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Contra Robert Shiller on Cryptocurrencies – Article by Adam Alonzi

Contra Robert Shiller on Cryptocurrencies – Article by Adam Alonzi

Adam Alonzi


While warnings of caution can be condoned without much guilt, my concern is critiques like Dr. Shiller’s (which he has since considerably softened) will cause some value-oriented investors to completely exclude cryptocurrencies and related assets from their portfolios. I will not wax poetically about the myriad of forms money has assumed across the ages, because it is already well-covered by more than one rarely read treatise. It should be said, though it may not need to be, that a community’s preferred medium of exchange is not arbitrary. The immovable wheels of Micronesia met the needs of their makers just as digital stores of value like Bitcoin will serve the sprawling financial archipelagos of tomorrow. This role will be facilitated by the ability of blockchains not just to store transactions, but to enforce the governing charter agreed upon by their participants.

Tokens are abstractions, a convenient means of allotting ownership. Bradley Rivetz, a venture capitalist, puts it like this: “everything that can be tokenized will be tokenized the Empire State Building will someday be tokenized, I’ll buy 1% of the Empire State Building, I’ll get every day credited to my wallet 1% of the rents minus expenses, I can borrow against my Empire State Building holding and if I want to sell the Empire State Building I hit a button and I instantly have the money.” Bitcoin and its unmodified copycats do not derive their value from anything tangible. However, this is not the case for all crypto projects. Supporters tout its deflationary design (which isn’t much of an advantage when there is no value to deflate), its modest transaction fees, the fact it is not treated as a currency by most tax codes (this is changing and liable to continue changing), and the relative anonymity it offers.

The fact that Bitcoin is still considered an asset in most jurisdictions is a strength. This means that since Bitcoin is de facto intermediary on most exchanges (most pairs are expressed in terms of BTC or a major fiat, many solely in BTC), one can buy and sell other tokens freely without worrying about capital gains taxes, which turn what should be wholly pleasurable into something akin to an ice cream sundae followed by a root canal. This applies to sales and corporate income taxes as well. A company like Walmart, despite its gross income, relies on a slender profit margin to appease its shareholders. While I’m not asking you to weep for the Waltons, I am asking you to think about the incentives for a company to begin experimenting with its own tax-free tokens as a means of improving customer spending power and building brand loyalty.

How many coins will be needed and, for that matter, how many niches they will be summoned to fill, remains unknown.  In his lecture on real estate Dr. Shiller mentions the Peruvian economist Hernando De Soto’s observation about the lack of accounting for most of the land in the world.  Needless to say, for these areas to advance economically, or any way for that matter, it is important to establish who owns what. Drafting deeds, transferring ownership of properties or other goods, and managing the laws of districts where local authorities are unreliable or otherwise impotent are services that are best provided by an inviolable ledger. In the absence of a central body, this responsibility will be assumed by blockchain. Projects like BitNation are bringing the idea of decentralized governance to the masses; efforts like Octaneum are beginning to integrate blockchain technology with multi-trillion dollar commodities markets.

As more than one author has contended, information is arguably the most precious resource of the twenty first century. It it is hardly scarce, but analysis is as vital to making sound decisions. Augur and Gnosis provide decentralized prediction markets. The latter, Kristin Houser describes it, is a platform used “to create a prediction market for any event, such as the Super Bowl or an art auction.” Philip Tetlock’s book on superforecasting covers the key advantages of crowdsourcing economic and geopolitical forecasting, namely accuracy and cost-effectiveness. Blockchains will not only generate data, but also assist in making sense of it.  While it is just a historical aside, it is good to remember that money, as Tymoigne and Wray (2006) note, was originally devised as a means of recording debt. Hazel sticks with notches preceded the first coins by hundreds of years. Money began as a unit of accounting, not a store of value.

MelonPort and Iconomi both allow anyone to start their own investment funds. Given that it is “just” software is the beauty of it: these programs can continue to be improved upon  indefinitely. If the old team loses its vim, the project can easily be forked. Where is crypto right now and why does it matter? There is a tendency for academics (and ordinary people) to think of things in the real world as static objects existing in some kind of Platonic heaven. This is a monumental mistake when dealing with an adaptive system, or in this case, a series of immature, interlocking, and rapidly evolving ecosystems. We have seen the first bloom – some pruning too – and as clever people find new uses for the underlying technology, particularly in the area of IoT and other emerging fields, we will see another bloom. The crypto bubble has come and gone, but the tsunami, replete with mature products with explicit functions, is just starting to take shape.

In the long run Warren Buffett, Shiller, and the rest will likely be right about Bitcoin itself, which has far fewer features than more recent arrivals. Its persisting relevance comes from brand recognition and the fact that most of the crypto infrastructure was built with it in mind. As the first comer it will remain the reserve currency of the crypto world.  It is nowhere near reaching any sort of hard cap. The total amount invested in crypto is still minuscule compared to older markets. Newcomers, unaware or wary of even well-established projects like Ethereum and Litecoin, will at first invest in what they recognize. Given that the barriers to entry (access to an Internet connection and a halfway-decent computer or phone) are set to continue diminishing, including in countries in which the fiat currency is unstable, demand should only be expected to climb.

Adam Alonzi is a writer, biotechnologist, documentary maker, futurist, inventor, programmer, and author of the novels A Plank in Reason and Praying for Death: A Zombie Apocalypse. He is an analyst for the Millennium Project, the Head Media Director for BioViva Sciences, and Editor-in-Chief of Radical Science News. Listen to his podcasts here. Read his blog here.

The Federal Reserve Is, and Always Has Been, Politicized – Article by Ron Paul

The Federal Reserve Is, and Always Has Been, Politicized – Article by Ron Paul

The New Renaissance HatRon Paul
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Audit the Fed recently took a step closer to becoming law when it was favorably reported by the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform. This means the House could vote on the bill at any time. The bill passed by voice vote without any objections, although Fed defenders did launch hysterical attacks on the bill during the debate as well as at a hearing on the bill the previous week.

One representative claimed that auditing the Fed would result in rising interest rates, a stock market crash, a decline in the dollar’s value, and a complete loss of confidence in the US economy. Those who understand economics know that all of this is actually what awaits America unless we change our monetary policy. Passing the audit bill is the vital first step in that process, since an audit can provide Congress a road map to changing the fiat currency system.

Another charge leveled by the Fed’s defenders is that subjecting the Fed to an audit would make the Fed subject to political pressure. There are two problems with this argument. First, nothing in the audit bill gives Congress or the president any new authority to interfere in the Federal Reserve’s operations. Second, and most importantly, the Federal Reserve has a long history of giving in to presidential pressure for an “accommodative” monetary policy.

The most notorious example of Fed chairmen tailoring monetary policy to fit the demands of a president is Nixon-era Federal Reserve Chair Arthur Burns. Burns and Nixon may be an extreme example — after all no other president was caught on tape joking with the Fed chair about Fed independence, but every president has tried to influence the Fed with varying degrees of success. For instance, Lyndon Johnson summoned the Fed chair to the White House to berate him for not tailoring monetary policy to support Johnson’s guns-and-butter policies.

Federal Reserve chairmen have also used their power to shape presidential economic policy. According to Maestro, Bob Woodward’s biography of Alan Greenspan, Bill Clinton once told Al Gore that Greenspan was a “man we can deal with,” while Treasury Secretary Lloyd Bentsen claimed the Clinton administration and Greenspan’s Fed had a “gentleman’s agreement” regarding the Fed’s support for the administration’s economic policies.

The Federal Reserve has also worked to influence the legislative branch. In the 1970s, the Fed organized a campaign by major banks and financial institutions to defeat a prior audit bill. The banks and other institutions who worked to keep the Fed’s operations a secret are not only under the Fed’s regulatory jurisdiction, but are some of the major beneficiaries of the current monetary system.

There can be no doubt that, as the audit bill advances through the legislative process, the Fed and its allies will ramp up both public and behind-the-scenes efforts to kill the bill. Can anyone dismiss the possibility that Janet Yellen will attempt to “persuade” Donald Trump to drop his support for Audit the Fed in exchange for an “accommodative” monetary policy that supports the administration’s proposed spending on overseas militarism and domestic infrastructure?

While auditing the Fed is supported by the vast majority of Americans, it is opposed by powerful members of the financial elite and the deep state. Therefore, those of us seeking to change our national monetary policy must redouble our efforts to force Congress to put America on a path to liberty, peace, and prosperity by auditing, then ending, the Fed.

Ron Paul, MD, is a former three-time Republican candidate for U. S. President and Congressman from Texas.

This article is reprinted with permission from the Ron Paul Institute for Peace and Prosperity.

Arizona Challenges the Fed’s Money Monopoly – Article by Ron Paul

Arizona Challenges the Fed’s Money Monopoly – Article by Ron Paul

The New Renaissance HatRon Paul
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History shows that, if individuals have the freedom to choose what to use as money, they will likely opt for gold or silver.

Of course, modern politicians and their Keynesian enablers despise the gold or silver standard. This is because linking a currency to a precious metal limits the ability of central banks to finance the growth of the welfare-warfare state via the inflation tax. This forces politicians to finance big government much more with direct means of taxation.

Despite the hostility toward gold from modern politicians, gold played a role in US monetary policy for sixty years after the creation of the Federal Reserve. Then, in 1971, as concerns over the US government’s increasing deficits led many foreign governments to convert their holdings of US dollars to gold, President Nixon closed the gold window, creating America’s first purely fiat currency.

America’s 46-year experiment in fiat currency has gone exactly as followers of the Austrian school predicted: a continuing decline in the dollar’s purchasing power accompanied by a decline in the standard of living of middle- and working-class Americans, a series of Federal Reserve-created booms followed by increasingly severe busts, and an explosive growth in federal-government spending. Federal Reserve policies are also behind much of the increase in income inequality.

Since the 2008 Fed-created economic meltdown, more Americans have become aware of the Federal Reserve’s responsibility for America’s economic problems. This growing anti-Fed sentiment is one of the key factors behind the liberty movement’s growth and represents the most serious challenge to the Fed’s legitimacy in its history. This movement has made “Audit the Fed” into a major national issue that is now closer than ever to being signed into law.

Audit the Fed is not the only focus of the growing anti-Fed movement. For example, this Wednesday the Arizona Senate Finance and Rules Committees will consider legislation (HB 2014) officially defining gold, silver, and other precious metals as legal tender. The bill also exempts transactions in precious metals from state capital-gains taxes, thus ensuring that people are not punished by the taxman for rejecting Federal Reserve notes in favor of gold or silver. Since inflation increases the value of precious metals, these taxes give the federal government one more way to profit from the Federal Reserve’s currency debasement.

HB 2014 is a very important and timely piece of legislation. The Federal Reserve’s failure to reignite the economy with record-low interest rates since the last crash is a sign that we may soon see the dollar’s collapse. It is therefore imperative that the law protect people’s right to use alternatives to what may soon be virtually worthless Federal Reserve notes.

Passage of HB 2014 would also send a message to Congress and the Trump administration that the anti-Fed movement is growing in influence. Thus, passage of this bill will not just strengthen movements in other states to pass similar legislation; it will also help build support for the Audit the Fed bill and legislation repealing federal legal tender laws.

This Wednesday I will be in Arizona to help rally support for HB 2014, speaking on behalf of the bill before the Arizona Senate Finance Committee at 9:00 a.m. I will also be speaking at a rally at noon at the Arizona state capitol. I hope every supporter of sound money in the Phoenix area joins me to show their support for ending the Fed’s money monopoly.

Ron Paul, MD, is a former three-time Republican candidate for U. S. President and Congressman from Texas.

This article is reprinted with permission from the Ron Paul Institute for Peace and Prosperity.

Alan Greenspan Admits Ron Paul Was Right About Gold – Article by Ryan McMaken

Alan Greenspan Admits Ron Paul Was Right About Gold – Article by Ryan McMaken

The New Renaissance Hat
Ryan McMaken
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In the next issue of The Austrian, David Gordon reviews Sebatian Mallaby’s new book, The Man Who Knew, about the career of Alan Greenspan. Mallaby points out that prior to his career at the Fed, Greenspan exhibited a keen understanding of the gold standard and how free markets work. In spite of this contradiction, Mallaby takes a rather benign view toward Greenspan.

However, in his review, Gordon asks the obvious question: If Greenspan knew all this so well, isn’t it all the more worthy of condemnation that Greenspan then abandoned these ideas so readily to advance his career?

Perhaps not surprisingly, now that his career at the Fed has ended, Old Greenspan — the one who defends free markets — has now returned.

This reversion to his former self has been going on for several years, and Greenspan reiterates this fact yet again in a recent interview with Gold Investor magazine. Greenspan is now a fount of sound historical information about the historical gold standard:

I view gold as the primary global currency. It is the only currency, along with silver, that does not require a counterparty signature. Gold, however, has always been far more valuable per ounce than silver. No one refuses gold as payment to discharge an obligation. Credit instruments and fiat currency depend on the credit worthiness of a counterparty. Gold, along with silver, is one of the only currencies that has an intrinsic value. It has always been that way. No one questions its value, and it has always been a valuable commodity, first coined in Asia Minor in 600 BC.

The gold standard was operating at its peak in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, a period of extraordinary global prosperity, characterised by firming productivity growth and very little inflation.

But today, there is a widespread view that the 19th century gold standard didn’t work. I think that’s like wearing the wrong size shoes and saying the shoes are uncomfortable! It wasn’t the gold standard that failed; it was politics. World War I disabled the fixed exchange rate parities and no country wanted to be exposed to the humiliation of having a lesser exchange rate against the US dollar than itenjoyed in 1913.

Britain, for example, chose to return to the gold standard in 1925 at the same exchange rate it had in 1913 relative to the US dollar (US$4.86 per pound sterling). That was a monumental error by Winston Churchill, then Chancellor of the Exchequer. It induced a severe deflation for Britain in the late 1920s, and the Bank of England had to default in 1931. It wasn’t the gold standard that wasn’t functioning; it was these pre-war parities that didn’t work. All wanted to return to pre-war exchange rate parities, which, given the different degree of war and economic destruction from country to country, rendered this desire, in general, wholly unrealistic.

Today, going back on to the gold standard would be perceived as an act of desperation. But if the gold standard were in place today we would not have reached the situation in which we now find ourselves.

Greenspan then says nice things about Paul Volcker’s high-interest-rate policy:

Paul Volcker was brought in as chairman of the Federal Reserve, and he raised the Federal Fund rate to 20% to stem the erosion [of the dollar’s value during the inflationary 1970s]. It was a very destabilising period and by far the most effective monetary policy in the history of the Federal Reserve. I hope that we don’t have to repeat that exercise to stabilise the system. But it remains an open question.

Ultimately, though, Greenspan claims that central-bank policy can be employed to largely imitate a gold standard:

When I was Chair of the Federal Reserve I used to testify before US Congressman Ron Paul, who was a very strong advocate of gold. We had some interesting discussions. I told him that US monetary policy tried to follow signals that a gold standard would have created. That is sound monetary policy even with a fiat currency. In that regard, I told him that even if we had gone back to the gold standard, policy would not have changed all that much.

This is a rather strange claim, however. It is impossible to know what signals a gold standard “would have” created in the absence of the current system of fiat currencies. It is, of course, impossible to recreate the global economy under a gold standard in an economy and guess how the system might be imitated in real life. This final explanation appears to be more the sort of thing that Greenspan tells himself so he can reconcile his behavior at the fed with what he knows about gold and markets.

Nor does this really address Ron Paul’s concerns, expressed for years, toward Greenspan and his successors. Even if monetary policymakers were attempting to somehow replicate a gold-standard environment, Paul’s criticism was always that the outcome of the current monetary regime can be shown to be dangerous for a variety of reasons. Among these problems are enormous debt loads and stagnating real incomes due to inflation. Moreover, thanks to Cantillon effects, monetarily-induced inflation has the worst impact on lower-income households.

Even Greenspan admits this is the case with debt: “We would never have reached this position of extreme indebtedness were we on the gold standard, because the gold standard is a way of ensuring that fiscal policy never gets out of line.”

Certainly, debt loads have taken off since Nixon closed the gold window in 1971, breaking the last link with gold:

Ryan W. McMaken is the editor of Mises Daily and The Free Market. He has degrees in economics and political science from the University of Colorado, and was the economist for the Colorado Division of Housing from 2009 to 2014. He is the author of Commie Cowboys: The Bourgeoisie and the Nation-State in the Western Genre. 

This article was published on Mises.org and may be freely distributed, subject to a Creative Commons Attribution United States License, which requires that credit be given to the author.

The Fed Plans for the Next Crisis – Article by Ron Paul

The Fed Plans for the Next Crisis – Article by Ron Paul

The New Renaissance HatRon Paul
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In her recent address at the Jackson Hole monetary policy conference, Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen suggested that the Federal Reserve would raise interest rates by the end of the year. Markets reacted favorably to Yellen’s suggested rate increase. This is surprising, as, except for one small increase last year, the Federal Reserve has not followed through on the numerous suggestions of rate increases that Yellen and other Fed officials have made over the past several years.

Much more significant than Yellen’s latest suggestion of a rate increase was her call for the Fed to think outside the box in developing responses to the next financial crisis. One of the outside-the-box ideas suggested by Yellen is increasing the Fed’s ability to intervene in markets by purchasing assets of private companies. Yellen also mentioned that the Fed could modify its inflation target.

Increasing the Federal Reserve’s ability to purchase private assets will negatively impact economic growth and consumers’ well-being. This is because the Fed will use this power to keep failing companies alive, thus preventing the companies’ assets from being used to produce a good or service more highly valued by consumers.

Investors may seek out companies whose assets have been purchased by the Federal Reserve, since it is likely that Congress and federal regulators would treat these companies as “too big to fail.” Federal Reserve ownership of private companies could also strengthen the movement to force businesses to base their decisions on political, rather than economic, considerations.

Yellen’s suggestion of modifying the Fed’s inflation target means that the Fed would increase the inflation tax just when Americans are trying to cope with a major recession or even a depression. The inflation tax is the most insidious of all taxes because it is both hidden and regressive.

The failure of the Federal Reserve’s eight-year spree of money creation via quantitative easing and historically low interest rates to reflate the bubble economy suggests that the fiat currency system may soon be coming to an end. Yellen’s outside-the-box proposals will only hasten that collapse.

The collapse of the fiat system will not only cause a major economic crisis, but also the collapse of the welfare-warfare state. Yet, Congress not only refuses to consider meaningful spending cuts, it will not even pass legislation to audit the Fed.

Passing Audit the Fed would allow the American people to know the full truth about the Federal Reserve’s conduct of monetary policy, including the complete details of the Fed’s plans to respond to the next economic crash. An audit will also likely uncover some very interesting details regarding the Federal Reserve’s dealings with foreign central banks.

The large number of Americans embracing authoritarianism — whether of the left or right-wing variety — is a sign of mass discontent with the current system. There is a great danger that, as the economic situation worsens, there will be an increase in violence and growing restrictions on liberty. However, public discontent also presents a great opportunity for those who understand free-market economics to show our fellow citizens that our problems are not caused by immigrants, imports, or the one percent, but by the Federal Reserve.

Politicians will never restore sound money or limited government unless forced to do so by either an economic crisis or a shift in public option. It is up to us who know the truth to make sure the welfare-warfare state and the system of fiat money ends because the people have demanded it, not because a crisis left Congress with no other choice.

Ron Paul, MD, is a former three-time Republican candidate for U. S. President and Congressman from Texas.

This article is reprinted with permission from the Ron Paul Institute for Peace and Prosperity.

Chasing 2 Percent Inflation: A Really Bad Idea – Article by John Chapman

Chasing 2 Percent Inflation: A Really Bad Idea – Article by John Chapman

The New Renaissance HatJohn Chapman

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In just two years, inflation targeting (namely, the quest for 2 percent inflation) has gone from the lunatic fringe of economics to mainstream dogma. Much of the allure springs from notions that a little inflation motivates people to speed up spending, thereby greatly increasing the efficacy of central bank stimulus. It is touted as a cure for sagging demand and a defense against the (overly) dreaded deflation.

Other benefits include melting away some of the massive government and private debts and improving people’s perception of progress as they see their nominal wages rise. Employers can lower real wages without unpopular dollar pay cuts. The Fed can allow price increases to signal the need for production responses, allow for minor supply shocks and for monopolistic industries to increase prices all without a monetary response that would hurt other elements of the economy.

For the politicians it provides a tax windfall in the form of capital gains taxes on inflated assets and income taxes on interest that simply reflects inflation. It also necessitates printing more money thereby earning seigniorage (profits from printing money) for the government. In addition, it provides cover for competitive currency devaluation and is a great excuse to kick the can down the road: “Let’s not tighten before we reach our highly desired inflation target.”

What’s Magical about 2 Percent Inflation?
Then there is the question of why 2 percent? Perhaps that was seen as a still comfortable rate during some past periods of strong growth. Conditions today are very different, which perhaps suggests they are trying to imitate past growth by copying symptoms instead of substance. Of course for politicians, permission to print money is a godsend, and with inflation all around the developed world below 2 percent, it was “all aboard!”

Clearly not all of the features above are desirable, but even some of the touted ones are underwhelming. While increased inflation expectations will speed up spending, it is far from being the reservoir of perpetual demand that some seem to believe. Essentially, a onetime increase in expectations of a new steady rate of inflation would speed up purchases for the period ahead, but with negligible net effects in subsequent periods — a onetime phase shift in demand.

The Danger of Raising Interest Rates
After almost eight years of stimulus, the Fed has taken its first timid steps toward normalizing monetary policy. That means we will soon have to contend with something entirely absent during the years of easy money — a bill for all of the goodies passed out and the distortions created. And what a bill! A 3 percent rise in average interest rates on just our present government debt over the next few years would ultimately amount to over $500 billion a year in additional interest expense, equal to roughly 1/7 of current Federal tax receipts. Those bills start arriving with a vengeance when rates go back up, and for the first time in years the market will see concrete evidence of whether the US and other governments are willing to pay the price of continuing to have viable currencies.

Prior to the appearance of inflation targeting, I was already dreading the impact of political interference with efforts to return to normal. But targeting makes every politician an economist, able to make simplistic, grandstanding statements with the authority of the Fed’s own model. This makes the problem far worse.

Two percent, which has (foolishly) been defined as desirable, will quickly be interpreted as an average. “So what’s the big deal,” critics will say, “about a pop to 3 percent or more, after all it has spent years ‘below target’, and if you excluded a handful of ‘temporary exceptions’, it would still be only 2 percent …?” Imagine the political storm if the Fed decided to quickly raise rates a couple of full percentage points in response to a surge in inflation to 3 percent.

There are a lot of people (especially politicians) whose short-term interests would be harmed by a sharp rise in interest rates. Lulled by today’s relative calm, many fail to appreciate how explosive the situation becomes when we transition from the concerned waiting of the long easy money period to the concrete tests of our credibility during renormalization. If we had to temporarily sacrifice half a percent from our already tepid growth rate to preserve the credibility of the dollar, that would pale next to the cost of worldwide panic and collapse. Unfortunately the sacrifice part is up front.

Americans think of inflation as a purely monetary phenomenon, which the mighty and independent Fed has handled in the past and will again if necessary. Actually once the inflation genie starts to escape from the bottle it becomes purely a political problem. Even the most determined central banker is helpless if the people refuse to accept the paper money, the politicians balk and take away the bank’s independence, or there is an opposition political party promising a credible-sounding and painless alternative plan. It comes down to what the market sees as the political will and ability to pay the short-term cost of reining in the inflation.

The Political Advantages of the 2 Percent Target
Political resistance to the cost of moving back to normal plus our willingness to decisively confront signs of panic will be watched carefully by owners of dollars and dollar instruments. This is a huge liquid pool which could stampede en masse into wealth storage and productive assets. Such a run would quickly become unstoppable and would mean a collapse of the world economy. Inflation targeting greatly facilitates the political opposition to decisive Fed action right at the first critical test points where there might still be hope of heading off an uncontrollable panic.

Deliberately seeking higher inflation amounts to intentionally damaging people’s faith in a fiat currency, one already in danger from massive debt, disquiet over novel monetary policy, and noises from Congress about reducing Fed independence. Targeting also provides a handy excuse to delay returning to normal, thereby worsening the mounting distortions. Finally, it invites wholesale political interference with the Fed’s efforts to manage an orderly return to normal financial conditions.

John Chapman is a retired commodity trader, having headed his own small trading firm for over thirty years. Prior to that he worked in the international division of a large New York bank, managed foreign exchange hedging for a major NY commodity firm, and worked as a silver trader.

Economics, especially money and banking, has been a passion of his since college. In 1990 he took a trip to South America for the express purpose of studying inflation “at its source.” His formal economics credentials consist of half a dozen courses, five of which were as an undergraduate at MIT (where he majored in aeronautical engineering.) He also received an MBA from the University of Arizona.

This article was published on Mises.org and may be freely distributed, subject to a Creative Commons Attribution United States License, which requires that credit be given to the author.

Central Banks and Our Dysfunctional Gold Markets – Article by Marcia Christoff-Kurapovna

Central Banks and Our Dysfunctional Gold Markets – Article by Marcia Christoff-Kurapovna

The New Renaissance Hat
Marcia Christoff-Kurapovna
July 23, 2015
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Many investors still view gold as a safe-haven investment, but there remains much confusion regarding the extent to which the gold market is vulnerable to manipulation through short-term rigged market trades, and long-arm central bank interventions. First, much of the gold that is being sold as shares, in certificates, or for physical hoarding in dubious “vaults” just isn’t there. Second, paper gold can be printed into infinity just like regular currency. Third, new electronic gold pricing — replacing, as of this past February, the traditional five-bank phone-call of the London Gold Fix in place since 1919 — has not necessarily proved a more trustworthy model. Fourth, there looms the specter of the central bank, particularly in the form of volume trading discounts that commodity exchanges offer them.

The Complex World of Gold Investments

The question of rigging has been brought to media attention in the past few months when ten banks came under investigation by the US Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC) and the US Department of Justice in price-manipulation probes. Also around that time, the Swiss regulator FINMA settled a currency manipulation case in which UBS was accused of trading ahead of silver-fix orders. Then, the UK Financial Conduct Authority, which regulates derivatives, ordered Barclays to pay close to $45 million in fines against a trader who artificially suppressed the price of gold in 2012 to avoid payouts to clients. Such manipulations are not limited to the precious-metals market: in November of last year, major banks had to pay several billion dollars in fines related to the rigging of foreign-exchange benchmarks, including LIBOR and other interest-rate benchmarks.These cases followed on the heels of a set of lawsuits in May 2014 filed in New York City in which twenty-five plaintiffs consisting of hedge funds, private citizens, and public investors (such as pension funds) sued HSBC, Barclays, Deutsche Bank, Bank Scotia, and Société Génerale (the five traditional banks of the former London Gold Fix) on charges of rigging the precious-metals and foreign-exchange markets. “A lot of conspiracy theories have turned out to be conspiracy fact,” said Kevin Maher, a former gold trader in New York who filed one of the lawsuits that May, told The New York Times.

Central Banks at the Center of Gold Markets

The lawsuits were given more prominence with the introduction of the London Bullion Market Association (LBMA) on February 20, 2015. The new price-fixing body was established with seven banks: Goldman Sachs, J.P. Morgan, UBS, HSBC, Barclays, Bank Scotia and Société Génerale. (On June 16, the Bank of China announced, after months of speculation, that it would join.)While some economists have deemed the new electronic fix a good move in contrast to behind-closed-door, phoned-in price-fixing, others beg to differ. Last year, the commodities exchange CME Group came under scrutiny for allowing volume trading discounts to central banks, raising the question of how “open” electronic pricing really is. Then, too, the LBMA is itself not a commodities exchange but an Over-The-Counter (OTC) market, and does not publish — does not have to publish — comprehensive data as to the amount of metal that is traded in the London market.According to Ms. Ruth Crowell, the chairman of LBMA, writing in a report to that group: “Post-trade reporting is the material barrier preventing greater transparency on the bullion market.” In the same report, Crowell states: “It is worth noting that the role of the central banks in the bullion market may preclude ‘total’ transparency, at least at the public level.” To its credit, the secretive London Gold Fix (1919–2015) featured on its website tracking data of the daily net volume of bars traded and the history of gold trades, unlike current available information from the LBMA as one may see here (please scroll down for charts).

The Problem with Paper Gold

There is further the problem of what is being sold as “paper” gold. At first glance, that option seems a good one. Gold exchange-traded funds (ETFs), registered with The New York Stock Exchange, have done very well over the past decade and many cite this as proof that paper gold, rather than bars in hand, is just as sure an investment. The dollar price of gold rose more than 15.4 percent a year between 1999 and December 2012 and during that time, gold ETFs generated an annual return of 14 percent (while equities registered a loss).As paper claims on trusts that hold gold in bank vaults, ETFs are for many, preferable to physical gold. Gold coins, for instance, can be easily faked, will lose value when scratched, and dealers take high premiums on their sale. The assaying of gold bars, meanwhile, with transport and delivery costs, is easy for banking institutions to handle, but less so for individuals. Many see them as trustworthy: ETF Securities, for example, one of the largest operators of commodity ETFs with $21 billion in assets, stores their gold in Zurich, rather than in London or Toronto. These last two cities, according to one official from that company, “could not be trusted not to go along with a confiscation order like that by Roosevelt in 1933.”Furthermore, shares in these entities represent only an indirect claim on a pile of gold. “Unless you are a big brokerage firm,” writes economist William Baldwin, “you cannot take shares to a teller and get metal in exchange.” ETF custodians usually consist of the likes of J.P. Morgan and UBS who are players on the wholesale market, says Baldwin, thus implying a possible conflict of interest.

Government and Gold After 1944: A Love-Hate Relationship

Still more complicated is the love-hate relationship between governments and gold. As independent gold analyst Christopher Powell put it in an address to a symposium on that metal in Sydney, October 2013: “It is because gold is a competitive national currency that, if allowed to function in a free market, will determine the value of other currencies, the level of interest rates and the value of government bonds.” He continued: “Hence, central banks fight gold to defend their currencies and their bonds.”It is a relationship that has had a turbulent history since the foundation of the Bretton Woods system in 1944 and up through August 1971, when President Nixon declared the convertibility of the dollar to gold suspended. During those intervening decades, gold lived a kind of strange dual existence as a half state-controlled, half free market-driven money-commodity, a situation that Nobel Prize economist Milton Friedman called a “real versus pseudo gold standard.”The origin of this cumbersome duality was the post-war two-tiered system of gold pricing. On the one hand, there was a new monetary system that fixed gold at $35 an ounce. On the other, there was still a free market for gold. The $35 official price was ridiculously low compared to its free market variant, resulting in a situation in which IMF rules against dealing in gold at “free” prices were circumvented by banks that surreptitiously purchased gold from the London market.

The artificial gold price held steady until the end of the sixties, when the metal’s price started to “deny compliance” with the dollar. Still, monetary doctrine sought to keep the price fixed and, at the same time, to influence pricing on the free market. These attempts were failures. Finally, in March 1968, the US lost more than half its reserves, falling from 25,000 to 8,100 tons. The price of other precious metals was allowed to move freely.

Gold Retreats Into the Shadows

Meawhile, private hoarding of gold was underway. According to The Financial Times of May 21, 1966, gold production was rising, but it was not going to official gold stocks. This situation, in turn, fundamentally affected the gold clauses of the IMF concerning repayments in currency only in equal value to the gold value of such at the time of borrowing. This led to a rise in “paper gold planning” as a substitution for further increases in IMF quotas. (Please see “The Paper Gold Planners — Alchemists or Conjurers?” in The Financial Analysts Journal, Nov–Dec 1966.)By the late 1960s, Vietnam, poverty, the rise in crime and inflation were piling high atop one another. The Fed got to work doing what it does best: “Since April [1969],” wrote lawyer and economist C. Austin Barker in a January 1969 article, “The US Money Crisis,” “the Fed has continually created new money at an unusually rapid rate.” Economists implored the IMF to allow for a free market for gold but also to set the official price to at least $70 an ounce. What was the upshot of this silly system? That by 1969 Americans were paying for both higher taxes and inflation. The rest, as they might say, is the history of the present.Today, there is no “official” price for gold, nor any “gold-exchange standard” competing with a semi-underground free gold market. There is, however, a material legacy of “real versus pseudo” gold that remains a terrible menace. Buyer beware of the pivotal difference between the two.

Marcia Christoff-Kurapovna is at work on the biography of a prominent European head of state and businessman.  Her work has appeared in such publications as The Wall Street Journal, The Economist and Foreign Affairs.

This article was originally published by the Ludwig von Mises Institute. Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided full credit is given.

Cryptocurrencies and a Wider Regression Theorem – Article by Peter St. Onge

Cryptocurrencies and a Wider Regression Theorem – Article by Peter St. Onge

The New Renaissance Hat
Peter St. Onge
December 18, 2014
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The debate whether or not cryptocurrencies are “money” has put a spotlight on the Menger-Mises Regression Theorem. As stated, the theorem posits that a non-fiat money must have had value before it became a money. Some have used currencies’ lack of antecedent value as knocking it off the money pedestal or as forcing cryptocurrencies to ignominiously piggyback on fiat currencies’ own regressions.

In a 2013 post Konrad Graf makes the excellent point that such critiques misread the Regression Theorem. In reality, Graf argues, the theorem is not a hypothesis to be tested, rather the theorem tells us that cryptocurrencies such as Bitcoin indeed had some antecedent value. At which point our task is to discover what that antecedent value was. Graf suggests several alternatives, including utility of Bitcoin as a geek toy, as art, or as social marker. Because of these non-monetary uses, Graf writes, bitcoin and the theorem do not threaten each other, but “merely gaze across the intellectual landscape at one another with knowing smiles.”

While I agree with Graf on his main point that the theorem implies cryptocurrencies did have antecedent value, I believe that both the original critique and Grafs’ response fall into a trap of misreading the theorem as requiring non-monetary and previously realized (“bought and sold”) benefits.

Money Is a Useful Good

Among Menger’s greatest contributions in his Principles is the realization that money is fundamentally a good like any other — demanded for its usefulness in enabling transactions and store of value — with an actual price dictated by its scarcity.

If money, like any other good, derives its value from the benefits it offers, it’s hard to see why the money, even those benefits, require an antecedent. Just as the internet can be valuable without a “pre-internet,” a cryptocurrency enabling anonymous, irreversible, low-regulation transactions and savings can be valuable without a precursor. [1] If there is no regression requirement for value in any other good, why does money alone bear this burden?

Must Money Have a Non-Monetary Use?

Instead, I would argue for a reading of the Regression Theorem with two important liberalizations. First, benefits provided by a money needn’t be non-monetary. That is, the benefits can reside in the good’s use as money itself — no need for geek-chic art. Second, antecedent demand needn’t have been realized — the use needn’t have actually occurred. It’s the antecedent demand, even latent, not the previous buying and selling, which counts in importing value via the Regression Theorem.

To give an example that satisfies both liberalizations, a benefit such as anonymous wire transfers is both a money-related benefit and is also a service that didn’t previously exist. In a liberalized Regression Theorem, this benefit would count as the antecedent demand giving the spark of life to a scarce cryptocurrency.

A concrete historical example of a currency offering both mainly monetary value and offering it only at moment of birth is Tang China’s paper money. Called “flying cash,” paper offered the key benefit of portability, set against its other risks compared with bullion coins (flammability, uncertain redemption). We could surely seek out non-monetary antecedent value for Tang cash — toilet paper comes to mind. But it seems a stretch to reach for artistic or hygiene uses, compared to the natural conclusion that flying cash was demanded because of its monetary benefits. The fact that demand for portable money was unrealized would simply increase paper money’s value to the unfortunate customer who lacked alternative light-weight money.

This mistaken focus on non-money-related and realized antecedent value is understandable, since even Mises seems to be mixing historical and praxeological discussion in Human Action (chapter 17, sec. 4) where Mises writes, “No good can be employed for the function of a medium of exchange which at the very beginning of its use for this purpose did not have exchange value on account of other employments.”

Here Mises seems to clearly state that Menger’s Regression Theorem requires a currency to have historically represented a commodity having non-money use. This is a natural interpretation, especially in context of Mises’s subsequent discussion of precious metals, clearly useful commodities that you can flash at parties.

But we must take care here to separate Mises’s historical generalization from the praxeological core of his statement. Because Mises has metal on his mind, he suggests the “other employments” must have been antecedent (“did not have”) and, in his subsequent discussion of metals, seems to imply the commodities should be both concrete and previously in use (realized) for non-money purposes.

Money Benefits Are as Useful as Non-Money Benefits

Again, praxeologically, none of these requirements are essential. Money benefits are as useful as non-money benefits, and a useful commodity could conceivably be created and become a medium of exchange at the same moment. So long as the commodity offers “employments” in the form of benefits to users. Cryptocurrencies’ anonymity, regulatory treatment, algorithmically fixed rate of growth, fee structure, and irreversibility of transfer are all money-related benefits, many unrealized before cryptocurrencies came along.

On this reading, and in agreement with Graf, cryptocurrencies are not at all a challenge to the Regression Theorem. They are a confirmation. At birth, cryptocurrencies offered useful features. These benefits function as “employments,” giving cryptocurrencies demand via transaction and store of-value benefits, which in turn import durable purchasing power.

Perceptions Are Important

That “seed” of demand can then be amplified by marketing — by framing the subjective benefits of the currency. Again like any other good, if individuals exert effort to communicate and frame the benefits of a cryptocurrency, then we might expect demand to increase. These individuals may be the owners of businesses that benefit from the currency, or they simply may be enthusiasts.

Now we can simply match these subjective benefits to scarcity to yield a price of a cryptocurrency. Below zero and the currency isn’t “good enough” — it’s not perceived to offer enough benefits. It’s not cool and it’s not art. Above zero and a currency is born: now Satoshi Nakamoto t-shirts are all the rage.

As technology lowers the costs of producing cryptocurrencies, broadening the Regression Theorem’s value requirement to accept novel money-related benefits opens up enormously the range of currencies that are possible in the future. It should be an exciting few decades in the world of currency innovation.

Notes

1. Cryptocurrencies benefit from a perception of anonymity, although whether or not there is actual anonymity in practice is another matter.

Peter St. Onge is an assistant professor at Taiwan’s Fengjia University College of Business. He blogs at Profits of Chaos.

This article was published on Mises.org and may be freely distributed, subject to a Creative Commons Attribution United States License, which requires that credit be given to the author.

Cryptocurrencies as a Single Pool of Wealth – Video by G. Stolyarov II

Cryptocurrencies as a Single Pool of Wealth – Video by G. Stolyarov II

Mr. Stolyarov offers economic thoughts as to the purchasing power of decentralized electronic currencies, such as Bitcoin, Litecoin, and Dogecoin.

When considering the real purchasing power of the new cryptocurrencies, we should be looking not at Bitcoin in isolation, but at the combined pool of all cryptocurrencies in existence. In a world of many cryptocurrencies and the possibility of the creation of new cryptocurrencies, a single Bitcoin will purchase less than it could have purchased in a world where Bitcoin was the only possible cryptocurrency.

References

– “Cryptocurrencies as a Single Pool of Wealth: Thoughts on the Purchasing Power of Decentralized Electronic Money” – Essay by G. Stolyarov II

– Donations to Mr. Stolyarov via The Rational Argumentator:
Bitcoin – 1J2W6fK4oSgd6s1jYr2qv5WL8rtXpGRXfP
Dogecoin – DCgcDZnTAhoPPkTtNGNrWwwxZ9t5etZqUs

– “2013: Year Of The Bitcoin” – Kitco News – Forbes Magazine – December 10, 2013
– “Bitcoin” – Wikipedia
– “Litecoin” – Wikipedia
– “Namecoin” – Wikipedia
– “Peercoin” – Wikipedia
– “Dogecoin” – Wikipedia
– “Tulip mania” – Wikipedia
– “Moore’s Law” – Wikipedia

The Theory of Money and Credit (1912) – Ludwig von Mises

Cryptocurrencies as a Single Pool of Wealth: Thoughts on the Purchasing Power of Decentralized Electronic Money – Article by G. Stolyarov II

Cryptocurrencies as a Single Pool of Wealth: Thoughts on the Purchasing Power of Decentralized Electronic Money – Article by G. Stolyarov II

The New Renaissance Hat
G. Stolyarov II
January 12, 2014
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The recent meteoric rise in the dollar price of Bitcoin – from around $12 at the beginning of 2013 to several peaks above $1000 at the end – has brought widespread attention to the prospects for and future of cryptocurrencies. I have no material stake in Bitcoin (although I do accept donations), and this article will not attempt to predict whether the current price of Bitcoin signifies mostly lasting value or a bubble akin to the Dutch tulip mania of the 1630s. Instead of speculation about any particular price level, I hope here to establish a principle pertaining to the purchasing power of cryptocurrencies in general, since Bitcoin is no longer the only one.

Although Bitcoin, developed in 2009 by the pseudonymous Satoshi Namakoto, has the distinction and advantage of having been the first cryptocurrency to gain widespread adoption, others, such as Litecoin (2011), Namecoin (2011), Peercoin (2012), and even Dogecoin (2013) – the first cryptocurrency based on an Internet meme – have followed suit. Many of these cryptocurrencies’ fundamental elements are similar. Litecoin’s algorithm is nearly identical to Bitcoin (with the major difference being the fourfold increase in the rate of block processing and transaction confirmation), and the Dogecoin algorithm is the same as that of Litecoin. The premise behind each cryptocurrency is a built-in deflation; the rate of production slows with time, and only 21 million Bitcoins could ever be “mined” electronically. The limit for the total pool of Litecoins is 84 million, whereas the total Dogecoins in circulation will approach an asymptote of 100 billion.

Bitcoin-coins Namecoin_Coin Dogecoin_logoLitecoin_Logo

The deflationary mechanism of each cryptocurrency is admirable; it is an attempt to preserve real purchasing power. With fiat paper money printed by an out-of-control central bank, an increase in the number and denomination of papers (or their electronic equivalents) circulating in the economy will not increase material prosperity or the abundance of real goods; it will only raise the prices of goods in terms of fiat-money quantities. Ludwig von Mises, in his 1912 Theory of Money and Credit, outlined the redistributive effects  of inflation; those who get the new money first (typically politically connected cronies and the institutions they control) will gain in real purchasing power, while those to whom the new money spreads last will lose. Cryptocurrencies are independent of any central issuer (although different organizations administer the technical protocols of each cryptocurrency) and so are not vulnerable to such redistributive inflationary pressures induced by political considerations. This is the principal advantage of cryptocurrencies over any fiat currency issued by a governmental or quasi-governmental central bank. Moreover, the real expenditure of resources (computer hardware and electricity) for mining cryptocurrencies provides a built-in scarcity that further restricts the possibility of inflation.

Yet there is another element to consider. Virtually any major cryptocurrency can be exchanged freely for any other (with some inevitable but minor transaction costs and spreads) as well as for national fiat currencies (with higher transaction costs in both time and money). For instance, on January 12, 2014, one Bitcoin could trade for approximately $850, while one Litecoin could trade for approximately $25, implying an exchange rate of 34 Litecoins per Bitcoin. Due to the similarity in the technical specifications of each cryptocurrency (similar algorithms, similar built-in scarcity, ability to be mined by the same computer hardware, and similar decentralized, distributed generation), any cryptocurrency could theoretically serve an identical function to any other. (The one caveat to this principle is that any future cryptocurrency algorithm that offers increased security from theft could crowd out the others if enough market participants come to recognize it as offering more reliable protection against hackers and fraudsters than the current Bitcoin algorithm and Bitcoin-oriented services do.)  Moreover, any individual or organization with sufficient resources and determination could initiate a new cryptocurrency, much as Billy Markus initiated Dogecoin in part with the intent to provide an amusing reaction to the Bitcoin price crash in early December 2013.

This free entry into the cryptocurrency-creation market, combined with the essential similarity of all cryptocurrencies to date and the ability to readily exchange any one for any other, suggests that we should not be considering the purchasing power of Bitcoin in isolation. Rather, we should view all cryptocurrencies combined as a single pool of wealth. The total purchasing power of this pool of cryptocurrencies in general would depend on a multitude of real factors, including the demand among the general public for an alternative to governmental fiat currencies and the ease with which cryptocurrencies facilitate otherwise cumbersome or infeasible financial transactions. In other words, the properties of cryptocurrencies as stores of value and media of exchange would ultimately determine how much they could purchase, and the activities of arbitrageurs among the cryptocurrencies would tend to produce exchange rates that mirror the relative volumes of each cryptocurrency in existence. For instance, if we make the simplifying assumption that the functional properties of Bitcoin and Litecoin are identical for the practical purposes of users, then the exchange rate between Bitcoins and Litecoins should asymptotically approach 1 Bitcoin to 4 Litecoins, since this will be the ultimate ratio of the number of units of these cryptocurrencies. Of course, at any given time, the true ratio will vary, because each cryptocurrency was initiated at a different time, each has a different amount of computer hardware devoted to mining it, and none has come close to approaching its asymptotic volume.

 What implication does this insight have for the purchasing power of Bitcoin? In a world of many cryptocurrencies and the possibility of the creation of new cryptocurrencies, a single Bitcoin will purchase less than it could have purchased in a world where Bitcoin was the only possible cryptocurrency.  The degree of this effect depends on how many cryptocurrencies are in existence. This, in turn, depends on how many new cryptocurrency models or creative tweaks to existing cryptocurrency models are originated – since it is reasonable to posit that users will have little motive to switch from a more established cryptocurrency to a completely identical but less established cryptocurrency, all other things being equal. If new cryptocurrencies are originated with greater rapidity than the increase in the real purchasing power of cryptocurrencies in total, inflation may become a problem in the cryptocurrency world. The real bulwark against cryptocurrency inflation, then, is not the theoretical upper limit on any particular cryptocurrency’s volume, but rather the practical limitations on the amount of hardware that can be devoted to mining all cryptocurrencies combined. Will the scarcity of mining effort, in spite of future exponential advances in computer processing power in accordance with Moore’s Law, sufficiently restrain the inflationary pressures arising from human creativity in the cryptocurrency arena? Only time will tell.