Monday, August 8, 2011

What if the US looses its reserve currency privilege?

Since the Bretton Woods agreement in 1945, the United States have enjoyed the so-called "Exhorbitant Privilege." During the fixed exchange rate regime, the US could conduct monetary policy without regard to what was happening in other countries. The US dollar was a reserve currency, which also helped the US maintain low interest rates and a guarantee that US dollars (and Treasury bonds) would always find a buyer. With flexible exchange rates, not much has changed. But with the recent shenanigans in a Congress that considered reneging on its debt, the likelihood of this advantage changing has dramatically increased. What would the consequences of the loss of the Exhorbitant Privilege be?

Wenli Cheng and Dingsheng Zhang study this scenario using a general equilibrium model where a peripheral country (say, the Asian economies) pegs its currency to the money of a central country (say, the United States), the latter being used as the vehicle currency for international trade. In addition, the foreign exchange reserves of the periphery are invested in government bonds of the center. This means that no matter what current account deficit of the center, it is always financed by the periphery. Yet the center may be tempted to inflate it away. This limitless and to some extend free borrowing is the Exhorbitant Privilege.

Now remove it by assuming that the periphery does not want to invest in the center, either because it views the Treasury bonds are excessively risky or because it does not peg to the dollar any more. This would lead to a dramatic readjustment of the terms of trade to favor the tradable sector of the center. This decpraciation of the dollar would be more pronounced of the center is incapable of raising taxes and finances its debt with inflation. This already all sounds familiar.

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