The Wall Street Journal
Wednesday, October 28, 2009
Globally, the Greenback Remains King
The U.S. dollar, once universally accepted as the world's strongest currency, has been trounced in recent months by everything from the euro to the Brazilian real to the South Korean won. But in the back-alley markets where business is done in many of the world's developing economies, the dollar still reigns.
In jewelry stores in Vietnam, taxicabs in Venezuela and outdoor markets in Nigeria, black-market money-changers say the dollar is still the currency of choice, even though its value has fallen in some cases.
"The U.S. dollar is losing value, but not here in Vietnam," said Vu Manh Quynh, an auto trader who regularly exchanges dong for dollars in the winding streets of Hanoi's Old Quarter. "Vietnamese people still keep U.S. dollars and gold." While the U.S. dollar fetches 17,858 dong on the official rates, the black market rate is closer to 18,600. Hai Duong, a currency trader, said he had 20 or more customers buying U.S. dollars on a recent Wednesday, compared with two customers buying euros.
While their true size is unknown, black markets in currencies are key to greasing the wheels of commerce in countries that have tight currency controls. They provide residents and companies with protection against inflation or a possible devaluation of the local currency, and give companies a source of dollars with which to buy and sell goods abroad. In most countries, the markets are illegal, while in others they are tacitly condoned.
"Typically, dollars are king in the black markets of the world," says Kenneth Rogoff, professor of economics at Harvard University and former chief economist at the International Monetary Fund.
Prof. Rogoff estimates that as much as 75% of U.S. notes in circulation, or more than $600 billion, are held outside the U.S. Most of that is likely in what he calls the underground economy, where transactions are made beyond the oversight of government -- much of which is juiced by the black market.
"This money is not in cash registers, it's not in bank vaults," Prof. Rogoff says.
In the world's official foreign-exchange markets, where turnover totals about $3 trillion each day, according to the Bank for International Settlements, the dollar's luster has diminished. The dollar, for example, has fallen about 6% against the euro this year. The dollar has dropped about 15% against a basket of currencies since early March.
The ballooning U.S. deficit and a move by investors away from the haven of the dollar as world economies recover have sparked worries that the currency may be headed for a years-long swoon. It also has opened the door for renewed questioning of the dollar's future as the world's reserve currency.
For Venezuelans, where the black market plays a crucial role in the financial system, the dollar has retained its status. Residents seeking protection against inflation or a devaluation of the bolivar turn to currency traders. Large companies that need dollars for operations abroad also visit the unregulated market."Having dollars is like a barricade," says Arnaldo Morales, a cabby who moonlights as a currency trader, buying dollars from travelers as they enter the country, then selling them to Venezuelans.
Mr. Morales says he has been trading dollars since 2003, when President Hugo Chávez imposed a currency peg. Residents can purchase only $2,500 for travel abroad each year at the official rate of 2.15 bolivars.
The economy has become so heavily dependent on the so-called parallel exchange rate for greenbacks that the government was recently forced to intervene after the dollar traded as high as seven bolivars in August. The government is flooding the domestic market with dollars by selling bonds to locals who then trade them abroad for U.S. currency.
"The dollar will always be strong," says Andrea Martinez, a trader who dismissed as temporary the recent decline in the black-market rate. Ms. Martinez operates inside a tiny, nondescript mall where shotgun-carrying private-security guards wearing bulletproof vests watch over rows of pawn shops that serve as a front for dollar traders. On a good day, she says, she still sells as much as $5,000.
In Nigeria, sub-Sahara Africa's second-largest economy, currency traders still deal predominantly in American currency. The black-market traders even have their own trade group, the Association of Bureaux de Change Operators of Nigeria.
"The dollar still has dominance in Nigeria," said Alhaji Farouk Suleman, the president of the group. "The exchange rate might not be good, but you know what you're dealing with and that you can use the dollar anywhere you go. I don't see any real shift towards the pound or euro."
The Nigerian naira, after plummeting late last year and earlier this year, has stabilized against the dollar, thanks to renewed confidence after harsh banking reforms undertaken by a new central bank governor. The dollar was fetching 183 naira in the spring, but now buys about 153 naira.
But the dollar's descent against the world's biggest currencies hasn't gone unnoticed.
On the streets of Mumbai, illegal currency traders that swap wads of cash from bags behind their shops in the bustling back alleys of Colaba, a neighborhood popular with tourists, say business has been slow recently. The dollar's decline has sellers waiting for a rebound and buyers waiting for a better deal.
"Business is way down," says one trader, spitting a stream of red betel-nut juice in the alley behind his shop and wiping his moustache. "People still want to wait." The dollar buys 47 rupees at licensed currency-trading companies and 46.70 rupees on the black market.
And at the Super Rich currency exchange near one of Bangkok's busiest downtown thoroughfares, Thaweesak Kanchanakorn says he and his girlfriend are planning to vacation in the U.S., and that he thought it might be a good idea to invest in dollars now, because they're "cheap." In the long run, "I don't think the U.S. dollar will still be a major currency for reserves anymore," he said. China's yuan "will take its place."
For now, those seeking to exchange bolivars or dong are choosing the U.S. dollar, if only because it remains the most recognizable of the world's currencies.
In Iraq, where legal currency exchanges have become common, the U.S. presence since 2003 has kept up demand for the dollar at the expense of the euro.
Ali Mohammed of the Al Nasir currency-exchange company said that although the world market value of the euro has risen, it is difficult to exchange in Baghdad. And the dollar likely will be Iraq's unofficial second currency for some time to come. The dollar fetched about 1,190 dinars in September, according to central bank figures, little changed from 1,220 dinars at the beginning of 2008.
"It's the only thing used, besides the Iraqi dinar, for commercial business and trade," he said. "As long as it stays pretty stable, we don't mind this."
Carlos Denis, who trades in the Venezuelan mall alongside Ms. Martinez, insists that the dollar is still the only currency that matters. "Take out a dollar bill in the remotest place in world and people will recognize it," he said.
Eric Bellman in India, Gina Chon in Iraq, and Wilawan Watcharasakwet in Thailand contributed to this article.