When it comes to the world of international finance, Jim Rickards has quite nearly seen it all. As a young man, he worked for Citibank in Pakistan, of all places. In the 1990s, he served as General Counsel for Long-Term Capital Management, Jim Merriwether’s large, notorious hedge fund that collapsed spectacularly in 1998. In recent years, he has been a regular participant in Pentagon ‘wargames’, in particular those incorporating financial or currency warfare in some way, and he has served as an advisor to the US intelligence community.
Yet while his experiences are vast in breadth, they have all occurred within the historically narrow confines of a peculiar international monetary regime, one lacking a gold- or silver-backed international reserve currency. Yes, reserve currencies have come and gone through history, but it is the US dollar, and only the US dollar, that has ever served as an unbacked global monetary reserve.
Nevertheless, in CURRENCY WARS and THE DEATH OF MONEY, Jim does an excellent job of exploring pertinent historical parallels to the situation as it exists today, in which the international monetary regime has been critically undermined by a series of crises and flawed policy responses thereto. He also applies not only economic but also complexity theory to provide a framework and deepen understanding.
As for what happens next, he does have a few compelling ideas, as we explore in the following pages. To begin, however, we explore what it was that got him interested in international monetary relations in the first place.
BACK TO THE 1970S: THE DECADE OF DISCO AND DOLLAR CRISES
JB: Jim, you might recall the rolling crises of the 1970s, beginning with the ‘Nixon Shock’ in 1971, when the US ‘closed the gold window’, to the related oil shocks and then the de facto global ‘run on the dollar’ at the end of the decade. At the time, as a student, did you have a sense as to what was happening, or any inclination to see this as the dollar’s first real test as an unbacked global monetary reserve? Did these events have any influence on your decision to study international economics and to work in finance?
JR: I was a graduate student in international economics in 1972-74, and a law student from 1974-77, so my student years coincided exactly with the most tumultous years of the combined oil, inflation and dollar crises of the 1970s. Most observers know that Nixon closed the gold window in 1971, but that was not considered the end of the gold standard at the time. Nixon said he was ‘temporarily’ suspending convertibility, but the dollar was still officially valued at 1/35th of an ounce of gold. It was not until 1975 that the IMF officially demonitised gold although, at French insistence, gold could still be counted as part of a country’s reserve position. I was in the last class of students who were actually taught about gold as a monetary asset. Since 1975, any student who learns anything about gold as money is self-taught because it is no longer part of any economics curriculum. During the dark days of the dollar crisis in 1977, I spoke to one of my international law professors about whether the Deutschemark would replace the dollar as the global reserve currency. He smiled and said, “No, there aren’t enough of them.” That was an important lesson in the built-in resilience of the dollar and the fact that no currency could replace the dollar unless it had a sufficiently large, liquid bond market – something the euro does not yet have to this day. From law school I joined Citibank as their international tax counsel. There is no question that my academic experiences in a period of borderline hyperinflation and currency turmoil played a powerful role in my decision to pursue a career in international finance.
JB: As you argued in CURRENCY WARS and now again in THE DEATH OF MONEY, the US debt situation, public and private, is now critical. It would be exceedingly difficult for another Paul Volcker to arrive at the Federal Reserve and shore up confidence in the system with high real interest rates. But why has it come to this? Why is it that the ‘power of the printing press’ has been so abused, so corrupted? Is this due to poor federal governance, as David Stockman argues in THE GREAT DEFORMATION? Is it due to the incompetence or ignorance of the series of Federal Reserve officials who failed to appreciate the threat of global economic imbalances? Or is it due perhaps to a fundamental flaw in the US economic and monetary policy regime itself?
JR: It is still possible to strengthen the dollar and cement its position as the keystone of the international financial system, but not without costs. Reducing money printing and raising interest rates would strengthen the dollar, but they would pop the asset bubbles in stocks and housing that have been re-created since 2009. This would also put the policy problem in the laps of Congress and the White House where it belongs. The problems in the economy today are structural, not liquidity-related. The Fed is trying to solve structural problems with liquidity solutions. That will never work, but it might destroy confidence in the dollar in the process. Federal Reserve officials have misperceived the problem and misapprehend the statistical properties of risk. They are using equilbirium models in a complex system. (Ed note: Complexity Theory explores the fundamental properties of dynamic rather than equilibrium systems and how they react and adapt to exogenous or endogenous stimuli.) That is also bound to fail. Fiat money can work but only if money issuance is rule-based and designed to maintain confidence. Today’s Fed has no rule and is destroying confidence. Based on present policy, a complete loss of confidence in the dollar and a global currency crisis is just a matter of time.
JB: Thinking more internationally, the dollar is in quite good company. ‘Abenomics’ in Japan appears to have failed to confer any meaningful, lasting benefits and has further undermined what little confidence was left in the yen; China’s bursting credit and investment bubble threatens the yuan; the other BRICS have similar if less dramatic credit excess to work off; and while the European Central Bank and most EU fiscal authorities have been highly restrained for domestic political reasons in the past few years, there are signs that this may be about to change. Clearly this is not a situation in which countries can easily trust one another in monetary matters. But as monetary trust supports trust in trade and commerce generally, isn’t it just a matter of time before the currency wars of today morph into the trade wars of tomorrow? And wouldn’t a modern-day Smoot-Hawley be an unparalleled disaster for today’s globalised, highly-integrated economy?
JR: Currency wars can turn into trade wars as happened in the 1920s and 1930s. Such an outcome is certainly possible today. The root cause is lack of growth on a global basis. When growth is robust, large countries don’t care if smaller trading partners grab some temporary advantage by devaluing their currencies. But when global growth in anemic, as it is now, a positive sum game becomes a zero-sum game and trading partners fight for every scrap of growth. Cheapening your currency, which simultaneously promotes exports and imports inflation via the cross rate mechanism, is a tempting strategy when there’s not enough growth to go around. We are already seeing a twenty-first century version of Smoot-Hawley in the form of economic sanctions imposed on major countries like Iran and Russia by the United States. This has more to do with geopolitics than economics, but the result is the same – reduced global growth that makes the existing depression even worse.
JB: You may recall that, in my book, THE GOLDEN REVOLUTION, I borrow your scenario of how Russia could, conceivably, undermine the remaining international trust in the dollar with a pre-emptive ‘monetary strike’ by backing the rouble with gold. Do you regard the escalating situation in Ukraine, as well as US policies in much of the Black Sea/Caucasus/Caspian region generally, as a potential trigger for such a move?
JR: There is almost no possibility that either the Russian rouble or the Chinese yuan can be a global reserve currency in the next ten years. This is because both Russia and China lack a good rule or law and a well-developed liquid bond market. Both things are required for reserve curreny status. The reason Russia and China are acquiring gold and will continue to do so is not to launch a new gold-backed currency, but rather to hedge their dollar positions and reduce their dependence on dollar reserves. If there is a replacement for the dollar as the leading reserve currency, it will either be the euro, the special drawing right (SDRs), or perhaps a new currency devised by the BRICS.
JB: Leaving geo-politics aside for the moment, you mention right at the start of THE DEATH OF MONEY, citing the classic financial thriller ROLLOVER, that even non-state actors could, perhaps for a variety of reasons, spontaneously begin to act in ways that, given the fragility of the current global monetary order, cascade into a run on the dollar and rush to accumulate gold. If you were to do a remake of ROLLOVER today, how would you structure the plot? Who could be the first to begin selling dollars and accumulating gold? Who might join them? What would be the trigger that turned a trickle of dollar selling into a flood? How might the US government respond?
JR: If Rollover were re-made today, it would not be a simple Arab v. US monetary plot. The action would be multilateral including Russia, China, Iran, the Arabs and others. Massive dumping of dollars might be the consequence but it would not be the cause of the panic. A more likely scenario is something entirely unexpected such as a failure to deliver physical gold by a major gold exchange or dealer. That would start panic buying of gold and dumping of dollars. Another scenario might begin with a real estate collapse and credit crash in China. That could cause a demand shock for gold among ordinary Chinese investors, which would cause a hyperbolic price spike in gold. A rising gold price is just the flip side of a collapsing dollar.
JB: This entire discussion all follows from the fragility of the current international monetary system. Were the system more robust, we could leave the dollar crisis topic to Hollywood for entertainment rather than to treat it with utmost concern for personal, national or even international security. But what is it that makes systems fragile? Authors ranging from George Gilder (KNOWLEDGE AND POWER), to Joseph Tainter (THE COLLAPSE OF COMPLEX SOCIETIES) and even Edward Gibbon (THE RISE AND FALL OF THE ROMAN EMPIRE) have applied such thinking to ancient and modern economies and societies. They all conclude that, beyond a certain point, centralisation of power is destabilising. Does this mean that a robust monetary system would ‘de-centralise’ monetary power? Isn’t this incompatible with any attempt by the G20 and IMF to transform the Special Drawing Right (SDR) from a unit of account into a centrally-managed, global reserve currency?
JR: Yes. Complex systems collapse because increases in complexity require exponential increases in energy to maintain the system. Energy can take many forms including money, which can be thought of as a form of stored energy. We are already past the point where there is enough real money to support the complexity of the financial system. Elites are now resorting to psuedo-money such as deriviatives and other forms of leverage to keep the system going but even that will collapse in time. The proper solution is to reduce the complexity of the system and restore the energy/money inputs to a sustainable level. This means reducing leverage, banning most derivatives and breaking up big banks. None of this is very likely because it cuts against the financial interests of the power elites who run the system. Therefore a continued path toward near-term collapse is the most likely outcome.
JB: In CURRENCY WARS you make plain that, although you are highly critical of the current economic policy mainstream for a variety of reasons, you are an agnostic when it comes to economic theory. Yet clearly you draw heavily on economists of the Austrian School (eg Hayek) and in THE DEATH OF MONEY you even mention the pre-classicist and proto-Austrian Richard Cantillon. While I doubt you are a closet convert to the Austrian School, could you perhaps describe what it is about it that you do find compelling, vis-à-vis the increasingly obvious flaws of current, mainstream economic thinking?
JR: There is much to admire in Austrian economics. Austrians are correct that central planning is bound to fail and free markets produce optimal solutions to the problem of scarce resources. Complexity Theory as applied to capital markets is just an extension of that thinking with a more rigorous scientific foundation. Computers have allowed complexity theorists to conduct experiments that were beyond the capabilities of early Austrians. The results verify the intuition of the Austrians, but frame the issue in formal mathematical models that are useful in risk management and portfolio allocation. If Ludwig von Mises were alive today he would be a complexity theorist.
JB: You may have heard the old Irish adage of the young man, lost in the countryside, who happens across an older man and asks him for directions to Dublin, to which the old man replies, unhelpfully, “Well I wouldn’t start from here.” If you were tasked with trying, as best you could, to restore monetary stability to the United States and by extension the global economy, how would you go about it? You have suggested devaluing the dollar (or other currencies) versus gold to a point that would make the existing debt burdens, public and private, credibly serviceable. But does this solve the fundamental systemic problem? What is to stop the US and global economy from printing excessive money and leveraging up all over again, and in a decade or two facing the same issues, only on a grander scale? Is there a better system? Could a proper remonetisation of gold a la the classical gold standard do the trick? Might there be a role for new monetary technology such as cryptocurrency?
JR: The classic definition of money involves three functions: store of value, medium of exchange and unit of account. Of these, store of value is the most important. If users have confidence in value then they will accept the money as a medium of exchange. The unit of account function is trivial. The store of value is maintained by trust and confidence. Gold is an excellent store of value because it is scarce and no trust in third parties is required since gold is an asset that is not simultaneously the liability of another party. Fiat money can also be a store of value if confidence is maintained in the party issuing the money. The best way to do that is to use a monetary rule. Such rules can take many forms including gold backing or a mathematical formula linked to inflation. The problem today is that there is no monetary rule of any kind. Also, trust is being abused in the effort to create inflation, which is form of theft. As knowledge of this abuse of trust becomes more widespread, confidence will be lost and the currency will collapse. Cryptocurrencies offer some technological advantages but they also rely on confidence to mainatin value and, in that sense, they are not an improvement on traditional fiat currencies. Confidence in cryptocurrencies is also fragile and can easily be lost. It is true that stable systems have failed repeatedly and may do so again. The solution for individual investors is to go on a personal gold standard by acquiring physical gold. That way, they will preserve wealth regardless of the monetary rule or lack thereof pursued by monetary authorities.
JB: Thanks Jim for your time. I’m sure it is greatly appreciated by all readers of the Amphora Report many of whom have probably already acquired a copy of THE DEATH OF MONEY.
In a world of rapidly escalating crises in several regions, all of which have a clear economic or financial dimension, Jim’s answers to the various questions above are immensely helpful. The world is changing rapidly, arguably more rapidly that at any time since the implosion of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s. Yet back then, the changes had the near-term effect of strengthening rather than weakening the dominant US position in global geopolitical, economic and monetary affairs. Today, the trend is clearly the opposite.
Jim’s use of Complexity Theory specifically is particularly helpful, as the balance of power now shifts away from the US, destabilising the entire system. Were the US economy more robust and resilient, perhaps a general global rebalancing could be a gradual and entirely peaceful affair. But with the single most powerful actor weakening not only in relative but arguably in absolute terms, for structural reasons Jim explains above, the risks of a disorderly rebalancing are commensurately greater.
The more disorderly the transition, however, the less trust will exist between countries, at least for a time, and as Jim points out it is just not realistic for either the Russian rouble or Chinese yuan to replace the dollar any time soon. As I argue in THE GOLDEN REVOLUTION, this makes it highly likely that as the dollar’s share of global trade declines, not only will other currencies be competing with the dollar; all currencies, including the dollar, will increasingly be competing with gold. There is simply nothing to prevent one or more countries lacking trust in the system to demand gold or gold-backed securities of some kind in exchange for exports, such as oil, gas or other vital commodities.
Jim puts the IMF’s SDR forward as a possible alternative, but here, too, he is sceptical there is sufficient global cooperation at present to turn the SDR into a functioning global reserve currency. The world may indeed be on the path to monetary collapse, as Jim fears, but history demonstrates that collapse leads to reset and renewal, and in this case it seems more likely that not that gold will provide part of the necessary global monetary foundation, at least during the collapse, reset and renewal period. Once trust in the new system is sufficient, perhaps the world will once again drift away from gold, and perhaps toward unbacked cryptocurrencies such as bitcoin, but it seems unlikely that a great leap forward into the monetary unknown would occur prior to a falling-back onto what is known to have provided for the relative monetary and economic stability that prevailed prior to the catastrophic First World War, which as readers may note began 100 years ago this month.