Thoughts on the Greater Depression

The Gold Report: Doug, at a recent conference you said that the US ought to default on its national debt now. Why that rather than letting it play out?

Doug Casey: Several other things almost equally radical should be done besides defaulting on the debt. I recognize that an outright default is most unlikely, but the national debt should be defaulted on for several reasons. To start with, once the US government defaults on its debt, people will think twice before lending it any more money; giving politicians the ability to borrow is like giving a teenager a bottle of whisky and the keys to a Corvette. A second reason is that the debt is an albatross around the necks of the next several generations; it’s criminal to make indentured servants out of people who aren’t even born yet. A third reason would be to overtly punish those who have been lending money to the government, enabling it to do all the stupid and destructive things that the government does with that money.

The debt will be defaulted on one way or another. The trouble is they’re almost certainly going to default on it through inflation, by destroying the currency, which is much worse than defaulting on it overtly. That’s because inflation will wipe out the relatively few people who are prudent in this country, those who are actually saving money. Because they generally save in the form of dollars, they’re going to wipe them out financially.

It’s just horrible. Runaway inflation will reward the profligates who are in debt – people who’ve been living above their means. And punish the producers who’ve been saving and trying to build capital. That’s in addition to the fact it will destroy millions of productive enterprises. A runaway inflation is the worst thing that can happen to a society, short of a major war. They just should default on it honestly, as it were.

TGR: But your belief is we’ll try to inflate our way out of it to pay for it.

DC: Don’t say “we.” Say the US government. I don’t consider myself part of the problem. Americans have to learn that the government isn’t “us.” It’s an entity that has its own interests, its own life, its own agenda. It views citizens as milk cows – or perhaps even beef cows – strictly as a means to its ends.

TGR: Whether it’s overt or by default, doesn’t that end up in the same place down the line?

DC: There are two ways they can default – one by saying, “We don’t have the money and we’re not going to pay you,” and the other by continuing to print up money and giving people the number of dollars that they’re owed, except the dollars are worthless. The first alternative is by far better, for many reasons we can’t fully explore now. But it’s going to be traumatic either way.

TGR: But the assumption that we could actually just print more dollars and pay off the debt implies that somewhere the debt will stabilize.

DC: Oh no. It doesn’t have to stabilize. To pay interest on the national debt, and to pay for additional spending, all the Federal Reserve has to do is buy bonds from the US government. It doesn’t have to stabilize at all. The government is most unlikely to cut back on its spending, most of which has become part of the social fabric – Medicare, Social Security, unemployment benefits, food stamps, corporate bailouts, continuing foreign wars, domestic “security”…These people are crazy enough that it could get like Germany in the ‘20s or Zimbabwe a few years ago.

TGR: At what point do we tip over and turn into a situation such as Zimbabwe or the Weimar Republic?

DC: At the moment we’re in an economic twilight zone or, if you wish, the eye of a hurricane. There is apparent stability in the economy. The stock market’s high. The bond market’s high. Only the real estate market is in visible trouble. Retail prices are level; they’re not going up and maybe they’re even going down in some cases. This is a temporary situation. We will inevitably – and soon – hit the other side of the storm. At some point those trillions of dollars created by the US government – and many other governments around the world have created trillions of currency units – are going to have an effect. When will that be? The timing is uncertain. But I think it’s going to be soon.

TGR: Will it be rapid?

DC: If these things were perfectly predictable, it would be easier to dodge the bullet. This is an almost unique time in world economic history, and I think we’re not only going to have economic consequences, but social and political consequences, and very likely military consequences. So hold on to your hat.

TGR: To protect what individual wealth we may have, you’ve recommended selling real estate and renting, holding assets outside the United States, owning gold, etc. When we’re out of the eye and in the thick of this economic hurricane, what types of equity investments should people be holding?

DC: Now is a very bad time to have most kinds of equities; stocks in general are very overpriced, by almost every parameter. I’m not looking to sell my gold until I can buy solid blue chip stocks for dividend yields in the 8% to 10% area. That’s after they cut their current dividends. Although it’s certainly not the bargain it was 10 years ago. Nonetheless gold will go higher. Stocks will go lower. I don’t know exactly when I’ll sell my gold and buy stocks, but it will be when there’s a panic into gold and when stocks are bargains.

I’m sure I’ll be afraid to make the trade when the time comes – but good trades almost always run counter to your emotions. Perhaps the tip-off will be when Newsweek or Time – if either still exists then – run a front cover with a golden bear tearing apart the New York Stock Exchange. I think it will be a generation before American real estate is a solid buy again. And the world at large will likely have quite a different character then.

TGR: I take your point about equities in general, but are you also staying away from gold equities? Or do you maybe see an opportunity there?

DC: They’re a special situation; on the one hand they are a play on gold, but on the other hand they’re stocks. There’s an excellent chance that with the trillions of currency units being created, the government inevitably will wind up inflating other bubbles. There’s a very good chance for a bubble in gold and a very big bubble in gold stocks. So I would say that they are an exception to other equities. We could see these juniors go up by an order of magnitude or more, even while most other stocks are going down. Historically, junior resource stocks are the most volatile class of securities in existence.

TGR: Might other sectors also be in that situation?

DC: My crystal ball is hazy, but it seems to me that junior resource stocks are the best speculative place in the equities market. There’ll probably be others, but I don’t see them very clearly at this time. I’m waiting to see what materializes. You have to look at all markets of all types, everywhere in the world, to find things that are overpriced, as well as things that are underpriced.

Most of the time the trend in any given market is uncertain. I prefer to act only when, in my subjective opinion, the odds are greatly in my favor, and when the potential return is a multiple of my investment. In other words, most people invest 100% of their capital in hope of a 10% return. I prefer to wait until I can invest 10% of my capital for a 100% return. As to what’s going to happen over the next few years, I feel confident that we’ve entered upon the Greater Depression in earnest. It will be an extended period of time when most people’s standard of living drops significantly. But as I said, I think there’s an excellent chance of a bubble igniting in resource stocks. That will build on the bubble that’s going to come in gold.

High levels of inflation make “investing,” in the Graham-Dodd sense of the word, very hard. And inflation makes speculation almost necessary. Just don’t confuse speculation with gambling – they’re very different. Speculation is the art of capitalizing on politically created distortions in the market.

TGR: What’s your definition of resource stocks? For some, it’s very broad and includes metals, agricultural commodities and such. Are you referring specifically to gold?

DC: I’m most friendly toward gold; it’s the only financial asset that’s not simultaneously someone else’s liability. I’m friendly toward silver, too, because silver is kind of poor man’s gold. I’m very friendly toward oil because I do believe a good, solid argument can be made for what was first defined by M. King Hubbert as “peak oil.” Also, oil is likely to be a major player in the next major Mideast conflict. I like uranium; nuclear is certainly the safest, cheapest, and cleanest form of mass power generation.

There’s an excellent case to be made for agricultural commodities in general, and live cattle in particular. I’m not very friendly toward base metals such as lead, zinc, copper, aluminum, iron and so forth. Usage of industrial metals could drop considerably in the ongoing depression.

TGR: You mentioned earlier that you thought it would be a generation before real estate represents a good investment again. Many economic theories, though, tell us that real estate is a good thing to have in an inflationary environment. How do you reconcile those two schools of thought?

DC: The problem is that we’ve just finished a decade-long real estate boom. Actually, there’s been a property boom, largely driven by debt, since the end of World War II. There’s been immense overbuilding and it’s got to be absorbed. A lot of the overbuilding will have to be bulldozed, quite frankly, because it’s completely uneconomic. I think the economic contraction we’re going into is so serious that in this country you’ll be able to buy real estate for back taxes, much like in the last depression.

But it’s much more serious than what happened in the 1930s when real estate taxes were de minimis. Now many people have to pay $10,000, $20,000, even $30,000 a year in taxes on their houses before they even start paying the mortgage and the utilities and maintenance. And municipalities are likely to try raising the mill rate, because they’re largely bankrupt, and assessed values are way down.

There’s a great deal more I could say about what’s yet to come in the real estate sector. But let me just say the real estate bubble has a long way to deflate yet.

TGR: Is it both residential and commercial or is it worse in one sector?

DC: That’s tough. Is emphysema worse than Parkinson’s? I suspect, however, that commercial is going to be worse than residential.

People’s shopping habits are one of the things that the Internet has changed and will continue to change. It makes more sense to buy things online and have them delivered to you, than to take the time and expense of going shopping, and the merchant having to deal with retail space, inventory, a geographically limited clientele and so forth. I wouldn’t be surprised to see prices on a lot of commercial property come down 80% or 90%. You’ll see a lot of properties permanently shuttered. That’s a disaster for owners, who will still have to pay taxes. There will be no money for maintenance.

TGR: We spoke earlier about inflation and the likelihood of the US government printing its way out of debt. Do you see a point in time where the United States or even other governments will go back to the gold standard?

DC: It’s both essential, and inevitable. That’s because they have no reason to trust one another. They need a medium of exchange and a store of value that’s not faith-based.

All the other governments of the world know that the US is bankrupt and the dollar is nothing but a floating abstraction. Why should they hold billions or in some cases trillions of these things on their balance sheets? They’re going to go back to gold because it’s the only financial asset that’s not simultaneously somebody else’s liability.

It’s not because gold is magic in any way. It’s just because it has characteristics that among the 92 naturally occurring elements make it uniquely well suited for use as money. It’s durable. It’s divisible. It’s convenient. It’s consistent. It has use value in and of itself. And it can’t be created out of thin air by some government. It’s a better combination of those things than any of the 92 elements. It’s infinitely better than paper. So yes, I think they’ll go back to gold within this generation.

TGR: Thanks Doug!

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