Tuesday, August 2, 2011

What's left to trust in the world of money?

America's inability to address its fiscal challenges – Sunday night's "bipartisan debt deal" offers only a temporary, sticking plaster solution – has raised afresh an old conundrum.

If even US Treasuries are now regarded as a credit risk, is there anything left at all in the world of money that can be trusted?

The answer to this question is almost certainly no, but far from being a calamitous conclusion to reach, this might be viewed as a positive development which will in time restore market disciplines to a global monetary system which became based on make believe.

In fact, the idea of the sovereign as a "risk free asset" is a comparatively recent development which has no basis in historical experience. Even in a country such as Britain with no history of default (we'll ignore the case of war loans, which is arguable), government bonds have hardly proved a reliable form of investment.

True enough, coupons have been paid and maturities honoured, but the currency and inflation risks have proved extreme. On any medium to long term view, you would have done much better out of property and equities.

Among members of the eurozone, the concept of the sovereign as a safe haven asset is an even shorter lived phenomenon. The widening of spreads we've seen in the past year and a half of financial crisis is as nothing compared to the way it was before the single currency was launched. (more)