The US Government’s Great Ponzi Scheme

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Hyman Minsky was an economist who pioneered analysis of debt bubbles. Charles Ponzi was an Italian businessman turned con-artist in the US. Barack Obama is a ‘community organiser’, also turned con artist in the US. The US debt ceiling debacle is the story of what you get when all three go into the opium business together…

But before we go any further, can we ask you a favour? Despite an unenthusiastic protest from the editors, our publications are expanding their reach into the social media world. And the key to the social media world is quantity, not quality. So if you’d like to help spread the word about the Daily Reckoning Australia, hit the ‘like’ button on our Facebook page now and bump us up the list of coolness…or something like that.

Don’t worry, we won’t start using emoticons or spelling words in ridiculous ways…

OK, let’s get back to the Daily Reckoning. President Obama made two interesting admissions during the debt debacle over in the US.

First he suggested that Social Security payments would not be processed on time. That’s interesting because Social Security is supposed to be funded independently. It’s supposed to have assets that it sells to fund payouts to retirees and others. So why would it struggle during a government shutdown?

This is a great example of the type of switcheroo the government plays on people. And the same is about to happen here with our Super system, so pay attention.

What the US government did was invest the Social Security system’s funds into government bonds. It turned an asset of the people, who pay taxes into the fund like you pay Super, into a liability of the government. For Social Security to pay out, the government has to be paying out on its debt. So in the end, those relying on Social Security are relying on the government’s budget.

That’s precisely what Social Security was supposed to avoid in the first place. It was supposed to establish a fund to draw down on so the government didn’t have to borrow to pay retirees. But those funds were spent by the government when it issued the bonds. They’re gone. The net effect is to make the asset of people’s savings disappear into a government spending black hole.

Terrible, isn’t it? Unless you’re the politician who got the windfall funding. That’s why Australia’s brains trust is looking to copy the idea for Superannuation. Ken Henry and the Cooper review noted the lack of bonds held by Super savers. Fair enough; holding bonds is a good idea for retirees.

But if they end up investing in government bonds as part of a government program to secure funds for the government, the situation will be the same as in the US. A private savings vehicle will end up relying on the government budget in the end anyway, with their savings spent by politicians in the meantime.

The second interesting slip by Obama was that he argued the US government would default on its debt if the debt ceiling was reached. That’s nonsense. Unless Congress decided paying the US government’s interest bill was less important than funding the thousands of ridiculous projects it pays for, like the Panda Cam we keep mentioning in the Daily Reckoning.

But here’s where Minsky and Ponzi come in. Minsky argued that debt financing becomes ‘Ponzi finance’ – named after Charles Ponzi and his clever way of paying off old investors with new investor’s funds – when the borrower needs to raise fresh capital just to cover interest on existing loans. In other words, when you borrow to pay off your existing debt.

If Obama reckons the US government has reached the point where it needs to borrow more money to pay its existing debt bills in order to avoid a default, it has reached the Ponzi finance threshold.

Minksy, Ponzi and Obama aside, it’s kind of a bizarre position to take in the first place. If you need to incur new bills in order to pay your bills, aren’t you just increasing the size of your bills, not paying them off?

Anyway, the problem with reaching the Ponzi finance threshold is that you are doomed from that point on. The system will eventually fail when you run out of new lenders. Not that anyone knows where that point is. It should be the moment you hit the Ponzi threshold, if the lenders are clued in and make a run for it. But there are other factors at play when it comes to the US. More on that in a moment.

All this assumes Obama has it right on the risk of a default in the first place. Which he doesn’t. But it’s interesting to note his rhetoric. Acknowledging that you’re running a Ponzi finance scheme is a remarkable achievement. Very few organisations live to tell the tale.

The Americans will eventually reach the actual Ponzi finance threshold on their current trajectory anyway. So why are its creditors still happy to lend the money?

Perhaps America is unique because of its military. That sounds bizarre at first, but the appropriately named Max Boot at Commentary Magazine reckons the US military is all that’s preventing China from pulling its funding support to the US government:

Thankfully the U.S. armed forces are still strong enough-for the time being anyway-to prevent the Chinese military from showing up on our shores to collect the trillions we owe them.

The irony is of course that the Chinese are the financiers keeping the US military afloat in the first place.

The Chinese are hinting they’re aware of all this. Here’s the Chinese news agency Xinhua’s take on the new debt ceiling deal:

‘[P]oliticians in Washington have done nothing substantial but postponing once again the final bankruptcy of global confidence in the U.S. financial system… [The debt ceiling deal] was no more than prolonging the fuse of the U.S. debt bomb one inch longer

The Chinese strategy for dealing with foreign empires has always been ‘grit and bear it’. Over time they will see the Chinese way is better, say the philosophers. It worked rather well on the Mongolian conqueror Genghis Khan and his successors, who ended up gradually assimilating over several generations after invading China. Far more effective than the Great Wall was.

The British stiff upper lip did much better against the Chinese strategy of absorbing foreigners. Its commercial empire made the most of China, swapping valuable stuff like silk and tea for addictive opium out of British controlled India in the mid-18th century. But eventually the Chinese had enough of the raw deal and started the Opium Wars. The Brits were a superior fighting force and ended up with Hong Kong and trade deals after the dust settled.

But what do the Opium Wars have to do with today? Well the situation is similar. Only the US is in the position of the British Empire. The Chinese have been very patient with America. But the fuse is fizzling. At some point, the Chinese will be sick of the raw deal they’re getting – sending valuable stuff overseas in exchange for paper US dollars, which you can’t even smoke. Perhaps there is something to the idea of the strong US military after all.

The Chinese have a long memory, so all of this is relevant. That’s why you might just hear about it again in more detail at our coming conference. The theme deals with the coming version of the Opium Wars. At least that’s one angle. You can sign up for advance notification here if you’d like to express your interest. The speakers list is a thriller.

Back to the paper US dollar, which the Chinese are still begrudgingly accepting for their export goods. It tumbled overnight after Federal Reserve board member Dick Fisher opined that the debt ceiling debacle has ‘swamped’ QE taper prospects.

Remember the taper? It was last month’s crisis that failed to eventuate. Anyway, now it may be delayed even further. Fisher is known as a ‘hawk’ who favours less stimulus, so if he is saying QE should continue past October (which he did), chances are it will. Especially with the debt ceiling debate to return in three months time.

Gold surged on the news of no tapering, the US dollar tanked and the Aussie dollar jumped. And the American stock market reached a new high. Of course, all this is the opposite of a few days ago, so in the end the moves aren’t that big.

That’s the story of the last few years really. All sorts of remarkable events, but not much happening in the markets themselves. But as financial guru and philosopher Nassim Taleb likes to point out, stability breeds instability. Something big is coming.

Regards,

Nick Hubble+
for The Daily Reckoning Australia

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Nick Hubble
Nick Hubble is a feature editor of The Daily Reckoning and editor of The Money for Life Letter. Having gained degrees in Finance, Economics and Law from the prestigious Bond University, Nick completed an internship at probably the most famous investment bank in the world, where he discovered what the financial world was really like. He then brought his youthful enthusiasm and energy to Port Phillip Publishing, where, instead of telling everyone about The Daily Reckoning, he started writing for it. To follow Nick's financial world view more closely you can you can subscribe to The Daily Reckoning for free here. If you’re already a Daily Reckoning subscriber, then we recommend you also join him on Google+. It's where he shares investment research, commentary and ideas that he can't always fit into his regular Daily Reckoning emails.
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12 Comments on "The US Government’s Great Ponzi Scheme"

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Lachlan
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Seems to me the Chinese have some reasons to like this situation. They are driving a relatively strong economy compared to the west and gaining along the way. We said we’d give them the manufacturing sector and we delivered. Wall St discounts their gold, they can buy into farmland etc.

shortchanged
Guest

Don’t subscribe to facetwitter etc, giving a lot of ‘strangers’ all your secrets, that’s a definite no-no. You do know the NSA & GCHQ read them, don’t you.

And then this little gem, ‘grit and bear it’ was this a typo or mixing of metaphors, ‘GRIN and bear it’ please gentlemen.

The reference to a Ponzi scheme reminds me of Montague Tigg, in Charles Dickens, ‘Martin Chuzzlewit’, the idea was around at least in the 1800’s.

China will be the most powerful nation in the not to distant future, er! did that raise a flag somewhere?

Lachlan
Guest
cold in the Old Blighty SC? Here we go…from Zerohedgehogs “Shanghai’s Hutchison Whampoa”, announced in a statement filed just as quietly with the Hong Kong stock exchange, that it had purchased JPM’s iconic former headquarters, the tower built by none other than David Rockefeller, at 1 Chase Manhattan Plaza for a measly $725 million. None of this is particularly newsworthy What is, however, is what Zero Hedge exclusively reported back in March, namely that the very same former JPM HQ at 1 Chase Manhattan Plaza is also the building that houses the firm’s commercial gold vault: incidentally, the largest in… Read more »
shortchanged
Guest

Had a terrific summer Lachlan, but yes, it’s starting to freshen up a bit, reminds me of autumn in Sydney.

Hutchison Whampoa, there’s a name to ponder on, founded by a Brit taken over by Cheung Kong and now buying up US real estate, seems they are going places. Don’t know if they will find that elusive gold hoard, someone has it though, speaking of HK, might take my yearly trip see some old friends. Jeez, I miss that place.

Lachlan
Guest

Another very dry Spring eventuating here but not hot. I haven’t seen bad heat waves since early 2000’s. If things are true to form of late we’ll have floods after Christmas to make up for the dry spell.

It’s irrelevant in some ways really ain’t it. We’ll hardly ever see this gold or know for sure, who and where etc. Its just money between sovereign powers/plutocrats and then the odd citizen who is not enamoured by conventional insurances. And best of luck to them.

shortchanged
Guest
That’s how I remember Aus Lachlen, drought or flood, friends have a farm in the Riverina and I have seen sheep floating in the floods, and dying from lack of feed in a drought, a more divergent set of weather you couldn’t get. As for gold or the lack of, I am mystified as to what is going on, a manipulation of price is of course one reason, the cashing in of ‘paper gold’ another, the refusal of the US to return gold to Germany, France, and a host of other Countries is another. Does Goldman have it, and if… Read more »
Ross
Guest

Ah the Riverina S/C! Sitting in the cool rushing water on a river rock, summer’s light filtering through the trees, and sipping the sweet water off your finger.

I think I’ll retire in a pretty small town called Cootamundra, and pedal my bike out along the road to Stockinbingle (Tocumbimbil) through those luscious rolling hills long trodden by swaggies of old, for as long as I’m able ….

shortchanged
Guest
What a romantic you are Ross, nearly fell off the chair laughing, as I remember, the Murrumbidgee river at Narrandera, where I dispensed justice in the 70’s and 80’s, was nicknamed the Muddy. As for ‘summer light filtering through the trees’, I was trying to find shade, swatting those pesky bush flies and ‘mossies. Made lifelong friends though, would like to see them again but getting old now, damned arthritis. Yes Coota is nice, as is Junee Temora and a host of other Towns round about, haven’t visited for some years though, don’t suppose I shall now. This is bad,… Read more »
Elke Hubble
Guest

Gut gebruellt Loewe! Weiter so!

Ross
Guest

Chin up s/c, we talk to our old mates in our dreams and we suspect that they’re better behaved than ever they were of old. As long as I can look forward to my next one I’ll be fine.

Ross
Guest

Hey s/c… I found this one: http://www.cootamundra.com/f.ashx/Cootamundra-Brochure.pdf They even throw in a photo of that pretty Patterson’s curse as a feature in the brochure!

shortchanged
Guest

You blokes are not helping you know, here I am getting misty eyed again, Ross posts the brochure on Coota that looks more wonderful than the last time I saw it. I really love that part of the world you know, spent many happy times there. Mustn’t overdue it though, stiff upper lip and all that, besides the little lady might think I’m going ga-ga.

My German is so bad Elke, but thanks for the compliment.

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