyed such widespread acceptance as a medium of 
exchange and store of value. In fact, some economists, such as Paul 
Davidson of the University of Tennessee and Ronald McKinnon of 
Stanford University, take the argument a step further (see references 
at end). They argue that the world is on a de facto dollar standard, 
akin to the 19th-century gold standard.

For roughly a century up to 1914, the world's main currencies were 
pegged to gold. You could buy an ounce for about four pounds or 
twenty dollars. The contemporary "dollar standard" is a looser 
affair. In principle, the world's currencies float in value against 
each other, but in reality few float freely. Countries fear losing 
competitiveness on world markets if their currency rises too much 
against the greenback; they fear inflation if it falls too far. As 
long as American prices remain stable, the dollar therefore provides 
an anchor for world currencies and prices, ensuring that they do not 
become completely unmoored.

In the days of the gold standard, the volume of money and credit in 
circulation was tied to the amount of gold in a country's vaults. 
Economies laboured under the "tyranny" of the gold regime, booming 
when gold was abundant, deflating when it was scarce. The dollar 
standard is a more liberal system. Central banks retain the right to 
expand the volume of domestic credit to keep pace with the growth of 
the home economy.

Eventually, however, growth in the world's economies translates into 
a growing demand for dollar assets. The more money central banks 
print, the more dollars they like to hold in reserve to underpin 
their currency. The more business is done across borders, the more 
dollars traders need to cover their transactions. If the greenback is 
the new gold, Alan Greenspan, the Federal Reserve chairman, is the 
world's alchemist, responsible for concocting enough liquidity to 
keep world trade bubbling along nicely.

But America can play this role only if it is happy to allow 
foreigners to build up a
huge mass of claims on its assets-and if foreigners are happy to go 
along. Some economists watch with consternation as the rest of the 
world's claims on America outstrip America's claims on the rest of 
the world. As they point out, even a dollar bill is an American 
liability, a promise of ultimate payment by the US Treasury. Can 
America keep making these promises to foreigners, without eventually 
emptying them of value?

According to Mr Davidson, the world cannot risk America stopping. 
America's external deficit means an extra $500 billion is going into 
circulation in the world economy each year. If America reined in its 
current account, international commerce would suffer a liquidity 
crunch, as it did periodically under the gold standard. Hence 
America's deficit is neither a "meaningless concept" nor a lamentable 
drain on world savings. It is an indispensable fount of liquidity for 
world trade.

Spigot by nature

But is the deficit sustainable? Many of America's creditors, Mr 
McKinnon argues, have a stake in preserving the dollar standard, 
whatever the euro's potential charms. In particular, a large share of 
America's more liquid assets are held by foreign central banks, 
particularly in Asia, which dare not offload them for fear of 
undermining the competitiveness of their own currencies. "Willy 
nilly," Mr McKinnon says, "foreign governments cannot avoid being 
important creditors of the United States." China, for one, added $60 
billion to its reserves in the year to June by ploughing most of its 
trade surplus with America back into American assets.

This is not the first time America's external deficits have raised 
alarm. In 1966, as America's post-war trade surpluses began to 
dwindle, The Economist ran an article entitled "The dollar and world 
liquidity: a minority view." According to this view, the build-up of 
dollar claims by foreigners was not a "deficit" in need of 
"correction". Rather, the American capital market was acting like a 
global financial intermediary, providing essential liquidity to 
foreign governments and enterprises. In their own ways, Mr Davidson 
and Mr McKinnon echo this minority view today. A "correction" of 
America's current deficit, they say, would create more problems than 
it would solve. Whether the world's holders of dollars will always 
agree remains to be seen.

"Financial Markets, Money and the Real World" by Paul Davidson. 
Edward Elgar 2002.

"The International Dollar Standard and Sustainability of the U.S. 
Current Account Deficit" by Ronald McKinnon 2001. Available on 
www.stanford.edu/~ mckinnon/papers.htm

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