Anthony J. Pennings, PhD

WRITINGS ON DIGITAL STRATEGIES, ICT ECONOMICS, AND GLOBAL COMMUNICATIONS

Weak Domestic Dollar, Strong Global Dollar

Posted on | August 3, 2022 | No Comments

The summer of 2022 has been a good time for Americans to travel overseas. Everything is expensive at home and cheap abroad. In other words, the dollar is weak domestically and strong globally. In this post, I examine the dynamics of the US dollar and why it operates differently within the domestic US and globally.[1]

We are still in the wake of the coronavirus (COVID-19) epidemic and its stimulus spending, supply shocks, and other dramatic tragedies that included the deaths of over a million people in the US alone. We can add the Russian invasion of Ukraine to that turbulence with its prospects for reduced trade in natural gas, metals, oil, wheat, uranium, and other resources.

In the US, we also have political divisions that have polarized policy perspectives, particularly on major spending issues such as the latest Senate budget reconciliation deal tentatively titled the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA), which will address inflation through tax changes, capping drug costs, and climate change measures.

These are some of the main issues that influence the dollar’s strength internally and out in the global system. The consequences are immense as we interrogate government spending and consider alternatives to the US dollar as the world’s primary transacting currency, such as Bitcoin or the Chinese Yuan.

Fed M1 Money Supply

How are Dollars Created?

In both the US and internationally, US-denominated dollars are primarily created by private banks as they make loans. The fractional reserve banking system that most of the world runs on takes deposits and lends out money at prescribed interest rates, contigent on levels of risk, compliance, and the quality of collateral. Banks are usually restricted in loan creation by a reserve requirement set by a central bank. The Federal Reserve had traditionally required US banks to put 10 percent of their deposits in vaults or stored at the Fed. But since the pandemic started, they reduced that requirement to zero percent. This meant that US banks could lend out anything that came in the door.

Internationally, banks have developed a system of lending that is based on what are called “Eurodollars.” These are US currencies outside the jurisdiction of the Federal Reserve and other US regulatory agencies and provide the majority of the world’s transacting currency. This shadow money exists on the ledgers of banks and operates with no reserve requirements. Eurodollars have been active since the 1950s but exploded in the 1970s when three things happened: Nixon took us off the Bretton Woods’ Dollar-Gold standard; global oil transactions were set in US dollars; and; communications networks went digital. More on Eurodollars below.[2]

While bank lending is the primary way dollars are created, some other processes are mentioned below that are relevant to the creation of the dollar in the US and its spending implications. These include actually printing them, interest rates, reserve requirements, and government spending.

The Domestic Dollar

The Fed can literally print money, which it does for the US Treasury. It keeps about 1.5 trillion in paper-based dollars circulating in the economy. That includes about 12 billion one dollar bills, 9 billion twenty dollar bills, and 12 billion hundred dollar bills. Another $2 billion is minted as various coins.

But mostly, what people call “printing” money is the Fed creating bank reserves in the process of targeting interest rates and “quantitative easing” (QE). It does this by buying government bonds from banks with its magical computer mouse, an unlimited credit card. This buying increases the reserves that banks can lend out to borrowers. But bank reserves are not real money unless they are converted into loans for people and businesses. Conversely, it can reduce the amount of bank reserves by selling government securities. That transaction absorbs bank reserves and can potentially reduce lending and thus pressures on inflation. So, in retrospect, the Fed’s role in money-making is not always predictable, and certainly not “money printing” unless you consider its role as the government’s bank.

Most people don’t understand how the US federal government creates money. It’s quite simple, although politicians don’t like talking about it. As Warren Mosler, a financial trader and author of Soft Currency Economics put it, “Congress appropriates the money and then the Treasury instructs the Fed to credit the appropriate accounts.” That’s it. The Fed just sends an electronic message changing figures on computer-based ledgers. But government spending does need Congressional approval and all US spending bills must originate from the House of Representatives.

The government doesn’t need to tax to get the money to spend. It doesn’t need to borrow the money. Taxing and borrowing have their purposes, but they are not required for the government to spend money because the US government issues its own currency. So why tax and why borrow if the government can just issue money to provision itself and pay its obligations?

Warren Mosler, the founder of MMT, argued that taxing keeps everyone on the national currency system and can also reduce inflationary pressures. The purpose of taxing is to keep the national currency relevant and reduce the amount of something. Taxing creates the demand for government-issued currency because they must be paid in US dollars. Taxes can reduce discretionary spending and alleviate social inequality. Taxes can channel additional resources toward national activities as they did during the Cold War and Space Race when the top marginal rates were above 90 percent.[3]

Borrowing money by auctioning off Treasury bonds creates a monetary instrument that pays interest. It’s basically another way for the government to issue its currency and keep markets operating in a dollar system. Also important, in fact quite critical, is its role as collateral in borrowing and hedge against financial risk. Its larger denominations useful for repurchase agreements (“repos”) and futures markets.

Repos are collateralized loans where a borrower of cash exchanges securities such as US Treasuries (the collateral) to the lender with an agreement to repurchase or buy them back at a specified price and time. Treasuries were critical for the Reagan Revolution’s global finance offensive. It tripled the US debt from $738 billion to $2.1 trillion, making the US the world’s largest debtor nation. This debt also provided the collateral needed for the expansion of US money-capital. US treasures provided for the liquidity to make the modern financial sphere possible.

Consequently, according to Stephanie Kelton, debt and deficits are a “myth” for a government that can issue currency. The COVID-19 response was unprecedented spending by the US government. The Senate used an old House bill to create the CARES Act of 2020, with $2.2 trillion in initial stimulus spending. Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner would manage the PPP while the COVID-19 vaccines were being developed by Operation Warp Speed. Another $900 billion was added before the end of the year, mostly for direct payments to individuals for the holiday season.

In 2021, the Democrats legislated another $2 trillion in the American Rescue Plan to address the K-shaped recovery. It expanded unemployment insurance, extended the enhanced child tax credit, and supported the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) to ensure all Americans had access to free vaccinations. Was the COVID-19 spending the cause of the rise of inflation that rose steadily, hitting 9 percent in June of 2022?

We are still in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. Shortages emerged from businesses shutting down, factories closing, and shipping containers stranded at sea or in ports waiting for trucks to distribute their goods. Disposable income increased from government stimulus and inflated assets. People forced to study or work at home shifted spending from services to goods. Instead of going to a restaurant, they bought food at the local supermarket. Instead of going to the cinema, they watched Hulu, Netflix, or one of the new Internet-based streaming services.

Corporations raised prices, and purchasing power decreased. As a result, the dollar weakened domestically as the money supply inflated in 2020, and to a lesser extent in 2021. The chart above shows the M1 money supply levels since 1990 (In billions of US dollars). The increase in 2020 was dramatic.

The International US Dollar

As former US Treasury Secretary John Connally once said to his counterparts around the world at an economic summit, the dollar “is our currency, but it’s your problem.” The value of the dollar is currently at a 20-year high against other major currencies, creating a massive problem for everyone outside America buying dollar-denominated goods, which is about 85 percent of all international trade. Oil, and nearly all raw materials, from aluminum to wheat and zinc, are priced in US dollars.

As the world’s “reserve” currency, dollars are in demand around the world, primarily for transactional purposes. It is the mediating currency for transactions among dozens of different countries. If Argentina wants to do business with Australia, it conducts that business through US dollars. Why is the dollar currently very strong overseas? The problem is the significant shortages of the US dollar.

Two interrelated systems loosely organize US-denominated dollars overseas. The more official system is the US dollar reserves held by central banks. The US dollar became the world’s primary reserve currency due to the Bretton Woods Agreements at the end of World War II. The post-war trading system would be based on the US dollar backed by the gold in vaults at Fort Knox and the NY Federal Reserve Bank. The US dollar maintained this link with gold until the 1970s, when President Nixon ended the dollar’s convertibility into gold. Most countries stayed with the dollar and also began buying US Treasury securities as a safe store of the currency.

More than half of the official currency reserves are US dollars with the Euro taking up another quarter. This is actually a historic low. The Japanese yen, pounds sterling, and to a lesser, the Chinese renminbi constitute the rest of the major reserves held by central banks. Bitcoin and other blockchain cryptocurrencies are possibilities for the future, but as we see, currencies have been digital for quite a while. They just haven’t been blockchained-based. Central banks are also developing central bank digital currencies (CBDCs) that may make a multilateral transacting system outside the Eurodollar system more feasible.

Central banks get US dollars through its economy’s international trade, Foreign Direct Investment (FDI), and liquidity swaps. US aid programs, military bases, and trade deficits, especially buying foreign cars and oil, contribute to the spread of the US dollar. It was important for the US to run trade deficits to support the world’s need for dollars. The US oil independence has been particularly problematic for the world’s currency system. Many refer to the “dollar hegemony,” as it is challenging to manage, often destructive, and the US often doesn’t even seem politically motivated to try.

The other system involves the digitally created Eurodollar deposits in internationally networked banks. Eurodollars are not “Euros,” the currency of the European Union. Instead, these are US-denominated virtual currencies created and used outside the US. They not only operate outside the geography of the US, but also the legal jurisdiction of the US. Eurodollars are used by various big banks, money market and hedge funds, insurance companies, and many big corporations.

Eurodollars are primarily lent out (created) in exchange for collateral such as US Treasuries. Depending on the quality of the collateral, the lender also attaches a small fee called a “haircut” to cover any potential liquidity costs. Since the Eurodollar system works on lending, it makes sense that any bank or corporation borrowing money would want to make that transaction as cheap as possible. The price goes down by using good collateral to make it a more secure loan. One can envision a hierarchy of types of collateral with US Treasuries on top, but corporate junk bonds, mortgage-backed securities, sovereign debt, and even gold being other grades.

Overseas dollar markets are unregulated and proprietary, so accurate figures are hard to come by. As it is based on lending, the loans are often refinanced. A major issue is liquidity, being able to respond to the changing conditions in global financial markets that reach over a hundred trillion dollars. The cost and availability of the US dollar can shift for many reasons, including:

  • Changes in US interest rates
  • Shifts in global risk assessments
  • Periods of market stress such as coronavirus epidemics.

As a result, we currently see a considerable dollar shortage across the globe, dramatically increasing its value while causing depreciation of other currencies worldwide. While the international US dollar demand remains high, we can expect energy and food shortages, as well as the transmission of economic shocks such as Sri Lanka recently experienced. Goldman Sachs calculates that dollar strength is adding about $20 to a barrel oil for local currencies. These will have significant effects on both the global financial system and the global economy.

Currency swaps are one way to alleviate stresses in the global monetary system. They are repo agreements where a central bank sells a specified amount of a currency to another central bank in exchange for their currency at the prevailing market exchange rate. The first central bank agrees to buy back its currency at the same exchange rate (with interest) on a specified future date. A central bank initiates this swap transaction so they use the currency it swapped for to lend into their domestic economy. The Swiss National Bank in conjunction with the New York Fed regularly auctions off dollars to other central banks in liquidity swap operations. These are repos with needed collateral that used to be called foreign exchange swaps and have become more utilized as dollar liquidity has dimished.

Significant data gaps make assessing the risks and vulnerabilities of the global currency system challenging. Additional disclosure and data collection are needed to improve the transparency and possible regulation of the global US dollar system. In the meantime, we need to theoretically assess the dynamics of the domestic dollar administration and the possibilities of transforming the international monetary system. While it is highly unlikely that the US dollar will lose its reserve currency status, the current worldwide dollar shortage and its consequences are bringing increased scrutiny and calls for monetary reform, including more multicurrency settlements of energy.

Notes

[1] If you want a refresher on what causes inflation see my Great Monetary Surge of 2020 and the Return of Inflation from earlier this year.
[2] I did my Masters thesis on the emergence of the Eurodollar system and how it became electronic in the 1970s. I want to acknowledge Jeff Snider and the Eurodollar University for sparking the resurgence of my interest in the global currency.
[3] Unlike monetary policy enacted by the Federal Reserve which works to manage the economy by “lifting all boats” and not target individual industries, MMT will likely have to be more targeted. Although it can still focus on infrastructure and other enabling systems.

Citation APA (7th Edition)

Pennings, A.J. (2022, August 2). Weak Dollar, Strong Dollar. apennings.com. https://apennings.com/dystopian-economies/weak-dollar-strong-dollar/

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AnthonybwAnthony J. Pennings, PhD is a Professor at the Department of Technology and Society, State University of New York, Korea. From 2002-2012 was on the faculty of New York University where he taught comparative political economy, digital economics and traditional macroeconomics. He also taught in Digital Media MBA atSt. Edwards University in Austin, Texas, where he lives when not in the Republic of Korea.

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    Professor at State University of New York (SUNY) Korea since 2016. Moved to Austin, Texas in August 2012 to join the Digital Media Management program at St. Edwards University. Spent the previous decade on the faculty at New York University teaching and researching information systems, digital economics, and strategic communications.

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