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…

Paul vs Paul: Round #2

Bloomberg viewers estimate that Ron Paul was the winner of the clash of the Pauls (Ron Paul fans, of course, are very studious at phoning in their support him for). But that is very much beside the point. This wasn’t really a debate. Other than the fascinating moment where Krugman denied defending the economic policies of Diocletian, very little new was said, and the two combatants mainly talked past each other.

The first debate happened early last decade.

To wit:

And so, round two. Krugman wants more inflation; Paul is scared of the prospect. From Paul’s FT editorial yesterday:

Control of the world’s economy has been placed in the hands of a banking cartel, which holds great danger for all of us. True prosperity requires sound money, increased productivity, and increased savings and investment. The world is awash in US dollars, and a currency crisis involving the world’s reserve currency would be an unprecedented catastrophe. No amount of monetary expansion can solve our current financial problems, but it can make those problems much worse.

Or, as Professor Krugman sees it:

Would a rise in inflation to 3 percent or even 4 percent be a terrible thing? On the contrary, it would almost surely help the economy.

How so? For one thing, large parts of the private sector continue to be crippled by the overhang of debt accumulated during the bubble years; this debt burden is arguably the main thing holding private spending back and perpetuating the slump. Modest inflation would, however, reduce that overhang — by eroding the real value of that debt — and help promote the private-sector recovery we need. Meanwhile, other parts of the private sector (like much of corporate America) are sitting on large hoards of cash; the prospect of moderate inflation would make letting the cash just sit there less attractive, acting as a spur to investment — again, helping to promote overall recover.

Ron Paul believes that inflationary interventions into the dollar economy will have unpredictable and dangerous ramifications. Paul Krugman believes that a little more inflation will spur economic activity and decrease residual debt overhang. Krugman gives no credence to the prospect of inflation spiralling out of hand, or of such policies triggering other deleterious side-effects, like a currency crisis.

The prospect of a currency crisis is a topic I have covered in depth lately: as more Eurasian nations ditch the dollar as reserve currency, more dollars (there are $5 trillion floating around Asia, in comparison to a domestic monetary base of just $1.8 trillion — the dollar is an absurdly internationalised currency) will be making their way back into the domestic American economy. Will that have an impact?

I don’t really know how much of this is to do with the Fed’s reflationary policies, and how much is to do with the United States’ endangered role as global hegemon. I tend to think that the dollar hegemony has always been backed by American military force, and with the American military overstretched, the dollar’s role comes into question. If America can’t play the global policeman for global trade, why would the dollar be the currency on global trade?

However it must be noted that America’s creditors do believe that their assets are threatened by the Fed’s inflationism.

As the Telegraph noted last year:

There has been a hostile reaction by China, Brazil and Germany, among others, to the Federal Reserve’s decision to resume quantitative easing.

Or as a Xinhua editorial rather bluntly put it:

China, the largest creditor of the world’s sole superpower, has every right now to demand the United States to address its structural debt problems and ensure the safety of China’s dollar assets.

Of course, China may be totally bluffing, or getting it wrong on the danger of inflation to its assets.

If the reflationism is angering the exporter nations perhaps it is a cause for concern. After all, if America’s consumption-based economy is dependent on China’s continued exportation, and Krugman is advocating inflating away their debt-denominated financial assets, then to what extent do Krugman’s suggestions imperil the trans-Pacific consumer-producer relationship?

And this is a crucial matter — there is nothing, I think, more crucial than the free availability of goods and resources through the trade infrastructure. Getting into a fight with China is risky.

As commenter Thomas P. Seager noted yesterday:

[The situation today] is directly analogous to the first Oil Shock in 1973. In the decades prior, the US had been a major oil producer. However, efficiency gains and discoveries overseas resulting in an incrementally increasing dependence of foreign petroleum. Price signals failed to materialize that would caution policy makers and industrialists of the risks.

Then, the disruption of oil supplies from the Middle East caused tremendous economic dislocations.

Manufacturing is undergoing the same process. The supply chain disruption from the Japanese earthquake and Tsunami was merely a warning shot. Imagine if S Korean manufacturing were taken off-line for any length of time (a plausible scenario). The disruption to US industry would be catastrophic.

In the name of increased efficiency, we have introduced brittleness.

Time will tell whether Krugman’s desire for more inflation is wise or not.

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.

Economics for the Muppet Generation

Mark McHugh of Across the Street provides a succinct summation of the problem America faces:

McHugh continues:

  • From 1947 to 1974 US income per capita grew more than National debt per capita 25 times.
  • In the last 30 years, National debt per capita has grown more than income per capita 24 times.
  • The last time income per capita grew more than national debt per capita was 2001.
  • Ben Bernanke arrived at the Federal Reserve in 2002.

So simple, even a muppet can understand what the problem is, right?

Not exactly. We know what the problem is: national incomes aren’t rising, even while we get deeper and deeper into hock trying to maintain our standard of living. We know that this pattern is totally unsustainable; unless incomes rise, that debt will become increasingly impossible to service. What is less clear is the cause of this stagnation.

So what changed between 1990 and 2005 that led the nation debt per capita to so quickly overtake national incomes per capita?

While I am mindful that correlation does not necessarily imply causation, that data fits pretty beautifully. The explanation for this trend would be that as America has become more and more consumptive, and less and less productive that more and more capital went offshore to pay for consumption, and thus less and less contributed to the national income, even as Bernanke ponied up trillions in new reserves, and even as the shadow banking system created trillions in pseudo-money.

So where’s America’s money?

Here:


So is this a criticism of free trade? Should America have been more protectionist of her industries and her domestic manufacturing? Not necessarily; what the Washingtonian elites refer to as “free trade” is heavily subsidised. The status quo that Washington has made seems to heavily favour China and disfavour America. Imports from China are subsidised by American military largesse; every dollar America pushes into its military-industrial complex pushes shipping costs like insurance a little lower. So while labour costs in the Orient are naturally cheaper (due to population density, and development level), that doesn’t necessarily mean that Chinese goods are naturally cheaper in the American market. Under a genuinely free system — where America was not subsidising shipping costs — would made-in-America be more competitive compared to Chinese goods? Would China have built up a less  mountainous supply of American cash? I think so.

Confucius on Central Planning

The natural Universe maintains order without giving commands, and the ruler should do likewise, remaining motionless like the North Star and letting the people revolve spontaneously around him. If you yourself are correct, even without the issuing of orders, things will get done; if you yourself are not correct, although orders are issued, they will not be obeyed.

Did Confucius detect the inherent fragility in central planning? That is, that the pushier and more micro-managerial that rulers become, the more they elicit big unwanted side-effects? The relevant example, of course is Mao’s Great Leap Forward. Mao sought to bring the entirety of Chinese society under his yoke, and drag China quickly forward to equal Western industrial development that had taken place organically at a much slower pace.

From Wiki:

Before 1949, peasants had farmed their own small pockets of land, and observed traditional practices connected to markets—festivals, banquets, and paying homage to ancestors.

By 1958 private ownership was entirely abolished and households all over China were forced into state-operated communes. Mao insisted that the communes must produce more grain for the cities and earn foreign exchange from exports.

While collectivisation was eventually achieved (though not without resistance), the largest unsolicited side effect in this case was mass starvation.

Dutch historian Frank Dikötter explains:

The Great Leap Forward began by collectivising rural farms. Farmers were no longer allowed to grow food for themselves and for profit; instead, they grew it for the collective and the nation. Kitchens were also collectivised; in many places, people were not allowed to own pots and pans because they were required to take all their meals in community dining halls.

To boost crop production, planners took people who once grew grain and put them to work on new irrigation projects. Other farmers were told to work on community iron smelters, thousands of which were built in the campaign to overtake Britain. To produce “steel,” party leaders required many villages to melt down all metal in the community, including farm tools. The resulting pig iron was often of much poorer quality than the source metal.

The lack of incentives to work combined with the lack of people and, in some cases, the lack of farm implements led almost immediately to reduced crops. But provincial leaders who were rewarded for meeting targets didn’t want to admit declines to the central party, so they reported great successes. The national government appropriated 25 to 33 percent of the reported crops for export and to feed the cities. But with actual crops much less than reported, this didn’t leave enough to feed the villages, who in many cases were forced to eat the seed reserved for next year’s crops.

Given that collective farmers had no positive incentives to work, party officials quickly began using negative ones, namely violence against anyone not working hard enough. One county leader considered violence a “duty” and told people working for him, “having a campaign is not the same as doing embroidery; it is impossible not to beat people to death.” Another county leader told cadres, “There are so many people working, it doesn’t matter if you beat a few to death”.

The people who passed out food in the community dining halls knew who worked and who shirked; they would dip to the bottom of soup pots to provide the former with meat and vegetables while the latter would get a watery gruel skimmed from the top. Eventually, some people were denied access to food at all and beaten if they were found with food. One boy who stole a few ounces of grain was stripped, bound, and thrown into a pond where he eventually died of exposure. In some regions, as many as 10 percent of the deaths were due to violence, not food shortages.

If the steel mills were failures, the poorly engineered irrigation projects were no better, often actually reducing the productivity of the land. Within a few years, thousands of poorly built dams collapsed. The failure of one set of dams during a storm in 1975 led to floods that killed 230,000 people.

It is hard to understate how far Maoism was a departure from Confucianism. And it is telling that China only dragged herself out of her great slumber when she ditched Mao’s regressive centralism and returned to a closer approximation of Confucianism under Deng Xiaoping, and to a greater extent under Wen Jiabao’s present regime.

Readers trying to understand the present clash between two factions of the Chinese Communist Party, would do well to see it in terms of Wen’s Confucian faction being challenged by Bo Xailai’s Maoist faction.

From Tom Doctoroff writing in the Huffington Post:

Bo Xilai’s brand of populism was a threat to the nation. He championed the interests of Everyman, but his modus operandi was steeped in Cultural Revolution hysteria. The flip side of massive investment in low-income housing was manipulation of economic insecurity. His anti-mafia zeal, heralded as a campaign against corruption, was a bid to monopolize power within the Party, exacerbating an accountability deficit that tarnishes credibility amongst both rich and poor. His “red song” campaigns, reactionary homages to the Cult of Mao that continue even now to chill both foreigners and mainlanders. To advance his own agenda, he tapped into a latent but enduring impulse to worship, and blindly follow, imperial god-kings, false leaders whose anti-rational policies lead to disaster.

Perhaps then the greatest threat to China — Confucian, not Maoist — as regional and global superpower has just fallen…

A Tale of Two Bens

Paul Krugman has an interesting post up on Ben Bernanke’s contrasting economic policy positions. Simply, the younger Bernanke was much more Krugmanite than the older Bernanke:

[The younger Bernanke] endorsed, at least as possibilities:

- Targeting long-term interest rates
– Currency depreciation
– Money financed deficit spending
– A Krugman-style inflation target

After 2003, however, his menu seemed to have been reduced to:

- Guidance on future short-term rates (the rates the Fed sets)
– Purchases of long-term bonds and other nonconventional assets
– “Oversupplying reserves”, that is, just pushing up the monetary base

Krugman concludes — quite rightly — that Bernanke has been “assimilated by the Fedborg.” Krugman should probably know that Ben’s main goal has nothing whatever to do with inflation, or “aggregate demand” or currency depreciation. Nothing. These are all handmaidens to one thingthe rate that the Treasury is paying on its debt.

America is in an impossibly tough fiscal position:

Even at the government’s impossibly cheap projections, a lot of money is going to be pushed out from the Treasury to creditors.

And so the Fed’s main implicit goal is to keep Treasury rates as low as possible without excessive inflation  — the more inflation, the more creditors will ditch Treasury debt, thus forcing the Fed to monetise more. This is a foreign policy imperative: the bottom line is that America has gotten herself deeply in hock to foreign creditors. The Fed’s task is to keep the creditors buying debt, and to minimise rates so as little capital gets out of America as possible. Ben Bernanke has become precisely what many American accuse China: a currency manipulator.

There are a few secondary goals: reflating housing is one (more home equity means more consumption), and reflating equities is another. But all of these are subordinated to keeping rates cheap and thus delaying America’s inevitable fiscal (and thus foreign policy) meltdown.

Of course, under present circumstances, this is an impossible task. And without another round of QE, rates are rising.

From Bloomberg:

U.S. government securities lost 1 percent from the start of the year to March 29, Bank of America Merrill Lynch indexes show.

And that — in one sentence — is why Bernanke will be printing again soon.

This Looks Like a Bubble

 

But they can’t even cleanly win Iraq or Afghanistan? Clearly, there is more to military success than spending alone. Not overcommitting would seem to be one aspect.

There is no instance of a nation benefitting from prolonged warfare.

Sun Tzu

Yeah.

Further Reading:

The Uniting States of Eurasia
The Decline and Fall of the American Empire
The Changing World
Romneythink