Ding Dong the Coin Is Dead

I laughed a lot when it was announced that Obama wasn’t going to mint a platinum coin and effectively render the debt ceiling obsolete. And not because I hope for or expect the USA to immediately and chaotically default. Not because I expect the Federal government to not raise the debt ceiling again.

I laughed a lot because the platinum coin was a very, very silly idea. I laughed a lot because there was no clue of any such event taking place. It was a pure myth talked into prominence by Business Insider for pageviews and advertising dollars, and by other bloggers who should have known better.

Bruce Krasting writes that the platinum coin was killed by foreign central banks who thought it would set a dangerous precedent, and ultimately by Ben Bernanke:

It was the Fed, in a message delivered by Bernanke, that caused Obama to back off on any consideration of the Coin. There might have been wiggle room in existing law to print a Coin, but there is nothing that says that the Fed had to take it. And Bernanke said, “No”. When Obama ditched the Coin, he did it because it was no longer an option. Bernanke took the option off the table. The WH statement makes it sound as it it was their decision, that’s just smoke and mirrors.

I don’t even think it got that far.

As I wrote last week:

I think all parties other than the pundits thought the idea was ridiculous and totally unpalatable. For both Obama and Boehner — and especially Bernanke — negotiating a settlement is far, far more attractive than the signals of fiscal disarray that would have been sent by minting the platinum coin. Not to mention that minting a platinum coin and depositing it at the Fed to avert the debt ceiling would have been open to serious legal challenge. Compromise was the order of the day in 2011, and on the fiscal cliff, and it will be the order of the day on the debt ceiling again.

The people who advocated for the platinum coin were mostly doing so because they don’t like compromise. They wanted their side to effectively steamroller the other side into total submission. Right or wrong, that’s not how politics works. A deal will be done. It may not be a deal that Krugman, or Weisenthal, or Boehner, or Obama or Ron Paul or the country in general really likes, though.

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The Real 2013 Cliff

There’s a much bigger cliff than the so-called fiscal cliff. The absolute worst result of the fiscal cliff would be a moderate uniform tax increase at a bad time, resulting in a moderate contraction. It is an obvious — but ultimately rather cosmetic — stumbling block on the so-called “road to recovery”.

The much bigger cliff stems from the fact that the so-called recovery itself is built on nothing but sand. This is a result of underlying systemic fragilities that have never been allowed to break. I have spent the last year and a half writing about this graph — the total debt in the economy as a proportion of the economy’s output:

This is the bubble that won’t go away. This is the zombified mess that the Federal Reserve won’t let dissolve (as happened regularly in the 19th century and early 20th century each time there was an unsustainable debt bubble). This is the shifting sand — preserved by the massive monetary stimulus programs — that the so-called recovery is built upon. During the 1980s and 1990s and 2000s cheap money pumped up the debt level in America. In 2008, the bubble burst, and the hyper-connective fragile financial system was set to burn. Then central banks around the world stepped in to “stabilise” (or as Nassim Taleb puts it, overstabilise) the financial system. The unsustainable reality of debt vastly exceeding income was put on life support.

A high pre-existing residual debt level makes growth challenging, as consumers and producers remain focussed on paying down the pre-existing debt load, they are drained by pre-existing debt service costs, and they are wary about taking on debt or investing in a weak and depressed environment. It’s a classic Catch-22. The only true panacea for the depression is growth, but the economy cannot grow because it is depressed and zombified. That’s where a crash comes in — the junk is liquidated, clearing the field for new growth. That is what Schumpeter meant when he talked of “the work of depressions”, something that many mainstream economists still fail to grasp. (In fairness, a similar effect can probably be achieved without a depression through a very large scale debt relief program.)

Japan has been stuck in a deleveraging trap for twenty years, to no avail, all that has really occurred is that the private debt load has been transferred onto the central bank balance sheet — there has been very little net deleveraging) and while the Japanese central bank has completed round after round of quantitative easing — sustaining and preserving the past malinvestment and high debt load — the Japanese economy is still depressed.

Japan-Debt-Hoisington-27

That is the road America and most of the West are now on. And just as Japan’s bank stocks did multiple times even after the Japanese housing bubble burst, American banking stocks — even in spite of a year of fraud, abuse, mismanagement and uber-fragility — have been shooting up, up, up and away:

1220sp_data

The zombie financial sector is the real cliff — as interconnective as ever, as corrupt as ever, and most importantly, nearly as leveraged as ever:

Margin Debt November 2012

This is a reinflated bubble built on foundations of sand. I don’t know which straw will break the illusion (middle eastern war? Hostility between China and Japan? Chinese real estate and subprime meltdown? Student debt? Eurozone? Natural disasters? Who knows…) but this bubble poses a far greater threat in 2013 than the fiscal shenanigans and the Boehner-Obama “Boner-Droner” snoozefest.

The Real Fiscal Cliff

It’s that time of year again — time to kick the can.

No prizes for guessing what investors expect Congress to do:

And 2013 seems likely to give way to can-kicking in 2014, and 2015 and 2016 and 2017 and on — the GAO estimates that by 2080 the US public could hold 8 times as much government debt as the US generates GDP. Just as Japan has never truly dealt with its debt complex — and instead chose the path of cycles of deflation, an endless liquidity trap, a soaring debt-to-GDP ratio, and mandating financial institutions into buying treasuries — so America will continue to kick the can as long as rates and nominal inflation can be kept low, and goods and energy (the real underlying economy) kept flowing. Which — going by the Japanese example — could be a very long time.

Yet America is not Japan. The key difference? The balance of trade, and the flow of goods and services. While Japan’s debt is overwhelmingly domestically held, and while Japan has long been a net-exporter, the USA imports more goods and services than any nation in history:

And more and more US debt and currency is in the hands of the nations that export the goods and services on which America’s economy functions. Here’s the total debt held by foreigners:

And here’s the dollar reserves of various Asian exporter nations:

So when the can is kicked, the Asians — and especially the Chinese — feel they are getting screwed.

As Xinhua noted the last time America faced the fiscal cliff:

The U.S. has long been facing the same problem: living beyond its means. At present, the country has debts as high as 55 trillion U.S. dollars, including more than 14 trillion U.S. dollars of treasury bonds.

And last October:

Economists agree that as the United States’ largest foreign creditor, China should contemplate ways to pull itself out of the “dollar trap,” as the U.S. economy is faltering with its debt piling up and its currency on the brink to depreciate.

China must make fuller use of the non-financial assets in its foreign reserves, as well as speed up the diversification of investing channels to resist a possible long-term weakening of the dollar, said Xia Bing, director of the Finance Research Institutes of the Development Research Center under the State Council.

Zheng Xinli, permanent vice chairman of China Center for International Economic Exchanges, has suggested that Chinese companies boost overseas investment as a way to absorb trade surpluses and fend off the dollar risk.

Now to some degree the Asians knew the bargain they were getting into in buying US treasuries. They were never buying a claim on the US economy, or on the US gold reserves. They were buying a claim on reproducible Federal Reserve notes, and since 1971 the bargain has been that this is a purely fiat currency. Ultimately, if they do not feel like the US will be solvent in the long run, they should not have started lending to it. But now they are the largest real creditor, they have no choice but to keep on buying and keep on stabilising, simply because a functional US economy and a solvent US treasury is about the only way they will see any return at all.

Yet if they don’t exert leverage on the US, then the US seems unlikely to do much at all. Without a little turmoil, legislators have very little incentive to act. If the exporter nations feel as if they are getting screwed, they are only more likely to escalate via the only real means they have — trade war. And having a monopoly on various resources including rare earth minerals (as well as various components and types of finished goods) gives them considerable leverage.

More and more Asian nations — led by China and Russia — have ditched the dollar for bilateral trade (out of fear of dollar instability). Tension rises between the United States and Asia over Syria and Iran. The Asian nations throw more and more abrasive rhetoric around — including war rhetoric.

And on the other hand, both Obama and Romney — as well as Hillary Clinton — seem dead-set on ramping up the tense rhetoric. Romney seems extremely keen to brand China a currency manipulator.

In truth, both sides have a mutual interest in sitting down and engaging in a frank discussion, and then coming out with a serious long-term plan of co-operation on trade and fiscal issues where both sides accept compromises — perhaps Asia could agree to reinvest some of its dollar hoard in the United States to create American jobs and rebuild American infrastructure in exchange for a long-term American deficit-reduction and technology-sharing agreement?

But such co-operation would require real trust and respect — and I just don’t see it. China’s leaders deeply resent the West for the opium war years, and the humiliation that came with the end of the Chinese empire — and they see America as profligate, and culturally degenerate. And America’s leaders see China as an unstable anti-democratic dictatorship, not a prospective partner.

So the future, I think, will more likely involve both sides jumping off the cliff into the uncertain seas of trade war, currency war, default-by-debasement, tariffs, proxy war and regional and global political and economic instability.