Reserve currency

A reserve currency (or anchor currency) is a foreign currency that is held in significant quantities by central banks or other monetary authorities as part of their foreign exchange reserves. The reserve currency can be used in international transactions, international investments and all aspects of the global economy. It is often considered a hard currency or safe-haven currency.

By the end of the 20th century, the United States dollar was considered the world's dominant reserve currency.[1] The world's need for dollars has allowed the United States government as well as Americans to borrow at lower costs, giving the United States an advantage in excess of $100 billion per year.[2]


Reserve currencies have come and gone. International currencies in the past have included the Greek drachma, coined in the fifth century B.C., the Roman denari, the Byzantine solidus and Arab dinar of the middle-ages, the Venetian ducato and the Florentine florin of the Renaissance, the 17th century Dutch guilder and the French franc.

The Dutch guilder emerged as a de facto world currency in the 18th century due to unprecedented domination of trade by the Dutch East India Company.[3] However, the development of the modern concept of a reserve currency took place in the mid 19th century, with the introduction of national central banks and treasuries and an increasingly integrated global economy. By the 1860s, most industrialised countries had followed the lead of the United Kingdom and put their currency on to the gold standard. At that point the UK was the primary exporter of manufactured goods and services and over 60% of world trade was invoiced in pound sterling. British banks were also expanding overseas; London was the world centre for insurance and commodity markets and British capital was the leading source of foreign investment around the world; sterling soon became the standard currency used for international commercial transactions.[4]

Attempts were made in the interwar period to restore the gold standard. The British Gold Standard Act reintroduced the gold bullion standard in 1925,[5] followed by many other countries. This led to relative stability, followed by deflation, but because the onset of the Great Depression and other factors, global trade greatly declined and the gold standard fell. Speculative attacks on the pound forced Britain entirely off the gold standard in 1931.[6][7]

After World War II, the international financial system was governed by a formal agreement, the Bretton Woods System. Under this system the United States dollar was placed deliberately as the anchor of the system, with the US government guaranteeing other central banks that they could sell their US dollar reserves at a fixed rate for gold.[8]

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, the system suffered setbacks ostensibly due to problems pointed out by the Triffin dilemma—the conflict of economic interests that arises between short-term domestic objectives and long-term international objectives when a national currency also serves as a world reserve currency.

Global currency reserves

The IMF regularly publishes the aggregated Currency Composition of Foreign Exchange Reserves (COFER).[9] The reserves of the individual reporting countries and institutions are confidential.[10] Thus the following table is a limited view about the global currency reserves that only deals with allocated reserves:

Currency composition of official foreign exchange reserves (1965–2018)

The percental composition of currencies of official foreign exchange reserves from 1995 to 2018.[11][12][13]



Economists debate whether a single reserve currency will always dominate the global economy.[14] Many have recently argued that one currency will almost always dominate due to network externalities (sometimes called "the network effect"), especially in the field of invoicing trade and denominating foreign debt securities, meaning that there are strong incentives to conform to the choice that dominates the marketplace. The argument is that, in the absence of sufficiently large shocks, a currency that dominates the marketplace will not lose much ground to challengers.

However, some economists, such as Barry Eichengreen, argue that this is not as true when it comes to the denomination of official reserves because the network externalities are not strong. As long as the currency's market is sufficiently liquid, the benefits of reserve diversification are strong, as it insures against large capital losses. The implication is that the world may well soon begin to move away from a financial system dominated uniquely by the US dollar. In the first half of the 20th century multiple currencies did share the status as primary reserve currencies. Although the British Sterling was the largest currency, both the French franc and the German mark shared large portions of the market until the First World War, after which the mark was replaced by the dollar. Since the Second World War, the dollar has dominated official reserves, but this is likely a reflection of the unusual domination of the American economy during this period, as well as official discouragement of reserve status from the potential rivals, Germany and Japan.

The top reserve currency is generally selected by the banking community for the strength and stability of the economy in which it is used. Thus, as a currency becomes less stable, or its economy becomes less dominant, bankers may over time abandon it for a currency issued by a larger or more stable economy. This can take a relatively long time, as recognition is important in determining a reserve currency. For example, it took many years after the United States overtook the United Kingdom as the world's largest economy before the dollar overtook the pound sterling as the dominant global reserve currency.[15] In 1944, when the US dollar was chosen as the world reference currency at Bretton Woods, it was only the second currency in global reserves.[15]

The G8 also frequently issues public statements as to exchange rates. In the past due to the Plaza Accord, its predecessor bodies could directly manipulate rates to reverse large trade deficits.

Major reserve currencies

United States dollar

The United States dollar is the most widely held currency in the allocated reserves, representing about 61% of international foreign currency reserves, which makes it somewhat easier for the United States to run higher trade deficits with greatly postponed economic impact or even postponing a currency crisis. Central bank US dollar reserves, however, are small compared to private holdings of such debt. In the event that non-United States holders of dollar-denominated assets decided to shift holdings to assets denominated in other currencies, there could be serious consequences for the US economy. Changes of this kind are rare, and typically change takes place gradually over time, and markets involved adjust accordingly.[15]

However, the US dollar remains the preferred reserve currency because of its stability along with assets such as United States Treasury security that have both scale and liquidity.[16]

The US dollar's dominant position in global reserves is challenged occasionally, because of the growing share of unallocated reserves, and because of the doubt regarding dollar stability in the long term.[17][18][19][20][21] However, in the aftermath of the financial crisis, the dollar’s share in the world’s foreign-exchange trades rose slightly from 85% in 2010 to 87% in 2013.[22]

The dollar's role as the undisputed reserve currency of the world allows the United States to impose unilateral sanctions against actions performed between other countries, for example the American fine against BNP Paribas for violations of U.S. sanctions that were not laws of France or the other countries involved in the transactions.[23] In 2014 Beijing, New Delhi and Moscow signed a 150 billion yuan central bank liquidity swap line agreement to get around American sanctions on their behaviors.[24]


The euro is currently the second most commonly held reserve currency, representing about 21% of international foreign currency reserves. After World War II and the rebuilding of the German economy, the German Deutsche Mark gained the status of the second most important reserve currency after the US dollar. When the euro was introduced on 1 January 1999, replacing the Mark, French franc and ten other European currencies, it inherited the status of a major reserve currency from the Mark. Since then, its contribution to official reserves has risen continually as banks seek to diversify their reserves, and trade in the eurozone continues to expand.[25]

Former U.S. Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan said in September 2007 that the euro could replace the U.S. dollar as the world's primary reserve currency. It was "absolutely conceivable that the euro will replace the US dollar as reserve currency, or will be traded as an equally important reserve currency."[26] Econometric analysis by Jeffrey Frankel and Menzie Chinn in 2006 suggested that the euro could replace the U.S. dollar as the major reserve currency by 2020 if either the remaining EU members, including the UK and Denmark, adopted the euro by 2020, or the recent depreciation trend of the dollar persisted into the future.[27][28] In recent years, the euro's share of the worldwide currency reserve basket has continued to increase—albeit at a slower rate than before the beginning of the worldwide credit crunch related recession and Eurozone crisis, which harmed the euro and slowed its adoption.[29] Since 2009, the reserve currency use of the euro has continued to drop, down to 23.9 percent in 2013.[30]

Other reserve currencies

Dutch guilder

The Dutch guilder was the de facto reserve currency in Europe in 17th and 18th centuries.[3][31]

Pound sterling

The United Kingdom's pound sterling was the primary reserve currency of much of the world in the 19th century and first half of the 20th century.[15] The emergence of the USA as an economic superpower, and the establishment of the U.S. Federal Reserve System in 1913,[32] and U.S. economic dominance from the second half of the 20th century onward, as well as economic weakness in the UK at various times during the second half of the 20th century, resulted in sterling losing its status as the world's most important reserve currency: in the 1950s 55% of global reserves were still held in sterling; but the share was 10% lower within 20 years.[15][33]

As of 30 September 2019, the pound sterling represented the fourth largest proportion (by USD equivalent value) of foreign currency reserves.[34]

Japanese yen

Japan's yen is part of the International Monetary Fund's (IMF) special drawing rights (SDR) valuation. The SDR currency value is determined daily by the IMF, based on the exchange rates of the currencies making up the basket, as quoted at noon at the London market. The valuation basket is reviewed and adjusted every five years.[35]

The SDR Values and yen conversion for government procurement are used by the Japan External Trade Organization for Japan's official procurement in international trade.[36]

Swiss franc

The Swiss franc, despite gaining ground among the world's foreign-currency reserves[37] and being often used in denominating foreign loans,[38] cannot be considered as a world reserve currency, since the share of all foreign exchange reserves held in Swiss francs has historically been well below 0.5%. The daily trading market turnover of the franc, however, ranked fifth, or about 3.4%, among all currencies in a 2007 survey by the Bank for International Settlements.[39]

Canadian dollar

A number of central banks (and commercial banks) keep Canadian dollars as a reserve currency. In the economy of the Americas, the Canadian dollar plays a similar role to that played by the Australian dollar (AUD) in the Asia-Pacific region. The Canadian dollar (as a regional reserve currency for banking) has been an important part of the British, French and Dutch Caribbean states' economies and finance systems since the 1950s.[40] The Canadian dollar is also held by many central banks in Central America and South America. It is held in Latin America because of remittances and international trade in the region.[40]

Because Canada’s primary foreign-trade relationship is with the United States, Canadian consumers, economists, and many businesses primarily define and value the Canadian dollar in terms of the United States dollar. Thus, by observing how the Canadian dollar floats in terms of the US dollar, foreign-exchange economists can indirectly observe internal behaviours and patterns in the US economy that could not be seen by direct observation. Also, because it is considered a petrodollar, the Canadian dollar has only fully evolved into a global reserve currency since the 1970s, when it was floated against all other world currencies.

The Canadian dollar, since 2013, is ranked 5th among foreign currency reserves in the world.[41]

Chinese yuan

Chinese yuan officially became a world reserve currency on October 1, 2016. It represents 10.92% of the IMF's special drawing rights currency basket.[42][43] This makes Chinese yuan the third reserve currency after the US dollar and Euro.[42]

Calls for an alternative reserve currency

A report released by the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development in 2010, called for abandoning the U.S. dollar as the single major reserve currency. The report states that the new reserve system should not be based on a single currency or even multiple national currencies but instead permit the emission of international liquidity to create a more stable global financial system.[44][45][46]

Countries such as Russia and the People's Republic of China, central banks, and economic analysts and groups, such as the Gulf Cooperation Council, have expressed a desire to see an independent new currency replace the dollar as the reserve currency.

On 10 July 2009, Russian President Medvedev proposed a new 'world currency' at the G8 meeting in London as an alternative reserve currency to replace the dollar.[47]

At the beginning of the 21st century, gold and crude oil were still priced in dollars, which helps export inflation and has brought complaints about OPEC's policies of managing oil quotas to maintain dollar price stability.[48]

Special drawing rights

Some have proposed the use of the International Monetary Fund's (IMF) special drawing rights (SDRs) as a reserve.

China has proposed using SDRs, calculated daily from a basket of U.S. dollar, euro, Japanese yen and British pounds, for international payments.[49]

On 3 September 2009, the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) issued a report calling for a new reserve currency based on the SDR, managed by a new global reserve bank.[50] The IMF released a report in February 2011, stating that using SDRs "could help stabilize the global financial system."[51]

Further reading

  • Prasad, Eswar S. (2014). The Dollar Trap: How the U.S. Dollar Tightened Its Grip on Global Finance. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. ISBN 978-0-691-16112-9.

See also


  1. "The Federal Reserve in the International Sphere", The Federal Reserve System: Purposes & Functions, a publication of the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System, 9th Edition, June 2005
  2. Rogoff, Kenneth (October 2013). "America's Endless Budget Battle". Project Syndicate.
  3. Pisani-Ferry, Jean; Posen, Adam S. (2009). The Euro at Ten: The Next Global Currency. United States of America: Peter G. Peterson Institute for International Economies & Brueggel. ISBN 9780881325584.
  4. "A history of sterling" by Kit Dawnay, The Telegraph, 8 October 2001
  5. Text of the Gold Standard Bill speech Archived 2 October 2009 at the Wayback Machine by Winston Churchill, House of Commons, 4 May 1925
  6. Text of speech by Chancellor of the Exchequer Archived 2 October 2009 at the Wayback Machine Philip Snowden to the House of Commons, 21 September 1931
  7. Eichengreen, Barry J. (15 September 2008). Globalizing Capital: A History of the International Monetary System. Princeton University Press. pp. 61–. ISBN 978-0-691-13937-1. Retrieved 23 November 2010.
  9. "IMF Releases Data on the Currency Composition of Foreign Exchange Reserves Including Holdings in Renminbi". (in German). Retrieved 10 July 2018.
  10. "IMF Data - Currency Composition of Official Foreign Exchange Reserve - At a Glance". (in German). Retrieved 10 July 2018.
  11. For 1995–99, 2006–18: "Currency Composition of Official Foreign Exchange Reserves (COFER)". Washington, DC: International Monetary Fund. 1 November 2019.
  12. For 1999–2005: International Relations Committee Task Force on Accumulation of Foreign Reserves (February 2006), The Accumulation of Foreign Reserves (PDF), Occasional Paper Series, Nr. 43, Frankfurt am Main: European Central Bank, ISSN 1607-1484ISSN 1725-6534 (online).
  13. Review of the International Role of the Euro (PDF), Frankfurt am Main: European Central Bank, December 2005, ISSN 1725-2210ISSN 1725-6593 (online).
  14. Eichengreen, Barry (May 2005). "Sterling's Past, Dollar's Future: Historical Perspectives on Reserve Currency Competition". National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER). SSRN 723305. Missing or empty |url= (help)
  15. "The Retirement of Sterling as a Reserve Currency after 1945: Lessons for the US Dollar?", Catherine R. Schenk, Canadian Network for Economic History conference, October 2009.
  16. "In a world of ugly currencies, the dollar is sitting pretty". 6 May 2010. Retrieved 22 August 2010.
  17. Dollar 'losing grip as world's reserve currency'
  18. IMF discusses plan to replace dollar as reserve currency
  19. Central Banks Dump Treasuries As Dollar's Reserve Currency Status fades
  20. Why the Dollar's Reign Is Near an End
  21. "U.N. sees risk of crisis of confidence in dollar", Reuters, 25 May 2011
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  24. Smolchenko, Anna (13 October 2014). "China, Russia seek 'international justice', agree currency swap line". AFP News. Retrieved 13 October 2014.
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  26. "Euro could replace dollar as top currency-Greenspan", Reuters, 7 September 2007
  27. Menzie, Chinn; Jeffery Frankel (January 2006). "Will the Euro Eventually Surpass The Dollar As Leading International Reserve Currency?" (PDF). NBER. Archived from the original (PDF) on 25 August 2013. Retrieved 11 October 2007.
  28. "Aristovnik, Aleksander & Čeč, Tanja, 2010. "Compositional Analysis Of Foreign Currency Reserves In The 1999-2007 Period. The Euro Vs. The Dollar As Leading Reserve Currency," Journal for Economic Forecasting, Vol. 13(1), pages 165-181" (PDF). Institute for Economic Forecasting. 19 July 2010. Retrieved 5 July 2010.
  29. "Currency Composition of Official Foreign Exchange Reserves (COFER) – Updated COFER tables include first quarter 2009 data. June 30, 2009" (PDF). Retrieved 8 July 2009.
  30. "Euro Takes a Hit as Reserve Currency".
  31. The euro as a reserve currency
  32. "Born of a Panic: Forming the Fed System - The Region - Publications & Papers - The Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis". Retrieved 6 December 2014.
  33. "The United Nations Charter and Extra-State Warfare: The U.N. Grows Up". The World Financial Review. 13 November 2013. Retrieved 15 August 2014.
  34. "Currency Composition of Official Foreign Exchange Reserves". International Monetary Fund. 30 September 2019. Retrieved 7 October 2019.
  35. "SDR Valuation", International Monetary Fund website: "The currency value of the SDR is determined by summing the values in U.S. dollars, based on market exchange rates, of a basket of major currencies (the U.S. dollar, Euro, Japanese yen, and pound sterling). The SDR currency value is calculated daily (except on IMF holidays or whenever the IMF is closed for business) and the valuation basket is reviewed and adjusted every five years."
  36. Japanese Government Procurement, Japan External Trade Organization website (accessed: 6 January 2015)
  37. "Is the Dollar Dying? Why US Currency Is in Danger" by Jeff Cox, CNBC, 14 February 2013
  38. "A new global reserve?", The Economist, 2 July 2010
  39. "Triennial Central Bank Survey, Foreign exchange and derivatives market activity in 2007" (PDF). Bank for International Settlements. December 2007.
  40. "The Canadian Dollar as a Reserve Currency" by Lukasz Pomorski, Francisco Rivadeneyra and Eric Wolfe, Funds Management and Banking Department, The Bank of Canada Review, Spring 2014
  41. "Currency Composition of Official Foreign Exchange Reserves (COFER)". International Monetary Fund. 30 September 2014. Retrieved 1 October 2014.
  42. "Special Drawing Right (SDR)".
  43. "IMF Approves Reserve-Currency Status for China's Yuan". 30 November 2015 via
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  47. "Medvedev Shows Off Sample Coin of New 'World Currency' at G-8". 10 July 2009. Retrieved 14 October 2010.
  48. Burleigh, Marc. "OPEC leaves oil quotas unchanged, seeing economic 'risks'." AFP, 11 December 2010.
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