Theories of the current crisis: John Williams prediction of hyperinflationary depression
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.