Last week, former NY Fed staffer Zoltan Pozsar sparked a shockwave across Wall Street when in his latest research piece, he suggested that as a result of the Ukraine war, which has resulted in a "commodity collateral" crisis (and which is quickly transforming into an old-school liquidity crisis), China's PBOC will soon emerge as a dominant central bank and as the commodity-backed yuan ascends to a position of power, the world's reserve currency, the dollar, would lose much of its global clout leading to even higher inflation across the western world:
This crisis is not like anything we have seen since President Nixon took the U.S. dollar off gold in 1971 – the end of the era of commodity-based money. When this crisis (and war) is over, the U.S. dollar should be much weaker and, on the flipside, the renminbi much stronger, backed by a basket of commodities. From the Bretton Woods era backed by gold bullion, to Bretton Woods II backed by inside money (Treasuries with un-hedgeable confiscation risks), to Bretton Woods III backed by outside money (gold bullion and other commodities). After this war is over, “money” will never be the same again... and Bitcoin (if it still exists then) will probably benefit from all this.
Of course, not everyone agreed with this radical view, with Rabobank's in-house geostrategist Michael Every among the most vocal critics of Pozsar's take. Over the weekend, another skeptic emerged, this time the global head of FX EM at Morgan Stanley, James Lord who in the bank's Sunday Start (available to pro subs) note asks "Have Sanctions Undermined the Dollar's Dominance?" and answers: no... but only for now, and warns that over the long run it is likely that Pozsar's dour view will be validated, as the act of sanctioning Russia and expelling it from the western financial system "likely calls into question the idea of a risk-free asset that underpins central bank FX reserves in general, and not just specifically for the dollar and US government-backed securities."
Assuming that there is a risk that all foreign authorities could potentially freeze the sovereign assets of another country - as has now happened - what are the implications? Lord sees at least three: i) Identifying the safest asset; ii) political alliances will be critical ("To put the dollar's dominance in the international financial system at serious risk, would-be challengers of the system would need to build strategic alliances with other large economies"), and iii) Onshoring foreign exchange assets (Pozsar's "outside money").
The Morgan Stanley strategist also notes that one way of doing this "is to buy physical gold and store it safely within the home jurisdiction."
The same could be said of other FX assets, as reserve managers will certainly have access to printed USD, EUR or CNY banknotes if they are stored in vaults at home, though there could be practical challenges in making large transactions in that scenario.
The other key beneficiary of Russia's shocking financial expulsion - as Zoltan correctly noted - is the yuan, as Lord explains:
... there will be reserve diversification, and we continue to believe that the share of the Chinese yuan in global FX reserves could reach 5-10% by 2030 at the expense of other reserve currencies. If some states are exploring alternative payment systems to SWIFT or looking to pursue greater bilateral trade in domestic currencies, the economic sanctions levied against Russia could act as an accelerant.
Yet while the countdown to the dollar's demise may have been indeed started, Morgan Stanley does not see anything actionable for a long time as "recent actions don’t undermine the dollar as the safest global reserve asset, and it is likely to remain the dominant global currency for the foreseeable future."
Read his full note below.
Ever since the US and its allies announced their intention to freeze the Central Bank of Russia’s foreign currency (FX) reserves, market practitioners have been quick to argue that this would likely accelerate a shift away from a US dollar-based international financial system. It is easy to understand why: Other central banks may now worry that their FX reserves are not as safe as they once thought and start to diversify away from the dollar.
Yet, despite frequent calls for the end of the dollar-based international financial system over the last couple of decades, the dollar remains overwhelmingly the world’s dominant reserve currency and pre-eminent safe-haven asset, with its advantage over others only slipping moderately over the last 20 years. Could the step of sanctioning the FX reserves of a central bank the size of Russia’s be a tipping point?
The willingness of the US authorities to freeze the supposedly liquid, safe and accessible deposits and securities of a foreign state certainly raises many questions for reserve managers, sovereign wealth funds and perhaps even some private investors. One is likely to be: Could my FX assets be frozen too?
We also need to remember that the US is not acting alone. Europe, Canada, the UK and Japan have joined in freezing the CBR’s reserve assets. So, an equally valid question is: Could any foreign authority potentially freeze my assets?
If the answer is 'yes', that likely calls into question the idea of a risk-free asset that underpins central bank FX reserves in general, and not just specifically for the dollar and US government-backed securities.
If there is a risk that all foreign authorities could potentially freeze the sovereign assets of another country, what are the implications? We see at least three.
- Identifying the safest asset: Reserve managers and sovereign wealth fund investors will need to take a view on where they can find the safest assets and not just safe assets, as the concept of the latter may have been seriously impaired. But the dollar and US government-backed securities may still be the safest assets, since the latest sanctions against the CBR involve a broad range of government authorities acting in concert.
- Political alliances could be key: These sanctions demonstrate that international relations between different states can play an important role in the safety of reserve assets. While the dollar might be a safe asset for strong allies of the US, its adversaries could see things differently. To put the dollar's dominance in the international financial system at serious risk, would-be challengers of the system would need to build strategic alliances with other large economies.
- Onshoring foreign exchange assets: Recent sanctions have crystallized the fact that there is a big difference between an FX deposit in a foreign bank account under the jurisdiction of a foreign government and an FX deposit that you physically own on your home ground. While both might be considered ‘cash’, they are not equivalent in accessibility or safety. So, another upshot might be that reserve managers bring foreign exchange assets onshore.
One way of doing this is to buy physical gold and store it safely within the home jurisdiction. The same could be said of other FX assets, as reserve managers will certainly have access to printed USD, EUR or CNY banknotes if they are stored in vaults at home, though there could be practical challenges in making large transactions in that scenario.
Reserve diversification still likely: Our long-standing view has been that there will be reserve diversification, and we continue to believe that the share of the Chinese yuan in global FX reserves could reach 5-10% by 2030 at the expense of other reserve currencies.
To the extent that SWIFT and reserve asset sanctions levied by other authorities around the world encourage some states to explore alternative payment systems such as China’s CIPS or pursue greater bilateral trade in domestic currencies, recent events are likely to act as an accelerator of a shift to a 'multipolar world.'
But it is not clear that recent actions have undermined the idea of USD as the safest global reserve asset and it may well remain the dominant global currency for some time to come, albeit at slightly lower levels than before.
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