WHEN Marco Polo travelled to China in the 13th century, he found that among its wonders was “the secret of the alchemists”. Its imperial court could turn mulberry bark into money. It simply printed paper notes, decreed that people must accept them and killed counterfeiters. For a Venetian used to gold coins, the world’s first fiat currency was a marvel. Its value derived not from precious metal but from the credibility of the regime issuing it. This month China achieved another kind of monetary alchemy: to fashion a global reserve currency out of one that, by a range of criteria, does not yet merit such status.

On October 1st the yuan became the fifth entrant in the basket of currencies that forms the Special Drawing Right, a reserve asset created by the IMF. Immediate implications are limited. SDRs are a unit of account, not a real currency; inclusion in the basket does not force anyone to acquire the yuan. Symbolically, though, it is a big deal: the IMF’s seal of approval for China’s monetary system. It has deemed it safe for central banks around the world to add the yuan to their reserves. Dozens of central banks in fact already do so,...Continue reading