The Dollar and the Debt Ceiling

BERKELEY – The dollar is the world’s go-to currency. But for how much longer? Will the dollar’s status as the only true global currency be irreparably damaged by the battle in the US Congress over raising the federal government’s debt ceiling? Is the dollar’s “exorbitant privilege” as the world’s main reserve currency truly at risk?

To be sure, the purveyors of dollar doom and gloom have cried wolf before. When the subprime-mortgage crisis hit, it was widely predicted that the dollar would suffer. In fact, the greenback strengthened as investors seeking a safe haven rushed into US Treasury bonds. A year later, when Lehman Brothers failed, the dollar benefited from the safe-haven effect yet again.

Data from the International Monetary Fund confirm that these shocks caused little (if any) decline in the dominance of the dollar in central banks’ holdings of foreign-currency reserves. Likewise, data gathered by the Bank for International Settlements show that the dollar dominates global foreign-exchange transactions as much as it did in 2007.

But a default on US government debt precipitated by failure to raise the debt ceiling would be a very different kind of shock, with very different effects. In response to the subprime disruption and Lehman’s collapse, investors piled into US government bonds, because they offered safety and liquidity – prized attributes in a crisis. These are precisely the attributes that would be jeopardized by a default.