Wednesday, March 07, 2007

by Hugo Salinas Price
President, Mexican Civic Association Pro Silver
March 5, 2007

The World is exchanging goods and services by various national means of exchange. We are using those same means of exchange as a vehicle for savings. We are denominating credit contracts in any one of various national means of exchange. The predominant means of exchange is the US dollar.

However, a means of exchange voluntarily accepted as such, by those who participate in exchanging goods and services, by those who use it as a vehicle for savings and by those who denominate credit contracts in it, is not per se money.

Money must, sine qua non, function not only as a means of exchange, but also as a means of payment.

The world, as of February 2007, does not possess a means of payment. In economic terms, payment is the exchange of something for something. In today’s world, when units of what is called money are tendered in payment of a purchase, or in settlement of a balance after an exchange, or in settlement of debt, there has been in reality and economically no such payment. We are in these cases using the term “payment” merely as a legal convention and a leftover from a previous era, when payment did in fact exist and govern all economic activities.

Money, properly speaking, must be definable! The dollar cannot be defined: so said Alan Greenspan himself, the Pope of Central Bankers, in reference to the dollar, which is the reserve currency of the world and which “backs” all other currencies. When something is not definable, it has no physical existence. A thing that has no physical existence is imaginary. An imaginary thing such as money is today, is as different from real, actual money, as an imaginary loaf of bread is different from a loaf of bread in one’s hand.

A money payment must involve a tendering of tangible money, gold or silver, or of a credit instrument which is recognized as entitling the owner to the undoubted right to immediate redemption of that instrument, in gold or silver.

Humanity is unaware of the stupendously important fact that it lives in a world without money. This lack of awareness is perhaps the most singular feature of our contemporary world, upon which historians – if the world does survive this episode and produce historians at some future date – will remark with amazement: “How was it possible that billions of humans could delude themselves into acting as if what they used for payments, credit contracts and savings, was actually money?”

About 1997 I began to look for data concerning the amount of “reserves”, excluding gold, held by the world’s Central Banks. In other words, the amount of imaginary money they were holding, otherwise called “paper money”. In 1997, those “reserves” totaled $1,300,000,000,000 ($1.3 Trillion) dollars. Not all those “reserves” are dollars, but most of them are.

Back then, not many people were paying attention to that datum. Since then, it has received increasing attention, which is not surprising, for the “reserves” are piling up and showing numbers that are clearly “going ballistic”. As of January 2007, world Central Bank “reserves” were hitting $5 trillion dollars, an increase of 385% in ten years. The last increase of $1 Trillion only took five months, from August 2006 to January 2007. (“Bloomberg”)

Before 1971, Central Bank reserves were mainly gold, plus component of foreign exchange redeemable in gold. Reserves could only grow very slowly. Imbalances in trade were shunned because the settlement of deficits had to be made in gold or dollars exchangeable for gold. International trade was stable. Imports could not affect the economies of importing countries as much as they do today, with “globalization”. Therefore, local productive activities were stable. Jobs were generated through reinvestment in productive activities.

The present situation is chaotic, because the creation of reserves of fictitious, imaginary “money” originates mainly in Dollars which are spewed forth by the out-of-control US economy, plus other fictitious moneys like the Euro born in the European Union, the Yen born in Japan, the Pound born in the UK, all of which are held by other countries as “reserves”.

Since today “money” is imaginary, fictitious, imports no longer have any limit, for it actually costs nothing to “pay” when “money” is imaginary. Thus, “globalization” based on the unlimited creation of fictitious money is a totally false globalization unsupported by economic facts.

The more important Central Banks are becoming skittish about the enormous amounts of “reserves” which they are accumulating. The Central Bankers are bureaucrats, but they are sensing that these enormous holdings are rather worrisome; however they do not know what to do about them. The fact is, they have been had. Their “reserves” are simply numerical and lack any substance. They are imaginary and as useless as castles in the air, unless they can manage to get rid of them by passing them on to some unsuspecting seller of tangible goods.

China is now going around the world – especially Africa – looking for opportunities to buy raw materials (a Chinese delegation will be present at the First International Mining Forum in Mexico, the middle of March). For the same reason, the Central Banks that subscribed the Washington Agreement (to sell no more than a certain amount of gold each year) have since 2006 lost their former appetite for gold sales and they are not covering their allotted sales quotas. It appears that they have finally realized that the reserves that are actually worth something are the gold reserves, and not the “foreign currency” bond holdings which they were so eager to hold because they “provided earnings”.

However, if they start to unload their imaginary holdings, the exchange value of the holdings will begin to fall. So they are in a dilemma, a choice between two distasteful alternatives: “Shall we hold on to the imaginary money and wait and see what happens, or shall we begin to unload it and risk collapsing the value of the larger part remaining with us?”

Up till now, the Central Bankers have been doing what bureaucrats usually do when they are faced with a difficult choice: nothing. They are waiting to see what happens.

More than half of the world’s Central Bank “reserves” are held by the Central Banks of China, Japan, South Korea and Southeast Asia. These Central Banks ended up with these huge “reserves” because they accepted a means of exchange - which was no more than imaginary money, digits on computer discs - as if it was payment. In other words, they believed a fairy tale, like the one where Jack trades his cow for a handful of colored beans.

So, we are living in a fairy tale world, where money is not money at all. Alas, reality cannot be fooled by means of fairy tales. How shall we fare, when the dream has vanished into thin air and the last fool has had to recognize the difference between a payment and a fairy tale?

Diversifying the inevitable
March 1, 2007
Random Walk, by Rob Peebles
Wouldn’t you know it. Finally, every single investor in the U.S. gets around to doing what the academics have been telling them to do for years. Finally they get some foreign stocks in their Schwab accounts. Okay, a lot of foreign stocks. And just as they sit back in their Office Depot chairs with the adjustable lumbar support, all ready to enjoy some superior risk adjusted returns, equities across the globe get smacked. Most investors would have been better off taking their lumps right here at home, particularly instead of venturing into emerging markets.

But it was just a day. A 10% drop in Chinese stocks is hardly a hiccup compared to 140% returns over the prior year. The great thing about profit taking in China is that there are still so many profits to take. For some. For now.

But there’s more to diversification than maintaining the proper allocation to Haiti. That’s because the federal government offers workers a choice of when they pay taxes on their tax deferred retirement accounts. The choice, as you might guess, is Now or Later.

Currently, most people choose Later. And why not? Later is the almost always the best choice. For example: Do you want to have a physical Now or Later? Get that cavity filled Now or Later? Tell your kids you lost their college money playing a stock you heard about from a spam email Now or Later?

Americans who contribute to a traditional 401(k) plan have chosen Later. Money goes straight from their employer into the retirement plan with no taxes withheld. Dividends, interest and capital gains pile up tax free. When the money is withdrawn during retirement, taxes are paid on the distributions.

But now there is a Now option in addition to Later. That’s the Roth 401(k) where employees contribute after tax dollars to a retirement plan. Like the Roth IRA, once the taxes are paid, that’s it. There are no taxes on the distributions during retirement.

The Roth 401(k) isn’t exactly a brand new deal, but employers have been reluctant to offer it since there was a chance that the provision allowing it would sunset in 2011. But since the Pension Protection Act of 2006 has been passed, according to
InvestmentNews, the Now Option is the real deal, and more companies and employees are interested.

One of the major reasons to pay taxes Later rather than Now, aside from the sheer joy of stiffing Uncle Sam, is because you think your tax rate in retirement will be lower than your tax rate today. After all, if you are in the 33% bracket Now, who wouldn’t want to pay taxes at 15% Later?

But what if a lower tax bracket Later is not a sure thing? What if tax rates down the road are as unpredictable as Britney Spear’s behavior?

The charts below might make a person wonder if tax rates today have anywhere to go but up:

Those depressing graphics come courtesy of the comptroller general of the United States, who for several months has been the lead act in his office’s “Fiscal Wake-Up Tour.” The tour involves Comptroller David Walker speaking to groups around country about why the “p” is silent in “comptroller” and warning about economic disaster if the government doesn’t change its spending habits. Several of Mr. Walker’s presentations are available on the GAO website. They are so well done they deserve their own Roger Ebert-style review: “Two thumbs up, and two hands over eyes… Like watching Saving Private Ryan without all the laughs.”

The problem, according to Mr. Walker, is that despite today’s yawning budget gap, things are likely to get worse. That’s because health and retirement benefit costs for aging boomers are going to skyrocket unless somebody shakes up the status quo. Already, spending on Medicare and Medicaid has doubled over the last decade as a share of federal spending, while discretionary spending shrank from 44% to 38%. And this spending is before some drug company comes up with a pill to eliminate ear hair. But if current trends continue, Walker figures that GDP would have to grow double digits every year for 75 years to close the current budget gap. Or put another way, we could balance the budget in 2040 – if we cut spending by 60% or doubled the federal tax take.

So no wonder companies are giving more people the option to choose paying taxes Now while the prices are low. And no wonder Mr. Walker is running around the country trying to get people’s attention. Are people listening? Who knows? In an October AP story, reporter Matt Crenson found at least one American who got it. But she was an accountant. Besides, one who finds self-actualization in an accounts payable ledger knows a tough sell when she sees it. “There’s no sexiness to it,” she pointed out. But, she wondered, what if the GAO enrolled a celebrity to pitch the idea. She suggested Oprah. And why not? Maybe David Walker could jump up and down on her couch. But other endorsements could be just as powerful:

Sean Penn: “Look, I’ve known this Walker dude a long time, and he is serious, man.”
Will Farrell: “Hey, America, you start holding Congress accountable or I’m putting my underwear over my head.”
Peyton Manning: “Listen you guys, we don’t have much time. I’ve got another endorsement to do in about five minutes.”
Paris Hilton: "Isn't it sad about Britney's hair?"

But since the whole point is to get our fiscal house in order, why pay a bunch of money to a celebrity? The GAO could set an example for Congress and the White House by doing this budget education campaign on the cheap. All it takes is the right theme. Maybe something like…

“It takes a village. And it takes China. And Japan. And India. Let’s do something before they want their money back.”