from the Wall Street Journal
When Donald Trump recently declared that “Americanism, not globalism, will be our credo,” he was expressing the kind of sentiment that animates not only his new Republican coalition, but nationalists everywhere. From the leaders of Russia and China to the rising European parties hostile to an open Europe, these nationalists are linked by a belief that in all matters of policy, their nation should come first.
This world-wide turning inward, however, comes in a period when countries are more beholden than ever to one institution, the U.S. Federal Reserve. Every hint of a shift in Washington’s monetary policy is met with a sharp response by global markets, which in turn affect the U.S. economy more dramatically than ever.
The Fed has been forced to recognize that it can no longer focus on America alone. When the Federal Open Market Committee voted in January 2015 to hold interest rates steady, its official statement explicitly noted, for the first time, that it was factoring “international developments” into its decisions. Since then the Fed, including this week, has frequently cited international threats, from Brexit to China, as reason to continue with hyper-accommodative monetary policy.
Though Mr. Trump argues that America must tend to its own affairs because it is weak, the Fed’s evolving role shows the limits of this argument. The U.S. may have slipped as an economic superpower, falling to 23% of global GDP from 40% in 1960. But as a financial superpower Washington has never been more influential. Forecasts of the dollar’s downfall have completely missed the mark.
Since the 15th century the world has had six unofficial reserve currencies, starting with the Portuguese real. On average they have maintained their leading position for 94 years. The dollar succeeded the British pound 96 years ago, and it has no serious rival in sight.
In the past 15 years, total foreign currency reserves world-wide rose from under $3 trillion to $11 trillion. Nearly two thirds of those reserves are held in dollars, a share that has barely changed in decades. Nearly 90% of global trade transactions involve dollars, even in deals without an American party. A Korean company selling TVs in Brazil, for instance, will generally ask for payment in dollars.
Because the Fed controls the supply of dollars, it reigns supreme. Its influence has only grown since the financial crisis of 2008. As the Fed began experimenting with quantitative easing to inject dollars into the system, tens of billions flowed out of the country every month. The amount of dollar loans extended to borrowers outside the U.S. has doubled since 2009 to $9 trillion—a record 75% of global nonresidential lending. Many of those are in the form of bonds, and bond investors are highly sensitive to U.S. interest rates.
That helps explain why any sign of Fed tightening, which reduces the supply of dollars, sends global markets into a tizzy. Earlier this year, for example, Chinese investors were shipping billions abroad every month, searching for higher yields. The Fed had been expected to raise short-term interest rates later this year, but it backed off that commitment in February, when China appeared headed toward a financial crisis.
Had the Fed tightened, China’s central bank would have been pressured to follow, crippling the flow of credit that is keeping the Chinese economy afloat. So instead the Fed held steady, effectively bailing out Beijing. Though many Americans still see the U.S. as deeply in hock to China, the fact is that China is even more reliant on easy money to fuel growth—putting the country’s economic fate in Washington’s hands.
The Fed is thus caught in a trap. Every time the U.S. economy starts to perk up, the Fed signals its intent to start returning interest rates to normal. But that signal sends shock waves through a heavily indebted global economy and back to American shores. So the Fed delays rate increases, as it did in June and again this week.
The rest of the world recognizes the Fed’s power as well. As soon as quantitative easing began, finance ministers from Brazil to Taiwan warned about the risks of unleashing torrents of dollars. They said it would drive up the value of currencies in the emerging world, destabilize local financial markets, undermine exports and economic growth.
The Fed was initially skeptical. Its then-chief Ben Bernanke argued that the central bank’s policies were a boost for every country. Other officials stated bluntly that the rest of the world wasn’t their problem. “We only have a mandate to concern ourselves with the interest of the United States,” Dennis Lockhart, president of the Atlanta Fed, said in 2013. “Other countries simply have to take that as a reality and adjust to us if that’s something important for their economies.”
The Fed has since discovered the world, which matters more than ever to the American economy. In the past 15 years the share of U.S. corporate revenues that come from foreign markets has risen from a quarter to a third. The more interconnected global markets become, the more rapidly financial instability in the rest of the world ricochets to hurt the U.S.
In the immediate aftermath of the financial crisis, the Fed’s loose policies may have temporarily stimulated growth world-wide. But those policies have come back to haunt it. Fed officials ignored the resulting excesses, including the credit and asset bubbles building around the world. Now every time the Fed tries to tighten, the dollar starts to strengthen and global markets seize up, forcing the Fed to retreat. It’s unclear how to end this cycle, but this much is apparent: The financial hegemony of the U.S. has never been greater, making the Fed the central bank of the world.