One of the most overused phrases in economic discussions is “petrodollar”, especially by those inclined to doomsday theories. Right behind it is the phrase “reserve currency”, which gets tossed around almost as much as petrodollar. For most people, these are terms that no longer have a practical meaning. They are words that are supposed to mean something bad. The petrodollar as the world’s reserve currency is the tool of the evil money men in Washington.
For starters, the petrodollar is not a real thing. It is simply a term to express the fact that in the 1970’s the large oil producing countries agreed to use the dollar. If you want to buy crude from the Saudis, they accept dollars and dollar equivalents. They will accept Chinese yuan or Vietnamese dong, but they will be converted to dollars. In the case of Vietnam, they may discount the exchange due to administrative costs. Otherwise, they turn the dong into dollars.
This agreement to price energy products in dollars is what makes the dollar the world’s primary reserve currency. Everyone needs energy, so if the energy guy will always take dollars for payment, then the world will always keep a supply of dollars around, not just for energy purchases, but as a reserve. In other words, the dollar’s position as the primary reserve currency is tied to the fact that energy is priced in dollars, so everyone has to have dollars around to buy energy.
Now, why did the Saudis agree to price everything in dollars. The main reason is they got something for it in return. What they got is a guarantee that the United States would protect the kingdom from threats in the region and never side with the wrong faction among the Saudi royal family. That last part is important. Joe Biden, as Vice President, sided with the faction opposing Mohammed bin Salman, the current Crown Prince and Prime Minister of Saudi Arabia.
This is why the Saudis are now open to pricing their energy products in Chinese yuan and maybe other currencies. Since Russian products are now priced in rubles, the ruble has become one of the strongest and most stable currencies in the world. Lots of countries now need to hold rubles, because lots of countries need to buy Russian energy and agricultural products. Lots of people need to buy Chinese manufactured goods, so you can see the appeal there as well.
To finish the thought on the Saudis, they no longer see Washington holding up their end of that bargain struck fifty years ago. Russia and China, on the other hand, are willing to help in that regard. The Chinese brokered a deal between the Saudis and Iran, which is an enormous development. Iran backs the rebels in Yemen and the Saudis back anti-regime forces in Iran. This new deal solves a problem for both countries and makes the Chinese the honest broker of the region.
Further up the road, the Russians have slowly been putting together a deal between the Turks and the Syrians to end the long bloody war in Syria. That war is the result of regime change efforts by Washington aimed at Syria. The Turks had been party to that scheme, but they have changed teams and now oppose regime change. The looming settlement of this problem, brokered by the Russians, will alter the dynamics in the region and further push Washington out of the picture.
Taken together, the regional players are now looking to Russia and China to help keep the peace and be the honest broker. Getting back to that old deal between Washington and Riyad, if Washington is no longer keeping the peace, then why only accept Washington’s money for energy products? If the world is increasingly comfortable holding yuan, to buy Chinese goods, and rubles, to buy Russian products, why not hold those currencies and accept them for payment?
This is why arguments like this one promoted by Darren Beatty at Revolver News miss the point of what is happening with the dollar. The writer just assumes that because things have always been this way, they will always be this way. It is as if he thinks the dollar has magical qualities that make it the primary reserve currency. The dollar’s value in the world is pegged to practical things. If those practical things decline in value or disappear, then the dollar loses its power.
What is taking shape is that the global conflict between the Global American Empire and the emerging power centers of the world will include a currency war. Both China and Russia clearly get this aspect of the conflict. Both countries are working to not only make their currencies more stable, but they are also building out the infrastructure to make dealing in their currencies easier. China and Russia are making it easier to do business with them in their currency.
What is happening is that as we move from the monopolar world of the post-Cold War era to the multipolar world, we are sliding into a currency war. As a practical matter, Washington will no longer be able to abuse the dollar as it has recklessly done for the last thirty years. This means Washington will not be able to export inflation in the form of excess dollars to other countries. Those other countries will now have choices, with regards to investment and reserves.
This does not mean the collapse of the dollar or a collapse of the empire, at least it is not a foregone conclusion. Instead, it means Washington must enter a period of reform similar to what followed the Second World War and the collapse of the gold-backed dollar in the 1970’s. Currency wars are the result of changing political and economic relationships that demand changes in money relations. The petrodollar solved a problem at the time and its end solves a problem of this time.
Whether or not there is the talent in the ruling class to pull off the needed reforms is the great question that looms over this currency war. The Fed chair is obviously in over his head, but there is no one in Washington noticing this. The current administration is staffed by lunatics and buffoons. The Republican side is trapped in the last century, unable to accept that the world has moved on from the 1980’s. Prospects for reform are grim at the moment, which is what makes for a crisis.
Even so, we are entering a period similar to the 1970’s in that we will have periods of inflation along with declining real growth. Unreliable money relations make for unreliable economic relations. America emerged from the last century as the global hegemon because she won the currency wars of the last century. The disposition of the American empire will be defined by the new currency war and what comes out the other side of the process will also be defined by the currency war.
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