Though the Saudis have denied it, reports last month that the Kingdom was privately threatening to ditch the dollar as the currency of choice for its oil trade have helped reignite speculation that the greenback could soon lose its reserve currency status, as a few financial luminaries have warned.
Though many mainstream financial analysts categorically dismiss the idea that the dollar's dominance is in any way under threat, reports about the threats to the petrodollar have prompted many to question how exactly, does the average American benefit from the dollar's reserve currency status, and would the greenback's fall from grace have a negative, or positive, impact on the livelihood of the averagee American worker?
Well, economist Steve Keen has a few theories about what might happen if the dollar stops being the vessel via which a large plurality of global trade is conducted. And he shared his views with Erik Townsend during this week's episode of MacroVoices.
When most people think about the risks associated with the dollar losing its reserve status, runaway inflation probably ranks high on the list. But Keen believes these risks are probably overblown,for several reasons. First, importers often hedge out foreign exchange risk between two and five years out. And even once the dollar's weakness starts to bite, company's will often simply absorb some of the margin pressure to maintain market share. While prices might move marginally higher, Keen doubts the outcome would destabilize large swaths of the US economy, as the reserve alarmists have warned.
The real impact would be felt by Americans wanting to travel overseas, who would see their purchasing power collapse as the costs of traveling abroad skyrocket.
Erik: Now, most of the products that you see at Walmart in the United States are imported from China. It seems to me that, if this were to occur and there was a marked devaluation of the US dollar versus other currencies, that would result in a massive inflation shock in the real economy in the US because we don’t have the manufacturing capacity to make widgets in the United States. That’s all gone offshore, to the detriment, perhaps, of the American worker.
But we don’t have that capacity. So if, all of a sudden, we have to pay much higher prices in dollars in order to generate the same price in yuan or yen or whatever for the imported goods, doesn’t that result in a really big inflation shock inside the US?
Steve: It can. Inflation shocks, you have to look at them in a proper empirical context.
And most economists simply assume any currency devaluation will lead to an equivalent inflation spike in the country that is devaluing.
What actually happens quite frequently is firms will try to – first of all, you have long-term contracts determining prices that are often set out two to five years in advance, particularly for industrial goods.
But mainly we have importers putting a markup on their imports for their profit level. They are willing to cut their markup to hang onto market share to some extent. So you don’t see a 100% pass-through of that sort of thing. You might see 30% pass-through. So if you had a 10-15-20% devaluation in the economy in the American dollar, then you could see, yes, a 5 or 7 maybe – I wouldn’t say going beyond 10% – spike in the inflation rate.
But, yes, you could see that spike occurring. And it would also – obviously cramp the style of any Americans wanting to go on overseas holidays. So there would definitely be a decrease in the American living standards. And it would bring home to people, too, the extent to which you have been deindustrialized and relied upon this exorbitant privilege to get over it. If the exorbitant privilege goes, then you wear the full consequences of being deindustrialized in the last 25 years.
Similarly, worries that a weaker dollar would cause interest rates in the US to skyrocket are also overblown, Keen believes. Just look at Japan: Interest rates have been mired near zero for 15 years now, regardless of what's been happening with the yen. Because it's not the external market that sets interest rates in the US - that's now the Federal Reserve's job.
Steve: So I can see it as giving America quite a severe jolt. But it won’t be something which causes interest rates to go sky-high. They will still be held in a band by the Federal Reserve. You might see rises in corporate rates and so on, but not large rises in the rates on American government debt.
Circling back to the inspiration for this topic, Townsend asked Keen if he really believes the Saudis seriously considering ditching the dollar, or if these leaks are merely idle threats. Keen believes it's the latter, given how dependent the Saudis are on American support in the form of both supplying arms and purchasing oil. The real risk for the dollar lies in Europe and China. Europe's search for an alternative to SWIFT, which was inspired by Trump's decision to ditch the Iran deal, was a major catalyst for this.
As Trump's belligerence toward America's enemies and allies has made the dollar's reserve status "intolerable" for many, Keen believes there's a "one in three" chance that the dollar loses its reserve status within ten years.
Erik: Steve, let’s come to the current risks that the US dollar faces in terms of maintaining its reserve currency status and talk about how real they are. Is this talk from Saudi Arabia just saber-rattling? Or are they really serious about ditching the dollar? Likewise, we had another comment last week from, I believe it was a former undersecretary of the UN, calling for a global currency to replace the US dollar as the world’s reserve currency. Are these things really at risk of actually happening?
Or is this just talk?
Steve: I think it’s at risk of happening. I don’t think the Saudis are going to go through with it though, because they’re incredibly intimately tied up with American military power and it would just be too dangerous for them to do that. But I know China and Russia and, to some extent, Europe are talking about it because they are sick of the extent to which this is being used as a bullying tool by America. Particularly – just one recent example – the decision not to let Iran use the SWIFT system for international payments.
That could never have happened if the American dollar wasn’t the reserve currency. And you get American imposing its political will on the rest of the world using the fact that it’s the reserve currency. And of course that’s become intolerable under Trump. So I think the odds are, let’s say, one in three of a serious breakdown in that in the next 10 years.
That's not to say that this couldn't be stopped, but the more the US tries to impose its will on the rest of the world, the more likely other world powers will rebel.
But it could also be prevented. It’s one of these things – it doesn’t have the weight of financial numbers behind it like I could see with the credit crunch back in 2008 to say a crisis is inevitable.
But, certainly, there will be strains on the system and the American dominance can’t be guaranteed. And the more America now tries to assert that dominance, the more likely it is to encourage one of those alternatives to be developed.
As history has proven time and time again, no reserve currency reigns forever...
...So, With America's allies and enemies looking for ways to mitigate their reliance on the dollar, what, ultimately, would be the impact if the world decides to ditch the greenback?
While the decline in demand would probably cause the dollar to weaken, that could benefit the American working class. Given that President Trump's confrontation approach to diplomacy has caused this process to accelerate, as Europe, Russia and China have repeatedly, this is one way in which what Keen describes as Trump's leveraging America's reserve-currency status as a "thug's tool" (by threatening sanctions against its enemies), could circuitously benefit the working class Americans who make up a large portion of his base.
Obviously, it’s going to mean a reduction in demand for American dollars on foreign exchange markets, which must mean a fall in the price over time. And it will be complicated by the usual spot and hedge markets and so on. But, yes, seeing a fall in the value of the dollar, unless America’s financial sector could no longer use the fact that it was American to have the power it has over financial institutions elsewhere in the world, so that the scale of the financial sector would be pulled back, your manufacturing sector would be more competitive. But, as you know, you don’t have the industrial pattern you used to have.
You’ve still got some outstanding corporations and outstanding technological capability. But you don’t have that machine tool background. The skilled workers that used to exist there aren’t there anymore. So there would be a serious shock to America with more expensive goods to be imported from overseas and a slow shift towards having a local manufacturing capability, making up for the damage of the last 25 years.
I can see a lot of social conflict out of that as well, but a positive for the American working class, who really have been done over in the last quarter century. And that’s partly the reason why Trump has come about. And, ironically, Trump is part of the reason why this might come to an end, given how much he’s used his bombast and the American reserve currency status as a thug’s tool in foreign relations rather than an intelligent person’s tool.
In summary, although every reserve currency in history has lost its status as its economic dominance has faded, the US might be the first to lose that status because of an organized rebellion that it helped provoke via its willingness to use sanctions and other tools as a weapon for punishing its adversaries and rewarding its friends.
Listen to the full interview below: