Why you should care
Because dethroning the dollar means devaluing the entire U.S. economy.
China’s meteoric rise over the past half-century is one of the most striking examples of the impact of opening up an economy to global markets that the world has ever seen. Over that period, the country has shifted from a largely agrarian society to an industrial powerhouse, lifting nearly a billion people out of poverty and reshaping the world’s economic landscape. In the process, it has seen sharp increases in productivity and wages that have allowed China to become the world’s second-largest economy.
But for President Xi Jinping, second place is not good enough to achieve the “Chinese Dream.” A key obstacle preventing the People’s Republic from reaching the summit of the economic mountain is King Dollar — the world’s dominant global currency. In 2018, China could seek to dethrone King Dollar by forcing yuan-denomination of specific commodities, marking a cataclysmic shift in the world financial order that’s been in place since World War II. For example:
If China switched from dollars to yuan to pay its oil-sector suppliers, it would eliminate annual dollar demand in such contracts by $876 billion, leading to a historic depreciation of King Dollar.
As the world’s No. 1 oil importer, China may have the leverage to demand such a dollar-to-yuan switch, which would directly influence nearly 40 percent of global oil production and create a massive oversupply of U.S. dollars. And China changing to yuan-denominated oil contracts is significant because it could begin to unravel the U.S. dollar’s dominance worldwide and, in turn, lessen the United States’ ability to wield the soft power associated with currency leverage.
The saying “the bigger they are, the harder they fall” is relevant here because the U.S. dollar is immense — it makes up 64 percent of known central bank foreign exchange reserves; more than 85 percent of world forex trading (the decentralized over-the-counter trading in foreign currencies); and 39 percent of all debt issued in the world. In addition, more than one-third of world GDP comes from countries whose currencies are pegged to the dollar. The sudden fall of King Dollar would be very hard indeed. It would lead to massive inflation in the U.S., threatening the smooth function of debt markets that make the financial world go round.
Some experts believe that changing the world’s working currency would occur at a glacial pace. In fact, it could happen overnight.
And what are the black swans — low-probability, high-impact events — that could trigger such a global disruption? Key developments over the course of 2018 could accelerate the onset of a previously dismissed yuan-denominated future, especially in Asia. If the U.S. decides not to respond to belligerent threats of a nuclear North Korea, for example, South Korea and Japan could conclude China would be a better security guarantor and demonstrate their new allegiance by dumping dollars and adopting more yuan.
Or could a gray rhino — an unforeseen event that’s less stealthy than a black swan but still camouflaged — overturn the old order? After all, China is already making moves to dethrone the dollar. In late July, China proposed pricing oil in yuan to Saudi Arabia. China has been reducing Saudi Arabia’s share of its total imports, which fell from 25 percent in 2008 to 15 percent in 2016. Chinese oil imports rose 13.8 percent year-on-year during the first half of 2017, but supplies from Saudi Arabia inched up just 1 percent year-on-year. With the U.S. increasingly becoming energy independent, Saudi Arabia may have no other option than to yield to yuan-denominated oil in order to keep its biggest customer.
If that happens, the threat to the dollar’s hegemony would not be well-received in Washington, D.C., and the U.S. government could suspend weapons sales to the kingdom. The knock-on political risks of switching from petro-dollar to petro-yuan are alarming. Despite globalwide skepticism, Chinese media report that the plan for yuan-oil contracts is moving swiftly.
And that’s just oil, of which China consumes approximately 12 percent globally, according to the World Economic Forum. While oil is the lifeblood of any industrial economy, the share of global consumption by China in other commodities is even higher, including more than half of all aluminum and nearly half of all steel and copper.
Some experts believe that changing the world’s working currency would occur at a glacial pace. In fact, it could happen overnight in response to geopolitical conflagrations. Like pressure building, undetected beneath fault lines, an unexpected and sudden release could send King Dollar hurtling off its throne, with Emperor Yuan ready and waiting to take its spot. Such is the nature of black swans.
Jeffrey Moore II is a senior analyst at Global Risk Insights.
Political and geopolitical publisher Global Risk Insights sets off with OZY to explore our volatile world.