A number of people have argued over the past few days that Hurricane Harvey will NOT boost the US housing market. As if any such argument would or should be required. Hurricane Irma will not provide any such boost either. News about the ‘resurrection’ of New Orleans post-Katrina has pretty much dried up, but we know scores of people there never returned, in most cases because they couldn’t afford to.
And Katrina took place 12 years ago, well before the financial crisis. How do you think this will play out today? Houston is a rich city, but that doesn’t mean it’s full of rich people only. Most homeowners in the city and its surroundings have no flood insurance; they can’t afford it. But they still lost everything. So how will they rebuild?
Sure, the US has a National Flood Insurance Program, but who’s covered by it? Besides, the Program was already $24 billion in debt by 2014 largely due to hurricanes Katrina and Sandy. With total costs of Harvey estimated at $200 billion or more, and Irma threating to cause far more damage than that, where’s the money going to come from?
It took an actual fight just to push the first few billion dollars in emergency aid for Houston through Congress, with four Texan representatives voting against of all people. Who then will vote for half a trillion or so in aid? And even if they do, where would it come from?
Trump’s plans for an infrastructure fund were never going to be an easy sell in Washington, and every single penny he might have gotten for it would now have to go towards repairing existing roads and bridges, not updating them -necessary as that may be-, let alone new construction.
Towns, cities, states, they’re all maxed out as things are, with hugely underfunded pension obligations and crumbling infrastructure of their own. They’re going to come calling on the feds, but Washington is hitting its debt ceiling. All the numbers are stacked against any serious efforts at rebuilding whatever Harvey and Irma have blown to pieces or drowned.
As for individual Americans, two-thirds of them don’t have enough money to pay for a $500 emergency, let alone to rebuild a home. Most will have a very hard time lending from banks as well, because A) they’re already neck-deep in debt, and B) because the banks will get whacked too by Harvey and Irma. For one thing, people won’t pay the mortgage on a home they can’t afford to repair. Companies will go under. You get the picture.
There are thousands of graphs that tell the story of how American debt, government, financial and non-financial, household, has gutted the country. Let’s stick with some recent ones provided by Lance Roberts. Here’s how Americans have maintained the illusion of their standard of living. Lance’s comment:
This is why during the 80’s and 90’s, as the ease of credit permeated its way through the system, the standard of living seemingly rose in America even while economic growth rate slowed along with incomes. Therefore, as the gap between the “desired” living standard and disposable income expanded it led to a decrease in the personal savings rates and increase in leverage. It is a simple function of math. But the following chart shows why this has likely come to the inevitable conclusion, and why tax cuts and reforms are unlikely to spur higher rates of economic growth.
There’s no meat left on that bone. There isn’t even a bone left. There’s only a debt-ridden mirage of a bone. If you’re looking to define the country in bumper-sticker terms, that’s it. A debt-ridden mirage. Which can only wait until it’s relieved of its suffering. Irma may well do that. A second graph shows the relentless and pitiless consequences of building your society, your lives, your nation, on debt.
It may not look all that dramatic, but look again. Those are long-term trendlines, and they can’t just simply be reversed. And as debt grows, the economy deteriorates. It’s a double trendline, it’s as self-reinforcing as the way a hurricane forms.
Back to Harvey and Irma. Even with so many people uninsured, the insurance industry will still take a major hit on what actually is insured. The re-insurance field, Munich RE, Swiss RE et al, is also in deep trouble. Expect premiums to go through the ceiling. As your roof blows off.
We can go on listing all the reasons why, but fact is America is in no position to rebuild. Which is a direct consequence of the fact that the entire nation has been built on credit for decades now. Which in turn makes it extremely vulnerable and fragile. Please do understand that mechanism. Every single inch of the country is in debt. America has been able to build on debt, but it can’t rebuild on it too, precisely because of that.
There is no resilience and no redundancy left, there is no way to shift sufficient funds from one place to the other (the funds don’t exist). And the grand credit experiment is on its last legs, even with ultra low rates. Washington either can’t or won’t -depending on what affiliation representatives have- add another trillion+ dollars to its tally, state capitals are already reeling from their debt levels, and individuals, since they have much less access to creative accounting than politicians, can just forget about it all.
Not that all of this is necessarily bad: why would people be encouraged to build or buy homes in flood- and hurricane prone areas in the first place? Why is that government policy? Why is it accepted? Yes, developers and banks love it, because it makes them a quick buck, and then some, and the Fed loves it because it keeps adding to the money supply, but it has turned America into a de facto debt colony.
If you want to know what will happen to Houston and whatever part of Florida gets hit worst, think New Orleans/Katrina, but squared or cubed -thanks to the 2007/8 crisis.
Theodor Horydczak “Dome of US Capitol through trees at night” 1943
For the second time in a few weeks (see ‘End of Growth’ Sparks Wide Discontent), former British diplomat Alastair Crooke quotes me extensively, and I gladly return the favor. Crooke here attempts to list -some of- the difficulties Donald Trump will face in executing the -economic- measures he promised to take in his campaign. Crooke argues that, as I’ve indicated repeatedly, for instance in America is The Poisoned Chalice, the financial crisis that never ended may be one of his biggest problems.
Here, again, is Alastair Crooke:
We are plainly at a pivotal moment. President-Elect Trump wants to make dramatic changes in his nation’s course. His battle cry of wanting to make “America Great Again” evokes – and almost certainly is intended to evoke – the epic American economic expansions of the Nineteenth and Twentieth centuries.
Trump wants to reverse the off-shoring of American jobs; he wants to revive America’s manufacturing base; he wants to recast the terms of international trade; he wants growth; and he wants jobs in the U.S. – and he wants to turn America’s foreign policy around 180 degrees.
The run-down PIX Theatre sign reads “Vote Trump” on Main Street in Sleepy Eye, Minnesota. July 15, 2016. (Photo by Tony Webster Flickr)
It is an agenda that is, as it were, quite laudable. Many Americans want just this, and the transition in which we are presently in – dictated by the global elusiveness and search for growth (whatever is meant now by this term “growth”), clearly requires a different economic approach from that followed in recent decades.
As Raúl Ilargi Meijer has perceptively posited, greater self-reliance “is the future of the world, ‘post-growth’, and post-globalization. Every country, and every society, needs to focus on self-reliance, not as some idealistic luxury choice, but as a necessity. And that is not as bad or terrible as people would have you believe, and it’s not the end of the world … It is not an idealistic transition towards self-sufficiency, it’s simply and inevitably what’s left, once unfettered growth hits the skids. …
“Our entire world views and ‘philosophies’ are based on ever more and ever bigger and then some, and our entire economies are built upon it. That has already made us ignore the decline of our real markets for many years now. We focus on data about stock markets and the like, and ignore the demise of our respective heartlands, and flyover countries …
“Donald Trump looks very much like the ideal fit for this transition … What matters [here] is that he promises to bring back jobs to America, and that’s what the country needs … Not so they can then export their products, but to consume them at home, and sell them in the domestic market …There’s nothing wrong or negative with an American buying products made in America instead of in China.
“There’s nothing economically – let alone morally – wrong with people producing what they and their families and close neighbours themselves want, and need, without hauling it halfway around the world for a meagre profit. At least not for the man in the street. It’s not a threat to our ‘open societies’, as many claim. That openness does not depend on having things shipped to your stores over 1000s of miles, that you could have made yourselves, at a potentially huge benefit to your local economy. An ‘open society’ is a state of mind, be it collective or personal. It’s not something that’s for sale.”
A Great Wish
That’s Trump’s ostensible great wish, (it seems). It is not an unworthy one, but things have changed: America is no longer what it was in the Nineteenth or Twentieth centuries, neither in terms of untapped natural resources, nor societally. And nor is the rest of the world the same either.
Mr. Trump rather unfortunately may find that his chief task will not be the management of this Great Re-orientation, but more prosaically, fending off the headwinds which he will face as he hauls on the tiller of the economy.
In short, there is a real prospect that his ambitious economic “remake” may well be prematurely punctured by financial crisis.
These headwinds will not be of his making, and for the main part, they lie beyond human agency per se. They are structural, and they are multiple. They represent the accumulation of an earlier monetary doctrine which will fetter the President-elect into a small corner from which any chosen exit will carry adverse implications.
Ditto for anyone else trying to steer any ship of state in this contemporary global economy. Paradoxically – in an era moving toward greater self-sufficiency – what success Trump may have, however, will likely depend not on self-reliance so much as he would like.
For his foreign policy about turn, he will depend on finding common interest with Russian President Vladimir Putin (that should not be too hard) – and for the economic “about turn” – on Trump’s ability not to confront China, but to come to some modus vivendi with President Xi (less easy).
“Things are not what they were.” Complexity “theory” tells us that trying to repeat what worked earlier – in very different conditions – will likely not work if repeated later. In the Clinton era, for example, 85 percent of the U.S. population growth derived from the working-age population. The headwind that Trump will face is that, over the next eight years, 80 percent of the population growth will comprise 65+ year olds. And 65+ year olds are not a good engine of economic growth. This is not an uniquely American problem; it is a global trend too.
“The peak growth” (according to Econimica blog), “in the annual combined working age population (15-64 year/olds) among all the 35 wealthy OECD nations, China, Brazil, and Russia has collapsed since its 1981 peak. The annual growth in the working age population among these nations has fallen from +29 million a year to just +1 million in 2016 … but from here on, the working age population will be declining every year … These nations make up almost three quarters of all global demand for oil and exports in general. But their combined working age populations will shrink every year, from here on (surely for decades and perhaps far longer). Global demand for nearly everything is set to suffer.”
(FFR stands for Federal Funds Rate: i.e. the US key interest rate) Source: http://econimica.blogspot.it/2016/11/trump-lies-no-different-than-obama-or.html
And then there is China: It too is passing through a difficult “transition” from the old economy to an “innovative” one. It too, has an aging population and a debt problem (with a debt-to-gross domestic ratio reaching 247 percent). Trump argues that China deliberately holds down the value of its currency to gain unfair trade advantage, and he further suggests that he intends to confront the Chinese government on this key issue.
Again, Trump does have a point (many nations are managing their exchange rates precisely in order to try to “steal” a little bit extra growth from the diminished global pot). But as noted at Zerohedge, citing the analysis of One River Asset Management executive Eric Peters:
“What’s good for the US in this case [the rising dollar and interest rates in anticipation of ‘Trumponomics’], is not good for emerging markets (EMs). Emerging markets benefit from a weaker dollar, and you’re not going to get that. Emerging markets benefit from global capital flows moving in their direction and that’s not happening either. Back in February, emerging markets were in sharp decline, driven by (1) a strong dollar, (2) rising US interest rates, and (3) slowing Chinese growth. Then China spurred a massive credit stimulus, the Fed became wildly dovish, and the dollar declined sharply.
“Interest rates collapsed throughout the year. As the growing pool of dollar, euro and yen liquidity searched for a decent return, it headed to emerging markets. Trump has reignited the dollar rally, and his fiscal stimulus will force interest rates higher. This reversed everything. [the dollars are heading home]
“And to be sure, the Beijing boys don’t want to see material weakness ahead of next autumn’s Party Congress. But we’re currently near peak impulse from China’s Q1 stimulus.”
In short, Peters is saying that, with the appreciating dollar and rising interest rate environment, growth from emerging markets as a whole will falter, since emerging markets have effectively leveraged their economies to Chinese growth. It used to be the case that they were closely tied to U.S. growth, but it is now China which dominates the EMs’ trade flows [i.e. without China growth, the EMs languish]. The question is, can America reboot its growth whilst China and the EMs languish? It is another structural shift, whereas heretofore, it was vice versa: without U.S. growth, the EMs and China languished. Now it is the converse.
There are other structural changes of course which will make it harder for the industrially hollowed-out economies of the West to recuperate jobs off-shored earlier. Firstly, there has been a systemic shift of innovation and technology eastwards (often to a more skilled and better-educated workforce). This represents not only an economic event, but a redistribution of power too. In any case, technology in this new era is being more job destructive than creative.
In one sense, Trump’s economic plan to “get America working again” through massive debt-financed, infrastructure projects, harks back to the Reagan era, which was also a period in which the dollar was strong. But yet again, “things today are not what they were then.” Inflation then was at 13 percent, Interest rates were around 20 percent, and crucially, the U.S. debt to GDP ratio was a mere 35 percent (compared to today’s estimate of 71.8 percent or 104.5 percent with external debt included).
Then, as Jim Rickards has suggested, the strong dollar was deflationary (deliberately so), and interest rates had nowhere to go, but down. It was the beginning of the three decades’ bond boom, which finally seems to have come to an end, coincident with Trump’s election. Today, inflation has nowhere to go but up – as have interest rates – and the bond market, nowhere to go, but (perilously) down.
Growth and Jobs?
Can Trump then achieve growth and jobs through infrastructure expenditure? Well, “growth” is an ambiguous, shape-shifting term. The first chart shows both sides of the equation … the annual GDP growth and the annual federal debt incurred, spent, and (thus counted as part of the growth) to achieve the purported growth.
The second chart shows the annual GDP minus the annual growth in federal debt to achieve that “GDP growth.” In other words, unlike in the earlier Reagan times, more recently, the debt is producing no growth – but … well … just more debt, mostly.
In fact, what the second chart is reflecting is the dilution – through money “printing” – of purchasing power: away from one entity (the American consumer), through the intermediation of the financial sector, to other entities (mostly financial entities, and to corporations buying back their own shares). This is debt deflation: the American consumer ends having less and less purchasing power (in the sense of residual discretionary income).
The point here is that “growth” is becoming rarer everywhere. Russia and China, like everyone else, are in search for new sources for growth.
As Rickards has said, debt is the “devil” that can undo Trump’s whole schema: a “$1 trillion infrastructure refurbishment plan, along with his proposal to rebuild the military, will — at least in the short-term — significantly increase annual deficits. In fact, deficits are already soaring; the fiscal 2016 budget hole jumped to $587 billion, up from $438 in the prior year, for a huge 34% increase…in addition to this, Trump’s protectionist trade policies would implement either a 35% tariff on certain imports or would require these goods to be produced inside the United States, at much higher prices. For example, the increase in labor costs from goods made in China would be 190% when compared to the federally mandated minimum wage earner in the United States. Hence, inflation is on the way.”
In sum, self-sufficiency implies higher domestic costs and price rises for consumers.
Debt will rise. And there is seemingly already a buyers’ strike against U.S. government debt underway: well over a third of a $1 trillion worth of Treasuries were disposed of, and sold in the year to Aug. 31 by foreign Central Banks. And who is buying it? (Below, the chart shows what this purchasing looks like, as a percentage of total debt issued by the Treasury). Well, foreign central banks have disappeared. (The Chinese have not bought a U.S. Treasury bond since 2011.)
(Above: who purchased the marketable debt as a percentage, by period) Source.
It is the American public who are buying. Will they be willing to take on Trump’s $1 trillion infrastructure spree? Or, will it be “printed” in yet another dilution of the American consumer’s purchasing power? The question of whether the infrastructure splurge does give growth hangs very much in the balance to such answers. (Equity shares in construction firms will do okay, of course).
The bottom line: (Michael Pento, Pento Report): “If interest rates continue to rise it won’t just be bond prices that will collapse. It will be every asset that has been priced off that so called ‘risk free rate of return’ offered by sovereign debt. The painful lesson will then be learned that having a virtual zero interest rate policy for the past 90 months wasn’t at all risk free. All of the asset prices negative interest rates have so massively distorted including; corporate debt, municipal bonds, REITs, CLOs, equities, commodities, luxury cars, art, all fixed income assets and their proxies, and everything in between, will fall concurrently along with the global economy.
“For the record, a normalization of bond yields would be very healthy for the economy in the long-run, as it is necessary to reconcile the massive economic imbalances now in existence. However, President Trump will want no part of the depression that would run concurrently with collapsing real estate, equity and bond prices.”
A Pending Financial Crisis
Trump, to be fair, has said consistently throughout the election campaign that whoever won the Presidential campaign to take office in January would face a financial crisis. Perhaps he will not face the “violent unwind” of the QE and bond bubble as some experts have predicted, but many more – according to Bank of America’s survey of 177 fund managers over the last six days, and controlling just under half a trillion of assets – expect a “stagflationary bond crash.”
This has major political implications. Trump is setting out to do no less than transform the economy and foreign policy of the U.S. He is doing this against a backdrop of many of the followers of the liberal élite, so angered at the election outcome, that they reject completely his electoral legitimacy (and, with the élites themselves staying mum at this rejection of the U.S. democratic process). Movements are being organized to wreck his Presidency (see here for example). If Trump does indeed experience a severe financial “unwind” at a time of such domestic anger and agitation, matters could turn quite ugly.
Alastair Crooke is a former British diplomat who was a senior figure in British intelligence and in European Union diplomacy. He is the founder and director of the Conflicts Forum, which advocates for engagement between political Islam and the West.
Talk about a poisoned chalice. No matter who is elected to the White House in November, the next president will probably face a recession. The 83-month-old expansion is already the fourth-longest in more than 150 years and starting to show some signs of aging as corporate profits peak and wage pressures build. It also remains vulnerable to a shock because growth has been so feeble, averaging just about 2% since the last downturn ended in June 2009. “If the next president is not going to have a recession, it will be a U.S. record,” said Gad Levanon, chief economist for North America at the Conference Board in New York. “The longest expansion we ever had was 10 years,” beginning in 1991.
The history of cyclical fluctuations suggests that the “odds are significantly better than 50-50 that we will have a recession within the next three years,” according to former Treasury Secretary Lawrence Summers. Michael Feroli, chief U.S. economist for JPMorgan Chase & Co. in New York, puts the probability of a downturn during that time frame at about two in three. The U.S. doesn’t look all that well-equipped to handle a contraction should one occur during the next president’s term, former Federal Reserve Vice Chairman Alan Blinder said. Monetary policy is stretched near its limit while fiscal policy is hamstrung by ideological battles.
This wouldn’t be the first time that a new president was forced to tackle a contraction in GDP. The nation was in the midst of its deepest slump since the Great Depression when Barack Obama took office on January 20, 2009. His predecessor, George W. Bush, started his tenure as president in 2001 with the economy about to be mired in a downturn as well, albeit a much milder one than greeted Obama. The biggest near-term threat comes from abroad. Former IMF official Desmond Lachman said a June 23 vote by the U.K. to leave the European Union, a steeper-than-anticipated Chinese slowdown and a renewed recession in Japan are among potential developments that could upend financial markets and the global economy in the coming months. “There’s a non-negligible risk that by the time the next president takes office in January you would have the world in a pretty bad place,” said Lachman, who put the odds of that happening at 30% to 40%.
The erosion of America’s middle class and the resulting voter frustration that has helped fuel the presidential campaigns of Republican Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders, the populist Democratic senator from Vermont, is often portrayed as a phenomenon brought about by the collapse of well-paying manufacturing jobs over the past three decades thanks to increased automation and competition from China. But a new study by the non-partisan Pew Research Center, shared with the Financial Times, points to just how widespread the damage to America’s middle has been and how divided the country’s class structures are becoming. Median incomes fell in four-fifths of the 229 metropolitan areas studied by Pew, with the share of middle-income adults decreasing in 203 areas.
At the same time the portion of lower-income adults rose in 160 metropolitan areas between 1999 and 2014 while the share of upper-income households rose in 172. Of the metropolitan areas analysed by Pew, none saw faster population growth this century than Raleigh. Together with neighbouring Durham and the Research Triangle Park, it is celebrated as an example of how cities can transform themselves into sparky science and technology-driven hubs of innovation, or key outposts for America’s new “knowledge economy”. “It is one of the most remarkable success stories of the last 20 years, or even 30 years,” says Enrico Moretti, a University of California, Berkeley, economist and author of The New Geography of Jobs.
[..] But while Raleigh’s population continues to grow, the new data from Pew shows that the robust population growth has not necessarily translated into higher incomes for its new residents. The benefits of the boom have been shared unequally. The inflation-adjusted annual median income for a household of three in Raleigh fell by more than $10,000 to $74,283 in 2014 from $85,784 in 1999, even as its population grew by two-thirds to more than 1.3m people from just under 800,000. More surprisingly, the only income group to grow as a share of the population was its poorest. In 1999 one in five residents of the metropolitan area lived in households making two-thirds or less of the median income. By 2014 that figure had grown to one in four.
The Federal Reserve is blowing it because it thinks the economy could be overheating, but the real problem is excess supply and deflationary pressure, says Steven Ricchiuto, chief economist for Mizuho Securities USA and the winner of the Forecaster of the Month contest for April. “The dynamics of supply and demand have shifted,” Ricchiuto said in an interview. “I don’t think they get it yet,” he said of the Fed. The central bank is trying to manage the economy as if excess demand were still the major problem it was in the 1970s and 1980s. But today’s global economy suffers from a different imbalance, Ricchiuto says: Excess supply. When excess demand is the normal state of the economy, then inflation is the perennial problem.
But if the economy is stuck in a rut of excess supply, then slow growth and deflation will persist. “We should be immunizing the nation against deflation,” Ricchiuto said. But, instead, the Fed still seems to be living in the 1970s, worried that the unemployment rate will go too low and that the economy will overheat. That’s why the Fed “blew it in December” when it raised interest rates. The myopic focus on unemployment is misguided, in Ricchiuto’s view. Almost all of the economic data on the production side of the economy (such as industrial output, business sales and gross domestic product) show a tepid economy. But the labor market is doing great, comparatively. The Fed reacts to the strong job news, but ignores the rest of the story. If the Fed cared about the supply side of the economy, it would see that idle resources are pulling the economy toward stagnation and deflation.
Of course, excess supply is a global problem, not just in the U.S. Other economies are trying to reduce their excess supply the quickest way they can: Devaluing their currency in hopes that they can push the problem of excess capacity onto the country with the strongest currency. These beggar-thy-neighbor policies don’t really solve the problem, at least not quickly. Everybody around the world needs to figure out how to increase domestic demand to bring supply and demand back into balance, he said. Although the Fed doesn’t get it, many voters do, and so do candidates like Bernie Sanders, Ricchiuto said. “People are recognizing deep, fundamental flaws” in the economy. They are clamoring for policies such as more spending on infrastructure, measures to reduce the concentration of wealth, and tax reform.
In March 2015 Stephen Schwarzman got a telephone call from JPMorgan vice chairman Jimmy Lee, one of Wall Street’s legendary power brokers. Lee, who died three months later, was helping General Electric unload $30 billion in commercial real estate assets lingering on its books. GE boss Jeffrey Immelt was uncomfortable with the massive financial services business his predecessor, Jack Welch, had slowly built up. During the 2008 meltdown, frozen credit markets put GE Capital’s $101 billion in commercial paper funding in peril, bringing the mighty industrial conglomerate to its knees. Lee told Schwarzman that the real estate sale was the keystone to Immelt’s reinvention plan for the 123-year-old company.
The hang-up: finding a single buyer for a portfolio that included financing for everything from Mexican warehouses to Parisian office buildings to commercial mortgages in Australia. The billions in real estate and commercial mortgages were scattered across six countries, comprising all sorts of risks. Lee, Immelt and GE Capital boss Keith Sherin knew that Blackstone Group was the only firm with three key traits: the global reach to understand all the different assets, the resources to close a deal quickly and the financial firepower to swallow the entire package. The first call went to Blackstone’s global real estate chief, Jonathan Gray, who quickly darted over to GE’s 30 Rockefeller Center offices in Manhattan.
There Sherin offered Blackstone an exclusive look for three weeks–a minuscule period of time given the scope of the assets, but also a huge opportunity. Gray agreed, and before even getting off the elevator, he was marshaling an army of 100 Blackstone real estate professionals to tear through GE Capital’s portfolio. Four weeks later, on Apr. 10, Immelt announced that Blackstone would purchase $14 billion of GE’s assets, with Wells Fargo WFC -0.65% taking $9 billion of GE’s commercial real estate mortgages. For Immelt, Blackstone was a savior. GE’s languishing stock jumped 11% on the news. It was an even better transaction for Blackstone. The private equity firm had the inside track and thus more control over the deal terms and price, which was ultimately discounted.
“It was a perfect deal for us,” Schwarzman says. “No one else in the world is set up to buy both equity assets and real estate debt on a global basis.” Indeed, Blackstone’s massive 2015 purchase, executed flawlessly, announced to the world that the bankers at JPMorgan and Goldman Sachs–who had been the premier financiers for many decades–were no longer the kings of Wall Street. There was a new pecking order that put private equity firms on top–with Blackstone at the apex and its chairman and chief executive, Schwarzman, as the most powerful banker on the planet.
Italy is running out of economic time. Seven years into an ageing global expansion, the country is still stuck in debt-deflation and still grappling with a banking crisis that it cannot combat within the paralyzing constraints of monetary union. “We have lost nine %age points of GDP since the peak of the crisis, and a quarter of our industrial production,” says Ignazio Visco, the rueful governor of the Banca d’Italia. Each year Rome hopefully pencils in a fall in the ratio of public debt to GDP, and each year the ratio rises. The reason is always the same. Deflationary conditions prevent nominal GDP rising fast enough to outgrow the debt. The putative savings from drastic fiscal austerity – cuts in public investment – were overwhelmed by the crushing arithmetic of the ‘denominator effect’. Debt was 121pc in 2011, 123pc in 2012, 129pc in 2013.
It came close to levelling out last year at 132.7pc, helped by the tailwinds of a cheap euro, cheap oil, and Mario Draghi’s fairy dust of quantitative easing. This triple stimulus is already fading before the country escapes the stagnation trap. The IMF expects growth of just 1pc this year. The global window is closing in any case. US wage growth will probably force the Federal Reserve to raise interest rates and wild speculation will certainly force China to rein in its latest credit boom. Italy will enter the next downturn – perhaps early next year – with every macro-economic indicator in worse shape than in 2008, and half the country already near political revolt. “Italy is enormously vulnerable. It has gone through a whole global recovery with no growth,” said Simon Tilford from the Centre for European Reform.
“Core inflation is at dangerously low levels. The government has almost no policy ammunition to fight recession.” Italy needs root-and-branch reform but that is by nature contractionary in the short-run. It is viable only with a blast of investment to cushion the shock, says Mr Tilford, but no such New Deal is on the horizon. Legally, the EU Fiscal Compact obliges Italy to do the exact opposite: to run budget surpluses large enough to cut its debt ratio by 3.6pc of GDP every year for twenty years. Do you laugh or cry? “There is a very real risk that Matteo Renzi will come to the conclusion that his only way to hold on to power is to go into the next election on an openly anti-euro platform. People are being very complacent about the political risks,” said Mr Tilford. Indeed. The latest Ipsos MORI survey shows that 48pc of Italians would vote to leave the EU as well as the euro if given a chance.
The rebel Five Star movement of comedian Beppe Grillo has not faded away, and Mr Grillo is still calling for debt default and a restoration of the Italian lira to break out of the German mercantilist grip (as he sees it). His party leads the national polls at 28pc, and looks poised to take Rome in municipal elections next month. The rising star on the Italian Right, the Northern League’s Matteo Salvini, told me at a forum in Pescara that the euro was “a crime against humanity” – no less – which gives you some idea of where this political debate is going. The official unemployment rate is 11.4pc. That is deceptively low. The European Commission says a further 12pc have dropped out of the data, three times the average EU for discouraged workers.
Italy’s industrial output has fallen back to the levels of the 1980s. It has been catastrophic Credit: St Louis Fed
The youth jobless rate is 65pc in Calabria, 56pc in Sicily, and 53pc in Campania, despite an exodus of 100,000 a year from the Mezzogiorno – often in the direction of London. The research institute SVIMEZ says the birth rate in these former Bourbon territories is the lowest since 1862, when the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies in Naples began collecting data. Pauperisation is roughly comparable to that in Greece. Industrial output has dropped by 35pc since 2008, and investment by 59pc. SVIMEZ warns that the downward spiral is turning a cyclical crisis into a “permanent state of underdevelopment”. In short, southern Italy is close to social collapse, and there is precious little that premier Renzi can do about it without reclaiming Italian economic sovereignty.
Kyle Bass, the hedge-fund manager who’s wagering on a slowdown in China’s economy, said Hong Kong’s property market is in “free fall” and the credit expansion in Southeast Asian emerging markets will unravel. “Hong Kong’s in a worse position than it was in prior to the ’97 crisis today,” Bass said at the SkyBridge Alternatives Conference in Las Vegas on Wednesday. He said credit in Asian emerging markets has grown “recklessly,” citing Malaysia and Thailand. Hong Kong property prices have declined and sales are hovering near a 25-year low as the city grapples with the repercussions of a slowing Chinese economy. Home prices have dropped about 13% from a peak in September, according to data compiled by Centaline Property Agency.
The last major housing crash in the former British colony saw prices tumble almost 50% in the 12 months from October 1997. They eventually bottomed in mid-2003 when the city was swept up by the severe acute respiratory syndrome epidemic and have almost quadrupled since then. Bass, famed for betting against U.S. subprime mortgages prior to the housing crash, is predicting losses for China’s banks and raising money to start a dedicated fund for bets in the nation. He said last week at a conference that investors putting money in Asia should ask themselves if they can handle 30% to 40% writedowns in Chinese investments.
“China may be able to not tell the truth about specific output levels, or GDP figures – they might be able to fudge those numbers for a while,” Bass said at a panel discussion, moderated by Bloomberg TV’s Erik Schatzker. “But their trading partners kind of tell the truth, and you’re already seeing what’s happening in their primary trading partners.” The Chinese credit system, according to Bass, is “one of the biggest macro imbalances the world has ever seen.” The fund manager said China is already experiencing a “hard landing as we speak.” He said he isn’t a “permanent bear” on China, instead describing himself as a pragmatist.
China will invest around 4.7 trillion yuan ($724 billion) in transport infrastructure projects over the next three years, the country’s transport ministry said in an article posted on its website late on Wednesday. The 2016-2018 plan from China’s Ministry of Transport and National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC) will see the country push forward 303 key transportation projects including railways, highways, waterways, airports and urban rail, it said. The investment splurge underlines China’s reliance on high-levels of public sector spending, credited by economists as being behind recent signs of improvement in the country’s economy, but also as creating a risk as debt levels rise.
The article, posted on the Ministry of Transport’s website, said the investment plan would improve the country’s high-speed transport networks and inter-city links to meet the demands of China’s wider economic and social development. China’s first quarter investment in infrastructure surged almost 20%, as the government looks to transport-related sectors to help support wider economic growth. The official Xinhua news agency reported earlier this month that China will invest around $12 billion this year in building aviation infrastructure.
And yes, this is where they’ll borrow, and that means shadow banks: “..Beijing has given local governments its blessings to raise funds in the bond market, much of it through local government financing vehicles (LGFVs) that skirt official spending limits..”
Local governments across China are binging on debt again to pump-prime their slack economies. But this time round, they are not wasting money propping up zombie factories or loss-making steel plants. Investment in industries hit by chronic overcapacity is drying up quickly. Investment in mining tumbled 18% in the first quarter from a year earlier, the most since at least the second quarter of 2004, while investment in manufacturing grew just 6%, the slowest in the same period, according to the latest data from the National Bureau of Statistics. In recent years, miners and manufacturers had tapped easy-to-access bank credit and government subsidies to fire up production even as demand began to wilt.
In a landmark move, Beijing has ordered the closure of debt-ridden zombie firms as its policy priority for 2016. In contrast, first-quarter investment in infrastructure and real estate surged 19.6% and 6.2%, respectively. The numbers reflect the government’s strategy of re-allocating capital to other engines of the economy, and in turn, providing a little respite to the steel, cement, energy and related services sectors. China will invest $11.9 billion in aviation infrastructure this year alone. It has also approved a 27.4 billion yuan high-speed rail project linking Beijing’s new airport with neighboring Hebei province. In real estate, China’s March home prices rose at the fastest clip in almost two years on the back of a boom in top-tier cities amid easy bank credit.
To boost infrastructure investment, Beijing has given local governments its blessings to raise funds in the bond market, much of it through local government financing vehicles (LGFVs) that skirt official spending limits. LGFVs have raised tens of billions of dollars through bonds in the first quarter, according to brokerage estimates, even as China skeptics warn of another debt bust. The AA-rated LGFV issuances have appealed to investors increasingly unsure of the quality of corporate paper. Overall local government bond issuances in the quarter totaled 955.4 billion yuan, according to investment firm China International Capital. Investment in infrastructure and real estate is more organized and demand-based this time, and will have a better chance of success than more speculative developments in the past, some economists say. But that’s a subject for debate.
Oh, Budweiser is American all right — just not in the way its cans want you to think it is. Earlier this week, the folks behind Anheuser-Busch InBev’s Budweiser brand announced their intention to relabel Budweiser as “America” from late May through the November presidential election. They’re going to sub in “US” for “AB” in the logo, switch out “King of Beers” for “E Pluribus Unum” and include the entire first stanza of “The Star-Spangled Banner” on the head of the label. Now, you could write this off by saying that A-B takes some sort of patriotic measure with Budweiser cans every year, and you’d be right, but this particular rebrand says more about Budweiser’s American tale than it likely wants to admit. For starters, “Budweiser” traces its origins back to the South Bohemia region of what is now the Czech Republic.
The city of Ceske Budejovice has been brewing beer since the 1400s, and its German-speaking residents — who called it “Budweis” — began brewing Budweiser Bürgerbräu in 1795. They began shipping that beer to the U.S. in 1875, or about a year before a German immigrant named Adolphus Busch made a trip to Bohemia and decided to name his own U.S. beer Budweiser in tribute to the Bohemian brand. Though Anheuser-Busch InBev now owns that brand, another Czech brewery — state-owned Budejovicky Budvar , founded in 1895 — has laid claim to the Budweiser name, saying it is indicative of the city where it was first made. While A-B InBev can call its beer Budweiser in North America, the United Kingdom and much of the rest of the world, Budvar has the rights to the Budweiser name in much of Europe and forces Anheuser-Busch InBev to name its version “Bud.”
When challenged in court, Budvar simply reminds folks of what Adolphus Busch himself testified in a New York courthouse in 1896: “The Budweiser beer is brewed according to the Budweiser Bohemian process. The idea was simply to brew a beer similar in quality, color, flavor and taste to the beer then made at Budweis, or in Bohemia.” If the loss of its identity in Europe didn’t sever Budweiser’s ties to the Old World, the sale of Anheuser-Busch to InBev for $52 billion back in 2008 certainly did. Not only had A-B been taken over by a company with headquarters in Belgium and Brazil — enabling it to engage in the grand American tradition of tax inversion — but cost-cutting measures reduced U.S. jobs, removed German Hallertauer Mittelfrüh hops from the equation and put pressure on suppliers of everything from rice grains to the beechwood used in “beechwood-aged” Budweiser’s touted brewing process.
“You’re gonna lift the tax-free threshold for rich people. If you lift my tax-free threshold, that changes my life. That means that I get to say to my little girls, ‘Daddy’s not broke this weekend, we can go to the pictures.’ Rich people don’t even notice their tax-free threshold lift.”
Linda Tirado is in the green room of the ABC on Monday night during the broadcast of Q&A and she is getting madder and madder; and it’s not just from hearing #IStandWithDuncan Duncan Storrar be real in the audience that evening. Tirado, a US anti-poverty campaigner (a job we should all do), is overwhelmed by what Storrar, the 45 year-old Geelong father of two and part-time truck driver had to say about the federal government’s planned tax cuts. “You’re gonna lift the tax-free threshold for rich people. Why don’t I get it? Why do they get it?” he asked assistant treasurer Kelly O’Dwyer.
“I’ve got a disability and a low education – that means I’ve spent my whole life working off a minimum wage. You’re gonna lift the tax-free threshold for rich people. If you lift my tax-free threshold, that changes my life. That means that I get to say to my little girls, ‘Daddy’s not broke this weekend, we can go to the pictures.’ Rich people don’t even notice their tax-free threshold lift.” So, Duncan Storrar is talking, Kelly O’Dwyer is responding and Tirado is sitting in the green room, furious. She’s wondering exactly what’s been happening to Australia over the last 12 months. “Obviously I cannot tell you what a hero he is and what a sacrifice he made. To say something like that in public, to say you don’t make enough to make ends meet, that is incredibly brave.”
But she fears the change she has seen in the Australian political landscape since she was last here. She’s here as part of the Anti-Poverty Network’s conference but is keen to stay a little longer and cover the Australian election from the eyes of a survivor of the US class war. [..] “In America, we have this idea of meritocracy. If you deserve it, you will have it. If you don’t have it, it is because you don’t deserve it and the fact remains 45 million Americans are living in poverty, most of those people are in work. They’re holding down multiple jobs and we call them lazy. By definition anybody who works three jobs is not lazy and if you think so I dare you to get out of your air conditioned office and try it for yourself.”
Greece’s parliament this week approved reforms to the country’s creaking pensions and tax system by a larger margin than had been anticipated. But significant differences remain, notably on how large a primary budget surplus should be targeted over the next few years, and above all on the question of debt relief. The disagreement between the IMF and European governments on the latter point has come into the open. On this, the IMF is right and those Europeans who oppose relief are wrong: there can be no solution to the Greek crisis without it. Germany, driven by Wolfgang Schäuble, its finance minister, remains doggedly opposed, but even within the German government, open opposition to Mr Schäuble’s hard line has come recently from Sigmar Gabriel, economics minister.
Chancellor Angela Merkel may be tempted to ignore Mr Gabriel, whose Social Democratic party is polling poorly and whose own future as its leader is in question. German public opinion sees relief as a favour the Greeks have done little or nothing to deserve, and asks whether it will stop with Greece. The issue is not a winning one for a chancellor already under siege. Nevertheless, she would be wise to recognise the stakes for Europe as a whole. Berlin’s tenacious enforcement of austerity across the eurozone mistakes a symptom — the continued difficulties of countries like Greece — for a disease whose main cause is now Germany’s own current account surplus. The Germans have been able to persist in this illusion because without the low interest rates that Germany’s affluent voters now complain about it is doubtful whether the eurozone would have weathered the last six years at all.
Mr Schäuble might believe that the eurozone is safe come what may, even if his hard line leads to Grexit, but saving the euro will count for little if the cost is massive damage to the EU itself. Is this putting it too strongly? Perhaps it was two or three years ago but things have moved on since then. The refugee crisis has mushroomed and openly authoritarian Eurosceptic parties have profited and threaten some of the EU’s core values and principles. Euclid Tsakalotos, the Greek finance minister, warned his European counterparts recently of turning the country into a “failed state”. Even though some of his frustrated partners might think it already is, he is right: things could get much worse. It is not just about the refugee crisis although that is one factor.
There is a good deal of wishful thinking right now on this in much of central and eastern Europe. The Greeks, who despite their own deep difficulties are actually doing a great deal to help the refugees, know better: the neo-Habsburg military frontier going up across south-eastern Europe to keep out refugees will not work. There is no good alternative to helping the Greeks in the massive task that confronts them. Then there is the question of the Balkans as a whole. In Bosnia the Dayton peace settlement did one thing: it stopped the fighting. But two decades on, Bosnia remains a genuinely failed state, and Kosovo and Macedonia, too, are deeply fragile polities. The EU needs Greece to serve as a force for growth right across the Balkans and not as some kind of confirmation that the EU has decided to abandon the entire region.
The European Parliament added to the war of words with Turkey over its bid for visa-free travel to Europe, highlighting the risk that a hard-fought agreement with Ankara to curb the influx of Mideast refugees will collapse. Members of the European Union assembly said Turkey must narrow the scope of its terrorism legislation to qualify for EU visa-free status. That is a prize the Turkish government sought in return for signing up to the mid-March migrant accord, which has stemmed Europe’s biggest refugee wave since World War II and eased domestic political pressure on leaders including Angela Merkel. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has signaled he won’t bow to the European demand over terrorism legislation, citing terror threats in Turkey that his critics say are being used as cover to jail political opponents.
Adding Turkey to a list of around 60 countries whose citizens benefit from hassle-free travel to Europe requires approval by EU governments and the 28-nation Parliament. “The liberalization can only be granted if all of the criteria are fulfilled,” Mariya Gabriel, a Bulgarian member of the Christian Democrats, the EU Parliament’s biggest faction, said during a debate on Wednesday in Strasbourg, France. Tanja Fajon, a Slovenian member of the No. 2 Socialists, said: “Turkey is very important to the solution to the migration crisis, but this does not mean that we should be making promises to Turkey without ensuring that all the conditions are fulfilled.” The EU-Turkey sparring is a test of geopolitical power that combines high politics, principles and pride.
The migrant flows into Europe via Turkey over the past year have handed Erdogan leverage over the EU, which has lambasted him for cracking down on domestic dissenters and kept Turkey’s longstanding bid for membership of the bloc largely on hold. Last Friday, when commenting on the EU call for Turkish terrorism-rule changes, Erdogan said “we are going our way and you go yours.” He also dared the bloc to “go make a deal with whoever you can.” In a further sign of Ankara’s renewed confidence in dealing with the EU, Burhan Kuzu, a former adviser to Erdogan, said earlier on Wednesday that Turkey would send refugees to Europe should the EU Parliament make a “wrong decision” in the deliberations over visa-free status for Turkey. “That is blackmail,” said Sophie in ’t Veld, a Dutch member of the EU Parliament’s Liberal group. She called Erdogan a “dictator.” Cecilia Wikstroem, a Swedish Liberal, said “something is rotten in this.”
Urgent measures are need to address overcrowding and poor living conditions in refugee and migrant camps in Greece, Europe’s top rights watchdog warned on Wednesday. The Council of Europe, which brings together 47 countries, said some facilities were “sub-standard” and able to provide no more than the most basic needs such as food, hygiene products and blankets. The report echoes warnings by other rights groups and aid agencies who say Greece has been unable to care properly for the more than 800,000 people reaching its shores in the last year, fleeing wars or poverty in the Middle East and Africa. The Council described dire living conditions in several sites visited on a March 7-11 trip, just before the EU and Turkey reached a deal that reduced arrivals but increased the number of people held in detention awaiting asylum decisions or deportation.
It said in its report that people who reached Greece were locked away in violation of international human rights standards and lacked legal access. At Greece’s Nea Kavala temporary transit camp, people were left burning trash to keep warm and sleeping in mud-soaked tents, according to the report. The Council called for the closure of a makeshift camp in Idomeni, where some 10,000 people have been stranded en route to northern Europe due to the closure of Macedonia’s border. Germany has taken in most of the 1.3 million refugees and migrants who reached Europe across the Mediterranean in the past year, triggering bitter disputes among the 28 EU member states on how to handle the influx. Europe’s deal with Turkey last month gave its leaders some breathing space but has come under pressure since Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, one of the sponsors of the accord, stepped down.
The morality and legality of the deal has been challenged by human rights groups, however, and a provision to grant Turkish citizens visa-free travel to Europe in exchange for Ankara’s help remains politically contentious. In a separate report, a trio of European Parliamentarians on Tuesday described the poor conditions faced by people who have been returned to Turkey under the deal. “We have seen how the migration policies imposed by the European Union have terrible consequences on the lives of thousands of people,” said Cornelia Ernst, a German member of the European Parliament and a co-author of that report. “Turkey has been hired as a deportation agency, putting into practice the migration policies designed in Brussels.”
The Bank of Japan and the ECB are printing billions in a “useless” attempt at stimulating demand as a “crisis of confidence” erupts over central banks and their diminishing influence. And for the same reason, the Reserve Bank of Australia may find itself powerless in trying to defeat low inflation by cutting interest rates to fresh record lows. That is the view of Vimal Gor, who is head of income and fixed interest at BT Investment Management. Mr Gor is the latest expert to question the wisdom of RBA rate cuts. “The theory says yes, but in practice it’s unclear as RBA monetary policy has no influence over commodity prices or overcapacity in Chinese and Japanese markets. This takes us back to the question of central bank credibility in being able to deliver on their objectives,” he said.
“Take negative rates any further and central banks risk putting the financial system at risk.” Inflation expectations implied by long-dated inflation swaps suggest markets are not convinced that central banks can lift prices through easy policy settings. “It is clear markets are giving up on central banks to fulfil their mandate in the inflation fighting arena.” Helicopter money, which Mr Gor agrees is a “ridiculous” idea, might be tested, but there is another idea worth exploring. “The other option is to abandon the inflation targeting mantra which has been pervasive over the last 25 years,” he says. Instead, central banks could come up with “a per capita measure of economic activity”. This would limit the pressure to keep lowering interest rates.
“The reality remains that the world is overwhelmed with debt, so that would suggest that we would need to have low rates to make repayment easier, and to discourage saving. “Ironically low rates spur further adoption of debt because of asset prices that are shooting skywards, and actually encourage more saving because income levels from the existing savings pile are too small to live on.”
Overnight the People’s Daily published an interview with “anonymous authorities” on the topic of China’s economy. It’s a very important article as the “anonymous authorities” is considered to be Mr. Liu He, who is the economy brain of President Xi Jinping. The interview sends strong signals that China policy will shift from its aggressive easing in Q1 to a conservative position which focus on structural reforms. People’s Daily also published the “anonymous authorities” interviews in May 2015 and Jan 2016, which led to the subsequent collapse in the China A share market, because Mr. Liu (and President Xi’s camp) has been promoting structure reforms and risk controls.
For a credit driven China economy and the associated highly leveraged equities/commodities/properties markets, these’re the bad news. The A share market and China domestic commodities market had a big fall last night. Many overseas investors may think last night’s chaos is driven by the weak April import/export data announced during the weekend. I can tell you that it’s not. The local Chinese take the “anonymous authorities” article seriously and his opinion will have much deeper impact for China in the coming quarters. In general, the interview denied the “demand driven” stimulus policy adopted by China in Q1. Like other governments in the world, the CCP party and Chinese government have different sub-parties internally holding different views of the economy.
They believe their own claims are the best for China and advocate their ideas when the reality cling to them. For example, when the economy is really bad, the pro-growth camp will have upper hands and is able to push for their demand driven policies. That’s why we see China swings between structural reform and demand stimulus in the last two years. China pumped $1tn credit in Q1 to stop the falling knife, and this really cross the line of structural reform camp, so that’s why we see the article comes out right now. As the Politburo economy meeting just finished in the end of April, I believe the article delivers the consensus message agreed in the meeting.
There are a number of potential triggers to a new crisis. The first potential trigger may be equity prices. The US stock market runs into trouble. A stronger dollar affects US exports and foreign earnings. Emerging market weakness affects businesses in the technology, aerospace, automobile, consumer products and luxury product industries. Currency devaluations combined with excess capacity, driven by debt fuelled over-investment in China, maintain deflationary pressures reducing pricing power. Lower oil prices reduce earnings, cash flow and asset values of energy producers. Overinflated technology and bio-tech stocks disappoint. Earnings and liquidity pressures reduce merger activity and stock buybacks which have supported equity values. US equity weakness flows into global equity markets.
The second potential trigger may be debt markets. Heavily indebted energy companies and emerging market borrowers face increased risk of financial distress. According to the Bank of International Settlements, total borrowing by the global oil and gas industry reached US$2.5 trillion in 2014, up 250% from US$1 trillion in 2008. The initial stress will be focused in the US shale oil and gas industry which is highly levered with borrowings that are over three times gross operating profits. Many firms were cash flow negative even when prices were high, needing to constantly raise capital to sink new wells to maintain production. If the firms have difficulty meeting existing commitments, then decreased available funding and higher costs will create a toxic negative spiral.
A number of large emerging market borrowers, such as Brazil’s Petrobras, Mexico’s Pemex and Russia’s Gazprom and Rosneft, are also vulnerable. These companies increased leverage in recent years, in part due to low interest rates to finance significant operational expansion on the assumption of high oil prices. These borrowers have, in recent years, used capital markets rather than bank loans to raise funds, cashing in on demand from yield hungry investors. Since 2009, Petrobras, Pemex and Gazprom (along with its eponymous bank) have issued US$140 billion in debt. Petrobras alone has US$170 billion in outstanding debt. Russian companies such as Gazprom, Rosneft and major banks have sold US$244 billion of bonds. The risk of contagion is high as institutional and retail bond investors worldwide are exposed.
The American Society of Civil Engineers yesterday projected a $1.44tn investment funding gap between 2016 and 2025, warning of a mounting drag on business activity, exports and incomes. Politicians are demanding action. Hillary Clinton, the Democratic frontrunner, has called for a $275bn spending blitz, including the creation of an infrastructure bank, recalling past glories such as the interstate highway system and Hoover Dam. Donald Trump, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, is bucking anti-spending dogma within the party by promising major programmes to renew infrastructure and create jobs — albeit without putting forward any detail on how to pay for them.
Without radical surgery, the decay in tunnels, railways and waterways will cost the US economy nearly $4tn in lost GDP by 2025 as costs rise and productivity is impeded, according to estimates from the ASCE, dragging on a recovery in output that is the shallowest since the end of the second world war. Faced with crimped public resources, President Barack Obama’s administration and some states have tried to fill infrastructure gaps by luring in private investment, including from public-private partnerships or P3s. A number of states and municipalities have lifted petrol taxes to pay for roads and bridges, even as the federal petrol tax that serves as the backbone of transport spending nationwide has remained frozen since 1993. Many argue that the recent fall in oil prices presented the perfect moment to raise petrol taxes.
Even in the heart of Washington, Memorial Bridge, a symbolic link between the north and the south of the US, might have to be closed to traffic early in the next decade if major repairs are not carried out. Around the country more than 61,000 bridges were deemed structurally deficient in 2014. Last year US public capital investment, which includes infrastructure, was just 3.4% of GDP, or $611bn, according to the president’s Council of Economic Advisers — the lowest in more than 60 years. In the White House, the inability to do more to improve roads, bridges and other infrastructure is seen as one of the major policy failures since the crisis. Mr Obama last month bemoaned the absence of a major infrastructure programme from 2012 to 2014, when borrowing costs were low and the construction industry was short of jobs.
The administration included so-called shovel-ready infrastructure projects in its $800bn stimulus bill after Mr Obama took office, but the spending fell short of what was needed for repairs and to galvanise the economy. Critics see it as a squandered opportunity. However, Jason Furman, chairman of the council, says Mr Obama made repeated attempts to get more money into infrastructure and was rebuffed. “Congress has been unwilling to substantially expand infrastructure investment — it is as simple as that,” he says.
After plunking down more than $2.5 billion for drilling rights in U.S. Arctic waters, Royal Dutch Shell, ConocoPhillips and other companies have quietly relinquished claims they once hoped would net the next big oil discovery. The pullout comes as crude oil prices have plummeted to less than half their June 2014 levels, forcing oil companies to cut spending. For Shell and ConocoPhillips, the decision to abandon Arctic acreage was formalized just before a May 1 due date to pay the U.S. government millions of dollars in rent to keep holdings in the Chukchi Sea north of Alaska. The U.S. Arctic is estimated to hold 27 billion barrels of oil and 132 trillion cubic feet of natural gas, but energy companies have struggled to tap resources buried below icy waters at the top of the globe.
Shell last year ended a nearly $8 billion, mishap-marred quest for Arctic crude after disappointing results from a test well in the Chukchi Sea. Shell decided the risk is not worth it for now, and other companies have likely come to the same conclusion, said Peter Kiernan, the lead energy analyst at The Economist Intelligence Unit. “Arctic exploration has been put back several years, given the low oil price environment, the significant cost involved in exploration and the environmental risks that it entails,” he said. All told, companies have relinquished 2.2 million acres of drilling rights in the Chukchi Sea – nearly 80% of the leases they bought from the U.S. government in a 2008 auction. Oil companies spent more than $2.6 billion snapping up 2.8 million acres in the Chukchi Sea during that sale, on top of previous purchases in the Beaufort Sea.
Germany posted a record current-account surplus just days after being placed on a U.S. watchlist for countries that may have an unfair foreign-exchange advantage. The current-account gap climbed to €30.4 billion in March, up from €21.1 billion the previous month, data from the Federal Statistics Office showed on Tuesday. The nation’s trade surplus, a narrower measure that only counts imports and exports of goods and services, widened to €26 billion, also a record. The U.S. put Germany, China, Japan, South Korea and Taiwan on a new currency watchlist on April 29, saying their foreign-exchange practices bear close monitoring to gauge whether they provide an unfair trade advantage over America. The economies met two of the three criteria used to judge unfair practices under a February law that seeks to enforce U.S. trade interests.
Meeting all three would trigger action by the president to enter discussions and seek potential penalties, including being cut off from some U.S. development financing and exclusion from U.S. government contracts. While Germany has no direct influence over the value of its currency, being just one member of the 19-nation euro area, it was cited because of its current-account and trade surpluses. Taiwan made the list because of its current-account surplus and persistent intervention to weaken the currency, according to the Treasury. Germany’s excess savings could be used to boost growth in the euro area, the Treasury said at the time. A report by the IMF on Monday said the current-account surplus will probably stay near record levels this year.
The euro weakened by more than 10% against the dollar in each of 2014 and 2015, though it has strengthened this year. The single currency traded at $1.1383 at 9:04 a.m. Frankfurt time. It was at almost $1.40 in mid-2014, before the European Central Bank started an unprecedented monetary-stimulus drive that includes negative interest rates and bond purchases.
Why is conventional German thinking on macroeconomics so peculiar? And does it matter? The answer to the second question is that it matters a great deal. A part of the answer to the first is that Germany is a creditor. The financial crisis has given it a dominant voice in eurozone affairs. This is a matter of might, not right. Creditors’ interests are important. But they are partial, not general, interests. Recent complaints have focused on the European Central Bank’s monetary policies, especially negative interest rates and quantitative easing. Wolfgang Schauble, Germany’s finance minister, even claimed that the ECB bore half of the responsibility for the rise of the Alternative for Germany, an anti-euro party. This is an extraordinary attack.
Criticism of ECB policies is wide-ranging: they make it unnecessary for recalcitrant members to reform; they have failed to reduce indebtedness; they undermine the solvency of insurance companies, pension funds and savings banks; they have barely kept inflation above zero; and they foment anger with the European project. In brief, ECB policy has become a big threat to stability. All this accords with a conventional German view. As Peter Bofinger, an heretical member of Germany’s council of economic experts argues, the tradition goes back to Walter Eucken, the influential father of postwar ordoliberalism. In this approach, ideal macroeconomics has three elements: a balanced budget at (almost) all times; price stability (with an asymmetric preference for deflation); and price flexibility.
This is a reasonable approach for a small, open economy. It is workable for a larger country, such as Germany, with highly competitive tradeable industries. But it cannot be generalised to a continental economy, such as the eurozone. What works for Germany cannot work for an economy three times as large and far more closed to external trade. Note that in the last quarter of 2015, real demand in the eurozone was 2% lower than in the first quarter of 2008, while US demand was 10% higher. This severe weakness in demand is missing from most of the German complaints. The ECB is rightly trying to prevent a spiral into deflation in an economy suffering from chronically weak demand. As Mario Draghi, ECB president, insists, the low interest rates set by the bank are not the problem. They are instead “the symptom” of insufficient investment demand.
Developers started a record number of central-London office projects in the six months through March as they tried to capitalize on rising rents. Construction work began on 51 office buildings during the period, Deloitte LLP said in a report on Tuesday. About 14 million square feet (1.3 million square meters) of space is now under construction, 28% more than the previous six months and the highest since March 2008, according to the report. “In just 18 months, we have seen activity nearly double,” Deloitte said in the report, which it started publishing in 1996. “This is perhaps the first survey in a long time where we are able to point to the pendulum swinging away from landlords and back toward tenants.”
About 42% of the space under construction has already been leased and vacancy rates remain at a record low of less than 4%, Deloitte said. The “tight market conditions” are likely to continue for a few more years, according to Tim Leckie at JP Morgan. “There is a risk of the cycle turning first in the City from 2018 as new supply comes online,” he said in an e-mail.
Whatever else might be said about Donald Trump, the fact is that he has provided a valuable service in producing a national and international discussion of NATO, the old Cold War organization whose mission was to protect Western Europe from an attack from the Soviet Union, which had been America’s partner and ally during World War II. The obvious question arises: Given that NATO was a Cold War institution, why didn’t it go out of existence when the Cold War ended, as its counterpart, the Warsaw Pact, did? Indeed, let’s not forget that that’s precisely what U.S. officials assured Soviet officials would happen as the Cold War was ending. Shut down the Warsaw Pact and we’ll shut down NATO. But U.S. officials double-crossed the Russians. Even though the Warsaw Pact, which consisted of the Soviet Union and Eastern European countries, dismantled, NATO didn’t.
[Recently], the New York Times said reminded readers that former Defense Secretary Robert Gates had expressed a concern back in 2011 that young Americans would have no memory of the Cold War and would consider NATO to be just an artifact. If only NATO was only an artifact, one in which people just sat around collecting tax-funded paychecks. Instead, after double-crossing the Russians, it continued operating as if the Cold War had never ended, moving ever close to Russia’s border by absorbing former members of the Warsaw Pact. When NATO forces ultimately reached Ukraine, which is on Russia’s border, how could anyone be surprised over Russia’s reaction? The U.S. would have reacted the same way. In fact, it did in 1961, when the Soviets installed defensive missiles in Cuba.
There is no way U.S. national-security state officials could have been shocked over Russia’s reaction to NATO’s plan to absorb Ukraine. U.S. officials had to know from the get-go that Russia would never permit NATO to take control over its longtime military base in Crimea, which is precisely what would have happened if NATO had absorbed Ukraine. The same New York Times article quotes Gen. Philip M. Breedlove, former supreme allied commander for Europe: “The United States absolutely needs NATO — a NATO that is strong, resilient and united.” According to the article, “Five members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff made a similar set of arguments at the Council on Foreign Relations on Tuesday, also avoiding any mention of Mr. Trump’s name.”
Well, duh! Of course, they favor NATO! What better way to ignite more crises and more Cold War than with NATO? After all, what if Americans demand that U.S. troops come home from the Middle East, thereby eliminating any more threat of anti-American terrorism? What better new official enemy than the old Cold War official enemy, Russia? What better way to keep the entire national-security establishment in high cotton with ever-increasing budgets? The Times article also expressed the concern among many that Trump intends to establish good relations with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Heaven forbid! Why, that’s heresy to any advocate of the national-security state! Everyone knows that Putin is a former KGB official. Everyone knows that the KGB was composed of communists. Everyone knows that a communist can never be trusted. The war on communism is on, once again.
In his tiny shop in downtown Athens, Kostis Nakos sits behind a wooden counter hunched over his German calculator. The 71-year-old might have retired had he been able to make ends meets but that is now simply impossible. “All day I’ve been sitting here doing the maths,” he sighs, surrounded by the undergarments and socks he has sold for the past four decades. “My income tax has just gone up to 29%, my social security payments have gone up 20%, my pension has been cut by 50 euros; they are taxing coffee, fuel, the internet, tavernas, ferries, everything they can, and then there’s Enfia [the country’s much-loathed property levy]. Now that makes me mad. They said they would take that away!” A mild man in milder times, Nakos finds himself becoming increasingly angry.
So, too, do the vast majority of Greeks who walked through his door on Monday. “Everyone’s outraged, they’ve been swearing, insulting the government, calling [prime minister] Alexis Tsipras a liar,” he exclaims after parliament’s decision on Sunday night to pass yet more austerity measures. “And they’re right. Everything he said, everything he promised, was a fairy tale.” Until the debt-stricken country’s financial collapse, shops like this were the lifeblood of Greece. For small-time merchants, the pain has been especially vivid because, like everyone Nakos knows, he voted for Tsipras and his leftist Syriza party. Now the man who was swept to power on a platform to eradicate austerity has passed the toughest reforms to date – overhauling the pension system, raising taxes and increasing social security fund contributions as the price of emergency bailout aid.
As MPs voted inside the red-carpeted 300-seat chamber on Sunday, police who had blocked off a large part of the city centre deployed teargas and water cannon against the thousands of anti-austerity demonstrators amassed outside. It was a world away from the day the tieless, anti-austerity leftists first assumed office, tearing down the barricades outside the sandstone parliament building. The latest measures – worth €5.4bn (£4.3m) in budget savings – mark a new era. After nine months of wrangling with the international creditors keeping the country afloat, Athens must apply policies that until now had been abstract concepts for a populace who have suffered as unemployment and poverty rates have soared.
The British government’s claim to be tackling tax evasion is about as credible as Al Capone claiming to be leading the fight against organized crime. In fact, Britain is at the heart of the global tax haven network, and continues to lead the fight against its regulation. The 11 and a half million leaked documents from Panamanian law firm Mossack Fonseca have proven, once again, what we have already known for some time – that the ‘offshore world’ of tax havens is a den of money laundering and tax evasion right at the heart of the global financial system. Despite attempts by Western media to twist the revelations into a story about the ‘corruption’ of official enemies – North Korea, Syria, China and, of course, Putin, who is not even mentioned in the documents – the real story is the British government’s assiduous cultivation of the offshore world.
For whilst corruption exists in every country, what enables that corruption to flourish and become institutionalized is the network of secretive financial regimes that allow the world’s biggest criminals and fraudsters to escape taxation, regulation and oversight of their activities. And this network is a conscious creation of the British state. Of the 215,000 companies identified in the Mossack Fonseca documents, over half were incorporated in the British Virgin Islands, one single territory in what tax haven expert Nicholas Shaxson calls a “spider’s web” of well over a dozen separate UK-controlled dens of financial chicanery. In addition, the UK was ranked number two of those jurisdictions where the banks, law firms and other middlemen associated with the Panama Papers operate, only topped by Hong Kong, whose institutional environment is itself a creation of the UK.
And of the ten banks who most frequently asked Mossack Fonseca to set up paper companies to hide their client’s finances, four were British: HSBC, Coutts, Rothschild and UBS. HSBC, recently fined $1.9bn for laundering the money of Mexico’s most violent drug cartels, used the Panamanian firm to create 2,300 offshore companies, whilst Coutts – the family bank of the Windsors – set up just under 500. And, of course, David Cameron’s own father was named in the papers, having “helped create and develop” Blairmore Holdings, worth $20million, from its inception in 1982 till his death in 2010.
Blairmore, in which Cameron junior was also a shareholder, was registered in the Bahamas, and was specifically advertised to investors as a means of avoiding UK tax. The Daily Mail noted that: “Even though he lived in London, the Prime Minister’s father would leave the country and fly to Switzerland or the Bahamas for board meetings of Blairmore Holdings – to ensure it would not have to pay UK income tax or corporation tax. He hired a small army of Bahamas residents, including a part-time bishop, to sign its paperwork – as part of another bid to show his firm was not British-based.”
That Britain should emerge as central to this scandal is no surprise. For as Nicholas Shaxson, a leading authority on tax havens put it when I interviewed him in 2011, “The City of London is effectively the grand-daddy of the global offshore system.” Whilst there are various different lists of tax havens in existence, depending on how exactly they are defined, on any one of them explains Shaxson, “you will see that about half of the tax havens on there, of the ones that matter, are in some way British or partly British.” Firstly, are “Jersey, Guernsey and the Isle of Man: the crown dependencies. They’re very fundamentally controlled by Britain.” Then there are the Overseas Territories, such as the Caymans, Bermuda, and the Virgin Islands, in which “all the things that matter are effectively controlled by Great Britain.”
This goes back a long way. The Panamanian state was originally created to function on behalf of the rich and self-seeking of this world – or rather their antecedents in America – when the 20th century was barely born. Panama was created by the United States for purely selfish commercial reasons, right on that historical hinge between the imminent demise of Britain as the great global empire, and the rise of the new American imperium. The writer Ken Silverstein put it with estimable simplicity in an article for Vice magazine two years ago: “In 1903, the administration of Theodore Roosevelt created the country after bullying Colombia into handing over what was then the province of Panama. Roosevelt acted at the behest of various banking groups, among them JP Morgan, which was appointed as the country’s ‘fiscal agent’ in charge of managing $10m in aid that the US had rushed down to the new nation.”
The reason, of course, was to gain access to, and control of, the canal across the Panamanian isthmus that would open in 1914 to connect the world’s two great oceans, and the commerce that sailed them. The Panamanian elite had learned early that their future lay more lucratively in accommodating the far-off rich than in being part of South America. Annuities paid by the Panama Railroad Company sent more into the Colombian exchequer than Panama ever got back from Bogotá, and it is likely that the province would have seceded anyway – had not a treaty been signed in September 1902 for the Americans to construct a canal under terms that, as the country’s leading historian in English, David Bushnell, writes, “accurately reflected the weak bargaining position of the Colombian negotiator”.
Colombia was, at the time, riven by what it calls the “thousand-day war” between its Liberal and Historical Conservative parties. Panama was one of the battlefields for the war’s later stages. The canal treaty was closely followed by the “Panamanian revolution”, which was led by a French promoter of the canal and backed by what Bushnell calls “the evident complicity of the United States” – and was aided by the fact that the terms of the canal treaty forbade Colombian troops from landing to suppress it, lest they disturb the free transit of goods. The Roosevelt/JP Morgan connection in the setting-up of the new state was a direct one. The Americans’ paperwork was done by a Republican party lawyer close to the administration, William Cromwell, who acted as legal counsel for JP Morgan.
JP Morgan led the American banks in gradually turning Panama into a financial centre – and a haven for tax evasion and money laundering – as well as a passage for shipping, with which these practices were at first entwined when Panama began to register foreign ships to carry fuel for the Standard Oil company in order for the corporation to avoid US tax liabilities.
The prime minister took the unprecedented decision to release his personal tax records on Saturday, as growing anger over revelations in the Panama Papers threatened to derail his premiership. But the extraordinary move seems set to plunge David Cameron into further controversy, as it emerged that his mother transferred two separate payments of £100,000 to his accounts in 2011, allowing the family estate to avoid a potential £80,000 worth of inheritance tax. Four years after first promising to open his financial affairs to public view, Downing Street published a document detailing Cameron’s income and tax payments from 2009-10 to 2014-15. The move came after an emotional Cameron admitted to the Conservative party’s spring forum that he alone was to blame for the furore caused by his failure to be frank about his profits from an offshore investment fund.
On Monday, Cameron will announce the establishment of a taskforce, led by HM Revenue & Customs and the National Crime Agency, to examine the legality of the financial affairs of companies mentioned in the Panama Papers, where documents relating to his father’s offshore fund were discovered by the Guardian and the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists. The taskforce will draw on investigators, compliance specialists and analysts from HMRC, the National Crime Agency, the Serious Fraud Office and the Financial Conduct Authority. There will be new money provided of up to £10m. But following the release of the prime minister’s tax records, Cameron now faces questions over whether his family took elaborate steps to minimise the amount of inheritance tax that would eventually be due on their estate.
The records show that the prime minister received a considerable boost to his savings in 2011. Following the death of his father in 2010, Cameron was left £300,000 tax free as an inheritance. However, his mother also transferred two payments of £100,000 to him in May and July 2011. Inheritance tax is not payable on gifts up to £325,000 that are paid at least seven years before the source of the possession dies, be it property or money. A spokesman for the prime minister said that Cameron’s mother and father had “some years earlier” transferred the family home to their eldest son, Alexander Cameron, and the sums paid in 2011 were considered to be Cameron’s share.
The question of tax havens and financial opacity has been headline news for years now. Unfortunately, in this area there is a huge gap between the triumphant declarations of governments and the reality of what they actually do. In 2014, the LuxLeaks investigation revealed that multinationals paid almost no tax in Europe, thanks to their subsidiaries in Luxembourg. In 2016, the Panama Papers have shown the extent to which financial and political elites in the north and the south conceal their assets. We can be glad to see that the journalists are doing their job. The problem is that the governments are not doing theirs. The truth is that almost nothing has been done since the crisis in 2008. In some ways, things have even got worse.
Let’s take each topic in turn. Exacerbated fiscal competition on the taxing of profits of big companies has reached new heights in Europe. The United Kingdom is going to reduce its rate to 17%, something unheard of for a major country, while continuing to protect the predatory practices of the Virgin Islands and other offshore centres under the British Crown. If nothing is done, we will all ultimately align ourselves on the 12% of Ireland, or possibly on 0%, or even on grants to investments, as is already sometimes the case. In the meantime, in the United States where there is a federal tax on profits, that rate is 35% (not including the taxes levelled by states, ranging between 5% and 10%). It is the political fragmentation of Europe and the lack of a strong public authority which puts us at the mercy of private interests.
The good news is that there is a way out of the current political impasse. If four countries, France, Germany, Italy and Spain, who together account for over 75% of the GDP and the population in the eurozone put forward a new treaty based on democracy and fiscal justice, with as a strong measure the adoption of a common tax system for large corporations, then the other countries would be forced to follow them. If they did not do so they would not be in compliance with the improvement in transparency which public opinions have been demanding for years and would be open to sanctions.
There is still a complete lack of transparency as far as private assets held in tax havens are concerned. In many areas of the world, the biggest fortunes have continued to grow since 2008 much more quickly than the size of the economy, partly because they pay less tax than the others. In France in 2013 a junior minister for the budget calmly explained that he did not have an account in Switzerland, with no fear that his ministry might find out about it. Once again, it took journalists to reveal the truth.
“Next year, the US national debt will top $20 trillion. The deficit is running close to $500 billion, and the Congressional Budget Office projects that figure to rise. Add another $3 trillion or so in state and local debt.”
The weakest recovery in modern history has stretched on for 69 months. By 2017, it will be the third-longest recovery without a recession since the Great Depression. By 2018, it will be the second longest. Only during the halcyon economic days of the 1960s have we seen a longer recovery; but that record, too, will be eclipsed sometime in 2019—if we don’t see a recession first. And note that we were growing at well over 3% in the 1960s, not the anemic 2% we have averaged during this recovery and certainly not the positively puny 1.5% we have endured lately. Global growth is slowing down. Given the limited number of arrows left in the Federal Reserve’s monetary policy quiver, the US is going to have a difficult time dealing with the fallout from a recession. Even worse, a number of factors are coming together that will require serious crisis management.
Next year, the US national debt will top $20 trillion. The deficit is running close to $500 billion, and the Congressional Budget Office projects that figure to rise. Add another $3 trillion or so in state and local debt. As you may imagine, the interest on that debt is beginning to add up, even at the extraordinarily low rates we have today. Sometime in 2019, entitlement spending, defense, and interest will consume all the tax revenues collected by the US government. That means all spending for everything else will have to be borrowed. The CBO projects the deficit will rise to over $1 trillion by 2023. By that point, entitlement spending and net interest will be consuming almost all tax revenues, and we will be borrowing to pay for our defense. Let’s look at the following chart, which comes from CBO data:
By 2019, the deficit is projected to be $738 billion. There are only three ways to reduce that deficit: cut spending, raise taxes, or authorize the Federal Reserve to monetize the debt. At the numbers we are now talking about, getting rid of fraud and wasted government expenditures is a rounding error. Let’s say you could find $100 billion here or there. You are still a long, long way from a balanced budget. But implicit in the CBO projections is the assumption that we will not have a recession in the next 10 years. Plus, the CBO assumes growth above what we’ve seen in the last year or so.
German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble called on governments in Europe and the U.S. to encourage their central banks to gradually exit easy-money policies, in the strongest sign yet of Berlin’s growing impatience with the ultralow interest rates of the ECB. “There is a growing understanding that excessive liquidity has become more a cause than a solution to the problem,” Mr. Schäuble said, comparing the move away from easy-money policies to ending a drug addiction. The unusually blunt comments from Chancellor Angela Merkel’s closest political ally come as the ECB has repeatedly ramped up its stimulus in recent months, seeking to support economic growth in the face of rising global headwinds and financial-market volatility.
While Mr. Schäuble’s opposition to the ECB’s monetary policy is well known, the veteran politician has voiced his criticism more openly lately, suggesting Berlin is growing impatient amid a mounting popular backlash against a policy that has depleted the returns on the savings of millions of Germans. Government officials and central bankers are preparing to converge on Washington, D.C., next week for the Spring meetings of the IMF, where they are expected to discuss policies to revive global growth. Speaking in Kronberg near Frankfurt late Friday at a prize ceremony organized by a German economic think tank, Mr. Schäuble said he had just discussed central-bank policies with his U.S. counterpart, Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew. “I just said to Jack Lew that you should encourage the Federal Reserve and we should encourage the ECB and the Bank of England in a concerted action, to carefully but slowly exit,” Mr. Schäuble said.
In the U.S., the Treasury secretary doesn’t have authority over the Federal Reserve, which is tasked with setting monetary policy. The ECB has twice ramped up its €1.5 trillion stimulus since December, most recently in March, when it rolled out a series of rate cuts, cheap loans for banks and an acceleration of bond purchases. Top ECB officials have stressed in recent days that they are ready to do even more to support the bloc’s economy. Meanwhile Federal Reserve officials have signaled that the U.S. central bank will raise rates only gradually until the global economy picks up steam, according to the minutes of their March policy meeting. Japan’s central bank stunned the markets in January by setting the country’s first negative interest rates.
The U.S. ought to be spending more on infrastructure. This is the view of all right-thinking people, and as a right-thinking person I of course endorse it. With interest rates near record lows and the working-age population still, by historical and international standards, underemployed, governments (or in some cases entrepreneurs) should be borrowing much more to repave roads, shore up bridges, expand mass-transit systems, build new sewage-treatment plants, replace water mains, you name it. Such borrowing and spending would make the nation richer by stimulating economic activity now and paving the way for stronger economic growth in the future.
That said, the U.S. probably also ought to be spending less on infrastructure. Not overall, but on something like a per-mile basis. Broad international cost comparisons across all kinds of infrastructure don’t seem to be available, but there is a growing body of evidence on one particular infrastructure area that matters a lot to me as a New York City commuter: subways and other rail systems. And it shows that U.S. construction costs are among the world’s highest.
Transportation blogger Alon Levy has probably done the most to raise awareness of this, with five years of posts documenting the cost differences. And last year, Tracy Gordon of the Urban-Brookings Tax Policy Center and David Schleicher of Yale Law School examined 144 planned and finished rail projects in 44 countries and found that the four most expensive on a per-kilometer basis (and six of the top 12) were in the U.S. To put these numbers in global perspective, New York’s Second Avenue Subway will cost roughly eight times more than Tokyo’s Koto Waterfront line and 36 times more than Madrid’s Metrosur tunnels on a per-kilometer, purchasing power parity (PPP) basis.
Why is this? It’s actually pretty hard to answer. Here’s Levy, writing in November 2014: “I try to avoid giving explanations for these patterns of construction costs. If I knew for certain what caused them, I would not be blogging; I would be forming a consultancy and teaching New York and other high-cost cities how to build subways for less than $100 million per kilometer.” Still, others have been willing to offer explanations. In a 2012 Bloomberg View piece, New York land-use and transit writer Stephen Smith blamed over-reliance on outside consultants, overly ambitious station architecture and a legal system that favors contractors over the agencies paying them to build things.
Gordon and Schleicher agreed that the legal system may be an issue, but for other reasons: “Many of the world’s most expensive projects are in the United Kingdom, Australia, and New Zealand, which, like the United States, have common-law systems. So it might be that common-law systems provide legal protections for property owners – allowing more lawsuits over noise, smoke, and other nuisances, as well as limits on eminent domain – that increase costs by forcing the government to pay off opponents or to locate projects inefficiently to avoid angering property owners.” They also cite political fragmentation as a factor that drives up costs – U.S. commuter rail systems often cross city and state lines, which brings coordination challenges – and note that when regional authorities are created to manage these challenges, they can bring a whole new set of problems.
The latest flare up regarding Greece has followed publication by Wikileaks of illegally taped discussions among IMF officials. To analyse the significance of this event it is vital to bear one point in mind: Greece cannot meet the terms of the bailout agreement struck on July 2015 by Prime Minister, Alexis Tsipras. The agreement is effectively dead and all parties involved are aware of that, even if they are not openly admitting it. To establish this point there is no need to engage either in Debt Sustainability Analysis, or in macroeconomic projections of output. Suffice to mention that the agreement requires Greece to ensure a primary surplus of 3.5% of GDP in 2018.
The Greek economy actually returned to recession in the last quarter of 2015 and the available indicators since the end of 2015 have ranged from bad to appalling: industrial turnover in December was down 13.5%, retail turnover in January down 3.8%, unemployment in the last quarter of 2015 up to 24.4%, job vacancies for the whole of the economy in the last quarter of 2015 stood at a pitiful 3119, and the banking system currently has perhaps €115bn of non-performing exposure, roughly 50% of its loan book. Once the austerity measures of the bailout agreement kick in, substantially reducing aggregate demand for 2016-17 via tax increases and lower pensions, the recession will become deeper. There is no way that this ruined economy could generate a 3.5% primary surplus in 2018. The problems thereby created for all parties to this disastrous bailout are legion.
In the worst position is the Greek government, which signed up to the bailout in direct contravention of everything that it had promised to do in 2015. As the reality of its deception and the harshness of the squeeze have begun to sink in, electoral support for Tsipras has vanished. All competent polls show the opposition New Democracy – with a new leader – comfortably ahead. The outlook has become even worse for SYRIZA via the refugee wave, which has turned Greece into a kind of EU repository for refugees and migrants. For the time being the country has avoided a major crisis, but the situation remains extremely fraught as the deportation of migrants to Turkey has just started.
In this context, the last thing that the Tsipras government would like to do is to impose further pressure on wage earners, or tax payers in an attempt to meet the impossible target of 3.5%. On the contrary, it is extremely keen to complete the first review of the bailout programme on a nod and a wink, pretending that current measures are sufficient to hit the bailout targets. It then hopes to receive a tranche of bailout money that will give it breathing space for a few months. The government’s further hope is that investment will pick up by the end of 2016, possibly through foreign capital inflows, thus allowing the economy to recover somewhat.
The island of Lesbos tends to go to town when celebrities descend. The last time it welcomed a VIP, the razorwire running along large parts of its infamous detention centre was hastily removed. Angelina Jolie got a brief glimpse of it as she walked in, but reportedly not as she later walked around the camp greeting migrants and refugees. The superstar special envoy of the UN high commissioner for refugees (UNHCR) was instead given an edited view of the camp, volunteers say. It will be different when Pope Francis flies in on Saturday. The purpose of the pontiff’s visit to the Aegean is to see the migrant emergency up close, and the authorities are keen that no blinkers are involved. This time, the island on the frontline of the biggest movement of people in modern times intends to show it as it is.
“We won’t be changing anything,” says mayor Spyros Galinos when asked if municipal workers will at least be cleaning up the graffiti on the camp’s walls. “His visit has huge symbolism. It is what we have wanted, what we have seen in our sleep, what we have dreamed of for years.” For four hours, Francis will grant that wish when he arrives in Greece for what will be a rare papal visit. The leader of the worldwide Catholic church will be accompanied by the Istanbul-based spiritual leader of the world’s 300 million Orthodox Christians, Bartholomew I, and Ieronymos II of Athens, head of the Greek Orthodox church. It will be a whirlwind tour of the island traversed by many of the 1.1 million men, women and children who have streamed into Europe, mostly from Syria but also from other parts of the Middle East, Africa and Asia last year.
The pope has long had refugees in his sights – and encyclicals. The trip, say Vatican officials, is aimed squarely at drawing attention to the centre of Europe’s migration crisis. By highlighting the “increasingly precarious living conditions for thousands of refugees and migrants” who have reached Lesbos, the Holy See’s newspaper, L’Osservatore Romano, said Francis hoped to offer a “Christian response to the tragedy that is unfolding”. [..] “His visit is not going to do anything for one single refugee in this country,” laments Alison Terry-Evans, who runs Dirty Girls, an organisation in Lesbos that launders blankets distributed by the UNHCR and the wet clothes of arriving refugees. “It is so hypocritical that a man who heads a multibillion-dollar corporation like the Vatican is unlikely to take any action that will contribute financially. That is the pity of it. ”
Greece says it will take at least two weeks to fix the process of deporting migrants from the eastern Aegean islands to Turkey. The country’s deputy foreign minister for European affairs, Nikos Xydakis, admitted as much at a press conference attended also by his colleagues from France, Italy, Malta and Portugal, as well as the foreign ministers of the Netherlands and Slovakia. Deportations from Greece to Turkey have been temporarily halted as most of the 6,750 migrants in the Greek islands are applying for asylum and there is a lack of qualified officials such as translators to process the applications.
Most of the experts promised by the EU have not yet arrived. French European affairs minister Harlem Desir is urging refugees from war-torn Syria and Iraq to follow legal procedures to seek asylum in Europe rather than risk their lives in the perilous sea crossing into Greece, which now leads only back to Turkey, since Balkan countries north of Greece have shut their borders. Desir says France will welcome 200 refugees directly from Turkey “in the coming days and weeks.”
Combined tightening by the United States and China has done its worst. Global liquidity is evaporating. What looked liked a gentle tap on the brakes by the two monetary superpowers has proved too much for a fragile world economy, still locked in “secular stagnation”. The latest investor survey by Bank of America shows that fund managers no longer believe the European Central Bank will step into the breach with quantitative easing of its own, at least on a worthwhile scale. Markets are suddenly prey to the disturbing thought that the five-and-a-half year expansion since the Lehman crisis may already be over, before Europe has regained its prior level of output. That is the chief reason why the price of Brent crude has crashed by 25pc since June. It is why yields on 10-year US Treasuries have fallen to 1.96pc, and why German Bunds are pricing in perma-slump at historic lows of 0.81pc this week. We will find out soon whether or not this a replay of 1937 when the authorities drained stimulus too early, and set off the second leg of the Great Depression.
If this growth scare presages the end of the cycle, the consequences will be hideous for France, Italy, Spain, Holland, Portugal, Greece, Bulgaria, and others already in deflation, or close to it. The higher their debt ratios, the worse the damage. Forward-looking credit swaps already suggest that the US Federal Reserve will not be able to raise interest rates next year, or the year after, or ever, one might say. It is starting to look as if the withdrawal of $85bn of bond purchases each month is already tantamount to a normal cycle of rate rises, enough in itself to trigger a downturn. Put another way, it is possible that the world economy is so damaged that it needs permanent QE just to keep the show on the road. Traders are taking bets on capitulation by the Fed as it tries to find new excuses to delay rate rises, this time by talking down the dollar. “Talk of ‘QE4’ and renewed bond buying is doing the rounds,” said Kit Juckes from Societe Generale.
Gentle declines in the price of oil are typically benign, a shot in the arm for companies and consumers alike. The rule of thumb is that each $10 drop in the price adds 0.3pc to GDP growth over the next year. Crashes are another story. They signal global stress, doubly dangerous today because the whole industrial world is one shock away from a deflation trap, a psychological threshold where we batten down the hatches and wait for cheaper prices. That is the Ninth Circle of Hell in economics. Lasciate ogni speranza. The world is also more stretched. Morgan Stanley calculates that gross global leverage has risen from $105 trillion to $150 trillion since 2007. Debt has risen to 275pc of GDP in the rich world, and to 175pc in emerging markets. Both are up 20 percentage points since 2007, and both are historic records.
Investors are blaming an unprecedented lack of liquidity for Wednesday’s gut-wrenching stock market open, which saw the S&P 500 fall as much as 2.2% from Tuesday’s close, sent the VIX screaming to 28 and led to outsized moves in major stocks like Disney. According to Eric Hunsader of Nanex, there were 179 “mini flash crashes” during the first 15 minutes of trading, which is the most since the Knight Capital Group fiasco in August 2012. Additionally, Hunsader reports that there were 68 trades in the S&P e-mini that moved that key futures contract 3 or more ticks. And Treasury futures, too, moved sharply as a result of low liquidity. The definition that Nanex uses for a mini flash crash is that a stock sees 10 or more down ticks, for a price change exceeding 0.8%, within 1.5 seconds. “There was no liquidity at all, so it doesn’t take a whole lot of size to really move the price,” Hunsader told CNBC. But “some people come in, and they’re used to buying or selling X-amount, and they’re not paying attention. And X-amount now causes significant movements in price.”
When this lack of liquidity collided with a great number of traders willing to get out at any price, markets got ugly. “This was a pukage. People were putting in market order to sell on the open—’Just get me out’—without thinking,” said Brian Stutland of Equity Armor Investments. The issue, Hunsader said, is that high-frequency trading creates the appearance of liquidity. He gives the example of a trader who wants to buy 10,000 shares of a stock. That order might get routed to two exchanges, but instead of the order getting completed with 5,000 shares traded on each exchange, the first trade of 5,000 shares will cause the other 5,000 share offered on the other exchange to dry up. When these are market-order trades to buy or sell at the available price, the effect of this is a ricochet effect that leads to an outsized move. This explains why not all of Wednesday morning’s moves were to the downside.
The selloff in global markets is set to continue as a bear market takes hold “for a long period of time,” according to widely followed investor Dennis Gartman, who warned investors not to go long on stocks. “This is the start of a bear market,” Gartman, the founder of the closely watched Gartman Letter, told CNBC Europe’s “Squawk Box” on Thursday. “You stay in cash and you stay in short term bonds and you don’t move out, this is a very difficult period of time and I’m afraid – and I don’t like to think about it – but this might be the very beginnings of a bear market that could last some period of time,” he warned. Gartman’s comments come amid global market turmoil, particularly in the U.S. this week on the back of weaker economic data and fears of an economic slowdown in previous growth engines China, the U.S. and Germany. [..]
Gartman warned that there was going to be “more than a mere 7% to 10% correction” in markets which had enjoyed a bull run since the U.S. Federal Reserve announced an unprecedented bond-buying program designed to stimulate growth in the world’s largest economy. “I don’t like to be that way- you have to remember that in the business of trading…in the business of trading bears don’t eat. Only bulls in the market enjoy the upside, only bulls actually get paid over time. I don’t like to be bearish but this is a time to be at least neutral and perhaps at worst bearish.” Earlier this week, Gartman told CNBC he has “north of 80% in cash and short-term bond funds.” He said Wednesday’s flight to Treasurys was “real panic buying in the bond market probably by those that have been short, because so many people have been bearish of the bond market.”
The global economy faces its biggest test of confidence since the European sovereign debt crisis as investors fear it’s running out of engines. Japan and the euro area are throwing up fresh signs of weakness by the day and emerging markets such as China are dragging instead of driving growth. The sense of tumult is being exacerbated by war in the Middle East, the standoff in Ukraine, street protests in Hong Kong and the spread of Ebola to Dallas. The worry is that five years since the world limped out of recession, central banks have virtually exhausted their stimulus arsenals if activity keeps fading. That leaves the hopes of financial markets riding on the U.S. to resume its historical role as a locomotive robust enough to pull up demand elsewhere. “The global economy and the markets have a history of traumatic economic events,” said Paul Mortimer-Lee, chief economist for North America at BNP Paribas SA in New York.
“Psychologically and physically they have not recovered fully and are anxious about a relapse.” The doubts were evident across financial markets yesterday as a bear market in oil deepened, the Standard & Poor’s 500 Index came close to surrendering its gains for the year and bonds from Germany to the U.S. rallied. The Chicago Board Options Exchange Volatility Index (VIX), a measure of investor nerves known as the VIX, is at its highest since June 2012. U.S. stocks pared losses after Bloomberg News reported that Fed Chair Janet Yellen voiced confidence in the durability of the American expansion at a closed-door meeting in Washington last weekend. The S&P 500 closed 0.8% lower after dropping as much as 3%.
The sudden slump in oil prices, which have fallen 15% in the past three months, has sent tremors through the capitals of the world’s great oil powers, many of whom could face testing budget crunches if the tendency persists. Higher output coupled with weaker demand from China and Europe has driven the price of crude down to $85 – its lowest for four years. The US also now produces 65% more oil than it did five years ago following the boom in shale production. The rise has contributed to the global glut of crude and allowed the US to import 3.1 million fewer barrels of oil a day compared with its peak in 2005. Prices are now well below the level on which many oil exporters have based their budgets.
If prices remain weak – and many forecasters suggest they will – then from Moscow to Caracas and from Lagos to Tehran governments will start to feel the impact on macroeconomic policy. Brent has averaged $103 since 2010 – trading mostly between $100 and $120 – so a continued period of $80 oil, or less, would have an impact across the world, and from multiple angles. The lower price isn’t bad news for everyone. For example, India would not suffer much – commodities account for 52% of India’s imports but only 9% of its exports (paywall), and unlike Brazil, Russia or South Africa, India would reap immediate advantages from a fall in commodity prices.
The lowest oil price in four years will provide stimulus of as much as $1.1 trillion to global economies by lowering the cost of fuels and other commodities, according to Citigroup Inc. Brent, the world’s most active crude contract, closed at $83.78 a barrel in London yesterday. That’s more than 20% below its average for the past three years, amounting to savings of about $1.8 billion a day based on current output, Citigroup estimates. Savings will climb to $1.1 trillion annually as the slide cuts costs of other commodities, leaving consumers and companies with extra cash to spend and bolstering growth, according to Ed Morse, the bank’s head of global commodities research in New York.
Crude prices are plunging amid signs that OPEC, supplier of 40% of the world’s oil, won’t act to eliminate a surplus as global growth slows. Combined supplies from the U.S. and Canada rose last year to the highest since at least 1965 as producers tapped stores locked in shale-rock formations and oil sands. The global economy will rebound next year, with growth quickening to 2.98%, the fastest since 2010, according to analyst forecasts compiled by Bloomberg. “A reduction in oil prices also results in a reduction in prices across commodities, starting with natural gas, but also including copper, steel, and agriculture,” Morse said yesterday in an e-mailed response to questions. “All commodities are energy intensive to one degree or another.”
U.S. oil producers that saw profits soar on the North American shale boom are feeling the downside of success: falling prices and shrinking cash are threatening to slow development. At the same time, as crude prices approach four-year lows, natural gas companies are experiencing a reversal of fortune after having been shunned by many investors when a supply glut drove the fuel to a decade-low. Gas producers are now viewed as a safer haven than oil companies. Whiting Petroleum hit an all-time high in August after striking a deal to become the biggest oil producer in North Dakota, the state with the second-largest output. It has since lost more than $4 billion in value as its shares plunged 38%. Meanwhile, Southwestern Energy, an independent producer whose output is 99% gas, has fallen just 13%. “Natural gas is becalmed through this,” Donald Coxe, who manages about $200 million at Coxe Advisorsin Chicago, said in an interview. “It is Walden Pond compared to a hurricane in Florida.”
Whiting is one of 26 companies on the S&P Oil & Gas Exploration and Production Select Industry Index that have declined more than 30% in the past month. Shale producers had shifted their focus to more profitable oil as gas prices fell. Now a growing glut of crude has deflated the price of the U.S. benchmark by 18% in the past three months, as gas futures dropped 7.2%. “We’re running into a wall,” said Scott Hanold, an Austin, Texas-based analyst for RBC Capital Markets. “We’re producing more light, sweet crude than we need.” West Texas Intermediate touched $80.01 a barrel, the lowest since June 2012, on the New York Mercantile Exchange today. Brent prices, an international benchmark, fell to the lowest price since November 2010. Exploration and production companies “just drill and produce and all at once say, ‘My God, we’ve oversupplied the market,’” T. Boone Pickens said in an Oct. 9 interview. If crude prices stay below $80 a barrel for three months, they “are going to sober up.”
Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen voiced confidence in the durability of the U.S. economic expansion in the face of slowing global growth and turbulent financial markets at a closed-door meeting in Washington last weekend, according to two people familiar with her comments. The people, who asked not to be named because the meeting was private, said Yellen told the Group of 30 that the economy looked to be on track to achieve growth of around 3%. She also saw inflation eventually rising back to the Fed’s 2% target as unemployment falls further, according to the people. The G-30 describes itself as a “nonprofit, international body composed of very senior representatives of the private and public sectors and academia.” Former European Central Bank President Jean-Claude Trichet is chairman, and former Fed Chairman Paul Volcker is chairman emeritus. G-30 Executive Director Stuart Mackintosh was unavailable for immediate comment.
Stocks pared losses after Yellen’s comments were reported, and Treasury yields rose. The S&P 500 was down 0.8% to 1,862.49 at the 4 p.m. close of trading in New York after falling as much as 3%. The yield on the two-year Treasury note was down 5 basis points, or 0.05 %age point, to 0.32% after dropping as much as 13 basis points. “She expressed some confidence” in the outlook, said Thomas Roth, senior Treasury trader in New York at Mitsubishi UFJ Securities USA Inc. Yellen’s reported remarks were roughly in line with the forecasts presented by Fed policy makers at their last meeting in September. They saw the economy growing by 2.6 to 3% next year and inflation rising to 1.7 to 2% in 2016, according to their central tendency forecasts, which excludes the three highest and three lowest projections.
An afternoon rebound helped the Standard & Poor’s 500 Index pare its biggest intraday plunge since 2011 amid speculation the selloff was overdone. The S&P 500 lost 0.8% to 1,862.49 at 4 p.m. in New York, trimming an earlier plunge of as much as 3%. The index pared its gain for the year to less than 0.8% and has tumbled 7.4% since a record on Sept. 18. The Dow Jones Industrial Average fell 173.45 points, or 1.1%, to 16,141.74 after dropping as much as 460 points. The Russell 2000 Index of smaller companies jumped 1%. “Investor sentiment has clearly been pummeled of late as some signs of surrender are forming,” Tobias Levkovich, Citigroup Inc.’s chief U.S. equity strategist in New York, wrote in a note today. “While no one ever rings a bell at the bottom and there is not generally a cathartic, cataclysmic crescendo of capitulation, fear is emerging which intimates that a floor may be within reach.”
The Chicago Board Options Exchange Volatility Index, the benchmark gauge of options prices known as the VIX, jumped 15% to 26.25, the highest level since 2012, amid demand for protection against losses in equities. Almost 12 billion shares changed hands in the U.S., the most since October 2011. Stocks pared losses after the S&P 500 fell to its low of the day of 1,820.66 shortly before 1:30 p.m. in New York. About an hour later, Bloomberg News reported that Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen voiced confidence in the durability of the U.S. economic expansion in the face of slowing global growth and turbulent financial markets at a closed-door meeting in Washington last weekend. Retail sales in the U.S. dropped more than forecast in September, decreasing 0.3% after a 0.6% gain in August that was the biggest in four months, Commerce Department figures showed. Another report today showed manufacturing in the Federal Reserve Bank of New York’s region slowed more than projected in October. The bank’s so-called Empire State index dropped to 6.2 this month from an almost five-year high of 27.5 in September. Readings greater than zero signal growth.
Just last month, Europe’s stocks were trading near their highest levels in six years, with optimism spreading that central-bank stimulus would ignite the economy. Much has changed. The Stoxx Europe 600 Index plunged the most in almost three years yesterday, closing down 11% from its June high to meet the definition of a correction. At one point, Greece’s ASE Index was down 10% from the previous day’s close, finishing with a loss of 6.3%. Italy’s FTSE MIB Index fell 4.4% and Portugal’s PSI 20 Index hit a two-year low. Europe is leading a rout that has wiped almost $5 trillion from the value of equities worldwide. While data on everything from industrial production in Germany to manufacturing in the U.K. has contributed to the gloom, sentiment began souring on Oct. 2, when European Central Bank President Mario Draghi stopped short of spelling out how many assets the ECB might buy to head off deflation.
“The shock to markets has been so big in the past days, I have doubt that equities will recover from this very quickly,” Francois Savary, chief investment officer of management firm Reyl & Cie., said in a phone interview from Geneva. “Draghi’s latest communication to the market was a nightmare.” Equities in the Stoxx 600 have lost more than 6% since Draghi spoke this month as investors came to grips with prospects that policy makers might lack tools to keep Europe out of its second recession in a year. It was Draghi’s promise to leave no option off the table in saving the euro that ended the region’s last crisis. “It’s the realization that there’s a real limit to his ‘whatever it takes’ promise,” said Savary. “Any signs that U.S. growth won’t do as well as expected throws markets into a panic because it’s still carrying the global economic recovery on its shoulders.”
It’s the banking fix which is meant to set Europe on the path to economic recovery. Regrettably, it’s all too likely to be just another damp squib. Too little, too late, and too backward looking, it may already have become largely irrelevant for a continent that seems fast to be slipping into deflation. For much of the past year, the European Union’s 130 largest banks, together accounting for 85pc of European banking assets, have been conducting an exhaustive process of “stress testing” their balance sheets against a series of supposedly worst-case economic calamities. One bank, I’m told, has devoted 20pc of its staff to the tests, leaving everything else to go to hell in a handcart. The purpose of the exercise is to identify which banks do not have sufficient capital to meet the imagined shocks, and then require them to recapitalise accordingly, thus restoring confidence in a banking system that nobody trusts as things stands.
The results are due to be published on 26 October, triggering further capital raising which according to some City estimates could amount to €50bn or more. This is in addition to the €70bn already raised so far this year in anticipation. Once complete, then credit growth can begin anew, and economic recovery will follow seamlessly in its wake. That at least is the hope; as ever with Europe, it seems to be built largely on sand. There have been two previous attempts to stress test Europe’s banks. The first was so deficient that it famously found the Irish banking system to be perfectly solvent. Since then, a sum roughly equivalent to half a year’s national GDP has been spent on Irish bailouts. The second one wasn’t much better, so there is a lot riding on the third attempt, particularly as it marks the ECB’s official appointment as overarching supervisor for the eurozone banking system.
The birth of a “single supervisory mechanism” for Europe is, by the way, in itself proving a mind numbingly complicated process, involving multiple layers of duplication, instruction and general regulatory grief. If there is still a banking sector left at all by the time the bureaucrats have had their fill, it will be a minor miracle. There will be 69 individual “supervisors” looking after Deutsche Bank alone, with the lead regulator a French national to avoid any suspicion of national favouritism. Likewise, the lead supervisor for BNP Paribas will be Spanish. It would be amusing to think the Greek banking system will be assigned a German, but that might be thought an insensitivity too far.
Germany’s state governments stepped up calls for infrastructure spending, adding another source of pressure on Chancellor Angela Merkel to boost investment as economic growth falters. Much like Merkel’s national government, the states are caught between a deteriorating growth outlook and the balanced-budget drive that Germany started in response to the euro area’s debt crisis. It’s making the 16 regions set aside political differences to challenge the status quo, from rich Bavaria to rural Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania in the east, home to Merkel’s electoral district. A day after the German government lowered its growth outlook, proposals to spend more on projects such as highways in Europe’s biggest economy are on the table at a retreat of state premiers starting today that Merkel plans to attend.
“To unleash growth impulses, additional investment is needed in infrastructure and other future-oriented sectors,” according to a summary of the states’ negotiating position in fiscal talks with the federal government that was prepared for the meeting in Potsdam. The states want a “lasting” funding boost, saying a lack of spending is holding back economic development nationwide. The struggle in Germany parallels the international conflict pitting Merkel and Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble against the International Monetary Fund and countries such as France and Italy that advocate spending to stimulate growth. Germany cut its forecast as investor confidence fell to the lowest level in two years, the latest in a series of data fueling speculation the country may be facing recession.
Merkel didn’t flinch, telling lawmakers yesterday that Germany won’t raise public spending and reaffirming her goal of balancing the budget next year, according to a party official who asked not to be named because the session was private. While Merkel said last week her government is looking at measures that don’t threaten her budget goal, such as spurring investment in digital technology and renewable energy, she and Schaeuble say fiscal leeway is tight. “We are agreed in the German federal government that we must stay the course even in difficult times,” Schaeuble said after a meeting of European Union finance ministers yesterday.
The notion requires something of an-apples-and-oranges leap, but President Vladimir Putin of Russia and Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany may have more in common than their experience in the former East Germany and the ability to speak each other’s language. Both defy their critics by continuing to pursue policies that are bad for economic growth. From their perspective, however, it may make sense to resist placing growth above other considerations. Conventional wisdom holds that if gross domestic product is growing, a government must be doing something right, or at least nothing too wrong. If GDP drops 0.2%, as it did in Germany in the second quarter of this year, and especially if it goes down for two consecutive quarters – the formal definition of a recession – the government is supposed to do something about it.
Merkel is under pressure to borrow and spend more to address the slowdown. For Putin, who is faced with a potential recession, the course would be comply with Western demands on Ukraine and earn the lifting of economic sanctions. The GDP, however, is a deeply flawed reflection of a nation’s welfare. Simon Kuznets, who laid the groundwork for the modern methods of GDP calculation, asked in a report to the U.S. Congress in 1934, “If the GDP is up, why is America down?” He continued: “Distinctions must be kept in mind between quantity and quality of growth, between costs and returns, and between the short and long run. Goals for more growth should specify more growth of what and for what.” Both Merkel and Putin are trying to mind those distinctions.
In Germany, the low growth and threat of recession don’t necessarily mean living standards will deteriorate. Economics Minister Sigmar Gabriel forecast that the number of working Germans would increase by 325,000 this year, and by half as many more in 2015. At the same time, he said, the number of unemployed would stay at 2.9 million, or about 4.9%. Net wages per employee will increase by 2.6% this year and by 2.7% next year. With such numbers in hand, German officials must be asking themselves what would be achieved if they gave in to the growing demands from both home and abroad to resort to deficit spending.
What a dismal time for bond traders who were optimistic about growth. Investors who poured more than $1 billion this year into a $3.8 billion leveraged exchange-traded fund that bets against long-dated U.S. Treasuries are suffering a 10.7% loss this month alone, Bloomberg data show. The fund is down 36.5% this year, a small window into the magnitude of pain in a market where many traders have been wagering debt prices would fall. Treasuries have defied predictions across Wall Street for higher yields all year, and yesterday’s move is sending bond bears into a tailspin. Yields on 10-year Treasuries fell the most since March 2009, trading below 2% for the first time since June 2013 as a decline in retail sales prompted traders to reduce wagers the Federal Reserve will start raising interest rates next year. The move is in part driven by traders covering their short bets, according to Jack Flaherty, an investment manager at GAM USA in New York. “There’s been weakness, weakness, weakness and today it’s just ‘Get me out’,” Flaherty said yesterday.
Primary dealers had the biggest short position on benchmark government notes at the beginning of the month since June 2013. They had a net $20.7 billion wager against notes maturing in the seven-to-eleven year range in the week ended Oct. 1, Fed data show. It seems, though, that almost everything in the world is going against these bears right now. The global economy is slowing down, the Ebola epidemic in Western Africa is spreading, and conflicts in Iraq and Syria are escalating. All of that is translating into a surge in demand for the safety of Treasuries. “We keep thinking we’re getting capitulation trades, but clearly there’s a lot more skeletons in the closet than we thought,” Ira Jersey, an interest-rate strategist at Credit Suisse in New York, wrote in an e-mail. “We’re also seeing more flight to quality buyers out of global asset classes that are considered ‘riskier.’” Adding to the bout of general anxiety overwhelming the market was the data yesterday showing that U.S. retail sales dropped more than forecast in September on a broad pullback in spending.
Not a lot of money there lately. They should all disband and find something useful to do with their lives. These are not stupid people, but they do make stupid choices like chasing money 24/7. Go be useful to society, I’d say.
Hedge funds are on course for their worst year since 2011, as several of their biggest and most popular trades turned sour and some managers were forced to cut their losses. Wednesday’s new and sudden fall in US Treasury yields wrongfooted numerous funds that had positioned themselves for rising interest rates and an improving macroeconomy. Hedge fund bets on tax-driven mergers and on US housing finance giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac have also unraveled this month. October is shaping up to be a worse month for some hedge funds even than September, when the industry lost 0.75%. Big name managers including so-called “Tiger cubs” Rob Citrone, Philippe Laffont and Chase Coleman, who used to work under veteran hedge fund manager Julian Robertson at Tiger Management, have all fallen into the red as technology stocks have been hard hit.
Claren Road, the hedge fund controlled by Carlyle Group, has suffered an 11% fall in its credit opportunities fund since the start of October. Some funds have pulled back their positions as financial market volatility has jumped in recent weeks, and more appeared to capitulate on Wednesday amid a flash crash in US Treasury yields. The unexpected drop in the price of oil has created cascading losses through popular hedge fund trades, said Mino Capossela, head of liquid alternative investments for Credit Suisse Asset Management. The price of Brent crude has fallen by almost a quarter since mid-June. As well as using oil as a bet on improving economic growth, funds have also bought energy stocks and bonds. Oil companies have been among the biggest recent issuers of high-yield bonds, meaning that credit funds have also been affected.
The United States on Wednesday renewed a warning that Europe risks falling into a downward spiral of falling wages and prices, saying recent actions by the European Central Bank may not be enough to ward off deflation. In a semiannual report to Congress, the U.S. Treasury Department said Berlin could do more to help Europe, namely by boosting the German economy. “Europe faces the risk of a prolonged period of substantially below-target inflation or outright deflation,” the Treasury said.
The U.S. said China has shown “some renewed willingness” to let the yuan strengthen while reiterating the currency “remains significantly undervalued.” In a twice-yearly report to Congress on foreign exchange, the Treasury Department said changes to China’s currency policy remain incomplete and the world’s second-largest economy should allow the market to play a greater role in setting the yuan’s value. The report covering the first half of this year concluded that no country was designated a currency manipulator. The Treasury reiterated its call for more balanced global growth as the U.S. economy gathers strength, the euro area and Japan struggle, and emerging markets such as China face slowdowns. Countries including Germany, where domestic demand has been “persistently weak,” need to do more to support domestic growth and help the world economy, the report said.
“The report tries to strike a fine balance between encouraging economies that have weak growth and current-account surpluses to boost domestic demand, but to do so using fiscal policy and other responses,” said Eswar Prasad, a professor of trade policy at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, and a senior fellow at the Washington-based Brookings Institution. China should build on “the apparent recent reduction in foreign-exchange intervention and durably curb its activities in the foreign-exchange market,” the department said in yesterday’s report. The Treasury also pushed for changes in South Korea, saying the won “should be allowed to appreciate further.” Treasury Secretary Jacob J. Lew, in a meeting with South Korea’s finance minister last month, emphasized the importance of avoiding currency intervention.
The Treasury said Japanese authorities need to “carefully calibrate the pace of overall fiscal consolidation” to help escape deflation, according to the report. “Monetary policy cannot offset excessive fiscal consolidation nor can it substitute for necessary structural reforms that raise trend growth and domestic demand.” To boost growth, Japan could raise household income through greater labor-force participation and higher earnings to “durably increase” consumers’ buying appetite, the Treasury said. The yen has depreciated 23% from October 2012 to August 2014 on a real trade-weighted basis, according to the report.
Your parents dated the way Warren Buffett picks a stock: a close review of the prospectus over dinner, careful analysis of long-term growth potential, detailed real asset evaluation. Sure, the old economy dating market in which they participated had the occasional speculative frenzy: Woodstock, V-E day, whatever went on at Studio 54. My parents met during spring break. In Florida. But love and its compounding interests were usually pursued with appropriate due diligence. Then came the Internet. The “innovation” that has driven the financial industry over the last two decades has also transformed the dating market, with similar effects on romance as on the economy. The traditional focus on long-term security—marriage and retirement—has been replaced by a relentless pursuit of instant gratification and immediate returns. These days, the Wolf is as much on Tinder as on Wall Street.
Just look at what online dating has done to the meet market. The speed and frequency of transactions has gone up. Volatility has spiked as relationship investment strategy has changed from building long-term value to quarterly—or nightly—profits. New investors have entered the market with greater ease, although all too often only to be taken advantage of by more sophisticated players. New avenues for fraud have opened up: Manti Te’o meet Bernie Madoff on Ashley Madison. Even inequality has risen. Some investors are rolling in it; others have just lost their shirts. How did the bedroom end up looking so much like the boardroom? In successive waves, innovation pioneered in the financial markets has been adopted to dating. Online dating’s initial trading platforms—Match created in 1995, JDate in 1997, etc.—were the relationship equivalent to the online trading sites that first allowed investors to directly manage their own portfolios. Think “Talk to Chuck,” except if he can message you first (hopefully not about the size of his portfolio).
A second Texas nurse who has contracted Ebola told a U.S. health official she had a slight fever and was allowed to board a plane from Ohio to Texas, a federal source said on Wednesday, intensifying concerns about the U.S. response to the deadly virus. The nurse, Amber Vinson, 29, flew from Cleveland to Dallas on Monday, the day before she was diagnosed with Ebola, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) said. Vinson told the CDC her temperature was 99.5 Fahrenheit (37.5 Celsius). Since that was below the CDC’s temperature threshold of 100.4F (38C) “she was not told not to fly,” the source said. The news was first reported by CNN.
Chances that other passengers were infected were very low because Vinson did not vomit on the flight and was not bleeding, but she should not have been aboard, CDC Director Dr. Thomas Frieden told reporters. Congress will hold a hearing on Thursday on the U.S. response to Ebola, with Frieden and other officials scheduled to testify. Vinson was isolated immediately after reporting a fever on Tuesday, Texas Department of State Health Services officials said. She had treated Liberian patient Thomas Eric Duncan, who died of Ebola on Oct. 8 and was the first patient diagnosed with the virus in the United States. Vinson was transferred to Emory University Hospital in Atlanta by air ambulance and will be treated in a special isolation unit. Three other people have been treated there and two have been discharged, the hospital said in a statement.