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May 28th 2009

Russia Leads World in Declining Forex Reserves

During the global economic boom and concomitant run-up in energy prices, Russia’s foreign exchange reserves exploded. The subsequent bursting of the bubble, however, proved the maxim, what goes up must come down. “After reaching a record high of $597.5 billion in early August, reserves have declined dramatically as the central bank spent more than $200 billion on propping up a depreciating ruble.”

Excluding the European Union, Russia’s foreign exchange reserves are still the world’s third largest, behind only China and Japan. By Russia’s own admission, this will not remain the case for long. If current economic conditions continue to prevail, its entire stock of reserves will be depleted within two to three years. Moreover, as its reserves have declined, the share of Euros have risen (perhaps due to the selling of Dollars) to 47.5%, surpassing the Dollar for the first time. Despite the insistence of Russian authorities that the change was inadvertent, the fact remains that the Euro currently predominates in Russia’s forex portfolio.

These two trends – declining reserves and shifting allocation – are becoming entrenched, and may in fact accelerate. A cursory skim of the most recent IMF Data on International Reserves reveals that the reported reserves of most countries have fallen over the last year, or at the very least, are not growing at the same pace. The WSJ reports that “Foreign-exchange reserves of about 30 low-income countries have already fallen below the critical value equivalent to three months of imports.”

Meanwhile, it has been highlighted elsewhere that China – which does not report its reserves and is hence not included on this list – has seen its reserves stagnate, and has hinted publicly that it is nervous about the preponderance of Dollars it holds. And suffice it to say that when China talks, people listen.

The clear implication is that the US Dollar may not hold sway as the world’s unchallenged reserve currency for much longer. It is certainly not as if this is a new possibility. After all, “The United States possesses around one-fifth of the world’s GDP, but its own paper provides around 75% of world’s exchangeable currency reserves. This is a worrying imbalance,” argues one economist.

The impetus can be found in changed economic circumstances, which previously reinforced the Dollar’s role as reserve currency, but now suggest the opposite. Declining world trade and lower current account imbalances result directly in lower reserves, as do government stimulus plans funded with foreign exchange. The pickup in risk appetite meanwhile, combined with inflationary US monetary and fiscal policy, will make Central Banks increasingly reluctant to hold Dollar-denominated assets. Finally, the locus of the global economy is slowly shifting to East Asia. This trend will probably gather momentum if and when the global economy recovers, as the rest of the world has now learned the hard way that their collective reliance on US consumers is not sustainable.

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Posted by Adam Kritzer | in Central Banks, News, US Dollar | No Comments »

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