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.

Explaining Hyperinflation

This is a post in three sections. First I want to outline my conception of the price level phenomena inflation and deflation. Second, I want to outline my conception of the specific inflationary case of hyperinflation. And third, I want to consider the predictive implications of this.

Inflation & Deflation

What is inflation? There is a vast debate on the matter. Neoclassicists and Keynesians tend to define inflation as a rise in the general level of prices of goods and services in an economy over a period of time.

Prices are reached by voluntary agreement between individuals engaged in exchange. Every transaction is unique, because the circumstance of each transaction is unique. Humans choose to engage in exchange based on the desire to fulfil their own subjective needs and wants. Each individual’s supply of, and demand for goods is different, and continuously changing based on their continuously varying circumstances. This means that the measured phenomena of price level changes are ripples on the pond of human needs and wants. Nonetheless price levels convey extremely significant information — the level at which individuals are prepared to exchange the goods in question. When price levels change, it conveys that the underlying economic fundamentals encoded in human action have changed.

Economists today generally measure inflation in terms of price indices, consisting of the measured price of levels of various goods throughout the economy. Price indices are useful, but as I have demonstrated before they can often leave out important avenues like housing or equities. Any price index that does not take into account prices across the entire economy is not representing the fuller price structure.

Austrians tend to define inflation as any growth in the money supply. This is a useful measure too, but money supply growth tells us about money supply growth; it does not relate that growth in money supply to underlying productivity (or indeed to price level, which is what price indices purport and often fail to do). Each transaction is two-way, meaning that two goods are exchanged. Money is merely one of two goods involved in a transaction. If the money supply increases, but the level of productivity (and thus, supply) increases faster than the money supply, this would place a downward pressure on prices. This effect is visible in many sectors today — for instance in housing where a glut in supply has kept prices lower than their pre-2008 peak, even in spite of huge money supply growth.

So my definition of inflation is a little different to current schools. I define inflation (and deflation) as growth (or shrinkage) in the money supply disproportionate to the economy’s productivity. If money grows faster than productivity, there is inflation. If productivity grows faster than money there is deflation. If money shrinks faster than productivity, there is deflation. If productivity shrinks faster than money, there is inflation.

This is given by the following equation where R is relative inflation, ΔQ is change in productivity, and ΔM is change in the money supply:

R= ΔM-ΔQ

This chart shows relative inflation over the past fifty years. I am using M2 to denote the money supply, and GDP to denote productivity (GDP and M2 are imperfect estimations of both the true money supply, and the true level of productivity. It is possible to use MZM
for the money supply and industrial output for productivity to produce different estimates of the true level of relative inflation):

Inflation and deflation are in my view a multivariate phenomenon with four variables: supply and demand for money, and supply and demand for other goods. This is an important distinction, because it means that I am rejecting Milton Friedman’s definition that inflation is always and only a monetary phenomenon.

Friedman’s definition is based on Irving Fisher’s equation MV=PQ where M is the money supply, P is the price level, Q is the level of production and V is the velocity of money. To me, this is a tenuous relationship, because V is not directly observed but instead inferred from the other three variables. Yet to Friedman, this equation stipulates that changes in the money supply will necessarily lead to changes in the price level, because Friedman assumes the relative stability of velocity and of productivity. Yet the instability of the money velocity in recent years demonstrates empirically that velocity is not a stable figure:

And additionally, changes in the money supply can lead to changes in productivity — and that is true even under a gold or silver standard where a new discovery of gold can lead to a mining-driven boom. MV=PQ is a four-variable equation, and using a four-variable equation to establish causal linear relationships between two variables is tenuous at best.

Through the multivariate lens of relative inflation, we can grasp the underlying dynamics of hyperinflation more fully.

Hyperinflation

I define hyperinflation as an increase in relative inflation of above 50% month-on-month. This can theoretically arise from either a dramatic fall in ΔQ or a dramatic rise in ΔM.

There are zero cases of gold-denominated hyperinflation in history; gold is naturally scarce. Yet there have been plenty of cases of fiat-denominated hyperinflation:

This disparity between naturally-scarce gold which has never been hyperinflated and artificially-scarce fiat currencies which have been hyperinflated multiple times suggests very strongly that the hyperinflation is a function of governments running printing presses. Of course, no government is in the business of intentionally destroying its own credibility. So why would a government end up running the printing presses (ΔM) to oblivion?

Well, the majority of these hyperinflationary episodes were associated with the end of World War II or the breakup of the Soviet Union. Every single case in the list was a time of severe physical shocks, where countries were not producing enough food, or where manufacturing and energy generation were shut down out of political and social turmoil, or where countries were denied access to import markets as in the present Iranian hyperinflation. Increases in money supply occurred without a corresponding increase in productivity — leading to astronomical relative inflation as productivity fell off a cliff, and the money supply simultaneously soared.

Steve Hanke and Nicholas Krus of the Cato Institute note:

Hyperinflation is an economic malady that arises under extreme conditions: war, political mismanagement, and the transition from a command to market-based economy—to name a few.

So in many cases, the reason may be political expediency. It may seem easier to pay workers, and lenders, and clients of the welfare state in heavily devalued currency than it would be to default on such liabilities — as was the case in the Weimar Republic. Declining to engage in money printing does not make the underlying problems — like a collapse of agriculture, or the loss of a war, or a natural disaster — disappear, so avoiding hyperinflation may be no panacea. Money printing may be a last roll of the dice, the last failed attempt at stabilising a fundamentally rotten situation.

The fact that naturally scarce currencies like gold do not hyperinflate — even in times of extreme economic stress — suggests that the underlying mechanism here is of an extreme exogenous event causing a severe drop in productivity. Governments then run the printing presses attempting to smooth over such problems — for instance in the Weimar Republic when workers in the occupied Ruhr region went on a general strike and the Weimar government continued to print money in order to pay them. While hyperinflation can in theory arise either out of either ΔQ or ΔM, government has no reason to inject a hyper-inflationary volume of money into an economy that still has access to global exports, that still produces sufficient levels of energy and agriculture to support its population, and that still has a functional infrastructure.

This means that the indicators for imminent hyperinflation are not economic so much as they are geopolitical — wars, trade breakdowns, energy crises, socio-political collapse, collapse in production, collapse in agriculture. While all such catastrophes have preexisting economic causes, a bad economic situation will not deteriorate into full-collapse and hyperinflation without a severe intervening physical breakdown.

Predicting Hyperinflation

Hyperinflation is notoriously difficult to predict, because physical breakdowns like an invasion, or the breakup of a currency union, or a trade breakdown are political in nature, and human action is anything but timely or predictable.

However, it is possible to provide a list of factors which can make a nation or community fragile to unexpected collapses in productivity:

  1. Rising Public and-or Private Debt — risks currency crisis, especially if denominated in foreign currency.
  2. Import Dependency — supplies can be cut off, leading to bottlenecks and shortages.
  3. Energy Dependency — supplies can be cut off, leading to transport and power issues.
  4. Fragile Transport Infrastructure — transport can be disrupted by war, terrorism, shortages or natural disasters.
  5. Overstretched Military — high cost, harder to respond to unexpected disasters.
  6. Natural Disaster-Prone — e.g. volcanoes, hurricanes, tornadoes, drought, floods.
  7. Civil Disorder— may cause severe civil and economic disruption.

Readers are free to speculate as to which nation is currently most fragile to hyperinflation.

However none of these factors alone or together — however severe — are guaranteed to precipitate a shock that leads to the collapse of production or imports.

But if an incident or series of incidents leads to a severe and prolonged drop in productivity, and so long as government accelerates the printing of money to paper over the cracks, hyperinflation is a mathematical inevitability.

Explaining Wage Stagnation

Why?

Well, my intuition says one thing — the change in trajectory correlates very precisely with the end of the Bretton Woods system. My intuition says that that event was a seismic shift for wages, for gold, for oil, for trade. The data seems to support that — the end of the Bretton Woods system correlates beautifully to a rise in income inequality, a downward shift in total factor productivity, a huge upward swing in credit creation, the beginning of financialisation, the beginning of a new stage in globalisation, and a myriad of other things.

Some, including Peter Thiel and James Hamilton, have suggested that there is data to suggest that an oil shock may have been the catalyst that put us into a new trajectory.

Oil prices:

And that this spike may be related to a fall in oil prices discoveries:

I certainly think that the drop-off in oil discoveries was a huge psychological factor in the huge oil price spike we saw in 1980. But the reality is that although production did fall, it has recovered:

The point becomes clearer when we take the dollar out of the equation and just look at oil priced in wages:

Oil prices in terms of US wages ended up lower than they had been before the oil shock.

What happened in the late 70s and early 80s was a blip caused by the (very real) drop-off in American reserves, and the (in my view, psychological — considering that global proven oil reserves continue to rise to the present day) drop-off in global production.

But while oil production recovered and prices fell, wages continued to stagnate. This suggests very strongly to me that the long-term issue was not an oil shock, but the fundamental change in the nature of the global trade system and the nature of money that took place in 1971 when Richard Nixon ended Bretton Woods.

UPDATE: Commenters are pointing out that I should probably have concentrated a bit more on the trade and globalisation dimension, which I did mention in passing. However, I see this as an outgrowth of the end Bretton Woods, because it began just after Bretton Woods was ended and there is no way that America could afford to run the kind of trade balance it runs today with the world had America stayed in the Bretton Woods system.

I have covered this issue in quite some depth in the past.

https://azizonomics.com/2012/03/18/global-trade-fragility/
https://azizonomics.com/2012/07/09/the-real-fiscal-cliff/

Propping Up The Gold Price?

Izabella Kaminska makes the point that central banks have turned net gold buyers:

Kaminska seems to believe that gold’s price is not just central-bank supported, but its trajectory is downward:

If not for the gold bar/coin frenzy and ETF demand (now substituted by official buying), one might speculate that the collapse in conventional demand (i.e. for industrial and jewelery purposes) may have led to a very different price path for gold post 2008.

Now that ETF demand is waning, however, marginal support for the gold price is actually being provided by the official sector more than ever.

Though, given the gold price reaction of late, clearly even this is not so effective so, either gold and coin buying has started to wane as well – and there is evidencethat this is the case – or it’s taking ever more buying (by official sources) to keep prices supported at the current level.

The recent plateauing of the gold price thus either suggest that today’s spot supply is increasingly catering to tomorrow’s demand expectations, or in the context of more gold being produced all the time, it is taking ever more buying by the official sector to keep prices from falling.

In other words, sans the intervention of central banks on a major level: case bearish.

The obvious thing, though — even if we take central bank buying out of the equation altogether — is that total demand for gold is still increasing. And the price of gold has increased faster than sales, illustrating that the market has struggled and continues to struggle to keep pace with underlying demand. 

And it’s not just demand for gold-denominated paper (i.e. ETFs or other such as-risky-as-anything-you’ll-get-from-MF Global assets) — it’s recently manifested as demand for hard physical gold:

It’s true that central banks are presently supporting the gold price — after years of selling off national wealth at pennies-on-the-dollar into a bear market and thus suppressing prices. Yet it’s not the Western central banks that are pushing demand for gold. It’s the BRICs. As PBOC official Zhang Jianhua noted:

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

And as I noted yesterday, BRICs have founded and legitimate fears of buying even deeper into an increasingly ponzified, over-leveraged, rehypothecated and interconnective paper financial system. The PBOC (and other American creditors) already faces the risk of the US Treasury inflating much of their holdings away; the entire point is to get out of such assets into something much harder to duplicate, and impossible to inflate away.

According to China’s State Council’s Xia Bing:

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.

No; I don’t think it’s particularly wise to announce to the world that you’re going to get elbow-deep into gold bullion either, but this isn’t just a bluff. China is importing hard-to-fathom quantities of gold:


Ultimately, the surge in demand for gold reflects one thing alone: distrust of the increasingly messy, interconnected, over-leveraged and fraudulent financial system. Whether it is China — fearful of dollar debasement — loading up on bullion, or retail investors in the United States or Europe — fearful of another MF Global (or PFG, or Lehman Brothers) — stacking Krugerrands in their basement, demand for gold reflects distrust in finance, distrust in the financial establishment, distrust in banks, distrust in regulators, distrust in government and distrust in the financial media. And it is that distrust — not (by any stretch of the imagination) central bank interventionism — that is the force moving demand for gold.

The distrust is not going anywhere because the system is still rotten. We all know — even Business Insider readers know deep down, I think — that there is something exceedingly rotten at the heart of the global financial system. We don’t know quite how rotten, how deep the rabbit hole goes, who will be implicated, or how fast. But with every LIBOR-rigging scandal (which the Fed, of course, was aware of), every raided segregated account, every devalued pension fund, every failed speculative “hedge”, every Facebook or Zynga pump-and-dump, we get closer to the truth.

There will be no bear market for physical gold until trust in the financial system and regulators is fixed, until markets trade fundamentals instead of the possibility of the NEW QE, until governments represent the interests of their people instead of the interests of tiny financial elites. 

Golden Cognitive Dissonance

Simon Jack of the BBC asks a question that many of us have already answered:

Gold v paper money: Which should we trust more?

Fortunately, this gives way to some relatively fair coverage:

Detlev Schlichter is a former banker and the author of Paper Money Collapse and he says the current system is fatally flawed.

“The problem is that what we use as money can be created and produced by the privileged money producers – which are the central bank and the banking system.They can produce as much of this money as they like. And so the supply of this form of money is entirely elastic, it is entirely flexible.”

Detlev Schlichter believes this will, ultimately, lead to people losing faith in our current system of elastic money and turning to something that does not stretch – like gold.

The key point to add to this of course is that gold is not just insurance against dilution, it is more importantly insurance against counter-party risk:

Counter-party risk is the external risk investments face. The counter-party risk to fiat currency is that the counter-party — in this case the government — will fail to deliver a system where that fiat money will be acceptable as payment for goods and services. The counter-party risk to a bond or a derivative or a swap is that the counter-party  will default on their obligations.

Gold — at least the physical form — has negligible counter-party risk. It’s been recognised as valuable for thousands of years.

Counter-party risk is a symptom of dependency. And the global financial system is a paradigm of interdependency: inter-connected leverage, soaring gross derivatives exposure, abstract securitisations.

When everyone in the system owes shedloads of money to everyone else the failure of one can often snowball into the failure of the many.

Unfortunately, the BBC then embarks on an inane and pointless discussion on the merits of gold as an enforced monetary standard, a completely different topic to whether or not individuals should trust paper assets or hard money.

DeAnne Julius of Chatham House is quoted as saying:

If the amount of money in the system was limited by pegging it to gold it would limit economic growth, which is the last thing we need right now.

I think to put your faith in gold as the basis of a country’s monetary system would be extremely foolish.

This is not actually true — every single historical example of the gold standard has allowed for the expansion and contraction of the money supply as per the market’s desire for money — it can be mined, it can be recirculated, it can be credited, it can be imported, it can be devalued, or it can be supplemented with silver and other substances. The “problems” with gold only really began in the 1930s when central banks started imposing policies of forced contraction over extended periods — ignoring true market preferences.

The gold exchange standard period, which followed WW2, was a period of unprecedented and unparalleled expansion, productivity growth, technological innovation, and financial stability.

The Bank of England’s recent report on the gold standard periods concluded:

Overall the gold standard appeared to perform reasonably well against its financial stability and allocative efficiency objectives.

The BBC concludes by quoting former Chancellor of the Exchequer Lord Lawson:

You can’t force a government to stay on gold, so therefore gold has no credibility.

Do you see the cognitive dissonance here? If we are to believe Lord Lawson, gold has no credibility, because governments have previously proven themselves untrue to their word. Surely the thing that has no credibility is not gold, but government promises? And that is the answer to the BBC’s initial question.

Fiat Money Kills Productivity?

I have long suspected that a money supply based on nothing other than faith in government could be a productivity killer.

Last November I wrote:

During 1947-73 (for all but two of those years America had a gold standard where the unit of exchange was tied to gold at a fixed rate) average family income increased at a greater rate than that of the top 1%. From 1979-2007 (years without a gold standard) the top 1% did much, much better than the average family.

As we have seen with the quantitative easing program, the newly-printed money is directed to the rich. The Keynesian response to that might be that income growth inequality can be solved (or at least remedied) by making sure that helicopter drops of new money are done over the entire economy rather than directed solely to Wall Street megabanks.

But I think there is a deeper problem here. My hypothesis is that leaving the gold exchange standard was a free lunch: GDP growth could be achieved without any real gains in productivity, or efficiency, or in infrastructure, but instead by just pumping money into the system.

And now I have empirical evidence that my hypothesis may possibly have been true — total factor productivity.

In 2009 the Economist explained TFP as follows:

Productivity growth is perhaps the single most important gauge of an economy’s health. Nothing matters more for long-term living standards than improvements in the efficiency with which an economy combines capital and labour. Unfortunately, productivity growth is itself often inefficiently measured. Most analysts focus on labour productivity, which is usually calculated by dividing total output by the number of workers, or the number of hours worked.

A better gauge of an economy’s use of resources is “total factor productivity” (TFP), which tries to assess the efficiency with which both capital and labour are used.

Total factor productivity is calculated as the percentage increase in output that is not accounted for by changes in the volume of inputs of capital and labour. So if the capital stock and the workforce both rise by 2% and output rises by 3%, TFP goes up by 1%.

Here’s US total factor productivity:

As soon as the USA left the gold exchange standard,  total factor productivity began to dramatically stagnate. 

Random coincidence? I don’t think so — a fundamental change in the nature of the money supply coincided almost exactly with a fundamental change to the shape of the nation’s economy. Is the simultaneous outgrowth in income inequality a coincidence too?

Doubters may respond that correlation does not necessarily imply causation, and though we do not know the exact causation, there are a couple of strong possibilities that may have strangled productivity:

  1. Leaving the gold exchange standard was a free lunch for policymakers: GDP growth could be achieved without any real gains in productivity, or efficiency, or in infrastructure, but instead by just pumping money into the system.
  2. Leaving the gold exchange standard was a free lunch for businesses: revenue growth could be achieved without any real gains in productivity, or efficiency.
And it’s not just total factor productivity that has been lower than in the years when America was on the gold exchange standard — as a Bank of England report recently found, GDP growth has averaged lower in the pure fiat money era (2.8% vs 1.8%), and financial crises have been more frequent in the non-gold-standard years.

The authors of the report noted:

Overall the gold standard appeared to perform reasonably well against its financial stability and allocative efficiency objectives.

Still think it’s a barbarous relic?

What Peak Oil?

Is peak oil imminent? Lots of people seem to think so.

The data (released by BP a company who have a vested interest in oil scarcity) don’t agree. Proved reserves keep increasing:

The oil in the ground will run out some day. But as the discovery of proven reserves continues to significantly outpace the rate of extraction, the claims that we’re facing immediate shortages looks trashy.

Some may try to cast doubt on these figures, saying that BP are counting inaccessible reserves, and that we must accept that while there are huge quantities of shale oil in the ground, the era of cheap and readily accessible oil is over. They might cite the idea that oil prices are much higher than they were ten years ago. Yet this is mostly a monetary phenomenon resulting from excessive money creation beyond the economy’s productive capacity. Priced in gold, oil is still very cheap — almost as cheap as it has ever been:

The argument that the vast majority of counted reserves are economically inaccessible is fundamentally flawed. In the long run there is only one equation that really matters in determining whether oil is extractable, and that is whether there is a net energy gain; whether energy-in exceeds energy-out. If there’s a net energy gain, it’s feasible. Certainly, we are moving toward a higher cost of energy extraction. Shale oil (for example) has a lower net energy gain than conventional oil, but still typically produces five times as much energy as is consumed in extraction.

But the Earth’s extractable hydrocarbons will eventually dry up, whether that’s in 500 years or 200 years. If we want humanity to have a long-term future on Earth, we need to move to renewables; solar, hydroelectric, thorium, synthetic hydrocarbons. And the market will ensure that, eventually — as the cost of renewable energy continues to fall, more and more of us will adopt it. I don’t buy the myth that markets are stupid — if humanity needs renewable energy (I believe we do) the market will see to it (I believe that is slowly happening). Markets are just the sum of human preferences.

According to the International Renewable Energy Institute:

Power from renewable energy sources is getting cheaper every year, according to a study released Wednesday, challenging long-standing myths that clean energy technology is too expensive to adopt. The costs associated with extracting power from solar panels has fallen as much as 60 percent in just the past few years.The price of  from other renewables, including wind, , concentrating solar power and biomass, was also falling.

So no. I’m not lying awake at night worrying about imminent peak oil. There’s plenty of extractable oil, and renewable energy will eventually supplement and replace it. But will politics get in the way of energy extraction? The United States has huge hydrocarbon reserves, yet regulation is preventing drilling and shipment, leaving America dependent on foreign oil. And the oil companies themselves are largely to blame — after Deepwater Horizon, should anyone be surprised that politicians and the public want to strangle the oil industry?

If there’s an imminent energy crisis, it will be man-made. It will come out of the United States’ dependency on foreign oil. Or out of an environmental catastrophe caused by mismanagement and graft (protected cartels like the energy industry always lead to mismanagement). Or out of excessive red tape. Or war.

Paul vs Paul: Round #2

Bloomberg viewers estimate that Ron Paul was the winner of the clash of the Pauls (Ron Paul fans, of course, are very studious at phoning in their support him for). But that is very much beside the point. This wasn’t really a debate. Other than the fascinating moment where Krugman denied defending the economic policies of Diocletian, very little new was said, and the two combatants mainly talked past each other.

The first debate happened early last decade.

To wit:

And so, round two. Krugman wants more inflation; Paul is scared of the prospect. From Paul’s FT editorial yesterday:

Control of the world’s economy has been placed in the hands of a banking cartel, which holds great danger for all of us. True prosperity requires sound money, increased productivity, and increased savings and investment. The world is awash in US dollars, and a currency crisis involving the world’s reserve currency would be an unprecedented catastrophe. No amount of monetary expansion can solve our current financial problems, but it can make those problems much worse.

Or, as Professor Krugman sees it:

Would a rise in inflation to 3 percent or even 4 percent be a terrible thing? On the contrary, it would almost surely help the economy.

How so? For one thing, large parts of the private sector continue to be crippled by the overhang of debt accumulated during the bubble years; this debt burden is arguably the main thing holding private spending back and perpetuating the slump. Modest inflation would, however, reduce that overhang — by eroding the real value of that debt — and help promote the private-sector recovery we need. Meanwhile, other parts of the private sector (like much of corporate America) are sitting on large hoards of cash; the prospect of moderate inflation would make letting the cash just sit there less attractive, acting as a spur to investment — again, helping to promote overall recover.

Ron Paul believes that inflationary interventions into the dollar economy will have unpredictable and dangerous ramifications. Paul Krugman believes that a little more inflation will spur economic activity and decrease residual debt overhang. Krugman gives no credence to the prospect of inflation spiralling out of hand, or of such policies triggering other deleterious side-effects, like a currency crisis.

The prospect of a currency crisis is a topic I have covered in depth lately: as more Eurasian nations ditch the dollar as reserve currency, more dollars (there are $5 trillion floating around Asia, in comparison to a domestic monetary base of just $1.8 trillion — the dollar is an absurdly internationalised currency) will be making their way back into the domestic American economy. Will that have an impact?

I don’t really know how much of this is to do with the Fed’s reflationary policies, and how much is to do with the United States’ endangered role as global hegemon. I tend to think that the dollar hegemony has always been backed by American military force, and with the American military overstretched, the dollar’s role comes into question. If America can’t play the global policeman for global trade, why would the dollar be the currency on global trade?

However it must be noted that America’s creditors do believe that their assets are threatened by the Fed’s inflationism.

As the Telegraph noted last year:

There has been a hostile reaction by China, Brazil and Germany, among others, to the Federal Reserve’s decision to resume quantitative easing.

Or as a Xinhua editorial rather bluntly put it:

China, the largest creditor of the world’s sole superpower, has every right now to demand the United States to address its structural debt problems and ensure the safety of China’s dollar assets.

Of course, China may be totally bluffing, or getting it wrong on the danger of inflation to its assets.

If the reflationism is angering the exporter nations perhaps it is a cause for concern. After all, if America’s consumption-based economy is dependent on China’s continued exportation, and Krugman is advocating inflating away their debt-denominated financial assets, then to what extent do Krugman’s suggestions imperil the trans-Pacific consumer-producer relationship?

And this is a crucial matter — there is nothing, I think, more crucial than the free availability of goods and resources through the trade infrastructure. Getting into a fight with China is risky.

As commenter Thomas P. Seager noted yesterday:

[The situation today] is directly analogous to the first Oil Shock in 1973. In the decades prior, the US had been a major oil producer. However, efficiency gains and discoveries overseas resulting in an incrementally increasing dependence of foreign petroleum. Price signals failed to materialize that would caution policy makers and industrialists of the risks.

Then, the disruption of oil supplies from the Middle East caused tremendous economic dislocations.

Manufacturing is undergoing the same process. The supply chain disruption from the Japanese earthquake and Tsunami was merely a warning shot. Imagine if S Korean manufacturing were taken off-line for any length of time (a plausible scenario). The disruption to US industry would be catastrophic.

In the name of increased efficiency, we have introduced brittleness.

Time will tell whether Krugman’s desire for more inflation is wise or not.

Gold’s Value Today

Way back in 2009, I remember fielding all manner of questions from people wanting to invest in gold, having seen it spike from its turn-of-the-millennium slump, and worried about the state of the wider financial economy.

A whole swathe of those were from people wanting to invest in exchange traded funds (ETFs). I always and without exception slammed the notion of a gold ETF as being outstandingly awful, and solely for investors who didn’t really understand the modern case for gold — those who believed that gold was a “commodity” with the potential to “do well” in the coming years. People who wanted to push dollars in, and get more dollars out some years later.

2009 was the year when gold ETFs really broke into the mass consciousness:

Yet by 2011 the market had collapsed: people were buying much, much larger quantities of physical bullion and coins, but the popularity of ETFs had greatly slumped.

This is even clearer when the ETF market is expressed as a percentage of the physical market. While in 2009 ETFs looked poised to overtake the market in physical bullion and coins, by 2011 they constituted merely a tenth of the physical market:

So what does this say about gold?

I think it is shouting and screaming one thing: the people are slowly and subtly waking up to gold’s true role.

Gold is not just a store of value; it is not just a unit of account; and it is not just a medium of exchange. It is all of those things, but so are dollars, yen and renminbei.

Physical precious metals (but especially gold) are the only liquid assets with negligible counter-party risk.

What is counter-party risk?

As I wrote in December:

Counter-party risk is the external risk investments face. The counter-party risk to fiat currency is that the counter-party — in this case the government — will fail to deliver a system where that fiat money will be acceptable as payment for goods and services. The counter-party risk to a bond or a derivative or a swap is that the counter-party  will default on their obligations.

Gold — at least the physical form — has negligible counter-party risk. It’s been recognised as valuable for thousands of years.

Counter-party risk is a symptom of dependency. And the global financial system is a paradigm of interdependency: inter-connected leverage, soaring gross derivatives exposure, abstract securitisations.

When everyone in the system owes shedloads of money to everyone else the failure of one can often snowball into the failure of the many.

Or 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.

So the key difference between physical metal and an ETF product is that an ETF product has counter-party risk. Its custodian could pull a Corzine and run off with your assets. They could be swallowed up by another shadow banking or derivatives collapse. And some ETFs are not even holding any gold at all; they may just be taking your money and buying futures. Unless you read all of the small-print, and then have the ability to comprehensively audit the custodian, you just don’t know.

With gold in your vault or your basement you know what you’re getting. There are other risks, of course — the largest being robbery, alongside the small danger of being sold fake (tungsten-lined) bullion. But the hyper-fragility of the modern banking system, the debt overhang, and the speculative and arbitrage bubbles don’t threaten to wipe you out.

Paper was only ever as good as the person making the promise. But increasingly in this hyper-connected world, paper is only ever as good as the people who owe money to the person making the promise. As we saw in 2008, the innovations of shadow banking and the derivatives system intermesh the balance sheets of companies to a never-before-seen extent. This often means that one failure (like that of Lehman brothers) can trigger a cascade that threatens the entire system. If you’re lucky you’ll get a government bailout, or a payout from a bankruptcy court, but there’s no guarantee of that.

Physical gold sits undaunted, solid as a rock, retaining its purchasing power, immune to counter-party risk.

I think more and more investors — as well as central banks, particularly the People’s Bank of China — are comprehending that reality and demanding the real deal.