This week began with alarm bells. First Bridgewater Associates broke the glass and pulled the handle; it said the conflagration in the credit markets might lead to losses four times higher than previous estimates – at $1.6 trillion. A lot of money – even for someone who lives in London.
Bridgewater helpfully pointed out that this was just the beginning; the world would lose an additional $12 trillion in foregone credit. When the going is good, each ounce of a bank’s share capital grows into as much as a pound of credit available to borrowers. But when the cycle turns, the shrinkage takes your breath away. Remove a dollar from a bank’s balance sheet and you wipe out a ten-spot of credit. Bad news for people in Britain and America who are accustomed to living off of credit. Bad news for their economies, too. Without access to the fire hose of easy credit, the consumer economy goes up in smoke.
To give you an idea of the scale of a $12 trillion problem, the entire U.K. economy generates only $2.8 trillion of output annually. The U.S. economy – at $13.8 trillion – is only slightly bigger than the anticipated damage.
When the alarums quieted and the flames died down, hopeful analysts sifted the ruins and wondered where the City and Wall Street might find the resources to restock their shelves. Suddenly, all heads rocked towards the East. Visions of myrrh and incense danced before their greedy eyes. Sultans as rich as Croesus…oil sheiks with sand dunes for brains…maharajas of motor industries and mandarins of manufacturing. Enriched by the black gold flowing from deep holes in Arabia…or from commerce on the trade routes between Hong Kong and Long Beach, these princes of modern finance have trillions. Surely they will come to the aid of those who had made them rich?
The gist of the following reflection is this: no, they won’t. Just because people are rich doesn’t mean they are stupid.
Outside the Bank of England and the U.S. Fed lies some $5.3 trillion in central bank reserves. In foreign government pension reserves and other accounts is another $6.1 trillion. Add $3 trillion more now in the hands of Sovereign Wealth Funds. The IMF says these SWFs will grow to $12 trillion within four years. Morgan Stanley estimates a $17.5 trillion pot by 2017. Altogether, this is enough moolah to buy control of every public company in Britain and America combined.
Few people bother to ask where they got all that money. Never mind, we will answer the question anyway: it is the fruit of a monumental hornswoggle.
“It is the biggest transfer of wealth in history,” says T. Boone Pickens, speaking of the oil trade. Americans alone import 3.6 billion barrels of oil a year. In 2003, the tab for all that goo was only about $70 billion. At today’s oil price, it is pushing half a trillion.
A quarter of oil’s price increase since 2003 was because the dollar skidded against foreign currencies. What about the other 75%? That too, is probably largely a feature of a slippery dollar. For the last 100 years, the oil price has greased along – more or less – with U.S. money supply growth. As M3 increased, so did the price of oil. Currently, the money supply – as measured by M3 – is increasing at an annual rate of about 18%. Oil is going up – on a 10-year moving average basis – about 23% per year. Looked at another way, from 1974 to the present, the price of oil has gone up a bit more than 14 times. The U.S. money supply, meanwhile, has gone up a bit more than 11 times.
What does this mean? Oil is probably overpriced. But don’t worry, Mr. Market will sort that out. Just don’t get distracted. This is one of the funniest and most perverse scenes in modern finance; it would be a shame to miss it. In effect, the world’s most sophisticated capitalists are also the dumbest when it comes to money. America and Britain spent too much money. Now, they owe more money to more people than any nations ever did before. Once, they owned the world; now the world owns them. And now, the U.S. central bank inflates in order to try to rescue its errant banks, reckless spenders and condo speculators. But in the global economy, the easy money won’t stay put. Instead, it seeps over to oil sheiks in the Near East to pay for petrol…or over to the sweatshop operators in Far East to pay for electronic gadgets and designer T-shirts. It doesn’t stimulate the U.S. economy, in other words; it stimulates the foreigners’ economies and raises prices for everyone, includi ng themselves. Unfortunately, while the foreigners earn more money and can keep up with rising prices – incomes in India are up 148% since 2001 – the Anglo-saxons’ wages are stagnant. Americans haven’t had a real wage increase in 40 years.
And now the lynchpins of leveraged finance are praying that the cash they spent on imports will come back to them. And it will. But it comes back like a young man who got rich in the colonies…with better clothes and a sniffy air. It left a servant; it comes back a master, buying up valuable assets and expecting the indigenes of Wall Street to shine its shoes. Foreign purchases of U.S. assets rose 90% last year. Foreigners are bidding for America’s leading brewery, Britain’s stock exchange, hedge funds, infrastructure projects and technology companies. A Chinese company bought MG. An SWF from the Gulf bought the emblematic Chrysler in New York. A Russian who got rich in fertilizer bought Donald Trump’s Palm Beach mansion for $100 million. And the balance sheet of the U.S. Fed shows $2.3 trillion of US treasury debt held in custody for foreign central banks.
The harder the Fed fights the correction…the more money and credit it puts out. This monetary inflation causes prices for oil and imports to rise…and more money goes into foreign reserves and Sovereign Wealth Funds in the East, to be used to buy more assets in the West. Thanks to America’s mad monetary policy, these private assets are being taken into public ownership. Some of America’s most important properties are being nationalized…but by other nations.
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