China’s unfortunate dependence on the Eurodollar expansion

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When Nixon took the dollar off gold on August 15th 1971 he did not end the Bretton-Woods arrangement. On the contrary, he exacerbated the very same destructive effects that had forced him to renege on the promise to pay gold at a fixed exchange rate to the dollar in the first place. To fund wars and an ever expanding welfare state the custodian of the global reserve currency had fallen for the almost irresistible temptation to print excess dollars above and beyond what was prudent relative to bullion levels.

After closing the gold window no such restrictions were there to notionally hold back the Americans. As long as international producers were and are willing to accept dollars as final payment for their goods and services the exorbitant privilege can continue.

While it may seem like a boon for the US to be able to consume globally produced goods more or less for free it does come with nasty side effects. In essence, the exchange of something for nothing consumes- and misallocates capital on a grand scale. US producers, which must pay their suppliers and workers with real goods and services, cannot compete with foreigners that charge nothing more than a change in some electronic ledger somewhere in the fuzzy world of global banking.

It is true that these changes charged for goods and services are claim on future US production, but that is a problem for tomorrow, not today, and tomorrow someone else will have to deal with it.

We argue that tomorrow is getting real close, but that will be a discussion for another day. Here and now we will focus on global economic ramifications from American dollar emission.

In the Bretton-Woods period dollars were pyramided on top of reserve gold holdings while another layer of fiduciary dollar claims were pyramided on top of the issued dollars in a fractional reserve banking system. In addition to this, Eurodollar claims abroad added another layer to the pyramiding of fiat money in the global reserve system. While a Eurodollar is in itself 100 per cent backed by actual dollars, further fiduciary claims to dollars, for which no dollars actually exists, are bread and butter in this system; hence the need for Federal Reserve SWAP lines in times of stress in financial markets.

Bretton-Woods did pay lip service to gold as a monetary metal, but after 1971 even this loose connection was dissolved completely. There was nothing but a shortage of collateral to hold back an enormous expansion of various dollar claims all over the world; and with securitization only limited to the imagination of Wall Street, collateral shortages turned out to be mere illusory. In other words, limited financialisation in the decades during the Bretton-Woods and centuries of capital accumulation turned out to be a match made in heaven which spewed out collateral babies en masse as soon as the shackles from the barbarous relic was severed once and for all; setting the perfect stage of massive dollar claim issuance.

As a side-note, we do not regard the so-called deregulation of the banking system from the 1980s as deregulation in the proper sense, but rather a Faustian Bargain between a state sponsored banking cartel and the state itself, in a ill-fated attempt to increase money velocity to fund pet projects and make credit readily available for the unworthy borrower (credit is not something that can be given to anyone, but something they already have through prior actions, deed and reputation).

Needless to say, a profligate state with a printing press coupled together with a “deregulated” banking system financialising collateral as never before to expand dollar claims on top of the freshly printed money created excesses unimaginable under the proper Bretton-Woods system. In short, Nixon took the problems with Bretton-Woods and brought them to a completely new level.

With nothing holding them back, dollar claims grew and grew as can be represented in the global current account chart below. From the early 1980s the US started to accumulate an increasing current account deficit, and Japan was the willing recipient of global dollar claims. The US manufacturing base got hollowed out in competition with the Japanese and domestic calls for unfair competition through Japanese currency manipulation grew ever louder due to the fact that global faith in the US dollar was restored after Volker successfully fought the great inflation from the 1970s; leading to a 50 per cent appreciation of the US dollar from 1980 to 1985. However, concerted action by France, the UK, the US and West Germany and Japan to depreciate the US dollar in relation to Japanese Yen and German Deutsche Mark signed September 22, 1985 at the Plaza Hotel in NYC reversed the five year old trend.

The US dollar depreciated by 51 per cent from 1985 to 1987 and looked like it would break the back on the Japanese export miracle of the early 1980s. Not coincidentally, the global current account imbalance peaked in 1985 as the Plaza Accord got going.

Japanese authorities panicked as their export dependent economy essentially came to a halt in the first half of 1986 with the economy in recession and the exchange rate appreciating rapidly. A sizeable Keynesian “stimulus” package was introduced to substitute domestic demand for waning foreign demand. Policy interest rates were reduced by about 3 percentage points; a large fiscal package was introduced in 1987, despite the fact that the economy showed signs of a robust recovery. In response to free money and centralised demand management the economy was actually booming again by 1987. Unsurprisingly, the free money found its way into existing assets as investing for an uncertain future was less of an option. In any case, the once lucrative export sector had accumulated massive overcapacity so there were few easy profit opportunities to be found.

Stocks and urban land prices tripled between 1985 and 1989 as a constant stock of assets were chased by in increasing level of money. Speculation and flipping houses suddenly became the easy route to riches; even the stoic Mrs. Watanabe jumped the speculative bandwagon.

The whole edifice obviously collapsed on the weight of its own absurdity and the Japanese, with firsthand experience of the wonders of Keynesian demand management, thought they could pull off the same trick again. New stimulus packages was tried, interest rates were dropped to the ZLB and early versions of quantitative easing all failed to reinvigorate the once mighty Japanese economy. All the pundits that had used their ruler’s on Japan’s GDP to claim it would be the world’s largest by 1999 were ridiculed and soon forgotten.

Japan did everything wrong. They should allow bankruptcies, defaults, resource reallocation and unemployment. The dollar demand would not come back to support the export sector to the extent it had before the Plaza Accord. It was time to readjust the whole economic structure, but that would be painful in the short term, and the Japanese did not allow that to happen creating a zombie economy instead.

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Source: International Monetary Fund (IMF), Bawerk.net

In 2008 the global financial crisis hit the world economy after a massive build-up of financial imbalances again rooted in dollar claim issuance. While global imbalances “only” reached about 1.5 per cent of global GDP in 1985 it had reached more than 2 per cent in 2008. Even worse, imbalances had been allowed to build up over almost 10 years, as opposed to only four back in 1985.

Just as in 1985, political pressure on China to revalue its exchange rate was growing, and the Chinese responded accordingly, though more reluctantly than the Japanese did in 1985. When the bubble burst Chinese authorities had the option of going all in, or accept failure and massive social unrest. The choice was simple; an unprecedented monetary and fiscal “stimulus” package was the favoured option. By substituting domestic demand for collapsing foreign demand the Chinese believed they could avoid the consequences of years of market/reality suppression.

It appeared to work just as it did in Japan, as the Chinese economy steamed ahead for several more years after 2008. Continued demand from China also helped desperate commodity producers which were set to years of pain after 2008. Instead, excess capacity continued to be piled on top of already malinvested resources for seven more years making the problems that much larger.

It is all a mirage though. Just as in Japan, the Chinese will not allow the market process to do its magic to get the economy back on a stable footing. Draconian measures to stop the recent stock market rout are a clear testimony of that. In other words, the Chinese economy will resemble that of Japan, and it will do so very soon, if it is not already there. Global commodity producers will be crushed and once again all the pundits proclaiming Chinese global dominance with the Yuan as the new world reserve currency will be put to shame. It will not happen; the “miracle” will turn into a nightmare.

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Source: Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA), International Monetary Fund (IMF), Bawerk.net

Concluding remarks

Global “dollar” issuance looks like genuine demand based on prior production but it is not. Export powerhouses fall into the trap and think the domestic boom they are living through is because they are exceptional. Old socialist are celebrating the fact that alternative growth “models” can outpace freer societies in the west, but these are often nothing more than pragmatic command economies with little ability to change in times of hardship. Just as Japan thought they could go back to pre-Plaza Accord growth rates by holding on to the old ways in the 1990s, the Chinese will expect the growth miracle to return in 2016 with the “right” policies. It will not. China is heading straight into a zero growth environment, and will be mired there for years to come.