Alasdair Macleod – 20 February 2015
As recently as 9th January I wrote an article suggesting that 2015 would turn out to be the year of the slump. The title ended with a question mark, but today we are closer to removing it in favour of a definite statement.
In recent weeks, it has become clear that key economic blocs are indeed heading for a slump, including but not limited to China, the Eurozone and Japan (allowing for the distortions of her aggressive money-printing). Between them they account for nearly 40% of global GDP. We know this because of the collapse in commodity prices, which is reflected in a global shift of preference in favour of the US dollar.
For the avoidance of doubt, money should be regarded as a good, and each currency as a different good. When this point is grasped, the context of the dollar’s rise against both commodities and other currencies becomes clear. Both commodities and currencies are priced in dollars, so markets are showing that banks, consumers and businesses have been changing their preferences in favour of increasing their dollar balances.
Modern macroeconomics fails to adequately explain the importance of these developments. A quick look at the index in Keynes’s General Theory makes no mention of changes in preference for money versus other goods. It lists and defines liquidity preference which is a different topic. Once you accept money is a good, supply and demand will always balance as predicated in Say’s Law, otherwise known as the Law of the Markets.
Something has spooked consumers in markets around the world into spending less on other goods and to increase their holdings of dollars. The explanation can only be that prices for all other goods have been too high relative to dollars, so they have had to fall. There can be no clearer signal that there is a slump in global economic activity.
The largest source of exported physical goods is China. Demand from other countries for China’s goods is declining, confirmed by the Baltic Dry Index* which is plumbing new lows. This slow-down in economic activity could easily burst the bubble of bank credit, which is in danger of collapsing under the massive burden of bad debts. December’s slow-down in new loan demand coupled with declining trade flows can only be temporarily resolved by China devaluing the renminbi, thereby lowering her export prices. The breathing space this gives China is only as long as it takes for her manufacturing costs to rise to reflect the devaluation. If it occurs, a renminbi devaluation would quickly put more downward pressure on prices for local manufacturers in her export markets.
Turning to China’s trade partners, we see the Eurozone’s economy ex-Germany beginning to contract which is panicking the ECB into money-printing in a desperate attempt to maintain too-high prices. Japan has been doing this for some time, and is labouring under a mountain of debt that makes even Greece look responsible.
The signals are clear: the world has already entered a downturn in economic activity. Therefore we can expect accelerated money-printing and the imposition of more negative interest rates in a forlorn attempt to avert economic reality.
* A shipping and trade index created by the London-based Baltic Exchange that measures changes in the cost to transport raw materials such as metals, grains and fossil fuels by sea. The Baltic Exchange directly contacts shipping brokers to assess price levels for a given route, product to transport and time to delivery (speed).