What are Reserve Assets?

Reserve assets are financial assets denominated in foreign currencies, held by central banks, that are primarily used to balance payments. A reserve asset must be readily available to monetary authorities, must be an external physical asset that is, in some measure, controlled by policymakers, and must be easily transferable.

Key Takeaways

  • Reserve assets are currencies or other assets, like gold, that can be readily transferable and are used to balance international transactions and payments.
  • A reserve asset must be readily available, must be a physical asset, must be controlled by policymakers, and must be easily transferable.
  • The U.S. dollar is a reserve currency, meaning it is widely held as a reserve asset around the world.

Understanding Reserve Assets

Reserve assets include currencies, commodities, or other financial capital held by monetary authorities, such as central banks, to finance trade imbalances, check the impact of foreign exchange fluctuations, and address other issues under the purview of the central bank. They can also be used to restore confidence in financial markets.

The U.S. dollar (USD) is widely considered to be the predominant reserve asset and, because of this, most global central banks will hold a substantial amount of U.S. dollars.

Reserve assets, as per the International Monetary Fund's (IMF) balance of payments manual, must, at a minimum, comprise the following financial assets:

  • Gold
  • Foreign currencies: By far the most important official reserve. The currencies must be tradable (can buy/sell anywhere), such as the USD or euro (EUR).
  • Special drawing rights (SDRs): Represent rights to obtain foreign exchange or other reserve assets from other IMF members.
  • Reserve position with the IMF: Reserves that the country has given to the IMF that are readily available to the member country.

Before the Bretton Woods agreement ended in 1971, most central banks used gold as their reserve asset. Today, central banks may still hold gold in reserve, but this has been supplanted by reserves of tradable foreign currencies. Currencies held by central banks have to be readily convertible, meaning that the currency should have high enough stable demand (and low controls) to allow the central bank to use them.

Reserve assets can be used to fund currency manipulation activities by the central bank. In general, it is easier to push the value of a currency down than to prop it up, since propping the currency up involves selling off reserves to buy domestic assets. This can burn through reserves quickly. The central bank can put downward pressure on the currency by adding more money into the system and using that money to buy foreign assets. The downside to this strategy is the potential for increased inflation.

Central Banks

The central bank of a country (or group of countries), such as the Federal Reserve in the U.S., is given special privileges to monitor and control money and credit (banking system) within the country or zone. The central bank comes up with and implements monetary policy.

Since international trade is a major determinant in the economic success of a country, managing reserve assets falls under the purview of the central bank.

When a country's currency is too strong, the central bank may take steps to weaken the currency, such as when the Swiss National Bank lowered interest rates into negative territory to help curb speculative buying of the Swiss franc which is viewed as a safe haven.

If a currency is too weak, this is usually a sign of deteriorating economic conditions, which the central bank will try to correct using internal credit or money supply controls, or possibly selling foreign reserves to prop up (buy) the currency.

Example of Reserve Assets and How They Are Used

Between 2011 and 2015 the Swiss National Bank (SNB) introduced and implemented an exchange-rate ceiling. The central bank wanted to cap the price of the Swiss franc (CHF) against the euro. A rising franc could hurt Swiss exporters since it becomes more expensive for other European countries to buy their goods.

Manipulating the price of a currency, to cap it in this case, requires a number of tools. The SNB opted to print francs, which in itself creates more supply for francs and helps lower the price. The SNB then sold those francs to buy the euro and other foreign currencies. This helped pushed the franc down, and other currencies up. This ballooned the SNB's reserves, and by 2014 they had amassed about 70% of gross domestic product (GDP) in foreign currency.

The SNB also dropped interest rates to 0% at the end of 2011. By 2015, rates were dropped further, to -0.75%. These drops further dissuaded the buying of francs.

In 2015, the SNB abandoned the ceiling on the franc. The franc skyrocketed as the SNB could no longer keep printing francs and increasing their reserve assets. The immediate result was a sharp rise in the franc.

At the start of 2015, the EUR/CHF was trading just above 1.2, where the ceiling had been set. On January 15, 2015, the ceiling was abandoned. The rate immediately dropped below 0.98, which means the EUR fell dramatically, and the CHF increased dramatically.

Following the sharp rise, between 2015 and mid-2018 the CHF gave back most of its gains, briefly touching 1.2 in April of 2018. As of July 2019, interest rates in Switzerland remain at -0.75% and the EUR/CHF exchange rate is near 1.12.