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Crisis

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And make no doubt about it – a collapse is exactly what it is, and it afflicts way more of the country than just the war-wracked Donbass. Ukraine now vies with Moldova for the country with the lowest average wages in Europe.

Gabon with snow? Saakashvili is hopelessly optimistic. That would actually be a big improvement!

GDP is at 60% of its 1990 Level

ukraine-gdp-1990-2015

As of this year, the country with the most pro-Western revolutions is also the poorest performing post-Soviet economy bar none. This is a not unimpressive achievement considering outcomes here have tended to disappoint rather than elate. Russia itself, current GDP at about 110% of its 1990 level, has nothing to write home about (though “statist” Belarus, defying neoliberal conventional wisdom, at a very respectable 200% does have something to boast about).

Back in 2010, although by far the worst performing heavily industrialized Soviet economy, Ukraine was still performing better relative to its position in 1990 than Moldova, Tajikistan, and Georgia. In the intervening 5 years – with a 7% GDP decline in 2014 which has widened to a projected 9% in 2015 – Ukraine has managed to slip to rock bottom.

How does this look like on a more human level?

Housing Construction is Similar to That of 5 Million Population Russian Provinces

housing-construction-russia-ukraine-in-2014

With a quarter of its population, Belarus is constructing as much new accomodation as is Ukraine. 16 million strong Kazakhstan is building more. Russia – more than ten times as much, even though it has less than four times as many people.

The seaside Russian province of Krasnodar Krai, which hosted the Sochi Winter Olympics, with its 5 million inhabitants, is still constructing more than half as much housing as all of Ukraine. No wonder the Crimeans were so eager to leave.

New Vehicle Sales Collapse to 1960s Levels

 

ukraine-automobile-sales

The USSR might have famously concentrated on guns over butter, yet even so, even in terms of an item as infamously difficult to acquire as cars under socialism, Ukrainian consumers were better off during the 1970-1990 period than today. Now Ukrainians are buying as few new cars as they were doing in the catastrophic 1990s, and fewer even than during the depth of the 2009 recession.

And even so many Maidanists continue to giggle at “sovoks” and “vatniks.” Well, at least they now make up for having even less butter than before with the Azovets “innovative tank.” Armatas are quaking in fear looking at that thing.

Debt to GDP Ratio at Critical Levels

ukraine-debt-to-gdp-ratio

And this figure would have risen further to around 100% this year.

Note that 60% is usually considered to be the critical danger zone for emerging market economies. This is the approximate level at which both Russia and Argentina fell into their respective sovereign debt crises.

To be fair, the IMF has indicated it will be partial to flouting its own rules to keep Ukraine afloat, which is not too surprising since it is ultimately a tool of Western geopolitical influence. And if as projected the Ukrainian economy begins to recover this year, then there is a fair chance that crisis will ultimately be averted.

But it will be a close shave, and so long as the “meet the new boss, same as the old boss” oligarchs who rule Ukraine continue siphoning off money by the billions to their offshore accounts with impunity, nothing can be ruled out.

Resumption of Demographic Collapse

ukraine-crude-birth-rate-1988-2015

Much like the rest of the post-Soviet Slavic world, Russia had a disastrous 1990s in demographic terms, when mortality rates soared and birth rates plummeted. But like Russia – if to a lesser extent – it has since staged a modest recovery, incidentally with the help of a Russian-style “maternal capital” program. In 2008, it reached a plateau in birth rates, which was not significantly uninterrupted by the 2009 recession.

Since then, however, they have plummeted – exactly nine months after the February 2014 coup. The discreteness with which this happened together with the fact that the revolt in the Donbass took a further couple of months to get going after the coup proper implies that this fertility decline was likely a direct reaction to the Maidan and what it portended for the future.

This collapse is very noticeable even after you completely remove all traces of Crimea, Donetsk, and Lugansk oblasts which might otherwise muddy the waters (naturally, the demographic crisis in all its aspects has been much worse in the region that bore the brunt of Maidanist chiliastic fervor). Here are the Ukrstat figures for births and deaths in the first ten months of 2013, 2014, and 2015:

Births Deaths
2013 350658 441331
2014 354622 445236
2015 329308 450763

Furthermore, this period has seen a huge wave of emigration. Figures can only be guesstimated, but it is safe to say they are well over a million to both Russia and the EU.

The effects of this will continue to be felt long after any semblance of normalcy returns to Ukraine.

 
• Category: Economics • Tags: Crisis, Finance, Ukraine 
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map-greek-elections-2015-sept

The map above (adapted from Wikipedia) shows the changes in Syriza’s and New Democracy’s electoral fortunes between the elections in January, 2015 and the new elections yesterday.

A couple provinces flipped to Syriza, and three turned to ND. In short, no meaningful change at all, a fact also reflected in both the number of seats Syriza won (from 149 to 145) and its share of the popular vote (36.3% to 35.5%). As before, it is expected to remain in coalition with the patriotic right ANEL. The main opposition party, the center-right main opposition party (and party of the Greek oligarchy) failed to make any gains, nor did the Communists, nor – despite widespread fears on this account – did the extreme right Golden Dawn. Popular Unity, composed of Syriza renegades who couldn’t stand Tsipras’ betrayal on austerity, such as former Communist and previous Syriza Energy Minister Panagiotis Lafazanis and the fiery human rights lawyer Zoe Konstantopoulou, failed to make it into the new Parliament at all.

This, along with Tsipras’ steadily high approval ratings (still at 60%+), is something of a surprise (at least to me) coming as it does amidst the tumult of the past few months. Consider:

  1. Tsipras epochally screwed up negotiations with the Troika, resulting in both harsher austerity conditions and an extra shock to confidence in the Greek economy. Despite Varoufakis’ urgings, no measures were undertaken to make preparations for transition to the drachma. This made their hardball approach with the ECB not credible and they very predictably got called on it and had to fold. In the process, the Greek electorate was betrayed – Syriza had promised no further austerity – and recalcitrant party members were purged.
  2. Complete failure at international relations, probably stemming from Tsipras & Co.’s belief that internal Greek style politicking works there as well. European institutions trust him no more than they did back when the headlines were screaming “Communism!” on Syriza’s victory, and he has also lost the trust of Russia since it soon became obvious that their only intentions in cozying up to Moscow were to use the prospect of closer energy and diplomatic relations with Russia as a scarecrow to extract more concessions from the EU without actually intending to follow through with anything.
  3. Early on in his tenure, Tsipras committed to sweeping “reforms” on immigration policy: The abolition of illegal immigrant detention centers, amnesty to anchor babies, calling on journalists to remove the word “illegal” from their lexicons. Work begun on a mosque in Athens, as if the country had no other, more pressing priorities. In retrospect, the timing couldn’t have been worse, with the recent immigrant influx making some of the Greek islands like Lesbos virtually uninhabitable for the natives.

And yet here we are. Despite a catalogue of failures across economics, international relations, and immigration; of internal backstabbing and electoral betrayals – Syriza has essentially maintained its ratings. Why?

First and foremost, I suppose, Greeks might have the perception (probably correct) that they have no other real choice. A Syriza voter might not want to submit to ECB diktats, but would still consider it preferable to voting for Communists (KKE) or the Neo-Nazis (Golden Dawn). This apathy is reflected in lower voter registration (presumably as Greeks continue voting with their feet and emigrating) and lower turnout, translating into a 12% overall decrease in total number of votes cast between during these September elections relative to January.

Also, up until a few months ago, many people still believed that Syriza were hardline socialists or even Communists, instead of the opportunistic left-liberals most of them actually are. This means that even as Syriza lost votes to apathy, it might have gained roughly equal numbers of converts from people who might have previously viewed them as being rather too extreme.

Golden Dawn continues doing surprising poorly, increasing their share of the vote from 6.3% to 7.0%. Even though they are one of the most hardcore far right parties in Europe, making many voters averse to them in principle, it is still perhaps surprising that the rise in votes for them was so relatively modest, since they are resolutely against both austerity and immigration – both very pressing hot button issues for Greece. As it is, both Brussels liberals screeching about the spectre of a Nazi junta in Greece and the Greeks hoping for the coming of… a golden dawn? continue to be disappointed.

What I would suggest is surprising is that the Independent Greeks (ANEL), a right patriotic party that is Euroskeptic, anti-immigration, and unlike Golden Dawn, well within the respectability Overton Window – as I understand it, it is approximately Greece’s equivalent of the German AfD – has not improved its standing. They did not betray their electorate by voting for austerity, and opposed Syriza on their pro-immigration stance, which must surely have worked to their favor in the context of today’s immigration crisis. To the contrary, ANEL saw one of the largest relative declines in its share of the vote, from 4.8% to 3.7%. Unless it has unusually uninspiring, stupid, or corrupt leaders – I am not well versed enough in Greek politics to have any opinion on that – I do not see why this should have happened.

 
• Category: Foreign Policy • Tags: Crisis, Elections, Greece 
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As readers of this blog know, I have long regarded the return of economic crisis as an inevitability (because the core energy and no-growth predicament facing the Western world wasn’t solved in 2008-9 but merely kicked further down the road by increasing debt and printing money). It looks like 2012 will be the crunch year, as a series of inter-related crises are rapidly converging: (1) The European sovereign debt crisis; (2) The continuation of the chronic US inability to balance its books, and of instability in the Middle East; (3) The probable onset of serious declines in global oil production, as new oil megaprojects are no longer able to compensate for accelerating decline from existing fields; (4) heightened risks of a war with Iran, as the narrow window opens between the start of US delivery of the next-generation bunker buster MOP (from November 2011) and the culmination of the Iranian nuclear weapons program and its hardening against air strikes (next year or two).

The European debt crisis dominates headlines, with the Anglo-Saxon media crowing about the lazy, shiftless Meds (as opposed to the diligent and careful Germans) and blaming socialism for their problems. This of course has a number of flaws within it. Greeks work the most hours in the EU – 2000 per year, relative to 1300 in Germany. And the only major EU nations without huge debt and fiscal problems are the Scandinavians, who are about as “socialist” as one gets nowadays.

But this is all sidestepping the fact that debt and fiscal crisis afflict the entire Western world, and it is just that – due to the special political weaknesses of the Eurozone – have manifested first and foremost in Greece, Italy, and Spain. However, a look at the actual statistics reveals that even the “serious” countries are in a great deal of trouble. For instance, in 2010 both the US and Britain had bigger primary deficits (cyclically adjusted) than “basketcase” Greece, whereas Italy’s was actually positive! The Meds’ total net government debt is larger, but on the other hand, if even France is beginning to experience perturbations – a country whose fiscal balances are better in every way than Britain’s or America’s – then it surely cannot be long before the crows come home to roost in the Anglo-Saxon world.

The fiscal crisis

Below are two tables that would be very informative for discussions about the crisis, as they overturn many of the lazy myths and tropes populating the discourse.

debt-sustainability

Though the US position looks salvageable because of the positive GDP growth less cost of finance indicator (suggesting that its ability to pay back its debts are growing faster than the debts themselves), I am not convinced of the reliability of that indicator. First, it assumes fast growth – growth that has yet to materialize despite massive fiscal and monetary stimulus since 2008. Second, it assumes that interest rates on Treasuries will remain low – but that assumes a US that is becoming rapidly indebted and making signals it is going to inflate it away remains an investor safe heaven. It shows zero ability to make a credible commitment to eliminating the budget deficit, which is only going to be compounded as the baby boomers start retiring.

pollaro-budgets-debt

This chart from Michael Pollaro shows that in some respects the US position is actually worse than those of the PIGS in aggregate. For every $60 it received in revenue, it spends $100, and it would take almost 6 years for the US to repay its debt if the entire budget was devoted to it. In contrast, the average PIGS figure is $78 in revenue for every $100 in spending, and it would take them only 2 years of their combined budgets to repay their debts.

The position of Britain is very weak. It’s economy, and especially its budget, is highly reliant on the City of London. The tanking of the financial system has resulted in zero growth (GDP is still about 5% below peak 2007 levels) and chronically high budget deficits at around 10% of GDP, and the prospect of a second recession with pull the figures even further into the red. Nor has a weaker pound stimulated an export based recovery. Britain’s big trump card is that its bonds have very high average numbers of years to maturity, so refinancing will be easier even if its rates were to suddenly lurch upwards. Now its still over-extended and will probably go bankrupt within this decade, but probably later than the Meds or even the US.

Germany has a strong position, with only a modest budget deficit and reasonable levels of debt. Overall, it is net global creditor, with a net international investment position of 37% of GDP. But this presents another problem. Quite a lot of that is in the forms of loans to and assets held by its banks in the stricken Med region. A meltdown there would send the value of these assets plummeting, necessitating massive bailouts that could in turn threaten even Germany’s solvency. Hence, a possible reason for the recent poor sales of German government bonds.

Despite chronic budget deficits and an astronomic public debt of 220% of GDP, I actually think that Japan may be the country in the least danger in the medium-term future. 95% of its government debt is domestic, largely to Japanese corporations, which lend to the government for social spending in exchange for the understanding that tax rates will be held low. But those same banks and corporations are flush with cash: Japan’s net international investment position is an impressive 56% of GDP. In a way, it’s just a different method of financing a welfare state. It’s still probably unsustainable – domestic investors too may dry up, especially as the Japanese population continues to age and begins to spend rather than save – but I’d wager less so than the US or most of Europe.

Fiscally secure nations include China, Latin America, Scandinavia, and Russia. China has problems with various non-performing loans and municipal over-indebtedness, granted, but these weaknesses are largely mitigated by its phenomenal growth rate and a net international investment position of 36% of GDP. Latin America and Scandinavia tend to have responsible fiscal management and adequate growth rates.

Russia has globally low levels of government debt, its citizens likewise have low debt levels (a feature more of its underdeveloped credit system, granted), and an international net investment position of 17% of GDP. Though the budget deficit is currently balanced thanks to high oil prices, a significant drop can take them into the red very quickly and deeply; however, this is NOT a problem because it is a near certainty that on average oil prices in the next decade will remain high and rise further. What IS a problem is that Russia is a “high-beta” economy, highly affected by developments elsewhere – in 2008, its recession was deeper than in any major Western economy (though compared to them it also had the strongest recovery). The primary reason was the sharp cut-off in Western credit to Russian banks and corporations, resulting in multiple refinancing crises. Today, this problem is less acute, with the Russian banks and corporations having learnt that such dependence may be a problem – nonetheless, a huge sovereign debt crisis in the West can still give Russia a very sharp knock in the short-term.

The exergy crisis

This brings us to another side of the issue: peak oil. Oil reserves are depleting, and global production – after being on a plateau from 2005 to today – will probably begin to consistently fall from 2012 as oil megaprojects sharply fall off. Furthermore, a war with Iran, and its possible capability to blockade the Strait of Hormuz for some time, may cause an extremely disruptive spike in world oil prices, as 25% of world oil supplies transit through the Persian Gulf. On the other hand, China is right now entering the mass automobile age, with the numbers of cars sold per year overtaking the US in 2010. So we will see a rise in demand from China and other emerging markets.

But this is not all. As discussed on other posts in the blog, e.g. here, here, economic growth in general is crucially dependent on net energy availability and the efficiency with which it is converted into useful work. Both indicators have slowed to a crawl, and quite soon the former may well go into reverse. Furthermore, the reality of open global markets with limited global energy supplies means that countries will be more and more competitively bidding for the high-EROEI energy sources that remain (primarily, oil). The US in particular is highly dependent on oil to power its service-based economy, but it simply cannot afford oil to the same degree as can China (see this excellent Oil Drum post A Brief Economic Explanation of Peak Oil for an explanation). This means that the economic pie is now limited, and growth in one place (above all, China) is now to the detriment of growth in other already high-income places (the US, and the less efficient parts of Europe). For a limited time, this issue can be bypassed by the accumulation of debt in the high-income countries – much of which, it should be noted, is loaned out from China and the oil exporters. But poor countries lending to maintain rich country living standards is bizarre at face value, and it is unsustainable in the long-run.

How to survive the coming storm?

From the investment perspective: Keep assets in US dollars, but only those that can be sold off at relatively short notice.

Though dangerous in the short-term, China, Russia, and some countries in Eastern Europe are very good long-term plays. In particular, buying in at the depths of crisis can pay huge dividends in the future. A good bet right now: property in Bulgaria and Minsk.

Natural resources are another excellent long-term play (including gold – a good bet in a time of instability). However, it is probably not a good time to buy in right now, as there is the risk of a sharp (but short) fall once the economic deterioration gathers critical pace.

If you have the means to be an independent financial speculator, try out US CDS. The US will probably never formally default – controlling its own currency, at the most, it will do so via inflation – however, the perceived risk of default WILL be reflected in those instruments. Don’t bet the farm on it, as they’re high risk, but do consider setting aside 10% of your investment poll into this or similar instruments, as the returns have the potential to be mindbogglingly high.

The other two BRIC’s, India and Brazil, I am not so certain of because their low human capital precludes very fast growth.

In terms of specific sectors in the long-term, probably the best bets are IT and medicine because the entire world is aging, and when people are unemployed, they will spend their time on Facebook and playing video games.

Perhaps I’ll have another post on the other aspects of how to keep afloat in the coming era of turbulence. Keep an eye out for it.

Reread S/O posts about the return of geopolitics to Europe and my decade forecast and piece on future superpowers, and continue reading this blog as it is ahead of so many issues well before they started becoming conventional wisdom.

(Republished from Sublime Oblivion by permission of author or representative)
 
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As with the previous such post, this thread will primarily serve as a meeting ground where S/O readers can discuss the impending US fiscal crisis. As usual, I try to provide some context and avenues for discussion:

1. On August 2nd, give or take a few days, the US Treasury will run out of money. Some commitments will have to be broken. As this article explains, first in line will be Treasury bond holders; frankly, the US sovereign reputation is so valuable that it will not want to risk it at almost any cost. Nor does either party want to see SS recipients, veterans, and soldiers not getting their salary. Once these are accounted for, little else will remain (the US borrows $1.40 for every dollar it now spends). If a deal isn’t reached, there will be massive furloughs and a shutdown of most non-”essential” government functions.

2. Though the current deficit of 10%+ of GDP is patently unsustainable, the immediate drop in spending the failure to raise the debt limit will represent will instantly plunge the US into deep recession (if not depression, if sustained; i.e. a cumulative GDP drop of more than 10%). The economy is very weak, with recent revisions showing the post-2007 drop in output to have been deeper than thought, and the subsequent recovery much weaker. With consumer spending hurt by deleveraging and high commodity prices; it is only being propped up by government stimulus.

3. The political ramifications. This is a risky bet on the Republicans’ part; whereas the Obama administration would have otherwise got the blame for a sluggish recovery, their perceived role in triggering a deep recession will erase that (nor can we take for granted that Republicans are able to logically perceive this; their Tea Party wing in particular has heavy ideological blinkers). In any case, it was the Republicans who got the blame for the previous government shutdown in 1995.

I went counter-consensus in the immediate aftermath of the Osama bin Laden killing by betting on a Republican win in 2012. This was on favorable odds, with all the commentators crowing that Obama has a victory locked up. Now I’m not sure this was such a good move. As of now, this is ALSO increasingly counter-consensus; in the last few days, many people have began to say Obama’s chances of winning are slipping. I disagree. The Republicans are volunteering themselves as free targets for the blame games that make up Presidential campaigns. If they go through and shut down government, then Obama will seize the opportunity to blame them.

4. So, in the end, what will happen? I think there is a high chance that the US will not go into formal default (that is practically impossible, for now) and that there will be a compromise, if not by August 2nd then within two or three weeks. But if the Republicans remain obstinate, then its back to deep recession.

5. The WSJ on what Russia thinks: Oil-Rich Russia Calm Ahead of U.S. Debt Deadline. I basically agree with it.

6. As in 2008, China will remain largely unaffected – even if the US slips into a deep recession. As I argued in my post on Top 10 Sinophobe Myths, the idea that China depends in any real way on manufacturing exports doesn’t hold water.

7. The PMI indicators show that large parts of Europe are slipping into zero growth or outright recession. But Germany remains solid, and Russia seems to be picking up its pace.

As soon as the US debt limit crisis is papered over, the focus will shift back to Europe. Italy’s budget deficit is small (relatively, anyway), but its debt to GDP ratio is huge and the average maturity of its bonds is only about five years. And needless to say, Italy is no Greece. That said, Europe’s overall fiscal position is better than that of the US, Japan, Britain (which is, despite a 13% of GDP budget deficit, becoming a mini safe haven) so the recent moves towards a German-controlled “eurobond” has diminished the risks of contagion.

STRATFOR provides food for thought with Germany’s Choice: Part 2.

8. Where can investors go? In the past few days, we’ve had the bizarre sight of investors, frightened by the rising turbulence and concerns about low growth, scurrying into the “safe haven” of US Treasuries; issued by the same institution that will not have money to pay the bills in a few days! Well, what can I say… Investors aren’t rational creatures. And it does illustrate the massive reputational advantage still held by the US… a reputational advantage that brings it massive benefits (very low interest rates, most of the international trade in commodities being denominated in its currency, etc) that its more rational politicians will be very unwilling to squander.

Nonetheless, this doesn’t change the fact that no matter how this debt limit issue is going to be resolved in the coming days and weeks, in the longer term US hegemony is unsustainable. That is because its fiscal position is unsustainable, and it is unsustainable because its political system is fundamentally dysfunctional. The Republicans want cuts in spending, but not enough to wipe out the deficit (since some influential lobbies like the MIC, Big Oil, agriculture, etc. are to be protected); the Democrats want to keep entitlements spending and military spending largely as is but increase revenues, but the Republicans are unwilling to raise taxes an iota, not even on natural resource companies and high income earners. It is an idiot’s limbo whose only foreseeable resolution is through a debt trap / default or massive inflation.

The only thing the current antics are doing is, by giving cause to doubt the creditworthiness of the US (previously unthinkable), the politicians are merely bringing forward the day of reckoning.

9. Whither commodities? It will basically be a race between these two forces:

  • Recession – and hence falling demand – in the fiscally bankrupt Western nations.
  • Stagnant oil supplies (or the onset on rapid decline); rising demand from China to fill any gap left by falling consumption in the West; and investors fleeing from stock-markets and indebted government-issued papers for commodities, where the long-term trend is now certainly for prices to go up.

Which one will win out in the next few months? I don’t have a fucking clue. If I did, I’d be out there gambling on the commodity markets.

One thing I would (still) recommend doing is investing in US credit default swaps; even if the debt limit crisis is amicably resolved, it is still a great long-term play.

us-cds

10. One final article: Emerging markets could be the new safe haven for investors.

It is bizarre that Russia, a country with almost zero debt and a tiny budget deficit, or China, or dozens of other fiscally sustainable countries are rated much worse (and have higher CDS spreads on their bonds) than a country like the US or the UK. Arguably even Argentina is a less risky investment at this point.

(Republished from Sublime Oblivion by permission of author or representative)
 
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Carrying on from yesterday’s 2010 in Review, I’ll now lay out my predictions for this year and see how well last year’s stacked up to reality.

(1) Last year, I wrote: “World economy continues an anemic recovery, though there are significant risks to the downside.” Today I’d repeat this, but add that the risks have heightened. Many countries in the developed world, from Spain to the US, now run patently unsustainable fiscal policies. I don’t know when the bond vigilantes would strike (and even if I did I’d rather get rich than tell you), but sooner rather than later they will. The obvious loci of the next big crisis are the so-called “PIGS” (Portugal, Italy, Greece, Spain), and Ireland, Belgium and Hungary.

But obvious isn’t preordained. Iberia, at least, is covered by the EU’s €440bn rescue fund, while Italy’s 120%-of-GDP debt is counterbalanced with a 0.9 ratio of receipts to outlays (i.e. for every €1 it spends it collects €0.9 in tax). The UK has the worst budget deficit amongst the big European countries, but it’s insulated by an average debt maturity of 14 years. Japan has the most apocalyptic sovereign debt figure at 220%-of-GDP, but also has immense foreign savings. Finally, though the US appears to be in one of the worst positions all round, with an debt maturity of just 4 years, a 0.6 receipts to outlays ratio and an ideological rift that precludes a political solution, it is still buffered by the $’s status as the global reserve currency.

Which of these dominoes will fall first, and when, must remain a matter of speculation, and may ultimately be contingent on unforeseeable shocks and triggers. For instance, a damning Wikileaks expose of Bank of America? Iran blocking the Strait of Hormuz in response to an Israeli strike (as I speculated here)? It’s all possible.

pollaro-budgets-debt

[Michael Pollaro's collection of budget and debt metrics. Note that on aggregate, the US is in a worse position than the faltering PIGS.]

(2) Possible wars. My analysis remains the same as last year’s, with two changes: (1) The likelihood of a US/Israeli strike against Iran rises from 25% to 40% because the Stuxnet worm can not longer be relied upon to sabotage Iranian nuclear progress, the US development of the MOP, and Obama’s domestic weakness in light of the GOP’s resurgence; (2) The chance of an Azeri-Armenian war over Nagorno-Karabakh has risen from small to 10% in view of heightened rhetoric, skirmishes and exploding Azeri military spending.

(3) My Russia predictions. Back on October 8th, I predicted: “Within the next 3 months Luzhkov is going to get hit with corruption charges and will either go on trial or seek political asylum in the West.” Still more than three weeks to go!

Barring another catastrophic heatwave or natural disaster, Russia’s population should resume growth in 2011 (as in 2009, but probably will just miss out in 2010). The life expectancy should approach (or slightly exceed) 70 years; the total fertility rate will approach (or exceed) 1.6 children per woman; the birth rate will be in the 12.5-13.0 / 1000 and the death rate in the 13.5-14.0 / 1000 range. The justifications for these predictions should be well-known to S/O readers but for refreshers see here and here.

Consensus is that the Russian economy will growth by 3.5-5.5%. This will be lower if there is a second global financial crisis, but the results on growth are almost certain to be far less severe than in 2009 (-7.9% growth) because today’s Russia Inc. is much less dependent on foreign credit inflows. See Russia 2010: Growth but state-led recovery is bad news by Ben Aris.

In foreign policy, expect relations with the US to deteriorate, on account of the rise of hardline Russophobes amongst Republican Representatives. On the other hand, the France-German bloc – increasingly estranged from the Mediterranean South – will be more willing to engage Russia’s non-indebted, growing and expanding (see Kazakhstan & Belarus customs union) markets.

(4) US politics will be mired in domestic issues, with Republicans doing their utmost to hack away at the healthcare legislation, calling for cuts to social (but not security) spending, harassing the EPA, and perhaps even trying to shut down government around March. The joblessness of the recovery and dim economic prospects will dim Obama’s political prospects, but they may be just about rescued if the Republicans overreach themselves.

I think the ConDem coalition in the UK will last the year, albeit with a lot of acrimony and backstabbing. The Lib Dems have lost half their electoral support, the students whom they betrayed, so they’ll want to hang in with the Tories as long as possible.

(5) Oil prices should stay at around $80-120 in 2010 and production will remain roughly stable as increased demand (from China mostly) collides with geological depletion. If there is a second global economic crisis, I doubt we’ll see prices plummeting to $40 as we did in early 2009, when investors abandoned stocks and commodities for the perceived safety of bonds. But since the next big crisis will probably be a bonds crisis, the most attractive safe havens may well become commodities, and the government bonds of emerging markets (where commodity consumption is rising).

(6) China will continue growing at 8-10% per year. Their housing bubble is a non-issue; with 50% of their population still rural, it isn’t even a proper bubble, since eventually all those new, deserted apartment blocs will be occupied anyway. What is of concern is that China’s coal production – now almost 50% of global production – is close to plateauing. This is of some consequence given that coal is China’s primary energy driver.

(7) Despite NASA reporting that 2010 may be the hottest year on record, the thermometers may break limits again in 2011. That is because, despite the unprecedented temperatures – manifesting in a great Russian heatwave that destroyed 40% of its grain crops and flooding in Pakistan that displaced millions – 2010 actually correlated to the end of a minimum in solar irradiance.

solar-irradiance

Solar irradiance has a forcing effect on global temperatures, independent of the secular rise in atmospheric CO2. Based on the graph above, we can expect another peak in the next few years. Since greenhouse emissions continue unabated and are indeed joined by feedback emissions such as methane from melting Arctic permafrost, we can confidently expect several major climate events this year.

Speaking of the Arctic, as its longterm ice volume continues to plummet and sea ice extent retreats, we can expect more circumpolar shipping. I wouldn’t be surprised to see up to 10 non-stop voyages along the Northern Sea Route from Europe to China, following just one by MV Nordic Barents in 2010. Likewise, expect the Arctic to become a major locus of investment – if not in 2011, then in a few more years – as lucrative companies and ports are privatized in Arctic Russia.

(8) Wikileaks will not be “shut down”, as the Internet is too resilient. If Assange is successfully extradited to the US to face espionage or computer misuse charges – I’d give a 50% chance of that happening – then expect fireworks to go off as the “insurance file” is released.

What about the 2010 Predictions?

Consider this post on 2010 predictions and my prediction of the 2010 Ukrainian elections.

(1) “World economy continues an anemic recovery”: mostly true, though I should have clarified that I was referring to the developed countries. Though some, like Germany, did really well.

(2) “Republicans will carry the mid-term elections in 2010, but there is a strong mood of apathy and a sense that what is really needed is a new party, a new politics“: Bingo! Republicans won – check. Social disillusionment – check Gallup. A new party, a new politics – the Tea Party.

“Rising violence in Iraq… a false quiet in Afghanistan”: Got them wrong way round.

“In the UK, Gordon Brown (New Labour) will almost certainly lose to James Cameron (Conservatives) in the mid-2010 elections”: Totally correct.*

(3) None of the wars I mentioned happened, but I didn’t necessarily expect them to, as all of them were given as probabilities.

(4) “[Russia's demography will] continue improving further in 2010 and that the year will see the first year of positive population growth since 1994 (or 2009)… Birth rate = 12.5-13.0 (reasons), Death rate = 13.5-14.0 (a reason), Net Migration = 1.5-2.0, all / 1000.”: The Great Russian Heatwave of 2010, causing 44,000 excess deaths, threw many of my predictions off kilter. For now I’m basing it all on Jan-Nov 2010 stats, as December isn’t in yet. The birth rate during this period rose from 12.4 / 1000 to 12.6 / 1000, so I got that right. Unfortunately, the death rate rose from 14.1 / 1000 to 14.4 / 1000, due to an extra 28,300 deaths; if we exclude the 44,700 excess deaths accruing to the heatwave, the death rate would have been 14.0 / 1000, and so just within predicted range. A substantial falloff in net immigration, which I didn’t expect – surely more people should have left during the recession? – means that Russia’s population growth will almost certainly dip into negative territory this year.

“Economic growth of around 3-5% of GDP sounds reasonable.”: Most estimates are now converging at around 4%, so completely correct.

“Lots of privatizations and corruption investigations as part of the Surkov clan’s struggle against the siloviki and “their” state companies.”: True for the first part; not so much for the second, as most efforts have instead been diverted to ousting the last 1990′s-vintage regional barons.

“Yushenko will almost certainly (95%+) be kicked out of the Presidency in the coming Ukrainian elections… Ukraine under Yanukovych will join Eurasec or the Russia-Belarus-Kazakhstan customs union, but is yet unlikely to join the CSTO or give Russian 2nd language status.”: Correct; wrong & wrong; right & right. I still expect Ukraine to join a Eurasian common economic space. As George Friedman points out in his “geopolitical journey” (see the part “European Dreams”), the Kiev intelligentsia has little sense of national identity, and dream of a Europe whose foundations are in fact crumbling let alone considering further expansion. By far the most logical alternative for Ukraine, in the long-term, is something resembling what it has been since 1654.

In late January, 2010: “Adding up these figures, Yanukovych gets 50% of the votes, whereas Tymoshenko gets 46%… It is safer to say that Yanukovych will win with a gap wide enough that Tymoshenko will not have grounds to make a legal wrangle out of it – though that is just about possible if she’s very lucky and comes within 1-2% points of Yanukovych. But my prediction is a Yanukovych win by 5-10% points over Tymoshenko”: During the second runoffs on February 7th, Yanukovych got 48.95% and Tymoshenko got 45.47%, making a gap of 3.5%. My first, allegiance-tallying method was virtually perfectly correct (50%-46%); the one that involved factoring in opinion polls led me to miss my mark. But nonetheless, I still ended up predicting the correct result.

(5) “Oil production in 2010 will be around the same as 2009 – increased demand will collide with geological depletion to keep output stable. Oil prices in H1 will remain at 70-90$, and will rise to 90-110$ in H2″: More accurate to say $70-90 for the whole year with dips and rises, but you wouldn’t have lost money taking my advice (and that after making big bank in 2009: “…a rebound in oil prices from around 40-50$ per barrel in the first half, to 60-80$ in the second”).

(6) “No major AGW-related physical events (except for a heatwave or two), given that solar irradiation remains at an unusually long trough – expect the fireworks by 2012-15″: Well, and quite a few floods. But dead on about the “heatwave or two.”

“AGW skepticism will become more popular in the wake of Climategate“: Yes – see the Republican Party.

“China and its proxies will prevent any more significant action being taken at the next UN climate change summit in Mexico, than was “achieved” in Copenhagen”: Correct, though actually it was the entire world (save a few countries like Bolivia), not just China, that colluded in making a worthless agreement.

“By year-end the performance of the world’s top supercomputer will exceed 3 petaflop/s (repeat of 2009 prediction)”: Still not there, as the current top supercomputer, the Chinese Tianhe-1A, achieved a performance level of 2.57 petaflop/s. Next year for sure though.

(7) “China’s growth will slow from around 8% in 2009, to perhaps 5% in 2010… expect China to continue keeping a low profile as the US insists on shooting itself in the foot.” So wrong! Ouch.

* EDIT. A reader wrote in to tell me I meant David Cameron is the leader of the Tories, even though James (the film-maker) might be preferable. LOL. For me to get it wrong not once (when writing) but twice (when reading) there must have been some serious Freudian slippage going on!

(Republished from Sublime Oblivion by permission of author or representative)
 
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So news is in that Britain’s next government is going to be a Tory-Lib Dem coalition, bringing an end to thirteen years of New Labour dominance. At a time of profound economic uncertainty and the imminent return of Great Power politics, it is pollyannish to believe that any British government could resolve Britain’s manifold problems without incurring big social costs. That said, this coalition is likely the UK’s best chance of pulling through in salvageable shape.

Let me recap. First, the UK has a budget deficit of 13% of GDP and a debt to GDP ratio of 80% for 2010. (For comparison, the figures for defaulting Argentina in 2001 were 6.4% and 62%, respectively). According to PricewaterhouseCoopers, “Britain would have to make across-the-board budget cuts of 5% a year to come close to cutting the deficit in half by 2014″ – and that assumes an economic upturn that may not materialize due to Britain’s deindustrialization, high energy costs, and the growing crisis in the Eurozone. (If Britain doesn’t make deep cuts soon, a descent into a Greek-style compound debt trap is inevitable). Second, the UK’s abysmal energy policy under New Labour – ignoring the depletion of the North Sea gas fields, declining to invest in new generating capacity, and not concluding long-term gas supply contracts – has made chronic electricity shortages all but inevitable by 2015. Third, separatist undercurrents are ever present. Not very visible now, granted, but that tends to change when a state comes under severe socio-economic pressure. Overall, I would say all this qualifies as a “bad situation” for Britain.

But why is a blue-yellow coalition going to make the best of it? For the simple reason that combined, their set of priorities is near optimal, and each will hopefully be able to check the other’s less savory tendencies. I will be drawing from this excellent website explicating the positions of British party candidates on major issues (h/t Fistful of Euros).

Take taxes and spending. The former will have to rise, the latter will have to fall. This is not an ideological statement, it is a matter of fact. The alternative is default, either outright or inflationary, and a forced readjustment. And the ruling parties are in tune with this reality. Only 28% of Tory and 41% of Lib Dem candidates believe that “Britain should increase spending on public sector services” despite the recession, compared with 61% of Labour candidates. This isn’t because they are nasty neoliberals. Some 76% of Lib Dems and even 60% of Tories believe that any tax increases should be “disproportionately” paid by higher earners. Big majorities in every British party are averse to higher inequality. In today’s Britain, we are all social democrats. ;)

The Lib Dems and Tories are also the best bet for a balanced foreign policy. Elements of the Conservative Party (including one “e-friend” and successful local candidate) have expressed an interest in improving relations with Russia, which is a very wise move considering its bleak natural gas and energy outlook. Nick Clegg, the leader of the Lib Dems and to be Deputy PM, “has worked extensively in the post-Soviet bloc”. This will be a welcome change from New Labour’s Russophobia. What isn’t so good is that the Tories are one of the most bellicose parties, with only 39% of them saying they would not support a strike against Iran and 67% supporting British troops staying on in Afghanistan “as long as they are needed” (which is historically synonymous with “until you go bankrupt”). That said, their views on these matters are in line with all the other mainstream parties. The only pacificists are on the fringes – the Green Party (good intentions, no realism) and the BNP (which views these wars as Zionist projects).

Only 6% of Lib Dems and 30% of the Conservatives (that is, their reactionary wing) support beginning negotiations to exit the European Union. That would be an idiotic idea. Now I’m not saying that Britain should integrate further with a European Union that is being riven apart by economic crisis and self-interested nationalisms. But maintaining a foothold in it (and a veto!) is a very useful mechanism for sabotaging moves towards European federalism and manipulating the balance of power on the mainland on the cheap, not to mention the markets it provides. To their credit, most Tories realize this.

In this section I should warn you that my views here are colored by a social liberal bias. (But this isn’t critical – the most important issues that will define Britain’s near future are in how it handles its economic, fiscal, and energy predicament, not on how many gay rights or CCTV cameras it acquires). I should stress that the modern Conservatives are not a party of social reactionaries, Labour propaganda to the contrary. Now there is certainly a large undercurrent of social conservatism there, in contrast to the three “progressive” parties – Labour, the Lib Dems, and the Greens. But these reactionary tendencies on immigration or climate change will be countered by the Liberal Democrats. And with the sole exception of New Labour, all parties agree that there “are too many CCTV cameras in Britain”. In my opinion, not only is the UK’s surveillance culture insidious, it is also a waste of money and resources.

Finally, and most importantly, a blue-yellow coalition really is the best of all possible worlds. It kicks out Labour, just like the voters wanted to. It prevents the Conservatives from becoming entangled with the national-ethnic parties or kooks like the UKIP and the BNP. It presents the possibility of electoral reform to modernize Britain’s outdated “first past the post” system. It offers a (kind of) credible commitment to fiscal stabilization, without connotations of Thatcherite social injustice and insufferable moralism. Their foreign policy is moderate and well-tailored to Britain’s national interests. Most importantly, the two parties balance each other out – the Liberal Democrats will be able to nullify the global warming denying, viscerally anti-EU and anti-immigrant Tory reactionaries, while the Conservative mainstream will be able to squash the dafter Lib Dem ideas like getting rid of Trident.

All in all, a good match – and if it holds together, one that may just bring Britain in decent shape through its biggest crisis since the Second World War.

(Republished from Sublime Oblivion by permission of author or representative)
 
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A year ago I predicted that there will be a “decoupling from the unwinding“, as “emerging markets” by and large ride out the temporary shocks of declining Western demand for their exports (China) and the interruption of Western credit intermediation (Russia) before resuming growth. This is one aspect of the trends leading to the imminent demise of Pax Americana, which will be replaced by “the age of scarcity industrialism” / “a world without the West“. We are now entering this Empire’s endgame.

After briefly stalling in early 2009, China’s economy roared back to life on the back of massive credit loosening to build (or overbuild) infrastructure and industrial capacity. Though not the most efficient use of resources, it did have the advantage of 1) maintaining growth, 2) forestalling the social unrest that would rise up if it wasn’t, and 3) at least Chinese investments went into building up their real economy (amongst other things, it became the world’s largest producer of wind turbines and photovoltaic panels in 2009), instead of the pork and oligarch welfare programs more characteristic of the US “stimulus”. And though Russia’s GDP contracted by 7.9% in 2009 – far higher than expected by most commentators, largely thanks to the dependence its big corporations acquired on continuous flows of intermediated Western credit – it began to slowly recover from mid-2009, industrial output is now rising at a fast clip, and investment banks are predicting growth of 4-6% for 2010. The other two BRIC’s, Brazil and India, didn’t have too many problems at all since they had neither a big credit nor trade dependence on the submerging Western markets.

In the long-term, I argued that the brunt of the crisis would fall on the “submerging” Anglo-Saxon markets, thanks to their “charades over “quantitative easing” (translation: printing money), transfer of toxic “assets” onto the public account”, and unsustainable fiscal stimuli. Today, the American political system is for all practical purposes broken. Republicans won’t agree to tax increases, Democrats won’t agree to cutting entitlement programs. The legislative process is reverting to that of the 17th century Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, when a single veto could (and did) prevent anything being agreed on in their Sejm, or parliament. (Hint: the ultimate consequences weren’t good for Poland).

The inflated hopes and expectations accompanying Obama’s accession to power were indeed, just as I suggested on his election, “greatly constrained by financial and institutional realities”. He is a weakling President, alternating between meaningless populist rhetoric and pandering to the Wall Street oligarchs; scorned by the left as Bush II with gloss, and condemned by the right as a foreign Marxist Islamofascist: his policies and outreaches failing at home and abroad, rejected in his own heartlands, these outcomes are engendered by and in large part made inevitable by his hopelessly pollyannish belief in his own messianic powers of compromise and persuasion.

If you think things look bad now, with the budget deficit at 10% of GDP for 2009 and a similar figure projected for 2010, don’t look at what awaits us in a few more years. The fiscal pressure is only going to increase as the baby boomers start retiring, and as long as the US remains a populist democracy the public will not allow it to cut entitlements (at least until China and the world’s oil exporters force it on them). For instance, the Congressional Budget Office believes that the US will never again run a balanced budget, and you can guess its consequences for American global power. Furthermore, this doesn’t take into account that 1) the vast majority of prior budget forecasts have been optimistic and 2) this assumes that none of the potential breaking-points that could doom Pax Americana (which I’ve identified as imperial overstretch, geopolitical shocks, and oil-credit perturbations caused by peak oil) come to pass.

As shown above, the US has had an almost continous budget deficit since the start of its “age of diminished expectations” in the 1970′s, funded by investors willing to buy up its Treasuries, accepting low returns in exchange for America’s perceived status as a “safe haven” (so-called “American alpha”). Yet with the American empire crumbling at the margins and their own most optimistic forecasts predicting a structural deficit into the foreseeable future, will investors continue buying up Treasuries – or will they turn to more promising emerging markets? Could it even be possible that the US is already in its imperial endgame, as argued by John Michael Greer?

A different reality pertains within the Washington DC beltway. Where states that fail to balance their budgets get their bond ratings cut and, in some cases, are having trouble finding buyers for their debt at less than usurious interest rates, the federal government seems to be able to defy the normal behavior of bond markets with impunity. Despite soaring deficits, not to mention a growing disinclination on the part of foreign governments to keep on financing the same, every new issuance of US treasury bills somehow finds buyers in such abundance that interest rates stay remarkably low. A few weeks ago, Tom Whipple of ASPO became the latest in a tolerably large number of perceptive observers who have pointed out that this makes sense only if the US government is surreptitiously buying its own debt.

The process works something like this. The Federal Reserve, which is not actually a government agency but a consortium of large banks working under a Federal charter, has the statutory right to mint money in the US. These days, that can be done by a few keystrokes on a computer, and another few keystrokes can transfer that money to any bank in the nation. Some of those banks use the money to buy up US treasury bills, probably by way of subsidiaries chartered in the Cayman Islands and the like, and these same off-book subsidiaries then stash the T-bills and keep them off the books. The money thus laundered finally arrives at the US treasury, where it gets spent.

It may be a bit more complex than that. Those huge sums of money voted by Congress to bail out the financial system may well have been diverted into this process – that would certainly explain why the Department of the Treasury and the Federal Reserve Bank of New York have stonewalled every attempt to trace exactly where all that money went. Friendly foreign governments may also have a hand in the process. One way or another, though, those of my readers who remember the financial engineering that got Enron its fifteen minutes of fame may find all this uncomfortably familiar – and it is. The world’s largest economy has become, in effect, the United States of Enron.

And it’s not only tree-hugging Druids that are raising the alarm. Niall Ferguson, court historian for Pax Americana, is also tolling the bell for its imminent demise on the pages of the Financial Times (A Greek crisis is coming to America).

What we in the western world are about to learn is that there is no such thing as a Keynesian free lunch. Deficits did not “save” us half so much as monetary policy – zero interest rates plus quantitative easing – did. First, the impact of government spending (the hallowed “multiplier”) has been much less than the proponents of stimulus hoped. Second, there is a good deal of “leakage” from open economies in a globalised world. Last, crucially, explosions of public debt incur bills that fall due much sooner than we expect. …

For the world’s biggest economy, the US, the day of reckoning still seems reassuringly remote. The worse things get in the eurozone, the more the US dollar rallies as nervous investors park their cash in the “safe haven” of American government debt. This effect may persist for some months, just as the dollar and Treasuries rallied in the depths of the banking panic in late 2008.

Yet even a casual look at the fiscal position of the federal government (not to mention the states) makes a nonsense of the phrase “safe haven”. US government debt is a safe haven the way Pearl Harbor was a safe haven in 1941. …

The International Monetary Fund recently published estimates of the fiscal adjustments developed economies would need to make to restore fiscal stability over the decade ahead. Worst were Japan and the UK (a fiscal tightening of 13 per cent of GDP). [AK: Yes, Britain is screwed. So is Japan]. Then came Ireland, Spain and Greece (9 per cent). [AK: The PIIGS (Portugal, Italy, Ireland, Greece, Spain are screwed too, especially Greece and Spain at this point]. And in sixth place? Step forward America, which would need to tighten fiscal policy by 8.8 per cent of GDP to satisfy the IMF.

Explosions of public debt hurt economies in the following way, as numerous empirical studies have shown. By raising fears of default and/or currency depreciation ahead of actual inflation, they push up real interest rates. Higher real rates, in turn, act as drag on growth, especially when the private sector is also heavily indebted – as is the case in most western economies, not least the US.

Although the US household savings rate has risen since the Great Recession began, it has not risen enough to absorb a trillion dollars of net Treasury issuance a year. Only two things have thus far stood between the US and higher bond yields: purchases of Treasuries (and mortgage-backed securities, which many sellers essentially swapped for Treasuries) by the Federal Reserve and reserve accumulation by the Chinese monetary authorities.

But now the Fed is phasing out such purchases and is expected to wind up quantitative easing. Meanwhile, the Chinese have sharply reduced their purchases of Treasuries from around 47 per cent of new issuance in 2006 to 20 per cent in 2008 to an estimated 5 per cent last year. Small wonder Morgan Stanley assumes that 10-year yields will rise from around 3.5 per cent to 5.5 per cent this year. On a gross federal debt fast approaching $15,000bn, that implies up to $300bn of extra interest payments – and you get up there pretty quickly with the average maturity of the debt now below 50 months. [AK: This refers to the dreaded "debt compound trap", in which the real costs of servicing debt spiral out of control and the only way out is restructuring (partial / negotiated default) or "monetization" of the debt (inflation). PS. The "debt trap" is essentially what brought down the regime of Louis XVI in 1789].

The Obama administration’s new budget blithely assumes real GDP growth of 3.6 per cent over the next five years, with inflation averaging 1.4 per cent. [AK: Ha!] But with rising real rates, growth might well be lower. Under those circumstances, interest payments could soar as a share of federal revenue – from a tenth to a fifth to a quarter.

Last week Moody’s Investors Service warned that the triple A credit rating of the US should not be taken for granted. That warning recalls Larry Summers’ killer question (posed before he returned to government): “How long can the world’s biggest borrower remain the world’s biggest power?”

The US is a weakened skier and is now hurtling towards a rock-strewn double black for which it is not prepared in any way, shape, or form. But at least for now, its position looks stable – after all, it grew at an annualized 5.7% in Q4, 2009 (half due to inventories buildup). The same cannot be said of Greece and the Eurozone, which seem to be approaching a major crisis in mid-2010.

Afflicted with a dysfunctional political system and chronically unable to balance its budget (sound familiar?), yet without the manifold benefits of “American alpha”, Greece is facing a looming default propelled by a 13%-of-GDP budget deficit (even granting full benefit of the doubt to Greece’s dodgy statistics service), public debt at 113% of GDP (well above the 60% limit imposed by Maastricht), and draconian austerity plans that are politically unrealizable.

If Greece were to impose the draconian pay cuts under way in Ireland (5pc for lower state workers, rising to 20pc for bosses), it would deepen depression and cause tax revenues to collapse further. It is already too late for such crude policies. Greece is past the tipping point of a compound debt spiral. …

Remember, Athens holds the whip hand over Brussels, not the other way round. Greek exit from EMU would be dangerous. Quite apart from the instant contagion effects across Club Med and Eastern Europe, it would puncture the aura of manifest destiny that has driven EU integration for half a century. …

No doubt, EU institutions will rustle up a rescue. RBS says action by the European Central Bank may be “days away”. While the ECB may not bail out states, it may buy Greek bonds in the open market. EU states may club together to keep Greece afloat with loans for a while. That solves nothing. It increases Greece’s debt, drawing out the agony. What Greece needs – unless it leaves EMU – is a permanent subsidy from the North. Spain and Portugal will need help too.

The danger point for Greece will come when the Pfennig drops in Berlin that EMU divergence between North and South has widened to such a point that the system will break up unless: either Germany tolerates inflation of 4pc or 5pc to prevent Club Med tipping into debt deflation; or it pays welfare transfers to the South (not loans) equal to East German subsidies after reunification.

Before we blame Greece for making a hash of the euro, let us not forget how we got here. EMU lured Club Med into a trap. Interest rates were too low for Greece, Portugal, Spain, and Ireland, causing them all to be engulfed in a destructive property and wage boom. The ECB was complicit. It breached its inflation and M3 money target repeatedly in order to nurse Germany through slump. ECB rates were 2pc until December 2005. This was poison for overheating Southern states.

And according to Stratfor:

The crisis is rooted in Europe’s greatest success: the Maastricht Treaty and the monetary union the treaty spawned epitomized by the euro. Everyone participating in the euro won by merging their currencies. Germany received full, direct and currency-risk-free access to the markets of all its euro partners. In the years since, Germany’s brutal efficiency has permitted its exports to increase steadily both as a share of total European consumption and as a share of European exports to the wider world. Conversely, the eurozone’s smaller and/or poorer members gained access to Germany’s low interest rates and high credit rating. And the last bit is what spawned the current problem.

Greece now has the following choices:

1) Balance the budget. To do this Greece would have to cut its government spending by as much as half, resulting in sky-rocketing unemployment (20%+) and severe social unrest. Greeks are volatile, not like disciplined Germans or apathetic Latvians.

2) Leave the EMU. And print a New Drachma to inflate away its debt into oblivion, as was once typical for the Med nations. But then it would lose its geopolitical anchor in Europe and lose access to any further foreign investor money. According to Willem Buiter, this isn’t too likely.

Would a eurozone national government faced either with the looming threat of default or with the reality of a default be incentivised to leave the eurozone? Consider the example of a hypothetical country called Hellas. It could not redenominate its existing stock of euro-denominated obligations in its new currency, let’s call it the New Drachma. That itself would constitute a further act of default. If the New Drachma depreciated sharply against the euro, in both nominal and real terms, following the exit of Hellas from the eurozone, the real value of the government debt-to-GDP ratio would rise. In addition, any new funding through the issuance of New Drachma-denominated sovereign bonds would be subject to an exchange rate risk premium, and these bonds would have to be sold in markets that are less deep and liquid that the market for euro-denominated Hellas debt used to be. So the sovereign eurozone quitter and all who sail in her would be clobbered as regards borrowing costs both on the outstanding stock and on the new flows.

A sharp depreciation of the nominal exchange rate of the New Drachma vis-a-vis the euro would for a short period improve the competitive position of the nation because, with domestic costs and prices sticky in nominal New Drachma terms, a nominal depreciation is also a real depreciation. Nominal rigidities are, however, less important for eurozone economies than for the UK, and much less important than in the US. Real rigidities are what characterises mythical Hellas, as it does real-world Greece, Italy, Spain, Portugal and Ireland. The real benefits from a nominal exchange rate depreciation would be eroded after a year – within two years at most – before you could say cyclical recovery. The New Drachma would be a little currency in a big global financial market system – not an instrument to be used to gain competitive advantage or to respond efficiently to asymmetric shocks, but a source of extraneous noise, excess volatility and persistent misalignments, rather like sterling.

A eurozone member state faced with the prospect of sovereign default, or just having suffered the indignity of sovereign default, would be immensely relieved to be a member of the eurozone. The last thing it would want to do is give up the financial shelter provided by membership in the eurozone to try and emulate Iceland, New Zealand or the UK.

3) Old-school default. And be shunned by the rest of Europe. Though threatening to blow up the bomb is to Greece’s advantage, since this will shift the burden to…

Europe – or precisely, Germany – having to make their choice.

1) Let them burn. Germany is getting impatient of being used as Europe’s cash cow for the past 60 years, and may simply tell Greece to deal with it herself. This will likely lead to spiraling debt service costs, fiscal-social-political breakdown, and heightened borrowing costs for the other PIIGS, maybe even a “cascading collapse” of Europe’s entire southern periphery (in the most extreme case, even Belgium and France would be threatened). This would finish off the EU as a meaningful institution, and with it will go the main vehice through which Germany and France wield power at a global level.

2) Berlin bails out Greece. Involves a different set of problems. A straight-out bailout will invite moral hazard and political dissatisfaction amongst the German electorate, who have had their wages constrained for years while the PIIGS wallowed in their bubbles. But all in all, preferable to the above scenario, or the prospect of a spreading crisis of confidence also forcing Germany to bail out Italy, Spain, or even France, all of whom have far bigger borrowing needs (and for which even Germany doesn’t have the resources). Therefore, Germany will probably lead an EU bailout of Greece (even though there is no formal mechanism for doing so) – but in exchange, it will want major political concessions.

But the days of no-strings-attached financial assistance from Germany are over. If Germany is going to do this, there will no longer be anything “implied” or “assumed” about German control of the European Central Bank and the eurozone. The control will become reality, and that control will have consequences. For all intents and purposes, Germany will run the fiscal policies of peripheral member states that have proved they are not up to the task of doing so on their own. To accept anything less intrusive would end with Germany becoming responsible for bailing out everyone.

Granted, at the moment the EU is stalling, not making any commitments; not surprising, given the cluttered and unwieldy talking shop that it is. But as Greece’s bond auctions (almost certainly) fail over the next few months to meet its soaring debt financing commitments, and as it falls into its debt compound trap, the fiscally secure nations – that is, primarily Germany – will realize the dangers of allowing the contagion to spread. And Germany in particular will see a chance to regain the sphere of influence over Mitteleuropa denied it since the Second World War.

Either way, in 2010 the EU institutions are going to be sidelined in favor of more workable, bilateral relations – especially between the Franco-German core and the weakening peripheries. The way will be opened for the return of Great Power politics to the European continent.

Looking further ahead, within a year the US will again enter a state of crisis. Based on Obama’s low popularity at the end of his first year (is he going to set a time record for failed Presidency?) and his loss of Massachusetts (!) to the Republicans, the political gridlock will only harden. As I forecast last September, “the feds will face challenges from the far-left (new Huey Long’s, anarchism, etc) and the far-right (demands for more state rights, anti-tax movements, “American reactionary patriots”, etc)” – though right now, the far-right movements appear to be the more powerful emerging faction (see the grassroots appeal of the reactionary, back-to-the-18th-century Tea Partiers, who in an electoral contest would now garner 17% of the vote – is the US finally going to see a powerful 3rd party?). PS. American corporations can now legally buy themselves political parties.

Second, in addition to the political problem, there will be a renewed economic and credit problem as the Second Wave of the Housing Crisis engulfs the nation because of rising defaults from adjustable-rate mortgages, many of which will be coming due by 2011.

And this brings us to a third problem, a renewed banking crisis. But this time, instead of withdrawing from emerging markets to the “safe haven” of the US, the banks will instead invest more into promising emerging markets (e.g. the BRIC’s) and commodity speculation (see peak oil), while divulging their US holdings and triggering capital flight. This will compount the political and economic problems, as America’s “rootless cosmopolitans” / financial and their political flunkies come under fire from both the far-left and right-wing producerist reactionaries.

Then there’s the fourth problem – peak oil. World oil production capacity may have peaked in 2010, and projections indicate that 2012 will see an accelerating downslide. This time there will be a both severe credit contraction, far exceeding the one in 2008-2009 (because this time capital will be fleeing the US) and soaring oil prices. The American consumer will live through a far more severe retrenchment than in 2007-2009, starting in 2011. The entailing fall in consumption will further reinforce the banking crisis, the wider economic crisis, and the political crisis. By this point, the “Tea Party”-Republican candidate may be well ahead of Obama, who by this point is utterly discredited.

Now what should Obama do? Note that by this time the Iran crisis will be coming to a head. Sanctions will have failed (China and Russia will see no reason to cooperate seriously). Israel will be getting extremely restless, since it treats the Iranian nuclear bomb as an existential threat. And Obama may well come to view a decisive resolution of the Iran issue as the only road still left open to him to claw back domestic and international legitimacy. However, Iran likely has the capability to block the Strait of Hormuz to oil tankers for several weeks using mines and anti-ship missiles. 20% of the world’s oil shipments pass through those narrow Straits. Needless to say, in a world entering the downslope of Hubbert’s peak, any disruption to global oil supplies will have tremendous, chaotic repercussions – economic, financial, political, and geopolitical – that we have no way of predicting in advance.

In conclusion, Pax Americana is going to face a series of severe crises in the next three to five years (and not only its lynchpin, the US). The European crisis, linked to the Med credit bubbles, is leading to the slow unraveling of the EU’s legitimacy in favor of its core states, France and especially Germany. It will come to a head in the next few months. Japan is facing an irredeemable fiscal and debt crisis, which will explode in the next few years: eventually, it will likely bandwagon with China (leveraging its technological base to gain favorable access to China’s markets and labor force) and ditch its post-1990 turn towards neoliberalism, which was never suited for the Japanese mentality anyway, in favor of Asian socialism.

Finally, the US itself will face a panoply of challenges – fiscal profligacy (stemming from its belief that it can have both guns & butter on a shrinking industrial base), imperial overstretch (Afghanistan, Iraq), political dysfunction, a new housing, credit, and economic crisis, soaring energy prices (disastrous for suburbia), and geopolitical challenges (Iran, China, Russia). It can deal with any one of them, but I can see no way how it would be able to deal with all of them coming within a few years of each other. The consequences?

Namely, there will be a partial collapse of legitimacy in the government; the feds will face challenges from the far-left (new Huey Long’s, anarchism, etc) and the far-right (demands for more state rights, anti-tax movements, “American reactionary patriots”, etc); fertility will collapse from the current replacement-level rates to around 1.3-1.7, as welfare shrinks and the utility of having children for the very poor, currently the most fecund social group, drops; crime will increase, etc. Yet within a decade a new social order will gradually emerge, probably fiscally and socially conservative and more authoritarian than the current one, and with it a new equilibrium will slowly, painfully come into being.

However, the US will almost certainly remain a Great Power. I certainly do not see it collapsing into separate states or regions, as dreamt of by the likes of Igor Panarin or Gerald Celente. In some ways, by casting aside its global imperial shell, it will actually become stronger – it will no longer be weighed down by the burden of global empire, and can focus on other activities the more effectively, such as reconstructing its industrial base and reinforcing its neo-colonial sphere around North America, the Carribbean, and perhaps Central America / Venezuela. Whatever form America’s new political economy takes (something resembling Putinism?, or maybe Chavismo?), it will likely be far better suited for the coming age of scarcity industrialism (characterized by economic statism, Realpolitik, and mercantile trade relations), than the crumbling colossus that is today’s Pax Americana.

(Republished from Sublime Oblivion by permission of author or representative)
 
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Every once in a while, there occurs a major shift in the international arena. The First World War and its consequences were the seminal change of the last century, collapsing ancient empires and ushering in a new era of ethno-nationalist clashes, political radicalism and emerging powers challenging the established order of Versailles, forces that were fully unleashed in the aftermath of the Great Depression. From the middle of the Second World War, it became clear that the new world order would be defined by a bipolar competition between the USSR and the US. The next major shift occurred with the oil shocks of the 1970′s, when growth throughout the industrialized world, capitalist and socialist alike, declined, and they were beset with increasing social problems, while the beginning of the rise of China and the economic re-emergence of Western Europe and Japan heralded a new, globalizing multipolarity that was confirmed by the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the USSR.

The next two decades saw the triumph of “Western liberal democracy as the final form of government” and the spread of the neoliberal consensus, all underwritten by American military dominance and the new resources unlocked by the opening of formerly autarkic economies. Generally speaking, this was a rather peaceful and prosperous time. Though wars continued and there was the occasional genocide in Rwanda or Darfur, the overall incidence of violence declined sharply in all categories, the sole exception being terrorism. Similarly, the opening up of world trade sharply increased consumer power in the US and Europe as China’s reserve armies of labor set about producing cheap goods, a process lubricated by cheap oil, gargantuan freighters and developments in supply-chain management. And though its flowers still bloom and the politicians smile and exude the air that nothing’s much amiss, the winds of time are shifting, the sun is already setting on this world, and darkness is about to creep in.

Quite literally. The cheap oil that underpins industrial civilization is ending, as the world approaches peak oil production – the point when about half of recoverable reserves have been taken out of the ground. The remaining half lies in remoter places and will be much harder to extract, especially taking into account that the resources for doing so will be significantly more limited due to the collapse of the world credit system, a system that should have died a free-market death in late 2008, but which limps on, zombie-like, sustained by governments whose solvency now hangs by a thread only maintained by investors still naive enough to believe in their credibility.

This is because the defining feature of this crisis is not so much even the collapse of world industrial output and trade, which was by itself unprecedented in its magnitude this century except by the Great Depression, but the sheer burden of bad debts and fiscal obligations accumulated by governments in the developed world, especially in the Anglo-Saxon world. First, they are running unprecedented peacetime budgets – both as a consequence of their disastrous pro-cyclical spending during the fat years, and to fund the stimuluses with which they hope to get their economies out of the rut. Second, they printed lots of money under the euphemism of “quantitative easing”. Third, they carried over private losses and bad debts onto the public account – socialism for the rich, capitalism for the rest.

In the next few years, according to commentators like Willem Buiter, these reckless policies are going to lead to classic emerging-market currency crises in the Anglosphere, or “submerging markets” as he calls them. This is not surprising. Taking the United States as the most significant and typical example, to run the kind of deficits projected – 13% of GDP this year, over 10% again in 2010, and red into the rest of Obama’s term even under the rosiest projections – requires a very credible commitment to returning to a balanced budget within a limited timeframe.

First, this requires a rapid economic recovery. However, all the monetary and fiscal tools for accomplishing this have already been used at and beyond their limits. In the 1980′s, once the task of breaking inflation was accomplished, interest rates were eased back and the economy recovered rapidly. Today, interest rates have already been cut to minimal levels and the economy seems to have bottomed, but even so it remains extremely feeble, with the real unemployment rate (“U-6″) currently at 16.8% and rising. Recovery is likely to be slow as households begin to pay off their debts instead of increasing consumption, the linchpin of the US economy. If it is politically feasible (uncertain) and should there be high inflation brought on by the recent monetary splurge and once-again soaring oil prices (almost certain), interest rates will have to be raised, which risks short-circuiting a feeble recovery.

Second, even during the mis-named “Bush boom” growth was large jobless and inequality-enhancing, with half coming from distribution (the “Wal-Mart effect) and the other half from better productivity from financial services!, as measured by the number of transactions undertaken. These are not going to be repeated, the first because rising energy prices are increasingly making the JIT distribution model untenable, the second because the financial system, outside of a few well-connected insiders like Goldman Sachs and JPMorgan, now lives on government guarantees.

Third, the next years are going to see rising demands for social spending as younger Americans make themselves heard, whose worldviews are relatively more socialist and European-like. The rising number of retiring baby boomers will necessitate far more Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid spending, out of funds that will simply not be there because the cookie jars were looted a long time ago. Then there’s the whole chimera about greencollar jobs. In principle, as a convinced peakist with serious concerns about the consequences of anthropogenic global warming, I support subsidizing green industries like renewable energy and hybrid automobiles. But these are luxuries only a more prudent economy could afford, like China. In the US, it will result in very few jobs being created and will constitute further drains on its fiscal credibility – and hence the means of sustaining this very program. More spending on healthcare? The sector is already horrifically bloated, and should if anything be reduced and rationalized.

So in conclusion, the US faces years of relative stagnation, and no credible way of paying back its metastasizing public debt. As long as investors stick it out and rates remain low, this remains a sustainable, albeit unsatisfactory, state of affairs. The reason the US Treasury rates fell so low and the country even tipped over into deflation was that the global equity collapse had investors fleeing to the perceived haven of last resort – US Treasury bonds. Yet as I pointed out in Decoupling from the Unwinding, one of the effects of this crisis will be to decisively sever the links between the West and the Rest (emerging markets). In a few more years, investors will realize that whereas China has real long-term growth prospects, they are unlikely to ever see positive returns on their US bond investments, as the US gradually monetizes its debt. They will jump ship, resulting in rising rates on US debt and making it increasingly unaffordable to service. Unless they inflate it away, of course. Would you like to die by ice or fire?

Let’s whimsically set the date for this collapse for August 2012. The liberal international order, Pax Americana, will collapse with it. However, there will be numerous signs of its slow demise well beforehand, which will be reflected in geopolitical events.

The focal point is the Middle East, that great intersection of energy, power, instability and hatred. Iran is continuing in its efforts to build a nuclear bomb to consolidate the new Persian empire. It is currently strong, demographically, but destined to get weaker as the younger, sub-replacement level generations become adults. The regime is also increasingly ideologically insecure. The nation is currently at around where the Soviet Union was in the early-1980′s on its belief matrix – the egalitarian, totalitarian ideals of the Islamic Revolution are now a distant memory, clouded over by the drugs, lasciviousness, and Westernization now typical of its larger cities. Part of the population yearns for the West, disillusioned with their own society and skeptical of the clear evidence of clerical corruption. Yet the most influential clerical elites have retrenched around the hardline Ahmadinejad and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRCG), who want to return to a future of austere Islamic government. Thus there is currently a revival of radicalism in the Islamic Republic, less potent than in the 1980′s, yet now married to its greater technological capabilities. This revival is almost certainly destined to be short-lived, but has the potential to go out with a bang.

This possibility must be considered especially seriously given that Israel is now ruled by Benjamin Netanyahu, a man who in 2007 opined: “It’s 1938, and Iran is Germany, and Iran is racing to arm itself with atomic bombs”. It is likely that were it not for US restraint, the Israelis would have long since bombed Iranian nuclear and military facilities. They have received permission from Saudi Arabia, via backdoor diplomatic channels, to fly over their territory to do so. This is unsurprising, because the Gulf monarchies face a significant challenge from Iran, which foments Shi’ite unrest in Bahrain and parts of Saudi Arabia, and is suspected of funding a Shi’ite insurgency in northwest Yemen that threatens to spill over the borders. Though moderate Arab rulers pay lip service to Islamism, they certainly have no intention of allowing it to infringe on their political power. Iran’s other lever is its control of Hezbollah, an impressively disciplined organization that managed to (arguably) win a war against Israel in 2006. Though they do not pose an existential threat to Israel, they can create an serious political and strategic problem through massed rocket attacks, to counter which Israel is now assembling a multi-layered, world-class ABM system.

If Iran gets the bomb, it will unleash a Middle Eastern arms race, in which Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Turkey will feel compelled to build up arsenals of their own. Iran will become much more confident about sponsoring Shi’ite separatism and drawing Iraq closer into its fold. In the endgame, the US cannot allow this challenge to its hegemony in the oil-rich Middle East to go unanswered, in particular the dependence of the Gulf States and now Iraq on its military tutelage, no matter the cost of meeting the call. It will strike Iran, or give Israel the go-ahead, well before Iran comes close to testing its bomb.

The pressure will be ratcheted up gradually. If talks scheduled for 1st October 2009 fail to achieve any Iranian compromises on its nuclear program, as usual, then the US will probably activate what it calls “crippling” sanctions on Iran with the connivance of Britain and France, especially targeting the 40% of gasoline it imports. In practice, this is unlikely to achieve much, especially since Russia – having received no firm guarantees from Washington recognizing its desired sphere of influence over the post-Soviet space – will likely help Iran shrug off sanctions by allowing Iran to satisfy its shortages through imports from Russia’s Caspian ports.

This talk of Russia’s role brings us to another point. The US is currently in a profound strategic dilemma, having to choose three areas in which to exert its strength – in particular its limited manpower: a) Afghanistan / Pakistan and the “war on terror”, b) blocking the arrival of a new Persian Empire with nukes and c) containing a resurgent Russia possibly intent on rebuilding its own old empire.

The recent American successes in Iraq have generally stabilized the country, though smaller-scale violence lingers on and might well flare up again should pressure be loosened up. This necessitates that the bulk of US military manpower remains locked up in Iraq, which gives nations like Russia, which desires to reverse its post-1991 geopolitical losses, a “window of opportunity” to make its challenge. And although the US presence in Iraq is winding down, it is simultaneously becoming pressured by requirements elsewhere – as of today, counting contractors, there are more Americans fighting in Afghanistan today than the Soviets deployed at their peak. (A common counter-argument is that of the 120,000 armed US personnel stationed there, some 68,000 are contractors who mainly do things like fixing electrical lines or washing pots and pans; however, the comparison remains valid because these would be the functional equivalent of Soviet “Class C” divisions mostly concerned with logistical issues).

The Afghanistan quagmire will likely be seen by future historians as an American strategic blunder of the first magnitude. First, it developed as a simple reaction to al-Qaeda’s use of Afghanistan as a base to plot out the 9/11 attacks, yet apart from that, the expansionist Taleban were a much bigger problem for Iran and Russia than for the US (even as the US oil corporation Unocal, with the backing of the CIA, was negotiating with the Taleban over the construction of a Trans-Afghanistan Pipeline to carry natural gas from Turkmenistan to the Indian subcontinent in 1998, Iran was seriously threatening war with the Taleban for the murder of Iranian diplomats). By keeping Afghanistan and the Central Asian jihadi threat suppressed, the US uses its own resources to spare Russia’s and Iran’s from the necessary work of patrolling Afghanistan’s borders, aiding the Northern Alliance and other anti-Taleban insurgents, intercepting jihadi aid to their domestic Islamic militants and maintaining the stability of the Central Asian republics. Hence Russia’s generally quiescent attitude towards allowing the US to transport non-military supplies to Afghanistan and usage of Central Asian bases.

Second, and more importantly, the US is not fighting to win. Afghanistan is not Serbia, and it is not even Iraq. It is a proud tribal society with a total fertility rate of nearly 7 children per woman. Trying to instill “liberal democracy” is a quixotic endeavor. Preaching, let alone practicing, “human rights” is (correctly) interpreted as a sign of moral weakness, and an incentive to up the pressure. The only way to actually win in Afghanistan is through burned-earth like brutality and ruthlessness, like Cromwell’s pacification of Ireland. Anything else is a waste of time and money. As it is, the US is pouring its resources like water into the sands of the “graveyard of empires”, and taking NATO along for the ride – a strain that threatens the very survival of the alliance. This would not be nearly as critical if the jihadi threat was the only storm-on-the-horizon the US-centered world order faced; yet in combination with Iranian brinkmanship, the Russian resurgence, the Chinese mercantile challenge and the increasing reflection of the limits to growth onto the world economy, the days of Pax Americana may well be numbered. Let’s return to Iran.

From this year, the countdown will be really on as Iran reaches for the bomb, Israeli hysteria (understandably) rises and the US becomes ever more desperate for a radical solution. By 2011-12, Obama will be coming under increasing conservative pressure – an again worsening economic position and a “patriotic-reactionary” movement to counter the perceived intrusion of government onto an ever expanding array of economic and social activities – which will if anything make his administration more conductive to the thought of a foreign adventure to take the population’s mind of economic stagnation, rising poverty and perhaps by that point, capital flight. The Israelis will receive the signal to strike. Since this would draw in the US anyway, it will decide that it might as well strike Iran itself, and degrade the Iranian military as much as possible so as to circumscribe the Islamic Republic’s retaliation capabilities.

The US will have no problem in gaining air superiority and destroying a vast array of fixed Iranian targets, because the Iranian integrated air defense system is relatively obsolete and can be eluded by stealth, defeated by electronic countermeasures and neutralized. However, given the dispersed nature of Iran’s military forces it will retain a significant amount of retaliatory capacity – in particular, the ability to mine the Strait of Hormuz using fast attack craft and harass shipping with coastal shore batteries, diesel submarines in the shallow waters of the Strait, and perhaps suicide attacks from civilian-appearing vessels armed with explosives. Iran’s development of an indigenous UAV capability, by enabling it to scout out the presence of oil tankers, represents a significant force multiplier, especially if Iran also has the technological capacity to network its findings with its other military assets.

This is not to say that the War Nerd is correct when he says that any US naval assets off the coast of Iran will be blown to smithereens, which referred to a rather artificial and improbable scenario. In all likelihood the Iranian threat will be contained within weeks, the country will be thoroughly bombed into submission and perhaps the regime will be overthrown. But in its death throes, it could also kill the world economy:

Most importantly, it would not have to be effective. The mere possibility of mines — the uncertainty factor — would not only slow down the movement of tankers in the Gulf, but also spike insurance rates. Tankers cost a lot of money and their cargoes these days are incredibly expensive. Risking both ship and cargo is not something tanker owners like to do. They buy insurance. If the possibility of mines in the Gulf existed, insurance rates would not only rise, but might become altogether unavailable. Insurance and re-insurance companies these days do not have enormous appetites for unpredictable risk involving large amounts of money. And without insurance, as we saw during the tanker wars in the 1980s, owners won’t take the risk themselves.

Iran’s counter could be to increase the potential risk to the point where insurers back off. At that point, governments would have the option of insuring tankers themselves. Given how quickly governments move, particularly in what would have to be an international undertaking, oil supplies could be disrupted for days or even weeks. At this point, speculators and psychology aside, prices would spike dramatically. The creaking sound would turn into a cracking sound for the world economy.

Ergo, oil prices spike well north of 200$ per barrel in a time of global economic weakness and all-round instability. The psychological effects cannot be anything but extremely negative, and such a scenario may constitute the signal for global investors to finally throw in the towel on the US.

The third key element in near-future geopolitics, in addition to the Afghanistan imbroglio and the Iranian Question, is the continuing resurgence of Russian power across Eurasia. Far from being weakened by the economic crisis, it has used it to build up its relative strength, from politically-motivated loans to Belarus, to its decision to only enter the WTO as part of an economic bloc encompassing Belarus and Kazakhstan, to continuing pressure against Ukraine. It has also consolidated its military position in Abkhazia and South Ossetia and the state has reinforced its control over the commanding heights of the economy, suborning the last of the independent-minded oligarchs to its will. Driven by a belated recognition of its immutable geographic and climatic disadvantages that doom it to eternal backwardness and submission within the context of Westernization, it is slowly but inexorably returning to its “steady state”, its past-and-future as a Eurasian empire defined by political sovereignty, economic autarky and spiritual sobornost. The only thing still missing is an ideology, but that can be re-invented. The collapse of liberal globalization can only accelerate these trends.

As long as Washington stands in the way of this reassertion – which it has, from its unleashing of an infowar against Russia following the Yukos Affair in 2003 to its persistent championing of NATO membership for Ukraine and Georgia – it will remain Russia’s “prime enemy”, at least in the minds of those who matter. As such, Russia will do absolutely nothing to help the US maintain the current world order, which is not favorable to Russia’s interests. Expect a tense, uneasy game of give-and-take and tit-for-tat involving Russian arms sales to Iran and Venezuela, covert American support for colored revolutions across the post-Soviet space, intrigues over Central Asian allegiances and the placing of natural gas pipelines, Russian revanchism in the post-Soviet space, Russian and Chinese stalling of Western-promoted sanctions in the UN, etc… Above all, bear in mind that the Western view on Russia is fundamentally wrong, since Russia’s leaders distrust the “liberal interventionists”, “end of history” ideologues of the Clintonian era at least as much as they dislike the neocon “New Cold Warriors”.

Herein lies the gulf between the West and the Russians. The West divides the world between the Cold War and the post-Cold War world. It clearly prefers the post-Cold War world, not so much because of the social condition of Russia, but because the post-Cold War world lacked the geopolitical challenge posed by the Soviet Union — everything from wars of national liberation to the threat of nuclear war was gone. From the Russian point of view, the social chaos of the post-Cold War world was unbearable. Meanwhile, the end of a Russian challenge to the West meant from the Russian point of view that Moscow was helpless in the face of Western plans for reordering the institutions and power arrangements of the region without regard to Russian interests.

… Russians saw their efforts as a deliberate attempt to destroy Russia and the degree to which Russians are committed never to return to that time. It is hard to imagine anything as infuriating for the Russians as the reset button the Clinton administration’s Russia experts — who now dominate Obama’s Russia policy — presented the Russian leadership in all seriousness. The Russians simply do not intend to return to the Post-Cold War era Western experts recall so fondly. …

While Russia’s concerns with Georgia are the noisiest, it is not the key Russian concern in its near abroad — Ukraine is. So long as the United States is serious about including Ukraine in NATO, the United States represents a direct threat to Russian national security. A glance at a map shows why the Russians think this.

Russia remains interested in Central Europe as well. It is not seeking hegemony, but a neutral buffer zone between Germany in particular and the former Soviet Union, with former satellite states like Poland of crucial importance to Moscow.

… As the United States causes discomfort for the Russians, Russia will in turn cause discomfort for the United States. The U.S. sore spot is the Middle East, and Iran in particular. Therefore, the Russians will respond to American pressure on them where it hurts Washington the most.

The Cold Warriors don’t understand the limits of Russian power. The post-Cold Warriors don’t understand the degree to which they are distrusted by Russia, and the logic behind that distrust. The post-Cold Warriors confuse this distrust with a hangover from the Cold War rather than a direct Russian response to the post-Cold War policies they nurtured.

Finally, there’s China. Over the last decade, the world economy came to be powered by a powerful global symbiosis termed “Chimerica”, a state of affairs in which Americans spent and lent China money to build up the industrial capacity to produce ever more goods for Americans to spend on. Now as long as the limits to this unsustainable, imbalanced growth kept put – limits as in affordable oil and other commodities, access to credit, etc – the party continued.

This is no longer the case. The world economy has crashed. Chinese students laughed in the Secretary of the Treasury Tim Geithner’s face when he tried to assure them the US would keep the US dollar strong and that the trillions of dollars of Chinese investments are safe in the US. The Chinese leadership seems to agree and has started to massively step up its acquisitions of natural resource companies, farmland and foreign elites (via politically-motivated loans at preferential rates). Though there is little overt evidence of a ditching of the dollar, this is to be expected – given that China has so much invested in the US, trying to get out visible would provoke a catastrophic scramble in which it will lose more than it gains. That said, the signals of retreat are certainly visible, especially when set against the typical opacity of China’s rulers.

Globalization allowed China to build up a massive industrial base – as of 2008, it produced 48% of the world’s steel and 50% of its cement – and it has already bought up, or stolen, the majority of key technologies needed to build an advanced industrial system. They can now afford to gradually stop subsidizing American purchases of their products and concentrate on the development of a consumer consciousness among their own, 1.3 billion strong population. This decision to reorient their political economy will complement current rhetoric about building the “harmonious society“, with its emphasis on reconciling socialism, regional and internal inequalities, democracy and environmentalism. From now on, growth will be slower as it is curbed by stagnant world demand, accumulating bad loans, diminishing returns, etc, – it will likely be around 5-7% a year in the 2010′s, rather than the 10% typical of the 1980′s to 2000′s. Nonetheless, it should continue at a fast enough rate to soak up the new landless labor, ease social tensions and enable it to launch a geopolitical breakout. The inevitable transition from a centrally-weak, disbalanced and commercialized nation to a centralized, internally-peaceful hegemonic empire will not be smooth, but China’s forward momentum is simply too large to derail its rise to superpower status.

Externally, China will use its rapidly growing relative strength to create a new geopolitical reality, especially as the retreat of American power becomes ever more evident in the early to mid-2010′s. As the only major industrial nation still enjoying rapid growth, it will now be the main setter of world demand for oil and other strategic commodities, putting a floor on most commodity prices in the years ahead – especially since the state is now taking advantage of low prices to diversify itself from US Treasuries and lock in or accumulate the reserves needed to power its industrialization in the decades ahead. (A related recent story is China’s plans to restrict rare earth metal exports, which if rapidly implemented could create a hi-tech crunch in the decade before mines elsewhere could reopen and ramp up production to meet global demand). China’s influence in South-East Asia, East Asia, East Africa and the Middle East will rise in counter-balance to the US, but the process is unlikely to lead to military clashes because both nations will be much more preoccupied with managing internal tensions.

In conclusion, the geopolitical winds are shifting. There is a gathering storm that will sweep away the current liberal globalized order, and a new reality of econo-political blocs competing for markets, land and resources will take its place. The root cause is the accelerating fiscal and economic collapse of the system’s underwriter, the United States. (The even deeper reason would be that limited oil and energy reserves would be more efficiently used in China to make things than spent on American gas-guzzlers).

However, these changes will appear to observers as an incomprehensible cascade of failings of the international system and spreading chaos: jihadi successes (mounting losses in Afghanistan, continuing terrorist attacks carried out by al-Qaeda’s “franchises”, the possible collapse – or radicalization (Turkey?) – of moderate Muslim governments); state collapses (peak in world food prices, out-of-control insurgencies, falling revenues from energy exports and climatic catastrophes like drought – watch Pakistan, Mexico); the confrontation with Iran (whether or not it ends with a Middle Eastern war, this saga is only beginning to get played out); the Russian resurgence (may be manifested in renewed expansionism in the post-Soviet space – Georgia, Crimea and the Baltics are potential flashpoints – and the race of countries like Germany, Finland, Turkey and / or Japan to reach some kind of accommodation with Russia, contrary to US interests) and the continuing secular ascent of China (due to its gradual nature, this is unlikely to result in any “big events” (although a flareup over Taiwan or the South China Sea is always a possibility) – that said, in the longer run this is going to be one of the most significant geopolitical trends).

By 2019, we will look out upon a new world as different from 1989, as 1944 was from 1914, or 1991 was from 1961. A partially revived American superpower will face a real “peer competitor” in China, though their competition will be restrained by domestic troubles and a shared concern for global stability and the future of industrial civilization. Many of the world’s least developed regions will have begun to fall apart, forsaking the torturing lights of civilization for the comforting darkness of simplistic barbarism. The European Union will have fallen apart under the stresses of its contradictions and its constituent nations will have reverted to their traditional balance-of-power rivalries, while Japan decides it would be better off band wagoning with China. A more insular, nationalist and powerful Russia is a wildcard, either in the throes of demographic and economic stagnation – or enjoying new, unprecedented power accruing from its energy wealth and warming landmass. By then, the clouds will be gathering for an even greater storm – the point sometime in 2030-2050 when the limits to growth make themselves really felt, and industrial civilization falls into its moment of greatest peril. The shifting winds will have become a gale.

(Republished from Sublime Oblivion by permission of author or representative)
 
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Much like Putin’s Russia, Venezuela has been unfairly victimized by Washington’s foreign policy elite and savaged by the Western MSM, which have caricatured Chávez as a run of the mill Latin American populist strongman. In a previous post on this matter, I drew attention to the work of Mark Weisbrot at the CEPR, who has demolished these crude myths (The Venezuelan Economy in the Chávez Years). Under the Bolivarian regime poverty plummeted, access to high-quality healthcare, education and affordable food widened and the GDP skyrocketed by 94% from Q2 2003 to 2008.

Unable to criticize Venezuela on humanitarian grounds, the only option left open to the neoliberal ideologues was to claim that the Venezuelan economic miracle was nothing more than an ‘oil boom headed for collapse’. Unfortunately for them, the Venezuelan state kept a balanced budget, reduced its foreign debt from 47.7% of GDP in 2003 to 24.3% in 2007 and total interest on all public debt amounted to just 2.1% of GDP in 2006 – overall, a fiscal policy far more responsible than Washington’s itself. For 2008, the government assumed an oil price of 35$ per barrel; it is true that in practice the state spends beyond budgeted expenditures when oil revenue far exceeds the budgeted for price, so a fall in oil prices would trim government spending and growth. However, a budgetary crisis or economic downturn are very unlikely, since the government has more than 50bn $ of international reserves it can draw upon in a crisis.

That was the theory when Weisbrot published the paper in February 2008…but how does it stack up in the face of 50$ per barrel today?

In November Mark Weisbrot published another article, Oil Prices and Venezuela’s Economy. In the brief introduction, he reiterates the points made above and mentions that since US-Venezuelan economic links are weak, by far the most important direct external effect of the global economic crisis on Venezuela is the effect on oil prices, since that commodity accounts for 93% of its exports. The key question is how far oil prices must fall before the country begins to run an unsustainable current account deficit. (The current account is mostly the trade balance plus several other things like debt service payments, and is the main binding constraint for all developing countries since they cannot borrow as much, relative to their GDP or for as long, as developed countries with ‘hard currencies’, to meet their import needs. The central government budget can be covered in the local currency so it’s not as important).

Weisbrot begins by looking at various export scenarios. He assumed that the 7% of non-oil exports remain a constant 6.5bn $ per year.

After verifying PDVSA’s (Venezuela’s national oil company) export volumes, he took that as the high case (2.89 mbd) and after subtracting half the 0.54mn barrels exported on favorable terms to friendly nations under the PetroCaribe program, took the latter figure as the low case (2.62 mbd). As we see from the table above, exports remain respectable at 63.9bn $, even at 66$ a barrel (WTI-adjusted), whereas ‘estimates from Goldman Sachs, Merrill Lynch, and the International Energy Agency predict WTI prices of between $80 and $100 per barrel for 2009′.

Venezuelan annual exports under various oil price scenarios. NB: Above prices are for Venezuelan oil, which typically sells for 10% less than West Texas Intermediate.

Venezuelan annual exports under various oil price scenarios. (Above prices are for Venezuelan oil, which typically sells for 10% less than West Texas Intermediate).

Imports for 2008 are currently at an annualized 43.2bn $. Considering that this year did see a price spike, the average oil price for the whole year should remain at around 90$, thus providing about 90-100bn $ of export revenue and yielding a massive trade surplus of 50-60bn $ (or around 15-18% of GDP).

The new two years are summarized in the tables below for a range of oil prices, and using the lower export volume estimate (2.62 mbd). (In practice it might be a bit lower due to oil field depletion and OPEC quotas, but it will not change the overall picture to any significant degree.)

Oil @ 90$ / barrel 2008 2009 2010
GDP (bn $) 331.8 440.5 598.3
Imports (% GDP) 12.9 13.0 13.3
Exports (% GDP) 28.0 21.0 15.5
Trade Balance (% GDP) 15.0 10.5 7.2
Oil @ 80$ / barrel 2008 2009 2010
GDP (bn $) 331.8 440.5 598.3
Imports (% GDP) 12.9 13.0 13.3
Exports (% GDP) 28.0 18.8 13.9
Trade Balance (% GDP) 15.0 8.4 5.6
Oil @ 70$ / barrel 2008 2009 2010
GDP (bn $) 331.8 440.5 598.3
Imports (% GDP) 12.9 13.0 13.3
Exports (% GDP) 28.0 16.7 12.3
Trade Balance (% GDP) 15.0 6.2 4.0
Oil @ 60$ / barrel 2008 2009 2010
GDP (bn $) 331.8 440.5 598.3
Imports (% GDP) 12.9 13.0 13.3
Exports (% GDP) 28.0 14.5 11.7
Trade Balance (% GDP) 15.0 3.7 2.4
Oil @ 50$ / barrel 2008 2009 2010
GDP (bn $) 331.8 440.5 598.3
Imports (% GDP) 12.9 13.0 13.3
Exports (% GDP) 28.0 12.3 9.1
Trade Balance (% GDP) 15.0 1.5 0.8

As seen from the scenario above, Venezuela will almost certainly avoid a trade deficit in the next few years (let alone experience a balance of payments crisis), even if oil drops to and stays at 50$ per barrel – a highly unlikely outcome that would probably only come to pass in the event of a full blown global Depression.

Adding in interest payments on the sovereign debt does not change the big picture, since they currently only make up 2.2% of annual GDP. Even if, contrary to all expectations, the oil price remains at 50$ per barrel and Venezuela racks up a small current account deficit, it can be easily mitigated by the Central Bank’s 40bn $ of reserves and 37bn $ in other hard currency assets, which together make up a 23% of GDP cushion which ensures that any landing will be a soft one.

In conclusion, Venezuela will retain a long-term current account surplus under almost any plausible scenario. Since the government controls access to foreign exchange, import growth can be limited as a last resort. Weisbrot recommends the Venezuelan government to pursue an expansionary fiscal policy, including deficit spending, so as to maintain economic growth and prevent unnecessary falls output and employment (just like the counter-cyclical measures the Chinese are now taking). Inflation should not be a problem, since it will be countered by deflationary forces due to the decelerating global economy (e.g. lower food prices). Not only is Venezuela very far from collapse, to the incipient chagrin of schadenfreude-indulging neocons; the fiscal prudence Chávez wisely followed during the fat years will now enable Venezuela to pursue growth in the midst of Anglo-Saxon paralysis.

NB: in other recent work, Weisbrot takes issue with those who think Argentina is going to default on its debt, as it did in 2002. He also has a pessimistic take on the US economy and foreign policy – it’s key points are a) the housing bubble is still far from wound down, b) expects a retreat of neoliberal dogma in the next few years, c) notes that the IMF has lost practically all leverage with respect to middle-income countries, d) US power and prestige have been in retreat throughout Latin America, which has seen a political ‘left wave’ and dissilusionment with the Washington Consensus, e) there is a continued and disturbing lack of understanding of Latin America by Washington’s foreign polic elite, in particular towards Venezuela, f) hopes that the Democratic base will exert influence on foreign policy, in particular removing America’s sense of messianic exceptionalism and g) “Americans may finally begin to see themselves as having to choose between fighting to defend an empire in decline, and enjoying the quality of life – including such amenities as universal health care – that their counterparts in other rich countries have”.

(Republished from Sublime Oblivion by permission of author or representative)
 
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Anatoly Karlin
About Anatoly Karlin

I am a blogger, thinker, and businessman in the SF Bay Area. I’m originally from Russia, spent many years in Britain, and studied at U.C. Berkeley.

One of my tenets is that ideologies tend to suck. As such, I hesitate about attaching labels to myself. That said, if it’s really necessary, I suppose “liberal-conservative neoreactionary” would be close enough.

Though I consider myself part of the Orthodox Church, my philosophy and spiritual views are more influenced by digital physics, Gnosticism, and Russian cosmism than anything specifically Judeo-Christian.