06 December 2010

Unthinkable, thought

The Economist presents an article on 02 DEC 2010 on How to resign from the club.

The 'club' in question is the Eurozone, and resigning from it is presented as a showing how Nation States can get over a debt crisis via examining past such crises in other Nations. The EU has a problem in that it is not a Nation State but a cooperating agreement amongst Nation States and, thusly, more of a confederation than a federation (as these things are normally termed for such governmental arrangements). Thus leaving the EU would be done to localize debt to those debtor Nations within the EU and as a result end the Euro as a currency. The article presents the rationale for this, but does not come down in an advocacy position, but a neutral one as this is an article to examine the process not the implications of it beyond the economic.

To start the reasons for leaving are put into question form:

The idea of breaking up the currency zone raises at least three questions. First, why would a country choose to leave? Second, how would a country manage the switch to a new currency? Third—and perhaps most important—would leavers be better off outside the euro than inside it?

Why Leave

First is the 'why' question for a country - what is the rationale for this leaving of a common currency?

The primary reason is economic independence from the common currency and there is a reason for doing so for both strong and weak economies (as measured in their economic activity, debt load and state of solvency).

Germany, with a relatively robust manufacturing economy that has been shedding social programs and increasing the retirement age, is seen as able to cover its debt better than other Nations in the EU. Thus their portion of the common debt would have the backing of a strong currency and even see an influx of funds from other countries from individuals seeking a 'safe haven' for their cash. This would require massive changes to the banking regulation which seeks to get at savings accounts outside the country, but that could be put down as effective for EU funds only, and those converted to other currencies (like the brand new Deutschmark) would not have that regulatory overhead. This would be kept in check, to a small extent, by keeping lines of credit open for liquidity to foster economic activity. The change-over would cause an export problem as the strong DM would mean that the value of its goods would rise as compared to under the Euro, but that would be from a stable economic base that has actual liquidity to it. Thus a transition, though hard, would not be expected to be long.

Greece and weak countries, at the other end of the scale, also need economic policies that reflect their populations. The Euro has been no boon to these countries, either, as the ability of the earned Euro to purchase goods from stronger Nations within the Eurozone has decreased. Weaker economies having to compete inside the Eurozone are unable to do so and they are pressed from the outside by Asian manufacturers able to undercut Eurozone production costs. Thus, while holding to a Euro means having a more powerful currency, you have far less of it due to lack of economic activity and governmental promises on retirement and other payouts to selected groups of people within their Nations. Leaving the zone means that these countries (Greece, Spain, Italy, Portugal, Ireland) can put out currencies that can be devalued and yet find a stable floor based on the state of the economy. These Nations would become quite poor as they have a non-economical basis for their social structure in regards to working life, labor costs, and taxing policy, all of which would return to local control without EU overhead. And independent Nation is better able to navigate social policy, as an example, than a larger Confederation forcing an end social policy via a currency and regulatory system that does not take local conditions into account. These Nations did not change their policies coming into the Euro, beyond some one year benchmarks, and continued their spending policy for a generation based on lower interest loans garnered by joining the EU. Now that all comes due with defaulting on debt looming on the horizon.

How to Leave

The 'how' part is the mechanical part - the way to get from Point A to Point B.

Here the article is short and sweet, with some analysis after:

How could this be done? Introducing a new currency would be difficult but not impossible. A government could simply pass a law saying that the wages of public workers, welfare cheques and government debts would henceforth be paid in a new currency, converted at an official fixed rate. Such legislation would also require all other financial dealings—private-sector pay, mortgages, stock prices, bank loans and so on—to be switched to the new currency.

That plus have the printed and coined new currency ready to go, and having the banks exchange the old and new. The original set conversion ratio would last for a period of time and then the old scrip is no longer legal tender (although a minor collector's item for numismatic enthusiasts for generation after). This has been done a few times in the history of the US and happens far more frequently outside the US.

Argentina is a Nation that did this during its fiscal crisis and, as a result, destroyed its own banking system with a contraction in available credit to cover losses on loans that had a more favorable exchange rate than other items so as to keep savers mollified.

Germany would tend to have a stronger currency than an abandoned Euro, not only because Germany has left the Euro but due to the Euro having represented an average value across all Nations: the less capable Nations brought the value of the Euro down as they did not change social and fiscal policy to that of thrifty Nations like Germany. A new DM would gain its own adherents and those that then convert their local currencies on the basis of the DM for purposes of trade and commerce. The cost of the value of its debt would fall, over time, if it could keep its fiscal house in order and maintain a productive economy with low economic overhead by the national government. Its current holdings in other EU countries would be devalued while its own currency gained strength, and limitations on capital movement from weak countries would limit the ability of Germans to shift those funds or convert capital into liquid assets.

Weaker Nations would have to set limits on the amount of withdrawals per person, per year to transfer into a DM. This is on top of the losses that all people would suffer (personal, commercial, financial and institutional) due to the sudden change in value of the Euro in regards to the currencies leaving it. Those in weak countries paid in devalued currency would not like that state of affairs and yet see that they have limits on exactly how much of that currency can leave the Nation. This acts in the form of a firewall that limits currency trading and capital flight at the expense of internal accounts being devalued. Thus some capital is retained even during a general currency devaluation. Here good laws would allow for a legal process of wealth transformation to take place so as to avoid lawsuits over the incurred costs of devaluation. The internal scrip for these Nations would be debt obligation (or IOU) scrips that would, over time, be converted to a real currency. It would be an extremely devalued currency, yes, but the only one for legal tender in the Nation after all the Euros had been converted to them.

While a shrunk Euro would still have its member Nations to back it, those outside of it would be faced with the EU board acting to the interests of members... although the question of how long the Euro would survive comes into being with Germany leaving or one or more of the weak economies deciding to 'go it alone' to survive.


Shifting a National currency, even when done via normal means such as the need to replace one format of bank notes with another or going on/off a gold/silver standard is one that does happen for normal Nations. In the latter part of the 20th century this has happened more often than most people think as you consider the Nations that have gone off of a worthless internal scrip to create one of value: Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Romania, Bulgaria, East Germany (moving to the DM then Euro), and Russia. These Nations all faced a scrip that was uniform under Communist rule, but of no real value outside of its trading block. Dollars went for ten to one hundred times the official exchange rates inside these Nations, and when time came to break away their currencies got unhooked from the centralized system run from Moscow. We don't notice those change-overs, in the West, but they did happen quietly and efficiently as the Eastern Bloc vanished in a matter of years, taking Russia with it out of the Communist era.

Argentina has been more problematic, but while facing a set of challenges for having a currency not pegged to a foreign currency, it is a set of problems largely under the control of the Nation and its policies. That is the goal of the exercise, to bring the financial house under sovereign control and have a Nation set its own path on what is agreeable and disagreeable to it and suffer what fate hands out to those choices.

The US

The United States has many artifacts of the EU in its common currency arrangement: member States taking on huge debt load at rates that they could not normally get, a massive decrease in productivity due to the overhead of the State, and the flight of capital and individuals from some States to others. Additionally the National system has taken part in multiple Ponzi schemes for public programs, these being Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, all while enacting laws and regulation that increase the cost of manufacturing causing a flight of capital overseas for decades, thus lower the rate of economic growth. On a National level spending, regulation and social payouts are the mirror of that in some European Nations now looking to cut back on them severely: Great Britain, Germany, France. Meanwhile there is also a debtor State problem with a number of States with their own social programs that are fiscally unsound in the realm of public spending: CA, NY, IL, MI, MA all come to mind.

There is already the start of a debt scrip system going on in CA as the State is now offering IOUs to those who should receive refunds on their income tax. At this point CA does not accept such scrip to pay off debt to the State, but the moment it does so it has its own and devalued currency. NY has made some similar sounds as well as a few other States so highly in debt that they cannot offer standard refunds on taxes.

This state of affairs of States having their own currencies existed right up to the Civil War and is perfectly legal but how you do it is important, and CA is not headed into good territory there.

Here are the powers of the Constitution in this realm:

Section. 8.

The Congress shall have Power To lay and collect Taxes, Duties, Imposts and Excises, to pay the Debts and provide for the common Defence and general Welfare of the United States; but all Duties, Imposts and Excises shall be uniform throughout the United States;

To borrow Money on the credit of the United States;

To regulate Commerce with foreign Nations, and among the several States, and with the Indian Tribes;

To establish an uniform Rule of Naturalization, and uniform Laws on the subject of Bankruptcies throughout the United States;

To coin Money, regulate the Value thereof, and of foreign Coin, and fix the Standard of Weights and Measures;

To provide for the Punishment of counterfeiting the Securities and current Coin of the United States;


Section. 10.

No State shall enter into any Treaty, Alliance, or Confederation; grant Letters of Marque and Reprisal; coin Money; emit Bills of Credit; make any Thing but gold and silver Coin a Tender in Payment of Debts; pass any Bill of Attainder, ex post facto Law, or Law impairing the Obligation of Contracts, or grant any Title of Nobility.

CA is running afoul of Section 10 of the US Constitution and to complete its system of scrip would be required to offer gold or silver backing for its debt obligations. Basically a gold or silver debt scrip.

Just how much gold and silver does CA have? Beyond what is in 'them, thar hills' not much due to the FDR Administration having gold taken into Ft. Knox from all over the Nation as it was illegal to have large quantities of gold. Which brings up the question: is it legal for the US federal government to have done that? As the States are permitted to make legal tender of gold and silver, does the US government have the power to stop them from doing so by confiscating the gold and silver from those States?

Consider a proposal to have CA, say, ask to have its portion of the US held gold and silver reserves returned to it via population size. It would be recognized that the federal government has its own need of reserves and that could be made at 30% of the total held for the Nation.

Just working with gold the US has 4,603 tons, or 147.4 million troy ounces, the latter of which is easier to work with for numbers (going via Wikipedia for ballparking here), and this isn't including other bullion reserves like those at West Point.

So a proposal to keep 1/3 in reserve for the federal government means the following is available to the States via population: 98.27 million troy ounces.

Current population of the US at the census site: approx 311 million people.

Current population of CA: approx 37 million.

Call that just a bit shy of 12% of the population, which would yield it 12% of the gold: 11.8 million troy ounces.

Total long and short term debt issued by CA (Source: CA Treasurer's Office): approx. $53.3 billion

Note that CA's debt is huge compared to any price of gold today.

With that said the State would have the legal basis to offer a currency with a conversion rate to the US dollar for CA incurred debt. If set sufficiently above the current rate of conversion, say at $1,500 per ounce, the new Golden Bear (which I invent for this purpose) currency would have a lower valuation than US currency but have full gold backing to it. CA could start issuing this currency to those who would be getting tax refunds or other forms of funds from the State and create a dual currency system within the State for its own gold tender and standard US greenbacks. In addition CA would probably place a holding time limit for cashing out gold, so that the Golden Bear will have time to circulate and get a real value, perhaps as much as 5 years for that.

CA would then have to decide if it wanted to incur debt via US dollars or its own Golden Bears. While 11.8 million troy ounces sounds like a lot, that is less than 1/3 troy ounce per citizen in the State. If CA can get its fiscal house in order in 5 years, stop the debt outflow and get a sane tax climate in place for investors, it can offer a 'safe haven' currency that is gold backed (possibly have silver backed ones as well, but it is difficult in getting the silver reserve figures) and holds the State to the value of the currency.

The Golden Bear would be a 'hard' currency and if set above the current conversion price of gold, then gain few attractors but serve as a reserve system to pay off internal debts owed to the citizenry. Citizens would be faced with a currency that would take a few years to convert to physical gold (with 1 troy ounce = 1.0971428571 ounce = 31.1034768 gram) with each Golden Bear dollar only about 0.02 gram weight or waiting to get paid in US greenbacks once CA got more of those to go around... which it might do by marketing Golden Bears or converting a portion of its debt into Golden Bears for payout (possibly the short term debt). Once in circulation the value of the US greenback would float compared to the Golden Bear and it is possible that CA might even see an influx of some cash if it can get its fiscal house in order.

Of course CA and probably AK would see a major uptick in the gold prospecting business as getting gold and getting gold backed tender in return makes the gold portable. CA might see an increase in gold reserves, over time, if it got its house in order. Other States might take this route to try and get some foundation to their economies and find some, final bottom to their fiscal woes as they have a new and much smaller economic platform to move to. This would mean that most of the 'services' in the way of regulations, 'entitlements' and even such things as public pensions would either get liquidated or devalued or have a final gold backed tender put into their holdings which they can sell at market prices.

Congress did not have the power to stop this after the Civil War and no power was given to it during or after then to allow it to stop such things: they are allowed in Article 10 explicitly. While paying off debts to the federal government would still be done in greenbacks, if those are seen as getting worth less and less, then the States would have a means of fall-back currency by issuing gold and silver backed tender based on the holdings being held for all of the people at the bullion depositories. The US federal government would still have a substantial gold and silver deposit for the Nation, but the rest would be used by the States to create legal tender in the States for State obligations. And as it is circulated debt backed by gold, it is not normal valued currency and might be impossible to tax (can you tax debt? my guess is: no).

A two-track system would be a PITA, to be sure, for each State, yes. But this might be a way to give the people of those failing States some assurance that there is a final, much smaller, fall-back position for their States that would have an opportunity to shed obligations and right their economies. And with a gold backed system the people would be assured of being able to get some useful currency after their State's bankruptcy and re-ordering to become solvent. We would still be a common Nation, but those in financial crisis would be allowed to figure their way out on their own and not put the entire Nation at peril for the spendthrift ways of the few.

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