John Mauldin: Is the Renminbi Soon to Be a Reserve Currency?

John Mauldin |
I get the question all the time: when will the Chinese renminbi (RMB) replace the US dollar as the major world reserve currency? The assumption behind such questions is almost always that the coming crisis in US entitlement programs will force the Fed to monetize even more debt, thereby killing the dollar. Or some derivative line of that thought. Contrary to the thinking of fretful dollar skeptics, my firm belief is that the US dollar is going to become even stronger and will at some point actually deserve to be the reserve currency of choice rather than merely the prettiest girl in the ugly contest – the last currency standing, so to speak.

But whether the Chinese RMB will become a reserve currency is an entirely different question. Of course it will, over time, but the question has always been when. There are some preconditions required for reserve currency status. Quietly, apart from anything that might happen to the US dollar, China is working to meet those conditions. Rather than wallowing in concerns about China's actions, we might opt for a more thoughtful and constructive response: to welcome the RMB to the reserve currency club and hope that it gets here soon. The world will be a better place when that happens. And off the radar screen, it may be happening right now. Today we look at global trade flows and international balances and try to imagine a world in which much "common wisdom" gets stood on its head. It should make for an interesting thought experiment, to say the least. (This letter will print a little longer than usual, as there are numerous charts and graphs.)

One of the prerequisites for a true reserve currency is that there must be a steady and ready supply of the currency to facilitate global trade. The United States has done its part in providing an ample supply of US dollars by running massive trade deficits with the rest of the world, primarily with oil-producing nations and with Asia (most notably China and Japan), for all manner of manufactured products. The US consumer has been the buyer of last resort for several decades (I say, somewhat tongue in cheek). Those dollars typically end up in the reserve balances of various producing nations and find their way back to the US, primarily invested in US government bonds. In an odd sense, the rest of the world has been providing vendor financing to the US, the richest nation in the world.

The US Trade Deficit Turns Positive

The US trade deficit (a key component of the current account deficit – see chart on next page) fell to an unprecedented percentage of GDP during the last decade, a development that normally heralds a significant drop in a currency. Fortunately, the "exorbitant privilege" of controlling the world's dominant currency in reserve holdings, international trade, and financial transactions has helped shield the US dollar from a hard correction; but that status quo is in danger. After flooding the world with US dollars for more than twenty years, the US has reduced its current account deficit by 58% since the 2007-2008 financial crisis began. Looking ahead, I and many other observers believe this measure can continue to improve, due two surprisingly positive factors:

  1. The US energy boom in shale oil and gas. The US has caught an incredibly well-timed "lucky break" made possible by the combination of new exploration, production, and processing technologies (such as horizontal drilling and fracking) and by the serendipitous discovery of massive supplies of oil and gas, often in areas that already have significant infrastructure and/or are accessible at reasonable costs. This energy renaissance is part of the reality that has made Houston, Texas, the number one port in the United States, with even more growth coming in the near future when the Panama Canal expansion is completed in 2014. US manufacturers are turning less-expensive oil and gas into value-added fossil fuel products and exporting them to the world. This trend will become ever more important. Indeed, when the first LNG export terminal is opened in a few years, the additional exports will approach $80 billion a year, I am told. From one terminal! There are four in the process of being approved and more on the planning boards. The math is there for anyone to do. Spot prices in the US natural gas-producing areas are under $4. The Japanese are paying more than $14. Even I can do that arbitrage. Just for fun, the next graph, from the Energy Information Administration, shows the rise in spot gas prices over the last six months, from a level that had been far too low. It also shows the arbitrage potential that exists right here in the US.

  1. The consequent renaissance in US manufacturing. With cheaper energy and new technologies like advanced robotics and 3D printing, the US is producing more than we ever have – we're just doing it with fewer people.

These two trends are bullish for the US in general. But that's another story for another letter. The point today is that the US current account deficit is collapsing. A positive trade balance is not an unthinkable prospect today. It is quite possible that the US will be more or less energy self-sufficient by the end of the decade and could have a positive trade balance not long after that. I should note that exporting value-added chemicals made from less expensive energy will contribute even more to the positive balance than simply selling the raw natural gas.

To continue reading this article from Thoughts from the Frontline – a free weekly publication by John Mauldin, renowned financial expert, best-selling author, and Chairman of Mauldin Economics – please click here.

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