Monetary Madness

A half century ago, President Richard Nixon closed the gold window. American citizens had been prohibited from owning gold since the early 1930s, but foreign governments could exchange their extra dollars for gold. France tried to make a run on the US gold supply so the American government was forced to break the final link between the dollar and gold, thus ending the gold standard. This set off a chain of events that eventually led to what has been known as the petro-dollar.

Nixon was forced to break the gold peg because it was a fiction. In theory, the amount of dollars in circulation reflected the amount of gold held by the United States, but in reality, the American government had been printing as much money as they thought they needed. The reason the French were racing to redeem their dollars for gold was that they knew the peg was a lie. Once that lie was fully understood, a run on the dollar and global monetary collapse was possible.

It is a good lesson about the reality of the gold standard. It was an example of the old adage that if you need a gold standard to control a corrupt government, that government is corrupt enough to find a way around it. Much of the good living of the post-war years was due to expansionary monetary policy. The cost of that was paid in the 1970’s with spasm of inflation and finally a recession in the early 1980’s that supposedly put monetary policy back in order.

The thing is the money printing after the war was not a problem because those extra dollars could find a home in the expanding American economy and most especially in the rebuilding of Europe. The dollar was the world reserve currency so everyone in the world was willing to take dollars for payment. Europe was in rubble and needed rebuilding, so the demand for dollars seemed endless. As a result, the United States supplied as many dollars as was needed.

The monetary crisis on the 1970’s was due in large part to the fact that Europe had recovered and no longer needed a flood of dollars. The trouble was the American economy was dependent on the expansion of the money supply. The subsequent negotiations that ended with the petro-dollar and the Louvre Accords was supposed to solve this problem. Instead, it merely shifted the target for extra dollars to low labor cost areas like Asia and South America.

That has been the story of the last thirty years. American manufacturing, technology and services have been shifted to low cost areas. The extra dollars followed them in the form of investment, thus keeping inflation in the United States low. The dollars not soaked up in these countries came back in the form of investments in treasuries, equities and real estate. The system let the government expand and asset values to mushroom, without creating retail inflation.

Like the 1970’s, the place for the extra dollars is drying up. That means they are flowing back in the form of inflation. China is no longer the cheap labor economy desperate for investments, so they are not soaking up extra dollars. In fact, China is a maturing economy determined to shift from exports to domestic consumption. It is also not willing to accept inflation from the United States and Europe. The result is too much money in the West creating an inflation spiral.

It is not the only reason for inflation. Stimulus policies aimed at sustaining the standard of living against economic reality are a big driver. The supply chain crisis that is the result of decades of outsourcing is another driver. Then you have the berserk response to the crisis in Ukraine, which is creating havoc in fuel and energy markets. In a complex system like the global economy, there are always many contributing factors to the things we see in the marketplace.

One way to look at the current economic crisis is as a consequence of the Second World War and the subsequent Cold War. The half century long state of war in the United States and the West resulted in an economic system designed to wage global war without operating a war economy. When the war ended, there was no great demobilization and normalization. The cost was seen as too high, so American leaders found what looked like a cheap way to avoid it.

Unlike the 1970’s, the short term solution for the present inflation is not a contraction of the money supply. The Federal Reserve is carrying trillions of assets on its balance sheet which it has to unload. It will now be selling those into a rapidly declining market, as asset prices have been artificially sustained with the combination of free credit and the flows of extra dollars into assets. The Fed could easily set off a collapse in asset values and a global credit crisis if it is not cautious.

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