Sergei Glazyev, a close advisor to the Russian President Vladmir Putin, recently threatened that if the United States imposed sanctions on Russia, over what is happening in Ukraine, then Russia might be forced drop the dollar as a reserve currency. He also said that if the United States froze the bank accounts of Russian businesses, then Russia will recommend that all investors of US government bonds start selling them.
How credible is this threat? Is Russia really in a position to drop dollar as a reserve currency? Or is any country in that position for that matter?
There are a host of factors which seem to suggest that the dollar will continue to be at the heart of the international financial system. As Barry Eichengreen writes in Exorbitant Privilege – The Rise and Fall of the Dollar, “The dollar remains far and away the most important currency for invoicing and settling international transactions, including even imports and exports that do not touch US shores. South Korea and Thailand set the prices of more than 80 percent of their trade in dollars despite the fact that only 20 percent of their exports go to American buyers. Fully 70 percent of Australia’s exports are invoiced in dollars despite the fact that fewer than 6 percent are destined for the United States…A recent study for Canada, a county with especially detailed data, shows that nearly 75 percent of all imports fromcountries other than United States continue to be invoiced and settled in U.S. dollars”
So, most international transactions are priced in dollars. Most commodities including oil and gold are priced in dollars. Over and above this dollar remains the main currency in the foreign exchange market. As Jermey Warner writes in The Telegraph “For instance, if you were looking to buy Singapore dollars with Russian roubles, you would typically first buy US dollars with your roubles and then swap them into Singapore dollars.”
Hence, a major part of the foreign exchange transactions happens in dollars. As the most recent Triennial Central Bank Survey of the Bank for International Settlements points out “The US dollar remained the dominant vehicle currency; it was on one side of 87% of all trades in April 2013. The euro was the second most traded currency, but its share fell to 33% in April 2013 from 39% in April 2010.”
Over and above this, another good data point to look at is the composition of the total foreign exchange reserves held by countries all over the world. The International Monetary Fund complies this data.
The problem here is that a lot of countries declare only their total foreign exchange reserves without going into the composition of those reserves. Hence, the fund divides the foreign exchange data into allocated reserves and total reserves. Allocated reserves are reserves for countries which give the composition of their foreign exchange reserves and tell us exactly the various currencies they hold as a part of their foreign exchange reserves.
We can take a look at the allocated reserves over a period of time and figure whether the composition of the foreign exchange reserves of countries around the world is changing. Are countries moving more and more of their reserves out of the dollar and into other currencies?Dollars formed 71% of the total allocable foreign exchange reserves in 1999, when the euro had just started functioning as a currency. Since then the proportion of foreign exchange reserves that countries hold in dollars has continued to fall.
In fact in the third quarter of 2008 (around the time Lehman Brothers went bust) dollars formed around 64.5% of total allocable foreign exchange reserves. This kept falling and by the first quarter of 2010 it was at 61.8%. It has started rising since then and as of the first quarter of of 2013, dollars formed 62.4% of the total allocable foreign exchange reserves.
Euro, which was seen as a challenger to the dollar has fizzled out because Europe is in a bigger financial and economic mess than the United States is in. Given this, there is no alternative to the dollar and hence, dollar continues to be at the heart of the international financial system.
So where does that leave the Russian rouble and the recent threat that has made against the dollar? Here is the basic point. When the entire world has their reserves in dollars, they are going to continue to buy and sell things in dollars. So, when Russia exports stuff it will get paid in dollars, and when its imports stuff it will have to pay in dollars. And unless it earns dollars through exports, it won’t be able to pay for its imports.
Any country looking to get away from the dollar is virtually destined for economic suicide. Russia can throw some weight around in its neighbourhood and look to move some of its international trade away from the dollar. The Russian company Gazprom, in which the Russian government has a controlling stake, is the largest extractor of natural gas in the world, being responsible for nearly 20% of the world’s supply.
The gas that Gazprom sells in Russia is sold at a loss, a legacy of the communist days. But the company also provides gas to 25 European nations and this makes it very important in the scheme of global energy security. The company backed by the Russian state has been known to act whimsically in the past and shut down gas supplies during the peak of winter, which has led to major factory shutdowns in Eastern Europe.
This is Russia’s way of trying to reassert the dominance the erstwhile Soviet Union used to have over the world, before it broke up. But even when Soviet Union was a superpower it could not trade internationally in dollars, all the time, because nobody wanted Russian roubles, everyone wanted the US dollar.
The next step in the process is likely
to be an effort to price the natural gas which Russia sells through Gazprom in Europe in terms of its own currency, the rouble. Vladamir Putin has spoken out against the dollar in the past, calling for dropping the dollar as an international reserve currency.
This makes it highly likely that Russia might start selling its gas in terms of roubles. Countries which buy gas from Russia would need to start accumulating roubles as a part of their international reserves. Hence, there is a high chance of the rouble emerging as a regional reserve currency in Europe and thus undermine the importance of the dollar to some extent. Whether that happens remains to be seen.
The most likely currency to displace the dollar as the international reserve currency is the Chinese yuan. But that process, if it happens, will take a long time. As Warner writes in The Telegraph “this process is on a very long fuse and basically depends on China eventually displacing the US as the world’s largest economy.”
While the future of the Chinese yuan as an international reserve currency is very optimistic, it is highly unlikely that the yuan will replace the dollar as an international reserve in a hurry. For that to happen the Chinese government will have set the yuan free and allow the market forces to determine its value, which is not the case currently.
The People’s Bank of China, the Chinese central bank, intervenes in the market regularly to ensure that the yuan does not appreciate in value against the dollar, which would mean a huge inconvenience for the exporters. An appreciating yuan will make Chinese exports uncompetitive and that is something that the Chinese government cannot afford to do.
These are things that China is not yet ready for. Hence, even though yuan has a good chance of becoming an international reserve currency it is not going to happen anytime soon. Economist Andy Xie believes that “There is no alternative to the dollar as a trading currency in Asia.” He feels that the yuan will replace the dollar in Asia but it will take at least thirty to forty years.
Meanwhile, the Russians can go and take a walk.
The article originally appeared on www.FirstBiz.com on March 7, 2014
(Vivek Kaul is a writer. He tweets @kaul_vivek)