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Killing the Currency

Robert P. Murphy
The American Conservative
December 11, 2009

The Politically Incorrect Guide to the Great Depression and the New DealFirst under the Bush Administration and even more so under President Obama, the federal government has been seizing power and spending money as it hasn’t done since World War II. But as bold as the Executive Branch has been during this financial crisis, the innovations of Fed chairman Ben Bernanke have been literally unprecedented. Indeed, it is entirely plausible that before Obama leaves office, Americans will be using a new currency.

Bush and Obama have engaged in record peacetime deficit spending; so too did Herbert Hoover and then Franklin Roosevelt (even though in the 1932 election campaign, FDR promised Americans a balanced budget). Bush and Obama approved massive federal interventions into the financial sector, at the behest of their respective Treasury secretaries. Believe it or not, in 1932 the allegedly “do-nothing” Herbert Hoover signed off on the creation of the Reconstruction Finance Corporation (RFC), which was given billions of dollars to prop up unsound financial institutions and make loans to state and local governments. And as with so many other elements of the New Deal, FDR took over and expanded the RFC that had been started under Hoover.

In the past year, the government has seized control of more than half of the nation’s mortgages, it has taken over one of the world’s biggest insurers, it literally controls major car companies, and it is now telling financial institutions how much they can pay their top executives. On top of this, the feds are seeking vast new powers over the nation’s energy markets (through the House Waxman-Markey “Clean Energy and Security Act” and pending Kerry-Boxer companion bill in the Senate) and, of course, are trying to “reform” health care by creating expansive new government programs.

For anyone who thinks free markets are generally more effective at coordinating resources and workers, these incredible assaults on the private sector from the central government surely must translate into a sputtering economy for years. Any one of the above initiatives would have placed a drag on a healthy economy. But to impose the entire package on an economy that is mired in the worst postwar recession, is a recipe for disaster.

Debt and Inflation

Conventional economic forecasts for government tax receipts are far too optimistic. The U.S. Treasury will need to issue far more debt in the coming years than most analysts now realize. Yet even the optimistic forecasts are sobering. For example, in March the Congressional Budget Office projected that the Obama administration’s budgetary plans would lead to a doubling of the federal debt as a share of the economy, from 41 percent of GDP in 2008 to 82 percent of GDP by 2019. The deficit for fiscal year 2009 (which ended Sept. 30) alone was $1.4 trillion. For reference, the entire federal budget was less than $1.4 trillion in the early years of the Clinton administration.

Clearly the U.S. government will be incurring massive new debts in the years to come. The situation looks so grim that economist Jeffrey Hummel has predicted that the Treasury will default on its obligations, just as Russia defaulted on its bonds in 1998. But another scenario involves the Federal Reserve wiping out the real burden of the debt by writing checks out of thin air to buy up whatever notes the Treasury wants to issue.

Many analysts are worried about Fed chairman Ben Bernanke’s actions during the financial crisis; Marc Faber is openly warning of “hyperinflation.” To understand what the fuss is about, consider some facts about our monetary and banking system.

The United States has a fractional reserve banking system. When someone deposits $100 in a checking account, most of that money is lent out again to other bank customers. Only a fraction—typically around 10 percent—needs to be held “on reserve” to back up the $100 balance of the original depositor. A bank’s reserves can consist of either cash in the vault or deposits with the Federal Reserve itself. For example, suppose a given bank has customer checking accounts with a combined balance of $1 billion. Assuming a 10 percent reserve requirement, the bank needs $100 million in reserves. It can satisfy this legal requirement by keeping, say, $30 million in actual cash on hand in its vaults and putting $70 million on deposit in the bank’s account with the Fed.

Normally, the Fed expands the money supply by engaging in “open market operations.” For example, the Fed might buy $1 billion worth of government bonds from a dealer in the private sector. The Fed adds the $1 billion in bonds to the asset side of its balance sheet, while its liabilities also increase by $1 billion. But Bernanke faces no real constraints on his purchasing decisions. When the Fed buys $1 billion in new bonds, it simply writes a $1 billion check on itself. There is no stockpile of money that gets drained because of the check; the recipient simply deposits the check in his own bank, and the bank in turn sees its reserves on deposit with the Fed go up by $1 billion. In principle, the Fed could write checks to buy every asset in America.

Monetary Catastrophe

Since the start of the present financial crisis, the Federal Reserve has implemented extraordinary programs to rescue large institutions from the horrible investments they made during the bubble years. Because of these programs, the Fed’s balance sheet more than doubled from September 2008 to the end of the year, as Bernanke acquired more than a trillion dollars in new holdings in just a few months.

If Bernanke has been so aggressive in creating new money, why haven’t prices skyrocketed at the grocery store? The answer is that banks have chosen to let their reserves with the Fed grow well above the legal minimum. In other words, banks have the legal ability to make new loans to customers, but for various reasons they are choosing not to do so. This chart from the Federal Reserve shows these “excess reserves” in their historical context.

U.S. depository institutions have typically lent out their excess reserves in order to earn interest from their customers. Yet currently the banks are sitting on some $850 billion in excess reserves, because (a) the Fed began paying interest on reserves in October 2008, and (b) the economic outlook is so uncertain that financial institutions wish to remain extremely liquid.

The chart explains why Faber and others are warning about massive price inflation. If and when the banks begin lending out their excess reserves, they will have the legal ability to create up to $8.5 trillion in new money. To understand how significant that number is, consider that right now the monetary aggregate M1—which includes physical currency, traveler’s checks, checking accounts, and other very liquid assets—is a mere $1.7 trillion.

What does all this mean? Quite simply, it means that if Bernanke sits back and does nothing more, he has already injected enough reserves into the financial system to quintuple the money supply held by the public. Even if Bernanke does the politically difficult thing, jacking up interest rates and sucking out half of the excess reserves, there would still be enough slack in the system to triple the money supply.

The End of the Dollar?

Aware of the above considerations, central banks around the world have been quietly distancing themselves from the U.S. dollar. Over the summer, officials in India, China, and Russia opined publicly on the desirability of a new global financial system, anchored on a basket of currencies or even gold.

We thus have in motion two huge trains of supply and demand, and the result will be an inevitable crash in the value of the dollar. Just as the Federal Reserve is embarking on a massive printing spree, the rest of the world is looking to dump its dollar holdings. It’s impossible to predict the exact timing, but sooner or later the dollar will fall very sharply against commodities and other currencies.

A crashing dollar will translate immediately into huge spikes in the price of gasoline and other basic items tied to the world market. After a lag, prices at Wal-Mart and other stores will also skyrocket, as their reliance on “cheap imports from Asia” will no longer be possible when the price of the dollar against the Chinese yuan falls by half.

The consequences will be so dramatic that what now may sound like a “conspiracy theory” could become possible. Fed officials might use such an opportunity to wean Americans from the U.S. dollar. Influential groups such as the Council on Foreign Relations have discussed the desirability of coordination among the North American governments. For example, CFR president Richard N. Haas wrote in the foreword to a 2005 Task Force report titled, “Building a North American Community”:

The Task Force offers a detailed and ambitious set of proposals that build on the recommendations adopted by the three governments [Canada, the U.S., and Mexico] at the Texas summit of March 2005. The Task Force’s central recommendation is establishment by 2010 of a North American economic and security community, the boundaries of which would be defined by a common external tariff and an outer security perimeter.

The “Texas summit of March 2005” refers to the “Security and Prosperity Partnership (SPP) of North America,” which came out of a meeting in Waco, Texas between President George W. Bush, Canadian Prime Minister Paul Martin, and Mexican President Vicente Fox. For the record, the federal government’s website has a special section devoted to refuting the (alleged) myths of the SPP, including the claim that the SPP is a prelude to a North American Union, comparable to the European Union. Yet despite the official protestations to the contrary, the global trend toward ever larger political and monetary institutions is undeniable. And there is a definite logic behind the process: with governments in control of standing armies, the only real check on their power is the ability of their subjects to change jurisdictions. By “harmonizing” tax and regulatory regimes, various countries can extract more from their most productive businesses. And by foisting a fiat currency into the pockets of more and more people, a government obtains steadily greater control over national—or international—wealth.

But if indeed key players had wanted to create a North American Union with a common currency, up till now they would have faced an insurmountable barrier: the American public would never have agreed to turn in their dollars in exchange for a new currency issued by a supranational organization. The situation will be different when the U.S. public endures double-digit price inflation, even as the economy still suffers from the worst unemployment since the Great Depression. Especially if Obama officials frame the problem as an attack on the dollar by foreign speculators, and point to the strength of the euro, many Americans will be led to believe that only a change in currency can save the economy.

For those who consider such a possibility farfetched, remember that one of FDR’s first acts as president was to confiscate monetary gold held by U.S. citizens, under threat of imprisonment and a huge fine. Yet nowadays, that massive crime is described as “taking us off the gold standard” which “untied the Fed’s hands and allowed it to fight the Depression.” The same will be said in future history books, when they explain matter-of-factly the economic crisis that gave birth to the amero.

What Can One Man Do?

If events play out as described, what should average investors do right now to protect themselves? First and most obvious, they should rid themselves of dollar-denominated assets. For example, government and corporate bonds promising to make a fixed stream of dollar payments will all become virtually worthless if huge price inflation occurs. (In contrast, holding U.S. stocks is not a bad idea from the point of view of inflation; a stock entitles the owner to a portion of the revenue stream from a company’s sales, which themselves will rise along with prices in general.)

Second, investors should acquire an emergency stockpile of gold and silver. If and when dollar-prices begin shooting through the roof, there will be a lag for most workers: They will see the prices of milk, eggs, and gasoline increasing by the week, yet their paychecks will remain the same for months or longer. If the dollar crashes in the foreign exchange markets, gold and silver would see their prices (quoted in U.S. dollars) increase in the opposite direction.

We can’t know the timing of the impending monetary catastrophe, but it is coming. Smart investors will minimize their dependence on the dollar before it crashes. At this late date, no one should trust the government and media “experts” who assure us that the worst is over.

Robert P. Murphy has a Ph.D. in economics from New York University. He is an economist with the Institute for Energy Research and author of The Politically Incorrect Guide to the Great Depression and the New Deal.

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