Dollar hegemony for another century
By Ambrose Evans-Pritchard Economics Last updated: October 21st, 2009
Let me stick my neck out.
The dollar will still be the world’s dominant reserve currency in 2030, sharing a degree of leadership in uneasy condominium with the Chinese yuan. It will then regain much of its hegemonic status as the 21st century unfolds. It may indeed end the century even stronger than it was at the start.
The aging crisis in Asia — and indeed the outright demographic implosion in Japan and China, not to mention China’s water crisis — will soon be obvious to everybody. Talk of Oriental supremacy will start to sound overblown at first, and then preposterous.
Japan is about to go bankrupt. It is on the cusp of a fiscal crisis that will change perceptions of Asia dramatically. The IMF says gross public debt will reach 218pc of GDP this year. This is compounding very fast. It will be 246pc in 2014.
The Hatoyama government is spending as if there is no tomorrow. It plans to issue ¥50 trillion or $550bn in fresh bonds. I have no idea when this will spiral out of control. It could take another two or three years. It could start next week. Yes, I know that Japan has been borrowing merrily at ever lower rates for 20 years without the sky falling. The 10-year yield is 1.3pc. What happens when it rises to global levels of 3pc to 4pc? People made the same sort of arguments about the global boom before it suddenly tipped over.
This blog does not attempt market timing, nor does it offer investment advice. But I am absolutely certain that pundits consigning the dollar to its death have missed an even more dramatic currency and debt story in Japan. The yen will top ¥200 to the dollar before this is over. Jim O’Neill from Goldman Sachs has already begun to hint at this.
Apologies to readers who feel confused about my view on the dollar. I have written a string of NEWS pieces over recent weeks quoting the currency experts and Asian officials slamming America, or exploring the dollar demise thesis.
People assume that I share these views. I do not. Furthermore, I suspect that at least some of China’s grumbling about the dollar slide over recent months has been a ruse to lower the yuan (pegged to the dollar of course) against the euro, yen, and even sterling. The goal is to protect export margins. (Surely premier Wen Jiabao knows that China’s $1.6 trillion or so invested in US bonds is a sunk cost. Forget about it. The holdings are the consequence of their own currency manipulation in the first place.)
The fact that Asian central banks are accumulating $600bn or more a year in reserves by running huge trade surpluses is proof enough that their (mostly rigged) currencies are undervalued by 30pc to 40pc against the West. To that extent, I agree entirely with HSBC currency guru David Bloom that this is untenable. If these countries continue to resist currency appreciation they will overheat and succumb to asset bubbles — if they haven’t already in China.
Where I am less sure is that this will necessarily be resolved by a falling dollar. The evidence so far is that Asia will put off the day of adjustment as long as possible because they are addicted to mercantilist export strategies — and export oligarchs control the political systems (bar Japan). In which case they will lose competitive edge the old-fashioned way, by wage inflation for year after year until the world comes back into alignment. If so, the dollar will not fall at all. It may rise.
Nor do I really agree that this is in essence a story of the two sick sisters: Britain and the US.
They are certainly sick. But as readers know, I think much of Europe is equally sick — Spain, Italy, Greece, Ireland, the Baltics, are even sicker — even if the lag-times are longer. The IMF keeps telling us that Europe has failed to come clean on its bank losses. Germany’s BaFin regulator says the same thing. Are they wrong?
It all has echoes of the early 1930s when the Anglo-Saxons were crushed in the first two to three years, and the French bloc was crushed over the subsequent three years. What goes around, comes around.
Charles Dumas from Lombard Street Research says Washington must be chuckling as the weak dollar gives it time to rebuild America’s industrial core. The “inflationistas” — ie, those convinced that the dollar is being debauched despite the fact that core inflation in the US is falling and that the M3 money supply is contracting — are playing straight into the hands of the United States.
Nobel Laureate Gary Becker told me a few weeks ago that America’ spectacular gains in productivity – growing at a trend rate of 2.25pc to 2.5pc — is laying the foundation for a much stronger US recovery in the long-term than most people seem to realize. Compare that with 0pc to 1pc for the eurozone. In Italy it is negative.
The UN expects America to add roughly 100m people by 2050, keeping its age balance in relatively good shape through a mix of immigration and a healthy fertility rate — now 2.12 live births per woman, still above replacement level. This compares to: Taiwan (1.13), Korea (1.2), Japan (1.22), Ukraine (1.25), Poland (1.27), Spain (1.3), Italy (1.3), Russia (1.4), Germany (1.41), China (1.77), Britain (1.96), and France (1.98). Some of this data may be slightly out of date, but the picture remains valid.
Professor Becker said a collapsing birth rate is extremely hard to reverse, and the cultural effects are insidious. Old societies are status quo. They are slow to embrace new technologies. Young minds are the source of hi-tech invention.
The EU is fully aware of the danger. “What is at risk in the medium to long run is nothing less than the sustainability of the society Europe has built and the viability of its civilisation,” said an EU report (initially suppressed) by former Dutch premier Wim Kok as long ago as 2004. Nothing has been done since despite endless warnings from the Commission.
China’s work force will peak in absolute terms in six years, and then go into sharp decline. I have no idea how people square this with claims that China will soon replace the US as world hegemon. The stark reality is that China will hit a Japanese-style demographic crunch before it becomes rich. Sheer size will give it weight. But mastery?
Of course, if the US were stupid enough to enact the 10-year spending plans projected by the White House — with a deficit of $1.9 trillion in 2019 on Congressional Budget Office estimates — the country will be ruined. I do not think America has so far lost its senses that it will commit suicide in this fashion. In any case, the bond markets will react long before we get there. They will force a change in policy. That change will imply higher US savings, and less import growth. The export surplus powers that live off America’s market are going to take it on the chin.
At the end of the day, America is a unified nation forged by wars, under the rule of law, with a (largely) unifying language and patriotic creed, and one of the oldest and most deeply-rooted democracies in the world. As the Supreme Court demonstrated during Watergate, it can break presidents who violate the law.
It is often stated that a currency reflects the strength of an economy over time. Actually, it reflects the strength of a society. Who really thinks that Europe’s old-aged home is a better bet than America, even if they can hold the euro together as the gap widens further between Germania and Club Med? Or thinks that China’s half-reformed Communist regime is ready for global leadership. Remember the little girl in a red dress with pigtails who `lip-synched’ the opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympics? Believe what you will.