Monday, December 22, 2008

Some nightmares for your spare time.

Politico
Four really, really bad scenarios
By EAMON JAVERS | 12/17/08 4:39 AM EST

...Rickards is a regular adviser on financial issues to the director of national intelligence's office, and he lends his financial advice to the national security community.

His lecture comes as part of an annual “Rethinking Seminar” produced by the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory. Rickards argues that government is not doing nearly enough to prepare for the worst. “Here’s the policy problem for the United States,” he said in an interview. “We have experts in defense and intelligence, and huge depth in capital markets experience at the Fed and at Treasury. But they’re separated by the Potomac River. And they’re not talking to each other.”

...Four of the scenarios keep him up at night:

The Bait Effect

Terrorists, and al Qaeda in particular, are fascinated with the idea of destroying the U.S. economy. Rickards worries that the economic meltdown in the United States could serve as bait of sorts for a terrorist attack, as plotters calculate that a strike now could have a “force multiplier” effect because of the already skittish U.S. stock market.

The China Syndrome

The Chinese own more than $500 billion worth of U.S. Treasury bonds, and billons more in the debt of other U.S. entities such as those held by Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae. And a general sense of mutually assured financial destruction keeps them from wielding that debt like a weapon: if the Chinese dumped U.S. debt on the global market, their own holdings of U.S. debt would decline in value, the U.S. economy would be damaged, ultimately harming the Chinese economy by reducing American ability to buy more Chinese goods.

They’d have to be crazy to try it. But Rickards points out that governments don’t always do the rational thing. And in the meantime, their holdings give the Chinese incredible power over American decision making.

“It gives the Chinese de facto veto power over certain U.S. interest rate and exchange rate decisions,” Rickards explained. “For example, there’s a limit to how much dollar depreciation the Chinese would tolerate.”

That potentially closes off one American economic strategy: allowing the dollar to decline in value in order to help boost U.S. exporters. And China’s leverage is only growing as each federal bailout adds to the U.S. deficit.

The Existential Crash

A pessimist by nature, Rickards believes that many economic forecasters are wrong, and the recession will get far worse than predicted.

He sees an epic disaster scenario in which the U.S. gross domestic product declines by a staggering 35 percent over the next six to seven years. Crippling deflation could take hold. Unemployment, he says, could approach 15 percent.

That’s a calamitous rate, but it would not be an all-time high: unemployment hit 25 percent during the Great Depression.

“The national security community needs to be conversant with this,” Rickards said. “In defense, intelligence, and national security, you earn your money by preparing for things that may be remote, but pose an existential threat if they come to pass.”

In this scenario, the possibilities for global unrest increase dramatically as a staggering United States retreats from foreign aid and global diplomacy and the list of dangerous failed states grows sharply.

The Alternate-Dollar Nightmare

“The Number One vulnerability is the dollar itself,” Rickards concluded. “We’re printing them and shoving them out the door, and the Fed is basically out of bullets. So why hasn’t the dollar collapsed? The short answer is, global investors don’t have any other choice.” That is, there simply aren’t enough Euro- or Yen-backed securities for investors to shift their money out of dollars and into some other currency.

But what if some kind of global coalition – say a trillion-dollar sovereign wealth fund allied with several countries around the world – banded together to create a gold-backed alternative to the dollar?

Rickards says investors – many of whom already resent that they have no alternative to the dollar – would sell American currency in huge numbers to take advantage of the new opportunity. “If that happens, that’s the end of the dollar,” Rickards said. “You’d have high unemployment, deflation, and interest rates would go up. It would take what already looks like a strong recession and make it a Great Depression or worse.”


Sweet Dreams, class.

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