Friday, February 10, 2012

The Chinese Inflation Trap; Or, Why the Consensus Can Eat It

China posted trade data for January today, following up on a flurry of interesting data points:
YoY Exports (White line) & YoY Imports (Blue line) - 2006-2012
Despite the focus on the potential drag from a European slowdown on China, exports, which were stagnant year over year, are essentially beside the point.  The real issue is the unsustainable domestic investment economy and with exports flat YoY and imports down 15% YoY this is a terrible data point.  There as been a lot of discussion about the comparability of the data owing to the impact of the New Year’s holiday (although the Customs Administration does seasonally adjust their figures), but I believe there is an increasingly clear downward trend in the more reliable data available.  For those not up to speed, this is my perspective on China.  It is not positive.  I’ll return to the bigger picture in a moment, but for now I’d like to return to a subject previously discussed here.  

Friday, February 3, 2012

China Data Point Du Jour & the Ozzie Commodity Boom

Courtesy of the Reserve Bank of Australia:

Seems to correspond to a lot of the non-manipulated data we've seen of late.

Australia is an interesting corollary for China observers due to the impact of Chinese commodity demand on the country's booming resource sector.  As a reminder, about 1/4 of commodity revenues in Australia are from iron ore and around 1/3 come from coal.  China buys almost all of the iron ore in the global export market while demand for coking and thermal coal is also substantial if not quite as dramatic.  With Australia a cheaper option for Chinese mills than long-hauling ore from Brazil, and with lower cost coal mines than China's domestic producers, the Australian resource sector has been on an almost uninterrupted tear for almost a decade.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Disaster Myopia, Normal Accidents, and the Euro Policy Elite

2012 has taken on a decidedly optimistic tone after an  inauspicious start.  Some people seem to think that things in the Eurozone are largely settled and done with and that we can begin moving on with our lives.   I am not one of those people.

As we stand today there are two possible outcomes for the EU. In the first scenario, a critical mass of member states enacts a sweeping range of thoughtful and clever reforms that allow them to transform themselves into sustainable economic systems, capable of  creating livelihoods for the majority of the population without placing untenable costs on society.  This will require convincing or forcing a large number of entrenched insiders - politicians, pensioners, workers in closed trades, criminals, subsidized farmers, and so on- to relinquish some or all of the benefits they have come to enjoy over many years to outsiders.  By outsiders, I mean largely mean people under 30.  And they must do so while not incurring adjustment costs so high as to break the fragile banking system and, by extension, the EU.  This doesn't mean simply firing people and exposing uncompetitive enterprises, public or private, to economic realities, it means having a significant number of people consent to their lives being drastically changed so that others might have the opportunity to live productive, dignified lives.

It is that, or the EU continues to slowly deteriorate until it won't, at which point policy makers will find the decisions being made for them.  It didn't always have to be this way.  But this is what the EU's assembled political apparatus has left us with.  In zen bhuddism, this is called 'small mind'.  In markets, we call this disaster myopia, or perhaps simply collective incompetence.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Prospects for Structural Reform in Italy: Evasori, 'ndrine, and the Culture of Non-Compliance

Perhaps its better not to look
In the wake of Silvio Berlusconi’s departure from Italian politics and the ascendancy of Mario Monti’s technocratic government, many commentators have suggested that Italy’s fate now hinges on the achievement of structural reform that will allow it to win its race against rising debt service costs, slow growth, and a rapidly graying populace.  With this in mind, I’d like to review some of the more disconcerting structural features of the Italian economy that should illustrate the magnitude of the problems facing Italian policymakers, many of which have been a part of the Italian economic landscape for decades.   Achieving reform will be a challenging task, demanding policy that is effective on a micro-economic level and capable of altering a deeply ingrained culture of non-compliance.

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Hungarian Hot Pot

This could hurt a bit
“Men!” announced the baneful god of Pannon memory 
"I give to you a joyous land; yours to fight for, if necessary” 
So great, brave nations fought determinedly for her 
Until the Magyar finally emerged as the bloody victor 
Oh, but discord remained in the souls of the nations: the land 
Can never know happiness, under this curse’s hand"
19th century Hungarian romantic poet Mihály Vörösmarty, expounding on the ill fortune that has so frequently cursed his native land.  

Hungary has been getting a lot of press lately as its looming debt and balance of payments crisis continues to intensify, with Fitch lately joining S&P and Moody’s in downgrading the former Republic of Hungary (now just Hungary) to junk.  I've taken an interest in Hungary in the past few months as it offers an interesting play on European deleveraging while its increasingly erratic and isolationist administration has provided some of the most exciting political theater to date in the Euro crisis.

With the situation beginning to spiral out of control after a disastrous bond auction and an ever-weakening domestic currency, Hungary will likely need outside assistance similar to what it received in 2008 in order to arrest its slow but steady downward trajectory.  In light of the potentially dire economic consequences, the analyst community seems to regard an IMF/EU deal as a foregone conclusion, having taken at face value the government’s recent comments on its willingness to negotiate in good faith.