World Reserve Currencies: What Happened During Previous Periods Of Transition?

Tyler Durden's picture

"Nearly one-fifth of China's trade is now settled in yuan, up from less than 1 percent in 2009"

      - Reuters

By Chris Ferreira of Economic Reason

World Reserve Currencies: What Happened During Previous Periods of Transition?

The decline of the US dollar hegemony is ever so clear today and this article aims to provide the reader with what exactly happened during past periods of reserve currency transitions. Historically, when a reserve currency transitioned over to a new one, it marked a pivotal change for the world. The economic paradigm shifted and the rules of the game changed. This time will be no different when the US dollar loses its status as the reserve currency!

The transition process of the world reserve currency brings much uncertainty

Throughout history, a transition of the reserve currencies has always brought about turmoil and uncertainty in financial markets. One country’s decline, and the subsequent rise of another, marks a radical transformation for the world, especially as market demand shifts. The country that dominates global commerce during any given period is usually marked with the status of having the reserve currency. Spain and Portugal dominated the 15th and 16th centuries, the Netherlands the 17th century, France and Britain the 18th and 19th centuries, and the US dominated the 20th century. 

Throughout the Age of Exploration, Portugal created a dominant global empire. Traditional trade routes to Asia were no longer feasible due to the growth of the Ottoman Empire and their 1453 capture of Constantinople, and so the need for alternative trade routes emerged. Thanks to advances in navigational technology as well as other auspicious circumstances, the Portuguese, and soon the Spanish, were to reach Africa, Asia, and the New World. Consequently, the Portuguese and later the Spanish currencies became the primary currencies used in global trade at that time. The Portuguese, throughout their travels and discoveries, established military outposts along the coasts of Africa, India, Malaysia, Japan, and China (Macau), etc.; when they became over-extended, the empire eventually declined due to attacks and competition from other countries (mainly the Dutch, British and French). Portugal and Spain then merged together to create the Iberian union; however, it collapsed through wars and revolutions by the mid-17th century.

It was then the turn of the Dutch, whose rise to global power was largely aided by the creation of the first multinational corporation in the world, the Dutch East India Company (VOC). The Dutch defeated Portugal and Spain in global economic importance and positioned themselves to profit from European demand for spices. By 1669, the VOC was the richest private company that the world had ever seen, with over 150 merchant ships, 40 warships, 50,000 employees, a private army of 10,000 soldiers, and a dividend payment of 40% on the original investment to shareholders. Later, with the event of the Anglo-Dutch War, the spice trade was temporarily ceased and this caused a spike in prices for spices. At that point, other countries were enticed to start their own spice trading companies, namely the French and English (French East India Company and English East India Company). The saturation of the spice market and the costly Anglo-Dutch wars destroyed the Dutch East India Company and their currency (the “Guilder”) as a global currency.


France achieved European political dominance under Louis XIV, and although the legacy of the ‘Roi Soleil’ was great. it is not to be forgotten that he left his heirs in a whirlwind of social strife and extreme debt caused principally by war and an unfair tax base. While the French debt was being allowed to reach staggering amounts, the British, meanwhile, were engaging in an Industrial Revolution that would set Britain apart, creating, in effect, an empire “where the sun never set.” The 1789 French Revolution was essentially a response to a financial crisis that had become debilitating. After a decade of internecine bloodshed and civil war, the French found a new leader under the young general, Napoleon Bonaparte. The Napoleonic Wars of 1803-1815 raged for over a decade, extending French influence over much of Europe (and inspiring a revolution in Haiti). At the height of Napoleon in 1812, the French Empire maintained an extensive military presence in Germany, Italy, Spain, and Poland. It was this Napoleonic empire, however short-lived. that was to rock Europe so profoundly that upon Napoleon’s defeat, the powers of Europe came together to establish a peace at the 1815 Congress of Vienna that would re-balance power for the rest of the 19th century.

Following the defeat of Napoleonic France in 1815, England enjoyed almost a century of global dominance in trade.

By 1922 the British Empire held power over circa 458 million people (one-fifth of the world’s population) and about a quarter of the total land area at the time. By the Second World War, the British Empire was virtually bankrupt. The US provided funding to Britain at the time as they were now the largest creditor nation in the world. However, it was only after the Bretton Woods Conference 1945 that the US dollar officially became the world’s reserve currency.

Each country that rose to ultimate global dominance of commerce declined due to an over-saturation point. Fast-forward to today, and there is a remarkably similar situation for the US. The US has 900 military bases in 130 countries and spent over $640 billion in 2013 on military alone. This figure dwarfs all other military spending combined BY ALL OTHER COUNTRIES. The US is no longer the largest creditor nation in the world, but rather the largest debtor nation in the history of the world. China is now the largest creditor nation. Will the 21th century belong to China and the Yuan?

Today the US dominates the land, sea and air with their overbearing military reach in 130 countries. However, the landscape for war is once again changing. Alternative versions of the traditional warfare are emerging, such as economic/cyber war. By enforcing trade sanctions on a country and manipulating market prices, powerful countries can exert force without even having to step into another country. In other words, the stock market and future’s market have become a tool for the elite.  They can drop the price of oil to bankrupt a particular country or sell their national debt on the market to wipe out their currency and create hyper inflation. These measures are much quicker/efficient for government and the elite to employ than the traditional methods of war we have seen in the last century. Although the US dominates the traditional sense of war, they do not have the same type of defense mechanisms in the financial market. As I pointed out in a previous, How the US Dollar Can Collapse, there are virtually an unlimited number of ways the US can be attacked today.

The Typical Duration of a World Reserve Currency

The reserve currency transition is a cycle that has typically lasted in history somewhere between 80 to 110 years. Officially, the US dollar has been the reserve currency for 68 years. However, the US dollar was used in trade much before, since the 1920?s in fact. That would put the US dollar closer to 90+ years as the reserve currency. These cycles of about 100 years (one century) is very common in history: the ancients called it a saeculum which represented four seasons (spring, summer, fall and winter). As with all cycles, there was a period of growth, saturation, peak, and decline which represented these seasons. An excellent book on economic cycles, with a focus on the current cycle in which we find ourselves, is The Fourth Turning by William Strauss and Neil Howe. It is a must-read. Here is a quote from Strauss’s book:

“An appreciation for history is never more important than at times when a secular winter is forecast. In the fourth turning, we can expect to encounter personal and public choices akin to the hardest ever faced by an ancestral generation. We would do well to learn from their experiences, viewed through the prism of cyclical time. This will not come easily. It will require us to lend a new seasonal interpretation to our revered American Dream. And it will require us to admit that our faith in linear progress has often amounted to a Faustian bargain with our children. Faust always ups the ante, and every bet is double or nothing. Through much of the Third Turning, we have managed to postpone the reckoning. But history warns that we can’t defer it beyond the next blend in time.”

The table below shows the transition of each reserve currencies (every 100 years or so)  and the events that were carried out during each transition. Every transition was a period of great suffering marked by economic hardships, revolutions, and wars.

The transition of one World Reserve Currency is a cycle that stems from social behavior

Esteemed British economic historian Arnold Toynbee (1852-1883), in his work Study of History, also identified an “alternating rhythm” of a cycle of war and peace that has occurred in Europe at roughly one-century intervals since the Renaissance.  In addition to Europe, Toynbee also identified similar cycles in Chinese and Hellenistic history that averaged 95 years. He linked this to the gradual decay of the “living memory of a previous war,” whereby the descendents of war veterans, for whom their only knowledge of war was through stories, history books, and hearsay, would eventually come into power and resume the belligerent behavior pattern of their forefathers.

The most recent global crisis period was marked by WW1, the Great Depression, and WW2;  from the start (1914) to the finish (1945) we find a period that ranges from 100 (1914-2014) to 69 (1945-2014) years ago. This suggests that we may be entering into a new global crisis with the same cyclical thinking.

Global crises wreak havoc on all levels of existence, not to the mention the great cost to human lives. If we are to learn from history, however, it seems as though we might have to nevertheless brace ourselves for yet another one in the near future, as it marks the end of one saeculum and the start of a new economic paradigm aligned more positively with proper balances of trade, debt, and policies.

The US is trying to postpone the crisis by printing money, however this is creating currency wars with nearly all major central banks in the world. As history has shown us time and again, causing this delay through money printing will only aggravate the problem, not only not preventing the inevitable, but indeed making the transition more painful and costly.

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Squid Viscous's picture

Cliff Notes: War Bitchez!

Bloppy's picture

Left tries to shift blame away from Obama's warmongering by attacking McCain:

I am more equal than others's picture




History does not repeat but often rhymes.

I know this song.... "highway to hell....don't stop me...."

Vampyroteuthis infernalis's picture

It may be obvious that the USD will fall out of favor as the world currencie sometime over the next decade or so. China's Yuan will not replace the USD though. China has more problems than it knows how to solve.

BaBaBouy's picture

Don't Know What Paper Fiats Will Win Next, Butt GOLD, OIL, Copper And WATER Will Speak

power steering's picture

Try buying a burger with a bucket of oil. We left the barter system with cavemen

max2205's picture

Let me guess, gold?

Harbanger's picture

Why not, the Chinese gov for example is smart and they don't want to get lynched by their people, so they tell their citizens to buy gold because they know their currency is going down with the rest of them.  If there is a currency race to the bottom with all the central banks, the Feds dollar probably outlasts them all and then implodes.  This is a global banker event and keeping cash in any currency is a major risk.

Save_America1st's picture

This was a great interview on the Financial Survival Network not long ago with David Gurvitz of Charles Nenner Research.

He spoke of the documented 100 year war cycle.  There are are cycles of war and peace, but you can't doubt the obvious 100 year war cycle when there have been major wars going back to 1914, 1812, 1713, 1615, etc. 

So here we in the 2nd decade of the 21st century, and the world is on fire everywhere you look.  It's almost hard to say that we're not in WWIV right now.  (WWIII, some say was the long cold war that finally ended with the fall of the Soviet Union).  If you don't look at it that way then still we could very well be in the beginning of WWIII right now. 

However you want to label it, we're definitely in a big problem that seems to be starting the next 100 year war cycle.  And this one could be very bad for America, because it also involves economic warfare (currency wars), cyber warfare as well as traditional warfare with an asymetrical twist to it that not only involves us at war in other countries, but also America at war internally with ourselves!  

Civil war feels imminent.  Our economy is way past the limits of sustainability.  The dollar is on it's death bed as the world is rapidly moving away from it as the world reserve fiat currency or "petro-dollar".  Our society, morals, principles and values are completely rotted and getting worse by the day.  Unemployment and loss of all essential major manufacturing badly needed to provide jobs and to sustain our economy are all contributing factors to what starts world wars.

Not to mention the treasonous sociopathic filth we call a government and the emergence of the militarized police and surveillance state being built up all around us specifically to be used against us. 

This is all constant war even if we're not nuking each other....yet. 

And I'll also throw in that there's a very high probability that we're also hitting a serious weather cycle of long term colder than average temperatures....very cold temperatures as in we could be in the beginning stages of another "little ice age" coming our way.  I don't get into the bullshit global warming, man-made garbage pimped by scumbags like Al Gore and the trendy losers who follow him and all the rest.  They just use that lie as a power trip to control us and steal more money from us....that's cause enough for war against them right there!

I have no idea if this next little ice age will last hundreds of years like the last one did, (sometime between 1300 or 1400 until around 1870).

But that little ice age caused a huge shift in the world; starvation, mass migrations, and subsequently wars as well.  If within the next 5 or so years it comes to be that we've begun another decades-long cold snap in the Norther Hemisphere on top of all these other factors that are piled up against us, well....America could end up completely gone as we thought we knew it...or as we wish we could build it back to when America was once great and a world leader. 

David Gurwitz – We Are All Slaves Of The Cycles


A great book to read also about cycles is one called:  The Fourth Turning, by Strauss and Howe

They wrote this book in 1997 and they amazingly predicted everything that has happened to us from that time until now...the only thing left to come true is a big-time world war.  It's quite a deep history book that describes the cycles of our human generations throughout time and breaks them down into 4 generational cycles.  Just so happens that according to where we are now in history we are in the middle of the 4th cycle, or 4th Turning...and unfortunately, the 4th Turning is always the bad one...the collapse before the cycles start over again and we begin a better age with another 1st Turning. 

With all this hitting us and the whole world at the same time it's hard to me to believe we either aren't already in the next world war and most don't realize it yet, or else we're on the doorstep to it and it could end up wiping America and much of the rest of the world out.

I don't see any reversals coming.  Our political degenerates and their criminal bankster masters have no incentive to change course at this point.  They've been pushing for 100 years to get the world to this point...on the brink of destruction...and I believe they actually want more than anything to drive us all over the cliff full speed ahead.  We really have no way to stop them.  All we can do is keep trying to wake more people up and keep preparing to the best of our abilities for whatever will happen, whenever it will happen, so that we can hopefully survive it and come out on the other side with our lives.

Stuck on Zero's picture

There are no cycles.  Nuff said.

TruthHunter's picture

 "no cycles." Xactly...

If you believe in cycles, you need to study Chaos Theory.

Seize Mars's picture

There are no cycles caused by mysterious unseen forces. There is, however, a debt saturation point.

And boy, we. are. there.

Volaille de Bresse's picture

"Try buying a burger with a bucket of oil. We left the barter system with cavemen"

I tell ya how it works after the global fan's turned brown : you take ONE gold coin from you secret stash. You trade it (legally or illegally) for handful of cash.

Then you immediately trade that soon-to-be-worthless against consumer goods. Lots of them.

You live happily for a while until the fridge is empty then you head again to your secret gold stash.

Save_America1st's picture

Every 'tard I hear say, "You can't eat gold!" deserves to starve then.  I've given up trying to explain to any of them what idiots they are and maybe they just don't deserve to understand or survive after the SHTF.  Pisses me off, the ignorance of so many losers in America who are going to be eating old rotten dog food from a rusty can of Alpo one day, Road Warrior-style, thinking it's a gourmet fucking meal when they could have saved themselves by doing some basic preparation and stacking ahead of time when they still had the fucking chance. 

Horseless Headsman's picture

I'm sure a gallon of gas would not be refused, or motor oil, or propane, etc. All transactions are barters, some are just more indirect than others.

seek's picture

Barter is still in routine use in developed economies. I get my taxes done in exchange for tech support.

Trust me, you can get many burgers for an oil change or a fill-up of gasoline. It won't be at McDonalds, but it's easily negotiated.

Uber Vandal's picture

I still remember a story my grandma told me about life during WWII.

She lived on a farm, and their radio stopped working, and they did not have the means to repair it.

They went to town and looked at a new radio, and the salesman talked to them about it, and asked how they would like to pay for it.

They said they had butter.

He said wait a moment, got the manager, and they met in the back with the radio, and it cost them a number of pounds of butter for that was in very short supply due to rationing.


Seize Mars's picture


Those days will reemerge.

RaceToTheBottom's picture


Store of value.

They don't have to be achieved via the same thing.

CHX's picture

And I own a 1 million Reichsmark note dated ~1922. 

ejmoosa's picture

Try getting your beef to the burger joint without a bucket of oil.

SunRise's picture

But cave men are running the fiat system.

Keyser's picture

If the EuroAsian block announces a gold-backed trading vehicle, then it's time to break out the buggle and play taps for the USD... 

just-my-opinion's picture

Food...Water...Shelter(even if it's a tent or a card board box...8^))

but in the times ahead...Guns and Ammo

OZZY...Mother Please Forgive Them....For They Know Not What They Do

Drive the 99% crazy then head under-ground

I Don't Know What To Believe anymore


power steering's picture

First you need a replacement currency originating in a nation with profound rights of property and with rights of redress, i.e. a sound legal system. I don't see who that would be right now outside of the USA

Dr. Richard Head's picture

With that criteria in mind (sound legal system) I don't see how the US can retain the reserve currency status. 

Karlus's picture

Look, the problem is not necessarily with the concept of money, rather its with men. Having a store of value is a great idea and it solves for transactional (how many lbs of butter for a radio) and also allows for lending and credit. All good things.

Where we fall over is that men allow the currency issuer to debase.

Forget dollars for a moment and think of the king increasing more and more base metal into the currency. Its the fact that the people do not storm the castle (or invent another store of currency and let the king have back his crappy coins) thats the problem. When we have a tax system that works for the king and elites, then the reality is that they can debase that currency to enrich themselves.

Modern people dont really understand what money really is. They do not understand a lot of things which is why they allow the government to rob them.

El Vaquero's picture

Here's something to ponder:  What rule requires that there be a replacement GRC? 

TruthHunter's picture

"What rule requires that there be a replacement GRC? "

How about the golden rule?  You know the one: "He who has the gold 

makes the rules".

edotabin's picture


Good to see a reasonable approach every now and then.

SelfGov's picture

The US had large problems itself when the $ became the reserve currency.

The Fed Existed (nuff said)

Karlus's picture

Its better to be the reserve than not.

Travel the world and you will see a common theme. Almost every country has adopted exports from the West. Whether its playing cricket in Mumbai, A guy in a suit on Koren news, Russians wearing jeans.....its all west (US)

Innovating and leading means you should get paid.

The price to the rest of the world is that we export our "inflation" to them. And they have to take it. All this bunk about the Yuan is exactly that. Bunk. Everyone forgets when we thought the Japanese would own the united states in the 80s. How well did that work out for them.


The equation is simple:

Invent shit that people want, you get paid

Have the best army, you get paid

Make bad decisions, have poor education, follow religeous dogma and political correctness that is not efficient

Buying votes, effective for the pol, crappy for the nation


Americans invent stuff but we are kinda dumb with how we spend for votes

McMolotov's picture

To be fair, McCain's warmongering borders on psychosis, and we'd be at war with most of the world and probably several planets if he had his way.

zaphod's picture

But McCain is not the one bombing children around the world.

Obama, the lefty god is the one bombing people. The cognitive dissonance of the left is beyond my understanding.

nope-1004's picture

WTF?  Left vs Right?  Are you awake?

I guess Bush never bombed anyone, nor did Clinton, Bush Sr., Reagan, Carter, Ford, Nixon, Johnson.........

RaceToTheBottom's picture

Exactly. What is the one common point?

Their role????

They are variations to the same animal....

Harbanger's picture

Yeah but the MSM has the Republicans branded as the party of war over crazy neocons like MaCain and any war involving a Democrat or a progressive like Obama, is never their fault.

RobD's picture

Ford bombed someone? All I remember Ford doing is falling down stairs lol.

RobD's picture

Heh, looking at Wiki, all the military did under Ford was run. Was Ford French or something?

WillyGroper's picture

I remember him getting it with a flash bulb from a reporter's camera.

Fell down like Lincoln.

SunRise's picture

. . . falling down the stairs - That was fair - Ford bombed them with himself.

El Vaquero's picture

I think that a distinction should be made between left v right when talking about the politicians and left v right when talking about the sheeple.  The divide within the sheeple is very real, and will remain so as long as they lack critical thinking skills.  When looking at left v right with respect to the bleating masses, notice that they strongly voice their opinions that are based in ideology and not fact.  Take democrats with "war is BAD, mmmmmkay!"  But, due to their lack of critical thinking skills, many of them are unable to connect their ideology to all of the war going on, because Obama.  You can make similar observations with republicans and their views on free market capitalism, when we don't have free market capitalism and their politicians don't actually push for it. 


The left vs right divide is very real amongst the people, because it is real in their minds.  Then you get into politics.  That has more to do with oligarchy, and who gets what slice of what pie. 

McMolotov's picture

"Who cares? They're terrorists!" —Republicans, 2004

"Who cares? They're terrorists!" —Democrats, 2014

The only way either side could surprise me at this point would be if they were consistent. The lefties who post on WaPo articles about Russia sound like Dick Cheney. It's bizarre.

Keyser's picture

Hell, we can't even tell the teams & players in the ME and that's with a program... The situation on the ground is so convoluted I don't think anyone knows WTF is going on... 

RaceToTheBottom's picture

If you cannot tell the difference between the players, maybe there is none:




Syrian ISIS=Afghan ISIS

We should stop treating one as friend and the other as foe.

Karlus's picture

Dem voters = Dem party does things I like and cares for me

Repub voters = Repub party does things I like will care for me

Reality = Politicians have a career to pursue and doing the right thing does not equal making money being a pol


Being a leader (not politician) means you are providing a service. When it becomes a profession, you might have an issue (see army)

Volaille de Bresse's picture

"To be fair, McCain's warmongering borders on psychosis, and we'd be at war with most of the world and probably several planets if he had his way"

Thta's correct but I betcha that by 2025 the DC mafia will consider the "war with most of the world and probably several planets" option as the sanest one they have at hand...

Syrin's picture

Just as long as we break some windows along the way.

Syrin's picture

John Traitor McCain is good buddies with ISIS