Foreign Affairs – The End of National Currency – Benn Steil

Foreign Affairs – The End of National Currency – Benn Steil: “Summary: Global financial instability has sparked a surge in ‘monetary nationalism’ — the idea that countries must make and control their own currencies. But globalization and monetary nationalism are a dangerous combination, a cause of financial crises and geopolitical tension. The world needs to abandon unwanted currencies, replacing them with dollars, euros, and multinational currencies as yet unborn.”

But the dollar’s privileged status as today’s global money is not heaven-bestowed. The dollar is ultimately just another money supported only by faith that others will willingly accept it in the future in return for the same sort of valuable things it bought in the past. This puts a great burden on the institutions of the U.S. government to validate that faith. And those institutions, unfortunately, are failing to shoulder that burden. Reckless U.S. fiscal policy is undermining the dollar’s position even as the currency’s role as a global money is expanding.

Four decades ago, the renowned French economist Jacques Rueff, writing just a few years before the collapse of the Bretton Woods dollar-based gold-exchange standard, argued that the system “attains such a degree of absurdity that no human brain having the power to reason can defend it.” The precariousness of the dollar’s position today is similar. The United States can run a chronic balance-of-payments deficit and never feel the effects. Dollars sent abroad immediately come home in the form of loans, as dollars are of no use abroad. “If I had an agreement with my tailor that whatever money I pay him he returns to me the very same day as a loan,” Rueff explained by way of analogy, “I would have no objection at all to ordering more suits from him.”

With the U.S. current account deficit running at an enormous 6.6 percent of GDP (about $2 billion a day must be imported to sustain it), the United States is in the fortunate position of the suit buyer with a Chinese tailor who instantaneously returns his payments in the form of loans — generally, in the U.S. case, as purchases of U.S. Treasury bonds. The current account deficit is partially fueled by the budget deficit (a dollar more of the latter yields about 20-50 cents more of the former), which will soar in the next decade in the absence of reforms to curtail federal “entitlement” spending on medical care and retirement benefits for a longer-living population. The United States — and, indeed, its Chinese tailor — must therefore be concerned with the sustainability of what Rueff called an “absurdity.” In the absence of long-term fiscal prudence, the United States risks undermining the faith foreigners have placed in its management of the dollar — that is, their belief that the U.S. government can continue to sustain low inflation without having to resort to growth-crushing interest-rate hikes as a means of ensuring continued high capital inflows.”

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