Financial repression refers to a set of governmental policies that keep real interest rates low or negative and regulate or manipulate a captive audience into investing in government debt. This results in cheap funding and will be a prime tool used by governments in highly indebted developed market economies to improve their balance sheets over the coming decades. … We should all be familiar with the effects of financial repression by now. If not, compare the declining amount of interest income coming out of your savings account to the rising costs you pay for groceries, gasoline, or (shield your eyes) college tuition. It has been nearly five years since we heard a loud “THUD” as the nominal yield of the short term U.S. Treasury note hit zero percent. The resulting negative real interest rates have become a pervasive feature of our economic landscape, and we expect them to persist for a very long time.
As the world seems to be struggling back to its feet after the great financial crisis, I want to draw attention to an area we need to be concerned about: the conduct of monetary policy in this integrated world. A good way to describe the current environment is one of extreme monetary easing through unconventional policies. In a world where debt overhangs and the need for structural change constrain domestic demand, a sizeable portion of the effects of such policies spillover across borders, sometimes through a weaker exchange rate. More worryingly, it prompts a reaction. Such competitive easing occurs both simultaneously and sequentially, as I will argue, and both advanced economies and emerging economies engage in it. Aggregate world demand may be weaker and more distorted than it should be, and financial risks higher. To ensure stable and sustainable growth, the international rules of the game need to be revisited. Both advanced economies and emerging economies need to adapt, else I fear we are about to embark on the next leg of a wearisome cycle. … The current non-system in international monetary policy is, in my view, a source of substantial risk, both to sustainable growth as well as to the financial sector. It is not an industrial country problem, nor an emerging market problem, it is a problem of collective action. We are being pushed towards competitive monetary easing.
- The Fed is sending a message that the unwinding of its extraordinary accommodation will be done with great care and patience, and will take time – a long time.
- In delaying a taper, not only did the Fed show markets it has little tolerance for any tightening of financial conditions, it also strengthened its forward guidance considerably.
- The Fed’s decision to delay a taper will likely relieve some of the upward pressure on longer-term interest rates.
- While Europe has emerged out of recession, the relative tightness of monetary policy means the eurozone is still struggling to get back to potential pre-Lehman growth rates.
- The European Central Bank should be able to maintain stability over the cyclical horizon while policymakers continue to address outstanding issues as they look to build a less vulnerable monetary union.
- We are selective in our approach to regional credit and remain neutral on the euro, balancing our cyclical outlook with longer-term secular concerns on the eurozone outlook and valuations.
From the cyclical monthly high in interest rates in the 1990-91 recession through June of this year, the 30-year Treasury bond yield has dropped from 9% to 3%. This massive decline in long rates was hardly smooth with nine significant backups. In these nine cases yields rose an average of 127 basis points, with the range from about 200 basis points to 60 basis points (Chart 1). The recent move from the monthly low in February has been modest by comparison. Importantly, this powerful 6 percentage point downward move in long-term Treasury rates was nearly identical to the decline in the rate of inflation as measured by the monthly year-over-year change in the Consumer Price Index which moved from just over 6% in 1990 to 0% today. Therefore, it was the backdrop of shifting inflationary circumstances that once again determined the trend in long-term Treasury bond yields. ... In almost all cases, including the most recent rise, the intermittent change in psychology that drove interest rates higher in the short run, occurred despite weakening inflation. There was, however, always a strong sentiment that the rise marked the end of the bull market, and a major trend reversal was taking place. This is also the case today. ... Presently, four misperceptions have pushed Treasury bond yields to levels that represent significant value for long-term investors. These are:
1. The recent downturn in economic activity will give way to improving conditions and even higher bond yields.
2. Intensifying cost pressures will lead to higher inflation/yields.
3. The inevitable normalization of the Federal Funds rate will work its way up along the yield curve causing long rates to rise.
4. The bond market is in a bubble, and like all manias, it will eventually burst.
- Also: Wall Street Journal - Higher Rates Wouldn’t Tame Bubbles Even if Central Banks Tried, IMF Paper Says < 5min
- Also: Financial Times - Technology, inflation and the Federal Reserve < 5min
- Also: CFA Institute - Complexity: The Hidden Cost of Central Bank Actions < 5min
- Also: Financial Times - Shadow banks step into the lending void < 5min
The last decade has seen an extraordinary rise in the importance of a unique class of investor. Generally referred to as “price-insensitive buyers,” these are asset owners for whom the expected returns of the assets they buy are not a primary consideration in their purchase decisions. Such buyers have been the explanation behind a whole series of market price movements that otherwise have not seemed to make sense in a historical context. In today’s world, where prices of all sorts of assets are trading far above historical norms, it is worth recognizing that investors prepared to buy assets without regard to the price of those assets may also find themselves in a position to sell those assets without regard to price as well. This potential is compounded by the reduction in liquidity in markets around the world, which has been driven by tighter regulation of financial institutions, and, paradoxically, a greater desire for liquidity on the part of market participants. Making matters worse, in order to see massive changes in the price of a security, you don’t need the price-insensitive buyer to become a seller. You merely need him to cease being the marginal buyer. If price-insensitive buyers actually become price-insensitive sellers, it becomes possible that price falls could take asset prices significantly below historical norms. This is not to suggest that such an event is inevitable, still less is it an attempt to predict in which assets and when it will occur, but anyone conditioned to think that these investors provide a permanent support for the markets should be aware that the support may at some point be taken away.
With this general framework in mind, here’s how I’ve been thinking about the global macro outlook for a while: It is driven by the interaction among what I call the “three gluts”: the savings glut, the oil glut and the money glut. While the global savings glut is likely the main secular force behind the global environment of low growth, lowflation and low interest rates, both the oil and the money glut should help lift demand growth, inflation and thus interest rates from their current depressed levels over the cyclical horizon. ... Why is it, to simplify further, that everybody wants to save more but nobody wants to invest? ... The oil glut helps to mitigate the depressing impact of the savings glut on consumer demand by shifting income from oil producers, who have a high propensity to save, to consumers, who typically spend most of their income. ... We expect more monetary easing to come, particularly in China and in many commodity-producing countries, so the global money glut, which is already increasing due to heavyweights like the European Central Bank and the Bank of Japan executing their asset purchase programs, will swell further.
Beware the Ides of March, or the Ides of any month in 2015 for that matter. When the year is done, there will be minus signs in front of returns for many asset classes. The good times are over. ... Timing the end of an asset bull market is nearly always an impossible task, and that is one reason why most market observers don’t do it. The other reason is that most investors are optimists by historical experience or simply human nature, and it never serves their business interests to forecast a decline in the price of the product that they sell. Nevertheless, there comes a time when common sense must recognize that the king has no clothes, or at least that he is down to his Fruit of the Loom briefs, when it comes to future expectations for asset returns. Now is that time and hopefully the next 12 monthly “Ides” will provide some air cover for me in terms of an inflection point. ... Even with the recognition of the Minsky Moment in 2008 and his commonsensical reflection that “stability ultimately leads to instability,” investors have continued to assume that monetary (and at times fiscal) policy could contain the long-term business cycle and produce continuing prosperity for investors in a multitude of asset classes both domestically and externally in emerging markets. ... If real growth in most developed and highly levered economies cannot be normalized with monetary policy at the zero bound, then investors will ultimately seek alternative havens. Not immediately, but at the margin, credit and assets are exchanged for figurative and sometimes literal money in a mattress. As it does, the system delevers, as cash at the core or real assets at the exterior become the more desirable holding. The secular fertilization of credit creation and the wonders of the debt supercycle may cease to work as intended at the zero bound.
Combined stock repurchases by U.S. public companies have reached record levels, a Reuters analysis finds, but as the recent history of such iconic businesses as Hewlett-Packard and IBM suggests, showering cash on shareholders may exact a long-term toll. ... A Reuters analysis shows that many companies are barreling down the same road, spending on share repurchases at a far faster pace than they are investing in long-term growth through research and development and other forms of capital spending. ... Almost 60 percent of the 3,297 publicly traded non-financial U.S. companies Reuters examined have bought back their shares since 2010. In fiscal 2014, spending on buybacks and dividends surpassed the companies’ combined net income for the first time outside of a recessionary period, and continued to climb for the 613 companies that have already reported for fiscal 2015. ... In the most recent reporting year, share purchases reached a record $520 billion. Throw in the most recent year’s $365 billion in dividends, and the total amount returned to shareholders reaches $885 billion, more than the companies’ combined net income of $847 billion. ... Among the 1,900 companies that have repurchased their shares since 2010, buybacks and dividends amounted to 113 percent of their capital spending, compared with 60 percent in 2000 and 38 percent in 1990. ... For decades, the computer hardware, software and services company has linked executive pay in part to earnings per share, a metric that can be manipulated by share repurchases.
Future business activity will reflect two economic realities: 1) the over-indebted state of the U.S. economy and the world; and 2) the inability of the Federal Reserve to initiate policies to promote growth in this environment. ... The first reality has been widely acknowledged, as developed and developing countries both have debt-to-GDP ratios sufficiently large to argue for a slowing growth outlook. ... The second economic reality is the failure of the Federal Reserve to produce economic progress despite years of wide-ranging efforts. The Fed’s zero interest rate policy (ZIRP) and quantitative easing (QE) have been ineffectual, if not a net negative, for the economy’s growth path. ... The evidence speaks for itself: the Fed cannot print money. The Fed does not have the authority or the mechanism to print money. They have not, they are not and they will not print money under present laws.
In our view, successfully divining the trajectory of markets today has a great deal to do with properly separating the bountiful amounts of information and data we have access to into that which is genuinely useful and that which serves to distract. As a case in point, while we have indeed weighed in on this debate ourselves, the endless discussions about the precise timing of Federal Reserve policy rate lift-off receive far too much attention from investors and the media. Indeed, we think less of a focus on transitory issue like this, and more attention paid to longer-term market influences such as demographic trends and technological change can go some distance toward improving an investment process longer-term. To that end, in this edition of our market outlook we briefly examine a set of influences on markets that we think hold meaningful importance longer-term (demographics, technology, policy evolution and risk, liquidity, and valuation), while at the same time dispelling a set of assertions that we believe are either over-emphasized or mistaken. ... The days of a simple risk-on/risk-off dynamic, depending on whether policy stimulus was waxing or waning, are likely behind us. ... the time may finally have come when carry-focused investments may now be priced as attractively as beta (or down-the-capital-stack) instruments, so investors can selectively search for opportunities there. As described above, though, there are some tail risks in markets, so care is still required. And, perhaps most importantly, investors would do well to tune out the endless streams of noise generated by financial market commentators and focus on the secular themes likely to both endure and help create long-term value.
Fed Chair Janet Yellen is widely viewed as a dovish central banker, but she is about to lead her institution into a prolonged campaign of raising the policy interest rate. Starting now is a tactical decision on Yellen’s part to achieve her longer-run strategic aim. Hiking the funds rate, even as economic growth disappoints and inflation remains subdued, buys Yellen the credibility with her colleagues and market participants to subsequently tighten slowly. Thus, US monetary policy will remain accommodative for a considerable period. ... That Yellen may go down in central banking history as “The Great Tightener” appears to pose more than a little irony, perhaps to the coming surprise and irritation of Senate Democrats who signed a letter to the president endorsing her Fed-chair candidacy in 2013. Yet, the shift in policy does not reflect a transformation of her beliefs, but rather their pursuit by different means. Tightening now follows logically from Yellen’s understanding of the economic outlook and the dynamics of the Fed’s policymaking group, the Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC). Hiking the funds rate, even as economic growth disappoints and inflation remains subdued, buys Yellen the credibility with her colleagues and market participants to subsequently tighten slowly. That is, Yellen positions herself now as a conservative central banker to ensure that she can be a compassionate one later by allowing Fed policy to remain considerably accommodative for a considerable time. ... An important ongoing conversation is in our future: who is right about rates in the long run, the Fed or investors?
Economists are always right, even when they are not, aren’t they? Fat chance. The reality is very different. Writing these letters is akin to being constantly exposed, and – at times - looking rather silly. But I still enjoy it, so allow me to stick my neck out again and go against the consensus, because that is, at the end of the day, how you make money in this industry. ... The broad consensus is that DM countries are finally returning to some sort of normality (often called the New Normal), following years of Zombie-like conditions. There is, admittedly, a growing recognition that GDP growth is likely to disappoint for quite a while to come, but I believe that ‘quite a while’ should be measured in decades and not, as most seem to believe, in years ... In the following, I will argue that GDP growth will disappoint for a very long time to come, and that will obviously have an effect on corporate earnings growth as well. As I see things, most investors are still way too optimistic on GDP growth and corporate earnings growth for the next many years. ... There are in reality not one but at least four reasons why returns on financial assets will1 disappoint in the years to come, and they are (in no particular order):
1. Regulatory changes.
2. The end of the debt super-cycle.
3. Wealth-to-GDP to normalise.
4. A deteriorating demographic outlook.
Some aches and pains are constraining the global economy, with more severe strains occurring in the emerging world. We believe contagion to the US and Europe will be limited in 2016, and expect their consumer revivals to continue, courtesy of low inflation, low commodity prices, central bank intervention and reduced fiscal austerity. However, above-average equity valuations, peaking corporate earnings momentum and stagnant productivity growth will likely result in a year of modest single- digit returns on diversified portfolios. ... This year’s cover art transforms some well-known aches and pains: exhaustion, tinnitus, periodontitis, bronchitis, acid reflux, hangovers, restless leg syndrome, appendicitis, conjunctivitis, anemia, mononucleosis, E. coli infections, iron deficiency, narcolepsy, macular degeneration and altitude sickness. These aggravating but generally not life- threatening conditions are meant to convey a slow growth world, but not one on the precipice of collapse or recession. Competitive devaluations are unlikely to alleviate these aches and pains; successive rounds of currency depreciation in Europe and Asia mostly redistribute income across countries, rather than boost aggregate demand. ... Most of these conditions are homegrown: Latin American and Australian overexposure to commodity prices, weak consumer activity in Japan, economic dissonance across countries in the Eurozone, a surge in dollar-borrowing emerging economies and slowing corporate profits growth in the US. However, some conditions are the result of contagion: “ECBotulism” refers to the impact of ECB policy on countries like Sweden that are forced to engage in destabilizing quantitative easing, or lose export market share (see page 15 for more details). As for Canada, there was no need to transform the name of an illness for our cover: “Dutch Disease” refers to an economic condition in which one sector of the economy (in this case, oil and gas) drives the currency to such a high level that it causes medium-term damage to the rest of the country’s export sectors.
Given the importance of spillovers from monetary policies, especially in the face of globally low inflation, it is important we start building a global consensus on how to get better outcomes for the world. Nevertheless, with economic analysis of these issues at an early stage, it is unlikely we will get strong policy prescriptions soon, let alone international agreement on them, especially given that a number of country authorities like central banks have explicit domestic mandates. ... This paper therefore suggests a period of focused discussion, first outside international meetings, then within international meetings. Such a discussion need not take place in an environment of finger pointing and defensiveness, but as an attempt to understand what can be reasonable, and not overly intrusive, rules of conduct. ... As consensus builds on the rules of conduct, we can contemplate the next step of whether to codify them through international agreement, see how the Articles of multilateral watchdogs like the IMF will have to be altered, and how country authorities will interpret or alter domestic mandates to incorporate international responsibilities. ... The international community has a choice. We can pretend all is well with the global financial non-system and hope that nothing goes spectacularly wrong. Or we can start building a system for the integrated world of the twenty first century.
Most significant for future growth, however, is that the additional layer of debt in 2015 is a liability going forward since debt is always a shift from future spending to the present. The negative impact, historically, has occurred more swiftly and more seriously as economies became extremely over-indebted. Thus, while the debt helped to prop up economic growth in 2015, this small plus will be turned into a longer lasting negative that will diminish any benefit from last year’s debt bulge. ... Our economic view for 2016 remains unchanged. The composition of last year’s debt gain indicates that velocity will decline more sharply in 2016 than 2015. The modest Fed tightening is a slight negative for both M2 growth and velocity. Additionally, velocity appears to have dropped even faster in the first quarter of 2016 than in the fourth quarter of 2015. Thus, nominal GDP growth should slow to a 2.3% - 2.8% range for the year. The slower pace in nominal GDP would continue the 2014-15 pattern, when the rate of rise in nominal GDP decelerated from 3.9% to 3.1%. Such slow top line growth suggests that spurts in inflation will simply reduce real GDP growth and thus be transitory in nature.
Since we’re in the midst of election season, with promises of cures for our economic woes being thrown around, this seems like a particularly appropriate time to explore what can and can’t be achieved within the laws of economics. Those laws might not work 100% of the time the way physical laws do, but they generally tend to define the range of outcomes. It’s my goal here to point out how some of the things that central banks and governments try to do – and election candidates promise to do – fly in the face of those laws. ... Let’s start with central banks’ attempts to achieve monetary stimulus. When central banks want to help economies grow, they take actions such as reducing the interest rates they charge on loans to banks or, more recently, buying assets (“quantitative easing”). In theory, both of these will add to the funds in circulation and encourage economic activity. The lower rates are, and the more money there is in circulation, the more likely people and businesses will be to borrow, spend and invest. These things will make the economy more vibrant. ... But there’s a catch. Central bankers can’t create economic progress they can only stimulate activity temporarily. ... In the long term, these things are independent of the amount of money in circulation or the rate of interest. The level of economic activity is determined by the nation’s productiveness. ... Much of what central banks do consists of making things happen today that otherwise would happen sometime in the future. ... the truth is, this “tyranny of the majority” is an unhealthy development. First, society does better when able members have strong incentive to contribute. Second, upward aspiration and mobility will be constrained when taxes become confiscatory. Finally, taxpayers aren’t necessarily powerless in the face of rising tax rates.
The New Normal is when plain logic no longer applies; when common sense takes the back seat. I have for a long time been defending the Federal Reserve Bank, and have not at all agreed with all those hawks who thought the Fed was sitting on its hands. Until recently, I felt very comfortable taking that view, but I am no longer so sure. Common sense suggests to me that the Fed ought to tighten a great deal more than they have already done, but does common sense apply? That is what this month’s Absolute Return Letter is about. ... something is not quite right, but what is it? Before I answer that question, let me share one more observation with you. Because the Fed is so inactive, there are signs of moral hazard growing in magnitude. Complacency appears to be sneaking in through the back door yet again. We humans never learn, do we? ... As GDP growth slows, more debt needs to be established in order to service existing debt, which will cause GDP growth to slow even further. I therefore think that, unless it suddenly becomes fashionable to default, debt will continue to rise and GDP growth will continue to slow in the years to come. ... I have changed my view in one important aspect. As debt levels continue to rise (short of any massive debt restructuring), governments will bend over backwards to keep interest rates at very low levels, as the only realistic alternative to low interest rates is default. ... Historically, when central banks have sat on their hands for too long, the end result has almost always been a bout of unpleasantly high inflation, and that has nothing whatsoever to do with the changing demographics.
In the late 1800s, a surge in silver production made a shift toward a monetary standard based on gold and silver rather than gold alone increasingly attractive to debtors seeking relief through higher prices. The U.S. government made a tentative step in this direction with the Sherman Silver Purchase Act, an 1890 law requiring the Treasury to significantly increase its purchases of silver. Concern about the United States abandoning the gold standard, however, drove up the demand for gold, which drained the Treasury’s holdings and created strains on the financial system’s liquidity. News in April 1893 that the government was running low on gold was followed by the Panic in May and a severe depression involving widespread commercial and bank failures.
Following 17 months of mostly negative equity returns in Europe, very recently, I have noticed an inclination amongst European investors to increase the risk profile in their portfolios. They may not exactly be going for broke (yet), but the willingness to take more risk is clearly on the rise. The rising appetite for risk could be driven by one of two factors. Investors could either be turning more optimistic, or it could be the result of less benign factors, such as a need to generate higher returns, whether they really believe in such an outcome or not. ... In short, I suspect investors are chasing returns that (I think) are unrealistic, and it is not the first time that happens. When investors are under extreme pressure, as I think many are now, they sometimes behave quite irrationally. They do things they would have sworn only a short while earlier they would never do. ... Is there anything else investors could do to raise the overall return level and, in particular, to generate more income without necessarily taking more risk?
Two groups of true believers are driving changes in the developed world. The first: single-minded central bankers who spent trillions of dollars pushing government bond yields close to zero (and below). While this unprecedented monetary experiment helped owners of stocks and real estate, its regressive nature did little to satisfy the second group: voters who are disenfranchised by globalization and automation, and who are on the march. What next? The fiscal experiments now begin (again). ... why do we see 2017 as another year of modest portfolio gains despite the length of the current global expansion, one of the longest in history? As 2016 came to a close, global business surveys improved to levels consistent with 3% global GDP growth, suggesting that corporate profits will start growing at around 10% again after a weak 2016. More positive news: a rise in industrial metals prices, which is helpful in spotting turns in the business cycle ... Furthermore (and I understand that there’s plenty of disagreement on the benefits of this), many developed countries are transitioning from “monetary stimulus only” to expansionary fiscal policy as well. Political establishments are aware of mortal threats to their existence, and are looking to fiscal stimulus (or at least, less austerity) as a means of getting people back to work. The problem: given low productivity growth and low growth in labor supply, many countries are closer to full capacity than you might think. If so, too much fiscal stimulus could result in wage inflation and higher interest rates faster than you might think as well. That is certainly one of the bigger risks for the US.
We view Donald Trump’s ascendancy to the Presidency of the U.S. as confirmation of a political and economic paradigm shift that started with Brexit but is likely to continue for the foreseeable future, including elections across Europe in 2017. Consistent with this view, we believe that there are four major potentially secular changes that all investment professionals must consider: fiscal stimulus over monetary, domestic agendas over global ones, deregulation over reregulation, and a broadening of outsized volatility from the currency markets to include global interest rate markets. The good news is that many of our highest conviction investment themes for 2016, including the ongoing slowdown in global trade, had already begun to capture this sea change in macro and geopolitical trends. At the same time, however, in certain areas our macro preferences have evolved of late in response to the “new” reality that we now live in. As such, we have used this outlook piece to challenge conventional investment wisdom, and in some instances, “adjust our sails.” In terms of asset allocation preferences for 2017, we are still probably most excited by what we see in Private Credit on a risk-adjusted basis. We also believe that Real Assets, particularly those with yield and growth, can prosper in the macro backdrop that we envision. Meanwhile, we are now balanced in our outlook on Equities versus Credit, but in both asset classes, we continue to suggest selling Simplicity and buying Complexity. Overall, though, we do not lose sight of the fact that we are undergoing a paradigm shift, and often these types of regime changes do not always transition smoothly. As a result, we maintain our long-held approach of seeking to monetize aggressively the periodic dislocations that inevitably occur in a world of increasing geopolitical uncertainty and macro instability.
The regulator closed almost 100 banks in 2016, and in a cleanup with few precedents, Nabiullina has shut almost 300 over the past three years. This may be only the beginning. There are about 600 banks left across the world’s largest country, but Fitch Ratings analyst Alexander Danilov, adjusting for population, calculates that as an emerging market Russia would be fine with about 1 in 10 of those. ... she runs what in Russia is called a “megaregulator.” When it comes to the economics behind Putin’s overarching goal of restoring Russia’s place in the world, there’s no one more influential. ... As central bank governor, she’s in charge of a banking system whose weak links are an economic burden, driving up the cost of financing so badly needed in the face of stagnant growth. She’s also the chief guardian of Russia’s foreign currency reserves. Those holdings are more than just a tool of monetary policy; according to several senior officials, Putin views them as a vital safeguard of the country’s sovereignty. ... The full picture only becomes clear when they’re shut down and regulators have to track the assets. In those cases, only about 40 percent of what the banks claimed was on their books actually existed
The challenge of normalizing policy will be to undo bad habits that have developed in how monetary policy is explained and understood. ... To re-establish a shared understanding, we will need to reassess both the imperatives that justified the extraordinary actions and the imperatives about monetary policy that were claimed. This will require candidly acknowledging the uncertainty associated with the transmission mechanism and the challenge of decision-making in conditions of uncertainty. ... It appears to me that the Fed and other central banks have avoided being candid about the uncertainty in order to maintain their credibility. I think this is backwards. Central banks cannot and will not regain their credibility unless they are candid about the uncertainty and how they confront that uncertainty.
- Also: Financial Times - US Treasuries: On the cusp of a reversal < 5min
- Also: FiveThirtyEight - The Fed’s Favorite Inflation Predictors Aren’t Very Predictive < 5min
- Also: Absolute Return Partners - A Note on Inflation: Is it here or isn’t it? 5-15min
- Also: Janus - Show Me The Money < 5min
- Also: Financial Times - Three ways the economic and financial cycle could end < 5min
In the mid-to-late nineteen-sixties, as gold’s role in the international monetary system was about to implode, a handful of top Johnson Administration officials, a few sympathetic members of Congress, and hundreds of government-paid scientists set off on a nuclear-age alchemical quest. Barr gave it the code name Operation Goldfinger. The government would end up looking for gold in the oddest places: seawater, meteorites, plants, even deer antlers. In an era during which people wanted badly to believe in the peaceful use of subatomic energy, plans were drawn up to use nuclear explosives to extract gold from deep inside the Earth, and even to use particle accelerators to try to change base metals into gold. ... Operation Goldfinger represented the logical culmination of a government obsession with not having enough gold. The post-war global economy was expanding much faster than the gold supply that propped it up. Dollars freely convertible to gold were the underpinning of the world’s monetary system, and President John F. Kennedy—and many others—feared that if holders of dollars and other U.S. securities were to cash in their paper for gold, there wouldn’t be enough gold to exchange, and a global crisis could ensue.