Chinese Chaos is the Immediate Threat to the Dollar

In twenty or thirty years, I expect future monetary historians looking back on this period of history to frequently misquote Ernest Hemingway:

How did the dollar die? First it died slowly — then all at once.

The slow death began with the dollar’s birth as a global reserve currency. America was creditor and manufacturer to the world, and the capitalist superpower. People around the globe transacted overwhelmingly in dollars. Above all else, people needed dollars to conduct trade, and they were willing to pay richly for them, and for dollar-denominated debt .

By the ’90s America began enjoying a tremendous free lunch — the world provided America with goods, resources and services, and Americans provided the global reserve currency, as well as acting as world military policing global shipping. Why manufacture at home, or produce resources at home when the world wants your currency? To get what you want, all you have to do is run your printing press — which was much easier after 1971, when Nixon ended the gold exchange standard. In a flat free-trade world, supply chains and technology agglomerated wherever the labour was cheapest, which was predominantly Asia. So America let her industrial base and her domestic supply webs degenerate, to enjoy the free lunch that the dollar brought:

The next leg of the story is that foreigners realised that actually maybe the necessity of the dollar was an illusion. With America no longer the world’s manufacturer or creditor, who needs America? If you need a consumer, there are billions of people and trillions of dollars, and trillions of dollars worth of resources in Asia, and South America, and Europe. America’s government is deeply-indebted, and its military is bogged-down in difficult conflicts around the world.

As Ron Paul noted:

We are like a man who used to be rich and is in the habit of paying for everybody’s meals and announces at a lavish dinner that he will pay the bill, only to then turn to the fellow sitting nearby and say, “Can I use your credit card? I will pay you back!”

While fund managers continue to refer to the dollar and the US treasury as a safe haven, America’s sovereign creditors seem to feel quite differently.

As Zhang Jianhua of the People’s Bank of China put it:

No asset is safe now. The only choice to hedge risks is to hold hard currency — gold.

The shift away from the dollar has quickly manifested itself in bilateral and multilateral agreements between nations to ditch the dollar for bilateral and multilateral trade, beginning with the chief antagonists China and Russia, and continuing through Iran, India, Japan, Brazil, and Saudi Arabia.

So the ground seems to have fallen out from beneath the petrodollar world order.

Yet at the same time, the powers moving away from the dollar have a lot invested in the system. The two biggest sovereign holders of US treasuries are Japan and China. China alone holds $3 trillion of US currency, and $1 trillion of debt. They have no reason to crash the value of their own assets. Their planned endgame appears to be a slow, phased and managed transition to a new global reserve currency. China wants to gradually reduce their exposure to America, transferring to harder assets.

Yet history rarely turns out how nations have planned, and China itself seems increasingly beset with domestic problems.

From Bloomberg:

China’s biggest banks may fall short of loan targets for the first time in at least seven years as an economic slowdown crimps demand for credit, three bank officials with knowledge of the matter said.

A decline in lending in April and May means it’s likely the banks’ total new loans for 2012 will be about 7 trillion yuan ($1.1 trillion), less than an estimated government goal of 8 trillion yuan to 8.5 trillion yuan, said one of the officials, declining to be identified because the person isn’t authorized to speak publicly. Banks are relying on small and mid-sized companies for loan growth after demand from the biggest state- owned borrowers dropped, the people said.

The drying up of loan demand attests to the severity of China’s slowdown and may add pressure on Premier Wen Jiabao to cut interest rates and expand stimulus measures. The economy may grow in 2012 at its slowest pace in 13 years, a Bloomberg News survey showed last week, as Europe’s debt crisis curbs exports, manufacturing shrinks and demand for new homes wanes.

China may be a manufacturing powerhouse, and the spider at the heart of global trade, but its domestic and social order looks in a state of disarray, pock-marked with ghost citiesindustrial accidents and ecological disasters. And throwing stimulus money into an economy already recording screeching inflation will be like throwing fuel onto a fire.

As the Chinese (and wider Asian) economic picture becomes bleaker, pressure will grow on politicians to take more drastic and rash measures. They may try to rally the disaffected behind them with an increasingly confrontational nationalistic attitude to America. And unable to match America militarily, their major outlet would be economic warfare — competitive devaluation, threats, tariffs, export controls, and an all-out assault on the dollar reserve standard. Additionally, American policymakers also encumbered with huge economic problems may look to economic warfare as policy — the standout example is Mitt Romney’s desire to brand China as a currency manipulator for accumulating US treasuries and impose tariffs, even while the Treasury upgrades the PBOC to primary dealer status.

This brewing firestorm suggests that rather than the gradual transition that all parties claim to desire we are likely to see a much faster and more volatile one. I don’t know which straw will break the camel’s back, but it is likely to come sooner, rather than later. First slowly — now all at once.

71 thoughts on “Chinese Chaos is the Immediate Threat to the Dollar

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  3. My gut instinct tells me that quite the contrary, in case of chaos in China, most other countries will retrench even further into dollars and treasuries. How can you claim to overthrow the current reserve currency with your country in chaos?

    • I see where you’re coming from, but let me speculate a little.

      How can you claim to overthrow the current reserve currency with your country in chaos?

      Well China can throw the US system into chaos by dumping treasuries. Maybe they would be looking for some favourable concessions and deals? (Of course, I do not think Romney or Obama would blink, at least not at first).

      • I don’t know; that would be quite a stupid thing for them to do. It would be seen as an act of aggression (which would put into doubt their standing on the global political scene) – not to mention that the market is probably deep enough to absorb 1 trillion especially when fear dominates and there would be even more potential buyers for this product from an at least relatively stable country (the devil they know).

        • But we know for sure they were engaged in exactly this behaviour last summer, which is why the USA gave over the concession of primary dealer status (and associated savings) to the PBOC.

        • To add something; I find flawed the description of the Chinese as a people with a propensity for rioting. Fuck that. With 1.3 billion people there will be riots from time to time for various reasons. Quite the contrary; Bill Bonner was marveled in one of his book at the shit the Chinese were willing to take under Mao especially when the specialists tell us the Chinese tend to have an above average intelligence. Also, their latest economic revival under a centrally planned economy attests to their non-riotous nature. While Mao ordered them to go and make a revolution and they listened, Deng Xiaoping and his successors ordered them to go and make profits and work hard and that’s what they did. You see: it’s much harder to do this in countries like Greece or my country (probably both for cultural/historical reasons but also probably due to human nature-related issues). So I don’t see chaos in China unless they really screw up.

        • My gut instinct about that primary dealer thing: it has nothing to do with combative behavior on the part of China, but more likely something they requested – to pursue their current global agenda (something more friendly than not, requested by them to strengthen the bonds with the US). They realize that they’re too weak and not very credible on their own at the moment so it’s in their interest to strengthen the Chimerica bond even further for the time being. Just a hunch.

        • By the way, by “chaos”, I don’t necessarily really mean riots. I mean economic meltdown, bursting bubbles, credit contraction. That alone is chaotic, and will pressure the leadership.

          Also I’d say China is one of the most modest nations on Earth, and probably one of the very few that projects less power internationally than they really have. When you are a monopoly on certain resources, and certain components, and certain products, and certain manufacturing processes that is a lot of power and credibility in itself.

          They are playing the old Sun Tzu trick:

          Pretend inferiority and encourage his arrogance.

        • And I would say, a sign of intelligence. Only a fool would raise his sword – an intelligent person knows this never ends well and would use his advantages in other ways.

        • People do stupid things sometimes under pressure. Even seasoned politicians and technocrats.

          Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the face

          Mike Tyson

          This is massive speculation,but maybe it’s stupid like a fox. Maybe America is totally castrated. Maybe Ian Bremmer doesn’t go far enough with G0. Maybe ASEAN is the new G8.

          What use is technological military superiority when you are dependent on Chinese supply chains?

  4. The USD has been moribund for 40 years. This is the final scene in the USD’s timeline. No clutching at straws in a vain attempt to evade the inevitability of its final demise can save it. But those who continue to run from the truth as they cling hopelessly and neurotically to their USD/A-centric world view are about to bite the dust harder than most. As they run blindly to their worthless USD, they reject the very store of value that has been earmarked as the one and only true place to store and represent wealth. You have been warned. (I know you simply do not possess the emotional or intellectual resources to heed that warning, and must continue eyes-closed to seek reassurance in self-delusion)
    ‘How Oil is set to Reveal the True Value of Physical (and paper) Gold’

      • It might take longer than some expect, if only due to inertia, cultural issues (dollars are widely recognizable and accepted throughout the world), the “tallest midget in the room thing”, the financial infrastructure currently in place, and many other points that could be made. And let’s not forget the US is not really economically dead. The brightest spot right now is the shale gas/oil “revolution” going on (the oil part seems more useful – the gas apparently will be gone much sooner than some would expect, kicking the butts of those who will have just transitioned their systems to work on natural gas).

      • As you rightly assert, the intrinsically valueless paper/electronic USD has been afforded honorary (and illegitimate) value only by its Oil-backing, secured by the Kissinger-Saudi deal back in the 1970s. The proof that the USD is dead is that it has lost its Oil-backing. Russia, China, Iran, Venezuela, etc (now even Japan) daily reach bi/multi-lateral agreements to trade free of that burden on fair trade, that thieving tax, the USD. Daily another string is cut, daily the last breath is closer. It matters not so much the time or day of that final breath. The illness is terminal; the process accelerating (see USA govt, ie taxpayer, backstopping derivatives markets crime); the USA despair (start a war) ever more palpable but futile. You know what you need to do to protect yourself. You must show those who don’t yet understand just what they, too, need to do.

  5. Inflation in China has slowed due to the economic contraction. But that’s also a problematic as unemployment rises and what was once perceived as wealth turns out to be just bad debt. So the Chinese just like everyone else will print money and lots of it. Banks will be bailed out. A few will be sentenced to death as “examples.” And nothing will change. They will get inflation with no accompanying economic growth (real estate is the easiest and last bubbly you can blow – just ask the Western world). You will see more and more protests and riots covered up by the Chinese government in the following years. Until it all blows up spectacularly in an orgy of scapegoating and recrimination. There is a reason why all the Chinese wealthy have an escape plan to some western nation.

    Don’t put too much faith in Chinese authorities. They are all mostly incompetent, corrupt, and lazy scoundrels. Just like every other authority in the world. Regional politics predominate and Hu Jintao or whatever syphillitic dickhead they put on top of the 2 inch shaft can’t do a shitty thing about it. Do not expect them to guide their nation or any other nation through difficult times.

    • You will see more and more protests and riots covered up by the Chinese government in the following years.

      I agree with Andrei; the Chinese people are actually very submissive. I don’t really have any faith in the Chinese authorities. But through Confucian principles they have played the last twenty years vastly better than the West.

      • The Chinese people are no more or less submissive than any other nation or civilization. They simply want food on the table at the end of the day. If they are provided with the food or at least expectation that their will be food, then they will be content. But when prices start to rise and the economy slumps, people will have difficulty getting the food. They will be left with no other option but to revolt. That is not to say it will happen tomorrow or the following year, but it will happen. The anger and resentment among the common population working under slave conditions is tremendous. Their class inequality makes the US look like an egalitarian utopia. You have to be their to understand it.

        Chinese culture talks about a mandate of heaven that gives power and legitimacy to the rulers. If the rulers abuse such power, the heavenly mandate is no longer bestowed upon the ruler and is given to another. This may just be propaganda for one dictator after another, but this idea that the heaven will choose new leaders if the previous no longer is suitable runs deep.

        • Actually, they are. Have you studied all civilizations and nations? In Greece currently, not having a minimum wage of EUR 1300 is apparently cause for riots.

        • I would not think of this trait as merely being submissive. It runs deeper than that. It should also include descriptive terms like acquiescence/quietness/compassion/foresight/higher sense of community – things that are evident in their philosophy (ancient) as well – and distinctly absent from the Western one. These are things also common to other peoples living in that area (Japan, etc.).

        • Yeah. I mean, the real simple way of putting this is given that China can probably feed itself and (with some help from Iran and Russia) power itself, and given that the current crop of leaders have pushed China into a global manufacturing powerhouse, I think the “heavenly mandate” is working out pretty well for a majority of the people. Certainly, better than under Mao. I sense they fear a new revolution because of the grotesque effects of the last one.

        • What has happened in Greece? A bunch of kids with nothing to do camp outside for a few days where afterwards nothing has changed? The same policies are in place? They don’t have enough skin in the game yet to demand for real revolt. Why? Because they are still spoon fed by their government. Its nice theatrics, but that ain’t a real riot. You didn’t see any tanks on the street did you?

          Of course they have enough food to feed themselves. The world has enough food to feed the 7 billion people on this planet cause if it couldn’t then their wouldn’t be 7 billion people there would be less. Its the production and distribution of the food that face disruption. Also they are losing arable land. Their water tables are quickly used up or polluted. They are trying to expand into the surrounding pacific rim and Africa. But systemic shocks will hurt. And a failing global monetary system is a pretty bid shock.

          I’m not saying China will not come out of this as the world leader. They most likely will after the choas. But like the US coming out of the Great Depression, it will hurt. Alot.

        • Really hungry people don’t riot. They are too exhausted. People only riot when ring leaders get well fed but frustrated youths to riot. Where does rioting get you? Nowhere!

          Look at the Egyptian Spring. Not one left wing politician backed by the rioters got voted in.

          The Chinese will not riot. They will suffer if the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) says they must tow the line for the end game. I watch CCTV and all I see is patriotism, new factories, basically nationalist propaganda.

          The ones who think fo themselves have fled for the West already, and taken their ill gotten wealth with them..

          The USD will survive, they will balance the budget and get back on track. If they focus!

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  7. Good article. Like you say, no-one holding dollars has any interest in crashing it’s value, rather they’ll plan to ease out of into other forms of assets. The final goal would probably be a gold backed Yuan, but the Chinese are patient.

    However, they may have miscalculated with their domestic economy. The house building and fixed asset boom they’ve gone through is totally un-equaled in history. Surelly that goose is well and trully stuffed by now.
    There’s really no such thing as a soft landing in property crashes, especially with massive unsold inventories hanging around.
    Even with that huge pile of foreign cash and high savings rates, the room for more stimulus is shrinking.

    It’s interesting the Economist magazine, which has predicted 12 of the last zero China slowdowns, is all bearish about them now, despite the undeniable evidence of a economic weakening. That seems a fairly decent contrary indicator to me.

    • Do you mean bullish? Haha, I think you do. The opposite of whatever the Economist says on X, Y or Z is quite often (but certainly not always) a good contrarian indicator.

      It’s not like I am bearish on China, not really. Even in spite of all the ghost cities and malinvestment they have transformed themselves into creditor and manufacturer to the world. That’s what being the engine of productivity does — they are the next superpower. But America herself went through a hellish depression just prior to becoming the next superpower. And a war.

      • Yeah, sorry, bullish.
        And I agree, china will become stronger in the long run, but…
        People were saying Japan had won the peace in the eighties, and supposedly far-sighted experts were insisting their kids learnt japanese. We know how that turned out. 2 decades later frauds are still being uncovered, and Kyle Bass’s bet may pay out one day.

        Furthermore, like Japan, theres the demographic aspect. China is ageing rapidly. Thats going to start really kicking in 10 years hence.

        And the Chinese may be a long suffering, submissive lot, but once the perception that the rulers have lost the “mandate of heaven” becomes poplular, things have historically slid out of control very quickly. Especially when you factor in the rocketing in-equalities, the absence of a welfare state or health system, and, not least, the shocking gender imbalance, (no pussy for poor guys?), there are a lot of weaknesses baked into China’s system.

        • The common answer to the Japan comparison is that when Japan reached its apex, its entire society was fully developed (urbanization, literacy, education, participation in the economy etc.). China still has a lot of catch-up to do (hundreds of millions outside the “system”) – meaning still has a lot of population that needs to catch-up.

        • And the Chinese may be a long suffering, submissive lot, but once the perception that the rulers have lost the “mandate of heaven” becomes poplular, things have historically slid out of control very quickly.

          Yes, this is an interesting point and something to watch out for. At the same time, China can feed itself pretty well, and they are the world leaders in manufacturing . The only thing they lack is energy, although they have a lot of domestic coal, they want for oil. At the same time, their close ideological allies Russia and Iran have plenty. And they are introducing socialist healthcare to placate the hoards.

          As for Kyle Bass, I think his black swan bet will pay off. Eventually. Japan are the masters of can-kicking, Bernanke has nothing on them. Bass may lose a lot of small bets before he gets his big hit, but he will be patient. He’s a smart guy.

        • Don’t forget: China has a lot of solar capacity on the Tibetan plateau and also supposedly the second largest reserves of shale/gas oil in the world – although they’re not currently being exploited very much (AFAIK).

        • PS: Perhaps there is a technological limit that a country can reach given a current population. Japan’s GDP/USA’s GDP is a ratio that is not very far from the ratio of their respective populations.

        • Yes, shale gas might be a real global game changer. And solar, and offshore wind.
          Being less dependant on Russians and Arabs can’t be a bad thing.
          Slightly off topic, but Fukishima could blow the entire asian pacific seaboard off the map of humanly inhabitable places. One big earthquake, and it’s goodbye.

        • Yeah, I heard they are working out a contingency plan with China to move their population to their interior ghost cities if it all goes bang. Sounds outlandish, but you always need a contingency plan.

  8. Another really good read, Aziz, thanks. Having just returned from France and the UK back to America, once again it has hit me in the face just how low is the level of what passes for public discourse here. (and how enormous the people are…) There can’t be more than one person in a hundred here who is aware of these trends which will undermine the very foundation of the “American Way.”

    There are six pages of comment and opinion in The Guardian every day, most all of it worth reading. Even the tabloids are veritable fonts of wisdom compared to what we have in the way of newspapers here. And then just when you think things can’t get any dumber, along comes Mitt Romney with one of his priceless gems, like his recent declaration that when he’s in charge America will triumph militarily over the Taliban. What was your line about him, the “Archangel of American Imperial Decline?” He just keeps soaring….

    Bad as things are, America still has the advantages of lots of good farmland, wild places, and a country that is less used-up than most others. Like a fading beauty who still manages to get by on her looks. The Chinese elites want to run away to America. Nobody wants to run to China. So we’ll probably muddle through, somehow. I just wish there was more intelligent life here.

    • The more I think about Mitt Romney, the more likely I think he is to win the election, and be empowered to freely obliterate what remains of the American empire.

      • If Mitt was a Christian, he’d be a shoe-in. He still ought to be considered favourite. It’s awful that a leveraged buyout, asset stripping job exporter and foreign affairs wingnut could win the presidency in this day and age.

        But thats America. Dumbed down, dominated by the 1%, with a political “left” more interested in gay marriage than economic justice. I find it scary, and I never used to.

        • I don’t engage with the left as much as I used to, but it really makes my brain whirr when American “leftists” are like “GO OBAMA!! GAY MARRIAGE ROCKS!!” and I will be like “but…. he continued the Bush bailouts and the Bush wars, and signed the NDAA” and they are like “WHY DO YOU HATE GAY PEOPLE?????”

        • Haha.
          Yeah. And he bent over as far as any leader, anywhere, for Wall Street, but they hate him and revile him as a class warrior because he didn’t praise them highly enough.

          The worst thing is, if Obama loses, the republicans will think they were right to oppose everything a democrat president does, and the democrats will think they lost because they weren’t pro-rich enough.

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  10. Aziz,

    The ignorance of some bloggers never ceases to amaze me.

    2008 was the beginning of an extinction level event of THE DOLLAR BASED BRETTON WOODS MONETARY AGREEMENT,or more specifically,the fiat floating exchange rate enacted on Aug 15,1971.40 years of profligacy and endless conflict has finally caught up with us.

    Why on earth would any reasonable,informed citizen or nation put ANY faith in U.S. bonds or dollars?

    First,At 0%,the yield of investment is below the real rate of inflation!The value of the currency is being destroyed to mitigate this vicous cycle of debt that we WILL NOT be able to exit.Savers are being destroyed,banks refuse to lend to small business,and the OTC derivatives of the primary dealers-$1.5 quadrillion of them- continue to function without the slightest amount of concern.

    The pump priming of Bernanke and his ilk has been a miserable failure.None of the desired effects have been realized. All of the newly created paper has nowhere to go now,so it is looking for speculative,high risk investment,which continues to destroy price discovery and exacerbate the unrest associated with geopolitical instability.What Zhang Jianhua said is spot on.

    Second,As your piece stated,nations are shunning fiat dollars for hard money,i.e. precious metals.Whether Americans like it or not,gold and silver are moving toward the global monetary system not away from it.Even here in the States change is afoot.Utah now recognizes Gold and Silver as legal tender and MO,IL,SC et al will soon follow suit.

    The advanced economies of the West have created an economic model that is beyond saving.GLOBALIZATION HAS DESTROYED CAPITALISM.The entire world now has to cater to 3 billion people who subsist on less than $3 dollars/day and work for free(APPLE and its FOXCONN mfg subsidiary comes to mind).And China’s economic dominance is finished.By pegging the RMB to the dollar and destroying the wage and labor standards of its export markets,China can’t risk out of control inflation by printing more RMB to address its current economic issues and it can’t prop up the trading partners it destroyed.Ain’t life grand!

    The crushing decline in wages and savings being felt in the West combined with deregulated financials, billions in fraudulent MBS still on the Fed’s balance sheet,insolvent institutions,a distorted supply and demand metric,peak oil,QE to infinity,capital controls, and indebted governments around the world ensures more currency wars and a hyperinflationary event within the next 10 years.Having the largest economy(only in manipulated GDP numbers),the strongest military,plentiful acres of rich farmland,and resources like oil and gold matter little when the global medium of exchange-the dollar-is rendered worthless by a paralyzed,bought and paid for Congress and an insulated elitist class with nothing invested in the future of humanity other than the continued extraction of its wealth.

    • @ Scott Wolf “All of the newly created paper has nowhere to go now,so it is looking for speculative,high risk investment,which continues to destroy price discovery ”

      Precisely why I am not in any US equities, US Government Bonds, nor US Real estate. I just don’t know what the market price is!

  11. Who’s to say that part of the 700 trillion in derivatives is not a Chinese put on the USD and UST with trusted foreign banks? I don’t see how they would really hurt themselves in the financial markets. They would hurt themselves in trade, but not in the financial markets.

    In my opinion, the weak link in the USD reserve status is the Saudis, not the Chinese. If for some reason the Saudis refuse USD for oil, game over, man!

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  17. “…hold hard currency — gold” is becoming a reality worldwide. I have invested most of my savings in gold and silver, but I’ve also spent enough to carry me over for at least one year in canned food. When inflation hits (bigger than now) then I’ll be able to survive.

    Economic warfare usually does turn into military warfare so the Chinese may not have the right game plan after all.

    • Invest in honey. It never spoils and is a source of energy is tasty sweet and a luxury. Surely it is a commodity that holds its value. If general inflation holds up it will rise in price.

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