How The Triffin Dilemma Affects Currencies

Robert Triffin's Dollar Prediction

In October 1959, a Yale professor sat in front of Congress' Joint Economic Committee and calmly announced that the Bretton Woods system was doomed. The dollar could not survive as the world's reserve currency without requiring the United States to run ever-growing deficits. This dismal scientist was Belgium-born Robert Triffin, and he was right. The Bretton Woods system collapsed in 1971, and today the dollar's role as the reserve currency has the United States running the largest current account deficit in the world.

For much of the 20th century, the U.S. dollar was the currency of choice. Central banks and investors alike bought dollars to hold as foreign exchange reserves, and with good reason. The U.S. had a stable political climate, did not experience the ravages of world wars like Europe had, and had a steadily growing economy that was large enough to absorb shocks.

Key Takeaways

  • Robert Triffin believed the dollar could not survive as the world's reserve currency without requiring the United States to run ever-growing deficits.
  • A popular reserve currency lifts its exchange rate, which hurts the currency-issuing country's exports, leading to a trade deficit.
  • A country that issues a reserve currency must balance its interests with the responsibility to make monetary decisions that benefit other countries.
  • Another reserve currency replacing the dollar would increase borrowing costs, which could impact the United States' ability to repay debt.
  • A new international monetary system could potentially help countries maintain a reserve currency status.

Reserve Currency Considerations

By "agreeing" to have its currency used as a reserve currency, a country pins its hands behind its back. To keep the global economy chugging along, it may have to inject large amounts of currency into circulation, driving up inflation at home. The more popular the reserve currency is relative to other currencies, the higher its exchange rate and the less competitive domestic exporting industries become. This causes a trade deficit for the currency-issuing country but makes the world happy. If the reserve currency country instead decides to focus on domestic monetary policy by not issuing more currency, then the world becomes unhappy.

Reserve Currency Paradox

Becoming a reserve currency presents countries with a paradox. They want the "interest-free" loan generated by selling currency to foreign governments, and they need to be able to raise capital quickly because of high demand for reserve currency-denominated bonds. At the same time, they want to be able to use capital and monetary policy to ensure that domestic industries are competitive in the world market and to make sure that the domestic economy is healthy and not running large trade deficits. Unfortunately, both of these ideas—cheap sources of capital and positive trade balances—usually can't happen at the same time.

This is the Triffin dilemma, named after Robert Triffin, an economist who wrote of the impending doom of the Bretton Woods system in his 1960 book, Gold and the Dollar Crisis: The Future of Convertibility. He pointed out that the years of pumping dollars into the world economy through post-war programs, such as the Marshall Plan, was making it increasingly difficult to stick to the gold standard. The country had to achieve this by instilling international confidence through a current account surplus while also having a current account deficit by providing immediate access to gold. 

Issuing a reserve currency means that monetary policy is no longer a domestic-only issue—it's international. Governments have to balance the desire to keep unemployment low and economic growth steady with its responsibility to make monetary decisions that will benefit other countries. The reserve currency status is, thus, a threat to national sovereignty.

Another Reserve Currency

What would happen if another currency, such as China's yuan, were to become the world's reserve currency of choice? The dollar would likely depreciate relative to other currencies, which could boost exports and lower the trade deficit. The bigger issue, however, would be an increase in borrowing costs as demand for a constant flow of dollars tapered off, which could have a severe impact on the ability of the U.S. to repay its debt or fund domestic programs. China, on the other hand, will have to quickly modernize its financial system, long lamented for protecting its export-led industries, through currency manipulation. Demand for yuan convertibility means that China's central bank would have to relax regulations relating to yuan-denominated bonds.

New International Monetary System

There is another possibility for reducing the pressures countries face trying to maintain reserve currency status: a new international monetary system—an idea floated for several decades as a potential solution. One possibility is the special drawing right, a type of reserve asset maintained by a global institution, such as the International Monetary Fund (IMF). While this is not a currency, it does represent a claim by other countries on foreign exchange assets. A more radical idea would be to create a global currency, a concept pushed by John Maynard Keynes, with a value based either on gold or the mechanizations of a global central bank. This is probably the more complex solution available and does present problems relating to sovereignty, stability, and administration. After all, how can you hold an organization accountable that is voluntary?

The Bottom Line

In the short-term, the prospect of a reserve currency replacing the dollar is slim to none. Despite the economic and political problems facing the United States, its "safe-haven" status is hard to beat, especially in light of the plight of the euro. It is hard to parse out what exactly would happen if the dollar were to be overtaken by another currency, and it is equally difficult to predict what budgetary and austerity measures in Europe and the United States will do to the global economy in the coming years.

Article Sources
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  1. United States Congress Joint Economic Committee. "Hearing Before the Joint Economic Committee, October 1959," Page 2905.

  2. Office of the Historian. "Nixon and the End of the Bretton Woods System, 1971–1973."

  3. National Bureau of Economic Research. "Triffin: Dilemma or Myth," Pages 3-8.

  4. Office of the Historian. "Bretton Woods-GATT, 1941–1947."

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