Soaring Debt Precedes Financial Crises…

Things don’t look so good for China:

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Will we see a Chinese financial meltdown in 2013? Or 2014? Or 2015? With global GDP growth on a definite trend downward, with such a tepid Western recovery, and with global geopolitical tensions still high, the last thing the global economy needs is a financial crisis at the heart of the BRIC growth engine. But the data implies that that may just be what we get.

To those who believe that China is immune to such a thing, recall that America suffered the Great Depression immediately previous to becoming a global superpower. China’s economy has undergone a rapid transformation in recent years:

china-economy-12-4

Such a transformation is sure to necessitate some dislocation and fallout — just as America’s transformation from an agricultural to a manufacturing economy did. America ended that process as the global superpower. It remains to be seen if the same will happen for China, but controlling the world’s largest productive industrial base certainly suggests so. The other factor, of course, that presaged America’s rise was a global war

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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.

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:

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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.

The Real 2013 Cliff

There’s a much bigger cliff than the so-called fiscal cliff. The absolute worst result of the fiscal cliff would be a moderate uniform tax increase at a bad time, resulting in a moderate contraction. It is an obvious — but ultimately rather cosmetic — stumbling block on the so-called “road to recovery”.

The much bigger cliff stems from the fact that the so-called recovery itself is built on nothing but sand. This is a result of underlying systemic fragilities that have never been allowed to break. I have spent the last year and a half writing about this graph — the total debt in the economy as a proportion of the economy’s output:

This is the bubble that won’t go away. This is the zombified mess that the Federal Reserve won’t let dissolve (as happened regularly in the 19th century and early 20th century each time there was an unsustainable debt bubble). This is the shifting sand — preserved by the massive monetary stimulus programs — that the so-called recovery is built upon. During the 1980s and 1990s and 2000s cheap money pumped up the debt level in America. In 2008, the bubble burst, and the hyper-connective fragile financial system was set to burn. Then central banks around the world stepped in to “stabilise” (or as Nassim Taleb puts it, overstabilise) the financial system. The unsustainable reality of debt vastly exceeding income was put on life support.

A high pre-existing residual debt level makes growth challenging, as consumers and producers remain focussed on paying down the pre-existing debt load, they are drained by pre-existing debt service costs, and they are wary about taking on debt or investing in a weak and depressed environment. It’s a classic Catch-22. The only true panacea for the depression is growth, but the economy cannot grow because it is depressed and zombified. That’s where a crash comes in — the junk is liquidated, clearing the field for new growth. That is what Schumpeter meant when he talked of “the work of depressions”, something that many mainstream economists still fail to grasp. (In fairness, a similar effect can probably be achieved without a depression through a very large scale debt relief program.)

Japan has been stuck in a deleveraging trap for twenty years, to no avail, all that has really occurred is that the private debt load has been transferred onto the central bank balance sheet — there has been very little net deleveraging) and while the Japanese central bank has completed round after round of quantitative easing — sustaining and preserving the past malinvestment and high debt load — the Japanese economy is still depressed.

Japan-Debt-Hoisington-27

That is the road America and most of the West are now on. And just as Japan’s bank stocks did multiple times even after the Japanese housing bubble burst, American banking stocks — even in spite of a year of fraud, abuse, mismanagement and uber-fragility — have been shooting up, up, up and away:

1220sp_data

The zombie financial sector is the real cliff — as interconnective as ever, as corrupt as ever, and most importantly, nearly as leveraged as ever:

Margin Debt November 2012

This is a reinflated bubble built on foundations of sand. I don’t know which straw will break the illusion (middle eastern war? Hostility between China and Japan? Chinese real estate and subprime meltdown? Student debt? Eurozone? Natural disasters? Who knows…) but this bubble poses a far greater threat in 2013 than the fiscal shenanigans and the Boehner-Obama “Boner-Droner” snoozefest.

The Interconnective Web of Global Debt

It’s very big:

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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.

When Currency Wars Become Trade Wars…

Beggaring thy neighbour has consequences. Neighbours might turn around and bite back.

China and the United States are already locked in an intractable and multilayered currency war. That has not escalated much yet beyond a little barbed rhetoric (although if China want to get a meaningful return on the trillions of dollars of American paper they are holding, one can only suspect that there will be some serious escalation as the United States continues to print, print, print, a behaviour that China and China’s allies are deeply uncomfortable with).

But Brazil are already escalating.

Brazil flag face

The Washington Post notes:

When the Brazilian economy began to stall last year, officials in Latin America’s largest country started pulling pages from the playbook of another major developing nation: China.

They hiked tariffs on dozens of industrial products, limited imports of auto parts, and capped how many automobiles could come into the country from Mexico — an indirect slap at the U.S. companies that assemble many vehicles there.

The country’s slowdown and the government’s response to it is a growing concern among U.S. officials worried that Brazil may be charting an aggressive new course — away from the globalized, open path that the United States has advocated successfully in Mexico, Colombia and some other Latin American nations, and toward the state-guided capitalism that the United States has been battling to change in China. As the world economy struggles for common policies that could bolster a still tentative recovery, the push toward protectionism by an influential developing country is seen in Washington as a step backward.

“These are unhelpful and concerning developments which are contrary to our mutual attempts” to strengthen the world economy, outgoing U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk wrote in a strongly worded letter to Brazilian officials that criticized recent tariff hikes as “clearly protectionist.”

And Brazilian officials are very, very clear about exactly why they are doing what they are doing:

Brazilian officials insist the measures are a temporary buffer to help their developing country stay on course in a world where they feel under double-barreled assault from cheap labor in China and cheap money from the U.S. Federal Reserve’s policy of quantitative easing.

“We are only defending ourselves to prevent the disorganization, the deterioration of our industry, and prevent our market, which is strong, from being taken by imported products,” Brazil’s outspoken finance minister, Guido Mantega, said in an interview. Mantega popularized use of the term “currency war” to describe the Federal Reserve’s successive rounds of easing, which he likened to a form of protectionism that forced up the relative value of Brazil’s currency and made its products more expensive relative to imports from the United States and also China.

How long until other nations join with Brazil in declaring trade measures against the United States is uncertain, but there may be few other options on the table for creditors wanting to get their pound of flesh, or nations wishing to protect domestic industries. After all, the currency wars won’t just go away; competitive devaluation is like trying to get the last word in an argument. The real question is whether the present argument will lead to a fistfight.