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China’s SDR Distraction

WASHINGTON, DC – At the start of October, China’s currency, the renminbi, was added to the basket of currencies that make up the International Monetary Fund’s Special Drawing Rights, or SDR. Previously, the SDR had been defined as a weighted average of the dollar, euro, British pound, and Japanese yen. Now that the renminbi has been added, it can claim to be one of just five truly global currencies.

Should we care? The Chinese certainly do. In Beijing, where I was late last month, joining the rarefied SDR club was all people wanted to talk about. (Okay, truth be told, they also wanted to talk about Donald Trump.)

Seeing the renminbi added to the SDR basket was a matter of national pride. It symbolized China’s emergence as a global power. And it vindicated the government’s efforts to encourage use of the renminbi in cross-border transactions, freeing China and the rest of the world from over-dependence on the dollar.

But the fact of the matter is that adding the renminbi to the SDR basket has little practical significance. The SDR is not a currency; it is just the unit in which the IMF reports its financial accounts. Only a small handful of international bonds are denominated in SDRs, because banks and firms do not find this option particularly attractive. The main issuer of SDR bonds is the IMF’s sister organization, the World Bank (the Fund itself is not authorized to issue bonds).