Books by Rickards, James

Rickards, James. Currency Wars. New York: Portfolio / Penguin, 2011. ISBN 978-1-591-84449-5.
Debasement of currency dates from antiquity (and doubtless from prehistory—if your daughter's dowry was one cow and three goats, do you think you'd choose them from the best in your herd?), but currency war in the modern sense first emerged in the 20th century in the aftermath of World War I. When global commerce—the first era of globalisation—became established in the 19th century, most of the trading partners were either on the gold standard or settled their accounts in a currency freely convertible to gold, with the British pound dominating as the unit of account in international trade. A letter of credit financing a shipload of goods exported from Argentina to Italy could be written by a bank in London and traded by an investor in New York without any currency risk during the voyage because all parties denominated the transaction in pounds sterling, which the Bank of England would exchange for gold on demand. This system of global money was not designed by “experts” nor managed by “maestros”—it evolved organically and adapted itself to the needs of its users in the marketplace.

All of this was destroyed by World War I. As described here, and in more detail in Lords of Finance (August 2011), in the aftermath of the war all of the European powers on both sides had expended their gold and foreign exchange reserves in the war effort, and the United States had amassed a large fraction of all of the gold in the world in its vaults and was creditor in chief to the allies to whom, in turn, Germany owed enormous reparation payments for generations to come. This set the stage for what the author calls Currency War I, from 1921 through 1936, in which central bankers attempted to sort out the consequences of the war, often making disastrous though well-intentioned decisions which, arguably, contributed to a decade of pre-depression malaise in Britain, the U.S. stock market bubble and 1929 crash, the Weimar Germany hyperinflation, and its aftermath which contributed to the rise of Hitler.

At the end of World War II, the United States was in an even more commanding position than at the conclusion of the first war. With Europe devastated, it sat on an even more imposing hoard of gold, and when it convened the Bretton Woods conference in 1944, with the war still underway, despite the conference's list of attendees hailing from 44 allied nations, it was clear that the Golden Rule applied: he who has the gold makes the rules. Well, the U.S. had the gold, and the system adopted at the conference made the U.S. dollar central to the postwar monetary system. The dollar was fixed to gold at the rate of US$35/troy ounce, with the U.S. Treasury committed to exchanging dollars for gold at that rate in unlimited quantities. All other currencies were fixed to the dollar, and hence indirectly to gold, so that except in the extraordinary circumstance of a revaluation against the dollar, exchange rate risk would not exist. While the Bretton Woods system was more complex than the pre-World War I gold standard (in particular, it allowed central banks to hold reserves in other paper currencies in addition to gold), it tried to achieve the same stability in exchange rates as the pure gold standard.

Amazingly, this system, the brainchild of Soviet agent Harry Dexter White and economic charlatan John Maynard Keynes, worked surprisingly well until the late 1960s, when profligate deficit spending by the U.S. government began to cause foreign holders of an ever-increasing pile of dollars to trade them in for the yellow metal. This was the opening shot in what the author deems Currency War II, which ran from 1967 through 1987, ending in the adoption of the present system of floating exchange rates among currencies backed by nothing whatsoever.

The author believes we are now in the initial phase of Currency War III, in which a perfect storm of unsustainable sovereign debt, economic contraction, demographic pressure on social insurance schemes, and trade imbalances creates the preconditions for the kind of “beggar thy neighbour” competitive devaluations which characterised Currency War I. This is, in effect, a race to the bottom with each unanchored paper currency trying to become cheaper against the others to achieve a transitory export advantage. But, of course, as a moment's reflection will make evident, with currencies decoupled from any tangible asset, the only limit in a race to the bottom is zero, and in a world where trillions of monetary units can be created by the click of a mouse without even the need to crank up the printing press, this funny money is, in the words of Gerald Celente, “not worth the paper it isn't printed on”.

In financial crises, there is a progression from:

  1. Currency war
  2. Trade war
  3. Shooting war

Currency War I led to all three phases. Currency War II was arrested at the “trade war” step, although had the Carter administration and Paul Volcker not administered the bitter medicine to the U.S. economy to extirpate inflation, it's entirely possible a resource war to seize oil fields might have ensued. Now we're in Currency War III (this is the author's view, with which I agree): where will it go from here? Well, nobody knows, and the author is the first to acknowledge that the best a forecaster can do is to sketch a number of plausible scenarios which might play out depending upon precipitating events and the actions of decision makers in time of crisis. Chapter 11 (how appropriate!) describes the four scenarios Rickards sees as probable outcomes and what they would mean for investors and companies engaged in international trade. Some of these may be breathtaking, if not heart-stopping, but as the author points out, all of them are grounded in precedents which have already occurred in the last century.

The book begins with a chilling wargame in which the author participated. Strategic planners often remain stuck counting ships, troops, and tanks, and forget that all of these military assets are worthless without the funds to keep them operating, and that these assets are increasingly integrated into a world financial system whose complexity (and hence systemic risk, either to an accidental excursion or a deliberate disruption) is greater than ever before. Analyses of the stability of global finance often assume players are rational and therefore would not act in a way which was ultimately damaging to their own self interest. This is ominously reminiscent of those who, as late as the spring of 1914, forecast that a general conflict in Europe was unthinkable because it would be the ruin of all of the combatants. Indeed, it was, and yet still it happened.

The Kindle edition has the table of contents and notes properly linked, but the index is just a list of unlinked terms.

November 2011 Permalink

Rickards, James. The Death of Money. New York: Portfolio / Penguin, 2014. ISBN 978-1-591-84670-3.
In his 2011 book Currency Wars (November 2011), the author discusses what he sees as an inevitable conflict among fiat currencies for dominance in international trade as the dollar, debased as a result of profligate spending and assumption of debt by the government that issues it, is displaced as the world's preeminent trading and reserve currency. With all currencies backed by nothing more than promises made by those who issue them, the stage is set for a race to the bottom: one government weakens its currency to obtain short-term advantage in international trade, only to have its competitors devalue, setting off a chain of competitive devaluations which disrupt trade, cause investment to be deferred due to uncertainty, and destroy the savings of those holding the currencies in question. In 2011, Rickards wrote that it was still possible to avert an era of currency war, although that was not the way to bet. In this volume, three years later, he surveys the scene and concludes that we are now in the early stages of a collapse of the global monetary system, which will be replaced by something very different from the status quo, but whose details we cannot, at this time, confidently predict. Investors and companies involved in international commerce need to understand what is happening and take steps to protect themselves in the era of turbulence which is ahead.

We often speak of “globalisation” as if it were something new, emerging only in recent years, but in fact it is an ongoing trend which dates from the age of wooden ships and sail. Once ocean commerce became practical in the 18th century, comparative advantage caused production and processing of goods to be concentrated in locations where they could be done most efficiently, linked by the sea lanes. This commerce was enormously facilitated by a global currency—if trading partners all used their own currencies, a plantation owner in the West Indies shipping sugar to Great Britain might see his profit wiped out if the exchange rate between his currency and the British pound changed by the time the ship arrived and he was paid. From the dawn of global trade to the present there has been a global currency. Initially, it was the British pound, backed by gold in the vaults of the Bank of England. Even commerce between, say, Argentina and Italy, was usually denominated in pounds and cleared through banks in London. The impoverishment of Britain in World War I began a shift of the centre of financial power from London to New York, and after World War II the Bretton Woods conference established the U.S. dollar, backed by gold, as the world's reserve and trade currency. The world continued to have a global currency, but now it was issued in Washington, not London. (The communist bloc did not use dollars for trade within itself, but conducted its trade with nations outside the bloc in dollars.) In 1971, the U.S. suspended the convertibility of the dollar to gold, and ever since the dollar has been entirely a fiat currency, backed only by the confidence of those who hold it that they will be able to exchange it for goods in the future.

The international monetary system is now in a most unusual period. The dollar remains the nominal reserve and trade currency, but the fraction of reserves held and trade conducted in dollars continues to fall. All of the major currencies: the dollar, euro, yen, pound, yuan, rouble—are pure fiat currencies unbacked by any tangible asset, and valued only against one another in ever-shifting foreign exchange markets. Most of these currencies are issued by central banks of governments which have taken on vast amounts of debt which nobody in their right mind believes can ever be paid off, and is approaching levels at which even a modest rise in interest rates to historical mean levels would make the interest on the debt impossible to service. There is every reason for countries holding large reserves of dollars to be worried, but there isn't any other currency which looks substantially better as an alternative. The dollar is, essentially, the best horse in the glue factory.

The author argues that we are on the threshold of a collapse of the international monetary system, and that the outlines of what will replace it are not yet clear. The phrase “collapse of the international monetary system” sounds apocalyptic, but we're not talking about some kind of Mad Max societal cataclysm. As the author observes, the international monetary system collapsed three times in the last century: in 1914, 1939, and 1971, and life went on (albeit in the first two cases, with disastrous and sanguinary wars), and eventually the financial system was reconstructed. There were, in each case, winners and losers, and investors who failed to protect themselves against these turbulent changes paid dearly for their complacency.

In this book, the author surveys the evolving international financial scene. He comes to conclusions which may surprise observers from a variety of perspectives. He believes the Euro is here to stay, and that its advantages to Germany coupled with Germany's economic power will carry it through its current problems. Ultimately, the countries on the periphery will consider the Euro, whatever its costs to them in unemployment and austerity, better than the instability of their national currencies before joining the Eurozone. China is seen as the victim of its own success, with financial warlords skimming off the prosperity of its rapid growth, aided by an opaque and deeply corrupt political class. The developing world is increasingly forging bilateral agreements which bypass the dollar and trade in their own currencies.

What is an investor to do faced with such uncertainty? Well, that's far from clear. The one thing one shouldn't do is assume the present system will persist until you're ready to retire, and invest your retirement savings entirely on the assumption nothing will change. Fortunately, there are alternative investments (for example, gold and silver, farm land, fine art, funds investing in natural resources, and, yes, cash in a variety of currencies [to enable you to pick up bargains when other assets crater]) which will appreciate enormously when the monetary system collapses. You don't have to (and shouldn't) bet everything on a collapse: a relatively small hedge against it will protect you should it happen.

This is an extensively researched and deep investigation of the present state of the international monetary system. As the author notes, ever since all currencies were severed from gold in 1971 and began to float against one another, the complexity of the system has increased enormously. What were once fixed exchange rates, adjusted only when countries faced financial crisis, have been replaced by exchange rates which change in milliseconds, with a huge superstructure of futures, options, currency swaps, and other derivatives whose notional value dwarfs the actual currencies in circulation. This is an immensely fragile system which even a small perturbation can cause to collapse. Faced with a risk whose probability and consequences are impossible to quantify, the prudent investor takes steps to mitigate it. This book provides background for developing such a plan.

June 2014 Permalink