31 October 2007

History's warning about the price of money

By Manuel Hinds and Benn Steil

Published: October 30 2007 02:00 | Last updated: October 30 2007 02:00

The Federal Reserve's dramatic 0.5 per cent interest rate cut on Sep-tember 18 was greeted with euphoria in the stock market, which soared 5 per cent in the two weeks that followed. This fact itself was hailed as vindication for a Fed that felt Jim Cramer's pain, and gave the world the cheaper dollars the market guru shrieked for in CNBC's (and YouTube's) most memorable "Mad Money" segment ever.

To those who worry about inflation, the Fed could point to crunching credit as a danger to growth, and ipso facto a force for disinflation. Waiting for the numbers to prove it would just be reckless dithering.

We have sympathy for Ben Bernanke, Fed chairman, and company. The job of a price fixer is never easy. What should money cost? For most of human history this was easy: once you fixed a conversion factor with gold, you just sat back and let the forces of supply and demand do their stuff. But since the collapse of the Bretton Woods currency regime (the last vestige of thousands of years of commodity money), discretion has been the watchword. Nine smart folks at the Fed board have taken over the job of deciding what the price of money should be. If the hagiography and hatred showered on Mr Bernanke's predecessor, Alan Greenspan, is any indication, that price should be wisely wiggled down to make jobs, up to prick bubbles and now, apparently, back down to offset losses on millions of bad credit decisions.

So, are our cheaper dollars now at the right price? In the coming months, all eyes will be on the consumer price index for the answer.

Unfortunately, there are circumstances in which excessive monetary creation can destabilise the economy while the rate of CPI inflation remains low. These tend to be present when the danger of monetary destabilisation is at its highest because people have lost faith in the ability of money to keep its value through time.

As one of the great monetary economists of the last century, Jacques Rueff, pointed out in the late 1960s, people react to the "growing insolvency" of a reserve currency, such as the dollar, by acquiring "gold, land, houses, corporate shares, paintings and other works of art having an intrinsic value because of their scarcity". Sounds familiar? Indeed, this is the story of our present decade, one in which alternatives to the dollar as a store of value have soared even while the CPI has remained subdued.

This phenomenon is well-known in developing countries, where asset booms combined with low CPI inflation have preceded monetary and financial crises. In Mexico, for example, share prices rose 12-fold between January 1989 and November 1994, while inflation fell from 35 per cent to 7 per cent. Inflation then soared as the Tequila crisis exploded.

Prices of shares and real estate more than doubled from 1993 to 1996 in Indonesia and South Korea while CPI inflation rates were declining. In May 1997, just weeks before the currencies collapsed, inflation was only 4.5 per cent in Indonesia and 3.8 per cent in South Korea.

The same symptoms have been visible in many other monetary crises in developing countries. They seem to be visible today in the US. Following the 2001 dotcom crash, resources flowed into real estate, foreign exchange and commodities, while CPI inflation remained modest. In 2007 the housing bubble finally burst, causing credit to crunch as the market struggled to out the owners of dud mortgages and -mortgage-linked contracts. The Fed reacted with cheaper dollars, which did precisely nothing in that regard. Credit risk fears remain unabated. But the market duly dumped dollars for harder assets, pushing the euro, shares, oil and gold to record dollar prices.

Gold, having been global money for the better part of 2,500 years, and therefore the commodity most sensitive to expectations of macroeconomic in-stability, provides the best measure of the extent of the rush towards -inflation-proof hard assets.

Between August 2001 and August 2007, the dollar price of gold soared 144 per cent, while the CPI rose only 17 per cent. The last time such a substantial and sustained appreciation of gold was observed was in the 1970s, on the heels of America's loose money policy and balance of payments deterioration in the 1960s and Rueff's warnings regarding "the precarious dominance of the dollar". There were two episodes, from 1971 to 1975 and from 1977 to 1980. In both, the increase in the price of gold and other commodities presaged substantial increases in CPI inflation as well as significant falls in the international value of the dollar.

The dollar sustained its role as the international standard of value because of good fortune on two fronts. First, the Fed under Paul Volcker hammered out inflationary expectations with a painful but necessary period of high interest rates. Second, there was no viable alternative.

It may not be so lucky this time. Today, not only does the euro wait in the wings as understudy, but gold banks have risen in tandem with the dollar's decline and offer the world a viable private alternative that has permanent intrinsic value.

As the Fed debates whether the world is truly crying out for even cheaper dollars, it would be wise to heed the lessons of monetary history.

Manuel Hinds is a former Salvadoran finance minister and author of Playing Monopoly with the Devil. Benn Steil is director of international economics at the Council on Foreign Relations and co-author of Financial Statecraft

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