Global Economy Is Deteriorating FastEconomics / Global Debt Crisis 2014 Jul 14, 2014 - 07:00 PM GMT
The insanity doesn’t just continue, it intensifies. The overriding idea is still that the more companies and individuals borrow, the better the economy goes. But that is nowhere near true. It may have been at some point in the past, but not now, not with debt levels at historic highs. Today’s problem is not that there is not enough credit or money available, as central banks try to make you believe, but that people are not spending what they have. Individuals are either maxed out or scared to be left with nothing, and companies see no opportunities for investing in productive projects (besides, they may well be maxed out too).
Credit can play a functional and beneficial role in a society if an individual or company borrows at 5% and puts the money to work towards the production of something with an added value of 10%. That works, because the risk is real. At a 5% rate, you know you will need to do actual work to pay back your loan. And a 10% return means there are things to invest in that are productive. A 1% rate only papers over the fact that there are no productive investment opportunities left, and that they need to be created artificially to prevent the public from finding that out. The entire economy seems to take place on paper – or screens – only. But that’s of course an illusion. We need physical food and physical shelter.
Credit is neither beneficial not functional when companies borrow at 1% and only buy back their own shares or purchase/merge with competitors. Companies today don’t borrow because they feel optimistic about the economy, they don’t borrow because they see productive opportunities at the horizon. They do so only because, to paraphrase Obama, they can. And because financial trickery is the only way to make people think they are healthy.
In the present circumstances what this means is that because debt nevertheless increases at a rapid clip, the economy deteriorates just as fast. And you won’t like what you see when we come out at the other end. The economy is completely hollowed out from the inside, while we’re looking only at the facade. That’s why there no longer is a connection between economic performance and stock markets. In fact the stock markets have become the de facto economic performers. But nothing is being produced, or at least not nearly enough. And not nearly enough is being bought to keep the wheels spinning either.
Today it was announced that Eurozone industrial production fell 1.1%, but stocks just keep on rising. And much more of the same is in the pipeline:
Mario Draghi’s newest stimulus tool will hand banks more than €700 billion ($950 billion) of cheap funding, economists say. The European Central Bank president’s targeted lending program for banks will boost credit for the real economy as planned, and at the same time help keep the financial system flush with cash, according to the Bloomberg Monthly Survey of 45 economists. Draghi may address the topic today when he testifies at the European Parliament in Strasbourg for the first time since elections in May. The ECB has identified lending to companies and households as a key weakness in the euro area’s fragile recovery.
The so-called TLTRO program, part of a wider package of measures announced in June, offers as much as four years of low-cost funding tied to bank lending that Draghi said this month could ultimately provide as much as €1 trillion. “The take-up should be large – the money is cheap and banks should feel no stigma about accepting a free lunch,” said Alan McQuaid, chief economist at Merrion Capital in Dublin, who predicts banks will take the maximum available. “With any luck, Draghi’s next problem will not come until 2018, when €1 trillion needs refinancing.”
The ECB is blind or borderline criminal. Blind, because lending is not the key weakness, spending is. Borderline criminal, because by treating lending the way it does, it pushes European economies ever further into their separate and shared quagmires. The net effect of its actions is that what it has labeled ‘systemic banks’ get to survive for another day, but with the trillions of debt hidden in these banks, that survival, if you want to call it that, can – of necessity – only be temporary. And that temporary extension of ‘life’ comes at a great price to the rest of the economy, where people such as you and I reside.
The reason the ECB and the Fed are involved in these highly dubious actions, and have been from 7 years running now, can only be this: they know – or at least strongly fear – that the debts in the banks are so enormous they could make the entire economic system wobble if not crumble, and the ‘leaders’ don’t want to touch that with a 10-lightyear pole. In doing what they do, however, they are throwing away a bit more of your children’s futures every day. For 7 years now.
China’s policies are much like those in the west, but the underlying reasoning in somewhat different. China has undertaken its $25+ trillion stimulus not just for its – state-owned – banks, but for its entire economic system. Catching the fall of an economy that grows, or used to grow, at double digit annual rates is not the same as propping up one that used to grow at 2-3%. The difference lies in the expansion. China’s meteoric expansion brought it a lot of seemingly positive things, but much of it was realized through a highly leveraged and increasingly shadow bank financed system (if you can call it a system).
When Lehman and Bear Stearns happened, Beijing decided to open the spigots, and it hasn’t looked back since. And why should it when Europe and the US didn’t either? There are tens of thousands of Xi’s and Li’s who have nightmares of having their heads chopped off by angry mobs when the latter find out that the whole expansion was nothing but a magic trick from the very start. Like Draghi and Yellen and Merkel and Obama, they’re hell bent on keeping up appearances as long as they can, or at least until they’re out of office.
China exports the inflationary expansion of its money supply, and the Chinese use this virtual yuan to buy up real assets in the real economies of America, Europe and Africa. In the rich world, the idea is that this is alright, because it drives up general price levels, and therefore leaves the impression that economies are doing well. But in the meantime, your world, and the homes and companies around you, are being bought up with what amounts to little more than Monopoly money. Then again, that’s what your own money has become too.
For years, wealthy Chinese have been transferring billions worth of their money overseas, snapping up pricey real estate in markets including New York, Sydney and Vancouver despite their country’s currency restrictions. Now, one way they could be doing it is clearer. Last week, when China Central Television leveled money-laundering allegations against Bank of China Ltd., the state-run broadcaster’s report prompted the revelation of a previously unannounced government program that enables individuals to transfer their yuan and convert it into dollars or other currencies overseas.
Offered by some banks in the southern province of Guangdong, across the border from Hong Kong, the trial program was introduced in 2011 for overseas property purchases and emigration and doesn’t constitute money laundering, Bank of China said in a July 9 statement. The transfers were allowed by regulators and reported to them, the bank said. “What it shows is the government has been trying to internationalize the renminbi for a lot longer than we thought,” Jim Antos, a Hong Kong-based analyst at Mizuho Securities Ltd., said by phone, using the official name for China’s currency and referring to policy makers’ long-stated goal of allowing the yuan to become freely convertible with other currencies. “I’m rather encouraged by this news because this is the way they need to go.”
Even the BIS, Bank for International Settlements, which should certainly not,at any time and in any way, be confused with the Salvation Army, starts waving bright red alarm banners about what goes on. And though I do know that they’re much closer to Draghi and Yellen then they are to you and me, it’s still interesting to see some of what they have to say, courtesy of Ambrose Evans-Pritchard:
The world economy is just as vulnerable to a financial crisis as it was in 2007, with the added danger that debt ratios are now far higher and emerging markets have been drawn into the fire as well, the Bank for International Settlements has warned. Jaime Caruana, head of the Swiss-based financial watchdog, said investors were ignoring the risk of monetary tightening in their voracious hunt for yield. [..]
Mr Caruana said the international system is in many ways more fragile than it was in the build-up to the Lehman crisis. Debt ratios in the developed economies have risen by 20 percentage points to 275% of GDP since then.
Companies are borrowing heavily to buy back their own shares. The BIS said 40% of syndicated loans are to sub-investment grade borrowers, a higher ratio than in 2007 [..] The disturbing twist in this cycle is that China, Brazil, Turkey and other emerging economies have succumbed to private credit booms of their own, partly as a spill-over from quantitative easing in the West.
Their debt ratios have risen 20 percentage points as well, to 175%. Average borrowing rates for five-years is 1% in real terms. This is extremely low, and could reverse suddenly. “We are watching this closely. If we were concerned by excessive leverage in 2007, we cannot be more relaxed today,” he said.
Volatility has dropped to an historic low. European equities have risen 15% in a year despite near zero growth and a 3% fall in expected earnings. The cyclically-adjusted price earnings ratio of the S&P 500 index in the US reached 25 in May, six points above its half-century average.
Just as vulnerable to a financial crisis as in 2007, but with far higher debt ratios. In many ways more fragile than in the build-up to the Lehman crisis. 40% of syndicated loans are to sub-investment grade borrowers (i.e. a hair short of subprime). And indeed, “There is something strange about fighting debt by incentivizing more debt.” In fact, not so much strange as it is stupid, blind, or criminal.
It would be good if we all realize one thing: there is no economic growth; the only thing that grows is the debt (aka credit). If time is money, then we are borrowing money to borrow time. But time is not money: it doesn’t grow, you can’t get more of it, and when you waste it, you can’t get more of it; once spent, it’s gone.
In other words, we can’t really borrow time, that’s as much of a delusion – intentional or not – as debt being able to cure or economic ills today. And because we continue to borrow more, and then even more, anyway, our economies must necessarily deteriorate as fast as we borrow. Just not at the same rate for everyone: corporations can borrow at 1%, but you can’t.
So if present policies serve one purpose after all, it’s to increase inequality. Still, when it comes to inequality, you ain’t seen nothing yet; just wait and see what happens when interest rates start to rise and all the debt must be serviced. The too big to fail banks won’t be called upon to do that, it would make them fail; instead, you and yours will have the honor.
By Raul Ilargi Meijer
Website: http://theautomaticearth.com (provides unique analysis of economics, finance, politics and social dynamics in the context of Complexity Theory)
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