Why the Dollar May Remain Strong For Longer Than We Think   (September 17, 2014)

For those understandably disgusted by the reckless expansion of the US money supply over the past six years, it's vitally important to remember that the road to our monetary endgame is not a straight line, nor necessarily intuitive.

I have long been a dollar bull, not for any over-arching reasons based on inflation, deflation, rising geopolitical multi-polarity or any of the other issues that touch on the dollar’s valuation vis-à-vis other currencies. My analysis focuses on a few basics:  the dollar’s status as the global reserve currency, Triffin’s Paradox (a.k.a. Triffin’s Dilemma) and global capital flows into the dollar and dollar-denominated assets such as U.S. Treasury bonds.

Reserve Currencies vs. Trading Currencies

When we say the U.S. dollar is the global reserve currency, what does that mean?  There is often some confusion about the difference between a trading currency and a reserve currency.  Let’s use an example to explain the difference.

Country A trades $10 billion of goods and services with Country B, which does $10.01 billion of trade with Country A.  The two nations agree to a trade pact that enables the two nations to trade currencies directly, that is, without converting the payments for trade into a third currency such as the dollar.

Once the bilateral trade is settled, a modest $10 million remains as a surplus/trade deficit.  The owner of the surplus (Country B, in this example) can trade that excess currency on the global foreign exchange (FX) market, use it to buy goods or services, or hold it. The modest $10 million is a tiny slice of the two trading nations’ money stock and gross domestic products (GDP), and it has little effect on either global or domestic finance. The $10 million is a small claim against the currency of the nation running the trade deficit (Country A, in this case).

The main takeaway is that billions of dollars of trade transactions may yield very little surplus/deficit.

Trading currencies are examples of the transactional nature of money: money enables transactions.

A reserve currency, on the other hand, is an example of money as a store of value: nations hold reserve currencies as stores of value that can be sold to support their own currency if the need arises.

A reserve currency is quite different from a trading currency an it must meet these minimum requirements to function as a reserve currency:

1. It must be liquid - that is, it can be readily bought and sold on the global foreign exchange market in size, i.e. large quantities, without affecting the value of the currency;

2.  Its value must be relatively stable - that is, it trades in a narrow range with other currencies, and

3.  Its value is set by supply and demand - i.e. capital flows and market forces, rather than an arbitrary peg.

Many observers greet the announcement of recent bilateral or multi-lateral currency agreements as evidence the U.S. dollar is weakening.  But this is mixing apples and oranges: the U.S. doesn't gain much by issuing a currency that serves transactional needs — it offers no profit to the U.S. if trade between other nations is conducted in yen, renminbi, euros or quatloos.

The demand for transactional currency is temporary. Transact the trade, and then the cash moves on to the next transaction.

The demand for reserve currency is not transactional. A nation that wants to build reserves must acquire the reserve currency and hold it.

Nations that issue reserve currencies must issue enough of their currency to satisfy the global demand for reserves, and the only way to do this is run substantial *and* permanent trade deficits.

Triffin’s Paradox/Dilemma

This brings us to Triffin’s Paradox, which has two basic parts:

1.  Any nation that issues the reserve currency must run a trade deficit to supply the world with surplus currency to hold in reserve and as a result,

2.  The issuing nation faces the paradox that the needs of global trading community are generally different from the needs of domestic policy makers.

The global trading community requires that the issuer of the reserve currency run trade deficits large enough to satisfy the demand for reserves, while domestic audiences want a strong export sector, i.e. a trade surplus.

You can’t have it both ways: if you want to issue a reserve currency, you have to run a trade deficit that is commensurate in size with the global demand for your currency.

Since supply and demand set price, this push-pull affects the value of the U.S. dollar: U.S. exporters want a weak dollar to spur foreign demand for their products, while foreign holders of the USD want a strong dollar that holds its value/purchasing power.

It is impossible for any nation to maintain the reserve currency and run trade surpluses. If you run trade surpluses, you cannot supply the global economy with the currency it needs for reserves, payment of debt denominated in the reserve currency and domestic credit expansion.

Why Hold Reserves?

Why do countries need reserves in the first place?  The answer can get complicated, but the basic dynamic is supply and demand: if Nation A prints vast quantities of its own currency (let’s call it the quatloo) and uses the cash to buy goods and services without creating an equivalent amount of goods and services to sell to other nations, it will run a large trade deficit.

The supply of quatloos will soon exceed the demand: everybody who accepted freshly printed quatloos for their exports wants to trade them for goods or unload them as soon as possible. As a result, the value of quatloos on the global FX market falls, and Nation A is in danger of plunging into a currency crisis: as the value of the quatloo declines, the price of imports rises within Nation A, and soon people can no longer afford imports from other nations—for example, grain and oil.

One way Nation A can support the value of its quatloos is to sell its reserve currency and use the cash to buy quatloos, soaking up the excess supply that is depressing the quatloo’s value. So currency reserves act as a stabilizing anchor for the nation’s own currency.

There is another often-overlooked role for currency reserves: they act as the asset base for the expansion of credit within the domestic economy. A central bank with substantial reserves can issue credit in the domestic currency commensurate with its holdings of assets such as gold or currency reserves.

The Supply and Demand for Dollars

There are number of reasons why nations might choose to buy or sell U.S. dollars, or assets denominated in dollars such as Treasury bonds. Let’s start by noting that the dollar is not the only reserve currency; the USD is roughly 62% of global currency reserves, the euro is about 25% and other currencies make up the balance.

Nations might sell dollars and buy another reserve currency to diversify their holdings, hedge against a decline in the dollar relative to other reserve currencies, or perhaps as a form of geopolitical weapon or protest against American hegemony or specific policies.

Much has been made of global capital leaving U.S. Treasury bonds. Yet if we glance at a chart of foreign holdings of Treasuries, we note that foreign owners have steadily increased their holdings of Treasuries, other than a shallow dip in 2013:

For years, observers have seen the massive Treasury holdings of China as a potential financial weapon: if China were to dump a trillion dollars of Treasuries, that sale would disrupt the global market for U.S. bonds. (I have always held the Fed could issue a fresh $1 trillion and buy the lot in one fell swoop.)

But interestingly, we find instead that China’s holdings of Treasuries have been relatively stable recently, at around 20% of total foreign-owned Treasury bonds:

The discussion of major foreign holders of Treasury Securities, i.e. foreign states and central banks, often overlooks one key driver of this trade: states seeking to weaken their own currency to boost their exports sell their own currency and buy U.S. dollars (or dollar-denominated assets such as Treasuries). This increases the supply of their own currency, pushing the value lower, while the increased demand for dollars pushes the value of USD higher.

In terms of foreign trade, this weakens the currency of the buyer of Treasuries in relation to the dollar.

In other words, major holders of U.S. Treasuries such as China and Japan have an over-riding incentive to keep buying Treasuries: buying dollars stabilizes or weakens their currency vis-a-vis the U.S. dollar, making their goods and services cheaper in the U.S. and thereby boosting their exports.

There are two other reasons nations might buy dollars: the dollar is available in size, unlike smaller currencies such as the Swiss franc, and it is widely viewed as a proxy of U.S. economic, military and diplomatic stability: in other words, in periods of crisis, the dollar is widely viewed as a safe haven currency.


We now have a basic understanding of the forces of supply and demand for the dollar as a reserve currency: nations buy dollars as reserves, and also to weaken or stabilize the value of their own currency against the dollar, a strategy designed to boost their exports to the U.S.

On the supply side, the U.S. issues a surplus of dollars for others to use as reserves by running a trade deficit. Should that deficit shrink, the supply of dollars will also shrink.

In Part 2: Why The US Dollar Could Strengthen - A Lot From Here we analyze the surprisingly likely drivers that may keep the US dollar strengthening over the next few years, especially if another economic/financial crisis arrives. While there are many reasons to fear for the longer term viability of the US dollar given America's current misguided monetary policy and exponentially increasing debt & liabilities, the next few years could well see it appreciate further by 50-100% relative to the world's other major fiat currencies.

For those understandably disgusted by the reckless expansion of the US money supply over the past six years, it's vitally important to remember that the road to our monetary endgame is not a straight line, nor necessarily intuitive. To have the best chance of remaining solvent, understanding the likeliest pathways the route will take is often nearly as important as correctly predicting the final destination. 

Click here to read Part 2 of this report (free executive summary, enrollment required for full access)

Get a Job, Build a Real Career and Defy a Bewildering Economy (Kindle, $9.95)(print, $20)
go to Kindle edition
Are you like me?
Ever since my first summer job decades ago, I've been chasing financial security. Not win-the-lottery, Bill Gates riches (although it would be nice!), but simply a feeling of financial control. I want my financial worries to if not disappear at least be manageable and comprehensible.

And like most of you, the way I've moved toward my goal has always hinged not just on having a job but a career.

You don't have to be a financial blogger to know that "having a job" and "having a career" do not mean the same thing today as they did when I first started swinging a hammer for a paycheck.

Even the basic concept "getting a job" has changed so radically that jobs--getting and keeping them, and the perceived lack of them--is the number one financial topic among friends, family and for that matter, complete strangers.

So I sat down and wrote this book: Get a Job, Build a Real Career and Defy a Bewildering Economy.

It details everything I've verified about employment and the economy, and lays out an action plan to get you employed.

I am proud of this book. It is the culmination of both my practical work experiences and my financial analysis, and it is a useful, practical, and clarifying read.

Test drive the first section and see for yourself.     Kindle, $9.95     print, $20

"I want to thank you for creating your book Get a Job, Build a Real Career and Defy a Bewildering Economy. It is rare to find a person with a mind like yours, who can take a holistic systems view of things without being captured by specific perspectives or agendas. Your contribution to humanity is much appreciated."
Laura Y.

Gordon Long and I discuss The New Nature of Work: Jobs, Occupations & Careers (25 minutes, YouTube)

NOTE: Contributions/subscriptions are acknowledged in the order received. Your name and email remain confidential and will not be given to any other individual, company or agency.

Thank you, Jeffrey W. ($200), for your beyond-outrageously generous contribution to this site -- I am greatly honored by your steadfast support and readership.   Thank you, Daniel E. ($4), for yet another most generous contribution to this site -- I am greatly honored by your steadfast support and readership.

"This guy is THE leading visionary on reality. He routinely discusses things which no one else has talked about, yet, turn out to be quite relevant months later."
--Walt Howard, commenting about CHS on another blog.

"You shine a bright and piercing light out into an ever-darkening world."
Jeremy Beck

Contributors and subscribers enable Of Two Minds to post 275+ free essays annually. It is for this reason they are Heroes and Heroines of New Media. Without your financial support, the free content would disappear for the simple reason that I cannot keep body and soul together on my meager book sales alone.

Or send coins, stamps or quatloos via mail--please request P.O. Box address.

Subscribers ($5/mo) and those who have contributed $50 or more annually (or made multiple contributions totalling $50 or more) receive weekly exclusive Musings Reports via email ($50/year is about 96 cents a week).

Each weekly Musings Report offers six features:
1. Exclusive essay on a diverse range of topics
2. Summary of the blog this week
3. Best thing that happened to me this week
4. Market Musings--commentary on the economy & global markets
5. Cultcha/Culture: selected links to the arts, performances, music, etc.
6. From Left Field (a limited selection of interesting links)

At readers' request, there is also a $10/month option.

What subscribers are saying about the Musings (Musings samples here):

The "unsubscribe" link is for when you find the usual drivel here insufferable.

Dwolla members can subscribe to the Musings Reports with a one-time $50 payment; please email me if you use Dwolla, as Dwolla does not provide me with your email.

The Heroes & Heroines of New Media:
oftwominds.com contributors and subscribers

All content, HTML coding, format design, design elements and images copyright © 2014 Charles Hugh Smith, All global rights reserved in all media, unless otherwise credited or noted.

I am honored if you link to this essay, or print a copy for your own use.

Terms of Service:
All content on this blog is provided by Trewe LLC for informational purposes only. The owner of this blog makes no representations as to the accuracy or completeness of any information on this site or found by following any link on this site. The owner will not be liable for any errors or omissions in this information nor for the availability of this information. The owner will not be liable for any losses, injuries, or damages from the display or use of this information. These terms and conditions of use are subject to change at anytime and without notice.

blog     My Books     Archives     Books/Films     home


Add oftwominds.com
to your reader:

Making your Amazon purchases through this Search Box helps support oftwominds.com at no cost to you:

search my site: