Chinese Treasury Contradictions…

One mistake I may have made in the two years I have been writing publicly is taking the rhetoric of the Chinese and Russian governments a little too seriously, particularly over their relationship with the United States and the dollar.

Back in 2011, both China and Russia made a lot of noise about dumping US debt, or at least investing a lot less in it. Vladimir Putin said:

They are living beyond their means and shifting a part of the weight of their problems to the world economy. They are living like parasites off the global economy and their monopoly of the dollar. If [in America] there is a systemic malfunction, this will affect everyone. Countries like Russia and China hold a significant part of their reserves in American securities. There should be other reserve currencies.

And China were vocally critical too:

China, the largest foreign investor in US government securities, joined Russia in criticising American policymakers for failing to ensure borrowing is reined in after a stopgap deal to raise the nation’s debt limit.

People’s Bank of China governor Zhou Xiaochuan said China‘s central bank would monitor US efforts to tackle its debt, and state-run Xinhua News Agency blasted what it called the “madcap” brinkmanship of American lawmakers.

But just this month — almost two years after China blasted America for failing to cut debt levels — China’s Treasury holdings hit a record level of  $1.223 trillion.  And Russian treasury holdings are $20 billion higher than they were in 2012. So all of those protestations, it seems, were a lot of hot air. While it is true that various growing industrial powers are setting up alternative reserve currency systems, China and Russia aren’t ready to dump the dollar system anytime soon.

Now, the Federal Reserve has to some degree further enticed China into buying treasuries by giving them direct access to the Treasury auctions, allowing them to cut out the Wall Street middlemen. Maybe if that hadn’t happened, Chinese Treasury ownership would be lower.

But ultimately, the present system is very favourable for the BRICs, who have been able to build up massive manufacturing and infrastructural bases as a means to satisfy American and Western demand. In that sense, the post-Bretton Woods globalisation has been as much a free lunch for the developing world as it has been for anyone else. And why would China and Russia want to rock the boat by engaging in things like mass Treasury dumpings, trade war or proxy wars? They are slowly and gradually gaining on the West, without having to engage in war or trade war. As I noted in 2011:

I believe that the current world order suits China very much — their manufacturing exporters (and resource importers) get the stability of the mega-importing Americans spending mega-dollars on a military budget that maintains global stability. Global instability would mean everyone would pay more for imports, due to heightened insurance costs and other overheads.

Of course, a panic in the Chinese mainland — maybe a financial crash, or the bursting of the Chinese property bubble — might result in China’s government doing something rash.

But until then it is unlikely we will see the Eurasian holders of Treasuries engaging in much liquidation anytime soon — however much their leaders complain about American fiscal and monetary policy. Actions speak louder than words.

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QE ∞

The Keynesians and Monetarists who have so berated the Federal Reserve and demanded more asset purchases and a nominal GDP target to get GDP level up to the long-term growth trend have essentially got their wish.

This is a radical departure:

To support a stronger economic recovery and to help ensure that inflation, over time, is at the rate most consistent with its dual mandate, the Committee agreed today to increase policy accommodation by purchasing additional agency mortgage-backed securities at a pace of $40 billion per month.  The Committee also will continue through the end of the year its program to extend the average maturity of its holdings of securities as announced in June, and it is maintaining its existing policy of reinvesting principal payments from its holdings of agency debt and agency mortgage-backed securities in agency mortgage-backed securities.  These actions, which together will increase the Committee’s holdings of longer-term securities by about $85 billion each month through the end of the year, should put downward pressure on longer-term interest rates, support mortgage markets, and help to make broader financial conditions more accommodative.

The Committee will closely monitor incoming information on economic and financial developments in coming months.  If the outlook for the labor market does not improve substantially, the Committee will continue its purchases of agency mortgage-backed securities, undertake additional asset purchases, and employ its other policy tools as appropriate until such improvement is achieved in a context of price stability.  In determining the size, pace, and composition of its asset purchases, the Committee will, as always, take appropriate account of the likely efficacy and costs of such purchases.

I tweeted this earlier in favour of the idea that the Fed would adopt open-ended asset purchases:

Those who didn’t anticipate the possibility of open-ended asset purchases should have looked much more closely at Bernanke’s words at Jackson Hole:

If we are willing to take as a working assumption that the effects of easier financial conditions on the economy are similar to those observed historically, then econometric models can be used to estimate the effects of LSAPs on the economy. Model simulations conducted at the Federal Reserve generally find that the securities purchase programs have provided significant help for the economy. For example, a study using the Board’s FRB/US model of the economy found that, as of 2012, the first two rounds of large scale asset purchases may have raised the level of output by almost 3 percent and increased private payroll employment by more than 2 million jobs, relative to what otherwise would have occurred.

Essentially, this is nominal GDP level targeting. The reason why Bernanke has framed it in terms of lowering unemployment is that his mandate relates to price stability and unemployment, not nominal GDP level. But as Bernanke himself noted in his academic days:

Estimates based on data from more recent years give about a 2% decrease in output for every 1% increase in unemployment.

To those who accept Okun’s Law, raising nominal GDP level and lowering unemployment are effectively the same thing. Bernanke seems to believe unemployment will fall in a (roughly) linear fashion as asset purchases increase. By itself, this is a problematic assumption as the past is not an ideal guide to the future.

Yet more importantly the data shows no real job recovery in the post-2008 quantitatively-eased world. This is the prime-age employment-population ratio:

And even if unemployment falls without triggering large-scale inflation as per the Fed’s design, this is no cure for the significant long-term challenges that America faces.

As I wrote back in November 2011, when nominal GDP targeting was just appearing on the horizon America faces far greater challenges than can be solved with a monetary injection. Financial fragility, moral hazard, energy dependency, resource dependency, deindustrialisation, excessive private debt, crumbling infrastructure, fiscal uncertainty, and a world-policeman complex. The underlying problems are not ones that Bernanke really has power to address.

And how long before rising food prices cause more riots and revolutions? After, all handing over more firepower to speculators tends to result in increased speculation.

Meanwhile, US creditors and dollar-holders (particularly China) would seem from past comments to be deeply unhappy with this decision.

President Hu Jintao:

The monetary policy of the United States has a major impact on global liquidity and capital flows and therefore, the liquidity of the US dollar should be kept at a reasonable and stable level.

The dollars they accrued will lose purchasing power to every new dollar printed and handed over to the American banks in exchange for mortgage backed securities. The Chinese perspective on this will be that Bernanke is essentially engaging in theft. On the other hand, they should have considered this likelihood before they went about accruing a humungous pile of fiat dollars that can be duplicated at a press of a button. No, matter; China won’t get burnt like this again.

As PBOC official Zhang Jianhua noted:

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

Chances of future trade and currency wars between the United States and China seem to be rising as fast as Chinese gold accruals.

The Trouble with Rand Paul

Rand Paul just endorsed a man who is deeply hostile to human liberty.

Perhaps that’s Rand’s idea of playing politics? Come to the table, strike a deal, get what you can. Trouble is, it’s tough striking a good deal when the guy on the other side of the table believes that the government should be allowed to claim — without having to produce any evidence whatsoever — that certain people are terrorists, and therefore should be detained indefinitely without any kind of due process.

That’s textbook tyranny.

Yes, I would have [signed the NDAA]. And I do believe that it is appropriate to have in our nation the capacity to detain people who are threats to this country, who are members of al Qaeda. Look, you have every right in this country to protest and to express your views on a wide range of issues but you don’t have a right to join a group that has killed Americans, and has declared war against America. That’s treason. In this country we have a right to take those people and put them in jail. If I were president I would not abuse this power. But people who join al Qaeda are not entitled to rights of due process under our normal legal code. They are entitled instead to be treated as enemy combatants.

Mitt Romney

Except, if the government had any evidence they were really members of al-Qaeda and engaged in a war against America they could be charged with offenses under current laws and tried in front of a jury of their peers. As was proven when Judge Katherine Forrest struck down the indefinite detention provision of the NDAA as unconstitutional, the real detention targets are people like the ones who brought the case — writers, investigative journalist and whistleblowers: people like Chris Hedges, Noam Chomsky, Daniel Ellsberg, Jennifer Bolen, and Birgitta Jonsdottir.

Rand Paul might have done some good work trying to filibuster the Patriot Act, but endorsing Mitt Romney goes beyond the pale. The NDAA is Romney’s most egregious transgression against liberty, but not far behind are his desire to start a war against Iran, to increase military spending, to start a trade war with China and his belief that corporations are people.

I know I will never agree with any politician on every single dimension of every single issue, and that to some extent politics will always involve compromise. Certainly, I disagree with Ron Paul on some issues. But Mitt Romney’s stances on these issues seem much, much, much closer to Barack Obama than they do to Ron Paul. In fact, he might as well have endorsed Obama for President.

And the Ron Paul supporters are noticing: Rand has probably burnt most bridges to his Father’s supporters now. His Facebook page has seen a huge outpouring of fury:

Just lost a lot of faith in a man I otherwise adored.

You suck Rand! Traitor!

That’s why this country is doomed! Even the person you trust is a sell-out. I’m done with politics, people deserve what they get. Let the country run itself to the ground, and still people will not understand what freedom and self-responsibility is about. People want big gov’t, big brother every step of the way. Well, they got it. The rest of us, might as well try to move to another country or find an island and move there.

I knew I’d never vote for Mitt… Now I know I’ll never vote for Rand.

He has fully sold out to the bankers

Endorsing Romney is tantamount to an utter sell-out of conservative principles.

Did George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison try to compromise with King George? Or — when it became obvious that they were facing tyranny — did they stand up for the principles of liberty?

I have always been uncomfortable with the children of politicians becoming politicians. Every anointed child feels like a step away from meritocracy. Dynasties are dangerous, because the dynasty itself comes to be more important than the qualities of the politicians. Who would Rand Paul be if he wasn’t Ron Paul’s son? Just another neocon. Neocons often have a few “unfashionable” libertarian or constitutionalist sympathies; look at Charles Krauthammer. But — unlike Ron Paul — the neocon never has the spine to do much about their libertarian or constitutionalist sympathies. They just ride on the establishment steamroller, into foreign occupations, empire building, corporate welfare, and banking bailouts. Into Iraq, and soon into Iran.

Rand Paul just got on the steamroller.

Putin is Back

Yeah.

Let’s just remind ourselves what we’re dealing with here.

Here’s what Putin observed last August:

America are living beyond their means and shifting a part of the weight of their problems to the world economy. They are living like parasites off the global economy and their monopoly of the dollar. If [in America] there is a systemic malfunction, this will affect everyone. Countries like Russia and China hold a significant part of their reserves in American securities. There should be other reserve currencies.

It should be no surprise to anybody, then, that the last Russian government — as well as their autocratic ASEAN friends in China, Pakistan, Iran and so on — began taking proactive measures to extricate itself from the dollar system.

I expect the new government to accelerate such measures.

The Beauty of America

Eric X. Li writes the most controversial piece of the year thus far, in which he concludes that democracy is a problem for the West:

Many have characterized the competition between [America and China] as a clash between democracy and authoritarianism. But this is false. America and China view their political systems in fundamentally different ways: whereas America sees democratic government as an end in itself, China sees its current form of government, or any political system for that matter, merely as a means to achieving larger national ends.

In the history of human governance, spanning thousands of years, there have been two major experiments in democracy. The first was Athens, which lasted a century and a half; the second is the modern West. If one defines democracy as one citizen one vote, American democracy is only 92 years old. In practice it is only 47 years old, if one begins counting after the Voting Rights Act of 1965 — far more ephemeral than all but a handful of China’s dynasties.

Why, then, do so many boldly claim they have discovered the ideal political system for all mankind and that its success is forever assured?

The answer lies in the source of the current democratic experiment. It began with the European Enlightenment. Two fundamental ideas were at its core: the individual is rational, and the individual is endowed with inalienable rights. These two beliefs formed the basis of a secular faith in modernity, of which the ultimate political manifestation is democracy.

In its early days, democratic ideas in political governance facilitated the industrial revolution and ushered in a period of unprecedented economic prosperity and military power in the Western world. Yet at the very beginning, some of those who led this drive were aware of the fatal flaw embedded in this experiment and sought to contain it.

The American Federalists made it clear they were establishing a republic, not a democracy, and designed myriad means to constrain the popular will. But as in any religion, faith would prove stronger than rules.

The West’s current competition with China is therefore not a face-off between democracy and authoritarianism, but rather the clash of two fundamentally different political outlooks. The modern West sees democracy and human rights as the pinnacle of human development. It is a belief premised on an absolute faith.

China is on a different path. Its leaders are prepared to allow greater popular participation in political decisions if and when it is conducive to economic development and favorable to the country’s national interests, as they have done in the past 10 years.

However, China’s leaders would not hesitate to curtail those freedoms if the conditions and the needs of the nation changed.

The fundamental difference between Washington’s view and Beijing’s is whether political rights are considered God-given and therefore absolute or whether they should be seen as privileges to be negotiated based on the needs and conditions of the nation.

Li has made a staggering error: he has conflated individual rights with democracy. These are actually two separate ideas. In fact, the two notions can sometimes be opposed: in a pure democracy, 51% of the population could successfully vote to cook and eat the other 49%. That is where the notion of individual liberty and creator-endowed rights come in: while some democracy is tenable, the actions of a democracy that would be damaging to an individual’s liberty are deemed to be unconstitutional. This was the shape of America’s constitution after the revolution.

So Li is correct — America was not at its birth a democracy. America was set up as a constitutional republic. Its constitution was designed to protect individual liberty (even if it has not always been entirely successful at doing so). The Constitution is written very simply and beautifully. Here’s the First Amendment:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

Simple, specific, categorical. No ifs, no buts. Other nations have paid lip-service to fundamental human freedoms, but they always wrapped themselves up in fineries. Here’s Europe’s attempt:

Everyone has the right of freedom of expression. This right shall include freedom to hold opinions and to receive and impart information and ideas without inference by public authority and regardless of frontiers. This Article shall not prevent States from requiring the licensing of broadcasting, television or cinema enterprises.

The exercise of these freedoms, since it carries with it duties and responsibilities, may be subject to such formalities, conditions, restrictions or penalties as are prescribed by law and are necessary in a democratic society, in the interests of national security, territorial integrity or public safety, for the prevention of disorder or crime, for the protection of health or morals, for the protection of the reputation or rights of others, for preventing the disclosure of information received in confidence, or for maintaining the authority and impartiality of the judiciary.

In Europe, you have a right to free expression at the discretion of the democratically-elected authorities. And that’s not really a right at all. It’s a semi-right; a right with a whole lot of strings. You have the right to life — so long as the other 51% don’t vote to cook and eat you. 

But America’s constitutional republic is a long-gone ideal. America’s Congress pumps out a wealth of legislation not specifically authorised by the Constitution. The first breaches were done with the best of intentions: the Fourteenth Amendment applied the Bill of Rights to the states, albeit shredding the Ninth and Tenth Amendments. The Civil Rights Act gave racial minorities equal accessto public and private facilities, thereby ending the right of property owners to discriminate against whomever they chose. I am broadly supportive of those measures. But later breaches have been much more dangerous.

Corporations are now routinely bailed out, destroying the market mechanism and creating an aristocracy of “systemically important” corporations with access to Uncle Sam’s chequebook. The power to coin money has been delegated from the Treasury to a private cartel known as the Federal Reserve, allowing the private bankers to create massive and dangerous credit bubbles. The PATRIOT Act, and the NDAA of 2011 shredded the Fourth Amendment and ended the ancient right to Habeas Corpus. Presidents since the Second World War have routinely gone to war without an express declaration authorised by Congress. Obamacare has created a healthcare mandate, compelling American citizens to buy a commercial product — health insurance. Even the First Amendment has been turned upside down — corporations (who are not people) can spend limitless money on political campaigns, while political protestors (who are definitely people) are now confined to caged “free speech zones”. And that’s just from the top of my head.

So it is important to remember that criticisms of America today are criticisms of the present politics of America, and not of the ideals of constitutionalism, or of individual liberty.

It is certain that America today is in dire straits: deeply indebted to the rest of the world, heightened unemployment, the world’s largest prison population, a broken and zombified financial system stripped of the market mechanism, a huge swathe of citizens without access to medical treatment, tent cities.

And it is also certain that America’s welfarism has contributed to its debt. But that is more the fault of large corporations, farmers, and the military industrial complex who suck up subsidies and then call it “profit”, than it is the poor who without subsidies probably could not eat. But certainly all the subsidies have come out of America’s newfound democratic status. Give people the ability to vote for more free stuff (and lobbyists the ability to lobby for more free stuff) and more often than not they’ll take that chance. After all, who doesn’t love a free lunch?

But it is totally foolish to blame these problems on “too much liberty”.

In fact, right now it is China that seems more libertarian — at least in purely economic terms. As I wrote last month, China’s economy consists of just 20% of federal government spending, whereas America’s consists of 37%. China is more of a market economy, while America is more statist. So while China’s leaders might have taken a more “flexible” approach to individual liberties, at least when it comes to economic liberty, they are practically way ahead of America. And maybe that’s why China is doing so well economically — the freedom to do business, to create, to produce.

When it comes to social and cultural freedom, America is way ahead of China — and unsurprisingly, America is still the world’s cultural powerhouse.

What if this little thing known as liberty — and these little things known as unalienable rights are far more important than Li recognises? What if they are the driving energy that underpins innovation, that underpins economic prosperity, that underpins a robust economic system?

America was once the richest and most productive nation on the planet (and by certain measures she still is). This was a direct product of a system of cultural and economic freedom. People were free to think differently, to act differently, to create new businesses, new products, new techniques and this ultimately led to the greatest sustained period of wealth creation in history. They didn’t have to ask the permission of a feudal lord or monarch or commissar. They didn’t have to kowtow to an aristocracy. Only now — since America has adopted statism and bureaucracy — has America begun to fall behind.

So Li’s conclusion is right, but only in a twisted and roundabout way:

The West seems incapable of becoming less democratic even when its survival may depend on such a shift. In this sense, America today is similar to the old Soviet Union, which also viewed its political system as the ultimate end.

History does not bode well for the American way. Indeed, faith-based ideological hubris may soon drive democracy over the cliff.

Yes — ideological and faith-based hubris may soon drive America off a cliff. But that ideological and faith-based hubris that we find today in American government and in the American intellectual elite is not for America’s constitution, nor for individual liberty. Instead it is for statism, for big government, for surveillance, for authoritarianism, for central planning, for endless war and imperialism. The zeal that will drive America off a cliff is exactly what Li advocates more of.

The Complex Syrian Situation

I have talked at length about the growing monetary, ideological and political schism developing between the Eurasian powers, and the Western ones.

I have talked at length about the growing Eurasian coalition of resistance against American interests, against American interventionism, against the dollar.

I have talked at length about that coalition’s fear of further American encroachment into Eurasia.

So I was especially prepared for further spats between the two coalitions during 2012, and especially over Iran and Syria.

But the nastiness and disdainfulness of today’s events surprised even me.

From the BBC:

An Arab and Western-backed resolution condemning the violent crackdown in Syria has been vetoed at the UN Security Council by Russia and China.

The two permanent council members rejected the draft resolution, which came hours after activists accused Syrian security forces of killing at least 55 people at Homs.

The US ambassador said the vetoes were “shameful”, Britain was “appalled”.

China and Russia defended their move, saying the draft was “unbalanced”.

Russia says the draft resolution had singled out the government of President Bashar al-Assad, and did not containing measures against armed opposition groups.

But proposed Russian amendments to the text were described as “unacceptable” by the US ambassador to the UN, Susan Rice.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov is due to have talks with Mr Assad in Damascus on Tuesday.

To be clear: this resolution was a step toward military intervention against Bashar al-Assad. I am extremely sceptical that this is a good idea. I believe that the best thing that the global community can do is facilitate dialogue between the government and the protestors, and work toward a peaceful compromise.

This is not because I believe al-Assad deserves to remain in power. He is certainly a tyrant and despot of the highest order. But can we honestly say that committing guns, blood and money to deposing him will guarantee peace and stability? Can we honestly say that the next regime might not be worse? I do not believe we can — especially considering that almost every nation involved in the “Arab Spring” has since elected Islamists to power.

Even with the support of the Arab league, is getting entangled into another messy and open-ended conflict in Russia and China’s backyard really a good idea?  Some voices in China are already rumbling that they would be willing to go to war to prevent an American takeover of Iran.

If avoiding nuclear proliferation is our goal, intervention is certainly a bad idea. Qaddafi’s deposition — in stark contrast to nuclear-armed North Korea — was a signpost to rogue regimes that the only way to ensure their survival is to pursue nuclear armaments.

So the biggest story here — and the real reason for the Sino-Russian veto — is the rumbling tension between the Western and Eurasian blocs.

It is a hornets’ nest the West should not stir. Instead, I believe, we should be more concerned about our own economies, particularly the factors of energy independence, resource independence and domestic manufacturing. For the Eurasian powers are not merely nations far across the world: they are our productive base, our resource base, our labour base. Without their support and co-operation the West’s physical economy will be severely damaged.

In insisting upon picking sides in the Syrian Civil War, we might well be shooting ourselves in the foot. Or the head.

The Shape of Eurasia

Western journalists might denounce it as stump rhetoric. But I don’t think Vladimir Putin is beating a drum or rattling a sabre. I think he is deadly serious: what’s more, I think he is in a position of strength, not weakness.

From Bloomberg:

Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin is stepping up rhetoric against the U.S. as his campaign for the March 4 presidential election intensifies after the biggest protests against his rule.

The U.S. “wants to control everything” and takes decisions unilaterally on key questions, Putin said on a campaign stop yesterday in the Siberian city of Tomsk, 3,100 kilometers (1,900 miles) east of Moscow. “Sometimes I get the impression the U.S. doesn’t need allies, it needs vassals.”

Putin, 59, is seeking a new term in the Kremlin amid the biggest challenge to his 12-year rule after fraud allegations at parliamentary polls sparked mass protests. The Russian leader, who has repeatedly accused the U.S. of interfering in other countries’ affairs, said last week that reports by a state-owned Moscow radio station supported American interests.

“The No. 1 reason Putin is doing this is elections,” Jan Techau, director of the European Center of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Brussels, said yesterday in a phone interview. ‘‘It’s pre-election saber-rattling. This is vintage Putin.’’

Alas, it is all about context. This isn’t 1992; the end of history is finished. America is not an invincible hegemon, but instead has been taxed and weakened by two big wars and a myriad of small ones, a huge financial blowup, and the fallout of losing a huge hunk of its manufacturing sector to Asia. America’s monopoly over the global oil trade — and its ability to acquire oil and components with newly-printed dollars — is threatened by the current shape of Eurasia, where a coterie of authoritarian leaders, united by their shared anti-Americanism is moving to displace the dollar as the global reserve currency.

Vladimir Putin was very explicit about this.

From Rianovosti:

Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin accused the US of hooliganism on Monday [July 2011] over the US government’s efforts to ease its financial problems by injecting hundreds of billions of dollars into the economy.

“Thank God, or unfortunately, we do not print a reserve currency but what are they doing? They are behaving like hooligans, switching on the printing press and tossing them around the whole world, forgetting their main obligations,” Putin told a meeting of economic experts at the Russian Academy of Sciences.

The Russian authorities have said they would like to see a basket of currencies including the ruble replacing the dollar as the main reserve currency, although most analysts have said a more realistic target for Russia would be if the ruble became a regional reserve currency for the CIS.

Regular readers will know that this is not just rhetoric. These Eurasian leaders are taking direct action to displace the dollar.

From Zero Hedge:

Yuan bonds have spread across the planet, China has dropped the dollar in bilateral trade with Russia, the ASEAN trading bloc has formed into a tight shell of export partners, and that is just the beginning. Two major announcements in 2011 have solidified my belief that a complete dump of the dollar by eastern interests is near…

First was the announcement that China was actively and openly pursuing the establishment of a central bank for the whole of ASEAN, with the Yuan utilized as the reserve currency instead of the dollar:

http://www.reuters.com/article/2011/10/27/us-china-asean-financial-idUST…

This news, of course, has barely been reported on in the mainstream. As I discussed at the beginning of this article, the terminology surrounding economic developments has been diluted and twisted. When China states that an ASEAN central bank is in the works, we need to point out what this really means; the ASEAN trading bloc is about to become the Asian Union. The only missing piece of the puzzle is something that I have been warning about for at least a couple years, ever since my days at Neithercorp (see “Migration Of The Black Swans” as a recent example). This key catalyst is the inclusion of Japan in ASEAN, something which many said would take five to ten years to unfold. News released this Christmas speaks otherwise:

http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2011-12-25/china-japan-to-promote-direct-trading-of-currencies-to-cut-company-costs.html

Japan has indeed entered into an agreement to drop the dollar in currency exchange with China and has expressed interest in melting into ASEAN. Japan has also struck somewhat similar though slightly more limited deals with India, South Korea, Indonesia, and the Philippines almost simultaneously:

http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2011-12-28/japan-india-seal-15-billion-currency-swap-arrangement-to-shore-up-rupee.html

This means that the two largest foreign holders of U.S. debt and Greenbacks will soon be in a position to tap into an export market far more profitable than that of America, and that all of this trade will be facilitated by currencies OTHER THAN THE DOLLAR. It means the end of the dollar as the world reserve and probably the end of the dollar as we know it.

America might well be expected to throw a wrench into the changing chape of the global system. A (messy, prolonged and expensive) war with Iran — to disrupt Eurasian co-operation and re-assert American hegemony — might suffice in the minds of hawks, but will in reality do more harm than good, perhaps driving Russia and China into explicitly and directly defending their ideological ally. Even if this was not the case, American military power runs thin on manpower, and is  funded not by American productivity, but by debt acquisition. More debt will just strain the status of the dollar as reserve currency even more.