10.15.2009 Policy Points

Dollar Policy Hype

In Foreign Affairs, Dean Baker of the Center for Economic and Policy Research debunks the claim that a shift in oil pricing from dollars to other currencies will harm the American economy. Writes Baker:

Any market — a stock market, a wheat market, or the oil market — requires a unit of measure. The importance of the U.S. economy made the dollar the obvious choice for most markets. But there would be no real difference if the euro, the yen, or even bushels of wheat were selected as the unit of account for the oil market. It’s simply an accounting issue.

Suppose that prices in the oil market were quoted in yen or bushels of wheat. Currently, oil is priced at about $70 a barrel. A dollar today is worth about 90 yen. A bushel of wheat sells for about $3.50. If oil were priced in yen, then the current price of a barrel of oil in yen would 6,300 yen. If oil were priced in wheat, then the price of a barrel of oil would be 20 bushels. If oil were priced in either yen or wheat it would have no direct consequence for the dollar. If the dollar were still the preferred asset among oil sellers, then they would ask for the dollar equivalents of the yen or wheat price of oil. The calculation would take a billionth of a second on modern computers, and business would proceed exactly as it does today.

The larger issue, notes Baker, is the dollar’s status as an international reserve currency, but even that issue is not as serious as often claimed.

This raises a more serious issue affecting the demand for dollars, which is the dollar’s status as an international reserve currency. Currently the dollar is by far the preferred currency, but others, notably the euro, are gaining ground. A switch away from the dollar will lower its value, but this is hardly anything to fear: In actuality, it was and is an official policy goal of both the George W. Bush and Barack Obama administrations.

Both administrations are on record complaining about China’s “manipulation” of its currency. China does this by buying up vast amounts of dollars to hold as foreign reserves, suppressing the value of the yuan against the dollar. This, in turn, makes Chinese goods cheaper in the United States and bolsters China’s exports.

If China stopped buying up huge amounts of dollars, as the United States wishes, then the dollar would fall in value against the yuan, thereby making Chinese imports more expensive. The result would be that the United States would buy fewer imports from China, improving its trade balance. Not too many people would be frightened by this prospect.

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