“I know the Chinese. I’ve made a lot of money with the Chinese. I understand the Chinese mind.”
– Donald Trump, 2011
Back in the olden days (pre-2000 or so), information junkies like me relied on printed newspapers, paper magazines, TV newscasts, and snail-mail newsletters. All these channels still exist, but they can’t begin to compete with the constant stream of data rushing into our tablets and smartphones. And on some days the stream rushes faster.
Last week, for instance, it seemed I couldn’t go five minutes without another story on either (a) China or (b) Donald Trump. For a day or so, I really wondered if someone had planted malware in my browser to make me think all other topics were inconsequential. It was all Trump and China, all day and all night. China has pushed the Fed into second place (for a few days at least) – perhaps we should be grateful that at least something has. Of course, there is the little problem that a bear market might be in the offing. Commodity prices seem to be in the toilet. Global currency markets are throwing up. Isn’t the world supposed to be on vacation in August?
Let’s see if we can find a connecting thought or three among all these topics. Plus, I want to show you how the current market meltdown is being brought to you courtesy of your friendly US Federal Reserve Bank. As our starting point, though, let’s cast an eye at The Donald and Chinese currency manipulation.
“Nobody Does Anything”
As we all know by now, on Aug. 11 the People’s Bank of China changed the way it manages the renminbi daily trading band against the US dollar. The result was a two-day drop for the RMB and a lot of consternation on trading floors around the world.
Taking questions at an event in Michigan that day, Donald Trump had this to say:
I think you have to do something to rein in China. They devalued their currency today. They’re making it absolutely impossible for the United States to compete, and nobody does anything. China has no respect for President Obama whatsoever, whatsoever.
Well, you have to take strong action. How can we compete? They continuously cut their currency. They devalue their currency. And I have been saying this for years. They have been doing this for years. This isn’t just starting. This was the largest devaluation they have had in two decades. They make it impossible for our businesses, our companies to compete.
They think we’re run by a bunch of idiots. And what’s going on with China is unbelievable, the largest devaluation in two decades. It’s honestly – great question – it’s a disgrace.”
Before you dismiss this as nonsense, remember that it comes from a Wharton School graduate.
Still not impressed? You’re right; it is indeed nonsense. Trump and all those who prattle on about Chinese currency manipulation have the economic comprehension of a parakeet. Is Trump really so clueless?
In one sense, it doesn’t matter. Trump isn’t talking to most of us. He draws an audience of frustrated, mostly middle-class Americans who are still hurting from the Great Recession. They want to blame someone. China is an easy target. So are illegal immigrants and Mexico and other faceless culprits. Furthermore, his audience has legitimate concerns. They are fully aware that both political parties ignore them.
A recent Gallup poll shows that 75% of our country believes there is significant corruption in government. They’re tired of it. They want to try something different. It is telling that a recent Michigan poll of Republican party activists found that 55% would go with either untested non-politicians or Ted Cruz, who is about as much of an outsider as you can find inside the Washington DC Beltway. I find almost nothing attractive about Donald Trump, but significant numbers in both parties have clearly demonstrated that they are looking for real change. Shades of Greece and Syriza’s coming to power, or France and the startling surge by Marine Le Pen’s Front National. The US is beginning to experience what our European friends have been living through the past few years.
Back to Trump and currency manipulation. I could do a sentence-by-sentence analysis of his populist harangue on China, but let’s take the really egregious statement:
How can we compete? They continuously cut their currency. They devalue their currency. And I have been saying this for years. They have been doing this for years. This isn’t just starting. This was the largest devaluation they have had in two decades. They make it impossible for our businesses, our companies to compete.
No, they haven’t. This whole myth that China has purposely kept their currency undervalued needs to be completely excised from the economic discussion. First off, the two largest currency-manipulating central banks currently at work in the world are (in order) the Bank of Japan and the European Central Bank. And two to four years ago the hands-down leading manipulator would have been the Federal Reserve of the United States. The leaders/aggressors in the currency wars come and go.
Today, the euro is off over 30% from its highs, as is the Japanese yen. Numerous other currencies are likewise well into double-digit slides. China has moved maybe 3 to 4%. Oh, wow.
Secondly, Donald (and to be fair I should address this to Senators Schumer and Graham, et al., too) the Chinese have not been continuously cutting their currency for years. In fact, if they have manipulated their currency, it was first to make it even stronger when the dollar was falling and then to hold those gains in the face of the steadily rising dollar. Meanwhile the rest of the world (Japan, Europe, Great Britain, Brazil, India, among others) was letting their currencies drift down. The simple fact is that the Chinese currency rose by 20% over the last five years up until a week ago, for reasons we will examine a little later. It is utterly wrong-headed to call a 20% rise over almost 10 years “continuous devaluation.” Yes, prior to that time they did allow their currency to devalue rather precipitously, but if you look back and think about it, they were faced with something of a crisis at the time. Most currencies do fall during periods of economic stress.
Don’t get me wrong. The United States and China have a several-page list of issues that need to be worked out between them. If you read my recent book on China, you learned about more than a few of those problems. But given that the Federal Reserve has been the most egregious currency manipulator in the world over the last five years, hearing the pot calling the kettle black probably sticks in the craw of most non-US citizens. I understand it makes for a great populist harangue. It’s always easiest to blame our problems on someone else. But it doesn’t get us anywhere we want to go.
Back to the main story. Let’s look at this fascinating chart from my friend Chris Whalen over at the Kroll Bond Rating Agency:
With the end of QE in sight in 2014, the dollar began to climb against most major currencies with the exception of the yuan, which remained effectively pegged against the dollar because of intervention by the PBOC. The yuan has, in fact, appreciated steadily against the dollar since 2006 and continued to move higher within the managed foreign exchange regime maintained by the Chinese government. Until last week, the PBOC had been using its foreign exchange reserves to cope with the increased demand for dollars from domestic investors. The decision to end the defense of the currency has economic as well as financial ramifications. For example, investors are starting to wonder just how much foreign currency debt China has accumulated to fund infrastructure investment as well as foreign ventures, and whether this total is reflected in official debt statistics.
Oil and copper are priced in dollars. From the point of view of China, and much of the rest of the world, oil is up several times in the last 15 years, and copper is up 2 to 3 times, even after the recent selloffs. From an inflation-adjusted standpoint, the rest of the world just sees things as getting back to normal. A strong dollar can do that.
Chinese Déjà Vu
Trump’s China complaints are nothing new. I wrote an entire issue on this topic five years ago (and Jonathan Tepper and I dealt with it at length in both Endgame and Code Red.) At that time, economist Paul Krugman and a group of senators led by New York Democrat Chuck Schumer wanted to impose a 25% tariff on Chinese imports. This is from my March 20, 2010, issue:
I probably shouldn't take on a Nobel Laureate who got his prize for his work on trade, but this truly scares me. People pay attention to this nonsense, including the five senators, led by Schumer of New York, who want to start the process of targeting China.
First, the Chinese have got to be wondering what they have to do to make these guys happy. In 2005 they were demanding a 30% revaluation of the Chinese yuan. And over the next three years the yuan actually rose by 22% at a gradual and sustained pace. Then the credit crisis hit, and China again pegged their currency [even as the dollar got weaker!]. From their standpoint, what else were they to do? Force their country into a recession to appease our politicians?
They responded by a massive forcing of loans to their businesses and governments and huge infrastructure projects. Kind of like our stimulus, except they got a lot more infrastructure to show for their money. It remains to be seen how wise that policy was, and how large the bad (non-performing) loans will be that came from that push – just as there are those (your humble analyst included) who do not think the way we went about the stimulus plan in the US was the wisest allocation of capital.
But the reality is that the Chinese will do what is in their best interest. I wrote in 2005 that the yuan would rise slowly over time. The political posturing of Schumer, et al., was counterproductive then, and it still is now.
My prediction? The Chinese will begin to allow the yuan to rise again sometime this year, just as they did three years ago, because it will be to their advantage. A stronger yuan will act as a buffer to inflation, which they may face due to the massive stimulus they created. They are going to need some help in that area. But it will be 5–7% a year, so as not to create a shock to their export economy. Not 25% at one time. And at some point they will allow the yuan to float against the dollar. They know they will have to in order to get the currency status they want.
Back then, it was Schumer and Krugman who wanted to “rein in” China. Now we have Trump saying more or less the same things. Look at what happened in the intervening five years, in this chart from Krugman’s home-base New York Times.
And sure enough, right on schedule and as I predicted in 2010, the RMB began to slowly rise and rose through early 2014. This was about the same time that “China stopped acting Chinese,” as I wrote earlier this month. At about that time, China Beige Book detected a noticeable shift in Chinese business behavior, when companies stopped using the government’s stimulus to add new capacity.
Our hypothesis, you may recall, is that the Chinese monetary stimulus began going into stocks instead of capital improvement projects. That inflow led to the stock bubble that has popped over the last few weeks. Which resulted in an apparent panic in the halls of Chinese government.
Code Red at the PBOC
Sorting through the approximately 47,000 China reports people sent me in the last 10 days, I see two broad categories of analysis.
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