A shift in monetary regimes?

By Warren Coats[1]

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”

[1] 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.

Review of John Tamny’s attack on Jack Kemp Foundation article

By Dr. Warren Coats

Dr. Coats is retired from the International Monetary Fund, where he was Assistant Director of the Monetary and Capital Markets Department.

In an article titled, “When the Ideas of Thinkers and Great Statesmen Are Perverted,” John Tamny offers what he calls “a semi-brief response” to a Wall Street Journal op-ed by Sean Rushton from the Jack Kemp Foundation, “Monetary reform would rebalance trade.”

Mr. Tamny wastes no time in launching his attack with the following: “Worse were the myriad factual inaccuracies, including a Bretton Woods monetary agreement that took place after World War II. Except that it took place in 1944.”  This is his only valid criticism in his not so brief discussion. As we all know, the Bretton Woods conference was in anticipation of the end of WWII and did not actually take place “after” the war.  Devastating, right?

Mr. Tamny launches his more substantive critic by noting that, “To be clear, all trade balances. Always.” Whether that balance is healthy or not, however, depends on its composition. Mr. Rushton’s article is about that composition. He discusses the implications of the fact that one of the ways in which we pay for what we import is by exporting U.S. dollars. The others are exporting U.S. debt (largely government) and the ownership of American firms and other private assets. Many countries wish to hold our dollars (it is the primary international reserve asset held by central banks) because so much of world trade is priced in and paid for with USDs.

Given all the many factors that determine what we import and export, the global demand for USD as a reserve asset makes our trade deficits larger than they would otherwise be in order to supply (export) those dollars. Tamny correctly notes that “the U.S. has run ‘trade deficits’ for longer than it’s been the United States.” Obviously such deficits were not the result of the world’s demand for U.S. currency. “The U.S. always ran trade deficits precisely because it’s long been an attractive destination for investment.”  In other words, other countries sold us more than they purchased in goods and services (our trade deficit) in order to earn the dollars to invest in the U.S.

But times have changed. Today, and since the U.S. left the gold standard in early 1970, most of the dollars earn abroad from our trade deficits (their surpluses) are invested in U.S. treasury securities. In short, dollars earn abroad via our trade deficits (in addition to accumulating dollars in foreign exchange reserves) are now largely invested in financing our government’s deficit spending. Even Mr. Tamny would not argue that this inflow of investment in the U.S. is contributing to our increased growth and productivity.

On the contrary, Tamny seems to be arguing exactly that. He says that: “we have a so-called “trade deficit” as a country precisely because the U.S. is a magnet for investors the world over. When we “export” shares in American companies that are routinely the most valuable in the world.” He seems to applaud selling our firms to foreigners when our government crowds out the domestic financing of our industries in order to finance our irresponsible government deficits.

Mr. Tamny is not content to label Mr. Rushton’s analysis false. He calls it “obnoxiously false” and “comically false.” Unfortunately these labels apply more accurately to Mr. Tamny.

Rushton claims and provides evidence that U.S. fiscal discipline weakened when Nixon closed the gold window. “No longer bound by fixed exchange rates and dollar convertibility, the U.S. government’s fiscal discipline broke down.” Obviously other political and demographic factors have also contributed to the alarming increases in U.S. deficits, but no longer needed to defend the dollars exchange rate removed an important constraint. To rebut Rushton’s claim and data, Tamny notes that our deficits were even higher during WWII. Truly. I am not making this up.

Turning to the dollar’s role as an international reserve asset, Mr. Tamny notes that Mr. Rushton “argues that thanks to ’high global demand,’ the ’dollar’s international position is always stronger and U.S. interest rates are lower than they would be otherwise.’” Added to all of the other factors influencing the composition of our external financial flows (our balance of payments), the world’s demand for dollars in their foreign exchange reserve holdings must increase their trade surplus (our trade deficits) or their investments in the U.S., either of which will appreciate the dollar’s exchange rate and lower interest rates in the U.S. relative to what they would other wise be. Mr. Tamny doesn’t get this. He says that Mr. Rushton “wants us to believe that a devaluation of the income streams paid out by the U.S. Treasury actually made them more attractive to investors.” I don’t really know what he means by that either.

Another of Mr. Tamny’s “obnoxiously and comically false,” or perhaps merely nonsensical statements is that: “if we ignore the obvious, that the sole purpose of production is to import as much as possible….” If he is relating production to imports, he presumably means producing for export. What we import must be paid for one way or another, i. e., by exports of goods and services, U.S. dollars for reserves, U.S. government debt, or ownership of U.S. firms.

I leave it to the reader to sort out what Mr. Tamny might mean by: “the path to a lower ’trade deficit’ is only possible if we’re willing to accept being much poorer.”

As a parting shot, Tamny mischaracterizes the views of the late Jack Kemp. Here’s what Kemp actually said, speaking in 1987:

“Why do we keep having these cycles? I believe it has to do with the burdens and privileges of the dollar’s unique international role. First, the extra demand for dollars puts a premium on their value that makes American exports less competitive. And on world markets, only a few cents means the difference between a sale and a loss. This increases our merchandise trade deficit.

“Second, the dollar’s role helps fuel Congress’s deficit spending. Foreign central banks buy U.S. Treasury securities to hold as reserves and to keep their currencies from rising—almost $100 billion in the last year and a half. This amounts to a special ‘line of credit’ that lets Congress spend resources that would otherwise be used to farm or manufacture for export. President Reagan used to say that to get Congress to spend less you have to reduce its allowance. Well, we may have reduced its allowance but we haven’t taken away its charge card. That’s one reason why every tax dollar is spent without cutting the deficit.

“Trying to compete in world markets under these conditions is like trying to run a race with a ball and chain around your ankle. We face a constant choice between giving in to pressure to let the dollar fall at the risk of inflation, or keeping interest rates high at the expense of a trade deficit and growing pressure for protectionism. This dilemma will continue until we stabilize the dollar, end the inflation/deflation cycle, and bring down interest rates with the right kind of monetary reform.”


The Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and the SDR

By Warren Coats and Dongsheng Di

Jin Liqun, President of the new Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) announced on January 17, 2016 that all of its loans would be in U.S. dollars, “signaling that Beijing will not use the development bank as a platform to promote renminbi internationalization.”[1] In this note we argue that the AIIB should make all of its loans in SDRs. Doing so would make a major contribution to promoting the replacement/supplementation of the U.S. dollar for international payments that was called for by People’s Bank of China’s Governor, Zhou Xiaochuan in 2009.[2] As the SDR valuation basket will include the Chinese renminbi after October 1, 2016[3] it will also contribute, but more modestly, to the international use of the renmimbi.[4]

As the AIIB is a Chinese initiative and is headquartered in China, it was initially thought by some that its operations would be denominated in RMB. However, denominating its loans in RMB and actually disbursing RMB would suffer several disadvantages for the AIIB and for its loan recipients. There was concern by some that the use of the RMB might further strain the already complicated US-China bilateral relationship. In might also force the pace of China’s financial and capital account liberalization faster than other conditions warrant. Moreover, with greater exchange rate volatility of late, loan recipients would be exposed to greater exchange rate risk. The AIIB’s choice of the U.S. dollar avoids these risks but continues to subject its borrows to exchange risks associate with the dollar, which has varied considerably over the years. For these reasons the IMF, for example, denominates its loans and other financial operations in its Special Drawing Right (SDR), whose value is based on the market value of specific amounts of the five freely useable currencies in its valuation basket.[5] Thus for most countries, the international value of the SDR is more stabile than is the value of the dollar or another of the other currencies in its valuation basket. This logic applies fully to the operations of the AIIB and other development banks. The case for creating “private” SDRs to disburse to AIIB loan recipients rests on the contribution it would make toward developing the SDR issued by the IMF into a global reserve asset to supplement or replace the U.S. dollar, Euro and other national currencies in countries foreign exchange reserves.

The development and use of private SDRs, SDR denominated bank liabilities, is described in detail in an article one of us wrote over thirty four years ago in the IMF Staff Papers.[6] The AIIB would establish SDR denominated deposits with its bank (e.g., the BIS) and instruct its loan recipients to establish SDR accounts with their banks. AIIB loans would be disbursed by transferring the appropriate amounts of its SDR balances at the BIS to the recipients’ account at its banks. The dollar value of these SDRs would be determined in the same way as is the IMF’s official SDR. Following the procedures used by the IMF when disbursing its SDR denominated loans, recipients could request to receive their loans in the equivalent value of a freely usable currency of their choice (or in any or all of the five currencies in the valuation basket). In the first instance, AIIB loan recipients are likely to be governments with accounts in their central banks. Thus these central banks would need, in addition to their SDR accounts with the IMF, to establish (private) SDR accounts for their governments and commercial banks. If the loan recipient is able to spend these SDRs (pay its contractors and suppliers) directly it would do so, but most often it would need to exchange them for the currency wanted the ultimate recipients. This exchange would most likely be executed by its bank providing the SDR deposit.

Cross border private SDRs payments would be cleared and settled in the same general way as are U.S. dollar payments. Net outflows of SDRs from the banks of one country via their central bank to another country via its central bank, would be settled by the transfer of official SDRs on the books of the SDR Department of the IMF. Alternative clearinghouse arrangements are also possible has suggested by Peter Kennan in his comments on the 1982 IMF Staff Papers article. When such loans are repaid, if the repaying government (or other loan recipient) doesn’t have sufficient balances in its private SDR account with its central bank to transfer to the AIIB’s account with the BIS it would use other currencies to buy additional private SDRs. It might also use its official IMF allocated SDRs to either buy private ones or to transfer directly to the AIIB (assuming that like most other development banks and the BIS it has become an “other holder” of official SDRs). Private and official SDRs would have essentially the same relationship with each other as do base money and bank money in national currencies.

China and the AIIB are in a strong position, working through the IMF or bilateral discussions, to urge central banks to open private SDR accounts for their governments and their commercial banks toward the fulfillment of their obligation under the IMF’s Articles of Agreement to make the SDR “the principal reserve asset in the international monetary system” (IMF Article XXII). Through their representatives at the World Bank, Asian Development Bank, and their New BRICS Development Bank they could press these institutions to disburse in SDRs (private and/or official) as well. As an important purchaser of oil and other globally traded commodities they could encourage their pricing in SDRs. In the first instance, many loan recipients would choose to convert their SDRs into one or more of its basket currencies. But as private SDRs and supporting clearing and settlement arrangements proliferated, holding and using SDRs for international transactions would become more convenient and would potentially grow rapidly. This is an opportunity that should not be missed.


Coats, Warren, 1982   “The SDR as a Means of Payment,” IMF Staff Papers, Vol. 29, No. 3 (September 1982) (reprinted in Spanish in Centro de Estudios Monetarios Latinoamericanos Boletin, Vol. XXIX, Numero 4, Julio–Agosto de 1983).

1983, “The SDR as a Means of Payment, Response to Colin, van den Boogaerde, and Kennen,” IMF Staff Papers, Vol. 30, No. 3 (September 1983).

2009, “Time for a New Global Currency?” New Global Studies: Vol. 3: Issue.1, Article 5. (2009).

2011, “Real SDR Currency Board”, Central Banking Journal XXII.2 (2011), also available at http://works.bepress.com/warren_coats/25

2014, “Implementing a Real SDR Currency Board”

_____. Dongsheng Di, and Yuxaun Zhao, 2016, Why the World needs a Reserve Asset with a Hard Anchor, http://works.bepress.com/warren_coats/34/


Dr. Warren Coats retired from the International Monetary Fund in 2003 where he led technical assistance missions to more than twenty countries (including Afghanistan, Bosnia, Egypt, Iraq, Kenya, Serbia, Turkey, and Zimbabwe). He was Chief of the SDR Division of the Finance Department from 1982-88. His PhD from the University of Chicago was supervised by Milton Friedman. He was part of the IMF’s program team for Afghanistan from 2010-2013 and is a U.S. citizen. Wcoats@aol.com

Dr. Dongsheng DI is an associate professor of International Political Economy with School of International Studies, Renmin University of China and also a Research fellow with International Monetary Institute of RUC. In 2015 he is a visiting researcher at Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service of Georgetown University. His research interests include the political economy of global monetary affairs, RMB internationalization, and Chinese Domestic Reforms. He is also a policy advisor to NDRC and China Development Bank and is a citizen of the People’s Republic of China. didongsheng@vip.sina.com

[1] China’s New Asia Development Bank will lend in US dollars, Financial Times Jan 17, 2016 http://www.ft.com/intl/cms/s/0/762ce968-bcee-11e5-a8c6-deeeb63d6d4b.html#axzz3xWiTvQZD

[2] Zhou Xiaochuan, “Reform the International Monetary System”, Website of the People’s Bank of China, March 23, 2009;

[3] The amount of the China currency in the SDR valuation basket will be determined on September 30, 2016 such that its weight in the basket on that day is 10.92% of the total value of one SDR.

[4] Banks offering SDR denominated deposits will generally balance them with SDR denominated assets or assets in the five currencies in the SDR’s valuation basket similarly weighted.

[5] The RMB will be added to the existing basket of four currencies—USD, Euro, GBP, JPY—from October 1, 2016.

[6] Warren Coats, “The SDR as a Means of Payment,” IMF Staff Papers, Vol. 29, No. 3 (September 1982); “The SDR as a Means of Payment, Response to Colin, van den Boogaerde, and Kennen,” IMF Staff Papers, Vol. 30, No. 3 (September 1983).