Seventy trillion dollars is a lot of money. It is nearly three times the size of the U.S. GDP, and approaches total global GDP (around $100 trillion). That is the amount of funds that are missing from normally reported financial statistics, according to a December, 2022 report from the Bank for International Settlements. That report caused a bit of a flurry in financial circles.
It’s not that this money has been stolen, it’s just that it is not publicly known exactly where it is, i.e., how much money that which parties owe to whom. Here is the Abstract of this paper:
FX swaps, forwards and currency swaps create forward dollar payment obligations that do not appear on balance sheets and are missing in standard debt statistics. Non-banks outside the United States owe as much as $25 trillion in such missing debt, up from $17 trillion in 2016. NonUS banks owe upwards of $35 trillion. Much of this debt is very short-term and the resulting rollover needs make for dollar funding squeezes. Policy responses to such squeezes include central bank swap lines that are set in a fog, with little information about the geographic distribution of the missing debt.
Much of this money is in the form of currency swaps, especially foreign exchange (FX) swaps. Even though the U.S. economy no longer dominates the whole world, the U.S. dollar remains the premier basis for international trade and even more for foreign exchange:
As a vehicle currency, the US dollar is on one side of 88% of outstanding positions – or $85 trillion. An investor or bank wanting to do an FX swap from, say, Swiss francs into Polish zloty would swap francs for dollars and then dollars for zloty.
Who cares? Well, the incessant demand for dollars periodically leads to a dollar funding squeeze in international trade, which in turn reverberates into world GDP.
Currency Swaps as Lending Events
In many cases these currency swaps effectively amount to short-term lending /borrowing (of dollars). Much of the financial world is utterly dependent on smoothly flowing short-term funding to cover longer term debt or investments. Borrowing short-term (at usually lower interest rates) and investing or lending out longer-term (at higher rates) is how many institutions and funds exist. For instance, depositors at banks effectively lend their deposits to the bank (short-term), in return for some pitiful little interest on their checking or savings accounts, while the banks turn around and make say 5 year or 30-year loans to businesses or home-buyers. Banks earn profits on the spread between the interest rates they receive on the funds they loan out, and the typically lower rates on the short term funds they “borrow” from their depositors.
This “mismatch” between the maturities of borrowed funds (especially dollars) and invested funds can cause a complete melt-down of the financial system if holders of dollars stop being willing to lend them out, or to lend them out at less than ruinous interest rates:
The very short maturity of the typical FX swap/forward creates potential for liquidity squeezes. Almost four fifths of outstanding amounts at end-June 2022 in Graph 1.B matured in less than one year. Data from the April 2022 Triennial Survey show not only that instruments maturing within a week accounted for some 70% of FX swaps turnover, but also that those maturing overnight accounted for more than 30%. When dollar lenders step back from the FX swap market, the squeeze follows immediately.
Financial customers dominate non-financial firms in the use of FX swaps/forwards. Non-bank financial institutions (NBFIs), proxied by “other financial institutions” in Graph 1.C, are the biggest users of FX swaps, deploying them to fund and hedge portfolios as well as take positions. Despite their long-term foreign currency assets, the likes of Dutch pension funds or Japanese life insurers roll over swaps every month or quarter, running a maturity mismatch. For their part, dealers’ non-financial customers such as exporters and importers use FX forwards to hedge trade-related payments and receipts, half of which are dollar-invoiced. And corporations of all types use longer-term currency swaps to hedge their own foreign currency bond liabilities .
It is really bad if pension funds or insurance companies get starved of needed ongoing funding. Central banks, especially the dollar-rich Fed, have had to repeatedly jump in and spray dollar liquidity in all directions to mitigate these “dollar squeezes”. The BIS authors’ main concern is that these big public policy decisions are currently made in absence of data on what the actual needs and issues are. Hence, “Policy responses to such squeezes include central bank swap lines that are set in a fog.”
This all is part of the murky “Eurodollar” universe of dollar-denominated bank deposits circulating outside the U.S. (more on this some other time). Investing adviser Jeffery Snider offers the “Eurodollar University” on podcasts and on YouTube, in which he explores the many dimensions of the Eurodollar scene. He likens the Eurodollar system to a black hole: we cannot observe it directly, but we can estimate its size by its effects.
In his YouTube talk on this BIS paper, among other things Snider notes that this short-term lending associated with currency swaps functions much like repo borrowing, except the currency swaps (unlike repo) do not appear on bank or other balance sheets as assets/liabilities. That is part of the attraction of these swaps, since they are effectively invisible to regulators and are not constrained by e.g., capital requirements.
What the Fed does in a dollar squeeze is largely lend dollars to large dealer banks. But unless those other banks then lend those dollars out into the private marketplace of manufacturers and shippers and pension funds, having trillions of dollars in central bank reserves has little effect. It is not the case that “the Fed floods the world with dollars” — actually, mainstream banks get those dollars, and then lend out at high rates to the dollar-starved rest of financial world, where they can actually do something.
The result, according to Snider, is that the Eurodollar is the only functional reserve currency in existence. This is the real, effective banking system (not “reserves” sitting on some bank’s balance sheet), even though the current accounting system doesn’t show it.