Oil, Currency, and the War on Iraq

4 04 2007

I stumbled upon a •fascinating article about the relationship between the US dollar, foreign trade, and oil.• I won’t try to summarize it, but to my mind there were several very significant passages:

There is though one major obstacle to this happening: oil. Oil is not just by far the most important commodity traded internationally, it is the lifeblood of all modern industrialised economies. If you don’t have oil, you have to buy it. And if you want to buy oil on the international markets, you usually have to have dollars. Until recently all OPEC countries agreed to sell their oil for dollars only. So long as this remained the case, the euro was unlikely to become the major reserve currency: there is not a lot of point in stockpiling euros if every time you need to buy oil you have to change them into dollars. This arrangement also meant that the US effectively part-controlled the entire world oil market: you could only buy oil if you had dollars, and only one country had the right to print dollars – the US.

If on the other hand OPEC were to decide to accept euros only for its oil (assuming for a moment it were allowed to make this decision), then American economic dominance would be over. Not only would Europe not need as many dollars anymore, but Japan which imports over 80% of its oil from the Middle East would think it wise to convert a large portion of its dollar assets to euro assets (Japan is the major subsidiser of the US because it holds so many dollar investments). The US on the other hand, being the world’s largest oil importer would have to run a trade surplus to acquire euros. The conversion from trade deficit to trade surplus would have to be achieved at a time when its property and stock market prices were collapsing and its domestic supplies of oil and gas were contracting. It would be a very painful conversion.

So far only one OPEC country has dared switch to the euro: Iraq, in November 20002, 3. There is little doubt that this was a deliberate attempt by Saddam to strike back at the US, but in economic terms it has also turned out to have been a huge success: at the time of Iraq’s conversion the euro was worth around 83 US cents but it is now worth over $1.05. There may however be other consequences to this decision.

One other OPEC country has been talking publicly about possible conversion to the euro since 1999: Iran2,4, a country which has since been included in the George W. Bush’s ‘axis of evil’.

A third OPEC country which has recently fallen out with the US government is Venezuela and it too has been showing disloyalty to the dollar.

It’s interesting that Iraq had switched the Euro in 2000. I wonder if that explains the Iraq War, at least in part? Just a thought. Be sure to read the whole article (it’s not very long). It is very interesting, even to non-economists like me!




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