Regular readers will know that I am very cynical about the talk of recovery in the Western economies. I recently posted on the optimism for the US economy, and pointed out the many indicators that suggested that the economy is a long way from recovery. Similar arguments may be made for the UK economy. However, for this post, I thought I would return to the underlying nature of the economic situation, and there are a few factors that I would like to highlight.
The first of these is that the balance of trade, and current account balances of the UK and US are still in negative territory. Rather than detail the situation as it stands, I will try to illustrate the profound problem this represents through a gross simplification. I hope I will be forgiven this method.
If we were to imagine a world in which there were only two trading countries, that their trade was confined to two products, and that their trade was undertaken as barter, we can strip out the complexities of currency, and see the underlying problem. For the example, we will imagine that one country exports packs of pharmaceutical pills, and the other country toys. In country A, they manufacture 100 packs of pills per day, with 100 workers manufacturing 1 packet of pills each per day. In country B, they manufacture 100 toys per day, with 200 workers producing half a toy each per day. The workers in country B are willing to exchange 1 toy for 1 packet of pills in barter exchange. As such, the productivity of country A is twice that of country B, implying that country A is by far the wealthier country.
The problem that then arises is as follows; Country A is consuming 80 packets of pills per day, but also consumes 40 toys per day. Furthermore, Country A is saving nothing, whilst Country B is saving some. In the table below, it is possible to see how, after five years of this arrangement, Country A owes country B a whole years labour per worker. I make no pretense that these are real figures, but they serve to illustrate principles ( I hope the table is clear, as Blogger shrinks the images down, which is very annoying). As a note the exchange value is 1 toy for one pack of pills, such that each represents 1 unit of output.
What we are looking at in this table is a country B with large numbers of workers, with low productivity, but relatively small consumption levels and a high savings rate overall. I have put a separate column for savings in the table, but the debt owed by country A is (of course) representative of savings. The point in having a separate column is just to emphasise that the individual consumers in country B are very thrifty and cautious, and they therefore hold back from committing all of their stored wealth as credit to Country A. In other words they keep a store of toys (money) ready for exchange in the event of emergency. The model only shows the export trading part of the economy, and this store of toys is there for the exchange of goods and services, but still represents stored value.
The purpose of the table is to show what happens when one country over-consumes, and another under-consumes. Despite the high productivity of Country A, they are still in deep, deep trouble. By seeing the trade in terms of barter rather than currency, it is apparent that it is labour that is being exchanged.
Typically, what we see is such ideas hidden under mountains of economic theory, and obscured by many complicating factors. However, if we look at trade in these simple terms, it is possible to see how, in the end, one worker ends up owing another worker a huge amount of their labour. In this scenario, each Country A worker owes country B an entire years worth of labour. When considering this, it is necessary to also factor in to the equation that no individual is able to actually give a year of their labour to repay debt, so this labour must be repaid over time. As such, of course, the labour that is providing the credit in goods would (and does) demand interest for foregoing the consumption that they might achieve now for future consumption.
The table does not therefore fully express the severity of the situation for country A.
If we apply such a principle to the real world, thinking of the US (like Country A) and China (like Country B) as obvious examples, it is possible to see that something, somehow, absolutely has to 'give'. If we remove the complications of currency, it is possible to see that there is huge amount of labour owed by the US to China. It is also possible to see that China has the savings that will allow it to ride through the current downturn. For real current account balance figures, the US can be found here, and China here.
Inevitably, life is not as neat as the illustrative example, but the principles are what really underpin the nature of trade. It is the exchange of labour between two countries, not the exchange of money. Money is just an intermediary that represents the equivalent of toys and packets of pills.
If we think of the world in terms of this underlying exchange of labour, then it becomes clear that the previous current account deficits of the US has put the economy very, very deep in debt. If we then view the ongoing current account deficits, then we can see that the problem is just getting worse, albeit at a slower rate. The US is confronted with choices, none of which are very palatable. The first choice is to accept the reality of the debts, and therefore do what is absolutely necessary. This is to live in a frugal way until the labour owed to China is repaid. This means, in practical terms, a significant decline in living standards, with a massive decline in consumption, as more of the value of labour is switched to exports. For China, this means that they would not have to work so hard to achieve the same living standard, or they might still work as hard and have a far higher living standard.
After all, if the US starts to use its labour to repay debts, then the value of that labour will flow into China in the form of goods and services.
It is at this point, that life gets somewhat more complicated. It is the question of how this might be achieved.
The simplified model ignored currency in order to illustrate the underlying principles of what has taken place in the world economy. However, the reality of the world is that it does have a currency system. The underlying problem that the US must confront is that, at current valuation of the $US (albeit it has fallen back recently), it can not compete with Chinese labour in many sectors (thus the ongoing deficits). This is a very curious situation.
What we currently have is a belief that the ongoing deficits and the existing debt of owed labour do not matter when considering the value of the $US. It is the only explanation of why the $US might be valued in the way that it is. In part, this is a result of a false confidence in the productive capacity of US workers and the US economy as a whole. Another part of the problem is that China has a nasty choice. The only way that they might be repaid for the labour owed by the US is to accept that part of the existing debt of labour owed be wiped off the slate. I will try to explain this difficult concept...
When Chinese labour was exchanged for promissory notes from the US, there was a belief that the US would eventually exchange the labour for the full value of the notes. The problem arises that, if the US were to make this exchange on the original terms, then US labour would be unable to exchange their labour for the products of Chinese labour. Quite simply, they owe too much of their labour, and repayment would mean that they are living in relative poverty. In short, their consumption would fall back to a degree where they would by buying very, very few goods and services. The Chinese economy is largely centred around provision of their labour to provide goods and services to the US economy, and the halting of the consumption in the US would leave many companies without a market.
Now if we return to the table example, it is apparent that the Chinese are very productive, but consume very little. They are cautious consumers. In order for the situation to be rectified, they need to consume more of their own output. In other words they need to live more wealthy lives. The trouble is that, for cultural and systemic reasons, they are cautious, and would rather not use their acquired wealth for immediate consumption. If they were to consume more of their output, then they would be in a position of living relatively wealthy lives, and this would be further bolstered by the repayment of the labour owed to China by the US.
The problem then arises as to what will happen to all the factories that have, in effect, been lending the labour to the US? If the US economy collapses, then there is no market for their goods. If they demand that the US repays the debt of labour owed (on the original terms) the US will be very poor, and will be unable to afford to buy any of the products of Chinese labour.
The Chinese are now in an uncomfortable position. It is apparent that the US would struggle to have its workers repay debt, and this would be a political nightmare to enact. Nobody likes to move from apparent wealth to actual relative poverty. As such, instead of accepting the underlying reality that is represented in the current account deficits, both the US and China are doing the equivalent of sticking their fingers in their ears and singing 'la, la, la, la!' at the top of their voices.
The real problem, however, is what the US is doing to try to rectify the problem. It is apparent that US labour has been doing the same as the country A workers in the table. They have been consuming more than they produce, and now owe significant amounts of their labour to China. Now that they are confronted with repayment of their debts, they simply do not want to pay. Furthermore, they are demanding that their ability to consume more than their output is continued.
The US government, rather than telling them the hard reality that it is repayment time, is telling them that they can, in fact, continue to consume more than they produce. In order to allow this to happen, they are using several rather dishonest measures. The first of these is that they are attempting (and currently succeeding) in persuading many countries, organisations and people, that the US is in a position to one day repay the debt of labour owed, and that the US has sufficient future output to repay even more debt to the labour of others in the future. The curious part of this is that, up to this point in time, they have offered no explanation of how the US might actually achieve such (increasingly massive) debt repayments.
The second measure that they are enacting is the policy of printing money, and the eventual devaluation of the $US. This is a measure to allow the US to default on the debts of the past. In the table, the barter exchange rate is 1 toy = 1 packet of pills. However, in the real world currency is an intermediary, and devaluation of the currency is a way of post hoc arranging that 1 toy = something like 0.6 packets of pills. In other words, they are reneging on their debt, and breaking their promise to pay.
Whilst this may resolve past debts through dishonest means, it still leaves the US with an underlying problem. The apparent wealth that they have enjoyed is, in part, due to living on the labour of others. However, if they do not repay their past debts, that labour will be withdrawn (e.g. if they devalue their currency, China will no longer lend their labour). At the time that the labour is withdrawn, the US will find that it is reliant upon the output of its own labour, and that labour is insufficient to support the standard of living that was possible with the labour input of countries like China. They will find that they are very much poorer than they imagined, and that is a painful situation to confront.
Perhaps this is too simplistic. I would welcome comments on the situation, and how the underlying premise might be wrong.
Having said all of this, it might appear that I am painting China as an innocent party in the current problems. However, as I have emphasised in the past, China has manipulated its currency in a policy of mercantilism. In so doing they have systemically under priced the value of their labour, and used this to ensure positive trade balances. The cost of this has been borne by Chinese workers, whose purchasing power of imported goods has been diminished, and whose earnings have not properly reflected the market value of their labour. For example, by holding the value of the RMB at an artificially low level, the cost of imported goods has been held high, meaning that each worker is relatively poorer than they might otherwise be. This has also had the effect of overpricing US labour, such that it is not competitive.
The result of such a policy is that China has protected its domestic manufacturers in the home market, and subsidised their exports through underpricing their labour. In so doing, they are making an investment in the future of China, as the result of the underpricing is that they are able to compete unfairly, by undercutting US companies and putting them out of business. I remember reading an article in the Economist a long while ago that suggested that a country in receipt of subsidised goods should be grateful that they are able to consume the products at a discounted rate. However, the result of such subsidy is to destroy businesses that might otherwise compete with such products.
What we can now see in the relationship between China and the US is a very messy situation. The US owes a huge amount of labour to China, and is unable to pay this debt without a massive retrenchment in consumption. That the US is not facing up to debt, and is increasing debt, is a problem that will simply not go away. Whilst US consumers are now starting the painful process of debt repayment, the government is increasing its debt to attempt to maintain living standards in the US. However, in doing so, the overall debt in labour owed to other countries is still increasing. This despite the fact that the US is both unwilling and unable to service existing debts as their economy is currently structured.
Meanwhile, China continues to under price its labour, and therefore continues to undercut the labour of the US, such that it continues the process of hollowing out US capacity to ever repay the debt. In doing so, it drives the US ever further into a ditch.
Quite simply, when we remove the complications of currency, and think of the debts owed by one country to another in terms of labour owed, the madness of the current situation becomes apparent. It is also possible to see that the actions of governments are quite simply making a very bad situation worse, and that the final outcome - or denouement of the situation - will be ever more extreme.
Note 1: I hope that all of this makes sense. I showed the post to another person before publication to see whether there were any errors in my thinking, and the response was very positive. I am aware that many readers of this blog are very astute, so I will also look to you to identify any problems in my thinking. My concern is that, when expressed this way, the gravity of the situation becomes so profoundly obvious, that I simply must be missing something. I look forward to the comments.
Note 2: I have had some interesting links that are pointing to increasingly negative sentiment for the $US. The link provided by Don Keyes is a good summary of the situation. Is this the start of the $US collapse? Quite possibly...but I have predicted the collapse before and been wrong. Like any sane person, I do not want to see a $US collapse. However, set against this, better sooner than later....the longer the US government and Federal Reserve follow their mad policy, the greater the long term damage to the US and world economy.