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No Way to Run a Railroad...
« on: October 15, 2013, 10:36:12 PM »

Off the keyboard of Steve from Virginia


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Published on Economic Undertow on October 15, 2013



Discuss this article at the Economics Table inside the Diner


A lot of confusion in the capital of the World’s Greatest Nation, more like what would be expected in Italy: House G.O.P. Backs Off Plan, Leaving Fiscal Talks in Limbo, (NY Times), House GOP scrambles for support on new funding plan, (WaPo), Competing Budget Plans Cloud Talks, (WSJ) … Default Usa, accordo lontano ma si spacca il fronte repubblicano, (La Repubblica).


Cliffhanger, anyone? It should be said that there is still time, the US is not likely to default; the managers are likely to come to some sort of accommodation, first.


Then again, time is running short … for the US government to get its act together and start governing. A few more days and the Treasury will either fail to make payments upon obligations to lenders or fail to make payments to its own dependent citizenry. What comes after that is hard to say; maybe the dreaded ‘taper’ in some (inadvertent) form. Keep in mind, Treasury securities are collateral for every sort of money/credit exchange, they are deemed to be ‘risk-free’, same as cash. The nation’s word is its bond … what if? Should the US default, risk-free must be redefined throughout finance and politics, (Feliz Salmon/Reuters):


If Treasury payments can’t be trusted entirely, then not only do all risk instruments need to be repriced, but so does the most basic counterparty risk of all. The US government, in one form or another, is a counterparty to every single financial player in the world. Its payments have to be certain, or else the whole house of cards risks collapsing — starting with the multi-trillion-dollar interest-rate derivatives market, and moving rapidly from there.


There you have it, the Freudian slip that reveals our greatest human endeavor to date is entertainment for bored children, a distraction. There is something to be said — and gained — from letting the entire mess collapse, if only to end its pointless and destructive wastefulness. At the same time, the card collapse would render much of the world citizens into paupers over a short time, this would be equally wasteful — and over the longer term, extremely dangerous. There are too many of us, we are too angry and filled with fear. The time is now for cooler heads to find the larger perspective … and kick that can one more time!


The US government has defaulted in the past, the effects have been generally beneficial for both business and the citizens. After the Revolution, the young country defaulted on its war debts, during the Civil War the US suspended convertibility and issued what amounted to scrip — which remained in circulation until 1971. In 1934, the government removed specie from circulation and eliminated ‘gold clauses’ in all contracts, in 1971 Richard Nixon famously closed the Treasury ‘gold window’ and ended the convertibility of dollars to gold in trade between nations. In some cases such as 1934, default bailed out the country’s ruined banks and jump-started a moribund economy. The Revolutionary War debts were ultimately paid with interest … after the US had restructured itself and ratified a new (somewhat excellent) Constitution. Both accelerated US trade both domestically and across the Atlantic.


Using scrip — demand notes — allowed the Union to end slavery and industrialize, then become a world economic power, something it could not have hoped to do as a pastoral state. Ironically, the US since 1900 using credit money has de-industrialized to the degree it has been able to shed its manufacturing work force; it has become a financial- or loan shark state, structurally little different today … from the Confederate South.


With the passage of time, US defaults, like everything else, offered diminished returns. Closing the gold window sparked OPEC’s ire leading to the oil embargo which took place two years later. The oil producers were disgruntled about not receiving gold in exchange for their precious petroleum; unlike other US trading partners they were in a position to do something about it. Not forever, the producers were forced to satisfy themselves with empty US promises of ‘prosperity’ because there were no feasible alternatives … only emptier promises by others, or to leave their petroleum in the ground and gain nothing.


In 1979, the US Treasury failed to make coupon payments on $120 million in Treasury Bills. The causes were a debt ceiling debate, much like today’s; a flood of investors seeking securities at the same time and a word-processing failure. Ultimately, the overdue payments were made with interest: the US was always and at all times solvent, it could always pay its bills. The default was expensive, however; there was a narrow increase in risk premium added to bonds over the next ten+ years that added up to billions of dollars. This was an interest penalty paid to banks by ordinary citizens: the taxpayers penalizing themselves.


To some degree, default is already starting to be ‘priced in’ at the short end of the borrowing spectrum. This is the same short end that the Fed has endeavored to suppress since 2008. The danger here is the Fed and other central banks lose control of the policy rate altogether. Even a small rise would amount to a cash loss in credit markets of many trillions of dollars, the cost to business of increased rates would be much higher. Businesses would be unable to afford credit and would fail, this would cause a recession that central banks would be unable to remedy because they could not lower rates. This in turn would eventually trigger deleveraging across finance, (WSJ);


If Congress doesn’t raise the debt limit before Oct. 17, the date when it is expected to reached, and the U.S. government feels it has no choice but to default, it will in effect “debase the currency” of the repo market, says Lou Crandall, an analyst at market research firm Wrightson ICAP LLC. And that will force dramatic changes in how institutions deal with their cash needs.


They’ll have to make costly and cumbersome changes to margin requirements, a process that if it gets out of hand could convert the temporary liquidity problem into a full-blown credit problem. We learned during the great panic of 2008, when repo transactions were also at the epicenter of the crisis, how a mushrooming “bank run” can occur when one lender imposes tougher collateral restrictions on its counterparties, which in turn impose the same on theirs. In this case, increased margins will be applied to a single asset class in a one-off, across-the-board manner. That might mitigate the risk of a “collateral spiral,” but it’s impossible to gauge all the possible spillover effects.


If credit concerns do arise among counterparties then we’re off to the races: fears about bank defaults, about cascading triggers in the credit default market, about money market funds potentially “breaking the buck.”


A big problem is absence of imagination on the part of the managers who are, a) engaged in a mud-fight with each other, b) pursuing their personal agendas at the expense of the citizens, and, c) locked into doctrinaire economic approaches.


What the Treasury cannot gain from tax receipts, ongoing sales and royalties and interest payment on assets it holds it must borrow. Right now, banks and finance offer (ledger) loans to the Treasury at very low rates. These are secured loans, the Treasury IOU is collateral.


The Treasury has borrowed already a very massive amount, this net amount is not required to shrink but it cannot grow, either. The Treasury can roll over existing loans as they mature, but they cannot increase their level of borrowing.


On the largest scale, the economy is divided into two; the private sector and the public sector. Consider both together to make up a national ledger that must zero out: what follows is not economics but simple bookkeeping on the order of balancing a checkbook. The private sector is made up of firms that have no choice but to earn profits (borrow) in order to remain in business. For the private sector to gain those profits some other sector must run a deficit. The private sector obviously cannot run a surplus and a deficit at the same time; business failures would exponentially increase relative to the rest until the entire sector was bankrupt. Instead, the public sector runs a perpetual deficit. By doing so it creates the necessary surplus within the private sector, that is: public sector deficit is private sector wealth.


The real limit to the size of the deficit is the perceived credibility of the system’s managers. There is no limit within a credit-money system to the public sector borrowing capacity. The public sector cannot ‘run out of money’ any more than a football team can run out of touchdowns. The public sector using its own currency can always pay its bills … and will do so until the managers decide they don’t want to anymore … because the bills are unpleasant or there is some illusory ideological- or political advantage to not doing so.


The alternative to this wealth-making process is the exponential private sector bankruptcy. Our current default theater illuminates the hazards associated with the public sector failing to run deficits … and of the foolish managers destroying what remains of their credibility.


This does not mean that the sectors aren’t over-extended. The problem is not the creation of credit as much as what is done with it after it’s created. Finance has generated hundreds of trillions of dollars worth of credit along with pumping a trillion barrels of crude oil out of the ground. What is there to show for this expenditure besides used cars and smog? Anything?


If the managers had any imagination there are many alternatives to default;


Right now, the private sector is eager to lend to the Treasury because doing so = free money. Not much but at the current rate of borrowing the free-money return adds up. The US needs to set up a money laundry.


– Taper, Baby, taper: Treasury ordinarily can issue IOUs at will — that is, borrow — but cannot do so now due to debt ceiling. However, the Fed and primary dealers hold plenty of Treasury paper in their inventories that can be offered as collateral for loans. The Fed can ‘pretend’ to be the Treasury and borrow from finance using some of its Treasuries as collateral. It can then label the proceeds as ‘interest’ and forward them to the Treasury Department. The Fed holds more than two-trillion dollars worth of Treasuries in its inventory that it can offer in a form of ‘inverse QE’ that would fund the government for almost two years.


This ‘inverse QE’ would be spent to the government’s workers, beneficiaries as well as back to the banks — as real interest. The Fed simply has to rename its lending as ‘interest payments to the Treasury’ there is nothing out of the ordinary about making these payments … and nothing Congress can do about it, either. After the crisis is over, the Treasury can issue new IOUs, unwind the trade and repay the Fed … or not. The Fed doesn’t really need the money*.


– Issue More Scrip: When the Congress and president finally decide to raise the debt ceiling, they should agree to allow the Treasury to issue more scrip, that is, create more US notes. The government has always been able to create currency at will to meet any obligation including the repayment of debts and interest. This makes the US government ‘default proof’. United States Notes or greenbacks were in circulation longer than any other kind of US currency; the original idea for ‘demand notes’ was offered by Edmund Dick Taylor as a means to finance Union efforts during the US Civil War, (Wikipedia):


A United States Note, also known as a Legal Tender Note, is a type of paper money that was issued from 1862 to 1971 in the U.S. Having been current for over 100 years, they were issued for longer than any other form of U.S. paper money. They were known popularly as “greenbacks” in their heyday, a name inherited from the Demand Notes that they replaced in 1862. Often called Legal Tender Notes, they were called United States Notes by the First Legal Tender Act, which authorized them as a form of fiat currency. During the 1860s the so-called second obligation on the reverse of the notes stated:








This Note is Legal Tender for All Debts Public and Private Except Duties On Imports And Interest On The Public Debt; And Is Redeemable In Payment Of All Loans Made To The United States.

They were originally issued directly into circulation by the U.S. Treasury to pay expenses incurred by the Union during the American Civil War. Over the next century, the legislation governing these notes was modified many times and numerous versions have been issued by the Treasury.


Congress would authorize the Treasury to issue $2 trillion in US notes, these would be used to extinguish the same amount of debt. Actual currency would not be necessary, only a ledger-entry repayment to retire ledger entry obligations. There would be no inflation or increase in ‘money’ by way of this process. this is because the money increase occurred at the time the original loan to the Treasury was made. Instead, the residue of bad loans carried forward on ledgers year after year would be wiped out.


Bankers would be unhappy with ledger repayments, they hold out for payments in blood in the form of circulating currency. This is the same way OPEC oil ministers complained about not gaining any gold in exchange for their crude. Like gold was after 1972 circulating money is in inadequate supply and unaffordable, the alternative to the banks is outfight repudiation. A ledger-entry repayment is better business for the banks than no repayment at all.


– Issue More Scrip 2.0: Any of the EU countries could do the same thing: the Italian Treasury could ledger into existence EUR 2 trillion and reliquify the entire EU by reducing the burden of bad (ledger) loans festering on Europe’s books.


– Cancel, Baby, cancel: The Treasury could simply cancel all intra-governmental debt, that is obligations between US agencies. Doing so would reduce the US government deficit by at least $2 trillion at zero cost (about half of intragovernmental debt is held by the Federal Reserve).


Of course, none of the above would solve either Europe’s or the United States’ energy shortages and capital-related business constraints. To actually address these issues would require stringent conservation. However, taking the above steps would buy sufficient time to put conservation strategies into effect.


There would be consequences to Fed’s ‘inverse QE’. Cash on the repo market does not fund the Treasury, it funds shadow banking. Without repo there would be an excess of cash but not for long, the demand for cash would grow as it would be the remaining risk-free security. The demand would mushroom, this would unwind overseas- and internal dollar carry trades, then dollar deflation and business contraction.


The carry unwind would shift dollar inflation overseas as dollar funds dry up and local currencies depreciate sharply. Witness India’s currency collapse along with that of the Brazilian real. The inflation was baked into the cake from the beginning of Bernanke’s accomodative policy … so was the carry trade which shuffled it toward assets overseas.


The investment represented by all those dollars occurred in emerging markets … US workers were left on the outside looking in. If those dollars had ‘stayed home’ wage-push stagflation might have indeed taken place here in the US, that in turn would have put an end to the easing program without ‘curing’ the economy; the recession that stares us in the face right now would have occurred already.


There is a panic about the dollar with many believing it will be substantially depreciated; this has been the panic about the other reserve currencies including sterling, the euro and yuan. Like the others, the current panic will end, in a few months the panic will be about another currency and other credit systems. All of this is symptomatic of the greater ills; capital destruction along with the inevitable reversal of the easing process set into motion by Ben Bernanke and other central bankers beginning in 2008. One way of the other this process will be undone … with or without a default.


Another process being undone is the dominion of private sector money over the governing process. The chaos underway in the US capital is the result of pampered tycoons using their political surrogates to advance their now-conflicting aims against each other, conflicted also against reality. The outcome is the management structures falling apart in disgrace. At the end of the day there is nothing to do but start again with a new political regime that excludes the billionaires’ money, one way or the other the money is gone. Doing business as we are now is no way to run a railroad.


* The danger of central banks making unsecured loans is offset by few in the markets recognizing that the central bank has made an unsecured loan.


** Please take the time to read Grant William’s take on this bit of nonsense right HERE!



 

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