Spotlight on Geopolitics

Towards Bretton Woods III

The US Federal Reserve’s second round of quantitative easing has prompted near-universal condemnation by the financial leaders of Germany, China, Brazil, the ASEAN and the EU. From The People’s Daily to Der Spiegel, newspapers are full of criticism and dire predictions of an impending international currency war, which is bound to result from the flooding of the American banking system with largely un-needed liquidities. On the positive side, however, the Fed ‘s move has also accelerated calls for the replacement of the current international monetary system, also known as Bretton Woods II, with a less volatile one, which for convenience’s sake we might call Bretton Woods III.

Under the original Bretton Woods, the fixed exchange rates mechanism was anchored to the US dollar, which in turn was tied to the price of gold. In 1971, the gold standard was abandoned and exchange rates were allowed to float, an arrangement known as Bretton Woods II. The US dollar remained the world’s reserve currency. Floating exchange rates provided ample opportunity to speculators to bet against the fluctuations in the values of different curencies, or – as it happened in 1998 during the Asian financial crisis, to attack weaker currencies like the Thai baht or the South Korean won, halving their value.

The wisdom of having only one reserve currency underpinning the value of all other currencies, and floating exchange rates based on one currency alone has first been challenged by EU countries through the adoption of the euro. Its introduction has immediately lowered interest rates and eliminated the possibility of speculating the euro’s exchange rate in member countries, thus largely undermining the concept of the float.

The 2007-2008 financial crisis and two rounds of quantitative easing by the Federal Reserve have accelerated moves towards the demise of the current dollar-based international monetary system. Indeed, with only 25 percent of the world’s GDP, the US economy is already hard-pressed to provide enough reserve assets, mainly US treasury bonds, to finance world trade. According to the IMF’s projections, if current trends are any guide, the ratio of issued reserve assets, currently at 60 %, would increase in 10 years’ time to 200 % of the US’ GDP, which would greatly increase the risk for major holders of US assets, such as China, Japan or the ASEAN countries.

Floating exchange rates, on the other hand, beside generating volatility, have led to the hoarding of US assets, especially in the wake of the Asian financial crisis. Thus Asian countries hold in excess of 6 trillion US dollars and treasury bonds, which they feel they need for open-market operations aimed at stabilising the exchange rates of their currencies and safeguarding their exporters. The current crisis has proved them right, as countries like China and Brazil have fared better than countries with less adequate US dollar-denominated reserves.

The Chinese central bankers would like to see the dollar replaced with an artificial asset created in the post-WWII era, the SDR (special drawing rights), whose administrator is the IMF. The Economist has even suggested the possibility of replacing the dollar with the euro as the world’s reserve currency, taking as a guide the way in which the British pound was replaced by the American dollar in the 20th century.

Finally, Robert Zoellick, the director of the World Bank, has lobbied in The Financial Times for the replacement of Bretton Woods II with a multiple currency system (the dollar, the euro, the yen and possibly the yuan, if and when it becomes fully convertible) to be based on the price of gold. Gold, as Zoellick points out, has already become a parallel reserve asset as a result of exchange rate volatility. In other words, the new international monetary system will have, in broad terms, the essential features of Bretton Woods I.

As the value of dollar-denominated assets worldwide stands to be heavily diminished by the Fed’s easy money policy, and as the floating currency system generates asset bubbles and financial instability for many nations, there is an urgent need to replace the current system with one more credible, more stable and less crisis-prone. Already, during last week’s talks in Paris, Presidents Sarkozy and Hu Jintao have agreed to put the reform of the international monetary system at the top of the agenda at the upcoming Seoul summit.

It seems that in future no one country will have the privilege of issuing reserve assets to back the world’s currencies. The new system will most likely be based on the assets issued by a group of economically powerful countries and will feature managed, as opposed to floating, exchange rates. (sources: Le Monde, Deutsche Welle, Financial Times, Reuters, The Economist)

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  1. The monetary world seems to be dividing into those who have easy money (now joined by the USA especially since Nixon, and massively under Obama) and those who believe in a stability and growth restrictions based on honest money principles. Commodities including gold give a measure of how governments apply those principles.

    Honest money principles are at home in sound democracies. Easy money was the traditional resort of dictatorships and South American populists. The destruction of a currency is often the precursor of authoritarian politics and then revolution, as was the case in the former Yugoslavia, not to mention Germany of the 1920s. Easy money destroys established values, industrial structures, pensions and creates turmoil in society.

    In the 1970s with the impact of the Oil Weapon on European economies, some countries inflated others didn’t. Germany with its stricter monetary policy came out stronger and more quickly than Britain, France and Italy where the politicians resorted to the printing presses.

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