The Triffin dilemma or paradox is the conflict of economic interests that arises between short-term domestic and long-term international objectives when a national currency also serves as a world reserve currency. The dilemma of choosing between these objectives was first identified in the 1960s by Belgian-American economist Robert Triffin. He pointed out that the country whose currency, being the global reserve currency, foreign nations wish to hold, must be willing to supply the world with an extra supply of its currency to fulfill world demand for these foreign exchange reserves, and thus cause a trade deficit.
The use of a national currency, e.g., the U.S. dollar, as global reserve currency leads to tension between its national and global monetary policy. This is reflected in fundamental imbalances in the balance of payments, specifically the current account: some goals require an overall flow of dollars out of the United States, while others require an overall flow of dollars into the United States.
Specifically, the Triffin dilemma is usually cited to articulate the problems with the role of the U.S. dollar as the reserve currency under the Bretton Woods system.
Onset during Bretton Woods era
Due to money flowing out of the country through the Marshall Plan, U.S. military budget and Americans buying foreign goods, the number of U.S. dollars in circulation exceeded the amount of gold backing them up in 1959.
By the autumn of 1960, an ounce of gold could be exchanged for $40 in London, even though the rate in the U.S. was $35. This difference, the gold window, showed that investors knew the dollar was overvalued.
The solution to the Triffin dilemma for the U.S. was the reduction of dollars in circulation by cutting the deficit and raising interest rates to attract dollars back into the country. Some economists believed both these tactics, however, would drag the U.S. economy into recession.
In support of the Bretton Woods system and to exert control over the exchange rate of gold, the U.S. initiated the London Gold Pool and the General Agreements to Borrow (GAB) in 1961 which sustained the system until 1967, when runs on gold and the devaluation of the pound sterling were followed by the demise of the system.
The Balance of Payments dilemma
In order to maintain the Bretton Woods system, the U.S. had to run a balance of payments current account deficit to provide liquidity for the conversion of gold into U.S. dollars. With more U.S. dollars in the system the citizens began to speculate, thinking that the U.S. dollar was overvalued. This meant that the U.S. had less gold as people started converting U.S. dollars to gold and taking it offshore. With less gold in the country there was even more speculation that the U.S. dollar was overvalued. Furthermore, the US had to run a balance of payments current account surplus to maintain confidence in the U.S. dollar.
As a result, the U.S. was faced with a dilemma because it is not possible to run a balance of payments current account deficit and surplus at the same time.
The Nixon Shock
In August 1971, President Richard Nixon acknowledged the demise of the Bretton Woods system. He announced that the dollar could no longer be exchanged for gold, which soon became known as the Nixon shock. Although it was announced as a temporary measure, it was to remain in effect. The "gold window" was closed.
Implication in 2008 meltdown
In the wake of the financial crisis of 2007–2008, the governor of the People's Bank of China explicitly named the Triffin Dilemma as the root cause of the economic disorder, in a speech titled Reform the International Monetary System. Zhou Xiaochuan's speech of 29 March 2009 proposed strengthening existing global currency controls, through the IMF.
Zhou argued that part of the reason for the original Bretton Woods system breaking down was the refusal to adopt Keynes' bancor which would have been a special international currency to be used instead of the dollar.
Zhou's proposal attracted much international attention; in a November 2009 article published in Foreign Affairs magazine, economist C. Fred Bergsten argued that Zhou's suggestion or a similar change to the International Monetary System would be in the best interests in both the U.S. and the rest of the world. While Zhou's proposal has not yet been adopted, leaders meeting in April at the 2009 G-20 London summit agreed to allow 250 billion SDRs to be created by the IMF, to be distributed to all IMF members according to each country's voting rights.
On April 13, 2010, the Strategy, Policy and Review Department of the IMF published a comprehensive report examining these aforementioned problems as well as other world reserve currency considerations, recommending that the world adopt a global currency (bancor) and that a global central bank be established to administer such a currency. In this report, the current issues with having a national global reserve currency are addressed. The merits, difficulties and effectiveness of establishing a multi-currency reserve system are weighed against that of the SDRs, or "basket currency" strategy, and those of establishing this new "global reserve currency". A new multilateral framework and 'multi-polar system' for managing capital flows and national debts is also called for, but the IMF cautions that it prefers a gradual shift to this new framework, rather than a sudden change.
- Jamil Anderlini in Beijing (2009-03-23). "China calls for new reserve currency". Financial Times. Retrieved 2009-04-13.
- Zhou Xiaochuan. "Reform the International Monetary System". Bank for International Settlements. Retrieved 2010-01-11.
- "Review of Robert Skidelsky, John Maynard Keynes: Fighting for Britain 1937–1946". Brad Delong, University of California at Berkeley. Retrieved 2009-06-14.
- Geoff Dyer in Beijing (2009-08-24). "The dragon stirs". Financial Times. Retrieved 2009-09-18.
- C. Fred Bergsten (Nov 2009). "The Dollar and the Deficits". Foreign Affairs. Retrieved 2009-12-15.
- IMF Strategy, Policy and Review Department, Approved by Reza Moghadam (2010-04-13). "Reserve Accumulation and International Monetary Stability". IMF Strategy, Policy and Review Department. Retrieved 2010-04-13.