Bankers’ Hours column: One morning, we could wake up in the Third World
“Who needs rubles?” said the lady as she dropped out of a queue lined up at a bank in Moscow that had just announced that it had run out of dollars, so depositors would have to take their cash in the Russian currency.
In the future, that phrase could be uttered about practically any currency in the world: pounds, francs and, yes, even dollars. To the surprise of most of us, we’ve seen how quickly an economy can tank in the complex interweaving of trade, banking and credit that is the 21st century world order. Humanity is truly all in this together. If we didn’t get it during the pandemic, it was reiterated in the past couple of weeks with the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the world’s response on the fiscal and economic fronts.
We’ve produced columns on the fragility of monetary stability, gently poking fun at those of us who stash cash in the backyard or mattress in the event that the banks fail and can’t honor withdrawals. We’ve pointed out that, if the banks in the U.S. are closed, that means your government has closed down, and you’re stuck with a wad of green paper.
Events such as what’s happening in Moscow can come from a multiplicity of causes. We’ve found out what can happen when a power hungry, ego-maniacal dictator makes a mistake in judgment. That one bad call turned most of the industrialized world against Russia and made it an economic pariah, at least for the present. Other events may take more time, but be just as ultimately devastating, and they can creep up on you. You have to do something very egregious, and really dumb, to prompt everybody else on the planet to pull the plug on you.
Rather, the enemy is generally … us …. when it comes to messing up a sound fiscal system and robust economy. In the U.S., we have a surprisingly strong economic and monetary foundation, some of it achieved by design, and a lot by pure dumb luck. Vigilance is mandatory in its maintenance. It’s all about the perception of stability, and that perception erodes quickly with military takeovers, overturned elections and one person, one party rule.
There are countries in Central America about the size of Switzerland, but the rest of the world doesn’t use one of them as its banker.Why? Because Switzerland has demonstrated stability that, well, you can take to the bank, for the past 500 or so years. Switzerland is where oligarchs, dictators, crime bosses and the ordinary, workaday filthy rich stash their cash.
The United States is where they invest it. That perception of a combination of safety and competitive yield was what planted the seeds of the Great Meltdown of 2008. U.S. mortgage backed securities had sported an investment grade almost as good as gold since 1945. At the end of the 20th century, the world was desperate for return, with safety, of course. Paper backed by American home loans seemed be fit the criteria. Unfortunately, there weren’t enough mortgages to go around, so the money mavens created loans to securitize. They looked like a real mortgage backed security on the outside but were something much different after you removed the wrapping.
Our political administrations change, so, always, about half of us will feel that the country is going to hell in a handbasket. But we continue to have a good thing going. Fortunately, there are balancing elements that mitigate the effects of irresponsibility at the top, and complacency at the bottom. Yet the 21st century is teaching us that our system isn’t immutable; it’s fragile in many ways, and we must pay attention.
We could, one morning, wake up in the Third World. And you don’t just dial up an Uber to get back to where you were.
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 email is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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