Russia has just taken significant steps that will break the present Wall Street oil price monopoly, at least for a huge part of the world oil market. The move is part of a longer-term strategy of decoupling Russia’s economy and especially its very significant export of oil, from the US dollar, today the Achilles Heel of the Russian economy.
Later in November the Russian Energy Ministry has announced that it will begin test-trading of a new Russian oil benchmark. While this might sound like small beer to many, it’s huge. If successful, and there is no reason why it won’t be, the Russian crude oil benchmark futures contract traded on Russian exchanges, will price oil in rubles and no longer in US dollars. It is part of a de-dollarization move that Russia, China and a growing number of other countries have quietly begun.
The setting of an oil benchmark price is at the heart of the method used by major Wall Street banks to control world oil prices. Oil is the world’s largest commodity in dollar terms.
The ‘Petrodollar’ demise
The sale of oil denominated in dollars is essential for the support of the US dollar. In turn, maintaining demand for dollars by world central banks for their currency reserves to back foreign trade of countries like China, Japan or Germany, is essential if the United States dollar is to remain the leading world reserve currency. That status as world’s leading reserve currency is one of two pillars of American hegemony since the end of World War II. The second pillar is world military supremacy.
Because all other nations need to acquire dollars to buy imports of oil and most other commodities, a country such as Russia or China typically invests the trade surplus dollars its companies earn in the form of US government bonds or similar US government securities. The only other candidate large enough, the Euro, since the 2010 Greek crisis, is seen as more risky.
That in effect has allowed Washington to create a record $18.6 trillion federal debt without major concern. Today the ratio of US government debt to GDP is 111%. In 2001 when George W. Bush took office and before trillions were spent on the Afghan and Iraq “War on Terror,” US debt to GDP was just half, or 55%. The glib expression in Washington is that “debt doesn’t matter,” as the assumption is that the world—Russia, China, Japan, India, Germany–will always buy US debt with their trade surplus dollars. The ability of Washington to hold the lead reserve currency role, a strategic priority for Washington and Wall Street, is vitally tied to how world oil prices are determined.
Today, prices for Russian oil exports are set according to the Brent price in as traded London and New York. With the launch of Russia’s benchmark trading, that is due to change, likely very dramatically. The new contract for Russian crude in rubles, not dollars, will trade on the St. Petersburg International Mercantile Exchange (SPIMEX).
The Russian ruble contract could make a major dent in the demand for oil dollars once it is accepted.
Russia is the world’s largest oil producer, so creation of a Russian oil benchmark independent from the dollar is significant, to put it mildly.
The Russian move to price in rubles its large oil exports to world markets, especially Western Europe, and increasingly to China and Asia via the ESPO pipeline and other routes, on the new Russian oil benchmark in the St. Petersburg International Mercantile Exchange is by no means the only move to lessen dependence of countries on the dollar for oil. Sometime early next year China, the world’s second-largest oil importer, plans to launch its own oil benchmark contract. Like the Russian, China’s benchmark will be denominated not in dollars but in Chinese Yuan. It will be traded on the Shanghai International Energy Exchange.
Step-by-step, Russia, China and other emerging economies are taking measures to lessen their dependency on the US dollar, to “de-dollarize.” Oil is the world’s largest traded commodity and it is almost entirely priced in dollars. Were that to end, the ability of the US military industrial complex to wage wars without end would be in deep trouble.
A dramatic decline for the role of the dollar as world reserve currency, if coupled with a Russia-styled domestic refocus on rebuilding America’s domestic economy, rather than out-sourcing everything, could go a major way to rebalance a world gone mad with war. Paradoxically, the de-dollarization, by denying Washington the ability to finance future wars by the investment in US Treasury debt from Chinese, Russian and other foreign bond buyers, could be a valuable contribution to genuine world peace. Wouldn’t that be nice for a change?