We’d do better Emulating Bourbon Country than China

Posted by PITHOCRATES - June 25th, 2011

A Generous Government robs the Private Sector

The economy.  It’s bad today.  It’ll be bad tomorrow.  And probably will still be bad when many are thinking about retiring.  I say thinking.  Because that’s all they may be able to do about retirement.  Think about it.  As they keep working well into retirement age (see Retirement As We Know it Is “Dead”: EuroPacific’s Pento by Peter Gorenstein posted 6/22/2011 on Yahoo! Finance).

“Americans are have negligible savings, the real estate market is still in secular decline, stock prices are in a decade’s long morass, real incomes are falling, public pension plans are insolvent and our entitlement programs are bankrupt.”

Pento believes these issues could be resolved if the government takes the right steps. What might those be? He recommends lowering taxes, reducing inflation and balancing the budget as a means to increase the value of the dollar. If the dollar had more purchasing power and interest rates were higher, retirees would be able to live off their fixed income, he says.

Please note the common theme in the resolution.  Less government.  Less government spending.  Les government taxing.  Less government quantitative easing (i.e., stop depreciating the dollar).  Because it is all of this government intervention into the private sector that has killed so many private sector jobs.  Reduced our real incomes.  Bankrupted our entitlement programs.  And destroyed our pensions (because fat pension funds are just too tempting to ‘borrow’ from to pay for more spending.  And by borrow I mean steal).

A generous government is a government that robs the private sector to pay the beneficiaries of the public sector.  But they have taken so much that they have given the private sector the worst recession since the Great Depression.  Which, in turn, has starved government coffers.  Talk about killing two birds with one stone.

There’s no Recession in Bourbon Country

Despite being in the worst recession since the Great Depression thanks to all that government intervention into the private sector, there is some positive economic activity out there.  One area in particular that is near and dear to my heart.  Bourbon (see Bourbon’s popularity feeds growth of Kentucky distilleries by Bruce Schreiner, Associated Press, posted 6/25/2011 on USA Today).

The producers are aiming to quench a thirst for bourbon — especially premium brands — that is steady in the U.S. and rapidly expanding overseas, thanks in part to the comeback of cocktails appealing to younger adults, lower tariffs, robust marketing and a larger middle class in emerging markets.

A tariff is a tax on an import.  To protect the domestic competition.  Or so goes the theory.  Protective tariffs destroyed a lot of American industry that had no incentive to improve (textile, steel, automotive, etc.).  But that’s another story.  Thankfully, bourbon is an American spirit.  All proper bourbon hails from Kentucky.  Thanks to those freshwater streams through the limestone bedrock of those rolling hills.  So there are no foreign bourbon markets to protect.  Keeping tariffs lower than they may be otherwise.  Thus providing a healthy export market. 

Industry observer F. Paul Pacult, editor of the quarterly newsletter Spirit Journal, said bourbon makers are showing an adventurous side with premium offerings that reflect an “intramural competition.”

“There’s more innovation happening in Kentucky right now than any other place in the world,” Pacult said.

Now Kentucky is bourbon country.  There are a lot of distillers competing against each other.  And yet the bourbon market as a whole is growing.  There’s no recession in bourbon country.  Which just goes to prove the old maxim.  Competition makes everything better.

The industry’s biggest boost, though, has come from exports.

Producers of bourbon and Tennessee whiskey reaped $768.2 million in export sales in 2010, up from $303.8 million in 2000, according to the spirits council, citing statistics from the U.S. Department of Commerce and the U.S. International Trade Commission.

The biggest overseas customers include Australia, Japan, the United Kingdom and Germany, but the industry is looking at two seemingly bottomless markets — China and India — along with other emerging markets in Asia and Africa.

China and India.  Those two countries driving up the price of oil.  Because of exploding demand in their emerging middle classes.  Countries that gave up much of their communist/socialist ways.  Who turned their disdain for capitalism to ‘dain’ (which I think means the opposite of disdain).  And they have smoking hot economic growth.  Hard to believe that a communist country, China, is schooling the United States in free market capitalism.

Crony Capitalism and Corruption in China

Or are they?  Oh, they are getting more Western.  But not like the UK or the USA during the Industrial Revolution or the booming times that followed.  But after the growth of Big Government in those counties (see The long arm of the state posted 6/23/2011 on The Economist).

Chinese students used to aspire to a job with a foreign company. Now they are more likely to want one with an SOE [state-owned enterprises].

This may seem an odd choice, since the dynamism in China’s economy is mostly generated by non-state firms… In 1999 government-controlled firms owned 67% of industrial capital; a decade later their share had fallen to 41%. But in the industries that pay the highest salaries, state firms dominate.

A new shorthand has entered common parlance: guojin mintui, meaning the state [sector] advances and the private retreats. ..It has been tightening its grip on some industries it considers “strategic”, from oil and coal to telecommunications and transport equipment. It has been devising market-access rules that favour state firms. And to the chagrin of private businesses, it has allowed state companies to remain active in a surprising range of palpably non-strategic sectors, from textiles and papermaking to catering. In recent years property development has become a lucrative sideline for government businesses. “The tentacles of state-owned enterprises extend into every nook where profit can be made,” writes Zheng Yongnian of the National University of Singapore.

Already the young people are choosing the public sector over the private sector when it comes to their career.  Because the bloated public sector pays more.  With this higher pay they must be attracting the best and brightest to these SOEs.  So these SOEs must be kicking the non-state firms’ asses.

Some Chinese economists worry that the government’s response to the global financial crisis will bolster state enterprises and their bad habits at a time when they urgently need reforming. As the confederation’s researchers put it, much stimulus spending has involved “swapping from the left hand to the right hand”: the state lending to the state…

Unirule noted that the profits of state-owned industrial companies had increased nearly fourfold between 2001 and 2009. But their average return on equity was less than 8.2%, whereas that of larger non-state industrial enterprises was 12.9%. Factor in the low cost of borrowing enjoyed by SOEs and their access to land at below-market prices, the report said, and their real return on equity between 2001 and 2009 was minus 1.47%. They are, in effect, destroying capital.

Apparently not.  They actually have a negative return on investment.  So the SOEs are just deadwood propped up by government spending and special privilege.  Reminds me of another Asian country awhile back.  Where there was private sector/public sector partnering.  Where capital was shuttled from the left hand to the right hand.  Anyone like to guess the country I’m thinking about?  Anyone?  No?  Here’s a hint.  China and this other country hate each other.  Bitterly.  Which makes it rather ironic that they’re now following their example.  That Asian country is Japan.  During the Eighties.  A decade of spectacular growth.  That was more bubble than growth.  And we all know what happened in Japan in the decade that followed.  Not a whole hell of a lot.  Because the bubble popped.  And they suffered a devastating deflationary spiral similar to the Great Depression.  It was so bad that they called the Nineties the Lost Decade.

Some foreign businesspeople complain that market-opening measures initiated in the 1990s and early 2000s have run out of steam.  Many saw China’s accession to the WTO ten years ago as a great impetus for reform. But when the country reached the end of its transition period in 2006, its will faltered. Many foreign companies still report doing good business. But especially since the global financial crisis, the government has been widely accused of twisting rules in favour of its state-owned or, sometimes, private-sector favourites…

Local governments sometimes play a decisive role in determining which firms succeed and which fail. Take Himin, a manufacturer of solar water heaters based in the city of Dezhou in the northern province of Shandong. Himin is a private company, but it is the local government’s champion. Together Himin and the government have devised a branding strategy for Dezhou as China’s “solar city”. The government has helped Himin to grow by requiring apartment buildings to be equipped with solar water heaters and by subsidising solar-heated bathhouses in villages.

This is not capitalism.  This is crony capitalism.  Not much different from mercantilism.  And not a sustainable economic model.  Unlike entrepreneurism.  Like they’re doing in Kentucky.  While the nation is suffering the worst recession since the Great Depression, distillers are investing and innovating, competing against each other as they book record exports.  Without any partnering with their government.  While Himin is in bed with government.  A government that giveths.  And can just as easily taketh away.  And with business dependent only on their relationship to government, you can bet that there isn’t a lot of investing and innovating going on at Himin.  Because they don’t have to.  So why would they?

This scheme to encourage what the government calls “indigenous innovation” focuses on seven “strategic” industries, from alternative energy and low-carbon-emitting vehicles to information technology. First Financial Daily, a Chinese newspaper, reported that investments by these industries could amount to as much as $1.5 trillion over five years, of which the state is likely to contribute 5-15%. Mr McGregor says the scheme involves creating new Chinese technologies on the back of foreign ones supplied by companies eager for a share in the government’s massive spending. Some Chinese scientists have complained about the likely waste involved in state-directed R&D, but the party loves big projects too much to listen.

Good innovation doesn’t need government money.  Investors are more than willing to finance a good thing.  What investors don’t like to invest in are bad investments.  Which is typically what the government invests in.  Because a good investment can attract private capital.  So that leaves the bad investments for government to fund.

People flocking to the government for financing are just like ants at a picnic.  They just want to get in while the getting is good.  But they have little of value to offer.  They’ll just pull a lot of money out of the private sector that could have been put to better use.  By producing real economic growth.  With a positive return on investment.

Worse is the state directing private investment.  People risking capital know what good R&D is.  People risking other people’s money don’t.  And they’re far more tempted to consider political reasons than good science.

China’s state-sector reforms in the 1990s went for the low-hanging fruit. A decade ago angry workers were easily cowed into submission by police or bought off with handouts. But any further reform would affect the interests of people in the top echelons of the party as well as their families, who have extensive connections with state-owned firms.

Zhu Rongji, the former prime minister whose reforms obliterated many of China’s state-owned firms in the late 1990s, has also gone on the attack. In April he made a rare public appearance at his alma mater, Tsinghua University. He handed over copies of a four-volume collection of his speeches, due to be published later this year, and pointedly invited readers to “make comparisons with the situation today”. To his supporters, the present looks grim.

Top echelons of the ruling communists, as well as their families, are well connected with state-owned firms?  No wonder they have negative returns on equity.  They’re stealing money from these SOEs.  This is everything the communists said the capitalists did.  And here the wealthy communist elite are doing it themselves.  Exploiting the poor working class.  How ironic.

Maybe the Chinese are just drunk with power.  Or on that fine Kentucky bourbon.

You’re going to Work until you’re Dead

The Chinese economy is a house of cards.  Much like it was in Japan in the Eighties.  And it will crash.  One day.  Just as the Japanese economy fell.  And no doubt a round of deflation will follow.  Like in Japan.  The Chinese are already raising interest rates to stamp out inflation.  To try and stop a bubble in their economy.  Much like the rest of world is.  Well, pretty much everyone but Ben Bernanke in the U.S.  Who may still try another round of quantitative easing.  Silly Americans.  Adding inflation to high unemployment only gets you the misery of the Seventies.  Carter‘s stagflation.

Although some of that economic activity may be somewhat artificial, it is producing surpluses.  Enough for the Chinese to buy U.S. debt.  So the Americans can continue to pay for their entitlement programs.  Such as Social Security.  And Medicare.  Which everyone and their brother knows will go bankrupt in the not so distant future.  Just as the Baby Boomers start retiring en masse to stress these programs like they’ve never been stressed before.  Now imagine the Chinese economy crashing.  And their surpluses turn to deficits.  And they can’t buy U.S. debt anymore.  That’d be one painful scenario.  Unable to borrow money, the U.S. would have no choice but to cut spending.  In a big way.  As in all those entitlement programs.  Which account for almost half of all federal spending.  Ouch.

Retirement as we know it dead?  You better believe it.  You’re going to work until you’re dead.  Even if you saved for your own retirement.  Because a broke government is a desperate government.  And if they can’t raise enough money taxing income, and the Chinese aren’t buying our debt, they’ll start taxing your wealth.  Your savings.  Your assets.  Your retirement.  Some nations already do.  So it’s not unprecedented.  Which would make a Chinese crash rather depressing. 

Gee, I’d hate to be in our shoes.

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