Free Markets, Free People
I‘ve Just finished watching a documentary call "The End of the Road: How money became worthless" on Netflix. It’s 55 minutes long. It’s wonderfully educational, and horrifically frightening.
IT explains exactly why I’ve been harping on the coming hyperinflation for the last three years, and it tells you how close we are to seeing it happen. It explains the current situation we face extremely clearly and simply, so that anyone can understand it.
You need to watch it as soon as you possibly can.
Ben Bernanke, the Chairman of the Federal Reserve, announced today that the Fed will embark on another round of Quantitative Easing, beginning immediately. The Fed will increase its holdings by an estimated $85 billion per month in securities, about half of which will be long-term Treasury bonds, and the remaining $40 billion or more will be agency mortgage-backed securities. The agency paper will be purchased with new cash, while the long-term Treasuries will be acquired in exchange for short-term Treasury paper, as a continuation of Operation Twist.
There is no ultimate target amount or end date specified for this round of easing. Essentially, the Fed will buy or exchange $1 trillion in securities per year, until chairman Bernanke says to stop. It is completely open-ended. Additionally, the Fed expects to keep interest rates at or near 0% until sometime in 2015.
Let’s be clear about what this announcement means: The Fed will print $500 billion per year in new money, and inject it into the economy by buying agency paper (Freddie Mac, Fannie Mae, et al.), while also flooding the market with $500 billion of short-term paper in exchange for long bonds. That new money is not based on any realistic estimate of economic growth, or economic requirement to expand the money supply. It is pure, Keynesian monetary stimulus.
This will, of course, be done in a completely responsible way, and there is no threat whatsoever that this will cause an increase in inflation, and in any case, the Fed is fully prepared to sterilize this move at any time conditions warrant. Seriously, it’s best for the Fed to do this, and nothing could possibly go wrong.
Some may disagree.
Anyway, here’s some video of the first round of this open-ended QE being implemented:
Image via Max Keiser
Monty Pelerin, writing in The American Thinker, is thinking about the unthinkable. What would happen if the US held a bond auction..and no one bought any bonds? Even worse, what would happen if we were to default on the $16 trillion in bonds already outstanding?
What occasions this thinking is something he read in Bob Woodward’s new book on the Obama administration, a portion of which is excerpted in the Washington Post. This excerpt discusses last year’s debt ceiling crisis. In it Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner tries to explain how bad it would be if credit markets stopped buying Treasuries.
But, here’s the thing:
Credit markets have (or nearly have) stopped US government debt financing. That’s why we have the Federal Reserve, the counterfeiter of last resort. If government can raise the debt limit, then it would be legal for the Treasury to issue new debt. The Treasury’s sibling, the Fed, would buy it by printing new money. That would allow the government to pay its bills for a while longer…
No one will buy US Treasuries other than the Federal Reserve. Raising the debt limit only puts the government more hopelessly in debt, ensuring that Treasuries will be even more difficult to sell. Without intending it, Geithner admits that Bernanke will be printing money until the electricity is shut off or until hyperinflation shuts everything economic down. In either case, we reach his "indelible, incurable" situation which will "last for generations."
Take a look at the monetary base of the United States, which I would describe simply as all the money of all types floating around in the economy. You know why that number has jumped massively since 2009? Because the Fed has been the major buyer of US treasuries, and it buys them by simply printing new money.
Now, the US Dollar is the world’s reserve currency. What that means is that it is expected to be strong, stable, and plentiful enough—though not too plentiful—to be used as the primary backup currency for the entire world’s global trade.
But, since 2009, we have essentially financed our massive debt, which is now at 104% of GDP by having the Fed print the money to buy the Treasury’s bonds. The chart you see here is the result of two separate rounds of Quantitative Easing of that sort, and the Fed is now considering QEIII.
Now, Greece, the sick man of Europe’s financial system, has a debt to GDP ratio of 128%. At the current rate of spending, we could reach that within a decade. But we won’t, of course, because at some point between 104% and 128% of GDP, we will have so much debt that the US will be the world’s financial sick man. At some point credit markets will simply not bid on US Treasuries, because the specter of inflation or default will loom so large that only the Fed would be stupid enough to show up at a bond auction.
When that happens, current foreign holder of US treasuries will face intense pressure to divest themselves of them. Prices will collapse, and interest rates will skyrocket. If the Fed steps in to buy those treasuries to support the price—which they almost certainly will, because politicians will demand it—we will then be clearly seen as fully monetizing the debt.
At that point, foreign holders of US dollars will demand that some other currency or asset be used as a reserve, at which point foreign holders of dollars will scramble to repatriate those dollars as quickly as they can.
The dollar will then become worthless in foreign trade, and we will face massive hyperinflation in the US.
On our current spending path, with our current level of debt, this is inevitable, and we have no idea when it will happen. We are literally a single bond auction away from a complete and utter collapse of the US financial and monetary system. We just don’t know when, exactly, that bond auction will be. It might be this week. It might be five years from now.
But, I repeat, at this point, barring a massive change to our fiscal and monetary policy, it is inevitable. There is no way credit markets will continue to buy US Bonds as our debt to GDP ratio climbs towards that of Greece. When that happens, we will either monetize that debt or default on it. Either way, the result will be years, if not decades, of American poverty.
And once that process starts, there will be no way to stop it. We can’t come back a week later and say, "hey, we fixed it!" Once it starts…we’re done.
After WWII, the US debt to GDP ratio was 124%. At the end of WWII, we slashed government spending by 50%, and eliminated the most onerous and confiscatory wartime taxes, and, though marginal rates were still high, offered a myriad of exemptions that essentially ensured that no one paid the marginal rates. We also scrapped the entire wartime system of industrial production regulation and eliminated rationing. And, of course, we had the only fully industrialized economy left in the world, as everyone else’s had been bombed, if not back into the Stone Age, at least into the Age of Reason, and we became the world’s chief industrial power, exporter, and global business leader.
To do something similar today, we’d have to completely eliminate the entirety of the Federal government, with the exception of the Departments of State, Defense, Justice, Interior, and Treasury, and cut Social Security, Medicaid and Medicare spending by at least 50%.
That’s not going to happen. I believe the current Republican plan to attack the debt and balance the budget won’t even eliminate the budget deficit until sometime around 2040.
Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha!b That’s rich. Like we have 30 years available to fix this. It is to laugh.
Update: And, this morning, right on time, I see that House Speaker John Boehner says he’s "not confident" that Congress and the administration can reach a debt deal. In which case, Moody’s has already warned that they will downgrade the US credit rating by another step. Meanwhile, the rumor is that the Fed is now preparing for another $840 billion in quantitative easing.
That bond auction just keeps getting closer.
Ever since the Fed began the first round of what is now called Quantitative easing, massively expanding the money supply, I’ve been worried about what would happen when demand began rising, and the Fed had to somehow try and draw all that extra cash out of the economy before it became inflationary—or even worse—hyperinflationary.
That’s still a worry for me, because I have, let us say, less than absolute confidence that Chairman Bernanke and his colleagues can pull that monetary sterilization off without a misstep.
Happily, that is becoming a secondary worry for me. Unhappily, that’s because it’s been replaced by a new worry, articulated by Paul Brodsky, bond market expert and co-founder of QB Asset Management. Mr. Brodsky maintains that the real inflationary danger lies elsewhere. I mean, it still lies at at the Fed and other Central Banks, but for a different reason.
The world has simply gotten itself into too much debt. There are creditors that expect to be paid, and debtors that are having an increasingly difficult time making their coupon payments. No amount of political or policy intervention is going to change that reality. (Unless a global "debt jubilee" transpires, which Paul thinks is unlikely).
Looking at the global monetary base, Paul sees it dwarfed by the staggering amount of debts that need to be repaid or serviced. The reckless use of leverage has resulted in a chasm between total credit and the money that can service it.
So how will this debt overhang be resolved?
Central bank money printing — and lots of it — thinks Paul.
The problem has been exacerbated by the fact that, when faced with an economic depression brought on by the collapse of a debt bubble—mainly in mortgages—the preferred policy solution pushed by governments all over the world, has been to try and re-inflate the debt bubble via stimulus spending. That is to say, overcoming the collapse of the mortgage debt bubble by creating a new, even bigger, sovereign debt bubble.
We have a pretty good idea of how much money there is in the world. We also have an idea of how much debt there is, from the sovereign debt of the united states, to credit cardholders in Finland. And it appears that there is not enough of the former, to pay off all the debts contained in the latter. If so, then that means a lot of banks—perhaps most of them—are in trouble. And we can’t have that.
What policy makers do not want to see is bank asset deterioration. That would lead to all sorts of bad things. You would see banks fail. You would see bank systems fail. You would see debtors fail and it would just feed on itself in an accelerating fashion. And so monetary policy makers have no choice but to deleverage in the other way, which is to colloquially print money; to manufacture electronic credits and call them bank reserves.
And to the degree that that extends into the private sector where debtors begin to fail en masse, that would increase failures of the bank assets in turn. And it would end the mortgage bond securities market, for example, and the leveraged loan markets, and end the private sector shadow banking system. So it does not work for anybody to have credit deteriorate. The only way to deleverage an economy is as we are saying: to create new base money with which to do it.
In other words, if central banks want to prevent entire banking systems from failing due to the collapse of the debts they hold as assets, they have no choice but to ensure that there is enough money available for everyone to meet their debt payments. To do that, they have to start printing out long sheets of beautifully engraved C-Notes. This will, of course, lead to massive inflation that will allow everyone to pay off their mortgages for the cost of a nice hat, while, at the same time, destroying the value of the world’s life savings.
This will clean up everyone’s balance sheets, and allow the world to create a brand new monetary base—let’s call it New Dollars—which, central banks having learned their lessons, will be impossible to over-borrow or inflate.
Hahahahahahahahahahahahaha! Woohoohoohoohoo! Hehehehehehehehehe. Heh heh. Ahhh. Sometimes I kill myself.
I’m just kidding with you. Seriously, they’ll try to start a new fiat currency that they’ll borrow on and debase until it collapses on our grandchildren, and screws them, too.
Brian Micklethwait, over at Samizdata, posted this picture. It’s a bank note from Zimbabwe. It has a pretty high face value: fifty trillion dollars. If you’d like one, you’ll have to shell out three bucks or so in US dollars to get it.
Currently, that comes out to an exchange rate of about Z$16.67 trilion to the dollar. That’s pretty unreasonable, by any stretch of the imagination, if you’re a Zimbabwean. But you know what would be worse? An exchange ratio of 1:1.
And I’m still not fully convinced it won’t happen.
I have to admit, I sometimes get tired of being the voice of doom. Sadly, our political class–Republicans and Democrats alike–seems determined to follow the worst policy options available. So, doom slouches closer. The proximate doom they’re fiddling with this time is the approaching debt limit. Now, I yield to no man in my hatred for ever-increasing government spending, but this debt-limit battle is pointless. We will increase the debt limit. We have no choice.
Here’s the current situation:
OMB estimates federal revenues for 2011 will hit $2.17 trillion. Granny, our servicemen, and other such untouchables — by which I take him to mean Social Security, Medicare, national defense, and debt-service payments — will add up to $2.21 trillion, meaning that even if we cut the rest of the federal budget to $0.00 — no Medicaid, no food stamps, no Air Force One — revenues still would not cover these untouchables, according to OMB estimates…
Our deficit is about 40 percent of spending this year; continued recovery, if the estimates hold, will do some of the work for the 2013 regime, but even under current forecasts that are arguably too rosy, we’ll still be running a 26 percent deficit in 2013.
Even if we eliminate every penny of spending this year except for Social Security, Medicare, and Defense, we still can’t cover this year’s spending. And next year’s spending projects an economic recovery will save us, and reduce the deficit to 26% of spending. Absent such a recovery, next year we’ll be back to another 40% deficit.
And the politicians of both parties are nowhere near to making the appropriate cuts in the budget in years farther out than that. The biggest deficit reduction package currently on the table is for $4 trillion over the next 10 years. Which sounds impressive, until you remember that the actual projected budget deficit over the next 10 years is $13 trillion. So, we’re still $9 trillion short of closing the budget deficit for the next 10 years.
But, wait! It gets better! This $13 trillion figure assumes that interest rates will remain stable where the currently are. If interest rates for treasuries go up by 1%, that wil add 1.3 trillion to the deficit over the same period. As the moment, the Office of Management and the Budget (OMB) projections are for a stable average interest rate of 2.5%. Of course, the current 20-year average is closer to 5.5%, so a return even to normal interest rates will add up to $3.9 trillion to the deficit.
But the magic doesn’t stop yet! OMB forecasts growth rates of between 4%-4.5% from 2014 to 2014. The average trend rate of growth is between 2.5%-3% however. So, if we don’t get the strong growth the OMB is predicting over the next three years, and the following years, we’ll need to add another $3 trillion or so to the deficit over the next decade. And, frankly, if you believe Goldman Sachs today, a return to trend rates of growth seems..unlikely, as they’ve lowered 2Q GDP growth to 1.5% from 2.5% and 3Q to 2.5% from 3.25%. They also forecast unemployment at end of 2012 to be 8.75%.
So, the best case scenario is that we’ll add $9 trillion to the deficit over the next decade. A return to historical growth and interest rates–even if we assume the $4 trillion of budget cuts will actually happen–means a 10-year deficit of $16 trillion. Essentially, we will more than double the National Debt, pushing the debt to GDP ratio to about 160% by 2021.
And that’s the good news.
The bad news is that, in the current debate over the debt ceiling, everyone involved seems determined to play chicken with a default–even if only a selective default–of US treasury obligations.
Tim Pawlenty even suggested that a technical default might be exactly what Washington needs to send a wake-up call to the politicians about how serious the situation is. Others, like Michelle Bachmann, and a not inconsequential number of Tea Party caucus members are steadfastly against raising the debt ceiling for any reason at all.
This is insanity.
Any sort of default, even a selective default that would suspend interest payments only to securities held by the government, while paying all private bondholders in full, will have completely unpredictable results. The least predictable result, however, would be business as usual. A technical default–i.e., delaying interest payments for a few days–or selective default, or any other kind of default is…well…a default. It is a failure to make interest payments.
The most obvious possible result of any sort of default will be to eliminate the US Treasury’s AAA rating, and push interest rates up sharply. If we’re lucky, we’d be talking about a yield of 9%-10%…and an additional $5 trillion added to the deficit (running total in 2021: $21 trillion added to the national debt).
And, again, that’s a best case scenario. Because it assumes that everyone will be willing to hold their T-Notes through all of this. If any major overseas institution or government–say, China–decides to unload their holdings, it could be the start of a flight from treasuries that will destroy the US Dollar in the FOREX, vastly increase the price of imported goods, like, say, oil, and spark uncontrollable hyperinflation in the US. The life savings of every person and institution would be wiped out.
Naturally, yields on interest-bearing instruments would then pull back on the stick and climb for the skies. Not that it’d matter much at that point, since the currency would merely be ornately engraved pieces of durable paper. Suitable for burning in the Franklin Stoves with which we will be heating our homes, in the absence of oil.
Flirting with default is extraordinarily reckless. I don’t even have the words to begin to describe how badly any sort of default might go.
The thing is, we don’t know–we can’t know–what the results of a technical or selective default might be. It might be the judgement of worldwide investors that there are no better alternatives to US-denominated securities, so they’ll just have to ride out a technical default, and accept their interest payments coming a few days late. It might be their judgement that unloading their US-denominated securities and losing a little money is better than the risk of losing everything through a currency collapse. It might be a lot of things, and we have no way of knowing which of those things might come to pass.
As Tim Pawlenty says, a default might be a wake up call. From an exploding phone filled with napalm and plutonium.
Whatever political points might be at stake, is it worth this level of risk?
The safe path here is a simple $500 billion debt limit increase. That’ll give us 6 months to figure things out, and try to discover some way to get our fiscal picture under control, and avoid a default. Government spending is out of control, but a default is really not the best way to impose fiscal discipline.
The reactions to the Federal Reserve’s announcement that they would embark on a new, $600 billion round of quantitative easing is raising reactions from all around the world.
Unbridled printing of dollars is the biggest risk to the global economy, an adviser to the Chinese central bank said in comments published on Thursday, a day after the Federal Reserve unveiled a new round of monetary easing.
German Economy Minister Rainer Bruederle said on Thursday he was concerned at U.S. efforts to stimulate growth by injecting liquidity into its struggling economy.
“I view that not without concern,” Bruederle said, adding that a variety of measures were needed to solve the problem and it was not enough to pump in liquidity alone…
Bruederle also said there was some truth to the criticism that the United States was influencing the dollar’s exchange rate with monetary policy and voiced concern about increased protectionism in different forms around the world.
Brazilian officials from the president down have slammed the Federal Reserve’s decision to depress US interest rates by buying billions of dollars of government bonds, warning that it could lead to retaliatory measures.
“It’s no use throwing dollars out of a helicopter,” Guido Mantega, the finance minister, said on Thursday. “The only result is to devalue the dollar to achieve greater competitiveness on international markets.”
Brazil, especially, seems to be treating this as a currency devaluation war, and, according to the Financial Times, really doesn’t like that.
But the worries go far beyond trade and protectionism issues brought about by fears of devaluation. It’s the domestic inflationary effects which have many–including me–worried:
Federal Reserve policies have put the US dollar the risk of crashing, which will hammer consumers through higher prices, strategist Axel Merk told CNBC…
“So we will have a cost-push inflation. We’re going to get inflation but not where Bernanke wants to have it. We’re not going to get wages to go up. We’ll get the price at the gas pump to go up instead.”
We’re right on a path towards high inflation and slow economic growth, otherwise known as “stagflation”. Except that there’s a lot more monetary expansion this time than we experienced in the 1970s. Maybe we’ll have to coin a new term, like “hyperstagflation”.
Oh, and in case you were wondering, it begins like this.
In this podcast, Bruce, Michael and Dale discuss the special election in Massachussetts, the dangers of hyperinflation, and Haiti. The direct link to the podcast can be found here.
The intro and outro music is Vena Cava by 50 Foot Wave, and is available for free download here.
As a reminder, if you are an iTunes user, don’t forget to subscribe to the QandO podcast, Observations, through iTunes. For those of you who don’t have iTunes, you can subscribe at Podcast Alley. And, of course, for you newsreader subscriber types, our podcast RSS Feed is here. For podcasts from 2005 to 2009, they can be accessed through the RSS Archive Feed.