Thursday, February 24, 2011

"Fiat currencies have a long history, mostly of failure"

The End of the US Dollar?
By: David Chapman

The turmoil across North Africa and the Middle East is threatening not only to overthrow aging dictatorships, autocracies and monarchies, but also to upset the geopolitical balance between the countries of that region and the Western powers that has existed since at least the 1950s. For the West, the issue has always been the security of oil. For the US there is a second issue, and that is the security of Israel. Now both are under threat.

Some 56 per cent of the world’s oil reserves are in the Middle East, with another nine per cent in Africa. Therefore, unrest in the region could be the catalyst that sets off a global monetary-oil shock. The unrest in Libya has sparked a sharp rise in oil price. Libya holds the world’s ninth-largest reserves and is the twelfth-largest exporter, providing about two per cent of the world’s daily oil supply. Not large and it is possible that Saudi Arabia could pick up the slack but it sends out a wave of uncertainty and it is unknown where the next outburst might occur.

Saudi Arabia is the world’s second largest producer, behind Russia. Saudi Arabia exports roughly 75 per cent of its production. If the unrest spreads to Saudi Arabia then all bets might be off the table as to how high oil prices can go.

Saudi Arabia is governed by an absolute monarchy which rules by decree. While its people are generally well-off, it has a minority Shia Muslim population (about 20 per cent), largely employed in the oil-producing regions, who are at the margins of the society. Saudi Arabia has a poor human rights record and its Wabbabi brand of Sunni Muslim religion has often been noted to be behind alleged terrorist organizations. Unemployment is high at just under 11 per cent, although that is better than most Arab countries.

The US is the world’s largest consumer of oil, at roughly 19 million barrels per day. It imports almost 10 million barrels per day. China is now the second-largest consumer. Among the top 15 consumers we also find Japan, Germany, France, Canada, Italy and the UK. Yet outside of Canada and China (which, like the US, produces roughly half of its daily consumption and is also the world’s third-largest producer), none of the others are in the top 15 for production. And amongst the Western economies, only Norway and Canada are listed in the world’s top 15 exporters.

It has often been said the US dollar is a petrodollar. That is to say, it is earned through the sale of oil. Oil-producing countries such as Saudi Arabia and Venezuela, which peg their currencies (within a band) to the US dollar, are as result quite dependent on the value of the US dollar. These countries and many others earn large amounts of US dollars because of their oil production.

The US dollar is also the world’s reserve currency. All commodities are priced in dollars – not just oil. It is the most marketed currency in the world and it is owned more widely than any other currency. One would therefore believe that a strong dollar is not only in the interest of the United States, but everyone else as well.

But the US dollar is also a fiat currency. A fiat currency has value only because the government says so. The Latin word fiat translates as “let it be done”. Thus, the value of money is dictated by government decree.

Today, all national currencies are fiat currencies. The trend began in August 1971 when President Richard Nixon took the US dollar off the gold standard thus also taking the world off of the gold standard. Increasingly from then on, money was whatever a government said it was. As such it has no real value except being declared legal tender.

Fiat currencies have a long history, mostly of failure .The Romans didn’t have paper money but they developed an early form of fiat by constantly decreasing the amount of silver used in the denarius, their main medium of exchange. They continued this debasement until the coinage became intrinsically almost worthless.

The Chinese were the first to issue paper currency in around the tenth century but eventually they printed so much that hyperinflation occurred and their currency became worthless, even though its usage lasted close to 400 years.

History is respite with the failure of fiat currencies. The most recent example was collapse of the Zimbabwean dollar, and a famous example was the Weimar Republic of Germany in the 1920s.

Fiat currencies have a history of ending in hyperinflation – if a country starts printing money excessively, it is often on the road to ruin and hyperinflation. And this is the United States today. The US has unparalleled deficits and debt; it has increasing expansion of its money supply, using a fiat currency; and it is being misleading about its true economic situation through its published economic statistics.

But it also has the world’s reserve currency, and international trade is carried out in US dollars. Any country buying oil, for example, must first convert its currency into dollars to pay for it. The selling country receives those dollars, which are often recycled right back into purchasing US debt, so that the selling country does not adversely impact its own currency.

But the US dollar is a declining currency. In the last 100 years it has lost over 96 per cent of its purchasing power (this process accelerated after 1971). The chart below shows the long decline. The second chart shows how public debt and money supply exploded after cutting the link with gold, and how a fiat currency can be expanded at will, with nothing to prevent it from being issued.

The third chart shows the decline of the purchasing power of the US dollar when using inflation numbers based on the way inflation was calculated up until the early 1990s. At that time the US began to change the way of calculating inflation, the net effect being to lower the reported rate of inflation.

Many items, including Social Security payments, are tied to the reported rate of inflation. With a much higher rate of inflation, many items would have increased in price faster and the US Treasury would have had to pay out far higher entitlements.

The recalculation of the inflation numbers were provided by That chart suggests that the US dollar has lost over 98 per cent of its purchasing power over the past 100 years.

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