Thursday, May 6

Running for the Hills

"What you're faced with is you simply do not know which countries are solvent, which countries are insolvent. You do not know who the counterparties are for these insolvent countries, so you run for the hills."                                   
We've wound up in quite a complicated, difficult mess. And selfishly speaking, I'm young enough that I can expect to feel the full pain of it for many decades to come. So I've decided to give blogging a try. Here goes:

Governments Can Also Go Bust

The topic du jour is the sovereign debt crisis. At the current epicenter we see Greeks in the streets, rioting among other things about raising the retirement age from 53 to 67. Sadly, a few Greeks have died. Germans, who would be the principal Greek financial rescuers, don't seem all that thrilled about loaning Greece money when they (Germans) tend to work later into life than Greeks.

So where is all of this heading? Esteemed Princeton Professor and Nobel laureate Paul Krugman recently changed his public opinion and now says Greece may very well a) default on its debt (aka "restructure", "refinance", "rebalance" -- the list of euphemisms beginning with "re-" for a debt default is long) and b) drop the Euro as its currency. 

Further, there could be some "bank holidays" in Greece to prevent capital flight, along with other unpleasantries that are typical of this kind of crisis which I'll discuss in more detail later. In terms of the timing, the Greek tragedy could all play out over months, perhaps years, or maybe as soon as the next few weeks or even days.

(I don't have any data at hand to support the following hypothesis, but I believe that the ever accelerating speed at which data and information travels has lead to a general compression in the amount of time it takes today's events to unfold when compared with comparable historical events. I would therefore predict that the full Greek debt end game will play out sooner rather than later.)

But Greece is only approximately a tiny 2% of the Eurozone GDP. The real threat is "contagion", meaning a financial wildfire that spreads from one country to the next. The fire would probably next land on Portugal's doorstep. Portugal's situation is not quite as dire as Greece's. Spain, Ireland, and Italy are all potentially at risk too. For Europe there seems a significant possibility that the number of countries using the Euro as the currency could shrink. And there is a real possibility that Germany may even abandon the Euro, which may effectively equal € R.I.P.

After Europe perhaps next up is Japan. Or maybe not. Japan is different because nearly all of its debt is owned domestically. The same is not true for Greece, where some 80+% of the public debt is owed to foreigners. Greece needs outside investors from other countries to pay its government bills, whereas Japan does not. Like Greece, a large portion U.S. public debt (approximately 40%) is owed to foreigners.

Many people are understandably perplexed and asking what does relatively tiny Greece and its debt have to do with the United States, the U.S. stock market, and the U.S.'s public debt? There are long, somewhat complex answers  to this question. And there are simple, even entertaining answers. I'm going to shoot for somewhere in the middle.


First, if you are unfamiliar with the U.S. public debt situation, and/or you have a weakness for edutainment like me, then I recommend watching the movie I.O.U.S.A. It's a great primer on this topic and features interviews with Warren Buffet, Paul Volcker, and several former U.S. Treasury Secretaries. The film is available on Netflix and parts if not all of it can be viewed by searching for it on the web.

If you're already familiar with the U.S. debt situation then you're aware of the big challenge we have financing our Big 3 federal entitlement programs: Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security.

Now, you might be thinking "Sure, I'm aware that financing our entitlements will become a problem down the road. But that's years if not decades away and there's lots of time for the economy to get back on track."

Well, the Social Security fund just went negative well ahead of schedule.

Also, baby boomers are beginning to retire. This unprecedented demographic shift will lead to even larger demands on our Big 3 entitlements. For example, approximately 60% of all current healthcare dollars are spent on people aged 65 and over.

The bottom line is:

  1. the day of reckoning may be closing in faster than previously imagined 
  2. we cannot pay off our public debt without some major change

The Magical Money Printing Press

One way -- and arguably the only realistic way -- for the U.S. to get out from under its unsustainable debt burden is to 'print' more money.

(When I say 'print' more money I mean figuratively, not literally. When the Federal Reserve significantly expands the supply of money it rarely prints any physical paper currency. Instead, simply put, it punches some numbers into a computer and presto, now there's more money! The subject of what exactly is money, the banking and Federal Reserve system, fractional banking, and how the supply of money expands and contracts are complex subjects. If another actual "run" on a bank happens like the ones that happened to Northern Rock and Bear Stearns, then the money supply could be a good topic for another blog post.)

Instead of printing more money, can't the U.S. just spend less? That would, and will probably be, part of the ultimate solution. But it is also a far more difficult solution to implement than printing money. Politically speaking it has been shown to be nearly impossible to cut our Big 3 entitlement programs. In fact, forming a congressional group to simply discuss the cost of our entitlement programs is difficult. The politicians that try to reform our Big 3 entitlements are often voted out of office and replaced with politicians that further perpetuate the unsustainable.

The other possible way out is to increase tax revenue via either higher taxes (assuming you can extract more tax from citizens, which is not a given) or a larger tax base (i.e., more Googles, Bill Gates, larger population to tax at today's rates).

Higher taxes are perhaps even less popular than entitlement cuts. But an economic expansion leading to a larger tax base, like we witnessed in the 1990s, could theoeretically happen. Also, the U.S. population is still expanding and this larger tax base can help pay off the previous generation's debt. However, the U.S. is facing far more competition in the 21st century than the 20th. Thomas L. Friedman's The World is Flat is probably the best known book on this topic.

Print, Baby, Print!

Of the three major options that could solve the U.S.'s debt problem (cut, grow, print), printing money is probably the path of least resistance and hence the most likely scenario.

The additional money the U.S. prints can be used to pay off those that loaned us money (U.S. creditors). The way this can be done is for the Federal Reserve to purchase and hold U.S. Treasury debt. At present Japan, China, and Middle Eastern oil rich countries are the largest foreign holders of U.S. Treasury debt.

Coming back to Greece for a moment, unlike the Americans the Greeks no longer have their very own currency. Greece exchanged the drachma for the euro, which it shares with other European countries. Because Greece does not have complete control of the euro printing press, Greece cannot unilaterally printing more money. Only the European Central Bank, which is governed by all Eurozone member countries -- including the very ironically un-Gutenberg like but powerful Germans -- can collectively decide to print more money. I bid you good luck, Greece, on convincing the wheelbarrow full of money pushing descendants of the Weimar Republic to significantly crank up the Euro printing press.

What happens when money is printed? The value of money decreases relative to what it can purchase. In other words, instead of your McDonald's Happy Meal costing $5, then...if we were to use the Germany Weimar Republic inflation rate in 1923 where prices doubled every two days better buy that Happy Meal fast!

Return of the Gold Standard?

So where will all this printing of money lead? Ultimately, I believe that it will culminate in a change in the current fiat monetary system, and gold will be included in the discussion of a new monetary system.

('Fiat' is a term used to describe a currency, like the U.S. dollar, that is not backed by anything other than belief. In other words, what makes the U.S. dollar ultimately worth something is simply the confidence placed in it. It was not always the case that the U.S. Dollar had no intrinsic value. Up until the Nixon administration U.S. dollars could actually be converted into a fixed amount of gold by other nations. This is what was known as the Gold Standard, and it served to underpin the value of the U.S. dollar. There are other factors supporting the value of a currency beyond confidence, such as government requiring that taxes be paid in that currency. Therefore we must exchange our labor, goods and services for currency so that we can meet our tax obligations. The ability of the government to effectively collect taxes is important to the perceived value and stability of the currency. The U.S. dollar also benefits from being the world's de facto reserve currency. This provides the U.S. with some advantages vis-a-vis other currencies.)

Unlike paper fiat currencies, gold cannot be printed. There is a finite supply of gold, but an infinite number of ones and zeroes for the Federal Reserve to type into its money creation computer. Gold has several other attractive properties which have made it the world's oldest store of value. 

Perhaps the biggest argument for making gold a part of any new monetary order is that it will help hold governments accountable. Many, many governments have consistently demonstrated an inability to manage public finances. Reinstating gold as a component of the new currency would provide a proven check and balance on this temptation. The gold standard carries tradeoffs. But basic human nature has ensured that the old "barbaric relic", as Keynes called it, cannot be kicked into economic posterity just yet.

(For a excellent read on the history of Gold I strongly recommend a book by the late Peter L. Bernstein titled The Power of Gold: The History of an Obsession)

Now the Good News

When we're faced with an apocalyptic issue, a natural response is to bury your head in the sand. We do this because talk of major change can be confusing, frightening, and depressing. This is especially true when we don't feel there is much we can actually do to affect or control the situation, let alone help ourselves.

Unfortunately I'm not optimistic about the U.S.'s ability to solve the debt problem before a crisis hits. But thankfully there are things we can individually do now to help ourselves.

The age-old way to protect oneself from governments that borrow too much and create too much currency is to own gold. If it weren't for the recent and yet-to-fully deflate real estate bubble, land would be (and probably still is all things considered) a decent protective option too. Commodities and real assets in general will rise in value as the U.S. dollar is printed. It's possible that other currencies and some stocks will rise as this event unfolds.

Many both inside government and outside will fight hard against ever allowing gold to return to its former role in the monetary system. For its inclusion would hinder their ability to engage in the behavior to which they're accustomed.

How best to own gold? There are a number of gold exchange traded funds (ETFs, which can be purchased in a manner similar to stocks) which hold actual physical gold. There are gold focussed mutual funds. There are gold mining company stocks. There are both domestic and international options for all of the above. And of course there are advantages and disadvantages to each respective investment approach. But please note that: 1. gold has shown significant short-term volatility and 2. gold has experienced substantial appreciation over the past decade.

What About Owning Physical Gold?

Is it worth owning actual physical gold, such as gold coins or jewelry?

The sovereign debt crisis has moved to a stage now where owning a Gold mutual fund may not be enough for some. Why not?

If the U.S. dollar were to go into a free fall, the U.S. government may pull out the following oldie but goodie signed into law on April 5, 1933 and called Executive Order 6102.

Owning physical gold is not without its own challenges. Gold is valuable and someone may want to steal yours. So rather than show off your gold to your neighbors in the front window of your home you may prefer to keep it in a safety deposit box, have it insured, stored off shore, etc.

Final Thoughts

The stability and continued existence of the U.S. government rests to a large degree on belief in the U.S. dollar as a store of value. To prevent a currency collapse governments can and will do the unimaginable. Police may bash people's skulls. U.S. President's could reissue something like Executive Order 6102.

History doesn't always repeat. But if the dollar takes a nose dive, and because Executive Order 6102 'worked', it would seem like more than just a minor possibility. (I doubt the people who saw the value of their savings nearly cut in half by Executive Order 6102 would say it worked perfectly.)

But instead of just running for the hills, think about whether 'thar may be gold in them hills.

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