Idaho's Weekly Journal of Local & National Commentary Week 2815


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by Free Market Duck

Stable Money Is the Key to Recovery
by Judy Shelton

(Nov 14, 2008)

How the G-20 can rebuild the “capitalism of the future.”

Washington, DC – Tomorrow’s “Summit on Financial Markets and the World Economy” in Washington will have a stellar cast.  Leaders of the Group of 20 industrialized and emerging nations will be there, including Chinese President Hu Jintao, Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev.  French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who initiated the whole affair, in order, as he put it, “to build together the capitalism of the future,” will be in attendance, along with the host, our own President George W. Bush, and the chiefs of the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and the United Nations.

   One thing is guaranteed:  Most attendees will take the view that Wall Street greed and inadequate regulatory oversight by U.S. authorities caused the global financial crisis – never mind that their own regulatory agencies missed the boat and that their own governments eagerly bought up Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac securities for the higher yield over Treasurys.

   But whatever they agree to pursue, whether new transnational regulatory authority or globally mandated limits on executive remuneration, would only stultify prospects for economic recovery – and completely miss the point [emphasis added].

   At the bottom of the world financial crisis is international monetary disorder.  Ever since the post-World War II Bretton Woods system – anchored by a gold-convertible dollar – ended in August 1971, the cause of free trade has been compromised by sovereign monetary-policy indulgence.

   Today, a soupy mix of currencies sloshes investment capital around the world, channeling it into stagnant pools while productive endeavor is left high and dry.  Entrepreneurs in countries with overvalued currencies are unable to attract the foreign investment that should logically flow in their direction, while scam artists in countries with undervalued currencies lure global financial resources into brackish puddles.

   To speak of “overvalued” or “undervalued” currencies is to raise the question:  Why can’t we just have money that works – a meaningful unit of account to provide accurate price signals to producers and consumers across the globe?  [emphasis added.]

   Consider this:  The total outstanding notational amount of financial derivatives, according to the Bank for International Settlements, is $684 trillion (as of June 2008) – over 12 times the world’s nominal gross domestic product [which, as FM Duck has pointed out over and over is one of the reasons why it is ludicrous to claim that the definition of the dollar is defined as “backing” by our GDP].  Derivatives make it possible to place bets on future monetary policy or exchange-rate movements.  More than 66% of those financial derivatives are interest-rate contracts:  swaps, options or forward-rate agreements.  Another 9% are foreign-exchange contracts.

   In other words, some three-quarters of the massive derivatives market, which has wreaked the most havoc across global financial markets, derives its investment allure from the capricious monetary policies of central banks [emphasis added] and the chaotic movements of currencies.

   In the absence of a rational monetary system [emphasis added], investment responds to the perverse incentives of paper profits.  Meanwhile, price signals in the global marketplace are hopelessly distorted [which is exactly what Keynesian economists such as former Fed Reserve Chief Alan Greenspan, current Fed Chief Ben Bernanke, and Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson don’t understand, i.e., the subjective theory of price formation in classical free market economics, emphasis added by FM Duck].

   For his part, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown says his essential goal is “to root out the irresponsible and often undisclosed lending at the heart of our problems.”  But if anyone has demonstrated irresponsibility, it is not those who chased misleading price signals in pursuit of false profits – but rather global authorities who have failed to provide an appropriate international monetary system to serve the needs of honest entrepreneurs in an open world economy.

   When President Richard Nixon closed the gold window some 37 years ago, it marked the end of a golden age of robust trade and unprecedented global economic growth.  The Bretton Woods system derived its strength from a commitment by the U.S. to redeem dollars for gold on demand.

   True, the right of convertibility at a pre-established rate was granted only to foreign central banks, not to individual dollars holders; therein lies the distinction between the Bretton Woods gold exchange system and a classical gold standard.  Under Bretton Woods, participating nations agreed to maintain their own currencies at a fixed exchange rate relative to the dollar.

   Since the value of the dollar fixed to gold at $35 per ounce of gold – guaranteed by the redemption privilege – it was as if all currencies were anchored to gold.  It also meant all currencies were convertible into each other at fixed rates.

   Paul Volcker, former Fed chairman, was at Camp David with Nixon on that fateful day, Aug. 15, when the system was ended.  Mr. Volcker, serving as Treasury undersecretary for monetary affairs at the time, had misgivings; and he has since noted that the inflationary pressures which caused us to go off the gold standard in the first place have only worsened.  Moreover, he suggests, floating rates undermine the fundamental tenets of comparative advantage.

   “What can an exchange rate really mean,” he wrote in “Changing Fortunes” (1992), “in terms of everything a textbook teaches about rational economic decision making, when it changes by 30% or more in the space of 12 months only to reverse itself?  What kind of signals does that send about where a businessman should intelligently invest his capital for long-term profitability?  In the grand scheme of economic life first described by Adam Smith, in which nations like individuals should concentrate on the things they do best, how can anyone decide which country produces what most efficiently when the prices change so fast?  The answer, to me, must be that such large swings are a symptom in disarray.”  [Suffice it to say that there are many other economic and moral issues that could be included in support of Volcker’s conclusions here but FM Duck does not want to stop and pontificate on those issues at this point.  Nor, apparently does the author, Ms. Shelton.]

   If we are to “build together the capitalism of the future,” as Mr. Sarkozy puts it, the world needs sound money.  Does that mean going back to a gold standard, or gold-based international monetary system?  [You’re damn right it does, says FM Duck, and for more econ and moral issues than are discussed here.]  Perhaps so; it’s hard to imagine a more universally accepted standard of value.

   Gold has occupied a primary place in the world’s monetary history and continues to be widely held as a reserve asset.  The central banks of the G-20 nations hold two-thirds of official world gold reserves; include the gold reserves of the International Monetary Fund, the European Central Bank and the Bank for International Settlements, and the figure goes to nearly 80%, representing about 15% of all the gold ever mined.

   Ironically, it was French President Charles de Gaulle who best made the case in the 1960s.  Worried that the U.S. would be tempted to abuse its role as key [or is that Keynesian? Added by FM Duck] currency issuer by exporting domestic inflation, he called for the return to a classical international gold standard.  “Gold,” he observed, “has no nationality.”

   Mr. Sarkozy might build on that legacy if he can look beyond the immediacy of the crisis and work toward a future global economy based on monetary integrity.  This would indeed help to restore the values of democratic capitalism.  And Mr. Volcker, an influential adviser to President-elect Barack Obama, could turn out to be a powerful ally in the pursuit of a new stable monetary order.  Ms. Shelton, an economist, is author of “Money Meltdown:  Restoring Order to the Global Currency System” (Free Press, 1994) -- FM Duck

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