The richest and most powerful nations descended on South Korea last Thursday. It was the biggest G-20 summit of all time—with nearly 10,000 of the world’s most influential politicians, ceos of international organizations and corporate business barons in attendance. Although several items made it onto the official agenda, the big, all-encompassing issue was what to do about the U.S. dollar.
Tempers are flaring. The world is up in arms.
The problem is enormous: America’s trade partners can either knuckle under, letting their currencies appreciate and risking severe recession—or they can stage a dollar revolt. This would upend the global economic system.
It’s in this precarious climate that the Federal Reserve, just prior to the G-20 meeting, raised the stakes. It announced that it would unleash a new round of “quantitative easing” to “stimulate” the economy—a move that is guaranteed to sink the dollar even more. The Fed’s hope was that by creating an additional $600 billion—out of thin air—to purchase U.S. government bonds, interest rates would fall and consumers would begin spending.
The world, however, took a more cynical view.
“They have already pumped endless amounts of money into the economy with extremely high budget deficits, and with a monetary policy which has already pumped in lots of money,” said Germany’s Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble. “The results have been hopeless. With all due respect, [the] US policy is clueless.”
Some nations, like Germany, see U.S. policy as a blatant attempt to devalue the dollar and thus steal trade. Others, like China, worry that it was an attempt to stealthily repay America’s debt with fraudulent dollars.
Washington’s relations with Beijing especially have been strained by U.S. complaints that China’s yuan is undervalued, while Beijing has argued that the U.S. Federal Reserve’s easy-money policy is aimed at weakening the dollar to boost exports and inflate away debt.
“If we don’t get this right, it’s my view that we will see currency wars, we’ll see retaliatory action taken that will be bad for economic growth, that would have unintended consequences,” New Zealand Prime Minister John Key said, one day into the fractious negotiations.Global imbalances are so huge that major sacrifices would have to be made by all parties for any headway to be made. Instead, look for the world to continue to search for an alternative reserve currency to the dollar.