End of the petrodollar? China and the ‘petroyuan’ are attracting oil-producing nations
- May 1, 2023: Vol. 10, Number 5

End of the petrodollar? China and the ‘petroyuan’ are attracting oil-producing nations

by Frank Holmes

While most investors were fixated on trying to gauge the Federal Reserve’s next moves in light of recent bank failures, something interesting occurred in Moscow.

During a three-day state visit, Chinese president Xi Jinping held friendly talks with Russian president Vladimir Putin in a show of unity, as both countries increasingly seek to position themselves as leaders of what they call a “multipolar world order,” one that challenges U.S.-centric alliances and agreements.

Among those agreements is the petrodollar, which has been in place for over 50 years.

In case you’re wondering, “petrodollars” are not a real currency. They’re simply dollars being used to trade oil. Early in the 1970s, the U.S. government provided economic aid to Saudi Arabia, its chief oil-producing rival, in exchange for assurances that Riyadh would price its crude exports exclusively in U.S. dollars. In 1975, other members of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) followed suit, and the petrodollar was born.

This had the immediate effect of strengthening the U.S. dollar. Since countries around the world had to have dollars on hand to buy oil (and other key commodities such as gold, also priced in dollars), the greenback became the world’s reserve currency, a status formerly enjoyed by the British pound, French franc and Dutch guilder.

All things must come to an end, however. We may be witnessing the end of the petrodollar as more countries, including China and Russia, are agreeing to make settlements in currencies other than the U.S. dollar. This could have wide-ranging implications, not just on a macro scale but on investment portfolios.

Putin couldn’t have been more explicit. During Xi’s state visit, he named the Chinese yuan as his favored currency to conduct trade in. Ever since Western sanctions were levied on his country for its invasion of Ukraine early last year, Russia has increasingly depended on its southern neighbor to buy the oil other countries won’t touch.

In just the first two months of 2023, China’s imports from Russia totaled $9.3 billion, exceeding full-year 2022 imports in dollar terms. In February alone, China imported over 2 million barrels of Russian crude, a new record high.

Except that now, the yuan is presumably being used to make these settlements.

As Zoltar Pozsar, New York-based economist and investment research director at Credit Suisse, put it recently: “That’s dusk for the petrodollar … and dawn for the petroyuan.”

Before you dismiss Pozsar’s comment as an exaggeration, consider that other major OPEC nations and BRICS members (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) are either accepting yuan already or strongly considering it. Russia, Iran and Venezuela account for about 40 percent of the world’s proven oilfields, and the three sell their oil in exchange for yuan. Turkey, Argentina, Indonesia and heavyweight oil producer Saudi Arabia have all applied for admittance into BRICS, while Egypt became a new member earlier this year.

What this suggests is that the yuan’s role as a reserve currency will continue to strengthen, signifying a broader shift in the global power balance and potentially giving China a bigger hand with which to shape economic policies that affect us all.

To be clear, the U.S. dollar remains the world’s top reserve currency for now, though its share of global central banks’ official holdings has slipped in the past 20 years, from 72 percent in 2001 to just under 60 percent today. By contrast, the yuan’s share of official holdings has more than doubled since 2016. The Chinese currency accounted for about 2.8 percent of reserves as of September 2022.


Frank Holmes is CEO and CIO of U.S. Global Investors. The original version of this story appeared on the U.S. Global Investors’ website. Read it here.

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