Investors understand that asset markets are experiencing dynamic change (think ETFs), but have not yet broadly recognized that the fundamental nature of wealth itself is changing too. Before the decline of active asset management runs its course there will be an imperative to focus on active currency management. Wealth maintenance and creation demands a clear understanding of this transformation.
The majority of us are not as rich as we think. Our wealth is held in debt tokens or assets denominated in them with increasingly dubious prospects. Some accounting identities are in order.
Classically, an asset is something with intrinsic value that transcends time and money. It has some value no matter how or when one measures it. Only two people – a potential buyer and seller – need to value something for it to be an asset.
A currency, meanwhile, is a unit of account that provides users with a means of measuring and exchanging value. In a hypothetical barter economy, production itself is would be currency. Currencies representing saved wealth are necessary because we need to value goods, services and assets relative to each other.
Modern currencies are widely misunderstood. They are actually the product of bank system double-entry accounting – ultimately un-reserved, 100 percent faith-based obligations of centralized entities (governments, central banks or currency boards) to manufacture enough actual base money in the future (i.e., inflate) to settle all claims for money that was already created by private banks through the lending process. It is important to note that credit and credit-currencies are claims on money, not claims on assets. Depending upon how one counts, there is either 3 times (M2), 5 times (bank assets), 12 times (total credit market debt), or 25 times (total unfunded liabilities) the amount of claims on US dollars than the amount of actual US dollars in existence (base money). There are no plans to remedy this overwhelming leverage. In fact, this month the Fed is beginning to increase currency leverage again by reducing the size of its own balance sheet, which will effectively re-leverage banks by reducing bank reserves.
This state of monetary affairs is a big deal for financial asset investors. As it stands today, investors could not hypothetically exchange all assets (or liabilities) for base money, or even for credit currencies (M2), at or near current prices. To do so, banking systems would have to first create new liabilities, which in turn would dilute and diminish the purchasing power value of currencies in which assets are denominated.
To be good money, a currency must also be a store of value, meaning it also has to be an asset or be backed by an asset. In the current regime, there are no assets with quantifiable value directly associated with fiat currencies…other than the ability to tax.
The ability to tax is indeed an asset of governments, but one with greatly diminished value. In the US, fiscal year 2016 tax revenues were $3.3 trillion.1 Meanwhile, baseline government spending was about $3.4 trillion, including $1.06 trillion for Medicare and Medicaid; $910 billion for Social Security; $600 billion for non-defense discretionary spending to fund federal departments and agencies; $585 billion for the Defense Department; and $240 billion for interest on federal debt.2 These expenditures are rising faster than tax revenues and do not include truly discretionary government spending. (It seems legislators only have true discretion over how they deficit-spend.)
While the incalculable value of assets of the United States government (including its strong military and hegemonic control over shipping lanes and bilateral trade) may exceed its currency obligations, such assets cannot be transferred to creditors (i.e., dollar holders) to satisfy obligations. Thus, from both stock (leverage) and flow (budget deficit) perspectives, the US dollar is a very poor credit in real terms. Indeed, other fiat currencies may be worse and all of them are effectively unreserved debt tokens.
The quantity of systemic liabilities – including debt-based credit and credit-currencies – has come to vastly exceed the forward real value of unencumbered assets (adjusted for necessary currency devaluation). It is not possible to net all assets against all liabilities without dramatically reducing the real purchasing power value (PPV) of assets. What does this imply for assets denominated in credit-currencies? Today’s wealth has been borrowed to such an extent that it cannot be broadly recognized in the currencies in which assets are currently denominated. Looking forward, we think the most influential input into wealth creation will be getting the underlying currency right.
If today’s currencies are, in realty, unreserved debt tokens, and assets are denominated and measured in them, then how does one value assets in real terms? Here’s three-step logic we think makes sense:
1. Take the nominal value of an asset priced in a certain currency
2. Adjust the nominal value by the implicit leverage embedded in that currency
3. Present Value the future nominal cash flows of the asset against future currency dilution
Applying this metric makes clear that assets – equity, debt, plant, equipment, labor, goodwill, whatever – priced in certain currencies may hold significantly more or less value today than similar assets priced in other currencies with similar nominal asset valuation metrics (i.e., P/Es, Price to Book, Cap Rates, etc.).
Not surprisingly, assets have taken on many of the qualities of currencies, which makes sense given that both are effectively unfunded obligations. Neither assets nor currencies can have intrinsic value. Currencies may only be valued against other currencies and assets may only be valued against other assets. Is it any wonder that financial asset markets have become places to “save” and that low-cost passive investment vehicles like ETFs are becoming the vehicles of choice? It was inevitable that today’s government-sponsored, bank-executed monetary system would eventually be disintermediated, and the shift to “saving” through passive investing in asset markets is a step in that process.
What happens when value begins to be exchanged directly on the internet itself, rather than through centralized portals that sit atop it like toll booths? Block chain technology is effectively an open source triple-entry accounting system that includes all participants in the value transfer process. The combination of the technology, its applications, and its accessibility are genuinely transformative.
What will happen to the value of highly-leveraged credit-currencies relative to less leveraged or zero leveraged stores of value that arise from this transformation? What will happen to Foreign Exchange (FX) cross rates in a peer-to-peer world where nothing is foreign? What about the real value of assets?
Looking forward, a growing portion of value, regardless of what form it takes, will be exchanged peer-to-peer, and any value leftover will be stored in whichever form counterparties agree – fiat currencies, cryptocurrencies, commodity-backed currencies, maybe even direct claims for commodities, goods, services or equity.
Value Exchange (VX) rates could look something like the hypothetical table below:
Table 1: Hypothetical Value Exchange Rate (VX) Table – 2027
We should expect value to flow directly between producers and consumers of that production, rather than through public and private sector intermediaries charging them rent. Rentiers and sovereign authorities will formally embrace this brave new world – not out of a sense of altruism, but because the technology is already here and human incentives cannot be denied.