IMF calls for Alternative Reserve Currency, Again

CNNMoney
February 11, 2011

The International Monetary Fund issued a report Thursday on a possible replacement for the dollar as the world’s reserve currency.

The IMF said Special Drawing Rights, or SDRs, could help stabilize the global financial system.

SDRs represent potential claims on the currencies of IMF members. They were created by the IMF in 1969 and can be converted into whatever currency a borrower requires at exchange rates based on a weighted basket of international currencies. The IMF typically lends countries funds denominated in SDRs

While they are not a tangible currency, some economists argue that SDRs could be used as a less volatile alternative to the U.S. dollar.

Dominique Strauss-Kahn, managing director of the IMF, acknowledged there are some “technical hurdles” involved with SDRs, but he believes they could help correct global imbalances and shore up the global financial system.

“Over time, there may also be a role for the SDR to contribute to a more stable international monetary system,” he said.

The goal is to have a reserve asset for central banks that better reflects the global economy since the dollar is vulnerable to swings in the domestic economy and changes in U.S. policy.

In addition to serving as a reserve currency, the IMF also proposed creating SDR-denominated bonds, which could reduce central banks’ dependence on U.S. Treasuries. The Fund also suggested that certain assets, such as oil and gold, which are traded in U.S. dollars, could be priced using SDRs.

Oil prices usually go up when the dollar depreciates. Supporters say using SDRs to price oil on the global market could help prevent spikes in energy prices that often occur when the dollar weakens significantly.

Fred Bergsten, director of the Peterson Institute for International Economics, said at a conference in Washington that IMF member nations should agree to create $2 trillion worth of SDRs over the next few years.

SDRs, he said, “will further diversify the system.”

Dollar firms after starting 2011 weak

The dollar has been drifting lower so far this year as the global economy improves and investors regain their appetite for more risky assets such as stocks and commodities.

After rising above 81 in early January, the dollar index, which measures the U.S. currency against a basket of other international currencies, eased below 77 earlier this week.

However, the dollar was higher Thursday against the euro, pound and yen as disappointing corporate results weighed on stock prices following several days of gains on Wall Street. The rally in the commodities market also cooled, with the price of oil and metals backing off recent highs.

In addition, renewed concerns about the debt problems facing troubled European economies put pressure on the euro and supported the dollar. The yield on Portugal’s benchmark bond rose to a record high Wednesday, and borrowing costs for Ireland, Spain and Greece remain elevated.

“The market is shedding risk, with equities and commodities weakening and the U.S. dollar broadly stronger” said Camilla Sutton, currency strategist at Scotia Capital.

Traders were also digesting comments from Federal Reserve chairman Ben Bernanke, who told Congress Wednesday that despite a strengthening economic recovery, the unemployment rate remains high while inflation is “still quite low.”

Those remarks reaffirmed the view that “the Fed would be very slow to tighten policy given its dual mandate of price stability and employment,” analysts at Sucden Financial wrote in a research report.

Bernanke also urged lawmakers to come up with a “credible plan” to bring down “unsustainable” federal budget deficits.

“We expect that the outlook for the U.S. fiscal position will weigh heavily on the U.S. dollar in the quarters ahead,” said Sutton. In the near-term, however, she said “a strengthening growth profile” could help provide “a temporary period of dollar strength.”

The second debt storm

Who will bail out the countries that bailed out the world’s corporations?

Market Watch

The debt mountain that brought down some of the world’s biggest banks and dragged the international financial system to the brink ofsovereign debt disaster has simply shifted to governments. Now it’s threatening countries around the globe — and, if left unchecked, could rip the very fabric of Europe’s economic system and wreck economic recoveries in the U.S., China and Latin America.

The impact on markets has been severe. The euro has slumped more than 12% against the dollar since the sovereign-debt crisis flared in southern Europe. Gold has marched to new highs as investors seek a safe haven and, perhaps most alarming, it is now more expensive to buy insurance against national default than it is to insure against corporate failure.

“The sovereign-debt crisis spun out of control in the past week, and we see no easy way to resolve it,” said Madeline Schnapp, director of macroeconomic research at TrimTabs Investment Research.

Some investors and analysts are increasingly concerned that governments may be no more capable of repaying their debts than the banks and insurance companies they saved. And, they warn, if a major country comes close to default, it could trigger a financial meltdown that would eclipse the panic that followed the bankruptcy of Lehman Brothers in 2008.

The world has seen sovereign debt crises before. Latin America, Africa and Asia have all experienced upheavals sparked by excessive debt. These crises were all accompanied by stunted economic growth, inflation and weak stock market returns, which make it even harder to pay off debts. As investors and government officials ponder the current state of affairs, they see ominous signs that the developed world may be facing a similarly bleak future.

“The problem of the western world is that we have too much debt,” said Daniel Arbess, who manages the Xerion investment strategy at Perella Weinberg Partners. “Rather than reducing our debt, we’ve been moving it from one balance sheet to another.”

“All we’re doing is shifting chairs on the deck of the Titanic,” he added.

Europe’s bailout

Some governments have started to respond to market pressure, with the U.K. pledging billions of pounds in spending cuts this week. Spain and Portugal also unveiled austerity measures. But the problem is so big that investors remain wary. Check out Portugal’s plans.

Stock markets plunged and credit markets shuddered last week on concern Greece and other indebted European countries like Portugal and Spain might default. See the story on market impact.

“What’s happened on a corporate level is now happening on a national level. The first nation to experience this is Greece, but other nations will, too,” Schnapp said.

To stop Greece’s debt troubles turning into a run on the euro and a global stock market rout, the European Union unveiled an unprecedented package of almost $1 trillion in emergency loans, stabilization funds and International Monetary Fund support on Sunday.

In the days that followed, the European Central Bank bought the government debt of Greece and other countries on the periphery of the region’s single-currency zone, such as Portugal, Spain, Italy and Ireland, investors said. Such a drastic step has been shunned by the ECB until now. Read about the market response on Monday.

“Temporarily the crisis in terms of liquidity has been averted, but the underlying problem hasn’t gone away,” Schnapp added. “Giant debt and expenditures by governments are still there.”

TrimTabs cut its recommendation on U.S. equities to neutral from fully bullish on Sunday, in the wake of the European bailout.

Protection

The sovereign crisis has been brewing for months.

For much of the financial crisis, investors worried about financial institutions defaulting, rather than sovereign nations. But that pattern has been upended.

In early February, the cost of insuring against a sovereign default in Western Europe exceeded the price of similar protection against default by North American investment-grade companies. That was the first time this had happened, according to data compiled by Markit from the credit derivatives market.

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