"Global Trade War Looms, But It's Not Just Trade War To Fear"

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by Tyler Durden
Monday, May 27, 2024 - 10:20 PM

By Michael Every of Rabobank

History, Humility, and Wishful Thinking

The UK election and the “I will protect you, but forgot my umbrella” Tory campaign have both been shaken up by its pledge to bring back conscription for 18-year-olds. This is seen as a desperate gamble and sad joke by many commentators, and even ex-military leaders say it’s silly to enroll unskilled, unwilling young adults when the armed forces need more equipment of all sorts, which the recent 2.5% of GDP defense spending pledge falls very far short of. Yet the joke must also be on those laughing when the global backdrop is so very serious.

Stop thinking about Friday’s US PCE deflator data for a moment and look at the bigger picture. The main Bloomberg headline today is the G7 warning China over its trade practices. They want “balanced and reciprocal collaboration,” and will “consider taking steps to ensure a level playing field.” The US is already going to let tariff exclusions on hundreds of Chinese items expire, and the EU may be leaning towards a high tariff on Chinese EVs. Elsewhere, China is asking South Korea to maintain stable supply chains, as it moves closer to the US, and even Brazil, Chile, and Mexico have recently raised tariffs on Chinese steel.

In short, global trade war looms, and as Bastiat noted, “If goods don’t cross borders, soldiers will.” The problematic inverse is that even Adam Smith implied if some goods cross borders, soldiers don’t need to, and others won’t be able to when needed.

It’s not just trade war to fear. China just finished a huge military exercise that clearly rehearsed a blockade of Taiwan and says it will no longer accept US congressional delegations to Taipei: one including the CEO of Nvidia just opted to visit anyway. Tens of thousands of Taiwanese are on the streets protesting a “parliamentary coup” led by the pro-China KMT party and its ally aimed at weakening the new president, further stirring the national-security pot.

Russia apparently wants a ceasefire in Ukraine, which would allow it to keep all it has already taken. Of course it does: those are the most attractive terms available for anyone in that position. However, a further escalation in fighting still seems more likely. Indeed, NATO chief Stoltenberg now backs allowing Ukraine to use Western weapons to hit Russian forces inside Russia’s pre-2014 territory, which will only deepen the perception in Moscow that it is at war with the West and not just Ukraine. Russian responses obviously could range from the military within Ukraine, where fears of the potential use of tactical nuclear weapons may again re-emerge following recent military drills with them, but likely in the grey zone of sabotage and economic warfare wherever they can hurt most – which for the EU is lots of places.

The US just lifted its ban on arms sales to Saudi Arabia. The Israel-Hamas war continues despite the recent rulings of the International Criminal Court and the International Court of Justice, the latter giving a more nuanced legal opinion than many initially read into it. Israel’s fight with Hezbollah in Lebanon continues to escalate in tandem. Related Houthi attacks just claimed their first (unsuccessful) strike on a ship in the Med: others will follow, maybe closing off another major international waterway; and when do the Houthis share that military technology with forces in East and West Africa who want to block Western shipping going that alternative route rather than via Suez? Freight rates already spiking again, with warnings this can get worse. Relatedly, Russia just struck a Red-Sea-port-for-guns deal with Sudan, meaning they now have belt of influence and boots on the ground right across the Sahel.

If you have time today, read ‘Confronting Another Axis? History, Humility, and Wishful Thinking by Peter Zelikow. It’s the most detailed historical argument yet showing what I flagged in 2018 as a key risk markets were ignoring – that the US would see a coordinated pushback from China, Russia, Iran, and North Korea, which it would be ill-placed to resist with its current economic structure. The author says, “a serious possibility of worldwide warfare may be only in the 20–30% range. But that assessment is not reassuring.” Indeed, it isn’t!

While he agrees US defense supply chains will be rebuilt --transforming it, global trade, and markets-- the next 1-3 years will prove exceptionally perilous as this all happens. He specifically warns, “The US does not have the strategic initiative in the present conflict. It is reacting to choices made by others, which its analysts may not anticipate and understand… I believe the anti-American partnership has probably decided to double down. They are probably preparing in earnest for a period of major confrontation.”

Yet markets are wishing for large rate cuts. The only way this makes sense is the geopolitical argument of keeping debt servicing costs low enough to expand military production: but today that implies locking in higher inflation too. Hence my view that we will need a hybrid tight-and-loose fiscal-and-monetary policy, as was the case prior to our roll-out of neoliberal global financialisation in the 1980s.

Those in the real economy cannot be as blithe as markets: the physical economy is changing. We can see that in the global trade war that looms, and the policies being offered in the UK and the US.

And if the politics and the physical economy must change more, logically so must central bank architecture: it’s impossible it remains the same against that kind of backdrop. Coincidentally, an Australian senator recently lashed out at the RBA in a manner applicable to all Western central banks now:

“The RBA is clueless as to how monetary policy works. In 1985, Paul Keating lifted government capital controls. This meant that private banks were no longer restricted as to how much money they could borrow from offshore banks and what they used it for.

The private banks had $8bn in foreign debt in 1985. By 2008 they had $800bn in foreign debt. This lifted house prices from 4 times average earnings to around 12 times average earnings. Banks now lend 70% to households and only 30% to business… The 1937 Banking Royal Commission recommended that the central bank should control the volume of credit in the system as opposed to private banks.

In 1992, the RBA was made independent, and APRA was split off in the late 1990s. It’s a sad reflection on just how little monetary policy is understood that RBA officials had no idea as to what I was talking about when I asked why they don’t establish an infrastructure bank.

It beggars belief that the RBA could print $300bn to pay people to stay at home and get brainwashed by State Premiers but not actually set about funding Australia’s infrastructure, which would actually solve our productivity crises, which is what is driving inflation.”

Just include national security in with ‘infrastructure’, and you are where I’ve said we would be: which is a long, long way from thinking that US personal consumption expenditure is the most important global metric to be focusing on.

Of course, financial markets will Keep Calm and Carry On: because they are in denial; 20-25% is ‘not worth trading’ as a tail risk; they have no idea how to translate into their specific assets; if they take the WW3 view, they might as well just ‘Buy All the Things’ anyway; and, as Zelikow puts it, “It is really hard, cognitively and institutionally hard, to hold open a doorway to the emptiness of what we don’t know and adapt to changing circumstances.”