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sexta-feira, 21 de janeiro de 2011
The fall of the (still) mighty dollar - Barry Eichengreen
Paulo Roberto de Almeida
The rise and fall of the dollar
The Economist, Jan 20th 2011
Exorbitant Privilege: The Rise and Fall of the Dollar and the Future of the International Monetary System.
By Barry Eichengreen
Oxford University Press; 224 pages; $27.95.
To be published in Britain by OUP next month; £14.99
THE dollar’s ascendance to the rank of world’s most important currency is often remembered as having been slow and gradual, mirroring the decline of sterling and Britain’s historic economic dominance. In fact, it was surprisingly swift. From a standing start in 1914, the dollar had overtaken sterling in international importance by 1925. The first world war played a part, but so did a lesser-known factor. America had surpassed Britain as the world’s largest economic power as early as 1870, but it had a stunted financial system: its banks could not open branches abroad, it had no central bank and panics were common. All these things discouraged international use of the dollar.
This began to change with the creation of the Federal Reserve in 1913, providing stability to the American banking system. Benjamin Strong, the Fed’s de facto leader in its early years, saw how the deep and liquid market for trade acceptances - the IOUs that were used to finance shipments of goods - helped the Bank of England to manage credit conditions. The Fed used its clout to nurture a similar market in America. This hastened the migration of international financial activity from London to New York, and from sterling to the dollar.
Whether the dollar will share sterling’s fate is a common question in geopolitical circles. After all, it is only a matter of time before China’s GDP overtakes America’s. But as Barry Eichengreen shows in a fascinating and readable account of the dollar’s rise and potential fall, reserve-currency status depends on far more than GDP. It is also a function of strategic and military relationships, laws, institutions and incumbency.
Mr Eichengreen, who teaches at the University of California, Berkeley, is an international monetary historian whose research into how the gold standard propagated the Great Depression was the basis for his seminal 1992 book, “Golden Fetters”. His latest work is less about the future of the financial system than its history, and skilfully told history it is too. Mr Eichengreen sprinkles his economics with memorable sketches of economic and political leaders. Jimmy Carter, apparently, handicapped his efforts to reduce Germany’s trade surplus by addressing the more formal Helmut Schmidt, the German chancellor, by his first name.
The book’s title was inspired by Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, France’s finance minister in the 1960s, who once described the enormous benefit America derived from the dollar’s reserve status as its “exorbitant privilege”. The world’s need for dollars lets America borrow at lower cost. American companies are spared the hassle of transacting in another currency. Those suitcases of dollars so beloved of international arms smugglers and drug kingpins all represent interest-free loans to America.
That the world remains so dollar-centric, given America’s shrinking share of world output, is something of an anomaly. This could be explained for most of the post-war period by lack of competition. Japan discouraged international use of the yen for fear of elevating its value and hurting its exports. The presence of the Red Army on West Germany’s borders hung over the Deutschmark, and in any case Germany regarded support of the dollar as an intrinsic part of its military alliance with America.
Mr Eichengreen does not think the dollar is about to be vanquished as sterling was. Rather, he foresees a “multipolar” system of international currencies. Reunification shifted Germany’s priorities from supporting America to binding itself more closely to Europe, resulting in the creation of the first significant competitor to the dollar, the euro. Mr Eichengreen could have devoted more attention to the strains that Europe’s sovereign-debt crisis have placed on the euro. His book is optimistic, noting that political rather than economic imperatives have always driven the euro. Mr Schmidt sold monetary integration to Germany’s sceptical central bank by invoking Auschwitz. Yet Mr Eichengreen’s recent writings betray a pessimism about the euro’s future that is not visible in his book.
And what of China? As was true of America and the dollar a century ago, China’s currency does not enjoy anywhere near the clout that could be expected from the size of the Chinese economy. As with Japan, China has discouraged internationalisation of its currency for fear that inflows of capital would lift its value and curb Chinese exports. It has learned, however, from Japan’s mistakes, and is gradually liberalising the use of its currency. But China is still much further behind than America was in 1914; it will be decades before the yuan rivals the dollar’s leadership.
The chapter on the international financial crisis is an unsatisfying rehash of the usual explanations, such as loose monetary policy, sloppy underwriting and derivatives. Mr Eichengreen underplays the role that China played, through its accumulation of dollars, in financing America’s housing bubble. He thinks the crisis will accelerate the shift to a multipolar currency system, but that the dollar will not collapse. That would take profound economic mismanagement by America itself, in particular, unchecked budget deficits. It was Britain’s dismal economic performance, not the dethronement of sterling, that cost it its great-power status after 1945. “The only plausible scenario for a dollar crash”, Mr Eichengreen concludes, “is one in which we bring it upon ourselves".