Posts Tagged ‘Global Depression’
by Gonzalo Lira
December 27, 2011
Nine weeks after its bankruptcy, the general public still hasn’t quite realized the implications of the MF Global scandal.
My own sense is, this is the first tremor of the earthquake that’s coming to the global financial system. And how the central banks and financial regulators treated the “Systemically Important Financial Institutions” that had exposure to MF Global—to the detriment of the ordinary, blameless customer who got royally ripped off in its bankruptcy—is both the template of how the next financial crisis will be handled, and an accelerator that will make the next crisis happen that much sooner.
So first off, what happened with MF Global?
Simple: It went bankrupt—because it made bad bets on European sovereign debt, by way of leveraging positions 100-to-1. Yeah, I know: Stupid. Anyway, they went bankrupt—which in and of itself is no big deal. It’s not as if it’s the first time in history that a brokerage firm has gone bust. But to me, the big deal in this case was the way the bankruptcy was handled.
Now there are several extremely serious aspects to the MF Global case: Specifically, how their customers were shut out of their brokerage accounts for over a week following the bankruptcy, which made it impossible for those customers to sell out of their positions, and thus caused them to lose serious money; and of course how MF Global was more adept than Mandrake the Magician at making money disappear—about $1 billion, in fact, which still hasn’t turned up. These are quite serious issues which merit prolonged discussion, investigation, prosecution, and ultimately jailtime.
But for now, I want to discuss one narrow aspect of the MF Global bankruptcy: How authorities (mis)handled the bankruptcy—either willfully or out of incompetence—which allowed customer’s money to be stolen so as to make JPMorgan whole.
From this one issue, it seems clear to me that we can infer what will happen when the next financial crisis hits in the nearterm future.
Brokerage firms hold clients’ money in what are known as segregated accounts. This is the money that brokerage firms hold for when a customer makes a trade. If a brokerage firm goes bankrupt, these monies are never touched—because they never belonged to the firm, and thus are not part of its assets.
Think of segregated accounts as if they were the content in a safety deposit box: The bank owns the vault—but it doesn’t own the content of the safety deposit boxes inside the vault. If the bank goes broke, the customers who stored their jewelry and pornographic diaries in the safe deposit boxes don’t lose a thing. The bank is just a steward of those assets—just as a brokerage firm is the steward of those customers’ segregated accounts.
But when MF Global went bankrupt, these segregated accounts—that is, the content of those safe deposit boxes—were taken away from their rightful owners—that is, MF Global’s customers—and then used to pay off other creditors: That is, JPMorgan.
(The mechanics of how this was done are interesting, but insanely complicated, and ultimately not relevant to this discussion. To grossly simplify, MF Global pledged customer assets to JPMorgan, in a process known as rehypothecation—customer assets which MF Global did not have a right to. Needless to say, JPMorgan covered its ass legally. Ethically? Morally? Black as night.)
This was seriously wrong—and this is the source of the scandal: Rather than being treated as a bankruptcy of a commodities brokerage firm under subchapter IV of the Chapter 7 bankruptcy law, MF Global was treated as an equities firm (subchapter III) for the purposes of its bankruptcy.
Why does this difference of a single subchapter matter? Because in a brokerage firm bankruptcy, the customers get their money first—because after all, it’s theirs—while in an equities firm bankruptcy, the customers are at the end of the line.
In the case of MF Global, what should have happened was for all the customers to get their money first. Then everyone else—including JPMorgan—would have picked over the remaining scraps. And the monies MF Global had already pledged to JPMorgan? They call it clawback for a reason.
The Chicago Mercantile Exchange, which handled the bankruptcy, should have done this—but instead, the Merc was more concerned with making JPMorgan whole than with protecting the money that rightfully belonged to MF Global’s 40,000 customers.
Thus these 40,000 MF Global customers had their money stolen—there’s no polite way to characterize what happened. And this theft was not carried out by MF Global—it was carried out by the authorities who were charged with handling the firm’s bankruptcy.
These 40,000 customers were not Big Money types—they were farmers who had accounts to hedge their crops, individuals owning gold (like Gerald Celente—here’s his account of what happened to him)—
—in short, ordinary investors. Ordinary people—and they got screwed by the regulators, for the sake of protecting JPMorgan and other big fry who had exposure to MF Global.
That, in a nutshell, is what happened.
Now, what does this mean?
It means that nobody’s money is safe. It means that regulators care more about protecting the so-called “Systemically Important Financial Institutions” than about protecting Ordinary Joe investors. It means that, when crunchtime comes, central banks and government regulators will allow SIFI’s to get better, and let the Ordinary Joes get fucked.
So far, so evil—but here comes the really troubling part: It is an open secret that there are more paper-assets than there are actual assets. The markets are essentially playing musical chairs—and praying that the music never stops. Because if it ever does—that is, if there is ever a panic, where everyone decides that they want their actual asset instead of just a slip of paper—the system would crash.
And unlike with fiat currency, where a central bank can print all the liquidity it wants, you can’t print up gold bullion. You can’t print up a silo of grain. You can’t print up a tankerful of oil.
Now, question: When is there ever a panic? When is there ever a run on a financial system?
Answer: When enough participants no longer trust the system. It is the classic definition of a tipping point. It’s not that all of the participants lose faith in the system or institution. It’s not even when most of the participants lose faith: Rather, it’s when a mere some of the participants decide they no longer trust the system that a run is triggered.
And though this is completely subjective on my part—backed by no statistics except scattered anecdotal evidence—but it seems to me that MF Global has shoved us a lot closer to this theoretical run on the system.
As I write this, a lot of investors whom I know personally—who are sophisticated, wealthy, and not at all the paranoid type—are quietly pulling their money out of all brokerage firms, all banks, all equity firms. They are quietly trading out of their paper assets and going into the actual, physical asset.
Note that they’re not trading into the asset—they’re simply exchanging their paper-asset for the real thing.
Why? MF Global.
“The MF Global scandal has made it clear that the integrity of the system has disappeared,” said a good friend of mine, Tuur Demeester, who runs Macrotrends, a Dutch-language newsletter out of Brugge. “The banks are insolvent, the governments are insolvent, and all that’s left is for the people to realize what’s going on—and that will start a panic.”
He hit it on the head: Some of the more sophisticated people—like Tuur, like some of my acquaintances, (like myself, frankly)—have realized that the MF Global scandal means that there is no safety for any paper investment: The integrity of the systems has been completely shattered. If in the face of one medium-sized brokerage firm going under, the regulators will openly allow ordinary people to be ripped off for the sake of protecting the so-called “Systemically Important Financial Institutions”—in this case JPMorgan—what will happen if there is a system-wide run? What if two or three MF Globals happen simultaneously?
Will they protect the citizens’ money? Or will they protect the “Systemically Important Financial Institutions”?
I think we know the answer.
And I think we all know the answer to the question of whether there will be crisis flashpoint in the near-term future: After all, as Demeester pointed out, all the banks and all the governments are broke.
Thus it’s only a matter of time before they come for your money.
At SPG, we’ve been putting together Scenarios for other black swan events which are becoming increasingly likely: What to do if the eurozone breaks up, what to do if you have to leave America, what to do if there is an Israeli-Iranian war, what to do if there is forced dollar devaluation, and so on.
Now, because of this open kleptocracy and cronyism being shown by the financial authorities in the wake of the MF Global bankruptcy, we’ve been obliged to put together a new Scenario, devoted exclusively to preparing for a run on the markets: What to do in order to protect your assets from regulatory malfeasance, if there is a system-wide MF Global-type breakdown and a subsequent run on the entire financial system.
And there will be such a run on the system: It’s only a matter of time. In fact, the handling of the MF Global affair has sped up the timeframe for this run on the system, because the forward-edge players—such as Demeester, myself, and my other acquaintances who understand the implications of the bankruptcy—realize that the regulators will side with the banksters, and not the ordinary investors: So we are preparing accordingly.
Once there is a full-on panic, anyone with money in the system will lose at least a big chunk of it, in one of two ways, or a combination thereof:
• One, the firms—commodities brokerage firms, equity firms, investment banks and commercial banks—will not allow people to withdraw the totality of their money, and/or they will put a withdrawal cap of some sort, enforced by the central banks and other regulatory bodies. (Like they did in Argentina.)
• Two, the central banks will “provide liquidity”—that is, print money—while simultaneously declaring a banking holiday to, quote, “calm the markets”. During that bank holiday, the currency will be devalued by double digits—which will mean that your cash holdings will essentially be taxed to save the banksters—again. (Like they did in Argentina.)
Thus apart from proving that the United States really is Argentina with nukes, the MF Global bankruptcy has proven something crucial: The central banks and government regulators have completely fallen into the trap of confusing the welfare of the “Systemically Important Financial Institutions” with the welfare of the system itself. They don’t seem to realize that the SIFI’s are actors within the system—not the system itself.
We critics of the current, corrupt state of affairs also sometimes confuse the SIFI’s with the system itself, whenever we say, “The whole system is corrupt!”
But the system is not corrupt—it’s the regulators and SIFI’s who are corrupt. If nothing else, the handling of the MF Global bankruptcy has proven that, once and for all. That’s why we’re pulling out our money now—while we still can.
Because once the general public catches on to what we already know . . . oh boy.
Read the entire article HERE.
Tuesday, April 19, 2011, 12:22 pm,
by Chris Martenson
Things are certainly speeding up, and it is my conclusion that we are not more than a year away from the next major financial and economic disruption.
Alas, predictions are tricky, especially about the future (credit: Yogi Berra), but here’s why I am convinced that the next big break is drawing near.
In order for the financial system to operate, it needs continual debt expansion and servicing. Both are important. If either is missing, then catastrophe can strike at any time. And by ‘catastrophe’ I mean big institutions and countries transiting from a state of insolvency into outright bankruptcy.
In a recent article, I noted that the IMF had added up the financing needs of the advanced economies and come to the startling conclusion that the combination of maturing and new debt issuances came to more than a quarter of their combined economies over the next year. A quarter!
I also noted that this was just the sovereign debt, and that state, personal, and corporate debt were additive to the overall amount of financing needed this next year. Adding another dab of color to the picture, the IMF has now added bank refinancing to the tableau, and it’s an unhealthy shade of red:
(Reuters) – The world’s banks face a $3.6 trillion “wall of maturing debt” in the next two years and must compete with debt-laden governments to secure financing, the IMF warned on Wednesday.
Many European banks need bigger capital cushions to restore market confidence and assure they can borrow, and some weak players will need to be closed, the International Monetary Fund said in its Global Financial Stability Report.
The debt rollover requirements are most acute for Irish and German banks, with as much as half of their outstanding debt coming due over the next two years, the fund said.
“These bank funding needs coincide with higher sovereign refinancing requirements, heightening competition for scarce funding resources,” the IMF said.
When both big banks and sovereign entities are simultaneously facing twin walls of maturing debt, it is reasonable to ask exactly who will be doing all the buying of that debt? Especially at the ridiculously low, and negative I might add, interest rates that the central banks have engineered in their quest to bail out the big banks.
Greece’s Public Debt Management Agency paid a high price to sell €1.625 billion of 13-week Treasury bills at an auction Tuesday, amid persistent speculation that the country will have to restructure its debt.
The 4.1% yield paid by Greece, which means it now pays more for 13-week money than the 3.8% Germany currently pays on its 30-year bond, is likely to increase concern over the sustainability of Greece’s debt-servicing costs.
Greek debt came under heavy selling pressure Monday after it emerged that the country had proposed extending repayments on its debt, pushing yields to euro-era highs.
Greek two-year bonds now yield more than 19.3%, up from 15.44% at the end of March.
With Greek 2-year bonds now yielding over 19%, the situation is out of control and clearly a catastrophe. When sovereign debt carries a rate of interest higher than nominal GDP growth, all that can ever happen is for the debts to pile up faster and faster, clearly the very last thing that one would like to see if avoiding an outright default is the desired outcome. How does more debt at higher rates help Greece?
It doesn’t, and default (termed “restructuring” by the spinsters in charge of everything…it sounds so much nicer) is clearly in the cards. The main question to be resolved is who is going to eat the losses — the banks and other major holders of the failed debt, or the public? I think we all know the most likely answer to that one.
“Contagion” is the fear here. With Ireland and Portugal already well down the path towards their own defaults, it is Spain that represents a much larger risk because of the scale of the debt involved. Spain is now officially on the bailout watch list, because it has denied needing a bailout, which means it does.
Spain is now at the ‘grasping at straws’ phase as it pins its hopes on China riding to the rescue:
European officials are hoping that the bailout for Portugal will be the last one, and debt markets have broadly shown both Spain and Italy appear to be succeeding in keeping investors’ faith.
Madrid is hoping for support from China for its efforts to recapitalize a struggling banking sector and there were also brighter signs in data showing its banks borrowed less in March from the European Central Bank than at any point in the past three years.
If Spain is hoping for a rescue by China, it had better get their cash, and soon. As noted here five weeks ago in “Warning Signs From China,” a slump in sales of homes in Beijing in February was certain to be followed by a crash in prices. I just didn’t expect things to be this severe only one month later:
BEIJING (MNI) – Prices of new homes in China’s capital plunged 26.7% month-on-month in March, the Beijing News reported Tuesday, citing data from the city’s Housing and Urban-Rural Development Commission.
Average prices of newly-built houses in March fell 10.9% over the same month last year to CNY19,679 per square meter, marking the first year-on-year decline since September 2009.
Home purchases fell 50.9% y/y and 41.5% m/m, the newspaper said, citing an unidentified official from the Housing Commission as saying the falls point to the government’s crackdown on speculation in the real estate market.
Housing transactions in major Chinese cities monitored by the China Index Research Institute (CIRI) dropped 40.5% year-on-year on average in March, a month when home buying typically enters a seasonal boom period.
Transactions rose month-on-month in 70% of the cities monitored, including five cities where transactions were up by more than 100% on a month earlier, secutimes.com reported on Wednesday, citing statistics from the CIRI. [CM note: month-on-month not useful for transactions as volumes have pronounced seasonality]
Beijing posted a decrease of 48% from a year earlier; cities including Haikou, Chengdu, Tianjin and Hangzhou saw drops in their transaction volumes month-on-month, according to the statistics.
Meanwhile, land sales fell 21% quarter-on-quarter to 4,372 plots in 120 cities in the first quarter of 2011; 1,473 plots were for residential projects, the statistics showed.
The average price of floor area per square meter in the 120 cities dropped to RMB 1,225, down 15% m-o-m, according to the statistics.
Real estate is easy to track because it always follows the same progression. Sales volumes slow down, and people attribute it to the ‘market taking a breather.’ Then sales slump, but people say “prices are still firm,” trying to console themselves with what good news they can find in the situation. Then sales really drop off, and prices begin to move down. That’s where China currently is. What happens next is also easy to ‘predict’ (not really a prediction because it always happens), and that is mortgage defaults and banking losses, which compound the misery cycle by drying up lending and dumping cheap(er) properties back on the market.
In that report back in March, I also wrote this:
If China enters a full-fledged housing crash, then it will have some very serious problems on its hands.
A collapse in GDP would surely follow, and all the things that China currently imports by the cargo-shipload would certainly slump in concert.
This is another possible risk to the global growth story that deserves our close attention. How this will impact things in the West remains unclear, but we might predict that China would cut way back on its Treasury purchases if it suddenly needed those funds back home to soften the blow of an epic housing bust.
If a more normal ratio for a healthy housing market is in the vicinity of 3x to 4x income, then China’s national housing market is overpriced by some 60% and certain major markets are overpriced by 80%.
Which means that the entire banking sector in China is significantly exposed.
The reason we care if China experiences a housing bust is the turmoil that will result in the global commodity and financial markets as a result. Everything is tuned to a smooth continuation of present trends, and China experiencing a housing bust would be quite disruptive.
If Spain is hoping for a big cash infusion from China and/or Chinese banks, it had better get its hands on that money quick. China is barreling toward its own full-fledged real estate crisis, which will drain its domestic liquidity just as surely as it did for the Western system, and probably even more quickly, given the stunning drop-offs in volumes in prices.
However, I should note that the United States housing market hit its peak (according to the Case-Shiller index) in July of 2006, and it was a year and a month before the first cracks appeared in the financial system, so perhaps there’s some time yet for Spain to cling to its hopes.
The larger story here is how a real estate slump in China will impact global growth, which absolutely must continue if the debt charade is to continue.
Who Will Buy All the Bonds?
With Japan now focusing on rebuilding itself, and China seemingly now in the grips of a housing bust that could prove to be one for the record books, given the enormous price-to-income gap that was allowed to develop, it would seem that the financing needs of the West will not be met by the East.
One important way to track how this story is unfolding is via the Treasury International Capital (TIC) report that comes out every month. The most recent one came out on April 15th and was quite robust, with a very large $97.7 billion inflow reported for February (the report lags by a month and a half).
On the surface things look ‘okay,’ although not especially stellar, given a combined US fiscal and trade deficit that is roughly twice as high as the February inflow. But digging into the report a bit, we find some early warning signs that perhaps all is not quite right:
Net foreign purchases of long-term securities totaled a lower-than-trend $26.9 billion in February, reflecting $32.4 billion of foreign purchases offset by $5.5 billion of domestic purchases of foreign securities. Inflows slowed for both Treasuries and equities with government agency bonds and corporate bonds posting outflows.
When including short-term securities, the February data tell a different story with a very large $97.7 billion inflow. Country data show little change in Chinese holdings of U.S. Treasuries, at $1.15 trillion, and a slight gain for Japanese holdings at $890 billion. It will be interesting to watch for change in Japanese Treasury holdings as rebuilding takes hold.
Only $26.9 billion, or 28%, of that $97.7 billion, was in long-term securities, reflecting a trend first outlined for us in our recent podcast interview with Paul Tustain of BullionVault whereby fewer and fewer participants are willing to lend long. Everybody is piling into the short end of things, not trusting the future. The concern here is that when interest rates begin to rise, financing costs will immediately skyrocket, because too much of the debt is piled up on the short end.
Also in the TIC data cited above, we need to reiterate that it is for February, and the Japanese earthquake hit on March 11. The next TIC report will be somewhat more telling, but even then only partially, and so it is the report for April (due to be released on June 15) that we’re really going to examine closely. Our prediction is for a rather large dropoff due to Japan’s withdrawal of funds.
With the Fed potentially backing away from the quantitative easing (QE) programs in June, the US government will need someone to buy roughly $130 billion of new bonds each month for the next year. So the question is, “Who will buy them all?”
Right now, that is entirely unclear.
Sadly, the budget ‘cuts’ proposed so far in Washington DC are too miniscule to assist in any credible way, and they practically represent a rounding error, given the numbers involved. The Obama administration has proposed $38 billion in spending reductions. (I hesitate to call them ‘cuts’ because in many cases they are merely lesser increases than previously proposed).
April 14, 2011
WASHINGTON – Congress sent President Barack Obama hard-fought legislation cutting a record $38 billion from federal spending on Thursday, bestowing bipartisan support on the first major compromise between the White House and newly empowered Republicans in Congress.
The Environmental Protection Agency, one of the Republicans’ favorite targets, took a $1.6 billion cut. Spending for community health centers was reduced by $600 million, and the Community Development Block Grant program favored by mayors by $950 million more.
The bipartisan drive to cut federal spending reached into every corner of the government’s sprawl of domestic programs. Money to renovate the Commerce Department building in Washington was cut by $8 million. The Appalachian Regional Commission, a New Deal-era program, was nicked for another $8 million and the National Park Service by $127 million more.
For the record, these ‘cuts’ work out to ~$3 billion less in spending each month, or less than the amount the Fed has been pouring into the Treasury market each business day for the past five months.
The fact that a major write-up on the budget finds it meaningful to tell us about specific $8 million cuts (that’s million with an “m“) tells us that we are not yet at the serious stage in these conversations. After all, $8 million is only 0.0005% of the 2011 deficit, and even the entire $38 billion is just 2.3% of the deficit and slightly under 1% of the total 2011 budget.
How much is $38 billion?
- Less than 2 weeks of new debt accumulation (on average)
- About 2 weeks of Fed thin-air money printing, a.k.a. QE II
In other words, it’s a drop in the ocean.
It is this lack of seriousness that is driving the dollar down and oil, gold, silver, and other commodities up. It is the reason we will be watching the TIC report for clues that foreign buyers and holders of dollars are getting nervous about storing their wealth with a country that is increasingly seen as unable or unwilling to live within its means. It explains why the IMF has been finger-wagging so much of late.
Somehow the US federal government managed to increase its expenditures by 30% from 2008 to 2011, but is now struggling to reduce the total amount by just 1%.
That, my friends, is an out-of-control process, and the 1% in ‘cuts’ is simply not a credible response to a very large problem.
There are two entirely, completely, utterly different narratives at play here. One of them is that the economy is recovering, policies are working, and the vaunted consumer is either back in the game or close to it. The other is that the world is saturated with debt, there’s no realistic or practical model of growth that could promise its repayment, and the level of austerity required to balance the books is so far beyond the political will of the Western powers that it borders on fantasy to ponder that outcome.
If we believe the first story, we play the game and continue to store all of our wealth in fiat money. If we believe the second, we take our money out of the system and place it into ‘hard’ assets like gold and silver because the most likely event is a massive financial-currency-debt crisis.
The IMF, the World Bank, the BIS, and numerous other institutions with access to $2 calculators have finally arrived at the conclusion that there’s still ‘too much debt’ and that it cannot all be paid back. And they are now alert to the idea that the predicament only has two outcomes: either the living standards of over-indebted countries will be allowed to fall, or the global fiat regime will suffer a catastrophic failure.
China is unlikely to ride to the rescue of the West, although it may have some time yet to help out a few of the smaller and mid-sized players, such as Spain.
Read the entire article HERE.
By Eric Martin
Apr 16, 2011 4:49 PM PT
World Bank President Robert Zoellick said the global economy is “one shock away” from a crisis in food supplies and prices.
Zoellick estimated 44 million people have fallen into poverty due to rising food prices in the past year, and a 10 percent increase in the food price index would send 10 million more people into poverty. The United Nations FAO Food Price index jumped 25 percent last year, the second-steepest increase since at least 1991, and surged to a record in February.
Food price inflation is “the biggest threat today to the world’s poor,” Zoellick said at a press conference following meetings of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. “We are one shock away from a full-blown crisis.”
“For most commodities, stocks are relatively low,” he said. “You have one other weather event in some of these areas and you really take a danger zone and start to push people over the edge.”
Zoellick said he opposes export bans that nations use to depress local commodity prices for their citizens, lifting costs for consumers in other countries.
Farmers in Russia, once the second-biggest wheat exporter, are planting the fewest acres in four years, in part because a government export ban kept prices low, a Bloomberg survey of producers, traders and analysts showed last month. India, the largest grower after China, is mulling lifting an export ban in place since 2007 as harvests may reach a record for a fourth straight year, Agriculture Minister Sharad Pawar said this month.
Economic growth “is leveling off after a post-crisis recovery,” Zoellick said. “The question now is whether it’s strong enough to reduce unemployment, particularly in developed countries. Inflation is up in developing countries, and this could lead to overheating or asset price bubbles.”
Read the entire article HERE.
Justice Litle, Editorial Director, Taipan Publishing Group
Wednesday, September 29, 2010
As Taipan more or less predicted, the global “currency wars” are now officially underway. The ultimate beneficiary of the coming turmoil will be gold.
Were governments listening in?
The theme of Taipan’s Las Vegas annual summit was “Opportunities in a Global Cash War.” On Monday – just after the conference ended – a highly placed Brazilian official echoed the exact same idea.
Said Guido Mantegna, the finance minister of Brazil:
“We’re in the midst of an international currency war, a general weakening of currency. This threatens us because it takes away our competitiveness.”
As the Financial Times notes – and as we have explained many times in these pages – a weak currency lowers the cost of exports, which helps the exporting country sell more. The trouble is, not everyone can have weak paper at the same time. Currencies trade in relative terms. They are valued against one another. Dollars are always priced in yen, euros, and reals or vice versa. So if one is weak, one or more of the others must be stronger.
When countries go head-to-head in an effort to weaken the exchange rate, it’s called “competitive devaluation.” In the 1930s, the term for this was “beggar thy neighbor.”
As the WSJ reported last week,
Beggar-thy-neighbor currency devaluations proved ruinous for the global economy in the 1930s. Is the world setting off down the same slippery slope again?
Japan’s decision to intervene in the currency market to drive down the value of the yen blew a hole in the developed world’s united effort to persuade China and other Asian countries to stop artificially holding down their currencies. Meanwhile, speculation that the U.S. and U.K. could soon resume quantitative easing has hit the value of the dollar and sterling.
As rhetoric heats up and economies struggle, governments start to lose patience with each other. This is where aggressive trade policy comes in. Part of the trouble in the 1930s was a surge of protectionism (as embodied in the Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act), which led to a collapse in global trade.
As you likely know, policies of “quantative easing” (QE) are also dilutive to a currency’s value, for the same reasons as to why taking Monopoly money from the bank makes the price of Boardwalk and Park Place go up. As countries “stimulate” at home, prices get pushed higher.
The relationship is not always simple, of course. Sometimes extra stimulation fails to push prices up, because the extra money pumped into the system gets soaked up by debt. Or sometimes the stimulation only pushes up the price of certain things – like gasoline or groceries or junk bonds – while having zero effect on, say, wages or the price of real estate.
This is why your editor favors looking at the financial system as a sort of plumbing system, with central bankers as the master plumbers. Unfortunately, these plumbers are nowhere near as skilled as the Super Mario Brothers of Nintendo fame. They often send liquidity down the wrong pipe, causing some other pipe to burst. They rarely get the liquidity just where they want it. And sometimes the pipes jam up completely, in which case the liquidity arrives in the wrong place or fails to arrive at all.
The other tricky thing about this whole business is, countries can actually export inflation or deflation.
For a while, the topic du jour on matters of trade was “the China price.” The China price was usually the lowest price you could find for a manufactured good, because Chinese workers were willing to produce at the lowest cost. As these low-priced goods made their way into economies around the world, non-Chinese workers found they could not compete. Thus, the influence of the “China price” was deflationary.
At the same time, and as we know all too well, China has had strong inflationary impacts on the system too. For example, it was Asia and the Middle East exporters who played a large hand in keeping the bubble going, by selling oil and “stuff” to Americans on credit and then recycling the dollars back into U.S. Treasury bonds.
When America bought, say, $100 billion worth of crude oil or “stuff,” China and the big oil exporters would take that $100 billion and sock it right back into U.S. Treasury bonds for safekeeping, thus keeping American interest rates low. This in turn helped the cheap credit boom continue.
America, too, has managed to export inflation quite effectively by sending its paper dollars everywhere. For example: As Brazilian farmers sell their goods in the global marketplace, they get dollars in their bank accounts. Those dollars are then exchanged, at the home bank, for Brazilian reals (the local currency). A flood of dollars coming in thus threatens to push up the value of the real, for simple reasons of supply and demand. So the central bank of Brazil has to print up fresh reals to keep the currency value “competitive.” Voila – more inflation pressure.
(Currency may be in the news, but it’s not the only thing moving the market right now. Sign up for Taipan Daily to receive my and fellow editor Adam Lass’ investment commentary.)
The Trade Collapse Threat
And yet, lest you think all this printing is a one-way ticket to hyperville, keep in mind that a collapse in global trade – like a worldwide housing double dip – would be a very deflationary event.
If the “currency wars” get hot enough, the rhetoric among nations will turn nasty. (It already has between China and Japan, which we will explore later this week.) As retaliatory trade measures are taken, trade flows slow down or stop completely. This is bad for business and bad for the global economy. When exporters go out of business, wages are cut back and jobs are lost. Banks get hit as their exporter business loans go sour. The weight of debt hangs heavy as tax revenue and profits dry up. All this is deflationary.
Then, too, there are geopolitical factors at work that could lead to a mighty surge in the $USD just when the dollar bears least expect it – but we’ll save that topic for another day.
At this point, the only thing that can be said with firm certainty is that the ongoing currency wars will be of strong benefit to gold. The yellow metal has the unique property of being an attractive asset in times of inflation OR deflation, in part because of gold’s long-standing value as a safe haven (you could say its “brand” is thousands of years old) and because gold prices are hard to manipulate.
This, in turn, is because gold itself functions as a sort of neutral currency – a stateless one that cannot be printed. As yours truly observed at the conference,
What would it look like for the euro, the U.S. dollar and the Japanese yen to all be subject to mass printing press forces at once? The currency relationships between various currencies might stay stable, sort of like the relationship between two cars traveling at 80 miles an hour. If two or more cars are traveling fast at exactly the same speed, it’s theoretically possible for a chain linking the cars together to hold.
But certain other assets – like gold – will see prices skyrocket when the above scenario occurs. That’s because gold is the one form of “currency” that central bankers can’t conjure up from thin air at will. And in a world of macroeconomic danger and fear and persistently high unemployment, that means gold is an extremely attractive asset…
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If the trouble starts — and it remains an “if” — the trigger may well be obscure to the concerns of most Americans: a missed budget projection by the Spanish government, the failure of Greece to hit a deficit-reduction target, a drop in Ireland’s economic output.
But the knife-edge psychology currently governing global markets has put the future of the U.S. economic recovery in the hands of politicians in an assortment of European capitals. If one or more fail to make the expected progress on cutting budgets, restructuring economies or boosting growth, it could drain confidence in a broad and unsettling way. Credit markets worldwide could lock up and throw the global economy back into recession.
For the average American, that seemingly distant sequence of events could translate into another hit on the 401(k) plan, a lost factory shift if exports to Europe decline and another shock to the banking system that might make it harder to borrow.
“If what happened in Greece were to happen in a large country, it could fundamentally mark our times,” Angelos Pangratis, head of the European Union delegation to the United States, said Friday after a panel discussion on the crisis in Greece sponsored by the Greater Washington Board of Trade.
That local economic development boards are sponsoring panels on government debt in Greece is perhaps proof enough that Europe’s problems are the world’s. That the dominoes can tumble fast was shown Thursday when a new and narrowly drawn stock-trading policy in Germany helped trigger a sell-off on Wall Street.
It marks a change, Barclays Capital chief European economist Julian Callow wrote in a Friday analysis, from a situation in which the bonds of European countries were considered to carry virtually zero risk to a “brave new world” where sovereign default in one of the world’s core economic areas is a tangible threat. Bank holdings of European debt are now being studied with the same focus given to holdings of U.S. mortgage-backed securities as the global financial crisis unfolded in 2008 — and with the same suspicion that problems in one part of the world could wreck others.
The most vulnerable European countries — Greece, Spain, Portugal and Ireland — may represent only about 4 percent of world economic activity, but “the debt crisis and its ripple effects are bad news for all corners of the world,” said Cornell University economist Eswar Prasad.
The risk of a worst-case scenario is still considered remote. European countries have pledged hundreds of billions of dollars to aid indebted neighbors that run into trouble, and they say they are committed to fixing the continent’s larger economic problems. The euro and U.S. markets were both higher Friday after the German Parliament approved a key piece of that support program. A renewed effort by the U.S. Federal Reserve to ensure that European banks have adequate access to dollars has generated little demand — a sign that a feared shortage of cash is not in the offing.
U.S. banks are not heavily exposed to the weaker European countries, Fed governor Daniel K. Tarullo said in testimony on Capitol Hill last week. Banks are in better shape overall, after fresh infusions of capital. Meanwhile, the U.S. economic recovery has been strengthening through the year, with jobs added in five of the last six months, and recent consumer spending and industrial output stronger than most forecasts.
But the fallout from Europe could still be widely felt. U.S. trade officials, hoping the country can dramatically boost its exports, are dismayed at the steep drop in the value of the euro — which is around $1.25, down from more than $1.50 in November. The decline makes American goods more expensive compared with those produced in Europe. The slide in the common European currency could also change the way China and a host of Asian countries approach their currency policies, possibly making them less likely to agree with U.S. demands to raise the value of their money. If they raised it, Asian goods would become more expensive in world markets, making it easier for U.S. products to compete.
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