Opinion from a Libertarian ViewPoint

Saudi Arabia’s Quandary: The End of the Petrodollar | Mises Wire

Posted by M. C. on March 3, 2023

The good news is that Washington’s plans for world domination are bound to fail as China and Russia have a revived alliance, which also appeals to and is open to other powers. The bad news is that this will lead to the drawn-out collapse of the dollar, which Washington will attempt to parlay into a new central bank digital currency to accompany an increased crackdown on opposition within the dwindling empire.

J.R. MacLeod

In 1971 Richard Nixon took the US off the last feeble vestiges of the gold standard, otherwise known as the Bretton Woods Agreement. That system had been a bizarre gold-dollar hybrid where the dollar was the world reserve currency but the US agreed to keep the dollar backed by gold. Henry Hazlitt’s book From Bretton Woods to World Inflation explains the consequences of this situation well.

The end of this system left a vacuum at the heart of world financial affairs, one that needed to be filled quickly. The dollar, now unmoored by gold, remained the default currency for international trade, but without the confidence derived from its former gold backing, the US needed to bolster its credibility lest other more enticing options appeared to displace the dollar’s hegemony.

During the 1973 Arab-Israeli war, Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) had gained leverage by imposing an oil embargo, which caused serious disruptions in the global economy. In 1974 Henry Kissinger brokered a deal: Israel would back off its territorial ambitions, the Arab states would end the embargo, and oil would be traded in dollars. Thus, the petrodollar was born.

Every economy needs energy, and Saudi Arabia supplies plenty of oil, meaning that the dollar was backed up by a valuable commodity that would always be the recipient of demand. Everyone wants oil, and the Saudis would only trade it for dollars, so the dollar became unavoidable in international trade, reaffirming its status as the world reserve currency.

Even if others would have preferred a neutral, market-based currency not subject to manipulation, the opportunity cost of foregoing oil was far higher than the cost of having to use the dollar. A global medium of exchange selected by the market would have been more economically efficient, but given that the US and the Saudis possessed the ability to impose a politically motivated system, nobody was willing to bear the costs to create an alternative as long as the dollar was managed fairly sensibly.

Washington and the Gulf States benefit enormously from this situation. The petrodollar gives the Fed extreme license to print currency and export its inflation. If other countries are forced to use your currency, that gives you a lot more room to debase it. Imports are made cheaper with the high purchasing power of the dollar, and exports are propped up because the easiest way to spend dollars is to buy American products.

All this amounts to Washington essentially taxing world trade. The Gulf States benefit in the same ways by having enhanced access to the world reserve currency. Their oil is given priority in world markets compared to competitors opposed by Washington, such as Iran. They are also just simply given financial aid by Washington for participating in this scheme.

However, there are consequences for the countries involved. Even if the US has largely avoided extreme domestic consumer price inflation by circulating dollars around the world, the business cycle consequences of inflation are unavoidable. For example, the 2008 recession was severe yet unaccompanied by extreme inflation before or after. Holding the world reserve currency has also given the US a free ride with far less need to produce valuable goods and services. The dollar holds its value because there has always been global demand for it, so it has been possible to print money to prop up the US economy by consumer spending without an extreme loss of value in the dollar. But there is now very little worth in the underlying US economy.

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