Are We Rome? FreedomFest Explores the Question

Published July 18, 2013

The theme for this year’s FreedomFest, which ended last weekend in Las Vegas, was “Are We Rome?” John Stossel explored that question while taping his show in front of 1,000 enthusiastic fans. It airs tonight, July 18, at 9:00 p.m. EST on the Fox Business Channel.

It was great fun watching the taping, and you’ll get a kick out of Laissez Faire Book’s Jeffrey Tucker and his comments about how cruel the Fed’s zero interest-rate policy has been for savers. It’s an action-packed show that includes, in addition to Mr. Tucker, Steve Forbes of Forbes magazine, Grover Norquist of Americans for Tax Reform, and Steve Moore of The Wall Street Journal.

Struggling savers, of which there were plenty at FreedomFest, received lots of investment wisdom during this year’s largest gathering of free minds. However, there was no consensus as to what a person is to do.

The “all-star prediction panel” was a good example. Currency guru Axel Merk said he has half his non-real estate net worth in gold. With the dip in the yellow metal’s price, he has been buying, and despite having a sizable exposure to the barbarous relic, he’d like more. There is too much debt in the world, and governments will try to inflate it away, he said.

‘Best Horse in the Glue Factory’

Bert Dohmen was sitting next to Merk, but his view was much different. He said the U.S. is the safest place in the world and the dollar is heading up. Gold bugs are just too emotional, he claimed. “Count your blessings,” Dohmen told the crowd. “Don’t count sheep.” Why does he like the dollar so much? He can’t say it’s a quality currency, but it does have liquidity. “The U.S. is still the best horse in the glue factory.”

At the end of the dais was former Margaret Thatcher spokesman John Browne, who said the U.S. government is killing America and crushing the middle class. He’s no dollar fan. The currency’s value has been hammered by 98.2 percent since the Fed went into business one hundred years ago. He predicts a coming dollar crisis that will lead to a worldwide paper crisis. He said we should hold gold as a hedge against financial calamity. Price inflation is not coming; a worldwide recession is on its way.

Two gentlemen on the panel, Alex Green and Travis Brown, see stocks going higher in the coming year. But Merk countered there is no place to hide and one should spread risk in a basket of currencies.

Bullish on Agriculture, Russia

During the libertarian hedge fund panel, legendary investor Jim Rogers said the bull market in agriculture hasn’t even started yet. He is bullish on Russia, of all places. He had no specifics, saying that he didn’t want the crowd to get ahead of him, but he’s looking at Russian stocks, bonds, and the currency.

Donald Smith is buying the beaten-down gold stocks. He said shares like Yamana and Newmont are cheap and pay good dividends. He is also buying smaller gold names, but wouldn’t provide any specifics, because he is still buying. If the share prices continue to soften, he’ll keep buying, and at the right prices would be comfortable having 15% of his portfolio in gold shares. He believes some of these shares can appreciate by 10 times as gold rebounds.

Smith also likes the airline shares. He’s buying Southwest and US Airways. Rogers chimed in to say he also is buying foreign airlines. “We’re gonna lose money together,” Rogers said sardonically.

Mr. Supply-Side Economics, Art Laffer, had only one recommendation: “Do not lend money to the government.” Interest rates are going to rise, and bond investors will get crushed, Laffer emphasized.

Fed’s ‘Probably Insolvent’

The entity that is buying debt hand over fist is the Federal Reserve. At the end of his prepared remarks on the Austrian school perspective on the financial crisis, Cato Institute’s Gerald O’Driscoll pointed out the change in the Fed’s balance sheet from the crisis to today.

Many people know the central bank has grown its assets from $700 billion to $3.5 trillion in the past few years. More importantly, the Fed has gone from owning strictly Treasury bills (short term) to also owning the bad assets bought from the nation’s banks. “The central bank is probably insolvent,” O’Driscoll concluded.

Not only is the central bank’s asset quality suspect, but as Evan Lorenz reported in the latest Grant’s Interest Rate Observer, the recent rise in interest rates would be hammering the Fed if the central bank played by the same rules as other financial entities. Lorenz writes, “It would appear that the Fed lost — or would have lost, on a mark — $155.9 billion on the notes and bonds and MBS it held as of March 27, a sum nearly three times its stated $55 billion in equity…”

Big Banker Mistake

O’Driscoll, who partnered with Austrian school economist Steve Horowitz to make two very interesting presentations, made a rare observation. As the financial world was melting down in the summer of 2008, Bernanke made a huge central banker mistake. Instead of flooding the market with liquidity, O’Driscoll said, the Fed was lending heavily to stressed institutions but sterilizing that debt by buying debt from strong institutions.

This transferring of liquidity from strong to weak starved the market and led to the seizing up of the short-term credit markets. The policy didn’t change until Lehman Bros. failed in 2008. Lehman had borrowed short and was lending long. When the money markets dried up, the venerable investment bank went under.

Another interesting point made by O’Driscoll was that former Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan knew what was going on with the housing boom. After leaving the Fed in 2006, the Maestro, in a moment of candor, said if the Fed had made a move to stop the housing boom, “Congress would have clamped down on us.” So much for the Fed independence that we always hear about.

So “are we Rome?” We have the debased money, despotic rulers, bread and circuses, and excessive debt. However, Obama hasn’t elected his horse to the Senate, or had senator’s wives executed for not attending a mandatory Washington orgy.

Maybe Bert Dohmen is right, we should count our blessings. That doesn’t make saving and investing any easier.

Douglas French ([email protected]) is senior editor of the Laissez Faire Club and former president of the Ludwig von Mises Institute. Used with permission of