As China moves up the economic pecking order, it has been trying to promote its currency, the renminbi (RMB), as an alternative to the U.S. dollar. The Chinese government has ambitious plans for establishing offshore centers where companies can raise RMB funds, internationalizing its currency, and possibly enabling the RMB to supplant the dollar as the global reserve currency. The U.S. dollar isn't the only global reserve currency -- countries also keep some of their foreign exchange reserves in euros and yen -- but it has been the dominant one since the 1944 Bretton Woods conference.
During Tuesday night's presidential debate, Republican nominee Mitt Romney repeated his promise to label China a "currency manipulator" on his first day in office. The heated rhetoric on China in the debate, and throughout the campaign, over which candidate would be tougher on China's currency manipulation and other unfair trade practices reflects Americans' anxieties about the relative standing of the U.S. and Chinese economies, and it suggests that a shift to the RMB would resonate deeply in U.S. domestic politics. However, despite the bluster, the dollar will remain dominant.
Americans benefit from the dollar's hegemony: Because the world needs dollars, the U.S. government and American consumers can borrow at a lower cost. By conducting transactions in their own currency, U.S. companies reduce the hassle and the risk of sudden shifts in exchange rates. Americans also hold their heads a bit higher knowing that even with a struggling economy, governments all over the world still view the United States as the most reliable country for protecting their foreign exchange reserves. As the title of economist Barry Eichengreen's 2011 book puts it, it is an "exorbitant privilege" that Americans have come to take for granted. If the RMB supplants the U.S. dollar as the global reserve currency, the world financial system will hum to the tunes of China, and U.S. fiscal and economic policies will become more constrained by international pressures, including the threat of a sharp currency depreciation.
There are three degrees of RMB internationalization. First, China and its major trading partners transact in RMB; this has been happening since 2009. The next step is widespread third-party usage of the RMB in financial and trade transactions. In other words, only when parties undertaking transactions unrelated to China regularly use the RMB will it truly be an international currency. For the RMB to take the final step and become a global reserve currency, central banks around the world would have to maintain sizable holdings of RMB to insure against their own financial risks. In other words, the RMB would become a so-called safe-haven currency the way that the dollar and the yen are today.
China's limited financial system and its lackluster global reputation -- not U.S. fears of China's rise -- are preventing the RMB from becoming a global reserve currency. The demand is there. Because U.S.-dollar financial markets seized up during the 2008-2009 global financial crisis, businesses in Asia and other emerging economies desire an alternative trade settlement and reserve currency. The U.S. Federal Reserve stimulated recovery in the United States through "quantitative easing" -- increasing the money supply by buying mortgage-backed securities and Treasury bonds, which lowered the value of these holdings to foreigners like the Chinese, weakened the U.S. dollar, and stimulated capital outflows to emerging economies that increased inflation. China and other holders of U.S. debt viewed the Fed's actions as a sign that it would always put its domestic-policy objectives ahead of global monetary and financial stability.
Since China began allowing its companies to settle payments for imports and exports in RMB outside mainland China in 2009, the RMB's international use has grown tremendously. As of this June, all mainland firms can invoice and settle their foreign-trade transactions in RMB. Foreign direct investment by Chinese firms abroad and by foreign firms in China can now be denominated in RMB. And brokerage firms in Hong Kong are now permitted to sell global investors RMB-denominated exchange-traded funds, which directly invest in mainland bond and stock markets. Bilateral currency-swap arrangements with countries including Japan, Russia, India, Brazil, and Chile, which provide those countries' central banks access to RMB outside China, encourage companies to use RMB when they do business with China. As of this year, China has made 18 bilateral swap agreements for a total of more than $250 billion.