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Sense and Nonsense on Petrodollars

Folded dollar bill (featuring George Washington) against a map of Saudi Arabia.

Last week several reports suggested the termination of a US-Saudi petrodollar agreement, and speculated a Saudi Arabian move to sell oil on world markets in various currencies, including the Chinese yuan. The accounts were rife with inaccuracies: the Saudis’ have transacted in non-dollar currencies for decades, and there has never been a formal treaty, much less with a specified expiration date, governing the loose arrangement that has come to be called the ‘petrodollar system.’

But even the fragments of broken mirrors reflect reality, and despite their fundamental errors a significant trend is in evidence: Saudi Arabia is progressively reducing its dependence on the United States. Quite possibly reflective of its recent admittance to the expanded BRICS block it is exhibiting a greater inclination to settle oil transactions in currencies other than the US dollar. Owing to the US and Western Europe’s increasingly entangled alliances, and its own efforts to diversify away from dependence upon energy exports, Saudi Arabia has been increasing its diplomatic and economic engagements with China, Iran, Russia, nations considered primary US foreign policy adversaries. Recent moves toward accepting non-dollar currencies reflects broader geopolitical shifts away from US currency hegemony.

The concept of the petrodollar, established in the 1970s, was an informal arrangement where Saudi Arabia agreed to sell oil exclusively in US dollars in exchange for US military protection and investment in US Treasury securities. In the immediate wake of the collapse of the Bretton Woods system in 1971, the arrangement bolstered the value of the US dollar and secured US military support for Saudi Arabia. It also ensured relatively consistent demand for US government debt, a windfall which five decades later has become a millstone of damning heft.

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The Incoming Commercial Real Estate Crisis No One Seems Prepared For

The Incoming Commercial Real Estate Crisis No One Seems Prepared For

It has been a year since a string of U.S. regional bank failures, together with the collapse of global heavyweight Credit Suisse, caused many to fear that a major financial crisis was imminent.

But, by the summer of 2023, the panicked withdrawals by frightened depositors largely subsided.

In February, however, New York Community Bank (NYCB) appeared to resurrect the crisis when it announced $2.4 billion in losses, fired its CEO, and faced credit downgrades from rating agencies Fitch and Moodys.

In what has become a familiar tale for U.S. regional banks, NYCB’s share price plummeted by 60 percent virtually overnight, erasing billions of dollars from its market value, and its depositors fled en masse.

“I think that there’s more to come,” Peter Earle, a securities analyst and senior research fellow at the American Institute for Economic Research, told The Epoch Times.

Underlying this year’s turbulence is the fact that many regional banks are sitting on large portfolios of distressed commercial real estate (CRE) loans. according to Mr. Earle. And many are attempting to cope through a process called “extend and pretend,” in which they grant insolvent borrowers more time to pay in hopes that things will get better.

“There is trouble out there, and most of it probably won’t be realized because of the ability to roll some of these loans forward and buy a few more years, and maybe things will recover by then,” he said.

“But all it does is it kicks the can down the road, and it basically means a more fragile financial system in the medium term.”

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De-dollarization Has Begun.

Last week, China and Brazil reached an agreement to settle trades in one anothers’ currencies. Over the past 15 years, China has replaced the United States as the main trading partner of resource-rich Brazil, and as such that shift may have been inevitable. But within the context of recent circumstances, this appears to be another in a series of recent blows to the central role of the dollar in global trade.

As the world’s reserve currency, the US dollar is essentially the default currency in international trade and a global unit of account. Because of that, every central bank, Treasury/exchequer, and major firm on Earth keeps a large portion of their foreign exchange holdings in US dollars. And because holders of dollars seek returns on those balances, the ubiquity of dollars drives a substantial portion of the demand for US government bonds in world financial markets.

The switch from dollars to a yuan-real settlement basis in Chinese-Brazilian trade is only the latest in a growing trend. Discussions of a more politically neutral reserve currency have gone on for decades. The profound economic disruption experienced by Iran, and more recently Russia, after being evicted from dollar-based trading systems like SWIFT, however, have led many nations to consider imminent contingency plans. India and Malaysia, for example, have recently begun using the Indian Rupee to settle certain trades, and there have been perennial warnings about Saudi Arabia and other energy exporters moving away from the dollar. On that note, China also recently executed a test trade for natural gas with France settled in yuan.

DXY Index (1980 – present)

(Source: Bloomberg Finance, LP)

It’s not just the conscription of the dollar in economic warfare, but increasingly error-fraught monetary policy regimes that are driving various interests away from the greenback…

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‘We live in an Orwellian hell-scape’: Facebook fact-checks top economist for stating America IS in a recession after Biden refused to admit it

‘We live in an Orwellian hell-scape’: Facebook fact-checks top economist for stating America IS in a recession after Biden refused to admit it

  • Phillip Magness, the research and education director at the American Institute for Economic Research, believes the U.S. is in a recession
  • Economists usually say it is a recession when two successive quarters have seen negative growth: data on Thursday showed the definition had been met
  • The White House is instead relying on an ‘official declaration’ from the the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER), which can be very slow
  • Magness’s post on Facebook about the U.S. being in a recession was fact-checked by Facebook and a warning posted online
  • ‘We live in an Orwellian hell-scape,’ he tweeted. ‘Facebook is now ‘fact checking’ anyone who questions the White House’s word-games’ 

Facebook placed a ‘fact-checking’ label on a post written by a top economist stating that the United States is now in a recession – a move he termed ‘Orwellian’.

Two consecutive quarters of negative growth is the standard definition of a recession, and Phillip Magness, the research and education director at the American Institute for Economic Research, posted on Facebook a commentary about the country now being in a recession.

The post – which is no longer visible – was marked by Facebook’s fact checkers as being misleading.

‘We live in an Orwellian hell-scape,’ he tweeted.

‘Facebook is now ‘fact checking’ anyone who questions the White House’s word-games about the definition of a recession.’

Biden on Thursday (pictured) insisted that the country was not in a recession, despite new data showing a second consecutive quarter with negative growth

Biden on Thursday (pictured) insisted that the country was not in a recession, despite new data showing a second consecutive quarter with negative growth

Phillip Magness, an economic historian, believes the U.S. is in recession - but the White House disagrees

Phillip Magness, an economic historian, believes the U.S. is in recession – but the White House disagrees

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Dissenters, Unite!

Being contrarian is hard work. You need to withstand ridicule, the loss of friends, employment, and acquaintances, face the imminent possibility that most of the time you’ll be wrong, and abandon the warm fuzzy feeling of having your otherwise friendly peers confirming your bias.

Yet, authentic critics are crucially important, even if (and when) they are wrong. When at least some of us speak out against what is the prevailing wisdom on any given topic, we break the numbing spell that majorities have over groups. We temper extremities, flush out the overlooked assumptions in the majoritarian take, and encourage better decision-making.

Consensus, contrary to the “science is settled” mantra of climate change activists and affectatious Covid pushers alike, is not desirable. At least according to U.C. Berkeley psychologist Charlan Nemeth, who, in her 2018 book In Defense of Troublemakers: The Power of Dissent in Life and Business, summarizes research into majorities and minorities, consensus and dissent.

It’s not a pretty view for those who think bashing wrong-thinkers into silence and reeducating those with the wrong disposition are the treasured fights of our times. In very accessible chapters, Nemeth takes us through detailed analysis of how the lone dissenter in 12 Angry Men could persuade a powerful majority opting for a guilty verdict (majorities persuade quickly and in numbers; minorities quietly and through persistence); we get a comparison between the JFK administration’s internal information-processing in the Bay of Pigs disaster in 1961 and the more balanced and nuanced approach to the Cuban Missile Crisis the following year; we have a brief look at Edward Snowden and the gradual shift of him from a careless criminal to a courageous whistleblower.

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The Everything Bubble and What it Means for Your Money

In the aftermath of the Black Plague which swept across Europe between 1347 and 1353, wiping out between 30 and 60% of the population, the European economy changed dramatically.

Source: Jeremy Norman – HistoryofInformation.com

The Black Plague had a lasting socioeconomic impact; for example, towns and cities emptied, and the sudden reduction in the labour force saw wages rise. Meanwhile attitudes towards death – and life – changed. The Latin phrase, carpe diem, quam minimum credula postero – seize the day, place no trust in tomorrow – epitomised this profound shift in attitudes.

The current pandemic, whilst utterly tragic, has been far less catastrophic, but due to the policy response it too appears destined to leave its mark in changing patterns of living and working. Unlike the 1350’s, however, where the changing price of goods and services signalled imbalances in supply and demand, the valiant monetary and fiscal actions of governments and institutions have distorted this price discovery mechanism.

During the first months of the lockdown, economic growth declined and the price of many equities – and even bonds – fell rapidly. Central banks responded, as they had during the Great Financial Crisis (GFC) of 2008/2009, by cutting interest rates, or, where interest rates could be cut no further, by increasing their purchases of government bonds and other high grade securities. As a result of these purchases, major central banks balance sheets have swollen to $29trln: –

Total Assets of Major Central Banks
`Source: Yardeni, Haver Analytics

The effect of central bank actions has spilled over into a ballooning of global money supply: –

Global Monetary Growth
Source: Yardeni, Federal Reserve

Governments, cognizant of the limitations of their central banks, also reacted, providing loan guarantees, supporting the furloughing of employees and sending direct payments to the rising ranks of the unemployed…

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We Need to Shut Them Down

We Need to Shut Them Down

We need to shut them down. Governments that is. At least the ones that cannot pay their bills because of unnecessary economic lockdown orders.

I have tried just about everything in these pages to induce politicians to see that they are pushing the worst policies since at least the New Deal and are not going to get reelected if they continue their lockdown policies, which could end in bloody revolt if the power or another essential system goes out

I’ve also tried to induce Americans to sue for their freedom on both civil and Constitutional grounds. I’ve tried to stir their patriotism, and to shame them into rising above the status of mindless test subjects or medieval peasants. I’ve tried to get “Progressives” to see that they can’t have both Social Security and government health insurance simultaneously without increasing the probability of future fiascos. 

I have also proffered two separate ways out of this mess, one recently implicitly endorsed by Elon Musk, and another that no self-respecting social scientist could dispute. And I suggested that COVID-19 life insurance would help Americans to face death more like their brave ancestors, or younger selves, did at Woodstock.

But oh the powers that be, be a mighty whale some doth call Leviathan, with the magical power of creating something out of nothing, or rather, like the Wizard of Oz, appearing to create something out of nothing! So the money doth spew forth from the whale’s blow hole in mighty bursts to assuage and calm those who might wish it ill. And worked so far it has.

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What Comes After the Coronavirus, Freedom or Despotism?

What Comes After the Coronavirus, Freedom or Despotism?

The coronavirus crisis that has enveloped the world has brought about calls for society and economy-wide action on the part of governments that has been matched by the imposing of radical shutdowns and compulsory mass quarantining as tens of millions of people are told to not to go to work and to stay at home instead.

Governments have also been redirecting essential medical and related supplies in some places. In the United States, direct governmental commands for companies and industries to change what and how they produce has been declared to be in the executive hands of the president of the United States, when it is deemed necessary to meet the needs of the health crisis. 

President Donald Trump’s recent order for the automobile manufacturer, General Motors, to shift its production potentials to the manufacturing of ventilators for those stricken severely by the virus, under the authority of a Korean-war era piece of legislation, is merely an especially high-profile example of the central planning powers that governments have been asserting the right to implement. 

Fundamental to everything that governments have been doing is the presumption that the crisis can only be handled and solved through a comprehensive system of political command and control. The chorus of voices making this case, along with their own proposals as to what should be the ingredients of “the plan,” has been deafening. 

The Deafening Chorus of Voices for Central Planning

John Cassidy, writing for The New Yorker (March 28, 2020), insists that “the most effective stimulus policy is doing whatever it takes to get some control over the virus’s trajectory.”

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What My Friends on the Left Need to Know About the Green New Deal

What My Friends on the Left Need to Know About the Green New Deal

“Nowhere has our public discourse failed us more egregiously than on the environment and climate change,” I wrote last year while reviewing the first sketches of a proposed Green New Deal. It’s since become a buzzword, but until now it remained only vaguely defined.

Now Senator and Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders has significantly upped the ante. Sanders’ Green New Deal proposal is very specific, earmarking $16 trillion over 10 years to initiatives from “reaching 100 percent renewable energy for electricity and transportation by 2030” to reauthorizing the New Deal-era Civilian Conservation Corps to “coming together in a truly inclusive movement that prioritizes young people, workers, indigenous peoples, communities of color, and other historically marginalized groups.”

The opening to the Sanders campaign’s new page on the Green New Deal encapsulates the candidate’s view of the issue:

The climate crisis is not only the single greatest challenge facing our country; it is also our single greatest opportunity to build a more just and equitable future, but we must act immediately.

Sanders and I wouldn’t disagree that his plan represents a sea change in the way our government, society, and economy interact. The plan is gigantic. I want to fill page after page with factoids about how big it is, but just a few will suffice:

  • The proposal’s total cost is $16 trillion, over 20 times the cost of the New Deal (in today’s dollars, just under $700 billion).
  • If the proposal succeeded in creating 20 million jobs, it would raise the percentage of the workforce employed by the government to around a third, double what it is now.
  • Remember that goal of 100 percent renewables by 2030? We’re only at 15 percent now, meaning almost the entire U.S. energy system would be overhauled.

 …click on the above link to read the rest of the article…

Krugman and the Goldbugs

Krugman and the Goldbugs

The announcement that President Trump would nominate Judy Shelton, a long-time advocate of the gold standard, for a seat on the Federal Reserve’s Board of Governors got Paul Krugman thinking: why do some economic commentators become goldbugs?

Krugman offers a rather cynical view. It is difficult “to build a successful career as a mainstream economist,” he writes.

Parroting orthodox views definitely won’t do it; you have to be technically proficient, and to have a really good career you must be seen as making important new contributions — innovative ways to think about economic issues and/or innovative ways to bring data to bear on those issues. And the truth is that not many people can pull this off: it requires a combination of deep knowledge of previous research and the ability to think differently. 

So what’s an aspiring if not so smart or creative economist to do?

“Heterodoxy,” Krugman writes, “can itself be a careerist move.”

Everyone loves the idea of brave, independent thinkers whose brilliant insights are rejected by a hidebound establishment, only to be vindicated in the end. And such people do exist, in economics as in other fields.… But the sad truth is that the great majority of people who reject mainstream economics do so because they don’t understand it; and a fair number of these people don’t understand it because their salary depends on their not understanding it.

In other words, Krugman suggests most gold standard advocates are either ignorant or disingenuous — and, in some cases, both.

According to Krugman, “events of the past dozen years have only reinforced that consensus” view that “a return to the gold standard would be a bad idea.” 

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The Dollar, Not Crypto, Is a National Security Issue

The Dollar, Not Crypto, Is a National Security Issue

U.S. Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin piled on to comments made recently by President Donald Trump by calling cryptocurrencies a “national security issue.” Bitcoin and crypto proponents more broadly have long wondered if (and how) the government of the United States would recognize the slow but steady encroachment of decentralized assets, and it appears to have begun. Facebook’s announcement of the Libra project on June 18, 2019, will likely prove the point on countless future historical timelines at which the U.S. government began a slow, ultimately ineffectiveassault upon the cryptocurrency realm.

Everything that Mnuchin attributed to Bitcoin — for one thing, that it has been used in concert with such “illicit activity [as] cyber crime, tax evasion, extortion … illicit drugs, and human trafficking” — can be said, and to degrees an order of magnitude or more larger, about the U.S. dollar. It’s an argument suitable for children.

All of this is extremely bullish for Bitcoin and the entire cryptocurrency complex. A bipartisan political salvo against crypto assets will undoubtedly accelerate the pace of innovation as well as increasing the value proposition, and ultimately the market price, of assets that ensure privacy. Higher prices will draw more crypto developers into the market and direct more resources at capturing market share, which means — as in any market — that consumers are the ultimate beneficiaries.

Mnuchin isn’t wrong, though. There is a tremendous risk to American national security where currencies are considered: the dollar. Those who habitually cite its reserve-currency status as a reason not to worry are making an argument that stands on increasingly precarious foundations: since 2010, the U.N. and other groups have cited the dollar’s downward slide in value, urging the adoption of an alternate system of reserves.

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The Rise of the Shotgun Banknote Switch

The Rise of the Shotgun Banknote Switch

Every decade or two, central banks replace their existing issue of banknotes with a new issue. The main reason they do this is to thwart counterfeiters, who by then will have started to get pretty good at duplicating the existing version. Central bankers have usually tried to make the process as convenient as possible for citizens by offering long, drawn-out — sometimes even indefinite — switching periods. Anyone who finds an old note stored away in a cupboard needn’t worry. It can still be spent at the neighborhood grocery store.

But this is changing. It is getting increasingly fashionable among central bankers to institute rapid and inconvenient shotgun note switches. India’s 2016 demonetization is the most famous example, but now Kenya has taken up the baton. Nor is the phenomenon confined to developing countries. Swedes lived through a series of shotgun switches between 2015 and 2017. I won’t get into the Swedish episode in this article, but those who are interested can read more here.

India and Kenya have marketed these shotgun switches as a form of “cleansing” or “medicine.” But central bankers have not proven to citizens that the inconveniences they must endure during a rapid switch are compensated by the purported benefits. Until we have real evidence, I remain skeptical of the usefulness of these switches.

First, let’s outline the typical stages of a banknote switch.

Introduction: The central bank stops printing the old notes and introduces new ones into circulation.

Co-circulation window: A co-circulation period begins in which both the old and new notes are legal tender and can be used to purchase goods and services in shops and other establishments.

Private-bank swap window: Banks swap old notes for new ones or deposits.

Central bank swap window: The central bank promises to swap old notes for new ones.

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We’re Still Making Diocletian’s Mistakes

We’re Still Making Diocletian’s Mistakes

Some of the most telling moments in history are when we look back and see people in a vastly different world behaving exactly as people do today. From 286 to 305 Diocletian, one of Rome’s most powerful and consequential emperors, tried to fix the political and economic systems which he inherited and were teetering on the brink of collapse. In doing so, he made mistakes remarkably similar to those made by people in government today.

The world Diocletian inherited was staggering out of the Crisis of the Third Century, a 50-year period that saw 26 claimants to the imperial robes, most of whom seemed guided by nothing more than personal greed and ambition. Relatively speaking, Diocletian brought stability and good intentions to the Roman state and helped it persist for another 150 years.

But virtually all of Diocletian’s individual reforms sought a stronger imperial state that exploded in both bureaucracy and godlike pageantry in an attempt to engineer prosperity from the top down. The astonishing part is that after more than 1,700 years, after the development of economics as a field of study, and under the auspices of liberal democracy, governments today proceed with largely the same instincts.

Is Four Greater Than One?

The man who would become known as Gaius Aurelius Valerius Diocletianus Augustus was born in present-day Croatia in the year 244. He first came to power as many emperors did, with an army under his command proclaiming him as such, and ultimately defeating other military rivals.

Diocletian realized that his vast empire was too large and complex to be ruled by a single man. This insight about the limits of top-down control may have been forward-thinking, but his solution shows how deeply important the elites of his time viewed a strong centralized state. By 293, Diocletian had fully formed the tetrarchy, where two junior and two senior emperors bound by a set of marriages would each rule a quarter of the empire.

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Central Banking Is Central Planning

Central Banking Is Central Planning

At a time when the appeal of and demands for a new “democratic” socialism seem to have caught the imagination of many among the young and are reflected in the promises of a good number of political candidates running for high office, there is one already-existing socialist institution in America with few opponents: the Federal Reserve System.

The fact is, central banking is a form of central planning. The Federal Reserve has a legal monopoly over the monetary system of the United States. It plans the quantity of money in circulation and its availability for lending purposes; and it sets a target for the annual rate of price inflation (currently around 2 percent), while also intentionally influencing interest rates, affecting investment spending, and supporting full employment. Almost all discussions and debates concerning the Federal Reserve revolve around how it should undertake its monetary central planning: which policy tools should be used, what target goals should be aimed for, and who should be in charge of directing America’s central bank.

Federal Reserve Independence in the Trump Era

A complementary issue that has received renewed attention concerns the question of how much “independence” the Federal Reserve and other central banks should have to determine and implement monetary and interest rate policy. This has recently come to the fore due to comments made by President Donald Trump concerning Federal Reserve interest rate policy and the individuals he has recently proposed for positions on the Federal Reserve Board of Governors.

Several times over the last year, President Trump has expressed irritation and frustration with increases in market rates of interest under the Federal Reserve Board leadership of Jerome Powell, who Trump nominated for Fed chairman and who has held that position since February 2018. 

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Name the State

Name the State

The number one problem of all public debate about politics and economics is the failure to name the state. If this would change, so would public opinion. 

There is no shortage of examples. People talk about health care for all, solving climate change, providing security in old age, universal educational access, boosting wages, ending discrimination, and you can add to the list without end. 

That’s one side. 

The other speaks of national identity, protecting jobs, making us more moral, forming cultural cohesion, providing security against the foreign enemy, and so on. 


All of this, no matter how fancy the language, is obfuscation. What all of this really means is: put the state in charge. What’s strange is the unwillingness to say it outright. This is for a reason. The plans the politicians have for our lives would come across as far less compelling if they admitted the following brutal truth. 

There really are only two ways to allocate goods and services in society: the markets (which rely on individual choice) and the state (which runs on compulsion). No one has ever found a third way. You can mix the two — some markets and some state-run operations — but there always is and always will be a toggling between the two. If you replace markets, the result will be more force via the state, which means bureaucratic administration and rule by force. If you reduce the role of the state, you rely more on markets. This is the logic of political choice, and there is no escaping it. 

Diversity in Markets 

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Olduvai IV: Courage
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Olduvai II: Exodus
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