Visitors to Cambodia know that about 80% of all trade and money transactions are conducted in U. S. dollars. Recently the governor of the National Bank, responsible for monetary policies in Cambodia, stated that the continuing use of the U.S. dollar is detrimental to the Cambodian economy. She mentioned as underlying cause the strengthening of the dollar against the Khmer Riel (KHR).

Now this is indeed the case. Officially the KHR is valued at KHR 4080, unofficially it is KHR 4000. Currency markets on the other hand haven’t seen a strengthening in the past few months. The two world currencies, the dollar and the Euro, hover pretty much at the same level.

Now how the dollarization of the Cambodian economy is harmful is not really understandable. The major industries are garments/shoes, tourism, construction, and agriculture. The main markets for Cambodian-made garments are the U. S. and Europe. These markets pay in their own currencies, in other words, those capital inflows are not in KHR and will be credited to the manufacturers foreign exchange accounts. The majority of the products used in garments and shoes are imported, meaning they are paid in foreign exchange. Only the labor cost is in KHR; the minimum wage is set in U. S. dollars, so even if the dollar strengthens the manufacturers benefit from this as they exchange their foreign currency at the official rate. They get more Riels for their dollars or Euros. Prices are calculated and billed to foreign customers in dollars. No harm here for the manufacturers.

Tourism brings in foreign exchange, mostly dollars, as tourists usually exchange their home currency in dollars at home or they get it from an ATM here at the official rate. So in effect, any fluctuations tend to hurt the tourists but not the tourism trade in Cambodia. The hotels and restaurants pay in either dollars or riel, so it really doesn’t matter to them either.

The situation is pretty much similar in the construction industry as most materials have to be imported, although the last few years have seen an increase in domestic production of cement and bricks. Iron in whatever shape or form is imported, as is gasoline, oil, etc.; only sand is dredged locally. Trucks and any other machinery used is also imported too. All these goods are paid in foreign currency, mostly dollars again. Builders calculate their prices in dollars as well and offer them to the market in dollars or riels, which is irrelevant to the consumer as they will use whatever is convenient for them.

The greatest benefit of the dollarization is for agricultural products that are exported, e. g. rice and rubber. We have the same effect here as in the garment industry. The big difference is that no foreign materials go into the production of their products excepting fertilizer and other chemicals used.

As long as Cambodia has no manufacturing base which would make its products truly made in Cambodia as opposed to being processed it doesn’t really matter which currency is used. Almost all items for daily use are imported. Consequently, the trade balance is negative.

Let’s not forget: the main reason investors open factories here is for the low labor cost, relative ease of conducting business with the government, and lax enforcement of international regulations.

And finally, the National Bank pegs the KHR to the dollar anyway. On what this is based I haven’t fathomed yet – how many dollars are in circulation?  It seems that this discussion is rather moot at this point in time. So  except for national pride this issue is not really important. It remains a mystery what the opposition would gain from abolishing the dollar as an official tender as they recently promised if they were to win the next election.

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