Denial, Default or Treasury Currency: the Hobson’s Choice

Spain’s financial vulnerability has been in the spotlight recently. The trickle-down from a single bank’s insolvency gives us a glimpse of how country funding shortfalls are likely to be handled in the coming decades.

The Spanish bank in question, Bankia, was short $23 billion of regulatory capital — small change compared to Spain’s existing debt and additional debt to make good on future baby boomer entitlements over the next four decades.

To plug the hole in Bankia’s capital shortfall, the Spanish government offered a promissory note to Bankia, which to the bank is an asset. To pay for this asset, Bankia offered equity shares of Bankia in favor of the Spanish government. With ownership of the bank shifting to the government, bank “nationalization” was alleged to have occurred.

The financial trickery became more interesting when Bankia attempted to turn the Spanish government IOU into ECB currency by borrowing from the central bank and using the Spanish government note as collateral. Perhaps this plan could have worked with a cooperative ECB, which might have gone along with the scheme, as it is constantly lowering collateral standards in order to spread financial resources over Europe’s government and bank needs.

However, the ECB demurred in outrage with Spain’s scheme to access an ECB currency loan on grounds that the collateral was not suitable. The issue was not so much the collateral but the fact that the transaction would have set a precedent for how the individual governments of the Eurozone could get control of the Euro printing press for their own bailout needs.

It was a nice try, if you ask me, to put Spain in control of Euro monetary policy to fund its own bailouts — a practice called “monetary finance,” which the ECB insists was not part of its obligations to member nations.

But the scheme did indeed recapitalize the bank in question, allowing Spain to honor its financial guarantee to an insolvent bank, though it just couldn’t take it the next step to turn country IOUs into Euro currency.

However, in the U.S., using fiscal schemes to turn country IOUs into currency to pay the government’s bills is a far more straightforward operation with no “independent” central bank to say no.  Indeed, during the Civil War, when the government was faced with wartime expenditures well beyond its limited taxing authority and a limited market for its debt, the National Banking Act of l862 empowered the U.S. Treasury (not a central bank) to issue “money” to pay the government’s bills with payment to the soldiers being the most pressing expense.

Since it was unclear whether the Treasury possessed the Constitutional authority to create money to pay its bills, there was a workaround less complicated than Spain’s attempt to turn country debt into money.

The U.S. Treasury issued zero-coupon, infinite-maturity debt stylized as United States Notes, which are bearer notes denominated in dollars and, most importantly, had the sacred government-bestowed status of “legal tender.” This meant that these paper IOUs satisfied all private and public contracts, thus turning debt into currency.

The designation of legal tender can be seen in the fine print in the below image of a U.S. Note. To verify the point, merely take a look at the Federal Reserve Notes in your wallet and read the identical fine print regarding legal tender status.

The modern version of this U. S. Treasury debt stylized as currency looks familiar. It still exists (and circulates) 150 years later, though most of the Notes are locked up in numismatic collections.  The Treasury currency is similar in appearance to Fed currency designated as Federal Reserve Notes except the Treasury currency is designated as United States Notes across the top of the bill. Both are printed by the Bureau of Engraving and Printing which resides in the Treasury Department.

Now sit back and think of the possibilities presented by the Treasury’s direct money option to pay the government’s bills. This would allow the U.S. to cover the next four decades of baby boomer entitlements (which are well beyond the ability to finance in conventional style) and would also make the existing government debt load significantly more manageable.

It would free the Federal Reserve from the pressure to monetize government debt in round after round of QEs over the next four decades. The Fed could confine itself to matters associated with growth and employment and would be free of the stigma that it created the inflation that would no doubt occur.

In fact, in monetary finance, purchases with Treasury money would be for Medicare, Medicaid or Social Security flowing directly into goods markets rather than financial markets as the Fed conducts its operations. That is, the inflation would be goods inflation, not financial price inflation as we presently have with Fed QEs, which provides little spillover into goods markets.

How difficult would this be to carry out? Well, it would take getting a one-sentence bill through Congress and a Presidential signature to amend the National Banking Act to raise the Civil War maximum issuance of U.S. Notes from $300 million to some number in the trillions. Indeed, it could be treated as correcting a spelling error from millions to trillions, skipping billions altogether. It might even fly under the radar screen and only be a subject of interest to monetary wonks who pay attention to these things (such as the author) and Representative Ron Paul. A final detail that needs to be addressed is moving forward the time limit for new issuance of the currency.

What a game changer that would be, and not just to the prospects of avoiding an actual U.S. debt default down the road — which would happen if the baby boomer bills were to be paid conventionally with interest bearing market debt.  It would also eliminate the entangled political web of attempting to decide which promised (and in some cases paid–for) entitlements to cut and which taxes to increase. It would be more consistent with a growing economy, though the cost would be the damage done by 40 persistent years of inflation. Entitlements would be paid but watered down in real terms without further debate and we could refocus of attention to growth instead of income redistribution.

This is certainly not a first best policy. But it is offered as a forecast of what will be the way out of denial and debt strangulation. It does beat frozen government, an appalling deflationary economic contraction, and an almost certain government default down the road unless the same debt is monetized by a compromised Fed.

The major question would be the inflation rate and the damages and redistributions from it. Certainly it would be beneficial to debtors at the expense of creditors which is consistent with a Fed policy of a positive inflation rate.

From the stroke of the pen signing into law the enabling legislation of raising the authorized issuance, fixed income securities would dive in value, gold would salute and real return instruments would soar. Parenthetically, it would cure the housing price decline and consumer wealth decline almost instantaneously and cause the economy, though inflationary, to function better than it presently does.

While Spain attempted monetary finance this past month, the U.S. could pull it off without a central bank veto. While this would undermine the currency value though not so much in relative terms as most countries will gravitate to the same solution, it is better than destroying all faith in the government and its institutions in these days of government denial and paralysis.

This is a pragmatic look at the detestable Hobson choice facing the electorate and its government. It could be shortly or years down the road. All it would take is a Solomon P. Chase to focus on the art of the possible, perhaps known henceforth as the sesquicentennial solution to deal with the unfunded baby boomer entitlements. It’s a solution that’s been around for a long time and likely to be the only remaining option short of default on the entitlements or default on the debt to fund the entitlements.

If you enjoy this blog, please forward it to others who may be interested. Subscription to the monthly blog is free.  Links to forward and sign up are in the right hand column. 

Warren Buffet and the New Calculus of Gold

There has long been a disconnect between gold and institutional investors. The instincts of these managers of large sums are typically tied to the generation of cash flows to feed the monster — that is, the institution’s cash flow needs. Alternative emphasis is given to growth, especially if obligations are long duration and not fixed. This is usually true for pension funds, endowments, some insurance companies or individuals investing for retirement.

For these investors, the preferred investment habitat tends to be a blend of income-generating fixed income and equity type investments that are thought to contain the potential for growth. Because gold, as an investment class, provides neither steady income nor systematic growth, it succeeds in only providing emotional discomfort for these investors.

Warren Buffet’s recent article in Fortune is a reflection of this sentiment. First on the list of asset categories to consider are bonds or, more generally, fixed income. His analysis is instructive.

From his point of view, over the relevant time frame of the 47 years he has been at the helm of Berkshire Hathaway, continuous rolling short term Treasuries bills would have averaged 5.7% annually. But if an investor paid income taxes at a rate averaging 25%, the return is reduced by 1.4 points. Buffet then goes on to point out that the return is then further reduced in real terms by the invisible inflation “tax” which would have devoured the remaining 4.3%. Hence rolling short-term Treasuries would have yielded nothing in real terms.

If one held long maturity Treasuries over this period — which included 30 years of general Treasury bond price appreciation — the investment outcome is questionable if you take into account the declining purchasing power of goods in U.S. dollar terms.  It is even worse when compared to a market basket of goods from around the world.

In Buffett’s terms, fixed-dollar investments have fallen a staggering 86% in real dollar value since 1965 during his tenure at Berkshire Hathaway. He points out that today it takes no less than $7 to buy what $1 did when he arrived in Omaha.

He concludes with the recommendation that fixed dollar income investments should come with warning labels advising you that they’re bad for your financial health.

What if contractual steady income doesn’t perform well? Asset categories outside the normal preferred habitat need to be examined. That’s where gold comes in, especially considering that for the first time in our monetary history the central bank has adopted positive inflation as a policy goal. Nonetheless, the institutional sale is a hard one, not just because it’s not been a member of the preferred habitat, but according to Buffet it has other fatal defects.

After conceding in a backhanded way that gold has performed well, with reference to its near $10 trillion in market capitalization, he argues that it doesn’t qualify to be in his preferred investment habitat because it doesn’t produce a growing revenue stream — and if it doesn’t grow, it doesn’t compound.

Rather, he states that his preference would be to employ his capital with growth commodities such as farmland or businesses that will continue to grow its bread-and-butter capacity that can be sold in real terms. That is to say, he rejects gold because it doesn’t produce gold sprouts. Gold is just inert, lying in neatly stacked bars in a subterranean vault. It has but limited use in electronics, jewelry, dentistry and few other applications.

Buffett then goes on to compare the rising price of the sprout-less gold to a Ponzi scheme, which depends upon finding a bigger fool to pay yet a higher price for the same subterranean inert matter. This is apparently proving easier to do by the day as the developed world continues to run outsized fiscal deficits and then compels its central banks to purchase its paper.

Instead, Buffett prefers investments such as Coca-Cola or See’s Candy, which have the ability to sell more candy in the future at the prevailing price level as a means to produce real growth.

That’s where I depart from the Sage of Omaha. While not arguing with the ability of See’s Candy to deliver and the American sweet tooth to be unaffected by the growing concerns for obesity, I believe he fails to see the new product that gold represents and its growing sales potential.

This is “the new calculus of gold.”

In a wealth-accumulating economy there is always demand for an ultimate store of value for wealth preservation. In finance terms, there is always a demand for some asset for which an investor takes no default risk, nor inflation risk, and can be obtained and sold on liquid markets.

For decades, U.S. Treasury debt took over from gold as the market’s preferred store of value. Treasury bonds mythically had no default risk and little inflation risk when central banks were not under pressure to be concerned about unemployment, lending to insolvent banks, or propping up the value of government debt. Moreover, U.S. dollar-denominated Treasuries served not only as the store of value but also sprouted interest payments.

But all that has changed, perhaps not forever but likely for the next four decades, as developed world democratic governments will be under pressure from their constituents to make good on the social contracts of social security and comprehensive health care to the bulging baby boomer population. And, if need be, they will recapture the central banks (by legislative changes if necessary) if they fail to support U.S. Treasury prices.

Given the debt and monetary growth ramifications of these pressures, investors will seek an alternative embodiment of a store of value other than fixed dollar denominated assets, especially sovereigns. With all other developed countries in similar straits and emerging market countries exposed to inflation generation from developed country central banks, their currencies and sovereigns also fail to qualify. Hence, gold has reemerged to play the role of the store of value, despite its sprout-less property. Sprouts are the icing on the cake but not the cake itself — and many gold admirers remember Mark Twain’s old saw: ‘I am more concerned with the return of my money than the return on my money.’

The New Calculus of Gold has much more to its story than merely the market-designated good for inflation and default protection, with or without sprouts.

We are at a historic point in time when both consumer and government debt have grown dramatically relative to income, which is our underlying economic problem (See Roadblocks to Recovery: An Interview with Dr. Lacy Hunt). In the great debt run-up of the last few decades, lenders or bond investors underwrote debt or loans based on either the borrower’s cash flow to service the debt or based on the borrower’s collateral, or both.

But debt has a maturity, and when the maturity is reached, borrowers seek to go back to the well and roll the debt over. From the easy lending days of the turn of the 21st century, the value of what has traditionally been accepted by the lender as good collateral has declined in market value as well as market esteem. That includes residential houses and commercial real estate for mortgages, mortgages for mortgage-backed securities, and mortgage-backed securities for CDOs.  Even government securities and guarantees have been questioned especially from abroad when collateral value is set by the credit rating of the collateral. By that measure even U.S. Treasuries and government guarantees fail the test of good collateral given rating downgrades.

Hence, the great corollary of over indebtedness is the relative scarcity of good collateral to support the debt load outstanding. This imbalance of debt to collateral is impacting the ability of banks to make loans to their customers, for central banks to make loans to commercial banks, and for shadow banks to be funded by the overnight Repo market. Hence the growth of gold as a collateral asset to debt heavy markets is inevitably in the cards and is de facto occurring. Gold is stepping up to the plate as “good” collateral in a world of bad collateral.

As described in the accompanying news story (J.P. Morgan to Accept Gold as Collateral), gold is now being accepted (or more likely demanded) as collateral for bank loans, which increases the demand for gold. Furthermore the scarcity of collateral has spread to Europe, where debt is now being priced according to the value of its collateral, and clearing houses are accepting gold as collateral and for exchange settlement. Furthermore in this environment of collateral scarcity, clearing houses that service the shadow banking repo loan closures are closing loans despite the arrival of the collateral (prosaically called settlement fails) but it doesn’t stop the loan from being closed without any collateral, either good or bad and is now causing a regulatory backlash to tighten up actual collateral.

In addition to the demand for gold as collateral to back private debt, there are growing instances of commercial banks and central banks stocking up on gold as assets to meet the perception of depositors that banks or currencies are financially healthy. In this regard there is a shifting of foreign exchange reserves of world central banks away from foreign currency (dollars) into gold as shown in the Figure.

Most importantly, China, in its not so secret desire for the Yuan to be a world reserve currency, is accumulating domestically produced gold as it bans exportation, and at the same time it is shifting its foreign exchange reserves from currency into gold. If the Yuan has a chance to have reserve currency status it likely would require gold backing. A gold-backed Yuan would make a big dent in the U.S. market for the dollar and Treasuries as the world’s store of value asset. A gold-backed Yuan would be the equivalent of gold certificates in a warehouse and denominated in a currency that would be on the upswing and very desirable as compared to developed country sovereigns or currency. It might even be more appealing than gold certificates stored in a Swiss warehouse, denominated in a currency that is not allowed by its central bank to appreciate.

We have entered an environment with elevated debt to collateral and elevated currency to goods, and gold is again demanded by market forces to enhance the value of debt paper and otherwise fiat currency.

What we are witnessing is a sea change in which market forces are driving a de facto return to the gold standard. All that is missing for this to be a de jure gold standard is some regulatory and legal recognition and one has been proposed. The Basel Committee for Bank Supervision, the maker of global capital requirements is studying making gold a bank capital Tier 1 asset.

This implies banks would be regulatory blessed to operate with less equity capital than is normally required of banks if they held more gold as an asset. Basically,  regulators would allow banks to be more leveraged, meaning the banks would not suffer as much equity dilution to recapitalize after sovereign and mortgage write downs. Not only would gold then be backstopping debt and currency but also be backstopping bank equity capital.  So the realm of gold is expanding to fill the void of other “money good” assets and elevating its demand.

The world has gravitated from one gold-backed paper currency to another before, and it likely is happening again. It would depend on whether investors in liquid, default-free, inflation-free paper prefer gold-backed Chinese Yuan to Swiss warehouse receipts or deposits from large international banks with large gold positions that operate with lots of leverage. This is a market choice that will determine the gold linked paper store of value, but the point is that all the paper contenders derive value from the gold backing, and thereby expands the demand for the shiny metal. This is the new calculus of gold. This state of affairs is likely to remain until developed world governments no longer reach for the unreachable and pressure their central banks to finance it.

If you enjoy this blog, please forward it to others who may be interested.

Financial Repression: The Unintended Consequences of Saving the Sovereign

What’s new has often been lived before, but sometimes it’s not pretty. Presumably that’s what Clarence Darrow meant when he said, “History repeats itself, and that’s one of the things that’s wrong with history.”

It is becoming increasingly clear that developed-world countries will attempt to go down a path followed before by governments facing similar debt loads… and it’s not pretty. In this case it’s not a wartime debt rollover, but a combination of lofty promises made to provide a social net to a burgeoning population demographic. And this follows years of fiscal sloppiness both here and abroad derived from an attitude best expressed in the infamous and thoughtless words of Dick Cheney, “Debt doesn’t matter.”  Well, Dick, it does.

With the U.S. and many other sovereign’s debt levels reaching or exceeding the 100% ratio to GDP, governments are in a mad scramble to line up financial resources to keep the debt thing afloat.

Europe (Greece in particular) continues to be the poster child for the illusion that a government can keep itself going by leaning on its citizens and others to create bailout funds, or by changing the accounting, regulatory or legal rules, or by engaging in other funny–money schemes. Europe has just concluded the 16th summit of its leaders in less than two years to solve the Euro debt problem once and for all — and all they do is create more debt (the ESM permanent fund) to solve an over-indebtedness problem.

Some of these efforts have brought a temporary reprieve from financial meltdown, but they do not provide a meaningful adjustment process to regain prosperity or debt sustainability. Basically, the horse is out of the barn. There is now so much debt and so many additional scheduled debt commitments that austerity on the rest of the budget will not contain the debt problem.

It would almost be an amusing soap opera if we, the spectators in the audience of this high-theatre drama unfolding in the daily financial tabloids in both Europe and the U.S., could sit back and enjoy the comedy, but unfortunately the bottom line is the actors in the comedy will soon be passing the hat around the audience — at first for voluntary contributions and later for mandatory contributions to the cause.

Moreover, we the audience will ultimately need to ante up less in direct contributions (whatever form of taxes you care to name), but more so in the loss of our income base and market value of wealth. All of this begins with the redirection of scarce capital to finance governments at terms favorable to the debtor government. When that is not enough, next comes the systemic raiding of banks and private resources to finance government debt.

Given the lack of will by the government actors in this soap opera to stop the entitlement game made by previous irresponsible governments, it appears that we will soon be learning the ultimate cost of attempting to keep the entitlement promise. The promise will not be delivered, but we will go down trying.

The cost of trying is not calculated in terms of the present value of the unfunded entitlement liabilities or in the cost of escalating government debt service that we can directly measure. Rather, the cost will be in the more difficult to calculate income, output and wealth losses as a result of a country’s undersupplied and misdirected capital resources. In the environment of attempting to keep the faith in entitlements, income flows and job growth occur at a diminished rate. The economic engine is stuck in low gear when a higher priority is given to financing the sovereign rather than the private sector.

All of this goes by the name of financial repression, a term that has resurfaced in the economic-financial policy lexicon in the last months and is becoming chic in the financial policy press. It’s a term that I am familiar with in that my Ph.D. Chairman, Professor Edward S. Shaw, along with Professor Ron McKinnon of Stanford University, invented it as an explanation of why the Less Developed Countries were less developed for about five decades. Now we get to view it in living color as the nightly news shows us how it is being applied to and affecting the developed economies of the world.

The idea of financial repression presented to me as a graduate student didn’t resonate then, but it does now as I view it and its side effects. It sometimes takes a while for ideas to sink in, and because history is repeating, I get to watch it live the second time — or the third, or however many times it’s been around. What needs to be understood is that financial repression is the unintended consequence of government efforts to suck private capital resources at favorable terms into the financing of government debt. It could just as well be called economic repression because that is what results.

While the general objective for a debt-stressed government is to induce or coerce the buying of its debt, it also needs the buying to take place at a cost the government can afford — not just zero, but even below zero. This occurs when the real interest rate (the nominal rate paid less the inflation rate) is held in negative territory. The cost becomes negative in real terms when a positive inflation rate depreciates the bond’s real value to a greater extent than interest is paid to the holder of the debt.

To pull this off requires a cooperative central bank to create the negative real rates. It’s been quite amazing how the “independent” central banks — made independent to provide checks and balances to prevent reckless government spending sprees — have been co-opted to play an essential role in financial repression. They do so by providing a negative real interest rate for governments by both targeting simultaneously both near-zero nominal rates of interest on government debt and a positive inflation rate.

Given this perspective it should be little surprise that the Fed has recently extended its near-zero nominal interest rate forecast (target) through 2014 and talk of another round of QE is alive both here and in Europe on top of all the others that have occurred in the last three years. While this cheapens government finance at the expense of the holders of the government debt, it also provides disincentives to save and accumulate capital for private uses, hence our near-zero saving rate.

A government’s central bank is its first line of defense in maintaining its ability to pay entitlements. The second line of defense consists of the banks and financial institutions that are coerced to hold greater proportions of government debt in the name of rising liquidity and capital requirements — but with almost zero nominal rates earned on this sizable asset class, they pay virtually nothing for deposits. Hence the banking system and financial institutions in general are also offering negative interest rates on deposits and are in a state of shrinkage, allocating smaller and smaller proportions of their portfolios to the private sector.

We the people will be the third line of defense as the government crams its debt down the throat of the unsuspecting and the unwilling. This generally takes the form of voluntary programs for debt purchases, as the WWII-era poster above suggests. Later this will be accomplished through a mandatory program, with mandatory purchases in the form of swapping “risky” private assets in an IRA for “secure government debt” to finance a private retirement.  This has just occurred in Hungry and Poland, and that discussion has been launched in the U.S. and is contained in the Annual Report of the White House Task Force on the Middle Class (p. 27).

But what do depressing government bond yields do to non-government financial prices? As discussed in my previous post Liquidity and Asset Bubbles: How Long Will the Dam Hold, the lowest interest rates in U.S. history promote a carry trade that finances the purchase of higher quality debt and higher quality dividend-paying equities that investors hope will survive a sovereign meltdown. By extending the time period of its zero interest rate policy out to three years, the Fed reduces the funding risk of the carry trade and ramps it up further.

There is substantial financial buying power to be spread out: the Fed and the ECB’s liquidity transfusions of operation twist, on top of swap financed lending to euro banks, on top of LTRO, on top of another LTRO in the works, and ad hoc ECB direct sovereign purchases, and now with just plain old out-and-out QE3 rumored to be on its way. Furthermore, QEs are also in operation with the BofE and the BofJ and other central banks concerned that capital flight to their currency will undercut their terms of trade. Hence, there is global impetus for central bank buying and money issuance in large numbers as depicted in the accompanying figure.

The equity price run up the last few months is fun while it lasts, but ultimately and fundamentally, if the government interest rate anchor for the financial markets is reduced to a rate that does not reflect its risk, and if further price distortions are introduced into the pricing of equity so that P/Es become transparently unsupportable by fundamentals (if anyone remembers what that is anymore), then expect to see investors seek to place their capital elsewhere.

If the government then attempts to head that off with capital outflow restrictions and more mandatory funneling of capital to the government’s cause, then we are into a full-fledged financial and economic repression. Europe is certainly much closer to that than the U.S., but if there is a buyers strike of government debt here (China has removed itself from accumulating Treasuries), it will eventually repress the economy here as well. We will be no different than the LDCs that self-inflicted decades of pain, as explained by professors Shaw and McKinnon, and history will indeed have repeated.