Lessons from Nokia: Companies, unlike cockroaches, aren't great survivors

nokia-logoVivek Kaul

Cockroaches are great survivors. They can even survive a nuclear attack. As Dylan Grice, formerly with Soceite Generale and now the editor of the Edelweiss Journal wrote in a report titled Cockroaches for the long run! in November 2012 “Cockroaches may not be able to build nuclear bombs, but they can withstand the nuclear war. They survive.”
Grice also points out that the oldest cockroach fossil is nearly 350 million years old. “According to the record of the rocks, cockroaches first appeared just after the second of the earth’s five mass extinctions (defined as the loss of 75% of all species). In other words, that means they survived, the third, the fourth and fifth mass extinctions which followed,” writes Grice.
And there is no rocket science behind the ability of cockroaches to survive. They follow a very simple algorithm. As Grice writes “According to Richard Bookstaber, that algorithm is “singularly simple and seemingly suboptimal: it moves in the opposite direction of gusts of wind that must signal an approaching predator.” And that’s it.”
Such a simple straight forward strategy, along with their ability to go without air for 45 minutes, survive submerged underwater for half an hour, withstand 15 times more radiation than humans and eat almost anything, including the glue on the back of stamps, helps cockroaches survive.
Companies do not come with the same kind of flexibility. Neither are they good at avoiding trouble. And given that their turnover rate is pretty high. 
The average life span of a company listed on the S&P 500 index of leading American companies is around 15 years. This has come down dramatically from around 67 years in the 1920s.
Companies have a very high mortality rate. 
As an article in the Bloomberg Businessweek points out “The average life expectancy of a multinational corporation-Fortune 500 or its equivalent-is between 40 and 50 years. This figure is based on most surveys of corporate births and deaths.”
Companies are either acquired, merged, broken to pieces or simply shut down. Nokia, which till a few years back was the world’s leading mobile phone manufacturer, is now going through a phase of trying to stay relevant. It was announced yesterday that the mobile phone division of the Finnish company 
would be sold to Microsoft for $7.2 billion.
Nokia produced the first mobile phone in 1987, more than a quarter century back. It was the world’s largest vendor of mobile phones, until Samsung overtook it in 2012. Even now, Nokia makes nearly 15% of the world’s mobile phones. But it only has 3% share in the lucrative smart phone market, where the most of the mobile phone users seem to be moving towards.
So what went wrong with Nokia? It failed to see the rise of a new category of mobile phones i.e. the smart phone market. As marketing consultants Al and Laura Ries,write in 
War In the Boardroom, “The biggest mistake of logical management types is their failure to see the rise of a new category. They seem to believe that categories are firmly fixed and a new one seldom arises.”
Companies tend to remain obsessed in selling a product they are good at selling and thus fail to see the rise of a totally new category. Nokia fell victim to this as well.
The history of business is littered with many such examples. Sony invented the walkman but allowed Apple and others to walkway with the MP3 player market. RCA ,which was big radio manufacturer, had earlier allowed Sony to walkway with the pocket radio market. Southwest Airlines created an entirely new low cost airline market which gradually spread to all other parts of the world. Incumbents like Panam, Delta, Singapore Airlines and British Airways did not spot this opportunity. The 24 hour news market was spotted by CNN and not BBC as you would have expected to given the dominance they have had in the global news market.
So the question is why do incumbents which are doing particularly well fail to see the rise of a new category? The answer for this lies in what happened with Kodak, a company which was a global leader in film photography. As Mark Johnson writes in 
Seizing the White Space – Business Model Innovation for Growth and Renewal “In 1975, Kodak engineer, Steve Sasson invented the first camera, which captured low-resolution black-and-white images and transferred them to a TV. Perhaps fatally, he dubbed it “filmless photography” when he demonstrated the device for various leaders at the company.”
Sasson was told “that’s cute – but don’t tell anyone about it.” The reason for this reluctance was very simple. What Sasson had invented went against the existing business model of the company. Kodak at that point of time was the world’s largest producer of photo film. And any camera that did not use photo-film was obviously going to be detrimental to the interests of the company.
So Kodak ignored the segment. By the time it realised the importance of the segment other companies like Canon had already jumped in and become big players. Also by then brand Canon had come to be associated very strongly with the digital camera whereas Kodak continued to be associated with the old photo film.
The same thing happened to Sony as
well. The MP3 player was ultimately an extension of the Walkman and the Cdman market which the company had successfully captured. So what stopped them from capturing the MP3 player market as well? Over the years, other than being a full fledged electronics company, Sony had also morphed into a music company which had the rights to the songs of some of the biggest rock stars and pop stars. Hence, Sony supporting MP3 technology would mean that one of the biggest music companies in the world was supporting the free copying and distribution of music because that was what MP3 was all about.
And that of course wouldn’t work. This obsession with the current way of doing business stops companies from seeing the rise of a totally new category of doing business. Closer to home, Bharti Beetel is an excellent example. The company pioneered the sale of landline phones which had buttons. But it was so busy selling these phones that it failed to see the rise of the mobile phone market. And by the time the market took off brands like Nokia were firmly entrenched. This happened at the same time as Beetel’s sister concern, Bharti Airtel, became the largest mobile phone company in India.
Imagine the possibilities here. If Bharti Airtel during its heydays had sold a Bharti Beetel mobile phone along with every connection, a lot of money could have been made.
Another excellent example of this is Xerox. “Just think of Xerox’s Palo Alto Research Center, which famously owned the technologies that helped catapult Apple (the graphical user interface, the mouse), Adobe (post script graphical technology) and 3Com (Ethernet technology) to success,” writes Johnson. But the company had an excellent product in the photo copy machine which was selling like hot cakes, and there was no need for it to concentrate on other products which would be viable some day in the future.
Nokia became a victim of this phenomenon as well where it completely ignored the rise of a new category. The company was busy selling its mobile phones and failed to see the rise of the smart phone market. Even though smart phones have been around for a while now its only in the last couple of years that they have really taken off. Hence, as long as the basic phones of Nokia were selling well, it had no real interest in thinking about the smart phone market.
By the time it woke up to the smart phone game, the likes of Galaxy (from Samsung) and iPhone (from Apple) had already captured the smart phone market. The company has been trying to play catchup in the smart phone market through its Lumia brand but has very little market share. 
As a Reuters report points out “Although Nokia also said in July it had shipped 7.4 million Lumia smart phones in the quarter, up 32 percent from Q1, it was fewer than the 8.1 million units analysts had anticipated. Nokia now boasts only around 15 percent of the handset market share, with an even smaller 3 percent share in smart phones.”
Blackberry is another such company. It was busy selling phones which had an excellent email application. Meanwhile, it failed to see the rise of the smart phone market like Nokia. It is now trying catchup but other companies have already captured the market. In the days to come, the chances of Blackberry being acquired by another company, like Nokia has been, are very high.
What the Nokia story tells us is that companies unlike cockroaches are not great survivors. As the Bloomberg Businessweek article quoted earlier points out “Even the big, solid companies, the pillars of the society we live in, seem to hold out for not much longer than an aver-age of 40 years. And that 40-year figure, short though it seems, represents the life expectancy of companies of a considerable size…A recent study by Ellen de Rooij of the Stratix Group in Amsterdam indicates that the average life expectancy of all firms, regardless of size, measured in Japan and much of Europe, is only 12.5 years.”
Nokia started operating in 1871 and was named after the Nokianvirta river. It spent more than a 100 years manufacturing everything from boots to cables to tyres. In 1987, the company made the first mobile phone. In 2013, the mobile phone division was sold to Microsoft. That’s a period of 26 years. Almost double the life expectancy of 12.5 years which prevails for companies in Europe. As per that parameter, Nokia survived long enough.

The article originally appeared on www.firstpost.com on September 4, 2013 

 (Vivek Kaul is a writer. He tweets @kaul_vivek) 

Not instant coffee

Vivek Kaul
Raghuram Govind Rajan will take over as the governor of the Reserve Bank of India(RBI) on September 4, 2013. There are great expectations from him to turnaround the faltering Indian economy. His appointment has been welcomed by the media, business leaders as well as politicians. It is one of those rare occasions where almost everyone seems to be happy about the appointment.
But will Rajan be able to deliver? Will he able to control inflation, stop the rupee from falling further against the dollar and at same time engineer economic growth, as he is expected to. Or to ask a more pointed question, can any central banker really make a huge difference?
Before I get around to answering that question, let me deviate a little.
Inflation targeting has been a favourite policy of central banks all over the world. This strategy essentially involves a central bank estimating and projecting an inflation target and then using interest rates and other monetary tools to steer the economy towards the projected inflation target.
But recent analysis suggests that inflation targeting might have been one of the major reasons behind the current financial crisis. Stephen D King, Group Chief Economist of HSBC makes this point in his new book When the Money Runs Out. As he writes “the pursuit of inflation-targetting…may have contributed to the West’s financial downfall.”
He gives the example of United Kingdom to make his point. “Take, for example, inflation targeting in the UK. In the early years of the new millennium, inflation had a tendency to drop too low, thanks to the deflationary effects on manufactured goods prices of low-cost producers in China and elsewhere in the emerging world. To keep inflation close to target, the Bank of England loosened monetary policy with the intention of delivering higher ‘domestically generated’ inflation. In other words, credit conditions domestically became excessive loose…The inflation target was hit only by allowing domestic imbalances to arise: too much consumption, too much consumer indebtedness, too much leverage within the financial system and too little policy-making wisdom.”
In simple English what this basically means is that the Bank of England, the British central bank, kept interest rates too low for a very long time, so that people borrowed and spent money. This was done in the hope that prices would rise and the inflation target would thus be met.
With interest rates being low banks were falling over one another to lend money to anyone who was willing to borrow. And this gradually led to a fall in lending standards. People who did not have the ability to repay were also being given loans. As King writes “With the UK financial system now awash with liquidity, lending increased rapidly both within the financial system and to other parts of the economy that, frankly, didn’t need any refreshing. In particular, the property sector boomed thanks to an abundance of credit and a gradual reduction in lending standards.”
The Western central banks were focussed on just maintaining the inflation target that they had set. In fact, the ‘inflation only’ focus was a result of how economic theory had evolved over the years. As Felix Martin writes in the fascinating book Money – The Unauthorised Biography “The sole monetary ill that had been permitted into the New Keynesian theory was high or volatile inflation, which was deemed to retard the growth of GDP. The appropriate policy objective, therefore, was low and stable inflation, or ‘monetary stability’…On such grounds, the Bank of England was granted its independence and given a mandate to target inflation in 1997, and the European Central Bank was founded as an independent, inflation-targeting central bank in 1998.”
But this focus on ‘low inflation’ or ‘monetary stability’ as economists like to call it, turned out to be a very narrow policy objective. As Martin writes “The single minded pursuit of low and stable inflation not only drew attention away from the other monetary and financial factors that were to bring the global economy to its knees in 2008 – it exacerbated them…Disconcerting signs of impending disaster in the pre-crisis economy – booming housing prices, a drastic underpricing of liquidity in asset markets, the emergence of shadow banking system, the declines in lending standards, bank capital, and the liquidity ratios – were not given the priority they merited, because, unlike low and stable inflation, they were simply not identified as being relevant.”
And this ‘lack of focus’ led to a big real estate bubbles in large parts of the Western world, which was followed by biggest ‘macroeconomic’ crash in history.
Since then, central banks around the world have tried to concentrate on factors other than inflation as well. But it is not easy for a central bank, if I might use that phrase, to be all over the place.
Raghuram Rajan understands this very well. As he wrote in a 2008 article (along with Eswar Prasad) “The RBI already has a medium-term inflation objective of 5 per cent…But the central bank is also held responsible, in political and public circles, for a stable exchange rate. The RBI has gamely taken on this additional objective but with essentially one instrument, the interest rate, at its disposal, it performs a high-wire balancing act.”
Focus on multiple things makes the RBI run the risk of not doing any of them well. “What is wrong with this? Simple that by trying to do too many things at once, the RBI risks doing none of them well,” wrote Rajan and Prasad.
Hence it made sense for the RBI to concentrate on one thing instead of being all over the place. As Rajan wrote in the 2008 Report of the Committeeon Financial Sector Reforms “ The RBI can best serve the cause of growth by focusing on controlling inflation, and intervening in currency markets only to limit excessive volatility. This focus can also best serve the cause of inclusion because the poorer sections are least hedged against inflation.”
Rajan might have revised his beliefs in the last five years. But as we have seen over the period, the strategy of central banks being all over the place hasn’t really worked either. Given this, we shouldn’t have very high expectations from what Rajan will be able to do as the governor of the RBI, even though he maybe the best man for the job.
To conclude, it is worth remembering what Sunil Gavaskar said in 1994, after he was appointed the manager of a floundering Indian cricket team. “Results can’t be produced overnight. I’m not instant coffee,” said the cricket legend.
Rajan probably realises this more than anyone else. As he wrote recently in his globally syndicated column “The bottom line is that if there is one myth that recent developments have exploded it is probably the one that sees central bankers as technocrats, hovering independently over the politics and ideologies of their time. Their feet, too, have touched the ground.” 

This article originally appeared in the Wealth Insight Magazine for September 2013
(Vivek Kaul is the author of the soon to be published Easy Money. He tweets @kaul_vivek)

Only big-bang diesel hike can save India from a downgrade

light-diesel-oil-250x250Vivek Kaul
Around a month back the under-recovery on every litre of diesel being sold by the oil marketing companies(OMCs) was Rs 9.29.
For the fortnight starting September 1, 2013, 
this has shot up by 30.5% to Rs 12.12 per litre. The under-recovery on cooking gas has gone up by 14.2% to Rs 470.38 per cylinder. The under-recovery on kerosene has gone up by 9.8% to Rs 36.33 per litre.
The OMCs are facing a total daily under-recovery of Rs 470.38 crore on the sale of diesel, kerosene and cooking gas. This is up by nearly 24.5% from a month earlier. The monthly under-recovery for the OMCs at the current level works out to a little over Rs 14,100 crore (Rs 470.38 crore x 30 days in a month).
So what are under-recoveries? The Rangarajan Committee report of 2006 stated that the OMCs are “are currently sourcing their products from the refineries on import parity basis which then becomes their cost price. The difference between the cost price and the realised price represents the under-recoveries of the OMCs.”
Realised price is essentially the price charged to the dealers by the OMCs. It is also referred to as the depot price. If the realised price fixed by the government is lower than the import price, then there is an under-recovery. Having said that under-recoveries are different from losses and at best can be defined as notional losses. (For those interested in a detailed treatment of this point,
 can click here).
The government has to compensate the OMCs for these under-recoveries. This is done in two ways. As 
A Citizen’s Guide to Energy Subsidies points out “a large part of these under-recoveries is compensated for by additional cash assistance from the government, while another portion is covered by financial assistance from upstream national oil companies.”
So oil producing companies like ONGC and Oil India Ltd compensate the OMCs like Indian Oil, Bharat Petroleum and Hindustan Petroleum, for a part of their under-recoveries. The government directly compensates the OMCs for a large part of their under-recoveries. This means a higher expenditure for the government.
The under-recoveries on diesel have gone by more than 30% in a period of one month. At the same time the under-recoveries on kerosene and cooking gas have also gone up significantly. This implies that the under-recoveries for the OMCs on the sale of diesel, cooking gas and kerosene, must have risen at a very fast pace.
Hence, the government will have to incur a higher expenditure to compensate the OMCs for the higher under-recoveries, in the months to come. A higher expenditure will lead to a higher fiscal deficit. Fiscal deficit is essentially the difference between what the government earns and what it spends.
If the government wants to avoid this it will have to increase at least the price of diesel, given that it makes for a significant portion of the under-recoveries. 
A few days back the government had increased the price of diesel by 50 paisa per litre.
This increase is too small to help the government control its fiscal deficit in any way. If the government wants to make a reasonable attempt at controlling the fiscal deficit, then the price of diesel needs to be raised by at least Rs 5 per litre.
It is important that the government does this to show the world at large that it is serious about controlling its fiscal deficit. The finance minister P Chidambaram and the prime minister Manmohan Singh have both recently said that whatever needs to be done to maintain the targeted fiscal deficit of 4.8% of the GDP (gross domestic product) will be done.
Just making such statements is not enough. These statements need to be backed by concrete action and raising the price of diesel by at least Rs 5 per litre would be one such action. If it is not carried out, the chances of a sovereign downgrade of India by the rating agencies will become extremely high in the months to come. This is because the fiscal deficit of the government will bloat up.
A sovereign downgrade will see India’s rating being reduced to ‘junk’ status. This would lead to many foreign investors like pension funds having to sell out of the Indian stock market as well as the bond market, given that they are not allowed to invest in countries which have a “junk” status. When they sell out, they will will be paid in rupees. In order to repatriate this money, they will have to sell rupees and buy dollars. This will increase the demand for dollars and put further pressure on the rupee. As Swaminathan Aiyar put it 
in a recent column in The Times of India “People ask me, will the exchange rate go to Rs 70 to the dollar? I reply, why not Rs 80?”
A weaker rupee will mean that our oil import bill will shoot up further. We will also have to pay more for the import of coal, palm oil, fertilizer etc. Hence, it is important that the government ensures that we do not end up in this situation. If it does allow the fiscal deficit to bloat and the rupee to depreciate, essential imports will get costlier, and that will lead to a higher inflation along with a slowdown in economic growth. It will also cause problems for corporate India, which has raised a lot of foreign currency loans over the last few years. If the rupee depreciates, companies will have to pay more rupees to buy dollars to repay their foreign currency loans.
On the flip side an increase in price of diesel will also create its share of problems. “
Prices of diesel are controlled primarily to keep a check on the cascading inflationary impact of higher freight and transportation charges on the prices of essential commodities,” A Citizen’s Guide to Energy Subsidies points out. An increase in price of diesel will immediately translate into higher food prices, which is something that the government can ill-afford given that there are many state elections due over the next few months. Also food prices are not exactly low presently (This writer bought onions at Rs 50 a kg and tomatoes at Rs 40 a kg, yesterday). The government hence has to make a choice between the devil and the deep sea.
It is also important to explain here that the diesel prices in India are not low and the government is not offering any subsidies on it to the end consumer, as is often pointed out. 
As Surya P Sethi, a formerly Principal Adviser (Energy), Planning Commission, wrote in a 2010 article in the Economic and Political Weekly “This is yet another myth that permeates…most government discourse. Petrol and diesel prices are made up of the base price for the fuel and the taxes/levies imposed by the central and the state governments.”
Data from the Petroleum Planning and Analysis Cell shows that in 2012-2013, the petroleum sector contributed Rs 2,43,939 crore to the central government and the state governments. Of this a contribution of Rs 1,17,422 crore was at the central level and the remaining Rs 1,26,516 crore at the state level.
At the central level the money came in from the cess on crude oil, excise duty, corporate income tax, dividend income to central government etc. At the state level money primarily came in from sales tax/value added tax on petroleum products.
In comparison to the total income of Rs 2,43,939 crore made by the central and the state governments through the petroleum sector, the total under-recovery in 2012-2013, came in at Rs 1,61,029 crore. Given this, there was no real subsidy on offer to the end consumers, as is often made out to be. The consumers paid more than the cost price once the various taxes and duties are taken into account.
There are several problems here. One is that the OMCs were not able to recover enough money from the selling price of petroleum products ( except petrol), which makes them viable as a going concern. Hence, they need to be compensated for their under-recoveries.
Second, the entire Rs 2,43,939 crore, did not land up with the central government. And third, the Rs 1,17,422 crore that the central government earned from the petroleum sector in 2012-2013 wasn’t specifically earmarked to be adjusted against “under-recoveries” made by the OMCs. It was a part of the general revenues that the government earned during the course of the year and could be spent against any expenditure that the government had planned to incur during the course of the year.
Given this, any under-recovery leads to a higher expenditure for the central government and thus a higher fiscal deficit. A higher fiscal deficit needs to be controlled by increasing the price of diesel.
But that does not mean that the diesel that we have been buying is subsidised.

The article originally appeared on www.firstpost.com on September 3, 2013
(Vivek Kaul is a writer. He tweets @kaul_vivek)

Why Moily’s idea of buying oil from Iran won’t work

M-Veerappa-Moily_0Vivek Kaul
India is thinking of importing more oil from Iran than it currently does. In a letter to the Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, oil minister Veerapa Moily, suggested that “An additional import of 11 million tonnes during 2013/14 would result in reduction in forex outflow by $8.47 billion (considering the international price of crude oil at $105 per barrel).” (As reported by Reuters).
This is because Iran accepts payments in rupees and not dollars as is the case with most of the other oil exporters. This will help India save precious foreign exchange.
While theoretically this idea makes immense sense, it is not really a solution that India will be able to execute. The United States and the European Union have placed sanctions on Iran over its nuclear programme. As Reuters reports “U.S. and EU sanctions placed on Iran over its nuclear programme have reduced its oil exports more than half from pre-sanction levels of about 2.2 million barrels per day (bpd). In the first half of 2013, imports of Iranian oil from its four biggest buyers – China, India, Japan and South Korea – fell more than a fifth from a year ago to around 960,000 bpd.”
India’s oil imports from Iran have declined by 46% to 185,700 barrels per day during the first seven months of the year, in comparison to the same period last year. And this is because of the sanctions.
Oil is bought and sold internationally in dollars. This started sometime after the Second World War. President Franklin D Roosevelt realised that a regular supply of oil was very important for the well being of America or what came to be known as the great “American dream”.
After the end of the Second World War Roosevelt travelled quietly to USS Quincy
a ship anchored in the Red Sea. Here he was met by King Ibn Sa’ud of Saudi Arabia, a country, which was by then home to the biggest oil reserves in the world.
The obsession of the Untied States with the automobile had led to a swift decline in domestic reserves, even though America was the biggest producer of oil in the world at that point of time. The country needed to secure another source of assured supply of oil. So in return for access to oil reserves of Saudi Arabia, King Ibn Sa’ud was promised full American military support to the ruling clan of Sa’ud. This oil was sold in dollars.
This was one of the major reasons behind the dollar becoming the international reserve currency. Every country in the world needed oil. And for countries that did not produce enough of their own oil they needed dollars they could use to buy oil from other countries.
This continued till the 1970s. In the seventies, after the end of the gold standard, the dollar started to lose value rapidly against other currencies and against gold. This meant that the purchasing power of the OPEC countries which sold oil in dollars and then used those dollars to import goods they did not produce, came down dramatically.
As William Greider writes in 
Secrets of the Temple: How the Federal Reserve Runs the Country “The dollar had already lost one-third of its value in only half a dozen years and seemed headed toward even steeper decline… Oil trades worldwide in dollars and if the U.S. was going to permit a free fall in the dollar’s value, that meant the oil-producing nations would received less and less real value for their commodity.”
One impact of this was OPEC countries raising the price of oil. Another impact was that some of the OPEC countries wanted to price oil in several currencies rather than just the American dollar. Jahangir Amuzegar, who was an economist by training, and had been a minister in the government of Iran, as well as a negotiator for OPEC, outlined some of these proposals in a 1978 article. In this article he outlined several currency combinations that could be used to price oil. Iraq, Qatar, United Arab Emirates and Venezuela were in support of this plan.
The idea was not to be dependent on one currency, but a number of currencies and hence iron out any fluctuations in the value of one currency. Moving to a basket of currencies at that point of time clearly made sense for OPEC as far as future revenues were concerned.
As per estimates of the US department of treasury, Saudi Arabia, the largest member of OPEC, would have been better off if it had priced oil in a basket of currencies instead of the dollar, in all but 18 months since 1973.
So what was stopping Saudi Arabia and OPEC from moving to pricing oil in a basket of currencies rather than the dollar? As David E Spiro writes in 
The Hidden Hand of American Hegemony: Petrodollar Recycling and International Markets: “The Saudis, however, had the greatest proportion of dollar-denominated reserves in OPEC. This means that their reserves were diminished by the depreciation of the dollar (compared to the basket of their imports). But it also meant that they had the most to lose if a shift by OPEC to a basket of currencies threatened international confidence in the dollar. Having agreed to invest so much in dollars, the Saudis now shared a stake in maintaining the dollar as an international reserve currency. On the one hand dollars constituted 90% of Saudi government revenues in 1979, and those revenues were subject to the same fluctuations as the dollar. On the other hand, the Saudi investments were, roughly at same time 83% dollar denominated. The choice was whether to stabilise current revenues threatening the worth of all the past revenues (since invested in dollar assets).”
Also, as mentioned earlier, Roosevelt had stuck a deal with the ruling clan of Al Sa’uds. It is important to remember that the American security guarantee made by President Roosevelt after the Second World War was extended not to the people of Saudia Arabia nor to the government of Saudi Arabia but to the ruling clan of Al Sa’uds. So they had an intrest in selling oil in dollars and keeping the dollar going as an international reserve currency.
Also other than being the largest producer of oil Saudi Arabia also had the largest reserves among all OPEC countries. It had 39% of the proven OPEC reserves. Within OPEC it had the almost unquestioned support of what were known as the sheikhdom states of Bahrain, Kuwait, United Arab Emirates and Qatar. These countries faced threats from other OPEC members like Iraq and Iran. For many years, Iraq had been eyeing Kuwait. It had tried to annex Kuwait in 1961 (and then again in the early 1990s).
Hence, the support of Saudi Arabia, the largest nation in the region, was important for them
If we added the reserves and production of the sheikdom countries which supported Saudi Arabia, they were together responsible for 50% of OPEC’s production and owned nearly 61% of its proven reserves. So, when Saudi Arabia made the decision that OPEC oil would be continued to be priced in dollars, there wasn’t much option for the other OPEC members but to follow what the largest member had decided.
What this brief history of oil tells us is that for dollar to continue being an international reserve currency, it is very important that oil continues to be sold in dollars. Other countries need to earn these dollars whereas the United States has the exorbitant privelege of simply printing them and spending them.
Iran has been trying to challenge this hegemoney of the dollar for a while now. It 
has been trying to move the buying and selling of oil away from the US dollar. In late 2007, Iran claimed to have moved all of its oil sales to non dollar currencies, with most of it being sold in euros and a small part in yen. There were no independent reports confirming the same.
The United States and Iran have been at each other’s throats since the 1979 revolution in Iran which overthrew the King. Lately there has been tension because of Iran’s nuclear programme.
Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who was the President of Iran till around a month back, has called the dollar “
a worthless piece of paper”. News reports suggest that Iran has started accepting renminbi from China and rubles from Russia in lieu of the oil that it exports to these countries.
In fact in a November 2007, summit of OPEC, Iran had suggested that OPEC oil should be sold in a basket of currencies rather than the American dollar. But it did not get the support of other members except Venezuela. Hugo Chavez, the late President of Venezuela, was known to be a vocal critic of the United States

On February 17,2008, Iran set up the Iranian Oil Bourse, for the trading of petroleum, petrochemicals and natural gas, in currencies other than dollar, primarily the euro and the Iranian rial. But the exchange since inception has not traded in oil but products made out of oil which are used as a feedstock in pharmaceutical and plastic industries.
Reports in the Iranian press suggested that the bourse started trading oil in non dollar currencies from March 20,2012. India wanted to pay for Iranian oil, either in gold or in rupees. If India paid in rupees, Iran could use those rupees to import goods from India.
This move to pay for oil in rupees or gold was a clear attempt to undermine the dollar in the buying and selling of oil, something that keeps the dollar at the heart of the international financial system. Hence, great pressure was applied by America on India to stop its oil imports from Iran and source its needs from some other producer.
India’s oil imports from Iran in April 2012 fell by 34.2% to 269,000 barrels per day from 409,000 barrels per day in March 2012. The government of India asked the Indian oil refiners to cut Iranian oil imports and they obliged.
What this tells us in a very clear way is that even though the US dollar may not be in the best of shape, but any attempts to mess around with its international ‘currency’ status will not be taken lying down. And for dollar to maintain its international currency status it is important that oil continues to be bought and sold in dollars.
So if the United States could pressurise India into cutting down its oil purchases from Iran in March 2012, it can do the same in September 2013. Any move away from dollar , which in turn will undermine access to “easy money” which has been so important to what is now called the American way of life.
Also it is best to remember that financially America might be in a mess, but by and large it still remains the only superpower in the world. In 2010, the United States spent $698billion on defence. This was 43% of the global total.
The article originally appeared on www.firstpost.com on September 2, 2013 

(Vivek Kaul is a writer. He tweets @kaul_vivek)