- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 29, 2009

World Bank President Robert B. Zoellick warned Monday that, with foreign economic powers rising quickly on the world stage, time is running out for the privileged role enjoyed by the American currency.

The dollar’s status as the world’s reserve currency has given the U.S. prestige and privileges that are unique in the world, lifting living standards by enabling Americans to borrow cheaply and consume far more than they produce with little consequence for decades.

“The United States would be mistaken to take for granted the dollar’s place as the world’s predominant reserve currency,” Mr. Zoellick said in a speech to Johns Hopkins University’s School for Advanced International Studies in Washington. “Looking forward, there will increasingly be other options to the dollar.”

Mr. Zoellick, who was appointed by President George W. Bush, noted that the world economic order established after World War II, with the United States and a handful of European countries largely dominating, is quickly coming to an end.

China is expected to displace Japan within months as the world’s second-largest economy. And the U.S. and other developed nations formally recognized the growing influence of China and other major emerging countries last week by designating the Group of 20 economic powers, which includes such countries, for the first time as the world’s main economic decision-making body in what analysts view as a landmark development.

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“Bretton Woods is being overhauled before our eyes,” said Mr. Zoellick, referring to the postwar economic summit in New Hampshire that elevated the U.S. and its dollar to the predominant role it has today and established the World Bank and International Monetary Fund to nurture world development and growth.

In the first significant change in those institutions in decades, China, Russia, India, Brazil and other major emerging countries were guaranteed greater power in the IMF and World Bank at the G-20 summit, with increases in their voting shares of at least 5 percent and 3 percent, respectively. Mr. Zoellick said the fast succession of changes in world economic governance this year were forced by the worst financial crisis and global recession in modern times.

But a new world currency regime will not happen overnight, he said. “This time, it will take longer than three weeks in New Hampshire. It will have more participants.” And the United States could act to slow the erosion of the dollar, he said, referring to the dollar’s decline recently on fears that the U.S. will print money to pay for its enormous budget deficits.

“U.S. prospects depend on whether it will address large deficits, recover without inflation, and overhaul its financial system,” Mr. Zoellick said. “The United States has a history of recovering from setbacks.”

The World Bank chief’s views mirror the behind-the-scenes-talk last week at the G-20 summit in Pittsburgh, where the influence of nations such as Russia who want a new reserve currency system is on the rise. The G-20 included a veiled reference in its communique to the need for the U.S. to pursue noninflationary policies and lower budget deficits to support the dollar’s reserve role.

Russia, China and other emerging nations that have been the most vocal about replacing the dollar also have been in the forefront of shifting some of their sizable central bank reserves into other currencies, principally the euro. But most of these countries still retain the lion’s share of their reserves in dollars.

Worldwide, central banks have been slowly shifting some of their dollar reserves into euros and other currencies, but nearly two-thirds of currency reserves remain in dollars. Moreover, two-thirds of international trade is conducted in dollars, largely because oil and other key commodities needed in every country are priced in dollars.

China, which has the world’s largest reserves estimated at nearly $2 trillion, keeps most of its reserves in dollar-denominated securities such as short-term Treasury bills, analysts say. China has expressed growing uneasiness with the decline of the dollar, which has fallen 16 percent since March against the euro, resuming a downward trend since 2002 that was interrupted briefly by the financial crisis. But even these qualms have not prompted China to diversify in any major way.

China has been dabbling at arranging more international transactions in its own currency, the yuan, as well as purchasing gold and a kind of reserve currency issued by the IMF known as special drawing rights. So far, however, these represent only token departures from its dollar-dominated reserve strategy, analysts say.

For these and other reasons, most foreign exchange analysts say, the dollar is nowhere close to being supplanted as a reserve currency.

“This is mostly saber-rattling and political posturing,” said Jeffrey Nichols, senior economic adviser at Rosland Capital. “Countries like China - while talking tough - have a strong interest in maintaining a stable dollar and an undervalued yuan to support exports to the U.S. and a growing economy with high employment at home.” China will have to keep adding dollars to its reserves to achieve those economic goals, he said.

Karl Schamotta, an analyst at Custom House, a Canadian foreign exchange firm, said any serious move by China to diversify its estimated $1.5 trillion of dollar reserves could be devastating for the U.S. currency, but no one expects that.

“For now, the Chinese government is the largest stakeholder in the value of the dollar,” he said. “As many things have changed dramatically over the last two years and economic power is rapidly shifting eastward, the United States still holds the balance of power and is not likely to give it up for some time yet.”

• Patrice Hill can be reached at phill@washingtontimes.com.

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