Money in the Time of Coronavirus
E. Saeidinezhad, Is the Monetary System as Systemic and International as the Coronavirus?


March 18, 2020

Elham Saeidinezhad, Department of Economics at UCLA

The coronavirus crisis has sparked different policy responses from different countries. The common thread among these reactions is that states are putting globalization on pause. Yet, re-establishment of central bank swap lines is making “money,” chiefly Eurodollars, the first element that has become more global in the wake of the Coronavirus outbreak. This is not an unexpected phenomenon for those of us who are armed with insights from the Perry Mehrling’s “Money View” framework. The fact that the monetary system is inherently international explains why the Fed reinstalled its standing U.S. dollar liquidity swap line arrangements with five other central banks just after it lowered its domestic federal fund’s target to zero percent. However, the crisis also forces us to see global dollar funding from a lens closer to home: the fact that the Eurodollar market, at its core, is a domestic macro-financial linkage. In other words, its breakdown is a source of systemic risk within communities as it disrupts the two-way connection between the real economy and the financial sector. This perspective clarifies the Fed’s reactions to the crisis in hand. It also helps us understand the recent debate in the economics profession about the future of central bank tools.

The Great Financial Crisis of 2008-09 confirmed the vital importance of advancing our understanding of macro-financial linkages. The Coronavirus crisis is testing this understanding on a global scale. Most of the literature highlights the impact of sharp fluctuations in long-term fundamentals such as asset prices and capital flows on the financial positions of firms and the economy. In doing so, economists underestimate the effects of disturbances in the Eurodollar market, which provides short-term dollar funding globally, on real economic activities such as trade. These miscalculations, which flow from economists’ natural approach to money as a veil over the real economy, could be costly. Foreign banks play a significant role in the wholesale Eurodollar market to raise US dollar financing for their clients. These clients, usually multinational corporations, are part of a global supply chain that covers different activities from receiving an order to producing the final goods and services. Depending on their financial positions, these firms either wish to hold large dollar balances or receive dollar-denominated loans. The deficit firms use the dollar funding to make payments for their purchases. The surplus firms, on the other hand, expect to receive payments in the dollar after selling their products. The interconnectedness between the payment system and global supply chains causes the Eurodollar market to act as a bridge between the real economy and the financial sector.

The Coronavirus outbreak is putting a strain on this link, both domestically and globally: it is disrupting the supply chain, forcing every firm along the chain to become a deficit agent in the process. The supply chain moves products or services from one supplier to another and is essentially the sum of all firms’ sales. These sales (revenues) are, in effect, a measure of payments, the majority of which occur in the Eurodollar market. A sharp shock to sales, as a result of the outbreak, precipitates a lower ability to make payments. When an output is not being shipped, a producer of final goods in China does not have dollar funding to pay the suppliers of intermediate products. As a result, firms in other countries do not have dollars either. The trauma that the coronavirus crisis injects into manufacturing and other industries thus leads to missed payments internationally. Missed payments will make more firms become deficit agents. This includes banks, which are lower down in the hierarchy, and the central banks, which are responsible for relaxing the survival constraints for the banking system. By focusing on the payments system and Eurodollar market, we are able to see the “survival constraint” in action.

The question for monetary policy is how far central banks decide to relax that survival constraint by lowering the bank rate. This is why central banks, including the Fed, are reducing interest rates to zero percent. However, the ability to relax the survival constraint for banks further down in the hierarchy depends also on the strength of foreign central banks to inject dollar funding into their financial system. The Fed has therefore re-established the dollar swap line with five other major central banks. The swap lines are available standing facilities and serve as a vital liquidity backstop to ease strains in global funding markets. The point to hold on to here is that the U.S. central bank is at a level in the hierarchy above other central banks

Central banks’ main concern is about missed payments of U.S. dollars, as they can deal with missed payments in local currency efficiently. In normal circumstances, the fact that non-U.S. central banks hold foreign exchange reserves enables them to intervene in the market seamlessly if private FX dealers are unable to do so. In these periods, customer-led demand causes some banks to have a natural surplus position (more dollar deposits than loans) and other banks to have an inherent deficit position (more dollar loans than deposits). FX dealers connect the deficit banks with the surplus banks by absorbing the imbalances into their balance sheets. Financial globalization has enabled each FX dealer to resolve the imbalance by doing business with some U.S. banks, but it seems more natural all around for them to do business with each other. During this crisis, however, even U.S. banks have started to feel the liquidity crunch due to the negative impacts of the outbreak on financial conditions. When U.S. banks pull back from market-making in the Eurodollar market, there will be a shortage of dollar funding globally. Traditionally, in these circumstances, foreign central banks assume the role of the lender of last resort to lend dollars to both banks and non-banks in their jurisdiction. However, the severity of the Coronavirus crisis is creating a growing risk that such intermediation will fracture. This is the case as speculators and investors alike have become uncertain of the size of foreign central banks’ dollar reserve holding.

To address these concerns, the Fed has re-established swap lines to lend dollars to other central banks, which then lend it to banks. These particular swap lines arrangements were originally designed to help the funding needs of banks during 2008. However, these swap lines might be inadequate to ease the tension in the market. The problem is that the geographic reach of the swap lines is too narrow. The Fed has swap lines only with the Bank of Canada, the Bank of England, the Bank of Japan, the European Central Bank and the Swiss National Bank. The reason is that the 2008-09 financial crisis affected many banks in these particular jurisdictions severely and their economies were closely intertwined with the US financial system. But the breadth of the current crisis is more extensive as every country along the supply chain is struggling to get dollars. In other words, the Fed’s dollar swap lines should become more global, and the international hierarchy needs to flatten.

To ease the pressure of missed payments internationally, and prevent the systemic risk outbreak domestically, the Fed and its five major central bank partners have coordinated action to enhance the provision of liquidity via the standing U.S. dollar liquidity swap line arrangements. These tools help to mitigate the effects of strains on the supply chain, both domestically and abroad. Such temporary agreements have been part of central banks’ set of monetary policy instruments for decades. The main lessons from the Coronavirus outbreak for central bank watchers is that swap lines and central bank collaborations are here to stay – indeed, they should become more expansive than before. These operations are becoming a permanent tool of monetary policy as financial stability becomes a more natural mandate of the central banks. As Zoltan Pozsar has recently shown, the supply chain of goods and services is the reverse of the dollar funding payment system. Central banks’ collaboration prevents this hybridity from becoming a source of systemic risk, both domestically and internationally.

Update: On March 19, 2020, the Fed announced the establishment of temporary U.S. dollar liquidity arrangements with other central banks such as Reserve Bank of Australia, the Banco Central do Brasil, the Danmarks Nationalbank (Denmark), the Bank of Korea, the Banco de Mexico, the Norges Bank (Norway), the Reserve Bank of New Zealand, the Monetary Authority of Singapore, and the Sveriges Riksbank (Sweden).