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De–dollarization of the BRICS

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What might be behind the well-orchestrated attack on leaders of the BRICS countries?

Gold is one of the most fascinating of all rare metals. Throughout all history it has been given a special, at times sacred or spiritual value, since six thousand years ago when the Egyptian Pharoahs’ tombs were filled with it to accompany the dead on their journey.

In times of world financial crisis as in the 1930’s, gold is preferred by central banks and ordinary citizens as a store of value when paper money loses value.

We are approaching another of those times when the accumulated paper debt of the dollar system is debasing the worth of paper dollars. What’s highly significant in this light is to see which central banks are buying all the gold they can get.

The dollar today is no longer backed by gold. That has been so since Nixon unilaterally abrogated the 1944 Bretton Woods Treaty and took the dollar off its statutory gold backing to float free in August, 1971. He did so at the insistence of then Under Treasury Secretary Paul Volcker and Volcker’s patron, David Rockefeller at Chase Manhattan Bank.

Nixon took that desperate measure, simply said, because the Federal Reserve vaults of reserve gold were disappearing as France, Germany and other trading partners of the United States demanded gold in exchange for their accumulated trade dollars, as was allowed under the Bretton Woods rules.

Since 1971, with no gold backing it, other than the carefully-guarded fiction that the Fed still has the world’s largest stock of gold reserve in its deep vaults, alleged by the Fed to exceed 8,000 tons, the fiat dollars in world circulation have expanded without limit.

This is the source of the Great Inflation the world economy has undergone over the past forty five years, as dollars in circulation have expanded exponentially by some 2,500% since 1970. The confidence in holding dollars, still the world’s leading reserve currency, has been maintained by Washington through various tricks and deceptions.

After the oil shock of October, 1973 Secretary of State Henry Kissinger spoke of a “petrodollar.” The dollar value was backed not by gold but by oil, everyone’s oil.

The price of oil had been manipulated by Kissinger and others in 1973, as I detail in my Gods of Money book, to increase by 400% in a matter of months, forcing Germany, France, Latin America and much of the world to buy dollars.

Washington made certain as well in 1975, when Germany, Japan and other nations tried to buy OPEC oil in their own national currencies, that Saudi Arabia and OPEC countries would accept only dollars for their black gold, the oil.

Since September, 2014 the world dollar price of oil has collapsed. It has gone from levels of $103 a barrel down to close to $30 today. That’s a collapse of 70% in demand for dollars for the world’s largest commodity measured in dollars.

In this political and financial context, the central banks of Russia and China are buying gold for their central bank reserves at a fever pace.

Not only that, the Peoples’ Bank of China recently announced it has abandoned its peg to the US dollar and diversify into a basket of currencies led by the Euro. However the moves of Russia and China central banks to gold are far more strategic.

Russia’s heart of gold

While all eyes are on the oil price and the ruble to dollar rate, the Central Bank of Russia has quietly been buying huge volumes of gold over the past year.

In January, 2016, the latest data available, the Russian Central Bank again bought 22 tons of gold, around $800 million at current exchange rates, that, amidst US and EU financial sanctions and low oil prices. It was the eleventh month in a row they bought large gold volumes.

For 2015 Russia added a record 208 tons of gold to her reserves compared with 172 tons for 2014. Russia now has 1,437 tonnes of gold in reserve, the sixth largest of any nation according to the World Gold Council in London.

Only USA, Germany, Italy, France and China central banks hold a larger tonnage of gold reserves.

Notably also, the Russian central bank has been selling its holdings of US Treasury debt to buy the gold, de facto de-dollarizing, a sensible move as the dollar is waging de facto currency war against the ruble. (As of December, 2015, Russia held $92 billion in US Treasury Bonds down from $132 billion in January 2014.)

More significantly, after the Russian Central Bank Governor Elvira Nabiullina declared in May 2015 that she saw no need to buy all domestic gold production as the bank’s gold needs could easily be satisfied on the open market internationally, something that would drain ruble reserves, there has been an apparent about face.

The Central Bank of Russia is now buying all domestic Russian gold output. Only after that is exhausted in terms of meeting their monthly targets does she import. Nabiullina stated recently, “We believe it is necessary in terms of creating additional financial cushion for the state in the face of such externaluncertainties.”

That’s very significant as Russia, whose central bank gold reserves were robbed during the Yeltsin years in the early 1990, has grown to become the world’s second largest gold mining country after China. It’s a major support to her gold mining industry and to the ruble.

China and Kazakhstan too

Only slightly smaller volumes of gold are being bought in past months by China. And a significant monthly addition to its gold reserve is being made as well by Kazakhstan.

For the past forty months, Kazakhstan, has been increasing its central bank gold reserves. Kazakhstan along with Russia is a member of the Eurasian Economic union along with Belarus, Armenia and Kyrgyzstan. Belarus has also been increasing its bullion reserves.

China bought another 17 tons of gold in January and will buy a total of another 215 tons this year, approximately equal to that of Russia. From August to January 2016 China added 101 tonnes of gold to its reserves.

Annual purchases of more than 200 tons by the PBOC would exceed the entire gold holdings of all but about 20 countries, according to the World Gold Council. China’s central bank reserves of gold have risen 57% since 2009 acording to data the PBOC revealed in July, 2015.

Market watchers believe even that amount of gold in China’s central bank vaults is being politically vastly understated so as not to cause alarm bells to ring too loud in Washington and London.

Kyrgyzsan, Russia and China are also members of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization.

These Eurasian countries are all of them part of China’s mammoth One Belt, One Road Great Project, sometimes called the New Economic Silk Road project to criss-cross all Eurasia with networks of high-speed rails and to develop major new ports in the region to change the economic map of Eurasia.

Last year China announced it was mapping the rail lines of the Silk Road to enable the Central Asian and Russian gold reserves now lacking infrastructure for development to become economically attractive to those countries.

The currencies of Russia, China and other Eurasian countries are moving to become as “good as gold,” a term applied to the US dollar some six decades ago.

The fact that Russia also has an extremely low debt-to-GDP ratio of some 18% compared to 103% for USA and that of the EU Eurozone countries of 94%, of Japan more than 200% of GDP, is a fact that Western rating agencies engaged in the US Treasury’s financial warfare against the Russian Federation conveniently ignore.

Russia has a far more healthy economy than most of the West that is declaring her a failed state.

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Transitioning from least developed country status: Are countries better off?

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The Least Developed Countries (LDCs) are an internationally defined group of highly vulnerable and structurally constrained economies with extreme levels of poverty. Since the category was created in 1971, on the basis of selected vulnerability indicators, only five countries have graduated and the number of LDCs has doubled.  One would intuitively have thought that graduation from LDC status would be something that all LDCs would want to achieve since it seems to suggest that transitioning countries are likely to benefit from increased economic growth, improved human development and reduced susceptibility to natural disasters and trade shocks.

However, when countries graduate they lose international support measures (ISMs) provided by the international community. There is no established institutional mechanism for the phasing out of LDC country-specific benefits. As a result, entities such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund may not always be able to support a country’s smooth transition process.

Currently, 14 out of 53 members of the Commonwealth are classified as LDCs and the number is likely to reduce as Bangladesh, Solomon Islands and Vanuatu transition from LDC status by 2021. The three criteria used to assess LDC transition are: Economic Vulnerability Index (EVI), Human Assets Index (HAI) and Gross National Income per capita (GNI).  Many of the forthcoming LDC graduates will transition based only on their GNI.  This GNI level is normally set at US $ 1,230 but if the GNI reaches twice this level at US $ 2,460 a country can graduate.

So what’s the issue?  A recent Commonwealth – Trade Hot Topic publication confirms that most countries graduate only on the basis of their GNI, some of which have not attained significant improvements in human development (HAI) and even more of which fall below the graduation threshold for economic development due to persistent vulnerabilities (EVI).  This latter aspect raises the question as to whether transitioning countries will, actually, be better off after they graduate.

Given the loss of ISMs and the persistent economic vulnerabilities of many LDCs, it is no surprise that some countries are actually seeking to delay graduation, Kiribati and Tuvalu being two such Commonwealth countries despite easily surpassing twice the GNI threshold for graduation.

How is it possible that a country can achieve economic growth but not have appreciable improvements in resilience to economic vulnerability?  Based on a statistical analysis discussed in the Trade Hot Topic paper, a regression model, based on all forty-seven LDCs, was produced.  The model revealed that there was no statistically significant relationship between economic vulnerability and gross national income per capita.  The analysis was repeated just for Commonwealth countries and similar results were obtained.

Most importantly, analysis revealed that there was a positive relationship between GNI and EVI. In other words, increases in wealth (using GNI as a proxy) is likely to result in an increase in economic vulnerability.  This latter result is counterintuitive since one would expect more wealth to result in less economic vulnerability.

So what’s the take away?

The statistical results do not necessarily imply that improving the factors affecting economic vulnerability cannot result in improvements to economic prosperity.  It does suggest, however, that either insufficient efforts have gone into effecting such improvements or that there are natural limits to the extent to which such improvements can be effected.

One thing is clear, the multilateral lending agencies should revisit the removal of measures supporting climate change or other vulnerabilities for LDCs on graduation, since the empirical evidence suggests that countries could fall back into LDC status or stagnate and be unable to achieve sustainable development. Whilst transitioning from LDC status should be desirable, it should not be an end in itself. Rather than to transition and remain extremely vulnerable, countries should be resistant to such change or continue to receive more targeted support until vulnerabilities are reduced to more acceptable levels.

What are your thoughts?

Commonwealth

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U.S. policy and the Turkish Economic Crisis: Lessons for Pakistan

M Waqas Jan

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Over the last week, the Turkish Lira has been dominating headlines the world over as the currency continues to plunge against the US dollar. Currently at the dead center of a series of verbal ripostes between Presidents Donald Trump and Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the rapidly depreciating Lira has taken center stage amidst deteriorating US-Turkey relations that are wreaking havoc across international financial markets. Considering Pakistan’s current economic predicament, the events unfolding in Turkey offer important lessons to the dangers of unsustainable and unrealistic economic policies, within a dramatically changing international scenario. This holds particular importance for Pak-US relations within the context of the impending IMF bailout.

In his most recent statements, Mr. Erdogan has attributed his economy’s dire state of affairs as an ‘Economic War’ being waged against it by the United States. President Trump too has made it evident that the latest rounds of US sanctions that have been placed on Turkey are directly linked to its dissatisfaction with Ankara for detaining American Pastor Andrew Brunson. Mr Bruson along with dozens of others has been charged with terrorism and espionage for his purported links to the 2016 attempted coup against President Erdogan and his government.  There is thus a modicum of truth to Mr. Erdogan’s claims that the US sanctions are in fact, being used as leverage against the weakening Lira and the Turkish economy as part of a broader US policy.

However, to say that the latest US sanctions alone are the sole cause of Turkey’s economic woes is a gross understatement. The Lira has for some time remained the worst performing currency in the world; losing half of its value in a year, and dropping by another 20% in just the last week. Just to put the scale of this loss in to perspective, the embattled currency was trading at about 2 Liras to the dollar in mid-2014. The day before yesterday, it was trading at about 7 Liras to the dollar.

While the Pakistani Rupee has also depreciated quite considerably over the last few months, its recent drop (-17% against the dollar over the past 12 months) pales in comparison to the sustained and exponential downfall of the Lira. Yet, both the Turkish and Pakistani economies are at a point where they are experiencing an alarming dearth of foreign exchange reserves that have in turn dramatically increased their international debt obligations.

The ongoing financial crises in both Turkey and Pakistan are similar to the extent that both countries have pursued unsustainable economic policies for the last few years. These have been centered on increased borrowing on the back of overvalued currencies. While this approach had allowed both governments to finance a series of government investments in various projects, the long term implications of this accumulating debt has now caught up with them dramatically. As a result, both countries may soon desperately require IMF assistance; assistance, that in recent times, has become even more overtly conditional on meeting certain US foreign policy requirements.

In the case of Pakistan, these objectives may coincide with recent US pressures to ‘do more’ regarding the Haqqani network; or a deeper examination of the scale and viability of the China- Pakistan Economic Corridor. With regards to the latter, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has clearly stated that American Dollars, in the form of IMF funds, to Pakistan should not be used to bailout Chinese investors. The rationale being that a cash-strapped Pakistan is more likely to adversely affect Chinese interests as opposed to US interests in the region at the present. The politics behind the ongoing US-China trade war add even further relevance to this argument.

In the case of Turkey however, which is a major NATO ally, an important emerging market, and a deeply integrated part of the European financial system, there is a lot more at stake in terms of US interests. Turkey’s main lenders comprise largely of Spanish, French and Italian banks whose exposure to the Lira has caused a drastic knock on effect on the Euro. The ensuing uncertainty and volatility that has arisen is likely to prove detrimental to the US’s allies in the EU as well as in key emerging markets across South America, Africa and Asia. This marks the latest example of the US’s departure from maintaining and ensuring the health of the global financial system, as a leading economic power.

Yet, what’s even more unsettling is the fact that while the US is wholly cognizant of these wide-ranging impacts, it remains unfazed in pursuing its unilateral objectives. This is perhaps most evident in the diminishing sanctity of the NATO alliance as a direct outcome of these actions.  After the US, Turkey is the second biggest contributor of troops within the NATO framework. As relations between both members continue to deteriorate, Turkey has been more inclined to gravitate towards expanding Russian influence. In effect, contributing to the very anti-thesis of the NATO alliance. The recent dialogues between Presidents Erdogan and Putin, in the wake of US sanctions point markedly towards this dramatic shift.

Based on the above, it has become increasingly evident that US actions have come to stand in direct contrast to the Post-Cold War status quo, which it had itself help set up and maintain over the last three decades. It is rather, the US’s unilateral interests that have now taken increasing precedence over its commitments and leadership of major multilateral frameworks such as the NATO, and the Bretton Woods institutions. This approach while allowing greater flexibility to the US has however come at the cost of ceding space to a fast rising China and an increasingly assertive Russia. The acceleration of both Pak-China and Russo-Turkish cooperation present poignant examples of these developments.

However, while it remains unclear as to how much international influence US policy-makers are willing to cede to the likes of China and Russia over the long-term, their actions have made it clear that US policy and the pursuit of its unilateral objectives would no longer be made hostage to the Geo-Politics of key regions. These include key states at the cross-roads of the world’s potential flash-points such as Turkey and Pakistan.

Therefore, both Turkey and Pakistan would be well advised to factor in these reasons behind the US’s disinterest in their economic and financial predicaments. Especially since both Russia and China are still quite a way from being able to completely supplant the US’s financial and military influence across the world; perhaps a greater modicum of self-sufficiency and sustainability is in order to weather through these shifting dynamics.

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Social Mobility and Stronger Private Sector Role are Keys to Growth in the Arab World

MD Staff

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In spite of unprecedented improvements in technological readiness, the Arab World continues to struggle to innovate and create broad-based opportunities for its youth. Government-led investment alone will not suffice to channel the energies of society toward more private sector initiative, better education and ultimately more productive jobs and increased social mobility. The Arab World Competitiveness Report 2018 published by the World Economic Forum and the World Bank Group outlines recommendations for the Arab countries to prepare for a new economic context.

The gap between the competitiveness of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) and of the other economies of the region, especially the ones affected by conflict and violence, has further increased over the last decade. However, similarities exist as the drop in oil prices of the past few years has forced even the most affluent countries in the region to question their existing social and economic models. Across the entire region, education is currently not rewarded with better opportunities to the point where the more educated the Arab youth is, the more likely they are to remain unemployed. Financial resources, while available through banks, are rarely distributed out of a small circle of large and established companies; and a complex legal system limits access to resources locked in place and distorts private initiative.

At the same time, a number of countries in the region are trying out new solutions to previously existing barriers to competitiveness.

  • In ten years, Morocco has nearly halved its average import tariff from 18.9 to 10.5 percent, facilitated trade and investment and benefited from sustained growth.
  • The United Arab Emirates has increased equity investment in technology firms from 100 million to 1.7 billion USD in just two years.
  • Bahrain is piloting a new flexi-permit for foreign workers to go beyond the usual sponsorship system that has segmented and created inefficiencies in the labour market of most GCC countries.
  • Saudi Arabia has committed to significant changes to its economy and society as part of its Vision 2030 reform plan, and Algeria has tripled internet access among its population in just five years.

“We hope that the 2018 Arab World Competitiveness Report will stimulate discussions resulting in government reforms that could unlock the entrepreneurial potential of the region and its youth,” said Philippe Le Houérou, IFC’s CEO. “We must accelerate progress toward an innovation-driven economic model that creates productive jobs and widespread opportunities.”

“The world is adapting to unprecedented technological changes, shifts in income distribution and the need for more sustainable pathways to economic growth, “added Mirek Dusek, Deputy Head of Geopolitical and Regional Affairs at the World Economic Forum. “Diversification and entrepreneurship are important in generating opportunities for the Arab youth and preparing their countries for the Fourth Industrial Revolution.”

With a few exceptions, such as Jordan, Tunisia and Lebanon, most Arab countries have much less diversified economies than countries in other regions with a similar level of income. For all of them, the way toward less oil-dependent economies is through robust macroeconomic policies that facilitate investment and trade, promotion of exports, improvements in education and initiatives to increase innovation and technological adoption among firms.

Entrepreneurship and broad-based private sector initiative must be a key ingredient to any diversification recipe.

The Arab Competitiveness Report 2018 also features country profiles, available here: Algeria, Bahrain, Egypt, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Morocco, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Tunisia, United Arab Emirates.

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