The Unfolding Crisis - an Interview with Doug Casey
Doug Casey, chairman of Casey Research is a renowned investor, best-selling author and editor of the monthly newsletter International Speculator, now in its 27th year of providing independent-minded investors with unbiased recommendations on investments with the potential to double or better within a 12-month horizon. He has made it his life's work to study financial crisis and how investors can protect themselves and profit, sharing his results in New York Times best-sellers such as Crisis Investing and Strategic Investing.
With global markets in turmoil, we turned to Doug to give us his interpretation of the big picture.
Q. The dollar is under increasing pressure. Do you think it's realistic that the U.S. dollar could lose its status as the world's reserve currency anytime soon? What are the implications and how soon do you think it could happen?
A. The U.S. dollar will eventually reach its intrinsic value; it's simply a question of time. The Forever War in the Middle East is greatly accelerating the process. The whole idea of a reserve currency is meaningless if the currency is backed by nothing but the good will of the issuing government. That's why gold has always been used as money; you don't have to rely on anyone's full faith and credit, good will, competence, trade surpluses, self-restraint or anything else. And it's why gold will again be used, in everyday transactions, as money.
The dollar is a hot potato. There are trillions -- nobody knows exactly how many -- floating outside the U.S. But only Americans have to accept them, and only the U.S. Government can create them (although the North Koreans do their best). The Chinese have good reason to worry about all those dollars. When they tried to buy the Unocal oil company, they were turned away by the U.S. Government. So, obviously, their dollars weren't good for that. When Dubai wanted to buy companies that manage six U.S. seaports, they found their dollars had no value.
At some point there's going to be a panic out of the dollar. When it happens, it's likely to be the biggest financial upset since the 1930s. Part of the question is what they'll panic into. The euro? As I have said many times, if the dollar is an "I owe you nothing," the euro is a "Who owes you nothing?" I think the big beneficiary will be gold. The problem for the world's economy is that just a trillion dollars -- which is only about 1/6 of the dollars outside the U.S. alone -- can buy a billion ounces of gold, even at $1,000 an ounce. But only about four billion ounces have ever been mined.
It's an explosive situation. The one thing you can count on when there's a crisis is that the government will "do something," which means controlling its subjects -- not, God forbid, itself. And that something is likely to be foreign exchange controls. A small straw in the wind is the new regulation making it illegal to export more than $5 worth of pennies and nickels, because their metal is worth more than their face value -- even though there's no longer much copper in the pennies or nickel in the nickels.
If an American doesn't get significant assets outside the U.S. now, it may be impossible in the future. The best thing to do is buy real estate abroad, since it's currently not reportable, like bank and brokerage accounts, and they can't very well make you repatriate it. I expect, however, very few people will take my advice, even though they may agree with it. But everybody gets what he deserves, so it's not a problem..
Q. Looking at the broad picture, it seems like the U.S. government is facing nearly insurmountable odds. The cost of government has soared to something over 50% of GDP, weighing heavily on the private sector, yet there is no end in sight to the wide river of can't-stop spending... on the military, on Social Security and Medicare -- especially in the face of the baby boomers beginning to retire. How does the country manage to maintain that?
A. Nothing lasts forever. I'll be surprised if the U.S. is able to maintain its present geographic boundaries for this century. The Mexicans talk of the Reconquista; the gringos stole the Southwest from them in the 1800s, and they're likely to take it back. What do you think the odds are that a young Latino male in California, 20 years from now, is going to pay 20% of his wages in Social Security and Medicare to support some old white broad in Massachusetts? Especially since he knows he's never going to get an aluminum nickel back? Even today, polls show that more kids believe in aliens than believe they'll see any Social Security money.
We've had really good times for a whole generation. People become fat and sassy, or in the case of Americans, obese and arrogant, during good times. They don't think of hanging their leaders from lamp posts until things get seriously bad.
I don't know how bad things will get. But when I'm asked, I'm prone to quip "Worse than even I think they'll get."
Q. You and the team at Casey Research have been vocal about expecting a major inflation. Yet, other than occasional surprises, inflation doesn't seem to be much of a problem. What gives?
A. Things that you expect to happen usually take longer than you'd think. But once the process gets underway, they usually happen much more quickly. It's like a boulder balanced on the edge of a cliff; nothing seems to happen until it happens all at once. Just adjust that analogy to the scale of a human lifespan.
The word "inflation" covers two different concepts, and it's important to keep them separate. One concept is monetary inflation, which is an increase in the supply of money that outruns growth in the supply of goods and services. Papering over problems with yet more money is now the default solution for governments around the world. Case in point, when faced with the growing problems associated with the subprime mortgage sector, the European Central Bank announced that it would make "unlimited" funds available to the banking sector. The Fed will, predictably, react in the same way, running the printing presses overtime.
The other concept is price inflation, which is an increase in the overall level of prices for goods and services.
The relationship between the two is the relationship of cause and effect. Monetary inflation causes price inflation. But while almost everyone sees price inflation when it happens, few people notice the monetary inflation that is causing it. And so they tend to blame the producers of goods and services for higher prices -- rather than the money-creating government that is the true culprit.
We're now experiencing a lot of monetary inflation, which eventually will be reflected in price inflation. What's really going to tip this over the edge, however, is the rest of the world deciding to get out of dollars. A lot of those $6 trillion abroad are going to come back to the U.S., and real goods are going to be packed up and shipped abroad. Inflation will explode.
It's just a matter of time. But I think it's going to happen this cycle.
Q. How do you think the Chinese currently view the U.S.? Recently they threatened to use the "nuclear option", dumping their U.S. dollar reserves in response to anti-Chinese legislation making its way through the U.S. Congress. Do you think there is any scenario under which they would let the dollar collapse, given that they own about one trillion of the things?
A. It's said the Chinese need us to provide a market for their goods. Which is absurd. Markets are about trade. You send me a load of VCRs; I send you a new Cadillac. Right now the Chinese are getting nothing in return for their VCRs but IOUs. If those IOUs aren't redeemed -- and at this point there are so many I'm not sure how they could be -- they might as well send their goods to the North Koreans in return for IOUs. Or dump them into the ocean, if the only idea is to keep the factories humming and people employed. At some point the Chinese will want payment in something other than dollars.
In the meantime the yuan will go higher. It's a good thing for them. It will lower the cost of importing capital goods, technology and raw materials. It will force their manufacturers to be even more efficient. It will make buying foreign companies cheaper. It will raise the standard of living of the average Chinese, defusing some political problems. A strong currency is a good thing. Too bad the U.S. will be on the opposite side of that trade. It was a pathetic embarrassment to see Bernanke and that other buffoon from Treasury lecturing the Chinese on how to manage their currency.
Q. You are on record as leaning toward an inflationary meltdown versus a recessionary one. But what about all the debt? Won't people paying down their loans and refusing to go further into debt -- because for one thing, pretty much everyone who ever wanted a house now has one -- result in less spending? And less money chasing more goods would seem to suggest a recession.
A. The first point is not to confuse terms. In today's vernacular, a recession can be defined as a very mild or short depression. A depression can be given any of three definitions. One, most broadly, is a period when most people's standard of living drops significantly. Two, it's a period when the business cycle climaxes. And, three, it's a period when distortions and misallocations of capital are liquidated. There's much more to be said on all of these, but now's not the time.
Inflation, on the other hand, is a monetary phenomenon. You can have either an inflationary depression, like Germany in the '20s, or a deflationary one, like the U.S. in the '30s. The opposite of depression isn't inflation; it's prosperity. And you certainly don't need inflation to create prosperity. Inflation is a drag on prosperity; it's a tax on cash, because the government gets to spend the new money it creates while your old money depreciates.
What do I think is likely? Certainly a depression, probably of the inflationary type. But if there are widespread defaults in the mortgage market because of a housing bust, hundreds of billions of dollars worth of buying would disappear, which is deflationary. You could have both things happening at once, in different parts of the economy.
Q. Last year you went on record early calling for gold to top $700, which it did. But you expected it to end the year at about $750. Currently, it trades at around $665. Why do you think it didn't hold up? And, just for entertainment purposes, how high do you think it will trade in 2007?
A. I'm sure the government, directly and indirectly, did everything it could to keep the price down. The last thing they want to see is a gold panic. So the short run is hard to predict. But we're still relatively early, certainly in terms of price, in what will be a bull market for the record books. It's as if you can see the perfect storm brewing. Since I've been involved in the markets, there have been a number of times when things could have come unglued -- '70-'71, with the stock market crash and the devaluation of the dollar, '73-'74, with another market meltdown and financial crisis, '80-'82, when commodities and interest rates both went through the roof, '87, '92, '98, the tech meltdown... Throughout that time, I've always tended to be a bear. In other words, I've tended to make my money during the crises; it's relatively easy to make money during good times. As the tech boom proved, any idiot who knows nothing about the markets or the economy, can do it.
My guess is that the next crisis is going to be breathtaking. And it's not going to be just financial, but economic, social, military and political. Of course, I hope I'm wrong. If I'm wrong, I'm not likely to get hurt, for a number of reasons. But I don't want to be inconvenienced if I'm right.
So where is gold going? I notice that it is starting to move counter to the equity markets in this current crisis, as it should given the inflationary implications of the massive government bail outs and the increased likelihood that the Fed will be forced to rates, making the dollar a less attractive holding for foreigners. I hate making predictions, but if things continue down this path, I think we could see gold going over $1,000 within the next 12 months, and maybe even before year-end. And then the mania starts for the mining stocks.
Follow Doug's mining stock recommendations and gold's climb in his monthly newsletter, the International Speculator.
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