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U.S. DOLLAR PROVIDES THE MUSCLE FOR ECONOMIC SANCTIONS

U.S. DOLLAR PROVIDES THE MUSCLE FOR ECONOMIC SANCTIONS

Money Talks

From drug kingpins to terrorists and from human traffickers to money launderers, the United States has nearly 8,000 economic sanctions in place, and the list is growing. Particularly in the post-9/11 era, the U.S. government has leveraged the global preeminence of the U.S. dollar to turn off spigots of funding for sinister activities and unwanted behaviors by state actors.

Among additional sanctions against Iran, Russia and Venezuela, The Trump administration earlier this month tightened travel restrictions to Cuba stating, “Cuba continues to play a destabilizing role in the Western Hemisphere…these actions will help to keep U.S. dollars out of the hands of Cuban military, intelligence, and security services.”

The muscle behind an array of U.S. financial sanctions derives from the reach and power of the U.S. dollar as the “lead currency” in the global economy. This status makes it possible to not only prevent U.S. individuals and companies from doing business directly with a sanctioned entity, it makes it risky to do business with third-country companies that do business with sanctioned entities. Acutely aware of their vulnerability, non-U.S. companies also frequently take steps to minimize their exposure to possible violations of U.S. sanctions lest they jeopardize their access to the U.S. financial system.

The U.S. Dollar Reigns

How strong is the dollar’s foothold in the global economy? The U.S. dollar was used in 88 percent of global foreign exchange transactions in 2016. For comparison, the euro was the medium of exchange in 31 percent of transactions in 2016, the Japanese yen in 22 percent, the British pound in 13 percent, and China’s renminbi in four percent (as two currencies may be involved in exchange, these numbers will add up to more than 100 percent).

Companies selling their goods and services outside the United States often accept dollars as payment because they can easily turn around and use dollars to pay for imported products and inputs. Or, they can hold onto their dollar revenues with confidence they are storing value.

Why is the Dollar Preferred?

The dollar is the world’s lead currency because it meets three key conditions.

First, the dollar is fully tradable and exchanged at relatively low costs. The U.S. government does not restrict the purchase or sale of the dollar.

Second, the dollar holds its value against other currencies. The United States is still considered a stable and open market economy, current tariff vagaries notwithstanding. At the end of last year, just under 62 percent of all central bank reserves were held in U.S. dollars.

Third, the United States is still the largest economy in the world, equivalent to 24 percent of global GDP. Below is a snapshot from the International Monetary Fund comparing the world’s largest economies. We have a large money supply, providing liquidity for the global economy.

Into the Arms of Another

Some have argued bad actors like North Korea will find always find ways to evade U.S. sanctions. Buyers of Iranian oil will seek alternative currencies for their transactions, both diluting the effect of sanctions and hastening reduced dependence on the dollar.

Several European countries developed a clearinghouse to enable companies to avoid the U.S. financial system in transactions involving Iran as part of their effort to salvage the nuclear pact the Trump administration pulled out of last year before restoring a slew of sanctions against Iran.

Despite initial discussions about a wider scope, Europe’s Instrument in Support of Trade Exchanges (INSTEX) will, at least for now, only facilitate trade in humanitarian goods such as pharmaceuticals, medical devices and agri-food products, all of which are already permissible under U.S. sanctions. Despite European government grumbling about being beholden to the U.S. dollar, there appeared to be little appetite on the part of European companies and commercial banks to risk U.S. penalties by using such a clearinghouse for other types of transactions.

Will the Euro or Renminbi Overtake the Dollar?

Not anytime soon.

The euro covers a large economic zone featuring sophisticated financial market institutions, but the politics surrounding continued support by members of the euro zone and unresolved debt discussions with southern states (we were talking about Grexit long before Brexit) are holding the euro back in overtaking the U.S. dollar.

Although the renminbi’s share in global transactions is still low, it should be noted that usage and overseas holdings of China’s currency by individuals, businesses and central banks has expanded in the last decade, enabling China to break through in 2016 to join the top five most-used currencies. The Chinese government is making a big push to internationalize its currency through global infrastructure investment funds associated with its Belt and Road initiative and through renminbi-denominated commodities futures contracts, among other initiatives.

China’s currency, however, is not freely convertible, its performance has been volatile, and the degree of state and private debt in China’s financial system remains murky.

The Dollar’s Achilles Heel

For the time being, most experts believe there’s no real threat to the U.S. dollar’s dominance. Europe would need to address skepticism regarding the monetary union’s future, China would need to implement significant reforms to its financial sector, and much-hyped cryptocurrencies still have long way to go to challenge the conventional system of global payments.

These are all big “ifs”. Instead, the dollar’s Achilles’ heel is of our own making. One of the biggest risks to the dollar’s long-term value is continued fiscal imbalances in the United States and the sustainability of our debt burden.

Andrea Durkin is the Editor-in-Chief of TradeVistas and Founder of Sparkplug, LLC. She is a nonresident Senior Fellow at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs and an adjunct fellow with CSIS. Ms. Durkin previously served as a U.S. Government trade negotiator and has proudly taught International Trade for the last fourteen years as an Adjunct Associate Professor at Georgetown University’s Master of Science in Foreign Service program.

This article originally appeared on TradeVistas.org. Republished with permission.

JONES ACT REPEAL WOULD BOOST U.S. ECONOMY: STUDY

A recent study by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) found that repeal of the Jones Act would produce economic gains for the U.S. of up to $64 billion.

The Jones Act mandates that all cargo shipped between U.S. ports be transported on ships built in the U.S. and bearing the U.S. flag, as well as owned and crewed by Americans. But by eliminating foreign competition, the law significantly increases the cost of shipping between American ports, argues LIBRE Initiative President Daniel Garza.

“First signed into law nearly a century ago, the Jones Act raises costs for every American consumer–particularly those in areas that are relatively isolated and which depend heavily on shipborne commerce,” Garza says. “It also hurts the competitiveness of exports, undermining job growth. This study by the OECD shows that not only will repealing this outdated law boost our economy, it will even increase the competitiveness and economic output of the shipbuilding sector–the very industry the law is supposed to be helping.”

Reform would introduce competition that would force a reduction in the cost of U.S.-built ships, potentially leading to an increase in demand of 70 percent–expanding the size of the shipbuilding sector from $841 million to $1.43 billion, states the OECD report. “It’s far past time for Congress to repeal this outdated law,” Garza says. “Doing so will help American consumers and producers. What are we waiting for?”

If The Bull Market Turns Bear, Is Your Portfolio On The Right Cycle?

The current bull market – at 10 years and counting – is the longest in the nation’s history. But instead of celebrating that longevity, plenty of people are worried about how much longer the good times can last, and whether we could be headed for a recession.

What does that mean for investors fretting that the next bear market will devastate their investment portfolios?

For one thing, those investors might want to ask themselves whether the stocks they are invested in are cyclical or non-cyclical, says Dr. Joseph Belmonte, an investment strategist and author of Buffett and Beyond: Uncovering the Secret Ratio for Superior Stock Selection (www.buffettandbeyond.com).

The answer could be critical, he says, because cyclical stocks perform well when the economy is humming along, but struggle when things turn sour. That’s largely because cyclical stocks are companies that provide something that’s not essential to daily living or that consumers can at least postpone purchasing.  

“Sometimes a cyclical stock will begin to decline nine months before the market begins to weaken because of a pending recession,” Dr. Belmonte says.

Examples are stocks for companies such as car manufacturers, higher-end retail stores, and mortgage companies. Specific examples are Ford, General Motors, Caterpillar and Macy’s.

Non-cyclical stocks, on the other hand, are the stores or companies people flock to for bargains when times grow tough. Some of these stocks are Dollar Tree, Costco and Ross Stores.

But for investors, just knowing the answer to the cyclical, non-cyclical question is not enough, Dr. Belmonte says. They still need to review a company’s numbers.

“If properly used, the numbers will tell us almost everything we need to know about a company,” he says. “If we use the correct numbers in the correct way, the bottom-line results will tell us which companies we want in our portfolio.”

The problem, Dr. Belmonte says, is that most analysts and investors use the wrong numbers when trying to decide whether a stock is a good or not-so-good option.

A comparable method of measuring the efficiency of a company’s operations. That’s why Dr. Belmonte is a proponent of what’s known as clean surplus accounting. He says the most prominent investor who uses this method is Warren Buffett. Here’s a quick overview of how clean surplus accounting works:

-Traditional accounting determines the return on equity (ROE) by using earnings from the income statement divided by the book value (owners’ equity) from the accounting balance sheet. “This is not a good measure of comparing one company to another because that’s not what it was meant to do,” Dr. Belmonte says.

-Clean surplus instead uses net income from operations as the “return” portion of the ROE. It then constructs its own “owners’ equity” as the “equity” portion of ROE.  The return on equity, as configured by clean surplus accounting, is truly a comparable method of measuring the efficiency of a company’s operations, Dr. Belmonte says.

-Net income minus dividends, of course, will net a different owners’ equity than will earnings minus dividends. It is this new calculation of owners’ equity (net income minus dividends) that allows a truly comparable return-on-equity ratio to be developed. And it is this comparable ROE ratio that is the foundation of the success of clean surplus, Dr. Belmonte says.

With a potential recession looming on the horizon, Dr. Belmonte says, it’s vital that you review your portfolio, examine whether you have cyclical or non-cyclical stocks, and then put those companies to the clean surplus accounting test.

About Dr. Joseph Belmonte

Dr. Joseph Belmonte, author of Buffett and Beyond: Uncovering the Secret Ratio for Superior Stock Selection (www.buffettandbeyond.com), is an investment strategist and stock market consultant. He is fond of saying, “If you want to live on the beach like Jimmy Buffett, you’ve got to learn how to invest like Warren Buffett.” Dr. Belmonte has developed hedged growth income strategies for family offices, and has lectured to numerous professional and investment groups throughout the country. His weekly video newsletter is sent to thousands of investors, money managers, and academics both nationally and internationally.