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Defying the Economic Odds: The World Melts Down, China Grows

A new world order is emerging from the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, with its center gravitating towards China.

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The China Development Bank recently decided to lend Brazil's petroleum company $10 billion to be repaid in oil supplies in the coming years. This figure is almost as large as the $11.2 billion that the Inter-American Development Bank lent to various South American countries last year. China had established its commercial presence in Brazil earlier by offering lucrative prices for iron ore and soybeans, the export commodities that have fuelled Brazil's recent economic growth.

Similarly, Beijing broke new ground in the region by giving Buenos Aires access to more than $10 billion in yuans. Argentina was one of three major trading partners of China given this option, the others being Indonesia and South Korea.

Will the Yuan Become an International Currency?

Without much fanfare, China has started internationalizing the role of its currency. It is in the process of increasing the yuan's role in Hong Kong. Though part of China, Hong Kong has its own currency, the Hong Kong Dollar. Since Hong Kong is one of the world's freest financial markets, the projected arrangement will aid internationalization of the yuan.

In retrospect, an important aspect of the G-20 Summit in London in early April centered around what China did. It aired its in-depth analysis of the current fiscal crisis publicly and offered a bold solution.

In a striking on-line article, Zhou Xiaochuan, governor of China's central bank, referred to the "increasingly frequent global financial crises" that have embroiled the world. The problem could be traced to August 1971, when President Richard Nixon took the dollar off the gold standard. Until then, $35 bought one ounce of gold stored in bars in Fort Knox, Kentucky -- the rate having been fixed in 1944 during World War II by the Allies at a conference in Bretton Woods, New Hampshire. At that time, the greenback was also named as the globe's reserve currency. Since 1971, however, it has been backed by nothing more tangible than the credit of the United States.

A glance at the past decade and a half shows that, between 1994 and 2000 alone, there were economic crises in nine major countries which impacted the global economy: Mexico (1994), Thailand-Indonesia-Malaysia-South Korea-the Philippines (1997-98), Russia and Brazil (1998), and Argentina (2000).

According to Zhou, financial crises resulted when the domestic needs of the country issuing a reserve currency clashed with international fiscal requirements. For instance, responding to the demoralization caused by the 9/11 attacks, the U.S. Federal Reserve Board drastically reduced interest rates to an almost-record low of 1% to boost domestic consumption at a time when rapidly expanding economies outside the United States needed higher interest rates to cool their growth rates.

"The [present] crisis called again for creative reform of the existing international reserve currency," Zhou wrote. "A super-sovereign reserve currency managed by a global institution could be used to both create and control global liquidity. This will significantly reduce the risks of a future crisis and enhance crisis management capability."

He then alluded to the Special Drawing Rights (SDR) of the International Monetary Fund. The SDR is a virtual currency whose value is set by a currency "basket" made up of the U.S. dollar, the European euro, the British pound, and the Japanese yen, all of which qualify as reserve currencies, with the greenback being the leader. Ever since the SDR was devised in 1969, the IMF has maintained its accounts in that currency.

Zhou noted that the SDR has not yet been allowed to play its full role. If its role was enhanced, he argued, it might someday become the global reserve currency.

 
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