Since the middle of the twentieth century, the U.S. dollar has been the currency that has dominated the world. Governments have held dollars in reserve, and borrowed dollars when necessary, because this currency can buy just about anything, anywhere. In particular, dollars can easily buy oil, a commodity currently necessary for the progress of developed societies.
Countries have attempted to reduce their dependence on the dollar. Iraq began pricing its oil in euros rather than dollars in November 2000. It wasn’t long after that the United States invaded the country and took control of oil production, adjusting the pricing back to the dollar. Iran announced it plans to hold its reserve currency in euro, and this might prove to be more successful.
There might be a coalition of countries ready to move away from using the dollar as their reserve currency. I’m not usually drawn into conspiracy theories, but I think, considering the state of the economy in the United States, the strength of the dollar, and the country’s massive governmental debt, there is a strong possibility that several decades in the future the United States will not be the economic superpower it once was.
Here are some details reported by the Independent, but since denied by governments:
Secret meetings have already been held by finance ministers and central bank governors in Russia, China, Japan and Brazil to work on the scheme, which will mean that oil will no longer be priced in dollars… [This] augurs an extraordinary transition from dollar markets within nine years…
This sounds like a dangerous prediction of a future economic war between the US and China over Middle East oil - yet again turning the region’s conflicts into a battle for great power supremacy.
Amplifying the importance of the currencies used for trading oil is the idea that at some point in the future — and there have been many disagreements about when dating back to the 1970s — the earth will no longer provide new sources of oil. Supply will eventually begin to shrink and unless major reforms in energy gain momentum, competition for the commodity and its price will increase.
Prepare for the dollar’s demise
Let’s assume this is true for a moment. If the dollar continues to decline, what are options for individuals who would like their wealth to grow over the course of the next thirty years or more?
Ignore the problem. It is possible that despite these obstacles, the dollar may end up victorious. It would take a lot of political might, and I expect more wars, for this to happen. What would a war with China look like?
There is also a reasonable argument that most of us, confined to little exposure to the world outside of our own country, will continue to build wealth in dollars. The external value of a dollar to other currencies could be irrelevant. I do think that as societies continue to progress, globalization continues and it is more difficult to exist in isolation.
Buy gold. Gold has for a long time been considered “real” currency compared to money issued by governments. In the earlier days of the United States, the government issued paper currency backed by gold reserves, so you could theoretically trade in your dollars for gold. Gold may be used as an interim reserve currency while the world loses confidence in the dollar and governments make other plans.
Gold has already shot up in price compared to the dollar and it probably will continue to do so.
Buy euros. If governments are looking to the euro as the basis for their reserves, perhaps you should as well. One option may be to keep a portion of your savings in CDs denominated in euros. EverBank offers this service but I have not yet tried these products.
Invest in China. Another article from The Independent suggests that for most of the next decade, China’s economy will grow 10 percent a year while the United States’ will grow only 2 percent a year. If true, this might be a good time to invest in China. If you want to take this bet, Vanguard’s best option is their Emerging Markets Stock Index Fund (VEIEX) with an expense ratio of 0.39%. Four of the top ten holdings in this fund are based in China making China the fund’s biggest representative. Over the past year, the China-based holdings increased to account for 18.4% of the entire portfolio from 12.4%.
And since buying the fund in dollars pits the strength of that currency against the others, you’ll benefit from both the dollar’s decline and other currencies’ success.
This is probably one of the riskiest bets of the century, but it may pay off.
Much ado about nothing
Saudi Arabia has denied that there have been “secret meetings” as cited above. The United States might quickly recover from the recession and other countries might relent with a stronger dollar. Recent studies suggest the United States will still be the primary global economic superpower in 2020.
What do you think? Is this the time to start thinking about how you might prepare for an economy decades in the future in which the United States is not the most primary economic superpower in the world? And how do you prepare for this?
The Demise of the Dollar, Robert Fisk, The Independent, October 5, 2009
Updated March 22, 2011 and originally published October 6, 2009.