The Triffin Dilemma

There is a fundamental incompatibility between the attainment of global economic stability and having a single national currency perform the role of the world’s reserve currency. This is hardly a new revelation. But events of the past few months have brought this topic back into the spotlight.

Belgian born American economist Robert Triffin first highlighted this incompatibility in the 1960s. He observed that having the US dollar perform the role of the world’s reserve currency created fundamental conflicts of interest between domestic and international economic objectives.

On the one hand, the international economy needed dollars for liquidity purposes and to satisfy demand for reserve assets. But this forced, or at least made it easy, for the US to run consistently large current account deficits.

Triffin argued that such persistent deficits would eventually put pressure on the US dollar and lead to the demise of the Bretton Woods system of international exchange.

The Triffin Dilemma, therefore, argued that the demands on an international currency meant that excess supply would undermine its value.

Bretton Woods

After WWII the Bretton Woods international monetary system came into being. This was a fixed rate currency regime with the US dollar as the global reserve currency. But to ensure stability and financial discipline, the major currencies were fixed to the US dollar and the US dollar was fixed to gold at the rate of US$35 an ounce.

This is where the Triffin Dilemma kicked in.

The US soon understood that reserve currency status allowed them to run large deficits. The deficits were ‘paid’ for by issuing US dollars. When the excess US dollars began showing up in global central banks, they began converting their dollars into gold. This lowered the value of the US dollar in relation to gold.

At first the authorities tried to manage the Dilemma. In 1961 they established the ‘London Gold Pool’ in an attempt to keep the US dollar price of gold to $35 an ounce. This system worked for a while but fell apart by 1968 when France withdrew from the Pool.

The various nations then attempted to preserve the Bretton Woods system by maintaining a two-tiered gold market; one operating at the official US$35 an ounce price while another traded gold at the market price, which was well above $US35. Of course such a policy was completely unsustainable and it too failed.

Bretton Woods was on its last legs. President Nixon ended the system once and for all when in August 1971 he suspended the convertibility of US dollars into gold. From that point on, the US dollar was without an anchor and the global monetary system went from a fixed to floating regime.

What followed was a decade of monetary instability and record high inflation.

US Dollar maintains reserve currency status

Perhaps surprisingly, the US dollar maintained its role as the world’s reserve currency throughout the decade. Due to its economic and military might, the reserve currency status of the US dollar actually grew in acceptance throughout the next few decades.

But Triffin’s Dilemma never went away. It did remain out of sight though as parties on both sides of the equation enjoyed the mutual benefits of the US dollar’s reserve status.

The US benefitted by paying for imports with essentially costless US dollars. In turn, the US’ main trading partners enjoyed robust demand for their products, creating employment and income growth.

The huge deficits brought about by excess US consumption produced a massive amount of liquidity throughout the global economy. While Triffin’s Dilemma would have predicted a collapse of the dollar because of the glut of dollars in the system, such an outcome didn’t eventuate.

This was primarily because the beneficiaries of US consumption didn’t want it to end. So they reinvested their excess dollars back into US asset markets, notably US Government debt. Such actions supported the dollar, kept interest rates low, and perpetuated the imbalances.

Some commentators called this apparent happy state of affairs ‘Bretton Woods II.’ As the saying goes, markets make opinions and this was a flawed opinion born out of an ignorance of what brought the first Bretton Woods system undone.

Triffin Dilemma persists

The underlying conflicts identified by the Triffin Dilemma always remained. The ease with which the US could borrow and create debt was tolerated for decades. No doubt such tolerance was due to gold no longer being a monetary anchor.

But in 2007/08 it reached a point where it could no longer be tolerated. Not because investors decided to be prudent, but because the market structure could no longer cope with more debt.

At this point, the end of the decades long US driven credit expansion turned abruptly into a contraction and asset markets collapsed. Amongst the carnage, the US dollar was about the only asset to increase in value relative to everything else. This was because previously abundant global liquidity rapidly evaporated and returned to the source, pushing up the value of the US dollar.

The point here is that in times of crisis, the US dollar trades as the world’s reserve currency, not based on its domestic fundamentals, which are just as bad as other countries. That’s what you saw in late 2008 early 2009. And because of the European sovereign debt crisis, you’re again seeing the US dollar rise against most other paper currencies.

So the Triffin Dilemma is beginning to rear its head again. The US domestic political preference is for a weaker dollar to stimulate exports and create employment. But the international situation, being market driven, is more powerful.

The US dollar is therefore strengthening just as the US economic recovery loses momentum. Or perhaps the economic recovery is losing momentum because the dollar is strengthening?

Check out the accompanying chart. It shows the performance of the US dollar against a basket of currencies. You can see how the dollar has traded as an international currency in the past few years. As described above, the large rises in 2008/09 occurred as liquidity evaporated.

Performance of the US Dollar


The weaker dollar throughout 2009 signified the recovery or ‘reflation’ of global markets. But that has given way to renewed concerns. The dollar has rallied in the past few months (especially against the euro) and now looks overbought.

In the past the US response to this currency strength would have been to lower interest rates and turn on the liquidity taps. This would have increased credit growth domestically and liquidity internationally (think of all those US treasuries piling up in foreign central banks when US economic growth is strong). But the interest rate ammunition has been spent.

Like every other country, the US needs a weaker currency. However a global reserve currency operates under different rules to ordinary currencies. In times of global uncertainly, like now, the US dollar will be strong regardless of its fundamentals.

With the Euro-zone under pressure, the reserve asset of choice remains the US dollar. Perversely, this will allow the US authorities to pursue even more reckless policies in their attempts to provide global liquidity.

We wouldn’t be surprised to see the Federal Reserve restart its quantitative easing program by the end of the year. And Federal Government deficits will likely remain elevated for years.

Investment Implications

As you can see, the inherent conflicts in the global monetary system that led to the GFC have not been addressed. The US dollar has served as the world’s reserve currency, without being linked to gold, since 1971.

While on the surface the experiment has been a success, the legacy is a huge build up of debt. The need for global liquidity creates an incentive for the US to live beyond its means and run up debt levels. Perversely, the debts sit in the vaults of foreign central banks and masquerade as assets. (It is from this asset base that domestic banking systems generate their own credit growth).

But debt levels have reached a point where this system no longer works properly. The crisis of 2008 has quickly given way to the European sovereign debt crisis of 2010. It is a sign of things to come.

The implications for you as an investor are many. Expect continued uncertainly and volatility as the world increasingly recognises the current financial system has reached its use by date. This is a gradual and subtle process. You won’t see this recognition splashed across the front pages anytime soon. But it is happening now.

Uncertainty leads to lower stock prices. Our disciplined valuation methodology is designed to ensure that won’t overpay when buying companies. In times of high volatility, we expect to see share prices trading well below intrinsic value and that’s when our prudent approach will pay off.

In the shorter term you should expect continuing loose monetary policy out of the US and a lack of fiscal discipline. The demise of the euro is leading to renewed buying of the US dollar, providing more incentive for authorities to run deficits.

Of course, the big picture investment implication here is that the US dollar will eventually lose its role as the world’s sole reserve currency. This is a multi year event and certainly difficult to assess in terms of the effect on markets.

But as we told you last week, the IMF is already holding discussions about making changes to the financial architecture. Very few people understand the magnitude of what is going on, but it hasn’t been lost on the gold market.

Gold will be one of the major beneficiaries of change. Back in the 1960s Robert Triffin warned about the dollar glut and the fact that it would bring the Bretton Woods system undone. He was right.

The rising gold price was the first warning sign of the system’s weakness. Now, the gold price is again warning of monetary instability. It has been rising along with the US dollar. Gold is again being viewed as a reserve currency.

So the best way to profit from this instability is to own physical bullion (not ETF’s or gold certificates). For a longer term bet on forthcoming changes to the financial system, you should be looking to buy gold on weakness.

Greg Canavan
for Markets and Money

Greg Canavan
Greg Canavan is a contributing Editor of Markets and Money and is the foremost authority for retail investors on value investing in Australia. He is a former head of Australasian Research for an Australian asset-management group and has been a regular guest on CNBC, Sky Business’s The Perrett Report and Lateline Business. Greg is also the editor of Crisis & Opportunity, an investment publication designed to help investors profit from companies and stocks that are undervalued on the market. To follow Greg's financial world view more closely you can subscribe to Markets and Money for free here. If you’re already a Markets and Money subscriber, then we recommend you also join him on Google+. It's where he shares investment research, commentary and ideas that he can't always fit into his regular Markets and Money emails. For more on Greg go here.

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17 Comments on "The Triffin Dilemma"

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A “reflation of markets” nearly hits the truth. The banksters just learnt how to harness what Triffin taught them. They could export their inflation and name the price/interest rate of their own debt whenever they got into trouble and print more money and reflate offshore what they inflated in the first place with their expeditionary leverage (overseas markets and commodity prices) by using their imperialist / economic & hard military force backed colonialist gerrymander. This latter bit Chomsky called Year 501 when he was on top of the military hardware end and sovereign debt but he never got on top… Read more »

there is not enough gold in the world for it to be a reserve currency!


You really know your stuff Bertie, you should post as often as Platinum Pete.


@Bertie, why? I’m not sure the amount of gold in the world matters, it’s the value of the gold in the world that matters.
Therefore, your statement should read, “the value of the gold in the world is not enough for it to be a reserve currency!” Which is why the article argues that it will therefore need to rise until it has enough value.

Biker Pete

Or Sugarsweet Justin! :)


Gold $10K :)

Ned S

“there is not enough gold in the world for it to be a reserve currency!”

That is true Bertie. And as well as that nations can’t do QE and fiddle their ERs if they are on a gold standard – Nope it definitely ain’t gunna fly as the basis of the system.

Glad your gold is doing well Lachlan!


Comment by Lachlan on 28 May 2010:

Gold $10K :)

I am bullish on gold but never thought as high as that… now I am thinking it IS a possibility within 5 years..


Ten thousand dollar gold – everyone needs to take their hand off it.
Deflation rules!


You certainly know your stuff Michael. Why not share your wisdom here as often as Mr ‘Platinum’ Pete.

Biker Pete

Why thanks, Sugar. :)

We’re likely to see deflation and inflation at work, Michael.
Deflation will probably occur in non-essential areas; inflation in the stuff we all need.

Agree with you on the $10K per ounce theory. I’ll sell off the few little nuggets I’ve gathered over the years if it reaches $2K/oz.

Now _sugar_ …. that’s another matter. I’m _hoarding_ the stuff.
Buried half a dozen cubes yesterday, in fact… . ;)

“Ten thousand dollar gold – everyone needs to take their hand off it.” But Im enjoying this too much Michael :) During deflation, debt is being destroyed so there was predicted to be a move away from risky forms of “money” (eg derivatives, commercial paper, any debts which cant be repaid etc) to the low risk end where gold is king. Gold is nobodys obligation. This is happening now. My 10K remark was just to show that I see gold could go anywhere in $ terms. Nobody knows how much garbage money will be made to extend and pretend. I… Read more »
Comment by michael on 28 May 2010: Ten thousand dollar gold – everyone needs to take their hand off it. Gold going to $5000USD/Oz will see the world in a pile of shit.. our dollar by default then will probably be tracking anywhere between 40 cents and 60 cents at that time.. Using the mid point of that possible range, 50 cents, will see Gold at $10000AUD/Oz It may not get to that, but I am willing to admit that it is a possibility.. @BP Exiting at 2K/Oz… I am thinking $3000AUD/Oz as my exit point.. Will be quite non… Read more »
Biker Pete

A gold orgy… . Hmmm, sounds like a great theme for an Ian Fleming novel, Lachlan…. maybe “Hands of Gold”, “Goldholder”, “Goldthumbs Down”, “GoldHandler”, “Digits d’Or’…. . Solid gold, mate! :)


Biker I choose “Goldholder” … maybe a sequel to, “The Man With the Golden Gun”…..

I’m going to go away now :(

Biker Pete

Biker, I choose “Goldholder”…

Ah, but I see our fanboy gave you the “Goldthumbs Down”, Lachlan!~ :)


Important thing is we tried BP. Afterall.. you only live twice. Ha ha ha ha haaa…….errrrrrrrr…

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