How About a Global Currency?

It’s almost a truism to say that membership in the euro exacerbated the Greek crisis. The thinking goes like this: Because Greece doesn’t have its own currency, it couldn’t increase its competitiveness and boost growth through devaluation. Although devaluation is a valuable instrument, I think most countries and companies would benefit if the world, not just Europe, used a single currency.

Today’s fragmented financial world is unfair. On the one hand, there’s Denmark with such a glut of currency, local and foreign, that its central bank’s key deposit rate is minus 0.75 percent and companies are considering overpaying their taxes because the Tax Ministry pays 1 percent interest on the excess. Then there’s Greece, which has had to limit withdrawals from automated teller machines to 60 euros a day because of a severe cash crunch.

Consider the case of Apple, with an enormous cash pile that earns next to nothing. The company had about $160 billion in March 2014 and made $1.795 billion in interest and dividend income that year--which is less than 1 percent, considering that the company’s kept increasing the cash holding. And there are companies, even entire countries, that would kill to be financed at that rate--but are forced to accept much higher ones, and not necessarily because they are unsafe borrowers, but because they are often dragged down by risk perceptions that have little to do with reality.

Before the 2008 financial crisis, financial globalization--defined as international capital inflows--was on the rise, partly because investors underestimated risk. After the mortgage crash, it became clear that rating agencies weren’t much help to investors in making such estimates and that local and specialized knowledge was needed to make intelligent decisions. The European debt crisis only confirmed this.

The fiscal regimes, political and macroeconomic risks of countries vary so much that mistakes happen, even when a foreign investor can afford detailed and knowledgeable analysis. The bond guru Michael Hasenstab’s investment in Ukrainian bonds for Franklin Templeton is a case in point: The trade was thoroughly analyzed and Hasenstab traveled to Kiev last year to talk to officials and executives, but the country now wants him to accept a 40 percent haircut as part of its International Monetary Fund-led bailout.

To ensure that financial resources are distributed more evenly throughout the world, it would make sense to cut down country-specific risk. Taking monetary policy out of individual countries’ hands would go a long way toward that goal. Currency risk would be eliminated--the same monetary unit would be in use everywhere--and there would be a uniform interest rate environment. The creditworthiness of specific borrowers would be investors’ biggest area of concern. That’s still a big unknown, and there would always be enough coups, revolutions, corruption, fraud and mismanagement to throw the best models off kilter. Yet there would be much less to worry about.

Now, the world’s 140 or so currencies sometimes make cross-border flows dangerous. Switzerland and Denmark have both suffered from their commitment to their own currencies this year. The ability to devalue is nice, but it’s illusory, to a large extent: It helps balance a budget, bring down debt levels and make exports more competitive, but it hits ordinary people with high inflation. Besides, according to a 2010 paper by Stephen Kamin, director of international finance at the Federal Reserve System, by giving up the right to print their own money, governments stand to lose less and less. And they might even need the discipline imposed by an outside monetary policy authority.

If the world used the same currency, the problems inadvertently caused by the euro wouldn’t be replicated. German banks were too willing to lend to projects in the European periphery because they felt they could trust members of the same exclusive currency club and because the euro made investing in Europe almost frictionless, an advantage the rest of the world didn’t have. The one world, one currency club would make friction disappear.

Of course, there would be the question of who should administer the global central bank. The U.S. would want to--the dollar is as close to a global currency as we have--but resistance from other global players would sink the project. This is where something like Bitcoin could come in handy: a decentralized system that works with little human intervention. “Mining” rules could be established to prevent anyone from cornering the market, but the system would self-regulate.

This is naive utopianism, of course. The obstacles to such a project are beyond estimation, as so is the technical complexity. But this pipe-dream is a reminder of how tough and complex the euro project is. Those who hasten to write it off as a failure don’t show it enough respect. Sure, there have been setbacks, and some countries may prove unable to keep taking part, but its participants are accumulating data that may one day allow us to figure out how to bring the whole world closer together.