The decline of the dollar system

From: Rakesh Bhandari (rakeshb@STANFORD.EDU)
Date: Tue Sep 16 2003 - 19:26:48 EDT

Couldn't find a weblocation for this, so here it is in full.
Yours, Rakesh

Dollars & Sense, May-June 2003 p10(2)
The decline of the dollar system: a falling dollar could mean the end
of U.S. world economic domination. (Making Sense). James K. Galbraith.

Full Text: COPYRIGHT 2003 Economic Affairs Bureau

Today, the U.S. dollar is the world's reserve currency. Nations
around the world invest most of their foreign exchange reserves in
dollar assets. The international economic position of the United
States depends on this.

So long as foreign central banks and international investors are
willing to take and hold U.S. assets (including stocks, bonds, and
cash) this system works-and shamefully to the interest of Americans.
Their demand keeps the value of the dollar high. This means that we
have been able to consume comfortably, and in exchange for very
little effort, the products of hard labor by poor people. (As the
supplier of liquidity to the world system, our situation is akin to
that of, say, Australia in the late 19th century when gold fields
were discovered, except that, in our case, no actual effort is
required to extract the gold.) And meanwhile (thanks to ample cheap
imports), we are not obliged to invest unduly in maintaining our own
industrial base, which has substantially eroded since the 1970s. We
could afford to splurge on new technologies and telecommunications
systems whose benefits were, to a very great extent, figments of the
imagination. And even when the bubble burst in those sectors, life
went on, for most A mericans, substantially undisturbed--at least for

But for how long can this system endure? There can be no definitive
answer; the few economists who have worried about this issue are far
from being in agreement. On one side, it is argued that the dominant
currency holds a "lock-in advantage"; that is, there are economies
(reduced transaction costs and reduced risk) associated with keeping
all reserves in one basket. The United States in particular is in a
strong position to pressure foreign central banks--notably
Japan's--to absorb the dollars that private parties may not wish to
hold, at least within limits.

Full Size PictureFurthermore, oil is bought and sold in dollars. As a
result, oil importers must buy dollars in order to buy oil, and oil
exporters accumulate dollars as they sell oil. To some extent this
arrangement further strengthens the dollar--though it is not obvious
why it requires anyone to hold dollars for very long, once they start
falling in value.

Against this, the question remains: As the U.S. trade position
continues to erode, will foreigners be willing to add to their
holdings of dollar assets by enough to allow the United States to
return to full employment? The amount to be absorbed at present--the
trade deficit at full employment--is in the range of half a trillion
dollars per year. This was easily handled when dollar asset prices
were rising. But now that these prices are falling, they are not as
attractive as they once were. If foreigners are not willing to absorb
all the dollars we need to place, and if asset prices do not quickly
fall to the point where U.S. stocks appear cheap to investors, dollar
dumping is, sooner or later, inevitable.

To keep the dollar's fall from getting out of hand, the United States
will be strongly tempted to slow the rate at which new U.S. assets
reach the world system, by restricting its imports. Having renounced
the traditional tools of trade protectionism, it can only do this by
raising interest rates, holding down economic growth, and keeping
incomes, and therefore imports, well below the full-employment level.
In that situation--which may actually already have arrived--the
United States joins Brazil and other developing nations as a county
effectively constrained by its debts. Indeed, the world prognosis
from that point forward becomes grim, since high levels of American
demand have been just about the only motor of growth and development
(outside, perhaps, of China and India) in recent years.


There are economists who advocate dollar devaluation, believing that
the richer countries of the world would quickly rally to purchase
increasing quantities of made-in-America exports, thus reversing the
manufacturing decline of the past 20 years. But this is very
unlikely. Exports to the rich regions may not be very price-sensitive.

And exports to the developing regions are very sensitive to income
and credit conditions, which would get worse. At least in the short
and medium term, there is no foolproof adjustment process to be had
by these means. Where a high dollar provides U.S. consumers with
cheap imports and capital inflows to finance domestic activity, a
falling dollar would have opposite effects. A falling dollar would
raise the price of imports into the United States, especially from
the richer countries. Meanwhile, a declining dollar would hit at the
value of developing countries' reserves and their access to credit,
and so it would diminish their demand for our exports. (It would
help, in some cases, on their debts.) The most likely outcome from
dollar devaluation is a general deepening of the world slump,
combined with pressure on American banks and markets as global
investors seek safer havens in Europe.

This specter of financial vulnerability means that for the United
States, the combination of falling internal demand, falling asset
prices, and a falling dollar represents a threat that can best be
described as millennial. (My colleague Randall Wray has called it the
"perfect fiscal storm.") The consequences at home would include
deepening unemployment. There would be little recovery of privately
financed investment, amid a continued unraveling of plans--both
corporate and personal--that had been based on the delirious stock
market valuations of the late 1990s. The center of the world banking
industry would move, presumably to continental Europe. Over time, the
United States could lose both its position as the principal
beneficiary of the world financial order and its margin of maneuver
on the domestic scene. This would be not unlike what happened to the
United Kingdom from 1914 to 1950.

It is not obvious that senior financial policymakers in the United
States have yet grasped this threat, or that there is any serious
planning under way to cope with it--apart from a simpleminded view
among certain strategic thinkers about the financial advantages of
the control of oil. Instead it appears that the responsible officials
are confining themselves to a very narrow range of Third-World debt
management proposals, whose premises minimize the gravity of the
issue and whose purpose is to keep the existing bonds of debt peonage
in place as long as possible.

The alternative? It would involve rebuilding a multilateral monetary
system, demolished for the benefit of the private commercial banks in
1973. The way forward would probably entail new regional systems of
financial stabilization and capital control, such as the Asian
Monetary Fund proposed by Japan in 1997. Such a course would be
unpalatable to current American leadership. But we may find, down the
road, that for the sake of our own prosperity, let alone that of the
rest of the world, there is no other way.

Adapted from "The Brazilian Swindle and The Larger International
Monetary Problem," published by the Levy Economics Institute in 2002.
The full article is available at <>.

James K. Galbraith is professor at the Lyndon B. Johnson School of
Public Affairs, University of Texas at Austin, and Senior Scholar of
the Levy Economics Institute. His most recent hook is Inequality and
Industrial Change: A Global View, co-edited with Maureen Berner.

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