- Sep 23, 2006
I found this to be an interesting article on politics, oil, and the value of the US dollar.
The Americans could live with Saddam until he started selling oil for euros instead of U.S. dollars. Then the Europeans could live with him.
by Gavin R. Putland firstname.lastname@example.org
GOOD AS GOLD
At the end of World War II, the USA was the world's biggest national economy and the only great power whose industrial base was not damaged by the war. America's huge productive capacity made the U.S. dollar the easiest currency to spend in the global market and consequently the most acceptable foreign currency outside the USA. By the late 1950s, however, the recovery of Europe and Japan caused a suspicion that there were too many dollars in circulation. Central bankers began to exchange their dollars for gold under the terms of the 1944 Bretton Woods treaty, whereby the currencies of participating countries were backed by gold. In 1971, in response to the depletion of U.S. gold reserves, President Richard Nixon announced that the dollar would no longer be redeemable for gold. So the system of fixed exchange rates via gold-backing fell apart. It was thought that the dollar would decline in value as traders relied less on the dollar and more on the emerging European and Asian currencies. But support for the dollar came from an unlikely quarter.
GOLD TURNS BLACK
In 1973, the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) quadrupled the price of oil but continued to accept only U.S. dollars in payment, so that demand for dollars soared. From then on, the dollar was effectively backed by oil instead of gold -- and the U.S. government didn't even have to own the oil!
Because dollars can buy oil, exporters in countries that need to import oil -- i.e. most developed countries -- will accept dollars for their exports. Hence everyone who needs to buy from those exporters will accept dollars as payment for other things, and so on. To pay their bills, importers must have reserves of dollars. To prop up their currencies against speculative attacks, the central banks of all countries must have reserves of dollars. To get capital, poor countries must borrow dollars, and to service these debts they must export goods to obtain more dollars. About 2/3 of all currency reserves, more than 4/5 of all currency transactions, more than half of the world's exports, and all loans from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) are denominated in dollars. As these things create demand for the dollar and shore up its value, oil exporters are the more willing to accept payment in dollars. So the process is self-reinforcing; it's called "dollar hegemony".
In the late 1970s, falling oil prices reduced demand for the dollar while mounting third-world debt reduced confidence in dollar-denominated deposits. The U.S. Federal Reserve defended the dollar by raising interest rates to record levels. Heavily indebted poor countries are still paying for that episode. But the second oil-price shock (1979-80) restored demand for the dollar.
So America can export dollars, which cost nothing to produce, and receive real goods and services in return. When those dollars eventually find their way into foreign reserves, they can be invested only in American assets. This creates a demand for U.S. treasury bills without high interest rates, and inflates the U.S. property market and stock market -- to the benefit of current owners of land and shares, and to the detriment of the working poor who live in caravans ("trailers") on the fringes of American cities because they do not "earn" enough to buy or rent a home. Ordinary home owners may think they benefit from rising property values; but in fact, every time an owner moves to a new home, the higher sale price of the old home is offset by the higher purchase price of the new one. The real winners are the big investors.
But this continuous inflow of foreign investment (on the "capital account") is needed to balance America's mammoth trade deficit (on the "current account"). America's imports now exceed its exports by almost 50%, or 5% of GDP. Its net foreign debt is more than a quarter of annual GDP, and its public debt is about 60% of annual GDP.
CLEAR AND PRESENT DANGER
The main threat to the global hegemony of a single currency is the desire for diversity in investment. Dollar hegemony was secured by the size of the U.S. economy and the pricing of oil in dollars. But if a second currency were allowed into the oil market, it would soon become a general-purpose trading and reserve currency, especially if it were legal tender in an economy comparable in size to the USA.
In 1999, eleven member states of the European Union (EU) adopted the euro as a common accounting currency. Greece joined the Euro Zone a year later. On January 1, 2002, the twelve countries withdrew their old money from circulation, completing the biggest currency reform in history.
The Euro Zone already has a bigger share of world trade than the USA. In particular, it imports more oil than the USA and is the main trading partner of the Middle East. It offers higher interest rates than the USA, but does not have a huge foreign debt or trade deficit. Member states must accept tight constraints on budget deficits, and the European Central Bank has an exceptionally strong mandate to preserve the purchasing power of its currency. These things inspire confidence in the euro. In 2002, the central banks of Russia, China, Taiwan and Canada converted some of their reserves from dollars to euros. The strength of the euro also encourages expansion of the EU and puts pressure on current members Denmark, Sweden and the U.K. to join the Euro Zone. In December 2002, ten new countries were accepted for EU membership with effect from May 2004. This will create a common market of 450 million people, which will buy more than half of OPEC's oil.
So the only argument for preferring dollars to euros is that dollars can buy oil. As that argument does not affect oil exporters, it would make sense for OPEC members to convert most of their reserves to euros by mid 2004. Then if they were to price their oil in euros, at least for exports to the Euro Zone, they would increase global demand for the euro, causing a handsome increase in the value of their new euro reserves. Similar arguments apply to non-OPEC oil exporters such as Norway and Russia.
If the euro becomes a global currency to rival the dollar, central banks and other traders will sell down their dollar reserves, causing the value of the dollar to plummet (and devaluing the debts of poor countries at the expense of their creditors). The unwanted dollars will be withdrawn from the U.S. asset market and will flood the market for U.S. goods and services. The U.S. property market will deflate (so that poor Americans can more easily afford homes, at the expense of current property owners). The U.S. stock market, being more volatile than the property market, will fall faster. The real prices of property and shares will fall further than the dollar prices because the dollar itself will be devalued. The additional dollars chasing U.S. goods and services will fuel domestic inflation. They will also increase exports, reducing the current account deficit to compensate for the slowdown of foreign investment, and reducing domestic living standards as measured by consumption of goods and services. Inevitably, the Federal Reserve will raise interest rates in order to reduce the inflation, support the dollar, attract more foreign investment, and delay the day of reckoning on which America will have to export real goods and services to pay for its imports, service its foreign debt, and accumulate reserves of euros. But that will not rescue the landowners and shareholders and bond holders, because their assets can be devalued not only by reduced foreign investment, but also by higher interest rates.
And of course the price of oil in U.S. dollars will increase; but this time there will be no compensating increase in the global demand for dollars.
The first OPEC member to show serious disloyalty to the dollar was Iran, which has expressed interest in the euro since 1999. In January 2002, George W. Bush named Iran in his "axis of evil", provoking a wave of anti-American demonstrations reminiscent of the Khomeini era, and undoubtedly setting back the political and religious liberalization of that country. Undeterred, Iran converted most of its currency reserves to euros during 2002, and a proposal to price Iran's oil in euros has been submitted to the central bank and the parliament.
Let us see whether the Americans find an excuse to destabilize Iran's toddling democracy in favor of a dictatorship that just happens to prefer dollars to euros.
The second offender was Venezuela. In 2000, Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez convened a conference on the future of fossil fuels and renewable energy. The report of the conference, delivered by Chavez to the OPEC summit in September 2000, recommended that OPEC set up a computerized barter system so that members could trade oil for goods and services without the use of dollars or any other currency. The chief beneficiaries would be OPEC's poorer customers, who did not have large currency reserves. Chavez made 13 barter deals. In one of them, Cuba provided health services in Venezuelan villages.
In April 2002 there was a coup against the twice-elected President Chavez. The coup was welcomed by the Bush administration and by editorials in numerous American newspapers, but collapsed after two days, leaving evidence that the U.S. administration was behind it .
The third and most blatant offender was Iraq. In October 2000, Iraq persuaded the United Nations to allow Iraqi oil to be sold for euros instead of dollars, with effect from November 6. Iraq then converted its entire $10 billion "oil for food" reserve fund from dollars to euros. These events went unreported in the U.S. media.
Given America's record of toppling elected governments whose policies it didn't like (as in Chile, Nicaragua, and almost Venezuela), it is hard to believe that the motives of Operation Iraqi Freedom were as pure as its name suggested, especially considering how cheap "freedom" has become in U.S. domestic politics [see the Appendix]. The test of America's sincerity will be whether the new regime in Iraq continues to sell oil for euros.
Having occupied Iraq, America then stepped up its rhetoric against neighboring Syria. Coincidentally, Syria would like to sell oil for euros because most of its imports are purchased with euros.
* * *
If this oil-currency-war theory is a delusion, the U.S. administration can easily discredit it -- by declaring that the USA has no objection if oil exports to the Euro Zone are denominated in euros.
 See www.fair.org/press-releases/venezuela-editorials.html ,
For the sources of the oil-currency-war theory, see
www.feasta.org/documents/papers/oil1.htm plus the links on that page. On the fortunes of the U.S. dollar, see www.npq.org/archive/1987_fall/adventures.html.
On the causes and effects of overpriced real estate, see www.users.bigpond.com/putland/menz.htm.
For more reflections on the economic significance of natural resources, see www.prosper.org.au.