Could a new currency be set to challenge the dominance of the dollar? Perhaps, but that may not be the point.
In August 2023, South Africa will host the leaders of Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa – a group of nations known by the acronym BRICS. Among the items on the agenda is the creation of a new joint BRICS currency.
As a scholar who has studied the BRICS countries for over a decade, I can certainly see why talk of a BRICS currency is, well, gaining currency. The BRICS summit comes as countries across the world are confronting a changing geopolitical landscape that is challenging the traditional dominance of the West. And while the BRICS countries have been seeking to reduce their reliance on the dollar for over a decade, Western sanctions on Russia after its invasion of Ukraine have accelerated the process.
Meanwhile, rising interest rates and the recent debt-ceiling crisis in the U.S. have raised concerns among other countries about their dollar-denominated debt and the demise of the dollar should the world’s leading economy ever default.
That all said, a new BRICS currency faces major hurdles before becoming a reality. But what currency discussions do show is that the BRICS countries are seeking to discover and develop new ideas about how to shake up international affairs and effectively coordinate policies around these ideas.
With 88% of international transactions conducted in U.S. dollars, and the dollar accounting for 58% of global foreign exchange reserves, the dollar’s global dominance is indisputable. Yet de-dollarization – or reducing an economy’s reliance on the U.S. dollar for international trade and finance – has been accelerating following the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
The BRICS countries have been pursuing a wide range of initiatives to decrease their dependence on the dollar. Over the past year, Russia, China and Brazil have turned to greater use of non-dollar currencies in their cross-border transactions. Iraq, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates are actively exploring dollar alternatives. And central banks have sought to shift more of their currency reserves away from the dollar and into gold.
All the BRICS nations have been critical of the dollar’s dominance for different reasons. Russian officials have been championing de-dollarization to ease the pain from sanctions. Because of sanctions, Russian banks have been unable to use SWIFT, the global messaging system that enables bank transactions. And the West froze Russia’s US$330 billion in reserves last year.
Meanwhile, the 2022 election in Brazil reinstated Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva as president. Lula is a longtime proponent of BRICS who previously sought to reduce Brazil’s dependence on and vulnerability to the dollar. He has reenergized the group’s commitment to de-dollarization and spoken about creating a new Euro-like currency.
The Chinese government has also clearly laid out its concerns with the dollar’s dominance, labeling it “the main source of instability and uncertainty in the world economy.” Beijing directly blamed the Fed’s interest rate hike for causing turmoil in the international financial market and substantial depreciation of other currencies. Together with other BRICS countries, China has also criticized the use of sanctions as a geopolitical weapon.
The appeal of de-dollarization and a possible BRICS currency would be to mitigate such problems. Experts in the U.S. are deeply divided on its prospects. U.S. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen believes the dollar will remain dominant as most countries have no alternative. Yet a former White House economist sees a way that a BRICS currency could end dollar dominance.
Although talk of a BRICS currency has gained momentum, there is limited information on various models under consideration.
The most ambitious path would be something akin to the Euro, the single-currency adopted by 11 member states of the European Union in 1999. But negotiating a single currency would be difficult given the economic power asymmetries and complex political dynamics within BRICS. And for a new currency to work, BRICS would need to agree to an exchange rate mechanism, have efficient payment systems and a well-regulated, stable and liquid financial market. To achieve a global currency status, BRICS would need a strong track record of joint currency management to convince others that the new currency is reliable.
A BRICS version of the Euro is unlikely for now; none of the countries involved show any desire to discontinue its local currency. Rather, the goal appears to be to create an efficient integrated payment system for cross-border transactions as the first step and then introduce a new currency.
Building blocks for this already exist. In 2010, the BRICS Interbank Cooperation Mechanism was launched to facilitate cross-border payments between BRICS banks in local currencies. BRICS nations have been developing “BRICS pay” – a payment system for transactions among the BRICS without having to convert local currency into dollars. And there has been talk of a BRICS cryptocurrency and of strategically aligning the development of Central Bank Digital Currencies to promote currency interoperability and economic integration. Since many countries expressed an interest in joining BRICS, the group is likely to scale its de-dollarization agenda.
From BRICS vision to reality
To be sure, some of the group’s most ambitious past initiatives to set up major BRICS projects to parallel non-Western infrastructures have failed. Big ideas like developing a BRICS credit rating agency and creating a BRICS undersea cable never materialized.
And de-dollarization efforts have been struggling both at the multilateral and bilateral level. In 2014, when the BRICS countries launched the New Development Bank, its founding agreement outlined that its operations may provide financing in the local currency of the country in which the operation takes place. Yet, in 2023, the bank remains heavily dependent on the dollar for its survival. Local currency financing represents around 22% of the bank’s portfolio, although its new president hopes to increase that to 30% by 2026.
Similar challenges exist in bilateral de-dollarization pursuits. Russia and India have sought to develop a mechanism for trading in local currencies, which would enable Indian importers to pay for Russia’s cheap oil and coal in rupees. However, talks were suspended after Moscow cooled on the idea of rupee accumulation.
Despite the barriers to de-dollarization, the BRICS group’s determination to act should not be dismissed – the group has been known for defying expectations in the past.
Despite many differences among the five countries, the bloc managed to develop joint policies and survive major crises such as the 2020-21 China-India border clashes and the war in Ukraine. BRICS has deepened its cooperation, invested in new financial institutions and has been continuously broadening the range of policy issues it addresses.
It now has a huge network of interlinked mechanisms that connect governmental officials, businesses, academics, think tanks and other stakeholders across countries. Even if there is no movement on the joint currency front, there are multiple issues on which BRICS finance ministers as well as central bankers regularly coordinate – and the potential for developing new financial collaborations is particularly strong.
No doubt, talk of a new BRICS currency in itself is an important indicator of the desire of many nations to diversify away from the dollar. But I believe focusing on the BRICS currency risks missing the forest for the trees. A new global economic order will not emerge out of a new BRICS currency or de-dollarization happening overnight. But it can potentially emerge out of BRICS’ commitment to coordinating their policies and innovating – something this currency initiative represents.
Mihaela Papa previously received funding for BRICS research from Minerva Research Initiative federal grant.
She is affiliated with the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs.