The Platinum Coin

plat_liberty_fron

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.

Should the Rich Pay More Taxes?

It’s a multi-dimensional question.

The left says yes — income inequality has soared in recent years, and the way to address it (supposedly) is to tax the rich and capital gains at a higher rate. The right says no — that the rich already create more jobs and wealth, because they spend more money, and why (supposedly) should they pay more tax when they already pay far higher figures than lower-income workers?

Paul Krugman made the point yesterday that the tax rate on the top earners during the post-war boom was 91%, seeming to infer that a return to such rates would be good for the economy.

Yet if we want to raise more revenue, historically it doesn’t really seem to matter what the top tax rate is:

Federal revenues have hovered close to 20% of GDP whatever the tax rate on the richest few.

This seems to be because of what is known as the Laffer-Khaldun effect: the higher rates go, the more incentive for tax avoidance and tax evasion.

And while income inequality has risen in recent years, the top-earners share of tax revenue has risen in step:

So the richest 1% are already contributing around 40% of the tax revenue, taxed on their 34% share of the national income. And even if the Treasury collected every cent the top 1% earned, America would still be running huge deficits.

Yet the Occupy movement are still angry. A large majority of Americans believe the richest should pay more tax. More and more wealthy Americans — starting with Warren Buffett, and most recently Stephen King are demanding to pay more taxes.

King writes:

At a rally in Florida (to support collective bargaining and to express the socialist view that firing teachers with experience was sort of a bad idea), I pointed out that I was paying taxes of roughly 28 percent on my income. My question was, “How come I’m not paying 50?”

How come? Well, the data shows pretty clearly that it’s unlikely that revenues would increase.

They may have a fair point that capital gains above a certain threshold should probably be taxed at the same rate as income, because it is effectively the same thing. And why should government policy encourage investment above labour by taxing one more leniently?

But more simply, people like King think the status quo  is unjust far beyond the taxation structure. A lot of people are unemployed:

A lot of people are earning less than they were five years ago:

28% of homeowners are underwater on their mortgages. Millions of graduates face a mountain of student debt, while stuck in dole queues or in a dead end job like Starbucks.

We live in dark times.

From Reuters:

Nearly 15 percent of people worldwide believe the world will end during their lifetime and 10 percent think the Mayan calendar could signify it will happen in 2012, according to a new poll.

With all this hurt, there’s a lot of anger in society. Those calling for taxing the richest more are not doing the same cost-benefit analysis I am doing that suggests that raising taxes won’t raise more revenue.

But they’re not unfairly looking for a scapegoat, either. While probably the greatest culprits for the problems of recent times are in government Americans are right to be mad at the rich.

Why?

This isn’t about tax. This is about jobs, and growth.

The rich, above and beyond any other group have the ability to ameliorate the economic malaise by spending and creating jobs, creating new products and new wealth. The top 1% control 42% of all financial wealth. But that money isn’t moving very much at all— the velocity of money is at historic lows. It should not be surprising that growth remains depressed and unemployment remains stubbornly high.

And every month that unemployment remains elevated is another month that the job creators are not doing their job. Every month that the malaise festers, the angrier the 99% gets.  It is, I think, in the best interests of the rich to try and create as many jobs and as much wealth as they can.  A divided and angry society, I think, will find it even more difficult to grow and produce.

America needs the richest Americans to pay more tax dollars — but as a side-effect of producing more, and creating growth.

If the private sector doesn’t spend its way out of the current depression, eventually the government will have to, of course. But it can do that with borrowed money, not taxed money.

Sterilised QE Analysis

I write this post rather hesitantly.

From the WSJ:

Federal Reserve officials are considering a new type of bond-buying program designed to subdue worries about future inflation if they decide to take new steps to boost the economy in the months ahead.

Under the new approach, the Fed would print new money to buy long-term mortgage or Treasury bonds but effectively tie up that money by borrowing it back for short periods at low rates. The aim of such an approach would be to relieve anxieties that money printing could fuel inflation later, a fear widely expressed by critics of the Fed’s previous efforts to aid the recovery.

This confirms four important points that relatively few economic commentators have grasped.

First, if QE was intended — as Bernanke always said it was — solely to lower the interest rates on government debt, and force investors into “riskier” assets, rather than to directly stimulate the economy, why were the first two rounds of QE not sterilised? Is Bernanke making it up as he goes along? No — the first two rounds of QE were undoubtedly reflationary:


While the S&P slumped, the monetary base was dramatically increased. This — even as confidence remained weak — allowed the (debt-based) money supply (M2) to keep growing, and thus avoiding Bernanke’s bugbear deflationary spiral.

Second, that Bernanke— unlike Paul Krugman — is concerned about inflation expectations. Given that the money supply could theoretically still triple without any new money printing, I would be too. How might banks respond to an oil shock or some other negative supply shock? We have no real idea. Would all those reserves quickly get lent out, as more and more money chases fewer and fewer goods? We can speculate (I would say this eventuality is quite unlikely) but we just don’t know. Simply, the Fed has created a bed of inflationary dynamite, and we have no real means to predict whether or not it will be set alight, or whether the Fed would be able to temper such an explosion.

Third, that if the Fed is not willing to continue pumping money into the wider economy, the current reinflationary bubble is over. But the money supply has surged ahead of industrial production:


Without a surge in real productivity (I don’t see one coming) price levels will not be sustainable, which may force the Fed back for another round of unsterilised QE.

Fourth, the Fed seems completely and defiantly intent on driving interest rates on Treasury debt into the ground. The supposed justification — that investors are avoiding riskier (but productive) assets seems completely irrelevant. If investors do not want to put their money into equities, they will find a way not to — either by investing in commodities and futures, or in alternative monetary instruments like gold and silver. The real justification — at least for this round of QE — seems to be to cheapen the Treasury’s liabilities, especially in light of the fact that America’s biggest external creditors are getting cold feet. That takes the pressure off the Treasury, but for how long? How much leeway does the Fed have to act as a price ceiling on Treasury debt?

The hope is that the Fed will have much more leeway as a result of sterilised QE. And of course, Bernanke is hoping that there is a real economic recovery down the line so that all these emergency measures can be retired.

The trouble is that the problem in the United States was never that of too little money, but rather that of a broken economy: broken infrastructure, broken energy infrastructure, corporatism, financialisation and diminishing productivity. The Corporatocracy and their cronies in government seem to have no interest in addressing the real problems. That is fundamentally unsustainable — and no amount of QE, or demand for iThingies, NFLX, LULU or corporatist Obamacare will fix it. The real American economy is dependent on foreign goods, foreign energy, foreign components, and foreign resources and there is no guarantee that the free flow of goods and resources will be around forever. In fact, the insistence on not fixing anything — and instead of throwing money at problems — almost guarantees a future breakdown. The era of the American free lunch is over.

What we now know for sure is that the trigger for the coming breakdown is extremely unlikely to be domestic. Bernanke is a can-kicking genius, and will invent new can-kicking apparatuses as they become needed (up to the point of systemic breakdown). America must hope that he — or someone else — has a similar genius for foreign policy, and for negotiating with hostile powers upon which America has rendered herself economically dependent.

Brazil Slams the West’s Currency War

Mitt Romney is not the only global figure to unleash allegations of currency manipulation. In fact, most of the allegations are aimed at America and the West.

From Reuters:

Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff slammed rich nations on Thursday for unleashing a “tsunami” of cheap money that threatened to “cannibalize” poorer countries such as her own, forcing them to act to protect struggling local industries.

Rousseff’s words amounted to some of the highest-profile criticism to date of efforts by the European Central Bank, the Bank of Japan and others to spur their economies through low interest rates and cheap loans.


I just want to flag up Henry Kissinger’s words from his recent Foreign Affairs piece:

The current world order was built largely without Chinese participation, and hence China sometimes feels less bound than others by its rules. Where the order does not suit Chinese preferences, Beijing has set up alternative arrangements, such as in the separate currency channels being established with Brazil and Japan and other countries. If the pattern becomes routine and spreads into many spheres of activity, competing world orders could evolve. Absent common goals coupled with agreed rules of restraint, institutionalized rivalry is likely to escalate beyond the calculations and intentions of its advocates. In an era in which unprecedented offensive capabilities and intrusive technologies multiply, the penalties of such a course could be drastic and perhaps irrevocable.

Competing world orders could evolve? No; competing world orders are a reality, and it seems like Latin America — most obviously Argentina and Venezuela, but now also Brazil, and perhaps even Colombia and Mexico — are moving closer toward the emerging ASEAN bloc, and away from the West.

Ironically, the emerging currency war is as much as anything else a side-effect of Bernanke’s admitted preoccupation with fluffing and puffing up U.S. equities.

And it looks like he’s going to be getting a hand.

From Bloomberg:

The Bank of Israel will begin today a pilot program to invest a portion of its foreign currency reserves in U.S. equities.

The investment, which in the initial phase will amount to 2 percent of the $77 billion reserves, or about $1.5 billion, will be made through UBS AG and BlackRock Inc., Bank of Israel spokesman Yossi Saadon said in a telephone interview today. At a later stage, the investment is expected to increase to 10 percent of the reserves.

Zero Hedge prognosticates:

In other words, while the Fed’s charter forbids it from buying US equities outright, it certainly can promise that it will bail out such bosom friends as the Bank of Israel, the Swiss National Bank, and soon everyone else, if and when their investment in Apple should sour.

Luckily, this means that the exponential phase in risk is approaching as everyone will now scramble to frontrun central bank purchases no longer in bonds, but in stocks outright, leading to epic surges in everything risk related, then collapse and force the Fed to print tens of trillions to bail everyone out all over again, rinse repeat. We say luckily, because it means that the long overdue systemic reset is finally approaching.

Developing nations have a legitimate concern: Western central banks will throw liquidity around to no end to save the status quo. And that means that developing nations will themselves feel they have to compete in order to remain competitive. It’s messy.

No Capitalism on Wall Street

Herman Cain doesn’t understand the #OccupyWallStreet protests.

From ThinkProgress:

CAIN: I don’t have facts to back this up, but I happen to believe that these demonstrations are planned and orchestrated to distract from the failed policies of the Obama administration. Don’t blame Wall Street, don’t blame the big banks, if you don’t have a job and you’re not rich, blame yourself! It is not someone’s fault if they succeeded, it is someone’s fault if they failed.

Really? Wall Street is succeeding? You could have fooled me. The reality is that Wall Street’s largesse since 2008 has been underwritten by government. That’s why it’s so bizarre that Obama and Bernanke — two “system-saving” bailout architects have acknowledged sympathy for the protestors. Some of the protestors might be angry with the present system, and they may call that system capitalism, but there is no way that that is a fair description. As I wrote last month:

If government doesn’t allow banks that made bad decisions to be punished by the market, then the bailed-out zombie banks can rumble on for years, parasitising the taxpayer in the name of ever-greater bonuses for management, while failing to lend money, create new employment, or help the economy grow.

The global financial system isn’t working because there are fundamental structural problems with the global economy. These include over-leverage, the agency problem, trade deficits, failed economic planning, massive debt acquisition, Western over-reliance on foreign oil and goods, military overspending, systemic corruption, fragility and so forth. Stabilising the global financial system merely perpetuates these problems. The market shows that it needs to fail — preferably in a controlled way so that real people don’t get hurt — so that we can return to experimental capitalism, where good ideas prosper, and bad ideas don’t.

Bernanke’s organisation — the private Federal Reserve — pays a 6% dividend to member banks. That’s a staggering risk-free return on investment. Is it any wonder that banks won’t lend to small businesses or common people when the chosen few can just make easy money through having their funds sit at the Federal Reserve?

So no — Herman Cain is wrong. Protestors shouldn’t be blaming themselves for their “failure”. They should blame a system of government and monetary policy that gives money and favours to its friends. Call it crony capitalism, or corporatism or simply call it corruption.

The Start of the Sino-American Trade War

So the global currency wars are hotting up.

As I expected, the first aggressions across the Pacific are coming from America. Why? Because with the current drift of globalisation, America is losing out, while other nations are gaining.

From Zero Hedge:

A few hours ago, the maniac simians at the Senate finally did it and fired the first round in the great US-China currency war, after they took aim at one of China’s core economic policies, voting to move forward with a bill designed to press Beijing to let its currency rise in value in the hope of creating U.S. jobs. As Reuters reports, “Senators voted 79-19 to open a week of Senate debate on the Currency Exchange Rate Oversight Reform Act of 2011, which would allow the U.S. government to slap countervailing duties on products from countries found to be subsidizing their exports by undervaluing their currencies. Monday’s strong green light for debate on the bill bolsters prospects it will clear the Democrat-run Senate later this week, but prospects for action in the Republican-controlled House of Representatives are murky. If the bill did clear both chambers, it would present President Barack Obama with a tough decision on whether to sign the popular legislation into law and risk a trade war with Beijing, or veto it to pursue a more diplomatic approach.” The response has been quick and severe: “China’s foreign ministry said it “adamantly opposes” a bill pushed by the U.S. Senate that will allow the United States to impose duties on countries that undervalue their currencies.” And just because China is now certain that the US will continue with its provocative posture, most recently demonstrated by the vocal response in the latest US-Taiwan military escalation, we would not be surprised at all to find China Daily report that China has accidentally sold a few billions in US government bonds.

Now there are two angles to approach this from. Firstly, the cheapness of Chinese goods. In my view the cheapness of Chinese goods has absolutely nothing to do with currency manipulation, and everything to do with economies of scale, cheapness of labour, and the fact that jobs and productivity migrate to places with the highest population density. It seems like — to some extent — the growth of China is a reversion to the historical mean:


What does it mean for America (and other nations) to pursue the trade war route? Well, it means a whole lot of effort and policy-making will go into a “solution” that really doesn’t have much bearing on reality. Currency manipulation doesn’t necessarily boost export competitiveness. That’s because in a global marketplace prices aren’t that sticky — they adjust to reflect the relative values of currencies. If Chinese goods were so under-priced, Chinese inflation would likely be significantly higher. Chinese inflation seems to be slowing. If China ceases to peg the yuan to the dollar, the yuan would certainly strengthen, but goods priced in yuan might not ultimately get much more expensive in dollar-denominated terms, especially in the long run. 

Second, the uncompetitiveness of American manufacturing. In my view American manufacturing is uncompetitive because trade conditions are artificially level, and global shipping costs and insurance costs are artificially low — a situation bought and paid for solely with American tax dollars. This means America not only accrues debt through military overspending, but it also has gutted much of its productive infrastructure, and hard-to-rebuild supply chains and skills.

If America were to close half its military bases, and slash its military spending in half (still leaving it as by-far the biggest military spender in the world), insurance and shipping costs would likely significantly rise, making made-in-America goods significantly more competitive in the American market — and making a balanced US Federal budget much more achievable. Other nations would either have to choose between making up for the deficit in global security out of their owns budgets, or forfeiting the benefits that global security brings to shipping costs.

The ultimate consequences of this crazy zero-sum trade/currency war will be a swifter end to the reign of the dollar as the global reserve currency. Why? Because threatening your greatest creditor with tariffs is a surefire way to get them to dump your debt, bursting the bond bubble, and making American debt significantly harder to sustain with resorting to money-printing.

America Priced in Gold

Let’s imagine that the gold standard was not abolished in 1971, and was instead maintained — or, alternatively, assume that only gold is money and that other things are merely paper intermediaries. What would be the shape of economic data under that paradigm? Here’s retail gasoline:

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