Historically, a currency war involves competitive devaluations by countries seeking to lower their cost structures, increase exports, create jobs and give their economies a boost at the expense of trading partners. This is not the only possible course for a currency war. There is a far more insidious scenario in which currencies are used as weapons to cause economic harm to rivals. The mere threat of harm can be enough to force concessions by rivals in the geopolitical battle space.
These attacks involve not only states but also terrorists, organized crime, and other bad actors, using sovereign wealth funds, special forces, intelligence assets, cyber-attacks, sabotage and covert action.
The value of a nation’s currency is its weak point. If the currency collapses, everything else goes with it.
While markets today are linked through complex trading strategies, most still remain discrete to some extent. The stock market can crash, yet the bond market might rally at the same time. The bond market may crash due to rising interest rates, yet other markets in commodities, including gold and oil, might rise to new highs as a result.
There is always a way to make money in one market while another market is collapsing. However, stocks, bonds, commodities, derivatives, and other investments are all priced in a nation’s currency. If you destroy the currency, you destroy all markets and the nation. That is why the currency itself is the ultimate target in any financial war.
An overview of the forces of globalization and state capitalism, a new version of 17th century mercantilism in which corporations are extensions of state power, is a step towards understanding the grave dangers facing the world economy today. Financial warfare threats can be grasped only in the context of today’s financial world. This world is conditioned by the triumph of globalization, the rise of state capitalism and the rise of terror. Financial warfare is one form of unrestricted warfare, the preferred method of those with inferior weapons but great cunning.
Globalization has been emerging since the 1960s but did not gain its name and widespread recognition until the 1990s, shortly after the fall of the Berlin Wall.
Multinational corporations had existed for decades, but the new global corporation was different. A multinational corporation has its roots and head office in one country, but has operations in many other countries. The new global corporation was just that – global. It submerged its national identity as much as possible and forged a new identity as a global brand stripped of national distinction. Decisions about the locations of factories and distribution centers were based on considerations of cost, logistics and profits without regard to affection for a nominal home country.
Globalization emerged not through the initiation of any new policies, but through the elimination of many old ones. From 1945 to 1990, the world was divided not only by the Iron Curtain separating the communist and capitalist spheres, but also by the restrictions imposed by capitalist countries themselves. These restrictions included capital controls that made it difficult to invest freely across borders.
The world was highly fragmented, discriminatory and costly for firms with international ambitions. By the late 1990s, these costs and barriers had mostly been removed. Taxes were reduced or eliminated; capital was able to move freely across borders; labor mobility improved; stock exchanges deregulated and merged across borders to create global giants. The expansion of the EU created the world’s richest tariff-free market, and the launch of the Euro eliminated countless currency conversions and their costs.
Russia and China rose as new capitalistic societies eager to adopt many of the global norms they saw emerging in Western countries. Economic and political walls were coming down while, at the same time, technology brought about an ease in communications.
Infinite risk in a borderless world was the new condition of finance. Globalization increased the scale and interconnectedness of finance beyond whatever had existed. While issuance of bonds was traditionally limited by the use to which the borrower put the proceeds, derivatives had no such natural limit. They could be created in infinite amounts by mere reference to the underlying security on which they were based. The ability to sell Nevada subprime mortgage loans to German regional banks after the loans had been bundled, sliced, repackaged, and wrapped with worthless triple-A ratings was a wonder of the age.
In a globalized world what was old was new again. A first age of globalization had occurred from 1880 to 1914, where the wonders were steamships, telephones , radio, and the combustion engine. The second period was from 1999 to 2006, where it was the internet, cell-phones, etc.
The British Empire operated an internal market and single currency zone as vast as the EU. In 1990, China opened up to trade and investments. At the same time, Russia had finally began to throw off its late feudal model and modernize its industry and agriculture, and a unified Germany was becoming an industrial and economic giant.
The effect of such developments on finance was much the same at the turn of the century. Bonds could be issued in Argentine, underwritten in London and purchased in New York. Oil could be refined in California and shipped to Japan on credit provided by banks in Shanghai.
Two world wars, two currency wars, the end of the Cold War, and the fall of empires, would pass before the new age of globalization began. In 2016, international finance is omnipresent; whether it is here to stay remains to be seen. History shows that civilization and globalization it represents are no more than a thin veneer on the jagged edge of chaos.
State Capital :
Globalization was not the only geopolitical phenomenon developing in the late 1900s.; state capitalism was another. State capitalism is the in-name for a new version of mercantilism – the dominant economic model of the 17th century trough to the 19th century. Mercantilism is the opposite of globalization. Its adherents rely on closed markets to achieve their goal of accumulation wealth and power at the expense of others.
Mercantilism reached new heights with the formation of the British East India Company in 1600 and the Dutch East India Company in 1602. These companies were given wide-ranging monopolies supported by the power to raise armies, negotiate treaties, coin money, establish colonies and act in the place of the government in dealings in Africa, Asia, and the Americas.
It was only in the late 18th century, with the industrial revolution, that a more, modern form of capitalism with private ownership and banking arose. Despite the success of private enterprise, state controlled business still prevailed in modern societies.
The clearest indication to look for is the percentage share of an economy that is in the hands of the state. It ranges from as low as 2% (the USA) to 80% (in third world resource rich countries. In France, its state-owned companies produce nearly 30% of its GNP.
Companies that appear private but have nearly unlimited state resources are Sinopec (China), Gazprom (Russia), Aramco (Saudi Arabia), just to name a few. These companies are able to bid on natural resources, buy competitors and invest in equipment without regard to the short-term financial impacts. They are able to gain market share by selling low – even below cost- , as they do not have to worry about losing access to capital markets in bad times. Such entities need not fear investigation by their own government if they pay bribes, or send troops to protect their interests.
Examples of this new breed of enterprise are sovereign wealth funds, national oil companies and other state-owned enterprises. These entities are plentiful in Russia, China, Brazil, India, Mexico and other emerging markets. Europe also has its state-owned mega-corporations.
Americans are tempted to throw stones at these state-owned entities and call them unfair competition, only to be reminded that in 2008 Washington bailed out Citibank, GE, Goldman Sachs, and AIG. The US has its own state-sponsored entities, it is really not that different.
To understand globalization and state capitalism, a different perspective is needed. Intelligence analysts are trained to avoid “mirror imaging” , which is the tendency to assume that others see the world as we do. In trying to discern the intentions of adversaries, mirror imaging can be a fatal flaw. Threat analyses requires the analyst to put himself in the shoes of Russians, Chinese, Arabs, and others to understand not just the differences in language, culture and history but also the differences in motivation and intent.
When Russian leaders think of natural gas, they see not only export income but also a geopolitical advantage over their clients – such as a stranglehold on the industrial economy of Europe.
When Chinese strategists consider their holdings of US government bonds, they understand they have a weapon that can either destroy the US economy, or blow up in their faces.
When Arab rulers move down the path to modernity, they are acutely aware that they are placing themselves in a religious vise that can crush them.
Gazprom is the largest company in Russia, the world’s largest natural gas company, and the mainstay of the Russian natural resources-based economy. Gazprom and the Russian state are as one in the case of natural gas. Gazprom’s revenues make up 10% of Russia’s GNP. It owns and supplies about 20% of the world’s natural gas. It is fully integrated in all aspects, and it has major interests in media, banking and insurance.
The perfection of Russia’s use of the natural gas weapon arises in the midst of the global financial crisis. This provides Russia with its own force multiplier – something that amplifies offensive power beyond its normal value. Russia’s cutoffs of gas are devastating at the best of times. Coming amid a European sovereign debt crisis, an implosion of its banking sector, and a housing market collapse, the next gas cutoff could have a catastrophic impact.
Of course, victims of gas warfare have a remedy. They can turn their backs on NATO, the Euro, the dollar and the West, and rejoin the Russian sphere of influence in exchange for secure, dependable and reasonably priced energy. Russia requires them to be dependable allies in geopolitical matters and join a ruble currency bloc.
Putin openly speaks about dethroning the dollar as the dominant reserve currency. It is also in a bitter contest with the US over the supply of gas to the EU; as we have read in the articles “Gas Wars”. The Gas war is still currently going on, most especially in Syria and Ukraine. The conflict in Syria is drawing in more nations, and will soon engulf the region. It could lead to a third world war
What is most striking about Chinese history is how often and how suddenly it has swerved from order to chaos through the past 2,500 years. Despite the appearance of economic growth in China today, sudden collapse is entirely possible and could be caused by things such as inflation, rising unemployment, ethnic tensions or a burst housing bubble.
Prolonged and widespread unemployment is more destabilizing in China than in the more developed economies, especially when combined with lost upward mobility for tens of millions more citizens. Internal social instability caused by excess population of single excess men along with food price inflation and mass unemployment is a greater threat in the eyes of Chinese rulers than the US military.
This instability can be smoothed over in part through infrastructure investments that create jobs, which China depends on its currency reserves to finance. What happens when the US devalues those reserves through inflation? While inflation may make sense to US policymakers, the resulting wealth transfer from China to the US is viewed as an existential threat by the Chinese. Maintaining the real value of its reserves is one of China’s keys to maintain internal social control. The Chinese have warned the US many times recently that they will not tolerate dollar inflation and will take counter-measures to protect a loss of wealth.
The US currency war began in 2009, and the US Fed’s quantitative easing (or QE) made is possible to say that the US fired its first shot. The clearest exposition of Chinese thinking on financial warfare is an essay called “The War God’s Face HasBecome Indistinct” , included a book on unrestricted warfare written in 1999, by two colonels in the Chinese Military. One passage is worth quoting at length ,:
“ Financial warfare has now officially come to war’s center-stage – a stage that for thousands of years has been occupied by soldiers and weapons – – – We believe that before long, “financial warfare “ will be an entry in the dictionaries of official military doctrine. Moreover, when people revise the history books on 20th century warfare, the section on financial warfare will command the reader’s utmost attention. Today, when nuclear weapons are losing their real operational value, financial warfare has become a “hyper-strategic” weapon that is attracting the attention of the world. This is because financial war is easily manipulated and allows for concealed action and is also highly destructive “.
Consideration of such military doctrine suggests that the future of geopolitics will be a dark and dangerous world of resource scarcity, infrastructure collapse, and financial defaults. China’s call to replace the US dollar as the global reserve currency might be taken more seriously if the West were familiar with Chinese financial warfare strategy.
China’s main link with the global financial system is the US government bond market. On Wall Street it is viewed as the best customer in the world. Figures on China’s purchases of US Treasury bonds are hard to come by because China is secretive about its holdings.
China’s great fear is that the US will devalue its currency through inflation and destroy the value of these Chinese holdings of US debt. There has been much speculation that China, in retaliation for US inflation, could dump its $1 trillion plus of US securities in a highly visible fire sale that would cause US interest rates to skyrocket and the dollar to collapse on forex markets. This would cause a tremendous global financial dislocation.
These fears are dismissed by most observers. They say that Chinawould never dump its Treasury securities because it has far too many of them. The price of these US treasury bonds would collapse long before more than a small fraction of China’s bonds could be sold. Many of the resulting losses would fall on the Chinese themselves. In effect, dumping US Treasury bonds would mean economic suicide for the Chinese.
In addition, the Chinese are aggressively diversifying their cash reserve positions away from the dollar, by simply deploying its new reserves in new directions. The Chinese earn several hundred billion dollars each year. These new reserves are invested in other markets and commodities- such as oil, gold, copper, but also stocks of mining companies – and agricultural land for food. Also included is the most valuable commodity of all – water.
These commodity programs began in the early 2000s. Most prominently, China increased its official gold holdings from a low base. Today, it is estimated that China holds about 2500 tons, the 4th largest reserve in the world. Russia is not far behind.
As applied to global warfare scenarios, correlation refers to two or more threats that might produce adverse shocks at the same time, either because of coordination or because one acts as a catalyst for the others. If Russia wanted to launch a natural resource attack on the West through a cut off of gas supplies, it might make good sense for the Chinese to accelerate their efforts to diversify away from paper assets into hard assets because of the expected price spikes produced by Russia’s move. Conversely, if China were ready to announce an alternative reserve currency backed by gold and other commodities, it might make good sense for Russia to announce that it would no longer accept dollars in payment for its oil and gas exports, except at greatly devalued exchange rate to the new currency.
China and Russia might find it beneficial to secretly coordinate the timing of their commodity and currency assaults so as to be self-reinforcing.
Throwing a Russian resource assault, a Chinese currency assault, and an Iranian, or Middle East assault at American interests in a near simultaneous affront would produce predictable effects in the hair-trigger world of capital markets. Financial markets would experience the financial equivalent of a stroke. They would not just collapse; they might cease to function entirely.
We have begun a descent into the maelstrom. The nexus of unrestrained global finance and unstable geopolitics is a beast that has begun to show its claws.
Economics of Empires :
A nation-state taxes its own citizens, while an empire taxes other nation- states. The history of empires teaches that the economic foundation of every single empire is the taxation of other nations. The imperial (a very polite world for looting and raping) ability to tax has always rested on a better and stronger economy, with a better and stronger military. One part of the subject taxes went to improve the living standards of the empire ; the other part went to strengthen the military dominance necessary to enforce the collection of those taxes.
Historically, taxing the subject state has been in various forms; whatever economic goods the empire demanded and the subject state could deliver. Imperial taxation has always been direct ; the subject state handed over the economic goods directly to the empire.
For the first time in history, in the 20th century, America was able to tax the world indirectly, through inflation. It did not enforce the direct payment of taxes like all its predecessor empires did, but distributed instead its own currency, the US dollar, to other nations in exchange for goods with the intended consequence of inflating and devaluing those dollars and paying back later each dollar with less economic goods – the difference capturing the American imperial tax. Here is how this happened.
Early in the 20thcentury, the US economy began to dominate the world. The US dollar was tied to gold, so that the value of the dollar neither increased nor decreased, but remained the same amount of gold. From 1921, the amount of currency increased because of inflation, the subsequent increase in government deficits, and the 1929 Wall Street Crash which brought about the Great Depression. Gold backing of the dollar became impossible. Washington decoupled the dollar from gold in 1933. Up to this point, the US may well have dominated the world economy, but from an economic point of view, it was not an empire.
The American Empire was born with the Bretton Woods Agreement in 1945. The US dollar was fully convertible to gold, but only to foreign governments. This established the dollar as the reserve currency of the world. The two world wars brought in the bulk of the official gold in the world into Washington to pay for war supplies. This meant that Washington now had about 90% of the world’s gold.
Between 1946 and 1971, Washington relentlessly increased the supply of dollars- but not gold. The increase in dollars financed the Vietnam War and domestic programs. Most of these dollars were handed over to foreign nations in exchange for economic goods, without the prospect of buying them back at the same value. The increase in foreign dollar holdings via persistent US trade deficits was tantamount to a tax – the classical inflation tax that a country imposes on its citizens, this time around an inflation tax that the US imposed on the rest of the world.
Between 1967 and August 1971, foreign nations increased their demand for gold by exchanging their surplus dollars to the US Federal Reserve Bank. This ended in August 1971, when Washington cancelled the dollar-gold convertibility. Essentially, the US declared itself to be an Empire. It had extracted anenormous amount of economic goods from the rest of the world, with no intention or ability to return those goods, and the world was powerless to respond. The world was taxed and it could not do anything about it.
From that point on, to sustain the American Empire and to continue to tax the rest of the world, the US had to force the world to continue to accept ever-depreciating dollars in exchange for economic goods. It had to give the world an economic reason to hold even more dollars, and that reason was oil.
After the 1973 Middle East War, the US did a deal with Saudi Arabia as the leader of OPEC. Oil would be sold only for dollars. Because the world had to buy oil, and pay for it in dollars, the world’s demands for dollars could only increase. Even though dollars could no longer be exchanged for gold, they were now exchangeable for oil! The dollar was now backed by oil. It became known as the petro-dollar. If any oil-exporting nation demanded payment for its oil in any other currency besides the dollar, that nation had to be convinced, either by political pressure or military means, to change its mind.
In September2000, Saddam Hussein of Iraq issued a decree that Iraq’s sale of oil would be done in euros, and not the dollar. In March 2003, the US invaded Iraq, toppled Saddam Hussein, and brought the sale of Iraq’s oil back into dollars.
Many have criticized Washington for staging the war in Iraq to sieze the oil fields. It made no sense to sieze the oil fields as Washington could just print more dollars to buy Iraq’s oil. Benefits from the sale of Iraq’s oil were not worth the multi-trillion cost of that war. Instead, it was to defend the petro-dollar standard. No longer could the world buy oil from Iraq using the euro. Global dollar supremacy was once again restored. The Rockefeller Empire had given a job to Washington. Bring Iraq back onto the petro-dollar standard. In May, 2003, President Bush declared the mission “accomplished” – he had successfully defended the petro-dollar, and thus the American Empire of the Rockefeller family.
In 2009, Libya’s leader, Muammar Ghaddafi proposed the sale of his country’s oil for gold dinars. Two years later, he was toppled, and murdered, just like Saddam Hussein.
In 2004, Iran began preparing an oil exchange, or bourse, that would trade oil for euros. And problems began immediately for Iran.
The Iranian Oil Bourse :
In 2004, the Iranian government established an oil exchange or bourse, to trade oil for currencies other than the dollar. Originally scheduled to open in 2004, the date was postponed several times, until March 2006, was the final date. The exchange was built on Kish Island, just off Iran’s coast.
At any rate, should the oil exchange start operations, the Chinese, Europeans, Russians, Japanese, and the Arabs will eagerly adopt the euro, thus sealing the fate of the petro-dollar. Washington cannot allow this to happen, and if necessary, will use a vast array of strategies to halt or hobble the exchange’s operations.
It was at this time that New York began to highlight Irans’ nuclear program, saying it constituted a threat to the region, and the world. This was an attempt to hold back Iran’s plans for this oil bourse to begin functioning. It was a threat from America to Iran. “If you start your oil trading in Euros, then we are going to bomb you.
From attempts at regime change, to internal destabilizations, to sanctions, anything was possible. And Washington has tried them all. When all else fails, then negotiation is clearly the second-best available option.
Most of the nations were eagerly awaiting the opening of this exchange. Then the US came out with the story of Iran trying to build nuclear weapons. And the world held back. We shall do an in – depth story of Iran from 1980 to the present in the next issue, dated 15 March, 2016.
Whatever the strategic choice, from a purely economic point of view, should the Iranian Oil Bourse start operations, and gain momentum, it will be eagerly embraced by the major economic powers and will bring about the demise of the petro-dollar. The collapsing dollar will increase US inflation and will put upward pressure on US interest rates. At this point, the US Federal Reserve will be forced to raise interest rates, and deflate, thus inducing a major economic depression, a collapse in real estate, and an implosion in the financial markets, or alternatively, inflate by printing more dollars. This would result in drowning the financial system with liquidity, bailing out the bankrupt financial institutions, and hyperinflating the global economy.
As of writing this article, February 24th, the US has chosen the first option. The results are explained in the next issue.