21 September 2020 06:23 PM

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Mohan Guruswamy | 13 OCTOBER, 2014

In God and the US Dollar We Trust?


Imagine living on an island as a part of a small group, each of whom is assigned a specific vocation and task. In this system one-person makes clothes, another shoes, someone pots and pans, some one grows food and someone else prints money to facilitate exchange of goods and services. So the shoemaker exchanges his goods with another for money and in turn pays with that money for food or whatever. Since everybody in this system can produce as much as possible, the person who prints the money will be best off among all because he can buy whatever he wants and pay for it with his own money. Take this one step further then. Producers who come to hold more paper than they need then start leaving it with the person who prints them to hold and lend. Expand this to the global scale and we pretty much have something similar to the world system.

In 2012 the World GDP totaled about $71.83 trillion ($45.73 trillion in 1990 US dollars) and the per capita GDP was $12400. During the past eight years the WGDP grew at about 4% a year. In 1960 the WGDP was $6.85 trillion (1990). The WGDP was just $1.1 trillion in 1900 and took half a century to grow fourfold to $4.01 trillion and grew ten fold in the next fifty to $41 trillion (1990). The big leaps began after 1971 when US President Richard Nixon unilaterally delinked the US dollar from the international gold standard.

The total world trade in 2013 was $37.7 trillion, with China (including Hong Kong) being the biggest player, accounting for $5.31 trillions. The top five global traders account for $19.11 trillions or 50.6% of global trade. Almost a quarter of the global trade is accounted by the USA, Germany and Japan. The EU share of world trade is $4.49 trillions and the USA’s is $3.91 trillions also accounting for about a quarter of world trade.

The total world reserves in 2014-Q2 was $12.00 trillion, of which 60.7% was held in US dollars, 24.2% in Euros, 4% in Yen and 3.9% in UK Pounds. Since the reserves are mostly in US dollars and Euros, the issuing countries have little reason to hold much as reserves. The USA’s total reserves amount to about $139 billion. Germany, France and UK even less. Contrast this to India’s $298 billion and China’s $4055 billion. This last figure will tell you how much China is invested in the USA, and also how much leverage the USA can exercise over China to ensure complaint behavior. In 1995, advanced economies held around 67% of total foreign exchange reserves. By 2011, the picture had been flipped on its head: emerging and developing countries held 67% of total reserves. Emerging countries now hold roughly $6.8 trillion in reserve currency.

Now lets turn to see how the system actually works. The e merging countries produce goods and services at the lowest costs for consumption in the USA, which in turn pays them in dollars, which they in turn deposit in US banks. Give or take a little. Since money cannot sit still, this money in US banks is then lent to Americans, who today have the highest per capita indebtedness in the world, to splurge on houses, cars, HD TV’s, computers and play stations, which they can often ill-afford. The cumulative debt of US households is now $11.4 trillion. Credit card debt alone of each US household is about $15000. There are 160 million credit cards in the US.

The irony is that this is well understood, but like the people who kept investing with Bernard Madoff, countries like China, Russia, Japan, Kuwait, India and others keep investing in US securities at interest rates mostly between 1-2%. Thus, in effect the rest of the world was plying the USA with cheap credit, encouraging it to splurge even more. Unfortunately there was and is no global regulator to caution the US on its profligacy or force it to mend its ways. There is also no global regulator who can ensure that countries like China balance their trade. Thus, it is US profligacy and Chinese surpluses parked in US banks that are the biggest cause of this dysfunction.

At the Breton Woods Conference of July 1944 that took place under the fast receding shadow of WWII, Lord Keynes had in mind an elaborate scheme that called for the establishment of an international reserve currency. But this had to be shelved in the face of American obduracy. Keynes' proposals would have established a world reserve currency called "Bancor" to be administered by a international Central Bank. This Central Bank would have been vested with theresponsibility of creating money and with the authority to take actions on a much larger scale. In case of balance of payments imbalances, Keynes recommended that countries with payment surpluses should increase their imports from the deficit countries and thereby create foreign trade equilibrium.

But the United States, as a likely creditor nation, and eager to take on the role of the world's economic powerhouse, baulked at Keynes' plan and did not pay serious attention to it. The U.S. contingent was too concerned about inflationary pressures in the postwar economy, and White saw imbalance trade as a problem of only the deficit country. But the fact that the US has been the world’s biggest deficit country for several decades and with increasing deficits with most countries seems to have eluded the IMF. This and the fact that the US dollar has become the world’s preferred reserve currency is now the core of the world’s greatest financial problem.

This international system was unilaterally abrogated when in 1971 US President Richard Nixon US delinked the dollar from the gold standard. In the absence of a standard and a useful regulatory function for the IMF the great private banks on Wall Street were given a license to run amok. We are now reaping the bitter harvest. With the US dollar as the world’s preferred reserve currency, the US and its even more profligate citizens have an apparently endless access to easy credit to satiate their sundry appetites. In this way the ever growing annual US trade deficit becomes the de facto engine of growth for many export dependent economies, such as China, Germany and the ASEAN countries.

The post Cold War era has seen the economic and political rise of a host of nations, Brazil, China and India being foremost among them. Each one of these nations is now a major economic player with bigger GDP’s than many in the G-7. The economic balance of power is shifting towards Asia. Jim O’Neill, the Goldman Sachs economist who was first to coin the acronym BRICS, how predicts: “It's likely that the combined GDP of the four big BRIC nations will exceed that of the G-7 by 2020.” Since the USA and Europe do not see it as being in their interest to reform the system, it devolves upon these world growth engines to bring more order into the world system. Like Communism the ideology of the Washington Consensus has also been proved to be a failure. Casino capitalists must now make or upset our world again. It is time we revisited Lord Keynes’ proposal for a global reserve currency and consider establishing a system to regulate and manage it.

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