By Alasdair Macleod
Saudi Arabia has been in the news recently for several interconnected reasons. Underlying it all is a spendthrift country that is rapidly becoming insolvent.
While the House of Saud remains strongly resistant to change, a mixture of reality and power-play is likely to dominate domestic politics in the coming years, following the ascendancy of King Salman to the Saudi throne. This has important implications for the dollar, given its historic role in the region.
Last year’s collapse in the oil price has forced financial reality upon the House of Saud. The young deputy crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, possibly inspired by a McKinsey report, aims to diversify the state rapidly from oil dependency into a mixture of industries, healthcare and tourism. The McKinsey report looks like a wish-list, rather than reality, particularly when it comes to tourism. The religious police are unlikely to take kindly to bikinis on the Red Sea’s beeches, or to foreign women in mini-shorts wandering around Jeddah.
It is hard to imagine Saudi Arabia, culturally stuck in the middle ages, embracing the changes recommended by McKinsey, without fundamentally reforming the House of Saud, or even without a full-scale revolution. Nearly all properties and businesses are personally owned or controlled by members of the extended royal family, not the state, nor by lesser mortals. The principal exception is Aramco, estimated to be worth $2 trillion.
The state is subservient to the House of Saud. It is therefore hard to see how, as McKinsey recommends, the country can “shift from its current government-led economic model to a more market-based approach”. The country is barely government led: a puppet of the Saudis is more like it. But the state’s lack of funds is making it increasingly desperate.
It was for this reason the Kingdom recently placed a $10bn five-year syndicated loan, the first time it has entered capital markets since Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait. It proposes to raise a further $100bn by selling a 5% stake in Aramco. The financial plan appears to be a combination of this short-term money-raising, contributions from oil revenue, and sales of US Treasuries (thought to total as much as $750bn). The government has, according to informed sources, been secretly selling gold, mainly to Asian central banks and sovereign wealth funds. Will it see the Kingdom through this sticky patch?
Maybe. Much more likely, buying time is a substitute for ducking fundamental reform. But one can see how stories coming out of Washington, implicating Saudi interests in the 9/11 twin-towers tragedy, could easily have pulled the trigger on all those Treasuries.
Whatever else was discussed, it seems likely that this topic will have been addressed at the two special FOMC meetings “under expedited measures” at the Fed earlier this month, and then at Janet Yellen’s meeting with the President at the White House. Yesterday’s holding pattern on interest rates would lend support to this theory.
The White House’s involvement certainly points towards a matter involving foreign affairs, rather than just interest rates. If the Saudis had decided to dump their Treasuries on the market, it would risk collapsing US bond markets and the dollar. Through financial transmission, euro-denominated sovereign bonds and Japanese government bonds, all of which are wildly overpriced, would also enter into free-fall, setting off the global financial crisis that central banks have been trying to avoid.
Perhaps this is reading too much into Saudi Arabia’s financial difficulties, but the possibility of the sale of Treasuries certainly got wide media coverage. These reports generally omitted to mention the Saudi’s underlying financial difficulties, which could equally have contributed to their desire to sell.
While the Arab countries floated themselves on oceans of petro-dollars forty years ago, they have little need for them now. So we must now turn our attention to China, which is well positioned to act as white knight to Saudi Arabia. China’s SAFE sovereign wealth fund could easily swallow the Aramco stake, and there are good strategic reasons why it should. A quick deal would help stabilise a desperate financial and political situation on the edges of China’s rapidly growing Asian interests, and keep Saudi Arabia onside as an energy supplier. China has dollars to dispose, and a mutual arrangement would herald a new era of tangible cooperation. The US can only stand and stare as China teases Saudi Arabia away from America’s sphere of influence.
In truth, trade matters much more than just talk, which is why a highly-indebted America finds herself on the back foot all the time in every financial skirmish with China. Saudi Arabia has little option but to kow-tow to China, and her commercial interests are moving her into China’s camp anyway. It seems logical that the Saudi riyal will eventually be de-pegged from the US dollar and managed in line with a basket of her oil customers’ currencies, dominated by the yuan.
Future currency policies pursued by both China and Saudi Arabia and their interaction will affect the dollar. China wants to use her own currency for trade deals, but must not flood the markets with yuan, lest she loses control over her currency. The internationalisation of the yuan must therefore be a gradual process, supply only being expanded when permanent demand for yuan requires it. Meanwhile, western analysts expect the riyal to be devalued against the dollar, unless there is a significant and lasting increase in the price of oil, which is not generally expected. But a devaluation requires a deliberate act by the state, which is not in the personal interests of the individual members of the House of Saud, so is a last resort.
It is clear that both Saudi Arabia and China have enormous quantities of surplus dollars to dispose in the next few years. As already stated, China could easily use $100bn of her stockpile to buy the 5% Aramco stake, dollars which the Saudis would simply sell in the foreign exchange markets as they are spent domestically. China could make further dollar loans to Saudi Arabia, secured against future oil sales and repayable in yuan, perhaps at a predetermined exchange rate. The Saudis would get dollars to spend, and China could balance future supply and demand for yuan.
It would therefore appear that a large part of the petro-dollar mountain is going to be unwound over time. There is now no point in the Saudis also hanging onto their US Treasury bonds, so we can expect them to be liquidated, but not as a fire-sale. On this point, it has been suggested that the US Government could simply block sales by China and Saudi Arabia, but there would be no quicker way of undermining the dollar’s international credibility. More likely, the Americans would have to accept an orderly unwinding of foreign holdings.
The US has exploited the dollar’s reserve currency status to the full since WW2, leading to massive quantities of dollars in foreign ownership. The pressure for dollars to return to America, when the Vietnam war was wound down, was behind the first dollar crisis, leading to the failure of the London gold pool in the late sixties. After the Nixon Shock in 1971, the cycle of printing money and credit for export resumed.
In the seventies, higher oil prices were paid for by printing dollars and by expanding dollar bank credit, in turn kept offshore by lending these exported dollars to Latin American dictators. That culminated in the Latin American debt crisis. From the eighties onwards, the internationalisation of business was all done on the back of yet more exported dollars, and wars in Iraq and Afghanistan echoed the earlier wars of Korea and Vietnam.
Many of these factors have now either disappeared or diminished. For the last eighteen months, the dollar had a last-gasp rally, as commodity and oil prices collapsed. The contraction in global trade since mid-2014 had signalled a swing in preferences from commodities and energy towards the money they are priced in, which is dollars. The concomitant liquidation of malinvestments in the commodity-exporting countries has been contained for now by aggressive monetary policies from China, Japan and the Eurozone. The tide is now swinging the other way: preferences are swinging out of the dollar towards oversold commodities again, exposing the dollar to a second version of the gold pool crisis. This time, China, Saudi Arabia and the BRICS will be returning their dollars from whence they came.
In essence, this is the market argument in favour of gold. Over time, the price of commodities and their manufactured derivatives measured in grams of gold is relatively stable. It is the price measured in fiat currencies that is volatile, with an upward bias. The price of a barrel of oil in 1966, fifty years ago, was 2.75 grams of gold. Today it is 1.0 gram of gold, so the purchasing power of gold measured in barrels of oil has risen nearly three-fold. In dollars, the prices were $3.10 and $40 respectively, so the purchasing power of the dollar measured in barrels of oil has fallen by 92%. Expect these trends to resume.
This is also the difference between sound money and dollars, which has worked to the detriment of nearly all energy and commodity-producing countries. With a track-record like that, who needs dollars?
It is hard to see how the purchasing power of dollars will not fall over the rest of the year. The liquidation of malinvestments denominated in external dollars has passed. Instead, the liquidation of financial investments carry-traded out of euros and yen is strengthening those currencies. That too will pass, but it won’t rescue the dollar.