By Warren Coats
This Sunday, August 15, is the 50th anniversary of President Richard Nixon’s closing of the gold window as part of the “Nixon Shock.” “Fifty years later Nixon’s August surprise still reverberates” He announced on that day that the U.S. Treasury would no longer redeem its dollars for gold at $35 an ounce. Over the subsequent few years, the world moved from national currencies whose values were anchored to the market value of gold, to currency values determined by central banks’ regulation of their supply relative to the market’s demand. The value of one currency for another floated in the foreign exchange market. Central banks have deployed various approaches to determining the supplies of their currencies and most have now settled on targeting an inflation rate (often 2% per year) in one way or another.
With the rapidly increasing interest in cryptocurrencies, some have asked whether we are on the brink of another monetary paradigm shift? Specifically, might the dollar be replaced as the dominant international reserve currency. To explore that question we need to understand how the existing monetary systems work and how the widespread use of cryptocurrencies might add to or change these systems.
In describing the existing and potential future monetary systems, we need to distinguish “money” from the “means of payment.” Money is the asset that people accept in payment of debts or for the purchase of goods and services. The U.S. dollar and the Euro are “money.” The means of payment refers to how money is delivered to the person being paid. Do you personally hand dollar bills and coins to the Starbucks cashier, write out a check (bank draft) and put it in the mail, or electronically transfer “money” from your bank account to an Amazon merchant via eWire, Zelle, Venmo, PayPal, or some other digital payment service? Or perhaps you purchase goods and services with borrowed money (Visa, MasterCard, American Express) that you pay back at the end of each month or over time. Or if you don’t have a bank account (a form of digital money) you might hand-deliver physical currency to a Hawala dealer or a MoneyGram or Western Union office to be electronically transferred to their office nearest to the person you are sending it to, potentially anywhere in the world. If you are paying in a currency that is different than the one the payee wishes to receive, your currency will be exchanged accordingly along the way in the foreign exchange market.
Discussions of cryptocurrencies include both the latest and evolving means of payment (digital payment technologies) as well as new, privately created moneys such as bitcoin, Ethereum, or Ripple. Private currencies vary enormously with regard to how their value is determined. By private currencies I do not mean privately created assets redeemable for legal tender, such as our bank accounts. When we speak, for example, of the U.S. dollar, we invariably include dollar balances in our bank accounts, dollar payments made via our Visa card, etc. These are all privately produced assets that are ultimately redeemable for Federal Reserve currency or deposits at a Federal Reserve Bank. They are credible claims on the legal tender of the United States. Most U.S. dollars are privately created.
The value of all money is determined by its supply and demand. The demand for money arises from its acceptability for payment of our obligations and the quantity of such obligations (generally closely related to our incomes). Within each country, its legal tender money (e.g., the U.S. dollar in the U.S.) must be accepted by payees. In particular, it must be accepted by the government in payment of taxes. Truly private currencies (those not redeemable for legal tender, of which there are over 11,000 at last count) have a serious challenge in this regard. Very few people or businesses will accept bitcoin, or any other such private cryptocurrency. As a result, the demand for such currencies for actual payments is very low. The demand for bitcoin, for example, is almost totally speculative–a form of gambling like the demand for lottery tickets. Such private currencies are more attractive in countries whose legal tender is rapidly inflating or has unstable value (e.g., Venezuela).
The acceptability of a currency in cross border payments raises special challenges. My currency is not likely to be the currency in general use in other countries. Someone in Mexico paying someone in Germany will generally have Mexican pesos and the recipient in Germany will want Euros. The pesos will need to be exchange for Euro in the foreign exchange market. It would be very costly for dealers in the FX market to maintain inventories of and transact in every bilateral combination of the world’s 200 or so currencies. It has proven more economical to exchange your currency for U.S. dollars and to exchange the U.S. dollars for the currency wanted by the payee. The dollar has become what is called a vehicle currency.
The economy of a so-called vehicle currency can be illustrated with languages. Two hundred and six countries are participating in the 2021 Olympic Games in Japan. To communicate with their Japanese hosts participants could all learn Japanese. It is unrealistic to expect the Japanese hosts to learn 205 foreign languages. But what about communicating with their fellow participants from the other 205 countries. For this purpose, English has become the default second language in which they all communicate. Unlike more isolated Americans, most Europeans speak several languages, but one of them is always English. English as the common language is the linguistic equivalent of the dollar as a vehicle currency.
The rest of the value of money story focuses on its supply. Bitcoin has the virtue of having a very well defined, programmatically determined gradual growth rate until its supply reaches 21 million in about 2040. The supply today (Aug 2021) is 18.77 million. See my earlier explanation: “Cryptocurrencies-the bitcoin phenomena” The other 11,000 plus cryptocurrencies each have their own rules for determining their supply, some explicit and some rather mysterious. The class of so called “stable coins” are linked to and often redeemable for a specific anchor, sometimes the U.S. dollar or some other currency. The credibility of these anchors varies.
The highly successful E-gold (from 1996-2006) is an example of a digital currency that had well-defined and strict backing and redemption for a commodity at a fixed price. “E-gold” The supply of such currencies is determined by market demand for it at its fixed price–what I have elsewhere called currency board rules. I describe how currency board rules work in my book about establishing the Central Bank of Bosnia and Herzegovina: “One currency for Bosnia-creating the Central Bank of Bosnia and Herzegovina”
The dominance of the U.S. dollar in cross border payments reflects far more than its use as a vehicle currency. Many globally traded commodities, such as oil, are priced in dollars and thus payments for such purchases are settled in dollars. Pricing a homogeneous commodity trading in the global market in a single currency makes that market more efficient (the same price for the same thing). Making cross border payments in dollars (or any other single currency) also avoids the costly need to exchange one for another in the FX market. The dollar is most often chosen because its value is relatively stable, and it has deep and liquid securities markets in which to hold dollars in reserve for use in cross border payments.
So, what are the chances that current cryptocurrency developments might precipitate a shift from the dollar to some other currency and means of payment. Several factors of U.S. policy have heightened interest by many countries in finding an alternative. Specifically, from my recent article in the Central Banking Journal on the IMF’s $650 billion SDR allocation:
“Cumbersome payment technology. Existing arrangements for cross-border payments via Swift are technically crude and outmoded.
The weaponization of the dollar. The US has abused the importance of its currency for cross-border payments to force compliance with its policy preferences that are not always shared by other countries, by threatening to block the use of the dollar.
The growing risk of the dollar’s value. The growing expectation of dollar inflation and the skyrocketing increase in the US fiscal deficit are increasing the risk of holding and dealing in dollars.” “The IMF’s 650bn SDR allocation and a future digital SDR”
Most central banks are upgrading their payment systems. But the Peoples Bank of the Republic of China (PBRC) is one of the most advanced in developing a central bank digital currency (CBDC), the e-CNY. However, it has little potential for displacing the dollar for several reasons. The Federal Reserve is also modernizing its payment technology, including exploring the design of its own CBDC, and can match China’s payment technology in the near future if necessary. More importantly, China’s capital controls, less developed Yuan financial markets, and less reliable rule of law make the Yuan an unattractive alternative to the dollar. These latter impediments do not apply to the Euro, however. “What will be impact of China’s state sponsored digital currency?”
Rather than looking for another national currency to replace the dollar, there are several advantages to using an international one. These include greater ease in making cross border payments and the reduced risk of political manipulation, or a national currency’s domestic mismanagement. Bitcoin, for example, can make payments anywhere in the world without being controlled by any one of them. The serious drawbacks of Bitcoin’s blockchain payment technology might be overcome with one or another overlaid technology. But to become a serious currency, bitcoin must be dramatically more widely accepted in payment than it is now. Widespread acceptance in payments could generate the demand to hold them for payments, which would tend to stabilize its very erratic value. This seems very unlikely. A digital gold-based currency, such as the earlier E-gold, would enjoy the advantage of an anchor that is well known and that has enjoyed a long history. However, gold’s value has been very unstable in recent years. Aluminum has enjoyed a very stable price and elastic supply and will be the anchor for Luminium Coin to be launched in the coming weeks: https://luminiumcoin.com/
But the world has already established the internationally issued and regulated currency meant to supplement if not replace the dollar, the Special Drawing Rights of the International Monetary Fund. The IMF has just approved a very large increase in its supply. “The IMF’s 650bn SDR allocation and a future digital SDR” The SDR’s value is determined by the market value of (currently) five major currencies in its valuation basket. While all five of these currencies have a relatively stable value, the value of the basket (portfolio) of these five is more stable still. The rules for determining the SDR’s value and supply, as well as its uses, are well established and transparent and governed by the IMF’s 190 member countries. In short, the SDR is truly international. However, it can only be used by IMF member countries and ten international financial institutions such as the World Bank and the Bank for International Settlements.
While the SDR has played a limited useful role in augmenting central bank foreign exchange reserves, it has failed to achieve a significant role as an international currency because of the failure of the private sector to invoice internationally traded goods and financial instruments (such as bonds) in SDRs and the absence of a private digital SDR for payments. If the IMF is serious about making the SDR an important international currency it should turn its attention to encouraging these private sector uses of the unit. “Free Banking in the Digital Age”
In the long run the IMF should issue its official SDR according to currency board rules and anchor its value to the market value of a small basket of commodities rather than key currencies: “A Real SDR Currency Board”
 Warren Coats retired from the International Monetary Fund in 2003 where he led technical assistance missions to the central banks of more than twenty countries (including Afghanistan, Bosnia, Egypt, Iraq, Kazakhstan, Kenya, Kyrgyzstan, Serbia, South Sudan, Turkey, and Zimbabwe). He was a member of the Board of the Cayman Islands Monetary Authority from 2003-10. He is a fellow of Johns Hopkins Krieger School of Arts and Sciences, Institute for Applied Economics, Global Health, and the Study of Business Enterprise. He has a BA in Economics from the UC Berkeley and a PhD in Economics from the University of Chicago.