De-dollarization as it is:Let’s call the hypothetical currency the ‘bric’

Argentina will start to pay for Chinese imports in yuan rather than dollars, the government announced a measure that aims to relieve the country’s dwindling dollar reserves, Reuters reports.

In April, it aims to pay around $1 billion of Chinese imports in yuan instead of dollars and thereafter around $790 million of monthly imports will be paid in yuan, a government statement said.

The decision aims to ease the outflow of dollars, Argentina’s Economy minister Sergio Massa said during an event following a meeting with the Chinese ambassador, Zou Xiaoli, as well as with companies from various sectors.

The decision comes as the South American nation battles critical levels in its dollar reserves amid a sharp drop in agricultural exports caused by a historic drought, as well as political uncertainty ahead of elections this year.

In November last year, Argentina expanded a currency swap with China by $5 billion , seeking to strengthen Argentina’s international reserves.

The agreement will allow Argentina “to work on the possibility” of advancing the rate of imports, Massa added, with yuan-denominated import orders being authorized in 90 days rather than the standard 180 days.

Talk of de-dollarization is in the air, writes Joseph W. Sullivan, a senior advisor at the Lindsey Group and a former special advisor and staff economist at the White House Council of Economic Advisers during the Trump administration.

Last month, in New Delhi, Alexander Babakov, deputy chairman of Russia’s State Duma, said that Russia is now spearheading the development of a new currency. It is to be used for cross-border trade by the BRICS nations: Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa. Weeks later, in Beijing, Brazil’s president, Luiz Inàcio Lula da Silva, chimed in. “Every night,” he said, he asks himself “why all countries have to base their trade on the dollar.”

These developments complicate the narrative that the dollar’s reign is stable because it is the one-eyed money in a land of blind individual competitors like the euro, yen, and yuan.

A BRICS-issued currency would be like a new union of up-and-coming discontents who, on the scale of GDP, now collectively outweigh not only the reigning hegemon, the United States, but the entire G-7 weight class put together.

Foreign governments wanting to liberate themselves from reliance on the U.S. dollar are anything but new. Murmurs in foreign capitals about a desire to dethrone the dollar have been making headlines since the 1960s. But the talk has yet to turn into results. By one measure, the dollar is now used in 84.3 percent of cross-border trade — compared to just 4.5 percent for the Chinese yuan.

Nevertheless, at least based on the economics, a BRICS-issued currency’s prospects for success are new. However early plans for it are, and however many practical questions remain unanswered, such a currency really could dislodge the U.S. dollar as the reserve currency of BRICS members. Unlike competitors proposed in the past, like a digital yuan, this hypothetical currency actually has the potential to usurp, or at least shake, the dollar’s place on the throne.

Let’s call the hypothetical currency the ‘bric’.

Is it realistic to imagine the BRICS using only the bric for trade? Yes.

For starters, they could fund the entirety of their import bills by themselves. In 2022, as a whole, the BRICS ran a trade surplus, also known as a balance of payments surplus, of $387 billion – mostly thanks to China.

The BRICS would also be poised to achieve a level of self-sufficiency in international trade that has eluded the world’s other currency unions. Because a BRICS currency union — unlike any before it — would not be among countries united by shared territorial borders, its members would likely be able to produce a wider range of goods than any existing monetary union. An artifact of geographic diversity, that is an opening for a degree of self-sufficiency that has painfully eluded currency unions defined by geographic concentration, like the Eurozone, also home to a $476 billion trade deficit in 2022.

But the BRICS would not even need to trade only with each other. Because each member of the BRICS grouping is an economic heavyweight in its own region, countries around the world would likely be willing to do business in the bric.

A preview of something like the absolute worst-case scenario that could befall consumers in BRICS countries if their governments adopted “bric or bust” terms of trade comes from today’s Russia. American and European governments have prioritized Russia’s economic isolation. Nevertheless, some U.S. and European goods continue to flow into Russia.

As officials in BRICS countries grow increasingly emphatic about their desire to de-dollarize, with today’s Russia as an upper bound of how bad it could get, the risk-reward tradeoff of de-dollarization will look increasingly attractive.

To displace the dollar as a reserve currency among BRICS, the ‘bric’ would also need safe assets to be parked in when not in use for trade. Is it realistic to imagine the ‘bric’ finding these? Yes.

But assets denominated in the ‘bric’ would actually have characteristics likely to make them unusually attractive to foreign investors. Since the BRICS reportedly plan to back their new currency with gold and other metals with intrinsic value, like rare-earth metals, interest-paying assets denominated in the bric would resemble interest-paying gold.

That’s an unusual characteristic. It is one that could make the assets denominated in the ‘bric’ attractive to investors who want both the interest-bearing property of bonds and the diversifying properties of gold.

The geopolitics among BRICS members is also thorny. But a BRICS currency would represent cooperation in a well-defined area where interests align. Countries like India and China may have security interests at odds with each other. But India and China do share an interest in de-dollarizing. And they can cooperate on shared interests while competing on others.

The ‘bric’ would not so much snatch the crown off of the dollar’s head as shrink the size of the territory in its domain. Even if the BRICS de-dollarized, much of the world would still use dollars, and the global monetary order would become more multipolar than unipolar.