WHY THE RENMINBI COULD BE ‘THE LAST FIAT STANDING’
“It’s easy to be the last man standing – if all the others commit suicide”.
Although this isn’t one of the sayings of Confucius, it applies now with particular force to the Chinese renminbi – after all, to what currency, other than the RMB, can the world turn when each of its major rivals seems determined on self-immolation?
In Britain and America, economic and financial policy have long had all the hallmarks of self-destructive intent. Both countries believe that it makes sense to ship value-productive industries (such as manufacturing) out to lower-cost countries overseas, whilst trying to turn themselves into low-wage economies whose main profitable activity involves moving money around. The UK has driven debt upwards relentlessly, for the sole and senseless purpose of buttressing property prices which have already been over-inflated far beyond the point of affordability. America has binged on credit in an equally self-destructive effort to replace shock-absorbing corporate equity with inflexible debt, the result being a stock market which has become nothing more than a proxy for Fed monetary largesse.
Both countries seem now to have been driven to the point of policy despair. The American government is bent on injecting yet another $1.9 trillion of borrowed-out-of-nowhere money into the economy, whilst the Bank of England seems to be giving serious consideration to committing a symbolic currency surrender through the introduction of negative nominal interest rates. Both are deluding themselves about the real condition of their economies, with Britain, at least, seemingly persuaded that all will be well if consumers can only be induced to go on a spending-spree with money that they don’t have.
Britain and America have been described as “two countries divided by a common language”, but the operative definition now is that they are united in a shared commitment to economic fanaticism. It’s one thing to believe, mistakenly, that the economy is a wholly monetary system unconstrained by natural resources, but quite another to believe, as well, that the road to prosperity lies through the perpetual spending of borrowed and newly-created money.
Donald Trump may have coined the phrase “Make America Great Again”, but nobody can beat the British authorities when it comes to fatuous slogans. First there was the abolition of “boom and bust” during the biggest asset bubble in history. Next came “help to buy”, whose real meaning was ‘help young people to get deeply into debt to prop up the housing market’. Original thinking may be at a premium in Britain’s corridors of power, but the slogans keep coming.
In current circumstances, there’s something almost prurient in using the energy-based SEEDS economic model to evaluate the British and American economies, so let’s keep this brief. In the United States, prosperity per person turned down twenty years ago, falling from $48,850 (at 2019 values) in 2000 to $45,460 in 2019. Over that period, each person’s share of government, corporate and household debt rose, again at constant values, from $96,000 to $163,000. The ratio of debt to prosperity in America had risen to 360% at the end of 2019 – and probably at least 425% now – from 196% back in 2000. Government expenditures, on a per capita basis, rose by nearly $6,000 (37%) over a period in which prosperity per person declined by $3,240 (-6.6%).
Estimates for 2020 suggest that the prosperity of the average American declined by 8% last year, with only the most modest recovery in prospect before the gradual – but relentless – downtrend resumes. Using fiscal and monetary policy to boost financial demand whilst the supply of prosperity erodes is a recipe for inflation.
Financial recklessness is something in which Britain is fully competitive with the United States. Prosperity per person turned down later in the UK than in America, but has deteriorated more rapidly, falling by 10% between 2004 (£26,280) and 2019 (£23,560). Over the same period, debt per capita rose by £23,000 (38%) in real terms, and public expenditures per person by 14%. Worse still, British exposure to the global financial system, as of the end of 2019, stood at 10.8x GDP, equivalent to 15.2x prosperity. Aside from Ireland and Holland (both of which are far smaller economies), anyone in search of more extreme exposure to the world financial system would have to look at financial asset ratios in tiny economies like Singapore and the Cayman Islands.
This is the situation in which Washington is committing itself to yet more borrowed stimulus, whilst London thinks it makes great sense to proceed with a vastly expensive new rail project, together with anything else that can absorb huge amounts of money that can be conjured out of the ether, quite possibly at the cost of even more saver-punitive rates of interest.
Neither the US nor the UK seems to realise that boosting demand (through stimulus) at a time when you can do little or nothing to replace lost supply is an implicitly inflationary form of behaviour. Both Britain and America have multi-trillion gaps in future pension provision, which we can estimate at about £8tn in the UK, and $37tn in the US. Both have student debt on which large-scale default (politely known as ‘forgiveness’) seems highly likely. Neither government seems to realise that granting rent and debt payment ‘holidays’ creates huge strains for lenders and landlords. Both are watching their commercial property sectors spiralling into an abyss. In an ominous portent of the shape of things to come, the British regulator has now approved an increase of 9% in the ceiling on the combined cost of domestic gas and electricity.
If, just for a moment, we put tact aside, we can remind ourselves that Britain (with its obsession with “light-touch” regulation) and America (with the creation of “weapons of financial mass destruction”) were the main architects of the “global” financial crisis. Both now favour a “reset”, seemingly unaware that the opportunity to reset the system came – and went – during 2008-09. That was when adherence to market principles would have preserved monetary credibility at the cost of sharp falls in the (purely notional) prices of assets such as stocks and property.
To be sure, this would have been accompanied by defaults, which would have been very costly to remedy. Even so, recapitalisation of the banking system might have been cheaper than what has happened since, and what still lies in the future – after all, the debts which were kept in the ‘performing’ category in 2008-09 are no more capable of repayment now than they were back then.
It would have been far better, of course, if neither Britain nor America had embarked on the preceding, decade-long debt binge without which the GFC wouldn’t have happened at all.
The situation now is one in which both countries have handed themselves over to the theory of the magic money tree, seemingly unaware that money itself commands value only as a ‘claim’ on the goods and services for which it can be exchanged. The recipe of ‘produce less, spend more, and delude ourselves by inflating asset prices’ has never been a formula for success. An objective observer, perhaps visiting from a distant planet, would see no logic whatsoever in owning American dollars or British pounds. Both countries seem to have persuaded themselves that soaring stock and property prices aren’t signs of systemic inflation, and don’t understand that pouring new credit and new money into faltering economies can have only one possible outcome.
If our interplanetary visitor was looking for a viable alternative to USD and GBP, he or she might be tempted by EUR or JPY. Neither, though, really holds up under objective scrutiny. The euro is a political dream-currency, built on the economically-illiterate idea that one can combine a single, “one size fits all” monetary policy with nineteen different sovereign budget processes. This means that the role normally played within currency areas by ‘automatic stabilisers’ has to be filled by contentious, ad-hoc aid and a dysfunctional clearing system. Even before the onset of the pandemic crisis, the BoJ had used newly-created money to buy up more than half of all JGBs (Japanese government bonds) in existence, to the effect that central bank assets already exceeded 100% of GDP by the end of 2017.
During 2020, it seems that QE equated to about 29% of prior-year GDP in Japan, 25% in the Euro Area, 15% in the United States and 14% in Britain, for an average of 20%, which compares with barely 3% in China. We can be certain that there’s a lot more money creation to come from the Fed, the BoE, the ECB and the BoJ – but not from the PBOC.
With the US and the UK seemingly bent on “print to oblivion”, the EUR resembling the financial equivalent of a camel (“a horse designed by a committee”) and Japan deeply committed to ‘monetisation to the nth degree’, our imaginary visitor from outer space might seem to be running out of options. Having rejected cryptos – and after casting a considering eye at precious metals – his or her choices seem to have narrowed to just one.
That “last fiat standing” is the renminbi.
It seems quite clear that China, alone amongst the major currency areas, is committed to sound money. Beijing appears determined to mute the siren calls of Anglo-American style financial “innovation”, and even to allow SOEs to default at scale, if that’s the price that sound money now carries.