Debt, Dollars and Gold…it’s All About Perceived Credibility

By the time you read this World War D will be over. The conference that is. That far-reaching event is winding down even as we write these words. But make no mistake. The ramifications of what’s been discussed here in Melbourne over the past two days will continue to resonate for years to come.

The first day of World War D was a bombshell. We’d like to say the attendees were literally blown away, but we hate the misuse of that word. So we’ll just say that during the post conference cocktail hour they were very impressed, and they definitely left with a lot of new facts and insight to process.

With that in mind we felt sympathetic for our old pal, and your very own Markets and Money editor, Greg Canavan. It was up to him to give the opening presentation of day two. But we needn’t have worried. Greg was more than up for the task.

Our financial system no longer stands on its own two feet. It needs constant reassurance, a regular pat on the back from Janet Yellen. So how did money go from sound to unsound in one hundred years?’ he asked the audience.

First you need to know where money comes from. And it turns out it doesn’t come from money printing, as we so often hear. It comes from you. Or to be precise, it comes from your credibility. According to Greg, here’s how it works:

You go into a bank and ask for a loan. They CREDIT your bank account with MONEY and then you have a DEBT outstanding. You spend this money on building a new house, or whatever, and in this way the money enters into the economy. Money = Credit = Debt. They’re interchangeable terms, especially in the modern financial system.

So how did we get so far down the rabbit hole? Well, as Greg explained, the bar for obtaining credit has gotten lower and lower over the decades. So much so that right before the 2008 meltdown, US households in particular had cashed in all their credibility, and then some. And we all know what happened next.

Greg explained that 1914, indeed one hundred years ago, marked the beginning of the end of sound money. Back then the developed world was on the classical gold standard. Gold coin was legal tender and banks held gold reserves and created credit on top of those reserves.

The gold standard kept a lid on debt growth and regulated interest rates. It was a sound monetary system, but not immune to crisis. The classical gold standard could not survive the stresses of global conflict. Just prior to the outbreak of the First World War, many Brits tried to redeem their paper notes for gold coins. It nearly led to a major liquidity crisis.

You see, with the gold standard, when people take their gold out of the banks and hoard it, ‘money’ disappears. The monetary base contracts, interest rates rise and financial deleveraging kicks in. A patriotic plea saw the people return their gold to the banking system, and a crisis was averted. But from that moment on money was no longer gold. Money was debt.

The next step toward unsound money came when the League of Nations met in Genoa in 1922. Instead of going back on the gold standard, they came up with a bastardised version which was highly inflationary. This led to the roaring 20s, a technological boom, and vast stock market speculation that culminated in the 1929 bust…and eventually the outbreak of the Second World War.

Then came the Bretton Woods System, which Greg labelled, ‘The next chapter of our journey towards unsound money’. It was another version of the 1922 gold-exchange standard, and the end result was similarly chaotic. The US dollar was tied to gold at $35 an ounce, and all other major currencies were tied to the US dollar.

The system worked well for the first 15 years or so, as the US owned most of the world’s gold and had a lot of stored credibility from the war. But US deficit spending picked up as a result of the Vietnam War, and despite the best efforts of the London Gold Pool to keep the gold price fixed at US$35 per ounce, it failed.

Nixon closed the gold window in 1971 and ushered in a decade of monetary chaos. The gold price soared to briefly hit US$850 per ounce.

With all links to the yellow metal removed, credit/money/debt as a percentage of GDP started rising in the 1970s. And this really took off in the 1980s when interest rates began to fall, regulations encouraged more debt, and financial innovation went wild.

Greg drew our attention to two particularly risky innovations. ‘I refer to these — securitisation and shadow banking — as iceberg finance.’Greg’s chart showed securitisation as the tip of the iceberg and shadow banking as the menacing bulk lurking beneath the water line.

We won’t go into all the details here, but the bottom line, as Greg explained, is that these two ‘innovations’ leveraged up the financial system to levels never before seen. It allowed debt to be collateralised and then used as an asset with which to create more debt.

The monetary system has become increasingly unsound. Debt expanded to the point where credibility — both real and perceived had all been monetised. The bar for obtaining credit was on the ground, and anyone could walk over it.

And anyone did. As a result, we got the worst crisis since The Great Depression, which was the first crisis on the road to unsound money. But it was the collapse of Lehman Brothers — the fourth largest investment bank in the US — that triggered the real panic. That’s because Lehman held lots of dodgy collateral created by the shadow banking system.

Once Lehman fell, it threatened to take the whole system with it.

Enter Uncle Sam.

No one questioned the US government’s creditworthiness. Government debt was the only collateral in demand. The market couldn’t get enough of it. To help it digest trillion dollar deficits, the US Federal Reserve started its now infamous quantitative easing (QE) program. As Greg explained, this was necessary because the creation of government debt works a little differently to commercial bank generated debt.

The policy of QE was an attempt to inject liquidity into the system at the same time as governments were soaking it up via their massive debt issuances.

With historically high debt levels it seems governments are well on their way to monetising all their credibility. Greg reckons they’re now well into borrowing against their perceived credibility.

Confidence in this perceived credibility is the only thing holding the system together right now. Confidence in governments and confidence in central banks. When the next crisis hits, that confidence will evaporate. Why? Because next time around governments and central banks won’t have enough ammunition to bail out the system again. They won’t have enough stored credibility to backstop the system. Physical gold will be one of the few assets remaining with any credibility.

–Aside from using gold as a long term store of value, Greg offered some other ways to prepare yourself, ways to minimise the impact on your investment portfolios, and even ways you might profit from the end of an unsound monetary system.

It’s taken 100 years of monetary abuse to get where we are now. The outcome won’t be pretty.

If you’d like to hear everything Greg had to say, we had a professional film crew record the World War D conference.


Bernd Struben
for Markets and Money

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Bernd Struben is a contribution Editor of Markets & Money. He holds a degree in Economics and is a published novelist. Bernd’s career spans multiple countries on four continents. With his diverse background, he brings unique business insight and a libertarian twist to his columns and analysis in Markets & Money.

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