(Interviewed by Louis James, Editor, International Speculator)
L: So Doug, the G20 declared that there will be no currency war. Other than a belly laugh, any reactions?
Doug: First, we should define what a currency war is. I'd say it's a competition between governments to devalue their respective currencies, accomplished by creating lots more new dollars, euros, yen, or what have you. The idea is to increase exports and decrease imports, with the supposed bonus of stimulating the economy. It's an idiotic idea, proof that the people struggling for control of the world's economy are both knaves and fools. The worst part is that people apparently think somebody actually can and should try to control the economy. The world is imitating Argentina.
I believe that Argentina is still a member of the G20, although hanging on by its fingernails. It would be interesting to see the transcript of the meeting and see what the Argentine representative said, because they're inflating the currency down here at a rate of about 30% per year, even while they're trying to maintain an artificial exchange rate. My suspicion is that the general level of economic knowledge, competence, and ethics among the participants of that conference is not much above that of Argentina.
L: That may be, but it strikes me as being... just so ridiculous. I mean, the US is printing money by the helicopter load and sending much of it abroad, which prompts other countries to try to do the same. Bernanke says it isn't so, but everyone can see it is. How can they say there's no currency war? Is this an attempt at a Big Lie?
Doug: The new Japanese prime minister has come out and said that the Bank of Japan needs to redouble its efforts to create new yen. The Chinese are creating yuan in hyperdrive. The Europeans are doing the same with the euro. In the US, they're printing new dollars at a rate of about 100 billion per month. And that's just among the four big players. It's as though they believe their own lies and think that the driving force of an economy really is public opinion. Believing that, they have no problem admonishing people to pay no attention to the man behind the curtain; everything will be fine as long as people believe it will be.
This reminds me of the story of the guy who jumps off a 100-story building and yells as he passes the 50th floor, "So far, so good!"
L: Does anyone even know if it's possible for the G20 economies to grow at a rate that would make their deficit/debt levels manageable?
Doug: I understand that it would take growth on the order of what made China famous in the previous decade, but if anything their growth rates are going down. I think they are heading toward collapse. That's in part because of the ongoing currency debasement, but also in part because the inevitable response of these governments to the harmful effects of that debasement is to impose more rules, regulations, and controls.
Consider again the example of Argentina. The government here recently made it illegal for newspapers to publish advertisements that include prices for things like food. Since Argentina now has price controls for food, they say it's unnecessary and will only excite the public. This is the kind of thinking that permeates the economic establishment today. Everywhere.
I should pause and emphasize, however, that as difficult as Argentina is for doing business, it's a fantastic place to live. I doubt that will be true of the US in a few years.
L: Sounds pretty crazy, and this is a place that already prosecutes journalists for publishing inflation statistics that contradict those of the government. It does seem par for the course worldwide, however, for governments to intervene in the marketplace, cause disruptions, and then use those disruptions as mandates for establishing new regulations and laws.
But Doug, let me push back a little here. You've been saying for some time now that we are on the verge of exiting the eye of the storm. I look at the data, I look at the logic, and I can't disagree with you, but this has lasted several years now… Why should anyone think it's going to happen now?
Doug: Fair question. I could point out that the recent negative GDP numbers from Germany – and all of Europe – are extremely bearish: the endgame for the EU can't be too far off. A number of large US retailers are closing scores, even hundreds, of stores. The earnings of fast-food outlets are falling as people find they can't afford to eat out. But still, even if the natives are restless, they're still not out in the streets with their torches and pitchforks. Perhaps this summer…
But really, this is an almost philosophic question. The economy consists of the values and actions of seven billion people, all doing different things for a million different reasons. It's hard enough to make any prediction about such a complex system; it's extremely difficult to get both the prediction and the timing of the events right. That said, I admit to sometimes conflating the imminent with the inevitable.
L: It's like a sort of Heisenberg's uncertainty principle for economics.
Doug: That's a good analogy. People may be growing tired of hearing me predict the same gloomy near-term economic outcome, but that doesn't make me wrong. Here at Casey Research, we have an economic model of the way the world works. It's not our model exclusively (people who would like to know more should do a search for "Austrian economics"). This model has been shown to be correct and to have excellent predictive power time and time again over the last century. It's been shown to be totally correct in the recent past as well. But knowing you're right doesn't necessarily give you the power to know when you will be proven right. It's just not possible to be absolutely certain when something inevitable like this has in fact become imminent. We're talking about predictions that are far more complicated than predicting at 11 o'clock that the hands on the clock will point at the number 12 in an hour.
Despite the difficulty, it's very important to have a model that has predictive power; seeing where things are going is extremely valuable, even if you can't be sure exactly when things will happen.
L: It's certainly got to be better than a model predicated on assumptions that are defined by the whims of politicians.
Doug: Quite right. I'm sorry if some people are perturbed by our inability to make things happen on a certain time schedule, but I think they should look at our track record and give us some credit for being right about how things are happening. We predicted the debt crisis, the currency crisis, the housing crisis, and the direction of precious metals – accurately and years before others. I think we will soon be shown to be absolutely correct about the direction of the bond market, which is now peaking. It may sound brash, but I feel quite certain that will be shown to be right on all the major trends we are now predicting.
L: Back to the G20: as ridiculous as their denial of the currency war currently under way is, the conclusion they drew is no laughing matter. Just as you said, despite their denials, they claim the situation requires new currency controls. The noose tightens.
Doug: Yes. Despite what they say, these people clearly feel an urgent need to gain control of the situation. They've caused immense chaos, and at some level they probably know it. Of course, they would never dream of accepting responsibility and rolling back any of their economically suicidal policies. Their only response – always and ever – has to be new rules and regulations. They are clamping the lid on the pressure cooker even tighter. These people are truly stupid, in the clinical sense of that word. No matter how badly their meddling backfires, their answer is always more meddling. I'm sorry I can't tell you the day and the hour this thing will blow, but I'm absolutely certain it will.
L: How can they be so blind?
Doug: Bastiat explained it 200 years ago. They see only the immediate and direct consequences of their actions and pay no attention to – or deny – the delayed and indirect consequences of their actions. If the United States, say, devalues its currency by 20%, an immediate effect inside the United States is that everything is 20% cheaper for foreigners. Labor and products are cheaper for foreigners, so exports may increase and make it seem like the economy is getting a great boost.
But this is typical fallacious economic thinking. There are extremely important delayed and indirect effects that are ignored in such a case. Among them is that people don't want to save a weak currency. If people don't save, you can't build capital, and without capital it's impossible to have investment, and progress is diminished. Another ignored consequence is that domestic businesses face increased import costs. Politicians may shrug that off, saying people can buy American cars instead of German or Japanese cars, but many businesses rely on equipment, technologies, and raw materials from abroad. Moreover, all businesses, families, and individuals consume energy, much of which is imported from abroad. Further, if the currency is devalued 20%, it means Americans can buy that much less of foreign businesses, and foreigners can buy that much more of US businesses. Frankly, I couldn't care less what the nationality of buyers and sellers might be. But Americans will be hurt by a weak US dollar as surely as Zimbabweans were hurt by a weak Zim dollar.
People forget that in 1971, when Nixon devalued the dollar, the Swiss franc was $0.23, and the German mark was $0.25; today they're $1.08 and $1.31, respectively. The Japanese yen was 300 to the dollar; today it's about 90. The success of these countries was partly because of strong currencies. A strong currency helped them become rich and prosperous. Of course, most governments are now deeply in debt, and that's a powerful incentive to destroy their currencies.
L: The very currency war the G20 is denying.
Doug: Yes, and the result is that you don't just get one currency devaluing, but all currencies devaluing against real assets, commodities, goods, and services. I do believe that within the foreseeable future all these paper currencies are going to be devalued to zero – in other words, they will reach their actual intrinsic values.
This is extremely serious, because the productive people of the world – the ones who actually consume less than they produce and save the difference, which is what all economic growth and progress depends upon – will be wiped out. When their savings vanish, it's going to create a social and political earthquake right off the Richter scale.
L: Okay, but I'm not going to let you off the hook here. Tune in to your guru sense please, and tell us: Do you still see 2013 as the year when the global economic house of cards starts visibly falling apart?
Doug: Well, never say never. Almost anything is possible. I don't think it will happen, but I can't say it's impossible that government efforts around the world to paper over the crisis won't succeed for a while longer. But even if that were to happen, it would only make the ultimate crisis that much worse.
Here's what it boils down to: if you see a tidal wave coming at you and you're not exactly sure when it will hit, it doesn't actually matter. You've got to get out of its way. You've got to get to high ground. Period. This is the bottom line for me. Stating this as loudly and clearly as possible is my role in today's economic discourse.
L: When it comes to a house of cards like this, it's better to be a year early than a day late.
Doug: It's like Rick says in Casablanca: "If that plane leaves the ground and you're not with him, you'll regret it. Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but soon and for the rest of your life."
I hate to sound like a broken record, but the investment implications remain very clear: sell bonds; general equities are overpriced; real estate is dangerous. Gold and silver aren't cheap, but they're the only safe havens available right now. Well, I could add productive farmland to that short list, but it takes a lot of management – owning precious metals is much simpler.
L: Okay Doug, I appreciate your candid responses. We'll talk again soon.
Doug: My pleasure, as always.
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