Britain’s Greatest Depression

This is just a disaster — and more prolonged than the depression of the 1930s:

GDP to January 2013

And even more of a disaster when we consider the impact this has had on youth unemployment, which has climbed far above the EU and OECD averages (although nothing like as badly as Spain or Portugal):

o-UK-YOUTH-UNEMPLOYMENT-570

This is not just a failure of government austerity, although that in itself has totally failed to ignite any kind of growth or recovery. The fiscal trajectory is important (not least for business expectations) — and trying to cut public spending and raise taxes during a severe depression in private activity has been shown repeatedly to just exacerbate the private slump — but it’s just one aspect of a greater problem — the failure to create a favourable business environment that can attract capital and growth to the UK.

Lending to UK business remains severely depressed:

LendingtoUKbusiness

Given that the British government owns the bailed-out commercial banks, it’s a shock that they haven’t leveraged this power to reignite lending to business, and particularly to business startups. So long as businesses are allowed to either succeed or fail on their own merits, it would not be a malinvestment of time, energy or capital to use publicly-owned bailed-out banks to break through the lending freeze.

It is something of a chicken-or-egg problem to say exactly how much of the problem is austerity, and how much of it is a weak business environment. But either way, we are on the wrong track. Business confidence levels are still deeply depressed — lower than they were when Cameron and Osborne came to power:

uk-pmi-services-buisness-confidence-feb-2013

We’re now half of the way to a Japanese-style lost decade. If we carry on on the same track, we may end up with exactly that.

If British businesses don’t have confidence in Cameron and Osborne’s policies, if their policies don’t lower unemployment, don’t create growth, don’t boost imports and exports, don’t result in recovery, and don’t even result in less borrowing  (their stated aim), why do they continue to pursue them?

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Are Cameron’s Economic Policies Working?

Britain has returned to growth:

But compared even to the USA — which has huge problems of its own — Britain is still mired in the depths of a depression:

An Olympic bounce does not constitute a recovery. As I noted in March, Britain is under-performing the United States — in GDP and in unemployment. Although Cameron and Osborne keep claiming that they are deficit hawks who want to cut the government deficit, the debt keeps climbing.

Defenders of Cameron’s policies might claim that we are going through a necessary structural adjustment, and that lowered GDP and elevated unemployment is necessary for a time. I agree that a structural adjustment was necessary after the financial crisis of 2008, but I see little evidence of such a thing. The over-leveraged and corrupt financial sector is still dominated by the same large players as it was before. True, many unsustainable high street firms have gone out of business, but the most unsustainable firms that had  to be bailed out — the banks and financial firms who have caused the financial crisis — have avoided liquidation. The real story here is not a structural adjustment but the slow bleeding out of the welfare state via deep and reaching cuts.

Britain has become welfare-dependent. Britain’s welfare expenditure is now over 25% of its total GDP. Multi-billion pound cuts in that figure are going to (and have) hurt GDP.

I believe countries are better with small governments and a larger private sector. The private sector consists of many, many individuals acting out their subjective economic preferences. This dynamic is largely experimental; businesses come and go, survive, thrive and die based upon their ability to stay liquid and retain a market, and this competition for demand forces innovation. The government sector is centrally directed. Governments do not have to behave like a business, they do not have to innovate or compete, as they have the power to tax and compel. (The exception to this is when governments become overrun by the representatives of private industries and corporations, who then leverage the machinations of the state to benefit corporations. When this occurs and markets become rigged in the favour of certain well-connected competitors, it matters little whether we call such industries “private sector” or “public sector”).

So I am sympathetic to the idea that Britain ought to have a smaller welfare state, and fewer transfer payments than it presently does. But the current and historical data shows very clearly that now is not the time to make such an adjustment. The time to reduce the size of the welfare state is when the economy is booming. This is the time that there is work for welfare claimants to go to. Cutting into a depressed economy might create a strong incentive for the jobless to work, but if there is little or no job creation for the jobless to go to, then what use are cuts? To reduce government deficits? If that’s the case, then why are British government deficits rising even though spending is being reduced? (The answer, of course, is falling tax revenues).

An alternative policy that would reduce unemployment and raise GDP without increasing the size of government is to force bailed-out banks sitting on huge hoards of cash to offer loans to the jobless to start their own private businesses. The money would be transferred to those who could be out working and creating wealth, but who cannot get credit through conventional channels, unlike the too-big-to-fail megabanks who are flush with credit but refuse to increase lending to the wider public. Even if the majority of these businesses were to fail, this would ensure a large boost in spending and incomes in the short run, and the few new businesses that succeed would provide employment and tax revenues for years to come. Once there is a real recovery and solid growth in GDP and in unemployment, then the government can act to decrease its size and slash its debt. Indeed, with growing tax revenues it is probable we would find that the deficit would end up decreasing itself.

Gina Rinehart is a Bubble

Last week she said:

If you’re jealous of those with more money, don’t just sit there and complain. Do something to make more money yourself — spend less time drinking, or smoking and socializing and more time working.

Today she claimed that Australians should be willing to work for less than $2 a day:

Australian mining magnate Gina Rinehart has criticised her country’s economic performance and said Africans willing to work for $2 a day should be an inspiration.

Ms Rinehart is said to make nearly A$600 (£393) a second.

The richest woman in the world is making an increasing number of public appearances, and speaking of increasingly controversial topics.

I wonder why.

It couldn’t be that she is becoming increasingly aggressive and controversial because her core business is in trouble, could it?

Marc Faber suggests so:

There have been four mega bubbles in the past 40 years. In the 1970s it was gold; in the 1980s it was the Nikkei, and in the 1990s it was the Nasdaq. Bigger than all of them, though, has been the iron ore bubble, a tenfold increase in prices in less than a decade.

Here’s iron ore priced in dollars:

Julia Gillard’s denial seems to confirm the inevitable:

Australia’s mining boom is not over and its ‘death’ has been exaggerated.

That is her “subprime is contained” moment.

Larry Elliott explodes the myth that this time is different:

Commodity-rich countries, like Australia, have never had it so good. China takes 25% of Australia’s exports and iron ore accounts for 60% of all the goods Australia sells to China. One reason Australia avoided recession during the global downturn of 2008-09 was that it had a well-run banking system. A much bigger reason was that the country had become a giant pit from which China could extract the minerals it needed for its industrial expansion. Money flooded into the country from sovereign wealth funds and hedge funds looking for AAA investments. The Australian dollar has soared, as have property prices.

China’s economy is now slowing, and although the economic data is not particularly reliable, it seems to be slowing fast. The country has two million unsold homes, with another 30 million under construction. There is a glut of iron ore and the price is falling. Where does that leave Australia? Horribly exposed, quite obviously. It has an over-valued currency, an over-valued property market, and its major customer is now desperately pulling every available policy lever in the hope of avoiding a hard landing. Whatever happens, the Australian dollar is a sell. Just how big a sell will depend on how successful Beijing is in reflating the Chinese economy.

Perhaps Gina Rinehart should spend less time drinking, socialising and writing awful poetry and more time preparing her business for the inevitable iron ore bust?

Competing For State Contracts is Not Competition

Here in Britain, we hear the word competition a lot. Since Margaret Thatcher, there has been a general trend — in the name of competition — toward the selling-off of utilities such as water, railway, electricity and telecoms providers. More recently, there has been a trend toward government services being provided by private companies, such as the bungled Olympic security arrangements contracted out to multinational security giant G4S, as well as work capability assessments contracted out to French IT consultancy ATOS, and the contracting-out of some medical services.

The way this works is that the government provides the funding for services, which private sector companies then bid to undertake. This is also the way in which defence contractors have historically competed for defence contracts, a sector which is renowned worldwide for its profligacy, waste and inefficiency.

This is a bizarre arrangement. Competing for government contracts is nothing like the free market. In a true market environment businesses compete for the custom of individuals based on their ability to provide the best products and services. Individuals spend their money to satisfy their needs. New businesses can generally enter the marketplace at any time, and take business away from existing competitors. Competition is beautiful, because it allows economies to quickly adjust capital, labour and resource allocation to the preferences of society based on which goods and services people choose to purchase.

Under a model where private contractors compete for government cash, this is impossible because contractors are essentially bidding for a state-backed monopoly. State bureaucrats determining which contractor will get the money is not competition; there is no market mechanism, there are no consumer preferences. Contractors are just bidding for handouts from the taxpayers’ purse based on the preferences of economic planners. Consumers cannot take their custom elsewhere, because the custom is involuntarily coming out of their taxation.

This has also been the reality of privatisation. Although I am no fan of government-controlled industry, the reality of privatisation in the UK has been the transfer of state monopolies into private hands.

One very clear example of this is telecoms infrastructure. BT Openreach, an arm of the privatised BT, has a complete state-enforced monopoly on telephone exchanges. Other telecoms providers have to lease their infrastructure in order to operate.

And the same for railways; rail lines are sold off as monopolies for ten-year periods. For travellers who want to travel by rail from one destination to another, there is no competition; there is only a state-backed monopoly operating for private profit. No competition, only endless fare hikes, delays and a complete lack of market accountability as contractors take the government cash and do whatever they want.

Ultimately, the state-backed-monopoly model seems to manifest the worst of all worlds. Costs for taxpayers remain high, budget deficits continue to grow, and utilities remain inefficient and messy. The only difference appears to be that taxpayers’ money is now being funnelled off into corporate pockets.

A free society cannot be based on economic planners allocating resources based on a bidding process. A free society is based on the state letting society allocate resources based on the market for goods and services that people want and need.

Facebook & the Bubble Mentality

So Facebook keeps falling, and is now floating around the $27 mark.  We’re a third of the way down to my IPO valuation of FB as worth roughly $2-4 a share (or 5-10 times earnings), although I wouldn’t be surprised for the market to stabilise at a higher price (at least until the next earnings figures come out and reveal — shock horror — that Facebook is terrible at making money).

The really stunning thing is that even after all these falls, FB is still trading at 86 times earnings. What the hell did Morgan Stanley think they were doing valuing an IPO without any viable profit model at over 100 times earnings? The answer is that this was an exit strategy. This IPO was about the people who got in early passing on a stick of dynamite to a greater fool which incidentally is precisely the same bubble mentality business model as bond investors who are currently buying negative-real-yielding treasuries at 1.6% hoping to pass them onto a greater fool at 0.5% (good luck with that).

This was achieved by convincing investors to ignore actual earnings and instead focus on projected future earnings. From Bloomberg:

Facebook, with a market capitalization of $79.1 billion, is trading at 29.5 times the company’s projected 2014 profit of $2.69 billion, data compiled by Bloomberg show.

Or much more simply, counting chickens before they hatch.

There’s an interesting comparison to the development of AAPL. Steve Jobs — who went on to do great things — was never fully in charge of AAPL until much later on. AAPL externally recruited CEOs with business experience, and Jobs was eventually thrust out of the company he founded, to continue his journey on his own. Failure is a really valuable lesson. Jobs was lucky to experience it and learn from it early before he ever got a chance to destroy AAPL.

FB isn’t really a bad business, and prospects would look much rosier if it were priced more realistically. It’s generating a profit — just a much smaller one than suggested by the IPO pricing. And management are being swept along by everyone else’s irrational euphoria. Zuckerberg can freely throw away a whole year’s earnings buying Instagram — an App whose functionality FB actually duplicated in-house almost certainly for a tiny fraction of the cash thrown at Instagram. And Zuckerberg — who controls a majority of the voting rights — isn’t going to get thrust out into the cold by shareholders. He can keep wildly throwing cash around so long as it keeps flowing into FB. The problem is, given the steep price falls, it looks like the river is running dry.

As I wrote before FB started falling:

The big money coming into Facebook just seems to be money from new investors — they raised eighteen times as much in their flotation yesterday as they did in a whole year of advertising revenue. For an established company with such huge market penetration, they’re veering dangerously close to Bernie Madoff’s business model.

That’s life. Bubbles get burst; the Madoff bubble, the securitisation bubble, the NASDAQ bubble, the housing bubble, the Facebook bubble, the treasury bubble. The trick is not getting swept up by the irrational euphoria. Better to miss a blow-out top than to end up holding a stick of dynamite.

Failbook’s Epic Fail: Does Zuckerberg Want Users to Pay?

What is there to say about Facebook?

Why would anyone buy a company’s stock when they have no real profit pedigree? When their advertising profit in 2011 came to just over $1 billion, and their book value is the region of $100 billion, how can that really make any sense other than to the kind of nutcase zombie trader who takes Jim Cramer seriously? The sad truth is that people are just not clicking the ads; Facebook ads receive far fewer clicks than competitors such as Google’s AdSense.

If Facebook was floating with a book value of $5-10 billion (or around $2-4 per share) we would be talking about a serious business proposition, albeit one which is already rather saturated (given that there are 2.3 billion internet users, and Facebook already has its claws into 900 million of them). But at these levels? What are people paying for?

Some say the name recognition and momentum (but that’s just paying for hype) as well as the infrastructure and data that Facebook owns. Certainly five or six years of a big chunk of humanity’s likes and dislikes is a valuable database. But how do they monetise that? Does Zuckerberg have any credible plan?

The most under-reported piece of news of the day is surely that Zuckerberg does seem to have a plan. But it’s not very credible.

From the BBC:

Facebook has started testing a system that lets users pay to highlight or promote posts.

By paying a small fee users can ensure that information they post on the social network is more visible to friends, family and colleagues.

The tests are being carried out among the social network’s users in New Zealand.

Facebook said the goal was to see if users were interested in paying to flag up their information.

That’s their plan? That’s Zuckerberg’s big idea? Get users to pay to post premium content!? Did the well-circulated hoax that Facebook planned to get users to pay for use just turn out to be true? If they proceed with this (unlikely) it seems fairly obvious the world would say goodbye Facebook, hello free alternatives.

The truth is that Facebook is a toy, a dreamworld, a figment of the imagination. Zuckerberg wanted to make the world a more connected place (and build a huge database of personal preferences), and he succeeded thanks to a huge slathering of venture capital. That’s an accomplishment, but it’s not a business. While the angel investors and college-dorm engineers will feel gratified at paper gains, it is becoming hard to ignore that there is no great profit engine under the venture. In fact, the big money coming into Facebook just seems to be money from new investors — they raised eighteen times as much in their flotation yesterday as they did in a whole year of advertising revenue. For an established company with such huge market penetration, they’re veering dangerously close to Bernie Madoff’s business model.

On the other hand, they have plenty of time and money to try out various profit-making schemes. Eventually, they may hit on something big; Apple didn’t start out producing huge cashflow or sales, they got there the hard way. But it all seems like a big gamble on an outfit with big dreams but little moneymaking pedigree. I’d consider buying Facebook at $2-4 a share. But current valuations are a joke — and I don’t think the market is falling for it.

Even the NYT notes:

The company’s bankers had to buy shares to keep the stock from falling below its offering price, raising questions about how the stock will fare next week.

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…