Editors' pick: Originally published Oct. 5.
As the national debt clock continues to tick up -- $19,539,841,772,036 and counting as of this writing -- the Trump and Clinton campaigns aren't proposing any serious plans to reduce it. They are instead arguing over which candidate's fiscal policies will expand the federal budget deficit the most.
The next president will inherent a fiscal gap that seems destined to grow wider and more insoluble. The portion of U.S. debt held by the public soared from 38% of gross domestic product in 1999 to 76% in 2016. Publicly held debt will keep growing against the economy in the years ahead -- to 141% of GDP by 2046, according to Congressional Budget Office projections.
The mounting government debt crisis raises fears that officials might one day resort to extreme measures to raise revenues, such as outright asset confiscation. Some precious metals investors fear in particular the prospect of gold confiscation.
There is some historical precedent. In 1933, President Franklin Roosevelt banned private ownership of gold bullion and ordered it all to be turned in. Since the U.S. dollar was then still pegged to a fixed gold price, FDR wanted to ensure that only the government benefited from his scheme to raise the gold price from $20.67 to $35 an ounce. That massive manipulation expanded the money supply, devalued the dollar, and raised price levels.
Today, the dollar is completely untethered to gold. Although gold bugs still rightly regard gold as a form of sound money, gold barely registers as a historical footnote as far as the central planners in Washington are concerned. To them, money is composed of the digits that follow a dollar sign. When former Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke was asked by Congressman Ron Paul in 2011 whether gold is money, Bernanke answered, "No. It's a precious metal.... It's an asset."
If federal authorities now view gold as just another asset among many others, then gold-specific confiscation campaigns are unlikely to be initiated. Less than 2% of the public even own any gold bullion. If the government decided to initiate a national asset grab to raise revenues, it wouldn't deploy thousands of armed agents to search basements and crawl spaces for hidden stashes of gold coins. It would seize assets electronically.
In the 1930s, there was no digital printing press at the Federal Reserve. There were no electronic bank or brokerage accounts; no IRAs or 401(k)s for the government to meddle with.
Today, it's not difficult for the government to confiscate trillions of dollars in private wealth through electronic means. Wealth holders should be on guard for these four possible scenarios:
1. Raise taxes to confiscatory levels. Tax hikes are a form a wealth confiscation. Hillary Clinton wants to raise the top rate on the estate tax to a confiscatory 65%. Overall, she would raise taxes by $1.5 trillion over the next decade, according to the The Wall Street Journal. There's no telling what additional new taxes a desperate President or an up-against-the-wall Congress might come up with in the event of a government funding crisis.
2. Nationalize retirement accounts. Wealth parked away in IRA and 401(k) accounts is viewed as a nest egg by millions of people. But their retirement account nest eggs could make them sitting ducks for sneak attacks by cash-hungry bureaucrats. Democrats in Congress have floated the idea of taxing retirement account balances above a certain level, forcing retirement accounts to hold government bonds, and even merging IRAs and 401(k)s into the Social Security system. Your Individual Retirement Account could become a Government Bailout Account.
3. Impose negative interest rates. This wealth transfer scheme is a new one, but it has rapidly spread throughout Europe and could be coming to the United States in the near future. When a government issues bonds at negative rates, bondholders pay interest to the government rather than receive it. Pension funds and banks are effectively forced to buy government bonds. Savers then end up owing interest on their cash savings. To prevent savers from withdrawing cash out of the banking system and escaping negative rates, the government could ban paper cash and declare dollars to exist only in electronic form.
4. Print up dollars in perpetuity. In theory, the government need not raise any taxes or seize any assets to transfer wealth to itself. It can steal away everyone's purchasing power through inflation. The Treasury department can simply write checks that the Federal Reserve immediately covers by creating new currency out of nothing. The Fed says it has no intention of monetizing government IOUs in this fashion. But through its Quantitative Easing bond buying programs the Fed has become the largest single holder of U.S. debt. A future Quantitative Easing program on steroids could put the country on a path toward Zimbabwe-style hyperinflation.
Regardless of which form (or combination of forms) the coming debt-induced, government wealth grabs take, dollar-denominated, electronically accessible assets will be the most vulnerable. Tangible assets such as gold and silver bullion coins generate no traceable electronic records. They can be held privately, outside of the financial system. And, perhaps most importantly, their value can't be wrecked by the ruins of inflation.
Stefan Gleason does not own any securities mentioned in this article.