The Real Fiscal Cliff

It’s that time of year again — time to kick the can.

No prizes for guessing what investors expect Congress to do:

And 2013 seems likely to give way to can-kicking in 2014, and 2015 and 2016 and 2017 and on — the GAO estimates that by 2080 the US public could hold 8 times as much government debt as the US generates GDP. Just as Japan has never truly dealt with its debt complex — and instead chose the path of cycles of deflation, an endless liquidity trap, a soaring debt-to-GDP ratio, and mandating financial institutions into buying treasuries — so America will continue to kick the can as long as rates and nominal inflation can be kept low, and goods and energy (the real underlying economy) kept flowing. Which — going by the Japanese example — could be a very long time.

Yet America is not Japan. The key difference? The balance of trade, and the flow of goods and services. While Japan’s debt is overwhelmingly domestically held, and while Japan has long been a net-exporter, the USA imports more goods and services than any nation in history:

And more and more US debt and currency is in the hands of the nations that export the goods and services on which America’s economy functions. Here’s the total debt held by foreigners:

And here’s the dollar reserves of various Asian exporter nations:

So when the can is kicked, the Asians — and especially the Chinese — feel they are getting screwed.

As Xinhua noted the last time America faced the fiscal cliff:

The U.S. has long been facing the same problem: living beyond its means. At present, the country has debts as high as 55 trillion U.S. dollars, including more than 14 trillion U.S. dollars of treasury bonds.

And last October:

Economists agree that as the United States’ largest foreign creditor, China should contemplate ways to pull itself out of the “dollar trap,” as the U.S. economy is faltering with its debt piling up and its currency on the brink to depreciate.

China must make fuller use of the non-financial assets in its foreign reserves, as well as speed up the diversification of investing channels to resist a possible long-term weakening of the dollar, said Xia Bing, director of the Finance Research Institutes of the Development Research Center under the State Council.

Zheng Xinli, permanent vice chairman of China Center for International Economic Exchanges, has suggested that Chinese companies boost overseas investment as a way to absorb trade surpluses and fend off the dollar risk.

Now to some degree the Asians knew the bargain they were getting into in buying US treasuries. They were never buying a claim on the US economy, or on the US gold reserves. They were buying a claim on reproducible Federal Reserve notes, and since 1971 the bargain has been that this is a purely fiat currency. Ultimately, if they do not feel like the US will be solvent in the long run, they should not have started lending to it. But now they are the largest real creditor, they have no choice but to keep on buying and keep on stabilising, simply because a functional US economy and a solvent US treasury is about the only way they will see any return at all.

Yet if they don’t exert leverage on the US, then the US seems unlikely to do much at all. Without a little turmoil, legislators have very little incentive to act. If the exporter nations feel as if they are getting screwed, they are only more likely to escalate via the only real means they have — trade war. And having a monopoly on various resources including rare earth minerals (as well as various components and types of finished goods) gives them considerable leverage.

More and more Asian nations — led by China and Russia — have ditched the dollar for bilateral trade (out of fear of dollar instability). Tension rises between the United States and Asia over Syria and Iran. The Asian nations throw more and more abrasive rhetoric around — including war rhetoric.

And on the other hand, both Obama and Romney — as well as Hillary Clinton — seem dead-set on ramping up the tense rhetoric. Romney seems extremely keen to brand China a currency manipulator.

In truth, both sides have a mutual interest in sitting down and engaging in a frank discussion, and then coming out with a serious long-term plan of co-operation on trade and fiscal issues where both sides accept compromises — perhaps Asia could agree to reinvest some of its dollar hoard in the United States to create American jobs and rebuild American infrastructure in exchange for a long-term American deficit-reduction and technology-sharing agreement?

But such co-operation would require real trust and respect — and I just don’t see it. China’s leaders deeply resent the West for the opium war years, and the humiliation that came with the end of the Chinese empire — and they see America as profligate, and culturally degenerate. And America’s leaders see China as an unstable anti-democratic dictatorship, not a prospective partner.

So the future, I think, will more likely involve both sides jumping off the cliff into the uncertain seas of trade war, currency war, default-by-debasement, tariffs, proxy war and regional and global political and economic instability.

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Who’s the Communist Now?

I’d like to draw readers’ attention to a statistic I flagged up a few weeks ago that I don’t think I emphasised sufficiently. I was writing about America’s current tax burden, its deficit, and the stark choice that Americans — and also the rest of the people of the world — face:

America spends 24% 39% of its GDP as government spending. Other nations spend far more than America, but they also tax more. 52% of French GDP, 37% of Japanese GDP, 47% of British GDP, 18% of Thai GDP, 32% of Swiss GDP, 78% of Cuban GDP, 27% of Indian GDP and 17% of Singaporean GDP is government spending.

Most interesting by far is “communist” China. Only 20% of Chinese GDP is government spending. 

Nihao, Capitalists!

That’s right: “communist” China is now less statist — at least in economic terms — than “free” America.

Meanwhile at Davos, the West’s “economic leaders” pillory capitalism as worsening inequality.

From the BBC:

Growing inequality should now be the priority for leaders after the economic crisis, senior economic figures at the World Economic Forum have said.

They insisted that more needed to be done to tackle excessive pay, poverty and unemployment.

The discussion, hosted by BBC World in the Swiss ski resort of Davos, was held as figures showed almost half of young Spanish people are out of work.

Economist Nouriel Roubini warned inequality threatened social stability.

“We are in a very fragile world,” said the economist, dubbed Doctor Doom because of his predictions leading up to the 2008 financial crisis.

“The issue of distorted pay is not being addressed, banks that were deemed too big to fail now becoming even bigger,” he said.

I think there is a very strange psychological trend occurring here, and it’s actually one I recognise in my younger self. I was born in 1987, and grew up in the shadow of the 1990s, long after Deng Xiaoping, long after the “End of History”, long after the end of the “Red Menace” that was the Soviet Union. Long after the West really felt any need to differentiate itself as “capitalist” against a background of growing statism. Instead, the growing statism was in the West, even in spite of the legacy of Reagan and Thatcher — two leaders who both managed to spew a great deal of pro-freedom rhetoric, while at once greatly expanding the scope and shade of government.

This psychological trend can be summed up as the idea that the first recourse for social and economic problems is more government action. Too much inequality? Regulate against it. Too little innovation? Legislate for it. Too little demand? Stimulate it. Too much bad government? Elect a better one, who will do more of the things we “love”, and less of those we “hate”.

The idea, in the simplest terms, is that changes to society should come from the great overhanging monolith, and not from the little individuals on the ground. No, we are just fish swimming in an ocean of dialectical chaos. We are just flecks of paint on the great canvas of humanity. No, let us not agitate or gravitate. Instead, we must “co-ordinate” and “unite” under the aegis of government; the blind painter.

The climax of this bizarre psychological trend was the election of Barack H. Obama. After all the misdeeds of Bush and Cheney, he would be the one to restore government to its “proper” role: “helping the people”, “creating a better America”, “investing in tomorrow”, etc, etc, etc, blah, blah, blah.

This is a licence for more central planning and more government largesse. There are two problems here:

  1. Regulatory Capture: As David Rothkopf has argued: “Geography, pedigree, networking and luck unite a superclass of 6000 individuals that possess unparalleled power over world affairs.” Obama’s top contributors are the same old people. Obama appointed more ex-Wall Street figures to his administration than anyone before him. Ultimately, the people chosen as central planners have a track record of enacting policies that enrich themselves more than everybody else. The people lining up at Davos calling for a new system, i.e. more government, are the same elite who have ruined the old one. As Jonathan Weill writes: “It’s becoming hard not to suspect that the annual gathering in Davos has become a conclave for global elites to promote crony capitalism and state-backed enterprise, ensuring that national coffers remain available to be tapped for private gain.”
  2. Unintended, and Unexpected Consequences: Central planners are often pretty bad at the job. Bernanke and Yellen failed to predict the end of the housing bubble (that their predecessor Alan Greenspan helped create) with terrible consequences. Tim Geithner lashed that there was “no chance of a downgrade” right before S&P downgraded US Treasuries. Angela Merkel demands austerity from a frail and ailing Greek economy suffering from a severe contraction that is only worsened by austerity. The Iraq and Afghani wars created more terrorists than they killed, and added a multi-trillion dollar shackle of debt to the American government. America’s deindustrialisation (in the name of cheaper Chinese goods) has created huge unemployment in America, as well as making the American economy ever more dependent on the fragile flow of trade for components and energy. History is dominated by black swans — and the history of  central planning is dominated by unintended consequences. We just don’t understand reality well enough to centrally plan it.

Of course there is a bigger concern here, and one that I have written about before: central planning kills the market mechanism. It kills market evolution and creative destruction, and gives life to absurdities — like the current global financial sector — that could never live under pure market conditions:

Capitalism means both successes and failures. It is a fundamentally experimental system, with a continuous feedback mechanism — the market, and ultimately profit and loss. Ideas that work are rewarded with financial success, and ideas that don’t are punished with failure. With capitalism, systems, ideas and firms that fail to produce what the market wants fail. They go bankrupt. Their assets, and their debt is liquidated.

When that mechanism is suspended by a government or central bank that thinks it knows best — and that a system that is too interconnected to fail is worth saving at any cost — the result is almost always stagnation. This is for a number of reasons — most obviously that bailouts sustain crippling debt levels, and are paid for through contractionary austerity, which is what Salmon was getting at. But it is larger than just that.

In nature, ideas and schemes that work are rewarded — and ideas and schemes that don’t work are punished. Our ancestors who correctly judged the climate, soil and rainfall and planted crops that flourished were rewarded with a bumper harvest. Those who planted the wrong crops did not get a bailout — they got a lean harvest, and were forced to either learn from their mistakes, or perish.

These bailouts have tried to turn nature on its head — bailed out bankers and institutions have not been forced by failure to learn from their mistakes, because governments and regulators protected them from failure.

The darkest side to this zombification is that it takes resources from the productive, the young, the creative, and the needy and channels them to the zombies. Vast sums spent on rescue packages to keep the zombie system alive might have been available to increase the intellectual capabilities of the youth, or to support basic research and development, or to build better physical infrastructure, or to create new and innovative companies and products.

Zombification kills competition, too: when companies fail, it leaves a gap in the market that has to be filled, either by an expanding competitor, or by a new business. With failures now being kept on life-support, gaps in the market are fewer.

Japan has experienced twenty hellish years of zombification, all because they suspended capitalism in favour of systemic stability and creditors getting their pound of flesh. America did virtually the same thing, and the result has been three years of stagnation.

That, is more or less why I believe government should stay out of central planning altogether, and instead should stick to the role intended for it by U.S. Constitution — protecting life, and liberty, administering the due process of law, and undertaking great projects like the Apollo missions beyond the reach of private enterprise. Will the central planning addicts at Davos get the message? I doubt it. After all, their entire worldview is predicated on the notion that they “know better”.

The irony is that — at least in terms of economic affairs — the Chinese “communists” seem to have gotten it.  After the awful experience of huge famines, they finally accepted that they did not “know better”. Perhaps it would take a cataclysm of similar magnitude for the West for us to realise that we do not “know better” than nature either…

UPDATE: It seems like I was wrong about US government spending. It’s actually 39% of GDP, not 24% as I first reported. That’s higher than the 34% of Vladimir Putin’s Russia.

The Changing World

The world is changing, and politicians can’t keep up.

From the New York Times:

When Barack Obama joined Silicon Valley’s top luminaries for dinner in California last February, each guest was asked to come with a question for the president.

But as Steven P. Jobs of Apple spoke, President Obama interrupted with an inquiry of his own: what would it take to make iPhones in the United States?

Not long ago, Apple boasted that its products were made in America. Today, few are. Almost all of the 70 million iPhones, 30 million iPads and 59 million other products Apple sold last year were manufactured overseas.

Why can’t that work come home? Mr. Obama asked.

Mr. Jobs’s reply was unambiguous. “Those jobs aren’t coming back,” he said, according to another dinner guest.

Paul Krugman adds:

“The entire supply chain is in China now,” said another former high-ranking Apple executive. “You need a thousand rubber gaskets? That’s the factory next door. You need a million screws? That factory is a block away. You need that screw made a little bit different? It will take three hours.”

The point is that manufacturing plants don’t exist in isolation; they benefit a lot from being part of a manufacturing cluster, with specialized suppliers and a large pool of workers with the right skills close at hand. This is the kind of stuff I emphasized in my own work on both trade and economic geography.

As I wrote in October:

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

The high-density zones. But it was not always thus, because the world was not always flat. Technological, intellectual and social infrastructure once dictated that the agglomeration of manufacturing, skills and industry took place in the West. Development spirals into greater development. Alas, the world was flattened under the aegis of American imperial grandeur, and so capital, skills, supply chains, and so forth took off to where the labour was cheaper, the population denser, regulations laxer, and factories clustered:

“Our customers are in Taiwan, Korea, Japan and China,” said James B. Flaws. “We could make the glass here, and then ship it by boat, but that takes 35 days. Or, we could ship it by air, but that’s 10 times as expensive. So we build our glass factories next door to assembly factories, and those are overseas.”

This agglomeration presents a geostrategic challenge to America that I am yet to see other commentators recognise. As America’s productivity has gone overseas, America has not really experienced many negative effects beyond the obvious problem of job migration. That’s because as the originator of the global reserve currency, other nations need dollars. That has meant that the fruits of the Earth, and the world’s labour have flowed and flowed into America irrespective of America’s own productive decline.

America’s internal workings — her agriculture, her internal transport network, her consumption, and indeed even her internal manufacturing (and so forth) — are dependent on a global system of resource extraction, labour, production and shipping. More or less, America is dependent on foreign energy and goods, and her foreign policy is geared toward sustaining the global flow of energy and goods. That’s why America spends more on her military than any other nation, and over 50% of the global total. However this has meant great debt, as America is producing far less than she is spending.

So does that mean globalisation is bad? No — I am all for free trade, and global markets, and that requires a degree of security. But at the same time, free markets require proper pricing mechanisms. American manufacturing has been out-competed in the American market predominantly because Chinese products do not accurately reflect the costs of global security; those costs are reflected not in prices, but in the Pentagon’s budget, and in Federal deficits. Those cheaper Chinese goods might not have put so much American industry — and subsequently industrial infrastructure — out of business without that subsidy; for a start shipping would be costlier and less reliable. With a less obvious advantage in selling to the American market, it is likely that both China’s growth, and America’s decline would have been slower.

So America’s rising government debt burden, and America’s lost industrial infrastructure are in at least one way two sides of the same coin. Less world policeman would not only mean less debt, but more domestic industry.

These concerns are reflected in Obama’s recently announced foreign policy and global defence doctrine:.

From the Washington Post:

President Obama pledged that the $489 billion in defense cuts he has proposed over 10 years would be governed by a concerted strategy, and on Thursday he delivered one. At the Pentagon, Mr. Obama unveiled a “strategic guidance,” which aides said reflected a considerable investment of his personal time and ideas. The president’s thesis is that the need for fiscal austerity coincides with a global “moment of transition,” in which the United States is winding down a decade of land wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and facing the need to turn toward a very different set of challenges, particularly in Asia.

Several previous administrations have tried to shift to Asia from the messy Middle East, only to be dragged back by wars, terrorists, turmoil and the unending need to protect allies and the flow of oil. The Obama strategy acknowledges that history and says this pivot will be different. The means to reduce spending and build capacity in Asia, it suggests, will come not from the Mideast but from U.S. deployments in Europe, benefit and retirement costs, Cold War weapons systems and the U.S. nuclear arsenal.

The trouble is, this is much too little much too late. Had President Bush announced this in 2002 (or President H.W. Bush in 1992) years of fruitless imperialism in the middle east and trillions in debt might have been avoided. American industry, supply chains, technology, industrial infrastructure and skills have already been gutted; as Steve Jobs alluded to, the iPhone will never be made in America. America is still deeply dependent on foreign oil.

More or less, this strategy is trying to close the stable door after the horse has bolted.

The effects of decades of policy will be hard to mitigate. America must face the fact that her most important export — dollars and Treasury bonds — will be blighted by the end of the dollar as the global reserve currency.

A significant number of Eurasian nations — including Japan, India, China, Russia and Iran — have pledged to in future conduct bilateral (and surely soon also multi-lateral) trade in their own domestic currencies, including for trade in oil and other commodities.

The impact of this would be disastrous. Simply, nations would not need to sell their wares and resources to America; a hostile Chinese or Arab regime could foreseeably cut America off from essential resources, components or goods. China already limits exports in rare earth metals. How long before nations feel capable of blackmailing America by withholding or heavily taxing resources, goods and components on which America depends?

Hawks might respond that no nation on Earth would feel capable of doing that, because America has the military clout to bite back. But for all of Obama’s assertions that the military is refocussing on the Asia-Pacific, America is too broke to start a war or proxy war with her great creditor. More importantly, such an event would probably shut down or slow the flow of global goods and energy meaning immediate and disastrous economic consequences for America.

America could be taking every step imaginable to make herself energy independent  (or at least dependent only on North American energy) as soon as possible as a matter of urgent national security. This would be a solid base from which to build. Alas, Obama totally rejected the Keystone XL Pipeline, which could have formed a major plank toward this goal.

2012

Many bloggers and commentators have been pumping out their visions for 2012. I would do the same, had I not done it in October:

Gold is up against a wall of incorrect 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 (specifically by an event that reveals Treasuries and dollars for the risky and debased assets that they really are) then I don’t think the funds will begin to significantly increase gold allocations (when they do, they will claim they are “hedging tail risk”).

There are two very strong pieces of evidence here for dollar and treasury weakness: 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) is committed to dumping them and acquiring harder assets (and bailing out their real estate bubble). So the question is when (not if) these perceptions will be shattered.

What would a treasury crash look like? Most likely, it would be dictated by supply — the greater the supply of treasuries coming onto the market, the more there are for buyers to buy, the lower prices will be forced before new buyers come onto the market. Specifically, a treasury crash would most likely begin with a big seller dumping significant quantities of treasuries bonds onto the open market. I would expect such an event to be triggered bylower yields— most significant would be the 30-year, because it still has a high enough yield to retain purchasing power (i.e. a positive real rate). Operation Twist, of course, was designed to flatten the yield curve, which will probably push the 30-year closer to a negative real return.

A large sovereign treasury dumper (i.e. China with its $1+ trillion of treasury holdings) throwing a significant portion of these onto the open market would very quickly outpace the dogmatic institutional buyers, and force a small spike in rates (i.e. a drop in price). The small recent spike actually corresponds to this kind of activity. The difference between a small spike in yields and one large enough to make the (hugely dogmatic) 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 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.

If such an event was big enough to cause yields to spike 1% (very conservative estimate) it would jar the status quo enough to trigger a significant gold spike, as funds and banks move to cash positions (sensing both the post-crash buying opportunities, and margin hikes) and seek to “hedge tail risk”.

Now the pace and scope of China’s 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 Chinese central-planners are to panic and liquidate faster.

The pace of events might also be significantly accelerated in the light of a Greek default.

Now 365 days is a strangely arbitrary period over which to make long term economic predictions. The business cycle is not tied to years, nor even decades. It wends and shifts in the winds of history, fluttering and flurrying. I have no idea if this scenario (or something similar) will play out in 2012, or 2013.

But I do know this: unless there is a real recovery in America — in employment and industrial output, as well as GDP — as well as a shift away from reliance on foreign oil and goods, and a successful deleveraging of the entire economy — especially government debt and shadow banking — it will play out sooner or later.

I took great pleasure last month to present a very similar scenario predicted by none other than Paul Krugman 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.”

Is America safe, despite its scary numbers?

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.

Readers are, of course, encouraged to share their views on 2012 (and the future in general) in the comment section.

Meanwhile, here’s some prescience from Jefferson:

Happy New Year.