Adam at Forex Blog has posted a critique of a Wall Street Journal article which discusses the pending loss of primary reserve currency status for the US dollar. The WSJ article, written by Barry Eichengreen, provides some very interesting information about the use of the dollar in global trade and financial transactions. For example, 85% of foreign-exchange transactions world-wide are trades of other currencies for dollars, and the dollar is the currency of denomination of half of all international debt securities, though in the latter case I'd ask what share of those debt securities are actually US government and related agency debt. Eichengreen believes, however, that the dollar will lose preeminence in the next 10 years.
Here are his reasons why:
1) Changes in technology mean exchanging less prominent currencies is less difficult and expensive than it was.
2) The dollar will soon have real rivals with the euro and Chinese yuan as the most likely candidates.
3) The dollar is at risk of losing its safe-haven status.
Let me address these points individually.
I've been around long enough to remember when trading was done by telephone, not online. The technology has come along in leaps and bounds in the last decade or so. It's not just better tech, though, that makes for lower costs. It's also the fact that as forex market volumes have increased, and there's become more competition in the brokering and dealing arena, spreads have come down significantly. That's where you get the real cost savings.
It's worth noting, though, that as transaction costs have declined, we haven't seen any real marked shift in currency reserves. The dollar is still just about the same proportion of global reserves now as it has been for years. Technological improvements, as Adam notes in his piece, don't really impact the supply and demand for a currency. Maybe just a bit on the margins.
There have always been rivals to the dollar for the top spot. When the euro was launched it was immediately viewed by some as a challenger for the crown (though obviously not by those who thought the Euro Zone would blow apart). Why else do you think the SWIFT code for the exchange rate to the dollar was chosen to be EUR/USD rather than USD/EUR? It's been a dozen years now, though. As Adam notes, the euro suffers from being comprised of diverse parts. The debt and equity markets are fragmented among the constituent countries, countries with different credit and economic profiles. This makes for a much more shallow market for global investors to park their cash.
As for China, until the yuan is fully floated, it's not even a debate. Even if the yuan were freely floating right now, it would still be a big ask for it to challenge the dollar for prime reserve currency status. The Chinese financial markets are in their infancy. It will take much more than just 10 years for them to get big enough to be able to support major capital flows. Even the Asian Development Bank doesn't see the yuan as being a major factor in the currency reserve area. Adam notes that they forecast it will only account for 3-12% of international reserves by 2035.
What about the Swiss franc or the Japanese yen? Switzerland is too small an economy for the franc to ever be a major reserve currency. The Japanese economy is obviously a major one, but a key factor in being a prime reserve currency is having a balance of payments deficit. Japan does not have that (though things could change as the population there continues to age). This is also something that works against the yuan.
Loss of Safe-Haven Status
Eichengreen makes the point that recent economic and fiscal developments have caused the world to rethink the stability of the US markets and economy, putting the country's ability to sustain its track record of paying its obligations in doubt. It's a fair point. As Adam commented, though, this is old news, and is also of concern for the likes of the Yen and the Euro as well. The financial crisis didn't only do damage to the US system.
I disagree, however, with Adam calling the yen a, if not the, premier safe-haven currency now. Yes, the yen absolutely benefits greatly when the markets go into flight-to-quality mode. That, however, is related to the carry trade where yen are being borrowed to fund investments in other currencies. Scared investors bail out of those investments, meaning they convert their money back to yen and pay off the loans they took out. This is not the same as capital flowing into yen-denominated securities the way it flows into US Treasury securities in a panic.
For all the issues with deficits and the like, the US Treasury market remains the place risk averse money goes. So long as that remains the case, the dollar will remain the primary safe haven currency. There may be times when other currencies step in to the spotlight, as the franc has done recently on geopolitical developments, but those are transitory periods and not the real panic situations.
The Bottom Line
The dollar is not going to lose its position at the top of the heap any time soon. That's not to say there won't be variation in its exchange rate values, because there most certainly will be. That's also not to say countries and companies won't diversify their holdings, because they will as suits their needs. It's just that no major alternatives are going to be viable in the near future.