In recent years, we have seen economic attacks used to take down regimes. In the 2011 uprising in Egypt that displaced Hosni Mubarak, for example, the final trigger to the unrest was food prices, not anger about human rights abuses. It has been widely reported that inflated food prices were a primary factor behind the initial unrest. Egyptian households spend about 40 percent of their budget on food, and food prices had jumped 20 percent prior to the Egyptian revolution. Corn prices shot up 90 percent, and wheat slightly less. Speculation played a role in higher food prices. Certainly the global monetary inflation made this possible.
There should be no doubt that there was a serious economic driver behind the revolution in Egypt. The question then arises whether additional speculation on food prices could have been a geopolitical lever. Based on our research, the answer is an unequivocal yes.
Rapidly rising food prices can destabilize a society, and our enemies know how to drive prices higher through speculative market activity. We will see more destabilization caused by inflation-based riots.
I am not saying that the Muslim Brotherhood speculated on food prices as a weapon to topple Mubarak, although some sources say it did. I am saying that it is obvious that such a weapon could have been employed, profitably if imprecisely. The cost is certainly less than a major arms program, but the results are more dramatic.
Now, attacking America with food-price inflation would be difficult because we produce our own food. But energy, especially oil, is another matter. Could a huge oil price shock destroy our economy? Many think so. As long as the Arab nations, Russia, Iran, and Venezuela are the major producers, a supply shock is always possible, and it is even called for by liberated Iraq. And, as with food, speculation can push prices higher even in the face of ample supply.
That’s an oblique attack. A currency war, a selling of U.S. bonds, or an attempt to set another currency as the reserve currency would be far more direct and just as damaging. Whether from China or Russia or from rogue states like North Korea counterfeiting currency, America has left herself wide open to all sorts of economic attacks.
A common objection to my warning about China is that is the Chinese are so connected to our economy that “they” would never harm us. The idea that “the Chinese” would never harm us is ridiculous on its face; there are Chinese who continually hack our systems and who manipulate and undermine our markets. But don’t the Chinese hold so much in dollar debt that they couldn’t afford to see the dollar go down? China’s military doesn’t care. It has a much longer view of things than the next quarter’s export sales. The smug response of those who believe China needs us so much that it must remain our friend is another example of American arrogance.
There is further evidence of the danger from China. We have no idea how much of our debt the Chinese really hold. They have so many ways to obscure their holdings that we can’t ever be certain. In March 2012, Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner said he didn’t see any risk to the dollar from China’s attempts to establish the yuan as reserve currency with its trading partners. “What you’re seeing China do,” Geithner explained, “is gradually dismantle what were a comprehensive set of very, very tight controls on the ability of countries to use their currency,” Geithner said. “Over time that will mean — and this is a good thing for the United States — more use of that currency and it will mean the currency will have to reflect market forces … So, I see no risk to the dollar in those reforms.” Geithner added that it was virtually impossible for the Chinese currency would become a global reserve currency. “I don’t think so,” he said. “I don’t know, maybe in some long time after we’re all gone, it would be possible.” Of course, Geithner also insisted that the United States would not lose its AAA credit rating in 2011. Three months later, we were downgraded.
Here is the sad truth: while it once was in China’s interest to preserve the dollar’s unique status as primary reserve currency, that time is passing rapidly. The Chinese understand that the U.S. debt situation will preclude us from continuing to binge on their products. Without export growth, China must focus on domestic consumption. This favors a stronger, not weaker, yuan. To survive economically, they have to adapt and use their economic weapons, even at our expense. There are several key factions in China. There is the business community, which had long supported a weak yuan to enhance exports but now needs a strong domestic consumer. There is the ruling Communist party, which has put forward five-year plans for global dominance. And there is the People’s Liberation Army, which has promoted unrestricted warfare. For the first time in decades, the interests of all three are beginning to align against the dollar.
In discussing the implications of a currency collapse, George Soros told Der Spiegel in 2011, “The euro exists, and if it were to break apart, all hell would break loose.” Now imagine that happening to the dollar.
It doesn’t take much to imagine. We are already on the brink.
Excerpted from Game Plan: How to Protect Yourself from the Coming Cyber-Economic Attack by Kevin D. Freeman