De-dollarisation, Currency Wars and the End of US Dollar Hegemony

De dollarisation

By Kalim Siddiqui

The US dollar has long been the dominant currency in international trade and financial markets. But Kalim Siddiqui argues that a process of change is
under way that will see that the dominance of dollar will end soon.

Since the outbreak of the war in Ukraine, trade and financial relations are being reorganised. The United States has disconnected Russian banks from SWIFT, and many US and EU firms have withdrawn from Russia. Russia has been excluded from the Western global financial system. However, Russia is self-sufficient in most essential goods, such as food, energy, machines, and weapons.

Moreover, the sanctions against Russia by the US and EU did not produce the expected results, although it was thought that it would bring Russia to its knees in a short period. Sanctions by their very nature represent a violation of multilateralism, a singling out of one country that is taken out of the multilateral arrangement.

The US decision to freeze Russia’s Central Bank’s foreign reserves over Ukraine has seemingly become the last straw for the developing countries, and they have increasingly started looking for an alternative to the US dollar. It would be wholly premature to say that the hegemony of the dollar will end very soon. For the world’s individual depositors and countries, the US dollar would remain the most attractive currency in the near future.

Recently, interest rates in the US increased to combat inflation and, as a result, capital has been leaving developing countries and they were forced to raise interest rates to stop capital outflows (Siddiqui, 2023; also, 2022d). This has led to the depreciation of their currencies against the US dollar. Meanwhile, gradually the developing countries have begun to move towards bilateral arrangements that replace dollar reserves with other currencies, hence undermining the position of the US dollar.

The US dollar has long held a dominant position in the global financial system. There is a shift taking place towards de-dollarisation, which represents a critical transformation with significant implications for the future of international trade, investment, and monetary policy. Here, I would like to define what is meant by de-dollarisation. De-dollarisation refers to countries reducing reliance on the US dollar as a reserve currency, medium of exchange or unit of account (Desai and Hudson, 2023).

At present, the US dollar is the most prominent currency in the world. This is because the US has the largest economy in the world, and the US dollar is used globally as a medium of trade and global business.

The US dollar had been de facto the primary world reserve asset for a hundred years, because, at the beginning of the twentieth century, the US emerged as pre-eminent in the holding of gold and its creditor position. Moreover, at the Bretton Woods conference in 1944, the US dollar was officially accepted as the world’s reserve currency and was backed by the world’s largest gold reserves. Instead of gold reserves, other countries accumulated reserves of US dollars. This meant that the US could print dollars and buy and invest in assets abroad, while for other countries to get dollars they need to export or borrow from the US. As a result, most countries worldwide rely on the US dollar to support their economies. At present, the US dollar is the most prominent currency in the world. This is because the US has the largest economy in the world, and the US dollar is used globally as a medium of trade and global business.

Currently, the US does not owe a foreign currency debt and its debts are in US dollars, which the US can always print. There is no need for the US to sell dollars in the exchange market to buy euros, roubles, or yen. We must remember that, until the First World War, the British pound sterling was the international global reserve currency and, although it no longer is, Britain still is a significant economy.

Monetarist views are being promoted by the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal and other major Western media, that if the governments print too much money to pay workers or welfare measures, it could create inflation (Armstrong & Siddiqui, 2019). That can lead to currency depreciation. On the other hand, the US needs money to spend on the war in Ukraine. The Pentagon needs money to fight Russia and China (Siddiqui, 2022a; 2022b).

Another important development has taken place in the last four decades. The Chinese economy has grown at higher rates compared to the rest of the world since 1980. The outcome has been that China’s trade has increased enormously and the country has accumulated huge amounts of both US dollars and gold. And now the Chinese economy is capable of not only absorbing technologies from the West but also developing its own, and able to gradually meet internationally competitive requirements of consumers. Moreover, China remains somewhat insulated from predations of global finance due to capital control and its ability to maintain a large foreign currency reserve. China is at present the largest economy in terms of purchasing power. The country is also the world’s largest exporter nation. China holds more than $2 trillion in US government bonds and, thus, cannot easily divest most of these bonds to devalue its own holdings. China is gradually taking measures of arranging multilateral payment mechanisms that bypass the conventional medium of the US dollar.

In contrast to Chinese economic development, where the state played an active role along with the market to promote businesses, in the US since the 1980s, the US as a global economic power has been imposing neoliberal policy and assigning a key role to market forces for resource mobilisation and promoting a particular form of finance capitalism on the rest of the world (Siddiqui, 2022c). The dominance of finance capital destroys productive industries in pursuit of rent-seeking, and what is known as the rentier class (Siddiqui, 2019a). Industrial capitalism played an important role in the nineteenth century in improving productivity and transforming the economy in the western European countries, as observed at the time by Adam Smith, John Stuart Mill, David Ricardo, and Karl Marx, the supporter of the classical labour theory of value.

Usage of the Chinese yuan has now surpassed the US dollar, thus making it the most traded currency in Russia. Another crucial development recently was when China managed to reach an agreement with Saudi Arabia to trade oil using yuan, which is known as the “petro-yuan” deal.

There seems to be a gradual decline in the US dollar hegemony. A recent report from the IMF acknowledged that the use of the dollar in foreign bank reserves is gradually declining and the dollar hegemony is eroding. It seems that the US and EU sanctions on Russia are going to further erode the hegemony of the US dollar. To counter US sanctions, Russia now is doing business with China in the Chinese yuan. Russia is also doing business with India with the Indian rupee. As Galbraith (2022: 328) notes: “The world’s moving away from exclusive reliance on the dollar will clip the wings of US finance. A multipolar world requires multilateral security arrangements, incompatible with the present extent of the US military power projection; adding more money to a dysfunctional force structure will not make the country safe or secure, and it will make inflation worse. On the other hand, a lower dollar would help to revive the domestic economy towards self-reliance in critical goods, an industrial strategy can begin the necessary process of reconstruction, while investment in infrastructure and new technologies can work to offset the social impact of higher energy costs. Those investments are necessary to combat climate change …”

However, in the twenty-first century, the strategy of finance capitalism is to make money by financial engineering, not by industrial development. Finance capitalism has essentially de-industrialised the US and the UK (Siddiqui, 2019b).

The US froze US$300 billion worth of Russian foreign exchange reserves after the Ukraine war. And now most developing countries realise that if the US does not agree with their policy or during war or domestic crisis, the US can freeze their dollar reserves. Therefore, countries like Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries are thinking that we would be better off getting out of dollars, since, if the US and Israel attack Syria and Iraq, they can freeze our money. Let’s move our money into a safe country. Many countries began to move their money out of the dollar into other currencies and, moreover, began to develop currency swaps and started a BRICS bank to finance trade and investments.

End of Dollar Hegemony?

China US Tradewar

A capitalist economy does not remain confined to its own domestic market. It moves around all over the world ruthlessly plundering resources, including labour, to expand markets and raise profits. The last three centuries of the rise of capitalism in Europe have shown us this.

The fact that Britain had a large empire meant that surpluses from Britain’s colonies, especially non-white colonies such as India, flowed to Britain. The surpluses extracted by the colonial administration were essentially claimed as charges for the privilege of being ruled by Britain. These colonies ran trade surpluses from other countries and these surpluses were claimed by Britain to balance its own trade deficits with the rest of the world. Britain recycled the surpluses from colonies into famous capital exports which essentially financed the industrialisation of Europe, the US, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand (Siddiqui, 2020a).

In 1910, even though Britain controlled and ruled a large part of the world, the fact is that this was also a period during which Germany’s economy was growing fast and soon started to challenge Britain’s power. Germany linked its currency to gold, not to subordinate itself to some sort of gold standard, but rather to make its own currency attractive to the rest of the world. So, it may increase the market for German goods and increase its global power.

A recent report from the IMF acknowledged that the use of the dollar in foreign bank reserves is gradually declining and the dollar hegemony is eroding.

With the defeat of Germany in the First World War and in the 1920s, hyperinflation in Germany began with an attempt to pay its debt in a foreign currency, as Germany was forced to pay reparations debts it owed in US dollars, British pounds sterling and French francs. However, soon after the First World War, the US, the UK, and France began erecting tariff barriers so that Germany could not export and earn foreign currencies to pay its debts. To find a solution, Germany printed marks and threw them onto the foreign exchange markets to buy the dollars to pay the allies. As a result, domestic prices in Germany rose sharply and the exchange rate of the German mark collapsed, import prices were increased, which finally resulted in the general rise in price levels in Germany (Siddiqui, 2020b).

Under the British, the gold-sterling standard operated until the First World War. The US only established the Federal Reserve system in 1913 and this was another way of essentially asserting its own position and priorities. Only after the Second World War did the US-dollar-centred global financial system emerge. However, this has been an inherently unstable arrangement. The world monetary system was based on the national currency of the dominant capitalist countries, which are governed by the US Federal Reserve and represent the interests of its financial sector and it could generate more private debts than public money. The results have been international rentier elites centred in US dollars. Its power extends through networks of institutions offering private credit to other governments and businesses (Hudson, 2003).

As the BRICS countries implement their currency internationalisation policies, trading activities of BRICS currencies will slowly increase. This increase may not necessarily come at the expense of the US dollar; rather, it may erode the market share of other major currencies, as recent years’ data shows.

In 1944, the US sought to use the Bretton Woods negotiations to revive its plan for world domination by securing the dollar’s position as world money. It also aimed to limit the power of rivals, primarily the British pound sterling. The world dominated by US dollars aimed to protect global US strategic and military power. The US also ensured that the newly formed financial institutions, mainly the World Bank and the IMF, were designed to impose free flows of trade and capital to benefit the US corporations. Then, Keynes proposed a multilateral International Clearing Union to settle international payments in a new multilaterally created currency, the “bancor”, whose value would be determined by a price index of 30 widely traded commodities. This proposal was aimed to eliminate persistent trade and financial imbalances by pressurising the creditor country (the US) to adjust. However, Keynes’s proposal that time was rejected by the US.

In the 1950s and 60s, the rates of economic growth were faster in the West European economies than in the US, while at the same time US defence expenditure rose sharply due to the Korean and Vietnam wars and the US experienced a rising balance of payment deficit.

Since the 1980s, gradually the US reduced financial regulation and, in the name of efficiency and competition, any state interference was removed from financial institutions and banks. As a result, financial monopoly capital had moved away from any commitment towards industrial development. However, after the Second World War, under the Keynesian policy, state intervention separated commercial and investment banks and the securities markets were also hugely supervised. As a result, speculative activity was restricted. But in the 1980s, the Keynesian policy was replaced by neoliberalism, which meant the finances were deregulated and, through various laws, the advanced economies relaxed their supervision over financial institutions and financial markets and efficiency and competition became big mantras to boost economic growth. Over the last four decades, finance capital has grown enormously, while at the same time, industries have witnessed a decline in the developed capitalist countries.

For developing countries, financial dollarisation is a long-standing issue. Financial dollarisation reflects the substitution of national currency assets and liabilities by foreign currency assets and liabilities. Since globalisation and deregulation, the US dollar influence has grown, and a highly dollarised global economy becomes more susceptible to changes in global financial conditions rather than to domestic monetary policy. In January 2023, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and Brazilian President Lula raised the issue of a potential common BRICS currency.

successful of group collegue arab business-people-working-with-laptop-computer and document reportThe currency trading activity comparison reveals that the US dollar still maintains its absolute dominance in the currency market. However, the collective market share of BRICS currencies, especially the renminbi, has slowly increased, but it is still far smaller than the US dollar’s market share. However, the small increase in the market share of BRICS currencies did not cause the US dollar’s market share to decrease, as the US dollar’s share has remained stable. As the BRICS countries implement their currency internationalisation policies, trading activities of BRICS currencies will slowly increase. This increase may not necessarily come at the expense of the US dollar; rather, it may erode the market share of other major currencies, as recent years’ data shows.

Russia has been actively promoting the idea of de-dollarisation through BRICS, and its primary motivation for doing so is its geopolitical rivalry with the United States. President Putin said recently that the BRICS members are ready to work together with our partners to promote international financial regulation reforms and to overcome the excessive domination of the limited number of reserve currencies. In October 2018, the Putin administration backed a tentative de-dollarisation plan designed to limit Russia’s exposure to future US sanctions by reducing the use of the US dollar in international settlements and conducting international business using alternative currencies. Brazil initially shared Russia’s enthusiasm for making BRICS a de-dollarisation coalition. Former Brazilian President Lula da Silva argued that BRICS could create our own currency to become independent from the US dollar in our trade relations.

The US dollar dominated Brazil’s exports invoicing, as high as 94 per cent, although exports to the United States were only 17 per cent of Brazil’s total exports. Brazil’s severe economic crisis since 2014 following the end of the commodity boom has fragmented the country’s politics and led to the rise of the right-wing Bolsonaro administration. Under President Bolsonaro, the Brazilian government has sent mixed signals regarding its BRICS policy and has moved closer to the Western powers. Second, Brazil has become more reliant on commodities exports, making the country more exposed to volatility in global markets and currency risks. Brazil’s commodity exports represented 56.5 per cent of total exports in 2008–9. This number has increased to 66.6 per cent over the past 10 years. China has been Brazil’s most important trading partner, and the economic and financial ties between the two countries have increasingly become closer. The use of local currencies in bilateral settlements is beneficial for both sides. Brazil’s close economic and financial ties with China and the real risks to the Brazilian economy due to its dependence on the US dollar suggest that Brazil is unlikely to openly champion BRICS de-dollarisation initiatives.

two indian colleages discussing-ideas-using-a-tablet computer at the officeInitially, India was reluctant to join a BRICS de-dollarisation coalition from the very beginning, despite its support for other key issues on the BRICS agenda, such as reforming the IMF and World Bank. Russia and China proposed to create a new global super-sovereign reserve currency to replace the US dollar in 2009. The Indian government considered this Sino-Russian proposal more ideological than substantive and did not want to challenge the US dollar and upset the US, especially at a time when the US was pressuring Pakistan on counterterrorism and India wanted to build closer economic ties with the US. While the US treats Russia and China as strategic competitors, it considers India as an important ally in the Indo-Pacific region and an important strategic partner. India’s rivalry with China and the recent military stand-off between the two countries have further prevented India from supporting China’s attempt to replace the US dollar.

Saudi Arabia and China are dealing in their own currencies now with currency swaps and the BRICS countries such as Russia, China, Iran, India, and others are putting in place currency swaps for trade in their own currencies (Financial Times, 2023; Siddiqui, 2021b).

Britain recycled the surpluses from colonies into famous capital exports which essentially financed the industrialisation of Europe, the US, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand.

In fact, in 1973, US President Richard Nixon and King Faisal of Saudi Arabia agreed that Saudi Arabia would sell oil to the US, its largest buyer, and in turn, the US would provide Saudi Arabia with money, military aid, and political support. This is known as the “petrodollar” deal. The US agreed to offer armed protection, and weapons and the sale of oil would be in US dollars. Moreover, Saudi Arabia would invest billions of their “petrodollars” back into the US via treasury bond purchases, effectively lending the US money. Since then, oil has traded in US dollars almost exclusively worldwide, even between non-US buyers and producers. In international markets, all the oil bought in US dollars created a huge demand for dollars, an important factor in creating the US dollar’s hegemony. This arrangement has also enabled the US to borrow at very low interest rates to finance the US deficit for the last four decades.

TWFR AugSep Article9 Figure 1
Source: Arslanalp et al., 2022. https://cepr.org/voxeu/columns/de-dollarisation-happening

However, the US dollar remains dominant in global forex reserves, even though its share in central banks’ foreign exchange reserves has dropped from more than 70 per cent in 1999 (see figure 1). The US dollar accounted for 58.3 per cent of global foreign exchange reserves by 2022, according to the IMF (see figures 2 and 3). Comparatively, the euro is a distant second, accounting for about 20.5 per cent of global forex reserves, while the Chinese yuan accounted for just 2.7 per cent in the same period. Recently, there are several reasons why de-dollarisation has been under discussion. Perhaps the most immediate is the relatively sharp decline in 2022 in the US dollar’s share of total global reserves. The year 2022 was not the beginning of this trend but rather an acceleration of a 20-year decline. As of 2022, the dollar’s share of global reserves was 58.3 per cent, down from 73 per cent in 2001.

TWFR AugSep Article9 Figure 2
Source: https://investments.millenniumglobal.com/research-blog/de-dollarisation-hype-or-reality
TWFR AugSep Article9 Figure 3
Source: https://realeconomy.rsmus.com/why-the-dollar-remains-the-worlds-reserve-currency

The US dollar’s hegemony is not only about reserves but about trade. However, since last year, BRICS countries have been calling for trade to be carried out in currencies besides the US dollar. Brazilian President Lula da Silva has been one of the most vocal proponents of alternative trade settlement currencies, calling on the BRICS countries to move away from the US dollar. During an April 2023 state visit to China, Lula asked, “Why can’t we do trade based on our own currencies?… Who was it that decided that the dollar was the currency after the disappearance of the gold standard?” (Financial Times, 2023).

TWFR AugSep Article9 Figure 4
Note: The chart shows identified countries that hold US$1 billion or more of RMB in reserve assets. Source: IMF COFER, IMF Reserve Data, and central bank annual reports.

In recent months, we have witnessed some attempt to move away from the US dollar and use their own currencies for bilateral trade. The yuan has now surpassed the euro to become the second most-dominant currency in Brazil’s foreign reserves after the dollar as of the end of 2022 (see figure 4). Similarly, Argentina announced in April 2023 that it would begin paying for Chinese imports in yuan instead of US dollars.

The US foreign debt continues to rise, thus feeding concerns about it, as a recent US Congress hearing noted. These issues cause some to question the stability of the US’s financial infrastructure and the future of the US dollar’s status as the global reserve.

TWFR AugSep Article9 Figure 5
Source: IMF, World Economic Outlook Data. https://kontekstual.com/challenging-the-dollars-dominance-brics-and-pathways-of-de-dollarisation/

The BRICS countries have witnessed a sharp increase their GDP in recent years. For instance, in 2021 China’s GDP growth rate averaged 6 per cent per year, India’s was 5.6 per cent, and Russia, Brazil, and South Africa ranged from 1.8 per cent to 2.7 per cent (Siddiqui, 2021a; also, 2020c). Moreover, they constitute 42 per cent of the world’s population, the BRICS countries contribute 33.6 per cent to the world’s GDP and are expected to contribute more than 50 per cent by 2030, as figure 5 indicates. With their influence likely to grow, they would be expected to support the process of de-dollarisation in future.

Country FlagsThis is a further indication of booming trade through BRICS countries’ national currencies which have progressively gained more market share. One way to gain more market share in the dollar-based global currency system is by using national currencies for cross-border trade transactions. For example, China used the Chinese yuan to trade with Russia after its invasion of Ukraine. Usage of the Chinese yuan has now surpassed the US dollar, thus making it the most traded currency in Russia. Another crucial development recently was when China managed to reach an agreement with Saudi Arabia to trade oil using yuan, which is known as the “petro-yuan” deal. These examples can be seen as a form of currency diversification.

TWFR AugSep Article9 Figure 6
Sources: Central Bank of Russian Federation, International Reserves of the Russian Federation
TWFR AugSep Article9 Figure 7
Source: https://www.cambridge.org/core/elements/can-brics-dedollarise-the-global-financial-system/0AEF98D2F232072409E9556620AE09B0
TWFR AugSep Article9 Figure 8
Source: https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-6003457/Mystery-Russia-LIQUIDATES-holdings-Treasury-securities.html

The renminbi was one of the biggest beneficiaries of Russian reserves’ de-dollarisation. In early 2019, Russia’s central bank invested US$44 billion into the renminbi, increasing its share in Russia’s foreign exchange reserves from 5 per cent to 15 per cent. Russia’s renminbi holdings are about 10 times the global average for central banks, accounting for about a quarter of global renminbi reserves. In 2021, Russia’s sovereign wealth fund invested in renminbi and Chinese state bonds. Russia’s aggressive de-dollarisation policies are conducive to strengthening a potential Russia–China partnership for de-dollarisation. Furthermore, the Bank of Russia has also been implementing a gold strategy to move away from US assets. It has been the largest buyer of gold in the past few years, quadrupling Russia’s gold reserves over the past decade. Between 2018 and 2021, the value of Russia’s gold reserves increased by 42 per cent, to US$109.5 billion. As a result, gold has taken up the largest share of Russia’s total reserves since 2000. By 2020, gold constituted 23 per cent of the reserves of Russia’s central bank (as indicated in figure 6), while the share of US dollar assets declined to 22 per cent (see figure 8).

Moreover, there has been an increase in central bank buying of gold around the world (see figure 7), and central banks now constitute about one-third of all annual demand for gold – the highest level since the 1950s – and we’ve seen the price of gold rise about 20 per cent in the last six months.

Concluding Remarks

global currency

Since 1944 with the Bretton Woods agreements, the US has ensured the role of the dollar as the international currency under a multilateral framework based on fixed exchange rates with control over financial capital movements. The key point was to bring foreign exchange stability as the value of the dollar was guaranteed by its convertibility into gold, which continued over two decades, a characteristic that created increasing difficulties over the course of two decades. As the West European and Japanese economies recovered from the destruction of the war, the quantity of gold available and extractable on a global scale proved insufficient to meet the demand for international liquidity. Then the US faced a dilemma, whether to support the convertibility between the dollar and gold or to pursue an internal objective of economic growth.

India’s rivalry with China and the recent military stand-off between the two countries have further prevented India from supporting China’s attempt to replace the US dollar.

In fact, the imposition of the dollar as the international unit of account and store of value has helped the US banks to expand and consolidate its financial system. The strategic and military supremacy of the US ensured that not only oil and other internationally traded commodities were denominated in US dollars but also that the liquid funds created by the US banks and accumulated petrodollars flowed back to US banks. And since the 1980s, through neoliberal globalisation and free flows of capital and goods, the US has consolidated its grip over the developing countries, while the IMF and the World Bank have been transformed from multilateral institutions into tools of the US Treasury.

Since the 1980s, the steady rise in the US external deficit drains financial resources from the private sectors and, to prevent a deterioration of the balance of payments, a current account deficit requires an active economic policy to attract new capital inflows from abroad, such as raising domestic interest rates or reducing taxes. And in the absence of such policies, according to the Mundell-Fleming theory, a depreciation of the exchange rate will be inevitable.

Under capitalism, historically we have seen that the contradictions are being externalised onto others by controlling others’ resources, such as cheap labour, raw materials, and markets to sell its products. When rival countries are able to challenge this domination, it could result in wars such as two world wars in the first half of the twentieth century. At present, we saw again rising tensions between countries, such as the US and China, and the US and Russia.

The study concludes that to support de-dollarisation, tighter monetary policy should be in place when the expected yield differential on domestic and foreign currency deposits is close to zero.

The US dollar has “suffered a stunning collapse” as a reserve currency, which has increased after the US decided to wield its control over the dollar-based international financial system against Russia. The developing economies seem unwilling to continue to hold dollar assets but are still unable to divest from the US dollar as an international currency, particularly for financial transactions, because the US dollar still enjoys substantial network advantages as an international currency, mainly because of its huge, liquid, and reasonably well-functioning financial markets.

The study concludes that to support de-dollarisation, tighter monetary policy should be in place when the expected yield differential on domestic and foreign currency deposits is close to zero. It is noteworthy that the expected yield differential incorporates the hysteresis effect, the collective memory about the past episodes of significant currency depreciation. Capitalism has a deep urge to privatise, control, and commodify. However, this, despite its success, becomes the basis for the financial crisis. Karl Polanyi called money a fictitious commodity. We must realise that the world is changing, and that US global financial and economic hegemony is eroding, and the world is moving towards multipolar, which should be celebrated.

About the Author

kalimDr. Kalim Siddiqui is an economist specialising in International Political Economy, Development Economics, International Trade, and International Economics. His work, which combines elements of international political economy and development economics, economic policy, economic history and international trade, often challenges prevailing orthodoxy about which policies promote overall development in less-developed countries. Kalim teaches international economics at the Department of Accounting, Finance and Economics, University of Huddersfield, UK. He has taught economics since 1989 at various universities in Norway and the UK.

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The views expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of The World Financial Review.