Hedging Chaos With Gold

…what if history is not cyclical and slow-moving but arhythmic, at times almost stationary, but also capable of accelerating suddenly, like a sports car? What if collapse does not arrive over a number of centuries but comes suddenly, like a thief in the night… dramas lie ahead as the nasty fiscal arithmetic of imperial decline drives yet another great power over the edge of chaos. ~ Niall Ferguson, July 28, 2010

The nasty fiscal arithmetic of imperial decline that Harvard professor Niall Ferguson refers to is America’s unsustainable debt. Growing levels of debt according to Ferguson are now about to drive the US, like other great powers before it, over the edge of chaos; an event Ferguson believes will come sooner rather than later.

…most imperial falls are associated with fiscal crises…empires behave like all complex adaptive systems. They function in apparent equilibrium for some unknowable period. And then, quite abruptly, they collapse.

In 2010 the U.S. government is expected to issue almost as much new debt as all other governments, around the world, combined.

The resemblance between the above chart and the following is obvious – except, of course, to those in denial. [see them side by side here]

The US borrows 45% of all moneys borrowed by all governments and spends virtually that same percentage of global military spending. Beginning in 1980, President Reagan started the US on the road to financial collapse, borrowing heavily in order to fund the US military buildup, an act of fiscal irresponsibility that would later prove fatal. In his two terms, Reagan increased the US national debt by 258%, the cost of which would be the loss of America’s economic power-base.

After WWII, both the USSR and the US spent vast amounts of their respective GDPs on military expenditures. Bankrupted, the USSR collapsed in 1992. Three decades later, the US now faces the same fate.

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America’s pending bankruptcy reflects America’s shift from the world’s creditor to its largest debtor. Prior to Reagan’s military buildup, the US did not need to borrow to support the global deployment of its military; instead, in order to do so the US spent its entire hoard of gold – 21,775 tons.

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The only gold the US now possesses is there because in 1971 the US refused to convert its remaining gold for dollars as required under Bretton-Woods; and by the time Reagan was elected, the US could pay for its global military force only by indebting itself to others

When Reagan took office, total US debt was $980 billion. Today, the budget deficit for this fiscal year alone is projected to be $1.4 trillion. After the Reagan presidency, the US accelerated its spending until sovereign default or currency debasement are its only options.


The Emperor has no clothes, i.e. the empire has no money

The publication of Rogoff and Reinhart’s seminal work on sovereign debt in 2008 predated the sovereign debt crisis by two years; and if Rogoff and Reinhart were not surprised, they would be surprised that it would be industrialized nations that would find themselves under the scrutiny of global debt collectors.

In 2010, sovereign default concerns unexpectedly shifted from developing nations, i.e. Rogoff and Reinhart’s sovereign rite of passage, to industrialized nations – Greece, Spain, Italy, the UK, the US, and Japan etc.

The shift in sovereign debt concerns was accompanied by another extraordinary shift. Between 2000 and 2010, China became America’s creditor as well as its sweatshop; and China knows that the US owes so much money that only by borrowing more can it pay what it owes, a condition economist Hyman Minsky called ponzi-financing, the last stage prior to debtor default.

In truth, the US is not the default virgin described in Rogoff and Reinhart’s study. The US default on its gold obligations was perhaps the most important monetary default in history, plunging the entire world into a regimen of fiat money against its will.

Sovereign default, however, is not the only strategy available to the US regarding its unpayable debt. The US could alternatively pay down its massive obligations by debasing its currency, a strategy wherein the US would pay its creditors with increasingly worthless US dollars – to the US, a far more convenient solution.

This is why China is worried – and the rest of the world (including Americans) should be worried too.

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August 9, 2010

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