Currency Wars, James Rickards (2011)

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Applied Physics Lab : the Pentagon was about to launch a global financial war (simulation) using currencies and capital markets instead of ships and planes.

During the first part of the depression that began in 2007, sovereign wealth funds were the primary source of bailout money. SWF invested over $58bn (in Citigroup, Meryll Lynch, Morgan Stanley). These investments were decimated by the panic of 2008 – SWF lost vast amount of money (which propped the US government to step in later on to avoid those losses) yet influence that came with them remained. SWF could then be used to exercise malign influence over target companies, to steal technology, sabotage new projets, stifle competition, engage in bid rigging, recruit agents or manipulate markets (including those in strategic commodities such as oil, copper etc.).  Such activities were not common, let alone the norm, but they were possible.

The president has nearly dictatorial powers to freeze any accounts that try to disrupt the financial market (by dumping Treasury notes on the open market in vast quantities). Destroying confidence in the dollar would be far more effective than dumping a particular dollar denominated instrument. If the dollar collapse, all dollar denominated markets would collapse with it. And the president’w power to freeze accounts would be moot.

A currency war, fought by one country through competitive devaluations of its currency against others, is the most destructive and feared outcomes in international economics. It revives the ghosts of the Great Depression, the 1970s, the crises of the UK pound in 92, Russian rubles in 98 a.o.

Two currency wars : 1921 to 1936 and 1967 to 1987. Classic gold standard 1870-1914, creation of Fed 1907-1913 and WWI and treaty of Versailles 1914-1919.

1870-1914: golden age in terms of noninflationary growth coupled with increasing wealth and productivity in the industrialized and commodity producing world.

1907-1913: 1907 the failure of Knickerbocker Trust to corner the copper market led to a run on the bank in a market that was already nervous and volatile after massive caused by the 1906 earthquake. This led a more general loss of confidence, which led to a stock market crash and further bank runs and finally a full scale liquidity crisis and financial crisis. The threat was stemmed only by collective action of the leading bankers in the form of a private financial rescue organized by JP Morgan. A central bank to act as an unlimited lender of last resort to private banks was needed before panic arose.

Currency war 1 : Germany moved first in 1921 with a hyperinflation designed initially to improve competitiveness and then taken to absurd lengths to destroy an economy weighed down by the burden of war reparations. France moved next in 1925. The US moved in 1933…then England.  In round after round of devaluation and default, the major economies of the world raced to the bottom, causing massive trade disruption, lost output and wealth destruction along the way.

Germany destroyed it currency to get out from under onerous war reparations demanded by France and England. In fact, those reparations were tied to gold mark and subsequent treaty protocols were based on a % of German exports regardless of the paper currency value.

Hyperinflation in Germany:  diners offered to pay for meals in advance the price would be vastly higher by the time they finished. The demand for banknote was so great that, by 1923, the notes were being printed on one side only to conserve ink.  The currency collapse also strengthened the hand of German industrialists who controlled hard assets in contrast to those relying solely on financial assets. Hyperinflation can be used as policy lever: it produces fairly predictable sets of winners and losers and can be used to rearrange social and economic relations among debtors, creditors, labor and capital (while gold is kept to clean up the wreckage if necessary).

I don’t give a shit about the lira – Richard Nixon, 1972.

Although conceived in the form of a grand international agreement, the Bretton Woods structure was dictated almost single-handedly by the United States at a time when US military and economic power was at a height not seen again until the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991.

In Jan 1965, France converted $150 million of dollar reserve into gold and announced plan to cover another $150 million soon (that is equivalent to $12.8bn as at 2011). De Gaulle helpfully offered to send the French navy to the US to ferry the gold back to France. This came at a time when US businesses were buying up European companies and expanding operations in Europe with grossly overvalued dollars, something De Gaulle referred to as ‘expropriation’. The redemptions of dollars for gold had enable France to become a gold power, ranking behind only the US and Germany, and it remains so today.

In 1969 the IMF took up the ‘gold shortage’ cause and created a new form of international reserve asset called the special drawing right (SDR). SDR was manufactured out of thin air without tangible back up and allocated among members in accordance with their IMF quotas.  There were small issuance in 1970-72, then in 1981 (as a response to oil price and global inflation) and then in 2009, as a response the deep depression which followed the financial crisis of 2007-8.

On Sunday, august 15, 1971, President Nixon preempted the most popular show in America, Bonanza, to present a live television announcement of what he called his New Economic Policy consisting of immediate wage and price controls, a 10% surtax on imports and the closing of the gold window.  The announcement was referred ever since as the Nixon Shock.

Stagflation – a combination of high inflation and stagnant growth in the US – which lasted from 1973 to 1981 was the exact opposite of the export led growth that dollar devaluation was meant to achieve. The proponent of devaluation could not have been more wrong. The fact that the policy failed spectacularly in 1973 did not deter the weak-dollar crowd. The allure of quick fix for industries in decline and those with structural inadequacies is politically irresistible.

By 1987, gold was gone from international finance, the dollar had devaluated, the yen and the mark were ascendant, sterling had faltered, the euro was in prospect and China had not yet taken its own place on the stage. The relative peace in international monetary matters rested on nothing more substantial than faith in the dollar as a store of value based on a US growing economy and stable monetary policy by the Fed. These conditions largely prevailed through the 1990s.  Currency crisis did arrive (Sterling in 1992, Mexican peso in 1994, Asia-Russia crisis in 97-98) but did not threatened the dollar. The dollar was typically a safe haven when they arose.

 

The main battle lines being drawn are a dollar-yuan theater across the Pacific, a dollar-euro theater across the Atlantic and a euro-yuan theater in the Eurasia landmass.

Participation in currency war today is no longer confined to the national issuers of currency and their central banks. Involvement extends to IMF, World Bank as well as hedge funds, global corporation and private family offices of the superrich. (George Soros “broke the Bank of England” in 1992).

Today the risk is the collapse of the monetary system itself – a loss of confidence in paper currencies and massive flight to hard assets.

The low rate policy of the Fed was justified initially  as a response to challenges of the 2000 tech bubble collapse, the 2001 recession, the 9/11 attacks and Greenspan’s fear of deflation (the last being the main determinant for the Fed). China was now exporting its deflation to the world, partly through a steady supply of cheap labour and the low rate policy was to offsets the effects in the US.

Lower rates meant that all types of dubious or risky deals could begin to look attractive, because marginal borrowers would ostensibly be able to afford the financing costs. The sub-prime residential loan market and commercial real estate market both exploded in terms of loan originations, deal flow, securitisations …due to Greenspan’s low rate policies.

The process of absorbing the surplus of dollars entering the Chinese economy, especially after 2002, produced a number of unintended consequences. The yuan is pegged to the dollar, it does not trade freely and its use and availability are tightly controlled by the Central Bank of China. The Chinese central bank did not just take the surplus dollars, but rather purchased them with newly printed yuan. This meant that as the Fed was printing dollars, the Chinese central bank printed Yuans to maintain the pegged exchange rate.

The central bank of China (like all others) prefer highly liquid government securities issued by the US treasury. As a result, the Chinese acquired massive quantities of US treasury obligations. By 2011 Chinese foreign reserve were approximately US$2.85tr, US$950bn in US government obligations (32%).  (US$ 3.2tr in Nov 2016; US$1.15tr in US obligation – 36%). A monetary powder keg that could be detonated by either side if the currency wars spiraled out of control.

The principal accusation leveled by the US against China, since 1994, is that China manipulates its currency in order to keep Chinese export cheap for foreign buyers. But China’s export is not an end in itself. The real end of Chinese policy is jobs for the young workers in coastal factories, assembly plants and transportation hubs.

The US has now chosen the G20 as the main arena to push China in the direction of revaluation (Chinese are more deferential to global opinion than to US opinion alone. Chinese are attentive to the G20 in ways that they may not be when it comes to other forums.

The relationship between Euro and Dollar is better understood as co-dependence rather than confrontation.

Although the bankruptcy of Leman Brother was filed in US federal courts after bailed out attempt failed, some of the largest financial victims and worst-affected parties were European hedge funds that had done over-the-counter swaps business (ie. Directly between parties, without any supervision as provided by exchange trading for instance) or maintained clearing accounts at Lehman’s London affiliates.

Investors happily snapped up billions of euros in sovereign debt from the likes of Greece, Portugal, Spain, and Ireland at interest rates only slightly higher than solid credits such as Germany. This was done on the basis of high ratings from incompetent rating agencies, misleading financial statements from government ministries and wishful thinking by investor that a euro sovereign would never default.

2010 Euro debt crisis: banks would buy sovereign bonds in the belief that no sovereign would be able to fail. Sovereigns happily issued bonds to finance no sustainable spending.  European banks gorged also on debt issued by Fannie Mae and other collateralized debt obligations (CDO). The European banks were the true weak links in the global financial system.

In 2010, of the $236bn of Greek debt, 15bn was owed to UK, 75 to France and 45 to German entities. Of $867 billion of Irish debt, 60bn was to France, $188 to UK and $184 to Germany. Of the 1.1tn of Spanish debt, 114 was to UK, 220 to French entities and 238 to German. The mother of all inter-European debt was the $511bn that Italy owed to France.

The sovereign debt was owed to other countries’ banks. This was the reason for the Fed’s secret bailout of Europe in 2008. This was the reason Fannie Mae and Freddy Mac bondholders never took any losses when those companies were bailout by the US taxpayers in 2008. The European banking system was insolvent so subsidizing Greek pensioners and Irish banks was a small price to pay to avoid watching the all edifice collapse.

The relationship between euro and yuan is simply dependent. China is emerging as a potential savior of Greece, Portugal and Spain, based on self-interest and cold calculation. China has an interest in strong euro as EU is its largest trading partner: a devaluation of the Euro would be costly for China. China interest in supporting the Euro is as great or greater than its interest in maintaining the Yuan peg against the dollar. China’s motives include diversifying its reserve position to include more euros, winning respect of friendship in Europe, gaining access to sensitive infrastructure through foreign direct investment. By buying sovereign bonds from peripheral countries, China help Germany to bear the costs of European bailouts and avoid the losses it would suffer if the euro collapsed. China stabilize the Eurasia flank while it fights the US, its main front in the currency war.

The G20 is perfectly suited to US treasury secretary Timothy Geithner’s modus operandi, which he call ‘convening power’.

Government spending and business investment might play a role, but American consumer, at 70% or more of GDP, has always been the key to recovery.  In 2008, 2009 the G20 summits had also been preoccupied with plans to rein in the banks and their greed-based compensation structures, which provided grotesque rewards for short term gains but caused long term destruction of trillions of dollars.

The IMF: in the 1980s and 1990s it had assisted developing countries’ economies suffering foreign exchange crises by providing finance conditioned upon austerity measures designed to protect foreign bankers and bondholders. Yet with the elimination of gold, the rise of floating exchange rates and pilling up of huge surpluses in developing countries, the IMF entered the 21st century with no discernable mission. And suddenly the G20 breathed new life into the IMF….

Quantitative Easing which consist of increasing money supply to inflate asset prices and weakening the dollar through inflation. In its simplest form, QE is printing money. Fed buys treasury debt securities from a select group of banks called primary dealers. The primary dealer have a global base of customers, sovereign funds, other central banks, pensions funds, institutional investors and high net worth individuals. When Fed want to reduce money supply, they sell securities to the primary dealers. Securities go to the dealers and the money paid to the Fed simply disappears. Conversely, to increase money supply, Fed buy securities from the dealers and pay with fresh printed money (which then support further money creation by the banking system).

China’s policy of pegging the Yuan to the dollar was based on the mistaken belief that the Fed would not abuse its money printing privileges. Now the Fed was printing with a vengeance (through QE in 2009-10)

Collateral damage of the currency war:  through a combination of trade surpluses and hot money flows seeking higher investment returns, inflation caused by US money printing soon emerged in South Korea, Brazil, Indonesia, Thailand

This is the down side of Convening power. The absence of governance can be efficient if people in the room are likeminded of if one party has the ability to coerce the others, as it was the case when the Fed confronted the 14 families at the time of the LTCM bailout (Long Term Capital Management was a very successful hedge funds (40+% return) with almost $100bn investment in derivatives in 1998 when the default of Russia caused panic in the market.  LTCM highly leveraged investment started to crumble and banks and funds that had invested in LTCM wanted their money back. To save LTCM and avoid a collapse of the banking system, the Fed convinced 15 (or 14) banks to bail out LTCM (in return for 90% ownership of the Fund) with Fed lowering funds rate to make this easier. Once financial firms realized the Fed would bail them out, they become more willing to take risk, and this contributed to a situation that led to the financial crisis in 2007-8).

March 11, 2011 the earthquake in Japan. The yen surged against the dollar, bolstered by expectation of massive yen repatriation to fund reconstruction. Some portion on Japanese reserve outside the country ($2tn) would have to be converted back in Yen and brought back home: this led the price surge. This seemed to fit nicely with US goals but Japan wanted the opposite (a cheap yen would help promote japan export and help recovery). With no G20 to agree on a plan, the three US, Japan and European central banks would work together, under the banner of the G7 french minister Lagarde to coordinate an attack on the yen that consisted of massive dumping of yen by central banks and corresponding purchases of dollars, euros, Swiss francs etc. The attack continued across time zones as European and New York Markets opened. Lagarde deft handling on the yen crisis led her to replace Strauss-Khan as head of IMF in June 2011.

Keynes’s theory: stimulus programmes work better in the short term than the long term. They work better in a liquidity crisis than solvency crisis and better in mild recession than in severe one. And they work better in economies that have low debt level.

The Value at Risk is a method used by Wall Street to manage risk: it measure risk of a portfolio with certain risk offset against others. This is the VaR that gave the all clear to high leverage and massive off-balance sheet exposure before the crisis (and it is still in use today). But the flaws  and limitations were well known (notably it does not guarantee against all positions to fall at the same time) but were ignored as VaR permitted the pretense of safety that allows firms to use high leverage and make larger profit while being backstopped by tax payers when things went wrong.

The destructive legacy of financial economics is hard to quantify but $60tn in destroyed wealth in the months following the panic of 2008 is a good estimates. Derivative contracts did not shift risks to strong hands, instead it concentrated risk in the hands of the too big to fail.

Today government spending has grown so large and sovereign debt burdens so great that citizen rightly expect that some combination of inflation, higher taxation and default will be required to reconcile to debt burden with the means available to pay it.

Thought emerges from the human mind in the same complex, dynamic way that hurricanes emerges from the climate.

Between June 2000 and June 2007, the amount of over the counter foreign exchange derivatives went from $15tn to $57tn, a 367% increase. Interest rates derivative went from $64tn to $381tn, a 589% increase. Equity derivatives went from $1.9tn to $9.5tn, a 503% increase.

Actual mortgage losses are still less than $300bn. When derivatives and other instruments are included, total losses reached over $6tn, an order of magnitude greater than actual losses.

Next time it will be different. Based on theoretical scaling metrics, the next collapse will not be stopped by governments, because it will be larger than government.

It is well understood that the sun uses far more energy than a human brain. Yet the sun is vastly more massive than a brain. When differences in mass are taken into account, it turns out that the brain uses 75,000 times as much energy as the sun (in Chaisson’s standard units).

China would never dump it Treasury securities because it has far too many of them. The Treasury market is deep, but not that deep, and the price of Treasuries would collapse long before more than a small fraction of China’s bond could be sold. Resulting losses would fall on the Chinese themselves. Between 2004 and 2009, China secretely doubled it official holding of gold. China argues that secrecy was needed to avoid running up the price of gold… China’s posture toward the US dollar is likely to become more aggressive as its reserve diversification becomes more advanced.

Marc 30, 2009 AFP reports that China and Russia are cooperating in a creation of a new global currency. Dec 13, 2010 Sarkozy calls for the consideration of a wider role for SDR. Dec 15, 2010 Russia and China are launching a yuan-ruble trade currency settlement.

America has become a nation of guinea pigs in a grand monetary experiment, cooked up in petri dish of the Princeton economics department.

Easy money and dollar devaluation are designed to work together to cause actual rates low to get the lending and spending machine back in gear.

Fundamentally monetarism is insufficient as a policy tool not because it gets the variables wrong because the variables are too hard to control. Velocity is a mirror of consumer confidence and cand be highly volatile. The money supply transmission mechanism can from base money to bank loans can break down because of lack of certainty, lack of confidence on the part of the lenders and borrowers.

Because debt and deficits are now so large, the US has run out of dry powder. If struck by another financial crisis, its ability to resort to deficit spending would be impaired.

As long as profits continue on Wall Street, the hard questions will not be asked, let alone answered.

In 2011 US dollar is 61% of identified reserves. The next largest is the euro with just over 26%. The IMF reports a slow but steady decline of the dollar over the last 10 years (from 71%). [from internet in 2016: In 2014, USD dollar is up to 63% and Euro down to 22%].

Eichenberg research led to a plausible and fairly benign conclusion that a world of multiple reserve currencies, with no single dominant currency, may once again be in prospect. It is a world of reserve currencies adrift. Instead of a single central bank like the fed abusing its privileges, it will be open season with several central banks to do the same.  There would be no safe harbor reserve currency and markets would be more volatile and unstable.

SDR is world money, controlled by the IMF, backed by nothing and printed at will. Experts object to use the word money for the SDR as citizen can’t obtain them. They are a medium of exchange : nations can settle their local currency trade balances with other nations in SDR.

Smaller is safer – the correct approach is to break up big banks. Gold standard will bring more certainty, greater stability in inflation, interest rates and exchange rates . This will promote investment.

Early 2012, by unilaterally excluding Iran from the dollar payment system, the US caused the a currency collapse, hyperinflation and sky-high interest rate in a matter of days.  Later US pressured the SWWIFT governing board to exclude Iranian banks from its facilities.  While smuggling of dollars (from Iraq) to help make payment kicked in rapidly, this was only a fraction of the global commerce Iran lost. Iran was too important to remain a complete pariah and ideas for trade financing mechanisms that did not involve the dollar were proposed. And later in 2012 BRICs suggested the creation of a multilateral bank to facilitate lending and payments among emerging markets. An unintended consequence of US sanctions on Iran.

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