So Iran, hit by crippling sanctions, is attempting to bypass the bankers that control international trade by using their gold in foreign vaults. What's interesting is that they are, out of necessity, doing what they have always wanted to achieve: getting away from using "The Great Satan's" currency the US dollar that all oil has been priced in since 1973. Zerohedge provides some background:
Iran is turning to barter - offering gold bullion in overseas vaults or tankerloads of oil - in return for food as new financial sanctions have hurt its ability to import basic staples for its 74 million people, commodities traders said Thursday.
Difficulty paying for urgent import needs has contributed to sharp rises in the prices of basic foodstuffs, causing hardship for Iranians with just weeks to go before an election seen as a referendum on President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's economic policies.
New sanctions imposed by the United States and European Union to punish Iran for its nuclear program do not bar firms from selling Iran food but they make it difficult to carry out the international financial transactions needed to pay for it.
Reuters surveys of commodities traders around the globe show that since the start of the year, Iran has had trouble securing imports of basic staples like rice, cooking oil, animal feed and tea. Grain ships have been held at its ports, refusing to unload until payment can be received for cargo.
The Petrodollar SystemYou may recall from an earlier post that this was just a few years after Bretton Woods was abolished and the dollar was no longer convertible to gold. Are the pieces of the puzzle falling into place? Without the Petrodollar system the US Dollar would have greatly lost its value, neither backed by gold nor used for international commerce. This agreement gave the US another 40 years of privilege and economic hegemony in the world. As central banks begin to diversify their holdings from dollars to gold and countries such as India, China & Japan engage in bilateral agreements to move away from the US dollar the US itself will lose power, influence and purchasing power. Zerohedge again provides the conclusion:
To explain this situation properly, we have to start in 1973. That's when President Nixon asked King Faisal of Saudi Arabia to accept only US dollars as payment for oil and to invest any excess profits in US Treasury bonds, notes, and bills. In exchange, Nixon pledged to protect Saudi Arabian oil fields from the Soviet Union and other interested nations, such as Iran and Iraq. It was the start of something great for the US, even if the outcome was as artificial as the US real-estate bubble and yet constitutes the foundation for the valuation of the US dollar.
By 1975, all of the members of OPEC agreed to sell their oil only in US dollars. Every oil-importing nation in the world started saving its surplus in US dollars so as to be able to buy oil; with such high demand for dollars the currency strengthened. On top of that, many oil-exporting nations like Saudi Arabia spent their US dollar surpluses on Treasury securities, providing a new, deep pool of lenders to support US government spending.
The "petrodollar" system was a brilliant political and economic move. It forced the world's oil money to flow through the US Federal Reserve, creating ever-growing international demand for both US dollars and US debt, while essentially letting the US pretty much own the world's oil for free, since oil's value is denominated in a currency that America controls and prints. The petrodollar system spread beyond oil: the majority of international trade is done in US dollars. That means that from Russia to China, Brazil to South Korea, every country aims to maximize the US-dollar surplus garnered from its export trade to buy oil.
The US has reaped many rewards. As oil usage increased in the 1980s, demand for the US dollar rose with it, lifting the US economy to new heights. But even without economic success at home the US dollar would have soared, because the petrodollar system created consistent international demand for US dollars, which in turn gained in value. A strong US dollar allowed Americans to buy imported goods at a massive discount – the petrodollar system essentially creating a subsidy for US consumers at the expense of the rest of the world. Here, finally, the US hit on a downside: The availability of cheap imports hit the US manufacturing industry hard, and the disappearance of manufacturing jobs remains one of the biggest challenges in resurrecting the US economy today.
There is another downside, a potential threat now lurking in the shadows. The value of the US dollar is determined in large part by the fact that oil is sold in US dollars. If that trade shifts to a different currency, countries around the world won't need all their US money. The resulting sell-off of US dollars would weaken the currency dramatically.
The short version of the story is that a 1970s deal cemented the US dollar as the only currency to buy and sell crude oil, and from that monopoly on the all-important oil trade the US dollar slowly but surely became the reserve currency for global trades in most commodities and goods. Massive demand for US dollars ensued, pushing the dollar's value up, up, and away. In addition, countries stored their excess US dollars savings in US Treasuries, giving the US government a vast pool of credit from which to draw.
We know where that situation led – to a US government suffocating in debt while its citizens face stubbornly high unemployment (due in part to the high value of the dollar); a failed real estate market; record personal-debt burdens; a bloated banking system; and a teetering economy. That is not the picture of a world superpower worthy of the privileges gained from having its currency back global trade. Other countries are starting to see that and are slowly but surely moving away from US dollars in their transactions, starting with oil.
If the US dollar loses its position as the global reserve currency, the consequences for America are dire. A major portion of the dollar's valuation stems from its lock on the oil industry – if that monopoly fades, so too will the value of the dollar. Such a major transition in global fiat currency relationships will bode well for some currencies and not so well for others, and the outcomes will be challenging to predict. But there is one outcome that we foresee with certainty: Gold will rise. Uncertainty around paper money always bodes well for gold, and these are uncertain days indeed.
Finally, I want to bring this back to a central theme. Though Ben Bernanke may not seem to think gold is money, central banks around the world do. From 2003 to 2009 China added 454 tonnes of gold with a total of 1,054 tonnes. We don't know how much they have now but we do know China has been selling US Treasuries and gold has found solid support in the market since then despite the US Fed's attempt to keep the price down with negative lease rates and likely, sales of US gold into the Comex market. And if you think gold can only be a currency for large purchases, I leave you with this...