Feb 152017
 February 15, 2017  Posted by at 10:34 am Finance Tagged with: , , , , , , , , ,  Comments Off on Debt Rattle February 15 2017
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Times Square New York City, 1958


The Political Assassination of Michael Flynn (BBG)
Kucinich Pins Flynn Leak on Intel Community, Warns of Another Cold War (Fox)
America’s Spies Anonymously Took Down Flynn. That Is Deeply Worrying (Week)
Russian Foreign Ministry Says Crimea Will Not Be Returned To Ukraine (R.)
China Credit Surging to Record Underscores PBOC Shift to Tighten (BBG)
China Should Prudently Manage Deleveraging Process – PBOC (R.)
Nigel Farage – You’re In For a Bigger Shock in 2017 (TNTV)
Germany’s Burden: The Euro Is The Most Crisis-Ridden Currency (MW)
Greece Defies Creditors Over More Cuts As Economy Shrinks Unexpectedly (G.)
‘Fed Up’ Exposes The Elite Rot Inside The Federal Reserve (MW)
Why “Everyone Wins” When Housing Is More Expensive (AS)
Who Will Be Blamed if the Oroville Dam Fails? (McMaken)
The Technosphere: You Are Not In Control (Dmitry Orlov)
Greece’s Frozen Children: What Will Happen To Young Refugees? (NS)



So many diffferent angles. This one from Eli Lake is bearable. “Nunes told me Monday night that this will not end well. “First it’s Flynn, next it will be Kellyanne Conway, then it will be Steve Bannon, then it will be Reince Priebus,” he said. Put another way, Flynn is only the appetizer. Trump is the entree.”

The Political Assassination of Michael Flynn (BBG)

Representative Devin Nunes, the Republican chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, told me Monday that he saw the leaks about Flynn’s conversations with Kislyak as part of a pattern. “There does appear to be a well orchestrated effort to attack Flynn and others in the administration,” he said. “From the leaking of phone calls between the president and foreign leaders to what appears to be high-level FISA Court information, to the leaking of American citizens being denied security clearances, it looks like a pattern.” Nunes said he was going to bring this up with the FBI, and ask the agency to investigate the leak and find out whether Flynn himself is a target of a law enforcement investigation. The Washington Post reported last month that Flynn was not the target of an FBI probe.

The background here is important. Three people once affiliated with Trump’s presidential campaign – Carter Page, Paul Manafort and Roger Stone – are being investigated by the FBI and the intelligence community for their contacts with the Russian government. This is part of a wider inquiry into Russia’s role in hacking and distributing emails of leading Democrats before the election. Flynn himself traveled in 2015 to Russia to attend a conference put on by the country’s propaganda network, RT. He has acknowledged he was paid through his speaker’s bureau for his appearance. That doesn’t look good, but it’s also not illegal in and of itself. All of this is to say there are many unanswered questions about Trump’s and his administration’s ties to Russia. But that’s all these allegations are at this point: unanswered questions.

It’s possible that Flynn has more ties to Russia that he had kept from the public and his colleagues. It’s also possible that a group of national security bureaucrats and former Obama officials are selectively leaking highly sensitive law enforcement information to undermine the elected government. Flynn was a fat target for the national security state. He has cultivated a reputation as a reformer and a fierce critic of the intelligence community leaders he once served with when he was the director the Defense Intelligence Agency under President Barack Obama. Flynn was working to reform the intelligence-industrial complex, something that threatened the bureaucratic prerogatives of his rivals. He was also a fat target for Democrats. Remember Flynn’s breakout national moment last summer was when he joined the crowd at the Republican National Convention from the dais calling for Hillary Clinton to be jailed.

In normal times, the idea that U.S. officials entrusted with our most sensitive secrets would selectively disclose them to undermine the White House would alarm those worried about creeping authoritarianism. Imagine if intercepts of a call between Obama’s incoming national security adviser and Iran’s foreign minister leaked to the press before the nuclear negotiations began? The howls of indignation would be deafening. In the end, it was Trump’s decision to cut Flynn loose. In doing this he caved in to his political and bureaucratic opposition. Nunes told me Monday night that this will not end well. “First it’s Flynn, next it will be Kellyanne Conway, then it will be Steve Bannon, then it will be Reince Priebus,” he said. Put another way, Flynn is only the appetizer. Trump is the entree.

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Interesting 8-minute, very clear take from Kucinich: “This is like the electronic version of Mad magazine; Spy vs Spy..”

Kucinich Pins Flynn Leak on Intel Community, Warns of Another Cold War (Fox)

During an interview on the FOX Business Network’s Mornings with Maria, former Democratic presidential candidate Dennis Kucinich said the intelligence community was responsible for leaking information that Trump’s national security advisor, Mike Flynn, had secretly discussed sanctions with Russian officials before the inauguration and argued their goal was to spoil the relationship between the U.S. and Russia. “What’s at the core of this is an effort by some in the intelligence community to upend any positive relationship between the U.S. and Russia,” Kucinich said.

And in his opinion, there is a big money motive behind it. “And I tell you there’s a marching band and Chowder Society out there. There’s gold in them there hills,” he said. “There are people trying to separate the U.S. and Russia so that this military industrial intel axis can cash in.” Kucinich added the intelligence community could start a war to succeed. “There’s a game going on inside the intelligence community where there are those who want to separate the U.S. from Russia in a way that would reignite the Cold War,” he said.

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Many on both the left and the right have these worries.

America’s Spies Anonymously Took Down Flynn. That Is Deeply Worrying (Week)

The United States is much better off without Michael Flynn serving as national security adviser. But no one should be cheering the way he was brought down. The whole episode is evidence of the precipitous and ongoing collapse of America’s democratic institutions — not a sign of their resiliency. Flynn’s ouster was a soft coup (or political assassination) engineered by anonymous intelligence community bureaucrats. The results might be salutary, but this isn’t the way a liberal democracy is supposed to function. Unelected intelligence analysts work for the president, not the other way around. Far too many Trump critics appear not to care that these intelligence agents leaked highly sensitive information to the press — mostly because Trump critics are pleased with the result.

“Finally,” they say, “someone took a stand to expose collusion between the Russians and a senior aide to the president!” It is indeed important that someone took such a stand. But it matters greatly who that someone is and how they take their stand. Members of the unelected, unaccountable intelligence community are not the right someone, especially when they target a senior aide to the president by leaking anonymously to newspapers the content of classified phone intercepts, where the unverified, unsubstantiated information can inflict politically fatal damage almost instantaneously.

President Trump was roundly mocked among liberals for that tweet. But he is, in many ways, correct. These leaks are an enormous problem. And in a less polarized context, they would be recognized immediately for what they clearly are: an effort to manipulate public opinion for the sake of achieving a desired political outcome. It’s weaponized spin. This doesn’t mean the outcome was wrong. I have no interest in defending Flynn, who appears to be an atrocious manager prone to favoring absurd conspiracy theories over more traditional forms of intelligence. He is just about the last person who should be giving the president advice about foreign policy. And for all I know, Flynn did exactly what the anonymous intelligence community leakers allege — promised the Russian ambassador during the transition that the incoming Trump administration would back off on sanctions proposed by the outgoing Obama administration.

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Silly idea. The New Cold War.

Russian Foreign Ministry Says Crimea Will Not Be Returned To Ukraine (R.)

Russia will not hand back control of Crimea to Ukraine, Russia’s foreign ministry said on Wednesday, responding to comments from the White House that the United States expected the Black Sea peninsula to be returned. “We don’t give back our own territory. Crimea is territory belonging to the Russian Federation,” Maria Zakharova, spokeswoman for the Russian Foreign Ministry, told a news briefing. On Tuesday, the White House said U.S. President Donald Trump had made it clear that he expects Russia to relinquish control of the territory. Russia annexed Crimea in 2014, prompting the United States and the European Union to impose sanctions on Russia, plunging Western relations with the Kremlin to their worst level since the end of the Cold War.

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Shadow banking resurgence? It was never gone.

China Credit Surging to Record Underscores PBOC Shift to Tighten (BBG)

China added more credit last month than the equivalent of Swedish or Polish economic output, revving up growth and supporting prices but also fueling concerns about the sustainability of such a spree. Aggregate financing, the broadest measure of new credit, climbed to a record 3.74 trillion yuan ($545 billion) in January, exceeding the median estimate of 3 trillion yuan in a Bloomberg survey. New yuan loans rose to a one-year high of 2.03 trillion yuan, less than the 2.44 trillion yuan estimate. The credit surge highlights the challenges facing Chinese policy makers as they seek to balance ensuring steady growth with curbing excess leverage in the financial system. The PBOC recently moved to tighten monetary policy by raising the interest rates it charges in open-market operations and on funds lent via its Standing Lending Facility.

“China is learning what other central banks realized decades ago: trying to control monetary aggregates in a modern financial system is next to impossible,” said James Laurenceson, deputy director of the Australia-China Relations Institute in Sydney. “I expect the PBOC will focus more on interest rates and prudential regulation and supervision going forward.” China’s major state-backed banks tend to splurge at the start of the year as they seek to maximize their profits on lending. The main categories of shadow finance all increased significantly. Bankers acceptances – a bank-backed guarantee for future payment – soared to 613.1 billion yuan from 158.9 billion yuan the prior month. “The PBOC is restraining loans but allowing private credit to flow through shadow banks,” said Andrew Collier, an independent analyst and former president of Bank of China International USA. “This is not a policy designed to conquer China’s debt burden.”

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Yeah, well, it does nothing of the kind.

China Should Prudently Manage Deleveraging Process – PBOC (R.)

China should prudently manage the country’s debt deleveraging process and seek to avoid a liquidity crisis and asset bubbles, according to a central bank working paper published on Wednesday. While overall debt ratios in the world’s second-largest economy were still not high relative to many other countries, the pace of increase has been rapid in recent years, the paper said. China’s debt to GDP ratio rose to 277% at the end of 2016 from 254% the previous year, with an increasing share of new credit being used to pay debt servicing costs, UBS analysts said in a recent note.

China’s top leaders have pledged to focus on addressing rising financial risks and asset bubbles this year. The People’s Bank of China has moved to a moderate tightening bias, raising some key primary money rates this year, which analysts said was part of a bid to control risks from rising leverage. The working paper said China should avoid the negative consequences of both increases in leverage and rapid deleveraging. China should let market forces play a decisive role in the deleveraging process, including allowing defaults, the paper published on the People’s Bank of China website said.

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h/t Mish. “The people want less Europe. We see this again and again when people have referendums and they reject aspects of EU membership. But something more fundamental is going on out there.”

Nigel Farage – You’re In For a Bigger Shock in 2017 (TNTV)

I feel like I am attending a meeting of a religious sect here this morning. It’s as if the global revolution of 2016, Brexit, Trump, the Italian rejection of the referendum, has completely bypassed you. You can’t face up to the fact that this bandwagon is going to roll across Europe in these elections in 2017. A lot of citizens now recognize this form of centralized government simply doesn’t work. … At the heart of it is a fundamental point: Mr. Verhofstadt this morning said, the people want more Europe. They don’t. The people want less Europe. We see this again and again when people have referendums and they reject aspects of EU membership. But something more fundamental is going on out there. ….

No doubt, many of you here will probably despise your own voters for what I am about to say because just last week, Chatham House, the reputable group, published a massive survey from 10 Europen states, and only 20% of people want immigration from Muslim countries to continue. Just 20%. … Which means your voters have a harder line position on this than Donald Trump, or myself, or frankly any party sitting in this Parliament. I simply cannot believe you are blind to the fact that even Mrs. Merkel has now made a u-turn and wants to send people back. Even Mr. Schulz thinks it is a good idea. And the fact is, the Europen Union has no future at all in its current form. And I suspect you are in for as big a shock in 2017 as you were in 2016.

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Throw this into the German election campaign and see what happens.

Germany’s Burden: The Euro Is The Most Crisis-Ridden Currency (MW)

Target-2 occupies a central place. According to latest Bundesbank figures, the German central bank’s claims under the system rose to €796 billion at the end of January, from €754 billion at the end of December, well above the previous record €751 billion in August 2012. The Bundesbank’s ECB claims make up more than half of Germany’s net foreign assets of €1.5 trillion, which have themselves increased enormously since the euro was launched in 1999. If the eurozone broke up, or euro members redenominated their liabilities in a new, lower valued currency, Germany would relinquish a large part of these assets — a loss of German savings that would rival the country’s forced write-downs after the first and second world wars.

Both the ECB and the Bundesbank are playing down the renewed Target-2 increase, saying it reflects technical reasons linked to cross-border payments stemming from the ECB’s asset purchase program. On the one hand, these facts would argue for Germany keeping the system going. On the other, they would suggest that the Germans should try to renegotiate the Target-2 arrangements. At the present rate of increase, the Target-2 balances could be close to €1 trillion by the German elections in seven months. Target was developed during the 1990s as a technical transfer mechanism for facilitating payments within the eurozone. The innocuous name — Trans-European automated real-time gross settlement express transfer — signals its original arcane purpose.

According to Helmut Schlesinger, former Bundesbank president, the system was expected to advance credit simply for overnight settlement. Two decades later, as Schlesinger explains, it has become an overdraft system under which Germany, through its central bank, extends interest-free credit without any repayment date and without economic conditions to the central banks of heavily indebted nations.

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Paradox: BECAUSE the economy shrinks, more cuts ‘reforms’ will be demanded. The IMF wants more pension cuts. But that’s what half the population lives on.

Greece Defies Creditors Over More Cuts As Economy Shrinks Unexpectedly (G.)

The standoff between Greece and its creditors has escalated, with the embattled Athens government vowing it will not give in to demands for further cuts as data showed the country’s economy unexpectedly contracting. As thousands of protesting farmers rallied in Athens over spiralling costs and unpopular reforms, the Hellenic statistical authority revealed that Greek GDP shrank by 0.4% in the last three months of 2016. After growth of 0.9% in the previous three-month period the fall was steep and unforeseen. On Monday the European commission announced that the eurozone’s weakest member was on course to achieving a surplus on its budget of 2.3% after exceeding its 2016 fiscal targets “significantly”.

The setback came as prime minister Alexis Tsipras’ lefist-led coalition said it would not consent to additional austerity beyond the cuts the country had already agreed to administer under its third, EU-led bailout programme. Speaking on state TV, the digital policy minister Nikos Pappas, Tsipras’ closest confidant, insisted that ongoing differences between the EU and IMF over how to put the debt-stricken state back on the road to recovery were squarely to blame for the failure to conclude a compliance review at the heart of the standoff. The IMF has argued vigorously that extra measures worth 2% of GDP will have to be enforced with immediate effect if Greece is to achieve a high post-programme primary surplus of more than 1.5%. “The negotiations should have ended. Greece has done everything that it was asked to do,” he said and added there would be “no more measures”.

The future of the €86bn financial aid programme is contingent on Athens implementing agreed economic reforms. The IMF has repeatedly said it will not sign up to the programme unless the crisis-plagued country is given more generous debt relief in the form of a substantial write-down. With Greece facing a €7bn debt repayment to the ECB in July, fears of a Greek default have once again hit markets with shares falling and interest rates on Greek debt rising. But Tsipras is also under pressure from back-benchers in his fragile two-party administration. After seven years of adopting grueling austerity in return for emergency bailout aid many are openly questioning the wisdom of applying yet more measures that have already put Greece in a permanent debt deflationary cycle.

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Yellen was “oblivious as the housing market in her region imploded on multiple fronts.”

‘Fed Up’ Exposes The Elite Rot Inside The Federal Reserve (MW)

She came armed with an M.B.A., not a Ph.D., which made her suspect in the eyes of staff economists as she gradually worked her way up to Class I Clearance, with access to all policy-related material and briefings. In her columns, DiMartino Booth had warned about lax mortgage-lending standards, a housing bubble and escalating systemic risk. Once ensconced at the Fed, she was left to wonder why so many “highly educated and well-paid economists” were “oblivious as the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression was about to break over their heads.” (One of the main reasons is the Fed’s reliance on econometric models that don’t include anything related to the financial system, such as debt or credit.) It wasn’t just the staff economists who were blind to what was going on in the real world.

Neither former Fed chairman Alan Greenspan, who can boast of two bubbles on his watch, nor his successor Ben Bernanke saw the train wreck coming. Greenspan said a national housing bubble was “unlikely” while Bernanke expected any fallout from the subprime mortgage crisis to be “contained.” Janet Yellen, the current Fed chairwoman, is subject to withering criticism in the book. From 2004-2010, Yellen was president of the San Francisco Fed, whose district encompasses nine Western states and was ground zero for the housing bubble and subsequent bust. DiMartino Booth portrays Yellen as an uber-dove and devout Keynesian, someone who was “oblivious as the housing market in her region imploded on multiple fronts.”

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Why bubbles are blown.

Why “Everyone Wins” When Housing Is More Expensive (AS)

The perceived creditworthiness of a nation is largely dependent on market sentiment of that nation insofar as that the volume and indeed the acceleration of capital flow from that nation towards traditionally hedge instruments is indicative of their realisation of mania and is often known as the Minsky moment. Human nature inherently creates inefficiencies in markets as the incentives for those involved continue to grow, and it is that immutable fact that creates opportunities for those that see the market as being overwhelmingly influenced by self interest. The housing market is a fantastic example of this incentivised self interest. There are layers of self interest that largely go ignored as driving factors for housing price growth and poor risk modelling.

On the lowest level, buyers see property as a safe investment, and most of the time they seek to either make a return on their investment either through rental that exceeds the cost of the mortgage repayments (positive gearing) or to make money by a perceived increase in market value of the property that they can realise once they resell the property, or in many cases a combination of both. There are also people who seek to reduce their tax payment by charging less for rent than they pay in mortgage repayments, however these losses are eventually passed on to tax payers as the government thinks this is a suitable method for reducing rental costs for low income earners and that it reduces overall rental costs. The next level up from this is a combination of brokers, people employed to undertake property valuations and real estate agents, all of whom receive commission as a percentage of the sale price of the property.

There exists such a thing as home equity loans wherein banks and borrowers agree upon a valuation of the property which allows mortgagees or property owners to take on debt based on the perceived value of the property, which extends further credit than the initial loan. This feature of home equity lends itself to false market valuations by appraisers, real estate agents and brokers, in particular because it means that they are incentivised to originate additional loans that then pay commissions based on the appreciation of the previous property investment. Even if the current broker, appraiser or real estate agent is not used by the borrower for financing further property purchases, the industry wide practice almost certainly means that these people will continue to receive additional income as a direct result of the availability of credit in the form of home equity for property purchases.

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Maintenance is far less sexy than building.

Who Will Be Blamed if the Oroville Dam Fails? (McMaken)

While everyone likes to see a shiny new dam or railroad or bridge, the problem with infrastructure projects is that they require maintenance. Unfortunately, while it’s fun to build new dams and promise cheap water to many voters and powerful special interests, maintaining those projects is less exciting. As The Mercury News has reported, 12 years ago, both California and federal officials refused to consider a demand that California heighten precautions and maintenance standards at the Oroville Dam. In response to the demands, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) said the dam’s emergency features were perfectly fine and that the emergency spillway “was designed to handle 350,000 cubic feet per second and the concerns were overblown.”

But, in a development reminiscent of the Army Corp of Engineers’ failure in New Orleans, state officials began ordering evacuations when flows over the spillway reached a mere “6,000 to 12,000 cubic feet per second” or “5% of the rate that FERC said was safe.” Basically, thanks to poorly maintained spillways — and perhaps other oversights — the dam itself is being eroded away, and may soon face total failure. If it does fail, the dam will have failed less than 50 years after its initial — and very, very expensive — construction. The “experts” assure us that this sort of thing has never happened before, of course, and it’s the fault of global warming or it’s just a fluke. But, it’s not as if the dam has never been under strain before. As Reisner recounted in 1987:

“In February of 1980, in the midst of a long spell of wet Pacific fronts, Oroville Reservoir, despite its capacity of something like a trillion gallons, was full, and the dam was spilling — 70,000 cubic feet per second, the Hudson River in full flood, roaring down the spillway at forty miles per hour, sending a plume of mist a thousand feet in the air.” At the time, the dam was only 12 years old. Today, the now-49-year old dam isn’t looking nearly as robust.

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Excellent Dmitry: “..there are at least 5.8 billion people alive in the world who don’t own a car. How can something be considered a necessity if 82% of us don’t seem to need it?”

The Technosphere: You Are Not In Control (Dmitry Orlov)

A good example of how the technosphere controls our tastes is the personal automobile. Many people regard it as a symbol of freedom and see their car as an extension of their personalities. The freedom to be car-free is not generally regarded as important, while the freedoms bestowed by car ownership are rather questionable. It is the freedom to make car payments, pay for repairs, insurance, parking, towing and gasoline. It is the freedom to pay tolls, traffic tickets, title fees and excise taxes. It is the freedom to spend countless hours stuck in traffic jams and to suffer injuries in car accidents. It is the freedom to bring up neurologically damaged children by subjecting them to unsafe carbon monoxide levels (you are encouraged to have a CO detector in your house, but not in your car—because it would be going off all the time). It is the freedom to suffer indignities when pulled over by police, especially if you’ve been drinking. In terms of a harm/benefit analysis, private car ownership makes no sense at all.

It is often argued that a car is a necessity, although the facts tell a different story. Worldwide, there are 1.2 billion vehicles on the road. The population of the planet is over 7 billion. Therefore, there are at least 5.8 billion people alive in the world who don’t own a car. How can something be considered a necessity if 82% of us don’t seem to need it? In fact, owning a car becomes necessary only in a certain specific set of circumstances. Here are some of the key ingredients: a landscape that is impassable except by motor vehicle, single-use zoning that segregates land by residential, commercial, agricultural and industrial uses, a lifestyle that requires a daily commute, and a deficit of public transportation. In turn, widespread private car ownership is what enables these key ingredients: without it, situations in which private car ownership becomes a necessity simply would not arise.

Now, moving people about the landscape is not a productive activity: it is a waste of time and energy. If you can live, send your children to school, shop and work all without leaving the confines of a small neighborhood, you are bound to be more efficient than someone who has to drive between these four locations on a daily basis. But the technosphere is rational to a fault and is all about achieving efficiencies. And so, an obvious question to ask is, What is it about the car-dependent living arrangement, and the landscape it enables, that the technosphere finds to be efficient? The surprising answer is that the technosphere strives to optimize the burning of gasoline; everything else is just a byproduct of this optimization.

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Not the strongest effort, but at the same time, children should always receive our protection.

Greece’s Frozen Children: What Will Happen To Young Refugees? (NS)

The snow-covered tents were an ugly spectacle around the island of Lesbos as this harsh winter gripped Greece. It was in this same area that an accident involving a gas heater had killed a mother and child in late November, when their tent – and others near it – went up in flames. It was pure luck that there weren’t more victims. The incident served as a stark reminder that there are numerous children living in these miserable conditions and that sometimes they die as a result. I had visited the camp just days earlier, hoping to talk to some of the approximately 80 unaccompanied minors who live there. Facilities for refugees around Greece can look anything from decent to shabby, but none resembles a prison as much as the Moria camp on Lesbos. It looks the last place you would host vulnerable children, some of whom are as young as 13.

Yet more than 5,000 children have arrived in Greece without their parents and, like everyone else, they have to be sorted through “hot spots” such as Moria. About 2,500 are still in Greece, and some of them have to live in places like this. While adults and children accompanied by their parents can leave the camp, unaccompanied children, who are placed formally under the guardianship of the district attorney, cannot. The facility, guarded by police in full riot gear and surrounded by concrete walls topped with barbed wire, is both home and prison. It takes nine months on average for an unaccompanied child to be reunited with family in another country – if indeed the child has one. The alternative is that they remain in Greece until they turn 18, when they can try to claim asylum. If a child’s application is rejected, he is then deported back to the country he left years earlier as a child.

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Jan 182016
 January 18, 2016  Posted by at 10:39 pm Finance Tagged with: , , , , , , , , ,  8 Responses »
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Berenice Abbott Columbus Circle, Manhattan 1936

We’ve only really been in two weeks of trading in the new year, things are looking pretty bad to say the least, so predictably the press are asking -and often answering- questions about when the slump will be over. Rebound, recovery, the usual terminology. When will we get back to growth?

For me personally, but that’s just me, that last question sounds a bit more stupid every single time I hear and read it. Just a bit, but there’s been a lot of those bits, more than I care to remember. Luckily, the answer is easy. The slump will not be over for a very long time, there will be no rebound or recovery, and please stop talking about a return to growth unless you can explain what you want to grow into.

I’m sorry, I know that’s not what you want to hear, but life’s a bitch and so’s the economy. You’ve lived on pink fumes for a long time, most of you for their whole lives, but reality dictates that real ‘growth’ stopped decades ago, and you never figured that out because, and I quote here (see below), you and the world you’re part of became “addicted to borrowing money, spending it, and passing this off as ‘growth'”.

That you believed this was actual growth, however, is on you. You fell for a scam and you’re going to have to pay the price. If there’s one single thing people are good at, it’s lying. It’s as old as human history, and it happens every day, so you’re no exception to any rule. You’re perhaps just not particularly clever.

How do we know a ‘recovery’ is so far off it’s really no use to even talk about it? As I said, it’s easy. Let me lead this in with a graph I saw just today, which deals with a topic the Automatic Earth has covered a lot: marginal debt, or more precisely, the productivity/growth gained from each additional dollar of debt.

Please note, this particular graph deals with private non-financial debt only, we’ll get to other kinds of added debt, but that restriction is actually quite illuminating.

Now of course, you have to wonder about the parameters the St. Louis Fed uses for its data and graphs, and whether ‘growth’ was all that solid in the run up to 2008. There’s plenty of very valid arguments that would say growth in the 1960’s was a whole lot more solid than that in the naughties, after the Glass-Steagall repeal, and after the dot.com blubber.

However, that’s not what I want to take away from this, I use this to show what has happened since 2008, more than before, when it comes to “passing debt off as ‘growth'”.

But it’s another thing that has happened since 2008, or rather not happened, that points out to us why this slump will have legs. That is, in 2008 a behemoth bubble started bursting, and it was by no means just US housing market. That bubble should have been allowed to fully deflate, because that is the only way to allow an economy to do a viable restart.

Instead, all that has been done since 2008, QE, ZIRP, the works, has been aimed at keeping a facade ‘alive’, and aimed at protecting the interests of the bankers and other rich parties. That facade, expressed most of all in rising stock markets, has allowed for societies to be gutted while people were busy watching the S&P rise to 2,100 and the Kardashians bare 2,100 body parts.

It was all paid for, apart from western QE, with $28 trillion and change of newfangled Chinese debt. The problem with this is that if you find yourself in a bubble and you don’t go through the inevitable deleveraging process that follows said bubble in a proper fashion, you’re not only going to kill economies, you’ll destroy entire societies.

And that is not just morally repugnant, it also works as much against the rich as it does against the poor. It’s just that that is a step too far for most people to understand. That even the rich need a functioning society, and that inequality as we see it today is a real threat to everyone.

Recognizing this simple fact, and the consequences that follow from it, is nothing new. It’s why in days of old, there were debt jubilees. It’s also why we still quote the following from Marriner Eccles, chairman of the Federal Reserve under FDR and Truman from 1934-1948, in his testimony to the Senate Committee on the Investigation of Economic Problems in 1933, which prompted FDR to make him chairman in the first place.

It is utterly impossible, as this country has demonstrated again and again, for the rich to save as much as they have been trying to save, and save anything that is worth saving. They can save idle factories and useless railroad coaches; they can save empty office buildings and closed banks; they can save paper evidences of foreign loans; but as a class they cannot save anything that is worth saving, above and beyond the amount that is made profitable by the increase of consumer buying.

It is for the interests of the well to do – to protect them from the results of their own folly – that we should take from them a sufficient amount of their surplus to enable consumers to consume and business to operate at a profit. This is not “soaking the rich”; it is saving the rich. Incidentally, it is the only way to assure them the serenity and security which they do not have at the present moment.

Everything would all be so much simpler if only more people understood this, that you need a – fleeting, ever-changing equilibrium- to prosper.

Instead, we’re falling into that same trap again. Or, more precisely, we already have. We have been fighting debt with more debt and built the facade put up by the Fed, the BoJ and the ECB, central banks that all face the same problems and all take the same approach: save the rich at the cost of the poor. Something Eccles said way back when could not possibly work.

Anyway, so here are the graphs that prove to us why the slump has legs. There’s been no deleveraging, the no. 1 requirement after a bubble bursts. There’s only been more leveraging, more debt has been issued, and while households have perhaps deleveraged a little bit, though that is likely strongly influenced by losses on homes etc. plus the fact that people were simply maxed out.

First, global debt and the opposite of deleveraging:

And global debt from a longer, 65 year, more historical perspective:

It’s a global debt graph, but it’s perhaps striking to note that big ‘growth’ spurts happened in the days when Reagan, Clinton and Obama were the respective US presidents. Not so much in the Bush era.

Next, China. What we’re looking at is what allowed the post 2008 global economic facade to have -fake- credibility, an insane rise in debt, largely spent on non-productive overinvestment, overcapacity highways to nowhere and many millions of empty apartments, in what could have been a cool story had not Beijing gone all-out on performance enhancing financial narcotics.

Today, the China Ponzi is on its last legs, and so is the global one, because China was the last ‘not-yet-conquered’ market large enough to provide the facade with -fleeting- credibility. Unless Elon Musk gets us to Mars very soon, there are no more such markets.

So US debt will have to come down too, belatedly, with China, and it will have to do that now. because there are no continents to conquer and hide the debt behind. We’re all going to regret engaging in the debt game, and not letting the bubble deflate in an orderly fashion when we still could, but all those thoughts are too late now.

What the facade has wrought is not just the idea that deleveraging was not needed (though it always is, after every single bubble), but that net US household worth rose by 55% in the 6-7 years since the bottom of the crisis, an artificial bottom fabricated with…more debt, with QE, and ZIRP.

Meanwhile, in today’s world, as stock markets go down at a rapid clip, China, having lost control of a market system it never had the control over that Politburos are ever willing to acknowledge they don’t have, plays a game of Ponzi whack-a-mole, with erratic ‘policies’ such as circuit breakers and CIA-style renditions of fund managers and the like.

And all the west can do is watch them fumble the ball, and another one, and another. And this whole thing is nowhere near the end.

China bad loans have now become a theme, but the theme doesn’t mean a thing without including the shadow banking system, which in China has been given the opportunity to grow like a tumor, on which Beijing’s grip is limited, and which has huge claims on local party officials forced by the Politburo to show overblown growth numbers. If you want to address bad loans, that’s where they are.

Chinese credit/debt graphs paint only a part of the picture if and when they don’t include shadow banks, but keeping their role hidden is one of Xi’s main goals, lest the people find out how bad things really are and start revolting. But they will anyway. That makes China a very unpredictable entity. And unpredictable means volatile, and that means even more money flowing out of, and being lost in, markets.

The ‘least worst’ place to be for what money will be left is US dollars, US treasuries and perhaps metals. But there’ll be a whole lot less left than just about anyone thinks. That’s the price of deleveraging.

The price of not deleveraging, on the other hand, is what we see in the markets today. And there is no cure. It must be done. The price for keeping up the facade rises sharply with each passing day, and the effort will in the end be futile. All bubbles have limited lifespans.

I’ll close this with a few recent words from Tim Morgan, who puts it so well I don’t feel the need to try and do it better.

The Ponzi Economy, Part 1

In order to set the Ponzi economy into some context, let’s put some figures on it. In the United States, total “real economy” debt (which excludes inter-bank borrowing) increased by $19.4 trillion – in real, inflation-adjusted terms – between 2000 and 2014, whilst real GDP expanded by only $3.7 trillion. Britain, meanwhile, added £1.9 trillion of new debt for less than £400bn on “growth” over the same period. I spent part of the holiday period unearthing quite how much debt countries added for each dollar of “growth” over a period starting at the end of 2000 and ending in mid-2015.

Unsurprisingly, the league is topped by Portugal ($5.65 for each $1 of growth), Ireland ($5.42) and Greece ($5.39). Britain’s ratio ($3.46) is somewhat flattering, in that the UK has used asset sales as well as borrowing to sustain its consumption. The average for the Eurozone ($3.54) covers ratios as diverse as Germany (just $1.87) and France ($4.22).

China’s $2.56 looks unexceptional until you note that the more recent (post-2007) number is much worse. Economies which seem to have been growing without too much borrowing (such as Brazil and Russia) are now experiencing dramatic worsening in their ratios, generally in the wake of tumbling commodity prices.

In the proverbial nutshell, then, the world has become addicted to borrowing money, spending it, and passing this off as “growth”. This is a copybook example of a pyramid scheme, which in turn means that the world’s most influential economic mentor is neither Keynes nor Hayek, but Charles Ponzi.

[..] How, in the absence of growth, can inflated capital values be sustained? The answer, of course, is that they can’t. Like all Ponzi schemes, this ends with a bang, not a whimper. This is why I find forecasts of a ‘big fall’ or ‘sharp correction’ in markets hard to swallow. Ponzi schemes don’t end gradually, any more than someone can fall off a cliff gradually, or be “slightly pregnant”.

The Ponzi economy simply continues for as long as irrationality prevails, and then implodes. Capital markets, though, are the symptom, not the cause. The fundamental problem is an inability to escape from an addictive practice of manufacturing supposed “growth” on the basis of borrowed money.

There may be shallow lulls in the asset markets, nothing ever only falls down in a straight line in the real world, but that debt I’ve described here will and must come down and be deleveraged.

The process will in all likelihood lead to warfare, and to refugee movements the likes of which the world has never seen just because of the sheer numbers of people added in the past 50 years.

When your children reach your age, they will not live in a world that you ever thought was possible. But they will still have to live in it, and deal with it. They will no longer have the facade you’ve been staring at for so long now, to lull them into a complacent sleep. And the Kardashians will no longer be looking so attractive either.

Oct 222015
 October 22, 2015  Posted by at 9:38 am Finance Tagged with: , , , , , , ,  11 Responses »
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LIFE Freedom in peril 1941

Whenever we at the Automatic Earth explain, as we must have done at least a hundred times in our existence, that, and why, we refuse to define inflation and deflation as rising or falling prices (only), we always get a lot of comments and reactions implying that people either don’t understand why, or they think it’s silly to use a definition that nobody else seems to use.

-More or less- recent events, though, show us once more why we’re right to insist on inflation being defined in terms of the interaction of money-plus-credit supply with money velocity (aka spending). We’re right because the price rises/falls we see today are but a delayed, lagging, consequence of what deflation truly is, they are not deflation itself. Deflation itself has long begun, but because of confusing -if not conflicting- definitions, hardly a soul recognizes it for what it is.

Moreover, the role the money supply plays in that interaction gets smaller, fast, as debt, in the guise of overindebtedness, forces various players in the global economy, from consumers to companies to governments, to cut down on spending, and heavily. We are as we speak witnessing a momentous debt deleveraging, or debt deflation, in real time, even if prices don’t yet reflect that. Consumer prices truly are but lagging indicators.

The overarching problem with all this is that if you look just at -consumer- price movements to define inflation or deflation, you will find it impossible to understand what goes on. First, if you wait until prices fall to recognize deflation, you will tend to ignore the deflationary moves that are already underway but have not yet caused prices to drop. Second, when prices finally start falling, you will have missed out on the reason why they do, because that reason has started to build way before a price fall.

A different, but useful, way to define -debt- deflation comes from Andrew Sheng and Xiao Geng in a September 24 piece at Project Syndicate, China in the Debt-Deflation Trap:

The debt-deflation cycle begins with an imbalance or displacement, which fuels excessive exuberance, over-borrowing, and speculative trading, and ends in bust, with procyclical liquidation of excess capacity and debt causing price deflation, unemployment, and economic stagnation.

That’s of course just an expensive way of saying that after a debt bubble must come a hangover. And how anyone can even attempt to deny we’re in a gigantic debt bubble is hard to understand. Our entire economic system is propped up, if not built up, by debt.

The mention of the excess capacity that has been constructed is useful, but we’re not happy with ‘price deflation’, since that threatens to confuse people’s understanding, the same way terms like ‘consumer deflation’ or ‘wage inflation’ do.

Central banks can postpone the deflation of a gigantic debt bubble like the one we’re in, but only temporarily and at a huge cost. And it looks like we’ve now reached the point where they’re essentially powerless to do anything more, or else. We are inclined to point to August 24 as a pivotal point in this, the China crash where people lost faith in the Chinese central bank, but it doesn’t really matter, it would have happened anyway.

And today we’re up to our necks in deflation, and nobody seems to notice, or call it that. Likely because they’re all waiting for CPI consumer prices to fall.

But when you see that Chinese producer prices are down 5.9%, in the 43rd straight month of declines, and Chinese imports are down 20% (with Japan imports off 11%), don’t you hear a bell ringing? What does it take? If the dramatic fall in oil prices hasn’t done it either, how about steel? How about the tragedy British steel has been thrown in, how about the demise of Sinosteel even as China is dumping steel on world markets like there’s no tomorrow?

How about the reversal of funds that once flowed into emerging markets and are now flowing right back out?

Or how about major global banks, all of whom see their profits and earnings deplete, and many of whom are laying off staff by the thousands?

Wait, how about global wealth down by 5% since 2008 despite all the QE and ZIRP policies? And global trade off by -8.4% YoY?!

Here’s from Tyler Durden last week:

Credit Suisse’s latest global wealth outlook shows that dollar strength led to the first decline in total global wealth (which fell by $12.4 trillion to $250.1 trillion) since 2007-2008.

[..] from HSBC: “We are already in a global USD recession. Global trade is also declining at an alarming pace. According to the latest data available in June the year on year change is -8.4%. To find periods of equivalent declines we only really find recessionary periods. This is an interesting point. On one metric we are already in a recession. [..] global GDP expressed in US dollars is already negative to the tune of $1,37 trillion or -3.4%.

How about companies like Walmart and Glencore, just two of the many large entities that have large troubles? These are not individual cases, they are part of a global trend: deflation. As evidence also by the increase in US corporate downgrades and defaults:

Moody’s issued 108 credit-rating downgrades for U.S. nonfinancial companies, compared with just 40 upgrades. That’s the most downgrades in a two-month period since May and June 2009, the tail end of the last U.S. recession. Standard & Poor’s downgraded U.S. companies 297 times in the first nine months of the year…

Everything and everyone is overindebted. All of the above stats, and a million more, point to the beginning of a deleveraging of that debt, something that curiously enough hasn’t happened at all since the 2007/8 crisis. On the contrary, a massive amount of additional debt has been added to a global system already drowning in it. China alone added $20-15 trillion, and that kept up appearances.

But now China’s slowing down everywhere but in its official GDP numbers. And unless we build a base on the moon, there is no other country or region left that can take the place of China in propping up western debt extravaganza. This will come down.

The only way a system that looks like this could be kept running is by issuing more debt. But even that couldn’t keep it going forever. We all understand this. We just don’t know the correct terminology for what’s happening. Which is that debt that has been inflated to such extreme proportions, must lead to deflation, and do so in spectacular fashion.

As long as politicians and media keep talking about disinflation and central bank inflation targets, and all they talk actually about is consumer prices, we will all fail to acknowledge what’s happening right before our very eyes. That is, the system is imploding. Deflating. Deleveraging. And before that is done, there can and will be no recovery. Indeed, this current trend has a very long way to go down.

So far down that you will have a very hard time recognizing the world, and its economic system, on the other side of the process. But then again, you have a hard time recognizing the world for what it is on this side as well.

Sep 042015
 September 4, 2015  Posted by at 9:35 am Finance Tagged with: , , , , , , , , ,  19 Responses »
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John Vachon Houses in Atlanta, Georgia May 1938

A Global Deleveraging On A Scale The World Has Never Experienced (CNBC)
Foreigners Flee Japan Stocks at Fastest Pace Since at Least 2004 (Bloomberg)
Europe Responds To Desperate Refugees With Razor Wire And Racism (WaPo ed.)
Hungarian Police And Refugees In Standoff After Train Returns To Camp (Guardian)
Greek Government Says €1 Billion Needed To Tackle Refugee Crisis (Kath.)
Greece Wants EU Funding To Tackle Migrant Influx (Reuters)
UN Calls For 200,000 Refugees To Be Distributed Across EU (AFP)
The Refugee Crisis That Isn’t (Kenneth Roth, Human Rights Watch)
Germany Presses Europe Into Sharing Refugees (Guardian)
Refugees Brave Europe’s Deadly Seas Over Wealthy Arab Neighbors (Bloomberg)
Cameron’s EU Dilemma Grows With Bigger Refugee Crisis and Bills (Bloomberg)
Refugee Crisis: Much More Must Be Done, And Not Just By The UK (Guardian Ed.)
The US Dollar Is Stronger Than Steel (Bloomberg)
The Oil-Sands Glut Is About to Get a Lot Bigger (Bloomberg)
Australia PM’s Decision To Drop Bank Tax ‘Bizarre’ (Afr)
A Secretive Agency Hunts for China’s Crooked Officials Worldwide (Bloomberg)
New York’s Pension Fund Pact With the Devil (HuffPo)
EU Parliament Claims Role In Greek Bailout Supervision (EUObserver)
Varoufakis: I Don’t Think Tsipras Believes In Bailout (CNBC)
Food Sovereignty (Beppe Grillo)
Regenerative Agriculture: The Popular Face Of Permaculture (Lebo)

“.. markets do not like uncertainty and investors tend to shoot first and ask questions later. Therefore we are probably in for a lot more volatility. This global deleveraging is the cause of all the market turmoil, including the problems in China…”

A Global Deleveraging On A Scale The World Has Never Experienced (CNBC)

Everyone is blaming China for the recent stock-market rout, but this blame is misguided. China was the beneficiary of global expansion of money supply at the hands of activist central banks. In fact, my view is that Chinese leadership had little to do with the growth “miracle” it experienced over the last decade. As central banks in the U.S., Japan and Europe eased policy, money sought a higher-yielding home in China. This capital inflow was the cause of the growth “miracle” and now that the expansionary monetary policy is ending, it is only natural that the Chinese economy would begin to slow. Unfortunately, this “search for yield” has created the largest shadow banking system the world has even seen … and it could be in trouble.

According to the Bank for International Settlements (BIS), since 2010 the amount of U.S. dollar-denominated debt issued by foreign companies has grown by 50% from $6 trillion to $9 trillion. The proximate cause of this debt buildup was the impact of U.S. Federal Reserve quantitative easing on bond yields — as the Federal Reserve bought bonds, yields were pushed lower and investors were forced to search globally for higher-yielding financial instruments. This demand for yield fueled a credit binge of unprecedented scale. The epicenter of this pro-cyclical expansion of credit was the fast-growing emerging markets. Investors perceived that investing in countries like China, Brazil and Turkey was worth the risk, especially if emerging-market companies were offering higher yields.

Some of the credit extended to emerging-market companies was used for real economic projects, but a BIS report released in late August concludes that most of the money was simply invested in higher yielding shadow-banking instruments. This is the so-called global carry trade. The global carry trade works like this: An emerging-market company issues bonds denominated in U.S. dollars; critically, the yield on these bonds is above the yield of U.S. corporate bonds but BELOW the yield on shadow-banking instruments within the emerging markets. The relatively higher yielding bonds attract investors searching for yield; at the same time, the emerging-market company can invest the proceeds of the bond sale into higher yielding instruments. The emerging-market company earns the difference between its low yielding U.S. dollar bonds and its high yield emerging-market investments. This is financial engineering by another name.

The global carry trade works especially well under three conditions: 1) There is a large interest-rate differential between the U.S. and the emerging country, 2) The emerging country’s currency is rising, and 3) Currency volatility is very low. All three of these conditions have been present since 2010 and have been fuel for this massive build in debt. However the economic slowdown in China coupled with the U.S. Federal Reserve ending quantitative easinghas resulted in a strong U.S. dollar (weak emerging-market currencies) and tremendous currency volatility — thereby significantly reducing the attractiveness of the carry trade. The credit expansion of the carry trade resulted in emerging-market money supply growth that was the basis for economic growth.

In fact, it was the virtuous spiral of credit/money growth fueling economic growth that produced investor demand for emerging market bonds. Now, I fear, that process is beginning to reverse. The reversal of this process means a reversal of the capital flows from emerging market back to the United States. The strength of the U.S. dollar and weakness in emerging market currencies is a reflection of the process reversing. What this means is that the world is beginning a global deleveraging on a scale that it has never experienced. One of the knock-on effects of this global deleveraging is a slowdown in China. I do not mean to suggest that the sky is falling, but markets do not like uncertainty and investors tend to shoot first and ask questions later. Therefore we are probably in for a lot more volatility. This global deleveraging is the cause of all the market turmoil, including the problems in China.

Read more …


Foreigners Flee Japan Stocks at Fastest Pace Since at Least 2004 (Bloomberg)

Global investors are pulling money out of Japan’s equity market at the fastest pace since at least 2004, according to Mizuho. Foreigners last week sold a net 1.85 trillion yen ($15.4 billion) of Japanese stocks and equity index futures, the biggest combined outflow since Mizuho began tracking the data more than a decade ago, said Yutaka Miura, a Tokyo-based senior technical analyst at the brokerage. Investors are fleeing amid concern about China’s economic outlook and the prospect of higher interest rates in the U.S., he said. “This is a result of investors dumping global risk assets,” said Miura. “Japanese stocks have performed well since the start of the year, so similar to what’s happening in Europe, we’re seeing people take profits.”

The Topix index is down 13% from its Aug. 10 high, paring its 2015 advance to 4.8%. The nation’s shares are among the world’s worst performers since China unexpectedly devalued the yuan last month, roiling markets worldwide and intensifying concern about the outlook for Japan’s biggest trading partner. Foreigners dumped 1.43 trillion yen of Japanese equities in the three weeks through Aug. 28, Tokyo Stock Exchange data updated Thursday show. That’s the most for any three-week span on record, overtaking the period when Bear Stearns Cos. collapsed in 2008.

Net stock sales totaled 707 billion yen last week, and investors also reduced positions in index futures by 1.14 trillion yen, exchange data show. Cumulative flows for 2015 are still positive, with foreigners buying a net 1.1 trillion yen of equities through last week. Andrew Clarke at Hong Kong brokerage Mirabaud Asia said investors who needed to reduce positions in Asia and couldn’t offload stocks in China because of share suspensions turned to Tokyo instead. “The sell-off started in China,” Clarke said. “Investors couldn’t sell there in the end so selling spread to Asia, and Japan especially as it has a greater liquidity. This eventually spread to Europe and the U.S.”

Read more …

Orban is a loose cannon, easy pickings. But Orban did not order that train to halt. Merkel did.

Europe Responds To Desperate Refugees With Razor Wire And Racism (WaPo ed.)

The wrenching photographs of Aylan Kurdi , the 3-year-old Syrian boy whose body washed ashore on a Turkish beach this week, are an emblem of the moral and legal abdication of Western nations in the face of the worst refugee crisis the world has seen in decades. Hundreds of thousands of desperate Syrians, Afghans, Iraqis, Somalis and others have embarked this summer on dangerous voyages across the Mediterranean or arduous treks through southeastern Europe in the hope that rich, democratic nations will grant them safe harbor, in keeping with international law and their own commitments. To a shocking degree, they have been met with indifference, disregard or the cold hostility of razor wire and racism.

According to published reports, Aylan s family was denied a refugee visa by the Canadian government and an exit visa by Turkey, propelling it into the overcrowded boat that capsized while attempting to reach Greece. The boy was one of more than 2,600 refugees who have died trying to reach Europe this spring and summer, a toll driven by the abject failure of the European Union to create safe and legal means for refugees to seek asylum. The response to the crisis from leaders whose nations boast of their humanitarianism almost beggars belief. Britain has resettled just more than 200 of the 4 million Syrians who have fled the country, yet Prime Minister David Cameron this week claimed his government was taking its fair share.

So far this year, Hungary has granted asylum to 278 out of 148,000 applicants, according to the United Nations, even though two-thirds or more of those applying are fleeing war zones and have a right to refuge under international conventions. While Aylan s body was washing ashore, another disgraceful drama was playing out at Budapest s main train station, where authorities refused to allow thousands of refugees to board trains for Germany even though German authorities stood ready to receive them. Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban has built a razor-wire fence along his country s southern border and promised to dispatch troops to stop asylum seekers. He has been shockingly blunt about his motivations: to defend Europe’s Christian culture from an influx of Muslims.

Such attitudes reveal the deeper stakes of the refugee crisis for the West. If intolerant demagogues such as Mr. Orban are allowed to prevail, then the EU’s identity as a community of states committed to human rights and the rule of law will be shattered. As German Chancellor Angela Merkel put it on Monday, “If Europe fails on the question of refugees, if this close link with universal civil rights is broken, then it won’t be the Europe we wished for”.

Read more …

Blame Germany. All these people could have been safe by now.

Hungarian Police And Refugees In Standoff After Train Returns To Camp (Guardian)

Hundreds of people remained on a train in the Hungarian town of Bicske over Thursday night following a botched attempt by authorities to move on some of the thousands gathered in Budapest’s main railway station. The Hungarian authorities earlier appeared to trick hundreds of people into taking a train to a refugee camp outside Budapest in an attempt to end a two-day standoff at the station where thousands have been trying to get to western Europe. There was confusion at Keleti rail terminus in the morning when departures were initially cancelled and then passengers piled on to a newly arrived train they hoped would take them to Austria or Germany.

Instead, the train stopped in the town of Bicske, outside the capital, where riot police were waiting to take the refugees to an overcrowded facility that many had left a few days earlier in the hope of finding sanctuary in Germany. There were chaotic scenes at the station when one man pulled his wife and child on to the tracks, begging police not to force them to go to the camp. “We won’t move from here,” he shouted repeatedly. The man was later handcuffed and taken away by officers. A large group of people was surrounded in a hot and cramped underpass leading out of the station, chanting “no camp, no camp”. Other passengers clashed with police and forced their way back on to the train to begin a standoff in the sweltering heat.

Police brought water but many of the migrants refused to take the bottles, vowing to go on hunger strike. Later, volunteers tried to offer them food but people refused to eat. “We don’t need food and water. Just let us go to Germany,” one said from an open train window. Hungarian police declared the area an “operation zone” and removed reporters from the station. Later, reporters were allowed to gather on a platform. About 100 people were on the opposite platform and about 50 riot police blocked the route across the tracks. The travellers on the train resorted to holding signs up against the train windows, which said “no camp for children” and “save our souls, we are children”.

Read more …

They’re not going to get it.

Greek Government Says €1 Billion Needed To Tackle Refugee Crisis (Kath.)

Greece is to make an immediate request for more funding from the European Commission to tackle the refugee crisis on the eastern Aegean islands but this will only represent a fraction of the €1 billion that the caretaker government believes it needs to address the situation. Kathimerini understands that the Greek police will on Friday request €6 million in emergency funding from Brussels to cover the cost of new equipment and sending more personnel to islands such as Lesvos, Kos, Samos and Chios, where around 2,000 refugees a day are landing in dinghies that set sail from Turkey. Police chiefs want to send a significant number of officers to these islands to help register refugees and migrants who arrive there. However, they also need more equipment, including fingerprint scanners.

The Commission approved an emergency transfer of €2.8 million to the Greek coast guard earlier this summer. However, the extra funds will fall well short of the total that Athens believes it needs to deal with the refugee crisis. Speaking at a news conference with several other cabinet members, Economy Minister Nikos Christodoulakis said that Greece needs around €1 billion but cannot be sure that it will receive this amount. “The minimum sum Greece needs is €400 million from the [EU] asylum fund and €330 million from the fund for the poor to tackle urgent infrastructure needs,” he said. His comments came as European Commission Vice President Frans Timmermans and European Commissioner for Migration Dimitris Avramopoulos arrived in Athens.

“We are here today to discuss with the Greek government the best way that we can quickly implement the decisions that are necessary for us to be able to assist financially and with people and material so that the situation becomes better,” said Timmermans after talks with caretaker Prime Minister Vassiliki Thanou. The EU officials are due to visit the eastern Aegean islands on Friday.

Read more …

Betcha EU is going to bring up trust issues.

Greece Wants EU Funding To Tackle Migrant Influx (Reuters)

Greece will ask the European Union for about 700 million euros to build infrastructure to shelter the hundreds of refugees and migrants arriving on its shores daily, the government said on Thursday. The cash-strapped country has seen a rise in the number of refugees and migrants – mostly from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan – arriving on rubber dinghies from nearby Turkey. Aid agencies estimate about 2,000 people cross over to Greek islands including Kos, Lesbos, Samos and Chios every day. The interim government said it planned to set up a new operations centre and take steps to improve conditions at existing refugee centers.

Economy Minister Nikos Christodoulakis said the country will seek EU funds earmarked to address the crisis. “There is a major funding issue which should be addressed urgently,” Christodoulakis told a news conference. “The minimum sum Greece needs is €400 million from the asylum fund and €330 million from the fund for poor to tackle urgent needs for infrastructure.” Frans Timmermans, first vice president of the European Commission and EU Commissioner for Migration Dimitris Avramopoulos, are in Athens to meet Greek officials. They will meet police and coast guard officials on Kos on Friday. Christoudoulakis said Greece will also provide financial help to the many eastern Greek islands that are feeling the pressure from the migrants influx.

“Many northern and southern Aegean islands have faced a dive in tourist traffic in recent months,” he said. “If we don’t address that, we will have a new domestic wave of unemployed and poor.” He also called Greek ship-owners to offer vessels as temporary accommodation for refugees and blamed Europe for a lukewarm response to the migration issue. “These difficult problems cannot be solved at the sitting rooms in Europe or in other countries but at the piers and at the shores who receive scores of refugees every day,” he said.

Read more …

How many will go to America?

UN Calls For 200,000 Refugees To Be Distributed Across EU (AFP)

The UN High Commissioner for Refugees called Friday on the European Union to admit up to 200,000 refugees as part of a “mass relocation programme” that would be binding on EU states. “People who are found to have a valid protection claim… must then benefit from a mass relocation programme, with the mandatory participation of all EU member states,” Antonio Guterres said in a statement. “A very preliminary estimate would indicate a potential need to increase relocation opportunities to as many as 200,000 places,” he added. His call came ahead of a meeting later Friday of EU foreign ministers to discuss the continent’s refugee crisis, of which Syrian toddler Aylan Kurdi, whose lifeless body was found face down in the surf on a Turkish beach on Wednesday, has become a searing symbol. Referring to the pictures of the dead child, which “had stirred the hearts of the world public”, Guterres said: “Europe cannot go on responding to this crisis with a piecemeal or incremental approach.”

Read more …

No, true, it’s a Europe crisis.

The Refugee Crisis That Isn’t (Kenneth Roth, Human Rights Watch)

European leaders may differ about how to respond to the asylum-seekers and migrants surging their way, but they seem to agree they face a crisis of enormous proportions. Germany’s Angela Merkel has called it “the biggest challenge I have seen in European affairs in my time as chancellor.” Italian Foreign Minister Paolo Gentiloni has warned that the migrant crisis could pose a major threat to the “soul” of Europe. But before we get carried away by such apocalyptic rhetoric, we should recognize that if there is a crisis, it is one of politics, not capacity. There is no shortage of drama in thousands of desperate people risking life and limb to reach Europe by crossing the Mediterranean in rickety boats or enduring the hazards of land journeys through the Balkans.

The available numbers suggest that most of these people are refugees from deadly conflict in Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq and Somalia. Eritreans – another large group – fled a brutally repressive government. The largest group – the Syrians – fled the dreadful combination of their government’s indiscriminate attacks, including by barrel bombs and suffocating sieges, and atrocities by ISIS and other extremist groups. Only a minority of migrants arriving in Europe, these numbers suggest, were motivated solely by economic betterment. This “wave of people” is more like a trickle when considered against the pool that must absorb it. The EU population is roughly 500 million. The latest estimate of the numbers of people using irregular means to enter Europe this year via the Mediterranean or the Balkans is approximately 340,000.

In other words, the influx this year is only 0.068% of the EU’s population. Considering the EU’s wealth and advanced economy, it is hard to argue that Europe lacks the means to absorb these newcomers. To put this in perspective, the U.S., with a population of 320 million, has some 11 million undocumented immigrants. They make up about 3.5% of the U.S. population. The EU, by contrast, had between 1.9 and 3.8 million undocumented immigrants in 2008 (the latest available figures), or less than 1% of its population, according to a study sponsored by the EC. Put another way, nearly 13% of the U.S. population (some 41 million residents) are foreign-born – twice the proportion of non-EU foreign-born people living in Europe.

Read more …

Playing the good cop and getting away with it. But we know better.

Germany Presses Europe Into Sharing Refugees (Guardian)

The German chancellor, Angela Merkel, looks set for victory in her campaign to press Europe into a new system of sharing refugees after France caved in to a proposed new quotas system and Brussels unveiled plans to quadruple the number of people spread across most of the EU. In a major policy speech on Europe’s worst migration emergency, Jean-Claude Juncker, the president of the European commission, is to table proposals next Wednesday for the mandatory sharing of 160,000 refugees between 25 of the EU’s 28 countries. Britain, Ireland and Denmark are exempted from having to take part, but Dublin has already agreed to participate and David Cameron is under increasing pressure for Britain to pull its weight as the migration crisis escalates with scenes of chaos and misery on Europe’s borders.

Berlin and Paris have sought to maintain a common position for weeks, but the French equivocated on the key issue of binding quotas. On Thursday, the president, François Hollande, aligned himself with Merkel’s drive for compulsory EU sharing of refugees. Merkel announced from Switzerland that both sides had agreed a common platform and Hollande said there should be a “permanent and obligatory mechanism” for receiving refugees in the EU. “The president and the chancellor have today decided to forward joint proposals on the organisation of the reception of refugees and a fair sharing in Europe,” said the Élysée Palace. Germany, along with the European commission, has been pushing hard for a new mandatory system since May when Juncker tabled much more modest proposals for the compulsory sharing of 40,000 bona fide asylum-seekers over two years.

A summit of EU leaders in June rejected the quotas, saying they could only be voluntary and eventually agreeing to share only 32,000. The east European countries and Spain were the main opponents. Four east European prime ministers are to meet on Friday to consider their positions. Mariano Rajoy, the Spanish prime minister, reiterated his opposition to quotas in Berlin this week. But the speed of developments on the ground is dictating political responses. Donald Tusk, who chairs EU summits as president of the European council, said the EU should agree to share at least 100,000 refugees. In June, he opposed the quotas system. The proposed figures – 100,000 to 160,000 – refer merely to a mandatory quotas system, beyond the much higher numbers of asylum claims that the countries will have to process in any case. Germany alone expects 800,000 this year.

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Our friends the Saudis.

Refugees Brave Europe’s Deadly Seas Over Wealthy Arab Neighbors (Bloomberg)

Searching for a new home, Yassir Batal says Germany and its unfamiliar voices and customs are more enticing for his wife and five children than the wealthy Arab states whose culture, religion and language they share. Like so many other Syrians who have escaped civil war, the 36-year-old has ruled out heading south through Jordan to Saudi Arabia or beyond. They wouldn’t be welcomed the same way, he said. “In Europe, I can get treatment for my polio, educate my children, have shelter and live an honorable life,” said Batal, as he left a United Nations office in Beirut, the city that’s been the crossroads for more than a million refugees since the violence started in March 2011. “Gulf countries have closed their doors in the face of Syrians.”

Stories of fellow refugees suffocating in trucks or small children drowning in the Mediterranean Sea are doing little to tarnish the allure of Europe and the struggle to get there. As countries argue over how to cope with the scale of the tide of humanity, safer routes to the Gulf states remain blocked because of the difficulties gaining entry and concern over how migrants would be treated there. Gulf countries have been active in the Syrian conflict and millions of dollars raised in some states have found their way to rebel groups, including extremists. While they also spent billions of dollars of aid to displaced people in camps in Jordan and Lebanon, they maintain strict controls on who can cross their borders. Most of the migrants fleeing the war are Sunni Muslim, like most Gulf citizens.

“I’m most indignant over the Arab countries who are rolling in money and who only take very few refugees,” Danish Finance Minister Claus Hjort Frederiksen said in an interview this week at his office in Copenhagen. “Countries like Saudi Arabia. It’s completely scandalous.”

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Whichever way the wind blows, that’s where you’ll find David.

Cameron’s EU Dilemma Grows With Bigger Refugee Crisis and Bills (Bloomberg)

Europe is giving David Cameron a migraine. Accused of not caring about the refugee crisis, the prime minister is struggling yet again to navigate Britain’s ever-problematic relationship with the European Union following confirmation that his country had quietly paid a bill he once derided as “appalling” to the bureaucrats in Brussels. The U.K.’s unwillingness to take the same share of refugees threatens to undermine Cameron’s efforts to whip up support among his Europeans peers to win back powers from the 28-nation bloc ahead of a referendum on membership brought on by a growing tide of euroskepticism. In his quest to re-write terms for the U.K., Cameron heads to Spain and Portugal on Friday to meet with leaders.

“He’s quite clearly got a perception problem and has soured his relationships,” said Raoul Ruparel, co-director at the Open Europe think-tank. “There is a risk that will have an impact on what he’s trying to do in terms of renegotiation.” The 48-year-old Conservative leader is on the defensive. He said Thursday that the U.K. would fulfill its duty in helping asylum seekers as lawmakers from both sides of the aisle joined a global chorus of voices demanding he do more. After British newspapers ran a photograph of a dead child on a Turkish beach, Cameron was forced to respond. “Britain is a moral nation that always fulfills its moral obligations,” he said in a pooled television interview. “We are taking thousands of people and we will take thousands of people.”

Following a comfortable re-election in May that left the opposition in shambles, Cameron’s tact in handling the worst humanitarian crisis since World War II has been brought to task as the EU borders buckle under the weight of migrant flows from Syria and other troubled spots in Africa and the Middle East. EU governments now need to house at least 100,000 refugees, a far larger number than what had been envisaged, EU President Donald Tusk said on Thursday. Several countries have balked at an earlier proposal to redistribute 40,000, whittling that number down to 32,000. The U.K. did not participate at all.

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“What appears on our TV screens as a sudden emergency is really the culmination of years of failure..” Ongoing.

Refugee Crisis: Much More Must Be Done, And Not Just By The UK (Guardian Ed.)

Britain cannot open its borders to everyone fleeing war anywhere in the world, but this does not excuse the government’s shameful determination to keep our borders closed to as many refugees as possible. Our international treaty obligations, as well as the promptings of our collective conscience, entail a duty to offer meaningful sanctuary when a humanitarian catastrophe unfolds before our eyes. The prime minister surely understands this. He is personally capable of compassion, but his political instincts have been conditioned by defensive parochialism: fear of alienating those parts of the press and the electorate where hostility to foreigners is visceral. His reluctance to engage with pan-European efforts to accommodate refugees stems from a refusal to articulate any circumstances in which national questions should be answered at continental level.

This makes his argument for focusing on the causes of mass displacement, above all the war in Syria, sound disingenuous – hard-heartedness camouflaged as strategy. But the underlying point is valid. What appears on our TV screens as a sudden emergency is really the culmination of years of failure to confront Syria’s bloody collapse. This, sadly, is symptomatic of a more profound myopia in European security policy. Not only Britain is responsible for European paralysis. There is a wide arc of conflict-ridden, repressive and failed states running from the Middle East, round the Horn of Africa and along the southern Mediterranean coast. There are tens of millions of people living in that region who might reasonably decide that the only future for them and their families lies in Europe.

There is little sign that European leaders have even begun to engage with each other or with their electorates on the questions this raises for the security, legitimacy and stability of the European Union. Although it is essential in discussion of the current crisis to remember the legal distinction between refugees – seeking sanctuary from imminent danger – and the wider category of people who migrate in search of a better future for themselves and their families, it is also important to acknowledge that, in places where economic activity, law and order are breaking down, the line between the two categories is technically and ethically hard to draw.

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Much stronger.

The US Dollar Is Stronger Than Steel (Bloomberg)

When John Pierpont Morgan bought Andrew Carnegie’s steel business and combined it with two competitors to create U.S. Steel in 1901, the result was the world’s first billion-dollar corporation. Its roughly $1.4 billion market value would translate into about $33 billion in current dollars. But the company is worth less than a tenth of that today, at just under $2.5 billion. While the steel industry has been fading in the U.S. for decades, things have gotten worse recently. A strong U.S. dollar, combined with a slowing Chinese economy, is bringing unprecedented amounts of cheap, foreign steel to the U.S., swamping domestic producers. Average monthly imports spiked by almost 1 million metric tons in 2014, a 38% increase from 2013. Through June of this year, steel imports averaged 3.3 million metric tons a month, roughly the same as last year.

A lot of that is coming from China, the world’s largest producer. Although its economy has cooled, leading to the first dip in steel demand there in a generation, China’s mills have kept chugging along. Much of the excess output is being shipped overseas. In the first half of this year, China’s steel exports rose 28% compared with the same period in 2014. The recent devaluation of the yuan could make Chinese steel even more attractive to U.S. buyers. Exports from Brazil and Russia have also jumped as the real and ruble have fallen sharply against the greenback. U.S. producers have had no choice but to pull back. Andrew Lane, an analyst at Morningstar, expects U.S. steel production to come in at around 85 million metric tons this year, down from 98 million in 2007. “I don’t think we’ll get back to that level until 2020,” Lane says.

Things are particularly hard for U.S. Steel, the country’s No. 2 producer after Nucor. The company lost money in the first two quarters of this year and has laid off more than 1,700 employees, shaving its total workforce to 34,000. “The strong dollar is the icing on the cake,” says Mario Longhi, U.S. Steel’s Brazilian-born chief executive officer. Longhi says foreign producers have been unfairly dumping steel in the U.S. for several years, and trade laws need to be revamped to deal with the problem. “Our laws have not caught up to the 21st century,” he says. Since June, U.S. steel producers have filed three trade cases with the Department of Commerce, alleging that countries including Brazil, China, Japan, and South Korea are either benefiting from government subsidies or selling steel abroad for cheaper than they do at home, in violation of international trade laws.

Although a strong dollar is particularly bad for companies at the beginning of the supply chain, such as steel producers, it’s weighing on the entire U.S. industrial sector. After growing faster than the rest of the economy during the early years of the recovery, manufacturing activity, as measured by the ISM Manufacturing Index, dropped to its lowest level in two years in August. Manufacturing is on pace to post a record trade deficit for the third straight year. That’s dampened some of the enthusiasm around the “reshoring” trend of companies bringing outsourced factory jobs back to the U.S. Rising wages in China have helped make U.S. workers more competitive. But a stronger dollar, coupled with a slowing China, could blunt those gains..

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Who is financing this madness, and why?

The Oil-Sands Glut Is About to Get a Lot Bigger (Bloomberg)

The last place oil producers want to be when prices plummet to profit-demolishing lows is midstream on a billion-dollar project in one of the costliest parts of the planet to extract crude. Yet that’s exactly where half a dozen oil sands operators from Suncor to Brion find themselves with prices for Canadian oil now hovering around $30 a barrel. While all around them projects have been postponed or canceled, their investments were judged too far along when the oil game suddenly moved from offense to defense. These projects will add at least another 500,000 barrels a day – roughly a 25% increase from Alberta – to an oversupplied North American market by 2017.

For companies stuck spending billions in a downturn, the time required to earn back their investments will lengthen considerably, said Rafi Tahmazian at Canoe Financial. “But the implications of slowing down a project are worse,” said Tahmazian, who helps oversee about C$1 billion ($758 million) in energy funds at the Calgary investment firm. A general rule of thumb says new plants require a West Texas Intermediate price of $80 a barrel to break even. Western Canada Select, a blend of heavy Alberta crude, is currently selling at a discount of about $14 a barrel to the WTI benchmark. This differential for Alberta’s oil, based on such factors as quality and pipeline capacity, has ranged from $7 to $20 this year and exceeded $40 a barrel in late 2012 and part of 2013.

Cenovus Energy a Calgary-based producer that uses steam technology to melt bitumen and pump it to the surface, has postponed two new projects until the oil price recovers. But it’s pressing ahead with expansions started before the downturn that will add 100,000 barrels of capacity by next year. “We do not want short-term pricing to dictate our investment in long-life, high-return oil sands projects,” Cenovus Chief Executive Officer Brian Ferguson told analysts in July, when WTI was trading near $50. Oil companies plan for price variations during the lives of long-term projects. Cenovus “stress tested” its expansion down to a price of $50 a barrel, a level that will allow it to continue paying a reduced dividend and fund some further growth, Ferguson said in July.

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Abbott is bizarre, period.

Australia PM’s Decision To Drop Bank Tax ‘Bizarre’ (Afr)

So let me get this straight. After the four peak government agencies that oversee Australia’s financial system recommended taxpayers should receive a proper fee for the free default insurance they provide for $750 billion of bank deposits, Tony Abbott rolled his Treasurer’s correct call on the matter because he doesn’t want another “Labor tax”? “The last way to make our banks strong, the last way to protect depositors, is to hit banks with more taxes,” Abbott dissembled. “That’s the Labor way. It’s not the Coalition’s way.” The truth is that the policy principle of not giving away public insurance to banks for free has been embraced by pretty much every developed economy in the world, and was explicitly advocated in writing by the Council of Financial Regulators and only then belatedly backed by Labor’s Treasurer, Chris Bowen.

Contrary to Abbott’s misleading claims, this is neither a tax nor a Labor proposal. We are talking about a premium for free deposit insurance that was advised by our best bureaucrats because it minimises the “moral hazards” that arise when you give bankers a “heads we win, tails taxpayers lose” incentive structure. The Liberal Party is meant to reflexively support policies that remove or minimise public subsidies of private companies and here we have Abbott giving a free kick to the world’s most profitable banks. The decision is demonstrably bizarre on at least four levels. First, it was always going to be popular with main street. Holding the big banks to account and justifiably transferring wealth from the oligarchs and their shareholders back to taxpayers’ coffers would be welcomed by most.

Second, there was no political battle to be had here – Labor was not going to oppose an initiative it had already backed. Third, Abbott’s decision undermined his own Treasurer, who privately agrees with the idea of pricing free public insurance and eliminating moral hazards. This only reinforces the impression the Liberals are a divisive, clueless bunch of amateurs that struggle with rational action. Finally, the revenue generated by pricing the deposit insurance would have raised tens of billions of dollars over time that could have helped reduce Australia’s net debt, which is inflating every day towards dangerous (non-AAA rated) levels as the economy decelerates, care of the commodity price slump and a sharp contraction in Asian demand. Enough said.

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Xi is one desperate puppy.

A Secretive Agency Hunts for China’s Crooked Officials Worldwide (Bloomberg)

Qiao Jianjun seemed a model bureaucrat: strict on expense accounts, a stickler for rules. But the director of a sprawling state enterprise that controlled grain stockpiles for a chunk of Henan province had a secret, Chinese officials say: He was embezzling millions. In October 2011, he abandoned his government-issue black sedan at a local airport and disappeared — apparently headed for a favorite destination among China’s wayward party members: the U.S. China’s government released a list of 100 fugitives in April; Qiao was among 40 suspected of being in America. As President Xi Jinping’s nationwide corruption hunt has punished more than 100,000 officials over three years, many of those who’ve found bolt-holes abroad have remained frustratingly out of reach.

Rounding them up, in an operation called “Sky Net,” falls to China’s much feared Central Commission for Discipline Inspection (CCDI). In a rare interview in May with Bloomberg Businessweek, Sky Net’s leaders discussed their work with the U.S. in catching and returning fugitives. Despite a recent success – a U.S. indictment against Qiao, the grain official – such collaboration remains fraught with sensitivities, adding to tensions ahead of Xi’s U.S. trip this month. CCDI traces its origins to 1927, when the young Chinese Communist Party established a commission to monitor its members’ behavior. Its headquarters now occupy a cement-and-glass rectangle of a building behind a massive stone gateway in central Beijing, not far from the Forbidden City.

While there’s no sign on the gate, the traditionally secretive Party disciplinary arm has embraced a more public profile under Xi. Its website debuted in 2013; this year, it released an app that makes it a cinch to snitch using a mobile phone. The Xi-era drive to crack down on corruption has meant more work and growth for CCDI, including the expansion of its inspection offices to 12 from eight. The agency doesn’t publish staff numbers, but Chinese media reports estimate its size at up to 1,000. Job postings advertise for candidates with good computer skills, preferably with a degree from a top university. Party membership is mandatory.

If Sky Net sounds like a James Bond film, the role of M. could be played by Fu Kui, 53, CCDI’s head of international cooperation until last month when he was put in charge of the agency’s Hunan province operations. He’s square-headed and blunt-looking in a white button-down with no tie, and smokes as he talks. “Our work is about winning people’s hearts for the party,” Fu said in the May interview, in a conference room lined with world maps. “Now that we’re starting to hunt them down, the public is happy to see it.”

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New York’s Pension Fund Pact With the Devil (HuffPo)

I did some digging around and, confirmed that a recent New Yorker article by Pulitzer nominee Jennifer Gonnerman was true. I found that both the New York City and New York State pension funds have a direct stake in corporations that are second cousins to slavery, the private prison industry. This is a shocking revelation. I know and respect the stewards of these funds, Tom Dinapoli and Scott Stringer. They both have impressive civil rights records. As members of the New York State Assembly, the two were loyal supporters of the grassroots movement to repeal the racist Rockefeller Drug Laws. It is hard to believe that two of the most progressive elected officials in New York would take workers’ wages and invest them into such an inhumane enterprise.

The only explanation I could come up with is that they must have not have known that their respective pension funds were directly connected to such a repulsive operation. I brought my concerns to the attention of both men weeks ago, and, as of this writing, nothing has changed. Well, it’s one thing not to know, it’s quite another matter not to care. As Michelle Alexander put it in “The New Jim Crow,” mass incarceration in the United States has emerged as “a stunningly comprehensive and well-disguised system of racialized social control that functions in a manner strikingly similar to Jim Crow.” Investing in companies that profit from this system is morally indefensible. I know both Dinapoli and Stringer have voiced opposition to mass incarceration.

Yet in order to realize an increased value in the private prison portion of their equity portfolio, they must hope for what they claim to oppose — the expansion of the private prison system and the growth of mass incarceration. But it’s not just morally reprehensible to invest in prisons, it is also fiscally irresponsible. Two of the private prison stocks the city and state have wagered sacred pension fund money on, the GEO Group and Correctional Corporation of America (CCA), companies that control approximately 75% of the prison market, are heading south, daily hitting new 52 week lows. From President Obama’s recent spate of pardons, to pending state and federal legislation to cut prison sentences for low level, non-violent offenders, to the #BlackLivesMatter movement calling for an end to the Prison Industrial Complex, the writing is on the wall. Prisons are no longer a growth industry.

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Lest we forget: “..the sole European institution with a direct popular mandate..”

EU Parliament Claims Role In Greek Bailout Supervision (EUObserver)

The European Parliament and the European Commission are set to discuss the parliament’s role in the supervision of the Greek bailout programme after parliament leaders gave the green light to proceed.( ( Parliament president Martin Schulz received a mandate on Thursday (3 September) from the leaders of the assembly’s political groups to “explore” with commission president Jean-Claude Juncker “the possibilities” of such an involvement. An agreement could be announced as soon as next week, when Juncker participates in the parliament’s plenary session in Strasbourg. Juncker will attend the conference of presidents, the group that gave Schulz the green light. The parliament’s move comes in response to a request sent by former Greek PM Alexis Tsipras on 20 August.

Tsipras wrote to Schulz, asking for “the direct and full involvement of the European Parliament in the regular review process regarding the implementation of the loan agreement” between Greece and its creditors – the European Commission, the ECB, the European Stability Mechanism (ESM), and the IMF. “I deem it politically imperative that the sole European institution with a direct popular mandate acts as the ultimate guarantor of democratic accountability , Tsipras wrote. The basis of the discussion between the two presidents will be the so-called two-pack regulation, which sets up a monitoring and surveillance mechanism of eurozone countries.

In his letter, Tsipras mentioned article 3 of the two-pack, which says parliament should be kept informed and provides possibilities for exchanges of views with officials from the commission or the member state under surveillance. “There was large agreement between political groups , a parliament source told EUobserver. “It is not a surprise , Schulz said, “because the troika report at the end of the parliament’s last mandate already asked for a permanent structure of accompaniment on a parliamentarian level [of] all the actions of the institutions in the framework of the programme. The discussion between Schulz and Juncker could lead to a mechanism that gives the parliament more than the right to be simply informed about implementation of the bailout programme, but less than a deciding role in the monitoring of it.

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Lots of media.

Varoufakis: I Don’t Think Tsipras Believes In Bailout (CNBC)

Yanis Varoufakis, the controversial former Greek finance minister, has told CNBC that he doesn’t think Alexis Tsipras, who is currently campaigning for re-election as its Prime Minister, believes in the conditions of the country’s third bailout. “He considers it to be unreliable, as does the IMF,” Varoufakis said on Friday. Tsipras was still a personal friend and an “excellent politician”, the economist, who resigned as finance minister this summer after a brutal six months attempting to re-negotiate the austerity conditions of Greece’s bailout by international creditors, added. Varoufakis became the focal point for criticism of Greece for not accepting the austerity program, despite other programs being accepted by bailed-out countries like Portugal and Spain.

Tsipras eventually accepted another bailout with controversial austerity conditions, as the threat of Greece having to leave the euro zone in a disorderly fashion loomed. The third bailout is “unviable on an economy which is in this great depression and debt spiral,” Varoufakis said. Tsipras has recently called new elections in Greece, the second within a year. “I cannot look my electors in the eye and say to them that our party is capable now of stabilizing the economy,” Varoufakis added.

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“Food is the weapon of the future, not bombs.”

Food Sovereignty (Beppe Grillo)

Does Italy still exist, or is it, as Metternich puts it, a geographic expression? By joining the Euro, it lost its monetary sovereignty. It lost its territorial sovereignty after its defeat in the second world war with occupation by the Americans who have never left since then. It lost its military sovereignty as it is now reduced to taking orders from the USA and organising pretend peace missions in Afghanistan and in Iraq, and bombing Libya (thanks also to grandpa Napolitano)/ The fall of Gaddafi is the cause of the immigration of biblical proportions – from that country that no longer has connections with Italy What’s still left of this devastated country where the words “Patria” {fatherland} and “Nazione “ {nation} are considered to be offensive? If a country has no sovereignty and has leaky borders, can it still call itself a country?

Among the many types of sovereignty that have been lost, there’s also food sovereignty. Food sovereignty implies control by the people in relation to the production and consumption of food. The countries must be able to define their own agricultural and food policies on the basis of their own needs. In the period from 1971 to 2010, Italy lost five million hectares of agricultural land because people were abandoning the land, because of hydrological disturbances and because of “cementification”. Unless there are policies providing incentives for agriculture, people will continue to abandon the land. There are whole areas of Italy that are becoming depopulated with young people fleeing towards the cities. That’s something that started after the second world war and it has never let up. The total area of land now used for agriculture has reduced by 28% in 40 years. Our ability to provide our own food is approaching 80% and it is going down all the time. Only 20 years ago it was 92%.

Italy is the third country in Europe and the fifth in the world as regards the lack of land. It’s a country that is over-populated (we have roughly the same population as France with only half the area of usable land.) To cover our food needs, another 61 million hectares are needed. Every day, 100 hectares of land is being built on, that’s 10 square metres every second. An Italian-style suicide. The Great Public Works are given precedence. But the only thing about them that’s “great” are the associated kickbacks. Instead there should be a long-term plan to put an end to the hydrogeological disruption and to clean up the terrain that has been polluted by every type of waste product. The paradox of Expo 2015 is that it focuses on “Feeding the planet“ and yet to bring it into being, a million (yes – one million) square metres of agricultural land has been used. That’s beyond belief. Food is the weapon of the future, not bombs.

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From our friend Nelson in Wanganui.

Regenerative Agriculture: The Popular Face Of Permaculture (Lebo)

“Hippy farms always fail.” These were the words of Chuck Barry, a small-scale organic farmer I met in Montrose, Colorado about ten years ago. Chuck made a comfortable living growing high quality vegetables on two acres in a dry and seasonally cold environment that may be compared with Central Otago high country. His comment was based on observations of some people going into farming with good intentions but little understanding of the amount of work involved and inadequate business sense. There is popular, quaint, romantic notion among many people about growing food organically. But at the end of the day, when faced with actually doing it, most hippies opt out because it turns out to be just too hard.

On the other end of the spectrum – as we have been hearing recently in the news – many conventional farms also fail. Conventional farming wisdom over the last decade goes something like this: 1) borrow lots of money from the bank; 2) convert to dairy; 3) borrow more money; 4) rely on ever-increasing dairy pay outs; 5) borrow more money; 6) rely on ever-increasing land prices; 7) get rich; 8) what could possibly go wrong? Well, now we know. Dairy pay outs have fallen through the floor and many farmers are pushed to the wall. On one hand I feel sorry for those famers who have to sell because of their now un-payable debts. But on the other hand, I question why they bought into the paradigm described above in the first place, which appears to me to be very risky.

Alongside financial debt, many conventional farms also run a large soil debt. We see it every day flowing past our city and out into the Tasman Sea. Like financial debt, soil debt is difficult to repay but not impossible. Rebuilding soil fertility while growing food is sometimes called regenerative agriculture. Regenerative agriculture can include organic farming practices, some biodynamic techniques, and holistic range management. All three of these fall within the scope of the eco-design system known as permaculture. I see permaculture as the middle ground between failed hippy farms and failed conventional farms.

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 August 13, 2015  Posted by at 9:28 pm Finance Tagged with: , , , , , , ,  28 Responses »
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Gustave Doré The Ninth Circle of Hell (Treachery) 1857

Eventful days in the middle of summer. Just as the Greek Pandora’s box appears to be closing for the holidays (but we know what happens once it’s open), and Europe’s ultra-slim remnants of democracy erode into the sunset, China moves in with a one-off but then super-cubed renminbi devaluation. And 100,000 divergent opinions get published, by experts, pundits and just about everyone else under the illusion they still know what is going on.

We’ve been watching from the sidelines for a few days, letting the first storm subside. But here’s what we think is happening. It helps to understand, and repeat, a few things:

• There have been no functioning financial markets in the richer parts of the world for 7 years (at the very least). Various stimulus measures, in particular QE, have made sure of that.

A market cannot be said to function if and when central banks buy up stocks and bonds with impunity. One main reason is that this makes price discovery impossible, and without price discovery there is, per definition, no market. There may be something that looks like it, but that’s not the same. If you want to go full-frontal philosophical, you may even ponder whether a country like the US still has a functioning economy, for that matter.

• There are therefore no investors anymore either (they would need functioning markets). There are people who insist on calling themselves investors, but that’s not the same either. Definitions matter, lest we confuse them.

Today’s so-called ‘investors’ put to shame both the definition and the profession; I’ve called them grifters before, and we could go with gamblers, but that’s not really it: they’re sucking central bank’s udders. WHatever we would settle on, investors they’re not.

• The stimulus measures, QE, were never designed to induce economic recovery. They were meant to transfer private losses to public purses. In that, they have been wildly successful.

• China is the end of the line. It was the only economy left that until recently could boast actual growth on a scale that mattered to the global economy. Growth stopped when China, too, introduced stimulus measures. To the tune of some $25 trillion or more, no less.

The perhaps most pivotal importance of China is that it was the world’s latest financial hope. The yuan devaluation shatters that hope once and for all. The global economy looks a lot more bleak for it, even if many people already didn’t believe official growth numbers anymore.

Because we’ve reached the end of the line, the game changes. Of course there will be additional attempts at stimulus, but China’s central bank has de facto conceded that its measures have failed. The yuan devaluations, three days in a row now, mean the central People’s Bank of China has, openly though reluctantly, acknowledged its QE has failed, and quite dramatically at that. They just hope you won’t notice, and try to bring it on with a positive spin.

Central banks are not “beginning” to lose control, they lost control a long time ago. The age of central bank omnipotence has “left and gone away” like Joltin’ Joe. Omnipotence has been replaced by impotence.

This admission will reverberate across the globe. China is simply that big. It may take a while longer for other central bankers to admit to their own failures (though ‘failures’, in view of the wealth transfer, is a relative term here), but it won’t really matter much. One is enough.

What will happen from here on in will be decided by how, where and in what amounts deleveraging will take place. This will of necessity be a chaotic process.

Debt deleveraging leads to, or can even be seen as equal to, debt deflation. This is a process that has already started in various places and parts of economies (real estate), but was kept at bay by QE programs. It will now accelerate to wash over our societies like a biblical plague.

The Automatic Earth started warning about this upcoming deflation wave many years ago. I am wondering if I should rerun some of the articles we posted over the past 8 years or so. I might just do that soon.

It is fine for people to say that since it hasn’t happened yet, we were wrong about this, but for us it was never, and is not now, about timing. If you think like an investor -or at least you think you do- timing may seem to be the most important thing in the world. But that’s just another narrow point of view.

When deflation takes its inevitable place center stage, it will wipe away so much wealth, be it real or virtual or plain zombie, that the timing issue will be irrelevant even retroactively. Whether the total sum of global QE measures is $22 trillion or $42 trillion, its deflation-driven demise will wipe out individuals, companies and nations alike at such a pace, people will wonder why they ever bothered with trying to get the timing right.

This may be hard to understand in today’s world where so many eyes are still focused on central banks and asset- and equity markets, on commodities and precious metals, on housing markets. In that regard, again, it is important to note that there have been no functioning markets for many years. Those eyes are focused on something that merely poses as a market.

For us this was clear years ago. It was never about the timing, it was always about the inevitability. Back in the day there were still lots of voices clamoring for – near-term or imminent – hyperinflation. Not so much now. We always left open the hyperinflation option, but far into the future, only after deflation was done wreaking its havoc. A havoc that will be so devastating you’ll feel silly for ever even thinking about hyperinflation.

Deflation will obliterate our economies as we know them. Imagine an economy for instance where next to no-one sells cars, or houses, or college educations, simply because next to no-one can afford any of it.

Where everything that today is bought on credit will no longer be bought, because the credit will be gone. Where homes are not worth more than the cardboard they’re made of, and still don’t sell.

Where ships won’t sail because letters of credit won’t be issued, where stores won’t open in the morning because they can’t afford their inventory even if it arrives in a nearby port.

As for today’s reality, the Chinese leadership has been eclipsed by its own ignorance about economic systems, the limits of their control over them, and the overall hubris they live in on a daily basis. These people were educated in the 1960s and 70s China of Mao and Deng Xiaoping. In the same air of omnipotence that today betrays all central bankers. Why try to understand the world if you’re the one who shapes it?!

It was obvious this moment would arrive in Beijing as soon as the one millionth empty apartment was counted. There are some 60 million ’empties’ now, a number equal to half the total US housing contingent.

Beijing then heavily promoted the stock market for its citizens, as a way to hide the real estate slump. All the while, it kept the dollar peg going. And now all this is gone. And all that’s left is devaluation. As Bill Pesek put it: “China Adds a Chainsaw to Its Juggling Act”.

Ostensibly to improve the country’s trade position, for lack of a better word. Whether that will work is a huge question. For one thing, the potential increase in capital flight may turn out to be a bigger problem than the devaluation is a solution.

Moreover, one of the main reasons to devalue one’s currency is the idea that then people will start buying your stuff again. But in today’s deflationary predicament, one of the main failures of mainstream economics pops up its ugly head: the refusal to see that many people have little or nothing left to spend.

This as opposed to economists’ theories that people must be sitting on huge savings whenever they don’t spend “what they should”. Ignoring the importance of personal debt levels plays a major part in this. Any which way you define it, the result is a drag on the velocity of money in either a particular economy, or, as we are increasingly witnessing, a major spending slowdown in the entire global economy.

Seen in that light, what good could a 1.9% devaluation (or even a, what is it, super-cubed 5% one, now?!) possibly do when China producer prices fell for the 40th straight month, exports were down 8.3% in July, and cars sell at 30% discounts? Those numbers indicate a fast and furious reduction in spending.

Which in turn lowers the velocity of money in an economy. If money doesn’t move, an economy can’t keep going. If money velocity slows down considerably, so does the entire economy, its GDP, job creation, everything.

This of course is the moment to, once again, point out that we at the Automatic Earth define deflation differently from most. Inflation/deflation is not rising/falling prices, but money and credit supply relative to available good and services, and that, multiplied by the velocity of money.

When this whole debate took off, even before Lehman, there were only a few people I can remember who emphasized the role of deflation the way we did: Steve Keen, Mike Mish Shedlock and Bob Prechter.

And Mish doesn’t even seem think the velocity of money is a big factor, if only because it is hard to quantify. We do though. Steve is a good friend, he’s the very future of economics, and a much smarter man than I am, but still, last time I looked, stumbling over the inflation equals rising prices issue (note to self: bring that up next time we meet). Prechter gets it, but believes in abiotic oil, as Nicole just pointed out from across the other room.

So yeah, we’re sticking out our necks on this one, but after 8+ years of thinking about it, we’re more sure than ever that we must insist. Rising prices are not the same as inflation, and falling prices are but a lagging effect of deflation.

Spending stops when people are maxed out and dead broke. And then prices drop, because no-one can afford anything anymore.

We’ve had a great deal of inflation in the past decade or two, like in US housing. We still have some, for instance in global stock markets and Canada and Australia housing. But these things are nothing but small pockets, where spending persists for a while longer.

Problem is, those pockets pale in comparison to diving -consumer- spending in the US, China, Europe, Japan. Spending that wouldn’t even exist anymore if not for QE, ZIRP and cheap credit.

The yuan devaluation tells us the era of cheap credit is now over. The first major central bank in the world has conceded defeat and acknowledged the limits to its alleged omnipotence.

It always only took one. And then nothing would stand in the way of the biblical plague. It was never a question. Only the timing was. And the timing was always irrelevant.

Aug 022015
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DPC Heart of Chinatown, San Francisco, after earthquake and fire 1906

Nicole Foss: Our consistent theme here at the Automatic Earth since its inception has been that we are facing a very powerful deflationary depression, following on from the bursting of an epic financial bubble. What we have witnessed in our three decades of expansion and inflation is nothing short of a monetary supernova, and that period has been the just culmination of a much larger upward trend going back many decades at least. We have lived through a credit hyper-expansion for the record books, with an unprecedented generation of excess claims to underlying real wealth. In doing so we have created the largest financial departure from reality in human history. 

Bubbles are not new – humanity has experienced them periodically going all the way back to antiquity – but the novel aspect of this one, apart from its scale, is its occurrence at a point when we have reached or are reaching so many limits on a global scale. The retrenchment we are about to experience as this bubble bursts is also set to be unprecedented, given that the scale of a bust is predictably proportionate to the scale of the excesses during the boom that precedes it. We have built an incredibly complex economic system, but despite its robust appearance it is over-extended, brittle and fragile after decades of fuelling its continued expansion by feeding on its own substance.

The Automatic Earth, December 2011: The lessons of the past are sadly never learned. Each time the optimism is highly contagious. In the larger episodes, it crescendos into euphoria, leading societies into a period of collective madness where risk is embraced and caution is thrown to the wind. Sky-high valuations are readily rationalized – it’s different here, it’s different this time. 

We come to believe that just this once there might be a free lunch, that we can have something for nothing. We throw ourselves into ponzi finance, chasing the mirage of speculative gains, often through highly questionable and outright fraudulent practices. Enron, Lehman Brothers, and recently MF Global, are but a few egregious examples of what has become an endemic phenomenon.

The increasing focus on chasing speculative profits parasitizes the real economy to a greater and greater extent over time. After all, why work hard for small profits in the real world, when profits on money chasing its own tail are so much greater for so little effort?

Who even notices the hollowing out of the real economy, or the conversion of large amounts of capital into waste, or the often pointless depletion of non-renewable resources, or the growing structural dependency trap, when there is so much short term material prosperity to pursue? 

In such times, the expansionary impulse drives the development of multiple engines of credit expansion. The reserve requirements for fractional reserve banking (already a ponzi scheme) are whittled away to almost nothing. Since the reserve requirement effectively determines the money supply multiplier effect, that multiplier becomes almost infinite.

The extension of credit through the shadow banking system removes the semblance of central bank control over monetary expansion. Securitization and financial innovation also create putative wealth from thin air, using underlying collateral to derive layers of additional illusory value. In this way, excess claims to underlying real wealth are created. The connection between the rapidly expanding virtual worth of the derivative instruments and the real value of the underlying collateral becomes ever more tenuous.

Shadow Banking and Phantom Wealth

Since 2011, in our desperate attempt to avoid the consequences of an imploding bubble, we doubled down on the doomed strategy of ponzi credit expansion. In doing so, we have only succeeded in digging ourselves into a deeper hole, and have done so on a massive scale. While the aggregate balance sheet of the world’s central banks grew exponentially from $3 trillion to $22 trillion over the last 15 years, the expansion in the shadow banking sector has been even more dramatic, and its role in fostering the overall credit hyper-expansion has become increasingly clear:

Shadow banks are that exploding growth segment of global finance capital that share the following characteristics: they are largely unregulated, they invest primarily in financial asset securities of various kinds (i.e. stocks, government and corporate junk bonds, foreign exchange, derivatives, etc.) instead of real asset investment (plant, equipment, software, etc.), they target high risk-high return opportunities based on asset price appreciation and volatility to realize financial capital gains, their investments are highly leveraged and debt driven, their investment targets are highly liquid financial markets worldwide that enable a quick entry, price appreciation, and subsequent just as quick short term profit extraction.

Their client base is predominantly composed of the global finance capital elite – i.e. the roughly 200,000 worldwide ultra and very high net worth individuals with net annual additional income from investment flows of $20 million or more—for whom they invest individually as well as for themselves as shadow bank institutions.

Shadow bank ‘forms’ include private equity firms, hedge funds, asset and wealth management companies, mutual funds, money market funds, investment banks, insurance companies, boutique banks, trust companies, real estate investment trusts – to note just a short list – as well as dozens of other forms and newly emerging initiatives like peer to peer lending networks, online investment funds, and the like.

Shadow banks have been estimated to have investable assets (i.e. relatively short term and liquid) of about $75 trillion globally as of year end 2014, a total that does not include revenue from ‘portfolio’ shadow-shadow banking. That is projected to exceed $100 trillion well before 2020.

The exponential growth of both central banks and shadow banking during the long global boom constitutes a gargantuan increase in the supply of money plus credit relative to available goods and services, which is inflation by definition. This huge supply of virtual wealth has acted to push up asset prices, creating a plethora of asset price bubbles and a cascade of malinvestment based on those price distortions. The explosive growth of shadow banking in particular, following the 2009 bottom, was accompanied by a return to extreme risk complacency and rock bottom interest rates, leading to a frantic search for investment returns in riskier and riskier places. 

Inherently risky emerging markets became a major focus during this time, and the search for outsized returns not only sought out risk, but actively increased it. Volatility provides the momentum that generates trading profits, but it also creates considerable instability. Given that finance is virtual, and that changes in the financial world therefore unfold far more quickly than the real economy can realistically adapt to, large influxes and exoduses of hot money looking for quick profits are very destablizing to target sectors of the real economy, and to entire countries. The phantom wealth generated by the shadow banking bonanza has both created and subsequently fed upon real world destruction:

What China, Argentina, Greece, Venezuela, and Ukraine all share in common is an ongoing struggle with global shadow bankers, who continue to destabilize their financial systems and drive their real economies, at different rates, toward recession and worse….

….Shadow banks and their finance capital elite clients make money when financial asset prices are volatile, i.e. when such prices rapidly rise or fall or both. It is thus in their direct interest to cause asset price volatility and instability—whether in provoking a rapid rise in government bonds rates (Greece), in contributing to the collapse in currencies (Venezuela, Argentina), or in IMF-enforced ‘firesales’ of companies (Ukraine).  Their strategy is to exacerbate, or even create, financial price inflation in the targeted market and financial instruments, be they stocks, junk bonds, real estate, foreign exchange, derivatives, etc. That same financial price instability, however, is what causes havoc with the real economies of countries—like those in southern Europe in recent years, in Asia in the late 1990s, Japan in early 1990s, and which led to the global financial crash of 2008-09 itself….

….Shadow banks generate profits from excess lending and debt creation, from financial speculation, and from creating financial asset bubbles that primarily benefit their wealthy investors….Shadow banks add little to the real economy or real economic growth.  And in the process of generating excess financial profits for themselves and their finance capital elite, they destabilize economies and can often lead to major financial asset collapses, general credit crunches and at times even credit crashes, that in turn lead to deep recessions and prolonged, difficult recoveries….

….Shadow banks are the preferred institutions of the global finance capital elite. They always work to the benefit of that elite, often at the direct expense of the real economy, including non-financial businesses, and always at the expense of working classes who never share in the capital gains but pay the price in slower economic growth and repeated financial-economic crashes.

Recovery? No, Endgame

Since 2009 we have collectively told ourselves that recovery was underway, and this became the mainstream received wisdom. Optimism made a substantial return, even though it was, for insiders, tinged with desperation, and was grounded in the catabolic consumption of peripheral economies. Fears of deflation, which had been widespread during 2008/2009, receded again, and once again deflationist commentators were ridiculed. Commentators returned to speaking of inflationary risks, as they always do after a long enough period of upward momentum, given humanity’s proclivity for extrapolating current trends forward, and relative inability to anticipate trend changes, however obvious they may be if one is paying attention.

The supposed recovery is a temporary fantasy – a smoke and mirrors game grounded in ponzi finance on steroids. The excess claims to underlying real wealth, created during the both the initial boom and the false recovery, are set to evaporate once the extent of our crisis of under-collateralization become evident, and that moment is rapidly approaching. The deflation which was always the obvious endgame of credit expansion, is now underway and picking up momentum. A gigantic pile of IOUs is set to be defaulted upon, and the resulting monetary contraction will slash demand for almost everything, not for lack of desire to purchase or consume, but for lack of ability to pay for the privilege. This will undercut price support for almost everything many years. 

As we wrote in 2011:

In the process of credit expansion, we borrow from the future through the creation of debt. Our focus on virtual wealth has very significant real world effects, as it distorts our decision-making in ways that guarantee bust will follow boom. We bring forward tomorrow’s demand to over-consume today, frantically building out productive capacity in order to satisfy that seemingly insatiable demand.

As money supply increase leads the development of productive capacity during this manic phase, increasing purchasing power chases limited supply and consumer prices rise. Increasing virtual wealth also drives up asset prices across the board, strengthening speculative feedback loops that inevitably strain the fabric of our societies, all too easily to the breaking point….

….Decades of inflation lie behind us. It is deflation – the contraction of the supply of money plus credit relative to available goods and services – that lies ahead….When a credit expansion reaches the point where the debt created can no longer be serviced by a hollowed-out real economy, and the marginal productivity of debt becomes negative, continued growth is no longer possible….

….The process of monetary contraction following a ponzi expansion is implosive because it involves the destruction of virtual value – the fairly abrupt realization that the emperor has no clothes….It is an economic seizure, and its effect is devastating. Credit in its myriad forms represents the vast majority of the money supply, and it is about to lose its money equivalency. This will leave only cash, and that cash will be extremely scarce. Aggravating the effect of crashing the money supply will be a substantial fall in the velocity of money, meaning that money will largely cease to circulate in the economy as people hang on to every penny they can get their hands on….

….Nothing moves in an economic depression. This is the polar opposite of the frenetic activity of the inflationary boom years. Instead of the orgy of consumption to which we have become accustomed, we will experience austerity on a scale we cannot yet imagine.

This is exactly what we are currently seeing places like Greece and Cyprus – the canaries in the coal mine. As much trouble as such places are currently in, however, this is still the thin edge of the wedge even for them. And for places as yet unaffected, the storm is rapidly approaching. Departures from reality can persist only so long as the illusions they are based on retain credibility:

Self-evidently, we are now in the cliff-diving phase, but unlike the bounce after the September 2008 financial crisis, there will be no rebound this time around. That is owing to two reasons. First, most of the world is at “peak debt”. That is, the ratio of total credit market debt to current national income ranges between 350% and 500% in every major economy; and that is the limit of what can be serviced even at today’s aberrantly low interest rates. As Milton Friedman famously observed, markets are ultimately not fooled by the money illusion. In this case, the illusion is that today’s sub-economic interest rates will last forever and that debt carrying capacity has been elevated accordingly. Not true.

Short-term interest rates may be temporarily and artificially pegged at the zero bound by central bankers, but at the end of the day debt carrying capacity is tethered by real economics and normalized costs of money and debt. Accordingly, the central banks are now pushing on a string.  The credit channel of monetary transmission is over and done. The only remaining effect of the residual level of money printing still underway is that ZIRP enables carry trade gamblers to drive financial asset prices ever higher, thereby setting up another thundering collapse of the financial bubbles being generated for the third time this century by the world’s central banks.

We are already witnessing the next phase of financial crisis, and the fear-based contagion is already spreading. However, as John Stuart Mill said in 1867, “Panics do not destroy capital; they merely reveal the extent to which it has been previously destroyed by its betrayal into hopelessly unproductive works.” A vast quantity of capital has been so betrayed during the era of monetary profligacy, mispricing and malinvestment that is now coming to an end, and the coming financial reckoning will reveal the extent of that destruction.

After the Commodity Blow-Off…

The monetary supernova sparked an orgy of consumption, fuelling an explosion of demand for commodities of all kinds and a frantic scramble to supply that demand. In the process, huge distortions were created from which considerable consequences will flow now that the blow-off phase is over:

The worldwide economic and industrial boom since the early 1990s was not indicative of sublime human progress or the break-out of a newly energetic market capitalism on a global basis. Instead, the approximate $50 trillion gain in the reported global GDP over the past two decades was an unhealthy and unsustainable economic deformation financed by a vast outpouring of fiat credit and false prices in the capital markets.

For that reason, the radical swings in commodity prices during the last two decades mark the path of a central bank generated macro-economic bubble, not merely the unique local supply and demand factors which pertain to crude oil, copper, iron ore, or the rest….What really happened is that the central bank instigated global macro-economic bubble ripped commodity pricing cycles out of their historical moorings, resulting in a one time eruption of price levels that had no relationship to sustainable supply and demand factors in the mines and petroleum patch. What materialized, instead, was an unprecedented one-time mismatch of commodity production and use that caused pricing abnormalities of gargantuan proportions.

The erstwhile prolonged frenzy of consumption has created the sense that demand for commodities would be eternally insatiable, but that perception is now being profoundly shaken. It has long been clear that commodity demand would fall enormously during the coming period of deflation and depression, but the illusion of perpetual expansion has been slow to release its grip.

In the summer of 2011 we wrote that commodities were peaking and offered a bearish prognosis in Et tu, Commodities?. At the time this was seen as being quite heretical, as contrarian forecasts at peaks always are. Fear of shortages was rampant, but fear causes market participants to bid up the price in advance of what the fundamentals would justify, opening the door to a major price readjustment, as we saw in 2008. At the time, we explained the nature of commodity tops and what inevitably follows:

As an expansion develops, one can generally expect increasing upward pressure on commodity prices, thanks to both demand stimulation and latterly the perception that prices can only continue to increase. The resulting crescendo of fear – of impending shortages –  is accompanied by the parabolic price rise typical of speculative bubbles, as momentum chasing creates a self-fulfilling prophecy. At the point where almost everyone with the capacity to do so has jumped on the bandwagon, and all agree that the upward trend is set in stone, a trend change is typically imminent. 

We find ourselves still near the peak of the largest credit bubble in history. As faith in many of the more spurious ‘asset’ classes devised by ‘financial innovation’ has been shaken, faith in the ever increasing value of commodities has strengthened. However, commodities are not immune to the effects of a shift from credit expansion to credit contraction, despite justifications for endless price rises, such as the apparently bottomly demand from China and the other BRIC countries. 

Every bubble is accompanied by the story that it is different this time, that this time prices are justified by fundamentals which can only propel prices ever upwards. It is never different this time, no matter what rationalizations exist for speculative fervour. BRIC demand only appears to be insatiable if we make our predictions solely by extrapolating past trends, but that approach leaves us blind to trend changes and therefore vulnerable to running off a cliff. Insatiable demand results from seemingly endless cheap credit, given that demand is not what one wants, but what one can pay for. When credit collapses, so will demand, and with it the justification for higher prices. 

While credit expansion (inflation) is a powerful driver of increasing prices, credit contraction (deflation) is a far more powerful driver of decreasing prices. Credit, having no substance, is subject to abrupt fear-driven disappearance. Confidence and liquidity are synonymous….As contraction picks up momentum, the loss of credit will rapidly lead to liquidity crunch, drastically undermining price support for almost everything. With purchasing power in sharp retreat, however, lower prices will not lead to greater affordability. Purchasing power typically falls faster than price under such circumstances, so that almost everything becomes less affordable even as prices fall.

At the time we called it a peak that would stand for a very long time.

There were commodity peaks across the board in 2011, and despite the supposed on-going recovery from that time, price declines have continued.

Charts: indexmundi.com/commodities

Notice that there was a virtually simultaneous price peak in every case. In some instances it was a secondary peak, following a top in 2008, and in others prices had gone beyond the 2008 levels. Only gold lagged in time, and not by much. This illustrates an important point that we have made before, the prices are not determined by the fundamentals of these industries, but by the ebb and flow of liquidity. Once a sector of the real economy has been thoroughly financialized, it is subject to the boom and bust dynamics of finance, and is no longer driven by it’s own fundamentals. Price swings of huge amplitude are possible in very short timeframes, as in 2008.

Tops in different asset classes can be remarkably co-incident. See for instance this graphic that we have shown before (thanks to Elliottwave.com), demonstrating the ‘All the Same Market” phenomenon with co-incident tops on the same day:

Of course the commodity narrative is also a story of movements in the US dollar. We have always maintained that the dollar was going to see a major rise in a deflationary environment, both as a result of demand for dollars to repay dollar denominated debt, and on a flight to safety into the reserve currency. This position was also contrarian and heretical. US dollar sentiment was extremely bearish in 2011, with the majority seeing only the previous trend and full expecting it to continue. Commentators were calling the dollar toilet paper. That is exactly what one would expect at a bottom. 

The dollar is now receiving additional upward propulsion from the Federal Reserve’s stated goal to raise interest rates, but this is almost certainly less of a factor than a flight to safety, which would occur even at lower rates if driven by sufficient fear. Since interest rates are a risk premium, low rates are a good indication that the asset in question is perceived to be a safe haven. As a flight to safety gets underway in earnest, we should see a flood of money into the USD in a climate of falling interest rates, perhaps even to the point of being marginally negative in nominal terms, at least temporarily. In a climate of extreme fear, investors will pay for the privilege of capital preservation, for so long as the illusion of it lasts. 

Emerging markets, which have collectively borrowed $4.5 trillion USD are going to experience a tremendous squeeze, aggravating the consequences of their bust phase.

Notice that the US dollar began its rise at the same time as commodities, denominated in dollars began to fall. The dollar is part of the all-the-same-markets phenomenon, in that is trend changes coincide with trend changes in other asset classes, but its movements occur in the opposite direction. There are many commentators who therefore regard falling commodity prices purely as a function of a rising dollar, but the situation is not so simple. Correlation is not causation. All values fluctuate relative to one another, and none is a fixed value against which all else can be measured. The dollar is trading on its relatively safe haven status and is therefore increasing, but the commodity decline is by no means simply a dollar story. It is a story of the realization that we have grossly over-built productive and extractive capacity, but that realization is only just beginning to dawn four years after the peak:

Had stockmarkets fallen more than 40% from their peak, the national news bulletins and the mainstream papers would be full of headlines about collapse and calamity….But this is one of the great bear markets. It may seem less important because few people are directly invested in commodities. But in terms of people’s daily lives, commodity prices are very important indeed. The Arab spring started as a response to soaring food prices in North Africa. Rising and falling prices act as a tax rise/cut for western consumers. For commodity producing nations, falling prices mean loss export earnings, lost jobs and currency crises.

Declining Fortunes

Emerging markets and commodity companies are caught in a global economic downdraft, following on from their years of extraordinary boom and consequent over-investment. That misallocation of capital, compounded by the leverage involved, has created an enormous overhang of productive capacity. The sunk costs create an incentive to continue producing and generate at least some revenue, even as a supply glut is already causing prices to collapse. This is a toxic dynamic for a highly leveraged sector, leading to downward spiral of excess inventory and a pancaking debt pyramid:

In the case of the global mining industries, CapEx by the top 40 miners amounted to $18 billion in 2001. During the original boom cycle it soared to $42 billion by 2008, and then after a temporary pause during the financial crisis, reaccelerated once again, reaching a peak of $130 billion in 2013. Owing to the collapse of commodity prices as shown above, new projects and greenfield investments have pretty much ground to a halt in iron ore, met coal, copper and the other principal industrial materials, but there is a catch.

Namely, that big projects which were in the pipeline when commodity prices and profit margins began to roll-over in 2012, are being carried to completion owing to the sunk cost syndrome. This means that available, on-line capacity continues to soar. The poster child for that is the world’s largest iron ore complex at Port Hedland, Australia. The latter set another shipment record in June owing to still rising output in the vast network of iron mines it services——-a record notwithstanding the plunge of iron ore prices from a peak of $190 per ton in 2011 to $47 per ton a present.

In such a climate, commodity company valuations are very vulnerable. They have already fallen substantially, but considering the negative circumstances they face are far closer to their beginning than to their end, it seems highly unlikely that the decline will end any time soon. Talk of capitulation is extremely premature:

Sprott Asset Management’s Rick Rule is one of the smartest guys in the resource investing world — and one of the most reasonable — which has made his interviews of the past few years a little disconcerting. Along with the obligatory positive thoughts on the long-term value of gold and silver and the resulting bright future for the best precious metals miners, he always points out that the sector hasn’t yet endured a capitulation, where everyone just gives up and sells at any price, tanking prices and setting the stage for the next bull market.

Knowing that this kind of existential crisis is still out there has taken the fun out of buying ever-cheaper mining stocks, which of course has been Rule’s point. Just because something is cheap doesn’t mean it can’t get a lot cheaper before its bear market is done….

….Both metals are now below the production cost of most miners, whose shares are cratering on the prospect of some truly horrendous operating results in the coming year. Which sounds a lot like what Rule is describing.

Commodities priced below the cost of production for most producers is exactly what one would expect in a deflation, as a combination of supply glut and lack of purchasing power drastically undercut price support. Our long term forecast at TAE is for an undershoot proportionate to the scale of the preceding overshoot, meaning a price collapse at least down to the cost of the lowest cost producer. Under such circumstances, there would be no investment in the sector for many years – a long period of under-investment proportionate to the previous over-investment. The attempt to avoid the day of reckoning is only adding to the eventual pain:

And that’s where central bank enabled zombie finance comes in. Production cuts and capacity liquidations in virtually every materials sector are being drastically delayed by the continuing availability of cheap finance. So what “extend and pretend” really means is that prices and margins will be driven even lower than would otherwise be the case in the face of excess capacity. Stated differently, the correlate of zombie finance is flattened profits for an unusually prolonged period of time.

Here’s the thing. During the central bank driven doubled-pumped boom, profits margins rose to historically unprecedented levels because scarcity rents were being captured by producers during most of the past 15 years. Now comes the era of gluts and unrents. The casino is most definitely priced as if scarcity rents were a permanent fixture of economic life——when they were actually a freakish consequence of the central bankers’ reign of bubble finance.

Vulnerable Commodity Exporters

Commodity exporting nations, which were insulated from the effects of the 2008 financial crisis by virtue of their ability to export into a huge commodity boom, are indeed feeling the impact of the trend change in commodity prices. All are uniquely vulnerable now. Not only are their export earnings falling and their currencies weakening substantially, but they and their industries had typically invested heavily in their own productive capacity, often with borrowed money. These leveraged investments now represent a substantial risk during this next phase of financial crisis. Canada, Australia, New Zealand, are all experiencing difficulties:

Known as the Kiwi, Aussie, and Loonie, respectively, all three have tumbled to six-year lows in recent sessions, with year-to-date losses of 10-15%. “Despite the fact that they have already fallen a long way, we expect them to weaken further,” said Capital Economists in a recent note. The three nations are large producers of commodities: energy is Canada’s top export, iron ore for Australia and dairy for New Zealand. Prices for all three commodities have declined significantly over the past year, worsening each country’s terms of trade and causing major currency adjustments.

South Africa and Brazil are similarly affected:

Brazil’s real plummeted to a 12-year low of 3.34 to the dollar, reflecting the country’s heavy reliance on exports of iron ore and other raw materials to China. The devaluation tightens the noose on Brazilian companies saddled with $188bn in dollar debt taken out during the glory days of the commodity boom.

Complacency has been rife in these ‘lucky countries’ which have tended to perceive natural limits as someone else’s problem and to regard themselves as impervious to systemic shocks:

This colossal collapse in wealth is symptomatic of the wider economic problem now facing Australia, which for years has been known as the lucky country due to its preponderance in natural resources such as iron ore, coal and gold. During the boom years of the so-called commodities “super cycle” when China couldn’t buy enough of everything that Australia dug out of the ground, the country’s economy resembled oil-rich Saudi Arabia….

….While the rest of the world suffered from the aftermath of the global financial crisis, Australia’s economy – closely tied to China – appeared impervious, with full employment and a healthy trade surplus. However, a collapse in iron ore and coal prices coupled with the impact of large international mining companies slashing investment has exposed Australia’s true vulnerability. Just like Saudi Arabia, which is now burning its foreign reserves to compensate for falling oil prices, Australia faces a collapse in export revenue.

The greater the extent to which an exporting economy has placed all its eggs in one basket, the greater the vulnerability of its economy:

Australia’s export base has narrowed to levels approaching that of a “banana republic,” a former government adviser says, raising the specter of the country’s economic nadir almost 30 years ago.The concentration of shipments abroad is at the highest level in more than 50 years, according to Andrew Charlton, who counselled former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd on economic policy. The nation’s budget is “hostage” to global iron ore prices, with a $10 drop taking up to A$10 billion from forecast revenue, he said. The global iron ore price has dropped more than $12 in the past month, further exposing Australia’s lack of export alternatives….

….”Even some low-income countries like Nepal, Kenya, and Tanzania have greater export diversity than Australia.” His analysis again raises the question of what Australia will fall back on as the resources tide recedes. Exports have gone backwards as a proportion of the economy over the last 15 years in almost every non-resources industry, and services are now too small to offset mining.

Australia’s national business model has for a long time been ‘dig it up and sell it to China as quickly as possible’, but the success of the mining sector in its heyday caused a large appreciation of the currency (the Dutch Disease), which in turn damaged the international competitiveness of the country’s manufacturing base. Manufacturing was increasingly off-shored, hence the inability to revive it now that the currency is falling. Add to that the fact the global trade takes a major hit in times of economic depression, and it is obvious that alternative exports will struggle to pick up pace. In addition, so much of the focus of the domestic economy has come to centre around real estate during the development of its gigantic property bubble, that interest in out-sized profits from property speculation have easily outweighed interest in the normal profits one could expect from re-establishing manufacturing:

“Australian governments have been operating on the assumption that, once the mining boom passed, low interest rates and a falling dollar would be enough to bring the non-resource sectors dancing out of their graves,” Charlton, now director of consultancy AlphaBeta, said in a research report. “Unfortunately, no such resurrection is occurring.” “Australia watched idly as the rust-belt manufacturing suburbs around Sydney and Melbourne were transformed from red-brick factories into red-hot real estate,” he said.

Even erstwhile ‘rock-star economies’ are feeling the pressure to cut interest rates, in the vain hope that beggar-thy-neighbour currency devaluations will be beneficial:

Yesterday, the Reserve Bank of New Zealand slashed borrowing costs for the second time in six weeks even as housing prices continue to skyrocket. A day earlier, its counterpart across the Tasman Sea (already wrestling with an even bigger property bubble of its own) said a third cut this year is “on the table.”

Just one year ago, it seemed unthinkable that officials in Wellington and Sydney, more typically known for their hawkishness and stubborn independence, would join the global race toward zero. But with commodity prices sliding, China slowing and governments reluctant to adopt bold reforms, jittery markets are demanding ever-bigger gestures from central banks. Even those presiding over stable growth feel the need to placate hedge funds, lest asset markets falter. When this dynamic overtakes countries such as New Zealand (growing 2.6%) and Australia (2.3%), it’s hard not to conclude that ultra-low rates will be the global norm for a long, long time.

Contagious instability is spreading from the periphery towards the centre, threatening to convulse the financial world again, with considerable knock-on consequences in the real world:

Less than a decade after a housing/derivatives bubble nearly wiped out the global financial system, a new and much bigger commodities/derivatives bubble is threatening to finish the job. Raw materials are tanking as capital pours out of the most heavily-impacted countries and into anything that looks like a reasonable hiding place. So the dollar is up, Swiss and German bond yields are negative, and fine art is through the roof.

Now emerging market turmoil is spreading to the developed world and the conventional wisdom is shifting from a future of gradual interest rate normalization amid a return to steady growth, to zero or negative rates as far as the eye can see….Indeed, the major monetary powers that are easing — Europe, Japan, Australia and New Zealand — have all suggested rates may stay low almost indefinitely. Those angling to return to normalcy, meanwhile — the Federal Reserve and Bank of England — are pledging to move very slowly. Even nations with rising inflation problems, like India, are hinting at more stimulus….

….So…the central banks will panic. Again. Countries that retain some control over their monetary systems will see their interest rates fall to zero and beyond, while those that don’t will be thrown into some kind of new age hyperinflationary depression. Not 2008 all over again; this is something much stranger.

Stranger indeed, and a far more powerful contractionary impulse than in 2008. While ultra-low rates are characteristic of the current stage, as we stand on the brink, they are not likely to persist into the coming strongly deflationary environment rife with risk. While perceived low risk states may be able to maintain low rates for a while, others will not be so lucky as credit spreads blow out to form self-fulfilling prophecies. In any case, rates may appear low only in nominal terms. In a contractionary environment, where the real rate is the nominal rate minus negative inflation, real interest rates will be high and rising. This will compound the burden imposed by decades of over-leverage, for both companies and countries, to an enormous extent. Indebted ‘lucky countries’ are not going to look so lucky in a few years time.

China – Not Just Another BRIC in the Wall

More than anything, the story of both the phantom recovery and the blow-off phase of the commodity boom, has been a story of China. The Chinese boom has quite simply been an unprecedented blow-out the like of which the world has never seen before: 

China has, for years now, become the engine of global growth. Its building sprees have kept afloat thousands of mines, its consumers have poured billions into the pockets of car manufacturers around the world, and its flush state-owned enterprises (SOEs) have become de facto bankers for energy, agricultural and other development in just about every country. China holds more U.S. Treasuries than any other nation outside the U.S. itself. It uses 46% of the world’s steel and 47% of the world’s copper. By 2010, its import- and export-oriented banks had surpassed the World Bank in lending to developed countries. In 2013, Chinese companies made $90-billion (U.S.) in non-financial overseas investments.

If China catches a cold, the rest of the world won’t be sneezing – it will be headed for the emergency room.

To put China’s construction bonanza in perspective, the country used more cement in 3 years than the USA used in the entire 20th century:

To get a feel for the pace of the development, look at Shanghai’s financial district in 1987 and again in 2013:

The setting is Shanghai’s financial district of Pudong, dominated by the Oriental Pearl Tower at left, and the new 125-story Shanghai Tower, China’s tallest building and the world’s second tallest skyscraper, at 632 meters (2,073 ft) high, scheduled to finish by the end of 2014. Shanghai, the largest city by population in the world, has been growing at a rate of about 10% a year the past 20 years, and now is home to 23.5 million people — nearly double what it was back in 1987.

Photos: Reuters/Stringer, Carlos Barria

Or look into China’s ghost cities, fully equipped with everything, except people:

China’s infrastructure build-out has to be seen to be believed. Fuelled by an exceptional level of corruption in the state-owned enterprise sector, a lack of feedback as to what is and is not a productive investment, perverse incentives for local government to push development and a huge expansion of credit and debt, the boom has created a society of extreme inequality and increasing social pressures:

The richest 70 members of China’s legislature added more to their wealth last year than the combined net worth of all 535 members of the U.S. Congress, the president and his Cabinet, and the nine Supreme Court justices. The net worth of the 70 richest delegates in China’s National People’s Congress, which opens its annual session on March 5, rose to 565.8 billion yuan ($89.8 billion) in 2011, a gain of $11.5 billion from 2010, according to figures from the Hurun Report, which tracks the country’s wealthy. That compares to the $7.5 billion net worth of all 660 top officials in the three branches of the U.S. government.

The income gain by NPC members reflects the imbalances in economic growth in China, where per capita annual income in 2010 was $2,425, less than in Belarus and a fraction of the $37,527 in the U.S. The disparity points to the challenges that China’s new generation of leaders, to be named this year, faces in countering a rise in social unrest fuelled by illegal land grabs and corruption. “It is extraordinary to see this degree of a marriage of wealth and politics,” said Kenneth Lieberthal, director of the John L. Thornton China Center at Washington’s Brookings Institution. “It certainly lends vivid texture to the widespread complaints in China about an extreme inequality of wealth in the country now.”….

….Rupert Hoogewerf, chairman and chief researcher for the Hurun Report, estimates that for every Chinese billionaire the company discovers for its list, there is another one it misses, meaning the gap between the wealth of China’s NPC and the U.S. Congress may be greater still. “The prevalence of billionaires in the NPC shows the cozy relationship between the wealthy and the Communist Party,” said Bruce Jacobs, a professor of Asian languages and studies at Monash University in Melbourne, Australia. “In all levels of the system there seem to be local officials in cahoots with entrepreneurs, enriching themselves, and this has led to a lot of the demonstrations.”


China built like there was no tomorrow, thereby guaranteeing that there will not be for the country in its current form. The raw materials demand was simply staggering:

The torrid demand for commodities during this second wave resulted in part from the need to feed cement, steel, copper, aluminum and hydrocarbons into the maw of China’s massive infrastructure, high rise apartment and commercial building projects and similar construction booms in other emerging market economies. And on top of that was another whole layer of demand for the raw materials needed to build the ships, earthmovers, mining machinery, refineries, power plants and steel furnaces and mills that were directly embodied in the capital spending spree.

Stated differently, the torrid demand for construction steel in China indirectly led to demand for more iron ore bulk carriers, which in turn required more plate steel to supply China’s shipyards which were given the contracts to build them. In short, a capital spending boom creates a self-feeding chain of materials demand——especially when its fuelled by cheap capital costs and the economically false rates of return embedded in long-lived capital assets funded by it.

While it is often referred to as an economic miracle, it will prove to be less of a dream and more of a nightmare as the credit hyper-expansion upon which it rests unravels. In July 2012, we described the situation in Meet China’s New Leader : Pon Zi. As the description implies, the boom was built on a massive expansion of credit and debt:

In the case of China, for example, public and private credit outstanding at the end of 2007 amounted to just $7 trillion or about 150% of its GDP. During the next seven years—-owing principally to Beijing’s maniacal stimulus of domestic infrastructure investment designed to replace waning exports——China’s now completely unhinged credit machine generated new debt equal to triple the 2007 amount, thereby bringing credit outstanding to $28 trillion or nearly 300% of GDP at present….

….Taken together, the combination of unprecedented financial repression in developed market capital markets and the prodigious expansion of domestic business credit in China and the emerging markets elicited a tidal wave of capital investment unlike the world has ever witnessed. This put a renewed round of pressure on commodities that caused a second surge of prices which peaked in 2011-2013….

….And therein lies the origins of the deflationary wave now rocking the global commodity markets. Neither the developed market consumer borrowing binge nor the China/emerging market infrastructure and industrial investment spree arose from sustainable real world economics.

They were artifacts of what history will show to be a hideous monetary expansion that left the developed market world stranded at peak household debt and the emerging market world drowning in excess capacity to produce commodities and industrial goods.

Shadow banking, outside of the formal banking system in the form of trusts, “wealth management products” and foreign-currency borrowings, lies at the heart of the Chinese ponzi scheme, as in the rest of the world, only in China it operates at a completely different scale and speed of expansion than elsewhere: 

A study by JP Morgan Bank in 2012 estimated that the shadow banking sector in China grew from only several hundred billions of dollars in total assets under management in 2008, to more than $6 trillion by the end of 2012. In percentage terms, shadow banks assets accelerated 125% in just the second half of 2009, followed by another 75% growth in 2010. Shadow bank assets grew additional 35% and 33% in each of the two years, 2012-13. By 2013 the total had risen to more than $8 trillion, according to the research arm of Japan’s Nomura Securities company.  Shadow bank total assets rose another 14% and $1 trillion in 2014—to more than $9 trillion….

….At the center of shadow bank instability has been the so-called ‘Investment Trusts’.  According to McKinsey Research, Investment Trusts today account for between $1.6-$2.0 trillion (of the roughly $9 trillion) of all shadow bank assets in China. Trusts’ assets grew five-fold between 2010 and 2013.  Approximately 26% of the Trusts provided credit (and therefore generate debt) to local governments for infrastructure spending, another 29% to industrial and commercial enterprises, another 20% to real estate and financial institutions, and other 11% to investors in stock and bond markets. Local government debt in particular has risen by more than 70% in China since 2010. In other words, shadow bank credit has gone mostly to those sectors of China’s economy where debt has accelerated fastest and produced financial bubbles….

Fictitious, self-feeding private debt growth has become a dominant feature of the Chinese economy for far too long, causing enormous distortions in supply and demand for the pure purpose of continued credit expansion. There is no way that such a huge artificial stimulation of demand could fail to depress demand for almost everything in the years to come:

Zoomlion customers sometimes buy ten concrete mixers when they planned to initially by one or two. They have a perverse incentive to buy more than they need because these concrete trucks are purchased via finance packages supplied by Zoomlion. Then the machines can be garaged and used as collateral to borrow further funds from other lenders. Zoomlion continues to grow while cement sales have plunged. In May, cement output increased 4.3% YoY, down from 19.2% recorded last year.  Zoomlion’s new debt of $22.5B buys roughly 900,000 trucks which could produce enough concrete (at six loads a day) to build over thirty Great Pyramids of Giza a day.

Every sector is infected with these kinds of perverse business practices, steel traders used loans meant for steel projects to speculate in property and stocks, it has been common (apparently) for steel traders to secure loans to buy steel then use this same steel as collateral to borrow funds to invest in property development and the stock market. In many ways this is the steel version of the Zoomlion model.

Lending through the formal banking system is restricted by government’s vain attempts to restrict credit expansion:

During the past two years, 2013-2014, a struggle has been underway between China and its shadow banks….In spring 2013, China tried to slow the asset price bubbles by making loans more expensive, by raising general economy-wide interest rates.  That had unintended, counterproductive effects, however.  It quickly resulted in a credit crunch that slowed the entire economy almost.  Unable to get loans from China’s traditional banks, local governments attempting to continue the infrastructure boom borrowed even more from the shadow banks. Bubbles in housing and infrastructure grew further.

The growth of shadow banking as a means to evade such limits has been greatly enhanced as a result, illustrating the lack of control central governments actually exert of financial expansion and contraction. Where official restrictions exist, credit expansions will find a way to happen anyway, as they have throughout history

Local government is an extremely important player in the infrastructure boom, and consequently in the accumulation of debt, despite persistent central government attempts to rein them in :

Local governments in China take almost exclusive responsibility for urban infrastructure investments and financing. In 2011 China invested the equivalent of 12.5% of GDP in fixed assets for public utilities, infrastructure and facilities. More than 80% of this was sponsored by local governments and their entities. China’s Budget Law imposes strict restrictions on the borrowing powers of local governments. To circumvent this law, local governments have set up around 10,000 Local Government Financing Vehicles (LGFVs) to issue debt and finance infrastructure investment. Local government borrowing rose sharply to finance stimulus packages in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis. By the end of June 2013 the explicit debt load of local governments amounted to RMB 10.9 trillion; local government guaranteed debts, RMB 2.67 trillion; and other contingent debts, RMB 4.3 trillion, with the total around 33% of GDP.

The side-stepping of central government credit control mechanisms has turned local government into a major engine of shadow banking expansion, complete with implicit guarantees that reduce apparent risk despite the dubious nature of many infrastructure projects:

Beijing has tried to contain local-debt growth since at least 2010. But according to IMF estimates, local-government debt reached 36% of GDP in 2013, double its share of GDP in 2008, and will increase to 52% of GDP in 2019. Since the mid-1990s, after some local governments went on borrowing binges to build hotels and golf courses, the central government has banned city halls from selling bonds or borrowing directly from banks. Instead, localities borrow indirectly through so-called local-government-financing vehicles. These entities raise money for local governments to fund roads, subways, airports, housing sites and other projects. Local governments implicitly guarantee the debt, helping the financing firms borrow no matter whether projects make sense.

The exponential growth in the shadow banking in China has been so rapid that in a very few years it has begun to strain the country’s ability to service that debt:

Booming shadow banking growth has pushed China to the outer limits of its ability to keep its economy functioning smoothly. With total leverage in the Chinese economy now topping 280% of gross domestic product, it was clear that credit quality was deteriorating, Primavera Capital Group founder and chairman Fred Hu told delegates at a Fung Global Institute forum….Debt sustainability, the ability to service debts, is a key measure of solvency. Analysis by the McKinsey Global Institute earlier this year showed debt in the Chinese economy had roughly quadrupled between 2007 and the middle of last year to US$28 trillion, leaving it with a debt-to-GDP ratio more than twice that of crisis-wracked Greece.

Authorities recognize the existence of the shadow banking, but, as is the case in the rest of the world, completely fail to understand its significance in terms of systemic risk:

Liu Mingkang, the former chairman of the China Banking Regulatory Commission, told the same forum that time was running out for the government to reform the financial system and liberalise credit markets sufficiently to obviate the need for shadow banking, though he was sanguine on the systemic risks posed….He added that shadow banking must be regarded by policymakers only as a short-term mechanism through which time can be bought to help finance small and medium-sized private enterprises until wholesale reform can be completed to liberalise access to capital markets and bank credit.

Shadow banking is no temporary measure without consequences. It represents a massive build up in unrepayable debt that is already beginning to act as a millstone round the neck of the Chinese economy and will continue to do so for many years, as the momentum towards debt default and economic contraction picks up further. This will be aggravated by the nature of the private debt created during the expansion:

A good deal of that private debt explosion has also taken the form of dangerous short term debt that requires frequent ‘roll over’ and refinancing. By 2014 a third of all new debt created in China was ‘roll over’ refinancing of prior debt. That means that should interest rates rise too far or too fast, many businesses heavily indebted to shadow banks will not be able to roll over that debt, and will have to default. In turn, defaults could result in panic sell offs of financial securities, followed by a general ‘credit crunch’ that will slow the real economy still faster than even at present.

In addition, the debt to GDP ratio is actually far worse than it appears, since GDP is substantially overstated:

During the course of its mad scramble to become the world’s export factory and then its greatest infrastructure construction site, China’s expansion of domestic credit broke every historical record and has ultimately landed in the zone of pure financial madness. To wit, during the 14 years since the turn of the century China’s total debt outstanding–including its vast, opaque, wild west shadow banking system—soared from $1 trillion to $25 trillion, and from 1X GDP to upwards of 3X.

But these “leverage ratios” are actually far more dangerous and unstable than the pure numbers suggest because the denominator – national income or GDP – has been erected on an unsustainable frenzy of fixed asset investment. Accordingly, China’s so-called GDP of $9 trillion contains a huge component of one-time spending that will disappear in the years ahead, but which will leave behind enormous economic waste and monumental over-investment that will result in sub-economic returns and write-offs for years to come. Stated differently, China’s true total debt ratio is much higher than 3X currently reported due to the unsustainable bloat in its reported national income.

Nearly every year since 2008, in fact, fixed asset investment in public infrastructure, housing and domestic industry has amounted to nearly 50% of GDP. But that’s not just a case of extreme of growth enthusiasm, as the Wall Street bulls would have you believe. It’s actually indicative of an economy of 1.3 billion people who have gone mad digging, building, borrowing and speculating.

The leverage that lifted China so high during the boom will crush it without mercy during the bust. Already, declining marginal productivity of debt is a major problem, meaning that it takes more and more debt to generate ever smaller additions to the over-stated GDP:

China has now become an “economy that is actually worth a lot less than they pretend it’s worth,” Ms. Stevenson Yang says. By her estimate, 60 to 70% of new lending is now going to service old debt. In 2006, $1.20 in new credit could stoke $1 in economic growth. Today, it takes over $3. At that rate, it takes a greater than 20% annual expansion in credit to sustain China’s target 7.5% economic growth. “That just means that the problem itself is getting bigger,” said Jonathan Cornish, managing director for Asian operations at Fitch Ratings.

The bust is already underway despite doomed government attempts to prevent it:

China’s stocks tumbled, with the benchmark index falling the most since February 2007, amid concern a three-week rally sparked by unprecedented government intervention is unsustainable. The Shanghai Composite Index plunged 8.5% to 3,725.56 at the close, with 75 stocks dropping for each one that rose. PetroChina Co., long considered a target of state-linked market support funds, tumbled by a record 9.6%. The rout dented investor confidence from Hong Kong to Taiwan and Indonesia, helping send the MSCI Emerging Markets Index to a two-year low.

Monday’s retreat shattered the sense of calm that had fallen over mainland markets last week and raised questions over the viability of government efforts to prop up prices as the economy slows….“Investors are afraid the Chinese government will withdraw supporting measures from the market,” said Sam Chi Yung, a strategist at Delta Asia Securities Ltd. in Hong Kong. “Once those disappear, the market cannot support itself.”

Government action cannot prevent over-valued markets from crashing. It did not work in the 1930s, and it will not work now. Temporary postponement was all that intervention could achieve, and as always, that postponement came at a price, guaranteeing that the inevitable crash will be worse when it does occur. Central banks are not omnipotent. They may appear to be during an expansion when everything is going in a direction people are happy with, so no one asks difficult questions, but during a contraction that they cannot prevent, their powerlessness will become blindly obvious.

The Chinese government is currently attempting to conceal the extent of the accelerating contraction, but official figures are meaningless. Looking behind the scenes makes it clearer why the contagion from China is spreading a wave of deflationary deleveraging across so many sectors globally:

Much of the economic weakness rippling through emerging markets is “made in China”. A slump in Chinese investment growth has hammered global demand for commodities and some manufactured products, triggering a chain reaction that is depressing emerging market exports, deepening deflationary pressures and even sapping consumer demand….

….The magnitude of China’s investment slump this year is likely to have been much greater than official figures show. Beijing’s official monthly data series tracks “fixed asset investment” (FAI), which grew by 11.4% year on year in June — not the sort of figure that might be expected to elicit alarm. But FAI readings are inflated by several elements — such as sales of land and other assets — that do not add to the country’s productive capital stock. A cleaner measure of how much companies are investing in boosting their productive capacities — and therefore in their futures — is gross fixed capital formation (GFCF), which strips out extraneous items to capture capital goods deployment. By this yardstick, investment is tanking….When viewed from this perspective, China’s slumping demand for iron ore, copper, alumina and other commodity imports from Latin America, Africa and elsewhere is easier to comprehend.

….Local government financing vehicles (LGFVs) — key agents of infrastructure investment at the grassroots level — are reaping an average return on assets on infrastructure projects of around 3%, compared with an average interest rate on loans of around 7%.

Warnings regarding Chinese banking instability and the inevitability of a crash are being made, but remain relatively rare and generally go unheeded even in the face of considerable evidence.

In a country where the banks, even the largest, are not known for openness, Charlene Chu has warned since 2009 about a rapid expansion in lending that has seen something close to $15 trillion (£9.1 trillion) of credit created, fuelling a property and infrastructure boom that has no equal in history.

To say her warnings have been unusual is to underestimate quite how important her contributions have been. Chu has explained the creation – from a standing start just five years ago – of a shadow banking industry in China that today is responsible for as many loans in terms of volume as the country’s entire mainstream financial system. Speaking for the first time since her departure from Fitch last year, Chu, who has taken a new job at Autonomous, the respected independent research firm, says she remains adamant that a Chinese banking collapse of some description remains not just an outside chance, but a certainty. “The banking sector has extended $14 trillion to $15 trillion in the span of five years. There’s no way that we are not going to have massive problems in China,” she says.

The inevitable systemic banking crisis will be compounded in its impact by the inevitable contraction of the real economy, with China taking the lead in both areas. It will be a world of knock-on consequences and of cascading system failure. See for instance the excellent example of the Chinese steel industry, which is set not only to collapse domestically, but to propagate economic contraction globally.

Nowhere is this more evident than in China’s vastly overbuilt steel industry, where capacity has soared from about 100 million tons in 1995 to upwards of 1.2 billion tons today. Again, this 12X growth in less than two decades is not just red capitalism getting rambunctious; its actually an economically cancerous deformation that will eventually dislocate the entire global economy.  Stated differently, the 1 billion ton growth of China’s steel industry since 1995 represents 2X the entire capacity of the global steel industry at the time; 7X the size of Japan’s then world champion steel industry; and 10X the then size of the US industry.

Already, the evidence of a thundering break-down of China’s steel industry is gathering momentum. Capacity utilization has fallen from 95% in 2001 to 75% last year, and will eventually plunge toward 60%, resulting in upwards of a half billion tons of excess capacity. Likewise, even the manipulated and massaged financial results from China big steel companies have begin to sharply deteriorate. Profits have dropped from $80-100 billion RMB annually to 20 billion in 2013, and are now in the red; and the reported aggregate leverage ratio of the industry has soared to in excess of 70%.

But these are just mild intimations of what is coming. The hidden truth of the matter is that China would be lucky to have even 500 million tons of annual “sell-through” demand for steel to be used in production of cars, appliances, industrial machinery and for normal replacement cycles of long-lived capital assets like office towers, ships, shopping malls, highways, airports and rails.  Stated differently, upwards of 50% of the 800 million tons of steel produced by China in 2013 likely went into one-time demand from the frenzy in infrastructure spending.

Indeed, the deformations are so extreme that on the margin China’s steel industry has been chasing its own tail like some stumbling, fevered dragon. Thus, demand for plate steel to build dry bulk carriers has soared, but the underlying demand for new bulk carrier capacity was, ironically, driven by bloated demand for the iron ore needed to make the steel to build China’s empty apartments and office towers and unused airports, highways and rails.

In short, when the credit and building frenzy stops, China will be drowning in excess steel capacity and will try to export its way out— flooding the world with cheap steel. A trade crisis will soon ensue, and we will shortly have the kind of globalized import quota system that was imposed on Japan in the early 1980s. Needless to say, the latter may stabilize steel prices at levels far below current quotes, but it will also mean a drastic cutback in global steel production and iron ore demand.

And that gets to the core component of the deformation arising from central bank fueled credit expansion and the drastic worldwide repression of interest rates and cost of capital. The 12X expansion of China’s steel industry was accompanied by an even more fantastic expansion of iron ore production, processing, transportation, port and ocean shipping capacity.

This is only one industrial sector, but the picture painted applies to many others. The flawed state development model in China, like the Japanese counterpart which preceded it in the 1980s, led to credit explosion and consequent mal-investment in over-production on a grand scale. As with Japan, painful consequences will follow, but this time the impact will be truly global.

Caofeidian lies a three-hour drive east of Beijing, a Chinese industrial dream jutting into the sea. A decade ago, it was a pretty coast whose shallow waters were dotted with fishing vessels. Today, it’s a manufacturer’s paradise in the making, its eight-lane roads connecting sprawling factories to a vast port. Named after a former imperial concubine, it was a place of feverish fantasy, where borrowed money fuelled a vast reclamation effort to create 200 square kilometres of land and build something new….

….But the loans that allowed all that spending have just 50% odds of being paid back, says an independent research group that has spent years studying Caofeidian. The stakes are enormous. Caofeidian was a project of national importance for China, a “flagship,” according to Jon Chan Kung, chief researcher at Anbound, a Beijing think tank. “If this project fails, it proves that the major model driving China’s development has also failed.”

A New World Disorder

Our long global boom stands on the brink of a major reversal, the consequences of which will ricochet around the world as the credit pyramid pancakes. The endgame of a monetary supernova is credit implosion, and it does not play out as a slow squeeze. We are going to see some dramatic movements in the financial world, followed by a cascade of similarly dramatic events in the real economy, in the not too distant future. The process begins with the deflation that is already underway, with monetary contraction that leads to falling prices across the board, crushing companies and countries along the way and leading straight into economic depression. 

Deflation and depression are mutually reinforcing, meaning the downward spiral will continue for many years. We have been warning about this dynamic since 2008, and have already seen the liquidity crunch start to play out in many parts of the world. Once it hits critical mass, and it can do so very quickly, momentum will increase greatly. China is the biggest domino about to fall, and from a great height as well, threatening to flatten everything in its path on the way down. This is the beginning of a New World Disorder…

Nov 282014
 November 28, 2014  Posted by at 8:58 pm Finance Tagged with: , , , , , , , , , , ,  7 Responses »
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NPC Thanksgiving turkeys for the President Nov 26 1929

Thinking plummeting oil prices are good for the economy is a mistake. They instead, as I said only yesterday in The Price Of Oil Exposes The True State Of The Economy, point out how bad the global economy is doing. QE has been able to inflate stock prices way beyond anything remotely looking fundamental, but energy prices have now deflated instead of stocks. Something had to give at some point. Turns out, central banks weren’t able to inflate oil prices on top of everything else. Stocks and bonds are much easier to artificially inflate than commodities are.

The Fed and ECB and BOJ and PBoC may of course yet try to invest in oil, they’re easily crazy enough to try, but it will be too late even if they did. In that sense, one might argue that OPEC – or rather Saudi Arabia – has gifted us QE4, but the blessings of the ‘low oil price stimulus’ will of necessity be both mixed and short-lived. Because while the lower prices may free some money for consumers, not nearly all of the freed up ‘spending space’ will end up actually being spent. So in the end that’s a net loss as far as spending goes.

The ‘OPEC Q4′ may also keep some companies from going belly up for a while longer due to falling energy costs, but the flipside is many other companies will go bust because of the lower prices, first among them energy industry firms. Moreover, as we’re already seeing, those firms’ market values are certain to plummet. And, see yesterday’s essay linked above, many of eth really large investors, banks, equity funds et al are heavily invested in oil and gas and all that comes with it. And they are about to take some major hits as well. OPEC may have gifted us QE4, but it gave us another present at the same time: deflation in overdrive.

You can’t force people to spend, not if you’re a government, not if you’re a central bank. And if you try regardless, chances are you wind up scaring people into even less spending. That’s the perfect picture of Japan right there. There’s no such thing as central bank omnipotence, and this is where that shows maybe more than anywhere else. And if you can’t force people to spend, you can’t create growth either, so that myth is thrown out with the same bathwater in one fell swoop.

Some may say and think deflation is a good thing, but I say deflation kills economies and societies. Deflation is not about lower prices, it’s about lower spending. Which will down the line lead to lower prices, but then the damage has already been done, it’s just that nobody noticed, because everyone thinks inflation and deflation are about prices, and therefore looks exclusively at prices.

It’s like a parasite can live in your body for a long time before you show symptoms of being sick, but it’s very much there the whole time. A lower gas price may sound nice, but if you don’t understand why prices fall, you risk something like that monster from Alien popping up and out.

I had started writing this when I saw a few nicely fitting articles. First, at MarketWatch, they love the notion of the stimulus effects. They even think a ‘consumer-spending explosion’ is upon us. They’re not going to like what they see. That is, not when all the numbers have gone through their third revision in 6 months or so.

OPEC Has Ushered In QE4

Welcome to the new era of QE4. As if on cue, OPEC stepped in just as monetary policy (at least the Fed’s) has dried up. Central bankers have nothing on the oil cartel that did just what everyone expected, but has still managed to crush oil prices. Protest away about the 1% getting richer and how prior QE hasn’t trickled down to those who really need it, but an oil cartel is coming to the rescue of America and others in the world right now.

It’s hard to imagine a “more wide-reaching and effective stimulus measure than to lower the cost of gas at the pump for everyone globally,” says Alpari U.K.’s Joshua Mahoney. “For this reason, we are effectively entering the era of QE4, with motorists able to allocate more of their money towards luxury items, while firms are now able to lower costs of production thus impacting the bottom line and raising profits.”

The impact of that could be “bigger than anything that has come before,” says Mahoney, who expects that theory to be tested and proved, via sales on Black Friday and the holiday season overall. In short, a consumer-spending explosion as we race to the malls on a full tank of cheap gas. Tossing in his own two cents in the wake of that OPEC decision, legendary investor Jim Rogers says it’s a “fundamental positive for anybody who uses oil, who uses energy.” Just not great if you’re from Canada, Russia or Australia, he says. Or if you’re the ECB, fretting about price deflation. Or until it starts crushing shale producers.

Bloomberg, talking about Europe, has a less cheery tone.

Eurozone Inflation Slows as Draghi Tees Up QE Debate

Eurozone inflation slowed in November to match a five-year low, prodding the European Central Bank toward expanding its unprecedented stimulus program. Consumer prices rose 0.3% from a year earlier, the EU statistics office said today. Unemployment held at 11.5% in October [..] While the slowdown is partly related to a drop in oil prices, President Mario Draghi, who may unveil more pessimistic forecasts after a meeting of policy makers on Dec. 4, says he wants to raise inflation “as fast as possible.” [..]

“The only crumb of comfort for the ECB – and it is not much – is that November’s renewed drop in inflation was entirely due to an increased year-on-year drop in energy prices,” said Howard Archer at IHS. The data are “worrying news” for the central bank, he said. Data yesterday showed Spanish consumer prices dropped 0.5% this month from a year ago, matching the fastest rate of deflation since 2009. In Germany, Europe’s largest economy, inflation slowed to the weakest since February 2010. [..]

Bundesbank President Jens Weidmann, a long-running opponent to buying government bonds, today highlighted the positive consequence of low oil prices. “There’s a stimulant effect coming from the energy prices – it’s like a mini stimulus package,” he said in Berlin.

Sure, there’s a stimulant effect. But that’s not the only effect. While I’m happy to see Weidmann apparently willing to fight Draghi and his pixies over ECB QE programs, I would think he understands what the other effect is. And if he does, he should be far more worried than he lets on.

But then I stumbled upon a long special report by Gavin Jones for Reuters on Italy, and he does provide intelligent info on that other effect of plunging oil prices. Deflation. As I said, it eats societies alive. I cut two-thirds of the article, but there’s still plenty left to catch the heart of the topic. For anyone who doesn’t understand what deflation really is, or how it works, I think that is an excellent crash course.

Why Italy’s Stay-Home Shoppers Terrify The Eurozone

Italy is stuck in a rut of diminishing expectations. Numbed by years of wage freezes, and skeptical the government can improve their economic fortunes, Italians are hoarding what money they have and cutting back on basic purchases, from detergent to windows. Weak demand has led companies to lower prices in the hope of luring people back into shops. This summer, consumer prices in Italy fell on a year-on-year basis for the first time in a half-century ..

Falling prices eat into company profits and lead to pay cuts and job losses, further depressing demand. The result: Italy is being sucked into a deflationary spiral similar to the one that has afflicted Japan’s economy for much of the past two decades. That is the nightmare scenario that policymakers, led by European Central Bank chief Mario Draghi, are desperate to avoid.

The euro zone’s third-biggest economy is not alone. Deflation – or continuously falling consumer prices – is considered a risk for the whole currency bloc, and particularly countries on its southern rim. Prices have fallen for 20 months in Greece and five in Spain, for example. Both countries are suffering through deep cuts in salaries and state welfare. Yet Italy, a large economy with a huge public debt, is the country causing most worry. [..]

Like Japan, Italy has one of the world’s oldest and most rapidly aging populations – the kind of people who don’t spend. “It is young people who spend more and take risks,” says Sergio De Nardis, at thinktank Nomisma. In recent years, young people have been the hardest hit by layoffs, he says. Many have left the country to seek work elsewhere. People tend to spend more when they see a bright future. Italian confidence has steadily eroded over the past two decades … In Italy, as in Japan, the lack of economic growth has become chronic.

Underpinning economists’ worries is Italy’s biggest handicap: a huge national debt equal to 132% of national output and still growing. Rising prices make it easier for high-debt countries like Italy to pay the fixed interest rates on their bonds. And debt is usually measured as a proportion of national output, so when output grows, debt shrinks. Because output is measured in money, rising prices – inflation – boost output even if economic activity is stagnant, as in Italy. But if activity is stagnant and prices don’t rise, then the debt-to-output ratio will increase. [..]

Sebastiano Salzone, a diminutive 33-year-old from the poor southern region of Calabria, left with his wife five years ago to run the historic Cafe Fiume on Via Salaria, a traditionally busy shopping street near the center of Rome. Salzone was excited by the challenge. But after four years of grinding recession, his business is struggling to survive. “When I took over they warned me demand was weak and advised me not to raise prices. But now, I’m being forced to cut them,” he says. [..] Despite the lower prices, sales have dropped 40%, or 500 euros a day, in the last three years. [..]

For hard-pressed individuals, low and falling prices can seem a godsend; but low prices lead to business closures, lower wages and job cuts – a lethal spiral. Since Italy entered recession in 2008 it has lost 15% of its manufacturing capacity and more than 80,000 shops and businesses. Those that remain are slashing prices in a battle to survive.

Home fixtures maker Benedetto Iaquone says people are now only changing their windows when they fall apart. To hold onto his €500,000-a-year business, Iaquone says he is cutting prices. By doing so, he is helping fuel the chain of deflation from consumers to other companies.

In Italy’s largest supermarket chains, up to 40% of products are now sold below their recommended retail price, according to sector officials. “There is a constant erosion of our margins,” says Vege chief Santambrogio.

What Italy would look like after a decade of Japan-style deflation is grim to imagine. It is already among the world’s most sluggish economies, with youth unemployment at 43%. As a member of a currency bloc, Rome’s options are limited [..] Italy’s budget has to follow European Union rules.

Lasting deflation would force more companies out of business, reduce already stagnant wages and raise unemployment further [..] The inevitable rise in its public debt could eventually lead to a default and a forced exit from the euro.

Many in southern Europe say the EU should abandon its strict fiscal rules and invest heavily to create jobs. They also say Germany, the region’s strongest economy, should do more to push up its own wages and prices. Mediterranean countries need to price their products lower than Germany to make up for the fact that their goods – particularly engineered products such as cars – are less attractive. But with German inflation at a mere 0.5%, maintaining a decent price difference with Germany is forcing southern European countries into outright deflation.

Italy’s policymakers are trying to stop the drop. Prime Minister Matteo Renzi cut income tax in May by up to €80 a month for the country’s low earners. But so far the emergency measures have had little effect – partly because Italians don’t really believe in them. A survey by the Euromedia agency showed that, despite the €80 cut, 63% of Italians actually think taxes will rise in the medium-term. Early evidence suggests most Italians are saving the extra money in their paychecks. If so, it will be reminiscent of similar attempts to boost demand in Japan in the late 1990s. The Japanese hoarded the windfalls offered by the government rather than spending them.

That same process plays out, as we speak, in a lot more countries, both in Europe and in many other parts of the world: South America, Southeast Asia etc.

Deflation erodes societies, and it guts entire economies like so much fish. Deflation is already a given in Japan, and in most of not all of southern Europe. Where countries might have saved themselves if only they weren’t part of the eurozone.

If Italy had the lira or some other currency, it could devalue it by 20% or so and have a fighting chance. As things stand now, the only option is to keep going down and hope that another country with the same currency Italy has, i.e. Germany, finds some way to boost its own growth. And even if Germany would, at some point in the far future, what part of that would trickle down to Italy? So what’s Renzi’s answer? An €80 a month tax cut for people who paid few taxes to begin with.

Deflation is not lower prices. Deflation is people not spending, then stores lowering their prices because nobody’s buying, then companies firing their employees, and then going broke. Rinse and repeat. Less spending leads to lower prices leads to more unemployment leads to less spending power. If that is not clear, don’t worry; you’ll see so much of it you own’t be able to miss it.

And don’t think the US is immune. Most of the Black Friday and Christmas sales will be plastic, i.e. more debt, and more debt means less future spending power. Unless you have a smoothly growing economy, but that’s not going to happen when Europe, Japan and soon China will be in deflation.

And yes, oil at $50-60-70 a barrel will accelerate the process. But it won’t be the main underlying cause. Deflation was baked into the cake from the moment that large scale debt deleveraging became inevitable, and you can take any moment between the Reagan administration, which first started raising debt levels, to 2008 for that. And all the combined central bank stimulus measures will mean a whole lot more debt deleveraging on top of what there already was.

We’ll get back to this topic. A lot.

Jan 032014
 January 3, 2014  Posted by at 4:18 pm Finance Tagged with: , , ,  5 Responses »
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Marjory Collins Blowing horns on snowfree Bleecker Street on New Year’s Day January 1 1943

I’m not entirely sure that new year’s predictions are interesting enough to write about, certainly when they concern economic systems that are subject to some of the wildest and deepest manipulations in human history, with free markets a distant memory, but I’ll give it a shot, if only to give people the opportunity to vehemently disagree with me, always a barrel of fun.

I thought I’d start out with Nouriel Roubini, an erstwhile Dr Doom, who has mellowed to such an extent I suspect the influence of copious amounts of Xanax. Either that or he’s left behind his court jester role at the parties of the rich in Davos and Aspen, counting his money and waiting to be called up again. He played that role like a Shakespearean actor, making sure that many other people who had much more sensible things to say from 2007 onwards, never got the media attention they arguably might have warranted, and I see no reason to presume he wasn’t generously rewarded for it.

As I said, he’s much more mellow, just shy of bullish, though he smartly injects more bearish points into his message, to the point of seemingly contradicting himself, so at the end of the year, he was right either way. The title already gives away the new Nouriel:

Global economy set to grow faster in 2014, with less risk of sudden shocks

After a year of subpar 2.9% global growth, what does 2014 hold in store for the world economy? The good news is that economic performance will pick up modestly in both advanced economies and emerging markets.

The advanced economies, benefiting from a half-decade of painful private-sector deleveraging (households, banks, and non-financial firms), a smaller fiscal drag (with the exception of Japan), and maintenance of accommodative monetary policies, will grow at an annual pace closer to 1.9%. Moreover, so-called tail risks (low-probability, high-impact shocks) will be less salient in 2014.

The threat, for example, of a eurozone implosion, another government shutdown or debt-ceiling fight in the US, a hard landing in China, or a war between Israel and Iran over nuclear proliferation, will be far more subdued.

Still, most advanced economies (the US, the eurozone, Japan, the UK, Australia, and Canada) will barely reach potential growth, or will remain below it. Households, banks and some non-financial firms in most advanced economies remain saddled with high debt ratios, implying continued deleveraging.

Note: Roubini claims that “ … advanced economies, benefiting from a half-decade of painful private-sector deleveraging (households, banks, and non-financial firms) [..] will grow at an annual pace closer to 1.9%“, but also that “ Households, banks and some non-financial firms in most advanced economies remain saddled with high debt ratios, implying continued deleveraging.”

So economies have benefited from deleveraging, but now they’re going to get hurt by … deleveraging. It apparently wasn’t enough yet, even if they benefited. But now they will no longer benefit. Contradictory? It feels that way, but we can’t be sure. It’s like some spin doctor writes his material these days, or it’s, indeed, Xanax.

In a similar way, Roubini says first that “ … advanced economies [..] will grow at an annual pace closer to 1.9%“, and then that “ … the US, the eurozone, Japan, the UK, Australia, and Canada) will barely reach potential growth …

Again, that feels contradictory, but is it? See, I could presume when I read this that his notion of potential growth is much higher than 1.9%. That would take out the contradiction. But he doesn’t day they DON’T reach potential growth, they BARELY reach it, which means they do. What could have happened without deleveraging, he doesn’t say. Would they have gone beyond their potential? Is that even possible? We’ll never know. More predictions:

High budget deficits and public debt burdens will force governments to continue painful fiscal adjustment.

[..] … there is a looming risk of secular stagnation in many advanced economies … owing to the adverse effect on productivity growth of years of underinvestment in human and physical capital.

In the US, economic performance in 2014 will benefit from the shale energy revolution, improvement in the labour and housing markets and the “reshoring” of manufacturing.

The downside risks result from: political gridlock in Congress (particularly given the upcoming midterm election in November), which will continue to limit progress on long-term fiscal consolidation; a lack of clarity about the Federal Reserve’s planned exit from quantitative easing (QE) and zero policy rates; and regulatory uncertainties.

[..] … some emerging markets – namely, India, Indonesia, Brazil, Turkey, South Africa, Hungary, Ukraine, Argentina, and Venezuela – will remain fragile in 2014, owing to large external and fiscal deficits …

The better-performing emerging markets are those with fewer macroeconomic, policy and financial weaknesses: South Korea, the Philippines, Malaysia and other Asian industrial exporters; Poland and the Czech Republic in Europe; Chile, Colombia, Peru and Mexico in Latin America; Kenya, Rwanda and a few other economies in sub-Saharan Africa; and the Gulf oil-exporting countries.

Finally, China will maintain an annual growth rate above 7% in 2014.

As for his belief in shale, he’ll find out. The “revolution” may continue into 2015, but chances are costs will become prohibitive earlier. Making lists of emerging markets is a fun game, perhaps, but the potential downward effect on them from US tapering, and the China Squeeze, is very large. It’s one thing to make predictions based on more of the same conditions as the past few years, but every single country he names at both sides of his self-imposed divide has enormous lurking uncertainties hanging over its head. If and when bond yields and interest rates rise in the west, ugly ghosts may be found hiding in many a closet. Not just in emerging markets either.

Let’s move on to a man who doesn’t need any Xanax, Ambrose Evans-Pritchard, and who’s not afraid to go for a strong headline:

Great dollar rally of 2014 as Fukuyama’s History returns in tooth and claw

We enter the year of the all-conquering US dollar. As the global security system unravels – with echoes of 1914 – the premium on the world’s safe-haven currency must rise.

[US] growth is near “escape velocity” – at least for now – at a time when half of Europe is still trapped in semi-slump and China is trying to cool the world’s most dangerous credit boom.

As the Fed turns off the spigot of dollar liquidity, it will starve the world’s dysfunctional economy of $1 trillion a year of stimulus. This will occur through the quantity of money effect, hitting in a series of hammer blows, regardless of whether interest rates remain at zero. The Fed denies that this is “tightening”, and I have an ocean-front property to sell you in Sichuan. It is hard to imagine a strategic and economic setting more conducive to a blistering dollar rally, a process that will pick up speed as yields on 10-year US Treasuries break through 3%. [..]

A stronger dollar is something we’ve long talked about at TAE. And while there is no doubt it will come at some point, so far there have been too many too strong parties who didn’t want it. That may sound a bit too conspiratorial to you, but I’m sure it’s only business, and nothing personal. If the Fed raises QE instead of tapering, a move that could come if numbers grow sour, bets are off when it comes to timing.

In case you had forgotten, China has imposed an Air Defence Indentification Zone (ADIC) covering the Japanese-controlled Senkaku islands. [..] While American airlines comply, Japanese airlines fly through defiantly under orders from Japan’s leader Shinzo Abe. Mr Abe has upped the ante by visiting Tokyo’s Yasukuni Shrine – the burial place of war-time leader Tojo – in a gesture aimed at Beijing.

Asia’s two great powers are on a quasi-war footing already, one misjudgement away from a chain of events that would shatter all economic assumptions. It would leave America facing an invidious choice: either back Japan, or stand aloof and let the security structure of East Asia disintegrate. Trade this if you wish. The Dow Aerospace and Defense index (ITA), featuring the likes of Raytheon and Lockheed Martin, has risen 60% over the past year, compared with 29% for Wall Street’s S&P 500. [..]

Obviously, Ambrose likes his war games. Me, I’m weary of all the alleged powder kegs we’ve seen discussed in the past few years. Of course Abe might look to boost his image and ego when-not-if Abenomics falls flat on its face, but I think it’s more likely he’ll just be thrown out of office, and I don’t see 100+year-old hostile and violent sentiments easily return to Tokyo. Being nuked once a century should seem to suffice to make people cool down.

I doubt that we are safely out of the woods, let alone on the start of a fresh boom. How can it be if the global savings rate is still rising, expected to hit a fresh record of 25.5% this year? There is still a chronic lack of consumption.

As the Fed tightens under a hawkish Janet Yellen, a big chunk of the $4 trillion of foreign capital that has flowed into emerging markets since 2009 will come out again. It is fickle money, late to the party. [..]

It is a myth that emerging markets borrow only in their own currencies these days. External debt will reach $7.36 trillion in 2014, double 2006 levels (IMF data), mostly in dollars. Some $2 trillion is short-term. It must be rolled over continuously.

That global savings rate growth has deflation written all over it, as does the ongoing deleveraging. As Treasury yields rise, so will the dollar, and both make rolling over trillions in dollar denominated debt a lot more expensive. But will Yellen really – continue to – tighten when that happens? Is that in the US’ best interest?

Euroland will be hit on two fronts by Fed action. Bond yields will ratchet up, shackled to US Treasuries. Emerging market woes will ricochet into the eurozone. The benefits of US recovery will not leak out as generously as in past cycles. Dario Perkins from Lombard Street Research says the US is now more competitive than at any time since the Second World War. America is poised to meet its own consumption, its industries rebounding on cheap energy. Europe will have to generate its own stimulus this time. Don’t laugh.[..]

The ECB’s Mario Draghi has, of course, eliminated the acute tail-risk of sovereign defaults in Italy and Spain with his bond-buying ruse, though the German constitutional court has yet to rule on the scheme. [..] Credit to firms is still contracting at a rate of 3.7%, or 5.2% in Italy, 5.9% in Portugal and 13.5% in Spain. This is not deleveraging. The effects have been displaced onto public debt, made worse by near deflation across the South. [..]

There is just enough growth on offer this year – the ECB says 1% – to sustain the illusion of recovery. Those in control think they have licked the crisis, citing Club Med current account surpluses. Victims know this feat is mostly the result of crushing internal demand. [..]

The European elections in May will be an inflexion point. A eurosceptic landslide by Marine Le Pen’s Front National, Holland’s Freedom Party, Italy’s Cinque Stelle and Britain’s UKIP, among others, will puncture the sense of historic inevitability that drives the EU Project. [..]

The jobless rate was similar on both sides of the Atlantic in 2009. It is now at a five-year low of 7% in the US, and a near record 12.1% in Euroland. It is becoming harder to disguise this from Europe’s citizens. By the end of 2014 the macro-policy failure in Europe will be manifest.

Shrinking credit and shrinking consumption in Europe. How long will the US be able to pretend it’s doing fine under those conditions? Will Yellen tighten, as Draghi loosens? Can she even?

Nobody votes in EU elections. But they can be used to raise a hell of a racket. I don’t like the inclusion of my friend Beppe Grillo in that list of right wing parties, but I do hope there will be a loud anti-Brussels voice, because the once peacemaking union seriously risks turning into a place for streetfighting men. When you build yourself multi-billion euro new offices while in some member countries two-thirds of young people have been unemployed for years, what exactly would you expect to happen?

Over all else hangs the fate of China. The sino-bubble is galactic. Credit has grown from $9 trillion to $24 trillion since late 2008, as if adding the US and Japanese banking systems combined. The pace of loan growth – 100% of GDP over five years – is unprecedented in any major economy, eclipsing the great boom-bust dramas of the past century. [..]

China may try to cushion any hard-landing by driving down the yuan. The more that Mr Abe forces down the Japanese yen, the more likely that China will counter with its own devaluation to protect the margins of it manufacturing industry. We may be on the brink of another East Asian currency war, a replay of 1998 but this time on a much bigger scale and with China playing a full part.

If so, this will transmit an a further deflationary shock through the global system, catching the West sleeping with its defences against deflation already run down.

AEP again paints it as a China vs Japan, and I don’t think that should have prevalence. China has a major fight on its hands internally, between new money and old politics, a fight wobbly floating on a sea of questionable loans and investments, and that should take up all of its energy the next year and quite possibly beyond.

And Japan has things to do at home as well:

Japan consumer prices seen rising five times faster than wages

Japanese employers will fail in the next fiscal year to heed Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s goal of wage increases that outpace inflation, highlighting risks that the nation’s recovery will stall, surveys of economists show.

Labour cash earnings, the benchmark for wages, will increase 0.6% in the year starting April 1, according to the median forecast in a poll of 16 economists by Bloomberg News. Consumer prices will climb five times faster, increasing 3%, as Japan raises a sales tax for the first time since 1997, a separate Bloomberg survey shows.

Hey, I told you last September that sales tax rise was going to come back to haunt him:

How Japan Pretends To Fight Debt And Deflation, But Doesn’t

If you look through the numbers here, you see that the tax hike from 5% to 8% is supposed to bring in 3 times 2.7 trillion yen, or 8.1 trillion yen, about $81 billion. Abe wants to spend $50 billion of that on more stimulus, so net revenue is $31 billion. This is ostensibly “meant to rein in the government’s massive debt”. However, according to Wikipedia, Japan’s public debt was over 1,000 trillion yen, or $10.46 trillion, for the first time ever on June 30, 2013 (“twice the nation’s annual economic output”).

Which raises the question how on earth $30 billion can “rein in” a debt of $10.46 trillion. If I’m not mistaken, that comes to just 0.28%. Maybe something got lost in the translation of the term “rein in”, but even then. Note: the article calls it “the biggest effort in years by the world’s third-largest economy to contain [the] public debt”.

The sales tax raises prices five times faster than wages, and “reins in the government’s massive debt” by 0.28%. That’s a success story if ever I heard one. Way to go Shinzo. Attaboy Abe.

I want to close off prediction season by looking a bit more in detail in what has become my posterchild for how not to do things: Britain. While it has surprising growth numbers off late, with an exploding housing market, Britain too in fact floats wobbly on questionable credit (with its government adding insult to injury with plans like Funding for Lending). Still, with those growth numbers, artificial as they may be, it becomes very difficult not to let interest rates go up. And then it all will start to wobble for real:

Mortgage rise will plunge a million UK homeowners into ‘perilous debt’

More than a million homeowners will be at risk of defaulting on their mortgages and losing their properties in the wake of even a small rise in interest rates, a bombshell analysis reveals. Borrowers who have failed to pay down their mortgages when interest rates have been at record low levels now face being overwhelmed by “perilous levels of debt” when the inevitable hike comes. [..]

“When rates go up, the number in ‘debt peril’ could increase to anywhere between 1.1 million and two million, depending on the speed at which borrowing costs rise and the nature of the economic recovery.”

The warning comes as a survey carried out by Which? reveals that rather than paying off their debts, around 13 million people (25%) paid for their Christmas by borrowing. Overall, more than four in 10 (42%) used credit cards, loans or overdrafts to fund their spending over the festive period , which suggests that Britons have not shed their addiction to debt. [..]

The markets believe the base rate will increase to 3% by 2018, with what the Resolution Foundation describes as “huge social and human cost”. However, the thinktank warns that a hike of just 1 percentage point more than that, to 4% by 2018, would lead to 1.4 million homeowners facing severe financial pressure.

[.. … the levels of debt built up by families in the pre-crisis years are such that even relatively modest changes in incomes and borrowing cost assumptions produce significantly worse outcomes. [..] … one in six households are currently mortgaged to the hilt, servicing home loans that are at least four times the size of their annual salary, in further evidence of the intense vulnerability of many homeowners to rate hikes.

42% of Britons used credit cards, loans or overdrafts to pay for Christmas. Does that sound like a healthy economy to you? It’s no surprise, therefore, that retail is not doing well. People needed their credit cards to even buy hugely discounted items. The government may claim that the economy is great, but consumers are either MIA or AWOL. How can that make for a great economy? Consumers in Britain don’t account for 70% of GDP, as they do in the US, but still some 65%. And they are maxed out, borrowing, and deep in debt. Yeah, raise rates, and see what happens.

Debenhams boss say high street was ‘sea of red’ in run-up to Christmas

The chief executive of Debenhams has said the high street was a “sea of red” in the run-up to Christmas due to heavy discounting after the department store chain issued a major profits warning.

In an unscheduled trading update that confirms the tumultuous Christmas retail trading environment, Debenhams said profits will now be far lower than expected because its margins were hit by the company offering heavy discounts on clothing in December.

[CEO Michael Sharp] insisted there was not a “fundamental flaw” in Debenhams strategy. He blamed the profits warning on weak consumer confidence and heavy discounting among fashion retailers as they attempted to shift unsold winter clothing that had built-up because of the mild autumn. Mr Sharp also warned that a “final surge” in sales in the week before Christmas had not materialised. Debenhams now plans to cut prices by as much as 70% to sell clothing in January and February.

The profits warning from Debenhams could be the first of a handful from listed retailers given the widespread discounting in the run-up to Christmas. Neil Saunders, retail analyst at Conlumino, said: “It is likely that many will have had a disappointing season in terms of sales, but especially in terms of profitability.”

A “great economy” made up of maxed out consumers. 98 out of 100 of which don’t see a recovery. Well, they can still read about it in the papers, I guess. And they have no-one on their side either, because the unions get it as wrong as the government does.

Economic recovery felt by only one in 50 voters, TUC poll finds

Only one in 50 voters believes they are benefiting from the economic recovery and most expect the living standards crisis to continue in the new year, a study has found.

Almost half the 1,600 people polled for the TUC wanted services that had been cut to be restored, and one in five of those polled said they expected the gains of an economic recovery to be fairly shared across society. [..]

[TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady said:] “Voters accepted austerity as unpleasant medicine. But now they are realising that what they thought were the unpleasant side-effects are what the chancellor sees as a cure. Recovery seems to mean food banks, zero hours and pay cuts for the many, tax cuts and pay growth for the few at the top.” The union leader added that 2014 would be a crucial year, dominated by a single political question: whose growth?

“Do we want to go back to a business-as-usual version of the pre-crash economy, based on housing bubbles, an overmighty finance sector and increasing inequality as a growing proportion of the workforce fail to share in prosperity? “Or do we want to build a new, genuinely rebalanced economy that through investment, growth and active government aims for a high-skill, high-pay, high-productivity economy that shares out prosperity to all? I know which side unions are on.”

The unions want to talk about divvying up the growth. When I read things like “… a new, genuinely rebalanced economy that through investment, growth and active government aims for a high-skill, high-pay, high-productivity economy that shares out prosperity to all … “, I just want to run and hide and get very hammered.

What these unions should be actively doing, right now, is to talk about what happens to their members in case there is no growth, and/or when the economy shrinks. By ignoring that, they are sure to make things worse for the people who rely on them for support. Secure a minimum, make sure people are fed and warm, and then you can take it from there.

Anyway, so all in all, I do see some interesting elements in predictions, but I see a lot more plain blindness and manipulation as we go gently into this year. Of all I’ve read, I think perhaps Carmen Reinhart and Ken Rogoff come closest to reality in their new IMF (of all sources!) report:

IMF paper warns of ‘savings tax’ and mass write-offs as West’s debt hits 200-year high

Much of the Western world will require defaults, a savings tax and higher inflation to clear the way for recovery as debt levels reach a 200-year high, according to a new report by the International Monetary Fund.

The IMF working paper said debt burdens in developed nations have become extreme by any historical measure and will require a wave of haircuts, either negotiated 1930s-style write-offs or the standard mix of measures used by the IMF in its “toolkit” for emerging market blow-ups. “The size of the problem suggests that restructurings will be needed, for example, in the periphery of Europe, far beyond anything discussed in public to this point,” said the paper, by Harvard professors Carmen Reinhart and Kenneth Rogoff.

The paper said policy elites in the West are still clinging to the illusion that rich countries are different from poorer regions and can therefore chip away at their debts with a blend of austerity cuts, growth, and tinkering (“forbearance”). The presumption is that advanced economies “do not resort to such gimmicks” such as debt restructuring and repression, which would “give up hard-earned credibility” and throw the economy into a “vicious circle”.

But the paper says this mantra borders on “collective amnesia” of European and US history, and is built on “overly optimistic” assumptions that risk doing far more damage to credibility in the end. It is causing the crisis to drag on, blocking a lasting solution. “This denial has led to policies that in some cases risk exacerbating the final costs,” it said.

While use of debt pooling in the eurozone can reduce the need for restructuring or defaults, it comes at the cost of higher burdens for northern taxpayers. This could drag the EMU core states into a recession and aggravate their own debt and ageing crises. The clear implication of the IMF paper is that Germany and the creditor core would do better to bite the bullet on big write-offs immediately rather than buying time with creeping debt mutualisation.

The paper says the Western debt burden is now so big that rich states will need same tonic of debt haircuts, higher inflation and financial repression – defined as an “opaque tax on savers” – as used in countless IMF rescues for emerging markets. “The magnitude of the overall debt problem facing advanced economies today is difficult to overstate. The current central government debt in advanced economies is approaching a two-century high-water mark,” they said.

Most advanced states wrote off debt in the 1930s, though in different ways. First World War loans from the US were forgiven when the Hoover Moratorium expired in 1934, giving debt relief worth 24% of GDP to France, 22% to Britain and 19% to Italy. This occurred as part of a bigger shake-up following the collapse of the war reparations regime on Germany under the Versailles Treaty. The US itself imposed haircuts on its own creditors worth 16% of GDP in April 1933 when it abandoned the Gold Standard.

My own personal mantra has been for years now that the debt needs to be restructured, and that when a bank or a country ot industry claims it’s doing better, you always need to ask one question first: “What happened to the debt?” It is not happening, we’re still fighting debt with more debt, and hiding the existing (deleveraging hasn’t even really started yet). And when reality threatens to catch up with that, we throw on some more.

It’s not correct to state, as Reinhart and Rogoff do, that “This denial has led to policies that in some cases risk exacerbating the final costs”. That’s not a risk, that’s a certainty. And the costs will be borne by the usual suspects: you and me. The only thing we can do to mitigate the damage from this is to get out of the way, find a remote spot somewhere, and start figuring out ways not to be dependent on the economic system.

Our best and brightest minds should be on this like flies on honey, but they’re neither all that best nor bright: they’re busy making consumer gadgets, and designing high frequency trading systems for a zombified investment model. Looks like we’ll have to become our own best and brightest. Maybe we always were; we just didn’t know it yet.

Dec 292013
 December 29, 2013  Posted by at 2:55 pm Finance Tagged with: , , ,  11 Responses »
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National Photo Co. Roller Coaster Dips, Montgomery County, Maryland 1928

There is a crisis a-brewing in China that evolves around interest rates, with interbank rates as, let’s say, the initial center piece. The underlying cause of the crisis is that both official banks and the shadow banking system seek to escape the restrictions placed on the financial system by the government and the central People’s Bank of China (PBoC), who in essence want to set all interest rates and all policies. At the very moment the regulators recently decided to let markets set some interest rates, a move intended to cool things down, money market rates went up so fast that more action by the PBoC, after an initial refusal, was deemed necessary.

The PBoC has set the interest people can get on their deposits with banks so low they’re actually losing money. Many Chinese have bought newly built empty apartments as an investment, which can’t be rented out because that would make them no longer “new”, and hence less valuable. But people are still looking for other investment opportunities. And so are the banks, who are trying to prevent a mass outflow of deposits.

One major, relatively new, option banks offer are WMPs, or Wealth Management Products. And it all gets shady right off the bat here. Banks are not allowed to lend out money directly to real estate developers and local government financing platforms (LGFPs), which therefore pay higher interest rates. Trust companies, though, are free to lend to these parties. So what do the banks do? They (co-)create trust companies, or establish business deals with them, and repackage old loans, CDO-like, into WMPs, all of which sees them move very close to, if not enter, the shady territory shadow banking operates in.

Banks conduct complex reverse repurchase transactions, or repo’s, with the trust companies, which enables the latter to lend out to real estate and local governments, at 12+%. They move this entire process through WMPs, which allows the banks to offer their clients/investors a 6% interest on deposits, and divide the remaining 6+% between themselves and the trusts. Financial innovation of the kind that would make a Chinese Alan Greenspan proud.

But, you guessed it, there is a problem here (quite a few actually). Most importantly, there is a growing liquidity risk due to the different durations of WMPs and trust loans. Two thirds of WMPs have a three months or less duration, while durations of trust loans to real estate developers or local governments are often as long as a few years. Ergo, banks have a hard time recovering funds from trust loans quickly enough to repay maturing WMPs, which leads to a lack of capital. And the PBoC eventually caved in to pressure and conducted “short-term liquidity operations” (SLOs) to make sure banks had capital. That only helped up to a point: money market rates are still quite a bit higher than before. That has a lack of “trust” and “confidence” written all over it.

The essence, and this is something I haven’t really seen being discussed at all, is that what we’re looking at is a – pretty much ordinary – power struggle. The closest I saw anyone get was Patrick Chovanec, who was quoted at BI as saying:

“The investment led growth model has made it so it’s almost like the PBoC has ceded control of monetary policy to the shadow banks.”

The current overall understanding, both in Beijing and abroad, is still that the Chinese state, the Communist Party, owns the banks and dictates all policies, both through government offices and through the central People’s Bank of China. But what the government in China is learning in crash course fashion is that the “wealthier” a nation becomes, especially if that “wealth” is realized through large increases in credit/debt created in and sloshing through its economy, the harder it is to maintain not just control over the economy, but political control in general.

The shadow banking system makes up a huge chunk of the Chinese domestic economy (JPMorgan estimated it at $5.86 trillion, or 69% of GDP, earlier this year), and nobody really knows how risky and leveraged its “capital” is. The PBoC, from its own point of view, is right to put its foot on the break in order to lower the risk inherent in the system, but if that foot comes down too heavily, the entire economic machinery might seize up. Trying to lower the risk is a risky move. That’s a Catch 22 that greatly limits the real control Beijing has over China’s financial markets.

In order to achieve the growth it has seen recently, the leadership has relied heavily on the shadow banking system, and the credit it creates through leverage, to grease the wheels of the economy. Now that it wants to rein in that system, it finds that’s very hard to do. It wants to rein it in not just for political power reasons, but also because it fears the effects the high leverage levels and high risk in the “underground economy” can have on economical and social stability. The Chinese economy as a whole would likely start showing serious cracks if growth moves below 7% per year, and without shadow banking, it appears to have gotten practically impossible to maintain that growth rate.

It looks like Beijing has embarked its economy on a 7+% growth train, but neglected to include any brakes in the design of that train. When it tries to rein in the underground economy, it risks crumbling the walls of the Forbidden City, if you permit me the poetic licence, and thereby its own power, i.e. the political control of the country by the Communist Party.

Many party leaders are undoubtedly acutely aware of how this resembles what happened in the developed world, Europe, Japan, US, where once, like in China, the state owned the banks, but where now, effectively, the banks – financial institutions-, whether they are “official” or “shadow”, own the state (though we’re good at fooling ourselves that it’s not true, an illusion that serves just about everyone on all sides of the equation). Moreover, instead of fighting that development, most of the leaders will opt to jockey for position, to wiggle and scheme all they can in order to build and improve their own personal positions in this “new” world.

It is a universal truth that when you allow money to enter into politics, money will inevitable end up purchasing, and owning, the political system. This is no different in China than it is in the west. It’s no longer about actual power anymore (that’s largely been decided), but about individual politicians’ positions in the “new world”, about who gets most outside funding.

For a while longer, some, especially at the very top, will resist the new division of powers, simply because they feel, rightly or not, that that’s the best course of action for their own particular positions. And there lies a big risk. The men at very top may have less control over the economy than they think and/or desire, but they sure still control the army, and may well feel they have the right to use that army to defend their positions. That could lead China down a long and bloody road.

I can’t resist including a lengthy quote from an email Mish posted yesterday that made me laugh, sent to him by Michael Pettis, who like Patrick Chovanec works in China and brings an equally unique perspective. Although I’m sure this was in no way Pettis’s intention, the more I read of his mail, the more I was thinking: you can just about 1 on 1 replace “China” with “The US” here; same problems, same causes. The timing is off at times, for obvious reasons, and the US has no obvious manufacturing overcapacity, sort of for the same reasons: it’s further along in the whole process, but the role played by credit and leverage surely is eerily reminiscent, to the point where it gets to be outright funny.

Lines like

“China’s astonishing growth during the past three decades is partly the result of a system that subsidized growth with hidden transfers from the household sector.” or

“Debt matters, and the only time it can be safely ignored is when debt levels are so low, and the borrower is so credible, that it creates no financial distress costs and has a negligible impact on demand.” or

“The failure of many economists to recognize that wasted investment has a cost – even as they recognize that investment has been wasted – has caused them both to misunderstand the relationship between wealth creation and GDP and to understate the future impact of this overstated GDP.”

… they make me chuckle out loud when realizing this applies to the US every bit as much as it does to China.

Pettis on Debt, Malinvestments, Hidden Losses, and China’s GDP

It is widely acknowledged that perhaps the most important reason to change the Chinese growth model is its excessive reliance on debt to generate growth. Debt has soared in recent years, to the point where many economists simply look at credit growth in the current quarter in order to determine what GDP growth over the next few quarters are likely to be.

But as China deleverages, growth in demand must drop sharply. After all, if economic growth over the past several years has been goosed by rapid credit expansion, deleveraging must have the opposite effect. It is strange that economists who acknowledge that the current growth model is overly dependent on debt have failed to understand that its reversal will have the opposite impact. If it did not, it is hard to explain why anyone would consider debt to be a problem in the first place.

If China currently has wasted significant amounts of investment spending, it is clear that much of the accompanying bad debt has not been written down correctly. Bad loans are almost non-existent in the banking system – that is they have not been recognized in the form of reserves or write-downs.

But the failure to recognize the loss does not mean that the loss does not exist. The losses implicit in the bad loans must (and will) be written down over the future, either explicitly, in which case they will result in a direct deduction to GDP growth, or implicitly, in which case they will require implicit and hidden transfers from one part of the economy or another (usually the household sector) to cover the gap between the “real” cost of capital and the nominal (subsidized) cost of capital. This transfer must reduce future growth.

The point here is that if credit is a problem in China – something no one doubts – it must be a problem because of wasted investment that has yet to be recognized, otherwise it would have resulted in negative GDP growth today. Failure to recognize the investment losses will, of course, artificially boost GDP growth today, but it must also artificially reduce GDP growth tomorrow as the recognition of those losses is simply postponed, not eliminated. The failure of many economists to recognize that wasted investment has a cost – even as they recognize that investment has been wasted – has caused them both to misunderstand the relationship between wealth creation and GDP and to understate the future impact of this overstated GDP.

Debt matters, and the only time it can be safely ignored is when debt levels are so low, and the borrower is so credible, that it creates no financial distress costs and has a negligible impact on demand. Neither condition applies in China, and so any prediction that ignores debt is likely to be hopelessly muddled. In fact I would like to propose a simple rule. Any model that predicts China’s future GDP growth must include, if it is to be valid, a variable that reflects estimates of the amount of hidden losses buried in the banks’ balance sheets. If it does not, it cannot possibly be a valid model to describe China’s economy, and its predictions are useless.

China’s astonishing growth during the past three decades is partly the result of a system that subsidized growth with hidden transfers from the household sector. These transfers are at the root of the current imbalances, and once reversed, so that China can rebalance its economy towards healthier and more sustainable sources of demand, the very processes that turbocharged growth will no longer do so.

If growth has been healthy and sustainable, there would be no need for Beijing to change its growth model – in fact it would be foolish to do so. If growth has not been healthy and sustainable, this is almost certainly because it has been artificially propped up, and if the reforms are aimed at unwinding the mechanisms that artificially propped up growth, then subsequent growth rates must be substantially lower.

Low interest rates, low wages, an undervalued currency, nearly unlimited access to credit for state-owned enterprises, a relaxed attitude to environmental degradation, and other related conditions were both the source of China’s ferocious growth as well as of China’s unprecedented economic imbalances. Reversing these conditions will rebalance the economy, but will do so while lowering growth in the obverse way that these conditions had accelerated growth.

One of the most obvious places in which to see this is in excess capacity in a wide range of businesses. It is clear that Beijing recognizes the problem of excess capacity. Here is Xinhua on the subject: “Tackling excess capacity will be one of the top tasks on China’s economic agenda in 2014, as the issue becomes a major challenge to maintaining the pace and quality of economic growth”. “The Chinese economy still faces downward pressure next year,” the Central Economic Work Conference pointed out on Friday, citing the capacity issue weighing down some sectors as one of the major challenges facing the world’s second-largest economy.

It should be obvious that building excess manufacturing capacity, like building up inventory, is a way of propping up growth numbers today at the expense of tomorrow’s growth numbers. Closing down excess manufacturing capacity must be negative for growth in the same way that building it was positive.

These three conditions, which are the automatic consequences of the reform process – deleveraging, writing down unrecognized investment losses, and reversing policies that goosed growth rates – must lead to much slower growth. In theory these conditions can be counterbalanced by an explosion in productivity unleashed by the reforms.

But this is unlikely to be the case. For the net impact of the reforms on growth to leave China’s GDP growth unchanged, or even to accelerate, the amount of productivity that must be unleashed by the reforms is implausibly, even extraordinarily, high. What is more, the positive impact on productivity must emerge almost immediately. Longer-term productivity improvements – for example those generated by education, land, and hukou reforms, or reforms to the one-child policy, or a speedier and more efficient urbanization process – do not count.

I am so convinced that the implementing of these reforms must result in slower growth – if only because it is impossible to find a single relevant case in history in which the adjustment following a growth miracle did not include an unexpectedly sharp slowdown in growth – that I would propose that we can judge the forceful implementation of the reforms inversely with GDP growth. If China is able to impose an orderly adjustment quickly, its GDP growth rate will slow substantially for several years.

GDP growth rates of 7% or more, on the other hand, will suggest that credit is still rising too quickly and that China has otherwise been unable to implement the reforms, in which case China is likely to reach debt capacity constraints more quickly. Growth of 7% for the next few years, in other words, is almost prima facie evidence that China is not adjusting.

Yeah, the taper. I hear you, loud and clear. I can’t help thinking that what connects the taper (or QE in general) and the China squeeze is, more than anything else, the role each plays in the control a financial system seizes over a society and its political system. At least, since it hasn’t been settled yet, the Chinese can still hope for a voice in the battle for that control. Not that that is necessarily something to be envious of: these battles can be very nasty. But, then so are battles to seize it back once it’s been lost.

I don’t pretend to know how the battle over credit will run, or even end, in China. Other than to say that money is power. It’s all a matter of who ends up with most. Still, I’m not sure that 2014 will be a good year for overt absolute power, that looks a bit outdated. There’s a reason why real political control in the west is exerted from behind a curtain: it works better that way. And I’ve long said that visibility doesn’t rhyme with power. With that in mind, the Communist Party may have exhausted its options. But that doesn’t mean it’s ready to give up. Absolute power is a powerful drug.

Nicole will be teaching, along with Albert Bates, Marisha Auerbach and Christopher Nesbitt, on a Permaculture Design Certificate course in Belize in 2014. The course will be the 9th annual event held at Maya Mountain Research Farm between Feb 10-22nd. Click here for details and registration.

This article addresses just one of the many issues discussed in Nicole Foss’ new video presentation, Facing the Future, co-presented with Laurence Boomert and available from the Automatic Earth Store. Get your copy now, be much better prepared for 2014, and support The Automatic Earth in the process!