Practical analysis for investment professionals
03 April 2013

Currency Wars: “The Fed is Playing with a Nuclear Reactor”

The United States is at war, but not in the conventional sense. There are no troops on the ground. There are no drone strikes. Instead, the weapon of choice is the US dollar and the “enemy” is America’s trading partners. Welcome to Currency War III.

That, at any rate, is James G. Rickards’s view of the world. In a presentation at the recent Global Investment Risk Symposium, Rickards, a partner at JAC Capital Advisors and author of Currency Wars: The Making of the Next Global Crisis, outlined the case for why the international monetary system is dominated by currency wars. He also argued that capital markets are complex systems that are bordering on a “critical state” and are “potentially prone to collapse” — and that the US Federal Reserve risks “melting down the system.”

As Rickards sees it, we are well into the third currency war of the past 100 years. President Obama fired the first salvo during his 2010 State of the Union address, when he announced the launch of the National Export Initiative and said the goal was to double exports over the next five years. The easiest way to do that, of course, is to cheapen the US dollar. But that is only part of the explanation, Rickards said.

To really understand what is going on, you have to start with the quantity theory of money, or MV = PQ. (Quick refresher: PQ = nominal GDP, Q = real GDP, P = inflation/deflation, M = money supply, and V = velocity of money.) The issue here is that the theory doesn’t hold up in the real world because velocity — the number of times money changes hands, or turns over — is not constant. “Velocity is collapsing,” Rickards said. “You can think of monetary policy as a desperate race between increasing money supply and decreasing velocity, and the Fed is printing money to offset the decline in velocity. . . . So the Fed’s problem is best understood as one of trying to bend this velocity curve.”

How exactly does Fed do this? Through “propaganda” and a mix of “carrots and sticks,” according to Rickards.

The carrot is negative real rates, and the stick “is to shock you with inflation.” Here is how it plays out: the negative real rates incent you to borrow, an inflation shock makes you want to spend, the “lending and spending machine” gets going again, and nominal GDP starts increasing. Then, real GDP gets back to trend and becomes self-sustaining, and “we all live happily ever after.”

Except for one problem. The Fed, Rickards contends, is “going to fail.”

He said negative real rates and inflation shock “both require 4% inflation — 2% won’t cut it.” So you have to think about 4% inflation as the Fed’s real target. And to get to the 4% hurdle, the US central bank will cheapen the dollar, which raises import prices and drives up inflation.

Plenty could go wrong, however. “The Fed thinks they are playing with a thermostat,” Rickards said. “They think, ‘If the economy is too cool, you dial it up a little bit. If the economy is too hot, you dial it back down. It’s linear, it’s reversible, it’s all good. Everything is under control.'”

But in reality, he continued, “capital markets and financial markets are complex systems, which respond and correspond to complex dynamics, including critical state dynamics.” The metaphor is not in fact a thermostat, Rickards said. It is a nuclear power plant: “You can dial a nuclear power plant up and down,” he said, “but you had better get it right. Because if you get it wrong, you will cause a catastrophic meltdown, and it is an irreversible process. There’s no such thing as a melt-up; if you destroy it, it stays destroyed.”

Rickards believes the Fed, its staff, and its economists “misapprehend the statistical probabilities of risk” because they don’t understand how risk works in complex systems. “They are using Keynesianism, they are using monetarism, they are using modern financial economics,” he said. “Most of this stuff is deeply flawed, if not completely junk science.” He believes the right way to think about risk is by using complexity theory. “When you start looking at things that way, you will see that this is a system that is bordering on the critical state and potentially prone to collapse.”

Rickards said  capital markets are “not only complex systems,” but also “complex systems nonpareil. They are the quintessence of complexity.” And all complex systems have various features, including “phase transitions,” which is just a change in the state (think of water and steam), and “critical state dynamics,” which Rickards explained “is just an extreme version of the change in the state.”

In critical state dynamics, Rickards said, “minute changes in initial conditions can result in catastrophically different outcomes.”

So are we in the critical state right now? “It’s impossible to know,” Rickards said. “But I am certain that we are closer to the critical state than we ever have been before. This is why I say the Fed is playing with a nuclear reactor. They think they are not. They think they are playing with a thermostat. But they risk melting down the system.”

Please note that the content of this site should not be construed as investment advice, nor do the opinions expressed necessarily reflect the views of CFA Institute.

About the Author(s)
Lauren Foster

Lauren Foster was a content director on the professional learning team at CFA Institute and host of the Take 15 Podcast. She is the former managing editor of Enterprising Investor and co-lead of CFA Institute’s Women in Investment Management initiative. Lauren spent nearly a decade on staff at the Financial Times as a reporter and editor based in the New York bureau, followed by freelance writing for Barron’s and the FT. Lauren holds a BA in political science from the University of Cape Town, and an MS in journalism from Columbia University.

17 thoughts on “Currency Wars: “The Fed is Playing with a Nuclear Reactor””

  1. Jesse Palmer says:

    Scary stuff! 🙂

  2. Sean says:

    The Austrians have it right!

  3. r man says:

    mmm indeed.
    I wonder what Jim thinks of the idea that the fed will increase reserve req to prevent inflation.

  4. rahul joshi says:

    great essay…. i wish even i could do such marvelous Economic Analysis!!!

  5. Frank H says:

    I have to make a comment. You are making a grave mistake. You are NOT using the quantity theory of money! you are using the simplified version, know as cambridge equation, which is total nonsense, since it comes from keynesian liquidity preference theory. Your collapsing V is also nonsense. The true equation is Mx V = P x Q, Where Q is anything money can be spent on, and P is Not the CPI or GDP deflator, but prices of anything that money can be spent on. You con’t have a collapse of V, but an incorrect mesurement of P, which is prices of everything, goods and services, stocks, bonds, golds etc. If you define inflation to be the increase in all prices, including stocks and bonds, then we are already in an hyperinflation situation!

  6. rbblum says:

    If Rickards is correct in his assessment, then it could also be said that the U S education system has been wrong for a very long time.

  7. Hello everyone who has commented

    Thank you for posting your comments and sharing your points of view with the other readers. It is always helpful to expand the discussion beyond the blog post — in this instance, a summation of the arguments presented by a conference speaker.

    Lauren Foster

  8. Pingry says:


    Look, MV=PQ (or, more accurately, MV=PY) is NOT the Quantity Theory of Money. It’s called the Equation of Exchange, which, of course, is an accounting identity. It’s a mathematical truism. The Quantity Theory of Money, on the other hand, imposes particular behavioral assumptions on the Equation of Exchange. Historically, it has assumed that velocity is fixed, but Milton Friedman and the Monetarists calmed down the Classical craziness, and simply maintained that in their version of the Quantity Theory, velocity is empirically predictable. And, of course, they were dead wrong about that as well as their k% money growth rule.

    I expected the CFA Institute to be smarter than making an Econ-101 mistake by screwing up the difference between an accounting identity and a behavioral relationship, to say nothing of the rest of this atrocious article.

    1. Alan says:

      Your ignorance is superseded only by your arrogance. Your pedigree is no match to his.

  9. Michalr says:

    I’ve watched some interviews with Mr. Jim and they can make big impression, this person is great speaker. The idea of looking at the monetary policy from different perspective is really worth to analyze. Monetary policy in current economic environment doesn’t work in very casual way, as the world economy is still in undesirable equilibrium. OMT in EU and QE in USA are tools that can be seen as a modern solution for current troubles, and adtionally, Japan path shows that deflation trap could be very serious problem. There are many acpects of this discussion and one conclusion is coming out from it. Mr. Jim is supporter of going back to the gold standard, and this seems to be a little bit controversial, but … there is some reasoning behind that statement. Gold standard would be cure for currency war, that is a fact. However, politicians are denying the idea that there is any form of currency war now, so the problem can be smaller that Mr. Jim is claiming. It would be hard to imagine that any country would officially “start” currency war with any other country, as supervision from such institutions as IMF or WTO would play certain role here. This whole idea of blowing up the economy and going back to gold standard is black scenario, and it is rather nonprobable, as Japan shows that deflation trap is more serious problem, and G-8, G-20 meetings, IMF, WTO have some political power which can protect the world from currency manipulation.

  10. Aaron Schindler says:

    But why is velocity collapsing and will that reverse?

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