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.

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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.

Americans Want Smaller Government and Lower Taxes

From Rasmussen:

A new Rasmussen Reports national telephone survey finds that 64% of Likely U.S. Voters prefer a government with fewer services and lower taxes over one with more services and higher taxes. That’s unchanged from last month and consistent with findings in regular surveys since late 2006. 

In fact, a plurality of Americans have called for small government and lower taxes ever since the days of Reagan.

But it has never worked out like that:

So what’s the difference? Is it that voters outwardly claim to be in favour of smaller government, and then when it comes down to it choose the advocates of big government? I don’t think so — I think it is that voters aren’t being given a real choice.

Here’s the increase in national debt by President:

The reality is that — with the exception of Obama — Americans have again and again opted for a candidate who has paid lip-service to small government. Even Bill Clinton paid lip service to the idea that “the era of big government is over” (yeah, right). And then once in office, they have bucked their promises and massively increased the size and scope of government. Reagan’s administration increased the debt by 190% alone, and successive Presidents — especially George W. Bush and Barack Obama — just went bigger and bigger, in total contradiction to voters’ expressed preferences.

The choice between the Republicans and Democrats has been one of rhetoric and not policy. Republicans may consistently talk about reducing the size and scope of government, but they don’t follow through.Today Ron Paul, the only Republican candidate who is putting forth a seriously reduced notion of government, has been marginalised and sidelined by the major media and Republican establishment. The establishment candidate — Mitt Romney — as governor of Massachusetts left that state with the biggest per-capita debt of any state. His track record in government and his choice of advisers strongly suggest that he will follow in the George W. Bush school of promising smaller government and delivering massive government and massive debt.

As Libertarian presidential candidate and former New Mexico governor Gary Johnson put it:

Pick Obama, pick Romney, government’s going to be bigger. Government’s going to be more intrusive.

So will the American people eventually get what they want? To do that, they have to ditch the hierarchies and orthodoxies of the past. Ron Paul and his tireless band of youthful supporters look set to achieve a strong showing at the Republican convention, as well as so far winning party chairs in Iowa, Colorado, Alaska, and Virginia. The Republican party — currently dominated by ageing tax-and-spend boomer Republicans — is being taken over by the libertarian youth who crave small government at home, as well as a smaller foreign policy. Ron Paul has taken the majority of youth votes in a plurality of states in 2012. And even if Ron Paul is not on the presidential ballot, Gary Johnson — a consistent advocate for lower debt, lower taxes, and smaller government — seems set to take a large slice of the vote in November.

As the mainstream parties continue to defy a majority of voters’ will and accrue more debt and make government bigger and bigger (while failing to address problems of unemployment and underemployment)  it seems natural and inevitable that more and more Americans — especially young Americans (who tend more and more to be unemployed and underemployed) — will abandon the sclerotic big-government Republicans and Democrats.

Trouble is, things may go badly wrong before Americans get the chance to put a practitioner of smaller government into power. Already a majority of Eurasian manufacturing and resource-producing nations have ditched the dollar for bilateral trade. Dollars and treasury bonds have long been America’s greatest export — and the greatest pillar of support for growth in spending and welfare. With the dollar’s downfall, smaller government may not be a choice.

Is China a Currency Manipulator?

Mitt Romney thinks so:

China has an interest in trade. China wants to, as they have 20 million people coming out of the farms and coming into the cities every year, they want to be able to put them to work. They want to have access to global markets. And so we have right now something they need very badly, which is access to our market and our friends around the world, have that same– power over China. To make sure that we let them understand that in order for them to continue to have free and open access to the thing they want so badly, our markets, they have to play by the rules.

They’re a currency manipulator. And on that basis, we go before the W.T.O. and bring an action against them as a currency manipulator. And that allows us to apply tariffs where we believe they are stealing our intellectual property, hacking into our computers, or artificially lowering their prices and killing American jobs. We can’t just sit back and let China run all over us. People say, “Well, you’ll start a trade war.” There’s one going on right now, folks. They’re stealing our jobs. And we’re gonna stand up to China.

The theory goes that by buying U.S. currency (so far they have accumulated around $3 trillion) and treasuries (around $1 trillion) on the open market, China keeps demand for the US dollar high.  They can afford to buy and hold so much US currency due to their huge trade surplus with America, and they buy US currency roughly equal to this surplus.  To keep this pile of dollars from increasing the Chinese money supply, China sterilises the dollar purchases by selling a proportionate amount of bonds to Chinese investors.  Supposedly by boosting the dollar, yuan-denominated Chinese goods look cheap to the American (and global) consumer.

First, I don’t really think we can conclusively say that the yuan is necessarily undervalued. That is like assuming that there is some natural rate of exchange beyond prices in the real world. For every dollar that China takes out of the open market, America could print one more — something which, lest we forget — Bernanke has been very busily doing; the American monetary base has tripled since 2008. Actions have consequences; if China’s currency peg was so unsustainable, the status quo would have collapsed long ago. Until it does, we cannot conclusively say to what extent the yuan is undervalued.

What Romney is forgetting is that every nation with a fiat currency is to some degree or other a currency manipulator. That’s what fiat is all about: the ability of the state to manipulate markets through monetary policy. When Ben Bernanke engages in quantitative easing, or twisting, or any kind of monetary policy or open market operation, the Federal Reserve is engaging in currency manipulation. Every new dollar that is printed devalues every dollar out in the wild, and just as importantly all dollar-denominated debt. So just as Romney can look China in the face and accuse them of being a currency manipulator for trying to peg the yuan to the dollar, China can look at past U.S. administrations and level exactly the same claim — currency manipulation in the national interest.

While China’s currency policy in the past 40 years has been to attract manufacturing, technology, resources and investment into China (and build up a manufacturing base to provide employment to its low-skilled population) by keeping its produce cheap, America’s currency policy has sought to enjoy a free lunch made up of everyone else’s labour and resources. This has been allowed to develop because of America’s reserve currency status — everyone has needed dollars to access global markets, and so America has rested on her laurels and allowed her productive industries to decline. Why manufacture the bulk of your consumption when China can do it cheaper, and Wal Mart has no problem with slave labour? Why manufacture your military hardware when China can do it cheaper? Why produce your own energy when you can instead consume Arab and Latin American oil?

Former U.S. ambassador Jon Huntsman raised this issue in an article from China Business News in a cable that was eventually leaked via Wikileaks:

The U.S. has almost used all deterring means, besides military means, against China.  China must be clear on discovering what the U.S. goals are behind its tough stances against China. In fact, a fierce competition between the currencies of big countries has just started.  A crucial move for the U.S. is to shift its crisis to other countries – by coercing China to buy U.S. treasury bonds with foreign exchange reserves and doing everything possible to prevent China’s foreign reserve from buying gold.

If we use all of our foreign exchange reserves to buy U.S. Treasury bonds, then when someday the U.S. Federal Reserve suddenly announces that the original ten old U.S. dollars are now worth only one new U.S. dollar, and the new U.S. dollar is pegged to the gold – we will be dumbfounded.

Today when the United States is determined to beggar thy neighbor, shifting its crisis to China, the Chinese must be very clear what the key to victory is.  It is by no means to use new foreign exchange reserves to buy U.S. Treasury bonds.  The issues of Taiwan, Tibet, Xinjiang, trade and so on are all false tricks, while forcing China to buy U.S. bonds is the U.S.’s real intention.”

Romney and others of his ilk might brush this off, believing that China’s $3 trillion dollar reserve hoard was gained through unfair means — slave labour, cutting corners in quality, the aforementioned “currency manipulation”, etc, and that that somehow gives America the right to inflate away its debts and screw its creditors. To some degree, they have a point. If China had a problem with America inflating away its debts, it should never have put itself so deep into dollar-denominated paper. If China recognised that America’s debt position was unsustainable, it should never have put so much into something so unsustainable, irrespective of supposed American pressure.

In the short term, though, I think escalating the trade war through the imposition of tariffs is a very bad idea. America is a consumption-led economy, and with middle class incomes already squeezed, a constriction of the supply of cheap and readily available goods is likely to put a lot of downward pressure on consumption. And it’s not just consumption — in today’s hyper-globalised world, a huge proportion of manufacturing — including military hardware — at some stage flows through China.

As Vincent Fernando noted:

Most of America’s key military technologies require rare earth elements, whose production China holds a near-monopoly over.

It’s thus perhaps no surprise that China has made the threat of rare earth export restrictions a new political bargaining chip.

American corporations could gradually pull out of China and shift to manufacturing and extracting resources elsewhere including America (which has large rare earth deposits), but it would be a challenging process. Rebuilding an industrial base is hard: skilled and experienced labour takes time to develop (American labour is rusty and increasingly unemployed and disabled), and supply chains and webs have all agglomerated in China. Building up domestic supply chains takes time, expertise and entrepreneurial zeal. And any destabilisation could spook global markets.

So let’s make no mistake: in the short term America needs China far, far, far more than China needs America. The notion that China needs America as a consumer is totally false; anyone can consume given the dollars or gold, and China holds $3 trillion, and continues to increase its imports of gold.

Peter Schiff summarises:

The big problem for countries like China and India is that they still subsidize the U.S. They buy our Treasury bonds and lend us all this money so we can keep consuming. That’s a big subsidy and a heavy burden.

They can use their money to develop their own economy, produce better and more abundant products for their own citizens. It’s a farce to think that the only thing China can do with its output and savings is lend it to the U.S. government, especially when we can’t pay it back.

Mitt Romney seems intent on destabilising this fragile relationship. American policy that incentivised globalisation and the service economy has very foolishly drawn America into this fragile position where its economy is increasingly fuelled not only by energy coming out of the politically and economically unstable middle east, but also by goods coming from a hostile and increasingly politically and economically unstable power.

And make no mistake — although China has done well to successfully transform itself into the world’s pre-eminent industrial base and biggest creditor, it has a lot of bubbles waiting to burst (particularly housing), stemming from the misallocation of resources under its semi-planned regime. Which makes this entire scenario doubly dangerous. Any shock in China would surely be transmitted to America, simply because it is becoming increasingly pointless for China to continue subsidising American consumption (through buying treasuries) when they could instead spend the money raising the Chinese standard of living. That could mean a painful rate-spike.

The real problem is that Romney is trying to address a problem that is very much in the past. If Romney was elected as President on this platform in 2000, things might be different. But China got what it wanted: by keeping its currency cheap and its labour force impoverished it became the world’s pre-eminent industrial base, the spider at the heart of the web of global trade, and a monopoly on important industrial components and resources. China used American demand, technology and investment during the 00s to develop. Now the imperative is not to grab a bigger share of global manufacturing, or a bigger hoard of dollarsit’s to leverage that position toward the ultimate aim of returning China to its multi-millennial superpower status. The promise of Chinese primacy is quite simply the strongest tool for the CPC to retain its (increasingly shaky) grip on China.

However we should not discount the possibility that bursting economic bubbles may stoke up some kind of popular rebellion against the Communist authorities in some kind of Chinese Spring. A new more pro-Western regime is surely America’s best hope of containing China, while gradually manoeuvring itself out of dependency on Arab oil and Chinese goods. But that may just be wishful thinking; it is possible that a new Chinese regime may be vehemently anti-Western; the Opium War and China’s 20th century humiliation still ring deeply in the Chinese psyche.

So it is unclear what is next for China, and the relationship between China and America. But having the world’s biggest manufacturing base and a monopoly over rare earths is a strong position to be in if your ultimate aim is to manufacture huge quantities of armaments in the pursuit of an aggressive, expansionist foreign policy…

Another Day, Another Nation Dumps the Dollar

From South Africa’s City Press:

South Africa will this week take some initial steps to unseat the US dollar as the preferred worldwide currency for trade and investment in emerging economies.

Thus, the nation is expected to become party to endorsing the Chinese currency, the renminbi, as the currency of trade in emerging markets.

This means getting a renminbi-denominated bank account, in addition to a dollar account, could be an advantage for African businesses that seek to do business in the emerging markets.

The move is set to challenge the supremacy of the US dollar. This, experts say, is the latest salvo in the greatest worldwide currency war since the 1930s.

Well — like the rest of Africa alongside all of its natural resources which (in spite of Kony 2012’s best efforts) becomes more Chinese by the day — it is clear where South Africa’s allegiance lies. Most interestingly, though, this is the first nation with an Anglo-American economic elite to come out against the present global order and more or less endorse China.

Readers are reminded of this chart:


It is rather intriguing to note, by the way, that when the term “emerging economies” is used, the underlying reality is that these are the productive economies. America’s GDP is mostly spent on the consumption of foreign goods, (or goods made from foreign components), on the back of foreign oil. And the emergent reality of the 21st Century (forward-looking readers will already understand) is that consumptive nations need productive nations, but not vice verse. Right now, without “emerging nations” subsidising American consumption (and agriculture, etc), what would become of the dollar? I think the only thing standing in the way of it becoming toilet paper is U.S. military might. But what would happen to that military might as a result of a global trade slowdown resulting from — for example — the closure of the Strait of Hormuz? As I detailed last week, as a result of her addiction to fragile global trade networks, America has rendered herself extremely fragile.

From the Huffington Post:

Blocking the Strait of Hormuz would create an international and economic calamity of unprecedented severity. Here are the crude realities. America uses approximately 19 to 20 million barrels of oil per day, almost half of which is imported. If we lose just 1 million barrels per day, or suffer the type of damage sustained from Hurricane Katrina, our government will open the Strategic Petroleum Reserve (SPR), which offers a mere six- to eight-week supply of unrefined crude oil. If we lose 1.5 million barrels per day, or approximately 7.5 percent, we will ask our allies in the 28-member International Energy Agency to open their SPRs and otherwise assist. If we lose 2 million barrels per day, or 10 percent, for a protracted period, government crisis monitors say the chaos will be so catastrophic, they cannot even model it. One government oil crisis source recently told me: “We cannot put a price tag on it. If it happens, just cash in your 401(k).”

Readers may be surprised to learn that I still have a lot of faith in America and the West. Only in the West is there an intellectual climate that allows for the kind of speech published on this blog. A free intellectual climate leads to innovation, and the free and honest exchange of ideas, all of which indirectly spur economic development. And certainly, while America is not perfect, it generally has a freer intellectual climate than most other nations. Further, America has huge reserves of energy and natural resources, and a low population density and thus room to expand.

But ultimately — as we shall over the next ten or twenty years — the present day American consumerism is a glittering economic dead end. The present world order is unravelling, and Americans — like many great empires before them — are in danger of suffering a lot of fallout.