Bitcoin is on fire. Mainstream media coverage is everywhere. No doubt, digital currency is a growing trend in Latin America… particularly in neighboring Argentina where the government has been nationalizing everything that isn’t nailed down. As a result, Bitcoins in Argentina frequently trade for more than 30% higher than in neighboring countries… presenting a rather interesting arbitrage opportunity. With all the mainstream attention, though, Bitcoin has been building its share of detractors. Most of these pieces roll out the same tired points– that nobody knows anything about the mysterious programmer who put it together… that it’s too volatile… etc. But, for the US investor, there is one big issue that remains entirely unclear...
One economic myth is that paper money is wealth. The proponents of big government oppose honest money for a very specific reason. Inflation, the creation of new money, is used to finance government programs not generally endorsed by the producing members of society. It is a deceptive tool whereby a “tax” is levied without the people as a whole being aware of it. Since the recipients of the newly created money, as well as the politicians, whose only concern is the next election, benefit from this practice, it’s in their interest to perpetuate it. For this reason, misconceptions are promulgated about the “merits” of paper money and the “demerits” of gold. Simply put, “Easy” money causes hard times.
The economic turmoil in Venezuela has received increasing international media attention over the past few months. Earlier this month, in another attempt to ensure “happiness for all people,” Maduro began to hand out Christmas bonuses, in preparation for the coming elections in December. Although not yet officially in hyperinflation, monetary expansion is pushing Venezuela toward the brink. In such an environment, paychecks need to be distributed quickly, before prices have time to rise; hence, early bonuses. This kind of policy is nothing new in economic history: Venezuela’s hyperinflationary episode is unfolding in much the same way Germany’s did nearly a century ago. Consequently, Venezuela’s economic policy is proving to be another example of Ludwig von Mises’s argument that economic intervention, if left unchecked, leads to complete socialism. As disturbing as the thought is, the difference between the U.S. and other Western economies and Venezuela is merely one of degree, not of kind.
Just as many expect that the #1 buyer of Treasuries (the Fed) will soon begin paring back its purchases, the top foreign holder (China) may cease buying, thereby opening a second front in the taper campaign. Little thought seems to be given to how the economy would react to 5% yields on 10 year Treasuries (a modest number in historical standards). The herd assumes that our stronger economy could handle such levels. That is why when it comes to tapering, the Fed is all bark and no bite. But the market understands none of this. This is not unusual in market history. When the spell is finally broken and markets wake up to reality, we will scratch our heads and wonder how we could ever have been so misguided.
Valuations still matter. Assuming that one is 'investing' as opposed to 'speculating', initial valuation (i.e. the price you pay for the investment) remains the single most important characteristic of whatever one elects to buy. And at the risk of sounding like a broken record, “initial valuation” in the US stock market is at a level consistent with very disappointing subsequent returns, if the history of the last 130 years is any guide. Without fail, every time the US market has traded on a cyclically-adjusted P/E (CAPE) ratio of 24 or higher over the past 130 years, it has been followed by a roughly 20 year bear market... but there are plenty of other fish to fry...
At one point during the evening, when pressed about whether his Quantitative Easing program was good for Wall Street at the expense of Main Street, Ben Bernanke flat out denied it, saying that such a premise is "simply not true". He defended his printing $85 billion per month, suggesting that fixing interest rates at zero is beneficial for society because, among other things, it allows people to 'buy cars'. I saw these words coming out of his mouth and thought to myself, "Is this guy f'ing serious?" Cars. Wow. As if going into debt to purchase a rapidly depreciating consumer item is somehow a victory for the people.
It would be a mistake to think that QE is the first time the Fed's policies have benefited the well-to-do at the expense of the average American. The Fed’s polices have always benefited crony capitalists and big spending politicians at the expense of the average American. The well-connected benefit from inflation, as they receive the newly-created money first, before general price increases have spread through the economy. It is obvious, then, that middle- and working-class Americans are hardest hit by the rising level of prices. Far from promoting a sound economy for all, the Federal Reserve is the main cause of the boom-and-bust economy, as well as the leading facilitator of big government and crony capitalism. Fortunately, in recent years more Americans have become aware of how the Fed is impacting their lives.
Given our earlier discussion of Nobel winner Sargent's comments on Greece and the gold standard, and the ongoing melt-up in asset markets due to the 'limitless money-printing' of central banks around the world, we thought it worth a look at what a gold standard is (and is not). Before 1974, U.S. dollars were backed by gold. This meant that the federal government could not print more money than it could redeem for gold. While this constrained the federal government, it also provided citizens with a relatively stable purchasing power for goods and services. Today's paper currency has no intrinsic value. Professor Larry White asks, should the United States return to a gold standard?
Thailand is known for a lot of things – quintessential white sandy beaches, hard partying nightlife, quiet Buddhist reverence... But what a lot of people don’t realize is that Bangkok is probably one of the most important cities in the world when it comes to illegal trafficking. Human trafficking. Narcotrafficking. Money laundering. Weapons. Forged documents. Etc. Bangkok is just as vital to these industries as New York or London to the global financial sector. And now, thanks to India’s sagging economy, they can add one more to this list: gold smuggling... In Thailand, however, gold demand is up 125% from the 3rd quarter of 2012.
How could such a monetary disaster happen in a civilized and advanced society, leading to the total destruction of the currency? Many explanations have been put forward. It has been argued that, for instance, that reparation payments, chronic balance of payment deficits, and even the depreciation of the Papermark in the foreign exchange markets had actually caused the demise of the German currency. However, these explanations are not convincing. Looking at the world today - in which many economies have been using credit-produced paper monies for decades and where debt loads are overwhelmingly high, the current challenges are in a sense quite similar to those prevailing in the Weimar Republic more than 90 years ago. Now as then, a reform of the monetary order is badly needed; and the sooner the challenge of monetary reform is taken on, the smaller will be the costs of adjustment.
How is inflation of 2% acceptable? Why is this base assumption never challenged? At this rate, in 10 years you’ve lost roughly 20% of your purchasing power. And during the average worker’s lifetime, they will see a 40-60% decrease in purchasing power.
On December 23, 2013, the U.S. Federal Reserve (the Fed) will celebrate its 100th birthday, so we thought it was time to take a look at the Fed’s real accomplishment, and the practices and policies it has employed during this time to rob the public of its wealth. The criticism is directed not only at the world’s most powerful central bank - the Fed - but also at the concept of central banks in general, because they are the antithesis of fiscal responsibility and financial constraint as represented by gold and a gold standard. The Fed was sold to the public in much the same way as the Patriot Act was sold after 9/11 - as a sacrifice of personal freedom for the promise of greater government protection. Instead of providing protection, the Fed has robbed the public through the hidden tax of inflation brought about by currency devaluation.
The EU may have many worries and woes that are slapping it around its face right now (and it could be said for a number of years), but there is one thing that is worrying economists more than the sovereign-debt crisis and that’s the fact that prices are not increasing enough.
A dispassionate overview of the investment climate and what to expect this week.
The following chart, from the Balyasny Asset Management Q3 letter to investors, show just that: the magic of hedge fund leverage in the New Normal.