Saudi Arabia’s Quandary: The End of the Petrodollar
In 1971 Richard Nixon took the US off the last feeble vestiges of the gold standard, otherwise known as the Bretton Woods Agreement. That system had been a bizarre gold-dollar hybrid where the dollar was the world reserve currency but the US agreed to keep the dollar backed by gold. Henry Hazlitt’s book From Bretton Woods to World Inflation explains the consequences of this situation well.
The end of this system left a vacuum at the heart of world financial affairs, one that needed to be filled quickly. The dollar, now unmoored by gold, remained the default currency for international trade, but without the confidence derived from its former gold backing, the US needed to bolster its credibility lest other more enticing options appeared to displace the dollar’s hegemony.
During the 1973 Arab-Israeli war, Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) had gained leverage by imposing an oil embargo, which caused serious disruptions in the global economy. In 1974 Henry Kissinger brokered a deal: Israel would back off its territorial ambitions, the Arab states would end the embargo, and oil would be traded in dollars. Thus, the petrodollar was born.
Every economy needs energy, and Saudi Arabia supplies plenty of oil, meaning that the dollar was backed up by a valuable commodity that would always be the recipient of demand. Everyone wants oil, and the Saudis would only trade it for dollars, so the dollar became unavoidable in international trade, reaffirming its status as the world reserve currency.
Even if others would have preferred a neutral, market-based currency not subject to manipulation, the opportunity cost of foregoing oil was far higher than the cost of having to use the dollar. A global medium of exchange selected by the market would have been more economically efficient, but given that the US and the Saudis possessed the ability to impose a politically motivated system, nobody was willing to bear the costs to create an alternative as long as the dollar was managed fairly sensibly.
Washington and the Gulf States benefit enormously from this situation. The petrodollar gives the Fed extreme license to print currency and export its inflation. If other countries are forced to use your currency, that gives you a lot more room to debase it. Imports are made cheaper with the high purchasing power of the dollar, and exports are propped up because the easiest way to spend dollars is to buy American products.
All this amounts to Washington essentially taxing world trade. The Gulf States benefit in the same ways by having enhanced access to the world reserve currency. Their oil is given priority in world markets compared to competitors opposed by Washington, such as Iran. They are also just simply given financial aid by Washington for participating in this scheme.
However, there are consequences
Article from Mises Wire