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A BRICS alternative to the SWIFT payment system could accelerate de-dollarization

By Mike Maharrey
web posted April 8, 2024

With Russia taking the lead, the BRICS bloc is talking about creating a new payment system that isn't controlled by the United States and that is not dependent on the dollar.

Such a system could accelerate de-dollarization.

BRICS is an economic cooperation bloc originally made up of Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa. As of Jan. 1, 2024, the bloc expanded to include Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the UAE, Iran, and Ethiopia.

More than 40 other nations have expressed interest in BRICS membership.

The expanded BRICS has a combined population of about 3.5 billion people. The economies of the BRICS nations are worth over $28.5 trillion and make up roughly 28 percent of the global economy. BRICS nations also account for about 42 percent of global crude oil output.

Russia assumed the chairmanship of the bloc in January 2024.

Earlier this year, Central Bank of Russia governor, Elvira Nabiullina said Russia is leading discussions with other BRICS countries about developing a payment system to serve as an alternative to the current system.

Currently, most global trade moves through the Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication (SWIFT) system.

In effect, SWIFT serves as a "superhighway" facilitating global trade. It operates as a global financial messaging service, facilitating cross-border payments. As the SWIFT website puts it, "SWIFT is the way the world moves value."

Since the dollar serves as the world reserve currency, SWIFT effectively facilitates the international dollar system.

It also gives the United States a powerful tool to shape foreign policy. It can use SWIFT as a hammer, punishing countries that don't do its bidding by locking them out of the system.

This is exactly what happened to Russia after it invaded Ukraine.

Officials initially indicated Russia wouldn't be locked out of SWIFT, but a few days later, the United States, the European Union, the UK, and Canada issued a joint statement announcing SWIFT would disconnect "selected" Russian banks from the global payment system.

This wasn't the first time the U.S. used SWIFT and the dollar as a stick to advance its foreign policy goals. In 2014, the Obama administration locked several Russian financial institutions out of SWIFT as relations between the two countries deteriorated over Ukraine and Crimea. A few years later, the Trump administration threatened China in an attempt to force that country to join in sanctioning North Korea.

It should come as no surprise that countries with less than friendly relations with the United States might want to avoid depending on a system that requires American blessings and U.S. dollars.

A BRICS Alternative to the Dollar Payment System

Russia has created its own payment system to compete with SWIFT. The Russians began developing the System for Transmitting Financial Messages (SPFS) in 2014 after the U.S. locked Russian banks out of SWIFT for the first time. By the end of 2020, 23 foreign banks connected to the SPFS. Most of these banks are in developing countries and nations with rocky relationships with the U.S., but they include banks in Germany and Switzerland. According to Nabiullina, the SPFS currently has 159 foreign participants in 20 countries.

In her announcement earlier this year, Nabiullina pointed out that "similar infrastructure exists in other countries."

For instance, China has developed a system known as the Cross-Border Interbank Payments System (CIPS). Russia would like to see these systems integrated across the BRICS bloc, creating a powerful alternative to SWIFT.

"We are holding discussions on the interaction of such platforms, but here the interest and technical readiness of our partners are important."

Forexlive.com head of currency strategy Adam Button told Kitco News that creating an independent payments system is in the best interest of the BRICS bloc because "SWIFT has been weaponized now."

"A big portion of the world is always under threat of U.S. or European sanctions, and it's in their interest to create an alternative system. The initial promise or purpose of SWIFT wasn't to be used in the sanctions system, and they changed the rules. My sense is that an alternative to SWIFT would have happened a long time ago if it had been weaponized."

But can such a system succeed?

Button thinks so. After all, "Transferring money from bank to bank isn't rocket science."

"There are some standards to be agreed on and it will take some time. Then a launch is always going to be slow and maybe the system serves as more of a backup, or just for Iranian and Russian transfers or whoever else is under sanctions. But I think eventually this system will prove out, and a decent part of the world will use it."

Such a system could raise gold's role in the international monetary system. The BRICS countries own a lot of gold. Since just before the 2008 financial crisis official gold reserves held by BRICS nations have grown from just over 1,500 tons to just over 6,600 tons today.

As one analyst pointed out, even if there is some distrust between BRICS nations in using each other's currencies, gold could fill the role of the dollar as an intermediary currency.

Would an Alternative Payment System Be a Problem for the U.S.?

The short answer is yes.

Why?

Because it would pose a direct threat to dollar dominance.

Beyond eroding America's foreign policy influence, a widely used BRICS payment system could also accelerate de-dollarization.

In fact, during last year's summit, BRICS leaders emphasized conducting increased trade within the bloc using local currencies as part of a move towards de-dollarization, with a stated goal of reducing the U.S. dollar's dominance in global trade and finance.

This isn't just a slap in America's face. It could have significant economic ramifications.

Because the global financial system runs on dollars, the world needs a lot of them. The United States depends on this global demand to underpin its profligate borrowing and spending. De-dollarization could lead to a dollar glut.

The only reason the U.S. can borrow, spend, and run massive budget deficits to the extent that it does is the dollar's role as the world reserve currency. It creates a built-in global demand for dollars and dollar-denominated assets. This absorbs the Federal Reserve's money creation and helps maintain dollar strength despite the Federal Reserve's inflationary policies.

But what happens if that demand drops leading to a dollar glut? What happens if BRICS nations and other countries decide they don't want to hold dollars?

A de-dollarization of the world economy would cause the value of the U.S. currency to crash and likely spark a currency crisis. Americans would feel the impact through more price inflation eating away at the purchasing power of the dollar. At the extreme, it could even lead to hyperinflation.

This won't likely happen overnight, but the de-dollarization trend is clearly accelerating. And to whatever extent it occurs is a problem for the U.S. There is already an overabundance of U.S. Treasuries in the marketplace and this is driving up yields. That means higher interest expense for the U.S. government.

It's important to remember that nothing guarantees the dollar will maintain its dominance forever. In fact, history says it won't.

In the meantime, it might not be a bad idea to do what many central banks around the world are doingbuy gold. ESR

Mike Maharrey is a journalist and market analyst for MoneyMetals.com with over a decade of experience in precious metals. He holds a BS in accounting from the University of Kentucky and a BA in journalism from the University of South Florida.

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