Politics

When the Dollar is No Longer King

Obama allows China a chance to print the world's currency. It's only fair, right?

President Obama continues his quest to spread the wealth around — in this case to the rest of the planet — permitting a new policy by an international organization that could allow China’s yuan to supplant the dollar as the world’s currency.

The International Monetary Fund, with backing from the United States, this week provided a great leap forward to Chinese ambitions of overtaking the U.S. as the world’s financial powerhouse by granting the yuan official reserve currency status, putting it on par with other global currencies like the U.S. dollar, the euro, Japanese yen and British pound.

The move could feed into arguments by GOP presidential front-runner Donald Trump and others about the economic threat posed by China.

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Trump has made China’s willingness to game the system and rip off the United States a centerpiece of his campaign. Trump’s message that the U.S. is in decline under Obama will get some clear validation once other countries start cashing in their money for yuan instead of dollars.

And Obama will confirm his growing reputation as the first post-American president, helping others at our expense.

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By adding the yuan to its “special drawing rights” basket, the IMF confers a new legitimacy on “reforms” to China’s state-dominated economy and financial sector, ostensibly bringing it more in line with international norms. But critics are quick to allege that corrupt Chinese bureaucrats intend to play by the game according to their own rules and aren’t reforming much of anything.

Alan Tonelson, an economist and author of the RealityChek blog, called the move “economic appeasement” by the IMF.

“It allows China to have their cake and eat it too. They can enjoy the prestige of reserve status on one hand, but remain tightly in control of their country’s finances and broader economy on the other,” he said.

Aside from providing a psychological boost to China’s status-conscious officials, the yuan assuming the dollar’s place as the dominant world currency would provide another conduit for projecting Chinese influence.

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Aside from providing a psychological boost to China’s status-conscious officials, the yuan assuming the dollar’s place as the dominant world currency would provide another conduit for projecting Chinese influence. As yuan-denominated transactions increase, China’s jurisdiction over global business and financial markets would expand. And of course, it decreases the influence of the United States.

The yuan — also known as the renminbi — will now become more highly valued for use in international transactions and for central banks to hold in their foreign currency reserves. Some analysts estimate that at least $1 trillion of global currency reserves will now convert into Chinese assets.

“China’s RMB is ultimately destined to replace the U.S. dollar as the world’s primary reserve currency,” Jan Dehn, head of research at Ashmore Group, said in a client note.

The dollar’s longstanding status as the primary reserve currency in the world has afforded the U.S. the privilege of being able to borrow in its own currency. A shift away from the dollar would effectively end the era of cheap credit by subjecting the U.S. government to higher borrowing costs. Some, though, would argue that making credit more expensive can stem excessive borrowing.

It is more convenient for a country’s exporters, importers, borrowers, and lenders to be able to deal in the country’s own currency than in foreign currencies, according to the Heritage Foundation. Doing so reduces transaction costs as well as foreign-exchange risk.

Currently, 97 percent of global reserves are held in dollars, euros, yen or pounds. However, the nations issuing these currencies have undertaken radical money printing campaigns — known as quantitative easing — and low-interest rate policies to stimulate their economies in over the past decade.

A mass destabilization of these currencies would send investors and banks running for something safer, such as the yuan, Dehn warned.

“QE policies will eventually lead to inflation and/or currency debasement, which in turn will result in an acute shortage of global reserve currencies with integrity. This bodes well for the rapid adoption of the RMB by central banks.”

The elevation of the yuan has international financial elites giddy over the prospects of putting China in the drivers’ seat of the world economy.

Christine Lagarde, the IMF’s managing director, dubbed the event an “important milestone” that would create a “more robust international monetary and financial system.”

“This is a huge win for the IMF, the official community, and the Chinese reformers,” wrote Paul Gruenwald, Asia-Pacific chief economist at Standard and Poor’s Rating Services. “But whether or not the yuan becomes a full-fledged global reserve currency and international store-of-value is entirely up to the Chinese authorities.”

The process by which the IMF arrived at this decision is highly suspect.

Despite earlier objections from the United States, which holds veto power on IMF decisions, America ultimately voted in favor of the elevating the yuan.

Despite earlier objections from the United States, which holds veto power on IMF decisions, America ultimately voted in favor of the elevating the yuan. The move came amid concerns that the currency does not even meet the IMF’s own technical requirements for such a designation. Speculation is swirling that it deliberately bent the rules to appease the egos of China’s leaders.

In July, an IMF study found that the yuan did not meet the “freely usable” requirements necessary to achieve SDR status. But on Monday, the IMF threw those criteria out the window for unknown, but surely political, reasons.

“What has changed since mid-July when this earlier paper was completed and circulated to the IMF executive board? Outsiders do not know,” wrote Edwin Truman, a former U.S. Treasury official noted in a blog post.

“In the earlier assessment, the renminbi did not consistently rank with any of the other currencies that now make up the SDR basket on any of the criteria for freely usable currencies: widely traded and widely used,” Truman continued. “It is unlikely that in the ensuing four months these data have changed significantly.”

While the short-term impacts of this designation are largely symbolic, the IMF and the U.S. are paving the way for greater Chinese influence in the global financial system despite its disregard for international norms.

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