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Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) and the Power of the US Dollar in the World Economy (Part 1)

Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) has become popularized by some of the liberal-left because it offers an explanation how to achieve full employment, national health insurance, free college education, and the Green New Deal without raising taxes. Political leaders like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Bernie Sanders have espoused MMT. Economist Stephanie Kelton, a leading spokesperson of the theory, served as chief economic adviser to Sanders during his 2016 presidential campaign.

We summarize the basics of MMT on the significance of a “sovereign” currency and consider which currencies meet the conditions of being sovereign in the existing structure of the world economic system.  This requires a review of the role the US dollar plays in world trade and how the dollar dominates the world trade system. For MMT, the existence of a sovereign currency explains the US capacity to keep pumping dollars into the economy and not experience inflation. In a subsequent article we address the validity of this last claim.

The Essentials of Modern Monetary Theory

The central idea of MMT states that a country that issues its own currency, a “sovereign” currency, can never run out of money or go bankrupt the way households or businesses can. Any government spending can be paid for by the creation of more money. Therefore, national government spending should not be determined by balancing the budget or limiting deficit levels, but only by whether spending is keeping the economy at full employment and at a reasonable level of inflation.

The US government, being a currency issuer, has its own sovereign currency, the dollar, just as Japan has the yen, and Britain the pound. The US, as the exclusive producer of the US dollar, can create more money whenever it needs. That is not the same for countries without their own currency, such as the eurozone nations which are shared users of the euro. In a similar manner, state and local governments in the US do not possess their own currency, and have to keep balanced budgets.

MMT states national government spending does not have to be paid for with taxes. It can print money and not experience inflation. The purpose of taxes, according to MMT, serves to limit inflation, by taking consumers’ money out of the money supply. This goes against the conventional idea that taxes provide the government with money to spend on the military, build infrastructure, fund social welfare programs, etc.

According to MMT, the only limit the government faces when pumping out money is the availability of real resources: raw materials, workers, construction supplies, etc. It is only when an economy hits physical or natural constraints on its productivity, when these resources have been fully put to use, will inflation result if the government continues introducing more money into the economy. Unemployment itself is the result of a government spending too little.

While the theory is controversial, much of what MMT says about US government creation of dollars and inflation is true. MMTers are not the only economists who say it. Former chair of the Federal Reserve Alan Greenspan remarked: “The United States can pay any debt it has because we can always print money to do that. So there is zero probability of default.”

Another former Fed chair, Ben Bernanke, likewise commented that the federal government’s $1 trillion bailout of the banks due to the 2008 financial crisis caused by their fraud did not come from raising taxes:

It’s not tax money. The banks have accounts with the Fed, much the same way that you have an account in a commercial bank. So, to lend to a bank, we simply use the computer to mark up the size of the account that they have with the Fed. It’s much more akin to printing money than it is to borrowing.  And we need to do that, because our economy is very weak and inflation is very low.

Former IMF chief economist and president of the American Economic Association, Olivier Blanchard declared: “Put bluntly, public debt may have no fiscal cost” given that “The current US situation in which safe interest rates are expected to remain below growth rates for a long time, is more the historical norm than the exception.”

Moreover, the US has run up its national debt, has not reached full employment, nor put in play all economic resources, and has not endured inflation, just as MMT predicted. The US government this spring created $6 trillion out of thin air to fund corporations, banks and to a lesser degree, working people, during the stock market crash and COVID pandemic. Yet the rate of inflation rate is less than 1%, lower than in 2019. The Quantitative Easing program (their term for creating money out of thin air) likewise conjured up $4.5 trillion from 2009-2014, and this also caused little inflation here.

Nations Possessing a Sovereign Currency

The key question for MMT is which nations besides the US have a “sovereign currency.” While definitions of monetary sovereignty provided by MMT authors vary, there are central elements. One, the government issues the national currency and imposes tax liabilities in that currency. Therefore, countries that do not print their own currency, such as those using the euro, do not have a sovereign currency. Two, the currency is fully floating, meaning it has a flexible exchange rate system determined by market forces of demand and supply of foreign and domestic currency, and where government intervention is non-existent. According to the IMF, 31 countries have “free floating currencies;” however, 19 of them use the euro.  The remaining  12 are Australia, Canada, Chile, Japan, Mexico, Norway, Poland, Russia, Sweden, the UK, Somalia, and the US. Three, the nation has no debt denominated in foreign currency. It receives foreign loans and repays them in its own currency. A country with an MMT sovereign currency is able to conduct trade with other states in its own currency.

Third World nations, a central MMT economist Randall Wray explains, “are not international reserve currency issuing countries.” If countries peg their currency to the dollar or the euro and if they receive loans payable in foreign currency:

They usually will adopt austerity as a means to obtaining US dollars, and that means that they have slow growth, they’ve failed to develop, and they are dependent on the US, the IMF, and the World Bank. So we recommend moving off the peg and stop issuing government debt in foreign currencies. Now, we know that’s a difficult condition, and it’s only the first step. They’ve got to move toward food independence and energy independence, because those are usually two of the things that they import. And they’ve got many other problems to deal with, political problems, corruption, and possibly foreign intervention.

Fadhel Kaboub, the leading MMT economist on Third World economies, agrees. He points out that Third World nations count on staple food and energy imports and on imported advanced technology. They therefore, accumulate foreign debts, mostly in dollars and euros. When asked if there were any Third World nations follow the conditions MMT recommends to develop,  Kaboub replied, “Unfortunately, not that I know of.” The closest, he said, were South Korea under the military dictatorship, and Singapore at some period in the past.

Given the MMT conditions for a sovereign currency, only 12 nations met the first two conditions. Meeting the further conditions, possessing no debt payable in a foreign currency and conducting its trade with other states in its own currency, requires a study of the role of the dollar in the world economy.

The Role of the US Dollar in World Trade

  1. Most International Trade Takes Place in the Dollar

Most traded commodities in the world, including basic commodities such as oil and food grains, are priced in dollars on the global market. Generally, trade contracts between countries take place in the US currency, followed by the euro and the Japanese yen.

Therefore, foreign nations require dollars to conduct international trade.  Exchange of goods and services among countries amounted to 39.7 trillion in dollar terms, in 2018, 46% of the global economy. The Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication (SWIFT) reports the majority of global trade takes place in dollars. (SWIFT is a key instrument the US uses to enforce its unilateral coercive measures – US imposed sanctions – to disrupt the international trading of a wide variety of countries.) In 2014, SWIFT determined the dollar makes up a 52% share of the value of international currency usage, a share that has been growing. The euro, used in trade in the eurozone region, is second, with a 30.5% share of total value. The British pound is third, with a 5.4% share. Concerning trade between regions of the world, the dollar’s role as payment currency rose to 79.5%.

Claudio Grass, a Swiss banker, gives a higher figure, with around 70% of world trade conducted in US dollars, and excluding trade among European states based on the euro, the percentage goes up to 90%. Forbes noted:

Almost all international transactions are done in US dollars.  Nearly all of the world’s commodities are priced in U.S dollars. So, an auto manufacturer in Korea importing steel from Japan must first convert Korean won into US dollars, pay for the transaction in dollars, and the Japanese exporter, once receiving the payment, must convert the dollars into Japanese yen.  So, the Dollar is key to much of the world’s trade.

Clearly, even the secondary imperial (“developed”) powers rely on the dollar for their economic operations.

A July 2020 IMF study looked at the pricing of worldwide exports and imports in dollars, euros, and other currencies since 1990. The dollar remains the prime currency used to price goods in global trade, even increasingly used for invoicing (as was also the euro) in spite of the decline in US and eurozone international trade, mostly due to the ever-increasing trade of China.

Studies of the Role of the Dollar in Country Imports and Exports

A 2018 Harvard economics report corroborates this: “the vast majority of invoicing is neither in the local currency or in the producer’s currency but instead in a ‘dominant currency’, which is most often the U.S. dollar.” Even other imperial (“developed”) countries’ trade takes place not in their own currencies, but mostly in dollars.  Another Harvard study noted that while only 13% of Japan’s imports come from the US, 71% of Japanese imports are priced in dollars, while only 33% of its exports are actually in Japanese yen. For the eurozone in 2018, 56% of the goods imported and 34% of good exported were calculated in dollars.

The Chinese renminbi (RMB), despite China being the world’s number one trader with 12.4% of world trade in 2018, was used in a mere 2% of international payments.    The US, by contrast, is second largest with 11.5%, yet the dollar reigns as the world currency.

For Latin America, 97% of exports and 90% of imports are still made in dollars  even while China’s trade with Latin America has grown to half the size of US trade with the region.

The United States stands in sharp contrast to other nations, again showing the world power of the dollar. In 2015 93% of US imports were invoiced in the dollar, while 97% of its exports were.

  1. Most Foreign Central Bank Holdings Are in the Dollar

Central banks worldwide hold a considerable portion of their reserves in dollars, using it as their primary reserve currency. As of 2019, foreign government central banks held $6.8 trillion in US dollar reserves, about 61% of combined central bank foreign exchange reserves of $11 trillion. Nearly two-thirds of the world’s currency reserves are held in dollars, more than the combined holdings of all other currencies. The next closest reserve currency is the euro, which makes up 20% of known foreign central bank currency reserves. Japanese yen accounts for 5.7%, British pound 4.4%. Central banks held only 2% of their reserves in Chinese RMB, amounting to $221 billion worth of RMB.

The dollar’s portion of these foreign reserves has remained relatively the same since 2009. The New York Times noted in 2019, “The dollar has in recent years amassed greater stature as the favored repository for global savings, the paramount refuge in times of crisis and the key form of exchange for commodities like oil.”

  1. Almost Two-Thirds of International Debt Held Outside the US Must be Paid in Dollars

In 2018, 63% of international debt was denominated in dollars (to be paid in dollars), a percent that has been slowly rising since 2005. The second most common currency owed for international debt is the euro, at about 23%.

There is $28 trillion worth of debt, to be paid in dollars, held by governments and private business outside the US. This is said to increase $1.6 trillion to $2 trillion a year. Foreign countries actually issued $11 trillion of this $28 trillion debt in the US currency rather than their own.

Third World government debt was the equivalent of 15 trillion in dollar terms. About 70% of this Third World debt is actually issued and owed in US dollars. This debt in dollars held abroad further serves to entrench the dollar as the world sovereign currency.

  1. Foreign Exchange Trading Dominated by the Dollar

Foreign exchange is the process of changing one currency into another for a variety of reasons, usually for commerce, trading, or tourism. The Foreign Exchange market has an estimated turnover of $6.6 trillion a day. In 2019, 88% of the world’s foreign exchange trading involves exchanging some currency with one in particular, the US dollar.  The euro ranked second with 32%, Japanese yen third at 17%. Chinese RMB ranked eighth at 4%. The dollar’s hold in this measure of the world’s most dependable currency remains the same as in 2004, while the euro, yen and British pound have tended to decline.

  1. Most Foreign Currencies Rotate around the Dollar

While the US dollar ceased to be pegged to the price of gold, it continued as the monetary standard for other currencies, which revolve around the value of the dollar. At least 155 countries either directly peg their currency to the dollar, use the dollar as their own currency, or keep their currency in a tight trading range relative to the dollar. That constitutes just under 80% of the nations of the world. This means the quantity of dollars the US puts into circulation shapes to varying degrees the monetary policy of most other states. To maintain this relation to the dollar other states must keep a sufficient supply of them, undermining any sovereignty their currency may possess.  Nations that peg their currencies to the dollar typically rely on exports to the US. Their companies receive payment in dollars from the US market, which they then normally exchange with their own governments for their national currency.

The US Dollar Dominates the World Trade System

In spite of the US losing the status it held after World War II as workshop of the world, the dollar still exercises control over the world economy. It is the primary currency used in world trade; it is the main currency held in national central bank reserves; it is the currency used for just under two-thirds of all international debt; close to all exchange of world currencies involves one currency’s exchange for the dollar; most currencies’ exchange value is heavily influenced by the value of the dollar. Because foreign nations conduct trade in dollars and have debts in dollars, they are dependent on the dollar and the value of the dollar. This seriously compromises any sovereign power they possess.

Consequently, only in the dollar can we find a currency that meets the MMT conditions for being sovereign. All other countries must rely on the dollar to function, particularly for trade, although the degree of this dependency varies, with the subordinate First World powers exercising more independence than Third World nations. The present set-up of the world economy insures that another currency will not become sovereign like the US dollar. Therefore, the key importance MMT attaches to sovereign currency as a tool for national development loses value given these economic realities.

A gross omission made by MMT — the elephant in the room — is US corporate capital’s rule at home and abroad, which allows it to impose itself and its currency on the world. MMT compounds this weakness by presenting the obstacles nations face in establishing a sovereign currency largely as matters of political will, of choice. Ironically, this may explain MMT’s popularity at home in the liberal-left milieu. Implementing full employment, national health insurance, free college education, and the Green New Deal are presented as choices politicians have not yet made because of their mistaken beliefs concerning the national debt. Just clarify that we do not need to raise taxes and need not worry about inflation and bingo! We have what we want.

The question remains, however, why the US debt has grown over $10 trillion in 10 years with almost no inflation. Is the MMT explanation accurate, that the sovereign nature of the US dollar gives it that power? No. Printing or creating dollars out of thin air, backed by nothing, does create inflation. In Why the US Can Keep Increasing its Debt and not Suffer Inflation we show how the US has been able to export much of it and take many of the new dollars of out circulation. This does result from the US position as sovereign, but not in the sense MMT uses.

Stansfield Smith, Chicago ALBA Solidarity, is a long time Latin America solidarity activist, and presently puts out the AFGJ Venezuela Weekly. He is also the Senior Research Fellow at the Council on Hemispheric Affairs. Read other articles by Stansfield.

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