Gold Standard (19th – 20th centuries)
Prior to and during most of the 19th century, international trade was denominated in terms of currencies that represented weights of gold. Most national currencies at the time were in essence merely different ways of measuring gold weights (much as the yard and the meter both measure length and are related by a constant conversion factor). Hence some assert that gold was the world’s first global currency. The emerging collapse of the international gold standard around the time of World War I had significant implications for global trade.
Before 1944, the world reference currency was the United Kingdom’s pound sterling. The transition between pound sterling and United States dollar and its impact for central banks was described recently.
In the period following the Bretton Woods Conference of 1944, exchange rates around the world were pegged against the United States dollar, which could be exchanged for a fixed amount of gold. This reinforced the dominance of the US dollar as a global currency. Since the collapse of the fixed exchange rate regime and the gold standard and the institution of floating exchange rates following the Smithsonian Agreement in 1971, most currencies around the world have no longer been pegged against the United States dollar. However, as the United States remained the world’s preeminent economic superpower, most international transactions continued to be conducted with the United States dollar, and it
has remained the de facto world currency. Only two serious challengers to the status of the United States dollar as a world currency have arisen. During the 1980s, the Japanese yen became increasingly used as an international currency, but that usage diminished with the Japanese recession in the 1990s. More recently, the euro has increasingly competed with the United States dollar in international finance. Since the mid-20th century, the de facto world currency has been the United States dollar. According to Robert Gilpin in Global Political Economy: Understanding the International Economic Order (2001): “Somewhere between 40 and 60 percent of international financial transactions are denominated in dollars. For decades the dollar has also been the world’s principal reserve currency; in 1996, the dollar accounted for approximately two-thirds of the world’s foreign exchange reserves” (255). Many of the world’s currencies are pegged against the dollar. Some countries, such as Ecuador, El Salvador, and Panama, have gone even further and eliminated their own currency (see dollarization) in favor of the United States dollar. The U.S. dollar continues to dominate global currency reserves, with 63.9% held in dollars, as compared to 26.5% held in euros (see Reserve Currency).
The euro inherited its status as a major reserve currency from the German mark (DM) and its contribution to official reserves has increased as banks seek to diversify their reserves and trade in the eurozone expands. As with the dollar, some of the world’s currencies are pegged against the euro. They are usually Eastern European currencies like the Bulgarian lev, plus several west African currencies like the Cape Verdean escudo and the CFA franc. Other European countries, while not being EU members, have adopted the euro due to currency unions with member states, or by unilaterally superseding their own currencies: Andorra, Monaco, Kosovo, Montenegro, San Marino, and Vatican City. As of December 2006, the euro surpassed the dollar in the combined value of cash in circulation. The value of euro notes in circulation has risen to more than €610 billion, equivalent to US$800 billion at the exchange rates at the time (today equivalent to circa US$968 billion).
As a result of the rapid internationalization of the renminbi, it is currently the world’s 8th most widely traded currency.