The Return of Mercantilism

Mercantilist trade policies have returned in a big, big way.

Dani Rodrik:

The liberal model views the state as necessarily predatory and the private sector as inherently rent-seeking. So it advocates a strict separation between the state and private business. Mercantilism, by contrast, offers a corporatist vision in which the state and private business are allies and cooperate in pursuit of common objectives, such as domestic economic growth or national power.

The mercantilist model can be derided as state capitalism or cronyism. But when it works, as it has so often in Asia, the model’s “government-business collaboration” or “pro-business state” quickly garners heavy praise. Lagging economies have not failed to notice that mercantilism can be their friend. Even in Britain, classical liberalism arrived only in the mid-nineteenth century – that is, after the country had become the world’s dominant industrial power.

A second difference between the two models lies in whether consumer or producer interests are privileged. For liberals, consumers are king. The ultimate objective of economic policy is to increase households’ consumption potential, which requires giving them unhindered access to the cheapest-possible goods and services.

Mercantilists, by contrast, emphasize the productive side of the economy. For them, a sound economy requires a sound production structure. And consumption needs to be underpinned by high employment at adequate wages.

These different models have predictable implications for international economic policies. The logic of the liberal approach is that the economic benefits of trade arise from imports: the cheaper the imports, the better, even if the result is a trade deficit. Mercantilists, however, view trade as a means of supporting domestic production and employment, and prefer to spur exports rather than imports.

Today’s China is the leading bearer of the mercantilist torch, though Chinese leaders would never admit it  – too much opprobrium still attaches to the term.

I have three things to add.

First, states around the world including in the West, and especially America, have massively adopted corporatist domestic policies, even while spouting the rhetoric of free trade and economic liberalism publicly. One only has to look at the growth trend in American Federal spending to see that America has drifted further and further and further away from its free market rhetoric, and toward a centrally planned economy.

Second, the key difference between a free market economy, and a corporatist command economy is the misallocation of capital by the central planning process. While mercantile economies can be hugely productive, the historic tendency in the long run has been toward the command economies — which allocate capital based on the preferences of the central planner — being out-innovated and out-grown by the dynamic free market economies, which allocate capital based on the spending preferences of consumers in the wider economy.

Third, these two facts taken together mean that the inherent long-term advantage of the free market system — and by implication, of the United States over the BRICs — has to some degree been eradicated. This means that the competition is now over who can run the most successful corporatist-mercantilist system. The BRIC nations, particularly China, are committed to domestic production and employment, to domestic supply chains and domestic resource strength. America continues to largely ignore such factors, and allow its productive base to emigrate to other nations. And the production factor in which America still has some significant advantage — design, innovation, and inventions — has been eroded by the fact that the BRIC nations can easily appropriate American designs and innovations, because these designs are now being manufactured predominantly outside of America, and because of (American) communication technologies like the internet. This is the worst of both worlds for America. All of the disadvantages of mercantilism — the rent-seeking corporate-industrial complex, the misallocation of capital through central planning, the fragility of a centralised system — without the advantage of a strong domestic productive base.

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Mark Carnage

The greater story behind Mark Carney’s appointment to the Bank of England may be the completion of Goldman Sachs’ multi-tentacled takeover of the European regulatory and central banking system.

GS1

But let’s take a moment to look at the mess he is leaving behind in Canada, the home of moose, maple syrup, Jean Poutine and now colossal housing bubbles.

George Osborne (who as I noted last month wants more big banks in Britain) might have recruited Carney on the basis of his “success” in Canada. But in reality he is just another Greenspan — a bubble-maker and reinflationist happy to pump the banking sector full of loose money and call it “prosperity” before the irrational exuberance runs dry, and the bubble inevitably bursts.

Two key charts. First, household debt-to-GDP.

household-debt-to-gdp-chart-canada

Deleveraging? Not in Canada.

The Huffington Post noted earlier this year:

Household debt levels have reached a new high, increasing the vulnerability of average Canadians to unexpected economic shocks just at a time when uncertainty is mounting.

Despite signs that Canada’s economic recovery is fizzling, data released by Statistics Canada Tuesday shows that the ratio of credit market debt to personal disposable income climbed to 148.7 per cent in the second quarter, surpassing the previous record of 147.3 per cent set in the first three months of this year.

Second, Canadian house prices:

2001-after-years-of-moving-sideways-home-prices-took-off

Famed analyst Jesse Colombo recently wrote:

Booming commodities exports and skyrocketing housing prices are encouraging Canadians to spend far beyond their means, while binging on credit, mimicking their American neighbors’ profligate behavior of six years earlier. (They’re thinking, “Canada is different!”) RBC Global Asset Management’s chief economist warns that Canada’s record household debt could “spell its undoing,” while Moody’s warns that Canadian banks face significant risk due to their exposure to overleveraged Canadian consumers. Maybe things really are different in Canada, where a group of under-21-year-olds got caught by the police for racing $2 million worth of exotic supercars, including Ferraris and Lamborghinis. Or not.

The age-old misperception that this time is different, that Chinese investors will continue to spend millions on crack shacks in Vancouver, that an industrial boom in East Asia will continue to support demand for Canadian commodities, that Canada’s subprime slush isn’t vulnerable, that hot inflows from capital rich low-interest rate environments like Japan and America will continue forever.

In the short term what is going on is that the ex-Goldmanite Carney has pumped up a huge bonanza of securitisation and quick profits for big banks and their management who are laughing all the way to the Cayman Islands (or in Carney’s case, Threadneedle Street). Once the easy money quits flowing into the Canadian financial system from abroad, defaults will begin to accumulate, cracks will quickly appear, and Canada will spiral into debt-deflation. Taxpayers in Canada (and in other similar cases like Australia) may well end up bailing out the banks profiting so handsomely now, just like their American and British and Japanese cousins.

The appointment of Carney is a disaster for Britain and a disaster for the Bank of England. Carney has already singled out Andy Haldane for criticism, an economist at the Bank of England with a solid understanding of the dynamics of complex financial systems, and a champion of simple and clear regulation. 

In a hundred years, people may be taking out zero-down mortgages against building geodesic domes on Mars or the Moon, and flipping them off to greater fools for huge profits. Because this time is different, right? And another crash and depression will follow.

The Economist: “Be Afraid (Unless We Print a Lot More Money)”

While most readers of this blog will be convinced of (or at least open to) the idea that the global financial system is fundamentally broken, and either needs to fail or at the very least needs to undergo a radical transformationsome of us believe that the problem is basically a lack of demand, and that the entire solution lies in printing fuckloads of money, giving it to the people who brought us Solyndra, and hoping for the best.

From today’s issue of the Economist:

Lacking conviction and courage

In the aftermath of the Lehman crisis, policymakers broadly did the right thing. The result was not a rapid return to prosperity in the West, but after such a big balance-sheet recession that was never going to happen. Now, more often than not, policymakers seem to be getting it wrong. Their mistakes vary, but two sorts stand out. One is an overwhelming emphasis on short-term fiscal austerity over growth. Fixing that means different things in different places: Germany could loosen fiscal policy, while in Britain the reins should merely be tightened more slowly. But the collective obsession with short-term austerity across the rich world is hurting.

The second failure is one of honesty. Too many rich-world politicians have failed to tell voters the scale of the problem. In Germany, where the jobless rate is lower than in 2008, people tend to think the crisis is about lazy Greeks and Italians. Mrs Merkel needs to explain clearly that it also includes Germany’s own banks—and that Germany faces a choice between a costly solution and a ruinous one. In America the Republicans are guilty of outrageous obstructionism and misleading simplification, while Mr Obama has favoured class warfare over fiscal leadership. At a time of enormous problems, the politicians seem Lilliputian. That’s the real reason to be afraid.

The alternative view (as I have spelled out many times before) is that no amount of monetary policy without at the same time addressing the underlying real-world problems will solve the problems. Problems will just be kicked down the road, to re-emerge at a later date:

Those troubles are non-monetary — they are systemic and infrastructural: military overspending, political corruption, public indebtedness, withering infrastructure, oil dependence, deindustrialisation, the withered remains of multiple bubbles, bailout culture, the derivatives-industrial complex, and so forth. The real question is when will America tire of the slings and arrows of fortune? When will America take arms against her sea of troubles? And how long will she last on this mortal coil? To die? To sleep? For in that sleep of death what dreams may come…

Until we address the underlying problems, the market — in the long run — will keep crashing. And in the long run, we’re all dead. So that’s twice as bad. Junkiefication leads to junkification.

There was always the hope that kicking the can down the road might give us an opportunity to address those underlying problems. But it doesn’t seem like we have. Risk and leverage are greater than they were in 2008. Moral hazard is ready to rear its ugly head. The global trade structure is as fragile as ever. America is just as dependent on foreign energy and manufacturing. Deleveraging is proving costly and painful. Worst of all, many of the dangers inherent in the financial system have  now been transferred via bank bailouts to the sovereign level — like in Europe.

So no — the real reason to be afraid is not that policy-makers are not showing Bernanke’s famous Rooseveltian resolve. The real reason to be afraid is that what occurred after 2008 merely suppressed the symptoms of an underlying sickness.

They can’t. Only real reform — solving the underlying problems — can.

Groupon: Unsustainable Parasite?

I’m always interested to see new business models emerge, and the internet has played a huge role in changing the way society operates, and the way people think about commerce. Online delivery has had a huge impact both on my life, and the way that I shop. If I want to buy something — a book, or a piece of furniture, or a piece of equipment, I can find it online, and order it, and it will arrive at my door. Previously, I had to go to the shop, look around the shop, collect, pay and go home. Now I just go to Google, then Amazon or eBay and the product is in my hands the next day. Now if this is revolutionary for me, it is even more revolutionary for sellers: instead of maintaining expensive retail real estate, they can maintain low-cost warehouses, and increase the range of products they stock . Of course, this new model presents challenges to established retail businesses, and to local government and communities who see town centres increasingly deserted, and more and more physical retailers going out of business f they can’t adapt. But that’s the nature of capitalism: things come and things go depending on what is popular, and what attracts custom.

But there are a certain class of businesses that have not been quite so affected by the online-retail revolution. Businesses like nightclubs, health spas, and restaurants where the physical premises is a huge aspect of the business model. Restaurants can’t establish a warehouse where food is assembled and send it out to the customers’ homes. I am sure McDonald’s have given this serious thought, but it just wouldn’t work — customers want freshly prepared food, delivered to their table in a bricks-and-mortar restaurant. Nightclubs can’t deliver themselves to me either — although the fact that I can stream any music I choose from Spotify and dance around my bedroom is surely a threat to their business model.

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