Protecting Your Assets from an Out-of-Control Government, Part I

By keeping all your assets in the country where you live, you commit, ahead of time, to ratify whatever policy your home government might adopt, no matter how objectionable, unreasonable or pernicious that policy happens to be. If the next new mandate is “Register today to get a nail pounded into your head,” you’re already signed up.

Americans, by and large, run all their affairs within the confines of the US. The US economy is so large and so varied that it’s easy to assume that everything you want to do with your wealth can be done without crossing any borders. And people in the US, like people anywhere, live with the habits and attitudes developed over generations. They’re only human. In the case of Americans, those habits grew out of long experience with a government that was small and that generally practiced the rare virtue of following its own laws. In a happy exception to mankind’s experience with rulers, there was little to fear from it.

Stay at home is still the norm for Americans, but it’s a norm that is slowly fading. Every billion-dollar tick of the government debt clock, every expansion of the government’s regulatory apparatus, every overreaching judicial decision made in the name of a compelling public need, every inversion of protection for citizens into license for the state and every intellectually tortured discovery of a new meaning in the Constitution’s 4,400 old words leaves a few thousand more people wondering how prudent it is to consign all their eggs to a single national basket. Encounters with high-handed IRS agents and eager TSA gropers do nothing to ease that concern. And for those who listen thoughtfully, the messages from our designated leaders and their would-be replacements only hurry the dawning sense of unease.

Specific worries include exposure to predatory lawsuits; fear of where income tax rates might climb; the prospect of losing a family business in a regulatory battle or simply through estate tax; the fragility of financial institutions that have operated for forty years with the assurance that the Federal Reserve would rescue them from any folly; the possibility that a government desperate to protect the dollar from collapse might impose foreign exchange controls or capital controls; the memory and precedent of the forced gold sales of 1933; and the thought that a government floundering in deficits might start pilfering from IRAs and other pension plans.

But beyond those particular worries, and perhaps more important than any of them, is the sense that from here on, anything goes. The politicians will do whatever they find expedient, because there is no longer anything to stop them — not an electorate that is jealous of its freedoms and certainly not the Constitution, which is now just a playhouse for judicial imagineering. No one can know what’s coming next from the government and the financial system it has fostered, but for many of us there is an awful suspicion that we are not going to like it.

Most Americans still have yet to stick a single financial toe across the border, but more and more are considering it. Many, perhaps millions of toes are now twitching at the thought. Their owners want to end their absolute dependence on what happens in the US. They want to prepare for whatever is coming down the road, even though they don’t know what it will be. They want to be as ready as possible, even though their worries can only guess at what’s ahead.

Because internationalizing your financial life means dealing with the unfamiliar, the project can seem more complex than it really is, so it’s best to start with the simplest measures, even if by themselves they don’t give you all the safety you’re looking for. Even from a simple beginning, what you learn with each step will make the next step easier to plan. Start with the first rung on the ladder of internationalization. Then climb, at your own speed, to reach the right level of protection.

Rung 1: Coins in Your Pocket

Gold coins that you’ve stored personally give you something whose value doesn’t depend on the health of the US economy, doesn’t depend on any financial institution in the US and doesn’t depend on any US government policy. Gold coins are portable and hold their value no matter where in the world you might take them. They’re internationalization in a wafer. Safety cookies.

It’s best to buy the coins for cash, for maximum privacy. And there is a good reason to favor one-tenth-ounce gold Eagles. Gold coins mean readiness for troubled times; if you ever need to dispose of the gold in an informal market, it will be easier to do so with small-denomination coins that are widely recognizable and whose value matches the scale on which large numbers of people normally trade.

The premium on one-tenth-ounce coins (the price compared with the value of the gold content) is higher than on the larger coins — usually about 15% for the small coins vs. 5% for one-ounce Eagles. But the premium isn’t a dead cost, like a commission or bid-ask spread. The premium is a second investment; it’s what you pay for the packaging, and you can expect to recover it when you sell or trade. And in the circumstances when you would have the strongest reasons for thanking yourself for having bought some gold, the premium you paid will look like a bargain.

Rung 2: A Foreign Bank Account

On its own initiative, the IRS can freeze any bank account in the US without warning. The action might arise from mistaken identity, from an erroneous filing by some other taxpayer, from your failure to respond to an IRS notice in time or even from a postal error. And that’s what can happen without malice. Other government agencies have similar powers to act on their own, without giving you an opportunity to object in court. And any one of them might act against you for any of their specialized reasons — perhaps because someone resents your inattention to the needs of the migratory birds that visit your property or perhaps because someone thinks it would be fun to point to you as a terrorist, drug smuggler, arms dealer or child-porn merchant.

In principle, there are legal avenues for undoing a freeze or a seizure. But you’d need a lawyer, and being suddenly penniless could get in the way of hiring one.

A foreign bank account protects you from being trapped in such a nightmare. The US government can get to your foreign bank account eventually, because it can get to you. But a lightning seizure is very unlikely, because it would require a foreign government to override its own legal processes, which it generally wouldn’t be willing to do except in a grave emergency. So if your liquid assets at home were frozen, you would have cash outside the US to fund the legal cost of untangling the problem.

A foreign bank account is also a way to step back from the uncertainties of the US dollar, since the account could be denominated in another currency.

The US government has seen to it that Americans are no longer welcome customers at foreign banks. So forget about opening a Swiss bank account in your own name. However, if you apply in person (not by mail), you still can open a bank account in Canada. Be prepared to show your passport and to give the bank an original utility bill that confirms your place of residence.

Rung 3: Gold Abroad

The forced gold sales of 1933 were the work of an executive order signed by President Roosevelt. The purported legal basis for the order was the Trading With The Enemy Act, a legislative artifact of World War I. I have yet to find an explanation of how the authority for an order requiring Americans to sell their gold to the government at the government’s official price of $20 per ounce could be found in the Trading With The Enemy Act, but the fact that the enemy in question had gone out of business 15 years earlier didn’t seem to interfere with the legal logic.

The forced sale was a prelude to an increase in the official gold price to $35. The government’s reason for wanting that price rise was to gain leeway for a substantial, though limited, inflation of the dollar while keeping the dollar on the international gold standard. The forced sale was a way for the government, which operated in a political environment that still disfavored deficit spending, to capture the profit from the price rise. That profit would be a kitty for more spending without more borrowing.

Today there is no gold standard for the government to stay on. And deficit spending isn’t something politicians especially want to avoid; they’ve promoted it as a civic duty, to stimulate the economy. So the depression-era motives for a gold grab don’t seem to apply. Yet you can’t listen to a conversation between two gold investors without hearing the seizure topic coming up.

Are they just scaring each other? I don’t believe so. There are two potential motives for the government to again treat gold differently from everything else.

If the dollar’s slide in foreign exchange markets threatens to turn into a panic, the government might want to use gold sales to foreigners to mop up foreign-held dollars — in which case it might see a need to mop up the gold owned by its own citizens. That’s bad enough, but a second motive is a good bit nastier. At a visceral level, people who have centered their lives on government just don’t like gold. It’s an affront to the government’s authority to command and control and an insult to government’s supposed aptitude for solving economic problems. So disrespectful. From their point of view, every ounce purchased by an American is another tomato hurled at the political class. And the purchasers still constitute a tiny minority of the voting population. What could be more satisfying and convenient for the politicians than to kick sand in the face of gold investors for being such lousy citizens?

A new attack on gold ownership probably wouldn’t be a point-for-point reenactment of 1933. There are many weapons for mugging gold investors. It could be a prohibition on gold ownership coupled with a prohibition on sales of gold to foreigners. The only one left to buy would be the government, and being the only bidder, it would be a very low bidder. It could be a commandeering of privately owned gold, with token compensation like the $15 per day paid for jury duty. It could be a super tax, say 90%, on gold profits, which would get the job done slowly… or quickly if it were accompanied by a mark-to-market rule. Or it could be something none of us has thought of yet.

Not only can’t we know the shape of a future gold grab, we can’t know whether or how the rules would touch foreign-held gold. Owners of gold stored outside the US would be a minority of a minority. Their gold wouldn’t be the low-hanging fruit — it would be higher up in the tree and more trouble to get to. That’s why, in a casino sense, gold overseas is a different bet and a better bet than gold at home.

Maybe it will turn out that storing gold overseas won’t matter at all, in which case a little effort will have been wasted. And maybe it will turn out to matter a great deal.

To be continued tomorrow…


Terry Coxon
for The Daily Reckoning