Free Markets, Free People


Congress throws fuel on a raging currency war fire

In case you missed it, there’s a currency war going on. It may not be the sexiest thing in the world to talk about, but it is important to understand. Probably the most important thing to understand is, in the midst of all this financial upheaval, it’s not healthy for anyone. In fact that best thing right now would be to back off and let things chill for a bit.

That’s why the US Congress passed a bill calling China a “currency manipulator.” So much for cool heads. Blame it on election year politics and the need to seem to be sticking up for America … even if what you’re really doing is adding more heat to an already ferociously hot situation.

The baseline here is the US believes the Chinese yuan is undervalued by about 25%. And it has been on China’s case for some time to get them to revalue their currency upward. That would make US exports more competitive against China.

But, there’s more to the story than just that.

First thing to know is because of the horrific global financial climate, “Japan, Brazil, Peru and countries all over the world are trying to beggar thy neighbor (just as happened during the 1930s) and gain a leg up for their exports by cheapening their currencies,” according to The Market Oracle. So we have any number of countries trying to boost exports at the expense of their currencies.

You have to then dial it back to June of this year to understand the second part that makes this so complex.  June 19th specifically. Jack Perkowski explains:

That is the day that China, by far the world’s largest currency trader, announced that it would no longer peg the yuan to the U.S. dollar, but would instead peg it to a basket of currencies. What China’s announcement meant in practice is that at the margin, beginning on June 19, China would tilt its purchases in favor of buying assets denominated in the euro, the Japanese yen, the British pound or some other major currency, rather than those denominated in the U.S. dollar. When an investor with $2.5 trillion of buying power makes such a statement, markets tend to listen.

Here is what has happened since.

As of the September month-end, the euro has increased in value by 10.3% against the U.S. dollar since June 19, the pound by 6.3%, and the yen by 7.8%. In fact China’s purchases of yen-denominated securities has heightened trade tensions between Japan and China to the point where the Japanese have complained publicly that China is effectively pricing Japanese products out of the market with its yen purchases, threatening to derail Japan’s economic recovery.

In the broadest measure possible, the United States Dollar Index (“USDX”) has declined by over 9.6% percent since June 19. The USDX measures the value of the US dollar against a basket of currencies that includes the euro, yen, pound, Canadian dollar, Swiss franc and the Swedish krona — exactly the currencies that China is most likely including in its own basket and which are now appreciating as a result. The USDX began in March 1973 with a value of 100.000 and has since traded as high as the mid-160s. At its current level of 78.691, the USDX is approaching its 33-year low of 70.698, which was reached on March 16, 2008.

On the one hand you have countries everywhere trying to cheapen their currencies to sell their exports (China wants theirs to stay right where it is) in order to boost GDP growth. And on the other you have China’s move away from pegging the yuan to the US dollar to pegging it to a basket of other currencies, and driving those currencies higher and making their exports less competitive.

Unpegging from the US dollar has also driven the dollar down relative to those  other currencies but still much higher than the yuan, which has only appreciated 2%.

Back to the point about the bill just passed by Congress. It doesn’t really help:

But the former U.S. trade representative, Susan Schwab, says that – while there’s a very real problem in terms of China artificially keeping the renminbi low, this isn’t the way to solve anything. Schwab calls it "a signal-sending exercise during an election season". She says that the bill won’t really do anything, even if the Senate passes it and it is signed into law. Schwab says it "makes no sense", won’t solve any problems, will escalate tensions, and will only divert attention from the real trade problems between the U.S. and China.

In fact the “election signals” may blow up in our face:

Indeed, Schwab warns that other countries might decide that this U.S. bill means that it’s open season for addressing currency manipulation, and that other countries believe that the U.S. is manipulating our currency. She says there could be a "boomerang effect" from the legislation.

All we’d need now to kill our recovery as weak as it is, is to have a full blown, open season, take no prisoners currency war where the dollar would be weakened even more than it is now. And that’s especially true if the “quantum easing” (printing more money) the Fed has been hinting about is about to take place.

What no one seems to want to admit is now is not the time for any country to be revaluing its currency upward. The US is demanding of China what it wouldn’t do itself.  Until the financial crisis has passed, these demands that China push the value of the yuan up should be on hold. Then, as Zachary Karabell explains, it is in China’s best interest to see the value of the yuan eventually increase:

China has been revaluing its currency, nearly 20% between 2005 and 2008 and now nearly 3% since June when the government resumed that policy having shelved it during the midst of the global financial crisis. It is in the domestic interest of the Chinese government to raise the value of their currency because they are focused on building up on internal, domestic consumption market. They have no wish to be dependent long-term of the vagaries and whims of American consumers, and higher purchasing power for Chinese consumers is the answer. They are not revaluing quickly enough to suit an America stuck in second gear and looking for someone to blame, but revaluing they are.

And there’s the bottom line – the US recovery isn’t going as well as we’d like it and as seems to be the penchant among US politicians, they have to have someone else to blame for the problem.

Solution: throw gas on a raging fire. I sure hope China has cooler heads at the helm.


[ad] Empty ad slot (#1)!

Fidel Castro – Socialism doesn’t work

We could have told him that 50 years ago:

Fidel Castro told a visiting American journalist that Cuba’s communist economic model doesn’t work, a rare comment on domestic affairs from a man who has conspicuously steered clear of local issues since stepping down four years ago.


Jeffrey Goldberg, a national correspondent for The Atlantic magazine, asked if Cuba’s economic system was still worth exporting to other countries, and Castro replied: "The Cuban model doesn’t even work for us anymore" Goldberg wrote Wednesday in a post on his Atlantic blog.


The state controls well over 90 percent of the economy, paying workers salaries of about $20 a month in return for free health care and education, and nearly free transportation and housing. At least a portion of every citizen’s food needs are sold to them through ration books at heavily subsidized prices.

Of course the "Cuban model" only “worked” while the USSR existed. It was essentially based in heavy subsidies paid Cuba by the USSR for being its main proxy in the Americas. And the USSR’s woes most firmly underlined the problems with a centralized demand economy run by the state. Even so, Cuba continued on along that vein even after their greatest benefactor and financial supporter collapsed like a wet paper box. Now, finally, after pushing Cuba into poverty, Castro admits socialism is a bust.

China, while still totalitarian, recognized the economic problems soon enough to avert a similar disaster by loosening up economically. Cuba and North Korea, though, have continued to use the disastrous economic model and are basket cases (Cuba has instituted some modest economic changes, but not enough to break the dependency on the state the government of Cuba had ingrained on multiple generations of its population).

Of course Castro’s admission comes to late for the people of Venezuela who’ve been roped into a Cuba-style socialist government by strong man Hugo Chavez. Predictably, the Venezuelan economy is in shambles.

You have to wonder how many more ruined economies it will take before the socialists of the world (or wannabes) recognize that their brand of government and economics is a disaster and has probably ruined more lives than any other economic system in history.


[ad] Empty ad slot (#1)!

Turkey continues to sell gasoline to Iran despite sanctions

So now what?

We had the tough talk from Obama and the State Department about “new” sanctions designed to bring Iran to its knees over the development of nuclear weapons.

But now the administration is face with walking the walk concerning those sanctions.  And apparently Turkey isn’t at all worried or concerned about the US’s reaction:

Ankara will continue to permit Turkish companies to sell gasoline to Iran, despite US sanctions against fuel exports to Islamic regime, Reuters reported on Wednesday.

"If the preference of the private sector is to sell these products to Iran, we will help them," said Turkish Energy Minister Taner Yildiz.

Tupras, Turkey’s sole oil refiner and gasoline exporter, expressed little fear of retribution from US Treasury officials who have the power to ban sanctions violators from accessing the US banking system or receiving US contracts.

"For us, Iran is more important than America because we get crude oil from them. We don’t get anything from America," a Tupras official was quoted as saying.

It seems that Turkey has figured out that our new motto is “Speak loudly and carry no stick”.  No fear and certainly no respect is shown in the statement by the Tupras official.  And Minister Yildiz is obviously waving away any official concern with his statement.

Two things are demonstrated by their stance.  A) Turkey is “all in” in it’s support of the “Islamic world”.  It has obviously made a choice between the being a part of the coalition of Middle Eastern Islamic countries and the West and NATO.  B) Turkey has been given absolutely no reason to believe we’ll actually enforce our sanctions and thus demonstrates no respect for them or the US.

I’m not sure that would have been the case 2 short years ago.  While Turkey was certainly moving away from the Western orbit at the time, their overt hostility to the US wasn’t at all evident.  And my guess is they knew the US would enforce sanctions then.  However, they have deduced that the US is a weak horse right now, and they plan to build their credibility in Middle East at our expense.  Defying the “Great Satan” is a great way to do that. 

And, of course, there’s the China problem.  China too is shipping in gasoline.  So in order to enforce sanctions against Turkey the US would have to do the same against China.  Oh – and our “good friends” the Russians as well.  Yeah, that’s right, Russia and China are both selling gasoline to Iran, and have come to no harm.  What’s the risk of bucking the US?  Turkey figures it to be nil.  And, it appears, they’re right.

The tough “new” sanctions, it appears, are a farce and our “friends” see no risk it flouting them.  It sort of boils down to the old western adage of “if you’re going to wear a gun, you have to be ready to use it”.  Apparently these three have figured out the gun the administration is wearing is empty.

There’s something to be said for respect and fear in foreign policy – but you have to actually do something (or be willing to do it) before the world community will heed what you say.  This administration’s weapons are words, not deeds.  And the expected result is on display in this little scenario, a scenario that you can expect to see replayed over and over and over again as long as it is in power.


[ad] Empty ad slot (#1)!

[tweetmeme only_single=”false”]

Korea heats up

South Korea has determined it’s ship, the Cheonan, was torpedoed by a North Korean submarine.  46 South Korean sailors died.  In most people’s minds, that was an overt act of war.

Yesterday, NoKo severed all ties with South Korea.  Of course, technically, they’re still in a state of war, but this is a significant step in the wrong direction.  Said NoKo:

“The Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of Korea… formally declares that from now on it will put into force the resolute measures to totally freeze the inter-Korean relations, totally abrogate the agreement on non-aggression between the North and the South and completely halt the inter-Korean cooperation,” KCNA reported.

That certainly ratchets up the tensions between the two countries. It makes you wonder, as if anyone could figure him out, what the Elvis-loving tin pot dictator of NoKo is up too.  As mentioned, these are significant steps in the direction of war, and you have to be wondering what is going on internally in NoKo to drive this sort of provocation.

South Korea and the US will be holding some naval exercises off the coast to emphasize their unified position and status as allies, but other than that, there’s not much that can be done but wait and see what Kim Il Jung has up his sleeve.  In the meantime, this is about all SoKo has available to it:

South Korea has also said it will drop propaganda leaflets into the North to tell people about the sinking, as well as setting up giant electronic billboards to flash messages.

I’m not sure how it intends to drop leaflets, but the giant electronic billboards will only be seen by those NoKo trucks in every morning to work the model farms that can be observed from the DMZ.  South Korea is also resuming propaganda broadcasts to the North and using loudspeakers on the DMZ. 

It has also said it will take its case to the UN Security Council where China has a veto.  Any action (not that long time observers would expect much more than a strongly worded resolution) therefore is dependent on convincing the Chinese to go along with whatever the rest have planned.

Analysts say China’s attitude is key, because it holds a veto in the Security Council and has in the past been reluctant to impose tough measures on Pyongyang.

So – State Department – you mission  is to get China to the table and on the team.  Additionally, seeing that NoKo seems to be on a path to some sort of military action, whatever is decided should be aimed at lessening tensions, not heightening them.  It would be nice if you remembered we have 28,000 American troops there, and their fondest desire is not to be involved in the third simultaneous US war.  And trust me, if NoKo decides “to hell with it” and launches across the South Korean border, we’re not talking about casualty counts trickling in – we’re looking at a flood.


[ad] Empty ad slot (#1)!

Nice – lectures on fiscal responsibility from … China

Who would have ever thought to see the day the US was lectured on its economic policy by the Red Chinese?  Even worse, who would have believed the Chinese would be right?

Sovereign debt troubles in Europe underscore how important it is for the United States to control its own borrowing as its indebtedness reaches concerning levels, a senior Chinese official said on Thursday.

With China facing criticism for holding its currency in a de facto dollar peg, assistant finance minister Zhu Guangyao shifted attention to Beijing’s own worries about U.S. policies, especially its soaring deficit, ahead of high-level bilateral meetings next week.


China will look to coordinate its economic policies with the United States as a buffer against the turbulence and would also like the G20 group of nations to play a role in strengthening the global response, Zhu said.

But the United States needs to take a hard look at its own fiscal situation in the light of what has happened in Europe, he said.

We continue to hear from those like Paul Krugman that debt is fine in conditions like this, that in fact, we haven’t spent enough.  Obviously that’s not worked out too well, has it?  And, as we’re seeing in Europe, especially Greece, when debt reaches a certain proportion of GDP, it becomes unsustainable.  Guess what China, a country holding almost a trillion dollars of our debt, is worried about?

“We hope that the U.S. deficit will fall as a proportion of GDP as the economy recovers and reach a sustainable level,” Zhu said.

Well, Mr. Zhu, if you look at the projected 10 years of budgeting the Obama administration has forecast, you’re not going to get a very warm and fuzzy feeling about that. 

But here’s a promise – you will get all the lip service to that end that you can stomach.  And, as most Americans are learning, this administration considers talking about something akin to doing something about it.  In the meantime watch closely as they continue to spend us into oblivion and eventually erode the value of the treasury holdings you hold.

All the while they’ll continue to say to anyone who will listen – “we’ve got to address this debt, it is unsustainable” all as trillions in borrowed money continue to go flying out the door.  


[ad] Empty ad slot (#1)!

When are sanctions not sanctions?

When enforcement is an option, I suppose.  Tell me how brilliant this is:

The Obama administration is pressing Congress to provide an exemption from Iran sanctions to companies based in “cooperating countries,” a move that likely would exempt Chinese and Russian concerns from penalties meant to discourage investment in Iran.


The “cooperating countries” language that the White House is pressing would allow the executive branch to designate countries as cooperating with the overall strategy to pressure Iran economically.

According to three congressional staffers familiar with the White House proposal, once a country is on that list, the administration wouldn’t even have to identify companies from that country as selling gasoline or aiding Iran’s refinement industry.

Even if, as current law allows, the administration can waive the penalties on named companies for various reasons, the “cooperating countries” language would deprive the sanctions of their “name-and-shame” power, the staffers said.

The bill in committee now doesn’t have this provision.  Essentially what this amounts to is the administration saying “if you’ll sign on to the sanctions (against the importation of gasoline), we won’t enforce them” to “cooperating countries”.  Pure symbolism over substance.

“We’re pushing for a ‘cooperating-countries’ exemption,” the White House official said. “It is not targeted to any country in particular, but would be based on objective criteria and made in full consultation with the Congress.”

Mrs. Ros-Lehtinen, however, said the exemption “is aimed at China and Russia specifically.”

“The administration wants to give a pass to countries for merely supporting a watered-down, almost do-nothing U.N. resolution,” she said.

This isn’t coherent foreign policy – this is pure politics mostly designed for domestic consumption.  This is about the ability to claim to have made progress against Iran by rallying the rest of the world to our side and imposing “tough new sanctions” via the UN when the intent is to never enforce them.

Of course Iran hasn’t been idle either.  They’re not doing “in-kind” bartering with regional neighbors which circumvents any sanction regime.  Swap oil for refined petroleum products and they’re not liable to such sanctions.  And of course Hugo Chavez and others in the socialist South American cabal have also said they’d ignore such sanctions anyway.

Last, but certainly not least, a gasoline sanction hits those that can’t afford it the most the hardest in Iran.  The regime?  It will always have plenty of gasoline.  The poor Iranian trying to feed his family – not so much.

Instead of playing these sorts of games, which are clearly doomed to failure (or irrelevance), maybe it’s time to reconsider putting back on the table some of the options the administration unilaterally took off the table last year.


[ad] Empty ad slot (#1)!


Mission Impossible

Yesterday, in the New York Times and other media outlets:

President Barack Obama secured a promise from President Hu Jintao of China on Monday to join negotiations on a new package of sanctions against Iran, administration officials said, but Hu made no specific commitment to backing measures that the United States considers severe enough to force a change in direction in Iran’s nuclear program.

In a 90-minute conversation before the opening of a summit meeting on nuclear security, Obama sought to win more cooperation from China by directly addressing one of the main issues behind Beijing’s reluctance to confront Iran: its concern that Iran could retaliate by cutting off oil shipments to China. The Chinese import nearly 12 percent of their oil from Iran.

Obama assured Hu that he was “sensitive to China’s energy needs” and would work to make sure that Beijing had a steady supply of oil if Iran cut China off in retaliation for joining in severe sanctions.

U.S. officials portrayed the Chinese response as the most encouraging sign yet that Beijing would support an international effort to ratchet up the pressure on Iran and as a sign of “international unity” on stopping Iran’s nuclear program before the country can develop a working nuclear weapon.

Today in the Jerusalem Post, via AP:

A state-owned Chinese refiner plans to ship 30,000 metric tons of gasoline to Iran after European traders halted shipments ahead of possible new UN sanctions, according to Singapore ship brokers.


A deputy Chinese foreign minister, Cui Tiankai, said Tuesday that China is ready to discuss all ideas that UN Security Council members put forward to deal with Iran’s nuclear program. But he said any agreement on Iran must involve all parties, not just one or two countries.

Cui said Iran’s legitimate right to have energy trade with other countries should not be undermined as the world pursues a settlement of the nuclear standoff.

Your mission, should you decide to accept it, is explain how today’s actions by China reconcile with the claim Obama made yesterday.


[ad] Empty ad slot (#1)!

Who’s “optimal” are we talking about here?

Thomas Friedman is at it again. He finds our method of governance just too cumbersome and one which mostly yields “sub-optimal” results. I mean, look at the Chi-coms:

TOM BROKAW: Tom, are we at a kind of turning point in America in terms of being able to make this a functioning country again, or are we dysfunctional?

TOM FRIEDMAN: Well this is what worries me. I’ve been saying for awhile Tom, there’s only one thing worse than one-party autocracy, the Chinese form of government, and that’s one-party democracy. In China, if the leadership can get around to an enlightened decision it can order it from the top down, OK. Here when you have one-party democracy, one party ruling, basically the other party just saying no, every solution is sub-optimal. And when your chief competitor in the world can order optimal and you can only produce sub-optimal? Because what happens, whether it’s health care or the energy bill, votes one-through-fifty cost you a lot. Fifty to fifty-nine cost you a fortune. And vote sixty: his name’s Ben Nelson! And by the time you’ve made all those compromises, you end up with the description David [Brooks] had of the health care bill, which is this Rube Goldberg contraption. I really hope, I hope personally it passes. I hope it works. But I can’t tell you I think it’s optimal.

Well, of course mandating one child and one child only was certainly considered to be “optimal” by the leadership. The polity didn’t agree. And now the mostly male generation which has since grown up and is experiencing a vast shortage of women doesn’t either. Damn law of unintended consequences – it always tends to screw up “optimal” top-down decisions, doesn’t it?

And as I recall, they certainly considered the “Great Leap Forward” to be “optimal”, didn’t they? What are a few million, er 14 to 20 million deaths, when the “top down” solution is so, uh, “optimal”. Indeed, with those 14 to 20 million deaths, the plan ended up working rather well – except for those cases of cannibalism – because there was more for those who were left.

Very “optimal”.

And the “Cultural Revolution” was pretty “optimal” as well, wasn’t it?

It was certainly “optimal” for Stalin to declare the Kulaks “enemy of the people” wasn’t it? It allowed him to essentially steal their farms and “collectivize” them while deliberately starving millions of those “enemies” of his “optimal” plan to death in 1933. Yup, very “optimal” if you’re Joe Stalin and you get to make those “top down” decisions, isn’t it?

I assume Hugo Chavez thought it was an “optimal” solution to nationalize the oil industry Venezuela. None of that sloppy law and democracy stuff for him, by George.  And that’s worked out so well, hasn’t it?


Would someone buy Mr. Friedman a one-way ticket to China please?  There he can forever bask in the goodness of top-down “optimal” decisions and glory in them like so many millions have already done there since the imposition of “optimal” top-down decisions. 

That would be an “optimal” result for me.


[ad] Empty ad slot (#1)!

The Future Consequences Of Energy Stupidity

I’m not sure how else to characterize this in a strategic and national security sense:

Canada, faced with growing political pressure over the extraction of oil from its highly polluting tar sands, has begun courting China and other Asian countries to exploit the resource.

The pressure is coming from the United States. The “pollution” is carbon. But the bottom line is the tar sands are going to continue to be exploited in Canada. The question is, to whom will the oil extracted go?

With the US backing away, the answer, apparently, is China.

In the most significant deal to date, the Canadian government recently approved a C$1.9bn (£1.5bn) investment giving the Chinese state-owned oil company Petro­China a majority share in two projects. Prime minister Stephen Harper said: “Expect more Chinese investment in the resource and energy sectors … there will definitely be more.” China’s growing investment in the tar sands is seen in Canada as a useful counter to waning demand for tar sands oil from the US, its biggest customer. The moves, which have largely gone unnoticed outside north America, could add further tension to efforts to try to reach a global action plan on climate change.


The projects, which will begin coming on line over the next decade, are seen as crucial to a long term strategy of finding new sources of energy as China’s economy continues to expand.

How about that … a country with a “long term strategy” in which it seeks sources of new energy for future growth. Not so in the US where Ken Salazar’s Interior Department seems to be using every means available to it to slow down the possibility of finding and bringing new carbon based resources on line for future consumption:

The Interior Department has informed Congress that it will take over two years to complete an environmental study needed to allow major seismic surveys of Atlantic coast oil-and-gas resources – a timeline that industry groups allege is too slow.

In an early February letter to House and Senate appropriators, Interior provides a timeline for completing a “programmatic environmental impact statement” on the effects of seismic testing and other assessment techniques.

It anticipates a “record of decision” – which is the final agency sign-off – in mid-April of 2012.

If I’m not mistaken, that will put us 4 years into the decision to allow drilling in the OCS. And, of course, seismic surveys and their effects are well known and have been for decades. The seismic surveys would update decades old surveys.

The point, of course, is these new Interior requirements completely derail the timeline established by the Interior Department in 2007:

Interior’s 2007-2012 offshore leasing plan calls for a lease sale off Virginia’s coast in 2011, although the sale could be delayed.

No company is going to bid on leases until those seismic surveys are complete.

The long range consequences for the US of these sorts of short sited policies should be obvious. And I don’t expect them to get any better any times soon despite the promises President Obama made in his State of the Union address.


[ad] Empty ad slot (#1)!

Quote Of The Day – Debt Edition

Has anyone ever considered the fact that so much debt and borrowing is a national security problem?

“From 1789 through 2008, the U.S. government borrowed a total of $5.8 trillion. In 2009, the federal budget deficit exceeded $1.4 trillion. The administration now expects the 2010 deficit to break that record, topping $1.6 trillion. And in 2011, it would only fall to about $1.3 trillion. Thus, in just three years, the debt will have jumped an astonishing $4.2 trillion.” – James Capretta, a Fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center

Those to whom we own money – especially as much as we do – hold some pretty powerful leverage. The Chinese military has been stomping around all week urging their government to use it. They want China to sell some US bonds to deliver a little “economic punch” to get our attention, apparently.

“Bush made me do it” won’t work when piling up this much debt.  The GOP’s ready-made economic and national security issue is found within the quote.  That assumes they don’t just placidly go along with the mammoth increase in the debt.  And that’s never a safe assumption.


[ad] Empty ad slot (#1)!