The Tyranny of the U.S. Dollar
There’s a paradox at the heart of global finance. The U.S. share of the world economy has drifted lower for decades, and now President Trump is retreating from the American chief executive’s traditional role as Leader of the Free World. Yet the U.S. dollar remains, as the saying goes, almighty. “American exceptionalism has never been this stark,” Ruchir Sharma, head of emerging markets and chief global strategist for Morgan Stanley Investment Management, said at a Council on Foreign Relations symposium on Sept. 24.
By the latest tally of the European Central Bank, America’s currency makes up two-thirds of international debt and a like share of global reserve holdings. Oil and gold are priced in dollars, not euros or yen. When Somali pirates hold up ships at sea, it’s dollars they demand. And threats to be cut off from the dollar-based global payments system strike terror into the likes of Iran, North Korea, and Russia. It’s no exaggeration to say that the dollar’s primacy is at least as valuable to the U.S. as a couple of aircraft carrier strike groups.
Now the dollar paradox shows signs of unraveling. Political leaders who once accepted the dollar’s hegemony, grudgingly or otherwise, are pushing back. Jean-Claude Juncker, the president of the European Commission, said in September that it’s “absurd” that European companies buy European planes in the American currency instead of their own. In March, China challenged the dollar’s dominance in the global energy markets with a yuan-denominated crude oil futures contract. Russia slashed its dollar holdings this year, claiming (inaccurately) that the greenback is “becoming a risky instrument in international settlements.” And French Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire told reporters in August that he wants financing instruments that are “totally independent” of the U.S., saying, “I want Europe to be a sovereign continent, not a vassal.”