How to Survive Financial Collapse Right Now

L: Doug, last time we spoke, you said quite a bit about debt, in the context of your expectation that the euro is on its way out. At the end of that conversation, you mentioned, of course, that the problem is not limited to Greece, nor the eurozone. America as a country has become a world-class debtor, and many Americans seem to think a maxed-out credit card is a reason to get a higher credit limit, not to economize. It’s like a global epidemic. Let’s talk about debt.

Doug: Sure. This is a story that’s going to end very badly for a lot of people. I’ve said this before, in many different ways, but I think it’s worth saying again, because most people just don’t grok it…

L: Grok. From the Martian word for “drink” and “understand.” In Heinlein’s novels, water was a critical element of Martian culture — makes sense, for a desert planet. When you grok knowledge, as when you drink water, you don’t just hold it in your mouth and spit it out. You take it into yourself, it goes into your blood, and eventually into every cell in your body; it becomes part of you. This is heavy-duty understanding… Sorry for jumping in with the spontaneous lecture. I just suspect many readers will not know the term.

Doug: Or put another way, in the negative case, most people just don’t get what money really is — and what it isn’t. They take it as a given, as part of the cosmic firmament. But it’s not. A prime example of this is the mistaking of debt for money, a phenomenon David Galland pointed out in a Casey’s Daily Dispatch a few weeks ago. This is why the entire world’s monetary system today is headed for a disastrous failure. And this is absolutely inevitable. There’s no way around it.

L: Why?

Doug: Because you can’t use debt as money. As I’ve pointed out before, Aristotle, in the fourth century BC, was the first person to define what money is. And what is it? It’s a store of value and a medium of exchange.

The paper we use today is a medium of exchange — it got that way because governments made it illegal not to accept it — but it’s not a good store of value. And it’s rapidly and radically becoming less of a store of value. What we use as money today is actually not money; it’s currency. Technically, that’s simply a word that indicates a government substitute for money.

What does make for good money? Again, Aristotle gives us the answer. It’s something that has five characteristics: it’s durable and divisible, consistent and convenient, and has value in itself.

L: Some of our readers who’ve studied Austrian economics challenged us on that last bit, last time we talked about gold, because, as the Austrians pointed out, value is subjective. But you don’t mean some sort of value that’s independent of people making value judgments. You mean that people value something that makes for good money, because of its innate qualities — not something “valued” because of government threats of force.

Doug: Right. And for these reasons, gold is almost certainly the best thing to use for money. Not because I say so, nor because Aristotle said so, but because, over time, people have found it to be the most durable, divisible, consistent, convenient, and inherently valuable thing to use. Silver is also good, but it’s less durable because it corrodes. And less convenient, in that it takes about 60 times more of it — at the moment — to offer the same value as gold. Copper is the next traditional step down the ladder.

L: That, plus one reason that’s pertinent today but was not a problem in Aristotle’s world: gold can’t just be printed up on the arbitrary whims of those in power.

Doug: That’s the big one. Using metals as money takes the whole matter out of the hands of the government and its bureaucrats.

L: But we don’t use gold today…

Doug: No, as per David’s example, it’s as though a bunch of friends without any real money started exchanging IOUs for money, and then after a while forgot that the IOUs were supposed to represent, and be redeemed in, real money.

The problem with this is that, in the case of the IOUs between friends, paper is based solely on hope and trust. One can move away, or die, or turn dishonest, or become insolvent — many other things could happen. A guy stuck with a dead man’s IOU has nothing.

With government IOUs, or currencies, it’s worse, because they can increase the number of IOUs in circulation without telling anyone — that’s what inflation is. Since the government creates the IOUs, it gets the benefit of spending them before the inflation they create raises prices, which is basically stealing from the people. And, of course, sometimes governments do “die,” leaving the holders stuck with nothing, just as with the IOUs between friends. In fact, it’s arguably far more likely that such problems will arise from trusting a government to print IOUs than from trusting a friend.

L: Most people feel that they should do right by their friends — government’s don’t have friends, and most see their citizens as being property, like cattle, that require the state’s permission to do anything. Inflating the currency isn’t a crime in their view, just a tool for controlling the dumb masses. But it’s really taxation without representation.

Doug: Sadly so. And since the institution of government is based on force, on compulsion, they feel they have every right to do what they want. They sanitize all types of criminality by saying it’s in “the national interest” or some such poppycock.

L: Okay… but these currencies have worked for a very long time. Why are you right about this and the rest of the world wrong? Why is it inevitable that government currencies will fail?

Doug: [Chuckles] Because governments are not living persons who care and can be motivated to do the right thing. They are collections of individuals — politicians and bureaucrats, not exactly the most desirable types — who pursue their own interests. Regardless of the rhetoric, their interests coincide with the public good only on occasion, like a broken clock being right twice a day. Even in the most enlightened times — even in the best of times — governments have huge incentives to spend more than they take in. These are not the best of times; the population has been trained for generations to expect subsidies and freebies as their due, without regard to who pays or how they will be paid.

I’ll give you an example. When I was on the Phil Donahue Show, the day before the national elections in 1980, I was making the same philosophical points I am now. I explained how they, the taxpayers, would pay for all the goodies — like Social Security and unemployment compensation — that they wanted. A middle-aged guy in the audience asked: “Well, why can’t the government pay for these things?” And the rest of the audience roared approval.

It was then that I first realized that resistance was futile and the situation was basically hopeless. And that someone who can seem perfectly sensible when he’s discussing sports, or the weather, or the state of the roads, was likely to be a moron when it came to economics. And that when he became part of a crowd, it was even worse: he might transform into an imbecile or even an idiot.

Anyway, the dollar has existed for many years, even though it’s degraded over time — first with the creation of the Federal Reserve in 1913, then with the repudiation of domestic gold redeemability in 1933, then with the repudiation of international redeemability in 1971. Even though the government has created trillions of new ones, the dollar is still thought of as some kind of a cosmic standard. In point of fact, it’s no better than the Argentine peso and will have the same fate.

These IOUs have a quite ephemeral reality and are far too easy to create — there’s literally no limit at this point. We don’t even have to actually print them anymore, they’re created by computer strokes — so it’s unrealistic to expect fiscal restraint on the part of any government over time. It’s just too tempting to spend money to make people feel richer than they really are, buying votes.

L: Looking at the deficits and national debt, it certainly seems so.

Doug: The national debt — when was the last time you heard any average person worry about the national debt? Americans have become so used to carrying huge loads of debt around — right out of college with student loans — that it doesn’t even occur to them that there could be any reason for concern over the national debt. It’s an abstraction, like the number of light years to the Andromeda Galaxy.

People used to at least pay attention, though most would say, “It’s not a problem, we owe it to ourselves.” But that was always a delusion. Some people, organized in a club called the government, borrowed it from some other people. But now it’s even more dangerous, because the U.S. government owes it mostly to foreigners: the Chinese, the Japanese, the Taiwanese, and so forth. Americans, who at least theoretically have some interest in keeping the U.S. government straight, are tapped out. So it’s gone to borrow from other societies. And they won’t like it if they are left holding a bunch of worthless IOUs at the end of this experiment.

As the world political situation continues to deteriorate towards something I think will vaguely resemble World War III, the chances are excellent that a U.S. government at the end of its financial rope will default, likely by radically devaluing its dollar. They’re way past thinking in millions. They don’t even think in billions anymore; they’re up to trillions. Soon Obama will have to ask the buffoon he appointed as a science advisor what comes after trillions. Those nice foreigners who gave Americans physical wealth in exchange for pieces of paper are going to find that, indeed, all they got was a bunch of paper. Maybe not even that, but just ledger entries representing pieces of paper.

It’s not just the Chinese and Japanese governments that are going to be unhappy. But hundreds of millions of individuals around the world — in places from Russia to the Congo, to Mexico, to Thailand — that have a trillion of the things under their mattresses, because they justifiably don’t trust their own government’s paper, are going to be even more unhappy with the U.S.

This is big trouble. It’s not just another economic downturn when scores of millions find their life savings go “poof.” What we’re looking at is a cataclysm at some point soon. I hate to sound inflammatory, but I think the situation is much, much more explosive than it appears on the surface, much worse than you see on the TV news.

L: That’s a frightening assessment. But World War III is a topic for another day. As dire as the scenario you paint may be, is it enough to cause currencies to stop functioning as means of exchange? So few people can even conceive of an alternative…

Doug: They probably won’t stop functioning as means of exchange. At least not right away.

Even during Germany’s infamous hyperinflation of the 1920s, or Zimbabwe’s more recent one, in which there were so many zeros after the ones on the bills you couldn’t even count them — people still used the governments’ paper currencies. They still used them! When I was last in Zim, three years ago, we already had to pay for gas with backpacks full of notes; most inconvenient. In the case of Germany, there were still ten- and twenty-mark gold coins available, if not exactly in circulation. People forget that the mark, the franc, the lire, the dollar all used to be names for a certain amount of gold. [Like the pound, all were measures of weight.—ed.]

When World War I started, Germany went off the gold standard — it used to be about five marks equaled a dollar. By 1923 there were trillions to the dollar. Only the Germans who either kept those gold coins under a mattress or had foreign bank accounts still had liquid capital by 1923; everybody else was wiped out. So people didn’t spend their gold if they could avoid it.

That’s what Gresham’s Law is all about. If there is a “legal tender” money — a paper money — floating around, you try to pay your obligations in it. You try to get rid of the hot potato. But you try to get paid in the good stuff and hold on to it. The Weimar inflation of Germany was an utter disaster for that country; it led to all kinds of nastiness.

L: So many people think of Weimar Germany and Zimbabwe as aberrations from far lands, if they think about them at all. Interesting that Germany is at the heart of the euro now, facing Gresham’s Law again.

Doug: It’s been true since at least the days of Rome. But I wonder if it won’t be much more serious this time. All the world’s major currencies are issued by governments of countries that are much more urbanized, with economies that rely mostly on services. In the U.S., the UK, the eurozone, and Japan — all of their currencies are in big trouble for various reasons, and there’s relatively little production of what you might call the basics.

Back in the 1920s, or even a few years ago in Zimbabwe, half of the people still lived on farms, and a lot of people didn’t even have bank accounts, let alone credit cards and pension funds. The demise of the dollar and other paper currencies has got to be much, much more serious than these episodes in the past.

L: Currency regime change hits the global reserve currency — it won’t be easy. Let me come at this a different way. As an advocate of hard money, you understand that inflation of the money supply leads to inflation in prices. If you have 1,000 gold coins in a small village, in the unlikely event that someone digs up enough gold top make 1,000 more gold coins, you now have twice as many coins chasing roughly the same goods, and so prices will go up. But we don’t live in a hard-money economy. We’re off the gold standard. We have fractional reserve banking, we have easy debt financing for individuals, businesses, and governments. So one new dollar gets multiplied and impacts the economy like multiple new dollars. But on the downside, if you have loss of confidence in what amounts to a bunch of currency derivatives, those get wiped out in large swaths, greatly reducing the multiplier effect.

So, is it not possible that we could see the government’s unprecedented creation of trillions of new dollars in debt and currency compensated for by the obliteration of trillions in derivatives, and hence no price inflation?

Doug: That’s a good point. It’s one of the many problems with a paper money system based on credit. All those dollars are created out of nothing — inflation. But when banks fail and bonds are defaulted on, you can get deflation. With a metal money, the money supply grows only about as fast as miners can mine more — which is usually about as fast as the real economy grows. So the value of the money tends to stay constant. Or even go up, in a gentle deflation. That’s a good thing, because it discourages debt and encourages saving. And saving is how either an individual or a society gets wealthy.

But these government officials are now totally out of their depth. I remember in 2007, for once in his life since he became one of the nomenklatura, when Alan Greenspan actually said something clear and understandable. He was no longer chairman of the Fed and was, believe it or not, on the Daily Show, a comedy show. I thought John Stewart did an excellent job when he interviewed him. He asked Greenspan if he knew what the money supply really was — if he knew how big it was. Greenspan, quite candidly, said, “Well, we don’t really know.”

L: I think I found a video of this while you were talking.

Doug: There’s a titanic battle right now between the forces of inflation and deflation. When a big corporation like General Motors, or Fannie or Freddie, defaults on its debt, hundreds of billions of dollars disappear. Assets people thought they had and could have been converted into cash disappear. That’s deflationary. In a sound banking system, in which money is a commodity like gold, money can’t disappear. It can change ownership, but it can’t disappear. But in our current system, it can dry up and blow away as easily as it can be created.

One major problem that stems from this is that some people benefit from government money creation and some don’t. Who gets to spend it first, when it’s most valued, and who gets stuck holding the Old Maid card when it vanishes? It’s usually the little guy — the middle-class guy — who gets hurt when this happens. And in the U.S., the middle class is contracting. The financial gyrations we’re going through are destroying the middle class, which naïvely believes that traditional American values still hold sway and that their government is honest. The lower class has long since lost any values, and the upper class is way too cynical and self-interested to really care. Most middle-class people will end up joining one or the other of these two classes, and that’ll be a moral disaster for the country.

America used to be a place where class wasn’t really important, and you could move between classes easily — not at all like Europe or the Orient. But as the middle class gets squeezed, we’re likely to get class warfare between those on top and those on the bottom.

L: One way to look at the inflation/deflation debate is that even if we do in fact have financial asset destruction — a kind of deflation — on a scale necessary to outdo the truly phenomenal amounts of money creation the U.S. and other governments are engaged in, the implied destruction is just as bad as hyperinflation. The number of banks and other financial institutions that would fail — and with so many people having 401Ks and online brokerage accounts, the number of people whose savings and pension plans would be wiped out — would be truly cataclysmic. That’s what it would take to balance the wanton inflation of the money supply we now see in progress. If that’s the cure, it, too, is deadly.

Doug: I think that’s fair to say. Either way, it’s going to be really serious. As I pointed out a few minutes ago, when you have runaway inflation in a place like Zimbabwe, where most people are living on a subsistence level, people with gardens and chickens will get hurt, but they’ll still get by. It’s not the same when the world’s wealthiest and most advanced economies are falling apart. Americans are going to see a serious drop in their standard of living, which they are completely unprepared for, and it’s going to be a disaster. They don’t have gardens and chickens to tide them over. There’s no way around it.

L: Which brings us back to why. I mean, I’m sure many people can see the picture you’ve painted, but why is it inevitable?

Doug: Because the U.S. government and others like it are between a rock and a hard place. It is simply not a politically acceptable option to step back and let the market correct the gross misallocations and distortions the government has imposed on the economy. They must “do something” — even if they know full well it’s the wrong thing. And “doing something” means spending without raising taxes too much, because they know too much of that will slam the coffin on the economy they are trying to resuscitate. Spending on “stimuli” to “fix” the economy — direct spending on bribes to voters, like extending unemployment “benefits” to years and offering them “free” health care, etc… the way things are structured, the government must spend. Not spending is unthinkable.

There are only two ways to pay for that. They can borrow, which they can only do if they raise interest rates enough to make their bonds attractive, and that, too, would pull the plug on what you so colorfully called the “iron lung economy.” And they can print money, which they can do with some impunity, hoping the bill won’t come due until some other poor fool is in office — but that destroys the dollar sooner or later.

Everything we’ve seen shows that they are doing what is predictable for politicians, since they can appear to be “doing something” with the consequences left to the future: they are destroying the dollar.

The U.S. government is going to be running trillion-dollar deficits as far as the eye can see. Again, they can’t borrow it while keeping interest rates low, so they are going to sell their bonds to themselves, which is to say the Federal Reserve, and inflation is going to explode. There simply is no painless choice, and it’s very close to being totally out of control.

L: What about the apparent recovery of the economy? You dissed “green shoots” in one of our conversations last year, but they seem to be growing more numerous.

Doug: That’s because the government bribed people with that ridiculous “cash for clunkers” program. They gave people $8,000 to buy houses. They are hiring three times as many people to do the census as last time, and the population is not three times as large. And many more bribes. But that’s going to come to an end, and it’s going to get much more grim than it was in the fall of 2008.

L: And this financial apocalypse now, as we termed it last week, is the natural endgame of using fiat currencies instead of real money — this is why you can’t use debt as money.

Doug: That’s why you don’t use debt — IOUs — for money. And those people who are complacent about this, those who read these words and know we’re right but take no action because they can’t believe things will get that bad in America, are going to be very unhappy in the near future.

Readers should do something now, while we’re still in the eye of the storm, while there’s a small cyclical improvement happening, and when most of boobus americanus thinks happy days are here again.

Not only do we have to go through the other side of this storm, but then there’s an even bigger hurricane after that. This is just the beginning of the troubles ahead. Take action now.

L: Financial self-defense 101 — that’s what we teach Casey Research subscribers. But let’s walk through some of the generalities here. Reasonable actions to take would include: buying gold, diversifying assets offshore, and… would you still recommend going to cash with inflation on the way?

Doug: Here’s an easy way to remember it: I would liquidate, consolidate, speculate, and create.

Liquidate: Get rid of any assets you have that might have been favored by the old economy but are likely to be blown away by the new one. That would include speculative real estate holdings in formerly hot markets. Maybe even sell your house, if you can, and rent instead. Or, for sure if you keep your house, get a big mortgage at a fixed low rate that will probably be inflated out of existence. And get rid of your houseful of stuff — the junk filling your basement, your attic, that storage unit you’re renting — anything you don’t really need. Turn it into cash.

Consolidate: Cut your expenses to the bone and consolidate your assets. The best way to do that is to buy gold and silver in cash form (coins) and put them away as savings. The other critical element is getting a major portion of your assets offshore.

Speculate: With the government creating bubbles through its mammoth spending programs, and other bubbles popping, like the collapse of more major corporations, take chances on winning big on bets placed on these trends. It’s possible in such volatile times to make a lot of money, just as you do for subscribers to the International Speculator, and Marin does for the Energy Report.

Create: In the coming years, the world is likely to change as radically as it did entering the industrial revolution. This is going to be a really major change, economically, politically, technologically, demographically, socially, militarily — the whole ball of wax. This is a good time to look around and ask yourself, not, “Who will give me a job?” but, “What goods and services can I provide that people will need in the future and pay me for?” What worked during the late Long Boom won’t work — in order to create, you’re going to have to think creatively.

L: I guess I won’t be working on a business plan to become a personal trainer.

Doug: [Laughs] Nor is becoming a barista a good plan for personal survival at this point.

L: Seriously, I’ve listened to you, Doug. As you know, I’ve decided to buy a lot in your Estancia de Cafayate project in Argentina, I’m consolidating, liquidating, and creating — and speculating, that’s what I breathe, drink, and eat. Thus far, it’s made a huge, positive difference in my life. I sincerely hope our readers are doing or will do the same.

Doug: I know you are. I just wish everyone was as quick a study.

L: Thanks boss. Until next time.

Doug: Talk to you soon.

Doug Casey and Louis James
Whiskey & Gunpowder

March 12, 2010

The Daily Reckoning