Obama is right to be worried about income inequality — it’s gotten a lot worse under his watch

Americans today are very worried about income inequality.

A Gallup poll this month found that 67 percent of Americans are unhappy with the distribution of income and wealth in the U.S. The disappointment goes across party lines — 54 percent of Republicans are dissatisfied, as well as 70 percent of Independents and 75 percent of Democrats:

And a growing number of people are worried that they can no longer get ahead simply by working hard, suggesting that inequality is becoming more entrenched.

Read More At TheWeek.com

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Why are Democrats souring on big government?


According to a new Gallup poll, 72 percent of Americans say that big government is a greater threat to the U.S. in the future than big business or big labor, a record high in the half century that Gallup has been asking the question. The previous high for big government was 65 percent in 1999 and 2000:

And this isn’t just Fox News-watching Republicans who think that Obama is a Communist Muslim born in Kenya who is plotting to seize all privately-owned guns and declare martial law.

Read More At TheWeek.com

On The Debt Ceiling & Drowning the Government in the Bathtub

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The mainstream coverage of the debt ceiling standoff and the prospect of government shutdown and how that thing is seen by the people who might precipitate it is predicated upon a fundamental misunderstanding. To the Tea Partiers and Grover Norquist-Ted Cruz-Rand Paul wing of the Republican Party, a government shutdown is seen less as a potential disaster in which markets and society are sent into turmoil, and more as a potential wonderland of enforced austerity where with the government handcuffed, the creative forces of the free market are finally unleashed.

The libertarian financial analyst Mish Shedlock exemplifies these sentiments:

Looking for a reason to support a government shutdown? If so, please consider Obama Stripped to Skeleton Staff in a Government Shutdown.

Mish points to the austerity measures the government would be put under:

 A U.S. government shutdown means President Barack Obama will have fewer people to cook meals, do the laundry, clean the floors or change the light bulbs, according to a White House contingency plan.

About three-fourths of president’s 1,701-person staff would be sent home. The national security team would be cut back, fewer economists would be tracking the economy and there wouldn’t be as many budget officials to track spending.

Of the total, 438 people work directly for the president. Under a shutdown, 129 could continue working, according to the contingency plan.

Biden, who has a staff of 24, would have had to make do with 12.

Obama’s national security staff of 66 would be cut to 42. Similar staff cuts would be imposed at the White House Office of Management and Budget, the Council on Environmental Quality, the Council of Economic Advisers and the Office of National Drug Control Policy, which are all part of the president’s executive office.

Mish concludes:

Fantastic Idea

If you think that a government shutdown is a fantastic idea (I sure do), then please contact your elected representatives and let them know.

But there are at least two other factors beyond simply wanting less government that may make a government shutdown and debt default attractive to the Tea Party wing.

The first of which is that the austerian worldview exemplified by the Wall Street Journal editorial page — in which large-scale deficit spending was expected to precipitate soaring interest rates and inflation — has largely been proven wrong by events. Interest rates and inflation have remained low. The Tea Party wing of the Republican Party now has an opportunity to try to make their initially wrong predictions come true by throwing the United States into default on its debt, and sending a message to markets and international investors that the US government and US Treasury debt is not a safe asset. Whether or not a government shutdown would actually result in a debt default (the Treasury would under such an eventuality likely prioritise debt service), and whether this would actually lift interest rates significantly are other matters, but shutting down the government and defaulting on the debt would certainly enforce austerity which is what the Republicans and especially the Tea Party wing want.

The second — and perhaps the greater factor — is the desire to prevent Obamacare taking effect. Now, I am not convinced that Obamacare can bring down healthcare costs as much as a Canadian-style or European-style system. Obamacare is certainly not an ideal system, although its earlier implementation in Massachusetts does appear to be fairly successful . But it does bring the United States much closer to something approaching universal coverage. With the message of the last Republican election campaign being that 47% of the population (the “takers”) is mooching off 53% of the population (the “makers”), Obamacare is seen by the Tea Party wing and probably the Republicans in general as the last turning point on the road to socialism. And avoiding the implementation of Obamacare is something that, I think, the Republican Party and especially the Tea Party wing will go all out to do.

Now, how far the Republicans are willing to go down this road remains to be seen. The more moderate wing may be willing to settle for a deal that avoids government shutdown in return for increasing the pace of austerity. But the impending implementation of Obamacare, and the general attraction of a government shutdown will strengthen the will of the Tea Party wing to not negotiate.

Personally, while I do think we are in the long run headed toward a world of increased decentralisation and a lesser state role (primarily as the result of technology), I don’t think a government shutdown will do anything to advance the cause of human liberty. In fact, I think a longer-term shutdown would probably end in civil unrest — a lot of people are dependent on government spending for income — and market turmoil (not least because markets seem to have priced in an easy resolution to the standoff). So the standoff will almost certainly end in a deal permitting a debt ceiling increase. How much carnage will occur before then remains to be seen.

Obama Talks Bubbles & Bubble Avoidance

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Barack Obama is focusing his economic rhetoric on the dangers of bubbles:

President Barack Obama, who took office amid the collapse of the last financial bubble, wants to make sure his economic recovery doesn’t generate the next one.

Obama this month spoke four times in five days of the need to avoid what he called “artificial bubbles,” even in an economy that’s growing at just a 1.7 percent rate and where employment and factory usage remain below pre-recession highs.

“We have to turn the page on the bubble-and-bust mentality that created this mess,” he said in his Aug. 10 weekly radio address.

In the long run, this goal — of avoiding inflating economic bubbles that change the structure of production both as they inflate and deflate — is laudable. The best manner in which to achieve it is through the teaching and discussion of history. A key qualitative factor in most bubbles seems to be the forgetting of history, the sense that this time is different, the sense that we may have reached a new stable plateau upon which asset prices can only rise. With the rise and popularisation of notions like the Great Moderation or the end of speculation, investors put down their guard and increasingly engage in riskier behaviours, like flipping condominiums, or buying stocks with leverage. The bubble is a mentality — risks will remain at bay, sentiment will remain high, externalities won’t disrupt activity. This is fine if the risks that investors have begun to ignore never materialise, so not every asset that soars in price is a bubble. Many asset classes including treasuries and junk bonds today are at record high prices, but the Fed is determined to do whatever it takes, and so sentiment has held in spite of naysayers like Marc Faber and Peter Schiff talking of the inevitability of a crash since the recovery began in 2009. The risks have so far remained at bay. But very often the risks that are assumed to have gone away reappear, and all it takes for the market to go into freefall is for sentiment to turn and investors to start selling. Asset valuation is not a question of fundamentals. It is a question of abstractions away from fundamentals. As John Maynard Keynes noted:

[Investing] is not a case of choosing those [faces] that, to the best of one’s judgment, are really the prettiest, nor even those that average opinion genuinely thinks the prettiest. We have reached the third degree where we devote our intelligences to anticipating what average opinion expects the average opinion to be. And there are some, I believe, who practice the fourth, fifth and higher degrees.

What this means, as Minsky noted, is that avoiding the possibility of economic bubbles is really, really difficult (if not impossible by definition). Each stabiliser leaned upon to stabilise markets becomes another assumption lulling investors into assuming that this time is different and thus into riskier behaviours. Keynes and Minsky both recommended fiscal policy as the stabilisation lever, but fiscalism has become unfashionable and politically challenging.

Obama’s chosen mechanism for avoiding bubbles is decreasing income inequality. In fact he sees income inequality and economic bubbles as being intimately connected:

Even though our businesses are creating new jobs and have broken record profits, nearly all the income gains of the past 10 years have continued to flow to the top 1 percent. The average CEO has gotten a raise of nearly 40 percent since 2009. The average American earns less than he or she did in 1999. … This growing inequality not just of result, inequality of opportunity – this growing inequality is not just morally wrong, it’s bad economics.

Because when middle-class families have less to spend, guess what, businesses have fewer consumers. When wealth concentrates at the very top, it can inflate unstable bubbles that threaten the economy. When the rungs on the ladder of opportunity grow farther and farther apart, it undermines the very essence of America – that idea that if you work hard you can make it here.

It’s not sustainable to have an economy where the incomes of the top 1 percent has skyrocketed while the typical working household has seen their incomes decline by nearly $2,000. That’s just not a sustainable model for long-term prosperity.

This is all true. But it’s also all rhetoric. In his nearly five years in office, Obama has totally failed to get income inequality under control. According to Pew Research, since Obama came to office:

Mean net worth of households in the upper 7% of the wealth distribution rose by an estimated 28%, while the mean net worth of households in the lower 93% dropped by 4%

Research from the Bank of England shows that the main transmission mechanism used by central banks — specifically, reinflating asset prices — disproportionately favours the richest in society; those who already have assets whose prices can be lifted. The policies that Obama and Bernanke have pursued for the past 5 years have been tilted toward assisting the wealthy. The recovery has been a recovery from and for the top, while the poor have continued to experience greater social fragmentation, weakened social programs, and long-term unemployment. This has all been cemented by Obama’s own policies.

So while avoiding asset bubbles and reducing income inequality are laudable goals it is highly questionable that Obama — who has embraced an austerity agenda — will come close to achieving either.

UPDATE: Miles Kimball on Twitter points me toward Anat Admati’s suggestion of implementing bank capital requirements to make bubbles less damaging. This is a very fair suggestion, because it is a stabiliser that does not lean on the idea of eliminating bubbles, but the idea of limiting their impact. Obviously, rules can be gamed, but if implemented properly it could systematically limit the size of bubbles, by cutting off the fuel of leverage.

Judge, Jury & Executioner

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I’ve criticised Rand Paul in the past on a few issues, but none of my previous doubts and nitpicks can dilute the sheer brilliance of his almost-thirteen-hour filibuster.

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The absurdity of the legal framework built up by the Bush and Obama administrations was a house of cards for Paul to poke at and watch crumble. Paul’s key question is does Obama believe he can order the killing of an American citizen, on American soil, based on nothing more than his own judgment that the person is a threat?

Under the Fifth Amendment, suspects are entitled to the due process of law:

No person shall be held to answer for a capital, or otherwise infamous crime, unless on a presentment or indictment of a Grand Jury, except in cases arising in the land or naval forces, or in the Militia, when in actual service in time of War or public danger; nor shall any person be subject for the same offense to be twice put in jeopardy of life or limb; nor shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself, nor be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation.

And how can any President claim that his own judgment, or that of his Attorney General counts as the due process of law? The targeted drone killings that have occurred in foreign lands — and which Holder admits could theoretically occur on American soil — are very simply extrajudicial killings. And extrajudicial killings are utterly barbaric, incompatible with modern civilisation, incompatible with any notion of human rights or due process, and incompatible with the Constitution.

The status quo evolved very much out of post-9/11 paranoia, as exemplified by Dick Durbin’s Cheneyesque questions aimed at Paul toward the end of the Filibuster, and by Eric Holder’s initial written response referencing Pearl Harbour and 9/11:

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Neither Rand Paul nor myself are suggesting that an attempted violent attack should not be stopped using necessary means (although not excessive means). But if an act of terror has not commenced (and even in many cases where an act of terror has commenced) it should be possible to arrest and question a suspect, rather than killing them. If a suspect can be arrested, charged and tried, there should be no reason why that should not happen.  And unless an act of terror has actively commenced, or unless a suspect can be convicted beyond reasonable doubt in a court of law the government’s suspicion is only a suspicion, and the government has absolutely no business detaining or punishing a suspect.

After 9/11, due process was effectively suspended, and for all of Obama’s lip-service to “change”, this mindset prevailed through his first and into his second administration. Rand Paul’s dogged, tireless questioning — as well as the work of questioners in the media such as Glenn Greenwald, Conor Friedersdorf, Spencer Ackerman, and Micah Zenko —  is acting as a catalyst to break the public and governmental mindset that allowed for the suspension of due process. Due process matters. If it hasn’t been proven that someone has broken the law why should they be punished for it? As humans we have inalienable rights. The fear of terrorism does not trump the right to be tried under the presumption of innocence.

The strength of Rand Paul’s argument means that defenders of the status quo have had to resort to spurious or ad hominem arguments to mount a defence of the President’s position — attacking Paul’s positions on other issues, for example. It was encouraging to see Rand Paul questioning the entire notion of targeted killings and signature strikes altogether, and not just worrying about the prospect of such affairs on American soil. Due process is preferable in all circumstances.  I would have preferred to see Osama bin Laden captured and tried, rather than killed.  Due process is not a sign of moral weakness, but a sign of cultural strength, of sanity, of civilisation.

The Obama administration must eventually understand that their position is untenable. Large swathes of the mainstream media are coming around to the idea that Rand Paul is asking important questions and that due process is more important than national security panic and threat inflation. Paul has struck a blow for the Constitution at the right moment, and to a judicial edifice that has become bloated and corrupt, treating too-big-to-fail bankers with impunity, while coming down like a tonne of bricks on minor intellectual property infractions. He has harnessed the image of a lone filibustering Senator standing up to the machine of the establishment to strike a blow to those who are trying to defend the indefensible. At the very least, Rand Paul has made real oversight of the drone program possible. Hopefully, the days of signature strikes and of targeted killings are numbered. Hopefully, the Constitution and Bill of Rights will reign supreme again in Washington D.C.

Explaining The WTI-Brent Spread Divergence

Something totally bizarre has happened in the last three years. Oil in America has become much, much cheaper than oil in Europe. Oil in America is now almost $30 cheaper than oil in Europe.

This graph is the elephant in the room:

3 year brent spread

And this graph shows how truly historic a move this has been:

brent-WTI-spread

Why?

The ostensible reason for this is oversupply in America. That’s right — American oil companies have supposedly been producing much, much more than they can sell:

This is hilarious if prices weren`t so damn high, but despite a robust export market for finished products, crude oil is backing up all the way to Cushing, Oklahoma, and is only going to get worse in 2013.

Now that Enterprise Products Partners LLP has let the cat out of the bag that less than a month after expanding the Seaway pipeline capacity to 400,000 barrels per day, The Jones Creek terminal has storage capacity of 2.6 million barrels, and it is basically maxed out in available storage.

But there’s something fishy about this explanation. I don’t know for sure about the underlying causality — and it is not impossible that the oil companies are acting incompetently — but are we really supposed to believe that today’s oil conglomerates in America are so bad at managing their supply chain that they will oversupply the market to such an extent that oil sells at a 25% discount on the price in Europe? Even at an expanded capacity, is it really so hard for oil producers to shut down the pipeline, and clear inventories until the price rises so that they are at least not haemorrhaging such a huge chunk of potential profit on every barrel of oil they are selling? I mean, that’s what corporations do (or at least, what they’re supposed to do) — they manage the supply chain to maximise profit.

To me, this huge disparity seems like funny business. What could possibly be making US oil producers behave so ridiculously, massively non-competitively?

The answer could be government intervention. Let’s not forget that the National Resource Defence Preparedness Order gives the President and the Department of Homeland Security the authority to:

(c)  be prepared, in the event of a potential threat to the security of the United States, to take actions necessary to ensure the availability of adequate resources and production capability, including services and critical technology, for national defense requirements;

(d)  improve the efficiency and responsiveness of the domestic industrial base to support national defense requirements; and

(e)  foster cooperation between the defense and commercial sectors for research and development and for acquisition of materials, services, components, and equipment to enhance industrial base efficiency and responsiveness.

And the ability to:

(e)  The Secretary of each resource department, when necessary, shall make the finding required under section 101(b) of the Act, 50 U.S.C. App. 2071(b).  This finding shall be submitted for the President’s approval through the Assistant to the President and National Security Advisor and the Assistant to the President for Homeland Security and Counterterrorism.  Upon such approval, the Secretary of the resource department that made the finding may use the authority of section 101(a) of the Act, 50 U.S.C. App. 2071(a), to control the general distribution of any material (including applicable services) in the civilian market.

My intuition is that it is possible that oil companies may have been advised (or ordered) under the NDRP (or under the 1950 Defense Production Act) to keep some slack in the supply chain in case of a war, or other national or global emergency. This would provide a capacity buffer in addition to the Strategic Petroleum Reserve.

If that’s the case, the question we need to ask is what does the US government know that other governments don’t? Is this just a prudent measure to reduce the danger of a resource or energy shock, or does the US government have some specific information of a specific threat?

The other possible explanation, of course, is ridiculous incompetence on the part of US oil producers. Which, I suppose, is almost believable in the wake of Deepwater Horizon…

America Loves Drone Strikes

This graph shows everything we need to know about the geopolitical reality of Predator Drones (coming soon to the skies of America to hunt down fugitives?).

The American public loves drone strikes:

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The American public does not approve of the extrajudicial killing of American citizens. But for everyone else, it’s open season.

But everyone else — most particularly and significantly, the countries in the Muslim world — largely hates and resents drone strikes.

And it is the Muslim world that produces the radicalised extremists who commit acts like 9/11, 7/7, the Madrid bombings, and the Bali bombings.  With this outpouring of contempt for America’s drone strikes, many analysts are coming to believe that Obama’s drone policy is now effectively a recruitment tool for al-Qaeda, the Taliban and similar groups:

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Indeed, evidence is beginning to coalesce to suggest exactly this. PressTV recently noted:

The expanding drone war in Yemen, which often kills civilians, does in fact cause blowback and help al-Qaeda recruitment – as attested to by numerous Yemen experts, investigative reporting on the ground, polling, testimony from Yemen activists, and the actual fact that recent bungled terrorist attacks aimed at the U.S. have cited such drone attacks as motivating factors.

After another September drone strike that killed 13 civilians, a local Yemeni activist told CNN, “I would not be surprised if a hundred tribesmen joined the lines of al-Qaeda as a result of the latest drone mistake. This part of Yemen takes revenge very seriously.”

“Our entire village is angry at the government and the Americans,” a Yemeni villager named Mohammed told the Post. “If the Americans are responsible, I would have no choice but to sympathize with al-Qaeda because al-Qaeda is fighting America.”

Many in the U.S. intelligence community also believe the drone war is contributing to the al-Qaeda presence in Yemen. Robert Grenier, who headed the CIA’s counter-terrorism center and was previously a CIA station chief in Pakistan, told The Guardian in June that he is “very concerned about the creation of a larger terrorist safe haven in Yemen.”

“We have gone a long way down the road of creating a situation where we are creating more enemies than we are removing from the battlefield,” he said regarding drones in Yemen.

Iona Craig reports that civilian casualties from drone strikes “have emboldened al-Qaeda” and cites the reaction to the 2009 U.S. cruise missile attack on the village of al-Majala in Yemen that killed more than 40 civilians (including 21 children):

That one bombing radicalized the entire area,” Abdul Gh ani al-Iryani, a Yemeni political analyst, said. “All the men and boys from those families and tribes will have joined [al-Qaeda] to fight.

And al-Qaeda’s presence and support in Yemen has grown, not shrunk since the start of the targeted killing program:

Meanwhile Yemen Central Security Force commander Brig. Gen. Yahya Saleh, nephew of ousted president Ali Abdullah Saleh, told Abdul-Ahad that al-Qaeda has more followers, money, guns and territory then they did a year and a half ago.

All at a time when Yemen is facing a “catastrophic” food crisis, with at least 267,000 children facing life-threatening levels of malnutrition. Hunger has doubled since 2009, and the number of displaced civilians is about 500,000 and rising.

As U.S. drones drop bombs on south Yemen villages and AQAP provides displaced civilians with “free electricity, food and water,” tribes in the area are becoming increasingly sympathetic to AQAP.

Let’s be intellectually honest. If a country engages in a military program that carries out strikes that kill hundreds of civilians — many of whom having no connection whatever with terrorism or radicalism — that country is going to become increasingly hated. People in the countries targeted — those who may have lost friends, or family members — are going to plot revenge, and take revenge. That’s just how war works. It infuriates. It radicalises. It instils hatred.

The reality of Obama’s drone program is to create new generations of America-hating radicalised individuals, who may well go on to be the next Osama bin Laden, the next Ayman al-Zawahiri, the next Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. The reality for Obama’s drone program is that it is sowing the seeds for the next 9/11 — just as American intervention in the middle east sowed the seeds for the last, as Osama bin Laden readily admitted.

Soaring Debt Precedes Financial Crises…

Things don’t look so good for China:

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Will we see a Chinese financial meltdown in 2013? Or 2014? Or 2015? With global GDP growth on a definite trend downward, with such a tepid Western recovery, and with global geopolitical tensions still high, the last thing the global economy needs is a financial crisis at the heart of the BRIC growth engine. But the data implies that that may just be what we get.

To those who believe that China is immune to such a thing, recall that America suffered the Great Depression immediately previous to becoming a global superpower. China’s economy has undergone a rapid transformation in recent years:

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Such a transformation is sure to necessitate some dislocation and fallout — just as America’s transformation from an agricultural to a manufacturing economy did. America ended that process as the global superpower. It remains to be seen if the same will happen for China, but controlling the world’s largest productive industrial base certainly suggests so. The other factor, of course, that presaged America’s rise was a global war

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.

The Platinum Coin

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Is this how the debt ceiling issue will be resolved?

Last year, Republicans in Congress resisted lifting the debt ceiling until the last minute — and then only in exchange for spending cuts. Panic ensued. So what happens if there’s another showdown this year?

Enter the platinum coins. Thanks to an odd loophole in current law, the U.S. Treasury is technically allowed to mint as many coins made of platinum as it wants and can assign them whatever value it pleases.

Under this scenario, the U.S. Mint would produce (say) a pair of trillion-dollar platinum coins. The president orders the coins to be deposited at the Federal Reserve. The Fed then moves this money into Treasury’s accounts. And just like that, Treasury suddenly has an extra $2 trillion to pay off its obligations for the next two years — without needing to issue new debt. The ceiling is no longer an issue.

It seems to be entirely in accordance with the letter (if not the spirit) of the law. So while it is more likely that Boehner and Obama (the Boner-Droner connection) will work something out (as they did on the “fiscal cliff”, and in 2011 on the debt ceiling), the Platinum Coin Option is the ace up Obama’s sleeve if negotiations break down.

I don’t think it would have any real immediate effects different to just raising the debt ceiling through an Act of Congress. It is just opening a loophole to continue doing what America has been doing for the last four years (and Japan for the last twenty) — aggressively offsetting the private debt deleveraging with public debt.

The American government is a strange, multi-headed creature. One of its (partially private) heads — the Federal Reserve — retains the exclusive right (delegated from the Treasury by an Act of Congress) to create money. The rest of the American government pretends to be revenue-constrained, and subject to a debt ceiling.

This is obviously a charade. If one part of the government is not subject to a debt ceiling, then none of the government is subject to a debt ceiling. Loopholes — whether they are platinum coins, or something else — can be found.

The key component of any fiat system is trust. What the Platinum Coin Option would demonstrate is a lack of coherency and a state of fiscal disarray, which could easily in the longer term lead to a loss of trust, and further moves — beyond those already initiated by the BRIC nations — away from the dollar as a reserve currency.