When starting this blog, my aim was to inform as many people as possible of the dangers that were being hidden in the world economy, and in particular in the UK economy. My worry was that, somehow, we had lost sight of where real wealth creation came from, and had mistaken the accumulation of debt for wealth.
As time progressed, I started to look for the underlying drivers of the growing crisis in the economies of the developed world, in particular the US and UK. I started reading ever more widely, and started thinking about what had really changed in the world. I identified that massive input of labour (defined as labour combined with technology, capital, and markets) into the world had massively increased, whilst commodity output had not increased sufficiently to meed the demand of new labour, and rapid infrastructure development of emerging economies. We had seen a massive supply shock of labour, and a failure to supply enough materials to satisfy the growing demands; the result, hyper-competition.
Much of my writing has flowed from this analysis. This is the underlying reality of the world economy, and the driver behind the economic crisis. Sure, the collapse of the financial system was important, but this was a symptom of the underlying problems, and the failure to recognise the change in the world. Wealth creation has been slipping from the developed world to the emerging economies, and the financial services industry just recycled the growing wealth creation from the rest of the world into developed world debt. That this was unsustainable, and had to end in disaster, and would provide a shock to the world was inevitable.
The problem is that, when the shock hit, the reaction of the developed world was to pretend that this was a financial crisis, rather than a fundamental economic crisis. If the banks could just be saved, we could move on and get back to business. The bailing out of the banks followed, and sovereign states expanded their balance sheets with debt. If only the developed world consumers would climb back on to the debt treadmill, economies would get moving again. However, when consumers failed to comply with this lunacy, governments stepped forwards to fill the void. Keynes came back in fashion.
The days of the 'big state' were back, and intervention was the new paradigm. Whether pouring printed money into an economy, whether pouring borrowed money into the economy, the state would solve all. Nowhere did we see anyone asking a basic question; why are we really doing so badly in the developed world? Surely, if our economies were fundamentally sound, then the situation would resolve itself. There have, after all, often been hiccups, so why is it so bad this time?
Instead of asking whether the structure of our economies might have problems, the answer was to imagine that, somehow, more state intervention might provide a solution. Borrowing more money from the new wealth creators was a solution. More debt would solve the hangover from too much debt. But why did we accumulate so much debt in the first place? How did our economies structure themselves around the debt accumulation? How many people were employed, directly or indirectly, as a result of the ever increasing rate of debt accumulation? What must happen when the rate of debt accumulation slows, as it surely must? And what happens when the debt accumulation goes into reverse, and payment of debt starts to overtake new debt accumulation?
Economies such as the UK and US were structured around ever more growth in debt, and that growth in debt was hiding the shift in wealth creation. When the debt growth stopped, the developed world economies were faced with their weakened competitive position. They had been consuming more than they produced, and the competitors were accelerating their advantages, even as the developed world economies were facing the reality that their economies were structured for debt based consumption. It is and was a 'double whammy' - increased competition and economic structures in poor shape to meet the competition.
This is the heart of the problem, and the problem that nobody seems to want to recognise. Some analysts pay lip service to the problem. Some bemoan the part played by the mercantilism of countries like China (including me). However, even without mercantilism, the hundreds of millions of new and competitive workers entering the world economy was always going to change the world economy. There was always going to be a shock when countries like China and India really finally entered the world economy.
Along the way, this blog has made some very accurate predictions, and a credibility sapping error on the timing of the fall of the $US. I have been endlessly surprised at the ability of policy makers to keep the plates spinning just a little bit longer. However, as many analysts are now pointing out, short of massive money creation, there is little left in the armoury of the policy makers. Recent stories are highlighting the potential return to the weasel worded policy of quantitative easing (QE), better described as printing money.
There has been much talk of austerity of late, in particular in Europe. For example, the UK is apparently on the road to austerity. However, when looking at what is taking place, what we are not seeing is any realistic austerity, but rather a slowing in the rate of growth of debt accumulation. The arguments for ongoing debt accumulation are somewhat puzzling in the context of what is taking place in the broader world economy. There is a belief that, somehow, real economic growth (as opposed to consumption built upon debt) will return to the developed world economies, and that this will allow the developed world to grow out of debt.
But what of the competition from the emerging economies? Is everything going to suddenly go into reverse, and the developed world will return to economic ascendancy? According to many analysts, it appears that they just believe this will happen. As if by magic, all will return to how the world used to be. But why should it? Is there some cosmic law that suggests that the developed world must succeed? A recent graph in the Economist (sorry, I can not find the link) showed how India and China were the dominant economies for most of history. If anything, there is a cosmic law that suggests that China and India must succeed, with the Western success a weird exception. A few centuries of economic dominance does not make ongoing dominance inevitable, and the rise of the Japanese economy is a salutary lesson in how fast a situation can change. The difference in the modern situation is the scale of India and China - the amount of potential that is still untapped.
Within this context, the ongoing borrowing and profligacy of the developed world economies just does not make sense. The days of competition between high cost economies have gone - the developed world economies are competing with low cost economies. One way or another, the developed world must face that challenge. Borrowing money, printing money, and all of the other policies that are being enacted are simply delaying mechanisms. They are just means of hiding the falling competitiveness of the developed world.
However, even with all the policy actions, reality is still seeping in at the edges. I recently posted on the subject of the disappearing American middle classes. Slowly but surely, the standard of living of the developed world middle classes are falling, even as the middle classes of the emerging economies are rising. Whatever the policy makers do, the middle classes are moving towards a new middle, and that middle is going to be at a lower point than the developed world has come to expect as a right. It is a shift in the allocation of the resources of the world, a redistribution towards the emerging markets. In an article for Trade and Forfaiting Review, I discussed the Tata Nano as the herald of this great shift. It is a car for the new middle. we have just not reached that point yet, though we seem to be moving there ever faster.
So what does the future hold?
I am unsure. Not because there are no underlying principles that might be applied to the situation, but rather because the policy makers are unpredictable, and the markets have yet to confront the underlying changes in the world economy. The questions are how far the policy makers will go to keep the plates spinning just that bit longer, and when the contradictions of trying to support the unsupportable will finally emerge. With each day that goes by, with each new attempt to hold back the shift, the size of the problem grows.
There is only one real certainty. At some point, the plates will no longer be spinning, but will come crashing down. At that point, we enter a period of chaos. I am afraid that I have always found this to be worrying in the extreme. It is in times of chaos that opportunities arise for the world to take on a new shape, and that shape might be something that none of want to see. It is a time when fears might be stoked, divisions made, and suspicion and hatred stoked. In all my posts, this fear has been at the back of my mind. Whilst this blog has focused on economics, I have wider interests, and these include psychology, evolutionary psychology, history and political philosophy. The lessons drawn from these do not encourage me to optimism.
So it is on this very unhappy note that I bow out of the Cynicus Economicus blog. All that is left is to thank the loyal readers of the blog, and in particular those who have contributed so much to the blog with their intelligent commentary. Of particular note is Lemming, who has followed the blog from the start, and has always provided interesting comments. As one note, MattinShanghai was missed when it became impossible for him to view the blog due to Internet restrictions in China. Whilst not always finding ourselves in agreement, his views were always welcomed. Such is the nature of the Middle Kingdom that is going to play a growing role in the shape of the world.
I would name others, but am concerned that I might offend by not capturing all of those that have made a contribution. Those people will know who they are, and please accept my sincere thanks for following and contributing to the success of the blog. I sincerely believe that the quality of the debate in the comments section was responsible for the ongoing success of the blog.
I will leave the blog on a final point. I hope that the regular readers will remember the slogan of the blog, and keep it in mind as the optimists sell their fantasies:
'I just don't buy it....do you?'
Note: As the order of posts were wrong, I have deleted the post that follows and reproduced it here. As ever, I leave all posts, good or bad, as available. However, in this case the post was still on the home page, and the only way of correcting the problem was to delete it (due to some oddities of the blogger system). As the blog is ending, I needed the post above to be on the home page.
Papering over the CracksSometimes, I look back on what I have written, and look to what is appearing in the media today. I keep finding that what I have said eventually becomes mainstream thought. I am writing two posts today, one on China, and one on instability. I will apologise for the fact that both of the posts are, up to a point, covering old ground. I will admit that I am finding it ever more difficult to say anything new. Everything that I expected to happen seems to be taking place as if in slow motion. There have been some twists and turns on the way, in particular the ability of governments to prop up a broken system have been a surprise, along with resiliance in the belief that all might go back to 'normal' - meaning the developed world just getting richer. As time progresses, the new 'normal' is becoming ever more evident, and it is not the 'normal' that so many expected.
Going back to August 2008, I had the following to say:
Each of the stories above, taken in isolation, would not cause undue alarm. However, when considering them all together, then there is a worrying pattern emerging. It should also be remembered that all of the above are just examples. What is very clear is that China, and the Chinese government, are actively pursuing a policy of unfair trade at home and abroad. Quite simply, they are using economics as a tool of power rather than just enrichment.The stories that I am referring to are the many examples in which China has sought to tilt the economic playing field in their favour, regardless of the interests of others. In a recent post, I made the same point (yet again) and noted one commentator on the Seeking Alpha copy of the post grumbled at how all countries indulge in such behaviour (suggesting I was an idiot for thinking otherwise, if I recall correctly). Whilst I accept that all countries try to find a favourable outcome, it is up to other players in the world economy to put a constraint on activity that is tilting the playing field too far. This is the problem; there is a very strange passivity in the face of Chinese mercantalism, with no country willing to face the country down.
As time progressed after the post quoted above, I have pointed out many examples of the way in which China is successfully gaming the trading system, and have continually argued for governments to take action to confront China. I pointed out the way in which China encouraged the movement of production and technology into China, by restricting access without such movement, the unfair implementation of laws, the weighted dice of who wins contracts, and a host of other small and large measures which discriminate against Western business. In the light of these many complaints I have made, it is interesting to see a series of articles in the Telegraph that are devoted to China's economy.
In one article, a tax and legal advisor lists a long litany of problems for overseas businesses in China, where local firms get support and lax implementation of the law, whilst overseas companies get the full brunt of the detail of the law. This is what the author concludes with:
The truth is that tax avoidance by domestic businesses is rife and it creates an unlevel playing field for foreign businesses that are strictly monitored. These issues – and there are plenty of others – amount to what I call the "Communist price". Because business in China is so intertwined with the state, foreign companies can be shut out, both in terms of market access and in revenues. Dealing with the issue, as BASF and Siemens have done, through the German government shows that companies are beginning to understand that some issues can only be solved politically. China has not only increased its cost of business through tax and the regulatory environment, it is also prepared to flex the muscles of the Communist to its advantage, and is increasingly doing so. Businesses new to China will also need to review their business plans. I would recommend, once the financial research has been carried out, adding at least another 30pc of intangible costs to the bottom line, and preferably 50pc. While that may seem a lot, the reality will haunt those who do not factor it in. This kind of behaviour has been going on for years. However, it seems that China just keeps on getting away with it. This is not the end of the problems confronting the developed world in relation to China. It has not become virtually essential for every major company, and major economy, to have a China strategy for penetrating the Chinese market. However, the unbalanced policy of China ensure that real success in China is relatively rare, as another article points out [my emphasis]:
The first is China’s penchant to promote national champions over foreign competitors, often using backdoor regulations in breach of the spirit of their WTO commitments – the wind turbine sector or the insurance market are two prime examples. Second is that Chinese companies, protected or not, are becoming a great deal more competitive, producing products that nearly match Western ones and at appreciably cheaper costs Third, costs are rising in China (labour and inputs) and as a result margins are shrinking. This explains perhaps why British companies in China get rather vague when it comes to discussing how much actual profit they make here.This is much the same problem as I saw when working in China and whilst dealing with a large numbers of multinationals. This is going back a long time, but I remember a forlorn manager at Unilever expressing surprise that they were struggling against the local competition. That was 1999. Chinese companies are now a lot better, a lot more advanced than they were then, as another article illustrates:
This 'smart home’ concept is partly why Mr Letheren is in China. He’s hoping to piggyback into the homes of the future using the systems set up by Chinese behemoth manufacturers. “We will stream audio over the network to speakers that are smaller and more discreet. There are quite a few interesting angles. Multi-room systems can distribute audio and video around the house. There are some synergies with some very big appliance manufacturers,” he says. The other reason is more worrying. Audio Partnership is now trying to find a Chinese company to help it design its products. Not only, it seems, has manufacturing migrated to the East, but design skills, once the pride of London, are also becoming cheaper to find in China. “I am looking for design skills and maybe companies that are doing overlapping products so that we can use some of our technology with some of theirs,” he says. As hi-fi companies move away from traditional boxy sets towards wireless technology and iPod-integrated systems, it makes sense for companies to rely on Chinese firms to roll-out new designs. This flies in the face of the idea that the poor Chinese would provide the labour, and that the higher value added would sit in the hands of the developed world, who would do all the intellectual heavy lifting. This idea, so fashionable for so long, was always a delusion. Product design and other business services such as financing, will eventually move to where the 'action is' and that is not currently in the developed world. Whilst some companies are still working to this paradigm, the Chinese will eventually catch them up. When a company outsources function x, y, and z, the great fad/fashion of recent times, they also transfer the processes, systems and knowledge to the company to which they have outsourced the function. In doing so, they may make short term gains, but will eventually fuel new competitors. For example, if you can manufacture a product for a company, it is only a matter of time before it becomes apparent that you might make more money manufacturing your own products.
If you add into this mix the complete disregard for intellectual property in China, allowing companies selling within the internal market a head start, then it is apparent that China will continue to accelerate up the value chain (not to mention the cost advantages for producers who disregard intellectual property rights).
When looking at the articles appearing in the press, the reality of the mercantilism of China is finally being taken seriously. I have not, of course, covered another topic that I have often discussed, which is the manipulation of currency. I will leave that for today. I will leave the quotes with a final comment from one of the articles:
as Jeff Immelt the CEO of General Electric observed a month or two back – that foreign business will ever be allowed to ‘win’ in ChinaQuite simply, we have allowed a state to enter the world trading system that is exploiting every means at its disposal to tilt the world system in its favour. Thinking back to the commentator on Seeking Alpha, he has got is completely wrong. There is absolutely nothing to stop China's trading partners from acting against Chinese Mercantilism. Of course, each country will seek advantage in the system, but that advantage can only be gained if the trading partners acquiesce. China needs markets. Close the markets, and the Chinese state would be in deep, deep trouble. The trading partners have real leverage, but never use it.
Part of the reason is that, in particular, the US would not dare to, due to reliance on Chinese money for financing deficits. If the news that the US is starting to fund the deficit internally is true, this might be the opportunity to act. China still retains the power to decimate the US economy by dumping Treasuries, but what is the alternative - just let China keep getting stronger at the cost of US competitiveness? Another problem is the way in which China plays off the US and Europe, one against the other. Again, there is nothing to stop the two blocks presenting a unified position, except that they seem to dance like puppets on Chinese strings.
I must emphasise that I have nothing against the economic rise of China. Having lived in the country, I have a great affection for China, and in particular the ordinary people I have met. I wish them well. However, I see no reason why the developed world continues to accept the mercantilism. China would, in any case, rise. It would just be more gradual if they were forced to trade in the world system on a more even basis.
Note: I do not claim to be alone in these views of China, or the first to identify the problems of China in the trading system. However, I became aware of the problems, and formulated these views when first arriving in China in 1997, with experience on the ground. I must admit, however, that even I am surprised at the rate of China's ascent.
The Chaos in the World Economy
Back in 2009 I wrote an article for TFR magazine in which I suggested the following:
Just as with the profligate eighteenth century aristocrats and the emerging industrialists, investors have failed to recognise the real risks that are emerging and where the great opportunities might lie. In failing to recognise this change, investors are moving from one high risk, advanced economy into another; from one major OECD currency into another, as each piece of bad news about each economy is absorbed. What they fail to realise is that all of the advanced economies are at great risk during the transition and that there is no safe currency into which they might run. As such, it is possible to expect volatility in currencies as the reality of the transition for individual countries becomes more apparent, along with the implications for each currency. With the movement of wealth from one economy to another being built upon false assumptions, the markets will continue to react in unpredictable ways. So, as we move through the transition into a new shape of the world economy, currency-related volatility can only grow.This process of markets swinging from positive to negative on news has been going on for some time, but it now seems that the swings are becoming ever more erratic. The driver of the volatility in markets are the endless floods of news, each of which serves to raise fears about the major developed world economies. Europe sinks in and out of crisis, and the indicators for the US economy are interpreted as positive one week, and negative the next. Even the £GB has managed to be seen a new safe haven as the data from the US and Europe sends new jitters into markets.
Phil Jordan from Monument Securites said that even Britain was emerging as a sanctuary as yields fall to a fresh low of 2.84pc, though in this case the money is rotating away from the US. "Clients are selling US Treasuries to buy Gilts. The US economic data has been so bad investors are looking for other safe havens," he said.But in another article on the 20th August we find the following:
Sterling[Image] fell to a three-month low against the dollar as investors sought out safe haven investments and as traders weighed up strong UK retail sales figures against indications of more weakness in mortgage[Image] lending. The hot safe haven of the moment is the Swiss Franc:
Following the release of dismal U.S. housing data, the Swiss franc hit an all-time high against the euro for the second-straight day. The euro fell to a series of record lows, most recently at CHF1.2971 during New York trading. The dollar also fell to its lowest levels since January against the franc. As "dark clouds continue to hang over the U.S. economy," and investors hold a "more cautious stance on the yen prompted by the latest currency related comments from Japan," the Swiss franc is the most attractive of the three traditional safe havens, said Vassili Serebriakov, foreign exchange strategist at Wells Fargo in New York. My intention here is not to analyse the details of the markets, but to simply highlight the underlying fear that is driving markets. As most of the readers of this blog, like myself, are regular readers of the financial and economic news, a thoughtful review on the last few months will find that the hunt for safe havens is becoming ever more erratic. Even gold appears to be reviving strongly in the face of fears about economic instability. It seems that the world economic system is growing ever more chaotic, and some, such as Monument Securities, now appear to be seeing a major crisis brewing in the near term:
Stephen Lewis from Monument Securities said bond yields have dropped further than they did in the "flight to safety" extreme of late 2008, a sign that markets fear that underlying conditions are even worse today than they thought then. "Now they fear the global economy will remain in the mire for decades," he said. The following is from Morgan Stanley:
"The question is not whether they will renege on their promises," he writes of rich country governments, "but rather upon which of their promises they will renege, and what form this default will take."
Mares writes that while there has been much discussion of rising debt levels in rich country governments, even those scary-looking numbers understate the scale of the problem. "Debt/GDP ratios are too backward-looking and considerably underestimate the fiscal challenge faced by advanced economies' governments," Mares writes.[and]Just to drive the point home, however, Mares likens the deteriorating fiscal situation in countries like the United States and Japan to the fix many bubble-era Sun Belt house buyers now find themselves in. To extend the analogy, bondholders are like the banks the lent to these poor saps when the housing bubble was whipped into a frothy peak. "On the basis of current policies," Mares writes, "most governments are deep in negative equity."The point in all of this is that unsustainability of the current situation is becoming ever more apparent. If you read the article in TFR, I explain why process of realisation has taken so long, comparing the persisting belief in the developed world to the belief that a fading aristocrat is wealthy just because his family have always been wealthy. The implication is that once the true level of wealth of the aristocrat is discovered, then penury will follow. However, it is hard to overturn such beliefs, but it seems that people like Mares are looking under the facade, and finding a picture of illusory wealth.
Whilst once people like myself (the pessimists) were a small minority, it seems there are additional new voices of concern appearing every day. It is perhaps these new voices that are driving the fear upwards, and driving the ever more erratic search for 'safe havens.' If this is the case, then there can only be more chaos to come, as ever more voices join those of the pessimists. In particular, when casting around the news on the world economy, it is becoming ever harder to maintain an optimistic stance for those who have been so inclined. As ever, it is just a question of where the tipping point might be, and what will be the spark that will finally create full blown panic.
ConclusionI did not intend to link the two posts together when I started writing, but several links did occur to me. Perhaps the most important one is the lack of attention to the underlying problems of the structure of the world economy. China continues as before, and the debtor states continue accumulating debt and consuming more than they can produce, and more than they might ever repay. Nothing changes, and without change, stability in the world economy will be impossible. In the case of confronting China, and reforming at home, the developed world is confronted with potential for pain, and nobody appears to have the courage to face the problems and reform. It all comes back to this - at some point, hard choices will have to be made, and delaying those choices is the ambition of the politicians and policymakers. Better to try to paper over the cracks than deal with the underlying problems.....In other words, the same old story that has been the subject of this blog for so long. Papering over the cracks rather than fixing the real problems.