Krugman gives his usual treatment to an important topic. Some excerpts:
The big news last week was a speech by Zhou Xiaochuan, the governor of China’s central bank, calling for a new “super-sovereign reserve currency.”
The paranoid wing of the Republican Party promptly warned of a dastardly plot to make America give up the dollar. But Mr. Zhou’s speech was actually an admission of weakness. In effect, he was saying that China had driven itself into a dollar trap, and that it can neither get itself out nor change the policies that put it in that trap in the first place.
Some background: In the early years of this decade, China began running large trade surpluses and also began attracting substantial inflows of foreign capital. If China had had a floating exchange rate — like, say, Canada — this would have led to a rise in the value of its currency, which, in turn, would have slowed the growth of China’s exports.
But China chose instead to keep the value of the yuan in terms of the dollar more or less fixed. To do this, it had to buy up dollars as they came flooding in. As the years went by, those trade surpluses just kept growing — and so did China’s hoard of foreign assets.
The Chinese have mainly horded secure U.S. Treasury Bills,
But while T-bills are as safe from default as anything on the planet, they yield a very low rate of return.
Was there a deep strategy behind this vast accumulation of low-yielding assets? Probably not. China acquired its $2 trillion stash — turning the People’s Republic into the T-bills Republic — the same way Britain acquired its empire: in a fit of absence of mind.
And just the other day, it seems, China’s leaders woke up and realized that they had a problem.
The low yield doesn’t seem to bother them much, even now. But they are, apparently, worried about the fact that around 70 percent of those assets are dollar-denominated, so any future fall in the dollar would mean a big capital loss for China. Hence Mr. Zhou’s proposal to move to a new reserve currency…