Could America Get Sucked Into a China-Japan Conflict?

So China and Japan are both threatening conflict in their fairly brutal ongoing argument over a few tiny disputed islands (and their mineral rights):

Senkaku islands

With global growth slowing, both countries’ leaders might look to a war as a way to distract from economic woe. While a limited war between China and Japan over the islands — perhaps of the scale of the Falkland War between Britain and Argentina in the 1980s — would be unsettling for the global economy, the real question is whether or not such a conflict could spiral into something bigger. 

The first critical point to note is that both countries’ leadership are increasingly hawkish in tone and character. China is in many ways seeking to establish itself on the world stage as a global military and economic powerhouse. Countries seeking to establish themselves on the global stage have traditionally sought out conflict. Japan is an ideal candidate for Chinese hostility. There is a lot of resentment — Japan’s invasion and occupation of Manchuria was brutal, and filled with war crimes (war crimes that the Japanese continue to deny). But more than that, Japan is an American protectorate, dotted with American bases, and subject to a mutual defence treaty. If China is to eclipse the United States as a global superpower, China must be able to show that she can impose her will on America.

And Shinzo Abe, Japan’s new Prime Minister has made it his life’s work to change Japan’s pacifistic constitution. Japan is faced with a twenty year economic depression, falling birthrates, a population of “herbivore” males with an aversion to sexuality. Abe may see hostility against China as a gateway to greater nationalism, and greater nationalistic fervour as a gateway to a national recovery.

First of all, it is critical to note that the United States is not legally obligated under its with Japan treaty to intercede on Japan’s behalf. The treaty states that the United States is required to report any such event to the UN Security Council, instead:

Each Party recognizes that an armed attack against either Party in the territories under the administration of Japan would be dangerous to its own peace and safety and declares that it would act to meet the common danger in accordance with its constitutional provisions and processes. Any such armed attack and all measures taken as a result thereof shall be immediately reported to the Security Council of the United Nations in accordance with the provisions of Article 51 of the Charter. Such measures shall be terminated when the Security Council has taken the measures necessary to restore and maintain international peace and security.

Very simply, this means that China can attack Japan without fearing an inevitable American retaliation. That fact alone makes a small skirmish fairly likely.

So what if China successfully captured the islands — and perhaps even more Japanese territory — as we can perhaps assume given China’s overwhelming size and military-spending advantages? Well, the United States and presumably the international community other than China’s allies would seek to diplomatically pressure China to stand down and reach a peaceful arbitrated resolution via the UN.

If China refused to stand down and accept a diplomatic solution — that is, if China was absolutely set on staring down the United States — then the United States would be forced to choose between providing military support to Japan — and possibly ultimately escalating up to a global war between China and her allies and the United States and her allies — or facing a humiliating climbdown, and accepting both Chinese sovereignty over the islands, as well as any other Japanese territory that China might have captured, as well as face the possibility of further Chinese incursions and expansionism in the Pacific in the future.

Who will blink first is uncertain. Only the Chinese really know how strong they are, how far they are willing to push, and how much of their threats are a bluff.

On the other hand, as I wrote last year:

The relationship between China and the United States today is superficially similar to that between Great Britain and Germany in 1914. Germany and China — the rising industrial behemoths, fiercely nationalistic and determined to establish themselves and their currencies on the world stage. Great Britain and the United States  — the overstretched global superpowers intent on retaining their primacy and reserve currency status even in spite of huge and growing debt and military overstretch.

Mutually assured destruction can only act as a check on expansionism if it is credible. So far, no nation has really tested this credibility.

Nuclear-armed powers have already engaged in proxy wars, such as Vietnam. How far can the limits be pushed? Would the United States launch a first-strike on China if China were to invade and occupy Taiwan or Japan, for example? Would the United States try to launch a counter-invasion? Or would they back down? Launching a first-strike is highly unlikely in all cases — mutually assured destruction will remain an effective deterrent to nuclear war. But perhaps not to conventional war and territorial expansionism.

The chance of global war in the near-term remains very low. But so long as China and Japan continue their antagonism, the chance of global war in the long-term is rising.

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Is the Gold Price Dependent on China?

China now buys more gold than the Western world:

Gold_Demand_China_WGC

Does that mean, as some commentators are suggesting, that future price growth for the gold price depends on China? That if the Chinese economy weakens and has a hard landing or a recession that gold will fall steeply?

There’s no doubt that the run-up that gold has experienced in recent years is associated with the rise in demand for gold from emerging markets and their central banks. And indeed, the BRIC central banks have been quite transparent about their gold acquisition and the reasons for it.

Zhang Jianhua of the People’s Bank of China said:

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

Indeed, this trend recently led the Telegraph’s Ambrose Evans-Pritchard to declare that the world was on the road to “a new gold standard” — a tripartite reserve currency system of gold, dollars and euros:

The world is moving step by step towards a de facto Gold Standard, without any meetings of G20 leaders to announce the idea or bless the project.

Some readers will already have seen the GFMS Gold Survey for 2012 which reported that central banks around the world bought more bullion last year in terms of tonnage than at any time in almost half a century.

They added a net 536 tonnes in 2012 as they diversified fresh reserves away from the four fiat suspects: dollar, euro, sterling, and yen.

The countries driving the movement toward gold as a reserve currency by building their gold reserves is that they are broadly creditor nations whose dollar-denominated assets have been relatively hurt by over a decade of low and negative real interest rates. The idea that gold does well during periods of  falling or negative real rates held even before the globalisation of U.S. Treasury debt.

The blue line is real interest rates on the 10-year Treasury, the red line change in the gold price from a year ago:

fredgraph (15)

The historical relationship between real interest rates and the gold price shows that it is likely not “China” per se that has been driving the gold price so much as creditors and creditor states in general who are disappointed or frustrated with the negative real interest rate environment in dollar-denominated assets. What a slowdown in the Chinese economy (or indeed the BRICs in general) would mean for the gold price remains to be seen. While it is widely assumed that a Chinese slowdown might reduce demand for gold, it is quite plausible that the opposite could be true. For instance, an inflationary crisis in China could drive the Chinese public and financial sector into buying more gold to insulate themselves against falling or negative real rates.

Of course, this is only one factor. That are no hard and fast rules about what drives markets, especially markets like the gold market where many different market participants have many different motivations for participating — some see gold as an inflation hedge, some (like the PBOC) as a hedge against counterparty risk and global contagion, some as a buffer against negative real interest rates, some as a tangible form of wealth, etc.

And with the global monetary system in a state of flux — with many nations creating bilateral and multilateral trade agreements to trade in non-dollar currencies, including gold — emerging market central banks see gold — the oldest existing form of money — as an insurance policy against unpredictable changes, and as a way to win global monetary influence.

So while emerging markets and particularly China have certainly been driving gold, while U.S. real interest rates remain negative or very low, and while the global monetary system remains in a state of flux, these nations will likely continue to gradually drive the gold price upward.

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.

Latvia Is No Success

Anders Aslund of the Peterson Institute is fairly certain that austerity during depressions works:

After five years of financial crisis, the European record is in: Northern Europe is sound, thanks to austerity, while southern Europe is hurting because of half- hearted austerity or, worse, fiscal stimulus. The predominant Keynesian thinking has been tested, and it has failed spectacularly.

The starkest contrasts are Latvia and Greece, two small countries hit the worst by the crisis. They have pursued different policies, Latvia strict austerity, and Greece late and limited austerity. Latvia saw a sharp gross domestic product decline of 24 percent for two years, which was caused by an almost complete liquidity freeze in 2008. This necessitated the austerity that followed.

Yet Latvia’s economy grew by 5.5 percent in 2011, and in 2012 it probably expanded by 5.3 percent, the highest growth in Europe, with a budget deficit of only 1.5 percent of GDP. Meanwhile, Greece will suffer from at least seven meager years, having endured five years of recession already. So far, its GDP has fallen by 18 percent. In 2008 and 2009, the financial crisis actually looked far worse in Latvia than Greece, but then they chose opposite policies. The lessons are clear.

The notion that Latvia is somehow a success story is just absurd.  Latvia has shed some ten percent of its workforce during the economic turmoil — that would be like more than 20 million people emigrating out of the USA, or 4 million people emigrating from Britain. This is why the unemployment rate has fallen somewhat.  And Latvia’s economy is still deeply depressed, far, far below its pre-crisis peak. Would we be calling Britain and America success stories if millions and millions of people were leaving and output was still far, far, far below its pre-crisis peak?

This video from last year shreds the notion of Latvia as some kind of austerity-driven paradise:

The truth is that the binary choice between stimulus and austerity is false. The real decision is how best to produce productivity, creativity, entrepreneurship and growth. It is possible to do this without any debt-fuelled stimulus, and without any immediate fiscal contraction, by (for example) attracting more foreign investment, using bailed-out banks to provide business finance to the unemployed, and deregulating small businesses and entrepreneurs.

The fiscal trick is in learning to cut spending during the boom — something which very few governments have ever mastered, but which is necessary for long-term fiscal sustainability. In the United States during the mid-2000s, tax revenues were high, and growth was moderately strong. This gave the Bush administration a false sense of leeway that allowed them to embark on massive debt-fuelled spending at precisely the wrong time, starting two wars, and creating large-scale domestic spending programs like Medicare Part D and No Child Left Behind. If the Bush administration had cut spending during the boom, not only would it have offset some of the potential for bubbles in housing and stocks, but it would have left the American government in a much stronger financial position come the downturn.

Yesterday’s prosperity didn’t last forever (leaving us with collapsed tax revenues, and massive budget deficits) and today’s depression doesn’t have to last forever either, so long as we have the courage to create the environment for small business and entrepreneurs to thrive, and then to cut, cut, cut during the next boom. Trying to balance the budget in the way Anders Aslund seems to endorse is a road to deeper depression, extreme unemployment, and potentially to millions and millions of people leaving to look for work elsewhere.

The Interconnective Web of Global Debt

It’s very big:

article-2118152-124602BE000005DC-0_964x528

Andrew Haldane:

Interconnected networks exhibit a knife-edge, or tipping point, property. Within a certain range, connections serve as a shock-absorber. The system acts as a mutual insurance device with disturbances dispersed and dissipated. But beyond a certain range, the system can tip the wrong side of the knife-edge. Interconnections serve as shock-ampli ers, not dampeners, as losses cascade.The system acts not as a mutual insurance device but as a mutual incendiary device.

A mutual incendiary device sounds about right.

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.

Currency Competition

The greatest trouble with monopolies is what they take away — competition. Competition is a beautiful mechanism; in exercising their purchasing power and demand preferences, individuals run the economy — it is their spending that allocates, labour, capital, resources and brainpower. It’s their spending that transmits the information that determines what gets made, what doesn’t, which businesses succeed and which don’t. Individuals exercise a far greater political and economic power in a free economy when they spend, and when they work than when they vote. So without competition, the power of choice suffers, and businesses, markets and societies can become economically stagnant and rampantly corrupt; look at North Korea and the myriad other examples of once-prosperous societies impoverished within the context of a lack of competition.

In a free market, monopolies are potentially less problematic because without competition a monopolist can become complacent and inefficient, allowing competitors a foothold to grab market share; consider the near-monopoly of Microsoft Windows and Internet Explorer in the 1990s, which began to melt away via the rise of Apple, Google, Firefox and the poorly-received Windows Vista in the 2000s. While a free market is not a foolproof guarantee of a competitive market — and sometimes regulation is necessary to prevent the formation of cartels — it is the closest thing to such a thing.

Monopolies can become much more problematic when a monopoly develops and the holders of that monopoly utilise the power of the state to protect their dominance. Whether their business is food, or clothes, or computers, or money, a state-protected monopoly limits competition and distorts the process of allocating of resources, capital and labour.

If we are for competition in goods and services, why should we disclude competition in the money industry? Would choice in the money industry not benefit the consumer in the manner that choice in other industries does? Why should the form and nature of the medium of exchange be monopolised? Shouldn’t the people — as individuals — be able to make up their own mind about the kind of money that they want to use to engage in transactions?

Earlier, this year Ben Bernake and Ron Paul had an exchange on this subject:

Bernanke contends that it is possible to transact in a competing currency like Yen, or pesos or bitcoin. This is technically correct. But, as Ron Paul points out, there are still a number of laws which are arguably preventing a level playing field:

The first step [to real currency competition] consists of eliminating legal tender laws. Article I, Section 10 of the Constitution forbids the States from making anything but gold and silver a legal tender in payment of debts. States are not required to enact legal tender laws, but should they choose to, the only acceptable legal tender is gold and silver, the two precious metals that individuals throughout history and across cultures have used as currency. There is nothing in the Constitution that grants Congress the power to enact legal tender laws. Congress has the power to coin money, regulate the value thereof, and of foreign coin, but not to declare a legal tender. Yet, there is a section of US Code, 31 USC 5103, that purports to establish US coins and currency, including Federal Reserve notes, as legal tender.

The second step to legalizing currency competition is to eliminate laws that prohibit the operation of private mints. One private enterprise which attempted to popularize the use of precious metal coins was Liberty Services, the creators of the Liberty Dollar. The government felt threatened by the Liberty Dollar, as Liberty Services had all their precious metal coins seized by the FBI and Secret Service in November of 2007.

The final step to reestablishing competition in currency is to eliminate capital gains and sales taxes on gold and silver coins. Under current federal law, coins are considered collectibles, and are liable for capital gains taxes. Coins held for less than one year are taxed at the short-term capital gains rate, which is the normal income tax rate, while coins held for more than a year are taxed at the collectibles rate of 28 percent.

This is not a radical change. In this age of cashless payment people can simply load their alternative currency onto a debit card and spend it — similar to the gold-denominated debit card currently available to non-Americans from Peter Schiff’s EuroPacific Bank. In this age of Google and ubiquitous computing, exchange rates can be calculated instantaneously.

If people and businesses choose to stick to government-backed fiat money and refuse other currencies, that is their prerogative. It is possible that other media of exchange would not become popular; but at least there would be a more level playing field. Under the status quo, there is no level playing field.

It is often said in interventionist circles that Bernanke is too tame a central banker, and that right now the people need a greater money supply. Well, set the society free to determine their own money supply based on the demand for money; let the people decide.