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Paper gold: Nice idea, but...

John Foley 

The world outgrew the gold standard decades ago. But a “paper gold” standard might be one way out of the global financial crisis. Zhou Xiaochuan, governor of China’s central bank, has proposed shifting the world from its dependence on the US dollar to a new reserve currency managed by the International Monetary Fund. The idea is good – if only China meant it.

The greenback has been the world’s dominant reserve currency – equivalent to a financial lingua franca – since the end of the Second World War. Countries hold it in spades to back their own currency. The IMF reckons that two-thirds of the $7 trillion of foreign currency holdings worldwide are in US dollars. The euro, the second most-held currency, makes up just a quarter.

Were international trade switched instead to an IMF-managed currency – Zhou suggests a little-used device called a “special drawing right” or SDR – Uncle Sam would have a real headache. America’s borrowing and trading costs would spike. After all, the US saves by rarely needing to convert its own money – a perk known as “seigniorage”.

But in the long term, the US would benefit. Being the currency of choice has made it unnaturally cheap for the US to borrow and fund its consumers’ profligate habits. Besides, as Zhou points out in a scholarly flourish, there’s the Triffin Paradox to consider. This says that so long as the US agrees to feed the world with dollars, it can’t successfully control its own currency.

Having a central currency – let’s call it the Zhou-Triffin Doubloon (ZTD) – managed by a supra-national organisation would make it more difficult for any one country to get into too much debt to another. If the supply of ZTD in issue were controlled properly – say by expanding it in line with global GDP – it would serve as a steady store of value, with little risk of devaluation.

Moreover, a credible ZTD would have many of the advantages of the now-defunct gold standard. It would be strictly limited in supply and readily acceptable everywhere. Indeed, it would be even better than the yellow metal, which is after all too cumbersome for a modern economy and too scarce to serve as a measure for international trade.

In sum, the ZTD would add much needed ballast to international finance. And China would not be alone in promoting this single currency. Russian authorities have been thinking along similar lines.

So why not get cracking? There are many obstacles: most notably getting the IMF up to the task. Nor is China in any position to move quickly. A truly global reserve currency would have to be based on a basket of world currencies, which would include the renminbi. China would have to make its tightly controlled currency freely convertible – which it shows no desire to do.

Indeed, China probably has other things in mind than financial stability, such as augmenting its global financial sway.

RIGHT now, the Middle Kingdom has only a 3% vote in the IMF, no more than Belgium, because votes are linked to each country’s contribution to the fund. Were China able to claim credit for its prodigious foreign reserves, it could replace the US at the top of the table. At best, China’s proposal is self-serving. At worst, it could be merely another manifestation of growing hostility towards the US – to be filed alongside recent protectionism, naval skirmishes and Chinese criticism of US spending habits. That political undercurrent is a shame. Paper gold looks like one of the best ideas to come out of the financial crisis.

First Published: Wed, March 25 2009. 00:11 IST
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