‘Cor-ROO-ption! Cor-ROO-ption! Cor-ROO-ption!’
It only took a couple of minutes to realise our taxi driver had lost his mind.
‘You can’t trust anybody in Buenos Aires. Not the government. Not the police. Not the taxi drivers.’
Especially not the taxi drivers…
A deflating bubble
Back to our race across Buenos Aires in a minute. First, we pause briefly just to check in on the markets.
The Dow fell 290 points on Friday, a disappointing day…and potentially very worrisome for the Fed.
Failing to raise rates as promised may have prevented the stock market from crashing on Thursday. But it did nothing to keep prices from falling on Friday.
As our friend Richard Duncan recently pointed out, ‘excess liquidity’ has been largely responsible for driving up stock market prices for the last seven years. Now that excess is disappearing.
Much of the liquidity came from foreign central banks — most notably China — recycling export dollars back into US financial assets.
Global liquidity increases when central banks print money and buy foreign exchange. But as Richard warns, ‘It shrinks when central banks sell their foreign exchange reserves, as is happening now.’
Total US dollar foreign exchange reserves peaked in 2014. They’re now falling.
Also, instead of being the engine of growth for the world economy…and expanding its consumption of raw materials…Chinese demand for resources is shrinking.
This leaves commodity-exporting nations with lower sales, higher debt burdens, and staggering currencies.
And it leaves the US with consumer price inflation at near record lows.
More Fed easing ahead
Nobody wants the Fed to tighten. And probably nobody less than the Chinese, whose already shaky economic model will be in real trouble when the Fed finally raises interest rates.
The Chinese currency, the renminbi, is pegged to the dollar.
Higher interest rates in the US would lead to a stronger dollar. And a stronger dollar would automatically lead to a stronger renminbi, leaving Chinese exports even less competitive versus its rivals.
That’s bad news for the Chinese economy. It largely depends on selling things to foreigners — many of them Americans — who don’t have the money to buy them.
Most buying is done on credit. As interest rates rise, credit becomes more expensive. And China’s exports take a big hit.
This is not just a problem for the Chinese. As China’s export machine splutters, world trade declines…and the world enters a recession.
Make no mistake: the global credit bubble is deflating.
The Fed won’t raise rates under these conditions. Instead, at the first sign of real panic, it will ease credit conditions further.
A wild ride…
Our taxi driver had picked us up at the ferry, after we returned to Buenos Aires from a trip to Uruguay.
He spoke Spanish with what sounded like a Russian accent. His hair was curly and bushy…and stuck out on both sides of his head. His face was thin and long. His eyes were wild.
And he was driving through the middle of town in a rickety old taxi — a tiny Chevrolet model never sold in the US — at 70 mph, weaving through traffic dangerously.
He looked like the sort of man who might have assassinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand. But it was our life we were worrying about now. He was crazy. But he must have some survival instinct, we thought; otherwise, he wouldn’t still be on the road.
‘I have a PhD in micro-chemistry. And look at me…driving a taxi. On Sunday! Cor-ROO-ption! Everything is corrupt in this country. Everything. That’s why 97% of the people live in poverty.’
‘Ninety-seven percent seems like a lot,’ we ventured.
‘More than that!’
We looked out the window. The part of town we were rocketing through must be where the 3% who were not living in poverty lived. They all looked well fed. Well dressed, too.
Women wore the highest heels we have ever seen, maybe 9 inches high…with a 4-inch platform under the fall of the foot.
These heels are supposed to make women look taller and sleeker, but we were so curious about the physics of them we scarcely notice the women wearing them. Almost all the young women of Buenos Aires are walking on stilts!
It was a beautiful spring day in the city. The sun was shining. Trees were in bloom…some in bright red…some bright yellow…and some had what looked like large cotton balls hanging from their limbs.
There was even one tree we saw that, improbably, had a mixture of purple and white flowers.
The sidewalks were full with young people…many of them couples pushing strollers and baby carriages. Jugglers performed on street corners…stepping out in front of traffic at stoplights…then hastily trying to cadge some tips before the light changed.
In the parks, artisans set up their stands — hundreds of them — offering everything from honey to silver bracelets to picture frames made out of cactus.
It’s all corrupt, anyway
We are most familiar with the Palermo neighbourhood. Shops and restaurants change there so quickly it is hard to keep up. We get used to going to a coffee shop for breakfast. When we come back six months later, it’s turned into a boutique selling shoes.
It reminds us a little of Venice Beach, California. The buildings are rarely more than two or three stories high.
Many are graceful and grand reminders of a more prosperous city a century ago. Many have since been transformed into gritty storefronts, apartment houses, restaurants…even hotels.
Rarely does this sort of conversion improve a building; most often, it ruins it. But the experimentation and innovation continues. We’re often happily surprised that on the third or fourth try the result is quirky and interesting.
Our driver dodged a pickup truck and pulled up to our hotel. He thought for a second and then announced…
‘That will be 280 pesos.’
‘What? It’s normally only 100 pesos.’
‘But I’m not working on a meter.’
‘What are you working on?’
‘It’s 280 pesos. Besides it’s Sunday.’
‘I’ll give you 150.’
‘Okay. It’s all corrupt, anyway.’
For Markets and Money, Australia