The yuan-oil future and gold

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by Alasdair Macleod, GoldMoney:

“There can be little doubt that the introduction of the yuan-denominated oil future has been a major strategic step for China.”

Regular readers of Goldmoney’s research will be aware that we were among the first to alert western financial markets that China would introduce a new oil futures contract priced in yuan, months before it was officially admitted that the plans for the contract were being finalised and a date for trading was being planned.i

Trading in the new Shanghai oil future commenced last Monday, and on the first three days trading there were 151,804 contracts traded with a turnover value of 65bn yuan. It is the first futures contract listed on China’s mainland available to overseas users, putting them on the same footing as domestic investors. There are 15 benchmark contracts for different delivery dates between September next and March 2019.

There is little doubt that the Chinese government views this contract as an important development, with international commodity trading houses, such as Glencore and Trafigura, encouraged to participate. Furthermore, state-owned banks would have been on hand to ensure the necessary currency and financial liquidity is available.

The Chinese are likely to ensure trading liquidity continues to build in its new oil contracts before its oil suppliers routinely use them against physical oil deliveries. Presumably, this is one reason the first delivery date is in September, while actual shipment is never more than a month or so.

This contract goes head-to-head against the petrodollar and is the first serious challenge to it since its inception in the mid-1970s. The petrodollar was born out of the monetary chaos that led to the end of the Bretton Woods Agreement, when excess dollars in foreign hands were redeemed for gold. In that sense, being the first significant threat to the petrodollar, this contract could mark the end of a monetary era.

China does not intend to replace the petrodollar with its own currency, other than for her own energy and commodity imports. To put it into context, China imports about 8 million barrels of oil per day, mostly from the Eurasian continent, which compares with global daily demand of roughly 100 million barrels. China also produces her own oil to the tune of about 3.7 mbd, so if all China’s suppliers take yuan in payment, it leaves about 88% of global demand still being priced in dollars.

Therefore, there is for the moment little alarm in Western financial markets about this development. However, at the same time, US oil production is rising, and her imports declining, so even though the energy world is dominated by dollars, the relative importance between the US and China with respect to the international oil trade is rapidly shifting away from America.

Currency factors and the Triffin dilemma.
The undermining of the petrodollar’s status, even though it is initially only at the margin, provides a weak background for the dollar. China’s trade surplus, coupled with the US trade deficit can also be expected to continue to put downward pressure on the dollar relative to the yuan. To an extent, this relative dollar weakness is expected to be offset by China’s selling of yuan for dollars in order to keep a lid on the exchange rate.

At this juncture it is worth noting that the often-quoted Triffin dilemma is likely to backfire badly on the dollar. Briefly, Robert Triffin held that the country which issues a reserve currency has to run trade deficits to ensure there is a satisfactory supply of the reserve currency for it to function as such. There is a complacent assumption that this is a continuing process, which will always ensure demand for the reserve currency. Not so: as Professor Triffin pointed out, it is a short-term expedient that creates a longer-term problem. That is the dilemma.

At some point in the future, there will be sufficient currency in foreign hands to discharge all reserve currency requirements. This could come about because enough currency has been exported for trade settlement needs. Alternatively, if the global economy goes into a trade recession, or a rival currency for trade settlement emerges, there will be a surplus of the reserve currency. The country issuing the reserve currency must then bring its trade deficit back into balance, or even into surplus, if the currency is to preserve its purchasing power.

Now we turn to the circumstance faced by the dollar. Just at the moment when the role of the petrodollar is being undermined by the new yuan contract, and the non-American world is still awash with dollars following the last financial crisis, President Trump is increasing the budget deficit, and consequently we can expect the trade deficit to increase further as well.ii

There can only be one result, and that is substantial and sustained selling of the dollar on the exchanges. It is reminiscent of the situation in the mid to late 1960s, when returning dollars led to three distinct failures: a failed attempt to absorb dollar sales for gold by setting up the London gold pool, a failed devaluation of the dollar from $35 to $42.22, and finally the collapse of the Bretton Woods Agreement in August 1971. That was the last great Triffin unwind, and now the next one is in prospect.

Foreign holders of dollars, including China, will wake up to the threat, if they have not already done so. So far, China has been reluctant to undermine the dollar by threatening its reserve status. She is, after all, a very large holder of both dollars and US Treasuries. But China’s priorities are now changing, and the outlook for the dollar has suddenly become a less urgent priority.

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