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Friday
Dec042015

The American Hunger Games:The Six Top GOP Candidates, Economic Policies And Panem 2016 

This piece originally appeared on TomDispatch.

Fact: too many Republican candidates are clogging the political scene. Perhaps what’s needed is an American Hunger Games to cut the field to size. Each candidate could enter the wilderness with one weapon and one undocumented worker and see who wins. Unlike in the fictional Hunger Games for which contestants were plucked from 13 struggling, drab districts in the dystopian country of Panem, in the GOP version, everyone already lives in the Capitol. (Okay, Marco Rubio lives just outside it but is about to enter, and Donald Trump like some gilded President Snow inhabits a universe all his own with accommodations and ego to match.)

The six candidates chosen here (based on composite polling) have remarkably similar, unoriginal, inequality-inducing, trickle-down economic recommendations for the country: reduce taxes (mostly on those who don’t need it), “grow” the economy like a sprouting weed, balance the budget by cutting as yet not-delineated social programs, overthrow Obama’s health-care legacy without breaking up the insurance companies, and (yawn)... well, you get the idea. If these six contenders were indeed Hunger Games tributes, their skills in the American political wilderness would run this way: Ben Carson inspires confusion; Marco Rubio conveys exaggerated humility; Ted Cruz exudes scorn; Jeb Bush can obliterate his personality at a whim; and Carly Fiorina’s sternness could slice granite. This leaves Donald Trump, endowed with the ultimate skill: self-promotion. As a tribute, he claims to believe that all our problems stem from China and Mexico, as well as Muslim terrorists and refugees (more or less the same thing, of course), and at present he’s leading the Games.

 

When it comes to economic policy, it seems as if none of them will ever make it out of the Capitol and into the actual world of American reality.  Like Hillary Clinton, blessed by Wall Street’s apparently undying gratitude for her 9/11 heroism, none of the Republican contestants have outlined a plan of any sort to deal with, no less break the financial stronghold of the big banks on our world or reduce disproportionate corporate power over the economy, though in a crisis Cruz would “absolutely not” bail them out again.   Stumbling around in the wilderness, Carson at least offered a series of disjointed, semi-incomprehensible financial suggestions during the last Republican “debate,” when asked why he wouldn’t break banks up. "I don't want to go in and tear anybody down,” he said. “I mean that doesn't help us, but what does help us is to stop tinkering around the edges and fix the problem."

Rubio, already in top Hunger Games form, swears that it’s recent regulations (not legacy elite decisions) that did the dirty deed. “The government made [the banks] big by adding thousands and thousands of pages of regulations," he saidof Dodd-Frank legislation (which doesn’t actually alter Wall Street structurally in any way). In fact, in recent decades every major power grab or consolidation in American business, from banks to energy companies, resulted from bipartisan deregulation.

None of these big-money-backed candidates seem particularly concerned that another economic crisis could ever cripple the country, or have evidently even noticed that most Americans have yet to experience the present “recovery.”  None seem to realize that when the Federal Reserve winds down its cheap money policy and banks and companies are left to fend for themselves, more economic hell could break loose in the style of the 2007-2008 meltdown. Jeb Bush recently summed up the general 2016 Republican position on the economy in a single what-me-worry-style sentence: “We shouldn't have another financial crisis.” ‘Nuff said.

In the 2012 presidential election, Mitt Romney’s chances dwindled after hedisparaged 47% of the country as so many leeches. Today’s Hunger Gamers have learned from his experience. Optics spell opportunity, so as a group they’re shuffling the usual Republican-brand tax cuts for corporations and the wealthy in with selective recognition of the broader population and promises to kill all loopholes in some future utopian tax bill. None of them, of course, would consider raising the minimum wage to put more money in the pockets of workers before tax-time hits. Even old Henry Ford knew the power of wages when, early in the last century, he strengthened his car empire by doubling the then-prevailing minimum wage for his workers to $5 a day -- enough for them not only to save up and buy his Model-Ts, but also boost productivity.

The present set of Hunger Gamers could invoke Republican President Teddy Roosevelt’s trust-busting ire, or President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s willingness to fund vast national construction projects, or even (to reach into the distant past) President Herbert Hoover’s initial attempts to pass what became, under Democrat Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the 1933 Glass-Steagall Act that separated deposit-taking from speculation at banks. But to be realistic, none of them belong to the Republican Party as it once existed.  They all live in an American Panem and so feel no compunctions about promoting the idea that corporations contributing ever less to the federal till would Make America Great Again.

Now, let’s send those six candidates into that wilderness, weapons in hand, one at a time, and while we’re at it, examine their minor differences by checking out their campaign websites to see what kind of games we can expect in a coming Republican era of “good times.”

Ben Carson

If you look through the index of Ben Carson's latest bestseller, A More Perfect Union, you won’t even find the words “economy,” “banks,” or “Wall Street.”  Instead, his campaign slogan “Heal, Inspire, Revive,” could headline a yoga retreat. His position as the Republican co-frontrunner or runner-up (depending on which polls you look at) relies on his soft-spoken, non-politician persona, not his vague economic ideas that flash by in a chameleon-like fashion.

Yes, he was a brilliant neurosurgeon, but the tenacity and skills required to become a gifted medical practitioner have not translated well into presidential-style economic policies.  To the extent that he has a policy at all, it’s a shopworn version of the twenty-first-century Republican usuals: ratifying a balanced budget amendment to the Constitution “to restore fiscal responsibility,” introducing a flat tax, not raising the minimum wage, yada, yada, yada.  In a Washington Post op-ed last year, he recounted his mother’s days as a “domestic in the homes of wealthy people who were generous to her” and would slip young Carson and his brother “significant monetary incentives” in return for good grades. One even loaned him a luxury convertible. With such employers -- and the incredibly rich are a well-known generous bunch, at least when it comes to supporting Republican presidential candidates (just 158 families have contributed more than half the money to this election so far, mostly to Republicans) -- who needs a government-declared minimum wage?

Regarding taxes, Carson considers the 74,000-page tax code “an abomination.” And who would argue otherwise? But like his various opponents, he's not about to point out that it was largely crafted by the representatives of mega-corporations, not Wal-Mart workers at meet-ups with senators. He’s for a flat tax of 10% with no exemptions for the poor, based on biblical economics 101. Maybe people who don’t produce bumper crops should just pray for a better lot.

He would conveniently cut the official corporate tax rate from 35% (the average effective tax rate is 27.9% but the biggest, brightest companies don’t even approach that amount) to between 15% and 20%, the definition of corporate manna from heaven.  He would also allow companies to bring their foreign profits back to the U.S. completely tax-free if they would even... pretty, pretty please... consider allocating 10% of them to “finance enterprise zones” in major cities. And so it goes in Carsonland.

Best bet on his campaign website: A $25 bumper sticker that says #IAMACHRISTIAN, proof that he’s eager to channel his inner evangelical Katniss.

Donald Trump

Trump actually brought up President Dwight Eisenhower recently, but only for Operation Wetback, his grim Mexican immigrant deportation program. No I-like-Ike mention was made of his funding of the interstate highway system or the way he strengthened banking regulations.

The Donald lists five core positions on his site, including the two economic pillars of his campaign: “U.S.-China trade reform” and “tax reform,” both of which would, of course, “make America great again.” This may already sound a bit repetitively familiar to you, but he wants to reduce the corporate tax rate to 15% because it “would be 10 percentage points below China’s and 20 points below our current burdensome rate that pushes companies and jobs offshore.”  Given that our biggest companies already pay far less than that “burdensome” rate, can there be any question that lowering it further would produce more generous CEOs and slay dreaded China at the same time?

Like President Snow, Trump would start aggressively and only get more so, economically speaking. He would “attack” the national debt and deficit by eliminating government waste, fraud, and abuse, and “grow” the economy xenophobically by doing in local Mexicans and distant Chinese, and all of this cutting and slashing would, like a Chia Pet, make the economy sprout even as tax revenues were savaged.  Or, even if it isn’t one of his five core positions, he could pull a genuine Snow and get rid of old-fashioned-style government, leaving Americans officially beholden to an oligarch.

In another piece of (black) magic, his campaign website assures readers that cutting the deficit and reducing our debt would also stop China from “blackmail[ing] us with our own Treasury bonds.” No matter that China actually lent us money to run our government and bolster our financial system, and that a thank-you note might be in order (on paper made in China, of course).

When it comes to tax reform, Trump’s “populist” program would remove 75 million households from the income tax rolls and provide them, so he claims, with a simple one-page form to send the IRS, saying “I win.”  Though he would cut the current seven tax brackets to four -- 0%, 10%, 20%, and 25% -- it’s his 15% corporate tax rate that trumps the field. Rubio would only chop it to 25%, Bush to 20%, Cruz to 16%, and Carson... who knows? Various estimates suggest that Trump’s plan would lead to a staggering federal revenue loss (so lucky for us that, in a Trump presidency, the rich would undoubtedly be so grateful that their generosity would soar beyond imagining). The nonpartisan Citizens for Tax Justice computed the cost of his plan at $12 trillion over 10 years.  So don’t expect any Eisenhower-esque national building campaigns (other than that “beautiful” wall on the Mexican border).

Best gimmick on his campaign website: A $15 Trump dog sweater modeled bythe saddest damn wiener dog ever. Perhaps its mother was a deported Chihuahua.

Marco Rubio

Rubio’s slogan “a new American century” couldn’t be grander, perhaps to compensate for the lackluster version of economic policy at his campaign website.  It’s certainly not the sort of thing you’d expect from someone aspiring to be president of the world’s largest economy. Despite that, rest assured that he’s had economics and success on his mind 24/7.  After all, Goldman Sachs is now his top contributor and his super PACs are on a run, too, including the rap-inspired “Baby Got Pac” just launched by multimillionaire John Jordan.

And in true Hunger Games fashion -- when the “odds” head in a tribute’s favor, the patrons and gifts begin rolling in -- Rubio just bagged Republican mega-donor billionaire Frank VanderSloot. Mitt Romney’s former national finance co-chairman, VanderSloot joins a growing roster of Rubio billionaires, including hedge-fund moguls Paul Singer and Cliff Asness.

“Marco Rubio is the brightest and most capable candidate," wrote VanderSloot of his new political buddy. Of the others he and his brain trust considered, headded, "Jeb simply does not have the leadership skills necessary to unite the people behind him"; Carson lacks “the international knowledge or skill set"; Cruz and Trump are “simply not electable in a general election" (no billionaire-envy there); and Fiorina, his second choice, “simply isn’t resonating with the voters.”

Rubio’s tax plan, the “cornerstone” of his economic policy, would -- you won’t be surprised to learn -- reduce the number of tax brackets from seven to three and eliminate taxes in ways particularly beneficial to the billionaire (especially hedge-fund billionaire) class, including the estate tax and taxes on capital gains and dividends. For the broad population, Rubio includes family tax cuts. According to an analysis by the Tax Policy Center, his plan would be a bargain compared to Trump’s, costing federal government coffers a mere $2.4 trillion or more in receipts over the next decade. As a byproduct, his program is essentially guaranteed to spark a new round of financial speculation, but don’t for a second let the 2007-2008 meltdown cross your mind since, as every Republican knows, with a Marco Rubio, Donald Trump, or Ben Carson in the Oval Office that can’t happen.

Best gimmick on his campaign website: You can “fall into campaign season” by ordering a “Marco Polo” made-in-the-USA shirt for $48 in patriotic red, white, or blue naturally! For a mere $500 extra, you can personally have the honor of buying Rubio a “plane ticket” (perhaps to meet and greet his next billionaire).

Ted Cruz

The Cruz campaign website offers a hodge-podge of semi-incoherent economic salesmanship. His tax plan, or what he likes to call (without the slightest justification) the “next American revolution,” promises to “reignite growth in our economy.” His “simple flat tax” (yep, another of those!) would abolish the Internal Revenue Service as well.  Personal income tax brackets would go from seven to... count ‘em!... one at a 10% rate across the board and the corporate income tax would be replaced by a flat tax of 16%. And it should be taken for granted that the American economy would soar into the stratosphere!

Cruz’s tax code would be so “simple with a capital-S” that it would make Donald Trump’s look complicated. A postcard or phone app would suffice for individual and family filings. There would be no tax on profits earned abroad and it almost goes without saying that Obamacare taxes would die a strangulated death. Loopholes for businesses would apparently go, too.

Cruz claims his simple flat tax will elevate the gross domestic product, increase wages by 12.2%, create nearly five million new jobs, and undoubtedly fill the world with unicorns.  It would also wipe out between $768 billion and $3.6 trillion in federal tax receipts over 10 years.

Best gimmick on his campaign website: For $55 you can get a bad-boy posterof Cruz sporting a Sons of Anarchy look (tattoos, cigarette in mouth, etc.) captioned “Blacklisted and Loving It.”

Jeb Bush

Jeb! has by far the sleekest web page. He and his donor entourage took the “presidential concept” seriously with a look that seems to have been stolen directly from “the Capitol” in the Hunger Games.

Its economic section excoriates the tax code for being “rigged with multiple carve-outs for favored industries.” He blasts Obama’s economic policies for leading to “low growth, crony capitalism, and easy debt.” Yet, under Jeb’s governorship, Florida's debt escalated from $15 billion to more than $23 billion. After his term, the housing-bubble that had inflated the state’s coffers burst big time, and Florida's economy under-performed much of the country during the financial crisis. While homeowners statewide went underwater, helanded a multi-million dollar consultancy gig with... gulp!... Lehman Brothers.

By now, you won’t be shocked to learn that Bush’s plan would cut tax brackets from seven to three: 28%, 25% and 10%, and that he would cut the corporate tax rate from 35% to 20%, five points below China’s. (These days, if you’re a Republican, you’ve got to stick it to China.)

While Jeb would not rein in Wall Street (for all the obvious and already well-documented reasons), right now it looks as if he’s not going to have a chance to not rein in anything.  While his PR team maintains “Jeb can fix it,” invigorating his wilting campaign will require more than a bow and arrow and a mockingbird.

Best gimmick on his campaign web page: “The Guaca Bowle” for $75because who doesn’t need one? (Bush family guac recipe not included.)

Carly Fiorina

Fiorina’s web page doesn’t offer a lot of economic anything. It’s more like a personality infomercial. For her official positions, you need to watch video clips of her TV appearances from CBS This Morning to late night talk shows and -- if you’re starting to get bored -- just imagine Stanley Tucci as Hunger Games host of festivities Caesar Flickerman narrating.

Fiorina calls for “zero-based budgeting” because “zero” sounds so much cleverer than “balanced” and touts ad nauseam a three-page tax plan (perhaps the current one in a microscopic font, since we don’t actually know the details). The repetition of simple concepts to the masses seems to be her modus operandi.

Best gimmick on the Carly for America Super PAC website: For only $26 you can get a “Hillary Who?” infant one-piece, the perfect gift for any Republican baby.

How Corporations Really Pay Taxes

Despite the prominence of tax cuts in the policies of the top six Republican candidates, even the venerable Brookings Institution found that they have a minimal effect on economic growth.  In addition, when you consider all the promised corporate cuts, you should know that corporations already don’t contribute much.

According to Citizens for Tax Justice, between 2008 and 2012, 26 of the 288 Fortune 500 firms (consistently profitable in those years) managed to pay nothing, nada, zero in federal income tax.  The 288 firms collectively paid an effective federal income tax rate of 19.4%, and a third of them paid an effective rate of less than 10%. Five companies -- Wells Fargo, AT&T, IBM, General Electric, and Verizon -- also bagged over $77 billion of the $364 billion in tax breaks doled out in those years. Extra jobs didn't follow. Think of this crew as the real winners of the American Hunger Games in this period.

For 2014, for instance, Goldman Sachs avoided forking over federal income taxes on almost half of its $6.8 billion in U.S. profits, paying an effective tax rate of 18.6%. Between 2010 and 2012, due to tax breaks associated with executive pay, Fortune 500 companies saved an extra $27 billion in federal and state taxes. That’s a lot of dosh to use for Super PAC support.

In 2012, the Democrats blasted candidate Mitt Romney’s tax plan as a giveaway to the rich. This time around, our six tributes-cum-candidates are taking no such chances.  They’re making sure to throw crumbs to the middle and working classes, even as they offer more caviar to the wealthy and corporations. Depending on the candidate and plan, the overall loss of national revenue will range from an estimated $1.6 trillion (even factoring in growth that may never happen) to $12 trillion, but will be a stunning amount.

Perhaps with such a field of candidates, the classic Hunger Games line will need to be adapted: “Let the games begin and may the oddity of it all be ever in your favor.” Certainly, there has never been a stranger or more unsettling Republican campaign for the presidential nomination or one more filled with economic balderdash and showmanship.  Of course, at some point in 2016, we’ll be at that moment when President Snow says to Katniss Everdeen, "Make no mistake, the game is coming to its end." One of these candidates or a rival Democrat will actually enter the Oval Office and when that happens, both parties will be left with guilt on their hands and all the promises that will have to be fulfilled to repay their super-rich supporters (Bernie aside). And that, of course, is when the real Hunger Games are likely to begin for most Americans.  Those of us in the outer districts can but hope for revolution.

Wednesday
Sep092015

Mexico, Federal Reserve Policy and Danger Ahead for Emerging Markets

On August 27th, I had the opportunity to address the Aspen Institute, UNIFIMEX and PWC in Mexico City during a Q&A with Patricia Armendariz. Subsequenty, on August 28th, I gave the opening talk at the annual IMEF conference. The main issues of concern to local Mexican banks, as well as to Mexico's central bank, are:

1) How the Federal Reserve's (and to a lesser extent ECB's and People's Bank of China) policies and actions have, and wlil continue to impact their currency and interest rate levels, and

2) The risks posed by the structural, and ongoing problems of too-big-to-fail banks, which remain as much a US as a Mexican problem as manifested by heightened economic, market and financial stress.

I posted the slides from my talk here, including the ten main risks that Mexico (and really all countries) are facing today, as well as the four factors of volatility that I have spoke about many times before. Much uncertainly emanates from central bank policy and the associated artificial stimulation of mega banking institutions and capital markets throughout the world. There is no foreseeable remedy to the long-term damage already caused, and that will continue to grow in the future.

What follows is a related piece that I co-authored with researcher, Craig Wilson that first appeared in Peak Prosperity:

Too big to fail is a seven-year phenomenon created by the most powerful central banks to bolster the largest, most politically connected US and European banks. More than that, it’s a global concern predicated on that handful of private banks controlling too much market share and elite central banks infusing them with boatloads of cheap capital and other aid. Synthetic bank and market subsidization disguised as ‘monetary policy’ has spawned artificial asset and debt bubbles - everywhere. The most rapacious speculative capital and associated risk flows from these power-players to the least protected, or least regulated, locales.  

The World Bank and IMF award brownie points to the nations offering the most ‘financial liberalization’ or open market, privatization and foreign acquisition opportunities. Yet, protections against the inevitable capital outflows that follow are woefully inadequate, particularly for emerging markets.

The financial world has been focused largely on the volatility of countries like China and Greece recently. But Mexico, the third largest US trading partner (after Canada and China), has tremendous exposure to big foreign banks, and the largest concentration of foreign bank ownership of any country in the world (mostly thanks to NAFTA stipulations.)

In addition, the latitude Mexico has provided to the operations of these foreign financial firms means the nation is more exposed to the fallout of another acute financial crisis (not that we’ve escaped the last one).

There is no such thing as isolated “Big Bank” problems. Rather, complex products, risky practices, leverage and co-dependent transactions have contagion ramifications, particularly in emerging markets whose histories are already lined with disproportionate shares of debt, interest rate and currency related travails.

Mexico has benefited to an extent from its proximity to the temporary facade of US financial health buoyed by Fed policy, but as such, it faces grave dangers should any artificial bubble pop, or should the value of the US dollar or US interest rates rise.

There are other clouds forming on Mexico’s horizon. In the past month, the Mexican stock market has fallen 6 percent. Its highs were last seen in September, 2014. Shares in the nation’s largest builder, Empresas ICA SAB, just fell to a 12-year low as lower growth expectations.

(Source)

Because of currency misalignments based on central bank machinations, the Mexican Peso sits near all time lows vs. the US dollar. The Central Bank of Mexico just announced a currency boosting round of $8.6 billion of Pesos over the next two months, with likely more to come. This impinges upon its reserves. (Source)

Mid-level Mexican financial firms will struggle with access to credit should the air in the tires of this global liquidity boosting exercise continue to leak out. Other problems loom on Mexico’s horizon based on a host of interrelated factors.

These include the potential of capital flight, liquidity loss, over-reliance on external debt and investors, oil price declines (oil revenues account for about one-third of Mexico’s federal government budget), economic downturn in the US or Mexico, and rising volatility due to central bank policy shifts impacting interest rates and currency relationships, geo-politics, credit defaults, or additional big bank crimes.

The high concentration of large banks in Mexico and in the US presents extra systemic risk. Local Mexican firms and individuals, as well as foreign investors should consider these co-mingled factors and hedge against them for protection.

Capital Flight due to US Rate Hikes, Real or Anticipated

The possibility of US rate hikes, or even the threat of them, could freeze demand for non-US stocks and bonds - everywhere. If we learned anything from the US financial crisis, economic hardship in Greece and other Southern European countries, and the rout in the Chinese stock market, it’s that capital flight, particularly leveraged capital flight, can crucify an economy, especially high debt burdens accentuate the process.

Mexico, though somewhat protected from financial upheaval during the first leg of the 2008 financial crisis, may be the next victim of capital’s mercurial tendencies for that very reason. Mexico’s relative stability and liberalized financial markets have invited more foreign capital through these channels, which means more can leave to return to headquarter countries, or seek opportunities elsewhere, in emergencies.

In addition, heightened “de-risking” (or the reducing of counter-party agreements and cross-border remittances between the US and Mexico) will impact future remittance flows. Though de-risking practices are officially designated to thwart money launderers and drug-dealers – the true effect of the closing of bank branches or reduction of services that enable remittance flows burdens the population and the local banks that rely on them.

Big Bank Concentration and Counterparty Risk

Mexico’s domestic bank concentration problems have marginally improved since the financial crisis, but not by much. As of 2014, just five of Mexico’s private sector banks hold 72 percent of all financial assets. The top two, Banamex, a unit of Citigroup Inc., and BBVA Bancomer, a unit of Spain's Banco Bilbao Vizcaya Argentaria SA, hold 38 percent of all assets. (Source) (Source)

Concentration has accelerated in the US. Since the financial crisis, the Big Six US banks (JPM Chase, Citigroup, Bank of America, Goldman Sachs, Wells Fargo and Morgan Stanley) have grown in terms of assets, deposits, cash, trading assets and derivatives volume.

In terms of counter-party risk, from a credit and derivative perspective, the fewer banks operating in any sphere, the greater the risk that a collapse in any one of them triggers a domino effect in the others. The main foreign banks in Mexico, and those engaging in business with Mexican banks, can quickly close services and shift capital and credit from the country, or place barriers to retrieve it, in a pinch.

Ongoing US Bank Bailouts and Mexican Fallout

The US Federal Reserve buying program, though officially over, has rendered the Fed the largest hedge fund in the world, with a $4.5 trillion book of securities, more than a dozen times the figure of seven years earlier. The mortgage backed securities component remains at about $1.5 trillion, up from zero seven years ago.

Mexico was fortunate not to have been on the US bank radar screen to receive, or be induced to borrow against, the $14 trillions of dollars of toxic US-bank made assets. US bankers mostly focused on selling these subprime assets into Europe. Thus, Mexico escaped the fallout that countries like Greece and Spain felt.  

Still, Mexico’s financial conditions are showing increasing signs of weakness, despite comparatively low inflation and, as a result, the ability to keep interest rates around 3 percent (the same as in Chile) below those in Columbia and Peru.

Aside from business problems, the amount of people living in poverty in Mexico increased from 49 million in 2008 to 53 million in 2012. In addition, Mexico came in last of the 34 countries examined by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development OECD for inequality. The combination of poverty and inequality on the ground, plus incoming instability on a business and banking basis could prove a disastrous mix in Mexico (and in the US) in the face of possible rising interest rates, a strengthening dollar in the near-term, or enhanced volatility.

EM Debt Defaults and Bond-Stock Divergence

Credit default risk looms as well. The amount of corporate and bank debt issued since the Fed embarked on its zero-interest rate and QE policy and pushed it on the world, has escalated. Thus, rising interest rates or corporate defaults in the US would impact Mexican (and other EM) corporate bond prices and default rates.

The divergence between credit-risk as reflected by rising high-yield bond spreads (up from seven year lows in mid-2014) and equities is predominantly predicated on the 60 percent drop in oil prices this year, which as of August 20th, hit a six and a half year low. The energy sector represents 15 percent of the high yield market.

Energy stocks have dropped nearly thirty percent. If commodity prices continue falling, other sectors and the stock markets would be more effected. Countries reliant on oil revenues, such as Mexico where 30 percent of the federal budget is based upon them, are impacted directly from profit loss and secondarily by defaults. (Source)

According to a recent report issued by the Institute of International Finance,  “Corporate Debt in Emerging Markets: What should we be worried about?”, emerging market (EM) non-financial corporate debt rose to a record high of 83 percent of GDP, up from 67 percent in 2009.  The total size of the EM non-financial corporate bond market has more than doubled to $2.4 trillion in 2014 vs. 2009.

Between 2015 and 2017, about $645 billion of that debt is set to mature with US dollar denominated bonds comprising $108 billion of that figure. Meanwhile, the volume of non-performing loans and general debt payment burdens have risen on US dollar strength, meaning EM banks, particularly those exposed to high degrees of foreign-currency lending, are increasingly in trouble.

Figure 1 - Source: BIS, IMF, OECD, McKinsey, IIF; Brazil, China, Czech Rep., Hungary, India,
Indonesia, Mexico, Poland, Russia, Saudi Arabia, South Africa, Thailand, Turkey.

The low or zero interest rate policies from the FED, ECB and even EM central banks have propelled this issuance, particularly in the EM non-financial corporate segment, even in countries where public debt issuance hasn’t also skyrocketed.

Of the $1.7 trillion EM in non-financial corporate debt raised since 2009 in  the international markets, about 30 percent ($510 billion) was in foreign currency, 80 percent of that ($430 billion) was in US dollars. The more reliant on external borrowing, the less stable a borrowing country’s financial situation becomes, and the more prone its firms are to downgrades or defaults as a result of external or internal weakening.

The report notes that higher foreign-currency risk exists in countries like Brazil, Mexico and Korea. In addition, a number of EM countries are holding cash reserves in domestic bank accounts from large percentages of proceeds raised offshore. They would be forced to withdraw from these funds to support currency weaknesses to service debt, which could increase the funding risk of EM banks.

What This All Means

This level of global inter-connected financial risk is hazardous in Mexico, where it’s peppered by high bank concentration risk. No one wants another major financial crisis. Yet, that’s where we are headed absent major reconstructions of the banking framework and the central bank policies that exude extreme power over global economies and markets, in the US, Mexico, and throughout the world.

Mexico’s problems could again ripple through Latin America where eroding confidence, volatility, and US dollar strength are already hurting economies and markets.

The difference is that now, in contrast to the 1980s and 1990s debt crises, loan and bond amounts have not just been extended by private banks, but subsidized by the Fed and the ECB.  The risk platform is elevated. The fall, for both Mexico and its trading partners like the US, likely much harder.

Tuesday
Jul072015

In a World of Volatility and Artificial Liquidity for Banks, Update your Cash Strategy

(This piece originally appeared at Peak Prosperity.)

Global central banks are afraid. Before Greece stood up to the Troika, they were merely worried. Now it’s clear that no matter what they tell themselves and the world about the necessity or even righteousness of their monetary policies, liquidity can still disappear in an instant. Or at least, that’s what they should be thinking.

The Federal Reserve and US government led policy of injecting liquidity into the US and then into the worldwide financial system has resulted in the issuance of trillions of dollars of debt, recycling it through the largest private banks, and driving rates to 0% -- or below. The combined book of debt that the Fed and European Central Bank (ECB) hold is $7 trillion. None of that has gone remotely into fixing the real global economy. Nor have the banks that have ben aided by this cheap money increased lending to the real economy. Instead, they have hoarded their bounty of cash. It’s not so much whether this game can continue for the near future on an international scale. It can. It is. The bigger problem is that central banks have no plan B in the event of a massive liquidity event.  

Some central bank entity leaders have admitted this. IMF chief, Christine Lagarde for instance, warned Federal Reserve Chair, Janet Yellen that potential US rate hikes implemented too soon, would incite greater systemic calamity. She’s not wrong. That’s what we’ve come to: a financial system reliant on external stimulus to survive.

These “emergency” measures were supposed to have healed the problems that caused the financial crisis of 2008 -- the excessive leverage, the toxic assets wrapped in complex derivatives, the resultant credit and liquidity crunch that occurred when banks lost faith in each other. Meanwhile, the infusion of cheap money and liquidity into banks gave a select few of them more power over a greater pool of capital than ever. Stock and bond markets skyrocketed as a result of this unprecedented central bank support.

QE-infinity isn’t a solution -- it’s a deflection. It’s a form of financial subterfuge that causes extra problems. These range from asset bubbles to the inability of pension and life insurance funds to source longer term less risky long-term assets like government bonds, that pay enough interest for them to meet liabilities. They are thus at risk of rapid future deterioration and more shortfalls precisely because they have nothing to invest in besides more risky stock and lower-rated bond markets.

Even the latest Bank of International Settlement (BIS) 85th Annual Report revealed the extent to which global entities supervising the banking system are worried. They harbor growing fears about greater repercussions from this illusion of market health (echoing concerns I and others have been writing about for the past seven years.)

The BIS, or bank for the central banks was established during the global Great Depression in 1930 in Basel, Switzerland, when bank runs on people’s deposits were the norm. The body no longer buys into zero-interest rate policy as an economic cure-all. In their words, “Globally, interest rates have been extraordinarily low for an exceptionally long time, in nominal and inflation-adjusted terms, against any benchmark. Such low rates are the remarkable symptom of a broader malaise in the global economy.”

They go on to note the obvious, “The economic expansion is unbalanced, debt burdens and financial risks are still too high, productive growth too low, and the room for maneuvering in macroeconomic policy too limited. The unthinkable risks becoming routine and being perceived as the new normal.”

These are troubling words coming from an organization that would have much preferred to deem central bank policies a success. Yet the BIS also states, “Global financial markets remain dependent on central banks.” Dependent is a strong word. How quickly the idea of free markets has been turned on its head.

Further, the BIS says, “Central bank balance sheets remain at unprecedented high levels; and they grew even larger in several jurisdictions where the ultra low policy rate environments were reinforced with large purchases of domestic and foreign assets.”

Central banks are not yet there, but rising volatility is indicative of the accelerating approach to the nowhere left to go mark from a monetary policy perspective. This, after seven years of a reckless Anti-Main Street, inequality and instability inducing, policy.

Not only have the major banks been the main recipient of manufactured liquidity, they have also received consolidated access to our deposits, which they can use like hostages to negotiate future bailout situations. Elite bankers moan about the extra regulations they have had to endure in the wake of the financial crisis, while scooping up cash dispersed under the guise of stimulating the general economy.

Central banks seek fresh ways to keep the party going as countries like Greece shut down banks to contain capital flight, and places like Puerto Rico and multiple states and municipalities face economic ruin. But they are clueless as to what to do.

In this cauldron of instability and lack of leadership, cash is the one remaining financial possession that Main Street can translate into goods, services and security. That’s why private banks want more control over it.

Banks Want Your Cash For Their Latent Emergencies

One of the most inane reasons cited for restricting cash withdrawals for normal people is that they all might turn out to be drug dealers or terrorists. Meanwhile, drug-dealing-money-laundering terrorists tend to get away with it anyway, by sheer ability to use a plethora of banks and off shore havens to diffuse cash around the globe.

Every so often, years after the fact, some bank perpetrators receive money-laundering fines.  For average depositors though, these are excuses for a bureaucracy built upon limiting access to cash whether from an ATM (many have $500 per day limits, some have less) or an account (withdrawals above a certain level get reported to the IRS).

As Charles Hugh Smith wrote at Peak Prosperity recently, there’s a difference between physical cash (the kind you can touch and use immediately) and the electronic kind, associated with your bank balance or credit card cash advance limit.  If you hold it, you have it – even if keeping it in a bank means it’s probably slammed with various fees.

Banks, on the other hand, can leverage your deposits or cash, even while complying with various capital reserve requirements. That’s not new. But the expanding debates about how much of your cash you get to withdraw at any given moment, is.

The notion of a bail-in, or recourse to people’s deposits, is related to the idea of restricting the movement, or existence, of physical cash. Bail-ins, like any cash limitations, imply that if a bank needs emergency liquidity, your deposits are the place to find it, which has negative repercussion on your own solvency. This is exactly what the Glass-Steagall Act of 1933, coupled with the creation of the FDIC sought to avoid – banks confiscating your money at the worst possible times.

The ‘war on cash’ is thus really a war on the difference between the money you can hold on to and the money the banks can take away from you. The existence of this cash debate underscores the need for a personal policy of cash extraction from the big banks. If you don't have one, consider creating one sooner rather than later.

 

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