What’s the “long-game” in the U.S.-China trade conflict?

The efforts to craft a new trade agreement with the People’s Republic of China have run into some pretty major roadblocks in recent weeks and months.

Things came to another inflection point this week when President Trump announced that new tariffs would be imposed on more Chinese goods imported into the United States. As of September 1, pretty much all categories of Chinese imports will now be subject to tariffs.

If we look at the impact the protracted impasse has had on markets, the repercussions are plain to see. One result we’ve seen is that China has dipped from making up the largest portion of trade with the United States to being in third place now, behind Mexico and Canada:

But what’s the long-term prognosis for a trade deal with China? Recent world (and USA) statistics point to softening of the economy, which could have negative consequences across the board.

When it comes to perspectives on economic and business matters involving China and the Pacific Rim, I like to check in with my brother, Nelson Nones, who has lived and worked in the Far East for more than 20 years.  He has first-hand experience working in the Chinese market and is keenly aware of the issues of intellectual property protection, which is a major bone of contention between the United States and China and is one of the factors in the trade negotiations.  (Nelson runs a software company which has chosen to forego the Chinese market because of regulations requiring software firms that set up a joint ventures with Chinese companies to disclose their source code — something his firm will never do.)

I asked Nelson to share his thoughts about what he sees happening in the coming months.  Here are his observations:

Chinese President Xi has a lot on his plate right now. It isn’t just the U.S. trade war but also the Hong Kong disturbances, U.S. arms sales to Taiwan, the U.S. sending warships through the Taiwan Strait and the South China Sea, and China’s domestic banking sector weakness, to name just some. Trump has also put President Xi in a tight spot by demanding (or getting) Xi’s assurances that China will buy more U.S. agricultural products and will enact legislation protecting foreign intellectual property.  

In spite of his very substantial power, I predict that Xi will have a very tough time ramming Trump’s conditions down the throats of his countrymen. 

I should mention that the biggest issue here is intellectual property protection. The draft agreement that China “almost” signed had assurances that IP protection laws will be enacted, but Xi apparently nixed that draft whereupon the Chinese government stated that no government can promise, when negotiating a treaty with a foreign country, to change its domestic laws.

Technically, they’re right. For example, President Trump can’t commit to changing U.S. laws because only the Congress can do that under the constitutional separation of powers. Similarly, on paper, only China’s National People’s Congress (the national legislature) can change Chinese laws, and President Xi is not a member of the National People’s Congress. (Of course, this explanation conveniently overlooks the fact that both the Presidency and the National People’s Congress are subservient to the Communist Party of China, and that Xi is the General Secretary of the Communist Party, but still it’s technically correct.)

In view of all this, the natural Chinese instinct is to wait … and in this case, wait until the 2020 U.S. election and see what happens. If Trump is defeated for re-election, then perhaps many of Xi’s problems will disappear magically. On the other hand, if Trump stays in office maybe the pain that Trump’s China trade policy is inflicting on U.S. businesses and consumers will force Trump to lighten up a bit.  

In other words, President Xi has much to gain and relatively little to lose by playing the waiting game for a while. 

As for U.S. tariffs, those are causing Chinese businesses to adapt their supply chains by routing them through other East and Southeast Asian countries which are not subject to the tariffs. For instance, instead of sending products straight to the U.S., Chinese manufacturers are sending products to Vietnam or Thailand where a tiny bit of additional work is done – just enough to qualify for a “Made in Vietnam” or “Made in Thailand” label. (This adaptation partially explains Thailand’s large trade surplus which has made the Thai Baht one of the world’s best-performing currencies this year.)  

These maneuvers actually provide a safety valve for both Xi and Trump. For Xi, it cushions the reduction in demand for Chinese exports. At the same time it puts some additional pressure on Trump because this type of safety valve does not really exist for U.S. exporters trying to evade reciprocal Chinese tariffs.  But on the plus side for Trump, it tends to dampen the impact of higher tariffs pushing up U.S. producer and consumer prices.

If you ask me to bottom-line this, the trade problems look more like a protracted siege than an episode of brinksmanship.

How the siege is resolved depends on how strong Trump’s position will be after the 2020 election. If the Democrats continue with their leftward lurch, then Xi will eventually have to cave because Trump’s position will be strong (I’d say a 65% probability of re-election). But if the Democrats come to their senses and Trump continues shooting himself in the foot, then he’s in real danger of losing the election and Xi will come up the big winner (I’d give this a 35% probability as of today). 

So there you have it: the prognosis from someone who is “on the ground” in East Asia.  What are your thoughts?  Are you in broad agreement or do you see things differently?  Please share your observations with other readers here.

“By any means necessary”: China’s Huawei Technologies flies close to the sun in its quest commandeer proprietary technology.

Not all-smiles at the moment … Chinese leader Xi Jinping.

In China, it’s difficult to discern where private industry ends and the government begins. At some level, we’ve been aware of that conundrum for decades.

Still … opportunities for doing business in the world’s largest country have been a tempting siren call for American companies. And over the past 15+ years, conducting that business has seemed like the “right and proper” thing to do — what with China joining the G-8+5 economic powers along with incessant cheerleading by the U.S. Department of Commerce, abetted by proactive endeavors of other quasi-governmental groups promoting the interests of American commerce across the globe.

But it’s 2019 and circumstances have changed. It began with a change in political administrations in the United States several years ago, following which a great deal more credence has been given to the undercurrent of unease businesspeople have felt about the manner in which supposedly proprietary engineering and manufacturing technologies have suddenly popped up in China as if by magic, pulling the rug out from under American producers.

Nearly three years into the new presidential administration, we’re seeing evidence of this “new skepticism” begin to play out in concrete ways. One of the most eye-catching developments – and a stunning fall from grace – is Huawei Technologies Co., Ltd. (world headquarters: Shenzhen, China), one of the world’s largest makers of cellphones and high-end telecom equipment.

As recounted by NPR’s Weekend Edition reporter Emily Feng a few days ago, Huawei stands accused of some of the most blatant forms of technology-stealing.  Recently, the Trump administration banned all American companies from using Huawei equipment in its 5G infrastructure and is planning to implement even more punitive measures that will effectively prevent U.S. companies from doing any business at all with Huawei.

Banning of Huawei equipment in U.S. 5G infrastructure isn’t directly related to the theft of intellectual property belonging to Huawei’s prospective U.S. suppliers.  Rather, it’s a response to the perceived threat that the Chinese government will use Huawei equipment installed in U.S. 5G mobile networks to surreptitiously conduct espionage for military, political or economic purposes far into the future.

In other words, as one of the world’s largest telecom players, Huawei is perceived as a direct threat to non-Chinese interests not just on one front, but two: the demand side and the supply side.  The demand-side threat is why the Trump administration has banned Huawei equipment in U.S. 5G infrastructure, and it has also publicly warned the U.K. government to implement a similar ban.

As for the supply side, the Weekend Edition report recounts the intellectual property theft experience of U.S.-based AKHAN Semiconductor when it started working with Huawei. AKHAN has developed and perfected an ingenious form of diamond-coated glass – a rugged engineered surface perfectly suited for smartphone screens.

Huawei expressed interest in purchasing the engineered glass for use in its own products. Nothing wrong with that … but Huawei used product samples provided by AKHAN under strict usage-and-return guidelines to reverse-engineer the technology, in direct contravention of those explicit conditions – and in violation of U.S. export control laws as well.

AKHAN discovered the deception because its product samples had been broken into pieces via laser cutting, and only a portion of them were returned to AKHAN upon demand.

When confronted about the matter, Huawei’s company officials in America admitted flat-out that the missing pieces had been sent to China.  AKHAN enlisted the help of the FBI, and in the ensuing months was able to build a sufficient case that resulted in a raid on Huawei’s U.S. offices in San Diego.

The supply side and demand side threats are two fronts — but are related.  One of the biggest reasons why Huawei kit has been selected, or is being considered, for deployment on 5G mobile networks worldwide is due to its low cost. The Chinese government, so the thinking goes, “seduces” telecom operators into buying the Huawei kit by undercutting all competitors, thereby gaining access to countless espionage opportunities. To maintain its financial footing Huawei must keep its costs as low as it can, and one way is to avoid R&D expenses by stealing intellectual property from would-be suppliers.

AKHAN is just the latest – if arguably the most dramatic – example of Huawei’s pattern of technology “dirty tricks” — others being a suit brought by Motorola against Huawei for stealing trade secrets (settled out of court), and T-Mobile’s suit for copying a phone-testing robot which resulted in Huawei paying millions of dollars in damages.

The particularly alarming – and noxious – part of the Huawei saga is that many of its employees in the United States (nearly all of them Chinese) weren’t so keen on participating in the capers, but found that their concerns and warnings went unheeded back home.

In other words – the directive was to get the technology and the trade secrets, come what may.

This kind of behavior is one borne from something that’s far bigger than a single company … it’s a directive that’s coming from “China, Inc.”  Translation: The Chinese government.

The actions of the Trump administration regarding trade policy and protecting intellectual property can seem boorish, awkward and even clumsy at times. But in another sense, it’s a breath of fresh air after decades of the well-groomed, oh-so-proper “experts” who thought they were the smartest people in the room — but were being taken to the cleaners again and again.

What are your thoughts about “yesterday, today and the future” of trade, industrial espionage and technology transfer vis a vis China? Are we in a new era of tougher controls and tougher standards, or is this going to be only a momentary setback in China’s insatiable desire to become the world’s most important economy?  Please share your thoughts and perspectives with other readers here.

Making sense of the conflicting narratives about China’s economic and political aspirations.

Astonishingly tone-deaf and factually questionable: “China is going to eat our lunch? Come on, man … they can’t even figure out how to deal with the fact that they have this great division between the China Sea and the mountains … in the west. They can’t figure out how they’re going to deal with the corruption that exists within the system. I mean, you know, they’re not bad folks, folks. But guess what? They’re not competition for us.” (Former Vice President Joe Biden, May 1, 2019)

In recent months, we’ve been hearing a wide range of views about China’s economic and political aspirations and their potential implications for the United States.

Some of the opinions being expressed seem to be polar opposites — such as President Donald Trump’s pronouncements that the United States has been “ripped off” by China for decades.  Contrast this with former Vice President Joe Biden’s dismissive contention that China represents no competition for the United States at all.

Several days ago, the political commentator Dick Morris published an op-ed piece in the Western Journal in which he seems to be nearly 100% “all-in” with the alarmists.

The column is titled Trump Is Waging (and Winning) a Peaceful World War III Against China.  My curiosity aroused, I decided to get in touch with my brother, Nelson Nones, who has lived and worked in the Far East for the past 20+ years. Being an American “on the ground” in countries like China, Taiwan, South Korea, Thailand and Malaysia gives Nelson an interesting perspective from which to be a “reality check” on the views we’re hearing locally.

I sent Nelson a link to the Morris op-ed and asked for his reaction. Here is what he communicated back to me: 

I think Dick Morris is correct to contend that the Chinese government’s long-term vision is bigger than just accumulating more wealth and power. In fact, I wrote about this topic in the book I co-authored with Janson Yap, when describing China’s “Belt and Road” initiatives as a geographic positioning threat to Singapore.

 I wrote:  

“As a land-based strategy, the SREB [Silk Road Economic Belt] promises greater long-term rewards for China than the MSR [Maritime Silk Road]; these would echo the impact of the completion of the first transcontinental railroad in 1869, which marked the beginning of the ascendancy of the U.S. to becoming one of the preeminent economic empires of all time.”

 The context here is, if you look back through history, the world’s most dominant economic empires were either terrestrial or maritime — but not both — until the U.S. came along. As I further wrote in the book:

“After gaining control over both strategic land and maritime trade routes with the completion of the Panama Canal in 1913, America became the first land-based and maritime economic empire in history; its dominance has spanned over a century, from 1916 to the present. Uncoincidentally, the American economic empire began when the Panama Canal was completed, but the Panama Canal has arguably contributed far less to America’s GDP than the country’s investments in transcontinental rail and road transportation infrastructure.” 

In short, I am absolutely sure China’s government aspires to overtake the U.S. as the world’s dominant terrestrial and maritime economic empire, and to hold that position for at least a century if not longer. But this would not be the first time in history that China has held such a position. 

For the historical context, refer to: http://fortune.com/2014/10/05/most-powerful-economic-empires-of-all-time/. There you will see that the U.S. produced half the world’s economic output in circa 1950. China’s Song Dynasty was the world’s preeminent economic empire in circa 1200 AD, producing 25% to 30% of global output. Only the U.S. and the Roman Empire have ever matched or exceeded that marker. 

I can tell you from my considerable experience on the ground in China that the strategic vision of its leaders is grounded in much more than just backward-looking grievance and necessity. Although the 19th Century Opium Wars (which were fought during the Qing Dynasty against the British Empire, and occurred during the period of the British Empire’s economic ascendancy) are often trotted out in China’s government-controlled English language dailies, the Chinese people I know have little or no knowledge of the Opium Wars or the colonial victimization China allegedly suffered a century and a half ago.  

But they are acutely aware, and genuinely proud, of China’s emergence as a leading economic powerhouse; and this is how the Chinese government maintains its legitimacy.   

China’s ambitions, in other words, have much more to do with reinstating its former glory (the Song Dynasty economic empire) than with righting wrongs (dominance by colonial powers), and are fundamental props for maintaining the Chinese Communist Party’s grip on power. 

This view renders many of Dick Morris’ comments unnecessarily hyperbolic; for example “[China’s] goal is to reduce the rest of the world to colonial or dominion status, controlled politically, socially, intellectually, and economically by China. In turn, China is run by a handful of men in Beijing who need not pay the slightest attention to the views of those they govern or the nations they dominate.”  

No, China’s goal is to become the world’s dominant economic empire but, just as the Americans before them, they don’t have to exert the same degree of control over the rest of the world as they do within their own territory to achieve this goal.  

And no, they require constant support from the Chinese population to achieve this goal, even though they run an authoritarian state. Why else would they devote so many resources to the “Great Chinese Firewall” if there is no need to “pay the slightest attention to the views of those they govern”? 

Yes, Trump’s trade war with China is important but his motive is to reverse the flow of jobs and capital out of the U.S. to China, which is not the same thing as launching an “economic World War III.” At a more practical and mundane level, it’s to fulfil a pile of campaign promises which Trump made when he was running for President, and to secure the loyalty of his base. 

_______________________________

So there you have it: the perspectives of someone “on the scene” in the Far East — holding a view that is more nuanced than the hyperbole of the alarmists, but also clear-eyed and miles apart from the head-in-the-sand naiveté of other politicians like Joe Biden.

Let’s also hope for a more meaningful and reality-based discourse on the topic of China in the coming months and years.

China-bashing is taking its toll.

Over the past year, Americans have been fed a fairly steady stream of news about the People’s Republic of China – and most of it hasn’t been particularly positive.

While Russia may get the more fevered news headlines because of the various political investigations happening in Washington, the current U.S. presidential administration hasn’t shied away from criticizing China on a range woes – trade policy in particular most recently, but also diverse other issues like alleged unfair technology transfer policies, plus the building of man-made islands in the South China Sea thereby bringing Chinese military power closer to other countries in the Pacific Rim.

The drumbeat of criticism could be expected to affect popular opinion about China – and that appears to be the case based on a just-published report from the Pew Research Center.

The Pew report is based on a survey of 1,500 American adults age 18 and over, conducted during the spring of 2018.  It’s a survey that’s been conducted annually since 2012 using the same set of questions (and going back annually to 2005 for a smaller group of the questions).

The newest study shows that the opinions Americans have about China have become somewhat less positive over the past year, after having nudged higher in 2017.

The topline finding is this: today, ~38% of Americans have a favorable opinion of China, which is a drop of six percentage points from Pew’s 2017 finding of ~44%.  We are now flirting with the same favorability levels that Pew was finding during the 2013-2016 period [see the chart above].

Drilling down further, the most significant concerns pertain to China’s economic competition, not its military strength. In addition to trade and tariff concerns, another area of growing concern is about the threat of cyber-attacks from China.

There are also the perennial concerns about the amount of U.S. debt held by China, as well as job losses to China; this has been a leading issue in the Pew surveys dating back to 2012. But even though debt levels remain a top concern, its raw score has fallen pretty dramatically over the past six years.

On the other hand, a substantial and growing percentage of Americans expresses worries about the impact of China’s growth on the quality of the global environment.

Interestingly, the proportion of Americans who consider China’s military prowess to be a bigger threat compared to an economic threat has dropped by a statistically significant seven percentage points over the past year – from 36% to 29%. Perhaps unsurprisingly, younger Americans age 18-29 are far less prone to have concerns over China’s purported saber-rattling – differing significantly from how senior-age respondents feel on this topic.

Taken as a group, eight issues presented by Pew Research in its survey revealed the following ranking of factors, based on whether respondents consider them to be “a serious problem for the United States”:

  • Large U.S. debt held by China: ~62% of respondents consider a “serious problem”
  • Cyber-attacks launched from China: ~57%
  • Loss of jobs to China: ~52%
  • China’s impact on the global environment: ~49%
  • Human rights issues:  ~49%
  • The U.S. trade deficit with China: ~46%
  • Chinese territorial disputes with neighboring countries: ~32%
  • Tensions between China and Taiwan: ~21%

Notice that the U.S. trade deficit isn’t near the top of the list … but Pew does find that it is rising as a concern.

If the current trajectory of tit-for-tat tariff impositions continues to occur, I suspect we’ll see the trade issue being viewed by the public as a more significant problem when Pew administers its next annual survey one year from now.

Furthermore, now that the United States has just concluded negotiations with Canada and Mexico on a “new NAFTA” agreement, coupled with recent trade agreements made with South Korea and the EU countries, it makes the administration’s target on China as “the last domino” just that much more significant.

More detailed findings from the Pew Research survey can be viewed here.

China’s controversial product supplier pledge: An “on the ground” view from the Far East.

The business world is abuzz about the latest moves by China to regulate the behavior of U.S. and other foreign companies that choose to do business in that country.  What’s the real skinny?

contract

While much of the reporting and commentary has been decidedly scant on details, we can actually take a look at the official document that contains the various provisos the Chinese government is intending to impose on foreign companies.

Ostensibly, the declaration is aimed at “protecting user security.” Here are the six provisions that make up the declaration:

Information Technology Product Supplier Declaration of Commitment to Protect User Security

Our company agrees to strictly adhere to the two key principles of “not harming national security and not harming consumer rights” and hereby promises to:

#1.  Respect the user’s right to know. To clearly advise users of the scope, purpose, quantity, storage location, etc. of information collected about the user; and to use clear and easy-to-understand language in the user agreement regarding policies and details of protecting user security and privacy.

#2.  Respect the user’s right to control. To permit the user to determine the scope of information that is collected and products and systems that are controlled; to collect user information only after openly obtaining user permission, and to use collected user information to [sic] the authorized purposes only.

#3.  Respect the user’s right to choice. To allow the user to agree, reject or withdraw agreement for collection of user information; to permit the user to choose to install or uninstall non-essential components; to not restrict user selection of other products and services.

#4.  Guarantee product safety and trustworthiness. To use effective measures to ensure the security and trustworthiness of products during the design, development, production, delivery and maintenance processes; to provide timely notice and fixes upon discovery of security vulnerabilities; to not install any hidden functionalities or operations the user is unaware of [sic] within the product.

#5.  Guarantee the security of user information. To employ effective measures to guarantee that any user information that is collected or processed isn’t illegally altered, leaked, or used; to not transfer, store or process any sensitive user information collected within the China market outside China’s borders without express permission of the user or approval from relevant authorities.

#6.  Accept the supervision of all parts of society. To promise to accept supervision from all parts of society, to cooperate with third-party institutions for assessment and verification that products are secure and controllable and that user information is protected etc. to prove actual compliance with these commitments.

Often with China, there are “official” pronouncements … and then there’s what’s “really” going on behind the curtain.

So to find out the real skinny, I decided to ask my brother, Nelson Nones, who has lived and worked in East Asia for years.  Since Nelson’s business activities take him to China and all of the other key Asian economies on a regular basis, I figured that his perspectives would be well-grounded and worth hearing.  Here’s Nelson’s take:

Points 1 through 3 are fundamentally no different from the provisions of personal data protection laws already on the books in the 27 member states of the European Union, plus Australia, Hong Kong, Iceland, India, Japan, South Korea, Liechtenstein, Macau, Malaysia, New Zealand, Norway, Singapore, the Philippines, Taiwan and some U.S. states.  Nor do they materially differ from privacy policy best practices — so I would not see these as particularly onerous or unreasonable.

The key difference is that these points are not enshrined in law in Mainland China, so compliance is voluntary at the moment (as it was in Singapore until 2013) – presumably binding on only those companies that sign this declaration. 

News reports also indicate that China has asked only American technology companies to sign its Declaration of Commitment, implying that domestic Chinese companies aren’t necessarily held to the same standards — although if this is truly the case, it might actually put Chinese companies at a competitive disadvantage by enhancing the appeal of American technology products to discerning Chinese users.

Point 4 doesn’t generally fall within the scope of existing personal data protection laws, but in my view its provisions fall well within the QA and warranty commitments that any legitimate technology company should be prepared to make in today’s competitive environment.

Comparing Point 5 with legislation currently in force within the European Union, Australia, Hong Kong, Iceland, India, Japan, South Korea, Liechtenstein, Macau, Malaysia, New Zealand, Norway, Singapore, the Philippines, Taiwan and some U.S. states, this point lacks some really key definitions, including:  

  • Who exactly is a “data subject” who is entitled to personal (i.e. user) data protection?
  • Who exactly is the “data controller” who owns the user information that is being collected or processed?
  • Who might be the “data processor” who stores and/or processes user information on behalf of the “data controller”?

EU Data Protection DirectiveThe legislation and regulations I’ve reviewed in this realm provide very explicit (and varied) definitions of these entities. Unlike China’s Declaration of Commitment, for instance, the E.U. Data Protection Directive allows “data controllers” or “data processors” to transfer user data outside the E.U., as long as the country where the data is transferred protects the rights of “data subjects” as much as the E.U. 

It also defines which “data controllers” and “data processors” must comply with E.U. law, based on whether or not they store or process personal information with the E.U., or operate within the E.U. (regardless of where the data is actually stored or processed).

The requirement to keep sensitive user information within China’s borders, in the absence of permission from users or “relevant authorities” to transfer, store or process it elsewhere, could also be seen as an attempt by the Chinese government to enlist the help of American technology companies in circumventing the U.S. government’s ongoing Internet data-gathering programs.

If this attempt succeeds, it might further enhance the appeal of American technology products to discerning Chinese users. 

Point 6 is garnering the most headlines in the West because of the implied threat that cooperating with “third-party institutions for assessment and verification … to prove actual compliance with these commitments” could mean being forced to reveal source code or encryption algorithms.  

However, in classic Chinese style, none of that is actually spelled out. 

Green Dam Youth Escort ServiceA little history about this: Over the past decade, the Chinese government has put forward various proposals for controlling IT – and then abruptly withdrawing them in the face of domestic as well as global criticism. Here are two: 

As for implications, China’s Declaration of Commitment shouldn’t have significant impact on companies that aren’t in the consumer IT market.  At best, its first five points could potentially improve the competitiveness of American IT products in the  Chinese market.    

However, I would advise any tech companies that may be wondering what to do, to sit on their hands for a while. Law in China is always a “work in progress,” so the safest bet is to wait for that “progress” for as long as possible.

So there you have it – the view from someone who is smack in the middle of the business economy in East Asia. If you have your own perspectives to share on the topic, I’m sure other readers would be interested to hear them as well.

How China’s economic woes will affect the United States: A view from East Asia.

Chinese economyIt’s only natural for Americans to be somewhat spooked about what’s happening in the financial markets, what with thousand-point drops on the stock exchanges and all.

It’s even more disconcerting to realize that the forces in play are ones that have little to do with the American economy and a lot more to do with Europe and China. (China in particular, where bubbles seem to be bursting all over the place with the fallout being felt everywhere else.)

In times like this, I seek out the thoughts and perspectives of my brother, Nelson Nones, an IT specialist and business owner who has lived and worked outside the United States for nearly 20 years — much of that time spend in the Far East.

To me, Nelson’s thoughts on world economic matters are always worth hearing because he has the benefit of weighing issues from a global perspective instead of simply a more parochial one (like mine).

Nelson Nones
Nelson Nones

Yesterday, I had the opportunity to ask Nelson a few questions about what’s happening in the Chinese economy, how it is affecting the U.S. economy, and what he sees coming down the road. Here are his perspectives:

PLN: What is your view of the Chinese economy — and what does the future portend?

NMN: I’m a real pessimist when it comes to the current state of the Chinese economy. I also think the Chinese will turn on themselves politically as their economic house of cards is collapsing — so look for a sharp upturn in political and social turmoil as well.

Just as the bubble burst in the U.S. and Europe in 2007-08, it’s bursting now in China — and the rest of East Asia (South Korea, Japan, Thailand and Singapore) are going to get caught in the fallout because of the extent to which their economies are reliant on trade with China.

 PLN: What do you look at, specifically, for clues as to future economic movements?

NMN: The barometer to watch is the price of oil. It plummeted in 2007, presaging the “great recession” in the West.

untitledOil prices began to drop again in 2014.  The U.S. oil benchmark fell below $40 per barrel on August 24, 2015, a level not seen since 2009. I believe the underlying root cause is a sharp contraction of East Asian demand due to the economic bubbles bursting over here, coupled with persistently high supply as Middle Eastern oil exporters compete against American producers to protect market share.

PLN: How will these developments affect the U.S. economy?

NMN: The oil bust will continue in the U.S., dragging the economy down. But energy prices will be lower, buoying other parts of the American economy.  For instance, the domestic airline sector will benefit and consequential demand for Boeing jets will grow.

U.S. imports — specifically, imports from China and the rest of East Asia — will become cheaper as China and other countries allow their currencies to fall in order to protect their exports.

This is probably a “net-neutral” for the US economy in that American exports will be hurt due to the relatively stronger U.S. Dollar, but American consumers will benefit from lower prices. So, the direct economic impact is likely to be mixed.

PLN: So, why worry?

NMN: The real risk, in my opinion, is a global liquidity crisis. Over the past quarter-century, China and other East Asian countries have accrued enormous wealth. But they didn’t hoard their newfound wealth; they invested it both domestically and overseas.

China has invested ginormous amounts of cash in domestic infrastructure and housing. That money is already spent, and a sizeable part of the investment has already gone to waste in the form of corruption, new housing that nobody wants, underutilized transport infrastructure and non-performing loans made to inefficient state-owned enterprises. 

All of this will eventually need to be written off (that’s why their bubble is bursting).

But China has also invested lots of money in overseas financial instruments. Think of the Chinese as the folks who financed the Federal Reserve’s Quantitative Easing program as well as Federal debt in the U.S. But as the Chinese run out of cash at home, they will increasingly need to liquidate their overseas investments just to pay their bills.

This poses a very real threat to the fiscal stability of U.S. and European governments, and to the supply of capital in U.S. and European financial markets.

The Federal Reserve is likely to be caught in a double-bind. On the one hand, if the Fed raises interest rates in response to the reduced supply of capital (as it is widely assumed they will, later this year), they risk choking off the tepid U.S. recovery currently underway.

This would also cause the U.S. Dollar to strengthen further, thereby exacerbating the negative impact of the Chinese bust by making U.S. exports less competitive in global markets.

On the other hand, if the Fed leaves interest rates where they are (basically zero), then they won’t be able to attract enough capital to roll over the public debt that the Chinese are trying to liquidate. In other words, the Fed risks a “run on the bank.”

The Fed can deal with this by printing more money (more or less what the Chinese did in 2007-8), but this would inevitably introduce inflationary pressures in the U.S. It would also lengthen the time it takes for the Chinese to right their ship, because it will put downward pressure on the U.S. Dollar, thereby constraining whatever the East Asians can do to boost exports.

My guess is that the Federal Reserve will “blink” and keep interest rates at zero (and also print more money to pay off the Chinese) in hopes that (somewhat) cheaper imports will offset (some of) the inflationary impact of printing more money.

This is equivalent to kicking the can down the road.

PLN: Do you see any impact on the 2016 Presidential race in the United States?

NMN: As a result of kicking the can down the road, I foresee little impact on the 2016 U.S. Presidential race — but watch out in 2020 when the hangover is well underway.

Alternatively if the Fed raises interest rates, I suspect the Democratic Party candidate will be more vulnerable because the short-term economic pain will be much higher in the U.S. The incumbent party will get most of the blame. Fair or not, that’s just the way bread-and-butter issues play out in American politics.

PLN: What about unrest in China — might that have political repercussions in America? 

NMN: The way I see it, political or social turmoil in China will have zero impact on the U.S. Presidential race. Americans of nearly every political stripe or ideology dislike or distrust Chinese governance, yet unlike the “China lobby” of the Cold War era, they have no appetite to intervene in what they rightly perceive to be internal Chinese affairs.  

Or they’re clueless about events in East Asia. Or they just don’t care.

So there you have it — a view from the Far East. If you have other perspectives, please share them with our readers here.

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Update (8/28/15):  A few days after this post was uploaded, I received this follow-up from Nelson:

Just as I had predicted, check out this link.  Federal debt is getting more expensive to finance, because the drop in demand for U.S. Treasury bonds (caused by the Chinese liquidation apparently underway) is driving yields up.  According to the article, “The liquidation of such a large position, if it continues, could wreak havoc on the Treasuries market.”
Now look here:  http://www.bloombergview.com/quicktake/federal-reserve-quantitative-easing-tape. It’s an easily understandable explanation of how the Federal Reserve’s quantitative easing (QE) program worked.  Essentially the Fed, like China, stepped in to buy Treasuries also. The Fed also bought mortgage-backed securities.
The Fed’s purchases of Treasuries and mortgage-backed securities now make up ~85% of the Fed’s assets.  The Fed hasn’t indicated what it will do when these assets mature, but if it doesn’t roll over this debt (or a portion thereof) then we can expect Treasury yields to rise yet again. Even if the Fed decides to keep interest rates where they are, at near-zero, rising Treasury yields could bring on a liquidity crunch within the private sector as capital is increasingly drawn away from private investments (loans, corporate bonds and equities) to government-issued bonds paying higher yields with little risk.
Facing the Chinese liquidation, this is why I suspect the Fed will opt to roll over its holdings of Treasuries and mortgage-backed securities, and keep interest rates at near-zero, at least through the 2016 Presidential election cycle.  The Bloomberg article cited above describes QE as an alternative to printing more money, but in the end it’s really the same thing.

Hotel in a Hurry: 30 Stories Built in 15 Days

Chalk up another eyebrow-raising construction engineering marvel in Asia. Malaysia and Taiwan may have the world’s largest skyscrapers, but China is becoming the “quick construction” center of the universe.

The latest example is a 30-story hotel prototype structure built in Changsha, China in just 15 days at the end of last year.

Broad Group, the construction company responsible for the feat, claims that the 183,000 sq. ft. hotel can withstand a 9.0 magnitude earthquake, along with being substantially more energy efficient, sound and heat insulated than conventionally constructed facilities.

Broad Group completed this hotel just a few weeks after completing another “quick construct” project in China’s Hunan Province — the 15-story Ark Hotel — in just six days.

Here’s a time-elapsed video of the Ark Hotel construction, spanning a grand total of 360 hours. Reportedly, there were no on-the-job injuries despite the hyper-compressed timeframe.

How did Broad Group accomplish this feat? The company reports that it uses prefabricated modules rather than building the entire structure onsite. These modules shorten the time while making construction management coordination much easier. It’s interesting to see in the video how that coordination works to telescope the time needed for building.

Of course, the next question that comes to mind is whether something like this could ever be “exported” to the United States. Or would there be a raft of regulations, safety and environmental obstacles in the way to make it impossible?

Anyone care to weigh in with thoughts?