Currency, like all forms of abstract value, is based on trust. And trust itself is based - except among the most naïve - on experience, and the repetitive demonstration of fidelity, whether positive or negative. At present, the US dollar, which had experienced a gradual rise during the 20th Century to the position gained well into the Cold War of being the trading world's reserve currency. It had the mass, in terms of volumes of available currency; it had the backing of an indisputably wealthy national asset base to move away from the gold standard; it had stable governmental backing.
All of that is evaporating. Not, in absolute terms, as far as the mass of currency available, because that has dramatically expanded in recent years, and particularly during the past year of the Administration of Pres. Barack Obama. Not in the underlying asset valuation of the US economy, but it has begun to erode as the productive capability of the US to extract that value diminishes due to excess governmental interference and anti-business practices. It is far to say that other countries, from Nigeria to Russia, have vast untapped underlying asset value. That they did not create global reserve currencies from their naira and ruble was due to governance failures.
However, as we are witnessing, good governance as an essential component of currency value and the trust in that currency, can transform overnight, just as we witnessed the post-World War II collapse of sterling, and, now, the shakiness of trust in the US dollar (despite the reality that, at $14.2-trillion in value in 2008, is the world's largest). The age of the US dollar as the global reserve currency is not yet over, but it is threatened, and the trend toward a flight from the dollar (despite occasional returns to it) is evident. At present, however, the dollar is shored up because in many respects there is nothing of its stature ready to replace it. This leads to the essential question:
Are we entering a period in which we may have no global reserve currency?
The People's Republic of China (PRC) has been searching for safe-havens for its holdings of foreign earnings. The US dollar has slipped in its esteem, with some short-term benefits, perhaps for US exports, but with perilous long-term consequences. As a result, and whilst attempting to preserve the intrinsic value of its currency holdings, the PRC has been gradually scaling back its holdings in US currencies or US dollar-denominated instruments.
Where can the PRC go with its hoard? It looked at euro investments, at Canadian and Australian dollar holdings, and so on. The Australian and Canadian economic bases -- at just under a trillion US dollar GDP for Australia, and about $1.4-trillion GDP for Canada -- are insufficiently large to hold much in the way of PRC investments. Nonetheless, these economies have benefited from the PRC dilemma. The euro, however, is, like the US dollar, suffering from a loss of credibility, and unless some profound action is taken the euro may dramatically diminish in credibility, severely hampering the loose confederal structure of the European Union, preventing it from becoming the federal state of Europe to which some (mostly unelected) aspire.