The U.S. caused the 1930s deflationary depression and is again the cause of the current contraction. Although similarities exist between the two, the differences between them insure a far more consequential outcome today than in the 1930s. [Indeed, the world] now finds itself on the edge of a growing deflationary sinkhole created by the sequential collapse of two large U.S. bubbles, the dot.com and U.S. real estate bubbles.
Lorimer Wilson, editor of www.FinancialArticleSummariesToday.com, provides below further reformatted and edited [..] excerpts from Darryl Robert Schoon’s (www.drschoon.com) original article* for the sake of clarity and brevity to ensure a fast and easy read. Schoon goes on to say:
Global demand is again falling as credit contracts, a sign that debt-driven deflation is back but, today, there is an additional danger as well. Since 1971, because of the U.S. default on its gold obligations, money no longer possesses intrinsic value and the consequences will soon become apparent. Deflationary depressions and a collapse in the value of fiat money have happened before but never simultaneously. Soon, they will.
The Day of Reckoning Has Arrived
We are in what Stephen Roach, Chairman of Morgan Stanley Asia, calls the end-game, the resolution of past monetary excesses and imbalances, excesses and imbalances that reached never-before-seen heights in the last decade.
Capitalism cannot function unless its constantly compounding debt is serviced and/or paid down. Today, the U.S., the world’s largest debtor, can no longer pay what it owes except by rolling its debt forward and borrowing more [in] what the late economist Hyman Minsky called ponzi-financing, financing common in the final stages of mature capital systems.
The amount of outstanding U.S. debt, according to Martin D. Weiss, www.moneyandmarkets.com, has now reached levels that can never be paid off. The United States government and its agencies have, by far,
– the largest pile-up of interest-bearing debts ($15.6 trillion),
– the largest accumulation of unsecured obligations (over $60 trillion),
– the largest yearly deficit ($1.6 trillion), and
– the greatest indebtedness to the rest of the world ($4.8 trillion).
The unpayable levels of U.S. debt are not just the problem of the U.S. because the U.S. dollar is the lynchpin of today’s fiat money system, U.S. debt is everyone’s problem. The U.S. dollar is the world reserve currency and a default by the U.S. will have far-reaching consequences, especially in China, its largest creditor.
Bill Gross, co-founder of PIMCO, the world’s largest bond fund and an expert in matters of debt, wrote in 2006 that the way a reserve currency nation [such as the US] gets out from under the burden of excessive liabilities is to inflate, devalue, and tax.
Inflation destroys the value/cost of liabilities by eroding the value of money. Debts are paid back with inflated currencies, a process which benefits the debtor and injures the creditor. This is why reserve currency nations usually inflate their way out of debt by printing what they owe.
Devaluation is another option afforded reserve currency nations. By devaluing the value of their currency, the value of what they owe falls relative to other currencies. Again, the benefit is to the debtor at the expense of the creditor.
Taxation is another option but is no longer available to the U.S., as its liabilities are now too high. It would be like forcing the elderly and morbidly obese to engage in strenuous exercise to regain youth. Of the three, inflating away debt is by far the preferred option but it is one the U.S. can no longer choose.
Why Inflation Won’t Work
It’s tempting to think that the U.S. can inflate its way out of its fiscal problems. A faster, sustained increase in prices would erode the real value of past debt, and higher future inflation would – other things equal – reduce the real resources needed to service and pay back the promises we are making today. However, inflating away U.S. debt won’t work because as Richard Berner points out nearly half of federal outlays are [now] linked to inflation, meaning that increments to debt would [also] rise with inflation.
Inducing monetary inflation would also raise aggregate U.S. debt resulting in a self-defeating cycle of higher prices and higher debt. However, there is also another more fundamental reason why inflating away U.S. debt won’t work, to wit: Inflation is almost impossible to induce during severe deflationary contractions. Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke understands this difficulty quite well. Bernanke’s late mentor, Milton Friedman, theorized the Great Depression could have been prevented by sufficient monetary stimulus and so in 2008, faced with the possibility of another deflationary depression, Bernanke put Friedman’s theory to the test. Unfortunately, when tested, Friedman’s theory didn’t work. Despite Bernanke’s massive monetary expansion, global credit is still contracting and lending is drying up.
Inflating away debt is virtually impossible in the presence of deflation, but if U.S. monetary expansion is sufficiently large, it could result in the hyperinflation of the U.S. money supply, which would destroy both U.S. debt and the U.S. economy as well.
Managing Director and Chief U.S. Economist at Morgan Stanley, Richard Berner, recently discussed the reasons in We Can’t Inflate Our Way Out, February 24, 2010. www.morganstanley.com/views/gef/index.html#anchor6647bf63-2073-11df-978b-bbc960980e46
Will Devaluing The U.S. Dollar Work?
Devaluation is the U.S.’ only remaining option but, as pointed out in Comstock Partners’ special report of February 25th, “The Cycle of Deflation, Impediments to Debt Relief”, the major impediment to a U.S. devaluation to reduce debt is China saying:
“There is a stumbling block to the normal competitive devaluations that typically take place. In the past, a country that incurred too much debt just did what they could to devalue their currency in order to export their way out of the dilemma by exporting their goods and services to their trading partners…[but] the Chinese have linked their currency to ours, so as we debase our currency, one of our major trading partner’s currency is also declining and China becomes the major beneficiary of the debasement of our dollar.”
The China peg to the U.S. dollar thus prevents the U.S. from altering its trade deficit by currency devaluation, but it does not prevent the U.S. from devaluing the dollar for other reasons. If the U.S. does devalue the dollar, it will not be to reduce debt—it will be to maintain its advantage over the world in general and China in particular.
The Influence of China On U.S. Actions
U.S. dominance is being challenged by China. While it is not possible to know what the U.S. will do, it is naïve to believe the U.S. will do nothing; but whatever happens, U.S. debt and the U.S. dollar will be affected.
China has now significantly reduced its buying of U.S. debt leaving the U.S. with growing deficits and a virtual boycott by China of new U.S. IOUs. This will impact future U.S./China relations. The tentative but mutual benefits of the past are being replaced by self-interest as U.S. spending and consequent debt is increasingly perceived as being out of control by China. That perception is correct. Since the 1980s, America’s focus has been on borrowing more, not spending less and the implications are clear.
With China moving away from increasingly risky U.S. debt, the U.S. is now far more likely to treat China as a challenger than as a needed creditor and, while devaluing the U.S. dollar would have minimal impact on overall U.S. debt, it would have a significant impact on China. In December 2009, total foreign holdings of U.S. government debt equaled $3.29 trillion. With total U.S. obligations now close to $100 trillion, a 30 % devaluation of the U.S. dollar would impact only that debt held by foreigners. China currently owns at least $1.7 billion in U.S. dollar denominated securities and, if the U.S. devalued the dollar by 30 %, China’s losses on its investments would be in excess of $500 million.
As stated earlier, it is not possible to know what the U.S. will do but since WWII geopolitical considerations have always outweighed economic factors in U.S. policy decisions and there is little reason to expect this to change—even as the end-game approaches.
The End Game and Sovereign Default
The U.S. is trapped. Caught between rising expenditures and the need to borrow more, outstanding U.S. debt is incapable of ever being repaid and should the credit rating of the U.S. ever reflect its actual state, sovereign default, not devaluation would be the result.
In 2008, Kenneth Rogoff and Carmen Reinhart, in their book “This Time Is Different: A Panoramic View of Eight Centuries of Financial Crisis,” reviewed the history of sovereign defaults concluding that the then dearth of defaults was in actuality a warning of more to come. They were right.
As the end-game progresses it is impossible to know what the U.S. will do. It is likely the U.S. doesn’t know itself. What the U.S. does know is that it is now trapped by increasing levels of mounting debt from which there is no easy exit.
– The above article consists of reformatted edited excerpts from the original for the sake of brevity, clarity and to ensure a fast and easy read. The author’s views and conclusions are unaltered.
– Permission to reprint in whole or in part is gladly granted, provided full credit is given.