Saturday, June 27, 2015

Greece, the EU and the Power of Fiat Currency

Greece is evidently going to hit the financial skids next week.  The EU appears to have stopped bargaining (as have the Greeks, who now want to put the issue of austerity in exchange for another EU bailout to their voters).  Without bargaining, there won't be a deal.

How did things end up this way?  One perspective is that, by entering the Euro Zone, Greece gave up a lot of power and put itself under the control of the EU.  When a country issues its own currency (i.e., fiat currency), it has considerable control over its currency's value in relation to other currencies.  If the country slides downhill economically speaking, it can devalue its currency and export its way out of trouble.  The Japanese have done this for decades, and the Chinese and other developing nations are endeavoring to emulate the Japanese. 

But what if the country, instead of issuing its own currency, uses another medium of exchange?  Historically, gold and silver, and sometimes copper, served such a role.  But a country that uses an independent medium of exchange can't devalue its way out of a recession.  It has to find another way; and sometimes it can't.  That's why the industrialized West moved off the gold standard in the 20th Century.  It prevented them from using central bank policies to recover from economic downturns.

Fiat currencies have a very bad image among many in the political right.  Gold standard conservatives fear that governments will inflate the wealth of citizens away for reasons of political expediency.  They rightly point to the morass of post-World War I Germany, when the Weimar Republic did that, resulting in widespread malaise and paving the way for fascism. 

But gold standard adherents forget a basic principle of economics:  goods become widespread in the market because people demand them.  Fiat currency is simply another good, and people demand a lot of it.  It serves as a medium of exchange, and no major economy can exist without a copious supply of the medium of exchange.  Gold was extremely scarce in Colonial America, and deer skins (i.e., buck skins, from whence came the term "buck"), tobacco and other goods served as an alternative to gold.  Various commercial promises to pay, such as drafts, promissory notes, banker's notes, and the like, also came to be used in lieu of gold.  Fiat currency was government's way of simplifying the problem of lack of gold and silver that could be used as media of exchange.

Fiat currency also conferred power. When the American Revolution began, the Continental Congress issued paper money in order to finance the rebellion.   This paper was subject to inflation, and considerable controversy eventually surrounded its use.  Nevertheless, the Continental Congress' ability to issue fiat currency helped to sustain the Revolution.

The U.S. government in the 19th Century outlawed the issuance of bank notes and other private currency and substituted the greenback in their stead.  Although the U.S. government clung to the gold standard, it devalued the dollar against gold once the Great Depression began, and took the dollar off the gold standard during the economic difficulties of the early 1970's.  In other words, gold wasn't really the standard.  The dollar was worth what the government said it was worth, not what the market price of gold happened to be.

The power of fiat currency became vividly clear during the Great Depression and World War II.  The U.S. government began to borrow in large amounts (i.e., engage in deficit spending) in order to alleviate the Depression.  Then, it borrowed enormous amounts to finance the war and defeat fascism.  After World War II, the U.S. government flooded the free world with dollars, so that there would be a currency to replace the British pound as the world's reserve currency.  The U.S. government derives enormous power from the fact that the dollar is the world's reserve currency.  People in other countries have to pay attention to America, because America's currency keeps the world's economy going.  Even in the Communist bloc, the dollar mattered.  As Communist economies flagged, the dollar became the underground, but de facto real, currency in many Communist nations.  Communism's legitimacy was in part undermined by the strength of America's fiat currency.

Greece is in a real fix, because its citizens don't want austerity, but they want to remain part of the EU.  Reality is that they are damned if they do and damned if they don't.  Staying in the EU will require agreement to the EU's demands for more austerity, which will probably worsen Greece's depression.  Leaving the EU will also likely mean that the Greek depression will worsen.  Who's at fault for this mess is a complicated question, but the answer, in short, is like Agatha Christy's novel, Murder on the Orient Express.  Everyone involved in and with the EU is responsible.  And there's no easy way out of the mess, for anyone.

But a larger point is that fiat currencies aren't good or evil.  They are a tool, one that can be used productively or counter-productively.  We need to watch what the Fed is doing--closely.  But let us recognize that much of America's strength comes from its fiat currency. 

Friday, June 19, 2015

An Epidemic of Price Fixing in the Financial Markets

Nothing is more antithetical to the principles of free enterprise than price fixing.  Rigged prices undermine the efficient functioning of markets and defeat their ability to maximize economic welfare.  Sadly, we've had an epidemic of price fixing in the financial markets, frequently involving the largest and most important banks.

The London Interbank Offered Rate has been the subject of governmental investigations in Europe and the U.S. for alleged years-long collusion. Billions of dollars of fines, penalties and other payments have been assessed on various big banks, and the investigation of other major banks continues.  Trillions of dollars of loans and contracts were priced based on Libor, and the potential impact of this price fixing is massive.

Foreign exchange rates have been investigated for rigged prices, and billions of dollars of fines, penalties, etc. have been paid in government and private civil lawsuits.  Again, some of the largest banks are implicated.

Now, word comes that the market for interest rate swaps has been under investigation for price fixing via the alleged collusive manipulation of the ISDAfix, a benchmark swap rate that is used in the pricing of a variety of financial products.  The interest rate swaps market, although obscure to the general public, involves hundreds of trillions of dollars of financial products (in notional value) sold to corporations and other commercial customers to offset interest rate risk.  Big banks are reportedly involved this collusion and the fines, penalties, etc. could total perhaps billions.

There are also reports of investigations of price manipulation by big banks in the metals markets.  These might involve restricting supply and other maneuvers to rig prices.  If wrongdoing is uncovered, more large fines, penalties, etc, can be expected.

Many of the banks involved in these matters are likely to be too big to fail.  In other words, while conspiring against the public in very large and important markets, these banks enjoyed the explicit and/or implicit backing of the taxpayers.  This backing helped them attain Brobdingnagian size, which in turn probably facilitated their ability to rig markets. 

The financial markets are the central venue of the capitalist system, being the place where holders of capital and borrowers of capital meet to determine the allocation of society's financial resources.  The largest banks are at the center of the financial markets, and their conduct ripples through the financial markets and the entire free enterprise system.  That such crucially important players are so regularly conspiring against the public and the public interest presents a galling spectacle that damages the credibility of the capitalist system.  Are markets truly socially beneficial or are they simply a means by which the rich and powerful fleece others? 

The world's largest banks have the legal and social responsibility to refrain from such reprehensible conduct.  However, their sad record of massive, multi-market price fixing seems to tell us that their chances of upholding these responsibilities aren't very high.  Their collusive activities often arise in markets that have a bi-level structure:  an inner inter-dealer market where the big banks and other financial firms trade among themselves, and an outer market where the dealers trade with the public at usually marked up prices.  The inside inter-dealer market is a perfect venue for price-fixing, as the dealers have to talk and trade with each other every business day.  As Adam Smith put it in The Wealth of Nations, "People of the same trade seldom meet together, even for merriment and diversion, but the conversation ends in a conspiracy against the public, or some contrivance to raise prices."

Thus, the challenge falls on regulators and law enforcement authorities to be vigilant and firm.  The sheer magnitude of the wrongdoing, as demonstrated by the billions that have been paid out to date, is astonishing.  Those who may seem paranoid about the financial markets have it right--way too often, the markets are rigged.

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

How To Beat ISIS

It's clear that conventional warfare won't beat ISIS.  The Iraqi Army is a joke, and not a very funny one.  Whatever it does, it doesn't fight.  The Shiite militias in Iraq can't be expected to succeed in the mostly Sunni areas of Iraq now controlled by ISIS,  because they present too much risk of sectarian conflict.  The U.S. isn't going to send in ground troops to fight for the Baghdad regime (nor should it).  The Kurds, like the Shiites, can't effectively take and hold Sunni majority areas.  So how to beat ISIS?

Stop fighting World War II.  There isn't a conventional force available that can realistically be expected to beat ISIS, and probably won't be one for the foreseeable future.  Instead, hoist the Islamic insurgents on their own petard.  Sponsor insurgency against ISIS.

The problem ISIS has is that it is trying to establish a caliphate--an actual country representing the promised land of ISIS's ideology.  ISIS doesn't merely conquer.  It endeavors to establish governments, social order and a functioning economy.  If it succeeds at nation building, its legitimacy will be heightened. 

The United States, although the most powerful nation in the world, is in the uncomfortable position of being weaker in Iraq and Syria than ISIS.  Time to take a page from insurgents going back to Ho Chi Minh and Mao Tse-Tung.  When you're weak, go asymmetric.  America doesn't have armored columns to roll into ISIS-land.  The armor was surrendered by the Iraqi Army to ISIS.  Giving the Iraqis more conventional weapons may turn out to be provisioning ISIS even more.  Remember that to this day, Iran flies American F-14 and F-4 fighter-bombers. 

Instead, America should foment rebellion against ISIS.  This would be rebellion by the Sunni population in the areas where ISIS governs.  ISIS imposes a very harsh, medieval form of Islam, complete with diverse and sundry outrages such as televised beheadings, burnings, shootings, and so on.  As time passes, more and more of the population under ISIS's heel will likely harbor desires to turn their Kalashnikovs on their draconian overlords. Organized nations provide easy targets for insurgencies, since governments have to operate openly.  Their facilities, personnel and infrastructure can all be attacked.  ISIS would expend substantial resources trying to defend itself internally, leaving fewer resources for further territorial aggresion.  Predictably, ISIS would respond to insurrection harshly, and that in turn would harden hearts and minds among the oppressed.  The rebellion would continue apace.

Of course, American-supplied weapons for such an insurgency could some day be turned against America.  That was a problem in Afghanistan, when the CIA helped to arm and train Afghan rebels fighting the Soviet occupation.  But would we be better off with a Soviet/Russian controlled Afghanistan today?  What would a guy like Vlad the Invader (you know, that Putin fellow) do if he had Afghanistan as a launching pad for further territorial aggression?

We have no effective conventional options in Iraq.  Let's go unconventional.  Let's go asymmetric.