Many investors are familiar with the fact that President Franklin Roosevelt closed all of the banks in America and confiscated all of the privately-owned gold by executive order in the early days of his administration, which began in 1933.
Presidents since then have seized assets from countries such as Iran, Syria, North Korea and Cuba and imposed sanctions on Russia and many other countries by executive order.
Yet, relatively few are familiar with the statutory authority for these orders.
The president does not need an act of Congress to support such extreme actions. The laws have already been passed and the president has standing authority to act like a dictator with regard to financial assets.
The first such statue was the Trading With the Enemy Act of 1917, TWE. This was used to seize German assets in the U.S. during the First World War. It’s how the U.S. took control of Bayer Aspirin from the German firm Bayer AG.
TWE was the authority FDR used to close the banks and seize the gold. It’s not clear whom FDR considered the “enemy” when he used TWE; probably private gold hoarders. But, in 1977, the Congress enacted an even more extreme version of TWE called the International Emergency Economic Powers Act of 1977, or IEEPA.
This is the equivalent of a nuclear weapon when it comes to financial warfare.
IEEPA allows the president to seize or freeze any asset or block any transaction if the president deems it to be necessary in the case of a national emergency.
The problem is that “national emergency” can be defined broadly to include trade imbalances, lost jobs or any other economic adversity. President Trump may now use IEEPA to block a variety of Chinese deals in the U.S. in retaliation for Chinese theft of U.S. intellectual property.
With the U.S. using its nuclear option in financial warfare, investors should hope that the Chinese don’t respond in kind.
President Trump may not appreciate the extent to which China will go to protect its interests. Trade negotiations are not the art of the deal, as far as China is concerned. Their goal is national survival.
China’s economy is not just about providing jobs, goods and services that people want and need.
It is about regime survival for a Chinese Communist Party that faces an existential crisis if it fails to deliver. The overriding imperative of the Chinese leadership is to avoid societal unrest.
But China is less stable and less powerful than it appears on the surface. Its apparent stability is more of a mask concealing internal divisions.
And it is afraid that its hold on power is weaker than many in the West suspect.
Remember Tiananmen Square?
Rather than showing the power and unity of the Chinese government, Beijing took a different lesson from Tiananmen Square.
As my colleague Kevin Massengill has pointed out, it revealed China’s political fragility.
We all know about the massacre. But what is not widely known is that several army officers refused orders to crush protests throughout China.
Seven retired generals, including a former defense minister, signed a letter opposing the use of force against the people of Beijing:
“Due to the exigent circumstances, we as old soldiers, make the following request: Since the People’s Army belongs to the people, it cannot stand against the people, much less kill the people, and must not be permitted to fire on the people and cause bloodshed; to prevent the situation from escalating, the Army must not enter the city.”
“I’d rather be beheaded than be a criminal in the eyes of history,” said one general commanding forces in the Beijing military district.
They were not the only one who felt that way. As Kevin has noted, armored divisions of 10,000 soldiers allowed themselves to be stopped for days by crowds of students and ordinary citizens who brought them food and water while explaining why their cause was just.
An estimated 3,500 PLA officers disobeyed orders to crush protests. Many Chinese army officers were reportedly executed. Others were demoted, or faced court martial and imprisonment.
The Tiananmen Square Massacre, Kevin says, is an example of why and proves that the position of the Chinese Communist Party is more precarious than is widely understood, even now, almost 30 years later.
Here’s something else not widely known about the protests…
The Tiananmen Square protests and massacre of 1989 did not start out as a liberty movement, although that’s how they are remembered in the West. It started out as an anti-inflation protest, and that’s how the Communists remember it.
And given China’s current economic problem, Beijing’s challenge is becoming more difficult every day. Consider what’s happening in China right now…
Growth in GDP is conventionally defined as the sum of consumer spending, investment, government spending (excluding transfer payments) and net exports.
Most large economies other than oil-producing nations get most of their growth from consumption, followed by investment, with relatively small contributions from government spending and net exports.
A typical composition would show a 65% contribution from consumption plus a 15% contribution from investment. China is nearly the opposite, with about 35% from consumption and 45% from investment.
That might be fine in a fast-growing emerging-market economy like China if the investment component were carefully designed to produce growth in the future as well as short-term jobs and inputs.
But that’s not the case.
Up to half of China’s investment is a complete waste. It does produce jobs and utilize inputs like cement, steel, copper and glass. But the finished product, whether a city, train station or sports arena, is often a white elephant that will remain unused.
What’s worse is that these white elephants are being financed with debt that can never be repaid. And no allowance has been made for the maintenance that will be needed to keep these white elephants in usable form if demand does rise in the future, which is doubtful.
Chinese growth has been reported in recent years as 6.5–10% but is actually closer to 5% or lower once an adjustment is made for the waste. The Chinese landscape is littered with “ghost cities” that have resulted from China’s wasted investment and flawed development model.
This wasted infrastructure spending is the beginning of the debt disaster that is coming soon. China is on the horns of a dilemma with no good way out.
On the one hand, China has driven growth for the past eight years with excessive credit, wasted infrastructure investment and Ponzi schemes. The Chinese leadership knows this, but they had to keep the growth machine in high gear to create jobs for millions of migrants coming from the countryside to the city and to maintain jobs for the millions more already in the cities.
The Communist Chinese leadership knew that a day of reckoning would come. The two ways to get rid of debt are deflation (which results in write-offs, bankruptcies and unemployment) or inflation (which results in theft of purchasing power, similar to a tax increase).
Both alternatives are unacceptable to the Communists because they lack the political legitimacy to endure either unemployment or inflation. Either policy would cause social unrest and unleash revolutionary potential.
Instead of these unpalatable extremes, the Chinese leadership is trying to steer a middle course with gradual financial reform and gradual limits on shadow banking. I’ve previously predicted that this gradual policy would not work because the credit situation is so extreme that even modest reform would slow the economy too fast for comfort.
That’s exactly what has happened. China has already flip-flopped and is easing up on financial reform. That works in the short run but just makes the credit bubble worse in the long run. China may soon resort to a combination of a debt cleanup and a maxi-devaluation of their currency to export the resulting deflation to the rest of the world.
It is probably the best way to avoid the social unrest that terrifies China.
When that happens, possibly later this year in response to Trump’s trade war, the effects will not be confined to China. A shock yuan maxi-devaluation will be the shot heard round the world as it was in August and December 2015 (both times, U.S. stocks fell over 10% in a matter of weeks).
I hope President Trump knows what he’s getting into.