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Is the History of Money the Future of Money?

September 1, 2009 CULTURE|shock, Featured 1 Comment
Is the History of Money the Future of Money?

Interview with Ron Insana by Arthur G. Insana

Money is better than poverty, if only for financial reasons.

Woody Allen

Money may make the world go ’round, as the song says, but given the whirlpool of global financial chaos that has been swirling around us for the past year, it would appear that the Earth is spinning out of control, with no brakes and little hope of slowdown… if you listen only to the non-profits of doom.

Have we reached… or will we reach…the end of everything? Is capitalism the promised cure? Is socialism the poison pill? Is globalization the inevitable future for economic stability?

World economists argue and disagree upon the severity of the current crisis, and offer sometimes conflicting prescriptions to restore global economic health, while politicians pander to PAC agendas. But where does truth reside?

As we look at the future of money, and the economic climate of Planet Earth, we thought that there is no better way to face the challenges of tomorrow than by understanding the successes and failures of the past — the evolution of economics.

Ron Insana, senior financial analyst  for CNBC, and a financial journalist for the past 25 years, also made forays into the world outside the newsroom, with his own hedge fund, and then as a managing director for SAC, one of the world’s most successful hedge-fund companies.

We have opened our special feature, Portals, to continuing conversations with Insana, for his insights, and occasional advice, as we attempt to navigate the turbulent financial waters that flow toward what some call an uncertain future.

t-f/c: What does history teach us about the way in which global economics evolves?

RI: We’ve gone through an enormous revolution, both in economic practice and economic theory, over the course of human history. By the same token, some of the basic elements of economics have been at work as long as there have been civilized societies — whether older, primitive agrarian societies, or pastoral societies… or beyond that… mercantilist, capitalist, socialist or communist forms of economic structure.

Obviously, the ancients wouldn’t recognize the moderns, when it comes to economics. Having said that, if you look at societies as far back as ancient Mesopotamia, you’ll find contracts, for lack of a better word, that mirror some of the more sophisticated derivatives that we use today.

t-f/c: In what way?

RI… In the tendency toward economic behavior. Despite our most recent economic setback, the tendency is toward some form of capitalism as the most meritocratic way to allocate resources and wealth. And I don’t think that that’s going to go through some of the changes that some people anticipate today. Many are arguing that we’re heading toward something more socialistic in nature, … even though most people don’t understand capitalism and the way it works.

I doubt if we’re headed in that direction., and if we are, it’s a detour. Capitalism, as one famous person said… “is a terrible system of economics. The only ones worse are all the others.”

Entrepreneurialism and technological development are better fostered in an environment like our own, than in most of the other systems that have been tried and failed. So capitalism appears to be the best economic system

Capitalism didn’t exist prior to Adam Smith. It has its strengths and its weaknesses, in the sense that capitalism is (and this is an arguable point) a better way of allocating scarce resources; is a better way of fostering entrepreneurialism, innovation, technological advancement; and also is a better way of allocating reward, than any other.

People will make the case that those are arguable points. I don’t see how they are, given that history has shown that neither communism nor socialism, the two biggest rival schools of economics, have done any better.

Communism has been an out-and-out failure, which we know from the Soviets and the Chinese, who no longer practice it. They have a “command and control” economy, but there’s an element of capitalism that actually provides the engine of growth.

Socialism, as it’s constructed in Europe, or Social Democracy, has not benefited the economies of Continental Europe in the same manner as capitalism has in most of the Anglo-Saxon countries.

There’s also been a life-style choice… a kind of trade-off between working to live and living to work – which is something the Europeans talk about all the time – they work to live… the Anglo countries tend to live to work. So in certain instances, they have higher productivity, in some industries, and in other instances. Certainly, our rates of growth, our rates of unemployment, are much better, historically, than theirs. So, we could debate it for quite some time… but I think the evidence is pretty strong that capitalism, without being xenophobic or jingoistic about it, is considerably better as an economic system

That having been said, there are forms and variations of the theme that have been tried, from unfettered free-market capitalism to something that has a greater degree of regulation and government intervention. Somewhere between the extremes of unfettered free-market capitalism and too much government interference appears to be the capitalist system that works best.

t-f/c: Do you see any other potential system evolving out of the current economic situation?

RI: I don’t know…I don’t think so, because, at the moment, there aren’t any really credible alternatives. The notion that, somehow, large societies can achieve some sort of completely egalitarian state seems to be a Utopian ideal that is less than practical.

t-f/c: Simply because of population?

RI: Partly.. smaller countries have had greater success with experimentation around equal distribution of wealth, socialized medicine…work and living rules. But, when you’re talking about 300 million people, it’s difficult to implement such a system … (unless communism were practiced in a very pure form – each according to his needs, etc.). First, I don’t think humans tend toward economic equality. I think they tend toward accumulation.

Which is actually a post-14th Century phenomenon. One of the things that was interesting about the Plague, that the book, Connections, by James Burke, spoke about, was that one of the unexpected consequences of the Plague in Europe was that when the population was cut by half, suddenly materialism grew, because the survivors were able to accumulate the wealth that was left behind.

And there was an important change in the view of earthly existence that developed modern materialism. So, the notion of materialism may have accelerated the move toward capitalism – which was largely defined by Adam Smith.

t-f/c: Which ran counter to religious philosophy?

RI: Not really. Religious philosophy prohibited things like usury, charging interest and profiteering, but obtaining wealth by brute force was never something that was frowned upon. People accumulated wealth as warriors, as emperors. The motivation might have different – Divine Right of Kings, political power. Wealth was part of the trappings, and wasn’t necessarily for wealth’s sake. Power might have been the greater motivation, at the time. But there’s been no major  civilization, to my knowledge, in which the ruling elite did not accumulate both wealth and power.

t-f/c: Despite the constant rumors of a single world currency as the key to a stable global economic future, you don’t see that happening? Why not?

RI: Well, we have one – it’s called the U.S. dollar. the de facto reserve currency of the world is the greenback. There are countries, which for various political purposes, are threatening to diversify away from dollar-denominated holdings of securities, whether they’re stocks or bonds, etc., in an effort to gain some political advantage over the United States. But, in reality, the most widely used currency in the world is the dollar, and will likely be so for quite some time, for a variety of reasons. The world is already dollarized, for all intents and purposes, and replacing a currency that’s as dominant as the dollar requires (particularly in the sense of a one-world currency) harmonizing the economic policies of every country on Earth that wishes to participate in a singe currency structure. Much in the way the European Union wanted to create the Euro. That process began in 1957 with the Treaty of Rome, after World War II, when it was decided that Germany was required to attach its economic fortunes to France, so that it would be disinclined to attack its neighbors in the future. And that led to the European Common Market, which led to the European Union, and harmonization of economic policies in Europe.  Ultimately, that led to a managed exchange-rate mechanism… which ultimately led to a single currency in Europe.

And, we’re still not sure that is stable. The economic policies of the countries in Europe are still wildly disparate. They have not ever maintained the criteria that is each country is required to maintain to support a single currency. They don’t have a singular central bank that has the type of mandate the Federal Reserve does that allows them to have an effective continent-wide monetary policy – which is required for maintaining a stable single currency. All of that is a little heady; what I’m really saying is that they have not worked out the kinks they should have worked out, prior to instituting the Euro.

Given that experiment, it’s hard to see how you can take however many hundreds of countries there are in the world and create a system under which you have a single global central bank, harmonized economic policies among all the countries on the planet, where they’ve contained their budget deficits to three percent of GDP (Gross Domestic Product) (as is required by the Europeans). There are certain parameters around which their economies have to function in order to maintain the stability of the currency. Now it’s almost impossible on a global scale. Given the fact that the world is mostly dollarized, I don’t see a credible competitor to the dollar, in the near term.

t-f/c: Isn’t that philosophy of stability the reason this issue keeps coming up? Some people think that is the only way that the world may find financial solvency, in the near and long-term future?

RI: This is where George Soros goes with equilibrium theory… he’s got his own ideas about how to stabilize the global economy, through a notion he calls “reflexivity.” And, ultimately, that will lead to some sort of alternative to the dollar, through the International Monetary Fund issuing something called ”special drawing rights” – it’s a very complex structure that he’s talking about. And it is 44 percent comprised of the dollar, anyway.

Complex systems, as we know from Chaos Theory, are inherently unstable, so I don’t know how you go from the relative stability that we have right now, to achieving a greater degree of stability when you’re trying to manage the entire planet with a single currency – given that each country has its own set of political and economic concerns that have yet to be harmonized. You would need a single economic system, you would need a very cohesive political structure, which Europe doesn’t even have, in order to create a single global currency. And I think anybody who contemplates that notion hasn’t the foggiest idea of what he or she is talking about, when it comes to global economics. First of all, it’s not achievable in our lifetime, and second, if it ever is, it would involve the dissolution of nation states and a much more harmonious global environment than we currently have. China’s purchases of U.S. bonds keep interest rates down, and by extension, allow the U.S. economy to keep growing, so they can keep selling to our market.

If we have a collapse of the U.S. economic system, which we flirted with, dangerously, just a few months ago, China, as we saw from their export figures in the Spring, will suffer far worse than we will. So, a lot of this talk, to be utterly frank, is B.S. and is political posturing, and has nothing to do with economics.

t-f/c: So, therefore… clearly, we have reached a point in which all international economies are interdependent. What does that mean for the future of money?

RI: Same story, really. Money is money. It’s fungible. We’re not going to see the disappearance of major currencies, I don’t think, in our lifetime, or major currency blocks, for that matter. The Yuan (Chinese currency), which people are increasingly excited about, or Renminbi (RMB) — one is for domestic consumption, one is for trade — is gaining some traction at the outer edges of China as a tradable currency, but it’s not fully convertible.  It’s still managed by the People’s Bank of China in a fixed exchange-rate regime, which is somewhat inflexible and problematic.

I don’t know – money’s money… whatever is a storehouse of wealth, a means of exchange that facilitates trade is money, whether it’s gold, whether it’s paper, whether it’s an electronic entry, then that’s the evolution.

Increasingly, we’re becoming more and more electronic and it’s a book entry. However uncomfortable people might be with that — that’s more relevant than which currency is dominant on the planet.

One thing I’ll say is that the experiment being tried right now with the U.S. dollar, is that we are the largest net debtor nation in the world that continues to borrow in its own currency. If we were to ever have a dollar crisis, while it would drive interest rates up, potentially, here at home, the net result would be to effectively screw our overseas bond holders because they would be paid back in devalued dollars. They would lose money. This is their chief concern – that they would lose money on their holdings of U.S. Treasuries or other investments. Most net debtor nations are required to borrow in the currency of the lender. Which is why we’ve seen currency crises in the past (like the Russian rubble crisis in 1998, or the Asian currency crisis in 1997), cause such havoc in those economies, because, effectively, their outstanding foreign debts increased by twice the magnitude of the decline in their currencies. In other words, if their purchasing power was cut in half, that meant their debt to foreigners doubled over night. That is, effectively, what happened in Asia in ’97 and Russia in ’98. and so, it becomes an extraordinary burden to pay back that external debt.

Whereas, instead of defaulting on our debt because of the devaluation of the currency, we actually end up benefiting, because we’re inflating the debt away with devalued dollars. It’s an old political trick, quite frankly, and it works to our benefit.

t-f/c: Well, if the world were to move to a totally electronic monetary system, how is the asset value determined? Is it just “perceived” value… if there is no actual physical money backing it?

RI: The notion of physical money is an interesting construct, given that loadstones, seashells, wampum and

Wampum

Wampum

other forms of currency were used to represent a medium of exchange, a storehouse of value, however you want to define the primary functions of money. It was either gold, precious metals, base metals, paper currency that was backed by gold or silver. Or then, just paper money and credit.

The fact that we’ve evolved toward an electronic book entry, which is quantified in dollars, is just part of the evolution of money. You work for a sum, and the sum is deposited in your account, electronically. And so you are trading your work for that electronic entry, which really is no more abstract than getting a piece of gold, which someone, somewhere, decided, because of its relative scarcity, was one of the most valuable commodities on the planet.

In reality, it’s just a commodity. Diamonds are not nearly as scarce as they used to be, whether they’re manufactured, or whether there’s a glut of diamonds, worldwide, because the Russians have become such prolific producers, along with South Africa. What’s to say that there couldn’t be some extraordinary find of gold that would alter its value?

It’s unlikely, because even today, the entire amount of gold that’s been mined in the history of the planet could fill about one-third of the Washington Monument (http://money.howstuffworks.com/question213.htm). It’s a relatively scarce commodity. But the fact that people still harbor the desire to go back to the gold standard is as arbitrary as any other construct, when it comes to money.

An electronic system is not really that much more abstract than swapping a loadstone for a sheep. How do you determine the value of a sheep, versus the value of a cow? Depends on who needs it more. These are relatively abstract concepts, even though they’re seemingly more acceptable because they’re physical. But we’re kind of past the point where a barter-style economy, or a gold-standard makes any sense.

t-f/c: But even when your employer deposits your paycheck electronically, there still has to be some tangible asset represented by the electronic deposit.

RI: You can withdraw cash. I suspect there has to be some physical currency to be utilized. Although, I would say 100 years from now, that might not be the case.

t-f/c: What would the nature of the asset exchange be?

RI: Why would the value change? The value is what the value is. It’s based on what people perceive as whatever the value of an hour’s worth of work or an hour’s worth of entertainment or an hour’s worth of output happens to be. That’s the value determinant. Or, on a relative basis, given the political and economic health of a particular country, what’s the value of a currency, vis a vis the political stability and economic output of another country? Those are perception-based values that change from time to time.

t-f/c: How does all of this affect the future of trade?

RI: Well, assuming that we don’t have another extraordinary setback that leads to something more like a “great depression” than a “great recession,” global trade will continue, and with any luck at all, will continue to broaden ad raise living standards of developing nations, Unfortunately, to a certain extent, that comes at the expense of developed nations. But it doesn’t have to be a zero-sum game. And economics isn’t – despite the fact that many people say it is.

Living standards can rise through greater exposure to, or among, developing and developed nations as money and capital move toward the place that has comparative advantage for certain industries. So, as that globalization process continues, assuming that it does, it certainly alters the economic playing field. It may alter the balance of political power, But, on balance, it’s a good thing.

And again, barring any further disruptions, I suspect, or any move toward trade-protectionism, the tendency toward globalization is fairly strong.

There are too many technological developments now, that make it difficult to go back, unlike prior periods in history. Whether it’s the Internet, or whether it’s the ease of travel, whether it’s electronic communications — it’s too easy to connect with others, relative to the past.

Which means that not just our interdependence, but our interactivity, tend to increase and foster more and more, rather than less and less, globalization.

t-f/c: What do you say about the “fringe futurists” who talk about the New World Order — the idea that there’s a shadow government pulling all the strings, behind the economic scenes, and that our future is a bleak one under such elite rule?

RI: That just B.S. That’s been around for a thousand years; the Illuminati and all that. Anybody who’s worked in a large corporation knows that any large group of individuals can’t even make a singular decision on what to have for lunch. Ruling the world is not that easy. There’s too much evidence against conspiracy theories.

I’ll use oil prices as an example, where OPEC has tried to be an effective cartel for over 30 years now. And they’ve been so effective that from 1986 to 2000, the price of oil was somewhere between $15 and $20 per barrel, generating billions of dollars of losses for major oil companies and depleted reserves for the members of the cartel. And then, between 2002 and 2007, we had a super spike in oil that took it from about $30 per barrel to about $147 per barrel.

And everybody was crying conspiracy, and the conspiracy lasted for the entire time that the global economy was growing at such a clip that the supply-and-demand balance in petroleum products was historically narrow. And you had geo-political influences that helped drive up the price of oil, and the risk premium that was placed on oil as a commodity was much higher than normal because of Iraq, Afghanistan, Nigeria, Venezuela, difficulties in Saudi Arabia — all manner of influences that coalesced to drive oil prices to record highs, both in plain dollar terms and inflation-adjusted terms.

Since then, oil has gone from $147 per barrel to a low of $34 in March, and back to about $70 today.  So, if there were a conspiracy, it is a very poorly executed one — unless the five-year run has now created enough accumulated wealth to offset all future losses that would come from declining energy prices.

So, it’s nonsense, and this is something that Bill O’Reilly of Fox News was pushing so hard in the fourth quarter of 2005 — that there was a group of people getting together in a room and dictating what the price of oil should be.

That would be all well and good, if the volatility of oil prices wasn’t so extraordinarily high. If you really want a conspiracy, you want $100 oil, forever.

And they don’t have it. So, they either are so good at hiding the conspiracy through extraordinary volatility or…it can’t be done. And there’s more evidence that it can’t be done on a sustained basis, than to the contrary.

Markets can be jiggled with or manipulated, for short periods of time, as we saw with gold, silver and the Hunt brothers debacle in 1980; as we saw with Italian conglomerate Ferruzzi Finanziaria’s attempt to manipulate grain prices in the mid-1990s; as we saw with Sumitomo Corp’s attempt to control copper prices in the 1990s. These games can only last for so long. There’s no grand-scale manipulation that everybody talks about. People can attempt it, but everyone who’s attempted a long-term manipulation and a long-term conspiracy, has failed miserably.

One of the great things about the Illuminati, if you read about it on the Web, in terms of a “one-world government” is that, as the one-world government continues to form, these individuals who are at the center of it had become so subtle, having failed at every attempt to achieve their one-world government, that now, we don’t even notice their influence. Which is a great argument for saying that they’ve failed completely and it doesn’t work. And now, they’re so underground and so secretly manipulative that we don’t even know it’s happening. And that would be a form of thought control that is inconceivable and also flies in the face of the success of that type of structure.

t-f/c: What do you see happening, domestically, in the next year, five years, 10 years?

RI: Well there’s an interesting three-way battle going on right now, among Washington, Wall Street and Main Street. Washington is reflecting some of the populist anger that’s arisen from what were clearly excesses that took place on Wall Street over the past several years. Wall Street is fighting to retain its independence and its ability to innovate, financially, to put it gracefully. And Washington is trying to come up with some sort of hybrid environment in which there is more balance between unfettered free-market capitalism, which knows no bounds, or no limits on compensation, for that matter — and, something that is more responsible when it comes to compensation, risk management and innovation that rewards Wall Street disproportionally, relative to Main Street.

Now some of that is a perceptual problem, some of that’s a reality. We have the widest gap between rich and poor that’s ever existed in this country, and that’s causing certain social strains.

By the same token, I’m not sure that the current administration has the foggiest idea what it needs to do to put the economy back into the delicate balance that allows for rewards to be dispersed appropriately among the population.

And these are old friends of mine, many of them have gone completely off the rails, in recent months.

So I think there’s going to be a struggle. I think at the end of the day, the Obama Administration will lose more than it wins when it comes to trying to clamp down, whether it’s health care reform, financial regulatory reform, climate change legislation. I think that, given that most presidents are visitors rather than permanent residents of Washington, the powers that be — which turn out to be in the Capitol as opposed to the White House, and in the lobbying groups, in industry — will turn back the more ambitious agendas, for something that’s somewhat more watered down. That, I think, ultimately, is a good thing,

Regulatory overreach, or dramatic change that’s enacted hastily, without full understanding of unintended consequences, will largely get beaten back. At least that’s my hope. In the longer run, it’s a crapshoot.

Assuming that we get past whatever remaining headwinds we have in this crisis, the U. S. economy, as people have said, over and over again, has been remarkably resilient and tends to bounce back from these crises, more dramatically than people anticipate — whichever crisis you want to pick: 9/11; the bursting of the Internet bubble; the economic and banking crisis of 1990/1991; the biggest recession we ever had, prior to this one, from 1980 to 1982, where we had double-digit inflation, double-digit unemployment, double-digit interest rates.

When the tide turns, it tends to turn for real, and you can get a protracted economic recovery that’s stronger and more durable than most people think. So that is the hope. The Federal Reserve has done a great job of helping to pull us back from the brink and possibly even engineer that kind of recovery. We may have a “W” recession, if you will, or a double-dip recession, and a “W” bottom in the stock market… who knows? That’s my first inclination. But that concept is beginning to draw a little too much attention, which, now instead of putting me in the minority, is starting to put me in the consensus. So, I’m beginning to take the “W” off my screen and put up a “V” and think that the economy might just take off like a rocket and surprise everybody. Because economies and markets do that.

We’ve had an extraordinary rally off the bottom from March, in the stock market, that has caught everybody by surprise. The people who are still bearish and think we’re going to hell in a hand basket just missed the opportunity to make 50% on their money, in the last four months, and will continue to say that we’re in a recession, even after GDP turns positive.

So, I think the near-term picture is probably a little brighter than most people realize. The longer-term picture revolves less around things like health care and financial market regulatory reform than it does around education. That is where we still come up horrifically short, when it comes to preparing children for an entirely competitive global marketplace, in which the only way to be rewarded is to be educated and to be an innovator.

That’s where the U.S. is falling farther and farther behind. And I think that’s the most important and least-discussed issue (at least, discussed honestly), in a way that would have some meaningful consequences for children.

t-f/c: What do you think the administration has to do to set the stage for our best possible future?

RI: The attempts that they’re undertaking right now would probably represent headwinds, rather than stimulus. I don’t think health care reform is going to stimulate the economy. And I certainly don’t think that financial market regulatory reform, even though it may be necessary, is a stimulant. And I don’t think that climate change legislation would stimulate economic activity. The best I hope for is that the administration does very little that is restrictive and does as much as possible that is stimulative. And that they don’t make the types of policy mistakes that get in the way of an economic recovery.

Art Insana is Co-founder/Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of the-future.com.

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