top of page
  • Writer's pictureGrain

Understanding the U.S. Dollar - History, Role in Global Commerce, and Volatility

Updated: May 26

History of the U.S. Dollar

The U.S. dollar has a rich history that has played a pivotal role in shaping the global economy. The story of the U.S. dollar began in the late 18th century when the United States Mint issued its first dollar coins, resembling the widely used Spanish dollar in size and composition. These coins were part of the early U.S. currency system alongside the Spanish and Mexican pesos until the Coinage Act of 1857.

The advent of paper currency in the U.S. came with the Civil War, as the government issued demand notes in 1861, known as greenbacks due to their color. This marked the beginning of a more standardized currency system under the United States Notes, first published in 1862.

Backside of rare vintage 2 dollar bill series 1917

By the 20th century, particularly after World War I, the U.S. dollar began to emerge as a significant force in global finance. The Bretton Woods Agreement of 1944 solidified its status, pegging other world currencies to the dollar rather than gold. However, by the 1970s, the gold standard was abandoned, allowing the dollar's value to float freely in the global markets.

The Dollar as the World's Reserve Currency

The path to the U.S. dollar becoming the world’s reserve currency is intertwined with significant historical and economic events. The Federal Reserve Act of 1913 established the Federal Reserve Bank, marking a pivotal shift from a currency system based on individual banknotes to a more unified approach. This change was essential as the U.S. economy began to surpass that of the United Kingdom, whose commerce was still centered around the British pound.

Initially, many developed countries pegged their currencies to gold to stabilize currency exchanges. However, the outbreak of World War I in 1914 led many nations to suspend the gold standard to finance military expenses with paper money, leading to currency devaluation. The U.K. clung to the gold standard to maintain its currency's dominance but eventually had to borrow money, marking a shift in global financial power.

The U.S. emerged as a lender of choice as countries sought to purchase dollar-denominated bonds. The abandonment of the gold standard by Britain in 1931 drastically shifted the balance, undermining the pound and paving the way for the dollar's ascendancy as the leading reserve currency.

By the time of the Bretton Woods Agreement in 1944, the dollar was formally crowned as the world's reserve currency, backed by the largest gold reserves. Instead of gold, countries started to accumulate U.S. dollar reserves, using them to buy U.S. Treasury securities as a safe store of value.

Today, the dollar's role as a reserve currency is supported by the size and strength of the U.S. economy and the trust in its financial markets. In 2022, 59% of all foreign bank reserves were held in U.S. dollars, facilitating global trade and providing a haven during economic uncertainties.

The U.S. dollar far outpaces rivals as a global currency

A strong dollar impacts the global economy in several ways:

  • Import Prices: A stronger dollar lowers the cost of imports, benefiting U.S. consumers by making foreign goods and services cheaper.

  • Export Competitiveness: Conversely, a strong dollar makes U.S. exports more expensive and less competitive in the global market, potentially reducing foreign sales for U.S. companies.

  • Investment Returns: For U.S. investors with overseas investments, a strong dollar can reduce the net return when converting foreign earnings back to dollars.

For example, the U.S. dollar reached parity with the euro in the summer of 2022 and fluctuated through 2023, reflecting shifts in monetary policy between the Federal Reserve and the European Central Bank. The strengthening dollar in 2024 suggests a continued focus on these relative monetary policies.

Recent Volatility and Economic Implications

The U.S. dollar's value against other currencies can fluctuate significantly, influenced by various factors including monetary policy, interest rates, and global economic stability. In the early months of 2024, the dollar strengthened against the euro and other currencies, driven by relatively higher U.S. interest rates which attract more capital flows into the U.S.

Calculated based on data from the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System. *Through April 12, 2024.

The Future of the U.S. Dollar

Despite recent challenges, the U.S. dollar remains the dominant global reserve currency, thanks to the overall strength of the U.S. economy and the robustness of its financial markets. However, the rise of other currencies and the process of de-dollarization show that some countries are trying to reduce their dependency on the dollar.

Experts like Roger Aliaga-Díaz and Josh Hirt from Vanguard suggest that the dollar's future dominance depends on several factors:

  • Economic Strength: Continued U.S. economic growth and stability are crucial.

  • Institutional Trust: Confidence in U.S. democratic institutions and the rule of law encourages international use of the dollar.

  • Global Financial Structure: The existing global financial system's inertia makes shifting away from the dollar challenging.

However, the increasing globalization and the growth of other economies, like the EU and China, introduce potential shifts in reserve currency dynamics. The euro and the Chinese yuan are increasingly used in international transactions, although they have yet to challenge the dollar's supremacy significantly.

Protecting Against Volatility

Navigating currency volatility is crucial for businesses engaged in international trade, especially those dealing with currencies like the euro, which has shown significant fluctuations over the past decades. Our study highlights the costly impact of these fluctuations on American businesses:

  • Increased Costs: About one in three years sees around 2% additional costs for European payables due to FX fluctuations. Even more dramatically, one in five years can see more than 3% extra costs, which for businesses with 10% operating margins translates into a 30% increase in costs.

To manage these risks and ensure financial stability, businesses can turn to currency solutions such as offered by Grain. Grain provides an embedded cross-currency solution to shield businesses from the adverse effects of FX volatility. 


The U.S. dollar's role as the world's reserve currency is a testament to the size and strength of the U.S. economy and the trust in its financial markets. While recent volatility and the rise of other currencies pose challenges, the dollar's foundational role in global finance remains strong. As the world economy evolves, so too will the dynamics of the U.S. dollar, but its central role in global commerce is likely to continue for the foreseeable future.

Businesses can protect themselves from currency fluctuations by partnering with companies like Grain, which offer innovative solutions to manage FX risk effectively. With Grain's end-to-end currency protection, businesses can navigate the FX rollercoaster with confidence, ensuring stable and profitable international operations.

33 views0 comments


bottom of page