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Tuesday, December 24

A Brief Look Back

I wrote this post in August or September of 2012.

Most of the deaths from climbing K2 to the summit occur when the climbers descend because they're so exhausted by the climb up that they easily lose their footing on the way down.

In Afghanistan, in 2009, the newly installed Obama administration and the U.S. defense establishment climbed a mountain called the 2008 Financial Meltdown. Despite the fierce recession, saved only by a few percentage points from being an economic depression, the administration backed a wildly expensive nation building/ counterinsurgency effort that extended to Pakistan.

If you want to extract lessons from the experience you're welcome to try, but mountains don't care whether you learn or not.

The bottom line for the Afghan War is that the U.S. government didn't learn its lesson from the Vietnam War. That's because it had an out called U.S. dollar hegemony. Back then, when it looked as if the U.S. dollar was going to crash, the West European governments panicked. They were afraid the Nixon administration's continuation of the war was going to bring the entire international financial system crashing down. In response to the panic, which included repatriation of gold holdings, Nixon ordered the Federal Reserve to shut the gold window.

The act ended the Bretton Woods Agreement of 1945 and the system of fixed exchange rates, which had been teetering on the edge of collapse since 1968. What replaced the agreement was floating exchange rates.

The new international monetary system lurched along with liberal applications of duct tape and Crazy Glue applied by quick-witted currency traders working for the major international oil companies. But the U.S. banking system, the canary in the coal mine, began experiencing a series of crises, one crisis feeding off the next. These were patched over with reams of red tape representing increasingly crippling regulations.

Desperate to survive, the American banks became big players in very risky and exotic investment schemes -- massive junk bond trades and the burgeoning derivatives markets;  many of these investments were nothing more than spins of a roulette wheel.

Meanwhile, the international monetary system that had replaced Bretton Woods was crumbling under the weight of the fully globalized era of trade. What had started out post-Bretton Woods as a few major currencies confined to the USA and the "core" West European countries had morphed into a veritable bazaar of currency markets that included "emerging" economies. The launch of the euro, meant to keep international order through consolidation, only added to the melee.

By the turn of the century, the big ticket currency traders here and abroad, following in the path of the bankers here (and by then, abroad), were engaging in increasingly risky plays in order to balance their daily book. This had brought the currency speculators out in force. This time the normal ploys used by central banks to quash the speculators and harry the banks into line weren't working. There were now too many gates to cover, too many players. A vast globe-spanning "shadow" banking system had sprung up, impossible to monitor let alone regulate, and this system was feeding on the go-go derivatives markets and wild currency carry trades -- buying low in one currency and dumping the currency into a runup in its price.

Then one day it all came crashing down. Western Europe, the core of the Eurozone and European Union, took the full brunt of the crash. Germany, which had been carrying the European Union, was especially hard hit. Beside themselves with fury, the leaders of France and Germany wanted blood. I think if they could have attacked the United State militarily, they would have, they were that angry. I suspect it was the nimble British government, with its 'special' relationship with Washington, which proposed a more realistic stopgap measure.

In any case the massive U.S. bailout program called TARP quietly funneled, by circuitous routes, billions in U.S. taxpayer monies to busted European financial firms.

TARP wasn't enough to mollify the French and German governments. They wanted a complete, total, absolute, totalitarian, international regulatory regime extending to every African and Himalayan village and the next galaxy as well, so that never, ever, ever again would a crash in the U.S. financial markets touch off a catastrophe in Europe.

That was the situation Barack Obama was handed on his first day as the President of the United States of America. So you'd best believe he signed every document slammed on his desk that pertained to an international financial stability review board.

But now there are no more outs, no more rabbits to pull out of a hat. Just the long, harrowing climb down the highest mountain.

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