Monday, September 5, 2011

Requiem for the Dollar

Source: The Wall Street Journal

Section 19 of this country's founding monetary legislation, the Coinage Act of 1792, prescribed the death penalty for any official who fraudulently debased the people's money. Is the massive printing of dollar bills to lift Wall Street (and the rest of us, too) off the rocks a kind of fraud? If the U.S. Senate so determines, it may send Mr. Bernanke back home to Princeton. But not even Ron Paul, the Texas Republican sponsor of a bill to subject the Fed to periodic congressional audits, is calling for the Federal Reserve chairman's head.

For most of this country's history, the dollar was exchangeable into gold or silver. "Sound" money was the kind that rang when you dropped it on a counter. For a long time, the rate of exchange was an ounce of gold for $20.67. Following the Roosevelt devaluation of 1933, the rate of exchange became an ounce of gold for $35. After 1933, only foreign governments and central banks were privileged to swap unwanted paper for gold, and most of these official institutions refrained from asking (after 1946, it seemed inadvisable to antagonize the very superpower that was standing between them and the Soviet Union). By the late 1960s, however, some of these overseas dollar holders, notably France, began to clamor for gold. They were well-advised to do so, dollars being in demonstrable surplus. President Richard Nixon solved that problem in August 1971 by suspending convertibility altogether. From that day to this, in the words of John Exter, Citibanker and monetary critic, a Federal Reserve "note" has been an "IOU nothing."

The lifespan of no monetary system since 1880 has been more than 30 or 40 years, including that of my beloved classical gold standard, which perished in 1914. The pure paper dollar regime has been a long time dying. In no phase of American monetary history was every banker so courageous and farsighted as Isaias W. Hellman, a progenitor of an institution called Farmers & Merchants Bank and of another called Wells Fargo. Operating in southern California in the late 1880s, Hellman arrived at the conclusion that the Los Angeles real-estate market was a bubble. So deciding—the prices of L.A. business lots had climbed to $5,000 from $500 in one short year—he stopped lending. The bubble burst, and his bank prospered. Safety and soundness was Hellman's motto. He and his depositors risked their money side-by-side. The taxpayers didn't subsidize that transaction, not being a party to it.

In this crisis, of course, with latter-day Hellmans all too scarce in the banking population, the taxpayers have born an unconscionable part of the risk. Wells Fargo itself passed the hat for $25 billion.

Gold is appreciating in terms of all paper currencies—or, alternatively, paper currencies are depreciating in terms of gold—because the world is losing faith in the tenets of modern central banking. Correctly, the dollar's vast non-American constituency understands that it counts for nothing in the councils of the Fed and the Treasury. If 0% interest rates suit the U.S. economy, 0% will be the rate imposed. Then, too, gold is hard to find and costly to produce. You can materialize dollars with the tap of a computer key.

A proper gold standard promotes balance in the financial and commercial affairs of participating nations. The pure paper system promotes and perpetuates imbalances. Not since 1976 has this country consumed less than it produced (as measured by the international trade balance): a deficit of 32 years and counting. Why has the shortfall persisted for so long? Because the U.S., uniquely, is allowed to pay its bills in the currency that only it may lawfully print. We send it west, to the central banks of our Asian creditors. And they, obligingly, turn right around and invest the dollars in America's own securities. It's as if the money never left home. Stop to ask yourself, American reader: Is any other nation on earth so blessed as we?

There is, however, a rub. The Asian central banks do not acquire their dollars with nothing. Rather, they buy them with the currency that they themselves print. Some of this money they manage to sweep under the rug, or "sterilize," but a good bit of it enters the local payment stream, where it finances today's rowdy Asian bull markets.

Thomson Hankey, a onetime governor of the Bank of England, wrote, "I cannot conceive of anything more likely to encourage rash and imprudent speculation... I am no advocate for any legislative enactments to try and make the trading community more prudent." Hankey believed in the price system. It might pain him to discover that his professional descendants have embraced command and control. "We should have required [banks to hold] more capital, more liquidity," Mr. Bernanke rued in a Senate hearing in 2009. "We should have required more risk management controls." Roll over, Isaias Hellman.

The thing to do, I say, is to restore the nets to the tennis courts of money and finance. Collateralize the dollar—make it exchangeable into something of genuine value. Get the Fed out of the price-fixing business. Replace Ben Bernanke with a latter-day Thomson Hankey. Find—cultivate—battalions of latter-day Hellmans and set them to running free-market banks. There's one more thing: Return to the statute books Section 19 of the 1792 Coinage Act, but substitute life behind bars for the death penalty. It's the 21st century, you know.

This is a Suspicious News Brief. Read more at The Wall Street Journal

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