America and the Dollar Illusion - Der Spiegel
By Gabor Steingart
Abstract: Does no one see that the tension between the dream and the reality is increasing and that this tension will snap, leading to suffering for millions? Of course they see it! Investors can see what is happening. They wonder about it and shake their heads. It even scares them a little, sending chills down their spine. But they keep buying dollars as though possessed. The greater their doubts, the more greedily they order dollars. Indeed, that's exactly what is so crazy about these investors and their behavior: The client isn't just a client. He creates the security he's purchasing by the very act of purchasing it. If he were to stop buying dollars tomorrow, suspicion about the currency would spread and insecurity would grow. Then the dream would end. The dollar would start to falter and all the wealth held in dollars would lose its value. Of course, that's not something investors want to see happen. The only way to fight a weak dollar is to strengthen it. Many people no longer care whether the US currency still justifies the faith people seem to have in it. The new game, which amounts to playing with fire, works exactly the other way around: The dollar deserves the faith it gets because otherwise it loses that faith. Dollars are bought so they don't have to be sold. The dollar is strong because that's the only thing that can prevent it from growing weak. Reality is ignored because only by ignoring it can the dream come true. Or, to put it still more clearly: Behaving irrationally has become rational behavior.(...) For capital market investors, reality isn't reality until the majority of investors are convinced it is reality and have begun reacting accordingly. Right now, everyone is watching everyone else closely. Everyone knows the dream of the stable economic superpower has ended, but everyone is keeping his eyes shut just a little longer. Government bonds and shares don't have any objective value -- nothing you can see, weigh, taste or even eat. Their value is measured by investors' faith that the purchasing power of $1 million will still be $1 million 10 years from now, rather than having been reduced by half. This faith is measured on the markets almost every second -- and the measure used is nothing but the faith of other investors. As long as the faithful outnumber the skeptics, everything works out fine for the dollar (and the world economy). The trouble starts the day the scale begins to tip.(...) The extent of this self-delusion can be read in the balance sheets of the banks: Almost no one is saving money in the United States today. The US foreign debt grows by about $1.5 billion every weekday and has now reached about $3 trillion. Private household debt, both at home and abroad, has reached $9 trillion -- and 40 percent of these debts has been incurred since 2001. The Americans are enjoying the present at the cost of selling off ever larger chunks of their future. Arguably, the imminent economic crisis is the most thoroughly predicted one in recent history. Rather than refuting the crisis, the current US economic boom merely heralds it. Biologists have observed similar phenomena in plants contaminated by toxins. Before they wither, they produce one last batch of healthy shoots -- to the point that they can hardly be distinguished from healthy plants. Some speak of a panic bloom. So who will be the first to destroy the dollar illusion? Aren't all investors bound together by an invisible link, since every attack on the key currency would lead to a loss of value for them, perhaps even destroying a large part of their financial assets? Why should the central banks of Japan or Beijing throw their dollars onto the market? What could make US pension funds willfully destroy their wealth, held in dollars? What sense would it make to send the United States into a deep crisis when that crisis could drag all the other states along? The underlying motive is the same as the one that once prompted investors to buy dollars -- fear. This time it is fear that someone else may be faster, fear that the dollar's strength won't last, fear that every day spent waiting may be one day too long. It's fear that the herd instinct of global financial markets will set in and overtake those who can't keep up.