Storing Wealth in Uncertain Times

Charles Hugh Smith questions the whether gold is the best way to store wealth in the coming "Great Transformation", when oil becomes very scarce. (I remember how valuable gasoline was in the movie Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior). He suggests that having a convenient supply of energy and food are the most valuable sources of wealth in very hard times. Excerpts below.

Link: Of two minds: The Great Transformation: Trends and Cycles of History.

If we understand that "money" as a store of wealth is simply stored energy, then we reach another understanding of "the problem" and thus of the "solution."

Let's say that the fragile supply chain of remaining oil breaks down in a complex interaction of positive feedback loops. Oil would not just be costly; it would be unavailable to individuals. The government would undoubtedly ration what was left for essential services like agriculture, food distribution, police and hospitals, etc.

Let's say we anticipated this and responded not by hoarding gold but by buying a 100 KWhr/day solar power array, productive land in a mild climate, a store of fertilizer and a few electric vehicles to share with our family/community. We own zero gold but we own a power supply, the means to grow food and transportation that does not require petroleum.

Now would we sell these productive assets for gold? At what price, if they were essentially irreplaceable? What would we do with our pile of gold if we can't go anywhere, can't grow food and have no power source?

The holder of gold assumes that all goods can be purchased with a means of exchange holding a tangible value, i.e. gold or an equivalent commodity. But this may not be entirely true. Yes, we will sell some of our power/energy output for gold, but we will not sell our "wealth" i.e. the power plant for gold, which may or may not be able to buy a replacement. As a store of wealth, gold is no match for a productive source of energy.

The reason is "money" as a store of wealth is simply stored energy. From this point of view, fertilizer is stored energy. You may or may not be able to exchange "money" in any form for stored energy, for "wealth" is either stored energy or the capacity to generate energy sustainably. Everything else is merely a means of exchange.

Will gold hold more value as a means of exchange than paper money? If history is any guide, yes—but that's a different "problem" than building or storing wealth.

There are many other examples of "problems" whose solutions may well completely fail to address the structural challenges we face.

Letter from T. Boone Pickens to WSJ

Here’s a letter published in the Wall Street Journal from T. Boone Pickens. He is responding to a letter criticizing his plan from Mr. Jenkins.

Link: Letters – WSJ.com.

This Is My Plan for American Energy, What’s Yours?

I read Holman Jenkins’s "Boone Doggle" (Business World, Aug. 6) about my energy plan and I’m convinced that he hasn’t even read my plan. So for the benefit of Mr. Jenkins and his readers, I’ll go over it again.

There are two numbers everybody should keep in mind. The first is 70% — that’s how much of our oil comes from foreign nations.

The second is $700 billion — that’s how much of our money is sent overseas to pay for that oil every year.

Mr. Jenkins argues that this isn’t technically a "transfer of wealth." You can call it whatever you want, but common sense would call it a crisis. It’s hitting every part of the economy, and it’s only going to get worse because we consume 25% of the world’s oil, but we only have 3% of the oil reserves. For years we paid foreign nations to send us their oil and didn’t worry about it because it was cheap. But now it’s not and it matters a great deal.

We’ve had warnings before. Some of us remember the oil embargo of 1973. Back then we were importing less than 30% of our oil but it was still a crisis. And what did we learn? Today we’re importing nearly 70%. We all have — and I emphasize all — allowed our nation’s energy future to rest in the hands of foreign interests. And if we need to know how dangerous it is to rely on other countries for our energy, just look at what’s happening in Georgia. Yes, we buy some oil from our friends, but we also buy from some who aren’t so friendly.

We have to develop domestic energy alternatives and set ourselves on the road to self-sufficiency. Ultimately, that will mean using domestic renewable energy to generate electricity and power our vehicles. Unfortunately, clean, renewable fuels for transportation aren’t ready yet. So here’s my plan to break the foreign stranglehold.

It starts with wind. A Department of Energy study says we can generate 20% of our electricity from wind. I believe that with private investment and proven technology, we can generate 20% of our electricity from wind within 10 years — which happens to be the same amount we currently generate using America’s natural gas. Moving to wind power will allow us to conserve domestic natural gas for transportation. It’s cheaper, it’s cleaner, the technology is ready now and it’s abundant — America only has 20 billion barrels of oil and we’re trying to drill for a few billion more, but we already have the natural gas equivalent of 110 billion barrels in proven reserves and 170 billion more that are being accessed through new technology.

But most importantly, natural gas buys us one thing money can’t buy — time — the time to develop the renewable fuels that will finally end foreign oil’s stranglehold on the U.S.

That’s my plan — to harness domestic resources to reduce the impact of foreign oil and buy us time to perfect the next generation of clean renewables, allowing us to invest more of that $700 billion a year in our own destiny. I don’t expect everyone to agree with it, but I think it’s a good one.

My father used to tell me that a fool with a plan is better than a genius with no plan. So I ask, what’s Mr. Jenkins’s plan?

T. Boone Pickens
Dallas