This may be excessively optimistic on my part, but there seems to be a slow change in the way the world thinks about reserve currencies. For a long time it was widely accepted that reserve currency status granted the provider of the currency substantial economic benefits. For much of my career I pretty much accepted the consensus, but as one starts to think more seriously about the components of the balance of payments, it is clear Keynes wad right in his call for a hybrid currency when he recognized that once the reserve currency was no longer constrained by gold convertibility, the world needed an alternative way to prevent destabilizing imbalances from developing. On the heels of Treasury Economist Kenneth Austin and former-Obama chief economist Jared Bernstein discussing the end of the USD as a reserve currency, Michael Pettis summarizes 10 reasons the USD's reserve status has become an 'exorbitant burden'.
"...what was once a privilege is now a burden, undermining job growth, pumping up budget and trade deficits and inflating financial bubbles. To get the American economy on track, the government needs to drop its commitment to maintaining the dollar’s reserve-currency status...The privilege of having the world’s reserve currency is one America can no longer afford."
- former Chief Economist and Economic Adviser to Vice President Joe Biden, executive director of the White House Task Force on the Middle Class, and a member of President Obama’s economic team.
"Washington is absolutely correct, in my opinion, to want to boost American consumption, but the Fed seems to be trying to boost consumption by igniting another asset bubble in the hopes that, like before 2007, Americans will feel “richer” and so will consume more. This isn't sustainable, however, and will leave us, as Paul and Druckenmiller fear, even more heavily indebted and more dangerously exposed to the underlying weakness in demand."
Even if the economy were growing at a faster pace, it wouldn't come close to offsetting the interest payments on our ever-expanding debt. If you want to know why the Status Quo is unsustainable, just look at interest and debt.
"Excess credit creation is at the heart of much of China’s GDP growth, and why this means that China must choose between a sharp slowdown in GDP growth as credit is constrained, or a continued unsustainable increase in debt. The key point is that we cannot simply put the bad debt behind us once the economy is “reformed” and project growth as if nothing happened. Earlier losses are still unrecognized and hidden in the country’s various balance sheets."
China May Actually Have Surpassed U.S. in 2010 or 2011
While Emerging Market debt has recovered somewhat from the January turmoil, EM FX remains under significant pressure, and as Michael Pettis notes in a recent note, any rebound will face the same ugly arithmetic. Ordinary households in too many countries have seen their share of total GDP plunge. Until it rebounds, the global imbalances will only remain in place, and without a global New Deal, the only alternative to weak demand will be soaring debt. Add to this continued political uncertainty, not just in the developing world but also in peripheral Europe, and it is clear that we should expect developing country woes only to get worse over the next two to three years.
China is now the second largest economy in the world and for the last 30 years China's economy has been growing at an astonishing rate, wowing the world, as spending and investment has been undertaken on a scale never seen before in human history - 30 new airports, 26,000 miles of motorways and a new skyscraper every five days have been built in China in the last five years. But as we (and Michael Pettis, George Soros, and Jim Chanos - among many others) have warned, it is all eerily reminiscent of what happened in the West... the vast majority of it has been built on credit. This has now left the Chinese economy with huge debts and questions over whether much of the money can ever be paid back (spoiler alert: it can't and it won't).
While the eyes of the world were focused on the now infamous "Credit Equals Gold #1" Chinese wealth management product - it's imminent default and last-minute bailout by 'investors' unknown - the coal industry in China continued to collapse (as we noted here). We noted at the time how bailing out current high-yield product investors would merely amplify the problems down the line and it seems that Chinese authorities have heard that message. As Reuters reports, a high-yield investment product backed by a loan to a debt-ridden coal company failed to repay investors when it matured last Friday, state media reported on Wednesday.
Last week we were the first to raise the very real and imminent threat of a default for a Chinese wealth management product (WMP) default - specifically China Credit Trust's Credit Equals Gold #1 (CEQ1) - and its potential contagion concerns. It seems BofAML is now beginning to get concerned, noting that over 60% of market participants expects repo rates to rise if a trust product defaults and based on the analysis below, they think there is a high probability for CEQ1 to default on 31 January, i.e. no full redemption of principal and back-coupon on the day. Crucially, with the stratospheric leverage ratios now engaged in such products, BofAML warns trust companies must answer some serious questions: will they stand back behind every trust investment or will they have to default on some or potentially many of them? BofAML believes the question needs an answer because investors and Trusts can’t have their cake and eat it too. The potential first default, even if it’s not CEQ1 on 1/31, would be important based on the experience of what happened to the US and Europe; the market has tended to underestimate the initial event.
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.
Chinese 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. The PBOC thought it could control this by limiting liquidity but 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.
With manufacturing and non-manufacturing PMIs disappointing, and the nation's banking system still stuck in the thralls of a liquidity crisis (each time the PBOC removes the punchbowl), Michael Pettis' warnings are becoming increasingly likely (even though consensus remains that China will save the world somehow - as it transitions 'smoothly' to a consumer-based economy). Ironically, he notes, GDP growth rates of 7% or more, on the other hand, will suggest that credit is still rising too quickly and that China has otherwise been unable to implement the reforms, in which case China is likely to reach debt capacity constraints more quickly. Growth of 7% for the next few years, in other words, is almost prima facie evidence that China is not adjusting.
"Just be long. Pretty much anything. So here’s how I understand things now that I am no longer the last bear standing. You should buy equities if you believe many European banks and their sovereign paymasters are insolvent. You should buy shares if you put a higher probability than your peers on the odds of a European democracy rejecting the euro over the course of the next few years. You should be long risk assets if you believe China will have lowered its growth rate from 7% to nearer 5% over the course of the next two years. You should be long US equities if you are worried about the failure of Washington to address its fiscal deficits. And you should buy Japanese assets if you fear that Abenomics will fail to restore the fortunes of Japan (which it probably won’t). Hey this is easy… And then it crashed"
- Hugh Hendry
"Debt matters... even if it is possible to pretend for many years that it doesn't," is the painful truth that, author of "Avoiding The Fall", Michael Pettis offers for the current state of most western economies. Specifically, Pettis points out that Japan never really wrote down all or even most of its investment misallocation of the 1980s and simply rolled it forward in the form of rising government debt. For a long time it was able to service this growing debt burden by keeping interest rates very low as a response to very slow growth and by effectively capitalizing interest payments, but, as Kyle Bass has previously warned, if Abenomics is 'successful', ironically, it will no longer be able to play this game. Unless Japan moves quickly to pay down debt, perhaps by privatizing government assets, Abenomics, in that case, will be derailed by its own success.