The Face of Corporatist Hypocrisy

From Bloomberg:

“Retirement ages will have to move to 70, 80 years old,” former AIG CEO Robert Benmosche, who turned 68 last week, said during a weekend interview at his seaside villa in Dubrovnik, Croatia. “That would make pensions, medical services more affordable. They will keep people working longer and will take that burden off of the youth.”

Now, as a guy who is living in a taxpayer-funded villa after his bank-insurance-derivatives-hedge fund-ponzi company blew up, we know Benmosche is a hypocrite. In my view, management should be held personally liable a long time before taxpayers. That’s right, I believe in personal responsibility and that means no hiding behind limited liability and bailouts, no matter how “systemically important” you claim to be.

But let’s set aside disgust at government for first setting up this scenario via Gramm-Leach-Bliley, and then in 2008 throwing money at hypocritical grifters like Benmosche.

Is he wrong about social security and medical services?

Spending costs money. You can spend as much as you like so long as you have the revenues to do so. But the US government is failing to fund its current spending, let alone the $61.6 trillion (that’s a low-end estimate — the high end estimate is $127.5 trillion or 737% of GDP) of future welfare liabilities that the US government is mandated by law to spend.

So can America get the money to match future commitments without significantly raising the retirement age?

In theory.

In theory the Federal government can squeeze taxpayers. Perhaps Occupy will get their wish of raising taxes on the 1% to whatever figure they have in mind (though the way corporations and lobbyists have successfully colonised Washington, that seems exceedingly unlikely). But this is a globalised world, and the higher they tax the more activity will leave to lower-rate jurisdictions, and the less activity will be taxable. Tax evasion and avoidance will soar.

In theory America could have an organic recovery and start generating significant amounts of organic GDP growth. But right now, that’s a fantasy. Pinning your hopes to potential future economic miracles like 3D-printing, nanoengineering, widespread solar energy and synthetic petroleum is hardly good accounting practice, even if they are realistically the best hope of a rosy future.

In theory taxpayers could agree to accept less spending, as Benmosche suggests. But Americans overwhelmingly support social security and medicare, and politicians hawking cuts make themselves into political pariahs. Promises are promises, and politicians have suckered the electorate by promising so much for so little. If Greeks rioting over the retirement age seems raucous, wait ’til a politician tries to slash SNAP, medicare or social security.

Much more likely is the current trend of escalating deficits and printing money to pay the bills — and bail out washed-up corporatists like Benmosche (and his “systemically important” equivalents in Europe). Policy-makers can balance the budget and raise aggregate demand and GDP to whatever level they like (the “highest” level presumably being toilet paper) by throwing newly-printed money out of helicopters.

Trouble is, with the US dollar no longer functioning as the globe’s reserve currency it’s going to get harder and harder to hide the inflation overseas or on primary dealer balance sheets. Welfare recipients will keep getting welfare, but in the long run it may not buy much.

No, nations chose their paths long ago. America chose the path of big spending, big warfare, big bailouts and big welfare, and bailout-recipients like Benmosche who plead “systemic importance” are heavily responsible for that slide into fiscal irresponsibility. It won’t be the politicians, bankers and corporatists who created the mess who will have to deal with the fallout; they have foreign villas, foreign ranches, foreign bank accounts, and barbed-wire-shrouded EMP-proof survival retreats. It will be the average American who has done nothing wrong other than believing the words of politicians.

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The Shape of Eurasia

Western journalists might denounce it as stump rhetoric. But I don’t think Vladimir Putin is beating a drum or rattling a sabre. I think he is deadly serious: what’s more, I think he is in a position of strength, not weakness.

From Bloomberg:

Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin is stepping up rhetoric against the U.S. as his campaign for the March 4 presidential election intensifies after the biggest protests against his rule.

The U.S. “wants to control everything” and takes decisions unilaterally on key questions, Putin said on a campaign stop yesterday in the Siberian city of Tomsk, 3,100 kilometers (1,900 miles) east of Moscow. “Sometimes I get the impression the U.S. doesn’t need allies, it needs vassals.”

Putin, 59, is seeking a new term in the Kremlin amid the biggest challenge to his 12-year rule after fraud allegations at parliamentary polls sparked mass protests. The Russian leader, who has repeatedly accused the U.S. of interfering in other countries’ affairs, said last week that reports by a state-owned Moscow radio station supported American interests.

“The No. 1 reason Putin is doing this is elections,” Jan Techau, director of the European Center of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Brussels, said yesterday in a phone interview. ‘‘It’s pre-election saber-rattling. This is vintage Putin.’’

Alas, it is all about context. This isn’t 1992; the end of history is finished. America is not an invincible hegemon, but instead has been taxed and weakened by two big wars and a myriad of small ones, a huge financial blowup, and the fallout of losing a huge hunk of its manufacturing sector to Asia. America’s monopoly over the global oil trade — and its ability to acquire oil and components with newly-printed dollars — is threatened by the current shape of Eurasia, where a coterie of authoritarian leaders, united by their shared anti-Americanism is moving to displace the dollar as the global reserve currency.

Vladimir Putin was very explicit about this.

From Rianovosti:

Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin accused the US of hooliganism on Monday [July 2011] over the US government’s efforts to ease its financial problems by injecting hundreds of billions of dollars into the economy.

“Thank God, or unfortunately, we do not print a reserve currency but what are they doing? They are behaving like hooligans, switching on the printing press and tossing them around the whole world, forgetting their main obligations,” Putin told a meeting of economic experts at the Russian Academy of Sciences.

The Russian authorities have said they would like to see a basket of currencies including the ruble replacing the dollar as the main reserve currency, although most analysts have said a more realistic target for Russia would be if the ruble became a regional reserve currency for the CIS.

Regular readers will know that this is not just rhetoric. These Eurasian leaders are taking direct action to displace the dollar.

From Zero Hedge:

Yuan bonds have spread across the planet, China has dropped the dollar in bilateral trade with Russia, the ASEAN trading bloc has formed into a tight shell of export partners, and that is just the beginning. Two major announcements in 2011 have solidified my belief that a complete dump of the dollar by eastern interests is near…

First was the announcement that China was actively and openly pursuing the establishment of a central bank for the whole of ASEAN, with the Yuan utilized as the reserve currency instead of the dollar:

http://www.reuters.com/article/2011/10/27/us-china-asean-financial-idUST…

This news, of course, has barely been reported on in the mainstream. As I discussed at the beginning of this article, the terminology surrounding economic developments has been diluted and twisted. When China states that an ASEAN central bank is in the works, we need to point out what this really means; the ASEAN trading bloc is about to become the Asian Union. The only missing piece of the puzzle is something that I have been warning about for at least a couple years, ever since my days at Neithercorp (see “Migration Of The Black Swans” as a recent example). This key catalyst is the inclusion of Japan in ASEAN, something which many said would take five to ten years to unfold. News released this Christmas speaks otherwise:

http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2011-12-25/china-japan-to-promote-direct-trading-of-currencies-to-cut-company-costs.html

Japan has indeed entered into an agreement to drop the dollar in currency exchange with China and has expressed interest in melting into ASEAN. Japan has also struck somewhat similar though slightly more limited deals with India, South Korea, Indonesia, and the Philippines almost simultaneously:

http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2011-12-28/japan-india-seal-15-billion-currency-swap-arrangement-to-shore-up-rupee.html

This means that the two largest foreign holders of U.S. debt and Greenbacks will soon be in a position to tap into an export market far more profitable than that of America, and that all of this trade will be facilitated by currencies OTHER THAN THE DOLLAR. It means the end of the dollar as the world reserve and probably the end of the dollar as we know it.

America might well be expected to throw a wrench into the changing chape of the global system. A (messy, prolonged and expensive) war with Iran — to disrupt Eurasian co-operation and re-assert American hegemony — might suffice in the minds of hawks, but will in reality do more harm than good, perhaps driving Russia and China into explicitly and directly defending their ideological ally. Even if this was not the case, American military power runs thin on manpower, and is  funded not by American productivity, but by debt acquisition. More debt will just strain the status of the dollar as reserve currency even more.

The Old Paul Krugman

I’d like readers to take a look at something Professor Krugman wrote in the New York Times in 2003:

During the 1990s I spent much of my time focusing on economic crises around the world — in particular, on currency crises like those that struck Southeast Asia in 1997 and Argentina in 2001. The timing of such crises is hard to predict. But there are warning signs, like big trade and budget deficits and rising debt burdens.

And there’s one thing I can’t help noticing: a third world country with America’s recent numbers — its huge budget and trade deficits, its growing reliance on short-term borrowing from the rest of the world — would definitely be on the watch list.

I’m not the only one thinking that. Lehman Brothers has a mathematical model known as Damocles that it calls “an early warning system to identify the likelihood of countries entering into financial crises.” Developing nations are looking pretty safe these days. But applying the same model to some advanced countries “would set Damocles’ alarm bells ringing.” Lehman’s press release adds, “Most conspicuous of these threats is the United States.”

O.K., let’s run through some reassuring counterarguments.

First, economists are very good at devising models that would have predicted past crises, but each new crisis tends to happen where and when they didn’t expect it. So even though our budget deficit is bigger relative to the economy than Argentina’s in 2000, and our trade deficit is bigger relative to the economy than Indonesia’s in 1996, our experience needn’t be the same.

Second, nasty crises in third world countries have a lot to do with the fact that their debt is in foreign currency, usually dollars. As a result, when the peso or the rupiah plunges, debts explode while assets don’t, and balance sheets collapse. By contrast, thanks to the special international role of the dollar, America’s burgeoning foreign debt is in our own currency.

Finally, financial markets are generally willing to give advanced countries the benefit of the doubt. Even when an advanced country seems to be deep in a financial hole, lenders usually assume that it will somehow find the resources and political will to climb back out.

So is America safe, despite its scary numbers?

Third world countries typically suffer from institutional weaknesses. They have poor corporate governance: you can’t trust business accounting, and insiders often enrich themselves at stockholders’ expense. Meanwhile, cronyism is rampant, with close personal and financial links between powerful politicians and the very companies that benefit from public largesse.

The crisis won’t come immediately. For a few years, America will still be able to borrow freely, simply because lenders assume that things will somehow work out.

But at a certain point we’ll have a Wile E. Coyote moment. For those not familiar with the Road Runner cartoons, Mr. Coyote had a habit of running off cliffs and taking several steps on thin air before noticing that there was nothing underneath his feet. Only then would he plunge.

What will that plunge look like? It will certainly involve a sharp fall in the dollar and a sharp rise in interest rates. In the worst-case scenario, the government’s access to borrowing will be cut off, creating a cash crisis that throws the nation into chaos.

I know: it all sounds unbelievable. But would you have believed, three years ago, that the U.S. budget would plunge so quickly from a record surplus to a record deficit? And would you have believed that, confronted with that plunge, our leaders would offer excuses rather than solutions?

So. The global economy has certainly changed since 2003. And the crisis we face today is entirely different to the kind of crisis described here. But in the longer run, maybe there is still a significant chance of the kind of crisis the old Paul Krugman worried about.