Greenback dominance

Buck up

Global trade’s dependence on dollars lessens its benefits

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CRASHING CURRENCIES hurt. They make imports more expensive, cutting into household budgets and raising businesses’ costs. But economics has long held that this pain brings with it its own salve. More expensive imports should drive new demand for home-made replacements and thus for the workers who make them, geeing up the economy. What is more, a devalued currency means exports are suddenly cheaper to buyers abroad. That, too, should boost demand. When the value of the Colombian peso collapsed in the summer of 2014, it was on the basis of these assumptions that the country’s finance minister greeted the fall as “a blessing in disguise”.

It wasn’t. There were, the IMF opined in a subsequent report, a number of reasons for this, many specific to Colombia. But one problem was a factor which is embedded in the machinery of today’s international commerce. Colombia does not trade in pesos. It trades almost exclusively in dollars; 98% of its exports are invoiced in them. This is an extreme example of a general point. The amount of trade carried out in American dollars vastly exceeds the amount that America imports and exports. Although that may seem like a detail of book-keeping, it matters a lot. A growing body of evidence suggests that the dollar’s prominence in trade undermines the advantages which flexible exchange rates are meant to offer. And when the dollar strengthens, global trade tends to contract.

For decades, economists’ thinking about trade and currencies was summarised in a model created in the 1960s by two researchers at the IMF, Robert Mundell and J. Marcus Fleming.…