Archive | Trade

The Build Act is new US anti-China weapon

In the hubbub over the US-China trade war, one element of it skipped my notice: an act passed through both chambers of the US Congress which will heighten tension, reduce environmental safeguards & politicise aid.

The Build Act (full title, the Better Utilisation of Investments Leading to Development Act) is overtly political in its requirement for projects to serve a US foreign policy purpose.

This will be done through a new organisation, the International Development Finance Corp (IDFC), which will replace the Overseas Private Investment Corporation (OPIC), set up in 1969.

Sarah Brewin, an agriculture & investment advisor to the International Institute for Sustainable Development, wrote about the enactment of the policy change in an article for the Independent Media Institute, which appeared on EcoWatch last week.

Her key paragraph:

“The Build Act requires the IDFC to develop guidelines & criteria to ensure that each project it supports has ‘a clearly defined development & foreign policy purpose.’ The requirement that all projects serve a foreign policy purpose, combined with weakened environmental protections, could see the IDFC supporting environmentally damaging projects if they are seen to be in US foreign policy interests – for instance, if it was thought that if not financed by IDFC, the project would instead be financed by a ‘strategic competitor,’with debt, influence & diplomatic relations accruing to that competitor rather than the US.”

The Build Act advances President Donald Trump’s view that human activity is the cause of climate change, while also advancing his anti-China cause.

EcoWatch, 4 December 2018: A US-China investment war is quietly emerging, and the environment will be the ultimate casualty
Reuters article, 4 October 2018: Congress, eying China, votes to overhaul development finance
International Institute for Sustainable Development

Attribution: EcoWatch, Reuters.

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The debt clock pounds on, Trump & Xi use different decks of cards, Lagarde wants illusions to come true

I did a longer count on Sunday morning to see if my 36 seconds estimate of how long it takes the US Debt Clock to add $US1 million to the country’s national public debt was correct. From 8.55am, my estimate put the tick over to a total $US21.8 trillion at 9.14am. It was right on time.

While this is a game that can amuse a small mind, it’s also a deadly serious game.

The US Federal Reserve will feel obliged to lift its funds rate at least once in its next 3 scheduled meetings and has warned of a possible 3 raises in 2019, but…. And it’s a big but.

Inconvenient for Trump’s power game

President Donald Trump doesn’t want to add $US55 billion/year to the interest bill through one quarter-percent raise, let alone 2 or 3 of them. But his primary target at the moment is to get a trade deal with China, primarily requiring a step back from technology transfer which US officialdom has deemed illicit.

The answer to the question, which will be posed in Buenos Aires this afternoon NZ time as Mr Trump & China’s president-for-life, Xi Jinping, sit down to dinner, will require an answer from the Chinese leader: How long does he want to be president for life?

If his answer is (1), a short time, he can acquiesce to every Trump demand, or even just that main one.

If his answer is (2), a long time, he can tell Mr Trump there is no way he can acquiesce, because he would be out of office, and probably out of breath, around the time his plane lands in Beijing. For that answer he needs a backup plan that saves face, puts a convoluted timeframe in place for technology change, reduces some US tariffs and involves at least some US oversight of change plus agreement allowing a better deal for US exports to China.

Even if China isn’t breaking US & Word Trade Organisation trade agreements, Mr Xi is in no position to disagree. His country’s trade position is worsening, China is spending reserves propping up malfunctioning businesses, and he doesn’t have a tariff response to match Mr Trump’s.

One Xi option: distractions

Mr Xi can look to alternatives while simply smiling with his lips pursed, as he does in all his photos with Mr Trump. He can widen China’s South China Sea military presence by adding drills in the North Pacific Ocean, where the only notable dot of land between China & California is Hawaii, and increasing investment in the South Pacific, perhaps along with some military presence.

If he relaxes the debt arrangements for Belt & Road investment, China will be able to advance that programme more rapidly. African nations are an open target and less of a focus for the US.

There is thus scope for Mr Xi to ease tension and create distractions, probably in timeframes to suit himself so long as he indicates a confirm response on addressing technology transfer.

For Mr Trump, that leaves the question of the growing US debt, which he needs to address while avoiding tipping the stock markets into reversal. He can do that by agreeing a China trade deal that sees more industrial activity in the US, lifting trade & stock positions on the one hand while at least slowing the rise of national debt on the other.

As Trump talks proprietary, Lagarde talks propriety

International Monetary Fund manging director Christine Lagarde was plainly focused on these issues when she sent out a release this morning NZ time calling for “decisive & collaborative action” by Group of 20 leaders “as global growth moderates and risks increase”.

She didn’t name anybody, certainly didn’t propose any specific
solutions, but did throw a couple of figures into the air to show effects if the trade war spreads.

She said the IMF estimated 0.75% of global gdp could be lost by 2020 (that’s a year away) “if recently raised & threatened tariffs were to remain in place and announced tariffs were implemented”.

On the other hand, she said, “If, instead, trade restrictions in services were reduced by 15%, global gdp could be higher by 0.5%. The choice is clear: there is an urgent need to de-escalate trade tensions, reverse recent tariff increases and modernise the rules-based multilateral trade system.”

For Mr Trump, Ms Lagarde’s recipe is easy: Mr Xi accedes to his primary demand, in some form, and US trade will be rising in crucial markets ahead of the 2020 presidential election.

For Mr Xi, it’s harder. He needs to turn China’s domestic markets around but also reduce depletion of reserves, and he can only do both of those by agreeing some sort of external change. The trick will be to turn the technology transfer dispute into a win, which he can do by negotiating terms that appear favourable.

He can put some pressure back on Mr Trump by delaying change, and thereby delaying the impetus of business growth back home, which Mr Trump will be focused on heading to November 2020.

Ms Lagarde also had her eye on an issue which the 2 trade giants have been setting aside, “the excessive level of global debt – about $US182 trillion by the IMF’s estimate”. That debt total is international, public & private, and disguised because much of it is in the form of derivatives. A small tumble could quickly escalate into a worldwide collapse.

Her solution is one the “highly indebted emerging-market & low-income countries” she spoke of on one side of the balance sheet are unable to dictate, and one derivative marketeers are unlikely to support wholeheartedly while they’re making mega-returns from scalping their clients.

She said: “It is important, particularly for highly indebted emerging-market & low-income countries, to rebuild buffers and reverse procyclical fiscal policies. Increasing debt transparency, such as on the volumes & terms of loans, by borrowers as well as lenders, is as important as supporting debt sustainability.”

Ms Lagarde recommended 5 policies to the G-20’s members:

  1. Fix trade – priority No 1 to boost growth & jobs
  2. Continue to normalise monetary policy in a well communicated, gradual, data-driven manner – and with due regard to potential spillover effects
  3. Address financial risks, using micro- & macro-prudential tools to tackle problems related to leveraged lending, deteriorating credit quality & high exposure to foreign currency or foreign-owned debt
  4. Use exchange rate flexibility to mitigate external pressures, avoiding tariffs & other policies that could weaken market confidence, and
  5. Eliminate legal obstacles to the participation of women in the economy. This is key to tackling high & persistent inequality, and would add to the growth potential of all G-20 countries.

Realistically, what chance?

The first of those policies is less about trade, more about a power struggle deep into the 21st century. The big players will treat innocent bystanders like roadkill.

“Normalising” monetary policy is about handing to future politicians the gloss the incumbents want for themselves. Few will heed Ms Lagarde’s call. The debt mountain will grow.

Bankers can adopt more conservative practices – but what happens when competitors don’t? Or if a bailout is a prospect?

A large financial player – say, one of the world’s big banks – can adjust a small country’s exchange rate at will. Ms Lagarde is talking about exchange rates floating on the tide, untainted by sharp practices. Wholesome, unmanipulated. In short, an illusion.

And last, Ms Lagarde is talking about unravelling the deeply embedded misogyny that ensures inequality is the norm in much of the world. Her recommendation is to be rational, but she’s talking about upending centuries of religious & cultural dogma that it’s been convenient for males to uphold.

As Mrs Brown of Irish TV programme fame would say: “That’s nice.”

US Debt Clock

Attribution: IMF release.

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The trade war that’s a proxy for a world power struggle

We have to watch the US-China trade dispute for its potential impacts here, along with many other international indicators of change.

The other obvious indicators are predominantly American – the Federal Reserve’s interest rate decisions and the programmes it launched post-global financial crisis, first to “quantitatively ease” and now to “quantitatively tighten”; the rising US public debt mountain; but also the ability of major US investors to seek out best opportunities.

In property, those US investors, such as Blackstone Group LP, have scoured the world for opportunities to invest rapidly increasing funds under their management.

That has meant targeting some European markets – Scandinavia has been popular recently, European residential portfolios have become popular over the last 3-4 years, and sometimes these foreign investors will buy in eastern Europe’s growing office & retail sectors.

Blackstone has also invested in New Zealand. In May, it bought the VXV leasehold office portfolio along Fanshawe St in the Auckland cbd from the joint venture between the Goodman Property Trust & Singapore sovereign wealth fund GIC for $NZ635 million.

In 2016, Blackstone bought Australian property giant Lend Lease Group’s portfolio of 5 retirement villages in New Zealand.

Trade issues are a comparative niggle

Those are investment examples, and there are many others. But the greatest influence unfolding internationally is much less about the intricacies of investment or trade behaviour.

The White House issued a report on 19 June harshly criticising Chinese behaviour on trade, and the Chinese Government-controlled People’s Daily lashed back on 17 July, with plenty of shouting between-times & since.

The 19 June report was issued by the White House Office of Trade & Manufacturing Policy, “outlining how China’s policies threaten the economic & national security of the US”.

The opening sentence of the White House report – a 2017 quote from the US-China Economic & Security Review Commission – confirms my view of what the trade war is a proxy for: “The Chinese government is implementing a comprehensive, long-term industrial strategy to ensure its global dominance.”

In short: The US is weaker than it’s used to being, doesn’t like it and is behaving fractiously.

The People’s Daily’s 17 July response includes the following: “After the White House website published a report on 19 June, accusing China of resorting to ‘economic aggression’, ‘economic coercion’ & ‘technology theft’, the United States has used the ever-intensifying trade conflict to launch a ‘targeted attack’ against China.

“But groundless verbal accusations can never resolve trade disputes between any 2 countries, let alone between China & the US. They can be settled only through objective & rational analysis of the causes followed by sincere negotiations.

The People’s Daily went on to ways the US had encouraged foreign input to its expertise, and the price China had paid in recent years for foreign intellectual property: “Aside from introducing knowledge from other countries, the US also attaches considerable importance to introducing scientists & technology experts from abroad to boost its innovation capability and consolidate its leading technological position. It is estimated that more than one-third of frontline researchers in the US were born in other countries, and the number of non-native US Nobel laureates was as high as 63 between 1901 & 2015, one-fifth of its total Nobel Prize winners. This makes the US’s accusation that China introduces foreign talents and encourages overseas Chinese students to return home to boost its technological development not only ludicrous but also immoral….

“And since 2001, the fees China has paid for using foreign intellectual property have grown on average 17%/year to reach $US28.6 billion last year.”

NZ’s position, and property interests

New Zealand can’t take sides in that kind of global positioning argument – either way, we’d probably lose. We can improve our relations with South Pacific islands through constructive investment & aid, and possibly through partnership with interests from both China & the US.

New Zealand is also embarking on a scheduled review of its free trade agreement with China. One issue falling outside that agreement will be the investment by Chinese nationals in New Zealand property. Our government has taken action to constrain Chinese investment in existing houses, and China has exerted more controls over its citizens’ export of money.

But there are plenty of Chinese investors playing important roles in New Zealand property. One big player in the Auckland residential market, Universal Homes Ltd, is owned these days by the state-owned China Merchants Group Ltd of Beijing & Hong Kong, a vast conglomerate.

Another, newer player in New Zealand property is China Construction Bank (NZ) Ltd, subsidiary of China Construction Bank Corp, originally (and largely still) a Chinese Government company, now listed in Hong Kong & Shanghai. Bank of America bought 9% of it in 2005, grew its stake to 10.5% and sold out completely in 2013.

Fu Wah NZ Ltd, a subsidiary of Chinese billionaire Chan Laiwa’s Fu Wah International Group, is developing the 200-room Park Hyatt hotel on the central city side of the Wynyard Quarter.

Hengyi Pacific (NZ) Ltd, part of Shandong Hengyi Investment Group Co Ltd, based in the Shandong province north of Shanghai, has started development of the 295-apartment Pacifica building between Commerce, Fort & Gore Sts in downtown Auckland, and local & Chinese company Shundi Customs Ltd has started the 221-apartment Seascape on Customs St East. Shundi’s building management is by China Construction NZ Ltd, a subsidiary of China Construction Eighth Engineering Division Corp Ltd, of Shanghai.

Trade war – or power struggle positioning?

Those are interests & investment partnerships more closely tying New Zealand & China. In essence, trade, with some scope for political positioning.

In contrast, I see the Donald Trump-inspired trade war as a weapon in a power struggle – the action purportedly to correct wrongful trade positioning is gamesmanship. After all, the US has been the world’s leading trade negotiator for decades and, if it chose to acquiesce in positions it could have improved on during negotiation, so be it.

A question at this point, in case you think the giant of capitalism has it over the theoretically communist novice: Does a nation schooled in poker beat a nation schooled in mah jong?

For their chips, the US has rising international debt and China owns a large portion of that. The US greenback is the reserve currency for about 60% of world trade, and China isn’t in a position to drive the value of those greenbacks down. But China has gained a stronger international currency position this year as one of the 5 BRICS nations (Brazil, Russia, India, China & South Africa) which, combined, have joined the US in having veto power at the International Monetary Fund (IMF), and thus a stronger position to support the IMF’s special drawing rights usurping much of the $US’s role in international exchange.

The power struggle is a different matter from trade issues, for which mediation routes are available, and is highlighted by China’s determination to reopen variations on the old Silk Road and, this year, by more openly using, for military purposes, the dots in the South China Sea it has turned into islands. China has also started to extend its influence through the Pacific Ocean, impacting on Australia & New Zealand’s long-begrudging support of South Pacific neighbours.

China has neatly positioned itself to challenge US dominance in the Pacific, and has challenged New Zealand’s relationship with South Pacific islands, bringing harsh talk from Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern & Acting Prime Minister Winston Peters.

Speaking your mind is one thing, enforcing your position is another, and New Zealand is not in any sense in a position of power.

Those Chinese contributors to our construction sector are part of a strengthening of New Zealand’s economy through diversity, while Chinese banking interests bring long-needed diversity to that sector.

While Australia seems as closely tied to US international positions as ever, New Zealand’s more independent stance recently opens up a role to introduce rational behaviour to the big powers’ brinkmanship.

Chinese People’s Daily, 17 July 2018: US tech claims biased & baseless
White House, 19 June 2018: Report release: “How China’s economic aggression threatens the technologies & intellectual property of the United States & the world”
White House, 18 June 2018: Report: How China’s economic aggression threatens the technologies & intellectual property of the United States & the world
White House, 29 May 2018: President Donald J Trump is confronting China’s unfair trade policies
White House, 29 May 2018: Statement on steps to protect domestic technology & intellectual property from China’s discriminatory & burdensome trade practices
Stuff, 28 May 2018: Winston Peters says first China trip successful, talks peace & security in Asia-Pacific
US-China Economic & Security Commission, 15 November 2017: Annual report to Congress (quote from page 24)
China Merchants Group
Universal Homes

Related stories:
15 June 2018: 2 new Blackstone funds have $US9.4 billion to invest in Asia
18 May 2018: Goodman & Singapore fund sell VXV portfolio to Blackstone
11 February 2018: Spitting the dummy, and changing the international order
2 February 2018: Blackstone’s Arena Living buys Mt Eden Gardens
17 February 2016: Blackstone buys Lendlease’s NZ retirement villages

Attribution: People’s Daily, White House, Stuff, US-China Economic & Security Commission, IMF.

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US trade policy as advocated by Trump

If you think the messages from the White House are mixed, you’d be dead right. Against the background of the Trump tweets, US Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer delivered President Trump’s trade policy agenda & annual report to Congress last Wednesday, outlining how the administration “is promoting free, fair & reciprocal trade and strongly enforcing US trade laws.

“President Trump is keeping his promises to the American people on trade, from withdrawing the US from the flawed Trans-Pacific Partnership, to renegotiating NAFTA (the North American Free Trade Agreement), to strongly enforcing US trade laws.

“We are already seeing the results of President Trump’s agenda pay off for American workers, farmers, ranchers & businesses.”

Mr Lighthizer said the president’s trade policy agenda rested on 5 major pillars: 

  • Trade policy that supports national security policy
  • Strengthening the American economy
  • Negotiating trade deals that work for all Americans
  • Enforcing & defending US trade laws, and
  • Strengthening the multilateral trading system.

Donald Trump certainly has a different way of doing things, but central US policy aims haven’t changed under his leadership.

At the top of the trade policy is this: “Consistent with the national security strategy President Trump announced in December 2017, the president’s trade policy agenda recognises that economic prosperity at home is necessary for American power & influence abroad.”

Below, you can check out what President Trump is saying (in more than a tweet), and further down the page you can check his administration’s views on Chinese & Russian trade issues, illustrating why he’s taken the course he’s followed.

The view expressed in the trade policy agenda:

“Free, fair & reciprocal trade relations are a key component of the president’s strategy to promote American prosperity. Therefore, the Trump administration will work aggressively to address trade imbalances, promote fair & reciprocal trade relationships, enforce US rights under existing trade agreements, and work with like-minded countries to defend our common prosperity & security against economic aggression.

“Countries that are committed to market-based outcomes and that are willing to provide the US with reciprocal opportunities in their home markets will find a true friend & ally in the Trump administration.

“Countries that refuse to give us reciprocal treatment or who engage in other unfair trading practices will find that we know how to defend our interests.”

Strengthening the American economy

“The president’s trade agenda will build on the economic momentum provided by the Tax Cuts & Jobs Act and the administration’s efforts to reduce regulatory burdens. The Council of Economic Advisors reported in February that the US economy experienced strong & significant acceleration during President Trump’s first year in office.

“Growth in real gdp exceeded expectations, the unemployment rate fell to its lowest level in 17 years, and the economy added 2.2 million jobs. The Trump administration’s focus on fair & reciprocal trade, combined with the president’s tax cuts & regulatory relief, will lead to more efficient markets and make it easier for American workers & companies to succeed.”

Negotiating trade deals that work for all Americans

“The Trump administration will seek an extension of trade promotion authority until 2021 and aggressively use that authority to negotiate or revise trade agreements so they are fair, balanced and support American prosperity. However, the president’s trade policy agenda warns that the US Senate’s failure to confirm President Trump’s nominees to serve as deputy US trade representatives & chief agricultural negotiator ‘could significantly undermine’ efforts to move forward with trade negotiations.

“As part of its trade agenda for 2018, the Trump administration will continue renegotiating the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) to modernise & rebalance the 24-year-old trade pact, as well as negotiations to amend the Korea-US Free Trade Agreement (KORUS) in order to seek fairer, more reciprocal trade.

“The Trump administration intends to reach other agreements designed to promote fair, balanced trade and support American prosperity.

“As part of this effort, the US & the UK established a trade & investment working group in July 2017 to lay the groundwork for commercial continuity and prepare for a potential future trade agreement once the UK leaves the European Union. The administration will continue preparing for other potential bilateral agreements, including in the Indo-Pacific & African regions.”

Enforcing & defending US trade laws

“The Trump administration will continue to use all tools available under US law to combat unfair trade.

“In January 2018, President Trump exercised his authority under section 201 of the Trade Act of 1974 to provide safeguard relief to US manufacturers injured by imports of washing machines & solar panels. This was the first time section 201 had been used to impose tariffs in 16 years.

“The Trump administration in 2017 launched a self-initiated section 301 investigation with an in-depth probe into Chinese practices related to forced technology transfer, unfair licensing & intellectual property (IP) policies & practices. The Trump administration has successfully litigated a number of World Trade Organisation (WTO) disputes, helping force countries to abandon unfair practices and preserving the US right to enact fair laws.”

Strengthening the multilateral trading system

“The administration will work with all WTO members who share the US goal of using the organisation to create rules that will lead to more efficient markets, more trade & greater wealth for our citizens. However, the US is also concerned that the WTO is not operating as the contracting parties envisioned and, as a result, is undermining America’s ability to act in its national interest. The Trump administration will work with other like-minded countries to address these long-standing concerns.”

The allegations against China & Russia

The US Trade Representative, Robert Lighthizer, issued annual reports on 19 January containing the American view on China & Russia’s compliance with WTO rules since they joined the organisation in 2001 (China) & 2012 (Russia):

“China & Russia have failed to embrace the market-oriented economic policies championed by the World Trade Organisation and are not living up to certain key commitments they made when they joined the WTO.

“The US is committed to working with all WTO members who share our goal of using the WTO to create & enforce rules that lead to more efficient markets, reciprocal benefits & greater wealth for our citizens.

“However, as these 2 reports show, the global trading system is threatened by major economies who do not intend to open their markets to trade and participate fairly. This practice is incompatible with the market-based approach expressly envisioned by WTO members and contrary to the fundamental principles of the WTO.”

First, the Trump view on China

Selected highlights of the 2017 annual report on China’s WTO compliance:

“Today, almost 2 decades after it pledged to support the multilateral trading system of the WTO, the Chinese Government pursues a wide array of continually evolving interventionist policies & practices aimed at limiting market access for imported goods & services and foreign manufacturers & service suppliers.”

“China’s regulatory authorities do not allow US companies to make their own decisions about technology transfer and the assignment or licensing of intellectual property rights. Instead, they continue to require or pressure foreign companies to transfer technology as a condition for securing investment or other approvals.

“China is determined to maintain the state’s leading role in the economy and to continue to pursue industrial policies that promote, guide & support domestic industries while simultaneously & actively seeking to impede, disadvantage & harm their foreign counterparts, even though this approach is incompatible with the market-based approach expressly envisioned by WTO members and contrary to the fundamental principles running throughout the many WTO agreements.

“Many of the policy tools being used by the Chinese Government…are largely unprecedented, as other WTO members do not use them, and include a wide array of state intervention & support designed to promote the development of Chinese industry in large part by restricting, taking advantage of, discriminating against or otherwise creating disadvantages for foreign enterprises & their technologies, products & services.”

And the Trump view on Russia

Selected highlights of the 2017 annual report on Russia’s WTO compliance:

“So far, Russia’s actions strongly indicate that it has no intention of complying with many of the promises it made to the US & other WTO members. This trend is very troubling.

“Russia has done little in 2017 to demonstrate a commitment to the principles of the WTO or to many of the specific commitments that it made in the negotiations leading to Russia’s membership in the WTO.

“The agricultural sector continues to be one of the most challenging sectors for US exporters. In addition to the import ban on nearly all agricultural goods from the US & other WTO members, Russia continues to erect barriers to US agricultural exports.

“In 2017, notwithstanding a few tariff reductions, Russia increasingly appeared to turn away from the principles of the WTO, instead turning inward through the adoption of local content policies & practices. Russia continued to rely on arbitrary behind-the-border measures & other discriminatory practices to exclude US exports.”

US Trade Representative, 28 February 2018: Trump administration sends annual trade agenda report to Congress
US Trade Representative, 22 January 2018: President Trump approves relief for US washing machine & solar cell manufacturers
US Trade Representative, 19 January 2018: USTR releases annual reports on China’s & Russia’s WTO compliance

Attribution: White House.


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Dilbert creator spots the real Trump message

After reading through a review of Dilbert cartoon creator Scott Adams’ new book on the Trump influence, Win bigly, I thought about one of the many most recent issues the US president has raised.

If you think back even a short time, you’ll realise he raises new issues, or new ways of addressing older issues, one on top of the next.

Much of the media lampoons him, picks on him for airing outrageous lies, and there are those that are constantly updating their fact check pages.

What was your reaction to arming teachers instead of introducing gun control measures? Impractical? An expensive & overly complicated way of dealing with a problem? Avoiding the sensible solution that’s staring Mr Trump in the face?

Move to another recent issue: North Korea. This time it was Mr Trump doing the lampooning, calling North Korean leader Kim Jong-un Little Rocket Man. In one response, North & South Korea changed their relationship for the Winter Olympics, parading their teams as one, and the women’s hockey team was a united entry with a one-nation flag, uniform & song.

Move to a third issue: the wall along the Mexican border, which Mr Trump has said all along that Mexico will pay for. And, assuming it is built, you can bet Mexico will pay, one way or another.

As the book reviewer, Urbanophile publisher Aaron Renn, an urban analyst & Manhattan Institute senior fellow, put his finger on what both Trump & Adams were about, he quoted Scott Adams responding to celebrity statistician Nate Silver in August 2015 on the presidential election outcome (15 months before the event): “If I had to put a number on my prediction, I would say a 98% chance of Trump winning the whole thing. That is the direct opposite of Silver’s prediction.”

The techniques

Scott Adams wrote in his 2015 blog article: “As I said in my How to fail book, if you are not familiar with the dozens of methods of persuasion that are science-tested, there’s a good chance someone is using those techniques against you.

“For example, when Trump says he is worth $US10 billion, which causes his critics to say he is worth far less (but still billions) he is making all of us ‘think past the sale’. The sale he wants to make is ‘Remember that Donald Trump is a successful business person managing a vast empire mostly of his own making.’ The exact amount of his wealth is irrelevant.”

Think back to the many Trump assertions, which Scott Adams said might be “technically wrong yet directionally correct”, and you get to another of his techniques, anchoring – “invariably drawing a flurry of media attention to ‘fact check’ and correct him – all the while drawing attention to the issues that he wanted to highlight.”

Tariffs, and real objectives

And so to last week’s tweet topic, trade tariffs. The world’s politicians have spent decades getting tariffs down, freeing the international movement of goods. Along the way there has been resistance – why could New Zealand not export more than a small quota of meat to the US? In the late 1960s, NZ Deputy Prime Minister & Overseas Trade Minister Jack Marshall (prime minister briefly in 1972, later knighted) spent more time in Europe fighting for NZ trade access as Britain prepared to join the EEC (European Economic Community), which eventuated in 1971.

In contrast to the silky negotiation of the urbane “Gentleman Jack”, the Trump message is that “trade wars are good & easy to win”. He’s saying the US has been too soft in past negotiations. The international opposing voices now are talking retaliation. Mr Trump has won the first round.

As with not accepting a human contribution to climate change, and the many other issues where he’s forced debate, Mr Trump will move the message on tariffs in the direction he wants. Opponents won’t be debating the fundamental issue for world trade of tariffs versus no or reduced tariffs, but the size of them and how to retaliate.

China, the other big trader, can’t walk away from the debate, but can trump Trump. Mr Trump has accused China of being a currency manipulator and has claimed the US has lost billions of dollars in trade with China.

The bets on reserve currency

The US will be betting that China & partners won’t assert their new-found influence at the IMF (the International Monetary Fund), where the BRICS nations (Brazil, Russia, India, China & South Africa) have jointly acquired the veto power previously held only by the US. At stake is the US greenback’s role as international reserve currency, and the tariff confrontation might be the event that ends that status (which has, in any event, been reducing).

I sense that China’s administration lost control of the country’s big corporates, which mostly have state or party links, and has struggled to regain its composure. On the way back to control, the Chinese government has clamped down on families who have been exporting money to buy foreign assets (with no apparent appreciation of how their efforts might affect values in those foreign markets).

China’s alternatives

But holding assets in western economies is really a nod to the past; the strength of a Chinese future is more likely to lie in the trade relations it wants to build along its new Silk Road routes, the overland track through central Asia to Europe and the sea route to Africa, and in growing less belligerent relations with other Asian nations.

The international currency issue has a way to run. According to the IMF’s latest quarterly assessment, for the December 2017 quarter, 54% of world foreign currency reserves were held in $US, up from 49% a year earlier. However, China & Russia have agreed a trade deal using their 2 currencies, and the BRICS position at the IMF could result in the fund’s special drawing rights being elevated ahead of the greenback.

The ramifications of these changes are hard to envisage, but 2 things are clear: Barriers will be erected, and currency contests will become more hard-nosed.

Friday Trump tweet: “When a country (USA) is losing many billions of dollars on trade with virtually every country it does business with, trade wars are good, and easy to win. Example, when we are down $100 billion with a certain country and they get cute, don’t trade anymore-we win big. It’s easy!”

Scott Adams’ blog, 13 August 2015: Clown genius
Aaron Renn review in City Journal, 27 February 2018: Trump the clown genius
Reuters, 3 March 2018: ‘Trade wars are good,’ Trump says, defying global concern over tariffs

Earlier stories:
11 February 2018: Spitting the dummy, and changing the international order
31 January 2017: Whose waggling finger should NZ follow?
16 January 2017: Trump rolls the dice and tells all the players what to do

Attribution: Links above.


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Spitting the dummy, and changing the international order

US president Donald Trump has been spitting the dummy. Most of the toys are now out of the cot.

Other people have been picking up those toys. Prepare for massive change in the international order.

This article is about fundamental changes which are likely to occur – I say likely, but there will be plenty of scrambling to prevent it – and how things might pan out.

One factor in the changes is a simple process of counting quotas, with worldwide implications.

Another factor is Mr Trump & his desire to open acrimonious fights. The latest revelation on that front was about a border patrol agent who died in December. Mr Trump used the event to promote his wall fronting Mexico, saying the agent had been “lost” [as in died] and his partner “badly beaten”, although the partner had radioed in that he thought he’d hit a culvert and investigators found no evidence of any other cause. Texas governor Greg Abbott offered a reward “to solve this murder”. By the time the story reached the Fox News airwaves, illegal immigrants had bashed the first agent to death with rocks.

You might consider that incident a minor side issue in the international scheme of things, except that it’s a standard ploy and it colours expectations of Mr Trump’s behaviour in other forums.

On top of some other factors already in play – currency, the sharemarket rollercoaster (particularly US, but internationally), some trade conflicts and some trade aspirations – I’ve followed through on some wider trade questions, examined how the international applecart might be completely overturned, and provided you with some sections of text where you can use your own judgment on what people & institutions are saying.

Those pieces of text are:

  • a repeat of the opening to my newsletter last Wednesday
  • part of an article by Russian president Vladimir Putin, and
  • segments of the BRICS summit declaration last September.

If you’re like me, most of your sources for international matters will be American. Your choice then is to go left (or our right, depending on your view of how people lean in the US), right (or further right, if like me you think there’s not much that’s truly on the left), or, if you have a lot of time, hunt for something in the middle, neutral, balanced, can be substantiated.


We have this constant focus on the US because of the oh-so-frequent outbursts from its oh-so-remarkable president, but the game is getting serious.

One occasion, which will tell how serious, occurs on Friday-Sunday 20-22 April, when the International Monetary Fund (IMF) & World Bank Group hold their joint annual spring meetings in Washington.

Since the IMF was founded in 1945, the US has held a power of veto (over 15% of the vote). After the latest adjustment of quotas, the 5 BRICS nations (Brazil, Russia, India, China & South Africa), combined, will also have veto potential.

I’ve been following the writings (sometimes rants) of Jim Rickards (lawyer, economist, financial writer, editor of Strategic Intelligence) via the Daily Reckoning website (and also the separate website of Daily Reckoning founder Bill Bonner), and last year Mr Rickards was convinced the change in power at the IMF would result in its special drawing rights usurping much of the $US’s role in international exchange.

It didn’t happen, but that may be just a matter of timing for processes to be completed. Or, if the 5 aren’t yet ready, they may hold off for another 6 months or a year.

However, Mr Rickards is at it again, this time pointing to that April meeting of the IMF where, he says, the BRICS nations’ combined voting strength will rise from 14.2% to 16.21%, while the US vote will fall from 16.54% to 16.44% – still veto power for the US, but with fewer mates in support of its case.

Privileges & power written in for US

Among the privileges the US has had for decades, its greenback has held primacy as the international reserve currency. Primarily through the BRICS relationship, Russia & China began using their own currencies for trade between them last year, and both Russian president Vladimir Putin & the BRICS summit declaration point to more of that, plus changes along the lines of this statement from the summit declaration: “We resolve to foster a global economic governance architecture that is more effective & reflective of current global economic landscape, increasing the voice & representation of emerging markets & developing economies.”

Under the old order, that would have been squashed in a backroom, although official statements wouldn’t have put it quite that way.

China has also signed currency swap agreements with over 20 other countries, setting the greenback’s role aside in each case. To demonstrate how this matters, Mr Rickards pointed to the US love affair with cars – and the price of fuel, which has long been far lower than anywhere else in the developed world: “Why do we pay less? Because oil is priced & purchased in our dollars.”

Here’s the exercise in today’s money: US gallon = 3.785411784 litres, $US1 = $NZ1.38, average US petrol price currently $US3.12/gallon of premium 91-octane unleaded according to the American Automobile Association, = $NZ1.14c/litre. Auckland price currently? Around $2/litre.

Pointing the finger – but the backing is shrinking

President Trump has accused China, in particular, of currency manipulation & theft of intellectual property and has pressed for sanctions against Chinese suppliers of washing machines & solar modules, and Canada on lumber & dairy products. US airline maker Boeing tried too, but failed in a bid to have heavy tariffs imposed on Canadian planemaker Bombardier.

Broadly, in addition, any sign that a foreign company has an element of government ownership will mean it can be targeted for “unfair” competition.

Trump wants one-on-one, others work on multi-partnerships

Mr Trump rejected the Trans Pacific Partnership, which still favoured US corporates after much negotiation, and wants changes to the North American free trade agreement with Canada & Mexico.

Meanwhile, other countries are moving into multi-partner relationships – both for constructive trade reasons and, particularly now, as protection against a wild card.

Now, you have a revised TPP being finalised without US involvement, the BRICS nations are gradually starting to get a multitude of joint activities underway, and China is working on closer relations across Central Asia, into Europe and into Africa through its reinvented Silk Road, the “one belt one road” of land & sea routes.

The international reserve currency question is a big one. The move away from the greenback has already begun, and could accelerate quickly if the IMF goes the BRICS nations’ way. The US administration could find itself a rock on the road, being driven into the ground by every other nation.

US trade & infrastructure parked on a tightrope

While Mr Trump has talked jobs for struggling areas of the US and promoted exports, the official unemployment rate has been falling (with a couple of blips) for 2 years and has been at 4.1% for 4 months, and average hourly earnings have crept up 2.9% in the last year. He wants a low exchange rate to be internationally competitive, and low interest rates to keep the cost of federal debt down, but can expect inflation if the economy continues to improve (net of stimulation-targeting debt injections).

To get his massive infrastructure programme underway, Mr Trump wants local contributions of about 80%, federal no more than 20%. Previously, infrastructure programmes have been directed through the federal coffers, and neither states nor cities will have the funds to meet this changed requirement.

Swat: Deal “non-existent”

As an example of how the whole idea of continuity, forward planning for project funding and acceptance outside the presidential palace of how everything’s supposed to work, CNN Money ran a story at the end of January on how all that smart thinking can be upended: “Deep underneath the Hudson River between Manhattan & New Jersey lies a century-old rail tunnel, heavily damaged during Superstorm Sandy, that still carries 200,000 riders/day.

“Engineers say the tunnel should be replaced as soon as possible, at a cost of $US12.7 billion. In 2015, the Obama administration agreed to supply half the funding for it, and designs are nearly complete. But in December, President Trump’s Federal Transit Administration sent a letter to the Port Authority of New York & New Jersey declaring the deal ‘nonexistent’.”

Mr Trump has been intent on unwinding every measure his predecessor, Barack Obama, put in place, but CNN said this rail tunnel project had implications for travel through both Democrat- & Republican-voting districts.

Congress set up a commission in 2010 with Amtrak & mid-Atlantic governments as partners, which put a $US38 billion price tag on repairing the north-east corridor line. The House of Representatives approved a $US500 million “down payment” last year to start the repairs, but CNN said the Senate approved only $US26 million, no agreement has been finalised, and added this most important factor in the politics of US public money: “The North-east Corridor is now at a political disadvantage in Washington because it connects Democratic cities with limited influence.”

The North-east Corridor Commission has estimated shutting the service down – not by choice but for danger or damage – would cost the US economy $US100 billion/day.

The original letter from New York state budget office director Robert Mujica was cursory, mentioning progress being made but saying nothing about agreement reached by 2 states on their proposed shares of the cost. On New Year’s Eve, Mr Mujica wrote a longer explanation, but it seemed he was responding to a “don’t want to” federal letter.

Under the terms so far revealed of the Trump infrastructure plans, the 7 years of planning for this major work will have been wasted, but other states might also not be able to take up the offer if they can’t source enough funds locally.

With US public debt escalating beyond $US20 trillion, the local & state governance structures militating against early starts, the potential for an early collapse in soaring sharemarket prices, and big changes in international economic structures, the Trump infrastructure programme looks in danger.

Buy American law: blatantly protectionist

While I was looking for the original correspondence to balance the portrayal by CNN (which didn’t mention the numerous questions raised by the federal transport official, deputy administrator Jane Williams), I spotted a piece of New York state legislation passed on 15 December, the New York Buy American Act, requiring state entities to include a contract provision requiring the use of US-made structural iron & structural steel for all surface road & bridge projects.

One of the most contentious clauses in the Trans Pacific Partnership documents when the US was still involved in writing it – the investor-state dispute settlement provision – was designed to combat this kind of lopsided trade law.

The New York law is blatantly protectionist legislation – just one of the 6 state senate & assembly leaders quoted in Governor Cuomo’s release thought product quality was an important ingredient worth mentioning.

Making sense of a complicated picture

That, I think, sets a picture more fully than the newsletter lines I wrote last week (repeated below). In short:

  • Lines of finance could change, though that might take longer than some of the other potential & likely changes
  • Trade directions could be radically altered, by positive additions such as the central Asian growth, and by negatives such as the influence of internal US bickering
  • The cost of money, or the currency of trade, or both could change
  • US leaders’ behaviour may reinforce other nations’ determination to take their trade elsewhere, and
  • US infrastructure-related businesses, unable to function properly at home, may look (at least short-term) for work elsewhere.

Click to read page 2: Spitting the dummy page 2: Putin, BRICS & last week’s summary

Earlier story:
31 January 2018: Trump changing longstanding rules of play on infrastructure

BRICS 2017
4 September 2017: BRICS leaders’ Xiamen declaration
1 September 2017, Vladimir Putin article: BRICS: Towards New Horizons of Strategic Partnership
Jim Rickards on Collide (subscription required)
CNN Money, 26 January 2018: The biggest infrastructure nightmare facing the US
29 December 2017: Federal Transport Department letter to New York state budget director
31 December 2017: New York state budget director response to Federal Transport Department
14 December 2017: Governors Cuomo & Christie announce commitment to fund 100% of states’ half of new Gateway tunnel
13 December 2017: New York state budget director letter to Federal Transport Department outlining funding agreement progress
New York governor Andrew Cuomo, 15 December 2017: Governor Cuomo signs “Buy American” legislation for all structural iron & steel on New York roads & bridges
Washington Post, 9 February 2018, opinion article by Dana Milbank: Trump concocted a story about a border agent’s death. The truth won’t catch up.

Attribution: BRICS, Vladimir Putin, Jim Rickards, CNN Money, New York State, US Federal Transport Department, Washington Post.

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Spitting the dummy page 2: Putin, BRICS & last week’s summary

Click to read page 1: Spitting the dummy, and changing the international order

Vladimir Putin at the BRICS summit.

Russian president Vladimir Putin wrote an article days before the September 2017 summit of the 5 BRICS nations (Brazil, Russia, India, China & South Africa) in Xiamen, China, espousing views on economic issues – and on a wide range of other matters of international politics, but especially on an extremely wide range of potential areas of co-operation among the 5.

The central message was this: The balance of power is changing.

For the BRICS partners, there was a call to work together in many spheres, which sounds enlightened & constructive but also faces many obstacles.

For New Zealanders, whose primary sources of foreign information used to be British and are now mainly American, it may take suspension of belief to digest the following statements and to accept them at face value, but that’s not why I’ve run them.

The reason they’re here is to show you the stated intent ahead of highly significant changes which may start to emerge in 2 months.

Key points of the Putin message:

“Russia highly values the multifaceted co-operation that has developed within BRICS. Our countries’ constructive co-operation on the international arena is aimed at creating a fair multipolar world and equal development conditions for all.

“Russia stands for closer co-ordination of the BRICS countries’ foreign policies, primarily at the UN & G20, as well as other international organisations….

“Russia also calls for promoting the interaction of the BRICS countries in the area of global information security. We propose joining our efforts to create a legal basis for co-operation and subsequently to draft & adopt universal rules of responsible behaviour of states in this sphere. A major step towards this goal would be the signing of an intergovernmental BRICS agreement on international information security….

“Russia is interested in promoting economic co-operation within the BRICS format. Considerable practical achievements have been recently reported in this area, primarily the launch of the New Development Bank (NDB)….

“Russia shares the BRICS countries’ concerns over the unfairness of the global financial & economic architecture, which does not give due regard to the growing weight of the emerging economies. We are ready to work together with our partners to promote international financial regulation reforms and to overcome the excessive domination of the limited number of reserve currencies. We will also work towards a more balanced distribution of quotas & voting shares within the IMF & the World Bank.

“I am confident that the BRICS countries will continue to act in a consolidated manner against protectionism & new barriers in global trade. We value the BRICS countries’ consensus on this issue, which allows us to more consistently advocate the foundations of an open, equal & mutually beneficial multilateral trade system and to strengthen the role of the WTO as the key regulator in international trade.”

Other BRICS leaders joined the charge

The 5 BRICS leaders followed those Putin lines of thinking in their joint summit declaration 4 days later:

“… 10. We agree to promote the development of BRICS local currency bond markets and jointly establish a BRICS local currency bond fund, as a means of contribution to the capital sustainability of financing in BRICS countries, boosting the development of BRICS domestic & regional bond markets, including by increasing foreign private sector participation, and enhancing financial resilience of BRICS countries….

“11. In order to serve the demand arising from rapid growth of trade & investment among the BRICS countries, we agree to facilitate financial market integration through promoting the network of financial institutions and the coverage of financial services within BRICS countries, subject to each country’s existing regulatory framework & World Trade Organisation (WTO) obligations, and to ensure greater communication & co-operation between financial sector regulators…. We agree to communicate closely to enhance currency co-operation, consistent with each central bank’s legal mandate, including through currency swap, local currency settlement, and local currency direct investment, where appropriate, and to explore more modalities of currency co-operation. We encourage the BRICS interbank co-operation mechanism to continue playing an important role in supporting BRICS economic & trade co-operation. We commend the progress in concluding the memoranda of understanding among national development banks of BRICS countries on interbank local currency credit line and on interbank co-operation in relation to credit rating….

“22. We appreciate the efforts & contribution of the BRICS Business Council & Business Forum to strengthening our economic co-operation in infrastructure, manufacturing, energy, agriculture, financial services, e-commerce, alignment of technical standards & skills development….

Changing global economic governance

“29. We resolve to foster a global economic governance architecture that is more effective & reflective of current global economic landscape, increasing the voice & representation of emerging markets & developing economies. We reaffirm our commitment to conclude the IMF’s 15th general review of quotas, including a new quota formula, by the 2019 spring meetings and no later than the 2019 annual meetings. We will continue to promote the implementation of the World Bank Group shareholding review.

“30. We emphasise the importance of an open & resilient financial system to sustainable growth & development, and agree to better leverage the benefits of capital flows and manage the risks stemming from excessive cross-border capital flows & fluctuation. The BRICS contingent reserve arrangement (CRA) represents a milestone of BRICS financial co-operation & development, which also contributes to global financial stability. We welcome the establishment of the CRA system of exchange in macroeconomic information (SEMI), and the agreement to further strengthen the research capability of the CRA, and to promote closer co-operation between the IMF & the CRA.

Looking to change in Africa

“31. We welcome the establishment of the NDB Africa regional centre launched in South Africa, which is the first regional office of the bank. We welcome the setting up of the Project Preparation Fund and the approval of the second batch of projects. We congratulate the bank on the ground-breaking of its permanent headquarters building. We stress the significance of infrastructure connectivity to foster closer economic ties & partnerships among countries. We encourage the NDB to fully leverage its role and enhance co-operation with multilateral development institutions including the World Bank & the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank as well as with the BRICS Business Council, to forge synergy in mobilising resources and promote infrastructure construction & sustainable development of BRICS countries.

“Open & inclusive”

“32. We emphasise the importance of an open & inclusive world economy enabling all countries & peoples to share in the benefits of globalisation. We remain firmly committed to a rules-based, transparent, non-discriminatory, open & inclusive multilateral trading system as embodied in the WTO. We reaffirm our commitments to ensure full implementation & enforcement of existing WTO rules and are determined to work together to further strengthen the WTO. We call for the acceleration of the implementation of the Bali & Nairobi MCM outcomes and for the WTO ministerial conference to be held this year in Argentina to produce positive outcomes. We will continue to firmly oppose protectionism. We recommit to our existing pledge for both standstill & rollback of protectionist measures and we call upon other countries to join us in that commitment….

Rebalancing tax

“34. We reaffirm our commitment to achieving a fair & modern global tax system and promoting a more equitable, pro-growth & efficient international tax environment, including to deepening co-operation on addressing base erosion & profit shifting (BEPS), promoting exchange of tax information and improving capacity-building in developing countries. We will strengthen BRICS tax co-operation to increase BRICS contribution to setting international tax rules and provide, according to each country’s priorities, effective & sustainable technical assistance to other developing countries…”

My newsletter Wednesday 7 February:

Stock markets have taken a tumble – no surprise. The question was the timing. Next, though, come 2 important questions: How big will that tumble be (here & particularly in the US)? And what other markets will the stock/bond shifts affect?

Commercial property yields have declined in keeping with the low/zero interest rates, but in many of the world’s markets property investors seem to have been trading for more superficial reasons than with defence against changes in the economic climate in mind….

The second question above – what other markets will be affected, and how? – may be answered with interest rate changes, though central banks will be loath to squeeze… And the availability of debt will be variable, from country to country – and, in this country, affected by the state Australia’s big 4 banks find themselves in…

Will New Zealand’s apartment & general residential markets be affected? Undoubtedly. NZ investors who are in both shares & property will find themselves squeezed on the share side of the equation, affecting their actions on the property side…

Foreign investment in NZ residential property was already about to be curtailed by the new government, immigration is declining slowly, Australia is unlikely to offer a strong economic alternative to the NZ workforce – conditions here are likely to tighten…

Interest rates need to rise (though not by a lot) to bring more sense to markets, but central banks around the word will, instead, be looking at how to turn tricks with debt… In that situation, while uncertainty may reduce property pricing, delay in raising interest rates would put a hold on that change…

Click to read page 1: Spitting the dummy, and changing the international order

Earlier story:
31 January 2018: Trump changing longstanding rules of play on infrastructure

BRICS 2017
4 September 2017: BRICS leaders’ Xiamen declaration
1 September 2017, Vladimir Putin article: BRICS: Towards New Horizons of Strategic Partnership
Jim Rickards on Collide (subscription required)
CNN Money, 26 January 2018: The biggest infrastructure nightmare facing the US
29 December 2017: Federal Transport Department letter to New York state budget director
31 December 2017: New York state budget director response to Federal Transport Department
14 December 2017: Governors Cuomo & Christie announce commitment to fund 100% of states’ half of new Gateway tunnel
13 December 2017: New York state budget director letter to Federal Transport Department outlining funding agreement progress
New York governor Andrew Cuomo, 15 December 2017: Governor Cuomo signs “Buy American” legislation for all structural iron & steel on New York roads & bridges
Washington Post, 9 February 2018, opinion article by Dana Milbank: Trump concocted a story about a border agent’s death. The truth won’t catch up.

Attribution: BRICS, Vladimir Putin, Jim Rickards, CNN Money, New York State, US Federal Transport Department, Washington Post.

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Surveying the international influences

On the one hand Donald Trump, as a disruptive US president trying to change the order of life in his country’s public services, and simultaneously in its trade with the rest of the world.

On the other, bands of nations working towards new economic alliances, often with religious overlays.

In between, the moneymen of Davos, happy to keep state-funded neoliberalism alive & in good heart.

Hanging over the whole scene, a growing mountain of debt which has theoretically lifted economies over the decade since the global financial crisis began but which nobody feels too inclined to reduce to a manageable level.

The world at peace & harmony, developing economically on well founded lines? Or the world at war, so every step forward is rewarded with a slash from angry opponents?

China sets new paths

As Mr Trump tries to reset the rules of trade combat further in his country’s favour, China has embarked on a journey which promises to establish very different trade routes, but with trouble ahead at various outposts on its One Belt One Road update of the old Silk Road & sea passage to Zanzibar.

Every time I look at international events to gauge how – or even whether – they might affect us in New Zealand, the picture shifts, new players emerge and old ones start playing different games. One of the surprises has been immediately west of us – a country where everyone believed for decades that it was impossible for the federal government to destroy the economy – but they did it!

Among the outcomes, for New Zealanders, is that the Australian job market tightened, Kiwis came home and others who would have gone overseas didn’t, pushing net immigration to record highs. Housing demand & supply in New Zealand was pushed further out of kilter than it had already been for the previous decade.

A change for the better in the Australian economy will bring changes in New Zealand – more emigration, the release of housing pressure, and renewed trade opportunities.

Further away – does it matter?

For the rest, does it matter? Or will NZ sail on, oblivious to the changing winds to the north?

I think those changing winds do matter, because they’re going to bring new trade openings, new migrant sources, new partnerships, and they will widen the range of potential investors in this country, which needs investment in the infrastructure to keep our cities moving and our rural economy productive.

Many opportunities along the Silk Road, but…

China looks intent on reviving the Silk Road, which should bring new investment – not just Chinese – to the stans of central Asia, notably Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan & Uzbekistan. Already, preparations for a combination of the land route across central Asia and the sea route to Africa are bringing new development to Pakistan. At the same time, religious fervour could cripple those opportunities.

Gansu Bank debuted on the Hong Kong stock market 2 weeks ago and its shares have taken off, Ben Kwok wrote in Monday’s Asia Times. The north-west Chinese province of Gansu is in the Silk Road corridor – so, poorer than most of China but changing times.

Asia Times, 29 January 2018: Gansu province poor but a strategic location in BRI

Controlling the zombies

In an Asia Times story yesterday, Gordon Watts picked up detail from a regular statistical release (seeing through the usual fawning language) that indicated China’s many “zombie enterprises”, often owned by local government or the state, “are being closed, merged or forced to slim down after being weaned off a diet of overproduction”.

That is a change that would have huge consequences, internally in the way production is carried out & counted, internationally in China’s trade relationships – including, for instance, the quality of steel it supplies.

Asia Times, 30 January 2018: China tries to breathe new life into corporate walking dead
18 January 2018, Chinese National Bureau of Statistics: National economy maintained the momentum of stable & sound development and exceeded the expectation

National security – or protectionism?

A third Asia Times story yesterday put US-China trade issues together. Citing a Bloomberg article on Monday, the Asia Times wrote about the possible move for the US Government & trusted US or foreign companies to build 5G networks, saying it could hit Chinese suppliers Huawei & ZTE, and the Global Times (a Chinese tabloid published under the auspices of the People’s Daily) criticised “hysteria” & “protectionism’ under the guise of national security.

“The Donald Trump administration is reported to be in talks with private companies to build a secure 5G network and rent out access to domestic telecom carriers due to concerns about Chinese firms & risks to cybersecurity, Bloomberg revealed on Monday, citing 2 anonymous US administration officials familiar with the plans,” the Asia Times story said.

The Asia Times was established in Bangkok in 1995, closed in 1997 days before the Asian financial crisis began to unfold, and is now based in Hong Kong and owned by Asia Times Holdings Ltd.

Asia Times, 30 January 2018: Chinese firms may face lock-out if Washington seals off 5G networks

Singapore now the big investor in US property

Again citing Bloomberg, the Asia Times noted yesterday: “For the first time since 2012, Singapore outspent China to be the largest Asian investor in US commercial property, as deals by Chinese investors plummeted amid a regulatory pressure from Beijing.”

Singaporean sovereign wealth fund GIC Pte Ltd accounted for almost 75% of the $US9.5 billion of deals.

Asia Times, 30 January 2018: Singapore outspends China on US property for first time in years

Redirecting trade policy

President Trump has been pushing hard for manufacturers who supply the US market, especially vehicle makers, to move production lines from Mexico to the US.

He tweeted on Sunday in praise of Fiat Chrysler: “Our economy is better than it has been in many decades. Businesses are coming back to America like never before. Chrysler, as an example, is leaving Mexico and coming back to the USA. Unemployment is nearing record lows. We are on the right track!”

Fiat Chrysler said it wasn’t shutting the assembly plant in Saltillo, Mexico, that currently builds the Ram heavy-duty trucks, but would use the plant to build commercial vehicles it will sell around the world. The company will spend $US1 billion upgrading its plant at Warren, Michigan, so it can produce these Ram trucks there.

CNN is one of the hardest-line US news outlets against the Trump presidency, but its own story indicates both sides of the argument are technically correct.

More importantly, the Christmas tax boost to corporates and the encouragement for them to take their overseas cash holdings home means more local production by US companies and either a change in production or a closedown for their plants elsewhere – unless foreign investors pick up the pieces.

Either way, the US – and Mr Trump in particular – is leading the direction of trade policy. Outfits like the Trans-Pacific Partnership, representing disparate interests, won’t easily combat that sort of confrontation.

CNN, 29 January 2018: No, Mr President, Chrysler isn’t leaving Mexico

And back to Australia

On the Australian MacroBusiness website, columnist David Llewellyn-Smith (Houses & Holes) wrote last week: “The rest of the world is increasingly seized by the notion of ‘global synchronised growth’ but Australia looks increasingly like the odd man out. How did it come to this?”

The answer was short: “It is all of our own doing. At each turn all we needed to do was to manage the real exchange rate & household debt.”

The brief article runs through some causes of the predicament.

Houses & Holes on MacroBusiness, 25 January 2018: Has Australia mismanaged itself out of a global boom?

Attribution: Asia Times, CNN, MacroBusiness.

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Tripartite economic summit opens in Guangzhou

Auckland mayor Phil Goff leads a group of 97 delegates representing 70 Auckland businesses taking part in the third Tripartite Economic Alliance summit which opens today in Guangzhou, China.

2 councillors, finance & performance committee chair Ross Clow and planning committee chair Chris Darby, are also in the delegation.

Mr Goff said before leaving for China: “This will be Auckland’s largest ever trade delegation. Businesses clearly see the advantage of interacting with our 2 sister cities at the summit. Each are gateway cities to 2 of the most important & powerful economies in the world.”

The Guangzhou summit is the last of 3, which started in Los Angeles in 2015 and continued in Auckland last year. However, the 3 city councils have agreed to extend the special relationship for another 3 years with opportunities for interaction between them outside the formal summit process.

The Guangzhou summit runs for 3 days, allowing Auckland businesses to generate partnership & investment opportunities with counterparts from Los Angeles & Guangzhou, and for Auckland to showcase the city as a destination for investment & tourism.

Mr Goff said: “Auckland is New Zealand’s international city and represents 38% of the country’s gdp. As our city grows, investment & business partnerships become increasingly important to it & New Zealand’s future.

“Guangzhou & Los Angeles are global economic powerhouses, as well as a major source of migrants, students & tourists. The formal partnership between our cities creates opportunities for us to facilitate the continued growth of local businesses & our economy.

“The summits provide real economic value & jobs to Auckland, with deals ranging from hundreds of thousands to millions of dollars sealed as a result of the past 2 events.

“For Auckland, those agreements mean more jobs, business expansion, talent coming to our city, and New Zealand innovation & expertise finding new opportunities offshore.”

Mr Goff said the Bank of NZ, Huawei Technologies Co Ltd and NZ Trade & Enterprise were supporting Auckland’s delegation to the summit this year, which had enabled about half the cost of Auckland’s delegation budget to be met by the private sector.

One point of interest for Mr Goff is the Haizhu electric tram: “We are working with government to bring light rail to Auckland as quickly as possible. It’s a good chance to learn from the success of other light rail systems around the world and consider what is the best system for Auckland.”

Link: Summit & tripartite economic alliance

Attribution: Mayoral release.

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Old athletes & Lions drive NZ to slimmer deficit

Statistics NZ said yesterday a record high $1.3 billion services surplus and a smaller primary income deficit narrowed New Zealand’s current account deficit to $1.6 billion in the June quarter.

More economic statistics are due out this morning: the GDP figures and the monthly migration figures.

Statistics NZ said New Zealand exported a record $5.8 billion of services in the June quarter, seasonally adjusted, while importing a record $4.5 billion of services.

The increase in services exports was driven by $3.7 billion of spending by overseas travellers in New Zealand (exports of travel services): “This is the largest ever seasonally adjusted export of travel services. Part of this increase was due to the World Masters Games in April, and the British & Irish Lions Rugby tour to New Zealand in the June & September quarters.”

Overall, the seasonally adjusted goods & services balance in the June quarter was an $834 million surplus.

Stronger goods exports reduced the seasonally adjusted goods deficit for the quarter to $446 million, down from $1.1 million in the March quarter.

Statistic comparisons

  • For the year ended June 2017, New Zealand’s current account deficit was $7.5 billion (2.8% of gdp; it was 2.7% of gdp for the June 2016 year)
  • The seasonally adjusted current account balance was a $1.598 billion deficit in the June quarter ($1.187 billion smaller than the March 2017 quarter’s deficit)
  • The goods deficit decreased $677 million to reach $446 million
  • The services surplus increased $295 million to reach $1.280 billion, the highest on record
  • New Zealand’s primary income deficit decreased to $1.910 million in the June quarter, $403 million smaller than in the March 2017 quarter
  • New Zealand’s secondary income deficit increased to $522 million in the June quarter, $188 million larger than the March 2017 quarter deficit
  • The capital account balance was a deficit of $14 million for the June quarter, down from the surplus of $3 million in the March quarter
  • The financial account net inflow was $110 million for the June quarter, an increase from the revised financial account net outflow of $787 million for the March quarter
  • New Zealand’s net international liability position was $154.2 billion (57.5% of gdp) at 30 June, up from a revised $153.0 billion at 31 March but down slightly as a percentage of gdp (57.8%)
  • New Zealand’s net external debt position was $145.5 billion (54.3% of gdp) at 30 June, up from a revised net external debt position of $144.4 billion (54.6% of gdp) at 31 March
  • The outstanding reinsurance balance for the Canterbury earthquakes is $1.3 billion while the outstanding balance for the Kaikoura earthquakes is $991 million. Revisions to recognised reinsurance claims for the Canterbury & Kaikoura earthquakes are reported in the quarter when the earthquakes occurred.

Attribution: Statistics NZ release.

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