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March 14, 2014
Ambergris Caye, Belize
One of the key lessons we can take away from history is that the global financial system changes… frequently.
In ancient times, Roman coins were used across the region by Romans and non-Romans alike who engaged in trade and commerce.
Given how destructively successive Roman governments debased their coins, however, the reserve burden eventually fell to the Byzantine Empire, whose gold solidus coin became the dominant currency in world trade.
Over the centuries, this standard changed several more times. The Venetians, Florentines, Spanish, French, British, etc. each issued the world’s dominant currency at one point or another.
But the fundamentals of those currencies changed. Governments engaged in wanton debasement, mismanaged their economies, and accumulated massive debt levels. And eventually the world shifted to new currencies.
Since the end of World War II, the US dollar has been the dominant currency in the world.
And even though Richard Nixon ended the dollar’s convertability to gold and unilaterally abandoned the US government’s obligations under the Bretton Woods system back in 1971, the world has still clung to the dollar for the past 43-years.
But this is changing rapidly.
The Chinese, which have their own economic issues to deal with, are starting to dump Treasuries in record numbers.
Central banks are buying up more gold. Foreign countries are entering into bilateral currency swap arrangements with one another. And world governments are starting to (rather embarrassingly) demand that the US get its budget and fiscal house in order.
Most tellingly, though, member nations of the International Monetary Fund are starting to revolt.
As one of the major organizations spawned from the post-war financial structure, the IMF’s original goal was to ensure the smooth development of a new global financial system.
Over 180 countries have since become members of the IMF. But the organization runs on a quota system, with each member nation having a certain percentage of the IMF’s overall votes.
The US, for example, has the most power by far with a 16.75% share of the vote. Japan is a distant second with a 6.23% share.
This puts the US in the driver’s seat. And it’s been that way for decades.
But most of the other 180+ nations have had enough. And they’re pushing the United States to massively overhaul the current quota system.
Even typical allies are breaking ranks. Australian Treasurer Joe Hockey recently told reporters at a financial conference that they will “actively lobby” the US to reform the IMF quota issues, and that “Congress must understand that it is in the interest of the US to reform the IMF. . .”
India. China. Just about everyone imaginable is pushing for major IMF reform. Everyone except the Land of the Free. The US government seems to like things the way they are. And Congress has been very intransigent in adopting any planned reforms.
These people have their heads buried in the sand so deep that they can’t even hear the rest of the world SCREAMING for a new financial system.
This is going to happen, whether the US wants it to or not.
And while no foreign government wants a collapse of the dollar, they do very much want an orderly rebalancing of the financial system. This is already under way.
The US government may pretend that everything is fine and dandy. But given the overwhelming objective evidence out there, folks who aren’t on board with this major trend are ignoring it at their own peril.
The speculative excesses and political power of Wall Street pose a strategic threat to the Deep State, and as a result a showdown between the Deep State and the surface machinery of governance that has been captured by Wall Street is looming.
The basic idea of the Deep State is that the visible machinery of governance–electoral politics and the Federal Reserve–doesn’t set strategic policy, it ratifies and implements decisions made behind closed doors. In Mike Lofgren’s definition, the Deep State is “effectively able to govern the United States without reference to the consent of the governed as expressed through the formal political process.”
In my analysis, the Deep State is the National Security State which enables a vast Imperial structure that incorporates hard and soft power–military, diplomatic, intelligence, finance, commercial, energy, media, higher education–in a system of global domination and influence.
The Dollar and the Deep State (February 24, 2014)
Ukraine: A Deep State Analysis (February 27, 2014)
Like any other bureaucracy, the Deep State is prone to group-think, the tendency to join the prevailing “herd” in accepting a dominant paradigm and narrative that identifies key dynamics and sets priorities.
Group-think responds to both success and failure. In the case of the Deep State, key elements of the neo-conservative paradigm have been discredited. The Rise and Fall of the Failed-State Paradigm: Requiem for a Decade of Distraction (Foreign Affairs)
(Anyone seeking a public reflection of the current thinking within the Deep State would do well to read Foreign Affairs, with an emphasis on reading between the lines.)
For the sake of argument, let’s assume the leaders of the U.S. Deep State are not complete morons. Granted, that is quite a stretch, given that these are the people who gambled the lives of thousands of American troops and trillions of dollars in treasure on discretionary wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
But it is also reasonable to assume that the neo-conservatives who naively assumed that residents of Baghdad would not only welcome their foreign liberators with baskets of flowers but would magically reconstruct the social institutions that had been systemically destroyed by Saddam over the previous 30 years–yes, those neo-con nincompoops– have been quietly put to pasture on their mini-estates in Northern Virginia.
In other words, it is reasonable to assume that the Deep State has accepted that “mistakes were made” and flushed those responsible for the previous decade’s disasters.
The Deep State undoubtedly has its own niceties and protocols, but it is by necessity ruthlessly Darwinian: failure is not only always an option, it is inevitable as a systems-level consequence of tightly connected, interactive complex systems; such failures are known as “normal accidents,” catastrophes resulting from seemingly small miscalculations and miscues that cascade into systemic crises.
As a result, incompetence cannot be rewarded lest the Deep State itself suffer the consequences.
The Deep State’s prime directive is to preserve the Deep State itself and the nation it depends on for its survival. My analysis starts by identifying the vectors of dependency. (To the best of my knowledge, I am the first to use this term in this context.) The Deep State depends on the survival of the U.S. nation-state, but the nation-state does not depend on the Deep State for its survival, despite the certainty within the Deep State that “we are the only thing keeping this thing together.”
Strategy is one thing, responding to crisis is another. The surface government (elected officials, regulatory agencies, the Federal Reserve, etc.) responds to crisis in two basic ways: it chooses whatever short-term politically expedient fix reduces the immediate political pain (also known as “kicking the can down the road”) and it sacrifices the interests of politically weak groups to protect its cronies and fiefdoms.
This crisis-response triage requires that somebody gets thrown under the bus. In the 2008 financial crisis, the Fed threw savers and the bottom 95% under the bus to funnel hundreds of billions of dollars–what was previously paid in interest–to the banks to rebuild their broken balance sheets. The Fed also provided limitless liquidity to bank trading desks and financiers to skim billions from carry trades, effectively channeling the nation’s financial resources to enrich its cronies, the top 1/10th of 1%.
The Deep State must take a longer view, and make strategic triage decisions. All sorts of people, groups and policies are routinely tossed under the bus–foreign leaders, resistance groups, civil liberties, etc.–as the Deep State adjusts to long-term developments and crises with strategic consequences.
Many Deep State decisions and policies are barely noticed, even though they are completely public. For example, the U.S. Deep State recognized that the dissolution of the Soviet Union opened an extremely dangerous door to nuclear weapons falling into non-state hands. So the U.S. spent tens of billions of dollars helping secure the thousands of Soviet nuclear weapons left in limbo after the breakup.
Though the Deep State’s institutional bias is to focus on conventional national security issues, it must also monitor potential strategic threats created by issues such as climate change, immigration and Peak Cheap Oil. The financial crisis was apparently an unexpected and unwelcome distraction from the geopolitical Great Game, and the response of the Deep State was muted.
while the surface policies of the Federal Reserve and Federal government appear to serve the interests of the financial Elites, I am beginning to discern the possibility of a strategic Deep State response to the next (and inevitable) financial crisis.
This crisis is simple to summarize: the paper claims on wealth so far exceed actual wealth that something’s gotta give. These claims include trillions of dollars in shadow-banking bets (derivatives and other leveraged claims all teetering on a tiny base of real collateral) and trillions of dollars in debt-based claims on future income.
Simply put, the vast majority of these claims will have to be zeroed out, i.e. these phantom-claim “assets” will be voided and declared worthless. This leads to the key question: who will the Deep State throw under the bus to preserve itself and the nation-state?
Once again, identifying the vectors of dependency clarifies the strategic priorities. As I pointed out in The Dollar and the Deep State, the pre-eminence of both the Deep State and the U.S. nation-state depend on the U.S. dollar remaining the key reserve currency in the global economy.
The collapse of the U.S. dollar would destroy the foundation of both the Deep State and the U.S. nation-state, hence my conclusion that the Deep State will not enable that collapse.
As for all the financial claims on real wealth that will have to go to zero value, let’s identify the operative vector of dependency with a question: which scenario most threatens the Deep State: 50 million hungry Americans taking to the streets shouting, “we’re mad as hell and we’re not going to take it any more!” or 10,000 financiers losing a couple trillion dollars in phantom wealth?
In other words, the phantom financier claims of Wall Street now pose a strategic threat to the integrity of the U.S. and its Deep State.
The Deep State needs a functioning U.S. nation-state, and a mass uprising arising from the collapse of the state cannot be suppressed with a few whiffs of grapeshot. The collapse of global pre-eminence and state financing of food stamps and other social welfare programs directly threaten the Deep State.
The collapse of financier fortunes? While that would hurt some Yalie cronies, the Deep State is not Wall Street; it attracts those who prefer power to wealth and strategy to trading. I have no doubt whatsoever that the leadership of the Deep State would have no qualms about throwing bankers and financiers under the bus once they pose a strategic threat to the U.S. dollar and other financial interests vital to the Deep State, for example, keeping 300 million Americans distracted, placated and docile.
It’s certainly not lost on the Deep State that a palpable hatred of bankers, financiers and the Federal Reserve is taking root across the land. I know this is outside the mainstream, but I think it is increasingly likely that the financial system’s skimmers and swindlers are being recognized as potential strategic threats to the Deep State.
What is essential to the Deep State’s survival and supremacy and what is not essential? Are 10,000 obscenely wealthy financiers essential? No. Between saving the U.S. dollar and making whole the $100 trillion in nominal-value bets made by financiers in offshore shadow-banking accounts–there’s no contest.
Conventional wisdom has it that Wall Street dominates the state and the Fed. To the degree that these formal surface institutions can be influenced by lobbying, campaign contributions and plum positions, this is true. But these surface institutions only ratify and implement Deep State directives.
I know this sounds “impossible” within conventional narratives, but I am increasingly confident that the financiers’ phantom claims on real wealth will be thrown under the bus in the next global financial crisis. Look at it this way: there’s essentially nothing left to stripmine from the bottom 80%; most have been reduced to neofeudal debt-serfdom. Since the survival of the nation-state depends on the 80% remaining either passive or productive, the Deep State has a vital strategic interest in both the U.S. dollar and in maintaining the social welfare programs that enable the bottom 80%’s survival.
The Three-and-a-Half Class Society (October 22, 2012)
The Deep State also needs the top 20% to remain productive to maintain U.S. soft and hard power. Transferring trillions of dollars in real wealth to make good the claims of the financier class would require the stripmining of the whatever assets the top 20% still hold. This transfer would directly threaten both the nation-state and the Deep State.
The dominance of Wall Street over the formal, visible machinery of governance has persuaded many that Wall Street is the Deep State. I believe this is a serious misread of the real Deep State. As I noted in The Dollar and the Deep State, to even discern the outlines of the Deep State requires a senior military position or national-security civilian equivalent.
Those writing knowledgeably about Wall Street and finance typically show near-zero knowledge of high-echelon U.S. military and national-security assets, policies and networks, so this blind spot is understandable.
It’s widely assumed that Wall Street rules the roost in both the mainstream financial media and in the alternative financial blogosphere. In my view, the speculative excesses and political power of Wall Street pose a strategic threat to the Deep State, and as a result a showdown between the Deep State and the surface machinery of governance that has been captured by Wall Street is looming.
Though everyone who is convinced the U.S. dollar will go to zero is confident that Wall Street will emerge victorious from the next financial crisis, I am convinced of the opposite: the Deep State will do whatever it takes to eliminate strategic threats to the integrity of the Deep State and the nation it depends on for its power and survival. In a financial crisis that threatens the dollar and the Deep State, the phantom claims of Wall Street’s financier skimmers, scammers and swindlers will be tossed under the bus with few qualms. The triage might even be performed with a certain relish.
Put another way: we’ve reached Peak Wall Street and it’s all downhill from here.
Welcome to the Grand Delusion[i], come on in and see what’s happening…
We live in a state of delusion, not merely illusion. As Wikipedia[ii] points out, “A delusion is a belief held with strong conviction despite superior evidence to the contrary. As a pathology, it is distinct from a belief based on false or incomplete information, confabulation, dogma, illusion, or other effects of perception.” The fact that a belief persists despite ‘superior evidence to the contrary’ is what makes the difference. This is why the majority live in a delusional state, not just one of illusion.
Sure, this delusion is aided and abetted by various ‘agents’ (i.e. corporate/mainstream media; government; bureaucrats; academics; corporations; etc.), including our own thought processes[iii]; however, despite growing, incontrovertible evidence to the contrary the majority persists in clinging to specific, unfounded beliefs.
Another aspect of our Grand Delusion is that the majority of us don’t want our fantasy to end. We are ‘benefiting’ from the lies and deceptions being perpetrated upon the world. The benefit may come in the form of unsustainable social services, a global economic Ponzi scheme, power and privilege, or something as simple as a ‘safe and secure’ position in society. We know deep down inside, however, that something is wrong with the world: that it is inequitable and violent; that the people in charge are corrupt and psychopathic; and, that greed and money rule the day.
We avoid reality. We tell ourselves that problems exist somewhere else. We persuade ourselves to continue living in the delusion. Don’t make waves. It’s safer to be wrong with the majority than stand out from the crowd and yell the sky is falling, especially if the-powers-that-be are doing all they can to keep the Grand Delusion alive just a bit longer.
Here are just a couple of the delusions that we hold:
1) The banking/financial/economic system is sound.
The foundation of the banking system is built on a fraud, there is no other way around the scheme that is fractional reserve banking. When an institution can create money from air by hypothecation and rehypothecation ad infinitum, we have what is essentially a pyramid scheme. When these very institutions grow to the point where they are too big to fail, or the perpetrators of the scam too big to jail, then it is time to recognise that the system is not sound, despite it being legalised and legitimised by our politicians.
2) Governments serve their citizens.
Edward Snowden joins a list of ‘whistleblowers’ who have shed light on the shadowy world of politics, and the power that is wielded in the name of ‘security’ and ‘nation building’. How many more lies and deceptions do we need to catch politicians in to realise that we are being fed a load of horseshit almost every time one of them makes any statement about anything. I quote economist Murray Rothbard in his essay, Anatomy of the State, when he summarises what the State is: “…the State is that organization in society which attempts to maintain a monopoly of force and violence in a given territorial area…[it] provides a legal, orderly, systematic channel for the predation of private property; it renders certain, secure, and relatively ‘peaceful’ the lifeline of the parasitic caste in society…[and] the majority must be persuaded by ideology that their government is good, wise, and, at least, inevitable…ideological support being vital to the State, it must unceasingly try to impress the public with ‘legitimacy,’ to distinguish its activities from those of mere brigands.” The State, mere brigands of a parasitic caste who get their revenue through force and depend upon support through the manufacturing of consent. It’s difficult not to view the government in this light given daily events.
3) Economic growth can continue forever.
Our current economic system is built upon growth and not just any kind of growth but exponential growth. Such growth, however, is impossible on a finite planet. Economists defer to the belief of substitutability and market forces to assume it can. This is perhaps the most disturbing delusion because the mathematics to show it cannot is irrefutable. Yet, the consequences of this are ‘assumed away’.
4) Civliisation is not threatened by energy issues.
Energy is the foundation of everything. Without it there can be no banking system, no governments, and no economic growth. Here is the biggest delusion, that our civilisation will continue unabated even as we come to the end of a one-time windfall of cheap, easy-to-retrieve, and easily-transportable energy. Ignoring the devastating consequences of mining, producing, and using vast amounts of energy (coal to nuclear), we must face the very real wall that is quickly approaching. Peak Oil is a geologic certainty, it is not a theory and it is not going away. Finite resources are finite and there must come a time when we confront this reality.
The world appears to be crumbling in various ways as we attempt to squeeze the last remnants of long-stored energy from the planet in order to sustain what is unsustainable. In what is likely to be a classic example of ecological overshoot and collapse, we race towards the cliff, hearts pumping knowing that the end is close but afraid to try and change directions. But that is what is needed. We need to change direction, as of yesterday, to avoid the continuing trap of the Grand Delusion.
Styx: The Grand Illusion
Welcome to the Grand illusion
Come on in and see what’s happening
Pay the price, get your tickets for the show
The stage is set, the band starts playing
Suddenly your heart is pounding
Wishing secretly you were a star.
But don’t be fooled by the radio
The TV or the magazines
They show you photographs of how your life should be
But they’re just someone else’s fantasy
So if you think your life is complete confusion
Because you never win the game
Just remember that it’s a Grand illusion
And deep inside we’re all the same.
We’re all the same…
So if you think your life is complete confusion
Because your neighbors got it made
Just remember that it’s a Grand illusion
And deep inside we’re all the same.
We’re all the same…
America spells competition, join us in our blind ambition
Get yourself a brand new motor car
Someday soon we’ll stop to ponder what on Earth’s this spell we’re under
We made the grade and still we wonder who the hell we are
The Grand Illusion lyrics © Universal Music Publishing Group
WARSAW – The global economy’s glory days are surely over. Yet policymakers continue to focus on short-term demand management in the hope of resurrecting the heady growth rates enjoyed before the 2008-09 financial crisis. This is a mistake. When one analyzes the neo-classical growth factors – labor, capital, and total factor productivity – it is doubtful whether stimulating demand can be sustainable over the longer term, or even serve as an effective short-term policy.
Consider each of those growth factors. Over the next 15 years, demographic changes will reverse, or at least slow, labor-supply growth everywhere except Africa, the Middle East, and South Central Asia. Europe, Japan, the United States, and eventually China and East Asia will face labor shortages.
Although large-scale migration from labor-surplus regions to deficit regions would benefit recipient economies, it would almost certainly trigger popular resistance, especially in Europe and East Asia, making it difficult to support. Increasing the labor-force participation rate, especially among women and the elderly, might ease tight labor markets, but this alone would be insufficient to counter the decline in working-age populations.
The world economy cannot count on higher investment levels either. The global investment/GDP ratio, especially in advanced economies, has been gradually declining over the past 30 years, and there is no obvious reason why it would pick up again in the medium to long-term. Until recently, falling investment in the developed world had been offset by rapid increases in investment in emerging markets, mostly in Asia. But high rates of investment there are also unsustainable. As in Japan, China’s investment rate (running at almost 50% of GDP since 2009) will decline as its per capita income rises.
The third engine of growth, total factor productivity, will also be unable to maintain the relentless gains witnessed from the late 1990’s to the mid-2000’s. During this time, the global economy benefited from the confluence of several unique developments: an information and communications revolution; a “peace dividend” resulting from the end of the Cold War; and the implementation of market reforms in many former communist and other developing economies. Moreover, global growth received a further boost from the completion of the Uruguay Round of free-trade negotiations in 1994 and the overall liberalization of capital flows.
It is difficult to point to any growth impetus of similar magnitude – whether innovation or public policy – in today’s economy. No new technological revolution appears to be on the horizon. The World Trade Organization produced only a limited agreement in Bali in December, despite 12 years of negotiations, while numerous bilateral and regional free-trade agreements might even reduce world trade overall.
Worse, in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, sluggish growth and high unemployment in developed countries have fueled demands for more protectionism. Thus, the financial liberalization of the 1990’s and early 2000’s is also under threat.
The far-reaching macroeconomic and political reforms of the post-Cold War era also seem to have run their course. The easy gains have already been banked; any further structural change will take longer to agree and be tougher to implement.
Thus, with supply-side factors no longer driving global growth, we must reassess our expectations of what monetary and fiscal policies can achieve. If actual growth is already close to potential growth, then continuing the current fiscal and monetary stimulus will only create more bubbles, exacerbate sovereign-debt problems, and, by reducing the pool of global savings available to finance private investment, undercut long-term growth prospects.
Instead, policymakers should focus on removing their economies’ structural and institutional bottlenecks. In advanced markets, these stem largely from a declining and aging population, labor-market rigidities, an unaffordable welfare state, high and distorting taxes, and government indebtedness.
The list of growth obstacles in emerging markets is even longer: corruption and weak rule of law, state capture, organized crime, poor infrastructure, an unskilled workforce, limited access to finance, and too much state ownership. In addition, markets of all sizes and levels of development continue to suffer from protectionism, restrictions on foreign capital flows, rising economic populism, and profligate or poorly targeted welfare programs.
If these problems can be addressed, both globally and at the national level, we can end the dangerous fiscal and monetary expansionism on which the world economy has come to rely and allow growth to be sustained over the long term – though at lower rates than in recent years.
Editor’s Note: The following is the first installment of a three-part series on growing debt for Russia’s regional governments.
Since the 2009 financial crisis, the Kremlin has allowed Russia’s regions to take the brunt of the country’s economic decline in order to keep the federal government seemingly healthy, with a nominally small budget deficit and large currency reserves. But now most of Russia’s regional governments’ debt is so high, it is becoming dangerous for the federal government and big banks and could soon become unmanageable.
Russia is so large that the Kremlin lacks the resources to run each region of the country directly. Currently Russia is split into 83 regions of all shapes and sizes, which fall into categories of oblasts, republics, krais, federal cities and autonomous okrugs. Historically, the Kremlin has given regional leaders (mayors, governors, heads or republic presidents) the power to run their own regions and ensure loyalty to the Kremlin and stability for the country.
However, the Kremlin is constantly concerned with its control over the regions. The federal government’s ability to maintain the loyalty of each region has been tested often throughout history. For instance, dozens of regions attempted to break away after the fall of the Soviet Union, occasionally leading to wars such as those in Chechnya.
The central government’s control over the regions was demolished during the devastating financial crisis in 1998. Many of the regional heads defied the federal government in order to look out for their own regions’ survival. It was the second-worst regional breakdown in Russia following the collapse of the Soviet Union, and it was related directly to the chaos caused by that collapse. This is why the currently growing economic strains in the regions will be of great concern for the Kremlin.
The Regions’ Mounting Debts
Most of Russia’s regional governments have always had some level of debt, but resource-based export revenues have kept it mostly manageable since the 1998 crisis. However, since the 2008-2009 financial crisis, most of the regions’ debt has risen by more than 100 percent — from $35 billion in 2010 to an estimated $78 billion in 2014, and Standard & Poor’s has estimated that this will rise to $103 billion in 2015. Russia’s overall government debt — the federal and regional governments combined — is around $300 billion, or 14 percent of gross domestic product. This is small for a country as large as Russia, but the problem is that so much of the debt is concentrated in the regions, which do not have as many debt reduction tools as the federal government does.
Of the 83 regional subjects in Russia, only 20 will be able to keep a budget surplus or a moderate level of debt by 2015, according to Standard & Poor’s calculations. This leaves the other 63 regions at risk of needing a federal bailout or defaulting on their debt.
Currently, the Russian regions are financing their debt via bank loans, bonds and budget credits (federal loans, for example). Each region has to get federal approval to issue bonds, because regional bonds create more market competition for the federal and business bonds. Most of the banking loans to the regions carry high interest rates and are short term (mostly between two and five years). The federal loans come with much lower rates and longer repayment schedules (mostly between five and 20 years), so naturally federal credits and loans are more attractive for the local governments, though unprofitable for the federal government. The issuance of federal credits or loans to the regions in 2013 was limited; initially, Moscow said it would issue $4.8 billion in new credits to the regions in 2013, but only issued $2.4 billion due to its own budgetary restrictions. This is one contributing factor to the dramatic local-government debt increases.
The next contributing factor to the rise in regional debt is the overall economic stagnation that has plagued Russia since the 2009 financial crisis and subsequent stimulus aimed at pulling Russia out of the crisis. Despite high energy prices all year, Russia’s gross domestic product growth slowed dramatically in 2013 to 1.5 percent growth after an initial 3-4 percent growth target by the Kremlin at the start of that year. This is low compared to the 7-8 percent growth seen yearly in Russia in the mid-2000s. Most analysts believe the only way Russia’s growth remained positive was through its large energy revenues, which make up half of the federal government’s budget and 20-25 percent of the country’s gross domestic product.
There are a handful of reasons for Russia’s economic stagnation. First, investment in Russia was lower than expected in 2013. Fixed investment was down 1.8 percent year-on-year in the first 10 months of 2013, compared with a 9.1 percent year-on-year growth in the same period in 2012. Private sector outflows of capital were high in 2013, with a net outflow of $48 billion leaving Russia in the first nine months of 2013, compared with $46 billion for the same period in 2012. Moreover, the investment sentiment in Russia is poor at the moment, as the Central Bank of Russia has begun closing some 800 smaller banks in a consolidation. Many of those banks were regionally based, and their closure is making investment in the regions less attractive.
Lower investment, coupled with less corporate borrowing and a decline in demand in many sectors, such as metals, led to lower industrial production. In the first 10 months of 2013, industrial production was flat compared with 2.8 percent growth in the same period in 2012. Industrial production is region-specific in Russia; industry provides nearly the entire economy in some regions. Thirty-one Russian regions, including Komi and Barents, had negative industrial production indexes for 2013. This could get worse in 2014, as many of the metals giants are planning to continue shutting down plants due to a lack of demand and low prices. For example, the world’s largest aluminum producer, Rusal, is shutting down five aluminum plants in the Volgograd, Karelia, Leningrad and Urals regions and laying off tens of thousands of workers.
Another factor contributing to the regions’ rising debts is increasingly burdensome obligations to the federal government. Of the income generated in a particular region, only 37 percent of the income stays in that region and the rest goes to the federal budget. The federal government does return some of the funds to the region in the form of subsidies and intergovernmental transfers, but not more than 20 percent. The amount of income that the Kremlin has taken from the regions has increased 12 percent in the past three years (via increases in taxes and decreases in subsidizations), leaving less and less for the regions to work with.
There has also been a large outcry from the regional governments in response to a series of presidential edicts that Vladimir Putin declared when he was re-elected to his third term in late 2011. Putin ordered the regional governments to do a series of tasks, such as replace all dilapidated housing by 2014, and to raise regional and municipal salaries by 7-10 percent in 2014 and another 10 percent in 2015. The regions are calling these “unfunded mandates,” as the federal government is not helping the regions pay for these projects. Already, the Kremlin has had to postpone the housing replacement edict to 2016 due to lack of funding in the regions, but the salary edict remains in place and is estimated to cost the regions $56.6 billion over the next two years.
- Part 1: Russia’s Growing Regional Debts Threaten Stability
- Part 2: Russia’s 1998 Financial Crisis in the Regions: A Case Study
- Part 3: Russia Weighs its Options for Managing Regional Debts
In his final public appearance as chairman of the Federal Reserve, Ben Bernanke took a moment to reflect on the 2008 financial crisis and compared it to surviving a bad car crash.
During an interview Thursday at the Brookings Institution, Bernanke recalled some “very intense periods” during the crisis, similar to trying to keep a car from going over a bridge after a collision.
The government had just taken over mortgage giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. Lehman Brothers had collapsed. He recalled some sleepless nights working with others to try and contain the damage.
“If you’re in a car wreck or something, you’re mostly involved in trying to avoid going off the bridge. And then, later on, you say, ‘Oh my God!”‘ Bernanke said.
Term ends January 31
Bernanke will leave the Fed on Jan. 31 after eight years as chairman. His successor, Janet Yellen, will take over on Feb. 1.
In his appearance, Bernanke defended the Fed’s efforts during the crisis, which included massive purchases of Treasury bonds to push long-term interest rates lower and forward guidance to investors about how long the Fed plans to keep short-term interest rates near zero.
Critics have warned that those efforts pose great risks for higher inflation or future financial market turmoil.
But Bernanke says there has not been a problem with inflation, which is still running well below the Fed’s 2 per cent target.
Should inflation start to be a problem as the economy starts growing at faster rates, the Fed “has all the tools we need to manage interest rates” to keep inflation from getting out of hand, he said.
“Inflation is just not really a significant risk” from the bond purchases, Bernanke said.
Bernanke said the central bank was aware of potential threats to financial market stability from its massive bond holdings and is monitoring markets very closely to spot any signs of trouble. He said this threat was the one “we have spent the most time thinking about and trying to make sure that we can address” should the need arise.
But he said any concerns about financial stability did not outweigh the need to keep providing support to the economy.
The Fed announced last month that it would slightly reduce the size of its bond purchases in January from $85 billion per month down to $75 billion. And it said it would likely make further reductions at upcoming meetings, if the economy keeps improving.
While manufacturing and services PMIs disappointed, the big problem in big China remains that of an out-of-control credit creation process that is blowing up. As we previously noted, instead of crushing credit creation, the PBOC’s liquidity rationing has forced distressed companies into high-interest-cost products in the shadow-banking world. Investors on the other side of “troubled shadow banking products” had assumed that ‘someone’ would bail them out but this evening Reuters reports that ICBC has confirmed that it will not rescue holders of the “Credit Equals Gold #1 Collective Trust Product”, due to mature Jan 31st with $492 million outstanding. The anxiety from contagion concerns of the first shadow-banking default has pushed the Shanghai Composite back near 2,000 for the first time since July – and to its narrowest spread to the S&P 500 in almost 8 years.
The Shanghai Composite is tumbling… to six month lows (and back near 2,000 for the firs time since July)…
and its closest (nominally) to the S&P 500 in almost 8 years…
…borrowers are facing rising pressures for loan repayments in an environment of overcapacity and unprofitable investments. Unable to generate cash to service their loans, they have to turn to the shadow-banking sector for credit and avoid default. The result is an explosive growth of the size of the shadow-banking sector (now conservatively estimated to account for 20-30 percent of GDP).
Understandably, the PBOC does not look upon the shadow banking sector favorably. Since shadow-banking sector gets its short-term liquidity mainly through interbanking loans, the PBOC thought that it could put a painful squeeze on this sector through reducing liquidity. Apparently, the PBOC underestimated the effects of its measure. Largely because Chinese borrowers tend to cross-guarantee each other’s debt, squeezing even a relatively small number of borrowers could produce a cascade of default. The reaction in the credit market was thus almost instant and frightening. Borrowers facing imminent default are willing to borrow at any rate while banks with money are unwilling to loan it out no matter how attractive the terms are.
Should this situation continue, China’s real economy would suffer a nasty shock. Chain default would produce a paralyzing effect on economic activities even though there is no run on the banks. Clearly, this is not a prospect the CCP’s top leadership relishes.
So the PBOC’s efforts are merely exacerbating the situation for the worst companies… for example… Zhenfu Energy…
Industrial and Commercial Bank of China, the world’s largest bank by assets, said on Thursday that it has no plans to use its own money to repay investors in a troubled off-balance-sheet investment product that it helped to market.
ICBC’s shares have fallen this week amid speculation that the bank would be forced to help repay investors in a 3 billion yuan ($496.20 million) high-yield investment product issued by China Credit Trust Co Ltd but marketed through ICBC branches. The product is due to mature on Jan. 31.
“Regarding this unsubstantiated rumour, a situation completely does not exist in which ICBC will assume the main responsibility (for the trust product),” an ICBC spokesman told Reuters by phone on Tuesday.
The trust product, called “2010 China Credit / Credit Equals Gold #1 Collective Trust Product”, used the funds it raised from wealthy investors in 2010 to make a loan to unlistedcoal company Shanxi Zhenfu Energy Group Ltd.
But in May 2012, Zhenfu Energy’s vice chairman, Wang Ping Yan, was arrested for accepting deposits without a banking licence.
Which Barclays warns:
In our view, despite the trust issuer, distributor bank and local government perhaps trying to bail out the mining company, the regulators and central government could probably allow the trust product default to happen as:
- government appears fairly determined to reform the financial system and cut off the implicit guarantee of financial institutions;
- the State Council is reportedly streamlining regulation of shadow banking including trust business; and
- the default of trust products could have less social impact than the default of WMPs, bonds and other products sold to the general public or have problematic practices, such as asset-pool investments.
In our view, the default of trust products could trigger some short-term negative impacts on China’s financial sector and the reputation of financial institutions. However, we believe it is positive for the healthy development of financial system in the long run because the default could do the following:
- Be a step to reduce the implicit guarantee of financial institutions for investment products. Banks could shift their financial liabilities back to the investors.
- Increase the risk awareness of both investors and financial institutions, which could correct the pricing of investment products to more risk-oriented.
Its conclusion is dire: “If the trust product goes into default, we believe it would be the first default to test the financial system.”
Here is the product…
And the growth of such products has been enormous as we have explained in great detail previously: at RMB10.1 trillion as of Q3 should the first domino fall, watch out below.
Finally for those who have forgotten, below is a quick schematic of what a WMP looks like:
“There is an unresolved self-contradiction in China’s current policies: restarting the furnaces also reignites exponential debt growth, which cannot be sustained for much longer than a couple of years.”
The “eerie resemblances” – as Soros previously noted – to the US in 2008 have profound consequences for China and the world – nowhere is that more dangerously exposed (just as in the US) than in the Chinese shadow banking sector as explained above.
Tax burdens are so high that it might not be possible to pay off the high levels of indebtedness in most of the Western world. At least, that is the conclusion of a new IMF paper from Carmen Reinhart and Kenneth Rogoff.
Reinhart and Rogoff gained recent fame for their book “This Time It’s Different”, in whichthey argued that high levels of public debt have historically been associated with reduced growth opportunities.
As they now note, “The size of the problem suggests that restructurings will be needed, for example, in the periphery of Europe, far beyond anything discussed in public to this point.” Up to this point in the Eurocrisis the primary tools used to rescue profligate countries have included increased taxes, EU and IMF bailouts, and haircuts on government debt.
These bailouts have largely exacerbated the debt problems that existed five short years ago. Indeed, as Reinhart and Rogoff well note, the once fiscally sound North of Europe is now increasingly unable to continue shouldering the debts of its Southern neighbours.
General government debt (% GDP)
Source: Eurostat (2012)
Six European countries currently have a government debt to GDP ratio – a metric popularlised by Reinhart and Rogoff to signal reduced growth prospects – of over 90%. Countries that were relatively debt-free just five short years ago are now encumbered by the debt repayments necessitated by bailouts. Ireland is a case in point – as recently as 2007 its government debt to GDP ratio was below 25%. Six years later that figure stands north of 120%! “Fiscally secure” Scandinavia should keep in mind that fortunes can change quickly, as happened to the luck of the Irish.
The debt crisis to date has been mitigated in large part by tax increases and transfers from the wealthy “core” of Europe to the periphery. The problem with tax increases is that they cannot continue unabated.
Total government tax revenue (% GDP)
Source: Eurostat (2012)
Already in Europe there are seven countries where tax revenues are greater than 48% of GDP. There once was a time when only Scandinavia was chided for its high tax regimes and large public sectors. Today both Austria and France have more than half of their economies involved in the public sector and financed through taxes. (Note also that as they both run government budget deficits the actual size of their governments is greater yet.)
With high unemployment in Europe (and especially in its periphery), governments cannot raise much revenue by raising taxes – who would pay it? With already high levels of debt it is questionable how much revenue can be raised by further debt issuances, at least without increasing interest rates and imperiling already fragile government finances with higher interest charges.
Instead, Reinhart and Rogoff see two facts of life for Europe’s future: financial repression through higher inflation rates and taxes levied on savings and wealth. This time is no different than other cases of highly indebted countries in Europe’s history – just look to the post-War examples as similar cases in point. Don’t say you haven’t been warned.
David Howden is Chair of the Department of Business and Economics, and professor of economics at St. Louis University, at its Madrid Campus, Academic Vice President of the Ludwig von Mises Institute of Canada, and winner of the Mises Institute’s Douglas E. French Prize. Send him mail.