Economic recovery for the U.S. economy is not without potential potholes. One of the biggest risks to continued expansion is the ongoing sovereign debt crisis in Europe, which has been roiling global financial markets for two years and has already slowed global economic growth and impeded parts of the U.S. economy, such as the export sector.
In reality, two related issues are at work in Europe: a sovereign debt crisis caused by high government debt burdens and pressure on European financial institutions related to large holdings of that debt by financial institutions there.
Regarding the latter, banks in Europe, like their counterparts elsewhere, often borrow to fund their activities. But when the health of European banks deteriorated because of their exposure to the fiscally weak countries in the euro area, borrowing money, including U.S. dollars, became increasingly difficult. Europe's troubled banks faced a dollar shortage as other financial institutions, such as U.S. money market funds, became reluctant to lend them greenbacks.
This situation is significant because one of the major business lines of European banks is providing financing in dollars on a global scale--for trade, purchasing dollar-denominated assets, or syndicating loans to corporations. Banks the world over, in fact, have a great need for dollars because much of the world's trade, investment, and lending is conducted in U.S. currency.
Swaps ease the strain
Given the dollar's importance throughout the world, it is vital to ensure that its global use as a medium of exchange is unimpeded. To prevent Europe's dollar funding troubles from spreading to other parts of the world and harming the U.S. financial system, in May 2010 the Federal Reserve opened temporary central bank liquidity swap lines (also referred to as reciprocal currency arrangements) with a number of foreign central banks. The swap lines were used extensively during the last financial crisis a few years earlier. The swap lines are consistent with the Federal Reserve's mandated responsibility to provide liquidity to the financial system in times of stress in order to shield the U.S. economy from …