Published on May 5th 2013
I want to offer today an historical perspective on the favorite liquidity injection tool: Currency swaps. These coordinated interventions are not a solution to the crashes, but their cause, within a game of chicken and egg. But I’ve just given you the conclusion. I need to back it now…
To read this article in pdf format, click here: May 5 2013
With equity valuations no longer levitating but in a different, 4th dimension altogether, and credit spreads compressing… Which fiduciary portfolio manager can still afford to hedge? Any price to hedge seems expensive and with no demand, the price of protection falls almost daily. The CDX NA IG20 index (i.e. the investment grade credit default swap index series 20, tracking the credit risk of 125 North American investment grade companies in the credit default swap market) closed the week at 70-71bps. The index was at this level back in the spring of 2005. By the summer of 2007, any credit portfolio manager that would have wanted to cautiously hedge with this index would have seen a further compression of 75% in spreads, completely wiping him/her out.
It is in situations like these, when the crash comes, that the proverbial run for liquidity forces central banks to coordinate liquidity injections. However, something tells me that this time, the trick won’t work. In anticipation to the next and perhaps final attempt, I want to offer today an historical perspective on the favorite liquidity injection tool: Currency swaps. These coordinated interventions are not a solution to the crashes, but their cause, within a game of chicken and egg. But I’ve just given you the conclusion. I need to back it now…
How it all began
Let me clarify: By currency swaps, I refer to a transaction carried out between two central banks. This means that currency swaps cannot be older than the central banks that extend them. On the other hand, foreign exchange swaps between corporations may date back to the late Middle Ages, when trade began to resurface in the Italian cities and the Hansastädte. Having said this, I believe that currency swaps were born in 1922, during the International Monetary Conference that took place in Geneva. This conference marked the beginning of the Gold Exchange Standard, with the goal of stabilizing exchange rates (in terms of gold) back to the pre-World War I.
According to Prof. Giovanni B. Pittaluga (Univ. di Genova), there were two key resolutions from the conference, which opened the door to currency swaps. Resolution No. 9 proposed that central banks “…centralise and coordinate the demand for gold, and so avoid those wide fluctuations in the purchasing power of gold which might otherwise result from the simultaneous and competitive efforts of a number of countries to secure metallic reserves…”
Resolution No. 9 also spelled how the cooperation among central banks would work, which “…should embody some means of economizing the use of gold maintaining reserves in the form of foreign balance, such, for example, as the gold exchange standard or an international clearing system…”
In Resolution No. 11, we learn that: “…The convention will thus be based on a gold exchange standard.” (…) “…A participating country, in addition to any gold reserve held at home, may maintain in any other participating country reserves of approved assets in the form of bank balances, bills, short-term Securities, or other suitable liquid assets…. when progress permits, certain of the participating countries will establish a free market in gold and thus become gold centers”.
Lastly, gold or foreign exchange would back no less than 40% of the monetary base of central banks. With this agreement, the stage was set to manipulate liquidity in a coordinated way to a degree the world had never witnessed before. The reserve multiplier, composed by gold and foreign exchange could be “managed” and through an international clearing system, it could be managed globally.
How adjustments worked under the Gold Standard
Before 1922, adjustments within the Gold Standard involved the free movement of gold. In the figure below, I show what an adjustment would have looked like, as the United States underwent a balance of trade deficit, for instance:
Gold would have left the United States, reducing the asset side of the balance sheet of the Federal Reserve. Matching this movement, the monetary base (i.e. US dollars) would have fallen too. The gold would have eventually entered the balance sheet of the Banque of France, which would have issue a corresponding marginal amount of French Francs.
It is worth noting that the interest rate, in gold, would have increased in the United States, providing a stabilizing/balancing mechanism, to repatriate the gold that originally left, thanks to arbitraging opportunities. As Brendan Brown (Head of Economic Research at Mitsubishi UFJ Securities International) explained (here), with free determination of interest rates and even considerable price fluctuations, agents in this system had the legitimate expectation that key relative prices would return to a “perpetual” level. This expectation provided “…the negative real interest rate which Bernanke so desperately tries to create today with hyped inflation expectations…”
There is an excellent work on the mechanics of this adjustment published by Mary Tone Rodgers and Berry K. Wilson, with regards to the Panic of 1907 (see here). The authors sustain that the gold flows that ensued from Europe into the United States provided the liquidity necessary to mitigate the panic, without the need of intervention. This success in reducing systemic risk was due to the existence of US corporate bonds (mainly from railroads) with coupon and principal payable in gold, in bearer or registered form (at the option of the holder) that facilitated transferability, tradable jointly in the US and European exchanges, and within a payment system operating largely out of reach from banksters outside of the bank clearinghouse systems. The official story is that the system was saved by a $25MM JPM-led pool of liquidity injected to the call loan market.
How adjustments worked under the Gold Exchange Standard
During the 1920s and particularly with the stock imbalances resulting from World War I, the search for sustainable financing of reparation payments began. Complicating things, the beginning of this decade saw the hyper inflationary processes in Germany and Hungary. By 1924, England and the United States rolled out the Dawes Plan and between 1926 and 1928, the so called Poincaré Stabilization Plan in France. The former got Charles G. Dawes the Nobel Prize Peace, in 1925.
As the figure below shows, against a stable stock of gold, fiat currency would be loaned between central banks. In the case of a swap for the Banque de France, US dollars would be available/loaned, which were supposedly backed by gold. The reserve multiplier vs. gold expanded, of course:
With these transactions central banks would now be able to influence monetary (i.e. paper) interest rates. The balancing mechanism provided by gold interest rate differentials had been lost. As we saw under the Gold Standard before, an outflow of US dollars would have caused US dollar rates to rise, impacting on the purchasing power of Americans. Now, the reserve multiplier versus gold expanded and the purchasing power of the nation that provided the financing was left untouched. The US dollar would depreciate (on the margin and ceteris paribus) against the countries benefiting from these swaps. Inflation was exported therefore from the issuing nation (USA) to the receiving nations (Europe). The party lasted until 1931, when the collapse of the KreditAnstalt triggered a unanimous wave of deflation.
How the perspective changed as the US became a debtor nation
Fast forward to 1965, two decades after World War II, and currency swaps are no longer seen as a tool to temporarily “stabilize” the financing of flows, like balance of trade deficits or war reparation payments, but stocks of debt. By 1965, central bankers are already worried with the creation of reserve assets, just like they are today; with the creation of collateral (see this great post by Zerohedge on the latter).
Indeed, 48 years ago, the Group of Ten presented what was called the Ossola Report, after Rinaldo Ossola, chairman of the study group involved in its preparation and also vice-chairman of the Bank of Italy. This report was specifically concerned with the creation of reserve assets. At least back then, gold was still considered to be one of them. In an amazing confession (although the document was initially restricted), the Ossola Group explicitly declared that the problem “…arises from the considered expectation that the future flow of gold into reserves cannot be prudently relied upon to meet all needs for an expansion of reserves associated with a growing volume of world trade and payments and that the contribution of dollar holdings to the growth of reserves seems unlikely to continue as in the past…”
Currency swaps were once again considered part of the solution. Under the so called “currency assets”, the swaps were included by the Ossola Group, as a useful tool for the creation of alternative reserves. Three months, during a Hearing before the Subcommittee on National Security and International Operations, William McChesney Martin, Jr., at that time Chairman of the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System, acknowledged a much greater role to currency swaps, in maintaining the role of the US dollar as the global reserve currency.
In McChesney Martin’s words: “…Under the swap agreements, both the System (i.e. Federal Reserve System) and its partners make drawings only for the purpose of counteracting the effects on exchange markets and reserve positions of temporary or transitional fluctuations in payments flows. About half of the drawings ever made by the System, and most of the drawings made by foreign central banks, have been repaid within three months; nearly 90 per cent of the recent drawings made by the System and 100 per cent of the drawings made by foreign central banks have been repaid within six months. In any event, no drawing is permitted to remain outstanding for more than twelve months. This policy ensures that drawings will be made, either by the System or by a foreign central, bank, only for temporary purposes and not for the purpose of financing a persistent payments deficit. In all swap arrangements both parties are fully protected from the danger of exchange-rate fluctuations. If a foreign central bank draws dollars, its obligation to repay dollars would not be altered if in the meantime its currency were devalued. Moreover, the drawings are exchanges of currencies rather than credits. For instance, if, say, the National Bank of Belgium draws dollars, the System receives the equivalent in Belgian francs; and since the National Bank of Belgium has to make repayment in dollars, the System is at all times protected from any possibility of loss. Obviously, the same protection is given to foreign central banks whenever the System draws a foreign currency.
The interest rates for drawings are identical for both parties. Hence, until one party disburses the currency drawn, there is no net interest burden for either party. Amounts drawn and actually disbursed incur an interest cost, needless to say; the interest charge is generally close to the U.S. Treasury bill rate…”
My graph below should help visualize the mechanism:
Essentially, with these currency swaps, foreign central banks that during the war had shifted their gold to the USA, became middlemen of a product that was a first-degree derivative of the US dollar, and a second-degree derivative of gold.
On September 24th 1965, someone called this Ponzi scheme out. In an article published by Le Monde, Jacques Rueff publicly responded to this nonsense, under the hilarious title “Des plans d’irrigation pendant le déluge” (i.e. Irrigation plans during the flood). He minced no words and wrote:
“…C’est un euphénisme inacceptable et une scandaleuse hyprocrisie que de qualifier de création de “liquidités internationales” les multiples operations, tells que (currency) swaps…” “C’est commetre une fraude de meme nature que de présenter comme la consequence d’une insuffiscance générale de liquidités l’insufficance des moyens dont disposent les Etats-Unis et l’Anglaterre pour le réglement de leur déficit exterieur”
My translation: “…It is an unacceptable euphemism and an outrageous hypocrisy to qualify as creation of “international liquidity” multiple transactions, like (currency) swaps…”…“…In the same fashion, it is a fraud to present as the consequence of a general lack of liquidity, the lack of means available to the USA and England to settle their external deficits…”
Comparing the USA and England to underdeveloped countries, Rueff added that these also lack external resources, but those that are needed cannot be provided to them but by credit operations, rather than the superstition of a monetary invention disguised as necessary and in the general interest of the public (i.e. rest of the world).
With impressive prediction, Rueff warned that the problem would present itself in all its greatness, the day these two countries decide to recover their financial independence by reimbursing with their dangerous liabilities (i.e. currencies). That day, said Rueff, international coordination would be necessary and legitimate. But such coordination would not revolve around the creation of alternative instruments of reserve, demanded by a starving-for-liquidity world. That day would be a day of liquidation, where debtors and creditors would be equally interested and would share the common responsibility of the lightness with which they jointly accepted the monetary difficulties that are present….Sadly, Rueff’s call could not sound more familiar to the observer in 2013…
How adjustments work today, without currency swaps
Until the end of the Gold Exchange Standard, even if the reserve multiplier suppressed the value of gold (like today), gold was still the ultimate reserve and had in itself no counterparty risk. After August 15th, 1971, when Nixon issued the Executive Order 11615 (watch announcement here), the ultimate reserve was simply cash (i.e. US dollars) or its counterpart, US Treasuries. And unlike gold, these reserve assets could be created or destroyed ex-nihilo. When they are re-hypothecated, leverage grows unlimited and when their value falls, valuations dive unstoppable. Because (and unlike in 1907) the transmission channel for these reserves today is the banking system, when they become scarce, counterparty risk morphs into systemic risk.
When Rueff discussed currency swaps, he had imbalances in mind. In the 21st century, we no longer have time to worry about these superfluous things. Balance of trade deficits? Current account deficits? Fiscal deficits? In the 21st century, we cannot afford to see the big picture. We can only see the “here and now”. Therefore, when we talk about currency swaps, the only thing we have in mind is counterparty risk within the financial system. The thermometer that measures such risk is the Eurodollar swap basis, shown below (source: Bloomberg). As the US dollar became the carry currency, the cost of accessing to it became the cornerstone of value for the rest of the asset spectrum, widely known as “risk”.
In the chat below, we can see two big gaps in the Eurodollar swap basis. The one in 2008 corresponds to the Lehman event. The one in 2011 corresponds to the banking crisis in the Eurozone that was contained with a reduction in the cost of USDEUR swaps and with the Long-Term Refinancing Operations done by the European Central Bank. In both events, the financial system was in danger and banks were forced to delever. How would the adjustment process have worked, had there not been currency swaps to extend?
In the figure below, I explain the adjustment process, in the absence of a currency swap. As we see in step 1, given the default risk of sovereign debt held by Eurozone banks, capital leaves the Eurozone, appreciating the US dollar. We see loan loss reserves increase (bringing the aggregate value of assets and equity down). As these banks have liabilities in US dollars and take deposits in Euros, this mismatch and the devaluation of the Euro deteriorates their risk profile
Eurozone banks are forced to sell US dollar loans, shown on step 2. As they sell them below par, the banks have to book losses. The non-Eurozone banks that purchase these loans cannot book immediate gains. We live in a fiat currency world, and banks simply let their loans amortize; there’s no mark to market. With these purchases, capital re-enters the Eurozone, depreciating the US dollar. In the end, there is no credit crunch. As long as this process is left to the market to work itself out smoothly, borrowers don’t suffer, because ownership of the loans is simply transferred. This is neutral to sovereign risk, but going forward, if the sovereigns don’t improve their risk profile, lending capacity will be constrained.
In the end, an adjustment takes place in (a) the foreign exchange market, (b) the value of the bank capital of Eurozone banks, and (c) the amount of capital being transferred from outside the Eurozone into the Eurozone.
How adjustments work today, with currency swaps
Let’s now proceed to examine the adjustment –or better said, lack thereof- in the presence of currency swaps. The adjustment is delayed. In the figure below, we can see that the Fed intervenes indirectly, lending to Eurozone banks through the ECB. Capital does not leave the US. Dollars are printed instead and the US dollar depreciates. On November 30th, of 2011, upon the Fed’s announcement at 8am, the Euro gained two cents vs. the US dollar. As no capital is transferred, no further savings are required to sustain the Eurozone and the misallocation of resources continues, because no loans are sold. This is bullish of sovereign risk. The Fed becomes a creditor of the Eurozone. If systemic risk deteriorates in the Eurozone, the Fed is forced to first keep reducing the cost of the swaps and later to roll them indefinitely, as long as there is a European Central Bank as a counterparty for the Fed, to avoid an increase in interest rates in the US dollar funding market. But if the Euro zone broke up, there would not be any “safe” counterparty –at least in the short term- for the Fed to lend US dollars to. In the presence of a European central bank, the swaps would be bullish for gold. In the absence of one, the difficulty in establishing swap lines would temporarily be very bearish for gold (and the rest of the asset spectrum).
Over almost a century, we have witnessed the slow and progressive destruction of the best global mechanism available to cooperate in the creation and allocation of resources. This process began with the loss of the ability to address flow imbalances (i.e. savings, trade). After the World Wars, it became clear that we had also lost the ability to address stock imbalances, and by 1971 we ensured that any price flexibility left to reset the system in the face of an adjustment would be wiped out too. This occurred in two steps: First at a global level, with the irredeemability of gold: The world could no longer devalue. Second, at a local and inter-temporal level, with zero interest rates: Countries can no longer produce consumption adjustments. From this moment, adjustments can only make way through a growing series of global systemic risk events with increasingly relevant consequences. Swaps, as a tool, will no longer be able to face the upcoming challenges. When this fact finally sets in, governments will be forced to resort directly to basic asset confiscation.
1922,banks,Bernanke,Brendan Brown,currency swaps,Dawes Plan,ECB,gold,Gold Exchange Standard,gold standard,imbalances,International Monetary Conference,Jacques Rueff,Jr,swaps,US,William McChesney Martin
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Published on December 9th 2012
“…If you tax a nation to death, destroy its capital markets, nourish its unemployment, condemn it to an expensive currency and give its corporations liquidity at stupidly low costs you can only expect one outcome: Defaults….”
Click here to read this article in pdf format: December 9 2012
Today, I want to summarize what we covered over the year. During 2012, I sought to address both theory and market developments. Under an Austrian approach, I discussed many macroeconomic topics: the effect of zero interest rates, the myth of decoupling (between the US and the Euro zone), collateralized monetary systems (as imposed by the European Central Bank), the technical (but not realistic) possibility of a smooth exit from the Euro zone, the destruction of the capital markets by financial repression, the link between the futures, repo and gold markets and consumer prices (I don’t like the word “consumer prices”, but it is better than speaking of a “price level”), insider trading, circular reasoning in mainstream economics, high-frequency trading, what can precipitate the end game to this crisis, the technicalities of a transition to a gold standard, the conditions for a successful implementation of the gold standard, and the flawed logic behind the Chicago plan, as proposed by Benes & Kumhof.
Let’s now briefly follow up on each of the market themes I covered in 2012:
1.-There has been no decoupling: The Euro zone is coupled to the US dollar zone
At the end of 2011, when the collapse of the banking system in the Euro zone (courtesy of M. Trichet) was dragging the rest of the world, the Swiss National Bank established a peg on the Franc to the Euro and the Federal Reserve extended and cheapened its currency swaps with the European Central Bank. These two measures –indirectly- coupled the fate of the assets in the balance sheets of the Euro zone banks to the balance sheets of the central banks of Switzerland and the US.
As in any other Ponzi scheme, when the weakest link breaks, the chain breaks. The risk of such a break-up, applied to economics, is known as systemic risk or “correlation going to 1”. As the weakest link (i.e. the Euro zone) was coupled to the chain of the Fed, global systemic risk (or correlation) dropped. Apparently, those managing a correlation trade in IG9 (i.e. investment grade credit index series 9) for a well-known global bank did not understand this. But it would be misguided to conclude that the concept has now been understood, because there are too many analysts and fund managers who still interpret this coupling as a success at eliminating or decreasing tail risk. No such thing could be farther from the truth. What they call tail risk, namely the break-up of the Euro zone is not a “tail” risk. It is the logical consequence of the institutional structure of the European Monetary Union, which lacks fiscal union and a common balance sheet. I am not in favour of such, but in its absence, to think that the break-up is a tail risk is to hide one’s head in the sand. And to think that because corporations and banks in the Euro zone now have access to cheap US dollar funding, the recession will not bring defaults, will be a very costly mistake. Those potential defaults are not a tail risk either: If you tax a nation to death, destroy its capital markets, nourish its unemployment, condemn it to an expensive currency and give its corporations liquidity at stupidly low costs you can only expect one outcome: Defaults. The fact that they shall be addressed with even more US dollars coming from the Fed in no way justifies complacency.
In January of 2012, I laid out an analytic framework to visualize the dynamics between these two currency zones. I reproduce the figure below without comment, as it is self explanatory:
In February, I anticipated that the European Central Bank was eventually going to need to floor the value of sovereign debt. It took about seven more painful months to see this take place, with the announcement of the Open Monetary Transactions. With this in mind, I suggested not to chase the stock rally and warned that shorting the euro would be a painful trade.
2.- Manipulation in the gold market
From my years at the Universidad de Buenos Aires, I always remember professors J. M. Fanelli and Daniel Heymann, because they used to and still think that policy makers (in Argentina) had no choice but to “manage” the price of the US dollar (vs. the peso) to fight inflation. The value of the US dollar, in pesos, was a signal that shaped inflation expectations, according to them. In the same fashion, I am convinced that those at the helm of the G7 central banks believe that to shape inflation expectations and avoid the burst of the bond bubble, they need to manage the price of gold. And that is exactly what they have been doing (via swaps, leases from their deposits at below market rates), since Standard & Poor’s downgraded the sovereign risk rating of the US. They are wrong of course and in time, it will prove to have been an expensive decision. The proof? Movements like the $100/oz drop upon the announcement of the second Long-term Refinancing Operation at the end of February. Nobody who lives marked to market would ever dump so much gold in seconds in a market, let alone do so sustainably and predictably, as it often happens, between 10am and 11am ET. I am convinced that had it not been for this manipulation, gold would have had a stellar performance this year. But how serious can I sound debating a counter-factual statement?
3.-Liquidity will not fund capital expenditures but share buybacks, dividends
In March, we were perhaps the first to suggest that the US dollar liquidity enabled by the Fed via swaps was going to be used to buy back shares and distribute dividends, rather than finance capital expenditures (I say “perhaps” because a few days later David Rosenberg expressed the same view). This is a typical outcome of financial repression. Nations under financial repression generate bankrupt companies owned by wealthy owners. Time will tell but so far, numerous articles have been suggesting that this trend is taking place (Eric Beinstein, from JP Morgan, shows evidence to the contrary, in his latest Credit Markets Outlook report). Because of this, I proposed that as a trading theme, one should buy the product, rather than the producers, which is a winning trade in inflationary environments. Therefore, the suggestion was to buy gold, rather than gold miners.
4.-To defend their currency, the Euro zone destroyed its capital markets
(At this stage, I think no comments are needed on this point, which I made in March.)
5.- Sovereign debt owned by other sovereigns is a concern
In March too, I noticed that the situation in 2012 resembles that of 1931, as Greece and increasingly other peripheral EU countries owe to other governments, the IMF and the European Central Bank. Private investors have been wiped out and just like in 1931 (when France, for political reasons, allowed the KreditAnstalt to go bankrupt), when the next bailout is due, political conditions will be demanded that no private and rational investor would demand.
6.-Canada’s story will be different
In April, I proposed that the Canadian context was different and that rather than expect contagion from the banking system to the government, in Canada, we should expect contagion from the government to the banking system. I still expect this deterioration to be triggered by an exogenous development (i.e. outside Canada) and the reaction of the Canadian dollar to the revised unemployment rate on December 7th may be telling us that this view has merit.
7.- September marked a tectonic shift
I will not elaborate on the points below. I wrote extensively about them in September (see here, here and here), but I need to mention them because they are very relevant for the next year. These points, I must clarify, are my best case scenario, because the necessary condition for their validity is that Spain and any other peripheral country in need of a bailout asks for one and receives the support of the European Central Bank (ECB) in exchange :
-The market will arbitrage the rates of core Europe and its periphery, converging into a single Euro zone target yield (with higher German rates).
-We will no longer be able to talk about “the” risk-free rate of interest, when we refer to the US sovereign yield. Inflation expectations will pick up
-The Canadian dollar should not rise significantly above the US dollar (i.e. above $1.04 per 1 CAD).
-The ECB backstop (i.e. purchase of sovereign debt) generates capital gains for the banks of the Euro zone and transforms risky sovereign debt into a carry product (i.e. an asset whose price is mostly driven by the interest it pays, rather than its risk of default, because this risk has been removed by the central bank)
This implies that in the future, sterilization at low rates or the suggested negative deposit rates at the European Central Bank, under Open Monetary Transactions, will not be feasible. Banks will demand high rates in exchange, if they are to sell the debt to the central bank.
In my next letter, and likely the last one of the year, I will address the topic of why we have not yet seen high or hyper inflation and what is necessary, in general, to see this phenomenon take place.
The letter will go dedicated to Peter Schiff. In it, I will seek to show that unlike Keynesian economists believe, not only are high nominal interest rates compatible with high inflation, but in fact they are a necessary condition for high inflation to exist and morph into hyperinflation. This is a paradox to mainstream economics…and, coming from Argentina, I love paradoxes.
A final observation, on method
As my approach is within the Austrian school, you may have noticed that I use praxeology. ( “a theorem of a praxeological science provides information that has been derived by sheer reasoning; it is the product of pure logic without the assistance of any empirical observation”, I. Kirzner). Hence, you find almost no statistics in my articles. My aversion to them is due to my view that the national accounting system used to date is simply a barbaric relic of mercantilist doctrine. But that’s a story for another time… I walk through problems using simple axioms and test their logic with identities (i.e. balance sheets). Mainstream economists, on the other hand, use equations. Hence, they need to “torture” their stats to prove their propositions, because they are inductive. I use deduction.
Austrian school,Benes,Canada,capital markets,Chicago Plan,circular reasoning,collateralized monetary systems,decoupling,defaults,dividends,End game,Euro-zone,European Central Bank,Fed,Federal Reserve,financial repression,futures market,gold market,gold standard,HFT,high frequency trading,insider trading,Kumhof,mainstream economics,Open Monetary Transactions,praxeology,repo market,share buybacks,zero interest rates,ZIRP
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Published on November 22nd 2012
“…We cannot arbitrage fiat money, but we can repudiate the sovereign debt that backs it! And that repudiation will be the defining moment of this crisis…”
(click here to read this article in pdf format: November 22 2012)
About a month ago, in the third-quarter report of a Canadian global macro fund, its strategist made the interesting observation that “…Four ideas in particular have caught the fancy of economic policy makers and have been successfully sold to the public…” One of these ideas “…that has taken root, at least among the political and intellectual classes, is that one need not fear fiscal deficits and debt provided one has monetary sovereignty…”. This idea is currently growing, particularly after Obama’s re-election. But it was only after writing our last letter, on the revival of the Chicago Plan (as proposed in an IMF’ working paper), that we realized that the idea is morphing into another one among Keynesians: That because there cannot be a gold-to-US dollar arbitrage like in 1933, governments do indeed have the monetary sovereignty.
Is this true? Today’s letter will seek to show why it is not, and in the process, it will also describe the endgame for the current crisis. Without further ado…
After the fall of the KreditAnstalt in 1931, with the world living under the gold-exchange standard, depositors first in central Europe, and later in France and England, began to withdraw their deposits and buy gold, challenging the reserves of their respective central banks. The leverage that linked the balance sheet of each central bank had been provided by currency swaps, a novelty at the time, which had openly been denounced by Jacques Rueff. One by one, central banks were forced to leave the gold standard (i.e. devalue) until in 1933, it was the Fed’s turn. The story is well known and the reason this process was called an “arbitrage” is simply that there can never be one asset with two prices. In this case, gold had an “official”, government guaranteed price and a market price, in terms of fiat money (i.e. schillings, pounds, francs, US dollars). The consolidated balance sheets of the central bank, financial institutions and non-financial sector looked like this before the run:
And like this after the run:
Indeed, those who claim that today is different and make the dangerous case that “…one need not fear fiscal deficits and debt provided one has monetary sovereignty…” refer to this crucial difference in the balance sheet of the central banks then (i.e. in the ‘30s) and now:
And they are right: There cannot be any arbitrage, because there is no real asset to exchange fiat currency against. Only fiat vs. fiat (i.e. currency vs. government debt). But does this mean that the governments have monetary sovereignty? Does this mean there will not be an end game? I don’t think so. We cannot arbitrage fiat money, but we can repudiate the sovereign debt that backs it! And that repudiation will be the defining moment of this crisis. The key to understand how this will occur lies in focusing in the shadow banking system, rather than the banking system. In the universe of shadow banking we do not back fiat currency with real assets, but we provide sovereign debt as collateral to obtain the fiat currency necessary to establish positions in the commodities markets.
Some preliminary details
Our first assumption is therefore that the debt of the sovereign that issues the world’s reserve currency is repudiated. We can think of many events that would trigger that reaction: A monetary policy of the Fed that continues to enable fiscal deficits (something that already Jacques Rueff explained in the ‘30s) or the coming burst of the European Yankee market bubble (i.e. US dollar denominated debt issued by European corporations). Whatever the reason, the repudiation will have an impact in the repo market, which finances positions in the commodities markets.
Consider a trader in the commodities futures market. To finance his trading activity, he pledges collateral in the repo market, and receives cash. The collateral is often US sovereign debt and those supplying the cash in exchange for it are money market funds, under repurchase agreements. This secured financing entails the actual exchange of ownership, title on the collateral, which is “warehoused” in the balance sheet of the “lender”.
With the funds, the trader enters into a futures contract in the commodities market, but facing a central counterparty (clearinghouse). The trader has to post an initial and a maintenance margin. While the futures contract is in place, the trader (and his counterparty, the clearinghouse) will have an unrealized gain or a loss. As long as the contract is on, the trader will have to adjust the margin according to the gains or losses. At maturity of the contract, the trader can settle in cash or by delivery. At a consolidated level, however, there has to be a delivery of the commodity, at an auction, for the market (usually not higher than 1% of contract settlements). In the end, the trader must repurchase the collateral it had given to the money market funds, at a price equivalent to the principal plus accrued interest (i.e. repo rate). Below we show these steps in a chart, with real samples of how a hedge fund would show these transactions in its financial statements:
The End Game
Now that we are familiar with the steps above, think what would happen, if the US sovereign debt began to be repudiated, just like the debt of Italy or Spain. At the beginning, the repo rate (i.e. the interest rate charged by the money market funds) to lend to the commodity markets players would increase, making trading in commodities futures more onerous. Immediately after, however, liquidity would disappear as those investing in money market funds seek only short-term exposure with minimum risk. As well, given that most central banks hold US sovereign debt as reserves, one would expect an increase in global concern and a flight to safety in real assets.
With the rise in the cost of funding (i.e. repo rate) and the rise in commodity prices, it is to be expected that one trader short of a futures contract may suffer substantial losses. The increase in counterparty risk or the increase of a failure by a central counterparty (i.e. clearinghouse) would jump. And I think the jump would be so significant that even the delivery of physical commodities at auctions would be at risk.
The failure of a central counterparty is not new. In 1974, the Caisse de Liquidation failed on margin calls defaults associated with sugar futures contracts. In 1983, the Kuala Lumpur Commodities Clearinghouse crashed on palm oil futures and in 1987, the Hong Kong Futures Exchange clearinghouse failed also due to futures contracts, in equities.
Should a scenario like the above unfold, the Fed would likely be forced to intervene, inter-mediating between the money market funds and the commodities futures market. It could do so by issuing its own debt to money market funds (or any lender in the repo market) and using the proceeds to enter into repurchase agreements with traders in the commodities markets. The chart below illustrates this scenario:
Let’s take a close look at the balance sheet of the Fed, once it enters the repo market. A few observations are relevant:
a) The Fed would now fund positions in the commodities markets
b) Operationally, the Fed would probably mark the repoed Treasuries to model, not to market. Like the European Central Bank does today with Greek or Spanish bonds.
c) The Fed would not “print” money. They would simply raise funds from the shadow banking system by issuing its own debt. Therefore, they would have to pay an interest rate high enough to entice money market funds to buy it.
d) The Fed would not be able to “refuse” US Treasuries repoed. It would have to buy all the US Treasuries offered in repurchase agreements at their “marked-to-model” rate. But the money market funds could refuse to lend to the Fed, if a market rate is not offered.
And here is the catch, because in order to raise US dollars from the shadow banking system, the Fed would have to pay a higher rate than it would charge for its repurchase agreements. Otherwise, there would be no need to intervene the broken repo market, to start with!
And what would traders in the commodities markets do with the “cheap” financing provided by the Fed? Why, buy gold among other real assets!
This would constitute a much worse scenario, than the laughed at arbitrage that Keynesians so proudly say today is not possible, from fiat currency to gold.
Under this scenario, the rest of the world would get their hands on the reserves of central banks (i.e. US Treasuries) to dump them in the Fed’s balance sheet via the repo market and recycle the US dollars it obtains with money market funds, to receive Fed debt! (See chart below). In the process, the rate the Fed would have to pay to raise US dollars from the shadow banking system would have to spiral, sending a wave of bankruptcies across the US dollar zone, including the Yankee market. The Fed would be forced to increase its currency swaps and at the same time continue doing unlimited quantitative easing. The currency swaps would be extended to delay the inevitable defaults in global US dollar denominated bonds and the quantitative easing would be necessary because, given the high interest rates and defaults, even with austerirty, the fiscal deficits would continue, as tax revenues fall driven by the collapse of activity.
And now, the cherry on the top: How would the Fed cover its net interest losses, between its debt and the US Treasuries it would repo? By issuing currency!! This quasi fiscal deficit would lead us to double-digit inflation and if left unaddressed, would end in hyperinflation. The process would end when the US dollar loses its status as a global reserve currency, a status that the Fed would seek to defend at all costs, repoing Treasuries in the commodities futures markets.
For the sake of intellectual honesty, I want to end this exercise laying out the main assumptions:
The first and foremost critical assumption is that there will be a repudiation of US sovereign debt. The second assumption is that this repudiation will break the repo market enhancing counterparty risk in those markets where the funding is sourced from the repo market. I think these two assumptions are reasonable and the spike in the price of gold to $1,900/oz was in my view triggered first by the speculation and later by the confirmation of the downgrade to AA+ of the US credit rating by Standard & Poor’s. It has also seemed very curious to me that since that moment, and in a very strange way, the gold market became more volatile, with violent triggered sales, on no relevant news (But this is pure speculation, only proper to myself, of course).
The third assumption is that the Fed would intervene in the way I suggest. And this, indeed, is more debatable. It is certainly not the only way the Fed could act. There are other “versions”, but this is the more likely in my opinion and others have led to the same results, in other countries at other times (refer for instance, the “Cuenta de Regulación Monetaria” implemented by Argentina in 1978, where the central bank paid a subsidy on interest-bearing deposits and cashed a penalty on chequing accounts). Also, bear in mind that if this scenario unfolded, nobody would want to take the other leg of the long futures contracts on commodities (for instance, by 1981, the central bank of Argentina had to absorb and finance a loss $5.1BN in foreign exchange swaps from failed counterparties, refer Communication “A” 31 (May 6th, 1981). At the end of 1982, this loss was estimated at $10BN), converting the markets into a one-way ticket to high inflation: The link between forward rates, commodity prices and inflation expectations would be lethal!
Finally, the fact that US policymakers have been busy lately trying to regulate money market funds is to me an indication that I am not alone with these concerns. After a failed attempt by SEC Chairman Mary Schapiro to regulate money funds, on November 13th, the Financial Stability Oversight Council put forth new recommendations to regulate the industry. Of course, some of these recommendations (see “minimum balance at risk”, on page 6 of the document) do not apply to Treasury money market funds, because US sovereign debt is not risky, right?
arbitrage,bank run,central bank,central counterparty,Chicago Plan,clearinghouse,commodities market,cuenta de regulación monetaria,default,End game,European Central Bank,Fed,futures contracts,gold,gold standard,Jacques Rueff,monetary sovereignty,money market funds,quasi fiscal deficit,repo market,repudiation,systemic risk,US Treasuries
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Published on October 21st 2012
If you are interested in the mechanics of this fictional process, you are welcome to keep reading. Otherwise, please, accept our apologies. But if you ask us, learning how fiction works always helps to cope with reality
Please, click here to read this article in pdf format: October 21 2012
Today we retake the discussion left two weeks ago, on a return to the gold standard. We had divided the discussion in two parts: The first part (here) was based on an historical perspective. Today, we will deal with the technical one.
As a summary of the first part, we left with two important conclusions: a) A gold standard will fail if the banking system is allowed to survive with a reserve requirement below 100%, and b) Establishing a gold standard does not require that gold be confiscated. The question before us today is: How do we transition from this:
Note that the in the second chart, there is no central bank. And note that in none of the charts, we make reference to the shadow banking structure that exists and is well alive today. While including it makes matters more complicated, excluding it does not affect the analysis at all. We will write why this is so, further below.
In the first chart, we see a stylized version of the consolidated balance sheets of a central bank, commercial banks and their relation to the money stock. The reserve ratio is the ratio of demand deposits to reserves. If this ratio was 100%, no loans would be made from demand deposits. In this case, we would have a system with no aggregate leverage. Leverage, at the firm or individual level would still be possible. However, for someone to raise debt, there would have to be someone else saving no less than the same amount.
From the first chart too, it is clear that it is not only the private sector that has leverage. The leverage of the public sector is very significant, since all the liabilities of the central bank (reserves and currency) are fully backed by sovereign debt (US Treasuries). The first chart is reproduced from Laura Davidson’s “The Causes of Price Inflation and Deflation”, 2011.
In what follows, we will examine the adjustment process necessary to shift from a system with fiat money and a reserve ratio below 1 (reserve requirement under 100%). Let’s begin clarifying that this proposed delevering process is an ideal situation, applicable if one had the luxury of planning the shift. There is not always time to do so and, if we ever had any, we’re running out of it pretty fast.
The adjustment process below could only be done very gradually, by adjusting the reserve requirement and gold holdings by the central bank a few bps every year (say 200bps). The ultra-necessary condition here is that the nation undergoing this process be able to generate an equivalent fiscal surplus, in percentage terms. For instance, the process could demand to cover 2% per year of the gap in the reserve ratio to reach 1 (50 years long!!!). This means that if the reserve ratio is 10%, the gap is 90% and narrowing it over 50 years would require to increase reserves by 1.8% every year (90%/50).
Because the delevering process should be accompanied by a pari passu reduction in the fiscal deficit and sovereign debt, that 2% annual adjustment, in the US this would require a surplus of $324BN every year, over 50 years ($16.2 trillion in national debt x 2%). In 2012 terms, spending would have to be cut by $1.52 trillion ($324 billion + $1.2 trillion annual deficit), if the numbers we have are correct. We suspect they are not: The situation is even worse. But, the bottom line is that, once you see these numbers, you realize that going back to a world of no leverage is politically impossible. Even though it is technically feasible, just like the European Monetary Union was planned and built over decades, it is still politically impossible.
(If you are still interested in the mechanics of this fictional process, you are welcome to keep reading. Otherwise, please, accept our apologies for the time we took from you. But if you ask us, learning how fiction works, in the end, always helps to cope with reality)
Now, if the delevering cannot be planned, and if the amounts involved are so colossal, you can have a very good picture of how painful it will be when liquidation eventually happens and how overvalued the US dollar is today. Below, we present you the aggregate, sectorial, balance sheets represented in the first chart:
t is completely out of the question that to delever the public sector, the private sector must generate equal savings, and they would have to come from exports. This would require political stability, capitalism, free trade and privatization of public services, among other things. In this rare context, this is what the accounting side of the story would look like:
Deleverage of the public sector
Above, we show one of the two delevering processes required to transition to a commodity-based standard, with a 100% reserve requirement: That of the public sector.
In step 1 we see the generation of savings that is needed to pay off the sovereign debt. Assets produced by the private sector are sold to the rest of the world in exchange of foreign currency. In step 2, the private sector sells the foreign exchange to the central bank, for currency. In step 3, the private sector uses that currency to cancel taxes due to the public sector and to purchase government-owned assets, via privatizations. In step 4, the government applies the currency received from the private sector to repay debt (i.e. Treasuries). In this last transaction, the currency that was initially issued against foreign exchange is withdrawn by the central bank, leaving the monetary base unchanged, but backed by foreign exchange. This is, of course, preferable to allowing the government to cancel its debt with the central bank. Initially, it is more painful, but the result is more desirable…
Deleverage of the private sector
Simultaneously with the delevering of the public sector, the leverage ex-nihilo in the private sector has to be eliminated, to slowly reduce the risk of further systemic liquidity runs. To reach a reserve ratio of 1, the loans from demand deposits must be cancelled. Just like the deleverage of the public sector, this would have to be done over 50 years (yes, yes, we know…but note that the European Monetary Union took about thirty years and it was way more complex than this simple rule of increasing reserves by 2% every January 1st ). The chart below shows how it would be accounted for:
Once again, the source of savings for this delevering process will stem from exports. In step 1, we show the assets produced by the private sector, which are sold to the rest of the world in exchange of foreign currency. In step 2, the private sector sells the foreign exchange to the central bank, for currency. In step 3, the private sector uses the currency to repay the loans originated from demand deposits (2% of total, every year). In step 4, the banks apply that currency to reserves at the central bank. The result is an increase in the level of reserves and, pari passu, of the monetary base. This marginal change is entirely backed by foreign exchange.
Commoditization of the monetary base
Simultaneous with the delevering of the public and private sectors, the central bank should every year, convert 2% of the foreign exchange holdings into gold. This transaction is represented below:
The immediate result is a devaluation of the foreign exchange vs. gold. As the local currency is incrementally backed by gold, it appreciates vs. the foreign exchange held by the central bank, albeit at a lower pace.
This appreciation would generate a virtuous cycle, because based on the expectations of a 2% annual commoditization of the local currency, foreign savings would fund local investments and real interest rates would slowly decrease to a Wicksellian, natural level. This is counterintuitive to Keynesians. Keynesians would maintain that this steady appreciation of the currency would damage the local competitiveness and exports. However, IF THE PUBLIC SECTOR HONOURS ITS DELEVERING GOAL, the rest of the world will export capital to the country, lowering real rates and financing growth (i.e. productivity gains). If the public sector does not honour its delivering targets, the whole exercise will have been utterly useless.
Aggregated balance sheets at the end
Once the two delevering processes and the commoditization of the monetary base are finalized, in the new system loans will only be made from time deposits (i.e. real savings) and demand deposits will be fully backed by reserves. The public sector will have no debt and the non-financial private sector will have realized capital gains from the privatized assets and productivity increases.
Restructuring of the financial system:
Only at this stage one could restructure the financial system. Banks could spin-off themselves into gold-backed note-issuing banks and investment banks. As the central bank is unwound, the note banks will need to join a clearinghouse to minimize counterpart risk, with all notes denominated in gold (i.e. interchangeable). The market will sort out which ones are the most liquid, based on the liquidity services provided by the each bank, rather than repayment risk. Further below, we show the possible revenue model for such banks.
Some would argue that this revenue model is not viable and that these banks would not be profitable. We disagree, although we can only speculate here. For the City of Amsterdam, the Bank of Amsterdam of the 17th century was profitable and in general, senioriage, has been a good business. Even more so under a 100% reserve ratio, because it is stable and grows in volume with time. Cash management and fx services would naturally be ancillary businesses for these institutions. The resulting investment banks would be simple brokers between those interested in saving in credit products and those raising funds via debt. The net interest income would be their main revenue driver.
Revenue sources of a note bank
As we mentioned in the beginning, we have not considered the role of shadow banking in our discussion. Why not? Simply because the whole structure, since it is levered, also rests upon the existence of a central bank as lender of last resort. Otherwise, these players would be swallowed either by the investment banks that we just described or by the public debt market.
If there wasn’t a central bank (i.e. lender of last resort), re-hypothecation would not be tolerated and economies of scale would dictate that only the investment banks end up capturing savings, along with the private and public equity and debt markets. But this, of course, is pure speculation and at this time, is nothing else than an intellectual exercise of dubious utility. Hence, we leave the matter aside…
Ron Paul’s Proposal
What we just described is not the only transition possible. Since 2010, Ron Paul has been publicly suggesting that a transition to gold-backed money be simply enabled by allowing gold to be used as money (i.e. capital gains not taxed). In other words, Ron Paul suggested what the US Constitution clearly dictates: …No State shall (…) coin Money; emit Bills of Credit; make any Thing but gold and silver Coin a Tender in Payment of Debts…” (Section 10 – Powers prohibited of States).
We commented about this idea in our “Open Letter to Ron Paul” (Dec/10). We still think that this proposal would unnecessarily lead to hyperinflation and the discredit of the libertarian movement, without solving anything and giving others the excuse to return to the status quo.
Revolutions usually start in the least likely of all places
If the transitions we described today or the one proposed by Ron Paul are not politically possible, are there any chances that we may ever see a system without aggregate leverage? Such a system would have to challenge the financial establishment of the currency zone where it wants to blossom. Perhaps then, the best environment for its development is a place where any potential opposition is weak: A nation without capital markets or an established banking system. There are many examples of such places today: Argentina,Bolivia,Paraguay, in South America; a multitude more in Northern Africa and the Middle East.
Does this make sense? We think it does. There are parallels in history that won’t disappoint you: Protestantism would have never flown in Rome or Spain. Those who opposed the status quo were expeditiously eliminated. However, when Protestantism surged in the Alps, far from the center of power, it was underestimated and allowed to flourish. By the time the status quo sought to quench it, it was too late. The same occurred with the liberal revolutions of the 18th century. When the Americans declared their rebellion, they were underestimated. They were far from the centres of power. When the French declared theirs, they were suppressed. When communism began in Russia it was unchallenged. When it tried to grow in Britain or the United States, it was immediately repelled. Revolutions then, apparently survive when they start in the backyard, rather than the front yard.
central bank,deleverage,European Monetary Union,fiduciary media,gold standard,investment banks,Laura Davidson,monetary base,money stock,note banks,reserve ratio,revolution,Ron Paul,Treasuries,Wicksell
5 Comments »
Published on October 9th 2012
…The Argentine case and the Dutch Golden Age suggest that the elimination of the credit multiplier (i.e. extinction of shadow banking) is more important than the asset backing a currency…
Please, click here to read this article in pdf format: October 8 2012
As we pointed in our last letter, we have lately noticed that there is an ongoing debate on whether (or not) the world can again embrace the gold standard. We join the debate today, with an historical as well as technical perspective. Today’s letter will deal with the historic part of the discussion. In the process, you will see that we side with some popular ideas, while we challenge others.
The gold standard will be the last option: If adopted, it will be out of necessity and in desperation
We are not historians. In our limited knowledge, we note however that historically, the experiment of adopting a gold standard –or a currency board system- was usually preceded by extremely trying moments, including the loss by a government of its legal tender amidst hyperinflation.
The change to a commodity standard has often been then out of necessity. We witnessed one of these episodes first-hand, in Argentina, back in 1991. The local currency was decreed convertible into US dollars (i.e. a currency board) at a rate of 10,000 to 1, and assigned a new name: peso argentino. The method with which this was carried out challenges the current speculation regarding gold, according to which gold bullion would be confiscated, in order to provide reserves to a central bank daring to return to the gold standard. In Argentina, US dollars were not confiscated to back the peso. There was no need do that. On the same grounds, we don’t think gold would need to be confiscated, although one must never, ever underestimate stupidity.
How did Argentina implement its convertible system? The central bank adopted two relevant measures: The first was to change its charter to prohibit holding government debt. The second measure was to commit to sell unlimited dollars at the established peg of 10,000 to 1. Of course, the first measure was later violated. But that’s a discussion for another day. What it matters is that they committed to sell the asset backing their liability (i.e. the peso), but not to buy it. From then on, nobody dared to challenge the central bank until 1994-5, when the Mexican peso was devalued. And even then, the system passed the test.
The 10,000:1 peg was based simply on the fact that that was back then, the amount of local currency per each US dollar in reserves. It is very conceivable that, under an inflationary spiral, the US government may proceed similarly. If at that time there are x thousand US dollars per ounce of gold at the US Treasury, a peg may be established to reflect that ratio. And just like it occurred in Argentina, we would not expect the Fed to be challenged.
From those years, we also remember this: When the peg was set at 10,000:1, there were many who thought that the US dollar was still underpriced. However, think about this: Why would the market have paid for your US dollars more than 10,000 (Australes), when the market knew that, in the absence of a bid, all you could get from the central bank was going to be 10,000? We can very much foresee a similar situation where, the market price of gold collapses from its peak to the established peg, leaving painful losses.
A gold standard with reserve requirements below 100% will not work
There were many flaws with the currency board rehearsed by Argentina. But remember: It was established out of necessity, without time to plan. Just like the European Union is handling its problems today and just like the US will handle theirs tomorrow…
The most important flaw, in our opinion, was that it left the central bank in its role as lender of last resort, while at the same time it allowed banks to have reserve requirements below 100% (about 30%). Therefore, the credit multiplier was after all still very much in place. The fact that the central bank would later invest some of its US dollars in USD denominated (Argentine) government debt was not critical. Nor was it relevant that banks were coerced to buy government bonds with deposits (like they are in the Euro zone today). The crux of the matter was that as both of these things happened, the central bank was….well, the central bank! The lender of last resort! Had the central bank been only a note bank for legal tender, without any other responsibilities, the Argentine default of 2001 would have not triggered a systemic crisis. But it was not a note bank, it was the lender of last resort and the crisis became systemic….just like we fear will happen, if the US implements a gold standard in a rush. Why do we fear this? Because if all plays out that way, the world will lose faith in the gold standard for the wrong reasons.
The Bank of Amsterdam and the Industrial Revolution of the XIX century
Popular wisdom has the birth of the industrial revolution in XIX century England. Some, with a technological emphasis, are willing to concede that already by the time of the French Revolution, the years of the Enlightenment, the seeds had been planted for the technical developments that would come later. The Napoleonic Wars are thus regarded by these people as an interruption, a hurdle, in the race by the West to conquer the world. Only a few point out and even admit that, as a coincidence, during that industrial revolution and particularly at the end of the XIX century, gold was money. But this is treated as a mere coincidence. There are others too, who are convinced that if gold had not been money, if Great Britain had not adopted the gold standard, the speed of the industrial revolution would have been even more impressive.
None of this, in our opinion, could be farther from the truth. We are not historians and we expect many to challenge our comments today, but we offer this view: The industrial revolution did not begin in England, but in what was then known as the Low countries, and was enabled in a decisive way by a gold standard with 100% reserve requirement established by the city of Amsterdam. There are two parts in this conjecture: The first one is that the industrialization began in the Low Countries. We side here with Henri Pirenne and suggest that this birth was brewed by the system of Hansastädte, and in particular, in Brugge, where very early, for instance, the Medici opened a branch.
If our view is correct, the counterfactual argument therefore lies in proving that the development from that stage into the XIX century would have been possible, had the city of Amsterdam not established the Bank of Amsterdam (Amsterdamsche Wisselbank). We leave to our readers to do their own research on this speculation.
The Bank of Amsterdam took upon itself to accept bullion in deposit, issue notes in exchange for circulation and charge (yes, you read well, charge!) depositors for their bullion as well as a “liquidity” fee for making such deposits liquid, thanks to the issuance of their (i.e. the bank’s) notes.
In his book, “The Ascent of Money”, Neil Ferguson makes a few interesting observations about this period:
Inflation (don’t ask us how Mr. Ferguson measured it, but this is what we read) fell from 2% p.a. between 1550 and 1608 to 90bps pa between 1609 and 1658 and 10bps p.a. between 1659 to 1779! This represents no less than 229 years of price stability! With the low life expectancy of those years, this period would have easily encompassed 9 generations. Can you even begin to picture that? In today’s terms, this would mean that the currency held by an American living back at the time George Washington was president would have kept its purchasing power to this day, had a similar financial stability taken place!
In 1602, the Vereenigde Nederlansche Geoctroyeerde Oostindische Compagnie (East India Co.) had its IPO. Between 1602 and 1733 its share price rose from par (100) to 786, in spite of the fact that between 1652 and 1688 they had to face, with violence, the attacks of Britain at their trading posts. By 1650, with the dividend payments the company made, buy-and-hold IPO holders would have earned an annual compounded rate of return of 27%. Given how popular this IPO was, this context of financial stability brought about perhaps the most widespread capitalization ever witnessed by a nation.
This stability was based on a 100% reserve requirement. With it, when the East India Co. began to fall, its decadence was gradual: It took 60 years and by 1794, it was still worth 120 or 20% above par, in terms of a currency that had preserved its value all along! In other words, it was still 20% up in real terms. In real terms also, by 1690, the company was bringing back to the harbours of the Netherlands about 156 ships per year, all loaded up with consumption goods for the enjoyment of the Dutch people. In other words, on average, one ship every two days was being loaded up in a trading post in Asia. There were no cranes, no trains, no telecommunications.
In summary, the Argentine case and the Dutch Golden Age suggest that the elimination of the credit multiplier (i.e. extinction of shadow banking) is more important than the asset backing a currency. The Argentine case shows what can go wrong, when a currency is asset backed, but reserve requirements are allowed below 100%. The Dutch case shows what can go well, when a currency is commodity-backed and reserve requirements are held at 100%. Bear in mind that the notes of the Bank of Amsterdam were not enforced upon the people, they were not legal tender.
Unlike today’s policy makers, the Dutch of the XVII century had the luxury of planning their system, based on the collective wisdom of their merchant class. Does anybody think that the Dutch Golden Age would have taken place had the Bank of Amsterdam not existed? Does anybody think that England would have been able to accumulate capital from its natural resources (wool, meat), without the demand of the early industries of Brugge, Liege,Amsterdam or Antwerp? We don’t!
Therefore, the question that lies before us is: How can we replicate the success of the Bank of Amsterdam, in today’s context? How can we not fall prey to necessity, just likeArgentinafell back in 1991? That remains the subject for our next article.
Argentina,Bank of Amsterdam,Brugge,convertibility,currency board,East India Company,European Union,Fed,gold standard,Henri Pirenne,industrial revolution,Neil Ferguson,reserve requirement,shadow banking,The Ascent of Money
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