Trump’s Plan to Make America Great Again Will Fail Because of Dollar

In the early 16th century the Spaniards captured large parts of what is now known as South America. The area had large deposits of silver and gold. As I write in my book Easy Money: Evolution of Money from Robinson Crusoe to the First World War: “The precious metals were melted and made into ingots so that they could be easily transported to Spain. Between 1500 and 1540, nearly 1,500 kg of gold came to Spain every year on an average from the New World.” i

Gold wasn’t the only precious metal coming in. A lot of silver came in as well. As I write in Easy Money: “One of the biggest silver mines was found in Potosi, which is now in Bolivia, in 1545. Potosi is one of the highest cities in the world and is situated at a height of 4,090 m. Given the height it sits on, it took Spaniards sometime to get there. Here a mountain of silver of six miles around its base was discovered.ii The mountain or the rich hill, as it came to be called, generated nearly 45,000 tonnes of silver between 1556 and 1783. iii

Most of this new found silver was shipped to Seville in Spain where the mint was. In the best years some 300 tonnes of silver came in from silver mines in various parts of South America.iv

Once the gold and silver started to land on their shores, the Spaniards became proficient at spending it rather than engaging themselves in productive activities. Easy money had spoiled them and they produced very little of their own. Once this happened everything had to be imported. Weapons came from the Dutch, woolens from the British, glassware from the Italians, and so on.v It also led to Spaniards buying goods like bangles, cheap glassware, and playing cards from foreigners for the sheer pleasure of buying them.

As Thomas Sowell writes in Wealth, Poverty and Politics: “The vast wealth pouring into Spain [in the form of gold and silver from South America]… allowed the Spanish elite to live in luxury and leisure, enjoying the products of other countries, purchased with the windfall gain of gold and silver. At one point, Spain’s imports were nearly twice as large as its exports, with the difference being covered by payments in gold and silver… It was a source of pride, however, that “all the world” served Spain, while Spain “serves nobody”.”

Dear Reader, you must be wondering, why have I chosen to point out all this history so many centuries later. The point I am trying to make is that there is an equivalent to what happened in Spain in the 16th century in this day and age. It is the United States of America.

Like Spain, the total amount of good and services that the United States imports is much more than what it exports. The ratio of the imports of the United States to its exports was around 1.23 in 2016. The difference between the imports and the exports stood at $503 billion. In fact, if we look at the imports and the exports of goods, the ratio comes to around 1.51.

The point being that like Spain, the United States imports much more than it exports. Spain had an unlimited access to money in the form of gold and silver mines of South America. This gold and silver over a period of time was mined and shipped to Spain and in turn used by Spaniards to buy stuff from other parts of the world.

What is the equivalent in case of the United States of America? The dollar. The US dollar is the international reserve currency. It is also the international trading currency. As George Gilder writes in The Scandal of Money-Why Wall Street Recovers But the Economy Never Does: “Today it [i.e. the dollar] handles more than 60 percent of world trade, denominates more than half the market capitalization of world stocks, and partakes in 87 percent of global currency trades.”

Spain had almost unlimited access to the gold and silver from South America. Along similar lines, the United States has unlimited access to the dollar. Other countries need to earn these dollars by exporting goods and services. The United States needs to simply print the dollars (or digitally create them these days) and hand it over for whatever it needs to pay for.

While the unlimited access to gold and silver was Spain’s easy money, the dollar is United States’ easy money. And given this, it isn’t surprising that like Spain, the United States imports much more than it exports. This basically means that the country consumes much more than it produces. Also, while the Spaniards had to face the risk of gold and silver ultimately running out, the United States does not face a similar risk because dollar is a fiat currency unlike gold, and can be created in unlimited amounts. As long as dollar remains the global reserve currency and trading currency, the United States can keep creating it out of thin air. Of course, the role of the United States in global politics will be to ensure that the dollar continues to remain the reserve and trading currency. Having the biggest defence budget and military in the world, will help.

The supply of silver in Spain peaked around 1600 and started to fall after that. But the spending habits of people did not change immediately, leading to Spain getting into debt to the foreigners. The government defaulted on its loans in 1557, 1575, 1607, 1627, and 1647.vi

One impact of access to the easy money in the form of gold and silver, was a huge drop in human capital in Spain. As Sowell writes: “What this meant economically was that other countries developed the human capital that produced what Spain consumed, without Spain’s having to develop its human capital… Even the maritime trade that brought products from other parts of Europe to Spain was largely in the hands of foreigners and European businessmen flocked to Spain to carry out economic functions there. The historical social consequence was that the Spanish culture’s disdain for commerce, industry and skilled labour would be a lasting economic handicap bequeathed to its descendants, not only in Spain itself but also in Latin America.”

So, what is human capital? Economist Gary Becker writes: “Economists regard expenditures on education, training, medical care, and so on as investments in human capital. They are called human capital because people cannot be separated from their knowledge, skills, health, or values in the way they can be separated from their financial and physical assets.”

What is happening on this front, in case of the United States? As Michael S Christian writes in a research paper titled Net Investment and Stocks of Human Capital in the United States, 1975-2013, published in January 2016: “The stock of human capital rose at an annual rate of 1.0 percent between 1977 and 2013, with population growth as the primary driver of human capital growth. Per capita human capital remained much the same over this period.”

So, over a period of more than 35 years, the per capita American human capital has remained the same. And this is clearly not a good sign.

Further, unlike Spain which ultimately ran out of gold and silver, given that there was only so much of it going around in South America, the United States does not face any such risks given that dollar is a fiat currency and can be printed or simply created digitally.

But like Spain, the access to this easy money will ensure that in the years to come, the United States will continue to import more than it exports. This will go against the new President Donald Trump’s plan to make America great again. His basic plan envisages increasing American exports and bringing down its imports. But as long as America has access to easy money in the form of the dollar, the chances of that happening are pretty low because it will always be easier to import stuff by paying in dollars that can be created from thin air, than manufacture it locally.

The column was originally published on Equitymaster on March 14, 2017

4 Things Modi Could Have Done Instead of Demonetisation

narendra_modi

The decision to demonetise Rs 500 and Rs 1,000 notes when it was first announced was to tackle black money and fake currency. As the ministry of finance press release accompanying the decision said: “High denomination notes are known to facilitate generation of black money”.

What the Modi government was essentially saying is that it is easier to store black money in the form of high denomination notes. Having demonetised Rs 500 and Rs 1,000 notes, the government decided to launch a Rs 2,000 note, going precisely against its own statement.

The assumption was that people had stored black money in their homes in the form of cash. And by demonetising Rs 500 and Rs 1,000 notes, these notes would be rendered useless. Holders of black money in the form of currency would deposit it into banks and post offices, for the fear of generating an audit trail. Demonetised currency can be deposited into banks and post offices up to December 30, 2016. This money will be credited into the bank account or the post office savings account.

Things haven’t turned out like that. By December 6, 2016, close to 75 per cent of the demonetised currency had already made it back into the banks. Government officials are now saying that they expect almost all the demonetised currency to come back to the banks.

What this essentially means is that those who had black money in the form of cash have managed to get it converted into currency which continues to be legal tender. The hope now is that the government will use information technology to identify people who have deposited their black money into banks, tax them and raise some money in the process.

To what extent this happens remains to be seen. Nevertheless, if the idea was to attack black money in India, there are four things that the Modi government could have done, instead of demonetising high denomination notes and disrupting the entire economy. This would have hit at the heart of the nexus between politicians and builders, which thrives on black money.

1) Stop cash donations to political parties: Currently, political parties need to declare a donation only if it is greater than Rs 20,000. In 2014-2015, 55 per cent of the donation of the national political parties came from those making donations of Rs 20,000 or lower. Hence, the details of these donors are unknown.

If citizens are expected to share their identity with the bank or the post office while depositing their demonetised notes, why should donors of political parties be allowed to hide behind an archaic law, is a question worth asking. This needs to change.

2) Political parties should be brought under Right to Information(RTI): This is currently not the case. If the political parties are brought under the ambit of RTI, they will have to function in a much more transparent way in comparison to what they do now. This would mean keeping proper records of where the funds to finance them are coming from.

3) Real estate should be brought under the Goods and Services Tax(GST): If real estate is brought under GST, builders if they want to claim input tax credit must request documentation from all the suppliers and the contractors that they work with. This will hopefully start cleaning up the real estate business as more and more builders will have to operate through legitimate means. Once they stop using cash in dealings with their suppliers, their proclivity to ask for cash from their customers will also go down.

4) Slash stamp duty rates on real estate transactions: This is one reason why the real estate sector is at the heart of black money. If stamp duties across states are reduced and brought to realistic level, the tendency of people to under-declare the value of real estate transactions will come down. Hence, the proportion of cash transactions will come down.

These four moves would have hit at the heart of the generation of black money. What the government chose to do instead was to demonetise Rs 500 and Rs 1,000 notes, and throw the entire country in a huge disarray.

The column originally appeared in Bangalore Mirror on December 14, 2016

 

Why Jats of Haryana Want Reservation

Jat_Agitation_for_reservation

I normally do not write on political issues but the recent demand of the Jats of Haryana to be counted as other backward castes(OBCs), is a part of a larger issue that I have been writing about. Hence, this column.

Castes which are categorised as OBCs have 27% reservation in public sector jobs and higher education. The Mandal Commission Report of 1980 had said that OBCs form 52% of the country’s population. In comparison, a survey carried out by the National Sample Survey Organisation in 2006 said that the OBCs form 40.96% of the country’s population.

Jats form 29% of Haryana’s population and own three-fourths of its land media reports point out. As Harish Damodaran writes in a brilliant column in The Indian Express: “The community probably owns three-fourths of agricultural land in Haryana, with the Jat being synonymous with the ‘zamindar’ just as much as the Bania with the trader.”

Given this, why do zamindars actually want reservation? Before I get around to answering this, it is important to understand how Jats ended up owning as much land as they do now.

As Surinder S Jodhka writes in Caste: “One of the most important developmental initiatives taken by the Indian State soon after independence was the introduction of Land Reform legislations. These legislations were designed to weaken the hold of the non-cultivating intermediaries (the so-called landlords) by transferring ownership rights to the tillers of the land.”

And how did this help the Jats? As Jodhka writes: “The Rajputs, traditionally upper-caste and the erstwhile landlords, possessed far less land after the Land Reforms than they had done before. Most of the village land moved into the hands of those who were traditionally identified as tillers of the land, the middle caste groups such as Jats and Gujars.”

This essentially ensured that Jats became what sociologist MN Srinivas called a dominant caste in the state of Haryana. As Srinivas wrote: “A caste may be said to be ‘dominant’ when it preponderates numerically over the other castes, and when it also wields preponderant economic and political power.” (As quoted in Jodhka’s book).

After land came the agricultural revolution which increased the crop yields and in the process increased the economic power of the Jats. Given their numbers, they already had the political power.

This explains why Jats have dominated the politics of Haryana for more than a few decades. It also explains why Manhohar Lal Khattar became the first non-Jat chief minister of Haryana in over two decades. And given that Khattar was a first time MLA with little administrative experience, he was caught napping as the movement built up all over the state.

One theory is that the movement was instigated by those not in power in the state. This might very well be true given the scale it finally reached, but it still doesn’t do away with the fact that Khattar was caught napping.

Now to answer the question that I had raised as to why do Jats wants reservation.

The Agriculture Census of 2010 points out that the average size of an individual holding in Haryana has fallen to 1.57 hectares. In 1995-1996, the average size of individual holding was at 1.74 hectares, a fall of around 10%. This means that the land holdings in Haryana over the years have gotten more fragmented, leaving a lesser area for every farmer to farm on.

This is in line with the broader trend that prevails in the country. As per Agriculture Census of 2010-11: “The average size of holdings for all operational classes (small & marginal, medium and large) have declined over the years and for all classes put together it has come down to 1.16 hectare in 2010-11 from 2.82 hectare in 1970-71.” The situation could have only gotten worse since then. Hence, many more people are dependent on agriculture and farming than should be. This means lower income per capita from agriculture.

In this scenario, the importance of jobs has gone up. Nevertheless, as the Economic Survey released in February 2015 points out: “Regardless of which data source is used, it seems clear that employment growth is lagging behind growth in the labour force. For example, according to the Census, between 2001 and 2011, labour force growth was 2.23 percent (male and female combined). This is lower than most estimates of employment growth in this decade of closer to 1.4 percent.”

The jobs which would have moved people away from agriculture and farming have not materliased. Further, with 49.5% of government jobs being reserved (22.5% for SCs and STs, 27% for OBCs) the Jats (as well as others who fall in the general category) have probably found the competition to get into a government job very tough.

It further needs to be pointed out here that the government jobs at lower levels are significantly better paying than similar jobs in the private sector.

As the Report of the Seventh Pay Commission points out: “To obtain a comparative picture of the salaries paid in the government with that in the private sector enterprises the Commission engaged the Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad to conduct a study. According to the study the total emoluments of a General Helper, who is the lowest ranked employee in the government is Rs 22,579, more than two times the emoluments of a General Helper in the private sector organizations surveyed at Rs 8,000-9,500.”

Hence, the IIM Ahmedabad study “on comparing job families between the government and private/public sector has brought out the fact that…at lower levels salaries are much lower in the private sector as compared to government jobs.”

What this clearly tells us is that the reason Jats want to be categorised as OBCs is the same reason why engineers, MBAs and PhDs apply for government jobs at lower levels—they are significantly better paying than similar jobs in the private sector.

Further, what does not help is the fact that Haryana has the worst sex ratio in the country at 879 females for every 1000 males, as per the 2011 census. As Christophe Jaffrelot writes in The Indian Express: “The search for government jobs…is also influenced by their particularly skewed sex ratio. Parents of girls prefer grooms with stable income – those with government jobs are often their preferred choice. With fewer girls compared to boys in these castes, there is competition in the marriage market.”

The Haryana state government has plans of introducing a Bill to grant OBC status to Jats. This won’t go down well with 74 other castes who are already categorised as OBCs in Haryana. To them, Jats are the well-off land-owning people who really do not need any reservation. Also, with Jats forming 29% of the state’s population competition among the OBC aspirants for government jobs will go up significantly. The situation might become easier for the Jats but not for the castes categorised as OBCs as of now. Hence, be ready for another share of agitations.

Further, any attempt to categorise Jats as OBCs will lead to similar demand from other land-owning castes across the country who are seeing difficult days due to their land-holdings shrinking. In fact, similar demands have already been made by the Kapus in Andhra Pradesh, the Marathas in Maharashtra, the Patels in Gujarat (their leader Hardik Patel is currently in jail) and the Gujars in Rajasthan.

In fact, the Rajasthan government has already passed the Rajasthan Special Backward Classes (Reservation of Seats in Educational Institutions in the State and of Appointments and Posts in Services under the State) Bil, 2015. The Gujars are expected to be the main beneficiaries of this Bill.

In fact, at the heart of all this is an issue which I have discussed multiple times in the past. India has more people in agriculture than it needs. These people need to be moved away from agriculture. This needs the creation of many semi-skilled and unskilled jobs, something which is not happening, given that Indian industry is not exactly known to be labour-intensive. And the social consequences of this economic drawback are now coming to the fore.

The column originally appeared in the Vivek Kaul’s Diary on February 24, 2016

Chinese Growth is Bad for Global Economy

china

In yesterday’s edition of the Diary I talked about how Chinese banks have unleashed another round of easy money, in order to push up economic growth. The Chinese economic growth for 2015 was at 6.9% which is a two-decade low. Many China watchers and economists believe that the real economic growth is significantly lower than this number and is likely to be more in the region of 4-5%.

In order to push up economic growth Chinese banks lent out a whopping 2.5 trillion yuan (around $385 billion) in January 2016, the highest they ever have during the course of a month. This increased borrowing and spending if it continues, as it is likely to, will lead to creation of more capacity in China.
The creation of this excess capacity will provide a short-term fillip to the Chinese economic growth as more infrastructure, homes and factories get built. The trouble is that the Chinese economy is unlikely to absorb the creation of this excess capacity.

As Satyajit Das writes in The Age of Stagnation: “China continues to add capacity to maintain growth. If it is unable to absorb this new capacity domestically, it might seek to increase exports to maintain production and growth. This would exacerbate global supply gluts and increase deflationary pressures in the global economy.” Deflation is the opposite of inflation and essentially means a scenario of falling prices.

Household consumption as a proportion of the Chinese economy has fallen over the years. In 1981, household consumption made up for 51.7% of the gross domestic product(GDP). Starting in 1990, the household consumption as a proportion of the Chinese economy started to fall and by 1999, it was at 45.6% of the GDP.

By 2009, the number had fallen to 35.3% of the GDP. In 2014, the household consumption to GDP ratio stood at 36.6%, not very different from where it was in 2009.

What does this tell us? As Michael Pettis writes in The Great Rebalancing—Trade, Conflict and the Perilous Road Ahead for the World Economy: “In any economy there are three sources of demand—domestic consumption, domestic investment, and the trade surplus—which together compose total demand, or GDP. If a country has a very low domestic consumption share, by definition it is overly reliant on domestic investment and trade surplus to generate growth.” Trade surplus is essentially the situation where the exports of a country are more than its imports.

This is precisely how it has played out in China. In 1981, the Chinese investment to GDP ratio was at 33%. In 2014, the number stood at 46%. What does this tell us? By limiting consumption, the Chinese were able to create savings. These savings were then diverted into investments and the investment created excess capacity in the Chinese economic system. In 1982, the Chinese savings had stood at 35% of the GDP. By 2013, Chinese savings had jumped to 50% of the GDP. The investment to GDP ratio during the same year stood at 48%.

The excess capacity was taken care of by exporting more. And that is how the Chinese economic growth model worked all these years. What this means that with a low consumption rate, the Chinese have always been more dependent on investment and exports to create economic demand. In the 1980s and 1990s, the high rate of investment made immense sense, when China lacked both infrastructure as well as industry. But over the years China has ended up overinvesting and creating excess capacity, and in the process become overly dependent on exports, if it wants to continue to grow at a fast rate.

As Pettis writes: “With consumption so low, it would mean that China was overly reliant for growth on two sources of demand that were unsustainable and hard to control. Only by shifting to higher domestic consumption could the country reduce its vulnerability and ensure rapid economic growth. This is why in 2005, with household consumption at a shockingly low 40 percent of GDP, Beijing announced its resolve to rebalance the economy toward a greater consumption share.”

In 2014, the household consumption to GDP ratio stood at 36.6%. Hence, the shift towards consumption driving economic growth has clearly not happened. The point being that the country is now addicted to the investment-exports driven growth model. In this scenario, every time there is a slowdown in economic growth, China resorts to the tried and tested investment led economic growth model. And the first step in this model is to get banks to lend more.

As Pettis writes: “The decision to upgrade is politically easy to make because each new venture generates local employment, rapid economic growth in the short term, and opportunities for fraud and what economists politely call rent-seeking behaviour, while costs are spread through the entire country through the banking system and over the many years during which the debt is repaid.”

This explains why Chinese banks lent 2.5 trillion yuan in January 2016, the most that they ever have. The trouble is that this round of economic expansion will lead to more excess capacity. And this will lead to a push towards higher exports and in the process hurt the global economy.

As Pettis writes: “China is not currently the engine of world growth. With its huge trade surplus, it actually extracts from the world more than its share of what is now the most valuable economic source in the world—demand. A rebalancing will mean a declining current account surplus and reduction of its excess claim on demand. This will be positive for the world.”

What Pettis basically means is that the Chinese household consumption to GDP ratio needs to go up i.e. the Chinese need to consume more of what they produce. But recent evidence clearly suggests that the Chinese government has no such plans and the investment-exports driven led economic growth strategy is likely to continue.

The column originally appeared in Vivek Kaul’s Diary on February 23, 2016

China Unleashes Another Round of Easy Money

chinaIn 2015, China grew by 6.9%. This is the slowest the country has grown in more than two decades. For a country which has been used to growing in double digits for a very long time, an economic growth rate of 6.9% is very low. Further, there are many economists who believe that even the 6.9% number isn’t correct.

A recent report in the Wall Street Journal quotes, an economics professor Xu Dianqing, as saying “that China’s gross domestic product growth rate might just be between 4.3% and 5.2%”.

The Chinese manufacturing sector which makes up for 40.5% of the economy grew by 6% in 2015. Nevertheless, many underlying indicators like power generation, railway freight movements, steel, cement and iron output, paint a different picture. As the Wall Street Journal points out: “Of some 60 major industrial products, nearly half saw output contract in the January to November period, while railway cargo volume fell 11.9% for all of last year, according to official sources.” (Doesn’t this sound similar to what is happening in India as well?)

Given this, it is only fair to ask how did the Chinese manufacturing sector grow by 6% in 2015? And how did the overall economy grow by 6.9%?

The point being that China is not growing as fast as it was and not as fast as it claims it is. Of course, if economists outside the government can figure this out, the government obviously realises this. Nevertheless, like all governments they need to maintain a position of strength and try and revive a flagging economy.

In the world that we live in, economists and politicians have limited ideas on how to tackle an economy that is slowing down. The solution is to get people to borrow and spend more. In a country like China where the government controls large parts of the economy, it means encouraging banks to lend more.

And that is precisely what has happened. In January 2016, responding to the low economic growth in 2015, the Chinese banks gave out loans worth 2.5 trillion yuan or around $385 billion. This is “a new record for a single month!” point out Dr Jim Walker and Dr Justin Pyvis of Asianomics Macro.

To give you a sense of how big the lending number is, let’s compare it to what the scheduled commercial banks in India lent during a similar period. Between January 8 and February 5 2016, the Indian banks loaned out around Rs 72,580 crore or $10.6 billion, assuming that one dollar is worth Rs 68.7. The way RBI declares lending data of banks, it is not possible to figure out how much the banks lend during the course of any month and hence, I have picked up the nearest comparable period.

The Chinese banks lent around 36 times more than Indian banks during a similar period. Of course, the Chinese economy is bigger than India is one factor for this difference.

A number of explanations have been offered for this huge jump in Chinese lending.  One is the revival of the Chinese property sector. Further, with the yuan depreciating against the dollar in the recent past, many Chinese companies are replacing their dollar debt with yuan debt, in order to ensure that they don’t have to pay more yuan in order to repay their dollar loans in the future.

But these reasons clearly do not explain this huge jump in lending. Chinese banks are lending out so much money because the government wants them to increase their lending dramatically.

The idea, as always, is to get people to borrow and spend money, and companies to borrow and expand, and in the process hope to create faster economic growth. The trouble is that all this borrowing and spending will only add to the excess capacity that already exists in China.

As Satyajit Das writes in The Age of Stagnation: “It would take decades for China to absorb this excess capacity, which in many cases will become obsolete before it can be utilised. Yet China continues to add capacity to maintain growth.”

Further, the credit intensity or the amount of new debt needed to create additional economic activity has gone up in China, over the years. As Das writes: “The incremental capital-output ratio(ICOR), calculated as the annual investment divided by the annual increase in GDP, measures investment efficiency. China’s ICOR has more than doubled since the 1980s, reflecting the marginal nature of new investment. China now needs around $3-5 to generate $1 of additional economic growth; some economists put it even higher at $6-8. This is an increase from the $1-2 needed for each dollar of growth 8-10 years ago, consistent with declining investment returns.”

The point being that China now needs more and more money to create the same amount of growth. And this means the effectiveness of borrowing in creating economic growth has come down over the years. This also means that the chances of money that the banks are lending out now, not being returned, is higher now than it was in the past.

In fact, as Walker and Pyvis of Asianomics Macro point out: “The China Banking Regulatory Commission reported that official nonperforming loans had jumped 51% year to 1.3 trillion renminbi [yuan] by December, now greater than at the last peak in 2009. While small in terms of the total number of loans out there – the bad loan ratio increased from just 1.25% to 1.67% – it is the direction that is bothersome, particularly given the well-publicised concerns over the accuracy of the data (hint: NPLs are much higher than 1.67%).”

Further, the Reuters reports that the special mention loans (loans which could turn into bad loans or what we call stressed loans in India), rose by 37% in 2015. And bad loans and special mention loans together form around 5.5% of total lending by Chinese lending. Indeed, this is worrying.

This huge increase in lending will obviously push up the economic growth in the short-term. But in the long-term it can’t be possibly good for the economy, as it will only lead to the non-performing loans going up and creation of many useless assets which the country really does not require. The current jump in bad loans of banks happened because of the huge jump in bank lending that happened in 2009, after the current financial crisis started.

Whatever happens, in the short-term, the era of “easy money” seems to be continuing in China. And that can’t possibly be a good thing.

The column originally appeared on the Vivek Kaul’s Diary on February 22, 2016.

Bill Bonner: “We Have Got a Lot More Nonsense Coming”

bill bonner
Dear Reader,

This is the second part of the interview with Bill Bonner.

He founded Agora Inc. in 1979. With his friend and colleague Addison Wiggin, he co-wrote the New York Times best-selling books Financial Reckoning Day and Empire of Debt. His other works include Mobs, Messiahs and Markets (with Lila Rajiva), Dice Have No Memory, and most recently, Hormegeddon: How Too Much of a Good Thing Leads to Disaster.

In this interview Bill tells us that “We have got a lot more, a lot more nonsense coming and I think it’s going to come first from Europe where Draghi is going to come up with a lot more QE like stuff.  We don’t know exactly what or when.”

Happy Reading!
Vivek Kaul
Iceland just sent its 26th banker to prison. As far as I know not a single US banker or someone from Wall Street has gone to jail. Rajat Gupta and Raj Rajaratnam have, but their cases were different. They had nothing to do with the financial crisis.

Ah! I am not sure, but as far as I know no banker specifically has been gone to jail as a result of the crisis.  I don’t know what to make of it.  I am hesitant to condemn the bankers.

I mean they were playing the game when in effect, they were the ones who made the rules. They bribed the politicians to make the rules and they played by those rules. Did they break the rules?  I don’t know.

Why do you say that?

I have been involved in the financial industry in America for a long time. What I do know is, those rules are very tough to understand. If anybody wants to put you in jail, they can put you in jail because it’s sure that you are violating some rule somewhere. There are too many of them.  So I am little bit sympathetic to the bankers in that particular aspect about being convicted of crimes. But I am not at all sympathetic to them in the broader sense because as I said they created that system. I don’t think they deserve to go to jail because I would bet those rules are pretty non-screwy. I do bet they deserve to go broke and that’s what would have happened and that’s the way the market works.

But these guys escaped…

The market doesn’t put you in jail just because you bet on the wrong banker.  But the market has a way of taking care of these problems and it was on its way to taking care of these problems in a big way in 2008, when half of Wall Street was exposed to bankruptcy. Half of those institutions probably would have gone broke and half would have been broken up and sold. That would be a punishment and getting what one deserves. That to me makes sense. Instead of that, the government came in and gave these people money. It gave the people who had made such bad bets even more money to make even bigger bets and then it claimed to be enforcing the law. The wrong doers were too close. They all were too cozy there.

That’s a nice way of putting it…

So my guess is that in Iceland their financial industry did not lobby correctly.  But the end of it was that the financial industry got away scot free and got away with all of their ill-gotten gains and went on to make even more money as the Fed gave them money in the terms of zero interest rate financing.  So the whole thing is absolutely preposterous in every sense and offensive.

Your new book is called “Hormegeddon: How Too Much of a Good Thing Leads to Disaster.”  So can you elaborate a little on the subtitle of the book, “How too Much of a Good Thing Leads to Disaster.”  Why do you say that?

Well there is a famous quote in America by Mae West, who said, “Too much of a good thing is wonderful.”  The thing that she was talking about might be the only thing that too much of is wonderful.  But most things are like sugar. You think, well, I will have a chocolate pudding for dessert and one chocolate pudding is wonderful, two chocolate puddings is okay.  By the time the third chocolate pudding comes around, you begin to say um, I am not sure about this and by the fourth you begin to feel a little sick. If you keep eating chocolate puddings, it is not going to be good for you. So that’s true of almost anything.

By the way the economists have a rule for this called the principle of declining marginal utility and it seems to apply to just about everything.  No matter what you try to do or what you think.

Can you give us an example?

It applies to money. When you have no money and somebody gives you 10 dollars, that 10 dollars, each one of those dollars is very very valuable to you and if you have a million dollars and somebody gives you 10 dollars you really are not going to be impressed at all because the value of that money has declined.  Each additional incremental dollar declines to the point where it is almost worth nothing. We read in the papers that multibillionaires like Zuckerberg have given away 50 billion dollars and that is such a great thing. But actually those 50 billion dollars really had no value.

What do you do when you already have the house that you want…you already have the car that you want… and you can’t eat any more chocolate desserts…no matter how much money you have…you cannot buy another car…what are you going to do with it?

You only have a certain number of hours in a day…you can only watch so many movies…you can only do this…you can only do that…so you reach a point where the extra money that you get has a marginal utility that has declined to zero and then below zero.  Because you have to take care of it, you have to think about it and you have to protect it.  And so when a billionaire has 100 billion dollars and he gives away 50, well I don’t know if he has given away that much.

But anyway, the principle applies to everything.

Can you give us some more examples?

It applies to security, one of the cases that I explained in the book.  Now you would say well security; you can’t be too safe and that’s what they tell you when you go through the line at the airport and there is a grandmother in front of you and they are checking her out thoroughly making her go through twice and panning her down and you are thinking in what way does she pose a threat to anybody and then a voice comes out that says, “you cannot be too safe.”

But in fact you can be too safe and because everything that you do in that direction involves expending money and time and resources that could be used for something else.

Can you give us an example?

In the extreme example that I used in the book—In Germany after the First World War, it felt very unsafe, you know they had capitulated in the war and the allies that is to say France, America and Britain were not at all sympathetic. So Germany felt terribly exposed and they were not allowed even to have an army. 

So along came Adolf Hitler and he said, “Enough of this, I am going have an army anyway.” And he began investing German money in the security industry and at first it seemed like the right thing to do.  And at first the viewers, especially the foreign viewers, who really didn’t know what was going on, they thought that this was great. Germany was getting back on its feet and their factories were hustling again. Everything seemed to be going in the right direction.

But Adolf Hitler did not stop with a little bit of security, he wanted a lot of security and more and more of the German economy, was shifted from domestic production to military production and the result of this was that it shifted people’s minds too, because pretty soon a lot of the German workforce actually worked for the defence industry and a lot of people had children, sons, daughters, nephews in the army. Everybody became very sympathetic to the army, to the defence industry and after years of propaganda to the idea that Germany needed its place in the sun and the way to get it was with military force.

So they launched on this adventurism which they started in 1939 and the result of that we all know.  It was disastrous. It ended in the worst possible way for Germany where all of that security bought them no security at all.  It was counterproductive. It was a negative pay off.  They had gone from when they had too much of a good thing, security being a good thing, to the point where they had no security at all.  And that’s true in a lot of things, I mean that principle.

How do you link this to the current financial crisis?

Well you could say almost exactly the same thing about credit.  A little bit of borrowing is a good thing and the credit has proven to be useful in many circumstances. In fact, credit is as old as the hills and even before there was money there was credit.

Credit right.

Yeah there was debt and people would remember in small tribes. Anthropologists have done a lot of study of this.  They found that people would remember that somebody gave them chicken or somebody gave them an arrowhead or somebody’s daughter was exchanged to one family and they owe them a daughter or something or another.  And they remembered.  They had long memories of this stuff.  So credit is basically something that has been around for a long time and surely a little bit of credit seems to help an economy, but too much credit and then you end up with these funny things happening as we have in the world today.

For sure…

And by the way world credit is astounding in its growth; in 1995, which is 20 years ago, the entire world credit was 40 trillion dollars; today it’s 225 trillion.  That’s in a period in which the GDP has risen like 2% per year.  This is a phenomenal separation of the real economy from the Wall Street economy; The Wall Street economy being an economy of debt, assets, financial instruments, etc.  So we have this huge diversion.

We have seen also the same sort of thing, a declining marginal utility of debt, where each additional dollar invested in debt has produced less and less GDP payoff.  And so at the end, in 2009, we were seeing huge increases in debt with no increase in GDP and that’s what is happening again today, where debt is still going up at a very high rate and the GDP growth has declined in America to about a zero. In fact, it might be zero and it might be negative, we are waiting for the figures for the last quarter to come out, but there are some people guessing that the next quarter is going to be a recessionary.

Given that the next quarter is going to be recessionary, how do you see Janet Yellen and the federal open market committee going about increasing the federal funds rate…

Oh! I don’t think they will and I don’t think they can.  I think that it’s…

Will they reverse the cut?

They won’t want to because you know they have staked their short term reputations on this idea that the economy is recovering and that therefore they can normalise interest rates.  They are all in cahoots by the way. Also, these guys talk to one another. I think what they are counting on is Mario Draghi [the President of European Central Bank] to reinvigorate the European economy with a lot of credit, because he has been generally not done as much.

So Draghi came out and said that he would do whatever had to be done and he said that there were no limits to what he would do.  And right after that the world stock markets went up.  Yellen would much prefer for Draghi to do the heavy lifting this time and my guess is that they have a lot more they can do and I don’t think we have reached the end of this cycle at all.  I think we have got a lot more, a lot more nonsense coming and I think it’s going to come first from Europe where Draghi is going to come up with a lot more QE like stuff.  We don’t know exactly what or when.

You see Yellen going back to QE?

I do, but not quickly.  First they are hoping that the Europeans will do enough. If the Europeans put out enough cheap money it ends up in America any way because the Europeans want to buy US treasury bonds in order to protect their money so that’s probably what will happen.  

I think it really depends on how effective the Europeans are. If the Europeans are not effective and we get another big wave downward in the US markets and we go into a recession in the first quarter, I think then first they will announce that they will not do any further hikes. Then maybe they will come with some QE program or something, but there is no way in which they are going to allow a real correction.  A real correction is the severe serious thing. All of their training and their institutional momentum, all of that goes towards solving these problems rather than letting them solve themselves.

Thank you Bill.

Thank you.

Concluded…

The interview originally appeared on the Vivek Kaul Diary on Equitymaster

You can read  the first Part of the interview here 

Satyajit Das Tells Us What is Really Happening in China

satyajit das

 

Dear Reader

This is the third and the concluding part of the interview with economic commentator and globally bestselling author Satyajit Das.

Das is an internationally respected commentator on financial markets and economics He is credited with predicting the current financial crisis. He has also featured 2010 Oscar-winning documentary Inside Job.

In this interview I speak to Das around his new book The Age of Stagnation—Why Perpetual Growth is Unattainable and the Global Economy is in Peril. Like his earlier books, Traders, Guns and Money and Extreme Money, this book is also a terrific read and a must for anyone who seriously wants to understand how things haven’t really changed in the aftermath of the financial crisis, and why the future continues to remain bleak.

In the third and the final part of this interview, Das talks about China and tells us what is really happening in there. He also tells us that “No one wants to believe that stagnation or collapse are the only two likely options”.

Happy Reading!
Vivek Kaul

On page 65 of your new book The Age of Stagnation you write: “Half of the investment in China since 2009 has been ineffective”. What makes you say that?

China’s growth especially after 2008/2009 was driven by a massive debt fund investment boom. A good proportion of this investment can be classified as ‘mal investment’; that is, revenues projects where revenues will be insufficient to cover the borrowing or generate adequate financial returns.

The bulk of investment has been by SOEs[state-owned enterprises] in government-backed infrastructure projects – the tiegong­ji (meaning “iron rooster”), a homonym for the Chinese words for rail, roads and airports. The Ministry for railways is planning investments of around $300 billion, adding 20,000 kilometres (“Kms”) of rail track to the existing network of 80,000 Kms. China’s rail network will become the second-longest in the world behind the US, overtaking India.

China is also having a love affair with the superfast train. Undeterred by accidents and the high cost, further expansion of the high speed rail network is under way. A new service between the southern cities of Guangzhou and Shenzhen travels at 380 kilometres per hour (KPH) nearly halving the travel time to 35 minutes. CSR Corp, China’s biggest train maker, has plans for a super train capable of 500 KPH.

What else is it doing?

China is constructing around 12,000 Kms of new expressways at a cost of over $100 billion. China road network of over 60,000 Kms of high-speed roads is only slightly less than the 75,000 Kms in the US. China is planning to expand the high-speed road network to 180,000 Kms even though China has only around 40 million passenger vehicles compared to 230 million in the US.

There is a spate of new airports and expansions of capacity at existing facilities. Jiaxing in eastern Zhejiang province is converting a military landing strip into a commercial airport at a cost of around $50 million. The town is only one hour’s drive on brand new expressways from three of China’s busiest international airports in Shanghai and Hangzhou. There are also plans for a high-speed rail line connecting Shanghai and Hangzhou.

In Hunan, local authorities tore down portions of a modern flyway and used the stimulus funding to rebuild it. Stories of ghost cities, such as the empty newly-built city of Ordos, Zhengzhou New District, Dantu and the orange area to the north-east of the Xinyang, abound. There are ghost shopping malls in many cities.

Could you tell us more?

Based on estimates from electricity meter readings, there are more than 60 million empty apartments and houses in urban areas of China. Many of the properties were purchased by people speculating on rising property prices.

The projects have driven a sharp rise in demand for materials like steel and concrete. China now produces more steel than the next eight largest producers combined. China now produces more cement than the rest of the world. But this over-investment in non-productive, low return projects will ultimately reduce growth.

For the rest of the world, the investment boom fed demand for commodities and machinery in the short run. Ultimately, it will create problems in two ways: firstly, many companies globally have over-invested in capacity based on anticipated Chinese demand that may not eventuate; and second, dumping of Chinese overcapacity on global markets will feed disinflationary pressures.

In your chapter on Brics you write that it would take decades for China to absorb the excess capacity that it has created over the years. Can you elaborate a little on that?

Sino-philes attribute the excess capacity to the collapse of global demand. They assume that global demand will rebound strongly increasing the returns from these investments.

Sino-philes also argue that the investments in infrastructure will produce long term economic benefits and returns from increased productivity. They point to the fact that few investment programs of social infrastructure are profitable. They point to the mid-19th century boom in investment in railways in Western countries, which generated economic benefits, but few made an adequate financial return with many going bankrupt. They also argue that China lacks necessary infrastructure.

 So what is the real issue?

The real issue is whether the specific projects are appropriate. China has six of the world’s ten longest bridges and the world’s fastest train. But 40% of villages lack paved road providing access to the nearest market town. High-speed rail lines in China may increase social return, improving the quality of life for the average Chinese if they are wealthy enough to afford to use them. But the financial return on capital invested in these projects will be low.

While many of these large projects are appealing to politicians and demagogues proclaiming superiority of Chinese technical proficiency, investment in improving ordinary train lines, rural roads, safety and more flexible pricing structures may have yielded higher economic benefits.

There are several concerns now about this economic model.

And which are?

First, analysts, such as Pivot Capital Management, argue that the efficiency of Chinese investment has fallen. One measure is the incremental capital-output ratio (“ICOR”), calculated as annual investment divided by the annual increase in GDP. China’s ICOR has more than doubled since the 1980s and 1990s, reflecting the marginal nature of new investment. Harvard University’s Dwight Perkins of Harvard argues that China’s ICOR rose from 3.7 in the 1990s to 4.25 in the 2000s. Other researchers suggest that it now takes around $6-8 of debt to create $1 of Chinese GDP, up from around $1-2 around 20 years ago. In the US, it took $4-5 debt to create $1 of GDP just before the GFC. This is consistent with declining investment returns.

Second, increased level of debt and the often uneconomic projects financed has led to increasing concern as to whether the debt can be serviced.

How much is that an issue?

A 2012 Bank of International Settlements (“BIS”) research paper on national debt servicing ratios (“DSR”) found that a measure above 20-25% frequently indicated heightened risk of a financial crisis. Analysts estimate that China’s DSR may be around 30% of GDP (around 11% goes to interest payment and the rest to repaying principal), which is dangerously high.

The debt problems are compounded by other factors. A large portion of the debt is secured over land and property, whose values are dependent on the continued supply of credit and strong economic growth.

A high proportion of debt is short term, with around 50% of loans being for 1 year, requiring refinancing at the start of each year. As few Chinese borrowers have sufficient operating cash flow to repay loans, new borrowings are needed to service old ones.

Around one-third of new debt is used to repay or extend the maturity of existing debt. With a significant proportion of new debt needed to merely repay existing debt the amount of borrowing needs to constantly increase to maintain economic growth.

China observers now worry about whether the high absolute levels of debt, rapid increases in borrowing, increasing credit intensity, servicing problems and the quality or value of underlying collateral are likely to result in a financial and economic crisis – a Minsky Moment.

On slightly different note what do you see the impact of the depreciation of the Chinese yuan on global growth?

Most nations now have adopted a similar set of policies to deal with problems of low economic growth, unemployment and overhangs of high levels of government and consumer debt. In a shift to economic isolationism, all nations want to maximise their share of limited economic growth and shift the burden of financial adjustment onto others. Manipulation of currencies as well as overt and covert trade restrictions, procurement policies favouring national suppliers, preferential financing and industry assistance policies are part of this process.

A weaker currency boosts exports, driven by cheaper prices. Stronger export led growth and lower unemployment assists in reducing trade and budget deficits.

With Europe and Japan still actively trying to weaken their currencies and the US owing its recovery in part to this policy, China will be forced to join the global currency wars.

And what are the Chinese hoping here?

First, they will be hoping that it will provide a needed boost to slowing growth through exports.

Second, it will help with the policy of internal rebalancing away from investment to consumption by offsetting the loss of competitiveness through higher wage costs.

But there are risks. Retaliation in the form of competitive QE programs and intervention is possible. In addition, China risks triggering higher inflation and also uncontrolled capital flight which would expose its financial system vulnerabilities. The country’s foreign currency reserves (already down some US$700 billion to around US$3,300 billion) would fall sharply, reducing its financial flexibility.

You seem to remain unconvinced about the world having come out of the aftermath of the financial crisis and you write that a risk of a sudden collapse is ever-present. Why do you say that?

There are three possible scenarios.

In the first, the strategies in place lead to a strong recovery. The US leads the way. Europe improves as the required internal transfers and rebalancing takes place with Germany accepting debt mutualisation to preserve the Euro. Abe-nomics revives the Japanese economy. China makes a successful transition from debt financed investment to consumption. A financial crisis in China from the real-estate bubble, stock price falls and massive industrial overcapacity is avoided. Other emerging economies stabilise and recover as overdue structural reforms are made. Growth and rising inflation reduce the debt burden. Monetary policy is normalised gradually. Higher tax revenues improve government finances. There is even strong international policy co-ordination, avoiding destructive economic wars between nations.

Oh that is clearly a lot to expect…

Such an outcome is unlikely. The fact that current policies have not led to a recovery after 6 years suggests that they are ineffective.

The second scenario is a managed depression, a Japan like prolonged stagnation.

Economic growth remains weak and volatile. Inflation remains low. Debt levels continue to remain high or rise. The problems become chronic requiring constant intervention in the form of fiscal stimulus and accommodative monetary policy, low rates and periodic QE programs to avoid deterioration.

Financial repression becomes a constant with nations transferring wealth from savers to borrowers to manage the economy. Competition for growth and markets drives beggar-thy-neighbour policies, resulting in slowdowns in trade and capital movements.

Authorities may be able to use policy instruments to maintain an uneasy equilibrium for a period of time. But it will prove unsustainable in the long run. Ultimately, a major correction will become unavoidable, as confidence in policy makers ability to control the situation diminishes.

And what is the final scenario?

The final scenario is the mother of all crashes. Financial system failures occur as a significant number of sovereigns, corporate and households are unable to service their debt. Defaults trigger problems in the banking system which leads to a major liquidity contraction, which in turn feeds back into real economic activity. Falls in employment, consumption and investment drive a severe contraction. The problems are global with developed and emerging markets affected.

The downturn is exacerbated by the limited capacity of policy makers to respond. Weakened public finances and policy options (QE and low rates) exhausted in fighting the last crisis limit the ability of governments to respond to a new crisis. Emerging markets are now unlikely to be a source of demand due to their problems. Geo-political stresses are higher than in 2007/ 2008.

Unsurprisingly, no one wants to believe that the stagnation or collapse are the only two likely options. Hubris, as humorist PJ O’Rourke noted is one of the great renewable resources.

Concluded…

The column originally appeared on the Vivek Kaul Diary on January 29, 2016