29 November 2009

The 38 Year Cycle in US Monetary History

I am not a big believer in comprehensive cycle theory. The weakness of cycles is the same as all systems that seek to impose an external order on natural events and occurrences: one can always find something to fit in a less than rigorously defined methodology. This applies from biblical prophecy codes based on the placement of words and letters, to cycle and wave theories with a wide range of alternatives.

However, I also believe in what call 'generational memory.'  People as a group often forget the lessons of the past, and human nature being what it is, events based on bad judgement and reckless behaviour seem to recur at regular intervals.  Or as J.K.Galbraith observed, there are essentially no new financial frauds, just new variations on the established themes.

If there was any 'tell' for the current crisis, it was the general overturning of the safeguards for the financial system that had been put in place in the aftermath of the financial panic of 1929 and the Great Depression that followed, culminating in the eventual overturn of Glass-Steagall and the ascendancy of extreme leverage using exotic, unregulated instruments.

This is why we call this a generational change. This is no slump, and not even a common recession. And it is far from over.

We are experiencing some major changes that are easily lost when one only looks at the day to day moves, listens to the description of events on the mainstream media, and of course, have a lack of memory, a knowledge of history, of things that have happened to their grandfathers and great grandfathers. The arrogant ignorance of so many still in place is a sure sign of greater chastisement to come, until the lessons of history are learned again, and the system is brought back into a sustainable balance.

The story is still being written, and history will have its say over time. But it will likely include the reckless expansion of credit by the Greenspan Fed, the lapses in financial regulation, the overturn of Glass-Steagall, and the financial scandals including LTCM, Enron, Worldcom, culminating in the failure of the US banking system which began in 2007 including the de facto nationalization of the banks.

The loss of confidence in the informal Bretton Woods II arrangement with the dollar as the world's reserve currence with the rise of alternatives, precipitated by the unprecedented expansion of the monetary base by the Bernanke Fed including the monetization of private debts, will be the hallmark of the crisis from a monetary perspective.
Nixon Closes the Gold Window on Bretton Woods

"The Nixon Shock was a series of economic measures taken by U.S. President Richard Nixon in 1971 including unilaterally canceling the direct convertibility of the United States dollar to gold that essentially ended the existing Bretton Woods system of international financial exchange.

By the early 1970s, as the costs of the Vietnam War and increased domestic spending accelerated inflation, the U.S. was running a balance of payments deficit and a trade deficit, the first in the 20th century. The year 1970 was the crucial turning point, which, because of foreign arbitrage of the U.S. dollar, caused governmental gold coverage of the paper dollar to decline 33 percentage points, from 55% to 22%. That, in the view of Neoclassical Economists and the Austrian School, represented the point where holders of the U.S. dollar lost faith in the U.S. government’s ability to cut
its budget and trade deficits.

In 1971, the U.S. government again printed more dollars (a 10% increase) and then sent them overseas, to pay for the nation's military spending particularly in Vietnam and private investments. In May 1971, inflation-wary West Germany was the first member country to leave the Bretton Woods system — unwilling to deflate the deutsche mark to prop up the dollar.

Because of the excess printed dollars, and the negative U.S. trade balance, other nations began demanding fulfillment of America’s “promise to pay” - that is, the redemption of their dollars for gold. On 5 August 1971, Congress released a report recommending devaluation of the dollar, in an effort to protect the dollar against foreign speculators.

To stabilize the economy and combat runaway inflation, on August 15, 1971, President Nixon imposed a 90-day wage and price freeze, a 10 per cent import surcharge, and, most importantly, “closed the gold window”, ending convertibility between US dollars and gold. The President and fifteen advisors made that decision without consulting the members of the international monetary system, thus the
international community informally named it the Nixon shock.

Given the importance of the announcement — and its impact upon foreign currencies — presidential advisors recalled that they spent more time deciding when to publicly announce the controversial plan, than they spent creating the plan. He was advised that the practical decision was to make an announcement before the stock markets opened on Monday (and just when Asian markets also were opening trading for the day). On August 15, 1971, that speech and the price-control plans proved very popular and raised the public's spirit. The President was credited with finally rescuing the American public from price-gougers, and from a foreign-caused exchange crisis." Wikipedia

1933 - 1934
Suspension of the Gold Standard and Dollar Devaluation

"In early 1933, in order to fight severe deflation Congress and President Roosevelt implemented a series of Acts of Congress and Executive Orders which suspended the gold standard except for foreign exchange, revoked gold as universal legal tender for debts, and banned private ownership of significant amounts of gold coin. These acts included Executive Order 6073, the Emergency Banking Act, Executive Order 6102, Executive Order 6111, the Agricultural Adjustment Act, 1933 Banking Act, House Joint Resolution 192, and later the Gold Reserve Act. This set up the devaluation of the dollar. In early 1934 F.D.R. increased the price of gold by 69%($20.67 to $35/oz). This represented a 41% devaluation of the US dollar." Dollar Devaluation in 1934, I. M. Vronsky

Gold Panic: U.S. Gold Supply Running Dry

"The early 1890s were not kind to America's gold reserves...Coupled with declining revenues triggered by various protective tariffs, the reserves plummeted, taking a severe toll on the economy. In 1893, the falling gold supply helped spark a debilitating financial crisis known as the Panic of 1893...By February 8, 1895, the gold supplies had thinned out to a paltry $41 million.

With the U.S. Treasury teetering on the brink of bankruptcy, Cleveland intervened, and using a syndicate led by J.P. Morgan as an intermediary and U.S. bonds as bait, attempted to buy back gold from foreign investors. Cleveland sold roughly sixty-two million dollars worth of bonds, valued at 3.75 percent, to Morgan's syndicate. Morgan and company in turn shopped the issues to foreign parties for a handsome profit. Although clearly borne of desperation, the deal nonetheless provided some badly needed relief: it briefly spelled the gold crunch and saved the Treasury from disaster. " This Day in History

The Panic of 1857

"The Panic of 1857 abruptly ended the boom times that followed the Mexican War. The immediate event that touched off the panic was the failure of the New York branch of the Ohio Life Insurance and Trust Co., a major financial force that collapsed following massive embezzlement. Hard on the heels of this event arrived other setbacks that shook the public's confidence...

Widespread railroad failures occurred, an indication of how badly over-built the American system had become. Land speculation programs collapsed with the railroads, ruining thousands of investors.

Confidence was further shaken in September when 30,000 pounds of gold were lost at sea in a shipment from the San Francisco Mint to eastern banks. More than 400 lives were lost as well as a loss of public confidence in the government's ability to back its paper currency with specie.

In October, a bank holiday was declared in New England and New York in a vain effort to avert runs on those institutions. Eventually the panic and depression spread to Europe, South America and the Far East. No recovery was evident in the United States for a year and a half and the full impact did not dissipate until the Civil War."

The Panic of 1819

"The causes of the Panic of 1819 were the first to largely originate within the U.S. economy. The resulting crisis caused widespread foreclosures, bank failures, unemployment, and a slump in agriculture and manufacturing. It marked the end of the economic expansion that had followed the War of 1812. However, things would change for the US economy after the Second Bank of the United States was founded in 1816, in response to the spread of bank notes across United States from private banks, due to inflation brought on by the debt following the war.

In the event, President Monroe, interpreting the economic crisis in the narrow monetary terms then current, limited governmental action to economizing and ensuring fiscal stability. He acquiesced in suspension of specie (gold) payments to bank depositors, setting a precedent for the Panics of 1837 and 1857."