Friday, October 23, 2009

The Death-Defying Dollar?


Not a day goes by where I don't hear or read something on the U.S. dollar's demise. Today I received an email from Penguin Group promoting Charles Goyette's new book, The Dollar Meltdown. Mr. Goyette also wrote an article for The Street.com, They're Destroying the Dollar.

Now, I have not read Mr. Goyette's book, but this isn't the first book predicting the doom of the U.S. dollar, nor will it be the last. One of my favorite books on the U.S. dollar was written by Richard Duncan back in 2003, The Dollar Crisis. He might have been a little early, but Mr. Duncan described the economic ills plaguing the U.S. economy and how it will impact the greenback.

More recently, William Engdahl wrote an article on his site, Collapse of the Greenback? Will the Dollar get an "Arab oil Shock"?:

Ever since Washington tore up the Bretton Woods treaty in August 1971 and went onto a “dollar paper reserve system” instead of a dollar backed by gold, the United States, as the world’s most powerful military power, has been able to dictate financial terms to the world. Nations like Japan and later China, dependent on US export markets, would dutifully invest their trade surplus dollars into US Government debt, in effect financing wars such as Iraq or Afghanistan they opposed. They saw no choice. Arab oil producing countries, under US military pressure, were forced to sell oil only in dollars, a direct prop to the dollar when the US economy was in terminal decline. That may be rapidly about to come to an end.

According to a leaked report from Arab Gulf oil producers, there have been a series of secret meetings in recent months between the major Arab oil producers, including Saudi Arabia, and reportedly also Russia, together with the leading oil consumer countries including two of the three largest oil import countries―China and Japan.

Their project is to quietly create the basis to end a 65-year long “iron rule” of selling oil only in US dollars. As I document in my book, Century of War, following the 400% oil price shock of 1973, which was deliberately blamed by US media on “greedy Arab Sheikhs,” the US Treasury made a secret trip to Riyadh to tell the Saudis in blunt terms that if they wanted US military defense against potential Israeli attack, that OPEC must privately agree never to sell oil in currencies other than the US dollar. That “petrodollar” system allowed the US to run staggering trade deficits and remain the world reserve currency, the heart of its ability to dominate and control world financial markets until the crisis of the sub-prime real estate securitization in August 2007.

The participants in the project reportedly envision using a basket of currencies reflecting producer-consumer trade relations, one backed by gold as a solid backbone. It would not initially be a new currency as some have surmised, but rather an arrangement that would eliminate the risks of pricing oil sales in fluctuating and likely depreciating dollars.

Iran announced recently that in the future it would sell its oil for euros not dollars. According to these reports, the basket of currencies would include a mix of yen, euros, Chinese yuan, gold. Brazil would reportedly join as both a producer and consumer country.

The secret plan was first reported by respected Middle East correspondent, Robert Fisk, in the UK Independent. Fisk claims to have confirmed existence of the plan from Arab as well as Hong Kong Chinese sources. I have confirmed from very senior and well-informed Gulf sources that the talks are in fact real. The oil producing countries have been fed up for years about having to price their oil in dollars or face US reprisals. They are steadily losing as the dollar depreciates against other currencies and against gold. Following the US declaration of the War on Terror by the Bush Administration after September 11, 2001 most leading Arab oil producing countries privately saw US policy as being aggressively aimed at them. The unjustifiable US invasion and occupation of Iraq in 2003 merely confirmed that as well as subsequent US threats against Iran.

Initially various governments involved in the leaked plan have publicly denied vehemently such a plan. That in no way invalidates that such moves are afoot. They are well aware that the United States as a wounded tiger can be far more dangerous. The leak of the plans in the world media, whether every detail reported by Fisk is true or not, feeds what is an inevitable decline in the dollar as a reliable reserve currency for world commerce.

What is not clear is what the potential response of Germany and France, the two pivot powers within the EU will be. If they decide to cast their lot with oil producing and consuming countries, they open their doors to vast new trade and investment potentials from the countries of Eurasia. If they cringe from that and decide to remain with the British Pound and US dollar, they will inevitably sink along as the dollar Titanic sinks.

With that decline of the US dollar goes the lessening of the political power of the United States as sole economic and financial superpower. We face very turbulent waters ahead and gold not surprisingly is gaining in this uncertainty.

But before you rush out to buy gold and convert your U.S. dollars, you should read Barry Eichengreen's latest article published in the Gulf Times, the death-defying dollar (hat tip Tom Naylor):

The blogosphere is abuzz with reports of the dollar’s looming demise. The greenback has fallen against the euro by nearly 15% since the beginning of the summer. Central banks have reportedly slowed their accumulation of dollars in favour of other currencies.


Economists have no trouble explaining the dollar’s weakness after the fact. With American households saving more in order to rebuild their retirement accounts, the country has to export more. A weaker dollar is needed to make American goods more attractive to foreign consumers.


Moreover, disenchantment with the sophisticated instruments that American financial institutions specialise in originating and distributing means more limited foreign capital flows into the United States. Fewer foreign purchases of US assets again imply a weaker dollar. Extrapolating the past into the future, forecasters predict that the dollar will decline further.


The first thing to say about this is that one should be sceptical about economists’ predictions, especially those concerning the near term. Our models are, to put it bluntly, useless for predicting currency movements over a few weeks or months.


I should know. When the sub-prime crisis erupted in early September 2007, I published an article entitled “Why Now is a Good Time to Sell the Dollar” in a prominent financial publication. What happened next, of course, was that the dollar strengthened sharply, as investors, desperate for liquidity, fled into US Treasury securities. Subsequently the dollar did decline. But then it shot up again following the failure of Bear Stearns and the problems with AIG.


Over periods of several years, our models do better. Over those time horizons, the emphasis on the need for the US to export more and on the greater difficulty the economy will have in attracting foreign capital are on the mark. These factors give good grounds for expecting further dollar weakness.


The question is, Weakness against what? Not against the euro, which is already expensive and is the currency of an economy with banking and structural problems that are even more serious than those of the US. Not against the yen, which is the currency of an economy that refuses to grow.


Thus, for the dollar to depreciate further, it will have to depreciate against the currencies of China and other emerging markets. Their intervention in recent weeks shows a reluctance to let this happen. But their choice boils down to buying US dollars or buying US goods. The first option is a losing proposition.


In the longer run, Opec will shift to pricing petroleum in a basket of currencies. It sells its oil to the US, Europe, Japan, and emerging markets alike. It hardly makes sense for it to denominate oil prices in the currency of only one of its customers. And central banks, when deciding what to hold as reserves, will surely put somewhat fewer of their eggs in the dollar basket.


Beyond this, the dollar isn’t going anywhere. It is not about to be replaced by the euro or the yen, given that both Europe and Japan have serious economic problems of their own. The renminbi is coming, but not before 2020, by which time Shanghai will have become a first-class international financial centre. And, even then, the renminbi will presumably share the international stage with the dollar, not replace it.


The one thing that could precipitate the demise of the dollar would be reckless economic mismanagement in the US. One popular scenario is chronic inflation. But this is implausible. Once the episode of zero interest rates ends, the US Federal Reserve will be anxious to reassert its commitment to price stability. There may be a temptation to inflate away debt held by foreigners, but the fact is that the majority of US debt is held by Americans, who would constitute a strong constituency opposing the policy.


The other scenario is that US budget deficits continue to run out of control. Predictions of outright default are far-fetched. But high debts will mean high taxes. The combination of loose fiscal policy and tight monetary policy will mean high interest rates, sluggish investment, and slow growth. Foreigners – and residents – might well grow disenchanted with the currency of an economy with these characteristics.


Mark Twain, the 19th-century American author and humorist, once responded to accounts of his ill health by writing that “reports of my death are greatly exaggerated.” He might have been speaking about the dollar. For the moment, the patient is stable, external symptoms notwithstanding. But there will be grounds for worry if he doesn’t commit to a healthier lifestyle.

I agree with Barry Eichengreen, reports of the U.S. dollar's demise are greatly exaggerated. The mighty greenback will come roaring back, perhaps sooner than you think.

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