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The Renminbi as reserve currency


Stephen Grenville

19 March 2012 18:20

The idea that the renminbi will become an important reserve currency, perhaps displacing the 'exorbitant privilege' enjoyed by the US dollar, has been given added impetus by a blueprint for China's international capital reforms just published by the Chinese central bank, the People's Bank of China.  

The current commentary suggests a two-fold conclusion. The renminbi won't displace the dollar as predominant reserve currency any time soon. But the renminbi will become more important in international transactions, and China's growing international capital linkages have important implications for us all.

Whatever 'exorbitant privilege' the US dollar had as the predominant reserve currency in the quarter-century following World War II has largely disappeared, thanks to floating exchange rates and free international capital movements. 

The US dollar already has rivals for reserve-currency status and the world adapted easily to this. The dollar has gone from being over 80% of official reserves in the 1970s to being just over 60% now. Until recent fumbles, the euro was making a strong bid to be an alternative (but secondary) currency for official reserves, making up 25% in 2003, up from 18% only a few years earlier.

The UK demonstrates that reserve currency status can be largely lost without changing much: the decline of sterling mirrored, but didn't exacerbate, the UK's declining place in the world and the end of the British Empire.

What would China have to do to make the renminbi a reserve currency?

It would have to offer open access to a range of low-risk assets providing an assured adequate return. These investments need to be readily traded in markets that are deep enough to ensure that the price won't fall sharply as the assets are sold. Foreigners need assurance that they could convert their renminbi into foreign currency at a fair exchange rate.

All this requires a well-established bond market with depth, breadth and resilience. It has to have strong legal certainty and a track-record of stable performance. It probably requires a floating exchange rate. China has none of these preconditions, and is in no hurry to create them because it would mean giving up all the panoply of controls and regulations that keep the exchange rate stable and guard against the potential huge volatility of unrestricted capital flows.

What's more, the advantages of being a reserve currency simply aren't worth the price. More on that in a follow-up post.

Photo by Flickr user kevin dooley.