Posted on 13. Oct, 2010 by Nathaniel Bacon
in Business & Finance
“Coming events cast their shadows forward.” – Goethe
What is to stop U.S. banks and their customers from creating $1 trillion, $10 trillion or even $50 trillion on their computer keyboards to buy up all the bonds and stocks in the world, along with all the land and other assets for sale, in the hope of making capital gains and pocketing the arbitrage spreads by debt leveraging at less than 1% interest cost? This is the game that is being played today. The outflow of dollar credit into foreign markets in pursuit of this strategy has bid up asset prices and foreign currencies, enabling speculators to pay off their U.S. positions in cheaper dollars, keeping for themselves the currency shift as well as the arbitrage interest-rate margin.
Finance has become the new mode of warfare – without the expense of military overhead and an occupation against unwilling hosts. It is a competition in credit creation to buy global real estate and natural resources, infrastructure, bonds and corporate stock ownership. Who needs an army when you can obtain monetary wealth and asset appropriation simply by financial means? Victory promises to go to the economy whose banking system can create the most credit, using an army of computer keyboards to appropriate the world’s resources.
The main hurdle confronting this financial Lebensraum drive is that it requires the central banks of targeted economies to accept electronic dollar credit of depreciating international worth in payment for national assets. U.S. officials demonize countries suffering these dollar inflows as aggressive “currency manipulators” for what Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner calls “‘competitive nonappreciation,’ in which countries block their currencies from rising in value.” Oscar Wilde would have struggled to find a more convoluted term for other countries protecting themselves from raiders trying to force up their currencies to make enormous predatory fortunes. “Competitive nonappreciation” sounds like “conspiratorial non-suicide.” These countries simply are trying to protect their currencies from arbitrageurs and speculators flooding their financial markets with dollars, sweeping their currencies up and down to extract billions of dollars from their central banks.
Their central banks are being forced to choose between passively letting these inflows push up their exchange rates – thereby pricing their exports out of foreign markets – or recycling these inflows into U.S. Treasury bills yielding only 1% with declining exchange value. (Longer-term bonds risk a price decline if U.S interest rates should rise.)
The euphemism for flooding economies with credit is “quantitative easing.” The Federal Reserve is pumping a tidal wave of liquidity and reserves into the financial system to reduce interest rates, ostensibly to enable banks to “earn their way” out of negative equity resulting from the bad loans made during the real estate bubble. This liquidity is spilling over to foreign economies, increasing their exchange rates. Joseph Stiglitz recently acknowledged that instead of helping the global recovery, the “flood of liquidity” from the Fed and the European Central Bank is causing “chaos” in foreign exchange markets. “The irony is that the Fed is creating all this liquidity with the hope that it will revive the American economy. … It’s doing nothing for the American economy, but it’s causing chaos over the rest of the world.”
What U.S. quantitative easing is achieving is to drive the dollar down and other currencies up, much to the applause of currency speculators enjoying quick and easy gains. Yet it is to defend this system that U.S. diplomats and bank lobbyists are threatening to derail the international financial system and plunge world trade into anarchy if other countries do not agree to a replay of the 1985 Plaza Accord “as a possible framework for engineering an orderly decline in the dollar and avoiding potentially destabilizing trade fights.”
The Plaza Accord derailed Japan’s economy by raising its exchange rate while lowering interest rates, flooding its economy with enough credit to inflate a real estate bubble. IMF managing director Dominique Strauss-Kahn was more realistic. “I’m not sure the mood is to have a new Plaza or Louvre accord,” he said at a press briefing on the eve of the IMF meetings in Washington. “We are in a different time today.” Acknowledging the need for “some element of capital controls [to] be put in place,” he added that in view of U.S. insistence on open, unprotected capital markets, “The idea that there is an absolute need in a globalised world to work together may lose some steam.”
At issue is how long nations will succumb to the speculative dollar glut. The world is being forced to choose between subordination to U.S. economic nationalism or an interim of financial anarchy. Nations are responding by seeking to create an alternative international financial system, risking an anarchic transition period in order to create a fairer world economy.
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The announced objective is not materializing. Instead of increasing their loans against U.S. real estate, consumers or businesses, banks are still reducing their exposure. This is why the U.S. savings rate is jumping. The “saving” that is reported (up from zero to 3% of GDP) is taking the form of paying down debts taken out in the past, not building up liquid funds. Just as hoarding diverts revenue away from being spent on goods and services, so debt repayment shrinks spendable income. Why then would banks lend more under conditions where a third of U.S. homes already are in negative equity and the economy is shrinking as a result of debt deflation?
Mr. Bernanke proposes to solve this problem by injecting another $1 trillion of liquidity over the coming year, on top of the $2 trillion in new Federal Reserve credit already created during 2009-10. This quantitative easing has been sent abroad, mainly to the BRIC countries: Brazil, Russia, India and China. “Recent research at the International Monetary Fund has shown conclusively that G4 monetary easing has in the past transferred itself almost completely to the emerging economies … since 1995, the stance of monetary policy in Asia has been almost entirely determined by the monetary stance of the G4 – the US, eurozone, Japan and China – led by the Fed.” According to the IMF, “equity prices in Asia and Latin America generally rise when excess liquidity is transferred from the G4 to the emerging economies.”
This is what has led gold prices to surge and investors to move out of the dollar since early September, prompting other nations to protect their economies.
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On the deepest economic plane today’s global financial breakdown is part of the price to be paid for the Federal Reserve and U.S. Treasury refusing to accept a prime axiom of banking: Debts that cannot be paid, won’t be.
They tried to “save” the banking system from debt write-downs in 2008 by keeping the debt overhead in place while re-inflating asset prices.
In the face of the repayment burden shrinking the U.S. economy, the Fed’s idea of helping the banks “earn their way out of negative equity” is to provide opportunities for predatory finance, leading to a flood of financial speculation.
Economies targeted by global speculators understandably are seeking alternative arrangements. It does not look like these can be achieved via the IMF or other international forums in ways that U.S. financial strategists will willingly accept. ARTICLE