Tuesday, July 27, 2010

The Death of Paper Money

By Ambrose Evans-Pritchard
The Telegraph, London
Sunday, July 25, 2010


As they prepare for holiday reading in Tuscany, City bankers are buying up rare copies of an obscure book on the mechanics of Weimar inflation published in 1974.

Ebay is offering a well-thumbed volume of "Dying of Money: Lessons of the Great German and American Inflations" at a starting bid of $699 (shipping free ... thanks a lot).

The crucial passage comes in Chapter 17 entitled "Velocity." Each big inflation -- whether the early 1920s in Germany, or the Korean and Vietnam wars in the US -- starts with a passive expansion of the quantity money. This sits inert for a surprisingly long time. Asset prices may go up, but latent price inflation is disguised. The effect is much like lighter fuel on a camp fire before the match is struck.

People’s willingness to hold money can change suddenly for a "psychological and spontaneous reason," causing a spike in the velocity of money. It can occur at lightning speed, over a few weeks. The shift invariably catches economists by surprise. They wait too long to drain the excess money.

"Velocity took an almost right-angle turn upward in the summer of 1922," said Mr O. Parsson. Reichsbank officials were baffled. They could not fathom why the German people had started to behave differently almost two years after the bank had already boosted the money supply. He contends that public patience snapped abruptly once people lost trust and began to "smell a government rat."

Some might smile at the Bank of England "surprise" at the recent the jump in Brtiish inflation. Across the Atlantic, Fed critics say the rise in the US monetary base from $871 billion to $2,024 billion in just two years is an incendiary pyre that will ignite as soon as US money velocity returns to normal.

Morgan Stanley expects bond carnage as this catches up with the Fed, predicting that yields on US Treasuries will rocket to 5.5 percent. This has not happened so far. Ten-year yields have fallen below 3 percent, and M2 velocity has remained at historic lows of 1.72.

As a signed-up member of the deflation camp, I think the Bank and the Fed are right to keep their nerve and delay the withdrawal of stimulus -- though that case is easier to make in the US where core inflation has dropped to the lowest since the mid-1960s. But fact that O Parsson’s book is suddenly in demand in elite banking circles is itself a sign of the sort of behavioral change that can become self-fulfilling.

As it happens, another book from the 1970s entitled "When Money Dies: the Nightmare of The Weimar Hyper-Inflation" has just been reprinted. Written by former Tory European Parliament Member Adam Fergusson -- endorsed by Warren Buffett as a must-read -- it is a vivid account drawn from the diaries of those who lived through the turmoil in Germany, Austria, and Hungary as the empires were broken up.

Near civil war between town and country was a pervasive feature of this break-down in social order. Large mobs of half-starved and vindictive townsmen descended on villages to seize food from farmers accused of hoarding. The diary of one young woman described the scene at her cousin’s farm.

"In the cart I saw three slaughtered pigs. The cowshed was drenched in blood. One cow had been slaughtered where it stood and the meat torn from its bones. The monsters had slit the udder of the finest milch cow, so that she had to be put out of her misery immediately. In the granary, a rag soaked with petrol was still smouldering to show what these beasts had intended," she wrote.

Grand pianos became a currency or sorts as pauperized members of the civil service elites traded the symbols of their old status for a sack of potatoes and a side of bacon. There is a harrowing moment when each middle-class families first starts to undertand that its gilt-edged securities and War Loan will never recover. Irreversible ruin lies ahead. Elderly couples gassed themselves in their apartments.

Foreigners with dollars, pounds, Swiss francs, or Czech crowns lived in opulence. They were hated. "Times made us cynical. Everybody saw an enemy in everybody else," said Erna von Pustau, daughter of a Hamburg fish merchant.

Great numbers of people failed to see it coming. "My relations and friends were stupid. They didn't understand what inflation meant. Our solicitors were no better. My mother's bank manager gave her appalling advice," said one well-connected woman.

"You used to see the appearance of their flats gradually changing. One remembered where there used to be a picture or a carpet, or a secretaire. Eventually their rooms would be almost empty. Some of them begged -- not in the streets -- but by making casual visits. One knew too well what they had come for."

Corruption became rampant. People were stripped of their coat and shoes at knife-point on the street. The winners were those who -- by luck or design -- had borrowed heavily from banks to buy hard assets, or industrial conglomerates that had issued debentures. There was a great transfer of wealth from saver to debtor, though the Reichstag later passed a law linking old contracts to the gold price. Creditors clawed back something.

A conspiracy theory took root that the inflation was a Jewish plot to ruin Germany. The currency became known as "Judefetzen" ("Jew confetti"), hinting at the chain of events that wouild lead to Kristallnacht a decade later.

While the Weimar tale is a timeless study of social disintegration, it cannot shed much light on events today. The final trigger for the 1923 collapse was the French occupation of the Ruhr, which ripped a great chunk out of German industry and set off mass resistance.

Lloyd George suspected that the French were trying to precipitate the disintegration of Germany by sponsoring a break-away Rhineland state (as indeed they were). For a brief moment rebels set up a separatist government in Dusseldorf. With poetic justice, the crisis recoiled against Paris and destroyed the franc.

The Carthaginian peace of Versailles had by then poisoned everything. It was a patriotic duty not to pay taxes that would be sequestered for reparation payments to the enemy. Influenced by the Bolsheviks, Germany had become a Communist cauldron. Spartakists tried to take Berlin. Worker "soviets" proliferated. Dockers and shipworkers occupied police stations and set up barricades in Hamburg. Communist Red Centuries fought deadly street battles with right-wing militia.

Nostalgics plotted the restauration of Bavaria's Wittelsbach monarchy and the old currency, the gold-backed thaler. The Bremen Senate issued its own notes tied to gold. Others issued currencies linked to the price of rye.

This is not a picture of America, Britain, or Europe in 2010. But we should be careful of embracing the opposite and overly-reassuring assumption that this is a mild replay of Japan's Lost Decade, that is to say a slow and largely benign slide into deflation as debt deleveraging exerts its discipline.

Japan was the world's biggest external creditor when the Nikkei bubble burst 20 years ago. It had a private savings rate of 15 percent of GDP. The Japanese people have gradually cut this rate to 2 percent, cushioning the effects of the long slump. The Anglo-Saxons have no such cushion.

There is a clear temptation for the West to extricate itself from the errors of the Greenspan asset bubble, the Brown credit bubble, and the EMU sovereign bubble by stealth default through inflation. But that is a danger for later years. First we have the deflation shock of lives. Then -- and only then -- will central banks go to far and risk losing control over their printing experiment as velocity takes off. One problem at a time, please.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

An Overview of Pecunix

The July 2010 issue of DGC Magazine has an enticing overview of the Pecunix digital currency system which covers its history, jurisdiction, and governance. Organized and existing under the laws of the Republic of Panama, Pecunix is rapidly becoming one of the trusted, established players in the field of digital currencies and financial privacy.

Pecunix, Part 1

Pecunix, Part 2

From the article:
"When e-gold Ltd. began operating, the concept was to create a closed digital system backed by the value of gold. (even the accounts are denominated in grams and ozs.) The operator of the system would not risk dealing directly with any retail customer and thus not engage in any risky financial transactions with unknown parties.
Consequently, the e-gold operation did not accept any direct customer funds. Retail transactions all flowed through a network of third party independent exchange agents. This set up became a sort of ‘defacto’ DGC model for a number of years. Pecunix still operates today as e-gold did in it’s early years.

Similar to the Federal Reserve which creates the currency but only deals with other banks, this DGC model manages the digital gold currency system but never deals directly with any retail customers. Just as you can’t ‘drive through’ the Federal Reserve Bank and cash your weekly paycheck, you could never send a wire transfer or payment directly to e-gold or Pecunix.

Using this original DGC model, no customer information is ever requested or verified when opening & operating a Pecunix account. The checking of ID, the verification of a customer’s real identity and requesting a source of funds on any transaction... these are all non-existent requirements within the Pecunix system just as they were for e-gold during it’s boom years.

Identical to the original e-gold model, the Pecunix operator is simply responsible for the day to day technical aspects of the online payments and the maintaining of the assets backing the digital units. Since they don’t deal directly with any retail customers the concept is that they should not be required to ‘know’ any of them or ask ‘what’ they do with their funds. This is the basic idea of privacy and freedom that digital gold currency pioneered across the Internet. Physical cash like notes and coins have certain anonymous properties and digital currency systems, in particular, digital gold currency was created to mimic those properties.

The Pecunix digital gold currency system continues to operate today exactly as it did from day one back in 2002. However, because of it’s jurisdiction and certain issues with the Federal Government, e-gold has modified it’s model to include strict verification of all account holders similar to PayPal."

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Honest Money Through Bearer Shares: A Proposal

By kind permission of Paul Birch, The Cobden Centre has reproduced "Honest Money", his essay setting out a proposal for honest money through bearer shares, previously published in October 2000. Paul’s own site may be found here: www.paulbirch.net.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Suiting Up for a Post-Dollar World

By John Browne
Euro Pacific Capital, Inc.
Friday, June 25, 2010


The global financial crisis is playing out like a slow-moving, highly predicable stage play. In the current scene, Western governments are caught between the demands of entitled welfare beneficiaries and the anxiety of bondholders who fear they will be stuck with the bill. As the crisis reaches an apex, prime ministers and presidents are forced into a Sophie's choice between social unrest and bankruptcy. But with the "Club Med" economies set to fall like dominoes, the US Treasury market is not yet acting the role we would have anticipated.

Our argument has always been that the US benefits from its reserve-currency status, allowing it to accumulate unsustainable debts for an unusually long period without the immediate repercussions of inflation or higher borrowing costs. But this false sense of security may be setting us up for a truly monumental crash.

There is fresh evidence that time is running out for the dollar-centric global monetary order. In fact, central banks outside the US are already making swift and discrete preparation for a post-dollar era.

To begin, the People's Bank of China has just this week decided to permit a wider trading range between the yuan and the dollar. This is the first step toward ending the infernal yuan-dollar peg. While the impetus behind this abrupt change remains a mystery, I have a sneaking suspicion that, as my colleague Neeraj Chaudhary explained in his commentary last week, the nationwide labor strikes were a prime motivator.

In response to the 2008 credit crunch, the Fed printed so many dollars that the People's Bank of China was forced to drive Chinese inflation into double digits to maintain the peg. The pain has fallen on China's workers, who have seen their wages stagnate while prices for everything from milk to apartments have skyrocketed. This week's move indicates that, regardless of its own policy motives, the Communist Party can no longer afford to keep pace with the dollar's devaluation. The result will be a shift in wealth from America to China, which may trigger a long-anticipated run on the dollar, while creating investment opportunities in China.

Just days before China's announcement, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev rattled his monetary sabre by telling the press of his intention to lead the world toward a new monetary order based on a broad basket of currencies. Giving strength to his claim, the Central Bank of Russia announced that it would be adding Canadian and Australian dollars to its reserves for the first time. Analysts suggest that the IMF may follow suit. While Russia floats in the limbo between hopeless kleptocracy and emerging economy, it does possess vast natural resources and a toe-hold in both Europe and Asia. In other words, it will be a strategically important partner for China as it tries to cast off dollar hegemony.

Speaking of Europe, the major powers there are moving toward a post-dollar world by rejecting President Obama's calls to jump on America's debt grenade. The prescriptions coming from Washington translate loosely to: our airship is on fire, so why don't you light a candle under yours so that we may crash and burn together. Given that dollar strength is largely seen as a function of euro weakness (as Andrew Schiff discussed in our most recent newsletter, debt troubles in the eurozone's fringe economies have created a distorted confidence in the greenback. However, as you might imagine, Europe has higher priorities than being America's fall guy. Led by an ever-bolder Germany, the European states are wisely choosing not to throw themselves on our funeral pyre, but to wisely clean house in anticipation of China's rise.

In another ominous sign for the dollar, the Financial Times reported Wednesday that after two decades as net sellers of gold, foreign central banks have now become net buyers. What's more, more than half of central bank officials surveyed by UBS didn't think the dollar would be the world's reserve in 2035. Among the predicted replacements were Asian currencies and the euro, but - by far - the favorite was gold. This is supported by Monday's revelation by the Saudi central bank that it had covertly doubled its gold reserves, just about a year after China made a similar admission. There is no reason to assume these are isolated incidents, or that the covert trade of dollars for gold doesn't continue. To the contrary, this is compelling evidence that foreign governments are outwardly supporting the status quo while quietly preparing for the dollar's almost-inevitable devaluation. What people like Paul Krugman believe to be a return to medieval economics may, in fact, be the wave of the future.

In peacetime, hardened troops will likely tolerate a blowhard general for an extended period; but when the artillery opens up with live ordnance, an ineffectual leader risks rapid demotion. The newspapers are now riddled with hints that foreign governments have lost faith in Washington and the dollar reserve system. It seems to me only natural that after a century of war, inflation, and socialism, the next hundred years would belong to those people who hold the timeless values of hard money and fiscal prudence. Unfortunately, our policymakers are not those people.

John Browne is the Senior Market Strategist for Euro Pacific Capital, Inc. Reprinted with permission.

For a more in-depth analysis of our financial problems and the inherent dangers they pose for the U.S. economy and U.S. dollar, read Peter Schiff's 2008 bestseller "The Little Book of Bull Moves in Bear Markets" and his newest release "Crash Proof 2.0: How to Profit from the Economic Collapse." Click here to learn more.