Free Markets, Free People

bond market


Our major creditor’s name also ends with a vowel

One of the irritating things about being deeply in debt is dealing with your creditors. Happily, if your creditor is, say Wells Fargo, they tend to stay within strict legal bounds when dealing with you. If you’ve been unfortunate enough to seek credit from fellows whose last names end in vowels, they tend to be more…forceful in delivering their messages to you. As it happens one of the United States’ creditors also has a name that ends with a vowel: China.

And they have a message. The more or less official organ of the Chinese Communist Party—which is to say the Chinese Government—is the newspaper People’s Daily. So, it is with much interest that I read an op/ed piece in that fine journal with the title, "China must punish US for Taiwan arm sales with ‘financial weapon’". As messages go, this one’s pretty simple.

Now is the time for China to use its "financial weapon" to teach the United States a lesson if it moves forward with a plan to sale arms to Taiwan. In fact, China has never wanted to use its holdings of U.S. debt as a weapon. It is the United States that is forcing it to do so.

The U.S. House of Representatives just passed a debt ceiling bill on Aug. 1. On the next day, a total of 181 members of the House of Representatives signed a letter sent to U.S. President Barack Obama stating that the federal government should approve the sale of F-16 C/D fighter jets to Taiwan as soon as possible to help ensure peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait…

Despite knowing that major creditor countries, especially China, would be the main buyers of its new debt, certain arrogant and disrespectful U.S. Congress members have totally ignored China’s core interests by pressuring the president to sell advanced jets and even an arms upgrade package to Taiwan.

U.S. treasuries will lose value if China stops or reduces its purchases of them on a large scale, which will also affect the value of China’s U.S. treasury holdings. However,as the situation has gotten out of hand, allowing Washington politicians to continue their game might lead to more losses.

U.S. arms sales to Taiwan can only create more jobs for the United States but cannot improve the ability of Taiwan’s military force to compete with the Chinese mainland. The essence of the problem is that some U.S. Congress members hold a contemptuous attitude toward the core interests of China, which shows that they will never respect China. China-U.S. relations will always be constrained by these people and will continue along a roller coaster pattern if China does not beat them until they feel the pain.

I am mildly amused by the claim that such sales both threaten "China’s core interests", but "cannot improve the ability of Taiwan’s military force to compete with the Chinese mainland." Both of these arguments cannot simultaneously be true.

Less amusing is the common attitude of loan sharks to their creditors displayed here using much the same language that Tony "The Shark" would use: Namely, if creditors don’t do what they’re told, you have to "beat them until they feel the pain."

With the recent rise in bond prices and drop in yields, the Chinese have a number of options. The least damaging to the US would be to sit out a few bond auctions, which would force interest rates up. But they’ve also got the nuclear option of selling off as much paper as the market could bear. Yes, they’d forego some yield payments, but they’d probably make a nice tidy premium over the original purchase price to make up for it. Rising interest rates now, at a time when the economy is weak, and short-term rates are already effectively zero, would slow the US economy. At the same time, a massive repatriation of renminbi to China would cause a steep drop in the value of the dollar in foreign exchange markets. This would raise the price of imports equally steeply. This would cause something very similar to the oil price shocks of the 1970s, that plunged the US into stagflation.

Naturally, the Chinese would be hurt by the reduction in their export capability. The question then becomes, "Which of the two political systems, China or the US, is more concerned about democratic pressure to change policy in order to improve the economy?" Who is more responsive to public pressure: our government, or the government that initiated the Tiananmen Square massacre?

I don’t know about you, but I wouldn’t expect Hu "The Kommissar" Jintao to be the one that blinks first.

Of course, if we weren’t $14 trillion in debt, we wouldn’t be very vulnerable to this sort of thing.

~
Dale Franks
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The first post-downgrade business day

The yield on the 10-year note has dropped to 2.44%, down from 2.57% at Friday’s close. I’m thinking this is telling us the economy’s on the way into the toilet, as the standard reaction for a credit downgrade is rising interest rates, to cover the extra risk. The Dow’s long slide, which began on 22 July–and continues with a 250 point loss so far today–is probably telling us the same thing, as earning expectations slide. Since the downgrade was one agency only, and the downgrade only to AA+, economic factors are clearly weighing more on the bonds than the downgrade.  On the other hand, if you’re a gold investor, you’re probably a little happier today, as Gold hit $1,715/oz.

The key takeaway so far today is the continuing decline in yields, which isn’t good news. Thank goodness there’s no economic releases today. I’d hate to see what more bad news would bring.

So, back into recession, it looks like.

One of the more interesting things I’m wondering about, in a horrified kind of way, is what effect the downgrade has on corporate paper.  A number of institutions have investment rules that require they concentrate their investments in AAA-rated securities.  But, one of the general rating rules is that subsidiary corporate and government instruments cannot have a higher rating than their sovereign instruments. So if the US Government doesn’t have a AAA rating, no subsidiary US corporate or government paper should have a AAA rating either.

So, what does this mean for the handful of corporate and government instruments that were rated AAA prior to the downgrade? Do they get downgraded, too?  If so, where do the institutions with a AAA rating requirement go with their money?

I’m not at all sure how this works. As we’ve been saying a lot in the last week or so, we’re in uncharted territory.

END OF DAY WRAP-UP: Well, that could’ve been worse, I suppose.

INDEX Close
Dow 10,810.83 -634.76 (-5.55%)
S&P 500 1,119.46 -79.92 (-6.66%)
NASDAQ 2,357,69 -174.72 (-6.90%)
10-Year Yield 2.34% -0.22%
Comex Gold $1,710.20/oz (+3.7%)

I’m not sure how much worse it could’ve been, though.

~
Dale Franks
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You can pay me now or you can pay me later …

This speech by Dave Cote, CEO of Honeywell (to the Chamber of Commerce) was forwarded to me by a friend.  It is one of the best summaries of our fiscal/financial problems I’ve seen in a while.  Usually, when I see a 34 minute video I’m loath to give the time necessary to watch it, but this one is both fascinating and deeply disturbing. Take the time.

Cote lays out in words and charts our coming fiscal train wreck if we don’t do something “proactively”.  As he says in the speech, we can do what is necessary to solve the problem or at some point, the bond market (as it did in the case of Greece) will do it for us.  One will be painful, the other is catastrophic. 

You can read the speech here if you prefer.   And if you’d like a copy of the charts and visuals, they’re here.

Dale’s post below about “Following the House of Bourbon” is essentially given facts and figures by this presentation.  For instance, the discussion about China’s defense expenditures being paid for by our interest payments.  Cotes points out that if spending remains unchanged through 2020, we’ll be paying almost a trillion dollars in interest a year.   At this point, foreign governments own 45% of our 9 trillion in debt.  China owns at least a trillion of it.  And there’s no end in sight of the sale of government debt here.

The last point Cote makes that echoes Dales warning is about how quickly this will happen if we don’t do something.

While the problem builds slowly and inexorably, financial markets respond abruptly. When that decline does happen, it won’t be a case of minor monthly changes that give us 15 months to adjust. The hurt will come overnight as the herd moves against us. And then it’s too late.

That could happen at any time without warning triggered, as Dale points out, by some seemingly insignificant occurrence that normally would receive only passing attention. I don’t think, for the most part, people understand that very important point or they’d be beating down the doors of Congress. 

Cotes also addresses “political will”  and whether we have the will to do what is necessary (and endure the political consequences) to get this nation’s fiscal policy on the road to sanity.  He notes that the public is more engaged now that in quite some time (and that’s a good thing) but are really focused on the wrong things (although they do recognize the gravity of the situation, he thinks they’re focused on fairly irrelevant portions of it).

The distilled point of course is politicians only have the spine the public gives them and unless they’re assured the public is behind doing what has to be done to solve the crisis, their risk-averse nature will have them continue to kick the can down the road. 

Anyway, highly recommended.  It will give you a great idea of what our situation is, where we’re headed and what the results of continuing to ignore it promise.

~McQ