IN MAY 1945 John Maynard Keynes wrote a memo on the post-war economy. In it he argued that Britain should seek to be in the mainstream of global commerce. It would suit finance as well as industry to have the whole world as a playground, he wrote. “We built up the pre-war sterling area because we were bankers amiable to treat with and having a long record of honouring our cheques.”
He passed over how Britain’s economic muscle had helped sterling’s dominance—perhaps because by then that muscle was wasting. Yet it is implacable economic might that leads many today to conclude that the yuan, China’s currency, will supplant the dollar, just as sterling gave way to the dollar after 1945. The yuan is already one of five constituents of the Special Drawing Right, a basket of reserve currencies created by the IMF. And China is opening up to capital flows. This year foreigners have been the biggest buyers of Chinese government bonds.
It is tempting to see this as another milestone on the way to the yuan’s preordained supremacy. But it is an error to interpret current events in the light of an imagined future. Foreign buyers of Chinese bonds are not swept along by an unseen law of history. Rather they are spurred by more prosaic considerations.