If you have never heard of the petrodollar system, it would not surprise me. It is certainly not a topic that makes its way out of the State Department or Wall Street and on to the broadcasting networks and our social media feeds too often. Okay, I am getting slightly ahead of myself here; perhaps some of you have heard of the petrodollar but all too often its true significance is often misunderstood or overlooked altogether.
In the simplest of terms, the petrodollar system is the practice of trading oil for U.S. dollars, and U.S. dollars only (rather than another currency). This means that no matter what country is buying the oil, they pay the oil-producing country in dollars. And this is the petrodollar system. The dollar is the World Reserve Currency, making it the medium of exchange for goods, services, trade, travel, investments, commodities and much more. The petrodollar has a central role in enabling all of this. Many feel that this arrangement gives the U.S. “exorbitant privilege” as oil is the most sought after commodity in the world, and thus being priced and traded solely in dollars makes the U.S. dollar the most dominant currency. The petrodollar has had a considerable impact on shaping U.S. foreign policy, global trade and geopolitics for the last 50 years.
If you search Ben Shapiro, Joe Rogan, Prager University or Tim Pool’s respective YouTube channels you will not find anything about the petrodollar. The CNN website brings up three results with articles that have only brief, fleeting mentions of the arrangement and the Heritage Foundation’s website returns nothing. Many of the best books on this topic are either expensive and hard to find, have limited print runs or are discontinued altogether. This is all by design. The mechanics of the petrodollar system and the broader role it plays in geopolitics and international affairs is not something our elites want us talking about. It’s origins, effects, and the enormous privileges it grants the United States has led some commentators to label the petrodollar system as the most brilliant economic and geopolitical strategy devised in recent history. It is it is arguably the most important facet of U.S. power and it has been instrumental in dictating U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East for almost half a century.
Though the petrodollar is distinct from the dollar’s World Reserve Currency status the reader should allow for some overlap with these terms and concepts. Both fall under the broader concept of what I have come to term as ‘the dollar system’.
The petrodollar is the name given to the oil for dollars bilateral relationship the United States originally had with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. When the 1973 oil embargo ended, Washington began a long diplomatic campaign with the Saudis in order to negotiate a bilateral trade relationship that would benefit all parties concerned. By 1975 this relationship would be extended to the other OPEC nations.
The removal of the international gold standard in 1971, by president Richard Nixon, caused a decline in the demand for the U.S. dollar worldwide. Maintaining this “artificial dollar demand” was vital if the United States were to continue heavy spending both abroad and at home. So in 1973, Nixon and the Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger, asked King Faisal of Saudi Arabia to accept only U.S. dollars as payment for oil as well as their personal assurances that there would never be another oil embargo again. In return, the U.S. would provide military support for Saudi oil fields and for the house of Saud generally (effectively guaranteeing their rule over the kingdom). Washington also agreed to sell weapons and other military grade hardware to the Saudis.
By 1975 every OPEC member agreed to sell their oil exclusively in U.S. dollars. So in order for oil-importing nations to fund oil purchases they first need to acquire dollars. This is highly significant because it meant that, from in its inception, the nature of the petrodollar agreement had demand for the U.S. dollar built in to the system, the same system we have today. There was no Congressional oversight or approval into the deal. The terms of the agreement also stated that Saudi Arabia and the other OPEC nations pledged to recycle excess dollars from oil exports by buying up U.S. debt securities such as treasuries and bonds. This came to be known as “petrodollar recycling” and it is highly significant because it means that the United States receives a nominal sum of dollars on every oil transaction that takes place, thus creating a parallel revenue stream that runs alongside oil purchases.
The deal also stated that if other oil producing countries threatened an embargo, Saudi Arabia would fill the shortage by increasing oil production or by drawing from its huge oil reserves. Under the agreement, oil prices were allowed to fluctuate but only to levels deemed suitable by Washington and in the best interests of the United States and its allies.
The U.S. highlighted the highly unstable geopolitical climate of the region and the fact that Saudi Arabia had no real military capability. It is also highly likely that diplomatic efforts by Washington made light of the fate that befell Mohammad Mosaddegh of Iran in the 1950s who tried to resist America and Britain’s demands not to nationalize the Iranian oil industry: he was removed in a violent coup and replaced by the pro-western Reza Shah Pahlavi.
In the wake of the 1973 oil crisis, British security cables at the time indicated that the U.S. would have considered a full-scale military invasion of Saudi Arabia had they not complied with the terms of the agreement. In one of modern history’s great “what if” scenarios, the U.S. would rather pursue military action than risk being held to ransom as they were during the 1973 oil embargo when Saudi Arabia slashed production sending prices sky rocketing. However, the invasion never materialised and under the terms and conditions laid out above both sides proceeded in an arrangement that was seen as mutually beneficial to all parties concerned.
The role of the petrodollar in the global financial system
I would like to begin by briefly talking about the significance of the reserve currency status of the U.S. dollar. The petrodollar is a central component of the dollar’s ongoing status as the World Reserve Currency and the broader dollar system that we have in place in the world today. The World Reserve Currency status of the dollar allows the United States to engage in monetary inflation, debt financing, and deficit spending on an almost unprecedented scale. Simply put, the U.S. can run up huge deficits and debt because demand for the dollar and dollar-denominated assets is permanently high and the interest rates it pays on its debts are permanently low as a result. Demand for the dollar is built into the global economic system at every conceivable level; it puts downward pressure on the dollar, preventing ruinous hyperinflation from ever taking place. The U.S. dollar is the currency of choice across an array of global markets, it is used in 85% of all global transactions worldwide, whilst over 59% of foreign exchange reserves are in dollars; the culminative effect of all of this makes it the strongest and most liquid currency in circulation. An important aspect of all this is that many of these deficits are used to fund Washington’s geopolitical and strategic interests abroad as well as to construct a formidable military that is simply unparalleled in size, scope and strength in world history. It allows for Washington to acquire all the goods, services, assets and raw materials required to assemble a global empire comprised of approximately 600 military installations in 85 countries, an empire that is tasked with preserving the dollar system. The point here being that if the U.S. requires more aircraft carriers in the pacific, more munitions or more funding for research and development into military technology, the mechanics of having the global reserve currency allows them to provide this. Whereas other countries would have to deal with the real inflationary effects of printing more units of currency, the U.S. can monetise its debts abroad all with low interest rates attached too. How the petrodollar system ties in to U.S. foreign policy objectives will be explored in more detail in part two of this series.
By tying the dollar to oil it created an immediate artificial demand for U.S. dollars around the globe. That is, as global oil demand increases so does the demand for U.S. dollars (because dollars are required to purchase oil). Oil is always in demand and thus so are dollars, in fact the petrodollar is one of several financial mechanisms that ensures that demand for the U.S. dollar is ever-present in the global economic system. Before the advent of the petrodollar arrangement, demand for the dollar was falling; dollars poured in from abroad and inflation spiralled out of control as countries scrambled to exchange their surplus dollars for gold, which led to Nixon eventually removing the gold peg in 1971. As the dollar was moved off gold and on to oil, the petrodollar system effectively restored the artificial demand for the dollar and Washington was now able to monetise its debts with the advent of the treasury and bond market, as countries looked to secure dollar holdings to fund future oil purchases by exchanging dollars for U.S. debt securities. In fact, the advent of the petrodollar system led to U.S. government debt securities becoming the most in demand reserve asset in the world (that is, as a store of value that can be safely traded in later), effectively replacing gold as the number two asset.
Right now the U.S. has what has come to be termed as a ‘permission slip’ to print all the dollars it needs because the broader dollar system, that the petrodollar is an essential part of, ensures that demand for the U.S. dollar is ever-present. Additionally, artificial demand for dollars correspondingly allows for artificially low interest rates both at home and abroad, a point I will return to later. The petrodollar arrangement demonstrates perfectly how, contrary to claims from the right about the so-called ‘free market’, creating both value and demand artificially by fixing prices is more desirable than merely “leaving it to the market”: that is to say, the petrodollar consolidates demand for the U.S. dollar whilst giving Washington a controlling hand in the petroleum industry and, ultimately, the global economy more broadly, something that the free market does not.
The second point l would like to draw attention to is rather simple and obvious and that is that under the terms of the agreement the U.S. can purchase oil in its own currency. All they have to do is summon the Treasury and the Bureau of Engraving and Printing to print the required amount of bills, take these to an OPEC member state and the deal is done. No other nation can do this because oil is traded in dollars only. Instead, other countries have to provide real goods and services in exchange for dollars (or enter the foreign exchange markets) to acquire dollars before being able to purchase oil.
Speaking of goods and services, this leads us on nicely to my third point and that is that the oil for dollars system allows the U.S. to assume the upper hand in world trade. Simply put, the act of moving the dollar off gold and tying it to foreign oil forced every oil importing nation in the world to create and maintain a consistent supply of federal reserve paper and in order to get that paper they would have to send real physical goods to America. Countries had to maintain good relations with Washington as they needed ample supplies of dollars in order to maintain healthy foreign currency reserves, for trade and for future oil purchases too.
The result of all this is that the petrodollar system encouraged cheap exports to the United States as oil-importing nations restructured their trade policies in line with Washington’s requirements in order to bring in more dollars. U.S. dollars went out and everything America needed came in and came in on Washington’s terms no less and the U.S. got very, very rich as a result. Also, the U.S. is not forced to produce more or to reduce consumption in order to meet its energy requirements. Make no mistake about it, the petrodollar system is one of the fundamental components of the American empire as it contributed enormously to the dollar’s position as the World Reserve Currency.
For oil-importing nations the reality is that you must first purchase dollars to fund any oil transactions; no dollars no oil, it really is that simple! There is no way around this. Oil is energy, you need energy to build industries, power economies and grow entire countries, and you can’t do this without oil. The advent of the petrodollar meant that demand was built in to the global economic system from hereon in. In retrospect, it is quite some achievement that the Nixon administration, with Kissinger at its centre, was able to have the world’s most precious and sought after commodity valued, priced and traded exclusively in dollars.
As l have alluded to several times already, one of the most fundamental components of the arrangement is that, in essence, the U.S. receives a double loan out of every single barrel of oil that is sold worldwide, as every barrel of oil that is sold on the world market increases the demand for U.S. dollars and it also increases the demand for U.S. debt securities as well. That means that even if, say, Spain or Japan want to purchase oil the U.S. benefits from the transaction twofold because the terms of the petrodollar arrangement mean that 1) they must first acquire dollars to facilitate the transaction and 2) OPEC pledges to use a portion of the profits from the sale to purchases U.S. government bonds and securities. The act of using a portion of the profits from oil sales to buy U.S. debt would eventually be termed as “petrodollar recycling”. Petrodollar recycling is a form of debt financing.
Debt financing is when a government monetises its debt, often abroad, in the form of government backed bonds and securities with annual interest paid to whoever holds the debt. The point is that the U.S. can issue dollar-denominated debts at very low rates of interest, because countries need to have an ample supply of dollars on hand to facilitate trade in oil and other commodities means that demand is permanently high. Every oil purchase increases the demand for U.S. dollars before the transaction and the demand for U.S. debt after the transaction. The U.S. gets the privilege of being allowed to monetise their existing debts almost ad infinitum on the back of this system. It is almost stating the blindingly obvious at this stage that the United States is the only country that can do all of this. Former president Barack Obama once said on the Bill Maher show when questioned about the huge level of federal debt “we can afford to borrow as interest rates are low”, Obama was merely stating a truism as interest rates are permanently low for the dollar.
In The Hidden Hand of American Hegemony, political economist David E. Spiro argues that excess profits from oil sales were “recycled” into U.S. treasuries to subsidise the “debt-happy policies of the U.S. government as well as the debt-happy consumption of its citizenry”. Petrodollar recycling over time pushed down interest rates for Washington (see the chart below).
Petrodollar recycling has allowed the U.S. to issue debt very cheaply to American citizens and corporations as the Federal government need not rely on high interest rates at home as a means of revenue because dollars continue to pour in from abroad. With both the petrodollar system and the treasury and bond market working in tandem, together, banks can issue credit with low rates of interest domestically just as the federal government can issue government-backed securities and bonds to foreign suitors at low rates of interest to be paid by the U.S. to any nation that holds these treasury notes. Declassified documents later revealed that the U.S. government confidentially enabled the Saudis to purchase treasuries “outside regular auctions and at preferential rates.” The exact figures are highly confidential (as you might expect) but it has been estimated that hundreds of billions of dollars have been invested in U.S. debt since the inception of the petrodollar system.
Lastly, now that oil was tied to the dollar the U.S. would be protected because in the event of an increase in the global price of oil there would be corresponding increase in the demand for dollars along with it and this is exactly what happened during the second oil crisis in the late 70s. The U.S. has leverage at both ends of the market, allowing Washington to create conditions favourable to its own strategic interests. A prime example of this was in the mid-80s when the Reagan administration, along with OPEC, abolished price controls and removed production limits on oil: the price of oil was allowed to float and the global market was suddenly flooded with excess crude oil sending prices plummeting. The goal of this was to severely damage the USSR’s economy (oil was one of the Soviet Union’s main revenue streams). The resulting collapse in oil prices also contributed greatly to the Latin American debt crisis as well; countries such as Venezuela, Mexico, and Brazil relied heavily on oil revenue and when prices collapsed they faced terrible economic consequences. Another point that cannot be ignored is that all of this power and leverage has allowed the United States to accumulate large stockpiles of oil reserves that protects the U.S. in the event of a global shortage.
And there we have it folks! Under the petrodollar arrangement the domain of U.S. is without borders and boundaries. Having the world’s most sought after commodity priced and traded exclusively in dollars allows Washington to dictate large segments of world trade and it allows for near-infinite debt financing as well. The sum of all this means that the dollar is the most liquid and reliable currency in the world, firmly establishing it as the global reserve currency of choice and this has, in turn, helped solidify the United States’ position as the dominant power in a largely unipolar world. It is arguably the most important component of the American empire, an empire that has a presence in over 80 countries and whose military spending outnumbers the next 11 countries combined. It stands to reason that the U.S. will go to great lengths to preserve this system and I will go on to argue in parts two and three of this series how the necessity to preserve the petrodollar has shaped U.S. foreign policy for decades with deadly consequences across the world.
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