A Weak Currency may Boost Exports but it will Raise all Prices Businesses and Consumers Pay

Posted by PITHOCRATES - February 24th, 2013

Week in Review

China created a booming economy thanks to a healthy export market.  In part because of their cheap labor.  An in part by keeping their currency weak.  For when you buy goods from China you first have to exchange your currency for theirs.  If your currency is stronger than theirs is you will get a lot more of theirs in exchange for yours.  Allowing you to buy a lot more Chinese goods with your stronger currency.  This is why China likes to have a weak currency.  And takes actions to keep it artificially weak.  Something her trading partners don’t like.  For their weaker currency tends to make the net flow of goods in international trade with China flowing from China to everyone else.  Thus giving China a healthy export market.  At the expense of everyone else’s export market.

But China is a developing economy.  Things change when you become an advanced economy.  Because you don’t have impoverished masses filling your factories manufacturing goods for export.  You have a thriving middle class.  With a high standard of living.  With good jobs giving them disposable income.  And few of them work in the export economy.  So despite all the talk about unfair trade practices of China most people in an advanced economy don’t worry that much about trade deficits.  For they’re buying a lot of imported goods.  From smartphones to coffee beans.  And a weak currency makes these items more expensive.

So there are two sides to the value of your currency.  If you have impoverished masses filling factories to build export goods a weak currency is good.  It lets the state sell more of those export goods.  In an export-dominated economy.  And provides a lot of low-paid factory jobs.  If you have a thriving middle class a strong currency is good.  For it lets the people buy a lot of stuff.  Creating a lot of better paying non-factory jobs.  In a non-export-dominated economy.  Basically the difference between free market capitalism.  And mercantilism (see Is the World on the Brink of a Currency War? by Michael Sivy posted 2/21/2013 on Time).

Currency wars – and trade wars generally – have their origins in a 17th and 18th century economic theory known as mercantilism. The idea was that a country’s wealth comes from selling more than it buys. A colonial empire could achieve this positive balance of trade by acquiring cheap raw materials from its colonies and then ensuring that it exported more finished goods than it imported. This was usually accomplished with tariffs that made imports very expensive.

Such an approach couldn’t work in the modern world. Countries don’t get cheap raw materials from colonies anymore. They have to buy them – especially oil – on the open market. So while currency devaluation makes exports cheaper for foreign buyers, it also makes essential imports more expensive. For Europe in particular, which imports so much of its energy, devaluation isn’t necessarily a plus…

The Federal Reserve’s quantitative easing – buying bonds to swell the money supply – is aimed principally at stimulating domestic demand. European advocates of a cheaper euro currency, meanwhile, are hoping to make national debt easier to finance, not trying to pump up exports. In fact, the continent’s greatest exporter, Germany, is the country least amenable to currency devaluation…

So forget all the talk of a currency war. What’s going on has nothing to do with trade and everything to do with debt and growth and inflation. If the global economy is in danger of reliving the past, it will not be a repeat of the 1930s. Rather, it will be a repeat of the 1970s, when the Federal Reserve expanded the money supply to offset the economic slowdown caused by the oil crisis – and ended up encouraging double-digit inflation.

The double-digit inflation of the Seventies really devalued the currency.  Raised prices.  Greatly limiting the amount of stuff people could buy.  Even though printing money then didn’t work these nations believe it will work now.  Because it will make their exports cheaper for foreigners to buy.  Despite making everything more expensive inside their own country.

But there is another reason they love to print money.  It lets them spend more.  And it makes old debt easier to pay off.  We call it monetizing the debt.  For example, if a nation has a GDP of $1 million and a debt of $500,000 that debt is huge.  It’s 50% of GDP.  But if we turn on the printing presses and devalue the currency to one tenth of its original value that GDP is now $10 million ($1 million divided by 1/10).  Making that outstanding debt only 5% of GDP.  And a whole lot easier to repay.  But what is one person’s debt is another person’s retirement savings.  So not only does inflation increase prices it destroys our retirement savings.  And all this just so we can boost the small sliver of our economy we call exports.

If this is so bad on so many levels why do governments print money then?  For one simple reason.  To get people to vote for them.  Because all the people see is the free stuff the politicians are giving them.  The damage it causes comes later.  And they can always blame that on Republicans.  Who refuse to raise tax rates on rich people to make them pay their fair share.

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China running low on Factory Workers and Farmers as an Aging Population threatens Future Growth

Posted by PITHOCRATES - February 3rd, 2013

Week in Review

During the Eighties those in America who favored large government incursions into the private market liked to point to Japan.  Whose economy was booming during the Eighties.  Thanks to a lot of government partnering with business.  And low interest rates.  The Japanese were buying up landmark American properties.  Some feared that they would take a controlling interest in the United States.  And those on the Left said that we were fools for not doing what the Japanese were doing.  They still believe this.  Despite what happened in the Nineties in Japan.  It turned out that a lot of that economic growth wasn’t real.  It was a bubble.  And they blew that bubble up so much that it took a decade and more to deflate it.  Japan’s Lost Decade.  Which is closer to two decades.  And counting.

Now China is the new Japan.  Where government partners with business.  And keeps interest rates low.  Once again those on the Left point to this model.  Urging that the U.S. adopt it, too.  So the U.S. can have a strong manufacturing sector.  And a booming export market.  But there’s more to the economy than exports (see UPDATE 3-China to speed up rural land reform, ensure food supply by David Stanway and Kevin Yao posted 1/31/2013 on Reuters).

The central government said in its “number one document” for 2013, focusing on modernising agriculture, it would grant more subsidies to large-scale landholders, family farms and rural cooperatives as it tries to provide more incentives to bring economies of scale to the fragmented countryside…

It listed grain security and farm product supply as top priorities, with China seeking to boost production as it urbanises and industrialises. The relocation to the cities of more than 200 million migrant workers has slashed the rural workforce and boosted food demand, leading to a growing dependence on imports.

So the Chinese traded food for exports.  To get cheap workers to fill their export factories they just pulled people from agriculture.  Leading to food shortages that they have to make up with food imports.  A country no stranger to food shortages.  Or trying to bring economies of scale to agriculture.  The last time they tried it was during the Great Leap Forward.  With forced collectivization of their farms.  Which was such a failure that tens of millions starved to death in the famine this forced collectivization caused.  But famine is not the only way to cause a population decline (see China’s looming worker shortage threatens economy by AFP posted 1/30/2013 on France 24).

China’s demographic timebomb is ticking much louder with the first fall in its labour pool for decades, analysts say, highlighting the risk that the country grows old before it grows rich.

The abundant supply of cheap workers in the world’s most populous nation has created unprecedented cost efficiencies that underpinned its blistering economic expansion over the past 35 years, propelling the global economy forward.

But now the inexorable consequences of the one-child policy imposed in the late 1970s are beginning to appear, and threaten to impact its future growth.

China’s working-age population, defined as 15-59, fell 3.45 million last year, official data showed earlier this month — the first decline since 1963, after tens of millions died in a famine caused by the Great Leap Forward…

“The population is aging so fast that we are running short of time to deal with it,” said Li Jun, also of CASS, adding the family planning policy had exacerbated the problem…

An ageing population not only means fewer people available to employ and higher labour costs, but investment — a key driver of China’s growth — will be harder to maintain as families spend their savings on health care, she said…

At the same time…the country was woefully underprepared to meet the burden of caring for the elderly…

By around 2060, every three Chinese workers will have to support two people above 60, compared with a ratio of five to one now…

Analysts said the medical services are increasingly expensive and hard to access, while the country’s flagship public pension plans are crippled by problems including insolvency risks, difficulties in expanding coverage and mismanagement.

Over a billion people in China and it’s not enough.  They’re short of both factory workers and farmers.  Because of an aging population.  The problem all advanced economies have.  Only China is having it before they are even an advanced economy.  And their problems of trying to take care of their aging population are going to make the problem of saving Social Security and Medicare seem like child’s play.  Because of that one-child policy.

In the advanced economies parents are having barely enough children to replace them.  While China’s one-child policy guarantees a shrinking population.  Which means fewer mouths to feed.  But it will also mean fewer people to farm their land and to work in their factories.  Just as more people leave the workforce.  Which means the future isn’t looking very good for China.  Who may soon experience their own Lost Decade.  A lesson for the U.S.  That having government partner with business and low interest rates does not make a sound economy.  It only creates bubbles.  Not real sustained economic activity.  Which all can come crashing down when overwhelmed by the crushing weight of an aging population.

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The Bank of India to Reverse its Monetary tightening and Resume Inflationary Expansion

Posted by PITHOCRATES - March 4th, 2012

Week in Review

After battling inflation in India for over a year the Bank of India is ready to reverse course.  To halt the decline in their export market growth rate.  With some inflationary Keynesian policy (see Factory growth eases, but keeps healthy pace in Feb by Sumanta Dey posted 3/1/2012 on Reuters).

…employment contracted for the first time in three months and export orders grew at their slowest pace since November…

Price pressures also rose, with the sub-index for output prices, or the cost of finished products, hitting an 11-month high, and the survey suggests inflation could tick up.

A fall in the headline inflation, as measured by the wholesale price index, to 6.55 percent in January, its lowest level in more than two years, had raised expectations the Reserve Bank of India could start easing policy.

After 13 rate rises to stamp out inflation in between March 2010 and October 2011, the central bank signalled in January it was shifting its focus to growth by cutting the cash reserve requirements for banks by 50 basis points.

Clearly with falling export orders the rise in prices isn’t due to demand.  This rise in prices is inflation driven.  Something they’re no stranger to in India.  And something very Keynesian.  Thirteen interest rate hikes in about 19 months?  That’s about one rate increase every month and a half.  That’s some serious monetary tightening.  And now that inflation is down to 6.55% they’re ready to ease policy.  With some inflationary policy.  By lowering bank reserve requirements.  To expand the money supply via fractional reserve banking.  Which will, no doubt, increase prices further.  As inflation tends to do.

By lowering interest rates they are encouraging Indian manufacturing to borrow and expand production.  To meet a falling demand.  And what happens when businesses expand production amidst a falling demand?  Well, in Japan and the United States that resulted in some nasty asset bubbles.  That brought on some long and unpleasant deflation.  Will this happen in India?  It could.  And may.  Unless some markets open up to absorb any increase in supply.  But with the European Union and the United States still limping along and a Chinese export market competing head to head with the Indians, that’s not likely going to happen.

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Higher Labor Costs are squeezing Margins for Chinese Export Manufacturers

Posted by PITHOCRATES - March 4th, 2012

Week in Review

China is still able to exploit their cheap labor to maintain a healthy export market.  But for how long (see China exports may stay strong despite weak Europe by Zhou Xin and Nick Edwards posted 3/1/2012 on Reuters)?

An estimated 200 million jobs — a quarter of China’s workforce — are directly dependent upon the external sector, hiking the political risks of an export slowdown to a leadership hypersensitive to any hint of social instability that might threaten the one-party rule of the Communist Party…

Ye Dingsong is an exporter who has relied on sales to Europe, but his primary headache is pricing, not falling orders.

“There are orders, but the problem is that it’s hard to get good prices. European buyers have become sensitive to prices, but costs are rising quickly so I have to ask for higher prices,” said Ye, the owner of Dadong Shoes in Wenzhou.

His shoe factory, which at its peak employed more than 100 people, currently has only half as many after workers walked out for better wages elsewhere when Ye said he could manage only a 10 percent rise…

Wenzhou exported 265 million pairs of shoes to the EU last year, roughly one pair for every two EU residents, according to data from the local customs office. But total sales were just $1.6 billion, or $6.04 per pair, meaning margins are very narrow even as a starter’s monthly wage can easily exceed 2,000 yuan ($320).

Ye is one of the many exporters Beijing is trying to help through tough times with tax rebates and easier bank credit.

The state capitalists in America look to China with awe and admiration.  They would love to expand state control of the economy in America to the level in China.  So they, too, can produce those magnificent GDP growth rates.  Which they think they can do.  With a union work force.  Even with the high wages and generous benefits of union workers.  Which, of course, they cannot do.  For the only thing maintaining China’s export market is that cheap labor.  Which is far below the union wages and benefits in America. 

In America a Chinese type state capitalism will not result in higher GDP growth rates.  Only in higher wages and benefits for union workers.  Along with a collapsing GDP growth rate.  Thanks to an uncompetitive American work force becoming even more uncompetitive.

But even in Communist China they are having problems keeping their labor cheap.  But they will do everything they can.  Including brutal state oppression.  And Keynesian economic policies.  Urging businesses to borrow money and expand production.  Even in the face of rising prices.  Which one day will lead to falling sales.  Leaving the Chinese with some nasty asset bubbles in their economy.  The kind the Japanese had in the Nineties.  And the kind the U.S. just recently had in the housing market.  Both bubbles popped.  And a horrible deflation set in to undo all the Keynesian mischief that caused the bubbles in the first place.

There is no way for the Americans to do what the Chinese are doing.  Unless the state capitalists do like the Chinese.  And outlaw all unions.  And that’s about as likely to happen as Keynesian economics policies actually working without causing inflation and asset bubbles.

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Versailles Treaty, Marshall Plan, Post-War Japan, MITI, Asian Tigers, Japan Inc., Asset Bubbles, Deflationary Spiral and Lost Decade

Posted by PITHOCRATES - February 21st, 2012

History 101

Douglas MacArthur brought some American Institutions into Japan and unleashed a lot of Human Capital

At the end of World War I the allies really screwed the Germans.  The Treaty of Versailles made for an impossible peace.  In a war that had no innocents the Allies heaped all blame onto Germany in the end.  And the bankrupt Allies wanted Germany to pay.  Placing impossible demands on the Germans.  Which could do nothing but bankrupt Germany.  Because, of course, to the victors go the spoils.  But such a policy doesn’t necessarily lead to a lasting peace.  And the peace following the war to end all wars wasn’t all that long lasting.  Worse, the peace was ended by a war that was worse than the war to end all wars.  World War II.  All because some corporal with delusions of grandeur held a grudge.

The Americans wouldn’t repeat the same mistake the Allies made after World War II.  Instead of another Versailles Treaty there was the Marshal Plan.  Instead of punishing the vanquished the Americans helped rebuild them.  The peace was so easy in Japan that the Japanese grew to admire their conqueror.  General Douglas MacArthur.  The easy peace proved to be a long lasting peace.  In fact the two big enemies of World War II became good friends and allies of the United States.  And strong industrial powers.  Their resulting economic prosperity fostered peace and stability in their countries.  And their surrounding regions.

MacArthur changed Japan.  Where once the people served the military the nation now served the people.  With a strong emphasis on education.  And not just for the boys.  For girls, too.  And men AND women got the right to vote in a representative government.   This was new.  It unleashed a lot of human capital.  Throw in a disciplined work force, low wages and a high domestic savings rate and this country was going places.  It quickly rebuilt its war-torn industries.  And produced a booming export market.  Helped in part by some protectionist policies.  And a lot of U.S. investment.  Especially during the Korean War.  Japan was back.  The Fifties were good.  And the Sixties were even better. 

By the End of the Seventies the Miracle was Over and Japan was just another First World Economy 

Helping along the way was the Ministry of International Trade and Industry (MITI).  The government agency that partnered with business.  Shut out imports.  Except the high-tech stuff.  Played with exchange rates.  Built up the old heavy industries (shipbuilding, electric power, coal, steel, chemicals, etc.).  And built a lot of infrastructure.  Sound familiar?  It’s very similar to the Chinese economic explosion.  All made possible by, of course, a disciplined workforce and low wages.

Things went very well in Japan (and in China) during this emerging-economy phase.  But it is always easy to play catch-up.  For crony capitalism can work when playing catch-up.  When you’re not trying to reinvent the wheel.  But just trying to duplicate what others have already proven to work.  You can post remarkable GDP growth.  Especially when you have low wages for a strong export market.  But wages don’t always stay low, do they?  Because there is always another economy to emerge.  First it was the Japanese who worked for less than American workers.  Then it was the Mexicans.  Then the South Koreans.  The three other Asian Tigers (Hong Kong, Singapore and Taiwan).  China.  India.  Brazil.  Vietnam.  It just doesn’t end.  Which proves to be a problem for crony capitalism.  Which can work when economic systems are frozen in time.  But fails miserably in a dynamic economy.

But, alas, all emerging economies eventually emerge.  And mature.  By the end of the Seventies Japan had added automobiles and electronics to the mix.  But it couldn’t prevent the inevitable.  The miracle was over.  It was just another first world economy.  Competing with other first world economies.  Number two behind the Americans.  Very impressive.  But being more like the Americans meant the record growth days were over.  And it was time to settle for okay growth instead of fantastic growth.  But the Japanese government was tighter with business than it ever was.  In fact, corporate Japan was rather incestuous.  Corporations invested in other corporations.  Creating large vertical and horizontal conglomerates.  And the banks were right there, too.  Making questionable loans to corporations.  To feed Japan Inc.  To prop up this vast government/business machine.  With the government right behind the banks to bail them out if anyone got in trouble.    

Low Interest Rates caused Irrational Exuberance in the Stock and Real Estate Markets

As the Eighties dawned the service-oriented sector (wholesaling, retailing, finance, insurance, real estate, transportation, communications, etc.) grew.  As did government.  With a mature economy and loads of new jobs for highly educated college graduates consumption took off.  And led the economy in the Eighties.  Everyone was buying.  And investing.  Businesses were borrowing money at cheap rates and expanding capacity.  And buying stocks.  As was everyone.  Banks were approving just about any loan regardless of risk.  All that cheap money led to a boom in housing.  Stock and house prices soared.  As did debt.  It was Keynesian economics at its best.  Low interest rates encouraged massive consumption (which Keynesians absolutely love) and high investment.  Government was partnering with business and produced the best of all possible worlds.

But those stock prices were getting way too high.  As were those real estate prices.  And it was all financed with massive amounts of debt.  Massive bubbles financed by massive debt.  A big problem.  For those high prices weren’t based on value.  It was inflation.  Too much money in the economy.  Which raised prices.  And created a lot of irrational exuberance.  Causing people to bid up prices for stocks and real estate into the stratosphere.  Something Alan Greenspan would be saying a decade later during the dot-com boom in the United States.  Bubbles are bombs just waiting to go off.  And this one was a big one.  Before it got too big the government tried to disarm it.  By increasing interest rates. But it was too late.

We call it the business cycle.  The boom-bust cycle between good times and bad.  During the good times prices go up and supply rushes in to fill that demand.  Eventually too many people rush in and supply exceeds demand.  And prices then fall.  The recession part of the business cycle.  All normal and necessary in economics.  And the quicker this happens the less painful the recession will be.  But the higher you inflate prices the farther they must fall.  And the Japanese really inflated those prices.  So they had a long way to fall.  And fall they did.  For a decade.  And counting.  What the Japanese call their Lost Decade.  A deflationary spiral that may still be continuing to this day.

As asset prices fell out of the stratosphere they became worth less than the debt used to buy them.  (Sound familiar?  This is what happened in the Subprime Mortgage Crisis.)  Played hell with balance sheets throughout Japan Inc.  A lot of debt went bad.  And unpaid.  Causing a lot problems for banks.  As they injected capital into businesses too big to fail.  To help them service the debt used for their bad investments.  To keep them from defaulting on their loans.  Consumption fell, too.  Making all that corporate investment nothing but idle excess capacity.  The government tried to stop the deflation by lowering interest rates.  To stimulate some economic activity.  And a lot of inflation.  But the economy was in full freefall.  (Albeit a slow freefall.  Taking two decades and counting.)  Bringing supply and prices back in line with real demand.  Which no amount of cheap money was going to change.  Even loans at zero percent.

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China’s Mighty Export Juggernaut declined for Third Year in a Row

Posted by PITHOCRATES - January 14th, 2012

Week in Review

Once upon a time there were those in the United States who said we should do what the Japanese were doing during the Eighties.  The government was partnering with business.  Interfering with market forces.  To keep the economic good times rolling.  If you remember this time this was when the Japanese were buying up U.S. assets.  And it was joked that soon America would be a wholly owned subsidiary of Japan Inc.  But, alas, the good times did not continue to roll.

All that government interference into market forces created asset bubbles.  Artificially high prices for artificially high demand.  But then the bubble popped.  And the market corrected those prices.  To match them to real demand.  And Japan Inc. went into a deflationary spiral that lasted a decade or more.  Which we call Japan’s Lost Decade.  The Nineties.  A long deflation is a painful thing to go through.  This was the lesson of Japan Inc.  Apparently a lesson few learned.  Especially in China (see Export growth in China declines posted 1/10/2012 on BBC News Business).

Growth in China’s exports slowed in December because of sluggish demand from the US and Europe…

The latest figures could fuel worries that the world’s second largest economy is losing steam…

…the trade surplus for 2011 as a whole narrowed to $155.1bn, compared with $183bn in 2010, said customs officials.

This means the trade surplus, which is politically sensitive and has caused tension between China and the US, shrank for the third straight year.

China partnered with business.  Created an economic boom the likes few have ever seen.  Manufacturing output took off to the stratosphere.  Thanks to what once appeared as an inexhaustible supply of cheap labor.  And government policies that favored Chinese exports and hindered foreign imports.  They flooded the world with inexpensive goods.  But that cheap labor may be more exhaustible than they once thought.  And it’s looking like that this increasing amount of inexpensive exports simply can’t be absorbed by countries with struggling economies.  You put all of this together and the Chinese have got themselves a bit of a problem.

To attract labor to their growing manufacturing plants they had to increase their minimum wage.  So their workers are earning more.  Which has increased local prices.  Higher labor costs means higher costs for businesses.  Which they recover through higher prices.  All supported by that growing export market.  Which is starting to shrink.  So they have been increasing supply to meet an artificial demand that is in reality a falling demand.  Which has created a surplus of highly priced goods that won’t be selling any time soon.  There is another name for this.  An asset bubble.  Kind of like what Japan Inc. had on their hands.  And the chances are this bubble will pop like Japan Inc.’s bubble popped.  Sending the Chinese into a deflationary spiral that could lose them a decade.  Like the Japanese lost.

The market will always adjust prices so supply meets real demand.  Sooner or later.  The sooner it does the less painful the correction.  The later it does the more painful the correction.  And China’s mighty export juggernaut has been going on for a long time.  So their inevitable correction will probably be a painful one.

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