Israel and Russia At Odds Over Syria

Syria-articleLarge-v2

Times of global economic disruption or depression have often historically been preludes to war. So too have been periods of geopolitical instability, where new economic powers are rising, and old ones falling. Back in 2008 the United States’ tenture as the sole global superpower appeared to be endangered, and we appeared to be on the cusp of a new multipolar world order.  And at the same time a new demand-side depression bearing some eerily similar characteristics to the Great Depression surfaced. So — even though we were sitting on the back of a huge trend of decreasing war and violence — I was to a small degree worried that this slump might be a prelude to another global conflict.

Luckily — with the exception of a few skirmishes in the middle east following the Arab spring — no such wide-scale global conflict has broken out. The forces of peace have kept the forces of war and chaos mostly at bay. No direct war between the great powers has broken out. Given the high level of trade interdependency and global economic integration that now exists — factors which play a great role in discouraging conflict — that is very good news. Avoiding a new global conflict should be a top priority for policymakers, corporations, and individuals worldwide.

Hopefully, then, the latest friction in the middle east — this time between Israel and Russia — will amount to nothing:

 Israel’s defense chief said Tuesday a Russian plan to supply sophisticated anti-aircraft missiles to Syriawas a “threat” and signaled that Israel is prepared to use force to stop the delivery.

The warning by Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon ratcheted up tensions with Moscow over the planned sale of S-300 air-defense missiles to Syria. Earlier in the day, a top Russian official said his government remained committed to the deal.

Israel has been lobbying Moscow to halt the sale, fearing the missiles would upset the balance of power in the region and could slip into the hands of hostile groups, including the Lebanese militia Hezbollah, a close ally of the Syrian regime.

Israel has carried out several airstrikes in Syria in recent months that are believed to have destroyed weapons shipments bound for Hezbollah. Israel has not confirmed carrying out the attacks.

The delivery of the Russian missiles to Syria could limit the Israeli air force’s ability to act. It is not clear whether Israeli warplanes entered Syrian airspace in these attacks.

Attacking Syrian bases and weaponry is one thing. Attacking Russian attempts to aid the Syrian government is quite another — and could very easily have dark consequences. Perhaps Russian interests in Syria — including their naval base there — are a lost cause. Perhaps Russian attempts to help the Syrian government are misguided. And perhaps Western attempts to aid the Syrian rebels — who  have some have affiliations with al-Qaeda and radical Islamism, and who have reportedly used chemical weapons — overthrow Assad are even more misguided and even more dangerous. Neither side can really claim the moral high ground in what is effectively a proxy war between the Russian-backed government and Western-backed rebels. Both sides have committed atrocities and killed civilians and journalists. All that has been achieved is massive disruption to millions of ordinary Syrians who have had to flee the country.

Ideally, a peace based around compromise, power-sharing  and democracy can be brokered by the UN Security Council to avoid any further escalation. But unfortunately, both the Russians and the West are continuing to provide material support to their favoured sides. That has been bad for the Syrian people, whose country lies ruined and abandoned and while they now populate refugee camps in Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey and Egypt. But it could even worse for the region and the world with further escalation.

Hopefully, there will be no escalation. Hopefully, the Syrian Civil War will wind down to a stalemate, peace terms will be brokered and the refugees will be able to go home. Hopefully the great powers who have so far allowed this proxy war to continue will realise that fighting a proxy war in Syria is a very dangerous thing. The likeliest outcome is that the forces of inertia, peace and economic development will triumph over the forces of chaos. But this is not assured so long as this dangerous proxy war goes on.

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Comparative Advantage and Global Trade Fragility

One of the cornerstones of the global economic status quo is globalisation and integration of markets. Here’s the growth in world trade as a percentage of global GDP since the 1970s:

worldtrade

There have been two key forces behind this outgrowth in global trade. First of all, the American military acting as hegemonic global policeman with bases in more than 150 countries and backed has created a situation generally known as the Pax Americana where goods and intermediaries can be shipped around the globe with minimal fear of piracy, seizure, theft, etc. Second, the international community has incentivised trade liberalisation through the policies of organisations including the International Monetary Fund (IMF), and World Trade Organization (WTO) requiring nations requesting loans or aid to open their markets to foreign trade competitors.

Most global policymakers and trade economists remain committed to and ultra-bullish about the agenda of global integration of markets. The OECD claims:

If G20 economies reduced trade barriers by 50%, they could gain:

More jobs: 0.3% to 3.3% rise in jobs for lower-skilled workers and 0.9 to 3.9% for higher-skilled workers, depending on the country.

Higher real wages 1.8% to 8% increase in real wages for lower-skilled workers and 0.8% to 8.1% for higher-skilled workers, depending on the country.

Increased exports: All G20 countries would see a boost in exports if trade barriers were halved. In the long run, many G20 countries could see their exports rise by 20% and in the Eurozone by more than 10%.

The overarching intellectual motivation for these policies is found in the work of the English classical economist David Ricardo and his neoclassical successors. The concept of comparative advantage introduced by Ricardo and expanded and formalised via equilibrium models by neoclassical economists including Samuelson, Mankiw, Hecksher and Ohlin (etc) has underpinned most of these policies.

Comparative advantage is the idea that nations benefit from specialising in what they are best at. Ricardo introduced the notion during debates about Britain opening her markets to European trade. Ricardo pointed out that total output and welfare would be greater for all countries in total if they specialised in what they were best at, and traded with each other to get what they wanted.

This principle works in Ricardo’s simple verbal model (and in the more sophisticated equilibrium models developed since). However empirical studies and meta-studies of modern day trade liberalisation suggest that there are some problems with this theory in practice.

Dani Rodrik noted in 2001:

Do lower trade barriers spur greater economic progress? The available studies reveal no systematic relationship between a country’s average level of tariff and nontariff barriers and its subsequent economic growth rate. If anything, the evidence for the 1990s indicates a positive relationship between import tariffs and economic growth.

The evidence on the benefits of liberalizing capital flows is even weaker. In theory, the appeal of capital mobility seems obvious: If capital is free to enter (and leave) markets based on the potential return on investment, the result will be an efficient allocation of global resources. But in reality, financial markets are inherently unstable, subject to bubbles (rational or otherwise), panics, shortsightedness, and self-fulfilling prophecies. There is plenty of evidence that financial liberalization is often followed by financial crash — just ask Mexico, Thailand, or Turkey — while there is little convincing evidence to suggest that higher rates of economic growth follow capital-account liberalization.

So what’s the difference between theory and reality?

There are a number of potential reasons why the theoretical promise of comparative advantage has not played out in reality.

First is graft and corruption. If countries are taking on loans from international institutions, and those loans are being deposited in the Swiss bank accounts of corrupt officials or businessmen instead of being spent on improving industry, skills or infrastructure, then what chance do developing countries have of developing?

Second is the danger of bubbles during the liberalisation process. Global capital flows into newly-liberalised countries can stoke bubbles in almost every sector (but especially equities, real estate, etc). When the bubble bursts, capital flows out, leaving the domestic economy deeply depressed.

Third is the social upheaval costs to labour, skills and institutions. As we have seen in the United States, manufacturing jobs and skills migrated abroad. Workers often cannot be retrained cheaply and easily, and often do not want or cannot afford to migrate to wherever their skills would be best-compensated. This stickiness can result in endemic unemployment and resultant economic weakness.

Fourth is the cost to capital stock.

As Steve Keen noted:

Some capital is necessarily destroyed by the opening up of trade.

Since capital is destroyed when trade is liberalised, the watertight argument that trade necessarily improves material welfare springs a leak.

Converting capital stock again and again to keep up with changing economic winds can be an expensive, difficult and mistake-ridden process.

Fifth is the problem of trade fragility.  Events like natural disasters and foreign wars can disrupt production and trade flows. Specialisation could cripple a country that depends on imports from foreign disrupted countries. Dependency on imported goods and intermediates renders countries vulnerable to shocks outside their borders. Wars and disasters that affect exporters have at times seriously disrupted and damaged the economies of importers, and vice versa.

The fact that trade liberalisation can have large social costs, create economic fragility and produce asset bubbles is a cause for pause. Is IMF-imposed globalisation opposed by the wider public really producing freer markets, or is it a misguided central planning experiment? Has the dogmatic pursuit of globalisation left global industry fragile to supply chain shocks caused by natural disasters and wars? Can the status quo really even be considered free trade, given that it is supported and smoothed by huge military-industrial subsidies? Does freedom of trade not also include freedom of nations to choose to protect domestic industries, institutions and supply chains from foreign competition? Why should the industries of developing countries be expected to compete against corporate multinational juggernauts?

While global trade may have provide a major disincentive against trade-disrupting wars, it seems probable that it has created a deep underlying systemic fragility. Trade interdependence means that regional or domestic shocks to production like a war or natural disaster may have consequences throughout the entire world, transmitted through dependencies. Similarly to the interconnective global financial system and the 2008 financial crisis, geopolitical shocks in coming years may well be magnified by globalisation.

The Real Fiscal Cliff

It’s that time of year again — time to kick the can.

No prizes for guessing what investors expect Congress to do:

And 2013 seems likely to give way to can-kicking in 2014, and 2015 and 2016 and 2017 and on — the GAO estimates that by 2080 the US public could hold 8 times as much government debt as the US generates GDP. Just as Japan has never truly dealt with its debt complex — and instead chose the path of cycles of deflation, an endless liquidity trap, a soaring debt-to-GDP ratio, and mandating financial institutions into buying treasuries — so America will continue to kick the can as long as rates and nominal inflation can be kept low, and goods and energy (the real underlying economy) kept flowing. Which — going by the Japanese example — could be a very long time.

Yet America is not Japan. The key difference? The balance of trade, and the flow of goods and services. While Japan’s debt is overwhelmingly domestically held, and while Japan has long been a net-exporter, the USA imports more goods and services than any nation in history:

And more and more US debt and currency is in the hands of the nations that export the goods and services on which America’s economy functions. Here’s the total debt held by foreigners:

And here’s the dollar reserves of various Asian exporter nations:

So when the can is kicked, the Asians — and especially the Chinese — feel they are getting screwed.

As Xinhua noted the last time America faced the fiscal cliff:

The U.S. has long been facing the same problem: living beyond its means. At present, the country has debts as high as 55 trillion U.S. dollars, including more than 14 trillion U.S. dollars of treasury bonds.

And last October:

Economists agree that as the United States’ largest foreign creditor, China should contemplate ways to pull itself out of the “dollar trap,” as the U.S. economy is faltering with its debt piling up and its currency on the brink to depreciate.

China must make fuller use of the non-financial assets in its foreign reserves, as well as speed up the diversification of investing channels to resist a possible long-term weakening of the dollar, said Xia Bing, director of the Finance Research Institutes of the Development Research Center under the State Council.

Zheng Xinli, permanent vice chairman of China Center for International Economic Exchanges, has suggested that Chinese companies boost overseas investment as a way to absorb trade surpluses and fend off the dollar risk.

Now to some degree the Asians knew the bargain they were getting into in buying US treasuries. They were never buying a claim on the US economy, or on the US gold reserves. They were buying a claim on reproducible Federal Reserve notes, and since 1971 the bargain has been that this is a purely fiat currency. Ultimately, if they do not feel like the US will be solvent in the long run, they should not have started lending to it. But now they are the largest real creditor, they have no choice but to keep on buying and keep on stabilising, simply because a functional US economy and a solvent US treasury is about the only way they will see any return at all.

Yet if they don’t exert leverage on the US, then the US seems unlikely to do much at all. Without a little turmoil, legislators have very little incentive to act. If the exporter nations feel as if they are getting screwed, they are only more likely to escalate via the only real means they have — trade war. And having a monopoly on various resources including rare earth minerals (as well as various components and types of finished goods) gives them considerable leverage.

More and more Asian nations — led by China and Russia — have ditched the dollar for bilateral trade (out of fear of dollar instability). Tension rises between the United States and Asia over Syria and Iran. The Asian nations throw more and more abrasive rhetoric around — including war rhetoric.

And on the other hand, both Obama and Romney — as well as Hillary Clinton — seem dead-set on ramping up the tense rhetoric. Romney seems extremely keen to brand China a currency manipulator.

In truth, both sides have a mutual interest in sitting down and engaging in a frank discussion, and then coming out with a serious long-term plan of co-operation on trade and fiscal issues where both sides accept compromises — perhaps Asia could agree to reinvest some of its dollar hoard in the United States to create American jobs and rebuild American infrastructure in exchange for a long-term American deficit-reduction and technology-sharing agreement?

But such co-operation would require real trust and respect — and I just don’t see it. China’s leaders deeply resent the West for the opium war years, and the humiliation that came with the end of the Chinese empire — and they see America as profligate, and culturally degenerate. And America’s leaders see China as an unstable anti-democratic dictatorship, not a prospective partner.

So the future, I think, will more likely involve both sides jumping off the cliff into the uncertain seas of trade war, currency war, default-by-debasement, tariffs, proxy war and regional and global political and economic instability.

Enter the Swan

Charles Hugh Smith (along with many, many, many others) thinks there may be a great decoupling as the world sinks deeper into the mire, and that the dollar could be set to benefit:

This “safe haven” status can be discerned in the strengthening U.S. dollar. Despite a central bank (The Federal Reserve) with an avowed goal of weakening the nation’s currency (the U.S. dollar), the USD has been in an long-term uptrend for a year–a trend I have noted many times here, starting in April 2011.

That means a bet in the U.S. bond or stock market is a double bet, as these markets are denominated in U.S. dollars. Even if they go nowhere, the capital invested in them will gain purchasing power as the dollar strengthens.

All this suggests a “decoupling” of the U.S. bond and stock markets from the rest of the globe’s markets. Put yourself in the shoes of someone responsible for safekeeping $100 billion and keeping much of it liquid in treacherous times, and ask yourself: where can you park this money where it won’t blow up the market just from its size? What are the safest, most liquid markets out there?

The answer will very likely point the future direction of global markets.

Smith is going along with one of the most conventional pieces of conventional wisdom: that in risky and troubled times investors will seek out the dollar as a haven. That’s what happened in 2008. That’s what is happening now as rates on treasuries sink to all-time-lows. And that’s what has happened throughout the era of petrodollar hegemony.

But the problem with conventions is that they are there to be broken, the problem with conventional wisdom is that it is there to be killed, roasted and served on a silver platter.

The era of petrodollar hegemony is slowly dying, and the assumptions and conventions of that era are dying with it. For now, the shadow of that old world is still flailing on like Wile E. Coyote, hovering in midair.

As I wrote last week:

How did the dollar die? First it died slowly — then all at once.

The shift away from the dollar has quickly manifested itself in bilateral and multilateral agreements between nations to ditch the dollar for bilateral and multilateral trade, beginning with the chief antagonists China and Russia, and continuing through Iran, India, Japan, Brazil, and Saudi Arabia.

So the ground seems to have fallen out from beneath the petrodollar world order.

Enter the Swan:

We know the U.S. is a big and liquid (though not really very transparent) market. We know that the rest of the world — led by Europe’s myriad issues, and China’s bursting housing bubble — is teetering on the edge of a precipice, and without a miracle will fall (perhaps sooner, rather than later).

But we also know that America is inextricably interconnected to this mess. If Europe (or China or both) disintegrates, triggering (another) global default cascade, America will be stung by its European banking exposures, its exposures to global energy markets and global trade flows. Simply, there cannot be financial decoupling, not in this hyper-connected, hyper-leveraged world.

And would funds surge into US Treasuries even in such an instance? Maybe initially — fund managers have been conditioned by years of convention to do so. But how long  can fund managers accept negative real rates of return? Or — much more importantly — how long will the Fed accept such a surge? The answer is not very long at all. Bernanke’s economic strategy has been focussed  on turning treasuries into a losing investment, on the face of it to “encourage risk-taking” (or — much more significantly — keep the Treasury’s borrowing costs cheap).

All of this suggests a global crash or proto-crash will be followed by a huge global money printing operation, probably spearheaded by the Fed. Don’t let the Europeans fool anyone, either — Germany will not let the Euro crumble for fear of money printing. When push comes to shove they will print and fiscally consolidate to save their pet project (though perhaps demanding gold as collateral, and perhaps kicking out some delinquents). China will spew trillions of stimulus money into more and deeper malinvestment (why have ten ghost cities when you can have fifty? Good news for aggregate demand!).

So Paul Krugman will likely get something much closer to what he claims to want. Problem solved?

Nope. You can’t solve deep-rooted structural problems — malinvestment, social change, deindustrialisation, global trade imbalances, systemic fragility, financialisation, imperial decline, cultural stupefaction (etc, etc, etc) — by throwing money at problems. All throwing more money can do is buy a little more time (and undermine the currency). The problem with that is that a superficial recovery fools policy-makers, investors and citizens into believing that problems are fixed when they are not. Eventually — perhaps slowly, or perhaps quickly — unless the non-monetary problems are truly dealt with (very unlikely), they will boil over again.

As the devaluation heats up things will likely become a huge global game of beggar thy neighbour. A global devaluation will likely increase the growing tensions between the creditor and debtor nations to breaking point. Our current system of huge trade imbalances guarantees that someone (the West) is getting a free lunch , and that someone else (the Rest) is getting screwed. Such a system is fundamentally fragile, and fundamentally unstable. Currency wars will likely give way to economic wars, which may well give way to subterfuge and proxy wars as creditors seek their pound of flesh, and debtors seek to cast off their chains. Good news, then, for weapons contractors and the security state.

Is China a Currency Manipulator?

Mitt Romney thinks so:

China has an interest in trade. China wants to, as they have 20 million people coming out of the farms and coming into the cities every year, they want to be able to put them to work. They want to have access to global markets. And so we have right now something they need very badly, which is access to our market and our friends around the world, have that same– power over China. To make sure that we let them understand that in order for them to continue to have free and open access to the thing they want so badly, our markets, they have to play by the rules.

They’re a currency manipulator. And on that basis, we go before the W.T.O. and bring an action against them as a currency manipulator. And that allows us to apply tariffs where we believe they are stealing our intellectual property, hacking into our computers, or artificially lowering their prices and killing American jobs. We can’t just sit back and let China run all over us. People say, “Well, you’ll start a trade war.” There’s one going on right now, folks. They’re stealing our jobs. And we’re gonna stand up to China.

The theory goes that by buying U.S. currency (so far they have accumulated around $3 trillion) and treasuries (around $1 trillion) on the open market, China keeps demand for the US dollar high.  They can afford to buy and hold so much US currency due to their huge trade surplus with America, and they buy US currency roughly equal to this surplus.  To keep this pile of dollars from increasing the Chinese money supply, China sterilises the dollar purchases by selling a proportionate amount of bonds to Chinese investors.  Supposedly by boosting the dollar, yuan-denominated Chinese goods look cheap to the American (and global) consumer.

First, I don’t really think we can conclusively say that the yuan is necessarily undervalued. That is like assuming that there is some natural rate of exchange beyond prices in the real world. For every dollar that China takes out of the open market, America could print one more — something which, lest we forget — Bernanke has been very busily doing; the American monetary base has tripled since 2008. Actions have consequences; if China’s currency peg was so unsustainable, the status quo would have collapsed long ago. Until it does, we cannot conclusively say to what extent the yuan is undervalued.

What Romney is forgetting is that every nation with a fiat currency is to some degree or other a currency manipulator. That’s what fiat is all about: the ability of the state to manipulate markets through monetary policy. When Ben Bernanke engages in quantitative easing, or twisting, or any kind of monetary policy or open market operation, the Federal Reserve is engaging in currency manipulation. Every new dollar that is printed devalues every dollar out in the wild, and just as importantly all dollar-denominated debt. So just as Romney can look China in the face and accuse them of being a currency manipulator for trying to peg the yuan to the dollar, China can look at past U.S. administrations and level exactly the same claim — currency manipulation in the national interest.

While China’s currency policy in the past 40 years has been to attract manufacturing, technology, resources and investment into China (and build up a manufacturing base to provide employment to its low-skilled population) by keeping its produce cheap, America’s currency policy has sought to enjoy a free lunch made up of everyone else’s labour and resources. This has been allowed to develop because of America’s reserve currency status — everyone has needed dollars to access global markets, and so America has rested on her laurels and allowed her productive industries to decline. Why manufacture the bulk of your consumption when China can do it cheaper, and Wal Mart has no problem with slave labour? Why manufacture your military hardware when China can do it cheaper? Why produce your own energy when you can instead consume Arab and Latin American oil?

Former U.S. ambassador Jon Huntsman raised this issue in an article from China Business News in a cable that was eventually leaked via Wikileaks:

The U.S. has almost used all deterring means, besides military means, against China.  China must be clear on discovering what the U.S. goals are behind its tough stances against China. In fact, a fierce competition between the currencies of big countries has just started.  A crucial move for the U.S. is to shift its crisis to other countries – by coercing China to buy U.S. treasury bonds with foreign exchange reserves and doing everything possible to prevent China’s foreign reserve from buying gold.

If we use all of our foreign exchange reserves to buy U.S. Treasury bonds, then when someday the U.S. Federal Reserve suddenly announces that the original ten old U.S. dollars are now worth only one new U.S. dollar, and the new U.S. dollar is pegged to the gold – we will be dumbfounded.

Today when the United States is determined to beggar thy neighbor, shifting its crisis to China, the Chinese must be very clear what the key to victory is.  It is by no means to use new foreign exchange reserves to buy U.S. Treasury bonds.  The issues of Taiwan, Tibet, Xinjiang, trade and so on are all false tricks, while forcing China to buy U.S. bonds is the U.S.’s real intention.”

Romney and others of his ilk might brush this off, believing that China’s $3 trillion dollar reserve hoard was gained through unfair means — slave labour, cutting corners in quality, the aforementioned “currency manipulation”, etc, and that that somehow gives America the right to inflate away its debts and screw its creditors. To some degree, they have a point. If China had a problem with America inflating away its debts, it should never have put itself so deep into dollar-denominated paper. If China recognised that America’s debt position was unsustainable, it should never have put so much into something so unsustainable, irrespective of supposed American pressure.

In the short term, though, I think escalating the trade war through the imposition of tariffs is a very bad idea. America is a consumption-led economy, and with middle class incomes already squeezed, a constriction of the supply of cheap and readily available goods is likely to put a lot of downward pressure on consumption. And it’s not just consumption — in today’s hyper-globalised world, a huge proportion of manufacturing — including military hardware — at some stage flows through China.

As Vincent Fernando noted:

Most of America’s key military technologies require rare earth elements, whose production China holds a near-monopoly over.

It’s thus perhaps no surprise that China has made the threat of rare earth export restrictions a new political bargaining chip.

American corporations could gradually pull out of China and shift to manufacturing and extracting resources elsewhere including America (which has large rare earth deposits), but it would be a challenging process. Rebuilding an industrial base is hard: skilled and experienced labour takes time to develop (American labour is rusty and increasingly unemployed and disabled), and supply chains and webs have all agglomerated in China. Building up domestic supply chains takes time, expertise and entrepreneurial zeal. And any destabilisation could spook global markets.

So let’s make no mistake: in the short term America needs China far, far, far more than China needs America. The notion that China needs America as a consumer is totally false; anyone can consume given the dollars or gold, and China holds $3 trillion, and continues to increase its imports of gold.

Peter Schiff summarises:

The big problem for countries like China and India is that they still subsidize the U.S. They buy our Treasury bonds and lend us all this money so we can keep consuming. That’s a big subsidy and a heavy burden.

They can use their money to develop their own economy, produce better and more abundant products for their own citizens. It’s a farce to think that the only thing China can do with its output and savings is lend it to the U.S. government, especially when we can’t pay it back.

Mitt Romney seems intent on destabilising this fragile relationship. American policy that incentivised globalisation and the service economy has very foolishly drawn America into this fragile position where its economy is increasingly fuelled not only by energy coming out of the politically and economically unstable middle east, but also by goods coming from a hostile and increasingly politically and economically unstable power.

And make no mistake — although China has done well to successfully transform itself into the world’s pre-eminent industrial base and biggest creditor, it has a lot of bubbles waiting to burst (particularly housing), stemming from the misallocation of resources under its semi-planned regime. Which makes this entire scenario doubly dangerous. Any shock in China would surely be transmitted to America, simply because it is becoming increasingly pointless for China to continue subsidising American consumption (through buying treasuries) when they could instead spend the money raising the Chinese standard of living. That could mean a painful rate-spike.

The real problem is that Romney is trying to address a problem that is very much in the past. If Romney was elected as President on this platform in 2000, things might be different. But China got what it wanted: by keeping its currency cheap and its labour force impoverished it became the world’s pre-eminent industrial base, the spider at the heart of the web of global trade, and a monopoly on important industrial components and resources. China used American demand, technology and investment during the 00s to develop. Now the imperative is not to grab a bigger share of global manufacturing, or a bigger hoard of dollarsit’s to leverage that position toward the ultimate aim of returning China to its multi-millennial superpower status. The promise of Chinese primacy is quite simply the strongest tool for the CPC to retain its (increasingly shaky) grip on China.

However we should not discount the possibility that bursting economic bubbles may stoke up some kind of popular rebellion against the Communist authorities in some kind of Chinese Spring. A new more pro-Western regime is surely America’s best hope of containing China, while gradually manoeuvring itself out of dependency on Arab oil and Chinese goods. But that may just be wishful thinking; it is possible that a new Chinese regime may be vehemently anti-Western; the Opium War and China’s 20th century humiliation still ring deeply in the Chinese psyche.

So it is unclear what is next for China, and the relationship between China and America. But having the world’s biggest manufacturing base and a monopoly over rare earths is a strong position to be in if your ultimate aim is to manufacture huge quantities of armaments in the pursuit of an aggressive, expansionist foreign policy…

Krugman, Diocletian & Neofeudalism

The entire economics world is abuzz about the intriguing smackdown between Paul Krugman and Ron Paul on Bloomberg. The Guardian summarises:

  • Ron Paul said it’s pretentious for anyone to think they know what inflation should be and what the ideal level for the money supply is.
  • Paul Krugman replied that it’s not pretentious, it’s necessary. He accused Paul of living in a fantasy world, of wanting to turn back the clock 150 years. He said the advent of modern currencies and nation-states made an unmanaged economy an impracticable idea.
  • Paul accused the Fed of perpetrating “fraud,” in part by screwing with the value of the dollar, so people who save get hurt. He stopped short of calling for an immediate end to the Fed, saying that for now, competition of currencies – and banking structures – should be allowed in the US.
  • Krugman brought up Milton Friedman, who traversed the ideological spectrum to criticize the Fed for not doing enough during the Great Depression. It’s the same criticism Krugman is leveling at the Fed now. “It’s really telling that in America right now, Milton Friedman would count as being on the far left in monetary policy,” Krugman said.
  • Paul’s central point, that the Fed hurts Main Street by focusing on the welfare of Wall Street, is well taken. Krugman’s point that the Fed is needed to steer the economy and has done a better job overall than Congress, in any case, is also well taken.

I find it quite disappointing that there has not been more discussion in the media of the idea — something Ron Paul alluded to — that most of the problems we face today are extensions of the market’s failure to liquidate in 2008. Bailouts and interventionism has left the system (and many of the companies within it) a zombified wreck. Why are we talking about residual debt overhang? Most of it would have been razed in 2008 had the market been allowed to liquidate. Worse, when you bail out economic failures — and as far as I’m concerned, everyone who would have been wiped out by the shadow banking collapse is an economic failure — you obliterate the market mechanism. Should it really be any surprise that money isn’t flowing to where it’s needed?

A whole host of previously illiquid zombie banks, corporations and shadow banks are holding onto trillions of dollars as a liquidity buffer. So instead of being used to finance useful and productive endeavours, the money is just sitting there. This is reflected in the levels of excess reserves banks are holding (presently at an all-time high), as well as the velocity of money, which is at a postwar low:

Krugman’s view that introducing more money into the economy and scaring hoarders into spending more is not guaranteed to achieve any boost in productivity.

As I wrote last month:

The fundamental problem at the heart of this is that the Fed is trying to encourage risk taking by making it difficult to allow small-scale market participants from amassing the capital necessary to take risk. That’s why we’re seeing domestic equity outflows. And so the only people with the apparatus to invest and create jobs are large institutions, banks and corporations, which they are patently not doing.

Would more easing convince them to do that? Probably not. If you’re a multinational corporation with access to foreign markets where input costs are significantly cheaper, why would you invest in the expensive, over-regulated American market other than to offload the products you’ve manufactured abroad?

So will (even deeper) negative real rates cause money to start flowing? Probably — but probably mostly abroad — so probably without the benefits of domestic investment and job creation.

Nor is it guaranteed to achieve any great boost in debt relief.

As Dan Kervick wrote for Naked Capitalism last month:

Inflation only reduces debt overhang in a significant way for households who are fortunate enough to see their nominal wages rise along with the general rise in prices. In today’s economy, workers are frequently not so fortunate.

Again, I have to bring this back to why we are even talking about debt relief. The 2008 crash was a natural form of debt-relief; the 2008 bailouts, and ongoing QE and Twist programs (which contrary to Professor Krugman’s apologetics really do transfer wealth from the middle classes to Wall Street) crystallised the debt burden born from a bubble created by Greenspan’s easy money policies. There would be no need for a debt jubilee (either an absolute one, or a Krugmanite (hyper)inflationary one) if we had simply let the market do its work. A legitimate function for government would have at most been to bail out account holders, provide a welfare net for poor people (never poor corporations) and let bankruptcy courts and markets do the rest. Instead, the central planners in Washington decided they knew best.

The key moment in the debate?

I am not a defender of the economic policies of the emperor Diocletian. So let’s just make that clear.

Paul Krugman

Actually you are.

Ron Paul

Ron Paul is dead right. Krugman and the bailout-happy regime for which he stands are absolutely following in the spirit of Diocletian.

From Dennis Gartman:

Rome had its socialist interlude under Diocletian. Faced with increasing poverty and restlessness among the masses, and with the imminent danger of barbarian invasion, he issued in A.D. 301 an edictum de pretiis, which denounced monopolists for keeping goods from the market to raise prices, and set maximum prices and wages for all important articles and services. Extensive public works were undertaken to put the unemployed to work, and food was distributed gratis, or at reduced prices, to the poor. The government – which already owned most mines, quarries, and salt deposits – brought nearly all major industries and guilds under detailed control.

Diocletian explained that the barbarians were at the gate, and that individual liberty had to be shelved until collective liberty could be made secure. The socialism of Diocletian was a war economy, made possible by fear of foreign attack. Other factors equal, internal liberty varies inversely with external danger.

While Krugman does not by any means endorse the level of centralism that Diocletian introduced, his defence of bailouts, his insistence on the planning of interest rates and inflation, and (most frighteningly) his insistence that war can be an economic stimulus (in reality, war is a capital destroyer) all put him firmly in Diocletian’s economic planning camp.

So how did Diocletian’s economic program work out?

Well, I think it is fair to say even without modern data that — just as Krugman desires — Diocletian’s measures boosted aggregate demand through public works and — just as Krugman desires — it introduced inflation.

Diocletian’s mass minting of coins of low metallic value continued to increase inflation, and the maximum prices in the Edict were apparently too low.

Merchants either stopped producing goods, sold their goods illegally, or used barter. The Edict tended to disrupt trade and commerce, especially among merchants. It is safe to assume that a gray market economy evolved out of the edict at least between merchants.

And certainly Rome lived for almost 150 years after Diocletian. However the long term effects of Diocletian’s economic program were dire:

Thousands of Romans, to escape the tax gatherer, fled over the frontiers to seek refuge among the barbarians. Seeking to check this elusive mobility and to facilitate regulation and taxation, the government issued decrees binding the peasant to his field and the worker to his shop until all their debts and taxes had been paid. In this and other ways medieval serfdom began.

Have the 2008 bailouts done the same thing, cementing a new feudal aristocracy of bankers, financiers and too-big-to-fail zombies, alongside a serf class that exists to fund the excesses of the financial and corporate elite?

Only time will tell.

Gold’s Value Today

Way back in 2009, I remember fielding all manner of questions from people wanting to invest in gold, having seen it spike from its turn-of-the-millennium slump, and worried about the state of the wider financial economy.

A whole swathe of those were from people wanting to invest in exchange traded funds (ETFs). I always and without exception slammed the notion of a gold ETF as being outstandingly awful, and solely for investors who didn’t really understand the modern case for gold — those who believed that gold was a “commodity” with the potential to “do well” in the coming years. People who wanted to push dollars in, and get more dollars out some years later.

2009 was the year when gold ETFs really broke into the mass consciousness:

Yet by 2011 the market had collapsed: people were buying much, much larger quantities of physical bullion and coins, but the popularity of ETFs had greatly slumped.

This is even clearer when the ETF market is expressed as a percentage of the physical market. While in 2009 ETFs looked poised to overtake the market in physical bullion and coins, by 2011 they constituted merely a tenth of the physical market:

So what does this say about gold?

I think it is shouting and screaming one thing: the people are slowly and subtly waking up to gold’s true role.

Gold is not just a store of value; it is not just a unit of account; and it is not just a medium of exchange. It is all of those things, but so are dollars, yen and renminbei.

Physical precious metals (but especially gold) are the only liquid assets with negligible counter-party risk.

What is counter-party risk?

As I wrote in December:

Counter-party risk is the external risk investments face. The counter-party risk to fiat currency is that the counter-party — in this case the government — will fail to deliver a system where that fiat money will be acceptable as payment for goods and services. The counter-party risk to a bond or a derivative or a swap is that the counter-party  will default on their obligations.

Gold — at least the physical form — has negligible counter-party risk. It’s been recognised as valuable for thousands of years.

Counter-party risk is a symptom of dependency. And the global financial system is a paradigm of interdependency: inter-connected leverage, soaring gross derivatives exposure, abstract securitisations.

When everyone in the system owes shedloads of money to everyone else the failure of one can often snowball into the failure of the many.

Or as Zhang Jianhua of the People’s Bank of China put it:

No asset is safe now. The only choice to hedge risks is to hold hard currency — gold.

So the key difference between physical metal and an ETF product is that an ETF product has counter-party risk. Its custodian could pull a Corzine and run off with your assets. They could be swallowed up by another shadow banking or derivatives collapse. And some ETFs are not even holding any gold at all; they may just be taking your money and buying futures. Unless you read all of the small-print, and then have the ability to comprehensively audit the custodian, you just don’t know.

With gold in your vault or your basement you know what you’re getting. There are other risks, of course — the largest being robbery, alongside the small danger of being sold fake (tungsten-lined) bullion. But the hyper-fragility of the modern banking system, the debt overhang, and the speculative and arbitrage bubbles don’t threaten to wipe you out.

Paper was only ever as good as the person making the promise. But increasingly in this hyper-connected world, paper is only ever as good as the people who owe money to the person making the promise. As we saw in 2008, the innovations of shadow banking and the derivatives system intermesh the balance sheets of companies to a never-before-seen extent. This often means that one failure (like that of Lehman brothers) can trigger a cascade that threatens the entire system. If you’re lucky you’ll get a government bailout, or a payout from a bankruptcy court, but there’s no guarantee of that.

Physical gold sits undaunted, solid as a rock, retaining its purchasing power, immune to counter-party risk.

I think more and more investors — as well as central banks, particularly the People’s Bank of China — are comprehending that reality and demanding the real deal.

Another Day, Another Nation Dumps the Dollar

From South Africa’s City Press:

South Africa will this week take some initial steps to unseat the US dollar as the preferred worldwide currency for trade and investment in emerging economies.

Thus, the nation is expected to become party to endorsing the Chinese currency, the renminbi, as the currency of trade in emerging markets.

This means getting a renminbi-denominated bank account, in addition to a dollar account, could be an advantage for African businesses that seek to do business in the emerging markets.

The move is set to challenge the supremacy of the US dollar. This, experts say, is the latest salvo in the greatest worldwide currency war since the 1930s.

Well — like the rest of Africa alongside all of its natural resources which (in spite of Kony 2012′s best efforts) becomes more Chinese by the day — it is clear where South Africa’s allegiance lies. Most interestingly, though, this is the first nation with an Anglo-American economic elite to come out against the present global order and more or less endorse China.

Readers are reminded of this chart:


It is rather intriguing to note, by the way, that when the term “emerging economies” is used, the underlying reality is that these are the productive economies. America’s GDP is mostly spent on the consumption of foreign goods, (or goods made from foreign components), on the back of foreign oil. And the emergent reality of the 21st Century (forward-looking readers will already understand) is that consumptive nations need productive nations, but not vice verse. Right now, without “emerging nations” subsidising American consumption (and agriculture, etc), what would become of the dollar? I think the only thing standing in the way of it becoming toilet paper is U.S. military might. But what would happen to that military might as a result of a global trade slowdown resulting from — for example — the closure of the Strait of Hormuz? As I detailed last week, as a result of her addiction to fragile global trade networks, America has rendered herself extremely fragile.

From the Huffington Post:

Blocking the Strait of Hormuz would create an international and economic calamity of unprecedented severity. Here are the crude realities. America uses approximately 19 to 20 million barrels of oil per day, almost half of which is imported. If we lose just 1 million barrels per day, or suffer the type of damage sustained from Hurricane Katrina, our government will open the Strategic Petroleum Reserve (SPR), which offers a mere six- to eight-week supply of unrefined crude oil. If we lose 1.5 million barrels per day, or approximately 7.5 percent, we will ask our allies in the 28-member International Energy Agency to open their SPRs and otherwise assist. If we lose 2 million barrels per day, or 10 percent, for a protracted period, government crisis monitors say the chaos will be so catastrophic, they cannot even model it. One government oil crisis source recently told me: “We cannot put a price tag on it. If it happens, just cash in your 401(k).”

Readers may be surprised to learn that I still have a lot of faith in America and the West. Only in the West is there an intellectual climate that allows for the kind of speech published on this blog. A free intellectual climate leads to innovation, and the free and honest exchange of ideas, all of which indirectly spur economic development. And certainly, while America is not perfect, it generally has a freer intellectual climate than most other nations. Further, America has huge reserves of energy and natural resources, and a low population density and thus room to expand.

But ultimately — as we shall over the next ten or twenty years — the present day American consumerism is a glittering economic dead end. The present world order is unravelling, and Americans — like many great empires before them — are in danger of suffering a lot of fallout.

Identifying a Treasury Crash

Readers have asked my opinion on whether or not China and Russia’s recent treasury offloading spree amounts to the first phase of a potential Great Treasury Crash.

Here’s a reminder:

There are two very strong pieces of evidence here for dollar and treasury weakness and instability: firstly, the very real phenomenon of negative real interest rates (i.e. interest rates minus inflation) making treasury bonds a losing investment in terms of purchasing power, and secondly the fact that China (the largest real holder of Treasuries) is committed to dumping them and acquiring harder assets (and bailing out their real estate bubble). So the question is when these perceptions will be shattered.

A large sovereign treasury dumper like China with its $1+ trillion of treasury holdings throwing a significant portion of these onto the open market would very quickly outpace the institutional buyers, and force a small spike in rates (i.e. a drop in price). The small recent spike corresponds to this kind of activity. The difference between a small spike in yields and one large enough to make the market panic enough to cause a treasury crash is the pace and scope of liquidation.

Now, no sovereign seller in their right mind would fail to pace their liquidation just slowly enough to keep the market warm. After all, they want to get the most for their assets as they can, and panicking the market would mean a lower price.

But there are two (or three) foreseeable scenarios that would raise the pace to a level sufficient to panic the markets:

  1. China desperately needs to raise dollars to bail out its real estate market and paper over the cracks of its credit bubbles, and so goes into full-on liquidation mode.
  2. China retaliates to an increasingly-hostile American trade policy and — alongside other hostile foreign creditors (Russia in particular) — organise a mass bond liquidation to “teach America a lesson”.
  3. Both of the above.

Now the pace and scope of any coming treasury liquidation is still uncertain and I expect it to very much be dictated by how the Chinese real estate picture plays out — the worse the real estate crash, the more likely Chinese central-planners are to panic and liquidate faster.

So here’s the relevant data:


Clearly, what we would expect to see in the nascent phases of a crash is that blue line to spike while the other lines all decline significantly.

Does this look like that to you? Well, frankly, no. China’s holdings have merely declined to 2010 levels — hardly a nosedive, but certainly signifying China’s lukewarmness toward the Obama-Bernanke administrations. Right now they are just testing the water.

Significantly, rates have risen in the past few days, signalling that even in spite of all the QE and Twisting, Bernanke’s task remains volatile.

So — while it is all very easy and attention-grabbing to spew fear-mongering projections of an imminent crash — I have to be realistic. 2013 or 2014 or even later seems a much likelier timeframe for this momentous and historic eventuality. And of course, black swans can derail any projection. Humans will always be fallible, no matter how much processing power we put behind our prognostications.

So there is really no timeframe to my prediction. Certainly, Bernanke has proven himself to be a proficient can-kicker. Too many economists have scuppered their reputations by making timed predictions which fail to play out.

And my prediction is not an economic prediction, so much as a geopolitical one, and political science is an oxymoron; politics (like any other market — yes, it’s a market to be bought and sold) can swerve and tilt in any direction in the time-being, even while its broader historical trends are clear and evident. (In this case, the rise of China, the end of American primacy, and the death of the dollar as a reserve currency).

Iran Squeezes the Petrodollar

I have, these last few months, been documenting the current state of geopolitics —specifically the growing isolation of the West, the ditching of the dollar as the global reserve currency, the growing unity between the authoritarian Eurasian nations, and the brewing storm in the middle east between Israel and Iran.

Now another piece of the puzzle falls into place.

From Zero Hedge:

Much has been spun in recent weeks to indicate that as a result of collapsing trade, Iran’s economy is in shambles and that the financial embargo hoisted upon the country by the insolvent, pardon, developed world is working. We had a totally different perspective on things “A Very Different Take On The “Iran Barters Gold For Food” Story” in which we essentially said that Iran, with the complicity of major trading partners like China, India and Russia is preparing to phase out the petrodollar: a move which would be impossible if key bilateral trade partners would not agree to it. Gradually it appears this is increasingly the case following a just released Reuters report that “Iran will take payment from its trading partners in gold instead of dollars, the Iranian state news agency IRNA quoted the central bank governor as saying on Tuesday.”

The Eurasian powers — centred around the troika of Russia, China, and Iran — continue to ransack the dollar’s legitimacy as the global reserve currency.

Meanwhile, in a Foreign Affairs piece, the architect of our current world order, Henry Kissinger, seems to see the writing on the wall:

The current world order was built largely without Chinese participation, and hence China sometimes feels less bound than others by its rules. Where the order does not suit Chinese preferences, Beijing has set up alternative arrangements, such as in the separate currency channels being established with Brazil and Japan and other countries. If the pattern becomes routine and spreads into many spheres of activity, competing world orders could evolve. Absent common goals coupled with agreed rules of restraint, institutionalized rivalry is likely to escalate beyond the calculations and intentions of its advocates. In an era in which unprecedented offensive capabilities and intrusive technologies multiply, the penalties of such a course could be drastic and perhaps irrevocable.

Kissinger recognises the Eurasian endgame — also described by me quite throughly over the six months:

Some American strategic thinkers argue that Chinese policy pursues two long-term objectives: displacing the United States as the preeminent power in the western Pacific and consolidating Asia into an exclusionary bloc deferring to Chinese economic and foreign policy interests. In this conception, even though China’s absolute military capacities are not formally equal to those of the United States, Beijing possesses the ability to pose unacceptable risks in a conflict with Washington and is developing increasingly sophisticated means to negate traditional U.S. advantages. Its invulnerable second-strike nuclear capability will eventually be paired with an expanding range of antiship ballistic missiles and asymmetric capabilities in new domains such as cyberspace and space.China could secure a dominant naval position through a series of island chains on its periphery, some fear, and once such a screen exists, China’s neighbors, dependent as they are on Chinese trade and uncertain of the United States’ ability to react, might adjust their policies according to Chinese preferences. Eventually, this could lead to the creation of a Sinocentric Asian bloc dominating the western Pacific. The most recent U.S. defense strategy report reflects, at least implicitly, some of these apprehensions.

He ends the piece flatly:

Both sides should be open to conceiving of each other’s activities as a normal part of international life and not in themselves as a cause for alarm. The inevitable tendency to impinge on each other should not be equated with a conscious drive to contain or dominate, so long as both can maintain the distinction and calibrate their actions accordingly. China and the United States will not necessarily transcend the ordinary operation of great-power rivalry. But they owe it to themselves, and the world, to make an effort to do so.

But — in reality — American and Western policy is nothing like as respectful toward China as Kissinger might hope.

As I wrote earlier this month:

The last hope for American imperial hegemony is to bring the Arab Spring to Moscow, Beijing, Tehran, and Islamabad.

Kissinger — while not explicitly endorsing such an eventuality — recognises the possibility:

The political scientist Aaron Friedberg writes, for example, that “a liberal democratic China will have little cause to fear its democratic counterparts, still less to use force against them.” Therefore, “stripped of diplomatic niceties, the ultimate aim of the American strategy [should be] to hasten a revolution, albeit a peaceful one, that will sweep away China’s one-party authoritarian state and leave a liberal democracy in its place.”

And — for all the hullabaloo about war with Iran —the Arab Spring model is the State Department’s last best hope for maintaining American primacy in the face of (as Tyler Durden puts it) insolvency. War, proxy war, or trade war with the Eurasian powers is too costly, too risky, too open-ended for America today.