The dollar has been the cornerstone of the international monetary system since the Second World War. It is the most important reserve currency, accounting for at least two-thirds of reserve assets, according to the IMF’s Composition of Foreign Exchange Reserves database. Among central banks that do not report this information to the IMF, it is estimated (e.g. by Brad Setser) that 70 percent is held in dollar assets.
The bulk of foreign exchange transactions involve dollars, and significantly more trade gets settled in dollars than involves the United States. Goldberg and Tille examined 23 advanced and emerging economies in Asia and Europe and found that all settled a greater proportion of their trade in dollars than their trade with the United States. The divergence was particularly stark for emerging Asia, where trade with the United States only accounted for about 20 percent of total trade but the bulk of total trade was settled in dollars. ( “Vehicle Currency Use in International Trade,” Journal of International Economics, Issue 76, Vol. 2, pp. 177-192, December 2008).
The recent crisis has prompted an abundance of commentary on the future of the international monetary system and potential alternative reserve currencies. Those calling for a re-examination of the dollar’s role include Italian economy minister Giulio Tremonti, People’s Bank of China Governor Zhou Xiaochuan, Ousmène Jacques Mandeng of Ashmore Investment Management Limited, and Nobel Laureate Joseph Stiglitz. What does all this mean for the future of the international monetary system and the role of the dollar?
Once upon a time, those tracking international reserves focused on simple measures of reserve adequacy—enough to cover, say, 3 months of imports or all of the external debt maturing over the next year. However, the relevance of such yardsticks evaporated as a number of countries accumulated reserves that far surpass such levels, partly in reaction to emerging market financial crises of the 1990s and early part of this decade. Brazil’s reserves now exceed $200 billion, while Russia’s are more than $400 billion—and even these numbers are dwarfed by China’s reserves, which top $2,000 billion.
Reserves are rising, driven by emerging markets and, increasingly, low-income countries
In my last post, I explained how the IMF has dramatically scaled up its concessional financial assistance to its low-income country members to help them cope with the current global financial crisis.
Today, I want to get beyond how much is being lent, and turn to the how. It’s not enough simply to push out money—vital though that is. We also need to meet the particular needs of the country in question, and these are quite varied. Precisely with this in mind, the IMF has been changing the way it lends to low-income countries. In the jargon, we call this “facilities reform.”
We want to make lending more flexible, and better tailored to the different needs of an increasingly diverse group of low-income countries. It’s a question of horses for courses, as the expression goes.
What was the case beforehand? Well, the centerpiece of the IMF’s concessional financial support for low-income countries for the last decade has been the Poverty Reduction and Growth Facility (PRGF). Established in 1999, the PRGF addressed deep-seated balance of payments constraints—the very constraints that prevented low-income countries, year after year, from importing necessary goods and services, including the investment goods they needed to grow and develop. With these kinds of problems, there was no quick fix. So country programs under the PRGF emphasized deep structural reform, implemented over several years and supported by concessional loans from the Fund—backed by debt relief in certain cases—to create the conditions for strong, sustainable growth.
It’s no secret that IMF lending to low-income countries attracted some criticism over the years. Some people thought the adjustment policies were too harsh, or even misguided. It is true that, for a while, the results were not encouraging. But all the pieces began to fall into place early in this decade. Governments took heart as outcomes improved, and this created a virtuous circle, with better policies leading to still better results. A strong global economy for much of this time helped too. If we look back now at the overall record, the countries’ efforts paid off—PRGF programs have helped them achieve higher growth and lower inflation, supported by higher levels of foreign aid.
One of the great tragedies of the present crisis is that it nipped in the bud the longest and most broadly based economic expansion that low-income countries have seen in modern history. These countries were finally reaping the rewards of difficult reforms that go back to the 1980s and 1990s, helped by debt relief and other support. The results were plain to see. During 2000-07, low-income country growth was twice as high as in the previous decade, and inflation fell to single digits. As a result, these countries were finally starting to make inroads in raising living standards and reducing endemic poverty. There was great cause for optimism.
And then came the crisis. Or crises, I should say. For in fact, the low-income countries were besieged by two crises in rapid succession, as the global financial tsunami came hard on the heels of the food and fuel price shock of 2007-08. All of the hard-won gains were suddenly in jeopardy. And the stakes in this part of the world are particularly high, given the potential for human suffering on a wide scale. The effects of lower export volumes, remittances, investment flows, and prices for key export commodities could push hundreds of millions of desperately poor people back (or further) into poverty.
Victims of the crisis
We should remember also that the low-income countries were innocent victims of the crisis. They didn’t make the mistakes of some of the advanced countries, the mistakes that triggered this crisis. Instead, they did many of the right things on the policy front—fiscal positions were strengthened, debt burdens reduced, and comfortable reserve cushions built up in many countries. This makes it all the more important now for the world community to do whatever it can to help.