Even if we assume John Williams’ prediction of a hyperinflationary depression turns out to be correct — and the global economy is plunged into an apocalyptic nightmare as prices rise with blinding rapidity, while economic activity shudders to a standstill — his argument for this outcome is so defective as to merely represent the chimes of an otherwise broken clock for the following reasons:
First, his prediction rests on mere accounting identities, and assumes the Fascist State can be counted on, or forced, to observe these accounting identities. As a counter-argument, I offer the historical evidence of Washington’s behavior over the past 80 years, when it routinely ignored whatever accounting identities as were forced upon it by circumstances and left the rest of American society and the global population as pitiful bag-holders of worthless ex nihilo currency. Williams offers no argument why the Fascist State will act differently in this crisis. In all likelihood, Washington will effectively renounce its debts and continue business as usual — leaving China and other exporters to absorb the impact.
Second, Williams does not understand hyperinflation. His definition of hyperinflation is entirely defective, because he doesn’t realize ex nihilo currency is not made worthless by hyperinflation; rather, it is already a collection of worthless dancing electrons on a computer terminal in the Federal Reserve Bank. Ex nihilo currency was worthless the moment the Fascist State debased the token currency from gold in 1933 and 1971. Hyperinflation and inflation are not the more or less sudden depreciation of money, but the more or less sudden depreciation of the purchasing power of an already worthless money.
Third, Williams does not understand depression, and in particular the Great Depression. Depressions are produced by the overproduction of capital — whether this overproduction is momentary or persistent. They are characterized by a general surfeit of commodities, fixed and circulating capital, and a relative over-population of workers. These are periodic occurrences, owing their genesis not to simple fluctuations of economic activity, but to constraints imposed on consumption by the necessity that all productive activity is carried on, not with the aim of satisfying human needs, but for profit. All depressions result in the sudden devaluation of the existing stock of social capital, of the existing stock of variable and constant capital, which is the absolute precondition for the resumption of self-expansion of the total social capital.
Before the Great Depression, this last point always meant a rather pronounced and sudden deflation of prices. After the Great Depression, this devaluation is accompanied, not by a sudden and spectacular collapse of prices, but a sudden and spectacular explosion of prices. The event itself has not changed — it is still a devaluation of the total social capital. What has changed is the expression of this devaluation in a general fall in the price level. I argue the source of this change was the debasement of national currencies during the Great Depression.
What the three points made above tell me is that Williams and the growing community of hyperinflationists do not understand ex nihilo money; they do not understand how prices behave under an ex nihilo regime; and, finally, they do not understand why ex nihilo money was a necessary result of the Great Depression. They are an odd collection of petty speculative capitalists concerned only with preserving their “wealth” through what are likely to be very interesting times.
Understanding ex nihilo money
Like money in general, ex nihilo money, is not simply a “thing” — a currency without commodity backing — rather, it is a social relation that appears to us in the form of this thing. It is a social relation that takes the form of worthless currency because this social relation itself can only take the form of things. The social relation, of course, is a global social cooperation in the act of labor. Since, this social cooperation does not by any means result from conscious decisions of the members of society and proceed with their conscious direction, the requirements of this social cooperation impose themselves on the members of society as necessities — as the law of value, as the value/prices mechanism.
What is peculiar about ex nihilo money as a form of money is that the relation between value and price has been completely severed — the two most important functions of money have devolved on entirely different objects. By debasing the currency from gold money’s function as standard of price was completely severed from its function as measure of value. This much is acknowledged by the hyperinflationist, who place the blame for this separation on the Fascist State; however, historical research shows impetus behind this separation did not first appear as a matter of State policy, but as a matter of financial common sense.
Every depression begins with money exchanging for commodities below its value, or, what is the same thing, with the prices of commodities at their apex for the cycle. Prices near the top of the cycle rise to unsustainable levels, and the competition to dump commodities on the market under favorable price conditions gets fairly intense. Everyone is optimistic about the economic outlook, profits expand, credit flows freely, workers are hired, factories furiously churn out commodities around the clock, the stocks of goods begin to pile up in the warehouses. And, then, BOOM! — depression erupts just as wages, prices, profits and interest are at their highest, and the purchasing power of money is at its lowest.
As the disorder spreads, profits and prices collapse, credit is choked off, debtors default, factories grind to a halt, millions of workers are laid off… yadda, yadda, yadda — we all know the drill. Side by side with this disorder, money is with drawn from circulation. Gold money disappears into hoards, as capitals attempt to avoid the worst of the devaluation of the existing social capital. The competition at this point is not to see who can sell the most commodities, but who can avoid taking any of the losses that the social capital as a whole must suffer. While this total social capital must take the hit, which capitals actually take this hit is a matter of entirely other circumstances.
As Marx put it:
The class, as such, must inevitably lose. How much the individual capitalist must bear of the loss, i.e., to what extent he must share in it at all, is decided by strength and cunning, and competition then becomes a fight among hostile brothers. The antagonism between each individual capitalist’s interests and those of the capitalist class as a whole, then comes to the surface, just as previously the identity of these interests operated in practice through competition.
How is this conflict settled and the conditions restored which correspond to the “sound” operation of capitalist production? The mode of settlement is already indicated in the very emergence of the conflict whose settlement is under discussion. It implies the withdrawal and even the partial destruction of capital amounting to the full value of additional capital ΔC, or at least a part of it. Although, as the description of this conflict shows, the loss is by no means equally distributed among individual capitals, its distribution being rather decided through a competitive struggle in which the loss is distributed in very different proportions and forms, depending on special advantages or previously captured positions, so that one capital is left unused, another is destroyed, and a third suffers but a relative loss, or is just temporarily depreciated, etc.
The total social capital is devalued; and, this devaluation takes place both in terms of the values of the capital — prices fall, etc. — and by a winnowing out of the players — some definite portion of the total social capital is pushed out of productive activity altogether. Capitals go bankrupt, factories are shuttered, the reserve army of the unemployed expands. At the lowest point in the ensuing depression, prices and profits have fallen to their lowest point in the cycle, while the purchasing power of money is at its highest point in the cycle. Assets can be snatched up at bargain basement prices, labor power can be had for a wage below its value. If the capitalist has survived the wash out, he stands to accumulate on a prodigious scale, since unemployed productive capacity is just laying around collecting dust.
There was one problem with this scenario during the Great Depression: the economy hit this point and just laid there like the decaying carcass of a beached whale; the condition for the “‘sound’ operation of capitalist production” were never restored, money just sat in hoards as investors, waiting out the crisis for better times, clung to their useless gold stocks for dear life. There was, as usual, a general over-accumulation of capital, i.e., an overproduction of commodities, an excess of fixed and circulating capital, and an excess population of workers, but these excesses were rather persistent. As with any general over-accumulation, it was not a matter of “consumer confidence” returning, but the necessary actual devaluation of the existing total social capital. Absent this devaluation, attempts to increase production would merely result in an over-supply that further forced down prices and profits. Under these circumstances, a portion of the existing stock of commodity money could not circulate until the devaluation of the existing stock of social capital had taken place.
So, it was not the Fascist State that expelled gold from circulation as money; rather, because gold money could no longer circulate as money, the Fascist State was forced to replace it with ex nihilo currency. The Fascist State debased the currency from commodity money, because the circulation of commodity money had already halted. This action was no American exceptionalism, however; within a short period of time all industrialized nations went off the gold standard domestically.
I want to emphasize an extremely important point here, a point that is vital to understanding the present crisis: going off the gold standard did not simply convert money into a worthless, debased, token — entirely fictitious from the standpoint of the law of value — it also changed the behavior of prices, i.e., the behavior of the purchasing power of the currency itself. On this basis alone the Fascist State could take control of the social process of capitalist production.
The behavior of prices under ex nihilo money
Ex nihilo money is not commodity money, it is not token money, it is not fiat money — it is an altogether different animal entirely. For instance, under a commodity money regime an over-accumulation of capital produced falling prices during depressions, while the purchasing power of the commodity money rose. As I will show, ex nihilo currency inverts this relation after the Great Depression — now prices denominated in the debased ex nihilo currency rise as economic activity contracts, while the purchasing power of the ex nihilo currency falls.
So far as I know, there is no instance of a commodity money suffering a hyperinflation. Hyperinflation does not render a currency worthless; rather, the currency is immediately rendered worthless during debasement from a commodity that can serve as standard of price. Debasement can result in hyperinflation, but hyperinflation is not the necessary result of debasement. Hyperinflation must be defined as the extreme and rapid depreciation of the purchasing power of a currency that is already worthless, that already has been debased. Historically, while hyperinflation follows the debasement of the currency from gold, not every debasement of currency from gold has led to hyperinflation. Hyperinflation is historically associated not with commodity money per se, but with ex nihilo currency.
Here a distinction must be made between money — the commodity which performs the function of universal equivalent — and ex nihilo currency, which has no relation to commodity money at all. While this ex nihilo currency can replace commodity money in circulation like token money under certain definite circumstances, what makes it different from token money is that it has no definite relation with a commodity that serves as money — it is not “honest” money, i.e., tokens whose purchasing power is held within limits governed by the laws governing the circulation of commodity money. However, like the circulation of tokens of money, ex nihilo currency is subject to certain laws, the most important of which is it can only represent in circulation the value of the commodity money it replaces.
When we speak of the purchasing power of ex nihilo money, we are in fact only referring to the quantity of commodity money this ex nihilo currency actually represents in circulation. In this case, the commodity money on which I base my discussion is gold; so, the purchasing power of an American ex nihilo dollar represents the quantity of gold having a price of one dollar. If gold has a price of $22.67 an ounce, the purchasing power of one ex nihilo dollar is equal to the value of 0.044 ounce of gold; if gold has a price of $1525, the purchasing power of an ex nihilo dollar is equal to 0.0006557 ounce of gold. If the price of gold falls from $800 per ounce to $250 per ounce, the purchasing power of ex nihilo currency has risen from 0.00125 ounce of gold to 0.004 ounce of gold. If the price of an ounce of gold rises from $250 to $1525, the purchasing power of ex nihilo currency has fallen from 0.004 ounce of gold to 0.0006557 ounce of gold.
In any case, the purchasing power of ex nihilo currency refers only to the quantity of gold that would otherwise be in circulation circulation had not it been replaced by ex nihilo currency. It does not refer to the purchasing power of ex nihilo currency in relation to any other commodity. But, the quantity of gold in circulation at any point is not given — at one point it may be higher, while at another point it is lower. If, despite these fluctuations, the amount of ex nihilo currency in circulation is unchanged, it will, in the first case, represent more commodity money, and, in the latter case, represent less commodity money. The purchasing power of the ex nihilo currency will rise or fall with the fluctuation of economic activity which it denominates in itself. Since, when actually in circulation, the currency of commodity money is only a reflex of the circulation of commodities — rising and falling with this circulation — the purchasing power of the ex nihilo currency will only represent this quantity of commodity money irrespective of the absolute quantity of ex nihilo currency in circulation.
The circulation of commodity money is only a reflex of the circulation of commodities. Assuming the value of commodities and the velocity of money are fixed, when the circulation of commodities increases, the quantity of commodity money in circulation must increase. When the circulation of commodities decreases, the quantity of commodity money in circulation must decrease. Consequently, a fixed quantity of ex nihilo currency will represent a larger or smaller quantity of commodity money respectively as economic activity expands or contracts. If a fixed quantity of ex nihilo currency is in circulation when the circulation of commodities is increasing, the purchasing power of this fixed quantity of ex nihilo currency must increase. If a fixed quantity of ex nihilo currency is in circulation when the circulation of commodities is decreasing, the purchasing power of this fixed quantity of ex nihilo currency must decrease.
The supply of commodity money and the supply of ex nihilo currency are not the same thing. While the circulation of commodity money is naturally driven by economic activity, the amount of ex nihilo currency available to circulate is always dependent on the State issuance of ex nihilo currency. Moreover, once ex nihilo currency is in circulation, it will tend to remain in circulation. Thus, while the quantity of commodity money in circulation rise or falls with the circulation of commodities, the purchasing power of the ex nihilo currency replacing commodity money tends to increase or decrease with the circulation of commodities instead. For this reason, ex nihilo currency presents us with the paradox that prices tend to fall as economic activity increases and rise with the fall in economic activity.
If all else is given, we are forced to the following conclusion regarding the purchasing power of ex nihilo currency :
- the purchasing power of ex nihilo currency rises during periods of economic expansion, i.e, a given quantity of ex nihilo currency can purchase a greater sum of values. This is precisely the opposite of what we would expect from commodity money. While,
- the purchasing power of ex nihilo currency falls during periods of economic contraction, i.e, a given quantity of ex nihilo currency can purchase a smaller sum of values. Again, this is precisely the opposite of what we would expect from commodity money.
The behavior of prices are the inverse of what we would expect if ex nihilo currency behaved like commodity money. With commodity money, we should expect to find commodities being over-valued during expansions and devalued during periods of contraction. But. with ex nihilo currency, we find instead that commodities are devalued during expansions and over-valued during periods of contraction. Prices denominated in ex nihilo currency fall during expansions and rise during contractions.
When an economic contraction takes place, the sum value of commodities in circulation falls; since the circulation of the commodity money is only a reflex of the circulation of commodities, the circulation of commodity money too must fall. A given supply of ex nihilo currency now represents the value of a smaller quantity of commodity money. The values expressed by commodity prices fall, or, what is the same thing, a given value is expressed in higher ex nihilo currency prices. On the other hand, when an economic expansion takes place, the sum value of commodities in circulation rises; since the circulation of the commodity money is only a reflex of the circulation of commodities, the circulation of commodity money must rise as well. A given supply of ex nihilo currency now represents the value of a larger quantity of commodity money. The values expressed by commodity prices rise, or, what is the same thing, a given value is expressed in lower ex nihilo currency prices. The result is that, absent a commodity to serve as standard of prices, prices denominated in an ex nihilo currency will tend to rise during periods of economic contraction, but fall during periods of economic expansion.
Moreover, in a pure ex nihilo money economy where no commodity serves as standard of prices, prices of commodities are subject to disturbances in the ratio of the existing supply of ex nihilo money in circulation and the quantities of commodities in circulation that are denominated in the ex nihilo currency.
- Should the quantity of commodities in circulation suddenly increase, while the supply of ex nihilo money remains unchanged, the general price level expressed in ex nihilo money will just as suddenly decrease. Should the quantity of commodities in circulation suddenly decrease, while the supply of ex nihilo money remains unchanged, the general price level expressed in ex nihilo money will just as suddenly increase.
- Should the supply of ex nihilo money in circulation suddenly increase, while the supply of commodities remains unchanged, the general price level of commodities expressed in the ex nihilo money will just as suddenly rise. Should the supply of ex nihilo money in circulation suddenly decrease, while the supply of commodities remains unchanged, the general price level of commodities expressed in the ex nihilo money will just as suddenly fall.
In either case, the sum of prices are not related to the sum of values of commodities, but only to the ratio of the sum of ex nihilo money to the sum of commodities in circulation. In fact I question whether money exists at all. Insofar as money function as a measure and store of value, it cannot circulate within society; insofar as is circulates within society and serves as a standard of prices, it cannot be a measure of value. What is left after the debasement of money is money, the social relation, irretrievably broken.
Actually, we’ve been in a depression since 2001
Whatever the outcome of the present crisis, John Williams’ prediction rests on such a defective theory of money and ex nihilo price formation that his prediction is useless to us. Ex nihilo money appears to allow the formation of so-called monopoly pricing in the economy. By restricting production, monopolies can, in fact, pad their profits, even as society descends into abject scarcity and want under an ex nihilo monetary regime. Rising prices during a depression is not a defect of an ex nihilo monetary regime, but the way prices would be expected to behave under that regime as capital is devalued. From the standpoint of the capitalist mode of production, inflation of ex nihilo prices is to be expected, and is the expression of the mode’s attempt to establish the sound basis for its future operation.
When I look at gold prices, I find evidence that the economy actually has been in a depression since 2001. According to my figures, gold prices bottomed in 2001 at around $271.04, and have been rising steadily for most of the decades after this. This is the first time gold prices have risen so consistently since the 1970s great depression/great stagflation. It follows from this that Williams’ depression, at least, has nothing to do with a hyperinflation of prices itself. At the same time, hyperinflation, in his model, does not coincide with a depression, but hinges on an exogenous political event: the rejection of the dollar as world reserve currency by other nations. To this we will turn next.
I am examining John Williams prediction of an imminent hyperinflationary depression published in March, 2011. Williams’ prediction appears to rest on a rather questionable hypothesis that this hyperinflationary depression is made inevitable by mere accounting identities — that is, by the logic of book-keeping, which suggests the Fascist State will be unable to stop a spiral into depression by depreciating the purchasing power of the US Dollar. Efforts to depreciate the dollar, Williams argues, will lead the world to reject the dollar as world reserve currency; setting into motion a series of events leading to it becoming worthless.
I am a bit skeptical on this point for no other reason than I saw the fate of Argentina when it could no longer pay its bills in 1999. I am forced to ask, since the US had not the slightest sympathy for Argentina in 1999, why would it have any sympathy for its own creditors in 2011? Indeed, Washington showed no hesitation in 1933 when it came to dispossessing society of its gold stocks, nor did it hesitate to close the gold window and renounce its obligations under the Bretton Wood agreement in 1971.The Fascist State sets the rules; there is nothing in the historical record to suggest it observes these rules except when those rules favor it.
Nevertheless, I want to give Williams the benefit of the doubt on this. So, I will continue to examine his argument.
Williams on Deflation, Inflation, Hyperinflation and Prices
Williams assumes the standard definition of inflation: a general rise in the prices of commodities. As is typical of this view, he completely neglects both consumption and production of commodities in his definition of inflation. He further defines hyperinflation as a particularly virulent form of inflation where prices rise multiple — hundreds or thousands — times a normal inflation.
Inflation broadly is defined in terms of a rise in general prices usually due to an increase in the amount of money in circulation. The inflation/deflation issues defined and discussed here are as applied to consumer goods and services, not to the pricing of financial assets, unless specified otherwise. In terms of hyperinflation, there have been a variety of definitions used over time. The circumstance envisioned ahead is not one of double- or triple- digit annual inflation, but more along the lines of seven- to 10-digit inflation seen in other circumstances during the last century. Under such circumstances, the currency in question becomes worthless, as seen in Germany (Weimar Republic) in the early 1920s, in Hungary after World War II, in the dismembered Yugoslavia of the early 1990s and most recently in Zimbabwe, where the pace of hyperinflation likely was the most extreme ever seen.
As is the standard thinking on the issue, Williams believes the most significant force behind dollar hyperinflation is the creation of money ex nihilo by Washington, not over-accumulation of capital. While inflation is a moderate expression of the chronic tendency of states with fiat currency to live beyond their means, hyperinflation is only an extreme expression of this chronic tendency.
The historical culprit generally has been the use of fiat currencies—currencies with no hard-asset backing such as gold—and the resulting massive printing of currency that the issuing authority needed to support its spending, when it did not have the ability, otherwise, to raise enough money for its perceived needs, through taxes or other means.
Excessive money creation takes the form of spending by the state that is otherwise unable to borrow from or tax society to the extent needed to fund its operations. In this case, the chief causes identified by Williams are unfunded promises in the form of social programs like retirement, health care and the social safety net, combined with the costs of bailing out the failed economic stabilization mechanism. (Missing, of course, is any reference to either service on the existing public debt, or spending on a massive global machinery of repression.) The point, however, is pretty much unoriginal: inflation begins with government spending, not over-accumulation of capital.
Deflation is simply defined as the opposite of inflation, i.e., “a decrease in the prices of consumer goods and services, usually tied to a contraction of money in circulation“; Hyperinflation is an “extreme inflation, minimally in excess of four-digit annual percent change, where the involved currency becomes worthless.” Thus all three — inflation, deflation and hyperinflation — are merely state driven monetary phenomenon; the result of changes in the supply of money in circulation within the economy provoked by state spending. The source of the changes in the money supply are said to be state monetary and fiscal policy.
However, with regards to hyperinflation, Williams adds one additional, critical, definition, not with regards to prices, but with regards to the currency itself: it becomes worthless. In Williams’ opinion, the currency becomes worthless as a result of rapidly escalating prices. However, both logically and historically the case is precisely the opposite: prices escalate rapidly because the currency is already worthless — because it has already been debased from gold or another money commodity. With the currency debased from gold, prices became a creature of state monetary and fiscal policy pure and simple. Moreover, with the currency worthless as a result of its debasement, prices and their movements no longer transmit meaningful information about market conditions as is generally assumed to be the case.
Williams on Recession, Depression and Great Depression
Williams outlines a similar set of definitions with regards to recession, depression and great depression.
Recession: Two or more consecutive quarters of contracting real (inflation-adjusted) GDP, where the downturn is not triggered by an exogenous factor… Depression: A recession, where the peak-to-trough contraction in real growth exceeds 10%. Great Depression: A depression, where the peak-to-trough contraction in real growth exceeds 25%. On the basis of the preceding, there has been the one Great Depression, in the 1930s. Most of the economic contractions before that would be classified as depressions. All business downturns since World War II—as officially reported —have been recessions.
Williams defines recessions, depressions and great depressions by levels of economic activity. In contrast to his previous definitions for inflation, deflation and hyperinflation, he focuses not on price, but actual output of goods and services. In discussing inflation, deflation and hyperinflation, Williams makes no reference to the general level of production and consumption of commodities; likewise, when discussing recessions, depressions and great depressions, he makes no reference to the general level of prices. But, both recessions and depressions are associated with definite changes in the level of prices in the economy. Historically, depressions clearly have been associated with deflations, or a general fall in the prices of commodities; while recessions clearly have been associated with inflation, or a general rise in prices of commodities.
The significance of this association is revealed if we assume great depressions are associated with hyperinflations — a hyperinflation not understood in the sense of breathtaking annual increases in the price level, but with the currency becoming worthless. Is there a basis for making such an equivalence? Remember, Williams asserts that historically hyperinflation is associated with fiat currencies — currencies that are not backed by some commodity that serves as a standard for prices. These are also currencies that can be created ex nihilo by the state. He associates hyperinflation not just with the general price level rising at a fantastic rate owing to the inability of the state to pay its obligations, but with the nature of the money used to pay those obligations — that is, with the fact that these currencies are not backed by gold or another commodity. It is important to remember in this regard that the US and all industrialized powers debased their monies during the Great Depression. But, just as important, the US also reneged on its obligation to pay its international debts in gold in 1971 — thus imposing on other nations a world reserve currency that was as worthless abroad as it was domestically.
For whatever reason, writers like Williams confuse the issue by treating debasement of the currency and hyperinflation as one and the same thing. In actuality, debasement of the currency — that is, the separation of the currency and gold — has been the signal monetary event of the post-Great Depression period. Hyperinflation — the rapid collapse of the purchasing power of a debased currency — is an entirely rare event. It is not rapidly rising prices that render money worthless, rather, because the money in question is already worthless prices can, under certain circumstances, rise at a fantastic rate.
How is this related to recessions and depressions? Before the Great Depression, and the debasement of the currency, depressions usually resulted in deflations. During the Great Depression, however severe and unprecedented deflation was interrupted by the debasement of all major currencies. In this debasement currency was rendered worthless, i.e., without any definite relation to a commodity which might serve as a standard for the general price level. The definition of worth being simply the dictionary definition of an equivalent in value to a sum or item specified, i.e., a specific quantity of gold or some other money commodity. Gold gave token currency its worth, that is, gave it some definite equivalent to other commodities which could be expressed as prices of those commodities in units of the money. After the Great Depression, and the 1971 abrogation of the Bretton Wood agreement, with money having no definite worth, depressions are now associated not with rapidly falling prices, but with rapidly rising prices — a condition that has been labeled recession.
The economic picture is cleared up once we realize the general price level is irrelevant for analyzing depression-type events after the dollar was debased. Precisely because money was rendered worthless by its debasement, prices, after this debasement, provide little useful information on the actual state of the underlying economy. Prices, at this point, are serving an altogether different function: they are an instrument of state economic policy. On the other hand, hyperinflation of prices does not lead to a worthless currency; instead, the debasement of the currency is a necessary precondition for hyperinflation.
Williams’ historical examples of hyperinflation
While a debased, worthless, currency can lead to hyperinflation, it is obvious that every debasement of the currency does not end in hyperinflation. Today, almost all national currencies are debased, yet hyperinflation occurs only rarely in history. Moreover, the extraordinary hyperinflations of history do not result primarily from the profligacy of the state. The United States, for instance, is by far the most profligate state in history — accounting for nearly half of all military spending. What triggers hyperinflations are definite economic circumstances in addition to this state profligacy.
The economic conditions leading to hyperinflation can be seen most clearly if we compare the current economic environment to historical examples of hyperinflation cited by Williams. Williams’ examination of examples of hyperinflation suffer from defects along the lines of his examinations of inflation/deflation and recessions/depressions. However, while he overlooks obvious connections in the latter cases, in the case of historical examples of hyperinflation he overlooks obvious differences.
Williams recounts the case of the Weimar Republic:
Indeed, in the wake of its defeat in the Great War, Germany was forced to make debilitating reparations to the victors—particularly France—as well as to face loss of territory. From Foster (Chapter 11):
By late 1922, the German government could no longer afford to make reparations payments. Indignant, the French invaded the Ruhr Valley to take over the production of iron and coal (commodities used for reparations). In response, the German government encouraged its workers to go on strike. An additional issue of paper money was authorized to sustain the economy during the crisis. Sensing trouble, foreign investors abruptly withdrew their investments.
During the first few months of 1923, prices climbed astronomically higher, with no end in sight… The nation was effectively shut down by currency collapse. Mailing a letter in late 1923 cost 21,500,000,000 marks.
The worthless German mark became useful as wall paper and toilet paper, as well as for stoking fires.
Germany suffered defeat in a war that left it exhausted and stripped of territory, population and productive capacity by the victors to pay for reparations; it was the scene of intense class conflict and intense economic dislocation. The hyperinflation of the Weimar Republic Germany, therefore, began not with absolute over-accumulation of capital — with overproduction of commodities and a surfeit of labor power — but decidedly the reverse: a massive loss of productive capacity — a loss the government then tried to paper over, without success, by issuing worthless paper. The government sought to stabilize the economy by printing money to offset these crippling economic losses. The subsequent explosion of prices occurs not merely because the Weimar Republic sought to paper over a disaster, but because it was not possible to paper over such catastrophic material losses with money printing. The lesson of the Weimar Republic is obvious: while debasement of the currency can artificially inflate the purchasing power of state issued token currency, it must ultimately fail in an explosion of prices if the state attempts to paper over real material losses.
Where in this litany of disaster are conditions similar to those faced by the United States? Despite Williams’ assertion that, “The Weimar circumstance, and its heavy reliance on foreign investment, was closer to the current U.S. situation…“, in fact, the two have nothing in common. While Germany was systematically stripped of its productive capacity, the US is experiencing capital flight caused by decades of debt-driven inflationary domestic policy, including not only social spending “to assuage social discontent,” but also thoroughly wasteful and excessive national security expenditures and a failed economic stimulus mechanism.
Moreover, it is not merely a question of foreign investors propping up the dollar. While Germany’s ex nihilo currency was not considered money beyond its borders, the dollar is the world reserve currency; commodities world wide are priced in dollars. At the same time, the United States accounts for a quarter of global consumption demand, and this demand takes the form of ex nihilo dollars exclusively. The global producers of commodities are facing severe over-accumulation of capital and insufficient money-demand for their output. They are looking precisely for currencies with the sort of excess money-demand that is typical of inflation driven growth economies. The question is not whether trillions of dollars of social wealth denominated in dollars can withdraw from the dollar in time should there be a crisis; rather, we have to wonder if any exit from the dollar is possible or probable.
I took some times off to really dig into the competing theories of the present crisis and to see if redwoods are really all that much of a big deal.
- There are a lot of theories about this crisis.
- Most of them are worthless, and
- Redwoods are really huge — I mean HUGE!
John Williams and the imminent hyperinflationary depression
I want to begin this series of posts on various non-mainstream theories of the present crisis by examining some of the assumptions and definition proposed by John Williams, economist at the website Shadow Government Statistics, in his prediction of an imminent hyperinflationary depression. Williams is serious about his prediction — up to, and including, warning his readers to store guns, ammo, gold and six months of basic necessities.
In his recently published special report, Williams — a self-described conservative Republican economist, with libertarian leanings — advances a number of questionable arguments typical of theories of the current crisis floating around out there. The most significant of these questionable arguments is Williams’ assertion that the crisis begins with an unsustainable fiscal and monetary environment, not with over-accumulation. Despite the jarring nature of his prediction, for Williams’ an imminent hyperinflationary depression results purely from rather boring accounting identities:
By 2004, fiscal malfeasance of successive U.S. Administrations and Congresses had pushed the federal government into effective long-term insolvency (likely to have triggered hyperinflation by 2018). GAAP-based (generally accepted accounting principles) accounting then showed total federal obligations at $50 trillion—more than four-times the level of U.S. GDP—that were increasing each year by GAAP-based annual deficits in the uncontainable four- to five-trillion dollar range. Those extreme operating shortfalls continue unabated, with total federal obligations at $76 trillion—more than five- times U.S. GDP—at the end of the 2010 fiscal year. Taxes cannot be raised enough to bring the GAAP- based deficit into balance, and the political will in Washington is lacking to cut government spending severely, particularly in terms of the necessary slashing of unfunded liabilities in government social programs such as Social Security and Medicare.
This crisis, Williams explains, could be avoided if the US were to raise taxes sufficiently, or reduce spending accordingly, or some combination of either; however, these solutions are not possible for purely political reasons. To resolve this impasse, Washington has turned to inflating prices instead.
Key to the near-term timing [of an outbreak of hyperinflation] remains a sharp break in the exchange rate value of the U.S. dollar, with the rest of the world effectively moving to dump the U.S. currency and dollar-denominated paper assets. The current U.S. financial markets, financial system and economy remain highly unstable and increasingly vulnerable to unexpected shocks. At the same time, the Federal Reserve and the federal government are dedicated to preventing systemic collapse and broad price deflation. To prevent any imminent collapse—as has been seen in official activities of the last several years—they will create and spend whatever money is needed, including the deliberate debasement of the U.S. dollar with the intent of increasing domestic inflation.
This response has, in turn, provoked a reaction from the world community that will lead to a rejection of dollars and dollar denominated assets, a circumstance that must end in hyperinflation and depression.
The damage to U.S. dollar credibility has spread at an accelerating pace. Not only have major powers such as China, Russia and France, and institutions such as the IMF, recently called for the abandonment of the U.S. dollar as the global reserve currency, but also the dollar appears to have lost much of its traditional safe-haven status in the last month. With the current spate of political shocks in the Middle East and North Africa (a circumstance much more likely to deteriorate than to disappear in the year ahead), those seeking to protect their assets have been fleeing to other traditional safe-havens, such as precious metals and the Swiss franc, at the expense of the U.S. currency. The Swiss franc and gold price both have hit historic highs against the dollar in early-March 2011, with the silver price at its highest level in decades, rapidly closing in on its speculative historic peak of January 1980.
According to Williams, existing domestic fiscal commitments and further demands to shore up the current failed economic mechanism cannot be funded under existing political arrangements; these needs can only be satisfied by assuming creation of money ex nihilo by Washington; the assumption of increased ex nihilo money creation to fulfill existing commitments and shore up the failed mechanism is damaging the credibility of the dollar as world reserve currency; the loss of credibility should weaken the dollar and eventually lead to panicked dumping of dollar and of dollar-denominated paper assets, triggering hyperinflation.
When I follow this logic backward, the first question I encounter regards the panicked dumping of dollars and dollar-denominated assets. Assuming hyperinflation is triggered by panicked selling of dollars and dollar-denominated assets, for what is this currency and these assets to be exchanged? Who would step in to buy the assets when everyone else is selling them in a panic? In theory, the Federal Reserve can step in to buy treasuries, but it can only offer dollars in exchange for the treasuries. Other assets, since they are denominated in dollars, can only be exchanged for dollars. Moreover, if the sellers have dollars to dump, they can only use these dollars to buy other currencies, precious metals, or commodities. If they use the dollars to buy other currencies, the dollar’s exchange rate will fall. If they use the dollars to buy precious metals, the prices of the metals will rise. If they use the dollars to buy ordinary commodities, the prices of these commodities will rise still further. If Washington intends to inflate the general price level to fix its problems, creating at least the appearance of a selling panic on the dollar would be precisely the means of accomplishing this aim.
Moreover, what do the sellers of currencies and assets denominated in various currencies seek when it comes to selling? I can only assume they want what everyone else wants: to receive, in return for their asset, the greatest quantity of another currency for the one they are selling, or the greatest quantity of money in any currency for their asset. In a panic, however, the opposite situation obtains: they must accept massive losses on their currency and assets. If they want to sell dollars, for example, they would be selling these dollars for fewer euros. If they were selling euros, they would be selling euros for increasing amounts of dollars. In my assumptions, sellers tend to prefer situations where prices are rising for their commodities, not falling as is assumed under a panic selling situation.
A further problem exists: the dollar is the world reserve currency because world commodities are priced in dollars. To remove the dollar as world reserve currency requires the sellers of commodities to price their commodities in some other currency than dollars. If the dollar is weakening, the prices paid for commodities is rising in dollar terms. Against what currency are these commodities to be priced? Will they be priced in currencies where prices of the commodities are generally falling or currencies where the prices of commodities are generally rising? Assuming general over-accumulation of capital, sellers will be very interested in those currencies where prices are constantly rising not falling. Producers would appear to have a decided interest in seeing inflationary policies by the various national states.
Although Williams’ argues rapid inflation will induce holders of dollars to abandon it, he paints a bleak economic picture where the biggest problem is not rising prices but faltering demand:
Despite pronouncements of an end to the 2007 recession and the onset of an economic recovery, the U.S. economy still is mired in a deepening structural contraction, which eventually will be recognized as a double- or multiple-dip recession. Beyond the politically- and market-hyped GDP reporting, key underlying economic series show patterns of activity that are consistent with a peak-to-trough (so far) contraction in inflation-adjusted activity in excess of 10%, a formal depression (see Recession, Depression and Great Depression). The apparent gains of the last year, reported in series such as retail sales and industrial production, should soften meaningfully in upcoming benchmark revisions. The revised patterns should tend to parallel the recent downside benchmark revision to payroll employment, while the July 2011 annual GDP revisions also are an almost certain bet to show a much weaker economy in recent years than currently is recognized in the markets. (See Section 4—Current Economic and Inflation Conditions in the United States.) Existing formal projections for the federal budget deficit, banking system solvency, etc. all are based on assumptions of positive economic growth, going forward. That growth will not happen, and continued economic contraction will exacerbate fiscal conditions and banking-system liquidity problems terribly.
From Williams’ own analysis, economic conditions are worsening to levels not seen since the Great Depression. He is assuming that global sellers of commodities will face, in addition to weakening demand, increased liquidity problems created by a failed economic mechanism that previously was necessary to maintain economic stability in the face of absolute over-accumulation. If policy actions to reverse this situation are not sufficient to stabilize the global economy, what will be the result? From the point of view of economic policy the danger at this point seems not to be hyperinflation, but a rather pronounced deflation of prices. However, a more nuanced view of the situation is called for to confirm this conclusion.