Erik Townsend. 6 January 2013. Why Peak Oil Threatens the International Monetary System. ASPO-USA
The U.S. Treasury bond market will most likely crash, and borrowing costs will skyrocket. Those increased borrowing costs will further exacerbate the fiscal deficit. Can you say self-reinforcing vicious cycle? Why didn’t the rest of the world abandon the dollar as the global reserve currency in reaction to the USA unilaterally reneging on gold convertibility in 1971? In my opinion, the best answer is simply “Because there was no clear alternative”. And to be sure, the unmatched power of the U.S.military had a lot to do with eliminating what might otherwise have been attractive alternatives for other nations.
After a few years of tense negotiations including the infamous oil embargo, the so-called petro-dollar business cycle was born. The Arabs would only accept dollars for their oil, and they would re-invest most of their profits in U.S. Treasury debt. In exchange for this concession, they would come under the protectorate of the U.S. military. Some might even go so far as to say that the U.S. government used the infamous Mafia tactic of making the Arabs an “offer they couldn’t refuse” – forcing oil producing nations to make financial concessions in exchange for “protection”.
With the Arabs now strongly incented to continue pricing the world’s most important commodity in U.S. dollars, the Bretton Woods system lived on. No longer constrained by the threat of a run on its bullion reserves, the U.S. kicked its already-entrenched practice of borrowing and spending beyond its means into high gear. For the past 42 years, the entire world has continued to conduct virtually all international trade in Dollars. This has forced China,Japan, and the oil exporting nations to buy and hold an enormous amount of U.S. Treasury debt. Exorbitant privilege is the key economic factor that allows the U.S.to run trillion dollar fiscal deficits without crashing the Treasury bond market. So far.
There’s a limit to how long this can last
But how long can this continue? The U.S. debt-to-GDP ratio now exceeds 100%, and the U.S. has literally doubled its national debt in the last 6 years alone. It stands to reason that eventually, other nations will lose faith in the dollar and start conducting business in some other currency. In fact, that’s already started to happen, and it’s perhaps the most important, under-reported economic news story in all of history.
Some examples…China and Brazil are now conducting international trade in their own currencies, as are Russia and China. Turkey and Iran are trading oil for gold, bypassing the dollar as a reserve currency. In that case, U.S. sanctions are a big part of the reason Iran can’t sell its oil in dollars. But I wonder if President Obama considered the undermining effect on exorbitant privilege when he imposed those sanctions. I fear that the present U.S. government doesn’t understand the importance of the dollar’s reserve currency role nearly as well as our leaders did in the 1970s.
The Biggest Risk We Face is a U.S. Bond and Currency Crisis
To be sure, Peak Oil in general represents a monumental risk to humanity because it’s literally impossible to feed all 7+ billion people on the planet without abundant energy to run our farming equipment and distribution infrastructure. But the risks stemming directly from declining energy production are not the most imposing, in my view.
Decline rates will be gradual at first, and it will be possible, even if unpopular, to curtail unnecessary energy consumption and give priority to life-sustaining uses for the available supply of liquid fuels. In my opinion, the greatest risks posed by Peak Oil are the consequential risks. These include resource wars between nations, hoarding of scarce resources, and so forth. Chief among these consequential risks is the possibility that the Peak Oil energy crisis will be the catalyst to cause a global financial system meltdown. In my opinion, the USA losing its reserve currency status is likely to be at the heart of such a meltdown.
A good rule of thumb is that if something is unsustainable and cannot continue forever, it will not continue forever. The present incarnation of the IMS, which affords the United States the exorbitant privilege of borrowing a seemingly limitless amount of its own currency from foreigners in order to finance its reckless habit of spending beyond its means with trillion-dollar fiscal deficits, is a perfect example of an unsustainable system that cannot continue forever.
But the bigger the ship, the longer it takes to change course. The IMS is the biggest financial ship in the sea, and miraculously, it has remained afloat for 42 years after the most fundamental justification for its existence (dollar-gold convertibility) was eliminated. How long do we have before the inevitable happens, and what will be the catalyst(s) to bring about fundamental change? Those are the key questions.
In my opinion, the greatest risk to global economic stability is a sovereign debt crisis destroying the value of the world’s reserve currency. In other words, a crash of the U.S. Treasury Bond market. I believe that the loss of reserve currency status is the most likely catalyst to bring about such a crisis.
The fact that the United States’ borrowing and spending habits are unsustainable has been a topic of public discussion for decades. Older readers will recall billionaire Ross Perot exclaiming in his deep Texas accent, “A national debt of five trillion dollars is simply not sustainable!” during his 1992 Presidential campaign. Mr. Perot was right when he said that 20 years ago, but the national debt has since more than tripled. The big crisis has yet to occur. How is this possible? I believe the answer is that because the U.S. dollar is the world’s reserve currency and is perceived by institutional investors around the globe to be the world’s safest currency, it enjoys a certain degree of immunity derived from widespread complacency.
But that immunity cannot last forever. The loss of reserve currency status will be the forcing function that begins a self-reinforcing vicious cycle that brings about a U.S. bond and currency crisis.While many analysts have opined that the USA cannot go on borrowing and spending forever, relatively few have made the connection to loss of reserve currency status as the forcing function to bring about a crisis.
We’re already seeing small leaks in the ship’s hull. China openly promoting the idea that the yuan should be asserted as an alternative global reserve currency would have been unthinkable a decade ago, but is happening today. Major international trade deals (such as China and Brazil) not being denominated in U.S. dollars would have been unthinkable a decade ago, but are happening today.
So we’re already seeing signs that the dollar’s exclusive claim on reserve currency status will be challenged. Remember, when the dollar loses reserve currency status, the U.S. loses exorbitant privilege. The deficit spending party will be over, and interest rates will explode to the upside. But to predict that this will happen right now simply because the system is unsustainable would be unwise. After all, by one important measure the system stopped making sense 42 years ago, but has somehow persisted nonetheless. The key question becomes, what will be the catalyst or proximal trigger that causes the USD to lose reserve currency status, igniting a U.S. Treasury Bond crisis?
The critical point to understand is that while the national debt has more than doubled, the U.S. Government’s cost of borrowing hasn’t increased at all. The reason is that interest rates are less than half what they were 10 years ago. Half the interest on twice as much principal equals the same monthly payment, so to speak. This is exactly the same trap that subprime mortgage borrowers fell into. First, money is borrowed at an artificially low interest rate. But eventually, the interest rate increases, and the cost of borrowing skyrockets. The USA is already running an unprecedented and unsustainable $1 trillion+ annual budget deficit. All it would take to double the already unsustainable deficit is for interest rates to rise to their historical norms.
This all comes back to exorbitant privilege. The only reason interest rates are so low is that the Federal Reserve is intentionally suppressing them to unprecedented low levels in an attempt to combat deflation and resuscitate the economy. The only reason the Fed has the ability to do this is that foreign lenders have an artificial need to hold dollar reserves because the USD is the global reserve currency. They would never accept such low interest rates otherwise. Loss of reserve currency status means loss of exorbitant privilege, and that in turn means the Fed would lose control of interest rates. The Fed might respond by printing even more dollars out of thin air to buy treasury bonds, but in absence of reserve currency status, doing that would cause a collapse of the dollar’s value against other currencies, making all the imported goods we now depend on unaffordable.
In summary, the U.S. Government has repeated the exact same mistake that got all those subprime mortgage borrowers into so much trouble. They are borrowing more money than they can afford to pay back, depending solely on “teaser rates” that won’t last. The U.S. Government’s average maturity of outstanding treasury debt is now barely more than 5 years. This is analogous to cash-out refinancing a 30-year fixed mortgage, replacing it with a much higher principal balance in a 3-year ARM that offers an initial teaser rate. At first, you get to borrow way more money for the same monthly payment. But eventually the rate is adjusted, and the borrower is unable to make the higher payments.
The Janszen Scenario
When it comes to evaluating the risk of a U.S. sovereign debt and currency crisis, most mainstream economists dismiss the possibility out of hand, citing the brilliant wisdom that “the authorities would never let such a thing happen”. These are the same people who were steadfastly convinced that housing prices would never crash in the United States because they never had before, and that Peak Oil is a myth because the shale gas boom solves everything (provided you don’t actually do the math).
At the opposite extreme are the bloggers on the Internet whom I refer to as the Hyperinflation Doom Squad. Their narrative generally goes something like this: Suddenly, when you least expect it, foreigners will wise up and realize that the U.S. national debt cannot be repaid in real terms, and then there will be a panic that results in a crash of the U.S. Treasury market, hyperinflation of the U.S. dollar, and declaration of martial law. This group almost always cites the hyperinflations of Zimbabwe and Argentina as “proof” of what’s going to happen in the USA any day now, but never so much as acknowledges the profound differences in circumstances between the USA and those countries. These folks deserve a little credit for having the right basic idea, but their analysis of what could actually happen simply isn’t credible when examined in detail.
Little-known economist Eric Janszen stands out as an exception. Janszen also happens to be the same guy who coined the phrase Peak Cheap Oil back in 2006, drawing an important distinction between the geological phenomenon of Hubbert’s Peak and the economic phenomenon which begins well before the actual peak, due to increasing marginal cost of production resulting from ever-increasing extraction technology complexity.
“But there’s no sign of inflation…” (Hint: It’s coming)
Janszen has put quite a bit of work into modeling what a U.S.bond and currency crisis would look like. He initially called this KaPoom Theory, because history shows that brief periods of marked deflation (the ‘Ka’) usually precede epic inflations (the ‘Poom’). He recently renamed this body of work The Janszen Scenario. Briefly summarized, Janszen’s view is that the U.S. has reached the point where excessive borrowing and fiscal irresponsibility will eventually cause a catastrophic currency and bond crisis. He believes that all that’s needed at this point is a proximal trigger, or catalyst, to bring about such an outcome. He thinks there are several potential triggers that could bring such a crisis about, and chief among the possibilities is the next Peak Cheap Oil price spike.
How Peak Oil could cause a Bond and Currency Crisis
There are several ways that an oil price spike could trigger a U.S. bond and currency crisis. Energy is an input cost to almost everything else in the economy, so higher oil prices are very inflationary. The Fed would be hard pressed to continue denying the adverse consequences of quantitative easing in a high inflation environment, and that alone could be the spark that leads to higher treasury yields. The resulting higher cost of borrowing to finance the national debt and fiscal deficit would be devastating to the United States.
A self-reinforcing vicious cycle could easily begin in reaction to oil price-induced inflation alone. But we must also consider how an oil price shock could lead to loss of USD reserve currency status, and therefore, loss of U.S. exorbitant privilege. In the 1970s, the USA represented 80% of the global oil market. Today we represent 20%, and demand growth is projected to come primarily from emerging economies. In other words, the rationale for oil producers to keep pricing their product in dollars has seriously deteriorated since the ‘70s. The more the global price of oil goes up, the more the U.S. will source oil from Canadian tar sands and other non-OPEC sources. That means less and less incentive for the OPEC nations to continue pricing their oil in dollars for all their non-U.S. customers.
Iran and Turkey have already begun transacting oil sales in gold rather than dollars. What if the other oil exporting nations wake up one morning and conclude “Hey, why are we selling our oil for dollars that might some day not be worth anything more than the paper they’re printed on?” Oil represents a huge percentage of international trade, so if oil stopped trading in dollars, that alone would be reason for most nations to reduce the very large dollar reserves they now hold. They would start selling their U.S. treasury bonds, and that could start the vicious cycle of higher interest rates and exploding borrowing costs for the U.S. Government. The precise details are hard to predict. The point is, the system is already precarious and vulnerable, and an oil price shock could easily detonate the time bomb that’s already been ticking away for more than two decades.
Let’s pretend the oil-independence hyperbole is true
But let’s just pretend for a moment that hyperbole is reality, and that the USA will achieve energy-independence in just a few years’ time. Now consider the consequences to the IMS. The oil-exporting nations would lose the USA as their primary export customer, and would no longer have an incentive to price their oil in dollars, or to maintain large dollar reserves. They would start selling off their U.S. treasury bonds, and pricing their oil in something other than dollars. Large oil importers like China and Japan would stop paying for oil in dollars, and would no longer need to maintain present levels of U.S. dollar reserves. So they too would start selling U.S. treasury bonds, pushing up U.S. interest rates in the process. Once again, we have the ingredients for a self-reinforcing vicious cycle of increasing U.S. interest rates causing U.S. Government borrowing costs to skyrocket.
Without the artificial demand for treasury debt created by exorbitant privilege, the U.S. would be unable to finance its federal budget deficit. The Federal Reserve might respond with even more money printing to monetize all the government’s borrowing needs, but without the international demand that results from the dollar’s reserve currency status, the dollar would crash in value relative to other currencies as a result of excessive monetization by the Fed. The resulting loss of principal value would cause even more international holders of U.S. Treasury debt to panic and sell their holdings. Once again, a self-reinforcing vicious cycle would develop, with consequences for the United States so catastrophic that the 2008 event would pale in contrast.
Rambo to the Rescue?
Let’s not forget that the USA enjoys virtually unchallenged global military hegemony. China is working hard to build out its “blue water navy”, including strategic ballistic missile nuclear submarine capability. But the USA is still top dog on the global power stage, and if the USA was willing to use its nuclear weapons, it could easily defeat any country on earth, except perhaps China and Russia.
While the use of nuclear weapons in an offensive capacity might seem unthinkable today, the USA has yet to endure significant economic hardship. $15/gallon gasoline from the next Peak Cheap Oil price shock coupled with 15% treasury yields and a government operating in crisis mode just to hold off systemic financial collapse in the face of rampant inflation would change the mood considerably.
All the USA has to do in order to secure an unlimited supply of $50/bbl imported oil is to threaten to nuke any country refusing to sell oil to the U.S. for that price. Unthinkable today, but in times of national crisis, morals are often the first thing to be forgotten. We like to tell ourselves that we would never allow economic hardship to cause us to lose our morals. But just look at the YouTube videos of riots at Wal-Mart over nothing more than contention over a limited supply of boxer shorts marked down 20% for Black Friday. What we’ll do in a true crisis that threatens our very way of life is anyone’s guess.
If faced with the choice between a Soviet-style economic collapse and abusing its military power, the USA just might resort to tactics previously thought unimaginable. Exactly what those tactics might be and how it would play out are unknowable. The point is, this is a very complex problem, and a wide array of factors including military capability will play a role in determining the ultimate outcome.
I certainly don’t mean to predict such an apocalyptic outcome. All I’m really trying to say is that the military hegemony of the USA will almost certainly play into the equation. Even if there is no actual military conflict, the ability of the U.S. to defeat almost any opponent will play into the negotiations, if nothing else.
The music hasn’t stopped quite yet, but when it does, this will end very, very badly. I’m pretty sure we’re on the last song, but I don’t know how long it has left to play.
Time Magazine’s overview of the Bretton Woods system at http://www.time.com/time/business/article/0,8599,1852254,00.html offers an excellent discussion which anyone can understand.
For those seeking a more detailed discussion, Iowa State University’s Professor E. Kwan Choi offers excellent course notes on the subject at http://www2.econ.iastate.edu/classes/econ355/choi/bre.htm.
Wikipedia also offers articles on both the Bretton Woods system and the actual conference held there in 1944.
Erik Townsend is a hedge fund manager based in Hong Kong.