At the recent BRICS conference in China, a joint declaration was made by all the five nations addressing the imminent need for reforming the current international monetary system, stating that they “welcome the current discussion about the role of the SDR (special drawing rights) in the existing international monetary system, including the composition of SDR’s basket of currencies”. This discussion on the SDR has been rekindled for the second time in a serious way, since the unfolding of the global financial crisis. What is interesting is that it was the governor of the People’s Bank of China (PBOC), Zhou Xiaochuan, who brought up the issue of SDR for the first time. This was in the year of 2009 when he said, during a speech, that the SDR “serves as the light in the tunnel for the reform of the international monetary system”. It would be unwise to assume that the Chinese interest in the SDR is limited to the reforming of the international monetary system.
It is common knowledge today that the Chinese have amassed massive dollar reserves. China’s foreign exchange reserves of close to three trillion dollars are the biggest in the world. Meanwhile, the dollar has been taking a serious battering in the exchange markets, and the ICE exchange’s dollar index is close to all time lows. This selling in the dollar can be expected to continue till the current quantitative easing programme of the US government comes to a close in June this year. The fall in the value of the dollar would be worrying the central bankers in China because the value of their reserves also declines simultaneously. The promotion of the SDR agenda by the Chinese is certainly no coincidence given the position of the dollar today.
The SDR is an international reserve asset that comprises of a basket of currencies that are revaluated every five years. The current basket comprises of four currencies – the dollar, the euro, the pound sterling and the yen. It goes without saying that the relative weight attributed to the dollar is the most in this basket due to its long time standing as the unofficial reserve currency of the world since World War II. In fact, the very fact that the International Monetary Fund (IMF) created the SDR way back in 1969 meant that it recognized the dollar’s standing as the reserve currency of the world and the fragilities associated with it. The creation was aided by a seminal paper by an economist, Robert Triffin, in 1960 titled “Gold and the Dollar Crisis”. Triffin had foresight enough to recognise the fact that a currency that acts as an international reserve currency for the world cannot be the official currency of a sovereign State (USA) at the same time without causing considerable headaches to the central bankers of the State. This has been labeled “Triffin’s dilemma”, whereby there is a conflict of interest between global and State monetary policies. The conflict arises, as has been observed lately, with the dollar flowing out of the United States, due to the heavy global demand, leading to massive current account deficits for the country. The current account deficit of the United States stood at 113 billion dollars in the fourth quarter of 2010, meanwhile China’s current account surplus jumped by 25% in the same year. These very palpable imbalances in the global economy can possibly be offset by the use of the SDR in a new international monetary framework.
China’s continued support for incorporating the SDR in a new framework stems from its desire to convert its vast amounts of dollar reserves to the SDR. The SDR is not a form of currency and it cannot be exchanged in the global financial markets. The SDR can be purchased from the IMF and thereafter exchanged in bilateral trades between countries that require it and countries that are willing to supply it. The incorporation of the SDR into the monetary framework of the world would entail that every country included in it would necessarily eventually hold most of their reserves in the form of the SDR. This would help in correcting imbalances since the interest paid on the SDR would be the same for every sovereign state, much like the way things work under the euro for the states in the Euro-Zone.
It is debatable, however, whether such a global monetary system, the conception of which can be attributed to Keynes who envisioned a super-national currency the “Bancor” back in the early forties, could actually work effectively. Seeing the mess that the Euro-Zone members are in mostly owing to a singular monetary policy instituted for 17 fiscally independent states may not embolden too many economists to support the execution of a broad based international reform which incorporates using the SDR as a global reserve. However, the use of the SDR along with a substitution account and a less ambitious scale of reform could certainly help ease out existing imbalances.
Another plausible reason why China wants to contribute and accelerate the SDR based reform agenda is its interest in increasing its influence in the global monetary system. It is natural that China wants to increase the Yuan’s global presence, and it has been aggressively executing this agenda by increasing the number of bilateral transactions with its currency. However, the fact that the Yuan is not fully convertible makes the case for incorporating it in the asset basket of the SDR (which China has been hinting at) a moot point. Until China allows its currency to fluctuate according to actual global supply and demand (which at this point would entail a sharp appreciation of the Yuan), there is no foreseeable way for it to be part of the global reform agenda without seeming hypocritical at the outset.
The increasing prominence of the BRICS countries on the global stage is impressive, and a change in the international system which currently gives the dollar centre stage is certainly warranted. This change is also something that policy makers in the US should not be averse to given that there is serious need for the country to address its deficits. However, the process of multilateral dialogue to further the reform agenda cannot go forward with the current monetary system prevailing in China and it certainly should not go forward without due attention being paid to the risk factors involved with reforming an already proven and resilient system. The other member nations of the BRICS should also be acutely aware of the reasons for China’s stance and cannot afford to get carried away with promoting the reform agenda, which is partly based on an inherent need for highlighting their global presence, without due introspection.
(Vivan Sharan is an Associate Fellow at Observer Research Foundation)