Monetary Madness - Is the US Monetary System on the Verge of Collapse?

The US monetary system — and by extension, that of much of the developed world — may very well be on the verge of collapse. Falling back on metaphor, while the world’s many financial experts and economists sit around arguing about the direction of the ship of state, most are missing the point that the ship has already hit an iceberg and is taking on water fast.

Yet if you were to raise your hand to ask 99% of the financial intelligentsia whether we might be on the verge of a failure of the dollar-based world monetary system, the response would be thinly veiled derision. Because, as we all know, such a thing is unimaginable!

Think again.

Honestly describing the current monetary system of the United States in just a few words, you could do far worse than stating that it is “money from nothing, cash ex nihilo.”

That’s because for the last 40 years — since Nixon canceled the dollar’s gold convertibility in 1971 — the global monetary system has been based on nothing more tangible than politicians’ promises not to print too much.

Unconstrained, the politicians used the gift of being able to create money out of nothing to launch a parade of politically popular programs, each employing fresh brigades of bureaucrats, with no regard to affordability.

Former VP Cheney, who fashions himself a fiscal conservative, let the mask drop when, in 2002, he stated that “Reagan proved deficits don’t matter.”

Those words were echoed just a few weeks ago, when both former Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan and Obama economic advisor Larry Summers, in separate interviews, said almost the same, paraphrased as, “There is no chance of the US defaulting on its bonds, not when our government can borrow dollars and print new dollars to meet any future obligations.”

Of course, Greenspan and Summers were referring to an overt default — of just not paying — and not to a covert default engineered by inflation. Unfortunately, like virtually all of the power elite, both miss the point that the mountain of debt that has been heaped up since 1971 is fast reaching the point of collapsing like a too-big tailings pile and taking the monetary system down with it.

US Deficit and National Debt

Importantly, the debt shown in this chart whistles past the government’s unfunded liabilities, in particular for the Social Security and Medicare systems. Adding those would quintuple the US government’s acknowledged obligations — to over $60 trillion.

Given the role the US dollar plays as the world’s de facto reserve currency — with all major commodities priced in dollars, and dollars forming the bulk of reserves held by foreign central banks — the dismal shape of the US monetary system spells trouble for the global monetary system.

Making matters worse, following the lead of the United States, governments around the world long ago adopted similar fiat monetary systems. You can see the deficit contagion in this next chart. It is worth noting that the dire condition of the United States now leaves it in the same muddy wallow as Europe’s desperate PIIGS.

General Government Gross Debt

In a recent article in The Telegraph, Ambrose Evans-Pritchard referenced a paper out of the BIS that paints the picture using appropriately stark terms.

Stephen Cecchetti and his team at the Bank for International Settlements have written the definitive paper rebutting the pied pipers of ever-escalating credit.

“The debt problems facing advanced economies are even worse than we thought.”

The basic facts are that combined debt in the rich club has risen from 165pc of GDP thirty years ago to 310pc today, led by Japan at 456pc and Portugal at 363pc.

“Debt is rising to points that are above anything we have seen, except during major wars. Public debt ratios are currently on an explosive path in a number of countries. These countries will need to implement drastic policy changes. Stabilization might not be enough.”

Viewing the situation from another perspective, we turn to the work of Carmen Reinhart and Ken Rogoff, who studied the factors contributing to 29 past sovereign defaults. They found that default or debt restructuring occurred, on average, when external debt reached 73% of gross national product (GNP) and 239% of exports. Using the Reinhart/Rogoff findings, Casey Research Chief Economist Bud Conrad prepared the following chart showing that the US government is already far along on the path to bankruptcy.

External Debt of the US

It’s hard to argue against the contention that the situation is, to be polite, precarious. Given that the obligations of the US government, as well as most of the world’s other large economies, are now impossible to repay and that their reserves are just IOUs backed by nothing, the stage is set for a highly disruptive but entirely necessary do-over of the fiat monetary system.

“Preposterous!” say the lords of finance and masters of all.

Is it?

Of course, these very same mavens completely missed the looming housing crash and the depth and duration of the subsequent crisis — a crisis that is still far from over. In other words, listen to them at your peril, because in our view it’s essential in calibrating your financial affairs to understand that, if history is any guide, we are now well down the road to a collapse in the monetary system.


David Galland,
for The Daily Reckoning