Bankers’ Hours column: Stability is the Holy Grail of finance
I’ve mostly avoided political commentary in this column. One can’t write about banking, lending and monetary policy without acknowledging government’s place at the head of the table, but I’ve done my best to steer clear of ideology, personal or otherwise.
The following is no exception. My readers know that I often draw on “The Godfather” movies for both inspiration and explanation, especially Sally’s request to Tom: “Tell Mikey it wasn’t personal, just business” — that one covers a lot of territory.
So be advised, this isn’t political, just business.
In the world of money and finance, stability is the Golden Fleece and the Holy Grail. It gives exceptional leverage to an individual, corporation or country. Once questioned, it’s difficult to regain or, like virtue, once lost, gone forever.
Switzerland’s business model is based on this. Great Britain is no longer an empire, and maybe not even much of a country, what with Scotland and Northern Ireland talking about leaving the United Kingdom. But the “City of London,” or simply, The City, London’s financial district, has a place in the planet’s monetary hierarchy out of all proportion to the size of the nation in which it’s domiciled.
Switzerland has been mostly free of internal strife for close to 500 years. Since 1700, the world could depend on the British parliamentary system to be capricious, chaotic, frustrating, and, ultimately, stable. It could be counted on, year in, year out.
In the 20th century, the United States joined that very exclusive club. The Civil War was over, and the evidence was in: The bloodiest war in history, up until that time, couldn’t tear the Union apart.
After World War II, Switzerland and the U.S. sat at the high table of the world’s fiscal fraternity. If things were falling apart in your country, whether through coups by generals or an economy on the skids, Switzerland is where you put your money.
The United States is where you invested it.
And this wasn’t because of our armed forces — which presently stand at a very commendable 11-1-2 — or that we invented Levis, but because you could depend on our political system to work, and work well. Until now.
For at least 75 years, the stability of the American political system has enabled this country to borrow at rock bottom rates; a U. S. treasury bill was the ultimate secure investment instrument. Sure, you could buy bonds issued by a hot emerging economy at a higher rate but … would you get it back?
This leverage is one of the major elements, maybe the most important one, that’s made the U.S. economy and, not incidentally, its standard of living, the envy of everybody else.
Now, the fans in the grandstand — other countries — are looking at each other in bewilderment. They can’t believe that America’s presidential election has turned into a banana republic comic opera. You know, one of those countries that has a new president every six months, usually a general or admiral with the most guns and money. The shock level is exacerbated because, well, this is happening in the U. S. of A.; it doesn’t happen there, does it?
Guess so. It’s like your Hall of Fame quarterback stepping on the turf and throwing five interceptions in a row in the Super Bowl — unthinkable.
A Basis Point, in monetary math, is one hundredth of 100. A small number, right? But it’s a very big number when translated into dollars when it’s applied to trillions of dollars. Just a few basis points in the cost of government borrowing is a very big hit to the wallets of Americans.
Will the return on 10-year T-bills increase sharply in the coming months? No; the U.S. economy is too big, and, despite what politicians of every persuasion might say, exceptionally strong and resilient. But there’s been a crack in the foundation, and it’s been noticed.
And, if we’ve learned anything from the 20th century and the first fifth of the 21st, once the unthinkable happens, it can happen again, and, one sad day, is repeated over and over.
And that’s the day this country may still be counted as one of the elite, but its present prominence will be an entry in a history book.
Pat Dalrymple is a western Colorado native and has spent more than 50 years in mortgage lending and banking in the Roaring Fork Valley. He’ll be happy to answer your questions or hear your comments. His e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org
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