The MMT view of the reserve currency, or petrodollar.

A country being or not being the reserve currency has little to no effect on a country’s ability to provide its own citizens with what is needed to stop mass suffering – starting by providing full employment. However, a country’s degree of financial sovereignty clearly does impact what a country can do for its people. It is also true that reserve currency status is generally applied to one of the world’s most powerful nations.

This post describes the MMT view of the reserve currency (petrodollar), first by economists, then by me, a layperson.

Related post: The MMT view of developing nations and financial sovereignty.

These resources were created by Activist #MMT, the podcast (Twitter, Facebook, web, please consider becoming a monthly patron). This post was last updated October 25, 2020.

Disclaimer: I am a layperson who has studied MMT since February of 2018. I’m not an economist or academic and I don’t speak for the MMT project. The information in this post is my best understanding but I don’t assert it to be perfectly accurate. In order to ensure accuracy, you should rely on the expert sources linked throughout. If you have feedback to improve this post, please get in touch.

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The economists

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MMT investor Mike Norman:

What would happen if the dollar loses its status as the reserve currency? … The only way for the rest of the world to completely rid itself of its dollar holdings is to exchange them for goods and services produced by Americans. … If a Frenchman exchanged his dollars with a German and a German exchanged his dollars with a Brazilian, uh-uh. That wouldn’t work. The world would still have those dollars they’d just be in different hands. The only way… is for every foreigner to exchange his or her dollars for goods that American workers may made that would mean that those three trillion or
so of dollars held by foreigners would be used in one ginormous shopping spree. …

So the question is, why then would the dollar be weak if it lost its reserve status? Hmm. I
guess they just haven’t thought of that.

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My own layperson take

Here’s my own layperson take on the petrodollar, written early in my learning. It’s generally correct and makes some good points. But more importantly, it points to multiple expert sources and quotes. (This article was also published on Naked Capitalism, but an important update has been made only in the original (Citizens’ Media TV) version.)

As I understand it, the only way the dollar “collapses” is if the United States itself collapses. The petrodollar is an inconvenience imposed only when purchasing oil. It’s not an exchange requirement such as the gold standard.

‪From a foreign exchange/relations point of view, the fact that the United States is the “petrodollar” has important implications.‬ From a domestic point of view, however, the petrodollar makes little difference to the United States’ capacity to provide for its people or the domestic value of the dollar.‬

‪Think about it, if the US economy really were that dependent on oil, then with the climate crisis, we would have this false choice:

  1. We don’t get off oil in order to preserve the value of the dollar and basically go extinct,
  2. or we go off oil so we don’t go extinct, permanently and thoroughly killing our economy.‬

The real choice, of course, is to

  1. Responsibly move from fossil to green energy. Fast.

Speaking only from a domestic point of view, oil does not, in fact, give the US dollar its value. The primary thing that gives it (and the pound, yen, yuan, $CA, $AU, etc.) value is the government’s ability to impose a tax in its currency.‬