STEVE INSKEEP, host:
Even in this time of nervousness about the U.S. economy, one thing remains steady, for now: The U.S. dollar is what's called the world's reserve currency. Companies and governments around the world stockpile lots of dollars. Which makes sense for them, because it is used in so much international trade. People another countries use the dollar even when they're trading with each other.
Robert Smith, from NPR's Planet Money team, explains a huge American advantage that is not guaranteed to last.
ROBERT SMITH: Remember the dream of Esperanto, the international language? A hundred years ago idealists hoped that it would sweep the world; that we'd all speak one language, understand each other, no more conflict. In a way, they got the concept right, but the language wrong. The world now speaks U.S. dollar.
Take Roberto Ticoulat, a businessman in Brazil.
Mr. ROBERTO TICOULAT (Coffee Exporter): I export instant coffee from Brazil all over the world, I mean more than 40 countries that we export.
SMITH: And even though he buys green coffee beans in his native currency, the real, he sells the instant coffee powder he makes for dollars even to places far from the U.S.
Mr. TICOULAT: Singapore, Malaysia, Uruguay, Russia, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, the majority of our trade is in dollars.
SMITH: So just to get a sip of Roberto's coffee, a Uruguayan businessman, say, has to convert his pesos into dollars, then buy the instant coffee from Roberto. And then Roberto has to change those dollars into Brazilian currency so he can spend them.
And remember, these two countries are neighbors. Why is the U.S.A. butting its currency into this whole transaction? Well, it turns out it's just easier that way.
Jonny Mears is a South African who buys lighting components from China. Once again, they won't take the South African rand. He has to use dollars.
Mr. JONNY MEARS (South African Businessman): Maybe because it's a common frame of reference for everyone. Me, being a South African, I know where the rand stands relative to the dollar. You know, if you're from Britain I guess you know where the pound stands relative to the dollar. Everyone needs a common reference point.
SMITH: It's like how if you're riding Delta airlines, your flight gets routed through Atlanta, even if you don't want to go there. The dollar is the hub of world trade. And though Mears wishes he could get a direct currency flight between South Africa and China, it's not going to happen.
Now here's where it gets good, for the Unites States at least. Economist Barry Eichengreen from U Cal Berkeley says that the U.S. gets a huge benefit from being a world currency. We don't have to pay currency exchange fees for most of our trade and the other countries do. That's an instant competitive advantage. And the demand for all those dollars means that foreign governments have to hold massive amounts of U.S. currency, which they then invest back in our Treasury bonds.
EICHENGREEN: U.S. interest rates are lower than they would be otherwise because foreign central banks and governments find it convenient to hold our treasury bonds, our debt instruments, and they lend to us more freely than they would otherwise.
SMITH: Professor Eichengreen says this ends up being worth hundreds of billions of dollars a year to the U.S. economy. The bad news for Americans is that Eichengreen doesn't think it's going to last forever. If I had done this report 100 years ago, on a wax cylinder or something, I would have been talking about how everyone in the world uses the British pound for trade. All it took was a couple of world wars, and voila, the age of the U.S. dollar. But now, Eichengreen says, people are sticking with the dollar, not because it's awesome, but because it is somewhat better than the competition.
Foreign central banks wake up one morning and say uh-oh, U.S. debt isn't as safe as we thought, where do they go?
SMITH: To the euro, which is looking mighty sickly these days? Or to Chinese currency, the renminbi, which doesn't even move freely in and out of the country? The answer is - this week at least - the world is sticking by the U.S. dollar. But tomorrow, that could change. Eichengreen says with all the new technology, maybe the world can handle more than one reference point these days.
EICHENGREEN: Everybody now can look at their smart phone and figure out what the price of a euro or a Chinese renminbi is in terms of dollars.
SMITH: And if the U.S. dollar stumbles, it could be awfully tempting for the world to switch.
Robert Smith, NPR News, New York.
(Soundbite of music) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.
The dollar's role in the global economy is a boon to the U.S. But in the coming years, its place in the world may slip.
The U.S. economy is spooking investors. But every day, all around the world, foreign businesses are still eager to use U.S. dollars — even when their business has nothing to do with the U.S.
When South Koreans buy Chilean wine, they convert their Korean won to U.S. dollars, and send those dollars to the winery in Chile. The winery then converts the dollars into Chilean pesos. This kind of thing is routine in global trade, according to Barry Eichengreen, an economist at U.C. Berkeley.
Why not just go from won to pesos?
"It's easier for them to do two foreign exchange trades, both of which involve the dollar, both of which are standardized, both of which involve a very low fee or transaction cost," Eichengreen says. "Everybody else is doing the same transactions."
It's like how so many Delta Airlines flights get routed through Atlanta. The dollar is the hub of world trade.
This helps U.S. businesses, which often don't have to go through the hassle or expense of changing currencies. And the central role of the dollar means that foreign governments have to hold massive amounts of U.S. currency — which they tend to park in U.S. Treasury bonds.
"U.S. interest rates are lower than they would be otherwise because foreign central banks and governments find it convenient to hold our treasury bonds," Eichengreen says. "They lend to us more freely than they would otherwise."
This ends up being worth hundreds of billions of dollars a year to the US economy. But it probably won't last forever.
A hundred years ago, the British pound was the center of the financial world. The U.S. dollar's rise started after World War I, and continued after World War II. Today, the dollar is still the world's only viable reserve currency.
Safe-haven currencies like the Swiss Franc are too small to play that role. The Japanese yen is tied to an economy that's been stagnant for decades.
The only two contenders — the euro and the Chinese renminbi — have big problems of their own.
But Eichengreen argues that the euro is likely to survive the current crisis. And he expects China to liberalize its economy and allow the renminbi to become a more widely used international currency.
"Once upon a time it may have been true that there was only room in the world for one true global currency," Eichengreen says. "But ... everyone now can look at their smart phone and figure out what the price of a euro or a chinese renminbi is in terms of dollars."
In the long run, Eichengreen sees a world of multiple reserve currencies, where the U.S. dollar plays a diminished role.
The U.S. would wind up paying higher interest rates, and U.S. businesses would have to use other currencies more often. But as long as the change is gradual, it shouldn't entail too much pain for the U.S.
But there's another, more worrisome possibility. Eichengreen describes it like this:
...one can imagine a real crisis of confidence in the dollar that at some point in time down the road, foreign central banks and governments and private investors throw up their hands and say: "This is not a serious country. We better look harder for other places to put our money." And at that point in time, if those other places exist, there could be flight away from the dollar and the dollar crash that people worry about. And that could be in fact be seriously disruptive to the operation of financial markets and to the stability of the economy. That's the thing to worry about.