Louise Shelley on Dark Commerce

ShelleyThough mankind has traded tangible goods for millennia, recent technology has changed the fundamentals of trade, in both legitimate and illegal economies. In the past three decades, the most advanced forms of illicit trade have broken with all historical precedents and, as Dark Commerce shows, now operate as if on steroids, tied to computers and social media. In this new world of illicit commerce, which benefits states and diverse participants, trade is impersonal and anonymized, and vast profits are made in short periods with limited accountability to sellers, intermediaries, and purchasers. Demonstrating that illicit trade is a business the global community cannot afford to ignore and must work together to address, Dark Commerce considers diverse ways of responding to this increasing challenge.

What led you to write this book?

My last book, Dirty Entanglements: Corruption, Crime and Terrorism, pointed to the centrality of illicit trade as a funding mechanism for terrorism and transnational crime. As I finished that work, I realized that illicit trade was at the core of many of our most critical contemporary problems—the perpetuation of conflict, environmental degradation, and the destruction of human life. I wanted readers to understand that there are many who profit from this dark commerce, not just those associated with traditional crime groups. I wrote this book as a wake up call to the existential challenges that we now face from the many diverse participants in illicit trade.

How has illicit trade changed profoundly with the advent of computers and social media?

In the last three decades, the most advanced forms of illicit trade have broken with all historical precedents. Old forms of illicit trade persist that have been in place for millennia, but the newest forms operate as if on steroids, tied to computers and social media. Illicit trade is developing rapidly in all sectors. No area of this trade has diminished in its volume or its geographic reach, as technology is a driver of the growth of illicit trade.

In this new world of illicit commerce, trade is impersonal, anonymized, and vast profits are made in relatively short periods. There is limited accountability to sellers, intermediaries, and purchasers. New technology, communications, and globalization fuel the exponential growth of many of the most dangerous forms of illegal trade—the massive sales of narcotics and child pornography online; the escalation of sex trafficking through web and social media-based advertisements; and the sale of endangered species for which revenues now total in the hundreds of millions of dollars.[1]

In the cyberworld—particularly its most hidden part, the Dark Web (entered only through special anonymizing software such as TOR)—payments no longer occur with state-backed currencies, as customers pay for their purchases in a plethora of new anonymizing cryptocurrencies of which Bitcoin is the best-known. Moreover, in this illicit world, the very commodities have changed— many can no longer be touched or exchanged through human hands. Rather, many of the most pernicious illicit traders buy commodities based only on algorithms, including malware, Trojans, botnets, and/or ransomware (denies users access to their data), marketed by malicious suppliers in both the developing and developed world.[2]

Is illicit trade less of a problem in developed countries such as in the West, or is it a problem everywhere? Many potential readers may think of illicit trade as something that is far removed from them in their everyday lives. To what extent, if at all, is this an illusion? 

Many think that the problems of illicit trade are most pronounced in the developing world, and that the developed world is largely exempt. Clearly the markets of less industrialized countries are filled with numerous types of harmful counterfeit goods such as medicines, pesticides, and electronic parts. But dangerous counterfeit medicines have penetrated the supply chain of developed countries as well. Deadly drugs such as fentanyl are readily accessible through the web and the Dark Web, and they contributed to the death of over 72,000 Americans from drug overdoses in 2017. Consumers in the developed world purchase large quantities of fish that have been caught outside of approved catches, and timber that has been cut illegally and then transformed into furniture or plywood.

The changes brought by technology are most evident in the G7 countries—the largest economies in the world—but they are by no means confined to them. Investigations of computer-facilitated crime have identified their impact in the vast preponderance of the world’s countries. For example, in one recent online ransom attack victims were identified in over 180 countries.[3]

How has illicit trade contributed to current global conflicts?

Illicit trade plays a significant role in global conflicts, one example being the crisis in Syria. The Syrian crisis started with a drought. The subsequent illicit trade in water rights that made agricultural life impossible resulted in millions migrating to marginal communities on the fringes of cities where they were neglected by the state. To give you an idea of scale, there were 8.9 million Syrians city dwellers before the American invasion of Iraq in 2002. By 2010, 13.8 million. Of this almost 5 million person rural exodus, approximately 1.5 million were fleeing the drought.[4] The story of the Syrian drought refugees does not end with the beginning of the Arab Spring. Rather, it is the beginning of a “domino effect.” The Syrians departure from rural areas was the first phase of a longer trajectory that then took a more tragic course. These rural to urban migrants had to then flee civil war and destruction, many becoming illegal migrants relying on smugglers. The Syrian case is one of the worst examples of the growth of regional conflicts that has characterized the post-Cold War period. Illicit trade has funded many of the most important disputes and clashes of recent decades in the Middle East, Africa, Latin America, Asia, and between Russia and Ukraine.[5] The illicit goods associated with conflict include not only arms, drugs, and humans, but also consumer goods, counterfeits, and natural resources such as oil, minerals, gold, and coltan—ubiquitous in mobile phones and laptops.

What do you hope readers will take away from reading this book?

Illicit trade has survived for millennia, but it has expanded in recent decades as the financial advantage grows in an ever more competitive and globalized world. The profit from this trade can be more than financial. States obtain political advantage as a result of illicit commerce, a phenomenon as old as the raids on the pirate ships of antiquity and the theft of new technologies. Yet its costs today are even higher and command greater priority from the global community.

Is there any good news in this story? Are we finding ways to combat illicit trade?

Countering illicit trade requires serious and concerted action by different sectors of society working together. We need a multilateral approach that encompasses governments, organizations, businesses, community groups, NGOs, journalists, and others working together to find effective ways to combat illicit trade. Already, exceptional individuals risk their lives for this objective, including activists and investigative journalists who counter human trafficking, the drug trade, illegal timber harvesting, and illicit financial flows. Many honest members of law enforcement are on the front lines against illicit trade, dying in the line of duty annually as they try to save human lives and protected species. New technology and data analytics tools are being developed by the government and the private sector to counter the growth of illicit trade, particularly in the cyberworld. Many individuals are involved at the local level in their communities to prevent harm to all forms of life. All these efforts must be enhanced and coordinated. Finally, citizens as consumers have an important role to play as individuals demanding more of corporations to counter the abuse of the new technology they control.

Louise I. Shelley is the Omer L. and Nancy Hirst Professor of Public Policy and University Professor at George Mason University’s Schar School of Policy and Government, and founder and director of its Terrorism, Transnational Crime and Corruption Center. Her many books include Human Trafficking and Dirty Entanglements. She lives in Washington, DC.


[1] Larry Greenmeier, “Human Traffickers Caught on Hidden Internet,” February 8, 2015,  https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/human-traffickers-caught-on-hidden-internet/ and also the accompanying visualization that reveals the international links, Scientific American Exclusive: DARPA Memex Data Map. Accessed July 13, 2017, https://www.scientificamerican.com/slideshow/scientific-american-exclusive-darpa-memex-data-maps/; Channing May, Transnational Crime and the Developing World (Washington, D.C.: Global Financial Integrity, 2017), xi.

[2] Ransomware is extensively used in India, see CSIS, “Net Losses Estimating the Global Cost of Cybercrime: Economic Impact of Cybercrime II,” June 2014, 15, http://www.mcafee.com/us/resources/reports/rp-economic-impact-cybercrime2.pdf, accessed Jan. 23, 2017. A major analyst of the Dark Web suggests that ten percent of the content of the dark web consists of this stolen material.

[3] Investigators identified 189. Joe Mandak, “Prosecutor’s Office Paid Bitcoin Ransom in Cyberattack,” December 5, 2016. Accessed July 15, 2017,  https://phys.org/news/2016-12-prosecutor-office-paid-bitcoin-ransom.html; Complaint U.S. Government vs. flux and flux 2, filed November 28, 2016. Accessed July 15, 2017, https://www.justice.gov/opa/page/file/915216/download; “Avalanche” Network Disrupted in International Cyber Operation,” December 1, 2016.Accessed Feb. 1, 2017,https://www.europol.europa.eu/newsroom/news/%E2%80%98avalanche%E2%80%99-network-dismantled-in-international-cyber-operation This is the Avalanche case discussed in chapter five.

[4] Ibid.; Collin Kelley et. al. “Climate change in the Fertile Crescent and implications of the recent Syrian drought,” pnas,  vol. 112 no. 11, 3241-46; http://www.pnas.org/content/112/11/3241.full, accessed March 6, 2016.

[5] Paul J. Smith, The Terrorism Ahead: Confronting Transnational Violence in the 21st Century, (London and New York: Routledge, 2015), 151-2.

Barry Eichengreen on How Global Currencies Work

At first glance, the modern history of the global economic system seems to support the long-held view that the leading world power’s currency—the British pound, the U.S. dollar, and perhaps someday the Chinese yuan—invariably dominates international trade and finance. In How Global Currencies Work, three noted economists provide a reassessment of this history and the theories behind the conventional wisdom. Read on to learn more about the two views of global currencies, changes in international monetary leadership, and more.

Your title refers to “two views” of global currencies. Can you explain?
We distinguish the “old view” and the “new view”—you can probably infer from the terminology to which view we personally incline. In the old view, one currency will tend dominate as the vehicle for cross-border transactions at any point in time. In the past it was the British pound; more recently it has been the U.S. dollar; and in the future it may be the Chinese renminbi, these being the currencies of the leading international economies of the nineteenth, twentieth, and twenty first centuries. The argument, grounded largely in theory, is that a single currency has tended to dominate, or will dominate, because it pays for investors and producers when engaging in cross-border transactions; specifically, it pays for them to do cross-border business in the same currency as their partners and competitors. This pattern reflects the convenience value of conformity—it reflects what economists refer to as “network externalities.” In this view, it pays to quote the prices of one’s exports in the same units in which they are quoted by other exporters; this makes it easy for customers to compare prices, enabling a newly competitive producer to break into international markets. It pays to denominate bonds marketed to foreign investors in the same currency as other international bonds, in this case to make it easier for investors to compare yields and maximize the demand for the bonds in question.

In what we call the new view, on the other hand, several national currencies can coexist—they can play consequential international roles at the same point in time. In the modern world, it is argued, network externalities are not all that strong. For one thing, interchangeability costs are low as a result of modern financial technology. The existence of deep and liquid markets allows investors and exporters to do business in a variety of different currencies and switch all but effortlessly between them—to sell one currency for another at negligible cost. The existence of hedging instruments allows those investors to insure themselves against financial risks—specifically, against the risk that prices will move in unexpected ways. Prices denominated in different currencies are easy to compare, since everyone now carries a currency converter in his or her pocket, in the form of a smartphone. These observations point to the conclusion, which is compelling in our view, that several national currencies can simultaneously serve as units of account, means of payment and stores of value for individuals, firms and governments engaged in cross-border transactions.

In our book we provide several kinds of evidence supporting the relevance of the new view, not just today but in the past as well. We suggest that the old view is an inaccurate characterization of not just the current state of affairs but, in fact, of the last century and more of international monetary history.

What exactly motivated you to write this book?
We were worried by the extent to which the old view, which pointed to a battle to the death for international monetary supremacy between the dollar and the renminbi, continues to dominate scholarly analysis and popular discourse. This misapprehension gives rise to concerns that we think are misplaced, and to policy recommendations that we think are misguided. Renminbi internationalization, the technical name for policies intended to foster use of China’s currency in cross-border transactions not just within China itself but among third countries as well, is not in fact an existential threat to the dollar’s international role. To the contrary, it is entirely consistent with continued international use of the greenback, or so our evidence suggests.

In addition, making a convincing case for the new view requires marshaling historical, institutional and statistical material and analyzing the better part of a century. We though this extensive body of evidence cried out for a book-length treatment.

To what revisions of received historical wisdom does your analysis point?
We use that historical, institutional and statistical analysis to show that the old view of single-currency dominance is inaccurate not just for today but also as a description of the situation in the first half of the twentieth century and even in the final decades of the nineteenth. In the 1920s and 1930s, the pound sterling and the dollar both in fact played consequential international roles. Under the pre-World War I gold standard, the same was true of sterling, the French franc and the German mark. Our reassessment of the historical record suggests that the coexistence of multiple international currencies, the state of affairs toward which we are currently moving, is not the exception but in fact the rule. There is nothing unprecedented or anomalous about it.

And, contrary to what is sometimes asserted, we show that there is no necessary association between international currency competition and financial instability. The classical gold standard was a prototypical multiple international and reserve currency system by our reading of the evidence. But, whatever its other defects, the gold standard system was a strikingly stable exchange-rate arrangement.

Finally, we show that, under certain circumstances at least, international monetary and financial leadership can be gained and lost quickly. This is contrary to the conventional wisdom that persistence and inertia are overwhelmingly strong in the monetary domain owing to the prevalence of network effects. It is contrary to the presumption that changes of the guard are relatively rare. It is similarly contrary to the presumption that, once an international currency, always an international currency.

So you argue, contrary to conventional wisdom, that changes in international monetary leadership can occur quickly under certain circumstances.  But what circumstances exactly?
The rising currency has to confront and overcome economic and institutional challenges, while the incumbent has to find it hard to keep up. Consider the case of the U.S. dollar. As late as 1914 the dollar played essentially no international role despite the fact that the U.S. had long since become the single largest economy. This initial position reflected the fact that although the U.S. had many of the economic preconditions in place—not only was it was far and away the largest economy but it was also the the number-one exporter—it lacked the institutional prerequisites. Passage of the Federal Reserve Act in 1913 corrected this deficiency. The founding of the Fed created a lender and liquidity provider of last resort. And the Federal Reserve Act authorized U.S. banks to branch abroad, essentially for the first time. World War I, which disrupted London’s foreign financial relations, meanwhile created an opening, of which the U.S. took full advantage. Over the first post-Fed decade, the greenback quickly rose to international prominence. It came to be widely used internationally, fully matching the role of the incumbent international currency, the British pound sterling, already by the middle of the first post-World War I decade.

The shift to dollar dominance after World War II was equally swift. Again the stage was set by a combination of economic and institutional advances on the side of the rising power and difficulties for the incumbent. The U.S. emerged from World War II significantly strengthened economically, the UK significantly weakened. In terms of institutions, the U.S. responded to the unsettled monetary and financial circumstances of the immediate postwar period with the Marshall Plan and other initiatives extending the country’s international financial reach. The UK meanwhile, was forced to resort to capital controls and stringent financial regulation, which limited sterling’s appeal.

What are the implications of your analysis for the future of the international monetary and financial system?
The implications depend on the policies adopted, prospectively, by the governments and central banks that are the issuers of the potential international currencies. Here we have in mind not just the dollar and the renminbi but also the euro, the Euro Area being the third economy, along with the U.S. and China with the economic scale that is a prerequisite for being able to issue a true international currency. If all three issuers follow sound and stable policies, then there is no reason why their three currencies can’t share the international stage for the foreseeable future—in effect there’s no reason why they can’t share that stage indefinitely. The global economy will be better off with three sources of liquidity, compared to the current status quo where it is all but wholly dependent on one.

In contrast, if one or more of the issuers in question follows erratic policies, investors will flee its currency, since in a world of multiple international and reserve currencies they will have alternatives—they will have somewhere to go. The result could then be sharp changes in exchange rates.  The consequence could be high volatility that would wreak havoc with national and international financial markets. So while a world of multiple international currencies has benefits, it also entails risks. Policy choices—and politics—will determine  whether the risks or benefits dominate in the end.

EichengreenBarry Eichengreen is the George C. Pardee and Helen N. Pardee Professor of Economics and Political Science at the University of California, Berkeley. His books include Hall of Mirrors, Exorbitant Privilege, Globalizing Capital, and The European Economy since 1945Arnaud Mehl is principal economist at the European Central Bank. Livia Chiţu is an economist at the European Central Bank.