Life is full of mysteries. Each mystery is like a straw in the wind, which individually means little, but tempting us to speculate there’s a greater meaning behind it all. Yes, there is a far greater game in play, taking Kipling’s aphorism to a higher level.
One of those straws is Russia’s continuing accumulation of gold reserves. Financial pundits tell us that this is to avoid being beholden to the US dollar, and undoubtedly there is truth in it. But why gold? Here, the pundits are silent. There is an answer, and that is Russia understands in principal the virtues of sound money relative to possession of another country’s paper promises. Hence, they sell dollars and buy gold.
But Russia is now going a step further. Izvestia reported the Russian Finance Ministry is considering abolition of VAT on private purchases of gold bullion. We read that this could generate private Russian annual demand of between fifty and a hundred tonnes. More importantly, it paves the way for gold to circulate in Russia as money.
We should put ourselves in Russia’s shoes to find out why this may be important. Russia is the largest exporter of energy, including gas, pushing Saudi Arabia into second place. This means she is also the largest acquirer of fiat currency for energy. That’s fine if you like fiat currencies, but if you suspect them, then you either turn them into physical assets, such as infrastructure and military hardware, or gold. Russia does both.
Then there is China. China has started announcing monthly additions to her gold reserves. China is up to her neck in dollars, and the relatively minor monthly additions to her reserves really make little difference. However, the link between the gold exchanges in Moscow and Shanghai strongly suggest Russia and China are coordinating gold dealing activities.
In any event, China now dominates physical bullion markets. Deliveries (withdrawals) from the Shanghai Gold Exchange’s vaults into public hands are running at roughly two-thirds of the world’s annual mine supply. At 426 tonnes in 2017, China is the largest gold mining nation by far, and the state owns all China’s refining capacity, even taking in doré from abroad. No gold leaves this version of Hotel California.
The frequently-expressed reasoning for their gold policies is Russia and China are locked in a financial war with their largest debtor. This is not the underlying reason these nations have chosen gold as an expression of their dislike of America’s weaponization of her monetary policies. They know the difference between unbacked fiat currencies and sound money, which has been chosen by people ever since they began to use a separate commodity to intermediate in transactions.
However, it is true the Americans have weaponised the dollar, bringing an urgency to China’s and Russia’s deployment of gold. US dollars have been the world’s reserve currency for the last forty-eight years, and America, which pays for everything in costless, newly-issued dollars, now says it wants a better trade deal. It obviously assumes the dollar’s supremacy is unchallengeable and in their need for dollars China and other exporters to America will be forced to comply.
Let’s pick this apart. The US Government pays for everything in a currency which it issues at will. New dollars only gain value once they are in circulation, but the cost of production is zero, stealing their circulatory value from previously existing currency. However, the US Government is unable to balance its books without recycling some of these duff dollars into its own IOUs (Treasury stock). Because they are required to be repatriated to balance the US Treasury’s books, the US Treasury borrows them back from foreigners who might otherwise question the dollars true value. So, foreigners get a Treasury IOU eventually paid out in a currency IOU. It really is pig on pork.
So far, the foreigners have been successfully conned, though questions are beginning to be asked.
Logic suggests that the US Government getting something for nothing is as good as it gets. But President Trump thinks this is unfair, not on the Chinese and other foreigners swapping goods for ultimately worthless paper, but on America herself! He holds out for an even better deal. He demands the Chinese and others stop supplying real stuff to his people in return for his costless, dubious paper. In other words, speaking on behalf of the American People, he is now dissuading the Chinese from giving Americans something for what amounts to nothing.
Those on Planet Asia could be forgiven for looking at things rather differently. After Mao’s death and a brief period of accepting the dollar scam on the basis that demand for dollars would always ensure they could be exchanged for value, the Chinese have for a long time smelled a rat. This is why in 1983 they appointed the Peoples Bank to be in charge of liquidating dollars for gold and silver. They have gently played along with the dollar scam ever since, not wanting to be the party that exposes it for what it is.
Now it is Trump himself who has blown the whistle on the dollar. China and Russia have undoubtedly got the message from this new art of the deal. But at the heart of it is a deep, wider malaise in the fiat currency world. Understand that, and we get to the true reason why Russia and China are wary about accumulating the West’s fiat currencies. Until now, they have run with the hare and hunted with the hounds. China in particular uses fiat renminbi to drive expansion. But then if she didn’t, today’s world order would have probably collapsed in the wake of the Lehman crisis as the flaws and weaknesses of fiat currencies would have been exposed.
The next credit crisis could change everything
So far, China and Russia have resisted the temptation to act precipitously. Their economies are dependent on Western cooperation. Russia exports energy to the West, and China runs a trade surplus in goods and services. To dispense with Western trade, they need an Asia-wide self-contained market. They are building it, with China’s silk road projects and by consolidating the membership of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation. But not all the groundwork has been done, certainly not enough to “go commando”.
The transfer from a dollar-centric world to gold-backed roubles and renminbi will continue to be at a pace determined by the monetary mistakes of America. That is why the next economic downturn is so important to geopolitical outcomes. And it won’t be just a rerun of Lehman, characterised by a sudden crisis, money-printing, and heaving a sigh of relief when the banking system doesn’t collapse.
The starting-gun for the next credit crisis has already been fired. A reversal of expanding cross-border trade is in full swing. The sales of dollars by foreigners has begun. There is little doubt there is a recession ahead, the only question is of its likely depth. The massive build-up of unsustainable global debt since the Lehman crisis tells us to expect the liquidation to be substantial. The coincidental combination of the peak of the credit cycle and trade protectionism warns us of something far worse than an ordinary recession: a possible rerun of 1929-32, only this time with unsound currency instead of currencies freely convertible into gold.
It is the sheer scale of the problem which is likely to prove the undoing of fiat currencies. A deep recession will do catastrophic damage to government finances, which can only be covered by massive monetary expansion. At the same time, monetary policy is designed to ensure the general price level does not fall. This occurs when a credit crisis wipes out demand, and prices in sound money fall significantly. We know this because in 1929-32 measured in gold-backed dollars prices did just that.
It may take a few months before the purchasing power of fiat currencies begins a renewed decline. The recent strength in energy and commodity prices is worrying in this context, but it is probably too early to call it the start of a definite trend of falling purchasing powers for the dollar and other currencies, measured against the commodity complex.
Trouble is likely to start with either the dollar or the euro. In a deepening recession, the euro will struggle with escalating problems in the PIGS, Brexit, US trade protectionism and systemic risks in the Eurozone’s banking system. The Eurozone could easily disintegrate. A falling dollar, over-owned in the context of declining international trade, is also a racing certainty. A race to the bottom for both currencies is becoming the increasingly obvious outcome of a slump in world trade.
Politicians are ill-equipped for a monetary crisis
Inevitably, the corruption emanating from the issuance at will of costless fiat currency leads to a deteriorating political morality. By debasing the currency, you can rob people of their wealth and earnings without their knowledge or approval. Get away with that, and the political class is on the highway to the ultimate in corruption.
In modern democracies, this is why the source of political power increasingly lies in the deception of the public, and why both control and debasement of a currency is its ultimate expression. The true purpose of the debasement of the currency is very rarely understood by a trusting public. The existence of a state-issued currency is blandly accepted as proof of its value, and no further questions are asked. The long-term decline in its value is given credibility by being declared to be official monetary policy, so everyone thinks it is a good thing. But the public are wholly unaware of the transfer of wealth from them to the state and its cronies, which is the inevitable consequence of monetary debasement.
It is anti-capitalistic in its destruction of both capital and values. The political class has been progressively leeching off the productive side of the economy to pay for its socialising schemes and for the sheer enjoyment of power. If the rate of currency debasement is slow and even, it can continue for a long time. As a destructive process, it is ultimately finite. But the pace has quickened. The Lehman crisis led to a rapid acceleration of the rate of currency debasement, which never really ceased. Debasement is about to accelerate yet again. Not only will the issuance of central bank money substantially increase to compensate for a slowing down in the rate of bank credit expansion, it is also becoming essential to finance government spending.
The likely scale of a renewed debasement of the currency threatens to alert the public to the instability of the situation, undermining confidence in unbacked currencies. Despite the stated intentions of monetary policy, its true purpose will become increasingly obvious when government revenue collapses and welfare costs rise. How convenient it will be for scaled-up quantitative easing, the printing of money to pay for government debt, to be slavishly supported by all advisors and commentators pretending to be economists. Wiser counsel, if it is listened to, will caution against the trap of relying on the destruction of currency values as the bedrock for future government finances.
What then for our politicians, who have come to rely on monetary debasement to finance their ambitions? Will they wake up to the predicament they have put us all in, and suddenly realise they must humbly genuflect at the altar of contrition, of sound money, and confess to their sins and submit themselves to public opprobrium?
Dream on, folks! They will struggle to extricate themselves with the only means at their disposal. More money. More socialism. More raping the productive economy by accelerating wealth transfer through monetary debasement. They know nothing else. They have not only deceived their voting public, but they have deceived themselves. If the world moves only half-way to a 1930s depression, the rate of monetary expansion to bridge the widening chasm between tax receipts and welfare obligations will be so great, it will likely lead to the end of the dollar, the end of the euro and the other currencies which copy them. Even the hitherto Teflon yen will be threatened with immolation.
The wise heads in China foresaw this in the last century, which is why they appointed the Peoples Bank to handle the state’s gold and silver purchases under government instruction. It is why they set up the Shanghai Gold Exchange in 2002 to allow and encourage the population to accumulate physical gold. They knew that one day, gold and silver would become the backbone of currencies again and they have ensured it is widely distributed. They knew the West’s Achilles’ heel was the modern equivalent of Genghis Khan’s mulberry-leaf paper, but without the great man’s despotic authority. In her long history, China has been there, seen it, done it, and has got the changshan.
Russia was late to this party, but the transformation in her understanding of the West’s monetary affairs was swift. America tried to use the dollar as a weapon to cripple Russia, but President Putin wasn’t to be panicked. He appointed a bright young woman, Elvira Nabiullina to head up the Central Bank of Russia. She reformed the banking system, strengthening commercial banks and replaced the Brussels-based SWIFT interbank messaging system with its own, which will link up with the Central Asian ‘stans, China, Iran and even Turkey. This will insulate Russia from Western banking crises, a point missed by Western commentators who only see isolationism. And it is Nabiullina who has overseen the selling of dollar reserves for gold bullion.
Russia and China have distanced themselves from the west’s financial system, so it can collapse without taking them down. Obviously, there will be collateral damage, but nothing unforeseen. They will be aware of the political consequences, so will not want to precipitate anything with their actions. Let the West destroy itself and for China and Russia not to be made the fall-guys.
America cannot escape the consequences of ending Bretton Woods
America set a trap for herself by ending the Bretton Woods Agreement in 1971. Since then, she has invested all her powers of persuasion in making the free world believe gold was no longer relevant as money. She started by selling gold in large tranches in the 1970s, but soon ceased when it was clear that the Arabs had an insatiable appetite for it. This was followed by a Faustian pact with Saudi Arabia and therefore OPEC to sell oil only for dollars, which has held ever since – until last week.
Reuters reported that Saudi Arabia was considering abandoning the pact as a response to an American threat that OPEC would face anti-trust lawsuits. This was subsequently denied, presumably under pressure from Washington. But clearly, this is seen to be a very sensitive issue, central to the dollar’s credibility.
The dollar’s role in pricing and settling all commodity and energy prices has given the US a strong grip on international affairs and capital flows. Consequently, by last January foreigners had accumulated dollar deposits and short-term securities worth $5.247 trillion, in addition to longer-term securities and industrial assets valued at $19.434 trillion (as at 30 June last year). The total of nearly $25 trillion is over 120% of US GDP.
Bond investors tell us that any country that relies on foreigners to finance government debt is heading for trouble. Usually, this is in the context of funding through the medium of foreign currencies, when repayment costs escalate if the country’s own currency devalues. This is undoubtedly true, but the same risk exists when foreign investors fund a government in its own currency. The mistake is to think only in terms of the repayment of existing debt, which can be devalued, when it is the future demands for credit that really matter.
Foreigners have already started selling dollars, evidenced in recent data from the US Treasury. In December and January, Treasury International Capital (TIC) data turned negative with net outflows of $257bn. The big reversal was of private sector flows, which had been strongly positive until that point. However, foreign governments have been net sellers since April 2017 to the tune of $224bn.
The free ride at foreigners’ expense appears to be over, and domestic US investors will have to start buying and pricing US debt realistically in the face of foreign divestment. Unless the Fed indulges in a renewed bout of quantitative easing, the reversal of foreign buying of dollars and US Treasuries is bound to raise funding costs to unsustainable levels (for the US Government) and put the dollar itself under pressure. It is shaping up to be a collapse of fiat-money arithmetic, the end of the fiat-money delusion, when the denial of gold in preference for an unbacked dollar finally ends.
A golden haystack is around the corner
We have noted some golden straws in the wind, which by virtue of a gathering fiat currency crisis should lead to the official restitution of gold as money in Asia, and consequently far higher gold prices. There can be little doubt that the end of the current credit cycle coinciding with American trade protectionism brings forward dangers for all fiat currencies, and particularly for the dollar. US Treasury TIC data shows capital flows suddenly reversing, which is consistent with collapsing cross-border trade. The effect on the US Government’s finances are likely to be catastrophic, further undermining global faith in the dollar.
The dollar’s plight is reminiscent of the events that led to the collapse of the London gold pool in the 1960s. Too many dollars were in foreign hands, driving foreign governments (notably the French but also the Germans) to swap dollar surpluses into gold under the Bretton Woods Agreement. Gold’s relative valuation in dollars is remarkably similar today, illustrated in the chart below.
In this chart, the price of gold is deflated from its 1934 fix at $35 by the increase in the quantity of fiat money, which includes money in circulation as defined by the Austrian Money Supply metric, plus money not in public circulation but held at the Fed, principally as bank reserves. Adjusted in these terms, the gold price is close to the level seen in August 1971 (shown by the pecked line), when America was forced to abandon the Bretton Woods Agreement. The tensions from a valuation perspective therefore confirm a far higher gold price is very likely.
All that’s needed is a trigger. China has cornered the bullion market. Russia is selling dollars for gold and appears to be paving the way for gold to circulate domestically. A deep recession, perhaps replicating the 1930s depression, is becoming more likely by the day. Massive monetary inflation will be required to prop up Western governments. Foreigners own too many dollars for these developing conditions. The world’s impending economic failure is entirely down to the continual debasement of fiat currencies, a practice that will be brought to a head by the ending of the current credit cycle.
Golden straws in the wind? They appear to be blowing off a haystack of them just around the corner.