Friday, August 29, 2008

The United States of America: the Next Argentina

Excerpts from a long, long post from MarketOracle by way of Cryptogon:

I have a bad feeling about what's about to happen. The Great Depression is the closest that comes to mind. I, like most, was not alive during the 1930s when it happened. Nonetheless, what once was feared in private is now being discussed in public. It's going to be bad. It's going to make high school seem like fun.


This Time is Different: A Panoramic View of Eight Centuries of Financial Crises by University of Maryland‘s Carmen Reinhart and Harvard's Kenneth Rogoff makes for perfect reading when flying between the US and Argentina.

There is perhaps no better analysis than Reinhart and Rogoff's on the history of sovereign defaults; and, as such, Reinhart and Rogoff's paper was ideal reading material when traveling between the US and Argentina , for the sovereign defaults that happened in the past to Argentina will soon be happening to the US .

But a US default will make Argentina 's debt defaults pale both by comparison and consequence. The US , unlike Argentina , is the world's largest economy, the issuer of the world's reserve currency and the world's largest debtor—and a default by the US on its debt will shake the very foundations of our increasingly fragile global economy.


The power of ambition is extraordinary. The power of ambition transformed the US from the world's only creditor after WWII into the world's largest debtor in less than fifty years. Wanting to emulate England 's 19 th century empire in the 20 th , the US instead has mirrored England decline in the 20 th century here in the 21 st .

Credit and borrowing fueled America 's ambitions in the 20 th century as it had England 's in the 18 th and 19 th . During the 1980s, to pay for President Reagan expansion of the military, the US quadrupled its national debt in less than a decade by borrowing three trillion dollars during a presidency pledged to balance the budget.

When Reagan took office, US debt totaled one trillion dollars. When Reagan left office, US debt totaled four trillion dollars. Reagan's vaunted slogan of fiscal conservatism was just that—a slogan; and while talk is cheap, the debts now have to be repaid.

Just as the costs of WWI forced England to abandon the gold standard in the early 1900s, post WWII military spending forced the US to suspend the convertibility of the US dollar to gold in 1971; and the consequences, e.g. burgeoning trade deficits and global currency instability, are now putting unsustainable strains on a financial system already in extremis .

Ambition has its price and the bill is now due and owing. The question is: how will the US pay what it owes? In Hyman Minsky's Financial Instability Model, the US is close to “Ponzi status” if not already there since the US is having to roll its debt forward and borrow from others to pay the interest as it can no longer pay down the principle.

In 2006, in an article published by the St Louis Federal Reserve Bank, Professor Laurence Kotlikoff stated the US was “technically bankrupt” as there was no way the US could pay the $65.9 trillion it owed.

Evidently, Professor Kotlikoff was conservative in his estimate or we're going downhill faster than he knew. Just three months ago, on May 28, 2008 Richard W. Fisher, President and CEO of the Dallas Federal Reserve Bank estimated the obligations of the US to be actually $99.2 trillion, 50 % higher than Kotlikoff's figures.

Fisher stated: In the distance, I see a frightful storm brewing in the form of untethered government debt . I choose the words—“frightful storm”—deliberately to avoid hyperbole. Unless we take steps to deal with it, the long-term fiscal situation of the federal government will be unimaginably more devastating to our economic prosperity than the subprime debacle and the recent debauching of credit markets that we are now working so hard to correct.

Fisher should know what the US owes and the danger that sum represents. As President and CEO of the Dallas Federal Reserve Bank, Fisher is a part of the Federal Reserve

System—the very system that has indebted America into perpetuity when its credit-based money forced out gold and silver based money in 1913.

[. . .]

But the real danger of bankers like Lawrence Summers lies not in their untethered intellect but in their cold ambition and selfish greed that sees nations and people as but living fodder to be milked, used and discarded as they and others profit.

In 1991, Summers issued the following memo while serving as Chief Economist at the World Bank:

…developed countries ought to export more pollution to developing countries because these countries would incur the lowest cost from the pollution in terms of lost wages of people made ill or killed by the pollution due to the fact that wages are so low in developing countries…the economic logic behind dumping a load of toxic waste in the lowest wage country is impeccable and we should face up to that.

As the World Bank's Chief Economist, Summer's memo is a chilling reflection of the heartlessness that lies at the core of bankers and banking establishments. The World Bank itself seems to be a favorite watering hole for those of questionable intent.

Robert McNamara, the architect of the Vietnam War was President of the World Bank as was Paul Wolfowitz, the architect of the Iraq War. The current President of the World Bank, Robert Zoellick, is also an ardent supporter of the Iraq War (also on Zoellick's considerable list of “credits” is his service as advisor to Enron, his membership on the Council on Foreign Relations and Trilateral Commission and his attendance at the secretive Bilderberg meetings from 1991 to the present and his role as Senior International Advisor to investment bank Goldman Sachs).

It is no coincidence that those heading the World Bank are closely associated with America 's vast war machine. Bankers have profited from fueling the military ambitions of both England and the US for the past two centuries and continue to do so today.

[. . .]

According to Reinhart and Rogoff, the US is a “default virgin”, sic the US has never missed a debt repayment or rescheduled on at least one occasion. While this is strictly so, the US is nonetheless at the center of the largest default in monetary history.

In the 1970s, the US defaulted on its gold obligations under the Bretton-Woods Agreement. After overspending the greatest hoard of gold in history, 21,775 tons, between 1949 and 1971, the US had 7,000-8,000 tons of gold left and still owed perhaps over 31,000 tons to others.

In 1973, when the US officially refused to convert US dollars held by other countries to gold, it was the biggest monetary default ever. In that one act, as a consequence the entire global monetary system shifted from a gold-based system to a fiat-paper system.

Of the US default on its gold obligations, Professor Antal Fekete wrote in June 2008:

Thirty-five years ago gold, symbol of permanence, was chased out from the Monetary Garden of Eden , replaced by the floating irredeemable dollar as the pillar of the international monetary system. That's right: a floating pillar. The gold demonetization exercise was a farce. It was designed as a fig leaf to cover up the ugly default of the U.S. government on its gold-redeemable sight obligations to foreigners. The word ‘default' itself was put under taboo even though it punctured big holes in the balance sheet of every central bank of the world, as its dollar-denominated assets sank in value in terms of anything but the dollar itself. These banks were not even allowed to say ‘ouch' as they were looking at the damage to their balance sheets caused by the default. They just had to swallow the loss, obediently and dutifully join the singing of the Hallelujah Chorus of sycophants in Washington praising the irredeemable dollar and the Nirvana of synthetic credit.

[. . .]

In 1976, the Argentine military overthrew the democratically elected Argentine government. The first to recognize the dictatorship was the US . The second was the International Monetary Fund, and within 24 hours of recognizing the soon-to-be most brutal regime in recent history, the IMF arranged a loan to the military junta.

At the time, Argentina 's external debt totaled $7 billion. When the bloody dictatorship ended with the return of democracy six years later, Argentina 's debt totaled $43 billion, a debt owed mainly to US banks.

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