Why the global financial system is about to collapse

[Note: The following essay was written by “John Law,” a pseudonym, and released into the public domain in 2006. Its author’s web site is offline. Though it is slightly dated, the economy isn’t getting any better, and the analysis presented is as relevant as ever. I disagree with small parts of it, especially with his idea of taxing gold, but overall it is an article well worth reading. Due to its length it has been split into several pages.]

The global financial system is about to collapse because the U.S. dollar is about to collapse.

The U.S. dollar is about to collapse because of a simple economic fact that no one has the power to change or conceal.

The fact is that the spontaneous remonetization of the precious metals is a Nash equilibrium.

What this means in English is that an ideal financial strategy for everyone on Earth is to buy as much gold and silver as they can, as soon as possible.

To oversimplify wildly, the reason to buy gold and silver is just that everyone else should buy gold and silver, too. There are two reasons to do it as soon as possible.

One is that anyone with an investment account can move money into gold and silver with a few mouse clicks. They trade on the U.S. markets as the stock symbols GLD and SLV.

Two is that once this information becomes widely understood, U.S. and probably global financial markets will be closed.

There is no way to know when this will happen. It could be tomorrow. It could be a year from now. It could be longer. Since the only way this kind of a financial panic meme can spread is through the Internet, history tells us nothing.

And the good news is that if governments manage the situation well, it does not have to be a global economic and political disaster. Quite the opposite, in fact.

Remonetization of precious metals is the next step in the slow, difficult reconstruction of the peaceful and prosperous liberal world that World War I destroyed. The lights are not going out. They are coming back on. The return to classical liberalism, which some call globalization, has barely started. It has already rescued hundreds of millions of people in liberalizing countries like China and India from lives of poverty and depression. Its only opposite is nationalism, which is a recipe for war and misery. It is not perfect, but nothing is, and it must continue.

These are obviously provocative assertions. I explain them below. My hope is that you will evaluate them by thinking for yourself, rather than trusting me or any other authority.

Overview

The first rule of investing is that it’s never a good idea to buy anything just because everyone else is buying it. When the price of an asset is the result of herd behavior, not fundamental value, it’s called a “bubble,” and bubbles always pop.

This rule is absolutely right — except in one case.

In English, a bubble that doesn’t pop is called “money.” Money is always fundamentally overvalued. Its purchasing power is independent of its direct physical usefulness to anyone. This is obvious for paper money, but true even for gold and silver.

For example, premodern monetary systems did not value gold above silver because gold has a higher specific gravity, because it’s harder to oxidize, because it’s yellow, etc. They valued gold higher because there is more silver than gold on earth, a fact that makes no difference to any direct user of silver or gold.

(I should note that there are some rare historical cases of fundamentally valued currency, such as tobacco in colonial Virginia. I prefer to define this as a kind of barter on steroids, but most writers disagree. And some assets that have never been used as currency, such as diamonds, fit my definition of money. All of this is just words, but words matter.)

The most important fact about money was described by economist Carl Menger in 1892: money is a consequence of its own history. Not every asset can serve as money, but not every asset that can serve as money will be used as money. As economists put it, money is “path-dependent” — it is a stable result of events that may be completely accidental.

We can call the transition from fundamental to monetary value “monetization.” Menger and other early economists analyzed monetization in a primitive barter economy. They showed that money is a market phenomenon — that it can develop spontaneously without any official seal of approval.

It’s not widely appreciated that the same monetization process Menger described can also occur in a modern financial market.

Of course, modern economies already have money, so the right word is “remonetization.” Instead of replacing barter with exchange, remonetization replaces official currency or bonds with the new monetary commodity or commodities.

The closest relative of remonetization is hyperinflation. But traditional hyperinflation is a relatively slow process. Remonetization, like any bank or currency run, is a panic. With modern financial networks to move money and the Internet to move dangerous ideas, a remonetization event can be almost instantaneous.

Remonetization has two prerequisites. One is a free public market in one or more monetizable commodities — such as gold and silver. The other is an unstable and mismanaged official currency — such as the U.S. dollar.

In theory, reversing either of these factors could prevent remonetization. In practice this is probably impossible.

Before a remonetization event, the austerity measures necessary to fix the dollar are politically unlikely. Afterward they would be too late. And any preemptive deliberalization of the gold and silver markets would have to come with a remarkably convincing excuse to avoid triggering what it sought to prevent, especially since the U.S. no longer dominates the global financial system.

The best way for the U.S. and other countries to deal with this situation is to accept remonetization and manage it wisely. This will cause a lot of short-term pain for many people. But it will rebalance the global economy, and should lead to a new period of sustainable prosperity.

All this is yet another stack of unsubstantiated assertions. Rather than quoting dead white economists or filling the water with inky clouds of mathematics, let’s work through the situation step by step and see if we agree.

An illustration

Let’s start by comparing two hypothetical cases.

In case A, a million Americans decide right now to move all their savings into Dell stock, buying at the current market price no matter how high.

In case B, a million Americans decide right now to move all their savings into gold, buying at the current market price no matter how high.

In both cases, let’s say each of these test investors has an average of $10,000 in savings. So we are moving $10 billion.

Neither gold nor Dell can instantly absorb $10 billion without considerable short-term increases in price. Because it would require us to predict precisely how other investors would react, we have no way to precisely compute the effects. But we can describe them in general terms.

In case A, the conventional wisdom is right. Our test investors should expect to lose a lot of money.

This is because Dell has a stable equilibrium price which is set by the market’s estimate of the future earning power (price-to-earnings ratio) of this fine corporation. Because it is not the result of any new information about Dell’s business, the short-term surge should not affect this long-term equilibrium.

Since there will almost certainly be a short-term price spike, many of the test investors will be buying at prices well above the stable equilibrium. In fact, the more investors we add to the test, the more each one should expect to lose. Doh!

But there is no way to apply this analysis to case B.

Precious metals have no price-to-earnings ratio. With gold formally demonetized (that is, with no formal link between gold prices and currencies such as the dollar, as there was until 1971), there is no stable way to price it. There is no obvious equilibrium to which the gold price must converge.

It is true that gold has industrial uses. It can be priced on the basis of industrial supply and demand. The conventional wisdom is that it is.

Thus we can say that gold, for example, is overvalued if gold miners are selling more gold than jewelry makers and other industrial users want to buy. At present (with gold near $700), they probably are. So if you follow this reasoning, the right investing decision is not to buy gold, but to sell it short.

But this just assumes that there is no investment demand for gold. On the basis of this assumption, it shows that gold is a bad investment. Therefore there should be no demand for it.

The popularity of this logic is remarkable. However, it is a safe bet that most people who own gold do not follow it.

(In fact, most of the gold demand from the jewelry industry is actually investment demand. Women in many traditional Asian cultures, especially in India, store their savings as gold jewelry, which they buy by weight. It is difficult to guess what the price of gold would be if no one at all held it as an investment. But $100 an ounce is probably too high.)

Therefore, when our case B investors put $10 billion into gold, that money has to be used to bid gold away from its current owners, many of whom already believe that the price of gold in dollars should be much higher than it is now.

So the result of case B is that the gold price will, as in case A, rise immediately. But it has no reason to fall back.

In fact, quite the opposite. Because the gold price is largely determined by investment demand, any increase in price is evidence of increasing investment demand. Mining production, noninvestment jewelry demand, and industrial use are relatively stable. Investment demand is a consequence of investors’ opinion about the future price of gold — which is, as we’ve just noted, largely determined by investment demand.

This is not a circularity. It is a feedback loop. Austrian economists might call it a Misesian regression spiral.

Of course, the same mechanism can drive the gold price down as well as up. When savings flow out of gold, the price must drop. The reputation of gold as a volatile investment is by no means undeserved. There is a trading range within which the price of gold can fluctuate arbitrarily. The range is limited at the bottom by the industrial gold price when investment demand is zero. It’s limited at the top by– well, we’ll see in a moment.

It generally takes a significant external change to affect the long-term direction of a big feedback loop like the gold market. Thus, it is rational for the market to actually treat the price spike caused by case B as a signal that the feedback loop is accelerating, and buy more.

So the case B investors are more likely than not to profit on their trades. Obviously the trades must happen in some sequence, and the earliest will do the best. But all have a good reason to participate, even the last, because their purchase will signal other investors who are not in the case B group to enter the market after them.

Suppose you believe this. It’s all well and good. But what does it really prove? Couldn’t gold still be just another bubble?

And why should gold be a better investment because it has no earnings to price it by? This makes zero sense.

To answer these sensible objections, we need a few more tools.

Nash equilibrium analysis

The Nash equilibrium is one of the simplest and oldest concepts in game theory. (Nash is John Nash of A Beautiful Mind fame.)

In game theory jargon, a “game” is any activity in which players can win or lose — such as, of course, financial markets. And a “strategy” is just the player’s process for making decisions.

A strategy for any game is a “Nash equilibrium” if, when every player in the game follows the same strategy, no player can get better results by switching to a different strategy.

If you think about it for a moment, it should be fairly obvious that any market will tend to stabilize at a Nash equilibrium.

For example, pricing stocks and bonds by their expected future return (the standard Wall Street strategy of value investing) is a Nash equilibrium. No market is infallible, and it’s possible that one can make money by intentionally mispricing securities. But this is only possible because other players make mistakes.

(Nash equilibrium analysis of financial markets is not some great new idea. It is standard economics. The only reason you are reading a Nash equilibrium analysis of the interaction between precious metals and official currency now on the Web, not 30 years ago in the New York Times, is that the Times gets its economics from real economists, not random bloggers, and the profession of economics today is deeply tied to the institutions that manage the global economy. Real economists do not, as a rule, spend time thinking up clever new reasons why the global financial system will inevitably collapse. They’re too busy trying to prevent it from doing so.)

What Nash equilibrium analysis tells us is that the “case B” approach is interesting, but inadequate. To look for Nash equilibria in the precious metals markets, we need to look at strategies which everyone in the economy can follow.

Let’s focus for a moment on everyone’s favorite, gold. One obvious strategy — let’s call it strategy G — is to treat only gold as savings, and to value any other good either in terms of its direct personal value to you, or how much gold it is worth.

For example, if you followed strategy G, you would not think of the dollar as worthless. You would think of it as worth 45 milligrams, because that’s how much gold you can trade one for.

What would happen if everyone in the world woke up tomorrow morning, got a cup of coffee, and decided to follow strategy G?

They would probably notice that at 45mg per dollar, the broad U.S. money supply M3, at about $10 trillion, is worth about 450,000 metric tons of gold; that all the gold mined in human history is about 150,000 tons; and that official U.S. gold reserves are 8136 tons.

They would therefore conclude that, if everyone else is following strategy G, it will be difficult for everyone to obtain 45mg of gold in exchange for each dollar they own.

Fortunately, there is no need to follow the experiment further. Of course it’s not realistic that everyone in the world would switch to strategy G on the same day.

The important question is just whether strategy G is stable. In other words, is it a realistic possibility that everyone in the world could price all their savings in gold? Could all rights to dollars, euros, etc, just be converted to gold and resolved? Or would there be some pressure to revert to paper currency?

If gold atoms were the size of poppyseeds, divisibility would pose an obstacle. But measuring arbitrary small weights of gold is not a difficult technical problem.

It’s true that there are serious inefficiencies in circulating actual coins made of precious metals. Spend too much time reading financial history and you’ll be deluged with frightening facts about agio, gold points, clipped and worn coin, and so forth. Perhaps the worst problem is just that since metal coins have all these problems, there is a strong incentive to replace them with paper notes which are redeemable for actual metal on demand. Unfortunately, the note issuer then finds it very easy to print more notes than it holds metal.

These problems are all solved by the Internet. In a modern gold standard or other precious-metal monetary system, there is no reason for “money” to consist of anything but secure electronic claims to precise weights of allocated precious metals. The metal itself should stay in independently audited vaults.

This mechanism is already being used by new “digital gold currencies” such as e-gold and GoldMoney. These have only accumulated about 10 tons of gold, because they are not well-connected to existing financial networks. But the gold and silver ETFs, GLD and SLV (GLD has 350 tons of gold, more than the Bank of England; SLV has 2000 tons of silver) are similar if more primitive. Converting them to support direct payment would be a small matter of programming.

I don’t intend to get into any open-ended theological disputes on economics. But I do have to mention the 19th-century Banking School doctrine, inherited by both Keynesians and monetarists, that an expanding economy depends on an expandable currency. Please excuse me while I rant.

Gilded Age financiers did succeed in embedding this principle in the institutional DNA of the West. But it has no rational explanation. At least, if it does, I have never heard it. Of course the status quo need justify itself to no one, and it is possible that if monetary expansionism felt institutionally threatened it could present a more coherent narrative.

But to me the idea seems to rest on the understandable, but essentially numerological, connection between X% new money and X% growth, and on the indisputable fact that turning off the money printer tends to result in a recession. Since today’s economists (except of course the Austrian School) have abandoned the the apparently unfashionable concept of causality in favor of the reassuringly autistic positivism of pure statistical correlation, it has escaped their attention that when you stop shooting heroin, you feel awful.

It is also bruited about that without money-printing to dissuade savers from just hoarding cash, no one will lend or take any entrepreneurial risks. Someone should tell this to the Dutch, who ran a 100% hard-money economy for 150 years and were the most prosperous nation in Europe. Perhaps if Lord Keynes had sent wooden sailing ships on three-year trading voyages to Indonesia, he would have rethought his views on lending, interest and risk. In general, stable periods of hard money have been among the most prosperous in human history, and even Friedman and Schwartz admit it. When the value of your money grows with no risk or financial overhead, it may actually be a good thing.

So, absent of course any errors in the above polemic, strategy G is in fact a Nash equilibrium. A direct gold standard in which private citizens own allocated gold would be a viable foundation for a new global financial system. There are no market forces that would tend to destabilize it.

Or are there? Actually, it turns out that we’ve skipped a step in our little analysis.

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