Post-Industrial Decline in England

Today, I want to give a short virtual tour of the city in which I grew up, Stoke-on-Trent. Stoke-on-Trent grew up around the pottery industry. From Wikipedia:

Since the 17th century, the area has been almost exclusively known for its industrial-scale pottery manufacturing, with such world renowned names as Royal DoultonDudson Ltd, Spode (founded by Josiah Spode), Wedgwood (founded by Josiah Wedgwood) and Minton (founded by Thomas Minton) being born and based there. The presence locally of abundant supplies of coal and of suitable clay for earthenware production led to the early but at first limited development of the local pottery industry. The construction of the Trent and Mersey Canal enabled the import of china clay from Cornwall together with other materials and facilitated the production of creamware and bone china. Stoke-on-Trent is a world centre for fine ceramics – a skilled design trade established in the area since at least the 12th century. But in the late-1980s & 1990s Stoke-on-Trent was hit hard by the general decline in the British manufacturing sector. Numerous factories, steelworkscollieries, and potteries were closed. This resulted in a sharp rise in unemployment.

Of course, Stoke is by no means typical, but it does typify some problems that are found in many cities across the Western world: the loss of manufacturing jobs, and a subsequent decline into mass unemployment, drug abuse and social and economic degeneration. This is a tough cycle to break because there are no jobs for welfare recipients to take. So — without a serious regeneration budget — the state has little choice but to leave much of the city welfare-dependent and festering. What I really want to get across is the depth of the post-industrial decline and dereliction in such cities. When they lost their manufacturing sector to cheaper overseas competition, many of these cities lost their reason to exist. They just left an angry, workless and disaffected concentration of population tightly bundled together. Being deprived of capital and investment means that infrastructure, housing and social welfare grossly declined:

The City Centre

Boarded-Up Housing

Dereliction

Former Industrial Glory

Broken Wasteland

Panorama

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The Problem is Fragility

Mainstream opinion on economic conditions at present is a steaming shitheap of errors.

Deluge of hopium from ABC (sponsored by Citigroup, no joke):

Stocks closed higher on Thursday after European leaders agreed on a plan to avert a Greek default and the Commerce Department announced third-quarter gross domestic product grew 2.5 percent, boosted by higher consumer spending, allaying fears that the economy is slipping into another recession.

The Dow Jones industrial average increased about 2.9 percent to 12,209 and the tech-heavy Nasdaq increased about 3.3 percent to 2,784 at the end of the day. The S&P 500 had its biggest monthly rally since 1974, according to Bloomberg, increasing 3.4 percent to 1,285.

The GDP rate was in line with what economists were expecting. The 2.5 percent growth rate is almost triple the 0.9 percent pace of economic growth in the first half of this year, which has been far too slow to generate any job growth. Unemployment has remained stubbornly high at over 9 percent.

The thing is, high unemployment and low GDP growth (now — ahem — magically cured) are (and always were) secondary problems. They’re the things that hurt, sure — but they’re not the cause of the illness — they’re just symptoms The main problem is systemic fragility, and the failure to understand the economy from a systemic perspective, and understand the systemic risks. If the financial system (both global and national) is not resilient to shocks and the unexpected, the system will unravel under the slightest pressure. As I have repeatedly explained, the Western economic paradigm is a highly fragile for two reasons: over-dependence on foreign goods and resources controlled by hostile nations, and the pattern of interconnected financial debt that leaves the system open to collapse if just one significant player collapses:

Not only did the bailouts disable creative destruction (the engine of innovation and social progress), they also created so much debt that they have already damaged the ability of future generations to save, invest and innovate.

Worse, they did nothing to address the fundamental fragility of the system. All of that interconnected debt means the system is still fragile to a default cascade, which means that if the system is to be “saved” again, it will require more bailouts and more debt-acquisition, further eroding the ability of taxpayers to save and invest, as governments tax and inflate the currency to pay down the debt.

I expect future generations to look back on this episode as a bizarre aberration. America — surely the greatest producer and innovator in the history of human civilisation — forgot how markets work and the notion of creative destruction, forgot that an empire dependent on hostile partners (i.e. China and the Arab world) is hugely fragile, and then forgot the fact that America emerged as a superpower as a director result of its status as a great creditor and manufacturer, and that the old European empires lost their superpower status through loss of productivity and massive debt acquisition.

The beautiful thing about artificial abstract systems is that they can be remade at will, unlike ecosystems or organisms. It would be so easy — in principle — to rip up the global financial system and start again, because it’s all abstract. But there are too many vested interests — creditors want their pound of flesh, consumers and businesses want stability and fear change, and so establishment economists and thinkers will hunt ceaselessly for any kind of confirmation for the idea that the system is stabilising, that things are getting better, that things can go back to normal, that prosperity will return.

Well, prosperity may return, at least for a few short years, before the mass of interconnected leverage crumbles back into the murk from which it came. And as credit contracts (as is inevitable in a fractional reserve system) employment will slump, GDP growth will stall, and anger will rise.

The danger is that next time, the gears and wheels of productivity that hold up the abstract falsehoods of finance and consumerism will fail. I am not really a fan of Ayn Rand, but the analogy of Atlas shrugging holds true — in this case, the workshops, mines, and factories of “poorer” exporters holding upon their shoulders the parasitic mass of the consumerist Western nations. It won’t be industrialists and capitalists shrugging — it will be shipyard workers, machine operators, truck drivers, coal miners and construction workers, squeezed and dispossessed. Why should wealthy Westerners live a lavish lifestyle subsidised by the blood sweat and productivity of poorer nations? Because America has nuclear weapons? Because it invades nations that threaten to trade oil in things other than dollars? That kind of belligerence is a house of cards — it works with Third World despots, but not with an angry, politically engaged and dispossessed mob. I see it in the Occupy protests — the police can beat and brutalise protestors, but belligerence doesn’t change anything — the protestors are a hydra, cut off a head and two grow back.

The economic elite of the 20th Century learned to appease their malcontents by continuously raising the standard of living, expanding property ownership, and bringing plenty of food to tables, and new consumer goods to homes around the globe. If the economic elite of the 21st Century cannot learn to do the same I fear the malcontents will unleash hell.

 

Gold in 2012 & the Coming Bond Crash?

Since that spurt up to $1917, and the slump down to $1528 gold has been on ice below $1700. The technical analysis suggests that there is little to get excited about until gold breaks out of the $1600 to $1700 range, and I tend to agree. This is a slow-motion degeneration: triggers for a breakout seem limited to a deeper Euro meltdown (coming — and ultimately leading to a default cascade, and a derivatives meltdown), more American money printing (coming), or (most importantly) a large scale and visible dumping of dollars or treasuries by foreign creditors. Black swans like another Fukushima, incidences of terrorism, or broader social unrest might be bullish for gold in the long term, but gold right now (at least in the West) is up against a wall of perceptions: namely, that haven assets are limited to dollars, and to US treasury bonds. In the mainstream lexicon, gold is used to hedge tail risk and to make jewellery, and until that perception is shattered then I don’t think the funds will begin to significantly increase gold allocations.

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) claims to be committed to dumping them and acquiring harder assets (and bailing out their real estate bubble). So when these perceptions will be shattered? Here are bond yields since 2007:


The bond market is a market, and like any other it is determined by supply and demand (Zero Hedge readers — algorithmic trading is still a form of supply and demand, albeit a fucked-up one). Low yields mean high prices, which mean that demand is still high — pretty close to all-time highs — which means that in the market the belief that treasuries are a haven still mostly holds.

A large sovereign treasury dumper like China with its $1+ trillion of treasury holdings throwing a significant portion of these onto the open market could 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 rashly 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 a Chinese liquidation.

The pace of events might also be significantly accelerated in the light of a full-blown Eurozone default.

So in conclusion — give or take the inevitable QE3 spike — I expect gold prices to be stable or lower — even in the context of low real interest rates — up ’til a significant treasury liquidation. I don’t know when or if this will occur, but if it does, I would expect gold prices to soar in the following months. If it doesn’t occur and markets return to stronger organic growth, the gold bull market will probably end.

It must also be noted that a stock market crash will probably send gold lower in the short term, as with 2008. Ironically, the subsequent flight into treasuries (driving rates lower still) might be a NASDAQ-esque “blow-out top” that signifies the end.

The Only Chinese Hard Landing Will Be On America’s Head

A lot has been made of the so-called Chinese property bubble. And after 2008, when America’s subprime bubble was the straw that broke the camel’s back, who can blame those who see China as low-hanging fruit? In the hedge fund world, both Hugh Hendry and  Jim Chanos (among others) are significantly outperforming the market by shorting Chinese companies.

But the naysayers will be proven sorely wrong.

There are many differences between the Chinese situation and the American one but there is one that outsizes all the others. Over-inflated American (and by-extension, Western) property was being used as a spring-board to fund consumption. Growing home equity allowed real-estate owners to remortgage, and use their surpluses to buy boats, cars and trips around the world; i.e., living beyond their productive means. Once the property bubble burst, not only were many home-owners left underwater, but all of that excessive consumption came to a halt, with a significant negative effect on GDP. China simply doesn’t have that problem. The Chinese nation and its government are not net-borrowers but net-savers.

In addition, there is no evidence that China has the same problem with widespread securitisation that America had in 2008. The subprime bubble created huge systemic risk in the financial sector by bundling up subprime debt in mortgage-backed securities and collateralised debt obligations, and spreading it around American and European balance sheets. This made the system very fragile — as a few defaults, could lead to a global cascade of margin calls and defaults.

In fact, Chinese leverage levels are dropping.

From RBS:

Chinese firms are generally in good financial conditions. The latest data suggests that Chinese companies actually have seen their leverage ratios decline in the past three years, on the back of strong profitability and retained earnings. Most sectors have seen a decline in leverage. Property development was the only main sector that shows the opposite trend of rising leverage but it accounts for only about 6% of total loans. In fact, the average leverage ratio of Chinese companies is one of the lowest among key economies and emerging markets. At the same time, they have maintained one of the strongest profitability.

Chinese GDP (and profitability) is ballooning (and will continue to do so) because of global demand, even on the back of the recessions in Europe and America. That’s because China does everything much more cheaply, and so now controls crucial supply chains in components and products. Now that the world is flat, manufacturing such components in other places is not economically viable, so the supply chains no longer exist, and manufacturing-oriented labour markets are stagnating.

China’s good fortune is its high population levels and high population density.

From Noahpinion:

It is expensive to move products around. This means that if you have a factory, you want to locate it close to where your customers are, to avoid paying a bunch of shipping costs. Now consider two factories. The workers in the first factory will be the consumers for the second factory, and vice versa. So the two factories want to locate near each other (“agglomeration”). As for the workers/consumers, they want to go where the jobs are, so they move near the factories. Result: a city. The world becomes divided into an industrial “Core” and a much poorer agricultural “Periphery” that produces food, energy, and minerals for the Core.

Now when you have different countries, the situation gets more interesting. Capital can flow relatively easily across borders (i.e. you can put your factory anywhere you like), but labor cannot. If you start with a world where everyone’s a farmer, agglomeration starts in one country, but that country gets maxed out when the costs of density (high land prices) start to cancel out the effect of agglomeration. As transport costs fall and the economy grows, the industrial Core spreads from country to country. Often this spread is quite abrupt, resulting in successive “growth miracles” that get faster and faster (as each new industrial region starts out with a bigger global customer base). The evidence strongly indicates that agglomeration is the driver behind developing-world growth.

Looking at global population density — with American taxpayers subsidising the cost of a flat global marketplace — where can we expect productivity to agglomerate?


Of course, China does have a property bubble and a scary-sounding $1.6 trillion in local government debt. But $1.6 trillion of local government debt is still significantly less than China’s dollar and treasury hoard. The bottom line is if that China’s real estate market collapses, China can bail itself out with money it has saved from the prosperity years, not through new debt acquisition. This was the lesson of John Maynard Keynes — governments should save in the boom years, to spend in the bust years and even-out the business cycle — a lesson which seems lost on Western policy-makers, who seem to believe that you should borrow massive amounts every year.

So taking the absolute worst-case-scenario, China has plenty of leeway to bail itself out. Of course, this would mean China might decide to liquidate a significant amount of its treasury holdings — especially seeing as bonds are at all-time highs.

Could such a liquidation be the event that finally bursts the Treasury bubble, sending yields soaring and making it much more difficult for America to acquire new debt?

With 10-year yields now well below 2%, that sure looks like a bubble to me.

The Housing Bubble Priced in Gold

In the United States, the post-sub prime housing crash has meant that consumer spending has stagnated. People are simply not remortgaging their homes to buy boats or other such consumer goods anymore, because there is no longer the expectation that price rises will pay for the boat. This is because prices are slumping due to excess supply built during the peak years. For people who don’t own property in the United States, this price crash has allowed them to get a foot on the property ladder, which is broadly a good thing. Keynesians might argue that the slump in consumer spending is broadly a bad thing, but it’s not: it was never sustainable in the first place. Boosting GDP through unsustainable spending is a short recipe for bubbles.

In the United Kingdom, the story is different. Property prices haven’t really crashed:


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