Gold Research Videos
James Grant, founder and editor of Grant’s Interest Rate Observer and James Turk (GoldMoney Foundation) discuss the Fed's history and how 'mission creep' has taken it wildly beyond its initial remit, to the point where it is now conducting such experiements as quantitative easing (QE) and a zero interest rate policy (ZIRP).
They talk about who benefits from zero interest rates and how savers are penalised by this easy money policy. They explain how the US has effectively been off the gold standard since 1913, Bretton Woods being only a shadow of the classical gold standard. In the last 40 years low interest rates have encouraged leverage and speculation, which have reached incredible levels.
They discuss the fiscal profligacy of the US government, but note that a solution to America's debt problem could still be found if the political will existed. US strengths and positive momentum could still be harnessed to save the dollar if people’s eyes could be opened. However, they conclude that every paper currency in history has eventually gone to zero.
James and Jim Grant also talk about ZIRP and the absence of the bond vigilantes after a 30 year bond bull market, and how traders no longer care about fundamentals – like balance sheets – but instead focus on very short-time horizons and the spreads between funding costs and yields. In their view, this situation as unsustainable.
Jim still see gold as a very under-owned, misunderstood and marginal asset that is still shunned by institutional investors, with a few notable exceptions which indicate that the tide could be turning. He see's the US returning to the gold standard in the future, although timing is always uncertain.
At the end they talk about the history of specie payment resumption in the post-Civil War US, and how there could be parallels between this historical episode and a future return to the gold standard in our day and age. Private alternatives and competing currencies are a possibility; if politicians are too slow to provide solutions the market could do it for them.
James Turk: I'm James Turk. I'm a director of the GoldMoney Foundation, and I'm here this evening with Jim Grant, the Founder and Editor of Grant's Interest Rate Observer. Information could be found at GrantsPub.com. Jim, it's a real pleasure to speak with you.
Jim Grant: Well thank you, James. It is good to be here.
James: We're going to be speaking tonight at the Committee for Monetary Research and Education, and you've got a very provocative title for your presentation. I wonder if we could talk a little bit about that.
Jim: Yes indeed. The title, I think it's 'Carter Glass, Roll Over.'
James: Carter Glass being?
Jim: Carter Glass is the legislative father of the Federal Reserve System who, 102 years ago, helped to usher in an institution which today he would not recognise.[laughter]
James: Because what it's doing today was completely different from what he intended it to do.
Jim: Well, the outfit that he pushed through to enactment – and one must read the preamble to the legislation, which you can find at any reputable website – but the preamble said something like, 'This is an act to create an organisation to build the federal reserve banks, to institute a more thorough-going supervision of banking in the United States of America, to create a market to discount commercial bills ... and for other purposes.' And we know what the operative phrase was, don't we?
James: Yes we do.
Jim: '...for other purposes.' Nothing in the act about the following subjects. Nothing about zero interest rates; nothing about quantitative easing, that delicious phrase, keep reminding me about; nothing about inflation, deflation; nothing about anything current, [chuckles] hence Carter Glass' certainty that, if he were around today, he would die of shock all over again.
James: Would he die of shock?
Jim: Yeah, definitely.
James: Or is this really what he wanted to accomplish by putting that 'for other purposes' there?
Jim: I think 'for other purposes' you'll find is boilerplate for any number of bills. I think that he would be truly mortified. Among other things, he was a kind of a populist who had no use for Wall Street. During his life he never bought a share of common stock, at least according to his biography which, parenthetically, is the most miserable book ever written.
Jim: It came out in 1939 or something. But, on the authority of this miserable book, he never bought or sold a share of common stock. He always talked about stock gambling, never about investing. And what he wanted to do was to rejigger the country's monetary reserves such that they would not be all draining into the big money center banks in New York. So it was like kind of a populist, I think, it was a populist urge. Maybe there was some nefarious intent.
But I think what he would be mortified about, perhaps if not least, is the Feds new-found, self-appointed remit to levitate the prices of stocks and other financial assets. If there's anything that he didn't want [chuckles] out of this non-central bank – he did regard it as not a central bank at all – is I think he didn't want, it was a handmaiden to the interests of Wall Street.
James: Yes. Was he basically a sound money guy, then?
Jim: Well, he was a not especially reflective inheritor of the established norms of the day. He was for the gold standard. He defended, unto the death, the Fed against the charge that it would be the agency of the institution of fiat money. 'Nothing like that at all' he said.
He was a real bills man, meaning that he believed that the commercial banking system was in business to facilitate trade and agriculture through the provision of liquidity against the collateral of self-liquidating, short-dated commercial credit. That was the sum and substance of his views, and all of that is evident in the Federal Reserve Act.
James: And that's what the Federal Reserve actually did for a few years.
Jim: Oh, for about 15 minutes.
James: [laughs] Ok. Exactly, it did.
Jim: And then along came World War I. And, instantly, it was in the business of centralising gold or discouraging the member banks from holding gold. It was in the business of facilitating Treasury issuance to finance the War and to facilitate other war-time emergency measures. So, the Fed was enacted on December 23rd, 1913, at about six in the evening. Woodrow Wilson signed with four pens. And that was the height of its orthodoxy, right there, at the moment of signing with the gold pens. That was it. It's been downhill ever since.
James: Ever since. Why have we allowed this thing to grow to the extent that it has or to evolve in the way it has? What's been the process?
Jim: I don't know. They didn't ask me.
James: [laughs] Well, you wrote a great piece in The Wall Street Journal a few years ago concluding that the Progressives had won.
Jim: Well, certainly. Let me try to answer your question, a very good question indeed. Why did it happen? Well, mission creep is simply endemic in all bureaucracies. That goes without saying.
James: Self-perpetuating, that they'll address the next issue that has come to the fore where it is to justify their jobs.
Jim: Well, also that their powers will expand, their remits will broaden and they will become as grandiose as the elected representatives allow them to be. Why Congress, which under the Constitution was given the power, to coin my regulative value there, why Congress has allowed the Fed to become this hydra-headed monster, search me.
James: It served their interests?
Jim: Well, I don't know about that. I think whose interests that it served is the interests, broadly speaking today, of our speculative classes. People who deal in wholesale sums of money find it ever so expedient to borrow at nothing.
Jim: Zero percent is an excellent funding cost.
Jim: But as to the trusting souls who save dollars and who have them on deposit in what we are pleased to call banks, those trusting souls are the losers. But it's obvious...
James: Right, which is essentially the middle class and seniors who had saved up their lives in anticipation of living on their interest income.
Jim: Yeah, yeah, yeah. Yes, yes, yes. Yeah, all those. It is the fact that Wall Street doesn't mind this at all. By this I mean our present-day arrangements in which there are intermittent crises which necessarily create intermittent opportunities. There are protracted periods, and have been since about 1990, of extremely low funding costs.
The yield curve, by which I mean the alignment of interest rates through time, has been generally steep, meaning that short rates are hospitably set below long rates. So that one can earn a spread simply by borrowing money at negligible cost to buy longer-dated assets yielding something more than nothing. So Wall Street is in this business, and it has done rather well.
James: Borrowing short, lending long.
Jim: As they say.
James: But that's also the volatility or the ultimate that leads to insolvency if you have a...
Jim: Well it leads to insolvency among some, but notice how many are not broke doing this.
James: So yeah, for every layman there are a lot making a lot of money.
Jim: Yeah, yeah. Yeah.
James: But getting back to the Federal Reserve, doesn't it also serve the politicians in the sense that there's no discipline on their spending?
Jim: Yes, it does indeed.
James: They know that, whatever they want to spend, the Federal Reserve is going to step in...
Jim: You are quite right.
James: ...and do quantitative easing.
Jim: It serves the interests of those who would expand government power, and it serves the interests of those who run up great big debts. Because, note, there has been no check on our external borrowing since about Monday morning, August 16th, 1971. Even before that there was really very little check. The gold standard was so eviscerated under Bretton Woods.
James: That you can't really call it the gold standard that was in place.
Jim: No, that was a road show.
Jim: It was the weak-water version of the preceding road show version which succeeded the real McCoy.
Jim: So nothing good has happened in this realm of business since about, oh, August 1914. [laughs]
James: When the Federal Reserve went into business.
Jim: Well since the gold standard, the real, true McCoy gold standard.
James: When war broke out in Europe and Britain went off the classical gold standard.
Jim: Yeah, yeah. Right.
James: And then, of course, the failed attempt by Churchill to go back to the pre-war parity, which created the tremendous deflation and problems...
Jim: Yes. Yes, yes, yes.
James: ...in the 1920s in Britain.
Jim: For 100 years it's been bad news, James. [laughs]
James: It has been bad news for people who have held money and saw their purchasing power erode or people who lived in countries where there were monetary crises. And, as we all know, there have been dozens and dozens of monetary crises around the world. Are we going to face a similar monetary crisis here in the United States?
Jim: Yes, in fact, we are up against it. I think that, the world over, monetary arrangements are visibly coming unstuck. Indeed, they are unstuck. It's only the perception that is lagging the fact. Central banks the world over are the most preposterous, jury-rigged structures. In China the central bank, the People's Bank, is leveraged 1,200 to 1. One thousand two hundred units of asset – they call them Renminbi – per one unit of capital.
James: That's even more than the Federal Reserve.
Jim: Yes. The Federal Reserve Bank of New York, this paragon of conservative incomes...
James: Compared to that.
Jim: ...is leveraged merely 102 to 1.
James: OK. Just like Long-Term Capital Management.
Jim: Yeah. And so, in the day back when you and I were in school, James, 1913, the role of central banks were then, by and large, investor-owned institutions that were, most of them, doing a conventional commercial banking business of some kind. And they presented their balance sheet that was meant to be and did, indeed, conform to the orthodox norms of the day. They had no overt state support. They were not recapitalised by the state intermittently. They were, to a great degree, private, independent institutions in fact, and they were solvent. Solvent.
Jim: On a mark, the People's Bank of China is certainly insolvent. The Federal Reserve Bank of New York is visibly solvent and could certainly receive succor from the Treasury would the need arise. And I don't mean to press the point that the leverage ratios are extreme. They are obviously extreme. But I think the symbolism of that extremism in leverage is important because it signifies how far off the path of gold standard orthodoxy we have veered in about 100 years. Way off the path.
James: Yeah, way off the path and ultimately that leverage has to be reduced because we've reached the level that the cash flow just doesn't sustain that level of debt anymore. Greece, perhaps...
James: ...is the poster child of over-leverage, but there are any other number of countries using it.
Jim: Oh, America is a pretty good poster child for over-leveraging.
James: Well I know you've been following this for a long time. I remember, was it 1992, you did the first prospectus of the US government debt?
Jim: I think even earlier.
James: Was it even earlier?
Jim: Yes. Notice how many people paid attention. [chuckles] You. You paid attention. [laughter]
James: I remembered. But a lot of people are paying attention now.
James: And, Ok, maybe you were a little bit early pointing out some of the problems.
Jim: [laughs] Hey gramps, 20 years is nothing. 30 years is nothing.
James: Well it takes the long view.
Jim: Yeah, it does. It does, yeah.
James: Let's talk about the US government's position. It seem basically insolvent, right?
Jim: Well, it's not insolvent. This is still the world's destination. It's a great country. Were we to mobilise our economic and financial resources, we could certainly deal with it. I think we could deal with the debts as they are now.
James: Even as big as they are, and excluding the contingent liabilities?
Jim: Yeah. Well, oh, if we dealt with those contingent liabilities, if people retired later, I think there's a way out still. I'm not such an apocalyptic observer of our fiscal affairs. However, however, our fiscal affairs are facilitated. We are addicted to our reserve currency privilege, which is in fact not a privilege but a curse.
And insofar as we persist in paying our bills with a currency that only we can produce, and insofar as our mercantilist Asian credit is return the dollars we remit to them instantly in the shape of investments in our Treasury securities. We are certainly running down the path, not merely trotting, but running down the path of national insolvency because there's no check on our incontinence.
Jim: That is the rub. Paul Ryan is a well-intended man with a serious program, but he doesn't address the problem. The problem is the reserve currency aspect of our monetary affairs.
James: Which, as you say, is a curse but it's also a responsibility in a sense that, if we maintain a bad reserve currency, this has worldwide impact.
Jim: Well sure, and there's a great big discontinuity in our affairs. The dollar is the world's currency, but the Fed is America's central bank, period. Period. It pays no attention to anything outside of the 50 states and territories I'd guess. It doesn't care at all. In fact, I think it's not-so-secretly rooting for a much weaker exchange rate. But it doesn't care that $2 trillion of our assets, where the number really is, are on the balance sheet of the People's Bank of China.
They don't care that half of Asia seems papered with our green currency. The Fed's in the business of ginning up the stock market. It's in the business of sustaining full employment as defined these days, which is a very loose definition indeed. It's in the business of promoting what they are pleased to call price stability. Nothing about what you rightly called a responsibility of reserve issuing or reserve currency country.
In fact, there have only been two reserve currency issuing countries, if you don't count the intended reserve currency status of the eurozone, ourselves and Britain. And notice how little attention either one of us paid over the years since at least we went on paper to our obligations to our creditors, like zero.
James: And the dollar only became a world reserve currency because of the lengthy goal, as the saying was back then, as good as gold.
James: And basically Britain, when it was on the classical gold standard, the term gold and pound were synonymous with one another because of the redeemability features.
Jim: Yeah. Well I guess there was some connection as well to geopolitical power. But certainly, James, to me the remarkable thing about the dollar now is that it is still accepted as a medium of exchange and still a store of value the world over without anything behind it except the good intentions of the issuing government.
And it's truly, if you stop and think about it, to me it is one of the most remarkable achievements in the history of money. The dollar does serve this role without anything behind it except Congress and the analytical acuity of the Federal Market Committee. It's quite something.
James: But fiat currencies around the world are accepted on the same basis, until some event occurs.
James: People's eyes open up and they...
Jim: It's been 40 years. This is a pretty long run for the dollar.
James: Yeah, it is.
Jim: I'm not saying it's going to be in perpetuity. [laughter]
James: And we're not going to go another 40 years either.
James: Maybe 40 days.
Jim: When you and I still had dark hair, we were talking the same stuff. I'm trying to be a little bit discreet about timing.
James: Ok, thank you.
Jim: I hope I live long enough, but let's just say I'm impressed by the staying power of this fiat currency.
Jim: I am deeply impressed by it.
James: What do you attribute that to? Just propaganda, lack of education?
Jim: No. Well, yeah, that's part of it I suppose. We take for granted the fact that the United States still has the Statue of Liberty, Disney World, the New York Public Library, the United States Marine Corps. This is a great country. It is the world's destination for people and, to a degree, still is the world's destination for wealth and for opportunity. The United States is like Major League Baseball. They try to destroy it but they can't.
James: But it's not like what I remember back in the '70s or '60s or even as a young kid in the '50s in terms of attraction for capital.
Jim: I know, I know. But I guess what I'm trying to say is there is a lot of inertial power behind this country and its magnetism for people and for enterprise.
James: Staying power. But, at the end of the day, a currency, if it ultimately...
Jim: Yes, of course, yes. Yes, yes. We agree on that.
Jim: Every paper currency has gone to zero. The dollar is down what, 99.99 per cent or something.
James: Since 1913, yeah.
Jim: Right. It is a truism to say that these paper currencies are going to zero. However, I've been around a long time watching it go to zero, and Ben S. Bernanke still gets more TV time than I do. Let me put it that way. [laughter]
James: Ok. Let's go back to Grant's Interest Rate Observer.
Jim: Yes, let's.
James: You talk a lot about interest rates, but how do you see the interest rate picture now?
Jim: I can't see them anymore.
James: I know. It isn't easy.
Jim: They're tiny. They're zero.
James: Are the bond vigilantes, are they still a big factor in the market?
Jim: No, they all retired about 1986 to Boca Raton. There is no bond vigilante movement. Bond vigilantes, of course, were the group of public-spirited chaps and ladies who, it was said, would rise up against any sign of monetary debauch or fiscal profligacy and snuff it out like a candle. Because they would not again be suckered into holding depreciating emissions of the United States Treasury. Remember that story?
James: Yeah, it was a different generation perhaps?
Jim: A different generation but also muscle memory is so important in investing. Interest rates have been falling since September 30th, 1981. 30, 3-O years of a bond bull market. And I know that analysis plays some part in investing. Some part. But muscle memory is a hugely underrated aspect of this, and people own bonds because they have been appreciating and because you can finance them at zero.
Therefore, I think that the market doesn't think one whit about the difficulties, difficulties is certainly understated, presented by our deteriorating fiscal picture. It doesn't care at all about the monetary drama unfolding. It cares about the spread between the cost of funding a portfolio of short-dated treasuries on the one hand and the yield obtainable on those securities on the other.
Jim: That's it.
James: But cash flow, I'm trained as a banker, so cash flow to me is always very important. And I just looked recently at the April US government budget deficits for the seven months of this fiscal year that we've completed so far. The debt has gone up $870 billion but, more significantly, of the $100 that are being spent by the federal government, 40 per cent of it is coming from borrowing. Sixty per cent of it is coming from revenue. That's unsustainable on a cash flow basis.
Jim: Correct. It's unsustainable, and we are doing this with interest rates at multi-generational lows.
James: Yeah, imagine if they were at a normal level, what that would do in terms of adding to the additional expenses of the government.
Jim: No question, no contest, and no disagreement with anything you've said. However, my contention is that those irrefutable facts are of no consequence to people whose time horizon is about a day, who fund at zero and who earn a spread. They do not care about the cash flow statement of the United States Treasury. What they care about is the spread between funding costs and yield earnings.
James: That's Ok. Who cares about gold? I know you've talked about gold a lot in Grant's Interest Rate Observer. Who cares about gold? Do these bond guys see gold as an opportunity to hedge their losses?
Jim: I still think it's seen as something of a renegade asset. It's certainly not yet an institutional asset. People see it as this kind of annoying thing off the side that just draws attention from really serious things, like Apple common stock and other mainline securities.
James: Was the University of Texas's announcement that they bought a billion dollars of physical gold a watershed event?
Jim: Well I'm not sure if it was watershed. I think we have seen a succession of such announcements. Don't forget now, and which I know you don't, that central banks have turned net buyers for the first time in a generation. It's not only the University of Texas's pension plan. Serious individuals with serious money that don't need a committee are allocating money to go... We know that because there turns out to be a shortage, of all things, safe deposit facilities.
James: Here in New York City?
Jim: Well, the world over, people have started business recently to... Here again. I am talking to an expert on the subject. People have started businesses for safe keeping and for transport and for storage. So there is at the margin, still only at the margin, there is a movement to accept gold, not so much as an investment asset, but as a thing that I think both of us would agree it is, money.
James: What is your view on gold? Is it money and is it going to return as a form of currency at some point of time in the future?
Jim Grant: I think that we will see a gold standard again.
James: In the United States?
Jim: Yes, I think so.
James: Do you think soon? What are the factors driving that?
Jim: Gee, I wasn't born yesterday. I'm not going to give you a date! I think that there is something in the wind. And that something, I think, is a deep, deep dissatisfaction with the monetary program in place. And a deep, deep, abiding worry about our fiscal difficulties. And a sense that what the Fed is doing is simply incomprehensible.
So, in the Financial Times of London there was a letter published about a year ago. The letter writer says, 'Finally I understand, I think I know what quantitative easing is. I think I get that now. What I no longer understand is the meaning of the word 'money.' So that to me is the most clarifying couple of sentences of the crisis. And I think that thought, though perhaps not expressed so concisely or humorously, is in the back of the minds of the American public.
James: Well, Money of the Mind was one of your many books that you've written.
Jim: Well, thank you James. Thank you for ramming that in the conversation.
James: Well, I've read your books and that's a good one and it seems appropriate to bring it in here because we're talking about the points that you were making in that book.
Jim: Yeah, so the reason I think that there is more than a snowball's chance of a gold standard being enacted, first of all, arithmetic is working against the existing business. The banking business doesn't making any sense. It has to be recapitalized much too frequently for the financial health of the people who are capitalising it. Let's say the long-suffering taxpayers. So, the banking system itself, arithmetic is working against it. Arithmetic is working against our fiscal affairs. And arithmetic is working against the balance sheets of the world's central banks.
The leverage doesn't make any sense. The fact that the world's second largest economy has a central bank that is actually, must be actually insolvent. All these things, these certain facts, I think are congealing and I'm not sure what the catalyst is going to be. It might be some bright light of a politician finally getting it and speaking to people in such a way as to present the issues to them in a way that mobilises public opinion. But we have arithmetic on our side. Do we stand or...?
James: Do we have the political will, though? Because, back in 1869, there were similar circumstances when the greenback was circulating and it was depreciating relative to gold. The political will came together and they laid out a 10-year plan to resume backing of gold versus the paper currency. Do we have that kind of political will this time around?
Jim: Well, don't forget, resumption after the Civil War was hard fought. And the political will, I guess, was manifested finally in its act being passed, but they did put it 10 years off in the future.
James: But that was necessary to make the adjustments to go back to gold.
Jim: Yeah, but it was necessary because it was . . .
James: A good compromise?
Jim: Only marginally popular. It was very controversial. And it became more so, of course, in the 1870s and 80s as the Greenback and Populous Movements gathered. The late 19th century was a time of a subsiding price level down, maybe a percent and a half a year. Real wages were up, but prices were down and farmers couldn't stay . . . So political will, especially in retrospect, was there, but it was hard fought. And I think that what we have going for us today again is pure and simple arithmetic.
James: Does Congress realise that, do you think?
Jim: This congress doesn't realise it so much, but maybe the next one will . . .
James: This congress represents, there are a lot of Tea Party people in this one.
Jim: Yeah, there are. So, Lou Amran and I went down to testify before Ron Paul's Congressional Subcommittee on Monetary Affairs, six weeks ago. And Ron Paul, of course, is very friendly to all of us. So, Lou and I figured that this would be a fabulous opportunity. And indeed it was a very flattering one. And the Democrats boycotted it, we were told. The Democrats wouldn't show up and dignify these proceedings with their presence.
What we didn't expect was the fact of 'boycott the Republicans.' We were testifying in front of ourselves and our immediate families. So, it was kind of despairing in that sense. So, I'm not sure where I get off saying that there will be a gold standard, except I believe that there is some reservoir in the American electorate of good common horse sense. And when horse sense meets arithmetic, I expect good things to happen.
James: Will there be faith in the government in maintaining a gold standard if it does go back to gold standard?
Jim: Oh, I don't know. Let's cross that bridge when we come to it.
James: Is the gold standard really the only alternative in your view?
Jim: Well, unless somebody can think of something better. I mean the gold standard, to most minds, has a hopeless layering of cobwebs. It's like something... If we had the gold standard, can we bring back dysentery to as we’re nostalgic for that as well. If you talk to the average Manhattanite about this they are, what should we say, sceptical.
So, I am open to suggestions about what might be a standard such that the world's balance of payments are synchronised, rather than stymied. I am open to a standard in which the monetary medium is recognisable as money everywhere and accepted universally. I am open to a standard in which the monetary medium grows at approximately the rate of the world's population.
It seems to me that such a standard is... I can't conceive of anything even remotely resembling a gold standard. Certainly none has been tested in what my friend Lou Amran says is the laboratory of human history. So 100 years or more of, not perfect, but a remarkably successful run of a standard that managed to maintain price stability and serve as a kind of a gyroscope of economic growth, of stupendous economic growth in a time of great technological progress. So, what wrong with that?! What's wrong with that?
James: Yeah, nothing's wrong with that. But can government be trusted with the gold standard? Or should we be looking at private markets.
Jim: Well, let's have markets bring it in. I think state legislators, there must be a dozen of them that are either weighing it or have recently enacted.
James: Yeah, I have seen some of the movement, Utah, South Carolina.
Jim: So whether the movement comes from the bottom up, the bottom up is probably more likely than the top down, I'd be happy to see a competitive currency situation develop. Maybe if Congress will just stop taxing gold as a collectible that would be a good step forward. I dare say that you have better ideas in this than I do, but I do have confidence in two things. I have a kind of a dread that is a form of confidence. I have a dreadful confidence that existing arrangements will not last. In fact, I will put that down just like Bernanke did. I am 100 per cent certain of that.
Jim: And also I have a confidence in the reservoir of good will and of the common sense of the American public. I think that between the two of these forces, arithmetic and American common sense, something good will come of this apparent disaster.
James: Yeah, if we could only have some common sense in Congress, I would agree with you.
James: Maybe that will happen?
Jim: Well, I don't know. Let's give it another 50 years. We'll get there.
James: OK, thanks very much, Jim. I have been with Jim Grant, the founder and editor of Grant's Interest Rate Observer. Thanks again, Jim.
Jim: You are entirely welcome, James.
James: It's a real pleasure.
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