What if oil weren’t priced in dollars?

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Robert Fisk’s report in the Independent that the Persian Gulf countries are planning to stop pricing oil in dollars by 2018 and start using a basket of currencies instead has caused quite the big stir today. Gold hit a new record of $1,043 an ounce as investors worried about the future of the dollar, and the Internets were aflame with the news (especially the right-wing Internets, apparently.) Saudi and Kuwaiti officials immediately said there’s no such move in the offing, but it’s obviously something they’ve been thinking about. Just under two years ago there was a big flurry of discussion on the subject, including an OPEC vote to study switching to a currency basket.

If the Gulf countries stopped pricing oil in dollars, they would also presumably stop pegging their currencies to the dollar, a more significant development. And of course Chinese officials have been making noise for several years about the need to move away from a dollar-dominated world. The problem that both China and the oil exporters have is that they’re holding gigantic stashes of dollars that would suddenly be worth a lot less if they started trying to sell them off. So we’ve got this impasse, where lots of people complain about the dollar’s supremacy but nobody seems willing to do anything about it. In fact, a succession of U.S. Treasury Secretaries has trooped to Beijing trying to persuade the Chinese to do something about the dollar’s supremacy by letting the yuan float or at least rise sharply against the dollar, and met with strong resistance.

It’s the sense that this can’t go on forever that keeps putting downward pressure on the dollar. And this shouldn’t go on forever. The U.S. economy’s share of global economic output has been declining and will almost certainly continue to decline as formerly poor countries get richer. With that, the dollar’s role will need to change.

Such a change wouldn’t be unmitigated bad news for Americans. As I’ve written before, having the dollar as the world’s currency has been a mixed blessing. The dollar’s global role inflates its value, for example, which makes imports cheaper for consumers here but also makes U.S products less competitive globally. Dollar supremacy also allows the U.S. government (and until recently the private sector) to get away with wildly unbalanced budgets without paying an immediate penalty in higher interest rates, which can be nice for a while but tends to end in trouble. The global capital-flow imbalances that many economists now say were at the root of the financial crisis are in significant part a product of the dollar’s outsized role.

All of this means that it may well be in the long-run best interest of the U.S. to push for an orderly transition away from the current dollar-based global monetary system and toward one built around currency baskets, the International Monetary Fund’s special drawing rights, the bancor, gold or whatever other measure of value we can all agree on. In other words, it’s not the worst news in the world that the Persian Gulf countries are talking about moving away from the dollar. Even if they say they aren’t.

Update: As jomiku notes in the comments, Fisk has something of an agenda. He is also a hardworking reporter, and this particular article strikes me as mostly credible, even if his follow-up column in Wednesday’s paper is mostly incomprehensible. Any change being planned for 2018 is going to be awfully tentative, though, and the part in Fisk’s original article about the dollar not being part of the currency basket in which oil will be priced is probably nonsense.

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