Enlightened Economics

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Archive for the ‘Monetary Policy’ Category

• A Global Central Bank and Currency?

Posted by Ron Robins on February 16, 2011

By Ron Robins. First published January 27, 2011, in his weekly economics and finance column at alrroya.com

There are many paths forward for the global monetary system, but the hitherto unthinkable is becoming debatable: a global central bank and currency. However, despite the recent financial distress and potential for further financial calamity, the creation of such a new institution or currency is far off. But would a global central bank with possibly its own currency help bring monetary solace, universal prosperity and humankind together? Or would such a bank and currency result in yet another calamitous monetary failure?

The 2008-2009 financial debacle showed just how unprepared the global financial system was to deal with a loss of faith in, and imploding of, the global banking system. To stave off a global financial meltdown, the central banks of the US, the EU, Japan and many others around the world advanced vast sums in loans and guarantees to banks and financial entities. And the US Federal Reserve (the Fed) in particular loaned out hundreds of billions of dollars to foreign-owned banks, in effect acting as a bank of last resort to the global banking system.

As big as the Fed is, it and other central banks, for many reasons, may not be able to address the demands of a future global financial maelstrom with possibly even larger calls for loans of last resort. For the Fed, this is due to 1) the declining relative importance of the US economy and the dollar in relation to the global economy, and 2) potential political interference in its activities.

The mounting problems and lessening importance of the US economy and its dollar globally are obviously why a new international currency regime is being considered. International Monetary Fund (IMF) data (published in The Economist magazine) shows that while the US now makes up about 24 per cent of global gross domestic product (GDP), its dollar accounts for 84 per cent of foreign exchange transactions. Furthermore, over 60 per cent of international central bank reserves and about 60 per cent of global bank deposits are denominated in US dollars.

The continuing use of the US dollar internationally is largely dependent on the performance of the US economy and its domestic fiscal and monetary policies. Domestically, the US government is growing massive unsustainable debts while the Fed is hugely expanding the creation of new money and the buying of US government bonds (its quantitative easing programs). These actions are likely to further devalue the US dollar globally. Thus, holders of US dollars and assets will increasingly be less interested in retaining them.

Rising to compete with the US dollar has principally been the euro. However, with its member countries’ debt problems, the attention is turning primarily to China’s yuan. It is probably no accident that on January 12 China made a significant step forward in yuan foreign exchange convertibility by allowing it to trade in the US. China has also recently made deals with Russia, Brazil and other countries to settle trade accounts in yuan.

Such gains in the international acceptance of the yuan make it likely to be included in the revised and re-invigorated Special Drawing Rights (SDR) issued by the IMF. The SDR is presently a type of currency used in a limited way among central banks and the IMF. However, its role could eventually be expanded and in the decades ahead might even form the basis of a global currency.

The SDR comprises a basket of currencies that include the US dollar, yen, euro and pound sterling. Besides including the yuan, a revised form of SDR might include additional currencies and even gold or other commodities as well. As gold has an inherent market value, proponents for its inclusion suggest it could help bring further stability to the SDR. Changes to the SDR are favoured by many countries such as Russia and France.

Hence, the IMF may well begin to act in the coming years as a quasi global central bank. However, Barry Eichengreen of the University of California in the US cautions—quoting the Economist magazine of November 4, 2010—that, “no global government… means no global central bank, which means no global currency. Full stop.” Economists like Mr Eichengreen have the weight of evidence on their side regarding the need for a global government before a true global central bank and currency could come about. One only needs to look at the European Central Bank’s problems to see how the lack of an overarching, integrated and authoritative governance structure greatly impeded its ability to deal with the recent crises.

Advocating against the concept of a global central bank and currency are some free market proponents such as Ron Paul, a US Republican and now chairman of the powerful US Congress’s Monetary Policy Sub-committee. He and many others believe currencies should be freely chosen and have intrinsic value, backed by commodities, most likely that of gold. They say without gold backing, any currency and central bank issuing such currency, is deemed to eventual failure due to the historical fact that governments inevitably print excessive amounts of money. This ‘printing’ thereby debases the currency’s value and essentially commits fraud against the holders of the affected currency.

It is possible that the world may proceed towards a global central bank and currency over time. In the near future, the IMF will probably revise, re-invigorate and expand its SDR program to assist in the transition from reserve dependence on the US dollar. But the dangers with the SDR are that it is still largely linked to the viability and variability of national economies and their domestic policies and currencies. Advocates of a completely free market approach such as that proposed by US Congressman Ron Paul might also hold sway. The idea of a global central bank and currency is still just an idea. But it is an idea arising out of the calamity of our present day reality. It deserves hot debate.

Copyright alrroya.com

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• Severe Debt Scarcity Coming to US

Posted by Ron Robins on December 30, 2010

By Ron Robins. First published December 26, 2010, in his weekly economics and finance column at alrroya.com

If US consumers believe it difficult to borrow now, just wait! In the next few years credit conditions are likely to go back seventy years when private debt was difficult to obtain. Most Americans intuitively believe there is too much debt at every level of society. But the economic and political vested interests do not want them worried about that. They want to give them credit to infinity to keep this economic mess from imploding. The US Federal Reserve’s new round of quantitative easing (QE2) is clear evidence of that. However, Americans are right about their inordinate debt load, and future economic conditions are likely to create a severe debt scarcity.

The principal reasons for the coming debt scarcity are that ‘debt saturation’—where total income cannot support total debt—has arrived, say some analysts; also, the growing understanding that adding new debt may not increase GDP—it could decrease it; and that the banks and financial system are a train wreck in waiting, eventually being forced to mark their assets to market, thus creating for them massive asset write-downs and strangling their lending ability.

The realization that debt saturation has arrived will not surprise many people. But understanding that new debt can decrease economic activity might surprise them. And the numbers illustrate this possibility. In Nathan’s Economic Edge, Nathan states, “in the third quarter of 2009 each dollar of debt added produced NEGATIVE 15 cents of productivity, and at the end of 2009, each dollar of new debt now SUBTRACTS 45 cents from GDP!”

In fact Nathan also shows that for decades, each new dollar of debt produces less and less in return, from a return of close to $0.90 in the mid 1960s to about $0.20 by 2007. One explanation for this is that as societal debt increased it focused disproportionately on consumption rather than productive enterprise, whose return appears greater.

On the subject of consumption, the renowned economist David Rosenberg in The Globe & Mail on August 16 stated that “U.S. household debt-income ratio peaked in the first quarter of 2008 at 136 per cent. The ratio currently sits at 126 per cent, but the pre-2001 norm was 70 per cent. To get down to this normalized ratio again, debt would have to be reduced by about $6-trillion. So far, nearly $600-billion of bad household debt has been destroyed.” This data reaffirms Americans growing aversion to debt, that debt has become too onerous, and is suggestive of debt saturation.

Replacing declining consumer debt is the exponential growth of US government debt. For 2009 and 2010, the combined US government’s fiscal deficits required or require borrowing an extra $2.7 trillion or so. Yet with all that spending—combined with about $2 trillion of ‘money printing’ from the US Federal Reserve (the Fed)—it created only around $1 trillion in increased economic growth!

One may argue that the phenomenal US government borrowings will provide returns far into the future and that the present low economic returns are due to not funding areas with potentially better returns. Some economists say that spending on infrastructure and education provides the best returns. However, with economists such as Nobel Laureate Paul Krugman and numerous others predicting huge continuing deficits for years ahead, and with a Japan-like slump in economic activity, the odds are likely that any new borrowed dollar will continue to provide only poor returns for years to come.

A further, major reason for the coming debt scarcity will be the tremendously impaired financial condition of the banks. The values assigned to many bank assets are fictional according to numerous experts. QE2 is about many things but one of them is aimed at delaying the potential for implosion of the banking system. In 2009, the Financial Accounting Standards Board (FASB) caved in to government and banking industry lobbyists to allow many bank assets to be ‘marked to fantasy’ and not ‘marked to market.’

This viewpoint is best expressed by highly respected Associate Professor William Black (and formerly a senior regulator who nailed the banks during the savings and loan debacle) and Professor L. Randall Wray, who wrote an article on October 22 in The Huffington Post, entitled, “Foreclose on the Foreclosure Fraudsters, Part 1: Put Bank of America in Receivership.” They wrote that, “FASB’s new rules allowed the banks (and the Fed, which has taken over a trillion dollars in toxic mortgages as wholly inadequate collateral) to refuse to recognize hundreds of billions of dollars of losses. This accounting scam produces enormous fictional ‘income’ and ‘capital’ at the banks.”

However, the Federal Reserve may be realizing that it might not have been such a good idea to buy some of these ‘toxic’ securities. Bloomberg reported on October 19 that, “citing alleged failures by Countrywide to service loans properly… Pacific Investment Management Co., BlackRock Inc. and the Federal Reserve Bank of New York are seeking to force Bank of America Corp. to repurchase soured mortgages packaged into $47 billion of bonds by its Countrywide Financial Corp. unit, people familiar with the matter said.”

Also, on November 2, CNBC reported that Citigroup could be liable for huge amounts of toxic security buy-backs as well. “If all four mortgage acquisition channels turn out to be equally as defective… Citi’s liability for repurchases could soar to about $100 billion dollars at a 60 per cent defect rate – and to around $133 billion dollars at an 80 per cent defect rate.”

Clearly, such numbers are staggering. These, as well as many other banks and financial entities, could collapse. Politically, in the present circumstances, it would be difficult for the US government to provide massive new funds to support the financial system. Therefore, it will be up to the Fed to decide what to do.

If the Fed prints ever increasing amounts of new money to try to moderate the financial collapse, hyperinflation could be the result. If it does not print massive amounts of new money, a deflationary depression could be born.

In high inflationary or hyperinflationary conditions, few will want to lend as they get paid back in dollars that are declining very rapidly in value. In a deflationary episode, lending is reduced due to huge loan losses. Therefore, during either, and/or after such events, debt scarcity will be in full force.

Data indicates that American consumers do not want to increase their debt. Debt saturation is occurring, and with it a declining return on each borrowed dollar—even for the US government. Most significantly, the banks and the financial system will probably soon experience a new round of massive real estate related losses and subsequent financial institutions’ bankruptcies. Thus, a new major financial crisis will likely soon engulf America, greatly impairing its lending facilities and creating a severe scarcity of debt.

Copyright alrroya.com

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• Manipulated Markets Can Cause Ruin

Posted by Ron Robins on December 10, 2010

By Ron Robins. First published October 9, 2010, in his weekly economics and finance column at alrroya.com

Market manipulations eventually led to Soviet economic collapse. Though not as overt as the Soviets, it is the manipulation of currencies and interest rates by major economic powers that has mostly led to massive misalignments in investment and consumption that pose extraordinary dangers to global economic health.

Ask anyone if they believe that the Chinese currency, the renminbi, is manipulated. Almost everyone agrees that it is. Are US interest rates manipulated? Again, everyone knows they are. (Not too long ago it was only the short term rates that were controlled. Now the US Federal Reserve [the Fed] is buying longer dated US treasury bonds to bring their rates down too.) Countries all over the world are manipulating their currencies lower to gain export advantages and maintaining near zero interest rates to spur domestic demand and cheap government borrowing.

It is basic economics that where markets are manipulated, supply and demand are distorted. And one distortion creates the need for a further distortion, and so on. The longer the distortions continue the greater the possibility of total market failure. We are near that point today with currencies and interest rates.

The Chinese have scored a major mercantile advantage by pegging their currency, the renminbi, at a relatively set and undervalued rate to the U.S. dollar. Not only have US exports suffered, but the exports of many other countries have suffered as well. Under US law, the Chinese should probably have been labelled a ‘currency manipulator.’ However, by bowing to Chinese demands that they not be labelled a currency manipulator, President Obama’s administration is losing credibility everywhere.

So, Americans are waking up to find that not only does China dictate U.S foreign exchange policy, but China indirectly influences its domestic economic agenda as well. Everything from employment policies (export expansion) to government funding needs (requiring Chinese funding) are all partly defined by the present exchange rate policies.

Increasingly, Americans realize that on the foreign exchange front they have been ‘checkmated’—as in the game of chess—by China. Should difficult economic times continue, or worsen, increasing American anger is likely at this arrangement. It could pass the breaking point and encourage America to act unilaterally against China. Currency turmoil might then embrace the globe.

However, one never discussed but possible reason why the US government has been afraid to label China (and Japan previously) as currency manipulators may be because the US itself may be acting covertly to manage the dollar exchange rate.

According to the US government’s own legislation, it can act secretly in currency exchange markets to affect the dollar’s exchange rate using the Treasury’s Exchange Stabilization Fund (ESF). The US Treasury says that the ESF, “with the approval of the President, may deal in gold, foreign exchange, and other instruments of credit and securities.” The ESF was established by the Gold Reserve Act of 1934 and then amended in the late 1970s.

Also, the Fed engages in opaque currency ‘swaps’ with other nations, and there is significant evidence of U.S Treasury and Fed engagement in gold price suppression. Gold is the ‘anti-dollar’ and barometer of confidence in the dollar. (See my August 24 column, “The Ethics of Gold,” at http://english.alrroya.com/node/54671 and gata.org)

Another manipulation of the Fed is its control of short term rates—and now possibly long term ones as well—to smooth out the booms and busts of the economy. However, we see the falsity of this argument. After almost two years at a near zero per cent federal funds rate the US economic quagmire continues—or worsens.

Induced low rates over the past ten years or so created a massive real estate boom and bust, discouraged savings, led to inordinate financial risk taking and moral hazard, unsustainable consumer debt, and now excessive, possibly uncontrollable government deficits and debt.

In their seminal work, “Growth in a Time of Debt,” published January 2010, Professors Carmen M. Reinhart and Kenneth S. Rogoff found that when government debt/GDP ratios exceed 90 per cent, economic growth rates fall considerably. According to the BIS, U.S. government debt/GDP will be 92 per cent by the end of 2010 and 100 per cent in 2011.

Furthermore, on September 1, the International Monetary Fund said, “general government debt in the G-20 advanced economies surged from 78 per cent of GDP in 2007 to 97 per cent of GDP in 2009 and is projected to rise to 115 per cent of GDP in 2015.”

Unfortunately, the present and future private deleveraging of debt in the U.S. and some other developed countries means potentially continued high—or higher—government deficits as economic growth is retarded or declines further. The Fed has said that to counter any renewed softness in US economic activity it will significantly expand its purchases of US government bonds and possibly other assets. This has the potential for fuelling a huge expansion of the money supply and creating high or even hyperinflation.

The U.S. and some other countries are following a path whereby every manipulation begets further manipulation, and which then begets even further manipulation. With China, perhaps Japan again soon, and other countries controlling their currency values, the U.S. may be forced overtly or covertly to counter their currency manipulations. And with continuing economic difficulties, with interest rate policy having created a debt nightmare and becoming increasingly ineffective, the Fed may institute money proliferation policies that have the possibility of leading to high or even hyperinflation.

If a vicious circle of manipulations by US authorities and other countries occurs, given time, it might rival some aspects of the Soviet command economy—and with a possibly similar tragic outcome. Hopefully, Americans and others will wake up before it is too late and realise that manipulated markets can eventually cause ruin.

Copyright alrroya.com

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