The baby-boomer generation were perhaps the most privileged generation that the US has ever spawned.
Their fathers returned from World War II, eager to get married, buy a house and start a family. The economy was booming, as, during the early years of the war, the US wisely stayed out, but provided tanks, helmets and even toothbrushes to those who were directly involved in the fray.
What’s more, they didn’t accept pound notes or francs; they accepted only gold. So, at the end of the war, when the manufacturing cities of Europe had been destroyed by bombs, the male populations decimated and the governments broke, the US was on a roll. They had most of the world’s gold and had first-rate manufacturing facilities that only had to switch from making jeeps and rifles to making cars and televisions.
That wave of wealth allowed the young married couples to spoil their children with whatever they wanted.
The boomer generation reached their teens in the 1960s, and having grown accustomed to receiving whatever they wanted in life, they were young adults and wanted to party. The phrase, “sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll” was coined and it was an apt one. Young Americans opted for plenty of all three.
But of course, somewhere in their twenties, most boomers got married themselves and settled into a new life in which they took on professions and sought wealth. Many became bankers, lawyers, trust officers and politicians.
But, although they were now adults, they were not always responsible adults. There was a new objective – money – and they wanted lots of it. The party was to continue, but on a much more extravagant scale.
And again, they were in luck, since back in 1944, the US had strong-armed Europe into accepting the Bretton Woods agreement, which made the US dollar the default currency.
Later, in the 1970s, the US was successful in making the dollar the petrodollar – the currency through which oil was traded. And in 1973, the SWIFT system was created, which, although centered in Brussels, was controlled primarily by the US.
If a national leader did not play ball with the US, he could be sanctioned. The US would threaten to cut him out of SWIFT, making international trade impossible for him.
And if a small country did not tax its people as the US did, it could also be threatened with the loss of SWIFT.
The US was rolling in dough, as the saying goes, but it wasn’t sufficient for the boomers. Through the creation of debt, they were able to make the party bigger and better. The boomers, who were now older and had become financiers, changed the US from the biggest creditor nation in the 1950s, to the biggest debtor nation a few decades later.
By the 1990s, the boomers had financed the party with a powerful trio of financial weapons: the default currency, the petrodollar and SWIFT.
But all parties must end.
Along the way, Europe had grown tired of being dictated to by its war ally and was fed up with being expected to support US sanctions against other countries, that were often their trading partners. Instead of the US being the helpful rich friend, it was becoming a liability. Further, Russia had recovered from its 1991 Soviet debacle and was very much on the rise – leaner, meaner, and ready to stand toe-to-toe with the US.
And China had awoken from its Maoist slumber and was charging ahead both productively and economically at a faster rate than the world had ever seen. By 2015, it had overtaken the US as the world’s foremost producer.
But this had zero impact on US bluster. Its leaders continued to act like the big boy on the block and, if anything, became more militarily aggressive and economically threatening.
Then the world at large began, slowly but deliberately, to prune the US domination.
A rift began to grow between the US and Saudi Arabia, an alliance that made the petrodollar possible. Soon, Iraq, Libya and other Middle Eastern countries began to accept other currencies and/or gold in payment for oil. This caused the US to invade them in the hope of creating puppet regimes that would stick to the US rules. But after decades of war in a host of Middle Eastern countries, with no end in sight, the US has not gained any petrodollar ground. It has, however, trashed several countries, made the US hated worldwide for its aggression and gotten itself into a level of debt that is now beyond repayment.
Still, the US controlled SWIFT, but in 2014, Russia began to develop its own payment system, SPFS, in response to Washington’s threats to cut Russia from the SWIFT system.
Then, in 2015, China introduced its own international payments system – CIPS – and began to offer it to Russia, India and others for trade. In 2019, the EU made a surprise move, announcing its own payment system, INSTEX, into which all of Europe was invited, but the US was not.
Only months later, when the US cut Iran from SWIFT, Russia jumped in and offered SPFS to them, so that they could trade throughout the world, if not with the US.
If it appears that the US has gone out on a limb and is now in the process of sawing off that limb, that would be an accurate perception.
Still, for the moment, the US retains the third leg of its economic strength. The dollar is still the default currency in the world and the US news media eagerly provide updates that confirm that the dollar is rising against the other major currencies in the world.
The decline of these currencies is due to the fact that the countries that produce them have also attended the party for decades and have also gotten heavily into debt. The ability to expand that debt is beginning to crumble, resulting in currency devaluations.
So, will the default dollar save the US, and allow the party to continue?
Well, no. In fact the dollar is in far greater trouble than the other major currencies, but it has a bit more lead time before it collapses. I often describe the dollar as being “the best-looking horse in the glue factory.” It will be the last to fall, but will most assuredly do so.
When this particular party ends, it will be one for the record books.
In its wake, it will leave a generation of now-aging Americans who have always been able to have their cake and eat it, too.
As a result, they’ll be unable to cope with the economic hangover that they’ll be facing.
This suggests that the recovery will take a very long time – a generation or more.
For those who plan long-term, the US will be a poor choice as regards progress and prosperity for a long time to come.
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