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EU wants less dependence on US dollar

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On January 19 the European Commission released a preliminary plan which is designed to reduce the European Union’s dependence on the US dollar. In addition, the plan signals an intention  to  protect European companies from Washington-imposed extraterritorial sanctions. As a long-term strategy, it states an intention to “considerably” increase the role of euro as an international currency.

European officials, who are in charge of financial transactions, emphasize that the sanctions and tariff strikes carried out by  the Trump administration against potential allies in the past couple of years point to the still high level of Europe’s dependence on the financial system with the American dollar in the center. Washington’s policy «had an outright negative impact on the EU’s and member countries’ capacity to promote their foreign policy interests».

At present, the American currency accounts for more than four fifths of all exchange transactions worldwide. As a result,, if Washington needs to block any financial transactions, all it needs to do is to enter individuals, organizations or countries on the “black list”, which will be sent to all banks across the globe. For fear of losing the possibility of making payments in dollars, an overwhelming majority of companies and financial institutions have to follow instruction from US authorities.

On December 3, 2020 the Directorate General for External Policies of the European Parliament published a special report on orders from the Committee on International Trade which says that «US extraterritorial sanctions against Russia, Iran and Cuba affect the interests of EU countries and are legally groundless». Such measures, the report points out, run counter to WTO regulations, while the American secondary sanctions, which block access to the dollar-based financial system, are estimated by the authors of the document as «a serious challenge to the 27 Union countries».

For a major protection measure the report calls for «increasing the share of payments in euros or terminating cooperation with the US in some areas».Under the document published on January 19, the European Commission expects that a general plan approved in the summer last year to rescue the EU economy from the consequences of coronavirus pandemic, along with the supplementary programs of financial restoration as part of the 7-year budget, will become key to an early consolidation of the EU financial policy. This, in turn, will set the stage for strengthening the international role of the euro.

The “rescue plan” was approved in the amount of 750 billion euros, and, for the first time ever, the EU members agreed to issue a common debt to finance it.  It is expected that emission of new bonds, both by individual EU members, and by the Community as a whole, will contribute to «a considerable expansion of liquidity on the EU capital markets» and will attract investors.

While the history of top world reserve currencies goes back several centuries, none of them has ever occupied such a domineering position as the US dollar nowadays. In our time, the only instance of a relatively fast change of reserve currency – from the British pound to the US dollar – took place as a result of two world wars.

Overall, experts are unanimous that a country or a community of countries that claim the role of reserve currency emitter, must possess a large-scale, growing and sustainable economy, a developed financial market, which offers potential investors huge liquidity volumes and a variety of reliable assets, and must guarantee freedom of capital movement. Finally, they must demonstrate readiness and capability to play a leading role in international relations, that is, to have a substantial military and geopolitical weight.

Europe is doing well in terms of nominal economic growth and given the low cost of financial transactions, since reception and dissemination of information is transparent by nature. Meanwhile, even the most ardent supporters of a stronger financial and economic influence of the EU acknowledge that at present «major financial hubs, London and New York, are located beyond the bounds of the EU, while the capital markets within the EU are too segmented», – RBK says.

The euro, despite its 20-year history, has yet to reach the “clear parameters” of a regional currency. On the one hand, by 2019 the euro had made a tangible contribution to the weakening of the positions of the US dollar in global economy. According to the European Commission, at that time already one fifth of global currency reserves was denominated in the single European currency, while «60 countries and territories tie their currencies to it, in one way or other». The euro has also done well on the promising market of “green” bonds, of which nearly half are denominated in the common European currency, according to The Financial Times.

In November last year the inter-bank payments system SWIFT reported that «the dollar for the first time since 2013 ceased to be the most used currency in global payments». In October the system indicated that the dollar accounted for 37,6% of transactions, while the euro  — 37,8%. In March payments in dollars made up nearly 45%.Bloomberg says a drop in the dollar rate, and a decrease in dollar payments are the result of crises in trade, an economic slump which was triggered by the pandemic, and “political instability”.

On the other hand, according to The Financial Times, the share of euro in global gold and currency reserves reduced from 23% in 2009 to 20% in 2019. In addition, the euro is now vying for a top currency with both the dollar and the yuan. In nearly ten years, by the end of 2019, The Economist says, debt obligations denominated in yuan had outnumbered the British pound, the euro and the Japanese yen. But not the dollar.

For Europeans the number one “obstacle” is the geopolitical one. Despite all statements of late about the expediency of political consolidation, the EU is still far from transforming into an organization somewhat reminiscent of a confederation. Besides, the EU is unable to “exert political influence on other global economic hubs”, including the United States and China.

Judging by the published document, the European Commission hopes to maintain the pace of economic and financial integration which the EU acquired in the course of a joint struggle against the corona crisis.  For the first time in history EU members have agreed on the emission of the Community’s common debt. As the USA and China move towards a “cold war” in the  financial, commercial and technological spheres, the European currency and financial system as a whole may serve as a ‘safe haven’, a refuge for an ever growing number of countries and businesses which are striving to avoid losses in conducting payments and settlement transactions.

However, if it wants to compete with the dollar and yuan on the  basis of parity, the EU ought to make a breakthrough in developing its own financial technology, which is, undoubtedly, one of the key features of authority and sovereignty.  Many in Europe tend to interpret Washington’s policies under Trump as America’s bid for changing the global economic layout. And now, the idea of “nationalizing” vitally important technologies is gaining strength in all leader countries.

Europe is terribly behind the USA and China in the development of companies that offer services in managing social platforms, Internet commerce an finances. Bridging this technological gap in a few years is challenging, if not outright impossible. What is making the situation worse is the absence of a common European market of digital technologies and services. Given the situation, what could serve as an effective means of reducing this gap is “re-nationalization” of data – the major resource of the IT industry. In addition, the EU is trying to make the  most of its position as a major market for IT giants, and de facto occupy the position of a trend setter in international regulation of their activities. In the future, this may come to signify “globalization” for “own” companies alone and administrative restrictions for “others”.

Echoing this are European Commission proposals concerning the launch of a digital euro under the patronage of the European Central Bank. According to a recent ECB report,  the role of the dollar as an international payments currency may diminish considerably, if central banks agree on direct cross-border payments, through exchanging digital currencies.

At present, the European Central Bank is among the top three financial regulators that demonstrate considerable interest in developing block chain technology and introducing digital currencies. As for prospects for reducing dependence on the dollar, a matter of primary concern is the possibility of issuing the so-called Central Bank Digital Currency (CBDC). What is meant is virtual money, which is controlled by a national, or supra-national, as in the case of the ECB, central bank, and which does not exist in cash but only in the form of information recorded on computer memory chips.

The geopolitical consequences of the start of the emission of a digital euro may acquire fairly huge proportions. As soon as there appeared the first crypto currency – bitcoin, Washington sounded alarm that “America’s foes”, be it governments or non-governmental institutions, could succeed in setting up a financial network totally independent of the US dollar. In this case, the United States would lose a major instrument of non-military pressure, which it could use to influence its competitors and rivals.

Should countries or intergovernmental organizations begin to emit crypto currency, unilateral sanctions will become pointless. Just as a withdrawal of any nation, even as powerful as the USA, from multilateral agreements which hinge upon the threat of imposing sanctions, will make no sense either.

A digital euro undermines such a weighty instrument of US political pressure as the inter-bank payment system SWIFT because it guarantees instant payments without the dollar. 2020 reports said that the European Central Bank had created a working group to look into the possibility of establishing cooperation between national digital currency projects, with the participation of Canada, Japan, Sweden, Switzerland and Britain.

On the whole, the euro needs a “solid foundation” if it wants to successfully compete with the dollar and the yuan. The EU common budget should finally reach beyond the bounds of a fund that subsidizes member countries. It is also essential to balance the growth of the Eurozone in terms of its dependence on exports, “and on the corresponding export of capital”.

An agreement on the emission of Europe’s common debt “for the first time inspires hope of creating a substantial reserve of common European debt obligations”. But whether the decision to emit EU bonds will herald the formation of a supra-national ministry of finance is unclear. Until recently, discussions to this effect all but fueled differences in attitude between Eurozone governments.

Nevertheless, the corona crisis has given new impetus to political moods in favor of preserving and strengthening currency sovereignty. European politicians, interested in cementing the international role of the EU, have a good reason for their option in favor of financial and economic agenda. Europe’s dependence on the USA in military area is pervasive,, while in the economic and financial spheres Europe has been pursuing a more independent agenda in recent years. Now, the European Union seems to be nearing a point after which it may make new important steps in this direction.  

From our partner International Affairs

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Synchronicity in Economic Policy amid the Pandemic

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business-economy

Synchronicity is an ever present reality for those who have eyes to see.Carl Jung

The Covid pandemic has elicited a number of deficiencies in the current global governance framework, most notably its weaknesses in mustering a coordinated response to the global economic downturn. A global economy is not fully “global” if it is devoid of the capability to conduct coordinated and effective responses to a global economic crisis. What may be needed is a more flexible governance structure in the world economy that is capable of exhibiting greater synchronicity in economic policies across countries and regions. Such a governance structure should accord greater weight to regional integration arrangements and their development institutions at the level of key G20 decisions concerning international economic policy coordination.

The need for greater synchronicity in the global economy arises across several trajectories:

· Greater synchronicity in the anti-crisis response across countries and regions – according to the IMF it is a coordinated response that renders economic stimulus more efficacious in countering the global downturn

· Synchronicity in the withdrawal of stimulus across the largest economies – absent such coordination the timing of policy normalization could be postponed with negative implications for macroeconomic stability

· Greater synchronicity in opening borders, lifting lockdowns and other policy measures related to responding to the pandemic: such synchronicity provides more scope for cross-country and cross-regional value-added chains to boost production

· Greater synchronicity in ensuring a recovery in migration and the movement of people across borders.

Of course such greater synchronicity in economic policy should not undermine the autonomy of national economic policy – it is rather about the capability of national and regional economies to exhibit greater coordination during downturns rather than a progression towards a uniform pattern of economic policy across countries. Synchronicity is not only about policy coordination per se, but also about creating the infrastructure that facilitates such joint actions. This includes the conclusion of digital accords/agreements that raise significantly the potential for economic policy coordination. Another area is the development of physical infrastructure, most notably in the transportation sphere. Such measures serve to improve regional and inter-regional connectivity and provide a firmer foundation for regional economic integration.

The paradox in which the world economy finds itself is that even as the current crisis is leading to fragmentation and isolationism there is a greater need for more policy coordination and synchronicity to overcome the economic downturn. This need for synchronicity may well increase in the future given the widening array of global risks such as risks to cyber-security as well as energy security and climate change. There is also the risk of the depletion of reserves to counter the Covid crisis that has been accompanied by a rise in debt levels across developed and developing economies. Also, the speed of the propagation of crisis impulses (that effectively increases with technological advances and globalization) is not matched by the capability of economic policy coordination and efficiency of anti-crisis policies.

There may be several modes of advancing greater synchronicity across borders in international relations. One possible option is a major superpower using its clout in a largely unipolar setting to facilitate greater policy coordination. Another possibility is for such coordination to be supported by global international institutions such as the UN, the WTO, Bretton Woods institutions, etc. Other options include coordination across the multiplicity of all countries of the global economy as well as across regional integration arrangements and institutions.

Attaining greater synchronicity across countries will necessitate changes in the global governance framework, which currently is characterized by weak multilateral institutions at the top level and a fragmented framework of governance at the level of countries. What may be needed is a greater scope accorded to regional integration arrangements that may facilitate greater coordination of synchronicity at the regional level as well as across regions. The advantage of providing greater weight to the regional institutions in dealing with global economic downturns emanates from their greater efficiency in coordinating an anti-crisis response at the regional level via investment/infrastructure projects as well as macroeconomic policy coordination. Regional development institutions also have a comparative advantage in leveraging regional interdependencies to promote economic recovery.

In conclusion, the global economy has arguably become more fragmented as a result of the Covid pandemic. The multiplicity of country models of dealing with the pandemic, the “vaccine competition”, the breaking up of global value chains and their nationalization and regionalization all point in the direction of greater localization and self-sufficiency. At the same time there is a need from greater synchronicity across countries particularly in the context of the current pandemic crisis. Regional integration arrangements and institutions could serve to facilitate such coordination in economic policy within and across the major regions of the world economy.

From our partner RIAC

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A New Strategy for Ukraine

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Authors: Anna Bjerde and Novoye Vremia

Four years ago, the World Bank prepared a multi-year strategy to support Ukraine’s development goals. This was a period of recovery from the economic crisis of 2014-2015, when GDP declined by a cumulative 16 percentage points, the banking sector collapsed, and poverty and other measures of insecurity spiked. Indeed, we noted at the time that Ukraine was at a turning point.

Four years later, despite daunting internal and external challenges, including an ongoing pandemic, Ukraine is a stronger country. It has proved more resilient to unpredictable challenges and is better positioned to achieve its long-term development vision. This increased capacity is first and foremost the result of the determination of the Ukrainian people.

The World Bank is proud to have joined the international community in supporting Ukraine during this period. I am here in Kyiv this week to launch a new program of assistance. In doing this, we look back to what worked and how to apply those lessons going forward. In Ukraine—as in many countries—the chief lesson is that development assistance is most effective when it supports policies and projects which the government and citizens really want.

This doesn’t mean only easy or even non-controversial measures; rather, it means we engage closely with government authorities, business, local leaders, and civil society to understand where policy reforms may be most effective in removing obstacles to growth and human development and where specific projects can be most successful in delivering social services, particularly to the poorest.

Looking back over the past four years in Ukraine, a few examples stand out. First, agricultural land reform. For the past two decades, Ukraine was one of the few countries in the world where farmers were not free to sell their land.

The prohibition on allowing farmers to leverage their most valuable asset contributed to underinvestment in one of Ukraine’s most important sources of growth, hurt individual landowners, led to high levels of rural unemployment and poverty, and undermined the country’s long-term competitiveness.

The determination by the President and the actions by the government to open the market on July 1 required courage. This was not an easy decision. Powerful and well-connected interests benefited from the status quo; but it was the right one for Ukrainian citizens.

A second area where we have been closely involved is governance, both with respect to public institutions and the rule of law, as well as the corporate governance of state-owned banks and enterprises. Poll after poll in Ukraine going back more than a decade revealed that strengthening public institutions and creating a level playing field for business was a top priority.

World Bank technical assistance and policy financing have supported measures to restore liability for illicit enrichment of public officials, to strengthen existing anticorruption agencies such as NABU and NACP, and to create new institutions, including the independent High-Anticorruption Court.

We are also working with government to ensure the integrity of state-owned enterprises. Our support to the government’s unbundling of Naftogaz is a good example; assistance in establishing supervisory boards in state-owned banks is another. We hope our early dialogue on modernizing the operations of Ukrzaliznytsia will be equally beneficial.

As we begin preparation of a new strategy, the issues which have guided our ongoing work—strengthening markets, stabilizing Ukraine’s fiscal and financial accounts; and providing inclusive social services more efficiently—remain as pressing today as they were in 2017. Indeed, the progress which has been achieved needs to continue to be supported as they frequently come under assault from powerful interests.

At the same time, recent years have highlighted emerging challenges where we hope to deepen and expand our engagement. First, COVID-19 has underscored the importance of our long partnership in health reform and strengthening social protection programs.

The changes to the provision of health care in Ukraine over recent years has helped mitigate the effects of COVID-19 and will continue to make Ukrainians healthier. Government efforts to better target social spending to the poor has also made a difference. We look forward to continuing our support in both areas, including over the near term through further support to purchase COVID-19 vaccines.

Looking ahead, the challenge confronting us all is climate change. Here again, our dialogue with the government has positioned us to help, including to achieve Ukraine’s ambitious commitment to reduce carbon emissions. During President Zelenskyy’s visit to Washington in early September we discussed operations to strengthen the electricity sector; a program to transition from coal power to renewables; municipal energy efficiency investments; and how to tap into Ukraine’s unique capacity to produce and store hydrogen energy. This is a bold agenda, but one that can be realized.

I have been gratified by my visit to Kyiv to see first-hand what has been achieved in recent years. I look forward to our partnership with Ukraine to help realize this courageous vision of the future.

Originally published in Ukrainian language in Novoye Vremia, via World Bank

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Russia, China and EU are pushing towards de-dollarization: Will India follow?

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Authors: Divyanshu Jindal and Mahek Bhanu Marwaha*

The USD (United States Dollar) has been the world’s dominant currency since the conclusion of the second world war. Dollar has also been the most sought reserve currency for decades, which means it is held by central banks across the globe in significant quantities. Dollar is also primarily used in cross-border transactions by nations and businesses. Without a doubt, US dollar’s dominance is a major reason for the US’ influence over public and private entities operating around the world. This unique position not only makes US the leader in the financial and monetary system, but also provides incomparable leverage when it comes to coercive ability to shape decisions taken by governments, businesses, and institutions.

However, this dynamic is undergoing gradual and visible changes with the emergence of China, slowdown in the US economy, European Union’s independent policy assertion, Russia-US detachment, and increasing voices from across the world to create a polycentric world and financial system in which hegemonic capacities can be muted. The world is witnessing de-dollarisation attempts and ambitions, as well as the rise of digital or cryptocurrencies at an increasing pace today.

With Russia, China and EU leading the way in the process of de-dollarisation, it needs to be argued whether India, currently among the most dollarized countries (in invoicing), will take cue from the global trends and push towards de-dollarisation as well.

Why de-dollarisation?

The dominant role of dollar in the global economy provides US disproportionate amount of influence over other economies. As international trade needs a payment and financial system to take place, any nation in position to dictate the terms and policies over these systems can create disturbances in trade between other players in the system. This is how imposition of sanctions work in theory.  

The US has for long used imposition of sanctions as a tool to achieve foreign policy and goals, which entails restricting access to US-led services in payment and financial transaction processing domains.

In recent years, several nations have started opposing the unilateral decisions taken by the US, a trend which accelerated under the former president Donald Trump’s tenure. He withdrew US from the JCPOA deal between Iran and US, aimed at Iran’s compliance with nuclear discipline and non-proliferation. Albeit US withdrawal, other signatories like EU, Russia, and China expressed discontent towards the unilateral stance by the US and stayed committed towards the deal and have desired for continued engagements with Iran in trade and aid.

Similarly, the sanctions imposed on Russia in the aftermath of the Crimean conflict in 2014 did not find the reverberations among allies to the extent that US had wanted. While EU members had switched to INSTEX (Instrument in Support of Trade Exchanges) which acts as a special-purpose vehicle to facilitate non-USD trade with Iran to avoid US sanctions, EU nations like Germany continue to have deep trade ties with Russia, and  EU remains the largest investor as well the biggest trade partner for Russia, with trade taking place in euros, instead of dollars.

Further, despite the close US-EU relations, EU has started its own de-dollarization push. This became more explicit when earlier this year, EU announced plans to prioritize the euro as an international and reserved currency, in direct competition with dollar.

Trajectories of Russia, China, and EU’s de-dollarisation push

Russia has emerged as the nation with the most vigorous policies oriented towards de-dollarization. In 2019, the then Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev had invited Russia’s partners to cooperate towards a mechanism for switching to use of national currencies when it comes to transactions between the countries of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). It must be noted that in Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU), which functions as a Russian-led trade bloc, more than 70 percent of the settlements are happening in national currencies. Further, in recent years, Russia has also switched to settlements in national currencies with India (for arms contracts) and the two traditionally strong defence partners are aiming at exploring technology as means for payment in national currencies.

Russia’s push to detach itself from the US currency can also be seen in the transforming nature of Russia’s foreign exchange reserves where Russia for the first time had more gold reserves than dollars according to the 2018 data (22 percent dollars, 23 percent gold, 33 percent Euros, 12 percent Yuan). As per the statement by Russian Finance Minister in 2021, Russia aims to hold 40 percent euro, 30 percent yuan, 20 percent gold and 5 percent each of Japanese yen and British pound. In comparison, China holds a significant amount of dollar denominated assets as forex reserves (50 to 60 percent) and has the US as its top export market with which trade takes place mostly in US dollars. Moreover, Russia has also led the push by creating its own financial messaging system- SPFS (The System for Transfer of Financial Messages) and a new national electronic payment system – Mir, which has witnessed an exponential rise in its use.

While China-Russia trade significantly depends on euros instead of  their own national currencies (even though use of national currencies is slowly rising), instead of pushing the Chinese national currency Renminbi (RMB), Beijing is aiming towards establishing itself as the first nation to issue a sovereign digital currency, which would help China to engage in cross border payments without depending on the US financial systems. Thus, for China, digital currency seems to be the route towards countering the dollar dominance as well as to increase its own clout by leading the way for an alternate global financial system operating in digital currencies. It needs to be noted here that EU has succeeded in internationalizing the euro and this can be seen in the fact that EU-Russia trade as well as Russia-China trade occurs predominately in euros now.

Will India follow suit?

Indian economy’s dynamic with dollar is different than other major economies in the world today. Unlike China or Russia (or EU and Japan), which hold dollars in significant amounts, India’s reserve is not resulted by an export surplus. While others accumulate dollars from their earnings of trade surplus, India maintains a large forex reserve even though India imports less than it exports. In India’s case, the dollar reserves come through infusion of Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) and Foreign Portfolio Investment (FPI), which reflects the confidence of foreign investors in India’s growth prospects. However, accumulation of dollar reserves through this route (which helps in offsetting the current deficit faced in trade), India remains vulnerable to policy changes by other nations’ monetary policies which are beyond India’s own control. For instance, it has been often highlighted that a tightening of the US monetary policy leads to capital outflows (capital flight) from India, thus impacting India adversely.

New Dehi has resisted a de-dollarization push for long. Back in 2009, when Russia and China had started the push via BRIC mechanism (Brazil, Russia, India, China grouping), it was argued that New Delhi would not like to upset Washington, especially after the historic US-India civil nuclear agreement was signed just a year before in 2008 -for full civil nuclear cooperation between the two nations.

Further, currency convertibility is an important part of global commerce as it opens trade with other countries and allows a government to pay for goods and services in a currency that may not be the buyer’s own. Non-convertible currency creates difficulties for participating in international market as the transactions take longer routes for processing (which in case of dollar transactions, is controlled by US systems).

 Just like Chinese renminbi, Indian rupee is also not yet fully convertible at the exchange markets. While this means that India can control its burden of foreign debt, and inflow of capital for investment purposes in its economy, it also means an uneasy access to capital, less liquidity in financial market, and less business opportunities.

It can be argued that just like the case of China and Russia, India can also look towards having a digital currency in the near future, and some signs for this are already visible. India can also look towards having an increased share of euros and gold in its foreign exchange reserves, a method currently being used by both China and Russia.  

Conclusion

An increasing number of voices are today pointing towards the arrival of the Asian age (or century). With China now being the leading economic power in the world, US economy on a slowdown, and emergence of an increasing polycentric structure in world economy, the dominance of dollar is bound to witness a shake-up. In order for global systems to remain in sync with the transforming economic order, structural changes like control over leading economic organisations (like IMF and World Bank) will become increasingly desirable.

With an increasing number of nations now looking towards digital currencies and considering a change in the mix of their foreign exchange reserves, a general trend is now visible even if it would not mean an end to dollar’s dominance in the immediate future. As the oil and gas trade in international markets also start shifting from dollar, geopolitical balance of power is expected to witness a shift after decades of US dominance.

Major geopolitical players like China, Russia and EU have already started their journey to counter the dominance of dollar, and the strings of US influence on political decisions that come with it. According to Chinese media, Afghanistan’s reconstruction after US-withdrawal can also accelerate the global de-dollarization push as nations like Saudi Arabia might look for establishing funds for assisting Afghanistan in non-dollar currencies. So, conflict areas highlight another avenue where de-dollarization push will find a testing arena in coming times.

India has several options for initiating its de-dollarization process. Starting from Russia-India transactions, trade with Iran, EAEU, BRICS and SCO members in national or digital currencies can also become a reality in near future. Considering India’s present dollar dependence, whether US sees India’s move towards de-dollarisation as a direct challenge to US-India relations, or accepts it as a shift in the global realities, has to be seen.  

*Mahek Bhanu Marwaha is a master’s student in Diplomacy, Law and Business program at the OP Jindal Global University, India. Her research interests revolve around Indian and Chinese foreign policies and trade relations.

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