The Start of the Sino-American Trade War

So the global currency wars are hotting up.

As I expected, the first aggressions across the Pacific are coming from America. Why? Because with the current drift of globalisation, America is losing out, while other nations are gaining.

From Zero Hedge:

A few hours ago, the maniac simians at the Senate finally did it and fired the first round in the great US-China currency war, after they took aim at one of China’s core economic policies, voting to move forward with a bill designed to press Beijing to let its currency rise in value in the hope of creating U.S. jobs. As Reuters reports, “Senators voted 79-19 to open a week of Senate debate on the Currency Exchange Rate Oversight Reform Act of 2011, which would allow the U.S. government to slap countervailing duties on products from countries found to be subsidizing their exports by undervaluing their currencies. Monday’s strong green light for debate on the bill bolsters prospects it will clear the Democrat-run Senate later this week, but prospects for action in the Republican-controlled House of Representatives are murky. If the bill did clear both chambers, it would present President Barack Obama with a tough decision on whether to sign the popular legislation into law and risk a trade war with Beijing, or veto it to pursue a more diplomatic approach.” The response has been quick and severe: “China’s foreign ministry said it “adamantly opposes” a bill pushed by the U.S. Senate that will allow the United States to impose duties on countries that undervalue their currencies.” And just because China is now certain that the US will continue with its provocative posture, most recently demonstrated by the vocal response in the latest US-Taiwan military escalation, we would not be surprised at all to find China Daily report that China has accidentally sold a few billions in US government bonds.

Now there are two angles to approach this from. Firstly, the cheapness of Chinese goods. In my view the cheapness of Chinese goods has absolutely nothing to do with currency manipulation, and everything to do with economies of scale, cheapness of labour, and the fact that jobs and productivity migrate to places with the highest population density. It seems like — to some extent — the growth of China is a reversion to the historical mean:


What does it mean for America (and other nations) to pursue the trade war route? Well, it means a whole lot of effort and policy-making will go into a “solution” that really doesn’t have much bearing on reality. Currency manipulation doesn’t necessarily boost export competitiveness. That’s because in a global marketplace prices aren’t that sticky — they adjust to reflect the relative values of currencies. If Chinese goods were so under-priced, Chinese inflation would likely be significantly higher. Chinese inflation seems to be slowing. If China ceases to peg the yuan to the dollar, the yuan would certainly strengthen, but goods priced in yuan might not ultimately get much more expensive in dollar-denominated terms, especially in the long run. 

Second, the uncompetitiveness of American manufacturing. In my view American manufacturing is uncompetitive because trade conditions are artificially level, and global shipping costs and insurance costs are artificially low — a situation bought and paid for solely with American tax dollars. This means America not only accrues debt through military overspending, but it also has gutted much of its productive infrastructure, and hard-to-rebuild supply chains and skills.

If America were to close half its military bases, and slash its military spending in half (still leaving it as by-far the biggest military spender in the world), insurance and shipping costs would likely significantly rise, making made-in-America goods significantly more competitive in the American market — and making a balanced US Federal budget much more achievable. Other nations would either have to choose between making up for the deficit in global security out of their owns budgets, or forfeiting the benefits that global security brings to shipping costs.

The ultimate consequences of this crazy zero-sum trade/currency war will be a swifter end to the reign of the dollar as the global reserve currency. Why? Because threatening your greatest creditor with tariffs is a surefire way to get them to dump your debt, bursting the bond bubble, and making American debt significantly harder to sustain with resorting to money-printing.

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Will the Fed Trigger Big Inflation?

What now after the Italian downgrade?

From Forbes:

Standard & Poor’s pulled another late move on Monday, downgrading Italy’s sovereign credit rating by one notch to A/A-1.  The credit rating agency cited weakening economic growth prospects as public and private borrowing costs rise, and a fragile political coalition failing to adequately respond to a challenging economic environment.

While the downgrade doesn’t come as a shock, as S&P had Italy under a negative outlook since May, it will rattle markets.  Europe’s sovereign debt woes have grappled nervous markets the last couple of weeks, with every word coming from Greece, Germany, or the ECB sparking massive moves on both sides of the Atlantic.

This has sent certain (risk-addled) European banks spiralling downward, leading the European Systemic Risk Board to warn policy-makers that the time may soon come to make a massive liquidity injection into European markets (i.e., throwing money at saving bad banks)

BNP Paribas:



SocGen:

In America, traders today were in a more bullish mood.

From Zero Hedge:

Shrugging off Italy’s rating downgrade (somewhat expected but continued negative outlook), funding stress in Europe (Libor levitating and Swiss/French banks divergent), cuts in global growth expectations (IMF and World Bank), concerns over systemic risk contagion (ESRB and World Bank), and escalating rhetoric in Sino-US trade wars, US equities have managed to reach up to Friday’s highs as rumors of AAPL being added to the Dow seemed enough for hapless traders.

More significant than excitement over Apple — and the main reason that markets today are levitating, in spite of all the turmoil — is the hope that Bernanke will throw more policy tools at the American economy.

Will he?

Although I have been specific about the idea that QE3 is definitely coming I don’t foresee QE3 being initiated this week. Why?

Firstly, because I think Joe Biden promised Wen Jiabao that America would hold off QE3 in the short-term to preserve the value of Chinese holdings.

Bernanke will probably initiate a program to roll the Fed’s holdings onto the long-end of the spectrum of bonds: as 2-year bonds in the Fed’s portfolio reach maturity, the Fed will replace those with 10-year bonds, to reduce net interest rates.

More significantly, I expect Bernanke to announce that the Federal Reserve will announce that it will no longer pay interest on excess reserves. Banks have accumulated massive excess reserves since the 2008 crisis, when the Fed determined to pay interest on reserves not lent — ostensibly to increase flexibility in the banking system in case of further collapse:


In theory, unleashing these excess reserves into the economy would get capital to productive ventures without infuriating bondholders and retirees any further with more quantitative easing. But in practice a surge in lending might do the precise opposite — unleashing a tidal wave of inflation, further diminishing the purchasing power of dollars.

The potential loans possible on these reserves could be up to $16 trillion. GDP is currently $14.99 trillion. Unless the GDP keeps pace with the money supply, these new loans would create the potential for substantial amounts of inflation.

Could this be the spark that triggers a runaway inflationary spiral? It could be. It’s not in the interest of either debtors, nor creditors — but that doesn’t remove the risk.

China is Not Ready to Pull the Plug on America

A very interesting article on alt-market asks a question I have been contemplating these past few weeks. In my view, America’s economic health is totally dependent upon two things: the flow of dollars to the middle east in exchange for oil, and the flow of dollars to China for consumer goods. Any disruption to either or both of these flows would result in sustained and significant disruption to America’s economy. That’s why America — absent of any real plan to move its energy generation, and its supply chains back to America — spends so much money policing the world.

So, that brings us onto the question: What would happen if China liquidated its dollar and bond holdings and moved its wealth into harder assets? And is China on the verge of doing just that?

From alt-market:

There are two mainstream market assumptions that, in my mind, prevail over all others. The continuing function of the Dow, the sustained flow of capital into and out of the banking sector, and the full force spending of the federal government are ALL entirely dependent on the lifespan of these dual illusions; one, that the U.S. Dollar is a legitimate safe haven investment and will remain so indefinitely, and two, that China, like many other developing nations, will continue to prop up the strength of the dollar indefinitely because it is “in their best interest”. In the dimly lit bowels of Wall Street such ideas are so entrenched and pervasive, to question their validity is almost sacrilegious. Only after the recent S&P downgrade of America’s AAA credit rating did the impossible become thinkable to some MSM analysts, though a considerable portion of the day-trading herd continue to roll onward, while the time bomb strapped to the ass end of their financial house is ticking away.

The debate over the health and longevity of the dollar comes down to one very simple and undeniable root pillar of economics; supply and demand. The supply of dollars throughout the financial systems of numerous countries is undoubtedly overwhelming. In fact, the private Federal Reserve has been quite careful in maintaining a veil of secrecy over the full extent of dollar saturation in foreign markets in order to hide the sheer volume of greenback devaluation and inflation they have created. If for some reason the reserves of dollars held overseas by investors and creditors were to come flooding back into the U.S., we would see a hyperinflationary spiral more destructive than any in recorded history. As the supply of dollars around the globe increases exponentially, so too must foreign demand, otherwise, the debt machine short-circuits, and newly impoverished Americans will be using Ben Franklins for sod in their adobe huts. As I will show, demand for dollars is not increasing to match supply, but is indeed stalled, ready to crumble.

We know from insiders in the Chinese government that China are looking at “liquidating more of our holdings of Treasuries once the US Treasury market stabilizes”, and “buying stakes in Boeing, Intel, and Apple and these types of companies… in a proactive way”, and of course gold. But does that mean China will be liquidating as soon as possible? After all Bernanke won’t stop printing, the dollar won’t stop being devalued, and America won’t stop burning through its productive capital on military spending.

I don’t believe they will. Wen Jiabao’s subtle and supportive public remarks during Joe Biden’s recent visit suggests that China wants a controlled and managed transition away from the dollar as the global reserve currency. Withdrawing support for the dollar right now would send China’s remaining dollar pile crashing into the earth.

From the Council on Foreign Relations:

China has accumulated a massive stock of U.S. dollar reserves in recent years. Statements of concern from China regarding the risk that U.S. economic policy might undermine the future purchasing power of these assets has fuelled the market’s concern that China may shift away from dollar purchases. Yet in the 12 months ending in July 2009 China accumulated more dollar-denominated assets, mainly U.S. Treasuries, than foreign assets in total. Despite its rhetoric, China has thus far taken no actions to wean itself off of the dollar.

And as I have noted numerous times, China has no interest in upsetting the global balance — under the current circumstances it is very rapidly strengthening, whilst America falters. And why change something that is working for China?

So when will China pull the plug? There are a few relevant pictures to watch:

  1. China’s gold reserves: currently at 1,000 tonnes, these would have to go significantly higher.
  2. China’s acquisitions of American industry: this would signify Chinese dollar-outflows.
  3. China’s holdings of U.S. debt: if Bernanke keeps printing, these would have to remain stable, or more likely tip-toe lower.
  4. Flotation of the yuan: if China wishes to curb domestic inflationary pressures, they will float the yuan on global markets. A successful yuan flotation would cut the relative value of China’s dollar holdings, lessening the incentive to hang onto U.S.-denominated assets

I expect all of these developments to take place over years, not months. And, in my view, the greatest threat to the dollar’s status as global reserve currency is a global oil shock, triggered by a new middle eastern war, or some black swan. And it is an oil shock that is precisely the event that might force China to accelerate offloading its dollar hoard.

The Shape of Global Parasitism

A couple of days ago Buttonwood over at The Economist touched on my favourite topics: the growth of the Western service industry, the death of Western manufacturing, and the deep interconnectedness of the global economic system. His hook was that most claims of parasitism are at best not-straightforward, and at worst are unfounded. From The Economist:

Are all manufactured goods intrinsically superior to services? Would you rather have a wig or a haircut? Just as there is only so much food we can healthily consume, there is only so much physical stuff we need. We have service-dominated economies because people like to consume services from TV programmes through video games to leisure activities like eating out. When General Motors sells a car, the chances are that it is selling it to someone who works in the services sector; so who is the parasite in this situation?

At the national level, we can say that most countries cannot produce all the things they need (or at least desire). Britain, for example, needs food from abroad. So it needs industries that can export stuff in order to generate the earnings that pay for imports. Here the bankers start to look a lot more valuable; Britain’s invisible earnings from financial services are highly valuable.

A more realistic question might be “would I rather have a factory making hair clippers, or a cabal of lawyers, financiers and bureaucrats who readily declare themselves too-big-to-fail and hose themselves down in taxpayers’ liquidity?”

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