Economics, Economy

Poisonous debt (…to the point of no return?)

Nixon is known to many people for only a few things we did. But only economists remember that he was the one to definitively unpeg the dollar to the gold. That happened only 40 years ago, in 1971. I wasn’t born yet, but it’s not a long time in the long history of money.

Much before then, since Bretton Woods, the dollar became the facto the centre of all currencies. That was 67 years ago, again not so long in the history of money. Let’s say that the present order of things is not ancient or anything like that. There were many other currencies before, not just one, and they have been changing through the ages.

But this post is not about which one will be the next currency. It’s about the possibility that everyone avoids thinking about. What if the current monetary order is living its last days?

We didn’t know how much sovereign debt a country could stand. Now we know: some figure close to 100%. And many countries are in that range. The US being one of them. Governments have two quick options: either borrowing more money, or printing it. Austerity measures, if they are not to be counterproductive as they can destructively contract the economy, take a lot of time. (And I’m not sure that politicians or creditors are the right ones to design, choose and enact those measures.)

And debt is good! It’s one of the lubricants of progress. Let’s not demonise it ever. But there’s some quantity of debt which is too much. Now we know how much is that. And the rich countries seem to be beyond that line, namely the US, the one that everyone takes for granted that its default is unthinkable.

Maybe that’s why they don’t think about it. But not thinking about something is not a guarantee that it will not happen. Maybe it even makes it more likely as nobody is actually working to prevent it till it explodes on your face.

So, will the US default? Well, they don’t need to. As many other governments they can just keep printing more and more money. The default becomes unnecessary as inflation will do its bidding and do a covert default. Your investments can’t withstand the storm when they are based on a currency which is losing its value. They apparently can, yes, but only apparently.

And that’s because the system was based on a promise: that the authorities were not going to print too much money. But again, an easy way to get dollars (or euros) is to print them. But then what happens to a fiat currency like the dollar? (One that has been unlinked from the gold value for 40 years now.)

It’s easy to hold to the promise of not printing more dollars when investors are there to lend you the money but, what after they are long gone? Are the politicians going to keep their promise of not printing more money? Do they actually have an option?

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