The Buck Stopped Then
CRITICS of the administration's Wall Street bailout condemn the waste of taxpayer dollars. But the taxpayers aren't the weightiest American financial constituency, even in this election year. The dollar is the world's currency. And it is on the world's opinion of the dollar that the Treasury's plan ultimately hangs.
It hangs by a thread, if Monday's steep drop of the greenback against the euro is any indication. We Americans, constitutionally inattentive to developments in the foreign exchange markets, should be grateful for what we have. That a piece of paper of no intrinsic value should pass for good money the world over is nothing less than a secular miracle. We pay our bills with it. And our creditors not only accept it, they also obligingly invest it in American securities, including our slightly shop-soiled mortgage-backed securities. Every year but one since 1982, this country has consumed much more than it has produced, and it has managed to discharge its debts with the money that it alone can lawfully print.
No other nation ever had it quite so good. Before the dollar, the pound sterling was the pre-eminent monetary brand. But when Britannia ruled the waves, the pound was backed by gold. You could exchange pound notes for gold coin, and vice versa, at the fixed statutory rate.
Today's dollar, in contrast, is faith-based. Since 1971, nothing has stood behind it except the world's good opinion of the United States. And now, watching the largest American financial institutions quake, and the administration fly from one emergency stopgap to the next, the world is changing its mind.
"Not since the Great Depression," news reports keep repeating, has America's banking machinery been quite so jammed up. The comparison is hardly flattering to this generation of financiers. From 1929 to 1933, the American economy shrank by 46 percent. The wonder is that any bank, any corporate borrower, any mortgagor could have remained solvent, not that so many defaulted. There is not the faintest shadow of that kind of hardship today. Even on the question of whether the nation has entered a recession, the cyclical jury is still out. Yet Wall Street shudders.
The remote cause of its troubles is the paper dollar itself — the dollar and the growth in the immense piles of debt it has facilitated. The age of paper money brought with it an increasingly uninhibited style of doing business.
The dollar emerged at the center of the monetary system that took its name from the 1944 convention in Bretton Woods, N.H. The American currency alone was made exchangeable into gold. The other currencies, when they got their peacetime legs back under them, were made exchangeable into the dollar.
All was well for a time — indeed, for one of the most prosperous times in modern history. Under the system of fixed exchange rates and a gold-anchored dollar, world trade boomed (albeit from a low, war-ravaged base). Employment was strong and inflation dormant. The early 1960s were a kind of macroeconomic heaven on earth.
However, by the middle of that decade it had come to the attention of America's creditors that this country, fighting the war in Vietnam, was emitting a worryingly high volume of dollars into the world's payment channels. Foreign central banks, nervously eyeing the ratio of dollars outstanding to gold in the Treasury's vaults, began prudently exchanging greenbacks for bullion at the posted rate of $35 per ounce. In 1965, William McChesney Martin, chairman of the Federal Reserve, sought to reassure the quavering dollar holders. He lectured the House Banking Committee on the importance of maintaining the dollar's credibility "down to the last bar of gold, if that be necessary."
Necessary, it might have been, but expedient, it was not, and the Nixon administration, on Aug. 15, 1971, decreed that the dollar would henceforth be convertible into nothing except small change. The age of the pure paper dollar was fairly launched.
In the absence of a golden anchor, the United States produced as many dollars as the world cared to absorb. And the world's appetite was prodigious. "Balance of payments" crises were now, for this country, things of the past. "Liquidity," that bubbly speculative elixir, gurgled from the founts of the world's central banks.
It was the very lack of gold-standard inhibition that permitted the buildup of titanic dollar balances overseas. At the end of 2007, no less than $9.4 trillion in dollar-denominated securities were sitting in the vaults of foreign investors. Not a few of these trillions were the property of Asian central banks. So, although the United States has run heavy and persistent current account deficits — $6.7 trillion in total since 1982 — they have been "deficits without tears," to quote the French economist Jacques Rueff. The dollars American debtors sent abroad America's creditors sent right back in the shape of investments in American stocks, bonds and factories.
Under the Bretton Woods system, worried foreign creditors would long ago have cleaned out Fort Knox. But, conveniently, the dollar is uncollateralized and unconvertible. America's overseas creditors hold it for many reasons. Some — notably Asian central banks — acquire dollars simply to help make their exports grow. But even the governments that scoop up dollars for no better reason than to manipulate their own currency's value presumably put some store in the integrity of American finance.
As never before, that trust is being put to the test. In the best of times, the Treasury and the Federal Reserve pretended as if the dollar were America's currency alone. Now, in some of the worst of times, Washington is treating its vital overseas dollar constituency as if it weren't even there.
Which failing financial institution will the administration pluck from the flames of crisis? Which will it let roast? Which market, or investment technique, will the regulators bless? Which — in a capricious change of the rules — will it condemn or outlaw? Just how shall the Treasury secretary spend the $700 billion he's begging for? Viewed from Wall Street, the administration's recent actions appear erratic enough. Seen from the perch of a foreign investor, they must look very much like "political risk," a phrase we Americans usually associate with so-called emerging markets, not with our own very developed one.
Where all this might end, nobody can say. But it is unlikely that either the dollar, or the post-Bretton Woods system of which it is the beating heart, will emerge whole. It behooves Barack Obama and John McCain to do a little monetary planning. In the absence of faith, what stands behind a faith-based currency?
James Grant, the editor of Grant's Interest Rate Observer, is the author of the forthcoming "Mr. Market Miscalculates: The Bubble Years and Beyond."