Why the U.S. Has Launched a New Financial World War -- and How the Rest of the World Will Fight Back
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As long as this behavioral condition remained in place, the international financial system operated fairly smoothly under checks and balances, albeit under "stop-go" policies when business expansions led to trade and payments deficits. Countries running such deficits raised their interest rates to attract foreign capital, while slashing government spending, raising taxes on consumers and slowing the domestic economy so as to reduce the purchase of imports.
What destabilized this system was war spending. War-related transactions spanning World Wars I and II enabled the United States to accumulate some 80 per cent of the world's monetary gold by 1950. This made the dollar a virtual proxy for gold. But after the Korean War broke out, U.S. overseas military spending accounted for the entire payments deficit during the 1950s and '60s and early '70s. Private-sector trade and investment was exactly in balance.
By August 1971, war spending in Vietnam and other foreign countries forced the United States to suspend gold convertibility of the dollar through sales via the London Gold Pool. But largely by inertia, central banks continued to settle their payments balances in U.S. Treasury securities. After all, there was no other asset in sufficient supply to form the basis for central bank monetary reserves. But replacing gold - a pure asset - with dollar-denominated U.S. Treasury debt transformed the global financial system. It became debt-based, not asset-based. And geopolitically, the Treasury-bill standard made the United States immune from the traditional balance-of-payments and financial constraints, enabling its capital markets to become more highly debt-leveraged and "innovative." It also enabled the U.S. Government to wage foreign policy and military campaigns without much regard for the balance of payments.
The problem is that the supply of dollar credit has become potentially infinite. The "dollar glut" has grown in proportion to the U.S. payments deficit. Growth in central bank reserves and sovereign-country funds has taken the form of recycling of dollar inflows into new purchases of U.S. Treasury securities - thereby making foreign central banks (and taxpayers) responsible for financing most of the U.S. federal budget deficit. The fact that this deficit is largely military in nature - for purposes that many foreign voters oppose - makes this lock-in particularly galling. So it hardly is surprising that foreign countries are seeking an alternative.
Contrary to most public media posturing, the U.S. payments deficit - and hence, other countries' payments surpluses - is not primarily a trade deficit. Foreign military spending has accelerated despite the Cold War ending with dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991. Even more important has been rising capital outflows from the United States. Banks lent to foreign governments from Third World countries, to other deficit countries to cover their national payments deficits, to private borrowers to buy the foreign infrastructure being privatized, foreign stocks and bonds, and to arbitrageurs to borrow at a low interest rate to buy higher-yielding securities abroad.
The corollary is that other countries' balance-of-payments surpluses do not stem primarily from trade relations, but from financial speculation and a spillover of U.S. global military spending. Under these conditions the maneuvering for quick returns by banks and their arbitrage customers is distorting exchange rates for international trade. U.S. "quantitative easing" is coming to be perceived as a euphemism for a predatory financial attack on the rest of the world. Trade and currency stability are part of the "collateral damage" being caused by the Federal Reserve and Treasury flooding the economy with liquidity in their attempt to re-inflate U.S. asset prices. Faced with U.S. quantitative easing flooding the economy with reserves to "save the banks" from negative equity, all countries are obliged to act as "currency manipulators." So much money is made by purely financial speculation that "real" economies are being destroyed.