FreedomFest in Las Vegas

Dear Friends,

Are you attending FreedomFest this year? It claims to be the world’s largest gathering of free minds. At this year’s gathering from July 13 – 16 at Planet Hollywood in Las Vegas I will be debating John Tamny, editor of Real Clear Politics and author of the new book, “Who Needs the Fed?” on Friday morning, July 15. In addition, I will be on a panel discussing the new documentary, “The Moneychangers” on Saturday afternoon July 16.

You can use code SALEM (all upper case) to get $100 off the registration fee.  Go to “register now” at www.freedomfest.com, or call toll-free 1-855-850-3733, ext 202.

Here are some highlights:

Gary Johnson to Address FreedomFest

Now FreedomFest is pleased to announce that Gary Johnson, the former governor of New Mexico and the new presidential candidate for the Libertarian Party, will address FreedomFest at 4 pm Pacific Time, July 15, 2016, in the Celebrity Ballroom at Planet Hollywood, Las Vegas.

Johnson recently polled 10% support in two national polls.  Many pundits consider him a legitimate third party candidate since Ross Perot ran for president in 1992.  As David French wrote for National Review:  “Good news, disgruntled Americans: As you ponder whether to vote for one of the two most-disliked, dishonest, and morally corrupt politicians ever to run for president — Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton — you just might have a third option. His name is Gary Johnson.”

Why FreedomFest?

Steve Forbes, chairman of Forbes Inc., said it best:  “FreedomFest is where the best ideas and policies are flushed out.  I attend all 3 days and wouldn’t miss it for the world.”

What’s FreedomFest all about?  Everything!  Philosophy, history, science & technology, healthy living, politics and your money, and much much more.  It’s a Renaissance gathering in the entertainment capital of the world.

It’s organized by Mark and Jo Ann Skousen.  Mark Skousen is a financial economist, author, and university professor who has taught at Columbia Business School and now Chapman University.  Jo Ann Skousen teaches English literature at Chapman University and Mercy College, and is the director of the Anthem Film Festival.

Once a year in July all the freedom lovers of the world gather in Las Vegas for FreedomFest, what the Washington Post calls “the greatest libertarian show on earth.”   Steve Forbes and John Mackey, CEO of Whole Foods Market, are co-ambassadors and attend all 3 days.   Last July over 2,500 people showed up to learn, network and celebrate liberty–including Donald Trump, Senator Marco Rubio, Steve Wynn, Peter Thiel, and Glenn BeckSteve Moore even debated Paul Krugman, the Nobel Prize economist and columnist at the New York Times.  Want a summary?  Watch the 5-minute video at www.freedomfest.com/videos).

Who’s coming this year?  This year’s keynote speakers include Senators Rand Paul and Ben Sasse (who will debate Trump as the Republican candidate), radio hosts Larry Elder and Michael Medved, Judge Andrew Napolitano, TV host Kennedy from Fox Business, Charles Koch’s right-hand man Richard Fink, authors George Gilder and Steve Moore, and the former heavy weight champion of the world, George Foreman, and boxing promoter extraordinaire Don King.

In fact, they are holding a special reception with George Foreman, where attendees will get a chance to meet him, get an photograph taken with him, and have him sign a copy of his book, “Knockout Entrepreneur.”  (He sold his grill business for $138 million.)

This year’s big debate will be “Capitalism vs. Socialism:  Free to Choose or Free to Lose?” between John Mackey, co-founder and co-CEO of Whole Foods Market, and John Roemer, Yale professor at the top Marxist/socialist in the country (supporter of Senator Bernie Sanders).  The debate is set for Thursday morning, July 14, in the Celebrity Ballroom, Planet Hollywood.

Other features:  Watch the mock trial as we put “Global Warming on Trial” (C-SPAN coverage)…. Grover Norquist (CNN considers him “the most powerful man in Washington”) will hold his famous “Wednesday Meeting” at FreedomFest….a special session by the “Women of Liberty”….a debate on voting with actor/activist Ed Asner and political commentator John Fund….a 3-day investment conference with Peter Schiff, Alex Green, Mark Skousen, and Keith Fitz-Gerald….a debate between Dinesh D’Souza and Michael Shermer (Scientific American) on the Bible….and win $25,000 in prizes in the Pitch Tank organized by Shark Tank’s Kevin Harrington.  Join all the freedom organizations and think tanks – Cato, Heritage, Reason, Students for Liberty, Americans for Prosperity, etc.  They are all there in a gigantic exhibit hall, the “Trade Show for Liberty.”

Plus the ever-popular Anthem film festival, run by Jo Ann Skousen.  This year one of the films will be shown by the producer of “Schindler’s List.”

Oscar Goodman, former mayor of Las Vegas, calls it an “intellectual feast” in Las Vegas – one of a kind!

FreedomFest will take place July 13-16, at Planet Hollywood, Las Vegas.  For more details, go to www.freedomfest.com.

A Hard Anchor for the Dollar

For the last three years with zero interest rates and “quantitative easing” the Federal Reserve has been pushing on a string. It has been trying to stimulate an economy that suffers from problems that are not basically monetary. In the process it is distorting the limping economic recovery and potentially reflating housing and other asset bubbles. The Federal Reserve has jeopardized its revered independence by undertaking quasi-fiscal operations (buying long-term government debt and MBS to push down longer term interest rates in those markets while paying banks interest on their deposits at the Fed to keep them from lending the proceeds). The result has been an explosion of the Fed’s balance sheet (base money—the Fed’s monetary liabilities—jumped from around $800 billion in mid 2008 to over $3,200 billion in July 2013) while the money supply only grew modestly (over the same period M2 increased from about $8,000 billion to about $10,700 billion- about the same increase as over the five year earlier period from mid 2003 to mid 2008).

There is growing sentiment that our fiat currency system should be replaced with a hard anchor, such as the gold or silver standards in place in much of the world over the two centuries preceding gold’s abandonment by the United States in 1971. In order to avoid the weaknesses of the earlier gold standard, which contributed to its ultimate abandonment, three key elements of its operation should be modified. These are: a) the conditions under which currency fixed to a hard anchor is issued and redeemed; b) what the currency is sold or redeemed for; and c) what the anchor is.

Monetary Policy

During the earlier gold standard, the value of one U.S. dollar was fixed at $19.39 per ounce of fine gold from 1792 to 1934 and $35.00 per ounce from 1934 to 1971 when Nixon ended the U.S. commitment to buy and sell gold at its official price because the U.S. no longer had enough gold to honor its commitment.  None-the-less, the official price was raised to $38.00 per ounce in 1971 and to $42.22 in 1972 before President Ford abolished controls on and freed the price of gold in 1974.

Under a strict gold standard, operated under currency board rules, the central bank would issue its currency whenever anyone bought it for gold at the official price of gold and would redeem it at the same price. In fact, however, the Fed engaged in active monetary policy, buying and selling (or lending) its currency for U.S. treasury bills and other assets when it thought appropriate. Thus rather than being fully backed by gold, the Fed’s monetary liabilities (base money) were partially backed by other assets. Moreover the fractional reserve banking system allowed banks to create deposit money, which was also not backed by gold. The market’s ability to redeem dollars for gold kept the market value of gold and hence the dollar close to the official value. Because the Fed could offset the monetary contraction resulting from redeeming dollars, this link was broken and in 1971 President Nixon closed the “gold window” altogether for lack of gold.

A reformed monetary system should be required to adhere strictly to currency board rules. The Federal Reserve should oversee the interbank payment and settlement systems and provide the amount of dollars demanded by the market by passively buying and selling them at the dollar’s officially fixed price for its anchor (gold, in a gold standard system) in response to market demand. Banks should be denied their current privilege to create deposit money by replacing the fractional reserve system with a 100% reserve requirement (a subject for another time).

Indirect redeemability

Historically, gold and silver standards required that the monetary authority buy and sell its currency for actual gold or silver. These precious metals had to be stored and guarded at considerable cost. More importantly, taking large amounts of gold and/or silver off the market distorted their price by creating an artificial demand for them. Under a restored gold standard the relative price of gold would rise over time due to its limited supply, and the increasing cost of discovery and extraction. The fix dollar price of gold would mean that the dollar prices of everything else would have to fall (perpetual deflation). While the predictability of the value of money is one of its most important qualities, stability of its value (approximately zero inflation) is also desirable.

This shortcoming of the traditional gold standard can be easily overcome via indirect redeemability. The market’s regulation of the money supply in line with the official price of money in terms of its anchor does not require transacting in the actual anchor goods or commodities. As long as an asset of equal market value is exchanged by the monetary authority when issuing or redeeming its currency, the market will have an arbitrage profit incentive to keep the supply of money appropriate for its official value. In a future, hard anchor monetary system, the Federal Reserve could issue and redeem its currency for U.S. treasury bills rather than gold or other anchor goods and services. The difference between that and current open market operations by the Fed is that such transactions would be fully at the initiative of the market rather than of the central bank. The storage cost of such assets would be negligible and in fact would generate interest income for the Fed.

The Anchor

The final weakness of the gold standard was that the relative price of the anchor, based on a single commodity, varied relative to the goods and services (and wages) purchase by the public. In short, though the purchasing power of the gold dollar was highly stable historically over long periods of time, gold did not provide a stable anchor over shorter periods relevant to most business decisions.

Expanding the anchor from one commodity to 10 to 30 goods and services carefully chosen for their collective stability relative to the goods and services people actually buy (e.g. the CPI index) would be an important improvement over anchoring the dollar to just one commodity (gold). There have been many such proposals in the past, but the high transaction and storage costs of dealing with all of the goods in the valuation basket doomed them. Replacing such transactions with the indirect convertibility described above eliminates this objection.

A Proposal

The United States could easily amend its monetary policy to incorporate the above features – a government defined value of the dollar as called for in Article 1 Section 8 of the U.S. Constitution and a market determined supply of dollars. First Congress would adopt a valuation basket of 10 to 30 goods and services chosen to give the dollar the most stable value possible in terms of an average family’s consumption (i.e. the Consumer Price Index). The basket would consist of fixed amounts of each of these goods and would define the value of one dollar. As with the gold standard, if the value of the goods in the basket were more in the market than one dollar, anyone could buy them more cheaply by redeeming dollars at the fed for an equivalent value of U.S. treasury bills (indirect redeemability). The resulting contraction of the money supply would reduce prices in the market until a dollar’s value in the market was the same as its official valuation basket value. The money supply would grow with its demand (as the economy grows) in the same way (selling t-bills to the fed for additional dollars). The Federal Reserve would be restricted to passive currency board rules. All active purchases and sales of t-bills by the fed (traditional open market operations) or lending to banks would be forbidden. During a two year transition period the fed would be allowed to lend to banks against good collateral in order to allow banks time to adjust their operations and balance sheets to the new rules.

A global anchor

The gold standard was an international system for regulating the supply of money in each country and between countries and provided a single world currency (fixed exchange rates). This led to a flourishing of trade between countries. This was a highly desirable feature for liberal market economies.

The United States could adopt the hard anchor currency board system described above on its own and others might follow by fixing their currencies to the dollar as in the past. The amendments to the historic gold standard system proposed above would significantly tighten the rules under which it would operate and strengthen the prospects of its survival.

However, there would be significant benefits to developing such a standard internationally as outlined in my Real SDR Currency Board proposal (http://works.bepress.com/warren_coats/25/). One way or the other, replacing the widely fluctuating exchange rates between the dollar and other currencies would be a significant boon to world trade and world prosperity.  Replacing the U.S. dollar as the world’s reserve currency with an international unit would have additional benefits for the smooth functioning of the global trading and payments system.

Printing Money

Isn’t that just printing money?  Here is a quick, and hopefully simple, primer on what central banks do.

Central banks print money. They are responsible for issuing a country’s legal tender (banknotes and bank deposits with the central bank) and regulating its value. Most of what we call money is actually privately produced (deposits at commercial banks, credit and debit cards, paypal, etc.) but tied to the money printed by each country’s central bank by the public’s demand that it be redeemable for the central bank’s money. There are a few exceptions to this demand by the market, such as bitcoin (see: the-rise-of-the-bitcoin-virtual-gold-or-cyber-bubble), but they shall ever remain unimportant fads. There is never a question about whether central banks print monetary or not. It is their responsibility to do so. This is as true for a pure gold standard or other fixed exchange rate monetary regimes, as for the variety of fiat money regimes (from monetary targets to inflation targets to flying by the seat of their pants day-to-day).

The important and proper question about a central bank’s behavior is what guides its decisions about when and how much money to print. A secondary question is what does it buy when it issues money (there are no helicopters that drop it from the sky)?

The gold standard: Under a gold standard the central bank buys gold with the money it prints and is legally bound to buy that money back with gold at the same price whenever anyone holding its money wants to redeem it. While this is still printing money, the supply is determined by the preferences of the market (each and every one of us) to hold and use that money. Such central banks have no monetary “policy” in the usual sense. They passively supply whatever amount of money the public demands.

Fiat money: If the central bank issues money with no obligation to redeem it for anything in particular nor at a particular price, its value is determined in the market by its supply and demand. The amount supplied by the central bank relative to the market’s demand for it will determine is value (the price level). Monetary policy consists of the decisions made by central banks that determine the amount of the money they supply and manner in which they supply it.

The public’s demand for money reflects its convenience for making payments, its expected value when exchanged for goods and services, and the opportunity cost of holding it (inventory costs, i.e., the interest rate that could have been earned on holding wealth in other forms). Rapidly changing payment technology (debit/credit cards, Paypal, e-money, etc.) has a profound impact on this demand. There is a vast academic literature on this subject. Unlike any other good or service money’s value derives solely from what it can be exchanged for or more specifically from the economy it brings to exchange/trade.  Fiat currency is always useable and thus “redeemable” for the payment of taxes and other obligations to the government that issued it. These obligations are denominated (valued) in the same units as the currency. These guaranteed uses of fiat money anchor its demand and thus value in the same way that the demand for gold for jewelry and other non-monetary uses anchors its value. Bitcoin has no alternative use and thus has no anchor to its value.

Central banks have learned the value of establishing clear rules for issuing money, such as targeting the rate at which the money supply (by one definition or another) grows, or targeting nominal income, or inflation. These rules guide how much money they “print.” They also influence the public’s demand for money by informing its expectations of the central banks actions. The policy regime adopted—rule—determines the behavior of the money supply and thus its value (or visa versa). The supply of bitcoin also follows a well-defined rule, but its demand is unanchored. The fact that the central bank is printing money is irrelevant by itself.

A secondary consideration is what it is that the central bank buys with the money it prints. Under a gold standard it buys gold. Under a fiat money standard central banks generally buy government securities because these securities are generally of unquestioned safety and in most countries have the deepest and most liquid secondary markets. Central banks also traditionally adhere to a “bills only” policy, i.e., they buy short-term government security, in order not to interfere with the market’s determination of the term structure of interest rates, i.e. the relationship of interest rates on securities with longer maturities relative to those with shorter maturities. In a free market, rates on longer maturities are determined by the expected value of overnight rates over the period in question plus a risk premium for the uncertainty over the behavior of overnight rates.

Whatever the ultimate or intermediate targets of monetary policy, most central banks in recent decades have pursued them by targeting a short-term interest rate, their so-called “operating target.” The Federal Reserve targets the overnight interbank rate, the so-called “federal funds rate,” as its approach to targeting the money supply, nominal income, or inflation. Given all other market factors, a particular fed funds rate target will result from and result in a particular rate of growth in the money supply.

Because most money and related means of payment are privately produced by banks or is ultimately settled through banks, and because banks only keep a small amount of the money produced by their central banks for which bank deposits are redeemable (the so-called “fractional reserve banking system”), central banks have also been given the role of insuring that banks have sufficient liquidity to function smoothly. They are mandated to lend to solvent but illiquid banks when banks need to convert loans into cash to accommodate deposit withdrawals (the so-called “lender of last resort” function).

As more and more central banks successfully adopted the techniques of inflation targeting and most of the rest fixed the exchange rate of their currencies to an inflation targeting currencies such as the U.S. dollar or the Euro, the world entered a long period dubbed “the great moderation.” However, the long period of very low interest rates following the bursting of the “dot com” bubble produced the housing price bubble in many locations in the U.S. and Europe. Its collapse in 2007-8 plunged much of the Western world into the long, Great Contraction.

Monetary Policy Plus (MP+):  In the last few years the Federal Reserve, the European Central Bank (ECB) and other central banks have undertaken many non-traditional actions in an effort to help lift their respective economies out of recession. In the early days of the serious liquidity crunch following the collapse of Lehman Brothers in September 2008, the Fed, ECB, Bank of England and a few other central banks very successfully pumped needed liquidity into their financial systems by expanding the number of counterparties they would lend to, increasing the eligible collateral, and entering into currency swap arrangements to supply dollar liquidity to foreign banks.

However, after unblocking the flow of funds between banks and other financial firms, the Fed’s concern shifted to fighting deflation, then to reviving economic activity. After driving its operating target to almost zero, the Fed continued increasing monetary growth beyond the rate resulting from a zero fed funds target and dubbed it quantitative easing. However, the channels through which monetary policy is traditionally transmitted to the economy (interest rate, credit, asset price, portfolio/wealth effects, exchange rate channels) seemed ineffective. Thus, the Fed began to purchase non-traditional, financial instruments, such as Mortgage Backed Securities (MBSs) and longer-term government securities, in an effort to keep mortgage interest rates low and to encourage the flow of funds into the mortgage market and stimulating investment more generally. These quasi-fiscal policy measures do not square easily with the Fed’s legal mandates of price stability and employment.

With the Fed’s third program of quantitative easing it is now pushing on a string  (QE3: http://works.bepress.com/warren_coats/28/). It is attempting to stimulate an economy that lacks a clear policy environment that would encourage more investment rather than one suffering from inadequate liquidity. While market measures of inflation expectations remain very low, long periods of very low interest rates influence the capitalized value of income streams. A given monthly mortgage payment will purchase a more expensive house when interest rates are lower. What people and firms invest in is distorted toward more capital-intensive projects than are economically efficient and justified at normal rates of interest.  Pension funds and other endowments lose income that must be made up somehow (often by moving into riskier investments). Asset price bubbles emerge. On top of these economic risks, the Fed’s need to unwind its huge portfolio of securities (purchased by printing money) when the economy recovers more fully is becoming more and more challenging.

Moreover, the policies of one central bank can affect the exchange rate of its currency if its policies are not coordinated with those of other central banks. This can either improve or worsen the balance of payments between countries (balance of imports and exports). The very wide swings over the last decade in the exchange rate of the US dollar with the Euro, for example, cannot be justified by economic fundamentals and is very disruptive to trade and international capital movements. Recent monetary policy initiatives by the Bank of Japan raise such concerns.

In short, the problem is not that the Fed and other central banks are printing money. The problem is the amount they print and their conceit that they can do more to help the real economy than they really can, thus adding to the market’s uncertainty over the economic, policy, and financial environment in which their decisions to spend and invest must be made. The solution is to reestablish a hard anchor for monetary policy that allows the supply of money to be market determined (as proposed in my: Real SDR Currency Board, paper).

The fantasy of a purely private money that would overcome the weaknesses of government money, remains for the foreseeable future a utopian fantasy: “The Future of Money”. But those of you who enjoy fantasy, might enjoy the following story by Neal Stephenson: “The Great Simoleon Caper”.