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Gold Price Manipulation: What's Next? | Zero Hedge

Gold Price Manipulation: What’s Next? | Zero Hedge.

gold fixing

Source picture: Bloomberg

It appears that the gold fanatics were right the whole time. For at least ten years, the price of gold has been manipulated. The banks are the bad guys once more, who would have thought?!

If you work at a bank and do your job the way you are supposed to, it might be smart regardless to not talk about your professional activities when you are at a party this week. Although there are ‘only’ 5 banks involved in the scandal this time, the image of the whole sector will suffer again.

The rumor that the gold price was being manipulated had been going around for quite some time and, surprise surprise, it was true! It would be impossible to draw a different conclusion after reading the demolishing report from New York University’s Stern School of Business Professor Rosa Abrantes-Metz and Moody’s Investors Service’s Managing Director Albert Metz. The words in the report were carefully chosen, leaving room for interpretation, although no one will be fooled.

If it looks like a duck, quacks like a duck, flies like a duck, well, it is a duck then, isn’t it.

 

Gold price: decades of fixing

The process of gold fixing, which is the setting of the gold price twice each business day, just screams for manipulation, conspiracy and corruption by the banks involved. And the empirical data that was used from 2001 to 2013, shows ‘inexplicable price movements’ from as far back as 2004 (!) during the midday fix. It probably won’t surprise you that those ‘inexplicable price movements’ most often were downward price movements. In 2010 for example, 92 percent (!) of the large price movements during gold fixing were negative.

Gold fixing is done twice each business day, at 10:30am and 3pm London time during a conference call. It used to be done face to face, but since 2004 it is just a conference call. The fixing in itself is still done, however, and is vulnerable to manipulation. These calls between the five banks that are involved usually last no longer than 10 minutes, but have lasted up to an hour or longer.

The similarities with the fixing of, for example, the Euribor and Libor interest rates are obvious. The damage done by those events is impossible to calculate, but you can take it from us that we are talking about billions of dollars. Regular citizens are often at the receiving end of all this manipulation, as governments and its tax payers are the ones who pick up the bill all too often.

 

Damage: unknown

It is still too early to make a sensible estimation of the damage that the manipulation of the gold price has caused. But the story will be the same: fines will be given without any further consequence. The current old-fashioned way of fixing the gold price has seen its days however, as confidence in the process has gone up in smoke. Another method will take its place, probably with greater control and supervision.

We are curious of course, how this whole ordeal will play out. The researchers of the report are calling for a deeper investigation of the matter. They obviously want to pass on this hot potato, which is understandable. Regardless of the above, further investigation is being done in Germany already.

We predict that there will be large fines, lots of accusations and a new method for gold fixing. That, or the investigators will not succeed at producing enough evidence: considering what is at stake here, it is impossible to exclude any scenario. It is hard to surprise us these days. Ultimately, true price discovery will take hold of the gold market. That is nature’s law, which can’t be fixed by a bunch of bankers.

Want to invest in gold? First read our GUIDE TO GOLD!

 

Sprout Money offers a fresh look at investing. We analyze long lasting cycles, coupled with a collection of strategic investments and concrete tips for different types of assets. The methods and strategies from Sprout Money are transformed into the Gold & Silver Report and the Technology Report.

Follow us on Twitter @SproutMoney

Gold Price Manipulation: What’s Next? | Zero Hedge

Gold Price Manipulation: What’s Next? | Zero Hedge.

gold fixing

Source picture: Bloomberg

It appears that the gold fanatics were right the whole time. For at least ten years, the price of gold has been manipulated. The banks are the bad guys once more, who would have thought?!

If you work at a bank and do your job the way you are supposed to, it might be smart regardless to not talk about your professional activities when you are at a party this week. Although there are ‘only’ 5 banks involved in the scandal this time, the image of the whole sector will suffer again.

The rumor that the gold price was being manipulated had been going around for quite some time and, surprise surprise, it was true! It would be impossible to draw a different conclusion after reading the demolishing report from New York University’s Stern School of Business Professor Rosa Abrantes-Metz and Moody’s Investors Service’s Managing Director Albert Metz. The words in the report were carefully chosen, leaving room for interpretation, although no one will be fooled.

If it looks like a duck, quacks like a duck, flies like a duck, well, it is a duck then, isn’t it.

 

Gold price: decades of fixing

The process of gold fixing, which is the setting of the gold price twice each business day, just screams for manipulation, conspiracy and corruption by the banks involved. And the empirical data that was used from 2001 to 2013, shows ‘inexplicable price movements’ from as far back as 2004 (!) during the midday fix. It probably won’t surprise you that those ‘inexplicable price movements’ most often were downward price movements. In 2010 for example, 92 percent (!) of the large price movements during gold fixing were negative.

Gold fixing is done twice each business day, at 10:30am and 3pm London time during a conference call. It used to be done face to face, but since 2004 it is just a conference call. The fixing in itself is still done, however, and is vulnerable to manipulation. These calls between the five banks that are involved usually last no longer than 10 minutes, but have lasted up to an hour or longer.

The similarities with the fixing of, for example, the Euribor and Libor interest rates are obvious. The damage done by those events is impossible to calculate, but you can take it from us that we are talking about billions of dollars. Regular citizens are often at the receiving end of all this manipulation, as governments and its tax payers are the ones who pick up the bill all too often.

 

Damage: unknown

It is still too early to make a sensible estimation of the damage that the manipulation of the gold price has caused. But the story will be the same: fines will be given without any further consequence. The current old-fashioned way of fixing the gold price has seen its days however, as confidence in the process has gone up in smoke. Another method will take its place, probably with greater control and supervision.

We are curious of course, how this whole ordeal will play out. The researchers of the report are calling for a deeper investigation of the matter. They obviously want to pass on this hot potato, which is understandable. Regardless of the above, further investigation is being done in Germany already.

We predict that there will be large fines, lots of accusations and a new method for gold fixing. That, or the investigators will not succeed at producing enough evidence: considering what is at stake here, it is impossible to exclude any scenario. It is hard to surprise us these days. Ultimately, true price discovery will take hold of the gold market. That is nature’s law, which can’t be fixed by a bunch of bankers.

Want to invest in gold? First read our GUIDE TO GOLD!

 

Sprout Money offers a fresh look at investing. We analyze long lasting cycles, coupled with a collection of strategic investments and concrete tips for different types of assets. The methods and strategies from Sprout Money are transformed into the Gold & Silver Report and the Technology Report.

Follow us on Twitter @SproutMoney

Anti-Logic and the Keynesian “Stimulus” – William L. Anderson – Mises Daily

Anti-Logic and the Keynesian “Stimulus” – William L. Anderson – Mises Daily.

American political culture always seems to be “celebrating” the anniversary of something, be it JFK’s assassination (we just passed the 50th anniversary of that sad event) or the signing of some (mostly bad) legislation. The latest political activity to be enshrined with an anniversary is the so-called stimulus, the $800 billion monstrosity passed five years ago ostensibly to “put America back to work.”

Not surprisingly, the New York Times has editorialized that any criticism of the spending bill — at least any criticism which says “too much” was spent — is a Republican “myth and falsehood.” Not only was the “Stimulus” a legitimate piece of legislation, sniffed the NYT, but it also:

prevented a second recession that could have turned into a depression. It created or saved an average of 1.6 million jobs a year for four years. (Where are the jobs, Mr. Boehner.) It raised the nation’s economic output by 2 to 3 percent from 2009 to 2011. It prevented a significant increase in poverty — without it, 5.3 million additional people would have become poor in 2010.

Like all examples of the Broken Window Fallacy, the spirited defense of this spending bill is based upon “accounting” methods that count the people hired through “stimulus” spending as “new jobs” but fail to note how others might have lost their own means of employment. Now, this was a bill that, among other things, had workers rolling sod into the grass median of I-68 (which is near my home) in an area where runoff collected from tons of salt thrown onto roads by state highway crews (our area receives a lot of snowfall). Not surprisingly, within a year, all of the new grass was dead.

I liken the “stimulus” to throwing a bit of lighter fluid onto a pile of soaking wet wood. The flames pop up for a few seconds, but then disappear as the effects from the fluid go away. (No, repeated douses of “stimulus” fluid do not ultimately gain traction and then lead to a miraculous economic recovery.)

If Beltway political culture permits any criticism of the Holy Stimulus, it is this: “the stimulus wasn’t big enough.” Intones the NYT: “The stimulus could have done more good had it been bigger and more carefully constructed.”

The rest of the editorial is a compilation of near-plagiarism from Paul Krugman’s columns and blog posts, and it reflects how Keynesian anti-wogic works. The “logical” narrative goes as follows:

  • “Enough” government spending during a recession will bring the economy to “full employment.”
  • The economy is not at full employment.
  • Therefore, there wasn’t enough government spending.

Should one question the Keynesian premises of this awful syllogism, the standard answer is: America had “full employment” during World War II. (Robert Higgs has thoroughly debunked this enduring myth.) But, then, so did Germany and the U.S.S.R., according to Keynesian standards, but no one envies what people there experienced!

The problem that occurs when one wishes to interpret the results of the Stimulus is not due to bad politics. To put it another way, Stimulus spending always will confer political benefits, given that the money is transferred from taxpayers to preferred political constituents. Those footing the bill include both present and future taxpayers, since they will have to pay later for the public debt incurred to pay for present stimulus spending.

I make this point because the stimulus always has been presented as a government action that improved general or overall economic conditions, as opposed to being a political wealth-transfer scheme. The NYT editorial drips with what only can be a religious faith in the whole system, as though politicians seeking votes are going to “carefully” construct a process that is aimed at making certain political constituencies better off — but at the expense of other constituencies.

In reality, the government-based stimulus is based upon bad economics or, to be more specific, one of bad economic logic. To a Keynesian, an economy is a homogeneous mass into which the government stirs new batches of currency. The more currency thrown into the mix, the better the economy operates. One only needs to read Krugman’s writings to see that belief in full bloom.

Austrian economists, on the other hand, recognize the relationships within the economy, including relationships of factors of production to one another, and how those factors can be directed to their highest-valued uses, according to consumer choices. The U.S. economy remains mired in the mix of low output and high unemployment not because governments are failing to spend enough money but rather because governments are blocking the free flow of both consumers’ andproducers’ goods and preventing the real economic relationships to take place and trying to force artificial relationships, instead. (Green energy and ethanol, anyone?)

Simply put, the stimulus could work only if it were directing factors of production from lower-valued uses to higher-valued uses as determined ultimately by consumer choice. If that actually were the case, then the government would not have to force consumers to use stimulus-funded ethanol and electricity created by wind power.

Austrians arrive at their position through logic, but logic that is based in what we already know about human action. Unlike Keynesian “logic,” the premises of Austrian economics are sound, so the conclusions derived from them also are sound. No wonder the Austrian position is banned from the NYT editorial page!

Note: The views expressed in Daily Articles on Mises.org are not necessarily those of the Mises Institute.

Comment on this article. When commenting, please post a concise, civil, and informative comment.
William Anderson, an adjunct scholar of the Mises Institute, teaches economics at Frostburg State University. Send him mail. See William L. Anderson’s article archives.

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The energy transition tipping point is here – SmartPlanet

The energy transition tipping point is here – SmartPlanet.

The economic foundations supporting fossil fuels investments are collapsing quickly, as the business case for renewables such as solar and wind finds a new center of balance.

I have waited a long time—decades, really—for a tipping point in the energy transition from fossil fuels to renewables beyond which there can be no turning back. Fresh evidence pertaining to many themes I have explored in this column over the past three years suggests that tipping point is finally here.

Oil and gas

Underlying the abundance hype over tight oil, tar sands and other “unconventional” sources of liquid fuel has been a dirty little secret: They’re expensive.

The soaring cost of producing oil has far outpaced the rise in oil prices as the world has relied on these marginal sources to keep production growing since conventional oil production peaked in 2005. Those who ignored the hype and paid attention to the data have known this for years. I have detailed this evidence repeatedly (for example, in “The cost of new oil supply,” “Oil majors are whistling past the graveyard,” and “Trouble in fracking paradise”), but now the facts are earning mainstream recognition.

The Wall Street Journal recently pointed out that oil and gas production by Chevron, ExxonMobil and Royal Dutch Shell has declined during the past five years even as the companies spent more than a half-trillion dollars on new projects. Chevron’s costs alone have jumped 56 percent since 2010.

A marvelous new presentation by Steven Kopits, Managing Director of the Douglas-Westwood consultancy, details oil supply, demand, cost and price trends with merciless precision. If you can take an hour to watch Kopits’ presentation I highly recommend it, as it’s the most comprehensive perspective you’ll find on the global dynamics of oil.

 

oil-majors-capex-and-production-kopits.png

The graphic above shows how capital spending (capex) by the world’s publicly listed oil majors has increased by more than a factor of five since 2000, while their production of oil has fallen back to the 2000 level after a few years of very modest increases. In Kopits’ earthy metaphor, the companies kept watering the plant but it just wouldn’t grow anymore—precisely as the peak oil model predicted.

 

In late February, Bloomberg finally addressed the most problematic issue in shale gas and tight oil wells: their incredible decline rates and diminishing prospects for drilling in the most-profitable “sweet spots” of the shale plays. I have documented that issue at length (for example, “Oil and gas price forecast for 2014,” “Energy independence, or impending oil shocks?,” “The murky future of U.S. shale gas,” and my Financial Times critique of Leonardo Maugeri’s widely heralded 2012 report).

The sources for the Bloomberg article are shockingly candid about the difficulties facing the shale sector, considering that their firms have been at the forefront of shale hype.

The vice president of integration at oil services giant Schlumberger notes that four out of every 10 frack clusters are duds. Geologist Pete Stark, a vice president of industry relations at IHS—yes, that IHS, where famous peak oil pooh-pooher Daniel Yergin is the spokesman for its CERA unit—actually said what we in the peak oil camp have been saying for years: “The decline rate is a potential show stopper after a while…You just can’t keep up with it.”

The CEO of Superior Energy Services was particularly pithy: “We’ve drilled all the good stuff…These are very poor quality formations that I don’t believe God intended for us to produce from the source rock.” Source rocks, as I wrote last month, are an oil and gas “retirement party,” not a revolution.

The toxic combination of rising production costs, the rapid decline rates of the wells, diminishing prospects for drilling new wells, and a drilling program so out of control that it caused a glut and destroyed profitability, have finally taken their toll.

Numerous operators are taking major write-downs against reserves. WPX Energy, an operator in the Marcellus shale gas play, and Pioneer Natural Resources, an operator in the Barnett shale gas play, each have announced balance sheet “impairments” of more than $1 billion due to low gas prices. Chesapeake Energy, Encana, Apache, Anadarko Petroleum, BP, and BHP Billiton have disclosed similar substantial reserves reductions. Occidental Petroleum, which has made the most significant attempts to frack California’s Monterey Shale, announced that it will spin off that unit to focus on its core operations—something it would not do if the Monterey prospects were good. EOG Resources, one of the top tight oil operators in the United States, recently said that it no longer expects U.S. production to rise by 1 million barrels per day (mb/d) each year, in accordance with my 2014 oil and gas price forecast.

Coal and nuclear

When I wrote “Why baseload power is doomed” and “Regulation and the decline of coal power” in 2012, the suggestion that renewables might displace baseload power sources like coal and nuclear plants was generally received with ridicule. How could “intermittent” power sources with just a few percentage points of market share possibly hurt the deeply entrenched, reliable, fully amortized infrastructure of power generation?

But look where we are today. Coal plants are being retired much faster than most observers expected. Thelatest projection from the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) is for 60 gigawatts (GW) of coal-fired power capacity to be taken offline by 2016, more than double the retirements the agency predicted in 2012. The vast majority of the coal plants that were planned for the United States in 2007 have since been cancelled, abandoned, or put on hold, according to SourceWatch.

Nuclear power plants were also given the kibosh at an unprecedented rate last year. More nuclear plant retirements appear to be on the way. Earlier this month, utility giant Exelon, the nation’s largest owner of nuclear plants, warned that it will shut down nuclear plants if the prospects for their profitable operation don’t improve this year.

Japan has just announced a draft plan that would restart its nuclear reactors, but the plan is “vague” and, to my expert nose, stinks of political machinations. What we do know is that the country has abandoned its plans to build a next-generation “fast breeder” reactor due to mounting technical challenges and skyrocketing costs.

Grid competition

Nuclear and coal plant retirements are being driven primarily by competition from lower-cost wind, solar, and natural gas generators, and by rising operational and maintenance costs. As more renewable power is added to the grid, the economics continue to worsen for utilities clinging to old fossil-fuel generating assets (a topic I have covered at length; for example, “Designing the grid for renewables,” “The next big utility transformation,” “Can the utility industry survive the energy transition?” “Adapt or die – private utilities and the distributed energy juggernaut” and “The unstoppable renewable grid“).

Nowhere is this more evident than in Germany, which now obtains about 25 percent of its grid power from renewables and which has the most solar power per capita in the world. I have long viewed Germany’s transition to renewables (see “Myth-busting Germany’s energy transition“) as a harbinger of what is to come for the rest of the developed world as we progress down the path of energy transition.

And what’s to come for the utilities isn’t good. Earlier this month, Reuters reported that Germany’s three largest utilities, E.ON, RWE, and EnBW are struggling with what the CEO of RWE called “the worst structural crisis in the history of energy supply.” Falling consumption and growing renewable power have cut the wholesale price of electricity by 60 percent since 2008, making it unprofitable to continue operating coal, gas and oil-fired plants. E.ON and RWE have announced intentions to close or mothball 15 GW of gas and coal-fired plants. Additionally, the three major utilities still have a combined 12 GW of nuclear plants scheduled to retire by 2020 under Germany’s nuclear phase-out program.

RWE said it will write down nearly $4 billion on those assets, but the pain doesn’t end there. Returns on invested capital at the three utilities are expected to fall from an average of 7.7 percent in 2013 to 6.5 percent in 2015, which will only increase the likelihood that pension funds and other fixed-income investors will look to exchange traditional utility company holdings for “green bonds” invested in renewable energy. The green bond sector is growing rapidly, and there’s no reason to think it will slow down. Bond issuance jumped from $2 billion in 2012 to $11 billion in 2013, and the now-$15 billion market is expected to nearly double again this year.

new report from the Rocky Mountain Institute and CohnReznick about consumers “defecting” from the grid using solar and storage systems concludes that the combination is a “real, near and present” threat to utilities. By 2025, according to the authors, millions of residential users could find it economically advantageous to give up the grid. In his excellent article on the report, Stephen Lacey notes that lithium-ion battery costs have fallen by half since 2008. With technology wunderkind Elon Musk’s newannouncement that his car company Tesla will raise up to $5 billion to build the world’s biggest “Gigafactory” for the batteries, their costs fall even farther. At the same time, the average price of an installed solar system has fallen by 61 percent since the first quarter of 2010.

At least some people in the utility sector agree that the threat is real. Speaking in late February at the ARPA-E Energy Summit, CEO David Crane of NRG Energy suggested that the grid will be obsolete and used only for backup within a generation, calling the current system “shockingly stupid.”

Non-hydro renewables are outpacing nuclear and fossil fuel capacity additions in much of the world, wreaking havoc with the incumbent utilities’ business models. The value of Europe’s top 20 utilities has been halved since 2008, and their credit ratings have been downgraded. According to The Economist, utilities have been the worst-performing sector in the Morgan Stanley index of global share prices. Only utilities nimble enough to adopt new revenue models providing a range of services and service levels, including efficiency and self-generation, will survive.

In addition to distributed solar systems, utility-scale renewable power plants are popping up around the world like spring daisies. Ivanpah, the world’s largest solar “power tower” at 392 megawatts (MW),  just went online in Nevada. Aura Solar I, the largest solar farm in Latin America at 30 MW, is under construction in Mexico and will replace an old oil-fired power plant. India just opened its largest solar power plant to date, the 130 MW Welspun Solar MP project. Solar is increasingly seen as the best way to provide electricity to power-impoverished parts of the world, and growth is expected to be stunning in Latin America, India and Africa.

Renewable energy now supplies 23 percent of global electricity generation, according to the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, with capacity having doubled from 2000 to 2012. If that growth rate continues, it could become the dominant source of electricity by the next decade.

Environmental disasters

Faltering productivity, falling profits, poor economics and increasing competition from power plants running on free fuel aren’t the only problems facing the fossil-fuels complex. It has also been the locus of increasingly frequent environmental disasters.

On Feb. 22, a barge hauling oil collided with a towboat and spilled an estimated 31,500 gallons of light crude into the Mississippi River, closing 65 miles of the waterway for two days.

More waterborne spills are to be expected along with more exploding trains as crude oil from sources like the Bakken shale seeks alternative routes to market while the Keystone XL pipeline continues to fight an uphill political battle. According to the Association of American Railroads, the number of tank cars shipping oil jumped from about 10,000 in 2009 to more than 230,000 in 2012, and more oil spilled from trains in 2013 than in the previous four decades combined.

Federal regulators issued emergency rules on Feb. 25 requiring Bakken crude to undergo testing to see if it is too flammable to be moved safely by rail, but I am not confident this measure will eliminate the risk. Light, tight oil from U.S. shales tends to contain more light molecules such as natural gas liquids than conventional U.S. crude grades, and is more volatile.

Feb. 11 will go down in history as a marquee bad day for fossil fuels, on which 100,000 gallons of coal slurry spilled into a creek in West Virginia; a natural gas well in Dilliner, Pa., exploded (and burned for two weeks before it was put out); and a natural gas pipeline ruptured and exploded in Tioga, ND. Two days later, another natural gas line exploded in the town of Knifely, Ky., igniting multiple fires and destroying several homes, barns, and cars. The same day, another train carrying crude oil derailed near Pittsburgh, spilling between 3,000 and 7,500 gallons of crude oil.

And don’t forget the spill of 10,000 gallons of toxic chemicals used in coal processing from a leaking tank in West Virginia in early January, which sickened residents of Charleston and rendered its water supply unusable.

No return

At this point you may think, “Well, this is all very interesting, Chris, but why should we believe we’ve reached some sort of tipping point in energy transition?”

To which I would say, ask yourself: Is any of this reversible?

Is there any reason to think the world will turn its back on plummeting costs for solar systems, batteries, and wind turbines, and revert back to nuclear and coal?

Is there any reason to think we won’t see more ruptures and spills from oil and gas pipelines?

What about the more than 1,300 coal-ash waste sites scattered across the United States, of which about half are no longer used and some are lacking adequate liners? How confident are we that authorities will suddenly find the will, after decades of neglect, to ensure that they’ll not cause further contamination after damaging drinking water supplies in at least 67 instances so far, such that we feel confident about continuing to rely on coal power?

Like the disastrous natural gas pipeline that exploded in 2010 and turned an entire neighborhood in San Bruno, Calif., into a raging inferno, coal-ash waste sites are but one part of a deep and growing problem shot through the entire fabric of America: aging infrastructure and deferred maintenance. President Obama just outlined his vision for a $302 billion, four-year program of investment in transportation, but that’s just a drop in the bucket, and it’s only for transportation.

Is there any reason to think citizens will brush off the death, destruction, environmental contamination of these disasters—many of them happening in the backyards of rural, red-state voters—and not take a second look at clean power?

Is there any reason to believe utilities will swallow several trillion dollars worth of stranded assets and embrace new business models en masse? Or is it more likely that those that can will simply adopt solar, storage systems, and other measures that ultimately give them cheaper and more reliable power, particularly in the face of increasingly frequent climate-related disasters that take out their grid power for days or weeks?

Is there any reason to think the billions of people in the world who still lack reliable electric power will continue to rely on filthy diesel generators and kerosene lanterns as the price of oil continues to rise? Or are they more likely to adopt alternatives like the SolarAid solar lanterns, of which half a million have been sold across Africa in the past six months alone? (Here’s a hint: Nobody who has one wants to go back to their kerosene lantern.) Founder Jeremy Leggett of SunnyMoney, who created the SolarAid lanterns, intends to sell 50 million of them across Africa by 2020.

Is there any reason to believe solar and wind will not continue to be the preferred way to bring power to the developing world, when their fuel is free and conventional alternatives are getting scarcer and more expensive?

Is there any reason a homeowner might not think about putting a solar system on his or her roof, without taking a single dollar out of his or her pocket, and using it to charge up an electric vehicle instead of buying gasoline?

Is there any reason to think that drilling for shale gas and tight oil in the United States will suddenly resume its former rapid growth rates, when new well locations are getting harder to find, investment by the oil and gas companies is being slashed, share prices are falling, reserves are getting taken off balance sheets and investors are getting nervous?

I don’t think so. All of these trends have been developing for decades, and new data surfacing daily only reinforces them.

The energy transition tipping point is here, and there’s no going back.

Photo: Vladimir Cetinski, iStock Photo

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Feb 28, 2014

Chris Nelder

Chris Nelder is an energy analyst and consultant who has written about energy and investing for more than a decade. He is the author of two books on energy and investing, Profit from the Peak and Investing in Renewable Energy, and has appeared on BBC TV, Fox Business, CNN national radio, Australian Broadcasting Corp., CBS radio and France 24. He is based in California. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure

My letter to the NY Times re: The Lawless Fed – Ludwig von Mises Institute Canada

My letter to the NY Times re: The Lawless Fed – Ludwig von Mises Institute Canada.

Thursday, February 27th, 2014 by 

Re: Fed’s Aid in 2008 Crisis Stretched Worldwide

Dear Sirs:
Your article about the Fed’s actions in 2008 to lend $580 billion in so-called “swap lines” to central banks internationally sounds a note of triumphalism that is completely unwarranted.  The Fed had no authority to lend to these entities, despite its attempts to justify its action as lending against collateral.  In any regard, if the collateral against which the Fed lent dollars was so strong and, as your article states, the American taxpayers actually made money on the deal, why did the Fed need to get involved at all?  The obvious answer is that the Fed took an illegal risk that fortunately worked out.  New York Fed President Timothy Geithner’s chest puffing statement that “the privilege of being the reserve currency comes with some burdens” is especially troubling in that we may assume that in the future the Fed will engage in similar risky adventures.  One final note…what caused the 2008 crisis in the first place?  Your article identifies it perfectly: “The root cause of the problem was this: Global banks did lots of business in dollars–buying up United States mortgaged-backed securities,…”  And what initiated the massive issuance of these soon-to-be-worthless mortgaged-backed securities?  Fed money printing.  So, please, let’s not call the Fed a hero, when it really caused the crisis that led to its illegal actions.

Patrick Barron is a consultant to the banking industry. He teaches Austrian school economics at the University of Iowa and Bank Managemant Simulation for the Graduate School of Banking, University of Wisconsin. Visit his blog. Send him mail.

The High Price of Delaying the Default – Thorsten Polleit – Mises Daily

The High Price of Delaying the Default – Thorsten Polleit – Mises Daily.

Mises Daily: Wednesday, February 26, 2014 by 

Credit is a wonderful tool that can help advance the division of labor, thereby increasing productivity and prosperity. The granting of credit enables savers to spread their income over time, as they prefer. By taking out loans, investors can implement productive spending plans that they would be unable to afford using their own resources.

The economically beneficial effects of credit can only come about, however, if the underlying credit and monetary system is solidly based on free-market principles. And here is a major problem for today’s economies: the prevailing credit and monetary regime is irreconcilable with the free market system.

At present, all major currencies in the world — be it the US dollar, the euro, the Japanese yen, or the Chinese renminbi — represent government sponsored unbacked paper, or, “fiat” monies. These monies have three characteristic features. First, central banks have a monopoly on money production. Second, money is created by bank lending — or “out of thin air” — without loans being backed by real savings. And third, money that is dematerialized, can be expanded in any quantity politically desired.

A fiat money regime suffers from a number of far-reaching economic and ethical flaws. It is inflationary, it inevitably causes waves of speculation, provokes bad investments and “boom-and-bust” cycles, and generally encourages an excessive built up of debt. And fiat money unjustifiably favors the few at the expense of the many: the early receivers of the new money benefit at the expense of those receiving the new money at a later point in time (“Cantillon Effect”).

One issue deserves particular attention: the burden of debt that accumulates over time in a fiat money regime will become unsustainable. The primary reason for this is that the act of creating credit and money out of thin air, accompanied by artificially suppressed interest rates, encourages poor investments: malinvestments that do not have the earning power to service the resulting rise in debt in full.

Governments are especially guilty of accumulating an excessive debt burden, greatly helped by central banks providing an inexhaustible supply of credit at artificially low costs. Politicians finance election promises with credit, and voters acquiesce because they expect to benefit from government’s “horn of plenty.” The ruling class and the class of the ruled are quite hopeful that they can defer repayment to future generations to sort out.

However, there comes a point in time when private investors are no longer willing to refinance maturing debt, let alone finance a further rise in indebtedness of banks, corporations, and governments. In such a situation, the paper money boom is doomed to collapse: rising concern about credit defaults is a deadly enemy to the fiat money regime. And once the flow of credit dries up, the boom turns into bust. This is exactly what was about to happen in many fiat currency areas around the world in 2008.

A fiat money bust can easily develop into a full-scale depression, meaning failing banks, corporations filing for bankruptcy, and even some governments going belly up. The economy contracts sharply, causing mass unemployment. Such a development will predictably be interpreted as an ordeal — rather than an economic adjustment made inevitable by the ravages of the preceding fiat money boom.

Everyone — those of the ruling class and those of the class of the ruled — will predictably want to escape disaster. Threatened with extreme economic hardship and political desperation, their eyes will turn to the central bank which, alas, can print all the money that is politically desired to keep overstretched borrowers liquid, first and foremost banks and governments.

Running the electronic printing press will be perceived as the policy of the least evil — a reaction that could be observed many times throughout the troubled history of unbacked paper money. Since the end of 2008, many central banks have successfully kept their commercial banks afloat by providing them with new credit at virtually zero interest rates.

This policy is actually meant to make banks churn out even more credit and fiat money. More credit and money, provided at record low interest rates, is seen as a remedy of the problems caused by an expansion of credit and money, provided at low interest rates, in the first place. This is hardly a confidence-inspiring route to take.

 

 

It was Ludwig von Mises who understood that a fiat money boom will, and actually must, ultimately end in a collapse of the economic system. The only open question would be whether such an outcome will be preceded by a debasement of the currency or not:

The boom cannot continue indefinitely. There are two alternatives. Either the banks continue the credit expansion without restriction and thus cause constantly mounting price increases and an ever-growing orgy of speculation, which, as in all other cases of unlimited inflation, ends in a “crack-up boom” and in a collapse of the money and credit system. Or the banks stop before this point is reached, voluntarily renounce further credit expansion and thus bring about the crisis. The depression follows in both instances.[1]

A monetary policy dedicated to averting credit defaults by all means would speak for a fairly tough scenario going forward: depression preceded by inflation. This is a scenario quite similar to what happened, for instance, in the fiat money inflation in eighteenth-century France.

According to Andrew Dickson White, France issued paper money

seeking a remedy for a comparatively small evil in an evil infinitely more dangerous. To cure a disease temporary in its character, a corrosive poison was administered, which ate out the vitals of French prosperity.

It progressed according to a law in social physics which we may call the “law of accelerating issue and depreciation.” It was comparatively easy to refrain from the first issue; it was exceedingly difficult to refrain from the second; to refrain from the third and with those following was practically impossible.

It brought … commerce and manufactures, the mercantile interest, the agricultural interest, to ruin. It brought on these the same destruction which would come to a Hollander opening the dykes of the sea to irrigate his garden in a dry summer.

It ended in the complete financial, moral and political prostration of France — a prostration from which only a Napoleon could raise it. [2]

Note: The views expressed in Daily Articles on Mises.org are not necessarily those of the Mises Institute.

Thorsten Polleit is chief economist of the precious-metals firm Degussa and co-founder of the investment boutiquePolleit & Riechert Investment Management LLP. He is honorary professor at the Frankfurt School of Finance & Management and associated scholar of the Mises Institute. He was awarded the 2012 O.P. Alford III Prize in Libertarian Scholarship. His website is www.Thorsten-Polleit.com. Send him a mail. See Thorsten Polleit’s article archives.

Notes

[1] Ludwig von Mises. Interventionism: An Economic Analysis. Irvington-on-Hudson, N.Y.: Foundation for Economic Education, 1998. P. 40.

[2] Andrew Dickson White. Fiat Money Inflation in France, How It Came, What It Brought, and How It Ended. D. Appleton-Century Company Inc., New York and London: D. Appleton-Century, 1933. S. 66.b

USAWatchdog Discusses Economic Collapse With Alt-Market’s Brandon Smith

USAWatchdog Discusses Economic Collapse With Alt-Market’s Brandon Smith.

 

Wednesday, 26 February 2014 09:44 USAWatchdog.com

The following video was produced by USAWatchdog.com

I recently participated in an interview with Greg Hunter of USAWatchdog.com, a website which focuses primarily on the continuing financial crisis around the globe.  The information I briefly cover can be studied in depth in my article The Final Swindle Of Private American Wealth Has Begun, which deals with the likelihood of our current fiscal collapse becoming far more visible this year, if not fully developed.  Greg Hunter’s full article on the interview can be read here:

http://usawatchdog.com/debt-default-will-kill-the-dollar-brandon-smith/

USAWatchdog.com is a great resource for the liberty minded and economically concerned, and I highly recommend that you add it to your favorites if you haven’t already.

 

How To Identify Economic Zombies – Monty Pelerin’s World

How To Identify Economic Zombies – Monty Pelerin’s World.

 February 25, 2014

apocalypsezombie-apocalypse

Economics is not a difficult subject, unless you try to learn it from an economist. As described by John Kenneth Galbraith, who posed as an economist but was far better as a critic:

Economics is a subject profoundly conducive to cliche, resonant with boredom. On few topics is an American audience so practiced in turning off its ears and minds. And none can say that the response is ill advised.

Common sense is all that is required to be a good economist. Unfortunately, in order to get your union card, you must pretend to have none. Belief in fairy tales like more spending and “free lunches” is also necessary.

But that is of little import in regard to the title – How to identify economic zombies.  

What Is A Zombie?

Webster defines zombie as

… a will-less and speechless human in the West Indies capable only of automatic movement who is held to have died and been supernaturally reanimated

An economic zombie can speak and is not dead in any physical sense. His defining feature is a focus almost solely on the present. He assumes tomorrow will be just like today. If his current behavior has not created trouble or hardship thus far, then it won’t tomorrow or on into the future. Linearity describes his thinking and world. The future will be just like today.

A Simple Test For Economic Zombie Determination

The test to determine whether you or your friends are zombies is simple. Answer the following question: How would you live if debt/credit were outlawed? The economic zombie has difficulty comprehending the question, no less answering it. If you or your friends do, then you are well on your way toward full zombie-hood, if in fact you are not already there.

The question is relevant because it identifies those too ignorant to comprehend the fact that you cannot consume more than your income will support, at least not forever.

Income for a period determines the amount you can spend that period, or it would in the absence of debt or savings. Borrowing this period enables spending to exceed income this period. But borrowing is nothing but advancing consumption that otherwise would occur in a later period. Whatever is borrowed raises consumption this period but reduces it next period when some of the income earned then cannot be spent because it must be used to service the prior debt. Total consumption for both periods is lower than it would have been without the borrowing. That is due to the paying the carrying cost of debt, interest.

If you cannot understand this concept or you believe that you can nullify it by borrowing again next period, you qualify as an economic zombie. If you answered that you could not live if debt/credit were outlawed, you are an economic zombie, and perhaps also an economic idiot. Osavi Osar-Emokpae colorfully described debt:

And don’t tell me debt is not a big deal. Debt will cut off your legs and laugh at you as you grovel in the dirt begging for mercy. If you don’t need it, don’t get it. If you can’t afford it, don’t get it. If you’re already in debt, get out quickly. If you think you’ll never get out, you’re right, you won’t.

If you are using your credit cards as loans (i.e., you are not paying in full the balance each month) then you are zombie-qualified.

Economic zombies are not born. They are made. They choose their lifestyle. Behind every economic zombie is someone who believes he should live better than his abilities allow. That may work for a time. Then the Osar-Emokpae quote takes over.

The reality is that negative borrowing, saving, should be occurring every year. Man has a finite lifespan and a finite earning career. The latter is shorter than the former. Part of life is to be responsible enough to prepare for the future when income stops. Borrowing is a sign of immaturity and ignorance. Occasionally borrowing is necessary to meet an unforeseen emergency. If it is routine, then you are an economic zombie!

Reviving the ‘Real World’ Scenario That’s Disappeared from Government Reports | CYNICONOMICS

Reviving the ‘Real World’ Scenario That’s Disappeared from Government Reports | CYNICONOMICS.

Posted on February 22, 2014 by ffwiley

For 50 years or so the federal government has deliberately and to an increasing extent misstated probable future budget deficits. Democrats and Republicans are guilty. The White House is guilty. And so is Congress. Private firms that deliberately misrepresent their financial statements in this fashion would be guilty of a crime… The magnitude of the misrepresentation is breathtaking.

– Former St. Louis Federal Reserve Bank President William Poole, writing in the Wall Street Journal last April

In the op-ed excerpted above, William Poole harshly criticizes government budget projections, including those published by the Congressional Budget Office.

We’re guessing he was especially miffed with the annual budget outlook released by the CBO on February 5th.

Consider that Poole favored the “alternative scenario” that can sometimes be found deep within CBO reports and spreadsheets. This scenario corrects for at least a few of the absurd assumptions in the primary budget projections (the “baseline scenario”) that receive 99% of the media’s attention. Poole called the alternative scenario “the only truly honest and useful effort in town.”

Alas, the alternative scenario is no more – the CBO removed it from their annual outlook. Taxpayers can no longer find meaningful budget projections anywhere in the CBO’s work.

Let’s see if we can fill in the gap.

We’ll start with the baseline from this month’s report:

real world versus baseline chart 1

The chart shows a shrinking deficit over the next couple of years, but don’t get too excited. Apart from other issues we’ll discuss, this is explained by a long-standing prediction for a robust economic recovery, which hasn’t yet come to pass. It’s not so much a budget outlook as a hopeful forecast.

After the supposed economic boom levels off in 2018/19 (according to the assumptions), the figures no longer hide our deteriorating finances. But the deterioration is likely to be much worse than the chart suggests, as we’ll explain below.  To create a more realistic outlook, we’ll adjust the baseline scenario for four different types of deficiencies in the CBO’s approach:

Step #1: We deal with dishonest lawmakers

One of the challenges in budget forecasting is that tax and spending laws are full of provisions that are all but guaranteed to be reversed before they take effect. These dead-on-arrival provisions only exist to create the appearance of fiscal rectitude. And the deception works because the CBO is required by governing statutes to build the phony provisions into its baseline, which the media then endorses as an authoritative view of public finances.

Fortunately, though, the CBO’s new report provides data we can use to neutralize some of the lawmakers’ tricks, as explained in Table 1 below:

real world versus baseline table 1

Step #2: We get real with the economy

The good news in the CBO’s latest report is that they made a few needed changes to the underlying economic assumptions. The bad news is that they have much more to do – the economic outlook remains unrealistic.

Once again, though, we can use data in the report (Appendix E, in this case) to improve the projections. We explained our adjustments in detail in “Why Mr. Smith Has More Work To Do,” and they’re summarized in Table 2 below.

Note that we’ve accepted the CBO’s strongly optimistic outlook for the next four years, not because we like it but because it’s easier to show inconsistencies and come up with a more realistic scenario in later years (after the assumed recovery reaches historic extremes).

real world versus baseline table 2

Step #3: We put on our actuarial hats

It doesn’t take much business experience to know that budget plans are regularly thrown off track by unexpected events, and the federal budget is no different. In fact, the CBO always acknowledges the risks of such setbacks. Yet, its governing statutes don’t permit accounting for most types of unexpected events in the baseline scenario.

In any case, the CBO doesn’t provide sensitivity analysis estimating their possible effects. Here’s what we had to say about this in an earlier post:

[M]any events are deemed too unpredictable to be estimated – an excuse that defies both collective knowledge and common practice. Actuaries, accountants and financial risk managers are all trained to place numeric estimates on unforeseen risks. Insurance premiums, credit loss provisions and investment decisions are all based on these numeric estimates.

The key is that any positive number is better than nothing. We can see the problem with nothing just by noticing that the debt debate almost never gets around to the risks of recessions, financial crises, wars, natural disasters, and so on. Political leaders and pundits habitually ignore the CBO’s warnings that these events will occur from time to time, relying instead on its incomplete projections.

In the same post, we explained our approach to adjusting budget projections for unforeseen events. One of our recommendations, which accounts for the effects ofautomatic stabilizers and doesn’t violate the CBO’s statutes, was implemented by the CBO for the first time in this month’s report. The other adjustments are summarized in Table 3 below:

real world versus baseline table 3

Step #4: We recognize that debt owed to trust funds is, indeed, debt

The question of whether to look at gross debt (including obligations to trust funds such as the Social Security and Medicare hospital insurance funds) or net debt (excluding those obligations and other intra-governmental holdings) is a tired subject. It’s probably fair to say that net debt advocates don’t care much about debt to begin with, while those who point to gross debt do care. We offered our two cents here. Among other points, we described the paradox that fiscally profligate governments can lower net debt (but not gross debt) by merely expanding certain types of entitlement programs, even if the expansions are fiscally unsustainable. In fact, America’s current financial position shows that this is exactly what we’ve done. For this reason and others, trust fund debt should be added back to the net figures highlighted by the CBO.

Putting it all together

Note that the figures in the tables above exclude debt service costs. After breaking the baseline into components and making our adjustments, we then create new projections that include recalculation of debt service.

The Steps 1 and 3 adjustments are combined into a projection that we call “Congress does what it usually does,” while the Step 2 adjustment is blended into our “and the economy does what it usually does” projection. The Step 4 adjustment is shown in the “and trust fund debt counts” projection in the final chart.

Here are our results, for deficits first and then debt:

real world versus baseline chart 2

real world versus baseline chart 3

While the charts speak for themselves, we’ll turn again to Poole’s op-ed to sum up America’s finances:

U.S. fiscal policy is in a chaotic state. Policy decisions are wrapped around the convoluted budget accounting that Congress and the White House use to obfuscate, dissemble and hide what is really being done. That is a tragedy, and our democracy is worse for it.

Indeed.

(Click here for an appendix to this post containing the year-by-year added deficits for each of our adjustments, in dollars.)

Emerging Markets Crisis – It’s Not Over Yet |

Emerging Markets Crisis – It’s Not Over Yet |

February 20, 2014 | Author 

Economic and Political Quagmires

We want to briefly take another look at the situation in four of the emerging market countries that have recently been the focus of considerable market upheaval. The countries concerned are Turkey, Venezuela, Argentina and South Africa. There are considerable differences between these countries. The only thing that unites them is a worrisome trend in their trade and/or current account balances and the recent massive swoon in their currencies as foreign investors have exited their markets (this in turn has pressured the prices of securities). There is currently an economic and political crisis in three of the four countries, with  South Africa the sole exception.

However, even South Africa is feeling the heat from the fact that it has a large current account deficit and the ongoing exodus of foreign investors from emerging markets. However, the country is actually used to experiencing vast fluctuations in foreign investment flows in short time periods and has the potential to relatively quickly turn its balance of payments position around. Of the four countries in question, it seems to us to be the most flexible one in this respect.

Argentina and Venezuela

Argentina and Venezuela are special cases in that their trade resp. current account positions are actually comparatively stronger, but the economic policies pursued by their governments are so utterly harebrained and repressive that everybody tries to get their money out as quickly as possible. The immediate problem is that both countries are being drained of foreign exchange reserves at an accelerating clip, inter alia a result of trying to keep their exchange rates artificially high. This is actually quite astonishing considering their considerable latent export prowess.

Both countries have governments that steadfastly deny the existence of economic laws and apparently genuinely believe that their absurd repressive decrees can ‘fix’ their economies. The markets regard Argentina as the slightly greater credit risk, as it is still fighting the so-called ‘hold-outs’ from its 2001 default. However, Venezuela is lately catching up, in spite of its vast oil wealth. The two countries currently have the dubious distinction of being the nations with the highest probability of sovereign debt default in the world – not even the crisis-ridden Ukraine comes remotely close (see chart of CDS spreads further below for details).

We have recently discussed the deteriorating situation in Venezuela in some detail and a more in-depth update on Argentina is in the works. Let us just note here that Argentina (the government of which is incidentally the fiercest supporter of Venezuela’s president Maduro at the moment) seems to be where Venezuela was about a year or so ago. Both countries are on the same path of inflationism and growing economic and financial repression.


argentina-balance-of-trade

Argentina’s balance of trade remains positive – click to enlarge.


argentina-current-accountHowever, the current account balance has begun to deteriorate. The country’s foreign exchange reserves have collapsed due to a doomed attempt to defend the exchange rate – click to enlarge.


venezuela-balance-of-tradeVenezuela is a big oil exporter, but needs to import 70% of the consumer goods sold in the country. Its balance of trade is therefore deeply negative, especially as the state-run (‘very, very red’) PDVSA is being run into the ground and produces less and less oil – click to enlarge.


venezuela-current-accountIn spite of reporting a positive current account balance, Venezuela is losing foreign exchange reserves fast, due to trying to maintain an artificially high exchange rate even in the face of soaring inflation – click to enlarge.


In Venezuela’s and Argentina’s case, the markets are rightly worried that the situation will probably deteriorate further. The intransigence of their governments with regard to pursuing economic policies that demonstrably don’t work and the resultant growing political risks conspire to create a highly unstable backdrop. As in all such cases, one must expect knock-on effects to emerge elsewhere.

Turkey

Turkey has been hailed as a shining example of how an emerging economy should grow, but as is so often the case, it has in the meantime become evident that what it has mainly done was to engage in a massive credit-financed boom, displaying all the associated bubble activities, malinvestment of capital and overconsumption. This unsustainable boom was exacerbated by the fact that the Erdogan government pressured the central bank to keep rates extremely low. Even while prices were obviously misbehaving, with the rate of change of CPI oscillating between about 6.2% and nearly 11% and the stock market rising in parabolic fashion, the central bank kept its repo rate in the low single digits (this has only very recently changed).

With his country in the middle of a serious economic crisis, Erdogan has come under fire politically because his government has turned out to be a den of corruption to boot. So what does he do? He is taking a leaf from what the Western nations have demonstrated to be de rigeur these days, since don’t you know, we’re all surrounded by evil terrorists hiding in caves in the Hindu Kush somewhere. In short, he is moving toward increasingly authoritarian rule. Just take a look at this recent press report:

“Battling a corruption scandal, Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan is seeking broader powers for his intelligence agency, including more scope for eavesdropping and legal immunity for its top agent, according to a draft law seen by Reuters.

The proposals submitted by Erdogan’s AK Party late on Wednesday are the latest in what his opponents see as an authoritarian backlash against the graft inquiry, after parliament passed laws tightening government control over the Internet and the courts this month.

The bill gives the National Intelligence Organisation (MIT) the authority to conduct operations abroad and tap pay phones and international calls. It also introduces jail terms of up to 12 years for the publication of leaked classified documents. It stipulates that only a top appeals court could try the head of the agency with the prime minister’s permission, and would require private companies as well as state institutions to hand over consumer data and technical equipment when requested.

“This bill will bring the MIT in line with the necessities of the era, grant it the capabilities of other intelligence agencies, and increase its methods and capacity for individual and technical intelligence,” the draft document said.

(emphasis added)

The ‘necessities of the era‘ – we couldn’t have put it in a more Orwellian fashion. And guess what? The vaunted ‘defenders of freedom’ in the West probably aren’t going to object for even a millisecond.

Turkey’s economy is a shambles right now, and Erdogan wants to cling to power by any means possible – that is what the ‘necessities of the era’ are really all about. For a long time it was held that the world as a whole was moving toward more, rather than less freedom. We regret to inform you that this trend has reversed more than a decade ago, on the day the WTC towers crumbled.

Meanwhile, what is now also crumbling is Turkey’s economy. However, we would argue that Turkey’s economic situation isn’t ‘unfixable’ if the proper policies are implemented quickly. After all, there has been a very successful period of economic liberalization under Erdogan’s government as well, which has left the economy more flexible and thus better able to deal with adverse developments. A wrenching adjustment is nevertheless unavoidable at this point.


turkey-current-accountTurkey has a large current account deficit. The fact that foreign investment inflows have now dried up is putting enormous strain on the economy. Consumer confidence has plunged, as has the currency – click to enlarge.


turkey-inflation-cpiDuring a time when inflation remained stubbornly high, the central bank left its repo rate at 4% – click to enlarge.


As one analyst sagely remarked:

“From 2009 to 2013, Turkey was considered by many to be a rising star among the emerging markets, but currently it may be the triggering force for worsening the emerging-market outlook globally in 2014.”

South Africa

South Africa’s case is in many ways comparable to Turkey’s – the country also sports a large current account and trade deficit for example. However, while South Africa’s CPI ‘inflation’ rate has always been high by developed country standards, it has on average been much lower and less volatile than Turkey’s, fluctuating between 5% and 6.4% in recent years. Contrary to Turkey’s central bank, South Africa’s central bank is fiercely independent and focused solely on keeping CPI in check. In fact, it may well be one of the world’s most conservative central banks. It also refuses to intervene in the currency market and allows the Rand to go to wherever market forces push it. This non-intervention policy was actually quite difficult to defend while the Rand was among the world’s strongest currencies during the emerging markets boom of the 2000d’s. A plethora of special interests in South Africa were pleading with the central bank to do something to weaken the Rand, but it remained steadfast.

While the current account deficit means that more currency weakness is probably in store, South Africa does have a vibrant export sector. During the apartheid years, it had a perennial trade surplus, partly a result of being forced to conserve foreign exchange reserves in the face of economic sanctions. Similar to Turkey, South Africa imports all the oil it uses, which is a key vulnerability of both countries. However, the weakening of the Rand already has an effect: the trade balance has recently turned positive for the first time since 2010.


south-africa-current-account

South Africa’s current account is still deeply in the red – click to enlarge.


south-africa-balance-of-trade

However, a trade surplus has begun to emerge on the back of the weaker Rand – click to enlarge.


Investors in emerging markets like to use the Rand as a hedge for EM currency exposure, due to its relatively good liquidity and the fact that the central bank isn’t going to intervene directly. At times this fact probably exacerbates the moves in the Rand.

The political situation in South Africa is almost always somewhat dubious, and the  Zuma presidency is no exception to that rule. There is a lot of corruption and quite a few economic policy decisions appear to us to be misguided. One must keep in mind in this context that the ANC government is continually under pressure to deliver an improvement in living standards to the formerly oppressed parts of the population, which often leads to the adoption of populist positions that are not economically sensible.

However, there exist also many misconceptions about SA and the ANC’s political legacy in the West. In spite of being formally allied with the communists (SACP) and the trade union umbrella body COSATU, the ANC has for instance privatized many of the companies that used to be state-owned under the national-socialist regime of the National Party (NP) that ruled the country during the apartheid years (a funny aside to this: the NP has dissolved itself and has been amalgamated with the ANC a few years ago). One slightly worrisome development is that the government deficit has grown sharply since 2010. While the government previously ran an almost balanced budget, the annual deficit amounted to more than 5% of GDP over the past four years. Nevertheless, due to the tight fiscal policy implemented previously, the public debt-GDP ratio is still below 40% – a number most developed countries can only dream of.

Sovereign Credit Risk


CDS Turkey, Argentina, Venezuela, SA5 year CDS spreads on the sovereign debt of Argentina, Venezuela, South Africa and Turkey. Keep in mind that the scaling is different for each of the data series – click to enlarge.


As can be seen above, the markets consider Turkey the second-smallest sovereign credit  risk among the four nations at the moment.  Its debt-to-GDP ratio is very similar to South Africa’s, at just 36%. The budget deficit has fluctuated between 2.8% and 5.5% of GDP over the past four years. Both data points are however what we would term ‘remnants of the bubble’, as the government’s tax revenues soared along with the economic boom. With the boom faltering, a sharp deterioration in these data points should be expected.

South Africa is actually in a slightly better position in this regard, as it has not experienced comparable boom conditions. Consequently the fact that the CDS spread on its sovereign debt is actually slightly below that of Turkey makes sense.

Argentina is currently considered the worst sovereign credit risk in the world – not least due to the fact that its foreign exchange reserves have declined dramatically and the trend is ongoing.


argentina forex reservesArgentina’s reserves are falling sharply – click to enlarge.


This throws more and more doubt on the country’s ability to service its foreign debt, which in the light of the 2001 default and its aftermath has made the markets wary. 5 year CDS spreads at 2,206 basis points reflect a great deal of risk (this represents an annual default probability of roughly 17% at an assumed 40% recovery rate).

Venezuela is lately catching up – its 5 year sovereign CDS spreads have soared to  almost 1,700 basis points from less than 1,200 at the end of last year. This is testament to the fact that the economy has begun to implode under the Maduro government. While Maduro himself is just as bad as Chavez was in terms of economic policy, it should be pointed out that Chavez’ policies are what laid the foundations for current events. It has taken a while for this South America-style goulash-socialism to fail, as it allowed a remnant of the market economy to operate most of the time. However, the impositions on the private sector have simply become too onerous and galloping inflation has delivered the coup de grace, as economic calculation has become extremely distorted, if not nigh impossible.

Conclusion:

The crisis in emerging market economies vulnerable to capital flight is unlikely to be over. Note that we have picked merely four cases, but there are several other developing countries that are currently in various states of political and economic crisis as well (e.g. India, Thailand, Brazil, to name a few). We have looked the two worst cases here, one of medium severity (Turkey) and one of the better cases (South Africa) in order to present as broad an overview as possible. The fate of Argentina and Venezuela is up in the air – it will require massive political change to alter their prospects.

However, other emerging market economies are bound to eventually bounce back and exhibit strong economic growth again. The imbalances can all be overcome, but the adjustments required are liable to play out in the form of economic and financial market crises of varying severity.

One must not forget in this context that Japan continues to pursue a mercantilist currency policy, which redounds on its competitors in Asia, which in turn affects their main suppliers. We continue to believe that Japan’s decision to weaken the yen has been a major contributor to recent currency turmoil elsewhere (of course, this does not mean that many of the countries concerned have not been wanting in terms of their own policies).

Moreover, China is hanging over the proceedings like the proverbial Sword of Damocles. HSBC has just reported its latest flash estimate on China’s manufacturing PMI (pdf), which was quite weak at 48.3, a seven month low  indicating a worsening contraction. In view of the enormous credit bubble which China has embarked on since 2008 (about $15 trillion in additional debt have been created since then), the danger of a larger setback being set in motion by a sharp slowdown or even recession in China cannot be dismissed.

Charts by: Tradingeconomics, Reuters, Bloomberg

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