Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Managing Your Life in a Declining America

China's and Russia's announcement that they will use the ruble or the yuan to trade bi-laterally seems to have struck financial blogs, but few others, as important.  Market Watch writes in an understated tone:

>China and Russia will stop using the U.S. dollar to settle bilateral trade and instead use the ruble or the yuan, though the move is not meant to signal a challenge to the dollar, according to reports Wednesday. China's Premier Wen Jiabao and Russian President Vladamir Putin made reference to the new currency trade pact late Tuesday, following meetings in St. Petersburg that also saw the signing of bilateral trade and energy-cooperation agreements, according to a report in the state-run China Daily. "About trade settlement, we have decided to use our own currencies," Putin told reporters, according to the report. Earlier this week, China added the ruble to the list of currencies that can be traded against the yuan on its domestic exchange.

I searched the words "China Russia trade dollar" on Google and got 238,000 hits, but the leading hits were all financial blogs.  Moreover, the ostriches have proven eager to bury their heads in the central Asian sand.  Tyler Durden notes that Russia and China made a similar bi-lateral statement more than a year ago and nothing changed then.  Also, the dollar has risen since the announcement.

But the dollar has risen since the announcements of numerous momentous decisions that will depreciate it, such as the bailouts and the massive expansion of the monetary base in 2008. Wall Street's short-term faith in the dollar has over-ridden longer term logic since 2008. Unless the Fed decides to reverse its policies of the past ten years there is little reason to believe short term market fluctuations.  Of course, as investors we need to consider such fluctuations.     

It would seem that a decision to drop a long standing business practice will require adjustment. It would also seem that along with the dollar habit Russia and China may be concerned with US power.  How long did the abolitionist movement in the US continue before slavery ended?  Even in 1776 Jefferson wanted to include more aggressive statements against slavery than the Southern delegates to the Continental Congress allowed in the Declaration of Independence . If it took 86 years to abolish slavery, might it take a few years for the Russians and Chinese to switch to an alternative currency?  By the time they and other global players make the decision the markets will have digested the information. At that point dollars will be worth a small fraction of what they are worth today.  Hence, the head-in-the-sand response may prove to be insufficient.

There are several possible outcome scenarios to long term dollar depreciation and American economic decline.  First, the Fed's monetary expansion could work for another round. The economy will grow in a valid way, jobs will be created and the public will become wealthier.  The nation's jobs picture would improve and there would be little inflation. I don't think that will happen. The  Fed has not been successful in stimulating sound economic growth. Although the past twenty years saw considerable economic activity, most of it involved the creation of unstable, low-end retail jobs.  The high unemployment of today results from the economic illusion for which the Fed has been responsible.  The Fed not only creates illusion but also transfers a wealth to Wall Street and corporate interests as well as to privileged workers in government, construction and big business. The past 10 years have seen a massive increase in privilege to the wealthy because of Republicrat policies. But until recently the illusion has been sufficient to keep Americans happy. Blissful ignorance might continue despite the Tea Party.  If the Fed's monetary policies work, then the stock market will shoot up. I don't think that will happen in the long term, but I do think that there will be short to medium term strength in the stock market, say into 2011. After that, all bets are off. 

The second possible outcome will be that the Fed's policy works but causes significantly higher inflation. This would happen if  the commercial banks convert all of the money reserves the Fed  has created into loans. That would stimulate a high degree of unproductive economic activity similar to the sub-prime building of the last decade. Economists will say that the economy has recovered, but Americans will become poorer. If you recall the seventies, then you have a sense of what higher inflation feels like. But the inflation this time around may be worse.  This is the scenario I think will occur.

The third scenario is that the banks will not lend a multiple of the reserves that have been created and instead contract their loans. That would result in deflation.  The markets have been afraid of this scenario but it would turn out better for the average American (except for the unemployed).  Stocks and bonds would decline as would non-monetary commodities.  Gold and silver both seem to behave today as monetary commodities.  Hence, they may do as well in this scenario as under inflation.  However, agriculture, DBA would not. As well, the stock market will probably fall as profits and consumer demand decline along with the availability of money.  There will be high unemployment but the government will become increasingly paralyzed.  I do not think this will occur because there will be too much pressure on the money center banks and the Fed to purchase US debt. Even if the banks do not lend to the public, the Fed will continue to monetize the federal debt, and government will continue to spend in value-destroying ways, resulting in inflation or dollar depreciation.

A fourth scenario would be total economic breakdown.  This might occur if there is disruption to the power grid through terrorism or some other disaster and the government lacks the resources or competence to respond, a kind of global or national Hurricane Katrina.  I know people who fear this but usually what goes wrong is what you don't expect, not what you do expect.  If you have a year's supply of dry food in your pantry I personally wouldn't call you crazy but I don't believe you will need it. At present I do not have any dry food, silver bars or firearms.  But having a rifle and an ample supply of junk silver (pre 1960 coins or one ounce silver bars) might be a good idea. You likely would never need that stuff but if you have five thousand dollars to invest in an insurance policy, you might consider those steps.

It seems to me that at this point cash is still safe, although the days of cash may be drawing to a close.  Gold and silver are highly speculative because of investment or speculative demand, but their persistent rise suggests that a broader-based demand for gold-as-money is motivating the price increases.  I have about ten percent of my portfolio in commodities and I am going to allow the percentage to increase for quite a while, purchasing some additional amounts.  I am also taking care of whatever home improvements I can afford, and if I inherit an additional $100 grand will buy myself a Boxster S.  I aim to invest in what I know or plan to know.

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