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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

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

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

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 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 Should Stop Paying Interest on Reserves – Article by Brendan Brown

Central Banks Should Stop Paying Interest on Reserves – Article by Brendan Brown

The New Renaissance Hat
Brendan Brown

In 2008, the Federal Reserve began paying interest on reserve balances held on deposit at the Fed. It took more than seven decades from the US leaving the gold standard — in 1933 — for the fiat regime to do this and thus revoke a cardinal element of the old gold-based monetary system: the non-payment of any interest on base money.

The academic catalyst to this change came from Milton Friedman’s essay “The Optimum Quantity of Money” where he argued that the opportunity cost of paper money (any foregoing of interest compared to on alternative money-like instruments such as savings deposits) should be equal to its virtually-zero marginal cost of production. Opportunity cost could indeed be brought down to zero if base money (bank reserves, currency) in large part paid interest at the market rate. Under the gold standard, the opportunity cost of holding base money largely in metallic form (gold coin) was indeed typically significant. All forms of base money paid no interest. And the stream of interest income foregone in terms of present value was equal in principle to the marginal cost of gold production (this was equal to the gold price).

Interest on Reserves are Important to Controlling Markets and Imposing Negative Rates
Friedman, however, did not identify the catch-22 of his proposal. If the officials of the fiat money regime indeed take steps to close the gap between the marginal production cost and opportunity cost of base money, with both at zero, then there can be no market mechanism free of official intervention and manipulation for determining interest rates.

That is what we are now finding out in the few years since central banks in the US, Europe, and Japan started paying interest on reserves. (The ECB was authorized to do this since its launch in 1999, while the Fed and BoJ began following the 2008 financial crisis.) Central banks can now bind the invisible hand operating in the interest rate market to an extent almost unprecedented in peacetime. In some cases, central banks have even deployed a negative interest rate “tool” which would have been impossible under the prior status quo where base money paid no interest.

How We Got Here
The signing into law of the Financial Services Regulatory Relief Act in 2006 authorized the Federal Reserve to begin paying interest on reserves held by depository institutions beginning October 1, 2011. On the insistence of then Fed Chief Bernanke, that date was brought forward to October 1, 2008 by the Emergency Economic Stabilization Act. He was in the process of dispensing huge loans to troubled financial institutions but wanted nonetheless to keep interest rates at a positive level (one purpose here was to protect the money market fund industry).

Accordingly, the Federal Reserve Board amended its regulation D so that the interest rate paid on required reserves and on excess reserves would be at levels tied (according to distinct formulas at the start) to market rates. An official communiqué explained that the new procedure would eliminate the opportunity cost of holding required reserves (and thereby “deregulate”) and help to establish a lower limit for the Federal Funds rate, becoming thereby a useful tool of monetary policy.

This was useful indeed from the viewpoint of rate manipulators: by setting the rate on excess reserves the Fed could now determine the path of short-term interest rates and strongly influence longer term rates regardless of how the supply of monetary base was growing relative to trend demand. By contrast, under the gold standard and the subsequent first seven decades of the fiat money regime, interest rates in the money market were determined by forces which brought demand for base money into balance with the path of supply as set by gold mining conditions or by central bank policy decision respectively. A rise in rates meant that the public and the banks would economize on their direct or indirect holdings of base money and conversely.

Back Before the Fed Paid Interest on Reserves
Yes, under the fiat money system the central bank could effectively peg a short-term rate and supply whatever amount of base money was needed to underwrite that — but the consequential growth of supply in base money was a variable which got wide attention and remained an ostensible policy concern. Right up until the Greenspan era, the FOMC implemented policy decisions by directing the New York Fed money desk to increase or reduce the pace of reserve growth and changes in the Fed funds rate occurred ostensibly to accomplish that purpose. This old method of determining money market interest rates under a fiat regime — in which banks’ need for reserves was minute given deposit insurance, a generous lender of last resort, and too-big-to-fail — depended on the banking industry enduring what was essentially a tax on its deposit business, which was then magnified by fairly high legal reserve requirements. Thus, it is not surprising that the original impetus to paying interest on reserves, whether in the US or Europe, came from the banking lobby. There was no such burden under the gold standard even though the yellow metal earned no interest. Banks in honoring their pledge to deposit clients that their funds were convertible into gold had to visibly hold large amounts of the metal in their vaults or at hand in a reserve center. Actual and potential demand for monetary base by the public is more limited under a fiat money regime than under the gold standard as bank notes are hardly such a distinct asset as gold coin from other financial instruments.

More Problems with Friedmanite “Solutions”
Friedman, when he advocated eliminating the opportunity cost of base money under a fiat regime, hypothesized that this could occur under a long-run declining trend of prices rather than by the payment of interest. The real rate of return on base money could then be in line with the equilibrium real interest rate. This proposal for perpetually declining prices would also have been problematic, though. The interest rate would fluctuate, and in boom times be well above the rate of price decline. In any case, the rate of price decline would surely vary (sometimes into positive territory) in a well-functioning economy even when the long-run trend was constant (downward). The equilibrium real interest rate would be below the rate of price decline sometimes (for example, during business downturns), meaning that market rates even at zero would be too high. That situation did not occur often under the gold standard where prices were expected to be on a flat trend from a very long-run perspective and move pro-cyclically (falling to a low-point in the recession from which they were expected to rise in the subsequent business expansion, meaning that real interest rates would then be negative).

What Can Be Done?
So what is to be done to escape the curse? A starting point in the US would be for Congress to ban the payment of interest on bank reserves. And the US should use its financial power with respect to the IMF to argue that Japan and Europe act similarly within a spirit of G-7 coordination such as to combat monetary instability. We have seen in recent years how rate manipulation and negative rates are made possible by the payment of interest on reserves, and are potent weapons of currency warfare. Yes, the ban in the immediate would force the Federal Reserve to slim down its balance sheet so that supply and demand for base money would balance at a low positive level of interest rates. The Fed might have to swap its holdings of long-maturity debt for T-bills at the Treasury window so as to avoid any dislocation of the long-term interest rate market in consequence. That, not the Yellen-Fischer “rate lift off day and beyond,” is the road back to monetary normalcy.

Brendan Brown is an associated scholar of the Mises Institute and is author of Euro Crash: How Asset Price Inflation Destroys the Wealth of Nations and The Global Curse of the Federal Reserve: Manifesto for a Second Monetarist Revolution. See Brendan Brown’s article archives.

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

The Unseen Consequences of Zero-Interest-Rate Policy – Article by Ronald-Peter Stöferle

The Unseen Consequences of Zero-Interest-Rate Policy – Article by Ronald-Peter Stöferle

The New Renaissance HatRonald-Peter Stöferle
August 10, 2015

In a dynamic economy, an action not only triggers just one effect, but always an entire series of different consequences. While the cause of the first effect is easily recognizable, the other effects often occur only later and no such recognition occurs. Frédéric Bastiat described this phenomenon in 1850 in his ground-breaking essay “What Is Seen and What is Not Seen”:

In the economic sphere, an act, a habit, an institution, a law produces not only one effect, but a series of effects. Of these effects, the first alone is immediate; it appears simultaneously with its cause; it is seen. The other effects emerge only subsequently; they are not seen; we are fortunate if we foresee them …

There is only one difference between a bad economist and a good one: the bad economist confines himself to the visible effect; the good economist takes into account both the effect that can be seen and those effects that must be foreseen. Yet this difference is tremendous; for it is almost always the case that when the immediate consequence is favorable, the later consequences are disastrous, and vice versa. Hence it follows that the bad economist pursues a small present good that will be followed by a great evil, while the good economist pursues a great good to come, at the risk of a small present evil.

A similar phenomenon can be seen with the consequences of artificially suppressed interest rates and monetary stimulus: in the short term, they appear to have positive effects, the long term effects are, however, disastrous. If one studies these processes closely, it becomes clear that the underlying problems cannot be solved by global zero-interest-rate policy (ZIRP), but that this instead undermines the natural selection process of the market.

With artificial stimulus like ZIRP, we only end up with a situation in which governments, financial institutions, entrepreneurs, and consumers who should actually be declared insolvent all remain on artificial life support.

In line with Bastiat’s thoughts, numerous fatal long-term consequences of zero-interest-rate policies can be identified, but are generally ignored:

  • Conservative investors by nature come under increasing pressure with respect to their investments and take on excessive risks in light of the prospect that interest rates will remain low in the long term. This leads to capital misallocation and the emergence of bubbles.
  • The sweet poison of low interest rates leads to massive asset price inflation (stocks, bonds, works of art, real estate).
  • Structurally too low interest rates in industrialized nations due to carry trades lead to the emergence of asset price bubbles and contagion effects in emerging markets.
  • Changes in human behavior patterns occur, due to continually declining purchasing power. While thrift is increasingly mutating into a relic of the past, taking on debt comes to be seen as rational.
  • As a result of the structurally too low level of interest rates, a “culture of instant gratification” is created, which is among other things characterized by the fact that consumption is financed with credit instead of savings. The formation of wealth becomes steadily more difficult.
  • The medium of exchange and unit of account function of money increases in importance, while its role as a store of value declines.
  • Incentives for fiscal discipline decline.
  • Zombie banks are created: Low interest rates prevent the healthy process of creative destruction. Banks are enabled to roll over potentially non-performing loans practically indefinitely and can thus lower their write-off requirements.
  • Newly created money is neither uniformly nor simultaneously distributed amongst the population. This results in a permanent transfer of wealth from later receivers to earlier receivers of newly created money.

Conventional monetary policy — that is, the promotion of credit creation by lowering interest rates — reaches its limits once the “zero-bound” is reached. In order to continue the spiral of stimulus, “unconventional monetary policy” becomes ever more important. The multitude of “newfangled” monetary policy measures is seemingly only limited by the imagination of central bankers, whereby recent years have shown that central bankers can be extraordinarily creative. That this phenomenon is nothing new, is inter alia shown by this observation by Ludwig von Mises in 1922:

But an increase in the quantity of money and fiduciary media will not enrich the world. … Expansion of circulation credit does lead to a boom at first, it is true, but sooner or later this boom is bound to crash and bring about a new depression. Only apparent and temporary relief can be won by tricks of banking and currency. In the long run they must lead to an all the more profound catastrophe.

Ronald-Peter Stöferle is a Chartered Market Technician (CMT) and a Certified Financial Technician (CFTe). During his studies in business administration and finance at the Vienna University of Economics and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, he worked for Raiffeisen Zentralbank (RZB) in the field of Fixed Income/Credit Investments. In 2006 he began writing reports on gold. His six benchmark reports called “In GOLD we TRUST” drew international coverage on CNBC, Bloomberg, the Wall Street Journal, The Economist and the Financial Times. He was awarded “2nd most accurate gold analyst” by Bloomberg in 2011.

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.

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

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.

A Portrait of the Classical Gold Standard – Article by Marcia Christoff-Kurapovna

A Portrait of the Classical Gold Standard – Article by Marcia Christoff-Kurapovna

The New Renaissance Hat
Marcia Christoff-Kurapovna
April 15, 2015

“The world that disappeared in 1914 appeared, in retrospect, something like our picture of Paradise,” wrote the economist Cecil Hirsch in his June 1934 review of R.W. Hawtrey’s classic, The Art of Central Banking (1933). Hirsch bemoaned the loss of the far-sighted restraint that had once prevailed among the “bankers’ banks” of the West, concluding that modern times “had failed to attain the standard of wisdom and foresight that prevailed in the 19th century.”That wisdom and foresight was once upon a time institutionalized throughout an international monetary culture — gold-based, wary of credit, and contemptuous of debt, public or private. This world included central banks including the Bank of England, the Bank of France, the Swiss National Bank, the early Federal Reserve, the Imperial Bank of Austria-Hungary, and the German Reichsbank. But the entrenched hard-money ideology of the time restrained all of them. The Bank of Russia, for example, which once required 50 percent to 100 percent gold backing of all notes issued, possessed the second largest gold reserves on the planet at the turn of the twentieth century.

“The countries that were tied together in the gold standard system represented to a not inconsiderable degree a community of interest in and responsibility for the maintenance of economic and financial stability throughout the world,” recounted Aldoph C. Miller, member of the Federal Reserve Board from 1914 to 1936, in The Proceedings of the Academy of Political Science, in May 1936. “The gold standard was the one outstanding symbol of unity and economic solidarity which the nineteenth century world had developed.”

It was a time when “automatic market forces,” as economists of the day referred to them, prevailed over monetary management. Redeemability of money in (fine) gold ensured, within limits, stability in foreign exchange rates. Credit was extended only as far as reserve ratios would allow, and central banks were required to keep fixed reserves of gold against notes-in-circulation and against demand deposits.

When Markets Dominated Monetary “Policy”

Gold flows regulated international price relationships through markets, which adjusted themselves accordingly: prices rose when there was an influx of gold — for example, when one country received a debt payment from another country (always in gold), or during such times as the California or Australian gold rushes of the 1870s. These inflows meant credit expansion and a rise in prices. An outflow of gold meant credit was contracted and price deflation followed.

The efficiency of that standard was not impeded by the major central banks in such a way that “any disturbance of economic or financial character originating at any point in the world which might threaten the continued maintenance of economic equilibrium was quickly detected by foreign exchanges,” Miller, the Federal Reserve board member, noted in his paper. “In this way, the gold standard system became in a very real sense a regime or rule of economic health, a method of catching economic disturbances in the bud.”

The Bank of England, the grand master of them all, was the financial center of the universe, whose tight handle on its credit policies was so disciplined that the secured the top spot while not even holding the largest gold reserves. Consistent in its belief that protection of reserves was the chief, and only important, criterion of credit policy, England became the leading exporter of capital, the free market for gold, the international discount market, and international banker for the trade of other countries, as well as her own. The world was in this sense on the sterling standard.

The Bank of France, wisely admonished by its founder, Napoleon, to make sure France was always a creditor country, was so replete with reserves it made England a 500 million franc loan (in 1915 numbers) at the onset of the World War I. Switzerland, perhaps the last “19th-century-style” hold-out today with unlimited-liability private bankers and strict debt-ceiling legislation, also required high standards of its National Bank, founded in 1907. By the 1930s that country had higher banking reserves than the US; the Swiss franc was never explicitly devalued, unlike nearly every other Western nation’s currency, and the country’s domestic price level remained the most stable in the world.

For a time, the disciplined mindset of these banks found its way across the Atlantic, where the idea of a central bank had been long the subject of hot debate in the US. The economist H. Parker Willis, writing about the controversy in The Journal of the Proceedings of the Academy of Political Science, October 1913, admonished: “The Federal Reserve banks are to be ‘bankers’ banks,’ and they are intended to do for the banker what he himself does for the public.”

At first, the advice was heeded: in September 1916, almost two years after its founding on December 23,1913, the fledgling Fed worked out an amendment to its gold policy on the basis of a very conservative view of credit. This new policy sought to restrain “the undue and unnecessary expansion of credit,” wrote Fed board member Miller, in an article for The American Economic Review, in June 1921.

The Bank of Russia, during the second half of the nineteenth century steered itself through the Crimean War, the Russo-Turkish War, the Russo-Japanese War, impending Balkan wars — not to mention all that was to follow — and managed to emerge with sound fiscal policies and massive gold reserves. According to The Economist of May 20, 1899, Russian holdings were 95 million pounds sterling of gold, while the Bank of France held 78 million sterling worth. (Austria-Hungary held 30 million sterling worth of gold and the Bank of England 30 million sterling worth of both gold and silver.) “Russia up to the very moment of rupture [with Japan, 1904–1905], was working imperturbably at the progressive consolidation of her finances,” reported Karl Helfferich of the University of Berlin, at a meeting of The Royal Economic Society [UK] in December 1904. “Even in years of industrial crises and defective harvest, her foreign trade showed an excess of exports over imports more than sufficient to compensate payments sent abroad. And, as guarantee her monetary system she has succeeded in a amassing and maintaining a vast reserve of gold.”

These banks, in turn, drew on the medieval/Renaissance and Baroque-era banking traditions of the Hanseatic League, the Bank of Venice, and Amsterdam banks. Payment-on-demand “in good and heavy gold” was like a blood-oath binding the banker-client relationship. The transfer of credit “did not arise from any such substitution of credit for money,” noted Charles F. Dunbar, in The Quarterly Journal of Economics of April 1892, “but from the simple fact that the transfer in-bank saved the necessity of counting coin and manual delivery of every transaction.”

Bankers were forbidden to deal in certain commodities, could not make loans or create credit for the purchase of such commodities, and forbade both foreigners and citizens from buying silver on credit unless the same amount in cash was in the bank. According to Dunbar, a Venetian law of 1403 on reserve requirements became the basis of US banking law on the deposits of public securities in the late 1800s.

After the fall of bi-metallism in the 1870s, gold continued to perform monetary functions among the main countries of the Western world (and the well-administered Bank of Japan). It was the only medium of exchange and the only currency with unrestricted legal tender. It became the vaunted “measure of value.” Bank currency notes were simply used as auxiliary to gold and, in general, did not enjoy the privilege of legal tender.

The End of An Era

It was certainly not a flawless system, or without periodic crises. But central banks had to act in an exceptionally prudent manner given the all-over public distrust of paper money.

As economist Andrew Jay Frame of the University of Chicago, writing in The Journal of Political Economy, in January 1912, noted: “During panics in Britain in 1847 and 1866, when cash payments were suspended, the floodgates of cash were opened [by The Bank of England], the governor sent word to the street that solvent banks would be accommodated, and the panic was relieved.” Frame then adds: “However, this extra cash and the increased loans that went with it were very quickly put to an end to avoid credit expansion.”

The US was equally confident of its prudent attitude. Aldoph Miller, writing of Federal Reserve policy, remarked: “The three chief elements of the policy of a central bank or system of reserve holding institutions are best disclosed in connection with the attitude towards 1) gold 2) currency 3) credit.” He noted proudly: “The federal reserve system has met [these] tests on the whole with remarkable success.”

But after World War I, a different international landscape was left behind. England had been displaced as the center of international finance; the US and France emerged as the chief post-war creditor countries. The mechanism of the gold standard to which depreciated currencies could be related no longer existed. Only the US was left with a full gold standard. England and France had a gold bullion standard and other countries (Germany, primarily) had a gold-exchange standard.

A matrix of unbalanced trade relationships began to saturate the international economy. Then, with so many foreign countries attendant upon its speculative boom, the US manipulated its own domestic credit policies to ease credit and exchange-standard controls. This eventually culminated in an international financial crisis of 1931. Under Bretton Woods (1944), the gold standard was effectively abandoned: domestic convertibility was illegal and the role of gold was very constrained in favor of the dollar.

“It was, at least in theory, simple enough in the old days,” wrote a wistful W. Randolph Burgess, head of the New York Federal Reserve, in 1938. “In the present strange new world, where the old gold portents have lost their former meaning, where is the radio beam which the central banker may follow? What is the equivalent of gold?

The men of his era and of the late nineteenth century understood the meaning of such a question and, more importantly, why it is one that must be asked. But theirs was a different world, indeed — one without “QE,” ZIRP,” or “Unknown Knowns” as fiscal policy. And there were no helicopters, either.

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.

The Japanese Deflation Myth and the Yen’s Slump – Article by Brendan Brown

The Japanese Deflation Myth and the Yen’s Slump – Article by Brendan Brown

The New Renaissance Hat
Brendan Brown
October 4, 2014

The slide of the yen since late summer has brought it to a level some 40 percent lower against the euro and US dollar than just two years go. Yet still Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and his central bank chief Haruhiko Kuroda warn that they have not won the battle against deflation. That caution is absurd — all the more so in view of the fact that there was no deflation in the first place.

Some cynics suggest that Abe’s and Haruhiko’s battle cry against this phoney phantom is simply a ruse to gain Washington’s acquiescence in a big devaluation. But whatever the truth about their real intent, Japan’s monetary chaos is deepening.

Japanese Prices Have Been Stable

The CPI in Japan at the peak of the last cycle in 2007 was virtually at the same level as at the trough of the post-bubble recession in 1992, and up a few percentage points from the 1989 cycle peak. Hence, Japan alone has enjoyed the sort of price stability as might be enjoyed in a gold-standard world. Prices have fallen during recessions or during periods of especially-rapid terms-of-trade improvement or productivity growth. They have risen during cyclical booms or at times of big increases in the price of oil.

If price-indices in Japan were adjusted fully to take account of quality improvements they would have been falling slightly throughout, but that would also have been the case under the gold standard and was fully consistent with economic prosperity.

yenslumpSuch swings in prices are wholly benign. For example, lower prices during recession coupled with expectation of higher prices in expansion induce businesses and households to spend more. A valid criticism of the Japanese price experience of the past two decades has been that these swings have lacked vigour due to various rigidities. Particularly valid is the claim that price falls should have been larger during the post-bubble recession of 1990-93 and subsequent potential for recovery would have been correspondingly larger.

Prices in Japan did fall steeply during the Great Recession (2008-10) but the perceived potential for recovery was squeezed by the Obama Monetary Experiment (the Fed’s QE) which meant an immediate slide of the US dollar. It was in response to the related spike of the yen that Prime Minister Abe prepared his counter-stroke. This involved importing the same deflation-phobic inflation-targeting policies that the Obama Federal Reserve was pursuing. Washington could hardly criticize Tokyo for imitating its own monetary experiment.

Deflation and “The Lost Decade”

The architects of the Obama Monetary Experiment have cited as justification Japan’s “lost decade” and the supposed source in deflation. In fact, though, the only period during which the Japanese economy underperformed other advanced economies (as measured by the growth of GDP per capita) was from 1992-97. The underperformance of that period had everything to do with insufficient price and wage flexibility downward, the Clinton currency war, and the vast malinvestment wrought by the prior asset price inflation, coupled with a risk-appetite in Japan shrunken by the recent experience of bust.

Moreover, as time went on, from the early 1990s, huge investment into the Tokyo equity market from abroad compensated for ailing domestic risk appetites. Yes, Japan’s economy could have performed better than the average of its OECD peers if progress had been made in de-regulation, and if Japan had had a better-designed framework of monetary stability to insulate itself from the Greenspan-Bernanke asset price inflation virus of the years 2002-07. (The Greenspan-Bernanke inflation caused speculative temperatures in the yen carry trade to reach crazy heights.) But deflation was never an actual or potential restraint on Japanese prosperity during those years.

True, there was a monetary malaise. Japan’s price stability was based on chance, habit, and economic sclerosis rather than the wisdom of its monetary policy. It had been the huge appreciation of the yen during the Clinton currency war that had snuffed out inflation. Then the surge of cheap imports from China had worked to convince the Japanese public that inflation had indeed come to an end. Lack of economic reform meant that the neutral rates of interest remained at a very low level and so the Bank of Japan’s intermittent zero rate policies did not stimulate monetary growth.

The monetary system in Japan had no secure pivot in the form of high and stable demand for non-interest bearing high-powered money. In Japan the reserve component of the monetary base is virtually indistinguishable from a whole range of close substitutes and banks had no reason to hold large amounts of this (given deposit insurance and the virtual assurance of too-big-to-fail help in need). Monetary policy-making in Japan meant highly discretionary manipulation of short-term interest rates in the pursuance of fine-tuning the business cycle rather than following a set of rules for monetary base expansion.

The Yen After Abenomics

When Prime Minister Abe effected his coup against the old guard at the Bank of Japan there was no monetary constitution to flout. Massive purchases of long-dated Japanese government bonds by the Bank of Japan are lowering the proportion of outstanding government debt held by the public in fixed-rate form. But this is all a slow-developing threat given a gross government debt to GDP ratio of around 230 percent and a current fiscal deficit of 6 percent of GDP. Bank of Japan bond-buying has strengthened irrational forces driving 10-year yields down to almost 0.5 percent despite underlying inflation having risen to 1 percent per annum.

It is doubtless the possibility of an eventual monetization of government debt has been one factor in the slump of the yen. More generally, as the neutral level of interest rates in Japan rises in line with demographic pressures (lower private savings, increased social expenditure) one might fear that BoJ manipulation of rates will eventually set off inflation. Part of the yen’s slump, though, is due to a tendency for that currency to fall when asset price inflation is virulent in the global economy. This stems from the huge carry trade in the yen.

The yen could indeed leap when the global asset price-inflation disease — with its origins in Fed QE — moves to its next phase of steep speculative temperature fall. The yen is now in real effective exchange rate terms at the record low point of the Japan banking crisis in 1997 or the global asset inflation peak of 2007. So, the challenge for investors is to decide when the Abe yen has become so cheap in real terms that its hedge properties make it a worthwhile portfolio component.

Brendan Brown is an associated scholar of the Mises Institute and is author of Euro Crash: How Asset Price Inflation Destroys the Wealth of Nations and The Global Curse of the Federal Reserve: Manifesto for a Second Monetarist Revolution. See Brendan Brown’s article archives.

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

Will the Swiss Vote to Get Their Gold Back? – Article by Ron Paul

Will the Swiss Vote to Get Their Gold Back? – Article by Ron Paul

The New Renaissance Hat
Ron Paul
September 14, 2014
On November 30th, voters in Switzerland will head to the polls to vote in a referendum on gold. On the ballot is a measure to prohibit the Swiss National Bank (SNB) from further gold sales, to repatriate Swiss-owned gold to Switzerland, and to mandate that gold make up at least 20 percent of the SNB’s assets. Arising from popular sentiment similar to movements in the United States, Germany, and the Netherlands, this referendum is an attempt to bring more oversight and accountability to the SNB, Switzerland’s central bank.

The Swiss referendum is driven by an undercurrent of dissatisfaction with the conduct not only of Swiss monetary policy, but also of Swiss banking policy. Switzerland may be a small nation, but it is a nation proud of its independence and its history of standing up to tyranny. The famous legend of William Tell embodies the essence of the Swiss national character. But no tyrannical regime in history has bullied Switzerland as much as the United States government has in recent years.

The Swiss tradition of bank secrecy is legendary. The reality, however, is that Swiss bank secrecy is dead. Countries such as the United States have been unwilling to keep government spending in check, but they are running out of ways to fund that spending. Further taxation of their populations is politically difficult, massive issuance of government debt has saturated bond markets, and so the easy target is smaller countries such as Switzerland which have gained the reputation of being “tax havens.” Remember that tax haven is just a term for a country that allows people to keep more of their own money than the US or EU does, and doesn’t attempt to plunder either its citizens or its foreign account-holders. But the past several years have seen a concerted attempt by the US and EU to crack down on these smaller countries, using their enormous financial clout to compel them to hand over account details so that they can extract more tax revenue.

The US has used its court system to extort money from Switzerland, fining the US subsidiaries of Swiss banks for allegedly sheltering US taxpayers and allowing them to keep their accounts and earnings hidden from US tax authorities. EU countries such as Germany have even gone so far as to purchase account information stolen from Swiss banks by unscrupulous bank employees. And with the recent implementation of the Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act (FATCA), Swiss banks will now be forced to divulge to the IRS all the information they have about customers liable to pay US taxes.

On the monetary policy front, the SNB sold about 60 percent of Switzerland’s gold reserves during the 2000s. The SNB has also in recent years established a currency peg, with 1.2 Swiss francs equal to one euro. The peg’s effects have already manifested themselves in the form of a growing real estate bubble, as housing prices have risen dangerously. Given the action by the European Central Bank (ECB) to engage in further quantitative easing, the SNB’s continuance of this dangerous and foolhardy policy means that it will continue tying its monetary policy to that of the EU and be forced to import more inflation into Switzerland.

Just like the US and the EU, Switzerland at the federal level is ruled by a group of elites who are more concerned with their own status, well-being, and international reputation than with the good of the country. The gold referendum, if it is successful, will be a slap in the face to those elites. The Swiss people appreciate the work their forefathers put into building up large gold reserves, a respected currency, and a strong, independent banking system. They do not want to see centuries of struggle squandered by a central bank. The results of the November referendum may be a bellwether, indicating just how strong popular movements can be in establishing central bank accountability and returning gold to a monetary role.

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.

Bitcoin for Beginners – Article by Jeffrey A. Tucker

Bitcoin for Beginners – Article by Jeffrey A. Tucker

The New Renaissance Hat
Jeffrey A. Tucker
April 2, 2013

Understanding Bitcoin requires that we understand the limits of our ability to imagine the future that the market can create for us.

Thirty years ago, for example, if someone had said that electronic text—digits flying through the air and landing in personalized inboxes owned by us all that we check at will at any time of the day or night—would eventually displace first class mail, you might have said it was impossible.

After all, not even the Jetsons cartoon imagined email. Elroy brought notes home from his teacher on pieces of paper. Still, email has largely displaced first-class mail, just as texting, social networking, private messaging, and even digital vmail via voice-over-Internet are replacing the traditional telephone.

It turns out that the future is really hard to imagine, especially when entrepreneurs specialize in surprising us with innovations. The markets are always outsmarting even the most wild-eyed dreamers, and they are certainly smarter than the intellectual who keeps saying: such and such cannot happen.

It’s the same today. What if I suggested that digital money could eventually come to replace government paper money? Heaven knows we need a replacement.

Solving Problems a Byte at a Time

Money started in modern times as gold and silver, and it was controlled by its owners and users. Then the politicians got hold of it—a controlling interest in half of every transaction—and look what they did. Today money is rooted in nothing at all and its value is subject to the whims of central planners, politicians, and monetary bureaucrats. This system is not very modern when we consider a world in which the market is driving innovations in other aspects of our daily lives.

Maybe it was just a matter of time. The practicality is impossible to deny: Gamers needed tokens they could trade. Digital real estate needed to be bought and sold. Money was also becoming more and more notional, with wire transfers, bank computer systems, and card networks serving to move “money” around. The whole world was gradually migrating to the digital sphere, but conventional money was attached to the ground, to vaults owned or controlled by governments.

The geeks went to work on it in the 1990s and developed a number of prototypes—Ecash, bit gold, RPOW, b-money—but they all faltered for the same reason: their supply could not be limited and no one could figure out how to make them impossible to double and triple spend. Normally, reproducibility is a wonderful thing. You can send me an image and still keep it. You can send me a song and not lose control of yours. The Internet made possible infinite copying, which is a great thing for media and texts and—with 3-D printing—even objects. But reproducibility is not a feature that benefits a medium of exchange.

After all, a currency is useless unless it is scarce and its replication is carefully controlled. Think of the gold standard. There is a fixed amount of gold in the world, and it enters into economic life only through hard work and real expenditure. Gold has to be mined. All gold is interchangeable with all other gold, but when I own an ounce, you can’t own it at the same time. How can such a system be replicated in the digital sphere? How can you assign titles to a fungible digital good and makes sure that these titles are absolutely sticky to the property in question?

Follow the Money

Finally it happened. In 2008, a person called “Satoshi Nakamoto” created Bitcoin. He wasn’t the first to solve the problem of double spending. A currency called e-gold did that, but the flaw was that there was a central entity in charge that users had to trust. Bitcoin removed this central point of failure, enabling miners themselves constantly to validate the transaction record. He had each user download the full ledger of all existing Bitcoins so that each could be checked for its title and not used more than once at the same time. With his system, every coin had an owner, and the system could not be gamed.

Further, Nakamoto built in a system of mining that attempts to replicate the experience of the gold standard. The math equations you have to solve get harder over time. The early creators had it easy, just like the early miners of gold could pan it out of the river, though later they had to dig into the mountain. Nakamoto put a limit on the number of coins that can be mined (21 million by 2140). (A new coin is currently mined every 20 seconds or so, and a transaction occurs every second.)

He made his code completely open-source and available to all so that it could be trusted. And the payment system used the most advanced form of encryption, with public keys visible to all and a scrambling system that makes its connection to the private key impossible to discover.

No one would be in charge of the system; everyone would be in charge of the system. This is what it means to be open source, and it’s the same dynamic that has made WordPress a powerhouse in the software community. There would be no need for an Audit Bitcoin movement. Trust, anonymity, speed, strict property rights, and the possibility that applications could be built on top of the infrastructure made it perfect.

Bitcoin went live on November 1, 2008. To really appreciate why this matters, consider the times. The entire political and financial establishment was in full-scale panic meltdown. The real estate markets had collapsed, pulling down the balance sheets of the major banks. The investment banks were unloading mortgage-backed securities at an unprecedented pace. Boats delivering goods couldn’t leave shore because they could find no backers for their insurance bonds. For a moment, it seemed like the world was ending. The Republicans held the White House, but the unthinkable still happened: Government and the central banks decided to attempt a full-scale rescue of the whole system, spending and creating trillions in new paper tickets to fill bank vaults.

Clearly government paper was failing. A digital alternative had to exist. But what gave Bitcoin its value? There were several factors. It was not fixed to any existing currency, so it could float according to human valuation. It was made from real stuff: the very 1s and 0s that were driving forward the global market economy. And while 1s and 0s can be reproduced unto infinity, the new coins could not, thanks to a system in which the coin and its public key were strictly controlled and the ledger updated for every transaction. Its soundness could be checked constantly through instantaneous conversion to other currencies as well as to goods and services. The model seemed impenetrable, the first digital currency that really addressed all the problems that had doomed previous attempts.

A Bitcoin of One’s Own

Let’s fast forward in time to March 2013. I had become the proud owner of my first Bitcoin. My wallet lived on my smartphone. Only three years ago, some wonderful applications had already developed around the currency unit. Although I’m a bit techy, I’m not a rocket scientist and I’m quite certain that I would have been out of my league. But this is how digital institutions develop to become ever more user friendly. At the same event at which I became a Bitcoin owner, I also used a Bitcoin ATM. I put in the green stuff, held my digital wallet up to the scanner, and then I felt the buzz on my smartphone. Physical became digital. Beautiful.

But still I wondered what exactly I could do with these things. That’s when the consumer world of Bitcoin products appeared before me. We aren’t just talking about the Silk Road—a website that became notorious for enabling the easy, anonymous buying and selling of drugs. There are Bitcoin stores everywhere. And there are services in which you can buy from any website with a Bitcoin interface. There was growing talk of Bitcoin futures markets. Some companies were rumored to be going public with Bitcoins, and thereby bypassing the whole of the Securities and Exchange Commission. The implications are mind-blowing.

Sacred Pliers

Still, I’m a tactile kind of guy. I need to experience things. So I went to one of these sites. I brought the first product I saw (why, I do not know). It was a pair of pliers for crimping electric cables. I put in my shipping address and up came a note that said it was time to pay. This was the moment I had been waiting for. A QR code—that funny square design that looks like a 3-D bar code—popped up onscreen. I held up my “wallet” and scanned. In less than 2 seconds, the deed was done. It was easier than Amazon’s one-click ordering system. My heart raced. I jumped out of my chair and did a quick song and dance around the room. Somehow I had seen it thoroughly for the first time: this is the future.

The pliers arrived two days later, and even though I have no use for them, I still treasure them.

Bitcoin had already taken off when the surprising Cyprus crisis hit in a big way. The government was talking about seizing bank deposits as a way of bailing out the whole system. During this period, Bitcoin essentially doubled in value. Press reports said that people were pulling out government currency and converting it, not only in Cyprus but also in Spain and Italy and elsewhere. The price of Bitcoin in terms of dollars soared. Another way to put this is that the price of goods and services in terms of Bitcoin was going down. Yes, this is the much-dreaded system that mainstream economists decry as “deflation.” The famed Keynesian Paul Krugman has even gone so far as to say that the worst thing about Bitcoin is that people hoard them instead of spending them, thereby replicating the feature of the gold standard that he hates the most! He might as well have given a ringing endorsement, as far as I’m concerned.

Obsession and Resentment

My own experience with Bitcoin during this time intensified. I began to call friends on Skype and scan their QR codes and trade currencies. I began to rope other people into the obsession based on my experience: you have to own to believe. After one full day of buying, selling, and using Bitcoins, I had the strange experience of resenting that I had to pay a cab fare in plain old U.S. dollars.

How do you obtain Bitcoins? This process can be a bit tricky. You can look up and find a local person to meet you to trade cash for Bitcoins. Usually, this exchange takes place at high premiums of anywhere from 10 percent to 50 percent depending on how competitive the local market is. It is understandable why people are reluctant to do this, no matter how safe it is. There is just something that seems sketchy about meeting a stranger in an all-night cafe to do some unusual digital currency exchange.

A more conventional route is to go to one of many online sellers and link up your bank account and buy. This process can take a few days. And then when you set out to transfer the funds, you might be surprised at the limits in the market that exist these days. Sites are rationing Bitcoin selling based on availability, just given the high demand. It could be 10 days or more to go from non-owner to real owner. But once you have them, you are off to the races. Sending and receiving money has never been easier.


As of this writing, a Bitcoin is trading for $88.249.  Just three years ago, it hovered at 0.14 cents. Many people look at the current market and think, surely this is a speculative bubble. That could be true, but it might not be. People are exchanging an unstable, fiat paper for something with a real title that cannot be duplicated. Everyone knows precisely how many Bitcoins exist at any time. Anyone can observe the transactions taking place in real time. A Bitcoin’s price can go up and down, and that’s fine, but there is no real speculation going on here that is endogenous to the Bitcoin market itself.

Is it a pyramid scheme? The defining mark of a pyramid scheme is that more than one person has an equal claim on the same money or good. This is physically impossible with Bitcoin. The way the program is set up, it is a strict property rights regime with no exceptions. In fact, in early March, there was a brief hiccup in the system when some new coins were approved by one group of developers but not approved by another. A “fork” appeared in the system. The price began to fall. Developers worked fast to resolve the dispute and eventually the system—and the price—returned to normal. This is the advantage of the open-source system.

But what about the vague sense some people have that a handful of coders cannot, on their own, cause a new currency to come in existence? Well, if you look back at what Austrian monetary theorist Carl Menger says, he points out that a similar process is precisely how gold became money. Every new currency is not at first used by everyone. It is at first used only “by the most discerning and most capable economizing individuals.” Their successful behaviors are then emulated by others. In other words, the emergence of money involves entrepreneurship—that is, being alert to opportunities to discover and provide something new.

Leviathan Leers

But what about a government crackdown? No doubt that attempt will be made. Already, some national government agencies are expressing some degree of annoyance at what could be. But governments haven’t been able to control the cash economy. It would be infinitely more difficult to control a virtual currency with no central bank, with encryption, and with millions of users per day. Controlling that would be unthinkable.

There was a time when the idea that ebooks would replace physical books was an absurd notion. When I first took a look at the early generation of ereaders, I laughed and scoffed. It will never happen. Now I find myself looking for a home for my physical books and loading up on ebooks by the hundreds. Such is the way markets surprise us. Technology without central planners makes dreams come true.

It’s possible that Bitcoin will flop. Maybe it is just the first generation. Maybe thousands of people will lose their shirts in this first go-round. But is the digitization of money coming? Absolutely. Will there always be skeptics out there? Absolutely. But in this case, they are not in charge. Markets will do what they do, building the future whether we approve or understand it fully or not. The future will not be stopped.

Jeffrey Tucker is executive editor and publisher at Laissez Faire Books

This article was published by The Foundation for Economic Education and may be freely distributed, subject to a Creative Commons Attribution United States License, which requires that credit be given to the author.