August 15, 2022

The Financial System Has Reached The Implosion Point

coinA profound thanks to all the short term fickle speculators in gold and silver who have shifted their portfolio allocations to stocks, bank accounts and certificates of confiscation government bonds .  The shift to paper assets has provided what will in hindsight be the best buying opportunity for gold and silver since the crash of 2008.

BY:  GE Christenson

March and April 2013 may go down in history as the tipping point for the western financial system.

We have already seen:

  • Lehman Brothers and many other financial firms collapse.
  • $700 Billion in TARP funds arranged by banking insiders for banking insiders at the expense of US taxpayers.
  • Over $16 Trillion in bailouts, guarantees, swaps, and loans created by the Fed and given to various banks, nations, and other insiders.
  • MFGlobal took “segregated” customer funds, the exchange provided no compensation to customers, and yet no criminal indictments have been issued.
  • Global derivatives total $700 Trillion to well over $1,000 Trillion, depending on who is counting. Some are “toxic waste.”
  • Many European bailouts and “fixes.”
  • Spain, Italy, Slovenia, and perhaps France in trouble.
  • US official debt approaching $17 Trillion with unfunded liabilities many times larger.
  • The Federal Reserve creating $85 Billion per month (over $115,000,000 per hour) to support banks and the US government.

So what other disasters could occur? In a word, Cyprus!

  • Not because the EU and Cyprus took Russian money.
  • Not because several banks will close.
  • Not because some deposits will be confiscated and/or frozen.

In my opinion, the sign that a tipping point has occurred in the financial system is the real story:

  • The veil of banker honesty has been lifted. The EU/IMF/ECB will do whatever is necessary to support the banks, even if it means they will confiscate (tax, steal, bail-in) customer deposits.
  • Customer deposits are NOT assets held in the bank for safe-keeping, but are liabilities of the bank and are not guaranteed to be made whole.
  • Billions of dollars were removed prior to the Cyprus freeze, so insiders clearly knew in advance of the ordinary depositors (see below). There is no “level playing field” when billions of dollars/euros are in play.
  • According to Jeroen Dijsselbloem, Dutch finance minister and Euro Group President, this is “the template for any future bank bailouts.” In other words, your deposits are considerably less safe than you thought. Your bank could fail, and your deposits might be used to compensate for derivative losses or other losses that the bank incurred.
  • The FDIC in the US, as well as England, Canada, and New Zealand, has announced similar policies, agreements, and plans to confiscate deposits in the case of an emergency. Is this a sign that an emergency is not only possible but probable and imminent?
  • Confidence in the banking and financial system has been seriously damaged, perhaps irreversibly.

Following are a few quotes from respected commentators:

Jim Sinclair: If the fools that have attacked Cyprus persist then it is the start of an avalanche that will destroy confidence in fiat currency, the fractional reserve system and central banks. What are the central bankers terrified of? My answer is the mountain of old OTC derivative coming home to roost.” Link.

Tyler Durden: “With every passing day, it becomes clearer and clearer the Cyprus deposit confiscation “news” was the most unsurprising outcome for the nation’s financial system and was known by virtually everyone on the ground days and weeks in advance: first it was disclosed that Russians had been pulling their money, then it was suggested the president himself had made sure some €21 million of his family’s money was parked safely in London, then we showed a massive surge in Cyprus deposit outflows in February, and now the latest news is that a list of 132 companies and individuals has emerged who withdrew their €-denominated deposits in the two weeks from March 1 to March 15, among which the previously noted company Loutsios & Sons which is alleged to have ties with the current Cypriot president Anastasiadis.” Link.

Peter Cooper: “Depositors in the beleaguered Bank of Cyprus are now facing losses of 60 per cent on deposits over 100,000 euros as the Cyprus Government seems to have woken up to the fact that this is its last chance to steal money off these mainly foreign depositors. It’s an absolute travesty and a red letter day for European Union banks…

“Money in EU bank accounts is clearly now up for grabs by any government that recapitalizes its banking sector. Moreover, the Cyprus precedent is going to cause a run on the weaker banks that will make this sort of recapitalization inevitable. Standby for a systemic banking crisis in the EU…

“What the EU has done in Cyprus is the modern equivalent of the failure of the Credit Anstaldt in 1931 that brought on the Great Depression with thousands of banking failures around the world.” Link.

Jim Sinclair: “I believe Cyprus is the defining moment whereby the physical market for gold overtakes the paper market for gold as the arbiter of price. When that occurred in 1979 the price of gold began its move to seek its maximum valuation.” Link.

Julian DW Phillips: “When it was announced [in Cyprus] that both large and small depositors were to have a percentage of their deposits seized, it was not the amount that horrified the world but the discovery that you do not own your own bank deposits… Most investors worldwide are of the belief that when you deposit your money in a bank, it simply has safe-keeping of that money. The realization that you have lent the bank your money and are an “Unsecured Creditor” of the bank is an unpleasant revelation.” Link.

Michael Snyder: “What you are about to see absolutely amazed me when I first saw it. The Canadian government is actually proposing that what just happened in Cyprus should be used as a blueprint for future bank failures up in Canada.

The following comes from pages 144 and 145 of “Economic Action Plan 2013″ which you can find right here. Apparently the goal is to find a way to rescue “systemically important banks” without the use of taxpayer funds…”

“In addition, branches of the two largest banks in Cyprus were kept open in Moscow and London even after all of the banks in Cyprus itself were shut down. So wealthy Russians and wealthy Brits have been able to take all of their money out of those banks while the people of Cyprus have been unable to…”

“The global elite are fundamentally changing the game. From now on, no bank account on earth will ever be able to be considered “100% safe” again. This is going to create an atmosphere of fear and panic, and no financial system can operate normally when you destroy the confidence that people have in it.

Confidence is a funny thing – it can take decades to build, but it can be destroyed in a single moment.” Link.

Ellen Brown: “Confiscating the customer deposits in Cyprus banks, it seems, was not a one-off, desperate idea of a few Eurozone “troika” officials scrambling to salvage their balance sheets. A joint paper by the US Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation and the Bank of England dated December 10, 2012, shows that these plans have been long in the making; that they originated with the G20 Financial Stability Board in Basel, Switzerland (discussed earlier here); and that the result will be to deliver clear title to the banks of depositor funds.” Link.

Richard Russell: “I’ve been asked to name one future situation of which I’m most certain. My answer is this – I believe the surest situation (change) in America’s future is a decline, even a drastic decline, in our standard of living. We’ve spent it; we’ve spent what we didn’t have. And somewhere ahead, probably much sooner than we think, will come payback time. And it won’t be pretty.” Link.

Summary

GE Christenson
aka Deviant Investor

Explosive Gold Rally Is Imminent Based On Bearish Sentiment and Fundamentals

You know the world is changing when the head of the world’s biggest bond fund recommends gold as his first asset choice.

In this week’s Barron’s Roundtable, Bond King Bill Gross affirms his bullish view on gold due to his assessment that central banks will continue to suppress interest rates by purchasing vast amounts of government debt with printed money.  Gross notes that the financial system is now longer operating under free-market capitalism when the Fed is buying a “remarkable” 80% of debt issued by the U.S. Treasury.  Massive deficits are being funded with printed currency on a global scale never attempted in the past and sooner or later, according to Bill Gross, inflation will blow past the central bank’s targeted rate of 2.5%.

The really big risk comes when huge holders of U.S. debt such as China and Japan become disgusted with U.S. fiscal and monetary policies and decide to dump their treasuries as inflation decimates the value of their holdings.  Bill Gross tells Barron’s exactly what could go wrong and which gold investment he likes the best.

The big risk is that the Chinese would rather own something else. Investors can choose between artificially priced financial assets or real assets like oil and gold or, to be really safe, cash. The real risk to the financial markets is the marginal proclivity of investors to put their money in real assets, or under the mattress. Thus, my first recommendation is GLD — the SPDR Gold Trust exchange-traded fund. It has a fee, but it is an easy way for investors to buy a real asset.

Lots of things go into pricing gold, but real interest rates [adjusted for inflation] and expected inflation are two dominant considerations. Gold probably won’t move much from current levels unless real rates decline more or inflationary expectations rise from the current 2.5% to 3%, or higher. That’s what gets gold off the dime. It is a decent hedge. It doesn’t earn anything, but not much else earns anything either.

Pounding the table even harder than Gross, Fred Hickey, editor of the High-Tech Strategist, tells Barron’s that an explosive rally in gold seems imminent based on the massive bearish sentiment towards gold.  Long term, Hickey sees gold hitting at least $5,000 per ounce, a target that Gold and Silver Blog also sees as a very reasonable future price target.

Hickey: I am recommending gold, as I have done for many years. I will continue to do so until the gold price hits the blow-off stage, which is nowhere in sight. I am excited about gold because sentiment is so negative. Gold could have a sharp rally at any time. The Hulbert Gold Newsletter Sentiment Index went deeply negative last week, indicating that gold-newsletter writers are recommending net short positions. When that happens, gold almost always rallies. The daily sentiment index for gold is at a 12-year low. Short positions by large speculators have doubled in the past few months. Sales of American Eagle coins hit a five-year low in 2012. Yet, the environment for gold couldn’t be better. We talked today about massive money-printing by all the major central banks. Real interest rates are negative. These are the best possible conditions for a gold rally.

Felix said gold could rally to the $1,800-an-ounce level, and I agree. If it breaks that, it will go to $2,000 or more. As long as we have unlimited quantitative easing, we have the potential for unlimited gains in the gold price. Gold could go to $5,000 or even $10,000. You can buy gold through the GLD or IAU, as we discussed. This year I recommend physical gold. You can buy American Eagle coins, or gold bars. Everyone should have some physical gold, and almost no one in the U.S. does.

Hickey also says that the price of gold is nowhere near a “blow off stage”, despite constant mainstream press reports of gold’s imminent collapse.  For further discussion on this see The Gold Bubble Myth and Why There Is No Upside Limit For Gold and Silver Prices.

Nine Reasons Why You Must Own Gold

By: Deviant Investor

american-gold-eagle-coins

    • Gold has been real money (medium of exchange and a store of value) for over 3,000 years. It is still real money.
    • Gold has no counter-party risk. It is not someone else’s liability. It has intrinsic value that is recognized around the world.
    • ALL paper money systems have eventually failed. The intrinsic value of paper money is effectively zero; and all paper money has, throughout history, eventually devalued to zero.
    • Paper money is a liability of a central bank or a government that may be insolvent. The money issued by a central bank or government has value based NOT on its intrinsic value, but only upon people’s faith, trust, and confidence in that money. Occasionally that faith and confidence is misplaced. For example:

zimbabwe

    • The price of gold in US dollars since the year 2001 has been strongly correlated with the ever-increasing official national debt of the United States. Read $4,000 Gold! Yes, But When? Does anyone believe that the national debt will decrease or even remain constant over the next several years? NO! The national debt will increase even more rapidly over the next four years and so will the price of gold. Skeptical? Then look at the chart of national debt and the nearly parallel price of gold. Still skeptical? Do you remember gasoline selling for less than $.20 per gallon and gold selling for about $40? They have increased in price because there are currently many more dollars in circulation than in the 1960s – hence, it takes more dollars to buy an ounce of gold, a gallon of gasoline, a loaf of bread, a cup of coffee, or a fighter jet.

Click on image to enlarge.
  • Because governments and central banks issue paper money backed by nothing but faith and credit, they are in competition with gold which is real money. Should we be surprised when they discount the importance of gold and discourage ownership? Should we be surprised when the “Oracle of Omaha” denigrates gold ownership? (Berkshire Hathaway holds huge positions in banking stocks and Goldman Sachs stock.) Should we be surprised when news stories are heavily slanted against gold ownership?
  • Groucho Marx once said, “Who are you going to believe, me or your own eyes?” Who are you going to believe – the history of gold as valuable money while paper money failed, or the pronouncements of politicians, central banks, and the owners of bank stocks?
  • Who and what do you believe? It will be important to your financial well-being if (when) paper money accelerates its journey toward an intrinsic value of zero.
  • Are you going to believe history and current facts or less reliable information from politicians, central banks, and the owners of bank stocks?

GE Christenson
aka Deviant Investor

GATA Finally Gets The Recognition It Deserves

Every gold and silver investor owes a debt of gratitude to the Gold Anti-Trust Action Committee (GATA).  Long fluffed off by the mainstream media, GATA has been a voice in the wilderness in exposing the manipulative schemes of governments and central banks to suppress gold prices.

With printing presses running wild world wide, the issue of gold price suppression will become ever more critical as the public eventually realizes that the only viable alternative to paper money backed by nothing is a gold backed currency system.

The tireless efforts of GATA, spearheaded by Secretary/Treasurer Chris Powell,  in documenting surreptitious gold price suppression schemes by central banks has finally been recognized by a major mainstream financial publication.

The Financial Times, in an article regarding the repatriation of gold from the Fed by the Bundesbank, talks about the lack of transparency by central banks in the gold market.  (Read the full article here.)

The gold market barely shrugged when the Bundesbank announced it would move 674 tonnes of the stuff from Paris and New York to Frankfurt.

But the move is important: not for what it says about Germany’s faith in French or American vaults; nor for the cost of shifting 674 tonnes of gold; but because it is a major victory for transparency in the gold market.

Central banks are notoriously secretive about their gold-trading activities.

Most report, on a monthly basis, their gold reserves to the International Monetary Fund. But these data fall a long way short of full transparency. They tell us nothing about derivative positions in the gold market — for example, gold loans, agreements for future sales, or options transactions.

The historical lack of transparency among central banks is somewhat understandable.

With 29,500 tonnes between them (a decade of global mine supply) they have the ability to disrupt the market significantly if their trades are too public. See, for example, the reaction to the UK’s announcement that it would sell a large part of its reserves in 1999.

Maybe at some point, the rest of the mainstream media will finally decide to take a critical look at the dealings of central banks in the gold market.

Gold Is The Only Asset With No Counterparty Risk

By: Axel Merk

While the introduction of a trillion-dollar coin has been shrugged off as nonsense, there are plenty of nonsensical concepts employed in our monetary system. Here we’ll shed light on a few of them.

Governments – or their central banks – can print a $100 bill. The value of such a piece of paper is worth exactly as much as the supply and demand of a currency dictates. Dollar bills are legal tender for payment of debt, but if someone does not like that the $100 bill is not backed by anything, then anyone is free to decline a $100 bill in exchange for services, and barter instead.

The problem arises when the government decrees that something is worth a certain amount, unless it becomes the basis of the government’s entire framework of reference, as in a gold standard. In my humble opinion, no one, let alone a government can precisely value anything. The value of goods, services, even debt, is in the eye of the beholder, and varies based on supply and demand:

  • Consumers buy goods or services because they believe they are “good value;” in other words, they only exchange money for goods in a deal where they see themselves benefiting. Consumers should not blame companies for “over-priced” goods or services; they should blame themselves for paying such prices.
  • The perception of what is good value varies from person to person. What may be a must-have $80 a month cable TV subscription, may be a waste to others. It also varies over time, as some may deem a vacation well worth the money during good times, but rather stay at homes when times are tough.
  • When monopolies or governments impose prices, distortions, such as supply disruptions can occur. Or conversely, when the government keeps the price of fuel artificially low, it can significantly erode the government’s ability to provide other services, possibly even bankrupt it.

The market currently prices platinum at over $1,600 a troy ounce. If the Treasury were to decree that a specially minted coin is worth $1,000,000,000,000 instead, no rational person would want to buy it. The argument is that the Federal Reserve could be coerced into accepting it at face value, crediting the Treasury’s account at the Fed with $1 trillion for it to spend. In our view, such a move, if it were upheld in the courts, would:

  • Highlight the not so well known fact that the Federal Reserve (Fed) does not mark its holdings to market. The lack of mark-to-market accounting leading up to the financial crisis is a key reason why the financial system was brought to its knees in 2008. A major loss at the Federal Reserve, such as writing down a $1 trillion coin to $1,600 may not be too worrisome for those that know that even a negative net worth won’t render a central bank inoperative. However, losses at the Fed would deprive the Treasury of what has become an annual transfer of almost $90 billion in “profits” (see MerkInsight Hidden Treasury Risks?).
  • Dilute the value of the dollar. If the Treasury whips up an additional trillion to spend through trickery, odds are that a trillion would no longer be worth what it used to be.

But wait, $1 trillion is already not worth what it used to be, and a $1 trillion coin has not even been minted. And I’m not talking about our grandparents: who had ever heard of trillion dollar deficits before the financial crisis? The Federal Reserve holds just under $3 trillion in assets, up by over $2 trillion since early 2008. When the Federal Reserve engages in “quantitative easing”, QE, QE1, QE2, QE3, QEn or however one wants to call it, the Fed buys securities (mortgage-backed securities, government bonds) from large banks, then credits such banks’ accounts at the Fed. Such credit is done through the use of a keyboard, creating money literally out of thin air. Even Fed Chair Bernanke refers to this process as printing money, even if banks have not deployed most of the money they have received to extend loans. However, the more money the Fed prints, the more debt securities it buys, the greater its income; it’s that argument that has allowed Bernanke to claim that his operations have been “profitable,” neglecting to state that such money printing may pose significant risks to the purchasing power of the dollar.

Note that we don’t need the Fed. Amongst others:

  • If the Treasury wants to issue debt, it can do so without the Fed.
  • If the Treasury wants to manage the maturity of the outstanding government debt portfolio, it can do so without the Fed’s
  • Operation Twist.

Congress and the Administration love the Fed because it is an off-balance sheet entity for the government with special features; the Fed has ‘unlimited resources’ (it can print its own money); and the Fed can have a negative net worth without defaulting.

The way a trillion dollar coin could work is if not just one, but all platinum coins of the same fine ounce content (say one troy ounce) were decreed to be worth $1 trillion. It would be the re-introduction of a gold, well, platinum standard, as it would link the value of a precious metal to the value of the currency. The government would quite likely want to punish any speculators that are front-running the idea of valuing platinum at $1 trillion, possibly even outlawing private ownership. But it would put the value into context and anyone could buy a substitute. Pricing of all goods and services would adjust to reflect the new value of $1 trillion for a troy ounce of platinum. In plain English, such a move would substantially move up the price level.

We deem the re-introduction of a precious metals standard to be rather unlikely, precisely because it takes away the power of Congress to spend: it could only spend money if it got hold of more platinum. Unless, of course, Congress realizes that it may get away with not backing all of the currency with platinum or resets the price of a platinum coin yet again. Soon enough, the “platinum window” would be closed again, just as Richard Nixon closed the gold window in 1971. Let’s call it a coincidence Nixon would have turned 100 years old this year, just as the Federal Reserve is celebrating its 100th anniversary.

While most agree that a $1 trillion platinum coin is a silly idea, few think that a $100 bill is also absurd. There are indeed key differences:

  • $100 bills are all one and the same. Well, almost. In some developing countries, newer bills are worth more than older ones (because of counterfeit bills in circulation).
  • A platinum coin has intrinsic value: its fine ounce content of platinum. In contrast, the $100 bill is worth the paper it is printed on.

To be precise, a $100 bill is a Federal Reserve Note:

  • The holder of a $100 bill may deposit such bill into his or her account.
  • The bank can deposit the $100 bill at the Fed. In turn, the Fed will credit the bank with $100 in checking account.
  • The bank can withdraw the deposit of $100 from the Fed.
  • The bank account holder can withdraw $100 from the bank yet again.

Importantly, the $100 is always an obligation: an obligation of the bank, the government (through FDIC insurance in case of default of the bank) and the Fed (currency in circulation appears on the liability side of the Fed’s balance sheet). Most currency is not issued in paper, but in electronic form. Banks receiving a $100 electronic credit can, through the rules of fractional reserve banking, lend out a multiple of such deposits. Because of this, currency always carries counter-party risk. By regulation, if the counter-party is the Federal Reserve or the Treasury, it is considered to be risk-free. But it’s still a debt security. Moreover, the rating agency Standard & Poor’s does not consider US debt risk-free, having downgraded it because of the dysfunctional political process in addressing the long-term sustainability of U.S. deficits.

In contrast, a coin in itself does not have counter-party risk. It’s a coin with intrinsic value. If a government decreed a value onto that coin, there’s a risk that such decree may change or be undermined.

Precious metals coins may be considered barbarous relics, but at least they do not carry counterparty risk. Indeed, we like the fact that gold in particular has comparatively little industrial application, making it a pure play on monetary policy.

So what is an investor to do? In our opinion, investors must gauge for themselves what something is worth, rather than rely on a government. That applies to the dollar as much as it does to a platinum coin or any security. Notably, forget about the notion that something is risk-free. Those trusting their governments to preserve the purchasing power of their savings will be the losers. Those throwing out the risk free component in their asset allocation models may well come out with fewer bruises.

And while the gold standard has some admirable features, democracies tend to favor spending over balancing books. Over the past 100 years, we have moved further and further away from the gold standard. While a collapse of the fiat monetary system might temporarily get us back on a gold standard, don’t trust a government to take care of you. In practice, this means that investors need to create their personal frame of reference as to how to deploy investments; rational investors are unlikely to mint a personal $1 trillion coin, realizing that no one would pay $1 trillion for it. It also means there is no single safe haven during times of crisis. The fact that precious metals have no counter-party risk is an attractive feature, but don’t kid yourself: if your daily expenses are in U.S. dollar, the value of your purchasing power will fluctuate. Investors must be able to sleep at night with their investments; if not, consider reducing your exposure.

Is volatility with regard to the U.S. dollar an argument against owning precious metals? No, but one needs to be keenly aware of the risks of any investment, including perceived safe havens. To manage the risk to the U.S. Dollar, investors may also want to consider actively managing dollar risk. Please join our Webinar this Tuesday, January 15, 2013, that focuses on our outlook for the dollar, gold and currencies for 2013. Please also sign up for our newsletter to be informed as we discuss global dynamics and their impact on gold and currencies.

Axel Merk

Axel Merk is President and Chief Investment Officer, Merk Investments.

Merk Investments, Manager of the Merk Funds.

Why The $1 Trillion Platinum Coin Idea Won’t Work

With the United States rapidly approaching the debt ceiling limit, a dysfunctional and divided Congress appears unable to agree on either spending cuts or an increase in the debt ceiling.  Absent some grand Congressional compromise, America’s nonstop trillion dollar deficit spending will rapidly push the nation to the brink of default before the end of next month.

Although the idea of default seems like a low probability to many people, if such an event were to occur, the result could be disastrous to both the markets and the economy.  Americans have always been able to come up with ingenious solutions before falling off the precipice and this time is no different.  The idea of minting a $1 trillion dollar face value platinum coin to cover our spending needs has quickly garnered national attention.

Predictably, opinions vary greatly as to the legality and efficacy of using a coin worth about $1,700 to fund a trillion dollars worth of spending.  The trillion dollar coin idea, ridiculed as irresponsible by some, is seen by others as a legitimate manner in which to resolve our deficit crisis.  For fiscal conservatives, the mere thought of proclaiming a common coin to have a trillion dollar value in order to remain solvent, is a wretched sign of how incredibly tenuous the financial condition of the United States has become.

In no particular order, here are some of the arguments regarding the trillion dollar coin.

U.S. Rep. Greg Walden (R-Ore.) announced that he would introduce a bill to stop the proposal to mint high-value platinum coins to pay the federal government’s bills.   Rep. Walden said, “Some people are in denial about the need to reduce spending and balance the budget. This scheme to mint trillion dollar platinum coins is absurd and dangerous, and would be laughable if the proponents weren’t so serious about it as a solution. I’m introducing a bill to stop it in its tracks.”

A Washington Research Group analyst said, “The President could assert that that 14th amendment negates the requirement for Congress to raise the debt ceiling.  Or Treasury could mint a $1 trillion platinum coin and deposit it at the Federal Reserve.  Neither are great options.  We see chaos if the market has to confront Treasuries where the debt is backed by Congress and those where it is not backed by Congress.  For banks, this might be as bad as an actual default. The economic uncertainty could cause lending to grind to a halt, the disruptions could cause unemployment to spike which means higher loan losses, and interest rates could skyrocket as the market is unsure whether one of these creative solutions is even legal.”

According to Bloomberg:

In general, the Treasury Department is not allowed to just print money if it feels like it. It must defer to the Federal Reserve’s control of the money supply. But there is an exception: Platinum coins may be struck with whatever specifications the Treasury secretary sees fit, including denomination.

This law was intended to allow the production of commemorative coins for collectors. But it can also be used to create large-denomination coins that Treasury can deposit with the Fed to finance payment of the government’s bills, in lieu of issuing debt.

What the law should say is that the executive branch may borrow to pay whatever obligations the federal government has, but may not print. Unfortunately, when we hit the debt ceiling, the situation will be backwards: The administration will not be allowed to borrow, but it can print in unlimited quantities.

Economist Paul Krugman, who believes that the United States effectively has no limit on its spending ability, thinks using a $1 trillion dollar coin would solve our debt limit crisis.

Should President Obama be willing to print a $1 trillion platinum coin if Republicans try to force America into default? Yes, absolutely. He will, after all, be faced with a choice between two alternatives: one that’s silly but benign, the other that’s equally silly but both vile and disastrous. The decision should be obvious.

Enter the platinum coin. There’s a legal loophole allowing the Treasury to mint platinum coins in any denomination the secretary chooses. Yes, it was intended to allow commemorative collector’s items — but that’s not what the letter of the law says. And by minting a $1 trillion coin, then depositing it at the Fed, the Treasury could acquire enough cash to sidestep the debt ceiling — while doing no economic harm at all.

The American Enterprise Institute explains how the platinum coin concept would work:

There are limits on how much paper money the U.S. can circulate and rules that govern coinage on gold, silver, and copper.  BUT, the Treasury has broad discretion on coins made from platinum.  The theory goes that the U.S. Mint would create a handful of trillion dollar (or more) platinum coins.  The President would then order the coins deposited at the Fed, who would then put the coin(s) in the Treasury who now can pay all their bills and a default is removed from the equation.  The effects on the currency market and inflation are unclear, to say the least.

According to CNN:

Normally, the Federal Reserve is charged with issuing currency. But U.S. law, specifically 31 USC § 5112, also grants Treasury permission to “mint and issue platinum bullion coins and proof platinum coins.”

This section of law was meant to allow for the printing of commemorative coins and the like. But the Treasury Secretary has the authority to mint these coins in any denomination he or she sees fit.

Why The $1 Trillion Platinum Coin Idea Won’t Work

The genesis of the trillion dollar platinum coin scheme derives from the law (Title 31, Section 5112, (31 U.S.C. § 5112(k)) passed by Congress under their constitutional power to coin money and regulate the value thereof.  This particular law was passed to give the U.S. Mint the authority to produce the American Eagle Platinum Bullion and Proof coins, without restriction to the American Eagle products program.

The Secretary may mint and issue platinum bullion coins and proof platinum coins in accordance with such specifications, designs, varieties, quantities, denominations, and inscriptions as the Secretary, in the Secretary’s discretion, may prescribe from time to time.

As argued in some of the commentary above, it seems clear that the law would allow the Secretary to authorize the U.S. Mint to produce a platinum of any stated denomination, including one trillion dollars.

The Federal Reserve would receive a coin on which would yield a profit of $1 trillion dollars based on the concept of seigniorage, which is the difference between the cost to produce the coin and the “face value” of the money stamped on it by the U.S. Mint.  However, under the rules of both the American Eagle program and other commemorative programs, the coin does not become “legal tender” until the U.S. Mint is paid for the coin with other legal tender or an appropriately valued amount of bullion.  Until the U.S. Mint was paid, the Federal Reserve would possess a rather beautiful coin worth only about $1,700, representing the intrinsic value of the platinum contained therein.

In the recent case of the government confiscation of 1933 Saint-Gauden Double Eagle gold coins from the heirs of Israel Swift, the court ruling confirmed the validity of the legal tender concept.  In the court ruling, Judge Davis cites precedents, including the government’s original case against Israel Swift in 1934, and confirmed that until a U.S. Mint coin is bought and paid for, the coin is not considered to be legal tender.  The concept of a coin not becoming legal tender until it was paid for was further confirmed in the sale of the Fenton-Farouk 1933 Double Eagle gold coin.  When the Double Eagle was sold on July 30, 2002, for $7.6 million, an additional $20 was required to be paid to “monetize” the face value of the coin in order for it to become legal currency.

Exactly how would the U.S. Mint be paid in order for the $1 trillion coin to become official legal tender?  If the Federal Reserve accepts the trillion dollar coin from the U.S. Mint, they would incur a $1 trillion liability to the U.S. Mint.  To offset the liability to the U.S. Mint, the U.S. Treasury would have sell $1 trillion in bonds which can’t legally be done due to the limits placed on its borrowing capacity by the debt ceiling limit.  The idea of a $1 trillion platinum coin becomes a fatally flawed solution that solves nothing.

So why can’t the Federal Reserve simply “print money” to pay for the $1 trillion coin?  As explained by Paul Krugman, the Fed does not legally have the power to print money, with one rather dubious exception.

First, as a legal matter the Federal government can’t just print money to pay its bills, with one peculiar exception. Instead, money has to be created by the Federal Reserve, which then puts it into circulation by buying Federal debt. You may say that this is an artificial distinction, because the Fed is effectively part of the government; but legally, the distinction matters, and the debt bought by the Fed counts against the debt ceiling.

Furthermore, Krugman admits that the platinum coin idea is a “gimmick” since the coin would effectively have the same value as other outstanding Treasury debt and the Treasury would have to eventually buy the coin back with additional borrowings.  Somewhat surprisingly, Krugman also concedes that despite the fact that much of the government’s current spending is financed by the Fed’s money printing, we cannot ignore the ultimate consequences of huge holdings of Treasury debt held by the Fed.

It’s true that printing money isn’t at all inflationary under current conditions — that is, with the economy depressed and interest rates up against the zero lower bound. But eventually these conditions will end. At that point, to prevent a sharp rise in inflation the Fed will want to pull back much of the monetary base it created in response to the crisis, which means selling off the Federal debt it bought. So even though right now that debt is just a claim by one more or less governmental agency on another governmental agency, it will eventually turn into debt held by the public.

The entire concept of the United States funding itself with a manufactured $1 trillion dollar coin of nominal intrinsic value is fraught with danger since it highlights the extent to which we are willing to debase the value of the U.S. dollar to continue massive deficit spending – at some point our creditors will begin to take notice.  Think of Japan and China who each hold more than $1 trillion in U.S. Treasury debt securities.

Aside from the fact that the minting of a $1 trillion dollar coin is probably legal, it is not a workable solution since the coin would be of no value until it was paid for as explained above.  As discussed in Bloomberg, instead of pursuing dubious policies that will ultimately alarm the nation’s creditors, the challenge of compromising on the debt ceiling should be viewed as an opportunity for Congress to take responsibility for the nation’s future fiscal policies.

Watch what he did, not what he says. President Barack Obama says he won’t agree to spending cuts in return for Republicans’ raising the debt ceiling. Yet he did exactly that in 2011. And he should do it again.

The debt ceiling ought to be raised because nobody has a plan to eliminate the deficit immediately, and there is no popular support for doing what that would take. A congressman who isn’t presenting and supporting a zero-deficit-now plan has an obligation to give the federal government the additional borrowing authority that continued deficits make necessary.

For liberals, that’s the end of the matter. The debt ceiling should be raised without any spending cuts attached, and ideally it should be raised to infinity. One common argument goes like this: Since Congress sets spending and tax levels, no good purpose is served by holding a separate vote making it possible for the government to follow Congress’s original instructions.

That argument would have more force if the federal budget were the result of a deliberate policy. Instead, more and more of our spending rises on autopilot because of decisions made long ago, and nobody is forced to take responsibility for the gap between revenue and commitments. Bills to raise the debt ceiling are the only occasions when congressmen and the president come close to doing so. They are thus appropriate moments to attack the trends that are driving our rising debt.

More On This Topic – “Creating Money Out of Thin Air”

Former U.S. Mint Director: The $1 Trillion Platinum Coin Ain’t Worth a Plugged Nickel

The $1 trillion platinum coin is a desperate gimmick of questionable legality and doesn’t even come close to solving our fiscal problems.

First, it may be legal to mint a platinum bullion coin with a $1 trillion face value, but it’s not legal to pass it off as actually worth $1 trillion if there isn’t $1 trillion of platinum in it. That’s because it’s a bullion coin and not a legal circulating coin. The face value of a bullion coin has no relationship with the metal content because the value is in the metal, whose price fluctuates daily.

Second, for a coin to be worth its face value, it has to be made as a circulating coin.

The Fed would pay the Mint face value for the coin. After deducting the cost of the coin, the Mint would return the balance to the Treasury. All this needs to be done before we run out of money. Good luck with that.

Third, the current law does allow the Mint to make a platinum proof coin and does not specify whether this applies to a bullion coin or a circulating coin. A proof coin refers to a mirror-like finish and is made for coin collectors. However, a proof coin must be accepted at face value. Some have argued that the law can be stretched to allow for a platinum circulating coin, but this would not be consistent with the intent of the original legislation.

But let’s ignore the law for a moment. Let’s assume that a $1 trillion circulating coin could be created. It would be no different than creating money out of thin air.

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Gold Will Benefit From The Coming Currency Turmoil

By:  Axel Merk, Merk Investments

Sidetracked by the discussion over the “fiscal cliff” and possibly a New Year’s hangover, it’s time to face 2013 in earnest. Is the yen doomed? Will the euro shine? What about Asian and emerging market currencies? Will gold continue its ascent? And the greenback, will it be in the red?

Before we look too far forward, let’s get some context:

  • “Central banks hope for the best, but plan for the worst” was our theme a year ago. With everyone afraid of the fallout from the Eurozone, printing presses in major markets were working overtime. We argued this would benefit currencies of smaller countries – be that the so-called commodity currencies or select Asian currencies – that feel less of a need to “take out insurance.”
  • While we were positive on the euro when it approached 1.18 versus the U.S. dollar in 2010, arguing the challenges are serious, but ought to be primarily expressed in the spreads of the Eurozone bond market. Then in the fall of 2011, we grew increasingly cautious because of the lack of process: just as it is difficult to value a company if one doesn’t know what management is up to, it’s difficult to value a currency if policy makers have no plan. In the spring of 2012, when we were most negative about the euro, we lamented the lack of process in a Financial Times column. European Central Bank (ECB) chief Mario Draghi appeared to agree with our concerns, imploring policy makers to define processes, set deadlines, hold people accountable. After his “do whatever it takes” speech in July 2012, he took it upon himself to impose a process on European policy makers in early August 1. We published a piece “Draghi’s genius” where we called for a bottom in the euro. We were inundated with negative feedback in the immediate aftermath of our analysis from professional and retail investors alike, confirming that were not following the herd, nor buying something that’s too expensive.
  • While we liked commodity currencies in the first half of the year because of printing presses in larger economies working overtime, we grew a little cautious as the year moved on, partly because of valuations. Each commodity currency has its own set of dynamics, as well as their own Achilles heel: in the case of the Australian dollar, we had some concerns about its two tier domestic economy (not all of Australia was benefiting from the commodity boom), but also about the perceived slowdown in China.
  • We studied the Chinese leadership transition with great interest; while 2012 may have been a year in transition, more on the dynamics as we see them play out below.
  • Back in the U.S., we squandered another year to get the house in order. The fiscal cliff was a distraction; we need entitlement reform to make deficits sustainable. Europeans have no patent on kicking the can down the road. But unlike Europe, the U.S. has a current account deficit, making it more vulnerable should investors demand more compensation to finance U.S. deficits (that is, higher interest rates).
  • Japan: the more dysfunctional the Japanese government has been, the less it could spend, the less pressure it could exert on the Bank of Japan. Add to that a current account surplus, and all this “bad news” was good news for the yen. Countries with a current account surplus don’t need inflows from abroad to finance government deficits; as a result, the absence of economic growth that keeps foreign investors away is of no detriment to the currency. Conversely, countries with current account deficits tend to pursue policies fostering economic growth to attract capital from abroad. However, in late 2012, we published a piece “Is the Yen Doomed?” What happened? Japan was about to have a strong government. More in the outlook below.

We believe the currency markets are well suited for decision-making based on macro-analysis. Just as throughout 2012 the themes were evolving, please keep in mind that our 2013 outlook may be outdated the moment it is published, as we update our views based on new information or a new analysis of old information. Still, those who have followed us over the years are well aware that we like to shift our views within a framework. Please consider our 2013 outlook in this context:

  • We believe the yen is indeed doomed. We remove the question mark. Prime Minister Abe’s new government sets the stage, but key to watch are:
    • Abe’s government will appoint the three top positions at the Bank of Japan, as the governor and both deputy governors retire. Recent appointees have already been more dovish. Japanese culture is said to prefer talk over action, but the time for dovish talk may finally be over (despite their dovish reputation, the Bank of Japan barely expanded its balance sheet since 2008; in many ways, of the major central banks, only the Reserve Bank of Australia has been more hawkish).
    • Japan’s current account is sliding towards a deficit. That means, deficits will start to matter, eventually pushing up the cost of borrowing, making a 200%+ debt-to-GDP ratio unsustainable.
    • Abe’s government is as determined as it is blind. Abe believes a major spending program is just what Japan needs. As far as the yen is concerned, Abe may be getting far more than he is bargaining for.
    • But isn’t everyone negative on the yen already? Historically, it’s been most painful to short the yen; as such, many have not walked their talk. We expect some fierce rallies in the yen throughout the year. Having said that, the yen looks a lot like Nasdaq in 2000 to us. Not as far as technicals are concerned, but as far as the potential to fall without much reprieve.
  • The euro may be the rock star of 2013. Boring is beautiful. Sure, there are plenty of problems, but the euro is morphing into yet another currency, but is still priced as if it had a contagious disease. While the Fed, the Bank of England, the Bank of Japan are all likely to engage in further balance sheet expansion (we refer to it as “printing money” as assets are purchased by central banks, paid for by entries on computer keyboards, creating money out of thin air), there’s a chance the ECB balance sheet may actually shrink. That’s because some banks have indicated they will pay back early part of the €1 trillion in 3-year loans taken from the ECB. Some suggest the ECB might print a boatload of money should the “Outright Monetary Transaction” (OMT) program be activated to buy the debt of peripheral Eurozone countries. Keep in mind that the OMT program would be sterilized, likely by offering interest on deposits at the ECB. As such, the OMT would lower spreads in the Eurozone and, through that, act as a massive stimulus. In our assessment, however, such a stimulus is far less inflationary than central bank action in other regions. It’s no longer a taboo to be positive on the euro, but most we talk to are at best “closet bulls.”
  • The British pound sterling. The Brits are getting a new governor at the Bank of England (BoE) in the summer, the current head of the Bank of Canada (BoC), Carney. One of the first speeches Carney gave after his appointment was made public was about nominal GDP targeting. Carney will have a chance to replace many of the current BoE board members. That’s the good news, as the old men’s club is in need of a makeover. The not-so-good news is for the sterling. British 10 year borrowing costs have just crossed above those of France. We’ll monitor this closely.
  • As the head of the BoC, Carney was particularly apt at talking down the Loonie, the Canadian dollar, whenever it appeared to strengthen. If Macklem, his current deputy, is appointed, we may get a real hawk at the helm of the BoC. We are positive on the Loonie heading into 2013, but will monitor developments closely, as there are economic cross-currents that, for now, Canada appears to be handling very well.
  • Staying with commodity currencies, we are cautiously optimistic on the Australian dollar (China better than expected; monetary policy more hawkish than priced in) and New Zealand dollar (more hawkish monetary policy on better than expected growth). We continue to stay away from the Brazilean real and leave it for masochistic speculators looking for excitement.
  • We are positive on Norway’s currency (joining the above mentioned rock star, with greater volatility), yet cautious on Sweden’s (priced to perfection is not ideal when things are not perfect, even in Sweden).
  • China: the new leadership has indicated that liquidity for the Chinese yuan may be their top currency priority. That’s great news, as we believe it implies policies that attract investment, not just from the outside, but also with regard to a development of a more vibrant domestic fixed income market. We are more positive on China than many; more on that, in an upcoming newsletter (click to sign up to receive Merk Insights)
  • Korea, Malaysia, Taiwan: all positive, benefiting from both internal forces, but also beneficiaries of actions in other large economies. If we have to pick a favorite today, it would be Korea, but keep in mind that the Korean won is the most volatile of these currencies.
  • Singapore: we continue to like the Singapore dollar. A year ago, we started using it as a substitute for the euro (rather than using the U.S. dollar as the safe haven currency). The currency may well lag the euro’s rise, but the lower risk profile of the currency makes it a potentially valuable component in a diversified basket of currencies.
  • Gold. We expect the volatility in gold to be elevated in 2013, but consider it good news, as it keeps the momentum players at bay. We own gold not for the crisis of 2008, not for the potential contagion from Europe, but because there is too much debt in the world. We think inflation is likely a key component of how developed countries will try to deal with their massive debt burdens, even as cultural differences will make dynamics play out rather differently in different countries. Please see merkinvestments.com/gold for more in-depth discussion on our outlook on gold.

And what about the U.S. dollar? While much of the discussion above is relative to the U.S dollar, the greenback itself warrants its own analysis:

  • Investors in the U.S. should fear growth. The spring of 2012 saw the bond market sell off rather sharply as a couple of economic indicators in a row came out positively. Bernanke wants to keep the cost of borrowing low, but can only control the yield curve so much. That’s why, in our assessment, he is emphasizing employment rather than inflation, in an effort to prevent a major sell-off in the bond market before the recovery is firmly established. Growth is dollar negative because the bond market would turn into a bear market: foreigners’ love for U.S. Treasuries might wane, just as it historically often does during early and mid-phases of an economic upturn as the bond market is in a bear market.
  • Good luck to Bernanke to raising rates in 15 minutes, as he promised he could do in a 60 Minutes interview. Sure he can, but because there’s so much leverage in the economy, any tightening would have an amplified effect. At best, we might get a rather volatile monetary policy. But we are promised by the Fed that this is not a concern for 2013.
  • Both of these, however, suggest volatility will rise in the bond market. Remember what got the housing bubble to burst? An uptick in volatility. That’s because leveraged players, momentum players run for the hills when volatility picks up. And a lot of money has chased Treasuries, praised as the best investment for over two decades. We don’t need foreigners to sell their U.S. bonds for there to be a rude awakening in the bond market; we merely need a return to historic levels of volatility. Why is this relevant to a dollar discussion? Because a bond market selloff makes it more expensive for the U.S. to finance its deficits. Please see our recent analysis of the risks posed to the dollar by a bond market selloff for a more in-depth discussion on this topic.

Axel Merk is President and Chief Investment Officer, Merk Investments. Merk Investments, Manager of the Merk Funds.

THE ONGOING COLLAPSE IN THE PURCHASING POWER OF THE DOLLAR IS IRREVERSIBLE – TEN STEPS TO PROTECT YOURSELF

By GE Christenson

  • Our financial system, as it currently operates, is unsustainable. Unproductive debt cannot exponentially increase forever. I assume this is obvious to almost everyone. Jim Sinclair says, “The financial system is simply FUBAR. It is that simple. The reason to own all things gold is that simple.” FUBAR has several meanings, but my interpretation of FUBAR is: “Fiscally Unbalanced Beyond Any Reconciliation.”
  • The U.S. government deficits are, on average, larger every year. This means that the total (official) national debt is not only increasing each year but also that the rate of increase is accelerating. Since 10/1/2000 the national debt has increased about 9.1% per year, but since 10/1/2007 it has increased 12.2% per year. Worse, this is only the official debt and does not even consider the net present value of unfunded Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, and government employee pensions and liabilities. Depending on who is calculating the liabilities, the total unfunded liability is approximately $100 Trillion to $230 Trillion and the annual increase is perhaps $7 – $11 Trillion. (The entire U.S. GDP is about $15 Trillion per year – for comparison.) This will not end well.
  • In essence, the above two facts are incompatible – hence an economic train wreck is in process. What could happen? Follow the logic here.
  • When there is too much of something, it loses value. If we have too many eggs, the price drops. If too many autos are for sale, there will be lower prices for autos. Central banks around the world are currently producing amazing quantities of dollars, euros, yen, and most other unbacked paper currencies. Hence, their value will decrease against the commodities we need for survival – food, energy, and so forth.
  • There is too much debt in our financial system, whether measured in nominal value or as a percentage of GDP. Hence the value of that debt will decline. Some debts will default, bonds will decline in value as interest rates inevitably rise, and other debt will drop in value and purchasing power.
  • Politicians have made excessive guarantees for future benefits to Social Security recipients, Medicare recipients, government pensions, and others. Those guarantees cannot all be delivered as promised, hence they will decline in value and purchasing power, or the promises will not be fulfilled.

Why are the following ten steps necessary?

  1. The best time to start preparing was about a decade ago. The second best time is today. Make a plan and act. Start by reducing living expenses and eliminating credit card debt.
  2. Expect sweeping changes! I hope the inevitable currency collapse is slow and gentle, not rapid and destructive, but history suggests rapid and painful are more likely.
  3. Phase out of paper assets and into something real. Gold, silver, diamonds, farm land, rental property, and buildings come to mind.
  4. Perspective – Perspective – Perspective! It is better to be early than late. It is better to trust yourself than to depend upon a government agency for your food and shelter. To whatever extent you can, take charge of your own financial affairs, savings, and retirement.
  5. Plan on huge inflation in consumer prices for food, energy, transportation, medical costs, and more.
  6. The middle class will be hurt the most. Those who plan and prepare will, as always, survive and prosper. Make a plan!
  7. Government control over the economy will increase. Surveillance on individuals will increase; there will be much less personal and financial privacy. Act accordingly!
  8. Social change will follow a currency collapse. It might be violent. The government is preparing in many ways for social violence. Are you?
  9. Currency induced cost-push inflation appears inevitable. When? As a guess, well before 2016. Gasoline costing $8.99 or more per gallon is a distinct possibility. Don’t discount this just because it sounds extreme. It might be a low estimate.
  10. Economic manipulations, mal-investments, and unsustainable policies will self-correct. Plan on corrections and adjustments that will bring painful consequences. The bigger the bubble, the more catastrophic the collapse and the larger the collateral damage. The sovereign debt and paper money bubbles appear VERY large and ready to pop.

Summary

Unproductive government debt cannot increase forever, but our financial system currently depends upon ever increasing expenditures and debt. There are far too many dollars in circulation, more debt than can be repaid, and massive unfunded liabilities have been created by the promises made by politicians. The purchasing power of the dollar must decline, many debts will not be repaid, and many promises for future benefits will be reduced in value or will simply disappear. Hence, the FUTURE income stream from debt-based assets is increasingly risky. A few to consider are:

  • Social Security benefits. The government must borrow or print to pay current benefits. The value (purchasing power) of future benefits will almost certainly decline.
  • Municipal and state bonds and pension promises are increasingly risky. Will more cities and states default on their bonds? Why are their pension plans, on average, increasingly underfunded? Will your pension plan remain safe? Consider moving your IRA into physical gold and silver safely stored outside the banking system.
  • US government 30 year bonds and 10 year notes will decline in price as interest rates rise, and will also decline in purchasing power as the dollar devalues. Why would you lend money (long-term) to an insolvent government at less than 3% interest per year when that government has assured you it will debase the currency and reduce the value of the debt you bought? Is this a financial train wreck in process?
  • Mutual funds and money markets based on bonds and other debt are at risk. If the underlying debt defaults, the value of the mutual funds and money markets will decline. Counter-party risk is real.

Why is debt based future income increasingly risky? The payoff will be delayed, defaulted or executed in mini-dollars after inflation and counter-party defaults have ravaged the purchasing power of those paper debts. We have Been Warned!

Would you prefer hard assets with no counter-party risk? Reread the Ten Steps To Safety, and then take charge of your financial life to whatever extent you can.

GE Christenson
aka Deviant Investor

The Fed Is Confiscating The Wealth Of The Middle Class By Destroying The Value Of The Dollar

Americans need to take a serious look at how the purchasing power of the dollar is being destroyed.  Rampant poverty, declining real incomes and higher prices are all the guaranteed results of a Federal Reserve that remains committed to destroying the value of the dollar.   A dollar saved today that has less purchasing power a year from now equates to the “silent” destruction of the dollar, an event which has gone virtually unnoticed and unprotested by the American public.

Act #4 of the Fed’s endless money printing campaign directly monetizes over a half a trillion dollars of U.S. deficit spending annually.  In addition to financing the Federal debt with printed dollars, the Fed has also explicitly endorsed  an inflation rate of 2.5% as being “acceptable.”

Impact Of 2.5% Inflation

Even a relatively “benign” inflation rate of 2.5% rapidly erodes the purchasing power of savings. Over a short 5 years, the purchasing power of $100,000 in savings is reduced to $88,110 at an inflation rate of 2.5%.  At a 5% inflation rate, the value after 5 years is only $77,378.  We don’t even want to look at how much purchasing power would be lost over a decade.

Both consumers and especially savers need to become aware of the wealth depletion caused by purchasing power loss.  From my experience, most people find it conceptually difficult to see a real loss (in purchasing power) when there has been no change in the principal amount of savings.  As John Maynard Keynes wrote in 1920, “By a continuing process of inflation, governments can confiscate, secretly and unobserved, an important part of the wealth of their citizens.  By this method they not only confiscate, but they confiscate arbitrarily; and while the process impoverishes many, it actually enriches some.  And not one man in a million will detect the theft.”

Incredibly, the desperate attempts of central banks to prop up the over-indebted financial system via inflation and money printing is viewed as beneficial by some misguided economists.  Japan’s decision to go all in with “unlimited quantitative easing” was applauded in a recent Slate commentary.

That’s because Shinzo Abe, the overwhelming favorite to lead the Liberal Democratic Party to victory, is running on a bold platform of unlimited quantitative easing and more inflation. If this works—and the odds are that it will—Abe will not only cure a great deal of what ails Japan, he’ll light a path forward for the rest of the developed world.

But if he (Abe) does manage to stick to his guns, the odds are good that it will work. Monetary expansion should reduce the price of the yen and goose exports. More importantly, it will push domestic real interest rates down and spur investment. Creating firm expectations that yen-denominated prices will be higher in the future than they are today should encourage firms and households alike to acquire real goods sooner rather than later. And all this ought to encourage everyone to be investing and spending more.

Bernanke said Japan’s central bankers needed Rooseveltian resolve, but the moral of the story may be that it takes a politician—a Roosevelt—to have the clout and legitimacy to make central banks act decisively when an economy gets firmly mired at the lower bound. If Abe can be that Roosevelt, he’ll not only be a hero of Japan but possibly of the whole world economy. After all, if America’s old advice to Japan turns out to work in practice as well as in theory, then maybe we’ll finally get around to taking our own advice for ourselves.

Does anyone think that Japan’s temporary benefit of a lower currency will not be met with competitive devaluations by other nations?  Exactly how will Japanese consumers be able to spend more if prices increase and wages remain stagnant due to the limiting effects of wage globalization?  The Slate author firmly espouses the lunacy of currency debasement as a wealth enabler despite the fact that no nation in history has ever printed its way to prosperity.

The fact that central banks have firmly committed themselves to money printing on an unimaginable scale is not a cause for hope but rather a clear signal of desperation.  Policy makers have run out of options and in an attempt to forestall the collapse of the financial system, have turned to the last resort option of unlimited money printing.

The Hidden Risks Of Money Printing

By Axel Merk

While Treasuries are said to have no default risk as the Federal Reserve (Fed) can always print money to pay off the debt, hidden risks might be lurking. As oxymoronic as it may sound, the biggest risk to the economy and the U.S. dollar might be, well, economic growth! Let us explain.

The U.S. government paid an average interest rate of 2.046% on the $11.0 trillion of Treasuries outstanding as of the end of November. Treasuries include Bills, Notes, Bonds and Treasury Inflation-Protected Securities (TIPS). At 2.046%, the cost of carrying the Treasury portfolio currently costs the government $225 billion per annum; about 6% of the federal budget was spent on servicing the national debt. 1

While total government debt has ballooned in recent years, the interest rate paid by the government on its debt has continued on its downward trend:

We only need to go back to the average interest rate paid in 2001, 6.19%, and the annual cost of servicing Treasuries would triple, paying more than Greece as a percentage of the budget. Not only would other government programs be crowded out, the debt service payments might likely be considered unsustainable. Except for the fact that, unlike Greece, the Fed can print its own money, diluting the value of the debt. In doing so, the debt could be nominally paid, although we would expect inflation to be substantially higher in such a scenario.

These numbers are no secret. Yet, absent of a gradual, yet orderly decline of the U.S. dollar over the years – with the occasional rally to make some investors believe the long-term decline of the U.S. dollar may be over – the markets do not appear overly concerned. Reasons the market aren’t particularly concerned include:

  • The average interest rate continues to trend downward. That’s because maturing high-coupon Treasury securities are refinanced with new, lower yielding securities.
  • Treasury Secretary Geithner has diligently lengthened the average duration of U.S. debt from about 4 years when he took office to currently over 5 years.

For the U.S. government, a longer duration suggests less vulnerability to a rise in interest rates, as it will take longer for a rise in borrowing costs to filter through to the average debt outstanding. The opposite is true for investors: the longer the average duration of a bond or a bond portfolio one holds, the greater the interest risk, i.e. the risk that the bonds fall in value as interest rates rise.

Debt management by the Treasury only tells part of the story on interest risk. When the Treasury publishes “debt held by the public,” it includes Treasuries purchased in the open market by the Fed. By engaging in “Operation Twist”, the Federal Reserve stepped onto Timothy Geithner’s turf, manipulating the average duration of debt held by the private sector. Notably, the private sector holds fewer longer-dated bonds, as the Fed has gobbled many of them up.

However, investors may still be exposed to substantial interest risk in their overall fixed income holdings as, in the search of yield, many have doubled down by seeking out longer dated and riskier securities.

The Fed, many are not aware of, employs amortized cost accounting, rather than marking its holdings to market, thus hiding potential losses should interest rates go up and its portfolio of Treasuries and Mortgage-Backed Securities (MBS) fall in value.

Quantitative easing to increase interest risk

Whenever there’s a warning that all the money created by the Federal Reserve is akin to printing money, some dismiss these concerns as the money created out of thin air to buy securities has not caused banks to lend, but park excess reserves back at the Federal Reserve. As of December 14, 2012, $1.4 trillion in excess reserves is parked at the Fed. Substantial interest risk might be baked into reserves:

Consider that the Fed has been paying about $80 billion in profits to the Treasury in recent years. Think of it this way: the more money the Fed “prints”, the more (Treasury & MBS) securities it buys, the more interest it earns. That’s why Fed Chair Bernanke brags that his policies have not cost taxpayers a cent, even if the activities may put the purchasing power of the currency at risk. Now, Bernanke has also claimed he could raise rates in 15 minutes. In our assessment, it’s most unlikely he would do so by selling long-dated securities; instead, in an effort to keep long-term rates low, the most likely scenario is that the Fed will pay a higher interest rate on reserves. Up until the financial crisis broke out, the Federal Reserve would have intervened in the Treasury market by buying and selling securities to move short-term interest rates. In the fall of 2008, the Fed was granted the authority by Congress to pay interest on reserves.

As interest rates rise, not only will Treasury pay more for debt it issues, it may also receive less from the Fed. Interest rates would have to rise to about 6% for the entire $80 billion in “profits” to be wiped out assuming a constant $1.5 trillion in reserve balances ($1.4 trillion in excess reserves and $0.1 trillion in required reserves that also receive interest); that assumes, the Fed does not grow its balance sheet in the interim (in an effort to generate more “profits” for the Fed) and would not reduce its payouts in the interim as a precaution because bonds held on the Fed’s books may be trading in the market at substantially lower levels.

Should interest rates move up, the Treasury may no longer be able to rely on the Fed to finance the deficit (while the Fed denies the purposes of its policies is to finance the deficit, the Fed is buying a trillion dollars in debt as the government is running a trillion dollar deficit).

Biggest risk: economic growth?

In our surveys, inflation tends to be on top of investors’ minds, no matter how often government surveys show us that inflation is not the problem. Should inflation expectations continue to rise – and a reasonable person may be excused for coming to that conclusion given that the Fed appears to be increasingly focusing on employment rather than inflation – bonds might be selling off, putting upward pressure on the cost of borrowing for the government.

But if we assume inflation is indeed not an imminent concern (keep in mind that the Fed is also buying TIPS and, thus, distorting important inflation gauges in the market), we only need to look back at the spring of this year when a couple of good economic indicators got some investors to conclude that a recovery is finally under way. What happened? The bond market sold off rather sharply! A key reason why the Fed is increasingly moving towards employment targeting is to prevent a recurrence, namely a market-driven tightening, pushing up mortgage costs.

The government should be grateful that we have this “muddle-through” economy. Let some of that money that’s been printed “stick;” let the economy kick into high gear. In that scenario, the “good news” may well be reflected in a bond market that turns into a bear market.

Historically, when interest rates move higher in an economic recovery, the U.S. dollar is no beneficiary because foreigners tend to hold lots of Treasuries: should the bond market turn into a bear market, foreigners historically tend to wait for the end of the tightening cycle before recommitting to U.S. Treasuries.

The point we are making is that for bonds to sell off and the dollar to be under pressure, we don’t need inflation to show its ugly head; we don’t need China or Japan to engage in financial warfare by dumping their Treasury holdings. All we may need is economic growth! And while Timothy Geithner has studiously been trying to extend the average duration of U.S. debt, Ben Bernanke at the Fed has thrown him a curveball.

Perception is reality

One only needs to look at Spain to see that a long average duration of government debt is no guarantor against a debt crisis. Spain has an average maturity of government debt of 6 years, yet it does not take a rocket scientist to figure out that borrowing at 6% in the market is not sustainable given the total debt burden. As such, markets tend to shiver when confidence is lost, even if, technically, governments could cling on for a while when the cost of borrowing surges.

History may repeat itself

It was only 11 years ago that the US government paid and average of 6% on its debt. Sure the average cost of borrowing has been coming down. But no matter what scenarios we paint, if the average cost of borrowing can come down to almost 2% from 6%, we believe it is entirely possible to have the reverse take place over the next 11 years. Given the additional risks the Fed’s actions have introduced, the timing could well be condensed. But even if not, we believe it is irresponsible for policy makers to pretend interest rates may stay low forever (except, maybe, Tim Geithner’s steps to increase the average maturity of government debt; but as pointed out, his efforts may be overwhelmed by those of the Fed).

Fiscal Cliff

What’s so sad about the discussion about the so-called fiscal cliff is that even the initial Republican proposal results in approximately $800 billion deficits each year. Financed at an average 2%, this would add over $900 billion in interest expenses over ten years; financed at an average 4%, it would add almost $2 trillion in interest expense over ten years. Mind you, this is a politically unrealistic, conservative proposal. Democrats pretend we don’t even have a long-term sustainability problem, only that the wealthy don’t pay their fair share.

In our humble opinion, both Republicans and Democrats are distracted. In many ways, the simultaneous increase in taxes and cut in expenditures of the fiscal cliff is akin to European style austerity: if the cliff were to take place in its entirety, we would a) suffer a significant economic slow down; b) continue to run deficits exceeding 3% of GDP before factoring in any slowdown; and c) still not have fixed entitlements.

Entitlements

While our discussion focused on $11 trillion in Treasury securities, the so-called “unfunded liabilities” go much further than the $5 trillion in accounting liabilities set aside. Depending on the actuarial assumptions, unfunded liabilities may be as high as $50 trillion to $200 trillion or higher.

In our assessment, the only way to tame the explosion of government liabilities over the medium term is to tame entitlements. But it is very difficult to cut back on promises made. As Europe has shown us, the only language that policy makers understand may be that of the bond market. As such, unless and until the bond market imposes entitlement reform, we are rather pessimistic that our budget will be put on a sustainable footing. Put another way, things are not bad enough for policy makers to make the tough decisions.

Different from Europe, however, the U.S. has a current account deficit. As a result, a misbehaving bond market may have far greater negative ramifications for the dollar than the strains in the Eurozone bond markets had for the Euro. In the Eurozone, the current account is roughly in balance; while there was a flight out of weaker Eurozone countries, that flight was mostly intra-Eurozone towards Germany and Northern European countries.

So while the default risk of U.S. Treasuries may be less than that of Eurozone members, the risks to the purchasing power of the U.S. dollar might be substantially higher. On that note, while the Fed has indicated to buy another approximately $1 trillion in assets over the next year, we would not be surprised to see the balance sheet of the more demand-driven European Central Bank shrink as some banks pay back loans from the Long-Term Refinancing Operation (LTRO) early.

In early January, we will be publishing our outlook for 2013; Please also sign up for our newsletter to be informed as we discuss global dynamics and their impact on gold and currencies. Additionally, please join us for our upcoming Webinar on Tuesday, January 15th, 2013.

Axel Merk

Axel Merk is President and Chief Investment Officer, Merk Investments.