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The World’s Most Powerful Reserve Currencies

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The World's Most Powerful Reserve Currencies

The World’s Most Powerful Reserve Currencies

When we think of network effects, we’re usually thinking of them in the context of technology and Metcalfe’s Law.

Metcalfe’s Law states that the more users that a network has, the more valuable it is to those users. It’s a powerful idea that is exploited by companies like LinkedIn, Airbnb, or Uber — all companies that provide a more beneficial service as their networks gain more nodes.

But network effects don’t apply just to technology and related fields.

In the financial sector, for example, stock exchanges grow in utility when they have more buyers, sellers, and volume. Likewise, in international finance, a currency can become increasingly entrenched when it’s accepted, used, and trusted all over the world.

What’s a Reserve Currency?

Today’s visualization comes to us from HowMuch.net, and it breaks down foreign reserves held by countries — but what is a reserve currency, anyways?

In essence, reserve currencies (i.e. U.S. dollar, pound sterling, euro, etc.) are held on to by central banks for the following major reasons:

  • To maintain a stable exchange rate for the domestic currency
  • To ensure liquidity in the case of an economic or political crisis
  • To provide confidence to international buyers and foreign investors
  • To fulfill international obligations, such as paying down debt
  • To diversify central bank portfolios, reducing overall risk

Not surprisingly, central banks benefit the most from stockpiling widely-held reserve currencies such as the U.S. dollar or the euro.

Because these currencies are accepted almost everywhere, they provide third-parties with extra confidence and perceived liquidity. This is a network effect that snowballs from the growing use of a particular reserve currency over others.

Reserve Currencies Over Time

Here is how the usage of reserve currencies has evolved over the last 15 years:

Currency composition of official foreign exchange reserves (2004-2019)
🇺🇸 U.S. Dollar 🇪🇺 Euro🇯🇵 Japanese Yen🇬🇧 Pound Sterling 🌐 Other
200465.5%24.7%4.3%3.5%2.0%
200962.1%27.7%2.9%4.3%3.0%
201465.1%21.2%3.5%3.7%6.5%
201961.8%20.2%5.3%4.5%8.2%

Over this timeframe, there have been small ups and downs in most reserve currencies.

Today, the U.S. dollar is the world’s most powerful reserve currency, making up over 61% of foreign reserves. The dollar gets an extensive network effect from its use abroad, and this translates into several advantages for the multi-trillion dollar U.S. economy.

The euro, yen, and pound sterling are the other mainstay reserve currencies, adding up to roughly 30% of foreign reserves.

Finally, the most peculiar data series above is “Other”, which grew from 2.0% to 8.4% of worldwide foreign reserves over the last 15 years. This bucket includes the Canadian dollar, the Australian dollar, the Swiss franc, and the Chinese renminbi.

Accepted Everywhere?

There have been rumblings in the media for decades now about the rise of the Chinese renminbi as a potential new challenger on the reserve currency front.

While there are still big structural problems that will prevent this from happening as fast as some may expect, the currency is still on the rise internationally.

What will the composition of global foreign reserves look like in another 15 years?

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China’s Economy: 40 Years of Soaring Exports

China’s economy today is completely different than 40 years ago; in 2021 the country makes up the highest share of exports globally.

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China's Economy

Animated Chart: 40 Years of Soaring Exports in China

China has the second highest GDP in the world, and it exports 15% of all the world’s goods. But how did this come to be?

A mere 40 years ago, China’s economy was in an entirely different situation, making up less than 1% of global exports and still in the infancy stages of building its economy. The above animated chart from the UNCTAD showcases China’s rise to global trade dominance over time.

Timeline: The Rise to Power

The China of the mid-20th century looks remarkably different when compared to the modern-day nation. Prior to the 1980s, China was going through a period of social upheaval, poverty, and dictatorship under Mao Zedong.

The 1970s

Beginning in the late 1970s, China’s share of global exports stood at less than 1%. The country had few trade hubs and little industry. In 1979, for example, Shenzhen was a city of just around 30,000 inhabitants.

In fact, China (excluding Taiwan* and Hong Kong) did not even show up in the top 10 global exporters until 1997 when it hit a 3.3% share of global exports.

YearShare of Global ExportsRank
20004.0%#7
20057.3%#3
201010.3%#1
201513.7%#1
202014.7%#1

*Editor’s note: The above data comes from the UN, which lists Taiwan as a separate region of China for political reasons.

The 1980s

In the 1980s, several cities and regions, like the Pearl River Delta, were designated as Special Economic Zones. These SEZs had tax incentives that worked to attract foreign investment.

Additionally, in 1989, the Coastal Development Strategy was implemented to use strategic regions along the country’s coast as catalysts for economic development.

The 1990s and Onwards

By the 1990s, the world saw the rise of global value chains and transnational production lines, with China offering a cheap manufacturing hub due to low labor costs.

Rounding out the ‘90s, the Western Development Strategy was implemented in 1999, dubbed the “Open Up the West” program. This program worked to build up infrastructure and education to retain talent in China’s economy, with the goal of attracting further foreign investment.

Finally, China officially joined the World Trade Organization in 2001 which allowed the country to progress full steam ahead.

Made in China

Today China is a trade giant and manufacturing behemoth. Only the U.S. and Germany come close to its share of global exports, sitting at 8.1% and 7.8% respectively.

RankCountryShare of Global Exports (2020)
#1🇨🇳 China14.7%
#2🇺🇸 U.S. 8.1%
#3🇩🇪 Germany7.8%
#4🇳🇱 Netherlands3.8%
#5🇯🇵 Japan3.6%
#6🇭🇰 Hong Kong SAR3.1%
#7🇰🇷 South Korea2.9%
#8🇮🇹 Italy2.8%
#9🇫🇷 France2.8%
#10🇧🇪 Belgium2.4%

China’s manufacturing industry has become dominant in producing just about anything from commonplace household items to integral pieces in automotive manufacturing. Some staples of Chinese manufacturing are:

  • Precision instruments
  • Semiconductors
  • Industrial machinery for computers and smartphones

COVID-19 made China’s integral role in the global economy even more visceral, as major delays in the supply chain occurred when the virus hit the country.

An Economic Superpower

In 2021, China’s trade recovery from the crisis has bested most other countries—in Q1 2021, its exports grew by almost 50% compared to the previous year’s quarter, to around $710 billion.

And the country is not slowing down any time soon. Further plans for economic development are well under way, like Made in China 2025, with the goal of becoming a dominant player in global high-tech manufacturing. Additionally, the famous One Belt, One Road initiative has been funding infrastructure projects globally over the past decade, and the country is also a founding member of the RCEP— which is soon to be the world’s biggest trading bloc.

However, China still faces a series of challenges, such as:

  • Population decline
  • The onset of labor saving technology
  • Trade wars with U.S. and sanctions from other trade partners, like Europe
  • The emergence of ASEAN trade powers, like Vietnam

A declining population has many implications like a shrinking workforce and domestic market. Additionally, many companies are setting up shop in less costly manufacturing hubs like Vietnam.

Furthermore, inexpensive innovations in labor-saving technologies, such as robotics and automation, have already begun to undermine the cheap manual labor that has made China the world’s manufacturer.

All of these elements and more could potentially spell a slowing of growth in China’s export dominance. However, while the future for China may not be certain, currently, global trade and production could not function without it.

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The Biggest Business Risks in 2021

We live in an increasingly volatile world, where change is the only constant. Which are the top ten business risks to watch out for?

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The Biggest Business Risks Around the World

We live in an increasingly volatile world, where change is the only constant.

Businesses, too, face rapidly changing environments and associated risks that they need to adapt to—or risk falling behind. These can range from supply chain issues due to shipping blockages, to disruptions from natural catastrophes.

As countries and companies continue to grapple with the effects of the pandemic, nearly 3,000 risk management experts were surveyed for the Allianz Risk Barometer, uncovering the top 10 business risks that leaders must watch out for in 2021.

The Top 10 Business Risks: The Pandemic Trio Emerges

Business Interruption tops the charts consistently as the biggest business risk. This risk has slotted into the #1 spot seven times in the last decade of the survey, showing it has been on the minds of business leaders well before the pandemic began.

However, that is not to say that the pandemic hasn’t made awareness of this risk more acute. In fact, 94% of surveyed companies reported a COVID-19 related supply chain disruption in 2020.

Rank (2021)% ResponsesRisk NameBusiness Risk ExamplesChange from 2020
#141%Business InterruptionSupply chain disruptions
#240%Pandemic OutbreakHealth and workforce issues, restrictions on movement
#340%Cyber IncidentsCybercrime, IT failure/outage, data breaches, fines and penalties
#419%Market DevelopmentsVolatility, intensified competition/new entrants, M&A, market stagnation, market fluctuation
#519%Legislation/ Regulation ChangesTrade wars and tariffs, economic sanctions, protectionism, Brexit, Euro-zone disintegration
#617%Natural CatastrophesStorm, flood, earthquake, wildfire
#716%Fire, Explosion-
#813%Macroeconomic DevelopmentsMonetary policies, austerity programs, commodity price increase, deflation, inflation
#913%Climate Change-
#1011%Political Risks And ViolencePolitical instability, war, terrorism, civil commotion, riots and looting

Note: Figures do not add to 100% as respondents could select up to three risks per industry.

Pandemic Outbreak, naturally, has climbed 15 spots to become the second-most significant business risk. Even with vaccine roll-outs, the uncontrollable spread of the virus and new variants remain a concern.

The third most prominent business risk, Cyber Incidents, are also on the rise. Global cybercrime already causes a $1 trillion drag on the economy—a 50% jump from just two years ago. In addition, the pandemic-induced rush towards digitalization leaves businesses increasingly susceptible to cyber incidents.

Other Socio-Economic Business Risks

The top three risks mentioned above are considered the “pandemic trio”, owing to their inextricable and intertwined effects on the business world. However, these next few notable business risks are also not far behind.

Globally, GDP is expected to recover by +4.4% in 2021, compared to the -4.5% contraction from 2020. These Market Developments may also see a short-term 2 percentage point increase in GDP growth estimates in the event of rapid and successful vaccination campaigns.

In the long term, however, the world will need to contend with a record of $277 trillion worth of debt, which may potentially affect these economic growth projections. Rising insolvency rates also remain a key post-COVID concern.

Persisting traditional risks such as Fires and Explosions are especially damaging for manufacturing and industry. For example, the August 2020 Beirut explosion caused $15 billion in damages.

What’s more, Political Risks And Violence have escalated in number, scale, and duration worldwide in the form of civil unrest and protests. Such disruption is often underestimated, but insured losses can add up into the billions.

No Such Thing as a Risk-Free Life

The risks that businesses face depend on a multitude of factors, from political (in)stability and growing regulations to climate change and macroeconomic shifts.

Will a post-pandemic world accentuate these global business risks even further, or will something entirely new rear its head?

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