Economy, U.S. Relations

Ten Years Later- The Impact of Dollarization in El Salvador

Some economists argue that pursuing a dollarization strategy helps developing countries grow their economies through the stabilization of inflation and increases in investment. Other economists discourage a dollarization strategy because it causes these economically small countries to relinquish control over their own monetary policy. This past January marked the tenth anniversary of El Salvador’s adoption of the US dollar as its currency, and its worth assessing the “dollarized” currency regime to determine how successful its been.

Colones, the Salvadoran currency that was replaced by the US dollar in 2001

Adopting the US dollar as a nation’s official currency can be successful, such as in Ecuador. In the case of El Salvador however, dollarization does not seem to have improved economic development.  El Salvador’s economic growth since adopting the dollar as the official currency in 2001 has not been any higher than it was during the years leading up to dollarization. In fact, El Salvador saw higher growth rates in the years prior to its adoption of the dollar. It is difficult to directly attribute the country’s failure to obtain a higher growth rate solely to dollarization, but it most likely did play a role.

As it did in Ecuador, dollarization has helped many economies stabilize their high rates of inflation. El Salvador, however never faced hyperinflation and therefore did not reap any of the stabilizing benefits. Another argument favoring dollarization is that it lowers interest rates and stimulates investment. In the case of El Salvador however, investments did not flow into the country as much as expected due to instability caused by high crime rates and violence. If investors believe their money and capital is not secure, they will go elsewhere where labor costs are low (not denominated in dollars) and where violence and crime is less of a threat.

Under the dollarization regime, El Salvador has no control over its own monetary policy. By adopting the US dollar as its official currency, El Salvador has ceded its authority over money supply and interest rates to the Federal Reserve. It is highly unlikely that the Fed will consider El Salvador’s needs when determining interest rates. Therefore, the Salvadorian government has to depend on taxes and spending to stimulate the economy since it no longer has control over money supply and interest rates. This has caused El Salvador to run higher deficits through the last decade since the government was forced to raise expenditures to stimulate the economy as opposed to decreasing interest rates to spur consumption and investment.

The poorest Salvadorians are the most affected by dollarization. When the dollar was adopted, all businesses needed to change their prices and translate them into dollars. This led to a phenomenon known as “rounding up”. Because the colon-dollar exchange rate was not an exact value, but a fraction, the shift to the dollar caused businesses to change from colon to dollar by rounding up to the nearest dime, quarter or dollar. This left the poorest Salvadorians worse off because while prices rose, wages did not, leaving everyone with a lower real income. However, since the poorest Salvadorans have very low incomes, a fraction of a dollar comprises a larger part of their income than the average Salvadoran.

The effects of dollarization on trade have been somewhat ambiguous. Whereas it was able to compete against other developing countries when it had the colon, El Salvador’s exports have slowed because countries like China are trading with their own undervalued currencies while El Salvador trades with the dollar. Thus, El Salvador’s exports are relatively more expensive than Chinese exports. Use of the dollar, however, has helped trade with some countries by reducing transaction costs. Since so many of its goods are traded with the US, trade in El Salvador has benefitted. Thus, whether the net effect on trade has been positive or negative remains unclear.

Dollarization has provided some benefits. For instance, El Salvador has not faced hyperinflation like some of its Latin American counterparts have. Keeping inflation low is important because it allows banks to lend more, putting more money into the economy.  Additionally, having the dollar as their official currency has limited the chance of any sort of speculative attacks, which means that El Salvador is much less likely to face a Balance of Payments Crisis like Mexico or Argentina did.

The most important and perhaps disappointing part is that some economists believe a shift away from the dollar is not possible. Economists cite Gresham’s Law as the reason for this. In this context, Gresham’s Law argues that re-introducing the colon or another currency into the system would not work because Salvadorians would not trust it. The way this scenario would play out is: the government would try to introduce a new Salvadoran currency and it would ask its citizens to keep their dollars and instead use this new currency for all transactions. The problem is, without trust, that new currency will have no value. Because the dollar is much more trusted as a stable currency, Salvadorans would resist this change in currency and continue to make their transactions in dollars.

Dollarization is not for all countries. For this policy to be truly successful, hyperinflation must be a real concern and investment must be contingent on interest rates and not other factors such as violence. El Salvador has benefitted in some ways by dollarization, however in the long run, there seems to have been more costs than benefits.