A Country Matures, An Exchange Rate Declines
After two weeks on the road visiting clients your analyst returns with a better view of the consensus outlook. There is, though, much in the consensus to disagree with. In particular it seems peculiar that the consensus believes the democratically elected government of Italy, with policies entirely contrary to EU membership, will be put through the bureaucratic meat grinder in Rome and Brussels and turned into EU sausage, in a similar process that minced the political representatives of Greece.
While this might well be the case, it is hard to understand that the grinding destruction of this democracy, even if it is only moderate compared to the Greek experience, can be anything but bad for growth and asset prices in the EU. Disciplining these politicians to abandon their manifesto promises and follow the ways of the EU is highly unlikely to be a painless experience, either for Italy or the rest of the EU. Nonetheless, investors are content to believe that a painless disciplining of Italy’s elected representatives is all but inevitable. We shall see.
Perhaps the most prevailing consensus view is that the recent weakness of the RMB represents a Chinese counter-punch in the trade war with the US. Coming when it does, it is easy to see the accelerated decline of the RMB as a tactical and not a strategic move. Comments by the PBOC on July 3rd have probably reassured many investors that the managed exchange rate regime is not at risk and that the RMB will continue to be managed against a basket of currencies. Your analyst does not agree.
Investors need to prepare for a formal widening of the trading bands for the RMB relative to its basket and the problems such a move will create for all emerging markets. That first move in the RMB is inherently deflationary. This is no counter-punch in a trade war; it is the beginning of the creation of a new global monetary system.
While many investors now concede that an emerging market debt crisis is likely, few are prepared to concede that China will be caught up in it. China is always seen as different and of course, in many ways, it is. It may well manage its exchange rate against a basket of currencies, dominated by the USD, but it has tools to manage this relationship that most countries do not.
At least since the time of David Hume (died 1776) and probably since Richard Cantillon (died 1734), we have understood how the downtrend in the business cycle is enforced in an exchange rate management regime. It is inevitable, in such a regime, that the enforced excess creation of money leads to a deterioration of the external accounts, an end to money creation and slower growth, often accompanied by deflation. There are natural forces at work within a managed exchange rate that cannot be resisted. Nobody yet has found a way to obviate that cycle, though many have extended it. China’s ability to use its capital controls and commercial banks’ balance sheets to temporarily override those natural forces has now come to an end.
The ability of China to extend the cycle has come to an end as the current account surplus has all but evaporated – a natural consequence of extending the growth cycle by keeping money too loose when the external account deterioration dictated that it should be kept tight. It has come to an end as the capital account is at best in balance rather than surplus. It has come to an end because the RMB is primarily linked to a strong currency in the form of the USD. It has come to an end because the Fed is both raising interest rates and destroying high-powered money to the tune of USD360bn a year. It has also come to an end because Jay Powell has warned China, and other emerging markets, that he will not alter the course of US monetary policy to assist with any credit disturbances outside his own jurisdiction.
And if that were not enough, it has come to an end because the US runs small current account deficits, by its own historical standards, and the President of the USA seems determined to make them even smaller. Investors now need to ask a bigger question when considering the future for Chinese, and thus emerging market, monetary policy. Why would anybody want to link their currency to the USD?
As a graduate of the University of Cambridge, your analyst can attest that things often done for the soundest of reasons can continue to be done long after they cease to make any sense. Such behaviour is the social habit we often proudly call tradition, or as Henry Ford put it more eloquently –
‘History is more or less bunk. It’s tradition’’
In the field of monetary policy, following tradition is both dangerous and unsustainable and doing it one way because we have always done it that way is not an option. Investors need to think not about the long tradition of the RMB link to the USD, but whether today such a policy makes sense. Indeed, one thing we can all forecast, with a very high degree of probability of being right, is that one day China will have an independent monetary policy as one of the world’s largest economies.
It is of course a big call to say that the tradition of linking to the USD is ending now and a new independent monetary policy is in the process of being created, but that time has come. Japan, the Eurozone, the UK, Canada and Australia are just some countries that manage their monetary affairs free of any de facto or de jure link to the USD. China is now joining the club, and other emerging markets will either have to decide to move to a free float or, believing that China is now capable of running major current account deficits, move to linking their currencies to the RMB.
So why is it now that China is maturing into a country with an independent monetary policy? It is a combination of a change in the Chinese economy and also a change in the nature of the US economy, and what the US wants to be to the world economy. The US is a country where the current account deficit relative to GDP has been less than 2.5% since 2012 – compared to a deficit of almost 6.0% of GDP at the peak of the last business cycle. President Trump appears determined to reduce even this moderate deficit.
At this stage nobody can really move onto a new monetary system until China moves on. If any form of managed exchange rate is to form part of EM monetary policy, then the most important thing to establish is who will run the world’s largest current account deficit. China has been a mercantilist since the death of Mao, and Japan and Germany/Eurozone are all bent on running current account surpluses. While President Trump’s policies may be contradictory in terms of what they will achieve, his resort to non-market mechanisms in terms of tariffs show it would be too dangerous to believe that he will ultimately fail to generate his desired US current account surplus.
The initial shift to a more flexible Chinese exchange rate is deflationary and dangerous. The USD selling price of Chinese exports will likely fall, putting pressure on all those who compete with China – EMs but also Japan. The USD will rise, putting pressure on all those, particularly EMs, who have borrowed USD without having USD cash flows to service those debts. With world debt-to-GDP at a record high, such a major deflationary dislocation can easily trigger another credit crisis and The Solid Ground has previously focused on where such credit events are likely.
However, following the great dislocation, China will be free to reflate the world, for such will be the potency of the monetary policy of such a large economy relaxed about running a current account deficit.
Investors should not bet on this happy outcome. There will be deflationary pressures and a potential credit crisis to navigate first. At any time in this process very unpredictable political feedback could delay or prevent China’s move to its new role. So, prepare for the deflationary consequences of this shift in the global monetary system, and expect as well as hope that it too will end as China helps the world to inflate away its debts.
Full article: Russell Napier: “Trade War Is The Beginning Of A New Global Monetary System” (ZeroHedge)