As Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell prepares to speak Thursday at the U.S. central bank’s annual Jackson Hole Economic Symposium in Wyoming, the occasion offers a glimpse of just how dramatically once-slow-moving monetary forces have accelerated due to the devastating economic toll of the coronavirus pandemic.
This time last year, President Donald Trump was vehemently criticizing Powell on Twitter for setting interest rates too high, as U.S. economic growth slowed and the national debt swelled past $22 trillion.
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At at the 2019 Jackson Hole gathering, then-Bank of England Governor Mark Carney warned in a speech that the U.S. dollar’s status as the de facto global currency contributes to an unsustainable international economic and monetary regime. He argued that world leaders should create a “synthetic hegemonic currency,” potentially provided “through a network of central bank digital currencies.”
Fast forward to now, and the Jackson Hole conference has been forced to go virtual because of the coronavirus. Trump’s economic stewardship, including a U.S. stock market that many investors now say is propped up by the Fed’s $3 trillion of freshly printed money, has become a core issue in the 2020 presidential election. The national debt now stands at $26.5 trillion. Digital currencies are now being studied and pursued by central banks in China, the U.S. and just about everywhere else. Goldman Sachs recently warned the dollar risked losing its dominant reserve status.
“The pandemic has sped up key structural trends and triggered substantial market swings,” strategists for the $7 trillion money manager BlackRock wrote this week. “The policy revolution was needed to cushion the devastating and deflationary impact of the virus shock. In the medium term, however, the blurring of monetary and fiscal policy could bring about upside inflation risks.”
Many investors are betting on bitcoin as a hedge against the potential debasement of the U.S. dollar, but Fed officials say deflationary forces might be stronger because of an expected drop off in demand from consumers and households.
Crypto traders will focus in the short term on what the Fed’s speech might mean for bitcoin prices, which have surged almost 60% in 2020, far exceeding this year’s 7.7%year-to-date gain in the Standard & Poor’s 500 Index of U.S. stocks.
But the Fed’s actions could also have implications for ether, the native token of the Ethereum blockchain, where entrepreneurs are developing alternative currencies and semi-autonomous lending and trading networks that might one day replace the current financial system. There’s also a fast-growing business in dollar-linked “stablecoins,” with the amount doubling this year to $13 billion.
“So much has changed,” said Joe DiPasquale, CEO of the cryptocurrency-focused hedge fund BitBull Capital. “There is this danger of the U.S. [dollar] in the future no longer being the world’s reserve currency. We are in a much worse position than we were in a year ago.”
Mati Greenspan, founder of the cryptocurrency and foreign-exchange analysis firm Quantum Economics, wrote this week that Powell’s return to Jackson Hole comes at a time when “people are just starting to ask questions about the intrinsic value of money.”
“U.S. authorities have just taken on an inordinate amount of debt, more than they could possibly ever hope to pay back,” Greenspan wrote. “So the only viable option is to decrease the value of that debt by way of monetary debasement. It’s despicable and dangerous, but the only other option is austerity, which is too unpopular for any public servant to mention at this time.”
Bitcoin’s options market is foreseeing little price turbulence in the short-term despite central bank watchers expecting fireworks from the Federal Reserve on Thursday.
– Omkar Godbole
– Sebastian Sinclair