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Preparing for the ‘petroyuan’?

I wonder how long a certain Zoltar Pozsar, New York-based economist and investment research director at Credit Suisse (CS), will keep his job – if he still has it – after he implied that the “dusk of the petrodollar” and the “dawn of the petroyuan” were at hand. Of course he said this just as authorities on both sides on the Atlantic were scrambling to contain the fallout of two American tech-sector banks, Silicon Valley Bank (SVB) and Signature Bank, suddenly collapsing and spreading contagion fears across the European Union (EU) as CS, Zoltar’s employer, faced a bank run of its own. It wouldn’t have survived if the Swiss central bank hadn’t worked out a late-night shotgun marriage between UBS and CS and prevented a full-blown crisis right in the heart of Europe’s celebrated banking industry.

Let’s not forget that this was around the time that Chinese President Xi Jinping pissed off Washington by travelling to Moscow and solidifying the Sino-Russian alliance just when the Americans and Europeans were warning him to stay away from the Ukraine war. Yet the visit ended with Russian President Putin announcing his country’s readiness to switch to the yuan in foreign trade settlements with a number of countries all at once.

“We are in favour of using the Chinese yuan in settlements between Russia and the countries of Asia, Africa and Latin America. I am sure that these forms of payments in yuan will be developed between Russian partners and their colleagues in third countries,” Putin said.

Last year (2022) Russia became the third country in the world in terms of offshore payments in the yuan. The share of the yuan in export payments in Russia increased from 0.5 percent to 16 percent – and the share of the ruble from 12 percent to 34 percent – in response to large-scale sanctions following the invasion of Ukraine.

And in the first two months of 2023, China’s imports from Russia totaled $9.3 billion, more than full-year 2022 imports in dollar terms – in February alone China imported more than two million barrels of Russian crude oil, the largest monthly shipment ever. But the biggest difference and possible game-changer is that this time yuan was used for these transactions.

Zoltar’s analysis also tried to connect the dots between Putin’s Jun-22 revelation that BRICS countries were considering a new common currency and his more recent announcement that yuan might be their new preferred currency for trade. With OPEC already on board for non-dollar oil payments – swing producer Saudi Arabia is trading oil out of the dollar – and BRICS also seriously considering it, the future of the dollar-dominated international financial system could be in doubt.

Russia, Iran and Venezuela, which account for about 40 percent of the world’s proven oil reserves, have already begun pricing their oil in yuan. Turkey, Argentina, Indonesia and Saudi Arabia have also applied for BRICS membership, and Egypt got accepted just now, so pieces are moving pretty fast on the global currency/commodity chess board, the life and blood of the financial system in place since the demise of the Bretton Woods project in the early 1970s.

It is also surprising analysts in the west that China, which is used to playing the long game, is prepared for possible setbacks in this so-called master plan. Most oil producers wouldn’t know what to do with large yuan reserves that would develop if this transition succeeded. That’s exactly why Beijing explicitly linked the yuan-denominated crude futures contract, which was launched by the Shanghai International Energy Exchange (INE) in 2018, with the ability to convert yuan into physical gold.

It turns out that central banks, especially Russian and Chinese, developed doubts about the international financial system after Lehman Brothers collapsed in 2008, and they’ve been steadily accumulating gold reserves ever since. The Wall Street Journal noted recently, after Saudi Arabia announced trading oil in yuan and other currencies, that this move “could chip away at the supremacy of the US dollar… which Washington has relied on for decades to print Treasury bills and finance its deficit.” Going forward, if the dollar loses its shine and decreasing demand for US Treasury bills pushes up interest rates, commodity prices, especially oil, will swing wildly.

That’s just when a significant decrease in the dollar’s value would be exceptionally supportive of gold and the big banks that hold the highest reserves. And billions, perhaps trillions, of oil money, that currently pass through New York banks in US dollars into US Treasuries would instead follow through Shanghai into the yuan and eventually into gold.

It’s clear that the 40-year run of low interest rates and rising globalisation, etc., is now being replaced by an era of high interest rates, high inflation, de-globalisation and de-dollarisation. There’s also a new ‘cold war’ that turned hot in Ukraine and provoked sanctions against Russia, forcing China to fast forward its master plan, of which Russia is an essential part, into action.

Shahab Jafry, "Preparing for the ‘petroyuan’?," Business recorder. 2023-03-30.
Keywords: Economics , Economic crises , Credit Suisse , Interest rates , Banking industry , Xi Jinping , Washington , Turkey , BRICS , CPEC

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