Monthly Archives: October 2018

The 2018 Globie: “Crashed”

Each year I choose a book to be the Globalization Book of the Year, i.e., the “Globie”. The prize is strictly honorific and does not come with a check. But I do like to single out books that are particularly insightful about some aspect of globalization.  Previous winners are listed at the bottom.

This year’s choice is Crashed: How a Decade of Financial Crises Changed the World by Adam Tooze of Yale University. Tooze, an historian, traces the events leading up to the crisis and the subsequent ten years. He points out in the introduction that this account is different from one he may have written several years ago. At that time Barak Obama had won re-election in 2012 on the basis of a slow but steady recovery in the U.S. Europe was further behind, but the emerging markets were growing rapidly, due to the demand for their commodities from a steadily-growing China as well as capital inflows searching for higher returns than those available in the advanced economies.

But the economic recovery has brought new challenges, which have swept aside established politicians and parties. Obama was succeeded by Donald Trump, who promised to restore America to some form of past greatness. His policy agenda includes trade disputes with a broad range of countries, and he is particularly eager to impose trade tariffs on China. The current meltdown in stock prices follows a rise in interest rates normal at this stage of the business cycle but also is based on fears of the consequences of the trade measures.

Europe has its own discontents. In the United Kingdom, voters have approved leaving the European Union. The European Commission has expressed its disapproval of the Italian government’s fiscal plans. Several east European governments have voiced opposition to the governance norms of the West European nations. Angela Merkel’s decision to step down as head of her party leaves Europe without its most respected leader.

All these events are outcomes of the crisis, which Tooze emphasizes was a trans-Atlantic event. European banks had purchased held large amounts of U.S. mortgage-backed securities that they financed with borrowed dollars. When liquidity in the markets disappeared, the European banks faced the challenge of financing their obligations. Tooze explains how the Federal Reserve supported the European banks using swap lines with the European Central Bank and other central banks, as well as including the domestic subsidiaries of the foreign banks in their liquidity support operations in the U.S. As a result, Tooze claims:

“What happened in the fall of 2008 was not the relativization of the dollar, but the reverse, a dramatic reassertion of the pivotal role of America’s central bank. Far from withering away, the Fed’s response gave an entirely new dimension to the global dollar” (Tooze, p. 219)

The focused policies of U.S. policymakers stood in sharp contrast to those of their European counterparts. Ireland and Spain had to deal with their own banking crises following the collapse of their housing bubbles, and Portugal suffered from anemic growth. But Greece’s sovereign debt posed the largest challenge, and exposed the fault line in the Eurozone between those who believed that such crises required a national response and those who looked for a broader European resolution. As a result, Greece lurched from one lending program to another. The IMF was treated as a junior partner by the European governments that sought to evade facing the consequences of Greek insolvency, and the Fund’s reputation suffered new blows due to its involvement with the various rescue operations.The ECB only demonstrated a firm commitment to its stabilizing role in July 2012, when its President Mario Draghi announced that “Within our mandate, the ECB is ready to do whatever it takes to preserve the euro.”

China followed another route. The government there engaged in a surge of stimulus spending combined with expansionary monetary policies. The result was continued growth that allowed the Chinese government to demonstrate its leadership capabilities at a time when the U.S. was abandoning its obligations. But the ensuing credit boom was accompanied by a rise in private (mainly corporate) lending that has left China with a total debt to GDP ratio of over 250%, a level usually followed by some form of financial collapse. Chinese officials are well aware of the domestic challenge they face at the same time as their dispute with the U.S. intensifies.

Tooze demonstrates that the crisis has let loose a range of responses that continue to play out. He ends the book by pointing to a similarity of recent events and those of 1914. He raises several questions: “How does a great moderation end? How do huge risks build up that are little understood and barely controllable? How do great tectonic shifts in the global world order unload in sudden earthquakes?” Ten years after a truly global crisis, we are still seeking answers to these questions.

Previous Globie Winners:

2017    Stephen D. King, Grave New World: The End of Globalization, the Return of History

2016    Branko Milanovic, Global Inequality

2015    Benjamin J. Cohen. Currency Power: Understanding Monetary Rivalry

2014    Martin Wolf, The Shifts and the Shocks: What We’ve Learned–and Have Still to Learn–from the Financial Crisis


The Continuing Dominance of the Dollar

Ten years after the global financial crisis, we are still coming to an understanding of how profound a shock it was. The changes in political alignments within and across nations and the diminished public support for globalization continue. But one aspect of the financial system has not changed: the dominance of the U.S. dollar in the monetary system.

An article by Fernando Eguren Martin, Mayukh Mukhopadhyay and Carlos van Hombeeck of the Bank of England in the BOE’s Quarterly Bulletin documents the different international roles of the dollar. First, it continues to be the main currency in central bank reserves, with a share of about 70% of total holdings. Second, the dollar is used as an invoicing currency for many international transactions, such as commodity sales. Third, firms outside the U.S. obtain funding through dollar-denominated bank loans and debts.

The use of the dollar for finance has also been examined by Iñaki Aldasoro and Torsten Ehlers of the Bank for International Settlements in an article in the BIS Quarterly Review. They report a rise in the use of international debt securities, driven primarily by dollar denominated debt issued by non-U.S. residents. The increase in such funding is particularly noticeable in emerging markets economies in Asia and Latin America. This debt includes sovereign bonds issued by governments that sought to lock in low interest rates.

What about the alternatives? A report on the international role of the euro issued by the European Central Bank acknowledges the primacy of the dollar. An index of the global status of the euro developed at the ECB shows a decline in the last fifteen years, which may have stabilized in the most recent year. This includes a fall in the euro’s share of international debt securities. The report also notes that the deleveraging of Eurozone banks as they built up their capital ratios led these banks to reduce their cross-border lending.

Why does the dollar continue to possess a hegemonic status a decade after the crisis that seemed to signal an end to U.S.-U.K. dominated finance? Gillian Tett of the Financial Times offers several reasons. The first is the global reach of U.S. based banks. U.S. banks are seen as stable, particularly when compared to European banks. Any listing of the largest international banks will be dominated by Chinese banks, and these institutions have expanded their international business.  But the Chinese banks will conduct business in dollars when necessary. Tett’s second reason is the relative strength of the U.S. economy, which grew at a 4.1% pace in the second quarter. The third reason is the liquidity and credibility of U.S. financial markets, which are superior to those of any rivals.

The U.S. benefits from its financial dominance in several ways. Jeff Sachs of Columbia University points out that the cost of financing government deficits is lower due to the acceptance of U.S. Treasury securities as “riskless assets.” U.S. banks and other institutions earn profits on their foreign operations. In addition, the use of our banking network for international transactions provides the U.S. government with a powerful foreign policy tool in the form of sanctions that exclude foreign individuals, firms or governments from this network.

There are risks to the system with this dependence. As U.S. interest rates continue to rise, loans that seemed reasonable before now become harder to finance. The burden of dollar-denominated debt also increases as the dollar appreciates. These developments exacerbate the repercussions of policy mistakes in Argentina and Turkey, but also affect other countries as well.

The IMF in its latest Global Financial Stability (see also here) identifies another potential destabilizing feature of the current system. The IMF reports that the U.S. dollar balance sheets of non-U.S. banks show a reliance on short-term or wholesale funding. This reliance leaves the banks vulnerable to a liquidity freeze. The IMF is particularly concerned about the use of foreign exchange swaps, as swap markets can be quite volatile. While central banks have stablished their own network of swap lines, these have been criticized.

The status of the dollar as the primary international currency is not welcomed by foreign governments. The Russian government, for example, is seeking to use other currencies for its international commerce. China and Turkey have offered some support, but China is invested in promoting the use of its own currency. In addition, Russia’s dependence on its oil exports will keep it tied to the dollar.

But interest in formulating a new international payments system has now spread outside of Russia and China. Germany’s Foreign Minister Heiko Maas has called for the establishment of “U.S. independent payment channels” that would allow European firms to continue to deal with Iran despite the U.S. sanctions on that country. Chinese electronic payments systems are being used in Europe and the U.S. The dollar may not be replaced, but it may have to share its role as an international currency with other forms of payment if foreign nations calculate that the benefits of a new system outweigh its cost. Until now that calculation has always favored the dollar, but the reassessment of globalization initiated by the Trump administration may have lead to unexpected consequences.