Prudent Bear’s Doug Noland has for years been pointing out that one of the drivers of the credit bubble has been the ever-broadening definition of money. As the global economy expanded without a hic-up, more and more instruments came to be used as a store of value or medium of exchange or even a standard against which to value other things—in other words, as money. Thus mortgage-backed bonds and even more exotic things came to be seen as nearly risk-free and infinitely liquid. In Noland’s terms, credit gained “moneyness,” which sent the effective global money supply through the roof. This in turn allowed the U.S. and its trading partners to keep adding jobs and appearing to grow, despite debt levels that were rising into the stratosphere. For a while there, borrowing actually made the world richer, because both the cash received and the debt created functioned as money.
With a few months of hindsight, it’s now clear that debt-as-money was not one of humanity’s better ideas. When the U.S. housing market—the source of all that mortgage-backed pseudo money—began to tank, hedge funds found out that an asset-backed bond wasn’t exactly the same thing as a stack of hundred dollar bills. The global economy then started taking inventory of what it was using as money. And it began crossing things off the list. Subprime ABS? Nope, that’s not money. BBB corporate bonds? Nope. High-grade corporates? Alas, no. Credit default swaps? Are you kidding me?
No longer able to function as money, these instruments are being “repriced” (a slick little euphemism for “dumped for whatever anyone will pay”), which is causing a cascade failure of the many business models that depend on infinite liquidity. The effective global money supply is contracting at a double-digit rate, reversing out much of the past decade’s growth.
But here’s where it gets really interesting. The reaction of the world’s central banks to the freezing-up of the leveraged speculating community has, predictably, been to create massive amounts of new fiat currency and hand it to the banking system. They’re not dropping twenties out of helicopters yet, but functionally it’s the same thing. By swapping dollars, euros and yen for no-longer-money bonds that are plunging in price, creating some paper profits where there once were catastrophic losses, the Bankers hope to revive the animal spirits of the leveraged speculators. Specifically, they hope to stop the financial community from going further down the moneyness checklist and eliminating any more instruments.
But you don’t forget a brush with death that easily. The process of debt reclassification has a momentum that a few hundred billion new dollars won’t stop. And once corporate bonds and agency bonds and emerging market bonds have been crossed off the list, the system will start eyeing the dollar. Is it really a store of value after falling by half against oil and gold in the past five years? Didn’t the Fed just create a tidal wave of new dollars and promise to create infinitely more if needed? Isn’t the U.S. economy hobbled by the implosion of housing and mortgage finance and hedge funds and (soon) derivatives? Don’t Americans owe more per capita than any people in human history? And a realization will begin to dawn: Maybe the paper currency of an over-indebted country isn’t money either…
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