The Perfect Storm

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What are the three elements of the perfect political and market storm I see coming together this fall?

The first is an effort by the Democratic House of Representatives to impeach President Trump. The second is the socialist-progressive tilt in the 2020 presidential election field. The third is the fallout from the Mueller report and the Russia collusion hoax — what I and others called “Spygate.”

These components are independent of each other but are at high risk of convergence in the coming months.  Let’s look more closely at the individual elements of impeachment, electoral chaos and Spygate that comprise this new storm with no name.

The first storm is impeachment. Impeachment of a president by the House of Representatives is just the first step in removing a president from office. The second step is a trial in the Senate requiring a two-thirds majority (67 votes) to remove the president. Two presidents have been impeached, but neither was removed. Nixon resigned before he could be impeached.

If the House impeaches Trump, the outcome will be the same. The Senate is firmly under Republican control (53 votes) and there’s no way Democrats can get 20 Republicans to defect to get the needed 67 votes needed. So House impeachment proceedings are just for show.

But it can be a very damaging show and create huge uncertainty for markets. There are powerful progressive forces in Congress and among top Democratic donors who are fanatical about impeaching Trump and will not be satisfied with anything less. One poll shows that 75% of Democratic voters favor impeachment (including almost 100% of the activist progressive base).

Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi and House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer have both poured cold water on impeachment talk. They feel it’s a distraction from Democratic efforts to enact their legislative agenda. But some of the party’s biggest private money donors, including Tom Steyer, are also demanding impeachment.

If Steyer does not get an impeachment process, he looks to support primary challenges to sitting Democrats who don’t join the impeachment effort. This could jeopardize Pelosi’s speakership in a new Congress. So Pelosi could come under heavy pressure to go along with impeachment.

The final outcome is irrelevant; what matters is the process itself. Impeachment fever is not likely to last long into 2020, because at that point the election will not be far away. Voters will turn their backs on impeachment and insist that disputes about Donald Trump be settled at the ballot box. That’s why you can expect impeachment fever to come to a head by the fall of 2019. And that will create a lot of uncertainty for markets.

The second storm is the 2020 election.

Trump is on track to win reelection in 2020. My models estimate his chance of victory is 63% today and it will get higher as Election Day approaches. The only occurrence that will derail Trump is a recession.

The odds of a recession before the 2020 election are below 40% in my view and will get smaller with time. Meanwhile, Trump will keep up the pressure on the Fed not to raise interest rates and will ensure that the U.S.-China trade war comes in for a soft landing.

This may sound like a rosy scenario for the economy. But it’s not so rosy for the Democrats. Every piece of good economic news will cause Democrats to dial up their political hit jobs on Trump. Each one will try to outdo the next.

There are now 24 declared candidates for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination. That’s more than the Democrats have ever had before. Currently Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders are out in front. Biden is considered the most moderate of the candidates.

But I don’t expect Joe Biden to stay in front for long, and I don’t believe he’ll win the nomination. But the only way for a Democrat to stay in the race is to stake out the most extreme progressive positions. This applies to reparations for slavery, free health care, free child care, free tuition, higher taxes, more regulation and the Green New Deal.

If Biden does fall away, then the choices are back to Sanders, Elizabeth Warren or maybe Kamala Harris. But one is more radical than the next. So, you could have a shock effect where all of a sudden it looks like the Democratic nominee is going to be a real socialist. And that would rattle markets.

This toxic combination of infighting among candidates and bitter partisanship aimed at Trump will be another source of market uncertainty and volatility until Election Day in 2020 and perhaps beyond.

But the third storm is the most dangerous and unpredictable storm of all: Spygate. It involves accountability for those involved in an attempted coup d’état aimed at President Trump.

The Mueller report lays to rest any allegations of collusion, conspiracy or obstruction of justice involving Trump and the Russians. There is simply no evidence to support the collusion and conspiracy theories and insufficient evidence to support an obstruction theory. The case against Trump is closed.

Now Trump moves from defense to offense, and the real investigation begins.

Who authorized a counterintelligence investigation of the Trump campaign to begin with? Did surveillance of the Trump campaign by the U.S. intelligence community (CIA, NSA and FBI) begin before search warrants were obtained? On what basis? Was this surveillance legal or illegal?

These are just a few of the many questions that will be investigated and answered in the coming months.

These criminal referrals will be taken seriously by Attorney General William Barr along with other criminal referrals coming from Congress. Barr will take a hard look at possible criminal acts by John Brennan (CIA director), James Comey (FBI director) and James Clapper (director of national intelligence) among many others.

At the same time Lindsey Graham, Republican senator from South Carolina, will hold hearings in the Senate Judiciary Committee about the origins of spying on the Trump campaign and lies to the FISA court. These may be the most important hearings of their kind since Watergate.

Trump will be running for reelection against this backdrop of revelations of wrongdoing by his political opponents in the last election. Actual indictments and arrests of former FBI or CIA officials will cause immense political turmoil. Such charges may be fully justified (and needed to restore credibility). They will certainly energize the Trump base.

But they are just as likely to infuriate the Democratic base. Cries of “revenge” and “witch hunt” will be coming from the Democrats this time instead of Republicans. Markets will be caught in the crossfire.

How do these three storms — impeachment, the 2020 election and Spygate — converge to create the perfect storm?

By November 2019, the impeachment process should be well underway in the form of targeted House hearings. The 2020 Democratic debates (starting in June 2019) will be red-hot. Trump’s counterattacks on the FBI and CIA should be reaching a fever pitch based on real revelations and actual indictments.

The impeachment process and Trump’s revenge represent diametrically opposing views of what happened in 2016. The Democrats will continue to call Trump “unfit for office.” Trump will continue to complain that the Obama administration and the deep state conspired to derail and delegitimize him.

The 2020 candidates will have to take a stand (even though they may prefer to discuss policy issues). There will be nowhere to hide. The bitterness, rancor and leaking will be out of control.

Any one of these storms would create enough uncertainty for investors to sell stocks, raise cash and move to the sidelines. The combination of all three will make them run for the hills. That’s my warning to investors.

The next six months will present unprecedented challenges for investors. Markets will have to wrestle with fights over impeachment, election attacks and Spygate. Trump will be trying to improve his odds with Fed appointments and an end to the trade wars. Democrats will be trying to derail Trump with investigations, accusations and leaks.

Some of this will be normal political crossfire, but some of it will be deadly serious, including arrests of former senior government officials and revelations of an attempted coup aimed at the president.

A perfect storm with no name is coming. The only safe harbors will be gold, cash and Treasury notes. And make sure you have a life preserver handy.

Regards,

Jim Rickards
for The Daily Reckoning

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Rickards: “Perfect Storm” Is Coming

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People often refer to the “perfect storm.” A perfect storm is generally understood as two or more events that are independent but converge to produce an outcome much worse than either event alone.

The term is an overused cliché, and as a writer I avoid clichés whenever possible. But though rare, perfect storms do exist. The most common example is the devastating 1991 storm popularized by the book and movie of the same name, although it was initially known as the “Halloween storm.”

In that case, three separate weather dynamics all converged in one place on one day to produce a perfect storm. The odds of all three coming together at once were less than one in 100,000. That’s less than once in 270 years. That’s a perfect storm.

Do metaphorical perfect storms happen in politics and capital markets?

The answer is yes, provided the conditions of the perfect storm definition are satisfied. The multiple events that make up the true perfect storm must be independent and rare and come to converge in an almost impossible way.

Unfortunately, a political and market perfect storm is now on the way and may strike as early as Halloween 2019, marking a new “Halloween storm.” Get ready.

Today I’ll be discussing the components making up this perfect storm, and how I see them all coming together at the same time.

In my 40-plus years in banking and capital markets, I have lived through a number of financial fiascos that arguably qualify as perfect storms. Here’s a partial list:

  • 1970: Penn Central bankruptcy, the largest in history at that time
  • 1973–74: Arab oil embargo
  • 1977–80: U.S. hyperinflation
  • 1982–85: Latin American debt crisis
  • 1987: One-day 22% stock market crash
  • 1988–92: Savings and loan (S&L) crisis
  • 1994: Mexican tequila crisis
  • 1997: Asian financial crisis
  • 1998: Russia/Long Term Capital Management (LTCM) crisis
  • 2000:Dot-com crash
  • 2007: Mortgage market collapse
  • 2008: Lehman Bros./AIG financial panic.

I was not just a bystander at these events. From 1977–85, I worked at Citibank and dealt with inflation, currencies and Latin America from a front-row seat.

From 1985–93 I worked for a major government bond dealer that financed S&Ls and traded their mortgages.

From 1994–99, I was at LTCM and dealt in all the major international markets. I negotiated the LTCM rescue by Wall Street in September 1998.

In 1999–2000 I ran a tech startup, and in 2007–08 I was an investment banker and financial threat adviser to the CIA.

That’s a lot of action for one career, but it also makes the point that financial perfect storms happen more frequently than standard models expect.

Here’s what I learned: Every one of these episodes was preceded by mass complacency or euphoria.

Before the Arab oil embargo, we expected cheap oil forever. Before the Latin American debt crisis, countries like Brazil and Argentina were “the land of the future.”

No one worried about a stock market crash in 1987 because we had “portfolio insurance.” The S&Ls could not get in trouble because they had FSLIC (Federal Savings and Loan Insurance Corp.) insurance.

Mexico could not get in trouble because it had oil. Asia could not get in trouble because it had cheap labor, high growth and “fixed” exchange rates.

Russia would not go broke because it was a “nuclear power.” LTCM would not go broke because it had two Nobel Prize winners. Dot-coms would not go broke because they attracted “eyeballs.”

Mortgages were solid because we had never seen a simultaneous nationwide decline in home values. Lehman Bros. was “too big to fail.” AIG was the Rock of Gibraltar.

In short, the fiascoes I witnessed were “not supposed to happen.” They all did. The worst panics are always preceded by a sense that nothing can go wrong.

We are there again. Stocks are approaching all-time highs again. The bond bust hasn’t happened. Mortgage interest rates are near the lows of the early 1960s. Exchange rate volatility is low.

Unemployment is at 50-year lows. Real wages are rising (at least a little). There are more job openings than job seekers. ISIS is defeated. Brexit is on indefinite hold.

It’s all good. What, me worry?

I saw a recent poll asking investors when they thought a market crash might happen. Something like 80% of the respondents answered not anytime soon.

I cannot imagine a better setup for catastrophe. No one ever sees disaster coming. That’s the point.

I believe a perfect storm is coming. It’s hard to foresee the full magnitude of it, but it will likely be dramatic. It will have a major impact on markets. How it impacts you depends on how far in advance you see it coming.

What are the three specific elements of the new perfect storm I see coming for markets? Read on.

Regards,

Jim Rickards
for The Daily Reckoning

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If Gold Was Just a Barbarous Relic…

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There’s nothing new about the Russian accumulation of gold bullion in their reserve position. It began in a material way in 2009 when Russia had about 600 metric tonnes of gold.

Today, Russia has 2,183 metric tonnes, a stunning 264% increase in less than 10 years. Russia is the sixth-largest gold power in the world after the U.S., Germany, IMF, Italy and France.

Russia’s gold hoard is over 25% of the U.S. hoard, but Russia’s economy is only 8% the size of the U.S. economy. This gives Russia a gold-to-GDP ratio over three times that of the U.S.

While these developments are well-known, the question of why Russia is accumulating so much gold has never been answered.

One reason is as a dollar hedge. Russia is the second-largest energy producer in the world. Most of that energy is sold for dollars. Russia can hedge potential dollar inflation by buying gold.

Another reason has to do with the avoidance of U.S. sanctions. Gold is nondigital and does not move through electronic payments systems, so it is impossible for the U.S. to freeze on interdict.

Yet a deeper reason is that Russia has a long-term plan to subvert the dollar’s role as the leading global reserve currency. The Russian ruble is not positioned to be a reserve currency, but a new cryptocurrency backed by gold would be a good candidate.

The Central Bank of Russia will consider a new study that suggests just such a gold-backed cryptocurrency to settle balance of payments among willing participants. This plan is in its preliminary stages and is a long way from reality at this point.

Still, the Russian endgame has now been revealed. The dollar’s days as the leading reserve currency are numbered.

Of course, Russia is not the only nation accumulating gold as a means to move away from the dollar. You can certainly add China to that list, and many others.

The latest move comes from Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad. He promoted the idea of a common trading currency for East Asia that would be pegged to gold. “The currency that we propose should be based on gold because gold is much more stable,” he said.

I’ve actually advised Mahathir Mohamad in the past and he’s very familiar with my writings on gold. So I’m not surprised he’s issuing this call.

The global monetary regime has collapsed three times over the past 100 years, in 1914, 1939, and 1971. They seem to happen about every 30 to 40 years on average. It’s now been over 40 years since the last collapse, so we’re due.

Got gold?

Below, I show you why gold is heading for a powerful breakout. And yes, it involves the world’s central banks. Read on.

Regards,

Jim Rickards
for The Daily Reckoning

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Wall Street and the New Cold War

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The stock market seems to rise or fall almost daily based on the latest news from the front lines of the trade wars.

When Trump threatens new tariffs and China threatens to retaliate in kind, stocks fall. When Trump delays the tariffs and China agrees to resume negotiations, stocks rise. And so it goes. It has been this way since January 2018 when the trade war began.

The latest dust-up came late last week when Trump threatened tariffs against Mexico if it doesn’t do more to curb illegal immigration to the U.S. Markets sold off on Friday as a result, bringing a terrible May to an end. Largely due to the trade war, the stock market had its worst May in seven years.

From the start, Wall Street underestimated the impact of the trade war. First they said Trump was bluffing. Then the analysts said that Trump and Xi would put their differences aside and make an historic deal.

All of these analyses were wrong. The trade war was problematic from the start and is growing worse today.

China will lose the trade war. The reasons are obvious. Foreign trade is a much larger percentage of Chinese GDP than it is for the U.S., so a trade war was always bound to have more impact on China than the U.S.

And if China tries to match the U.S. in tariffs dollar for dollar, they run out of headroom at $150 billion while the U.S. can keep going up to $500 billion and inflict far more pain on China.

Other forms of Chinese retaliation are mostly nonstarters. They cannot dump U.S. Treasuries without hurting their own reserve position and risking an account freeze by the U.S. China cannot turn up the pressure by stealing intellectual property because they’re already doing that to the greatest extent possible.

China’s latest threat is to ban exports of “rare earths” to the U.S. and its allies. Rare earths are essential for the production of plasma screens, fiber optics, lasers and other high-tech applications. Electric vehicles, mobile phones and telecommunications systems would be impossible to build without them. China is responsible for 90% of global production, which makes them a potent weapon in the U.S.-China trade wars.

“Rare” earths aren’t actually that rare. They are plentiful in quantity. The problem is that they are found in extremely low concentrations. This means a huge amount of ore and expensive mining processes are needed to extract even a small amount of these vital substances.

So rare earths are one weapon China possesses.

But over time, Western powers can replace rare earths purchased from China. There could be major manufacturing disruption in the meantime, it’s true. But it would not be the end of the world.

The U.S. will win the trade war and either China will open its markets and buy more U.S. goods or the Chinese economy will slow significantly.

But while the trade war is important, it’s not the main event.

The trade war is part of a much larger struggle between China and the U.S. for hegemony in Asia and the Western Pacific.

They are locked in a new cold war being fought on many fronts. These include trade; technology; rights of passage in the Taiwan Strait and the South China Sea; and alliances in South Asia, where China’s Belt and Road Initiative is promising billions of dollars for infrastructure development.

The U.S. is responding with arms deals and bilateral trade deals to counter Chinese influence. Even if a modest trade deal is worked out with China this summer, it will not put an end to the larger struggle now underway.

What are the implications?

If the Chinese view the trade war as just one step in a protracted cold war, which I believe they do, then we’re in for a long period of contracting growth that will not be confined to China but will affect the entire world.

That seems the most likely outcome for now. Get set for slower growth and perhaps stagflation. It could be like the late 1970s all over again.

Slowly, Wall Street is taking the trade wars seriously. But it is still missing its larger implications of a new cold war.

This new cold war could last for decades and it will affect the entire global economy. Let’s just hope it doesn’t turn into a shooting war.

Below, I show you why it could. Read on.

Regards,

Jim Rickards
for The Daily Reckoning

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Crypto Is Here to Stay. Bitcoin Isn’t

This post Crypto Is Here to Stay. Bitcoin Isn’t appeared first on Daily Reckoning.

Bitcoin is back! So say the true believers, even with Friday’s flash crash. But there less there than meets the eye.

Bitcoin has staged a notable comeback from its 2018 crash. From a level of about $4,000 through the month of March, 2019, bitcoin had a two-day 23% spike from $4,135 on April 1, 2019 to $5,102 on April 3, 2019.

Bitcoin then moved sideways in the $5,000 to $6,000 range until May 8, 2019 when it staged another three-day spike from $5,932 on May 8 to $7,255 on May 11, a 22% surge.

Combining the April 1 and May 8 spikes, the bitcoin price moved from $4,135 to $7,255 for a spectacular 75% price rally in six weeks.

By last Thursday morning, it soared even higher, to over $8,300.

This rally was bitcoin’s best price performance since its 83% collapse from $20,000 in late December 2017 to $3,300 in December 2018. That crash marked the collapse of the greatest asset price bubble in history, larger even than the Tulipmania of 1637.

The questions for crypto investors are what caused the recent rebound in the price of bitcoin and will it last? Is this the start of a new mega-rally or just another price ramp and manipulation? Has anything fundamental changed?

If you’re beginning to suspect these are leading questions, you’re right.

Of course, bitcoin technical analysts are out in force explaining how the 100-day moving average crossed the 200-day moving average, a bullish sign. They are also quick to add that the 30-day moving average is gaining strength, another bullish sign.

My view is that technical analysis applied to bitcoin is nonsense. There are two reasons for this. The first is that there is nothing to analyze except the price itself. When you look at technical analysis applied to stocks, bonds, commodities, foreign exchange or other tradeable goods, there is an underlying asset or story embedded in the price.

Oil prices might move on geopolitical fears related to Iran. Bond prices might move on disinflation fears related to demographics. In both cases (and many others), the price reflects real-world factors. Technical analysis is simply an effort to digest price movements into comprehensible predictive analytics.

With bitcoin (to paraphrase Gertrude Stein) “there is no there, there.” Bitcoin is a digital record. Some argue it’s money; (I’m highly skeptical it meets the basic definition of money).

Either way, bitcoin does not reflect corporate assets, national economic strength, terms of trade, energy demand or any of the myriad factors by which other asset prices are judged. Technical analysis is meaningless when the price itself is meaningless in relation to any goods, services, assets or other claims.

My other reason for rejecting the utility of technical analysis is that it has low predictive value when applied to substantial assets and no predictive value at all when applied to bitcoin.

If you follow technical analysis, you’ll see that every “incorrect” prediction is followed immediately by a new analysis in which a “double top” merely presages a “triple top” and so on.

Technical analysis can help clarify where the price has been and help with relative value analysis, but its predictive analytic value is low (except to the extent the technical analysis itself produces self-fulfilling prophesies through herd behavior).

That said, what can we take away from the recent bitcoin price rally, putting aside its flash crash for the moment?

The first relevant fact is that no one knows why it happened. There was no new technological breakthrough in bitcoin mining. None of the scalability and sustainability challenges have been solved. Frauds and hacks continue to be revealed on an almost daily basis. In short, it’s business as usual in the bitcoin space with no new reasons for optimism or pessimism.

The second relevant fact is that the bitcoin price has been the target of rampant manipulation by miners in recent years. Bitcoin miners have rising costs of production due to the increasing complexity of the math problems that must be solved to validate a new block on the blockchain.

Bitcoin miners also have large inventories of coins mined in the past that have not been released on the market through exchanges or otherwise.

As a result, miners have huge incentives to pump-up prices, both to cover costs of production and to create demand for undistributed coins. These price ramps are conducted through wash sales, “painting the tape,” joint action, low volume price pumps, and other classic manipulations.

The evidence is strong that this kind of activity has taken place in the past and there is no reason to believe it is not taking place now. As mentioned above, JP Morgan & Chase have estimated bitcoin’s intrinsic value at about $2,400.

The last potential contributor to the bitcoin price spike is simple speculation. Bitcoin buyers who missed their chance to reap fortunes when the price went to $20,000 may see another chance to ride a wave of much higher prices.

Since nothing fundamental has changed about bitcoin for better or worse, some combination of miner manipulation and naive speculation is the most likely explanation for the price action we’ve seen lately. This means the price could just as well crash as rally further.

Nothing has changed in the bitcoin blockchain technology. A use case for bitcoin has yet to emerge (and probably never will). Bitcoin is still unsuitable as an investment although it may work fine for those who just like to roll the dice. Count me out.

A second wave or new generation of cryptocurrencies is now emerging with better governance models, more security, and vastly improved ease of use. These new wave coins represent the future of the cryptocurrency technology. These cryptos have much greater potential to disrupt and disintermediate established payments systems, and financial intermediaries such as banks, brokers and exchanges.

On the one hand, mature cryptocurrencies such as bitcoin, ripple and ethereum are showing their inherent limitations and non-sustainability. These cryptocurrencies all have major flaws in terms of investor safety and ease of use.

The solutions proposed invariably involve backing away from the original promise of safe, anonymous transactions. Government authorities are converging from all sides looking for tax evasion, securities fraud, evasion of capital controls and other improprieties.

Second-generation cryptocurrencies have a much greater chance of competing successfully with existing payment channels such as Visa, MasterCard, PayPal and the traditional banking system.

The potential value of these new wave cryptos can be measured by the current franchise value of the institutions that will be disrupted. If these cryptocurrencies can disintermediate centralized financial behemoths like Citibank and the New York Stock Exchange, their value can be measured in the trillions of dollars.

If bitcoin is still unsuitable (despite a recent price rally), where do the opportunities lie in the cryptocurrency space? The answer is that the blockchain is growing up and new tokens and use cases are emerging all the time.

These new opportunities are in permissioned distributed ledgers such as JPMorgan’s payment token and synthetic world money proposed by the IMF. This means that the companies who will benefit most from the rise of new cryptocurrencies are not garage band start-ups, but technology giants such as IBM, Intel and Nvidia as well as financial giants such as JPMorgan and Citi.

Crypto has a bright future. But bitcoin doesn’t.

Regards,

Jim Rickards
for The Daily Reckoning

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The Biggest Fraud in History

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My readers know that I’m a longtime critic of bitcoin. Bitcoin rose from about $2,000 in May 2017 to $20,000 by December 2017 in one of the greatest asset price bubbles in history.

I argued repeatedly that it was nothing but a massive bubble and that the bubble would probably burst when it hit $20,000.

In late 2017 it did.

Bitcoin crashed from $20,000 all the way to $3,300 by December 2018 — an 83.5% collapse in one year and the greatest recorded asset price collapse in history.

The crash of bitcoin was even more dramatic than the infamous collapse of tulip prices in the tulipomania in Netherlands in the early 17th century.

But suddenly, bitcoin is back in the news.

You’ve probably seen the headlines about bitcoin’s return. Bitcoin rose from $3,900 on March 26, 2019, to $8,100 on May 15, 2019, a gain of 52% in less than seven weeks.

Happy days are here again! Bitcoin mania is back!

60 Minutes even ran a feature on bitcoin last night.

Is this the start of a new rally back to the heights of $20,000? That seems highly unlikely.

Early Friday bitcoin plunged well over $1,000 in a massive flash crash, about 10% in one day. Easy come, easy go.

What caused the crash?

It seems that a bitcoin “whale” unloaded a massive holding.

A “whale” is a term for a cryptocurrency investor with a large amount of units, or “coins.” That gives them significant influence on the market control.

It’s been estimated that less than 450 people or entities own 20% of the entire bitcoin market.

And when someone buys or sells a massive amount, prices can swing dramatically, as we saw on Friday.

It is still not clear if the large sell order was deliberate or an accidental “fat finger” error.

Prices have recovered to some extent, and bitcoin’s trading around $7,800 today. But either way, Friday’s flash crash highlights a major weakness of bitcoin. It can all come crashing down like a house of cards, as bitcoin’s 2017–18 hair-raising plunge proves.

As an asset, bitcoin has very little to offer outside of speculation.

Bitcoin still has no use case except for gambling by speculators or the conduct of transactions by terrorists, tax evaders, scam artists and other denizens of the dark web. Bitcoin is still unsustainable due to extreme demands for electricity in the computer “mining” process.

It is still nonscalable due to the slow and clunky validation process for new blocks of transactions on the bitcoin blockchain. Bitcoin has no future as “money” because the supply of bitcoin cannot grow beyond a preset amount.

That feature makes bitcoin inherently deflationary and therefore not suitable for credit creation, which is the real source of any system of money. Bitcoin has been subject to continual price manipulation by miners through wash sales, front-running, ramping and other tried-and-true techniques for price manipulation.

The bitcoin infrastructure has been plagued with hacking, fraud, bankruptcy and coin theft measured in the billions of dollars. Bitcoin may go higher from here; it’s entirely possible. But it will then come crashing down again.

What is bitcoin’s intrinsic worth?

JPMorgan Chase has tried to break it down. They examined bitcoin as a commodity.

To arrive at its worth, JPMorgan Chase estimated the cost of producing each individual bitcoin by looking at factors such as electrical costs, computational power and energy efficiency. I mentioned these factors above.

When they crunched the numbers, what number did they come up with?

JPMorgan Chase estimated the intrinsic value of bitcoin at around $2,400. Let’s assume for now that’s accurate, or a reasonable approximation. Then even at $8,000, we can conclude that bitcoin is severely overvalued.

JPMorgan Chase compared bitcoin’s recent run-up to the bubble it experienced two years ago. Even though it is still far from $20,000, if we see another speculative frenzy it could undergo a similar run. But it would end the same way.

The bottom line is I would advise you to stay far away from bitcoin. Do not get sucked in by the hype.

Sadly, some people never learn. And my guess is that many will get burned all over again.

Read on for more.

Regards,

Jim Rickards
for The Daily Reckoning

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Prepare for Trench Warfare

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What if China isn’t half so desperate for a deal as the president believes?

Are we in for an extended siege of economic trench warfare?

Today we explore possibilities… and their implications.

We first direct our gaze to Wall Street.

Investors came crouching from their shelters this morning… as if expecting an aftershock to the quake that drove them underground yesterday.

With Monday’s 617-point battering — piling atop last week’s losses — three months of stock market gains have vanished into the ether.

The S&P 500 endured its 15th-largest decline in history yesterday. It has shed $1.1 trillion since May 5 alone.

Markets Bounce Back

But the Earth held today. And investors cleared away some of yesterday’s wreckage.

The Dow Jones rebounded 207 points.

The S&P reclaimed 23 of the 70 points it lost yesterday. The Nasdaq gained 87.

Markets were encouraged by President Trump’s comments that he will strike a deal with China “when the time is right.”

He will have an opportunity at the G20 summit in late June. There he will meet China’s Xi Jinping, for whom his “respect and friendship is unlimited.”

But is China sweating dreadfully for a trade deal as Trump assumes?

China Braces for Escalation

China does — after all — ship some $500 billion of products to these shores each year.

It cannot afford to sit on them like a broody hen.

But you might have another guess, says the director of monetary policy at the People’s Bank of China:

As for the change in the domestic and external economic environment, China has sufficient leeway and a deep monetary policy toolkit, and so has full ability to deal with [economic] uncertainties.

But here we cite a government mouthpiece, a marionette in human form. You no more trust his word than you would trust a dog with your dinner.

Just so.

But affirms Brad Setser, senior fellow for international economics at the Council on Foreign Relations:

Trump’s escalation comes at an awkward time, but if push comes to shove, they’re quite capable of supporting growth through more investment and credit.

There may be justice here.

Twice as Much Stimulus as During the Financial Crisis

If you believe the Federal Reserve is a gargantuan spigot of credit, the People’s Bank of China brings it to shame.

ING estimates China has pledged 8 trillion yuan in economic support — twice as much “stimulus” as it offered during the global financial crisis.

And the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) estimates China’s fiscal stimulus this year equals 4.25% of GDP… up from 2.94% last year.

Meantime, Chinese domestic consumption has been on the increase.

Growth through increased consumption — say the economics wiseacres in practice among us — reduces dependence on exports.

Is most of this stimulus woefully wasteful? Does it finance vastly unproductive economic activity?

Yes and yes.

Is the way to wealth through consumption — rather than production?

No, it is not.

But if Chinese authorities believe they can offset lost exports by bellowing credit and vomiting money… they may choose to dig in for the long haul.

“A nation is never as happy as when it’s at war”

A trade war may even rally the people to the colors…

A nation is never as happy as when it’s at war — even trade war.

War gives the people enemies to hate… and leaders to love.

What better way to distract a people from their own government’s eternal swinishness, its infinite rascality?

Despite all contrary appearance, the United States government does not run a corner on either.

In fact, China’s state media took to the warpath Monday.

It shouted for a “people’s war” against Mr. Trump’s “greed and arrogance.”

And why not? It could argue…

‘China is a proud, accomplished and ancient nation, with roots sunk deep into history.

It is the “Middle Kingdom,” the center to which all the world’s divergent rays bend.

Who are these upstart Americans to shove us around?’

Economic “Trench Warfare”

We would remind the president — respectfully — that wars are far easier to start than finish.

The boys will be home by Christmas, they gloated in August 1914.

Four years later they were still in the trenches — or in boxes.

Could the United States and China soon be locked in the extended stalemate of economic “trench warfare”?

The strategists at Deutsche Bank’s chief investment office fear so:

Unless a deal can be struck quickly in the coming weeks, markets will need to prepare themselves for an extended period of economic trench warfare. And large listed U.S. companies in particular could well find themselves in the line of fire.

China has previously chosen to “wait, strategically inflict pain, delay and hope U.S. pressure eventually goes away.”

But China has heaved aside that option, argues Deutsche Bank.

Now it is reaching for its shovel… and preparing to hunker in.

In conclusion:

The nature of trade wars (like actual wars) is that they foster nationalist sentiment and jingoism. The first shots are fired in the hope of quick victories. And before you know it, both sides are stuck in the trenches, with no obvious and politically feasible way out.

The coming weeks may well yield the answer.

But how will markets hold up if diplomacy collapses?

All Pressure May Fall on Trump

A failed trade deal was sufficient to send stocks careening this past week.

President Trump has all his cargo loaded on two wagons — the stock market and economy.

If either cracks an axle, if either collapses under the strain, his reelection prospects collapse in turn.

Therefore, argues analyst Sven Henrich of Northman Trader, all pressure rests upon the presidential shoulders of Donald J. Trump:

Because for Trump there’s an election to worry about. The Chinese don’t have an election to worry about and that puts the time pressure on Trump, not the Chinese. The Chinese will continue to intervene and yesterday they showed backbone and followed through on retaliation. But because the U.S. election cycle clock is ticking Donald Trump cannot afford a trade war extending into the end of the year, especially if the consequences of such a protracted trade war would spill into the larger economy.

Will the Great Negotiator be the one to blink first?

Regards,

Brian Maher
Managing editor, The Daily Reckoning

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“Mandate of Heaven” in Jeopardy

This post “Mandate of Heaven” in Jeopardy appeared first on Daily Reckoning.

U.S. policy through the Bush and Obama administrations was to soft-pedal questionable Chinese trade practices, pirating technology and theft of intellectual property in return for cheap manufactured goods and China’s willingness to finance trillions of dollars of U.S. government debt.

Now Trump has changed the rules of the game. He’s said lost jobs in the U.S. are not worth the cheap goods and cheap financing. He bet that China had no alternative but to keep producing those goods and keep buying our debt, even if the U.S. imposes tariffs to help create manufacturing jobs here.

President Trump and President Xi had been on a collision course involving issues of trade, tariffs, and currency manipulation, which are coming to a head.

It’s important to understand that China’s economy is not just about providing jobs, goods and services. It is about regime survival for a Chinese Communist Party that faces an existential crisis if it fails to deliver. It is an illegitimate regime that will remain in power only so long as it provides jobs and a rising living standard for the Chinese people. The overriding imperative of the Chinese leadership is to avoid societal unrest.

Once the Chinese job machine stalls out, popular unrest could emerge on a scale much greater than the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests. This is an existential threat to Communist power.

If China encounters a financial crisis, Xi could quickly lose what the Chinese call, “The Mandate of Heaven.” That’s a term that describes the intangible goodwill and popular support needed by emperors to rule China for the past 3,000 years.

If The Mandate of Heaven is lost, a ruler can fall quickly.

China has serious structural economic problems and its internal contradictions are catching up with it. Economies can grow through consumption, investment, government spending and net exports. The “Chinese miracle” has been mostly a matter of investment and net exports, with minimal spending by consumers.

The investment component was thinly disguised government spending — many of the companies conducting investment in large infrastructure projects were backed directly or indirectly by the government through the banks.

This investment was debt-financed. China is so heavily indebted that it is now at the point where more debt does not produce growth. Adding additional debt today slows the economy and calls into question China’s ability to service its existing debt.

China is now confronting an insolvent banking system, a real estate bubble, and a $1 trillion wealth management product Ponzi scheme that is starting to fall apart.

Up to half of China’s investment is a complete waste. It does produce jobs and utilize inputs like cement, steel, copper and glass. But the finished product, whether a city, train station or sports arena, is often a white elephant that will remain unused.

Chinese growth has been reported in recent years as 6.5–10% but is actually closer to 5% or lower once an adjustment is made for the waste. The Chinese landscape is littered with “ghost cities” that have resulted from China’s wasted investment and flawed development model.

What’s worse is that these white elephants are being financed with debt that can never be repaid. And no allowance has been made for the maintenance that will be needed to keep these white elephants in usable form if demand does rise in the future, which is doubtful.

Essentially, China is on the horns of a dilemma with no good way out. On the one hand, China has driven growth for the past eight years with excessive credit, wasted infrastructure investment and Ponzi schemes.

The Chinese leadership knows this, but they had to keep the growth machine in high gear to create jobs for millions of migrants coming from the countryside to the city and to maintain jobs for the millions more already in the cities.

The two ways to get rid of debt are deflation (which results in write-offs, bankruptcies and unemployment) or inflation (which results in theft of purchasing power, similar to a tax increase).

Both alternatives are unacceptable to the Communists because they lack the political legitimacy to endure either unemployment or inflation. Either policy would cause social unrest and unleash revolutionary potential.

China has hit a wall that development economists refer to as the “middle income trap.” Again, this happens to developing economies when they have exhausted the easy growth potential moving from low income to middle income and then face the far more difficult task of moving from middle income to high income.

The move to high-income status requires far more than simple assembly-style jobs staffed by rural dwellers moving to the cities. It requires the creation and adoption of high-value-added products enabled by high technology.

China has not shown much capacity for developing high technology on its own, but it has been quite effective at stealing such technology from trading partners and applying it through its own system of state-owned enterprises and “national champions” such as Huawei in the telecommunications sector.

Unfortunately for China, this growth by theft has run its course. The U.S. and its allies, such as Canada and the EU, are taking strict steps to limit further theft and are holding China to account for its theft so far by imposing punitive tariffs and banning Chinese companies from participation in critical technology rollouts such as 5G mobile phones.

My view is that a crisis in China is inevitable based on China’s growth model, the international financial climate and excessive debt. A countdown to crisis has begun.  Geopolitical issues will make the economic issues even harder to resolve.

Yes, headlines are dominated by the trade war. That escalating confrontation is a big deal, but it’s not the only flash point in U.S.-China relations, and not even the most important. China is as much concerned about a military confrontation in the South China Sea as it is about the economic confrontation in the trade wars.

China dredged sand surrounding useless rocks and atolls in the South China Sea and converted them into artificial islands and then built out the islands to include naval ports, air force landing strips, anti-aircraft weapons and other defensive and offensive weapons systems.

Not only are the Chinese militarizing rocks, but they are trampling on competing claims by the Philippines, Vietnam, Brunei, Malaysia and other countries surrounding the sea.

The world has developed rules-based platforms for resolving these issues without military force. The U.S. is guaranteeing freedom of passage, freedom of the seas and the territorial rights of allies such as the Philippines.

So far, the U.S.-Chinese confrontation has been about naval vessels passing in close quarters and surveillance aircraft being harassed by fighter jets. The risk of such tactics is an accidental collision, a rogue shot fired or a command misunderstood.

Any such incident could lead to retaliation, and there’s no telling where it might stop. Trump is not someone to back down, and Chinese leadership does not want to appear weak before the U.S.

That’s especially true at a time of great economic uncertainty. China does not want war at this time. But diverting the people’s attention away from domestic problems toward a foreign foe is an old trick leaders use to unite the people in times of uncertainty. Rallying the people around the flag is a tried and true method to garner support.

If China’s leadership decides that the risk of losing legitimacy at home outweighs the risk of conflict with the United States, the likelihood of war rises dramatically.

I’m not predicting it, but wars have started over less. This is a very dangerous time.

Be sure to hold cash, gold, silver, land and other assets that will cushion you against a market crash.

Regards,

Jim Rickards
for The Daily Reckoning

The post “Mandate of Heaven” in Jeopardy appeared first on Daily Reckoning.

Trump Attacks!

This post Trump Attacks! appeared first on Daily Reckoning.

The trade war is back on. The trade deadline came and went at midnight last night without a deal. So 25% tariffs on $200 billion worth of Chinese goods took effect at 12:01. The tariffs had previously been set at 10%.

Based on Trump’s comments, 25% tariffs may possibly be applied to an additional $300 billion of Chinese goods.

China said it would respond with unspecified but “necessary countermeasures,” although negotiations continued today in Washington.

Some analysts say China can dump its large holdings of U.S. Treasuries on world markets. That would drive up U.S. interest rates as well as mortgage rates, damaging the U.S. housing market and possibly driving the U.S. economy into a recession. Analysts call this China’s “nuclear option.”

There’s only one problem.

The nuclear option is a dud. If China did sell some of their Treasuries, they would hurt themselves because any increase in interest rates would reduce the market value of what they have left.

Also, there are plenty of buyers around if China became a seller. Those Treasuries would be bought up by U.S. banks or even the Fed itself. If China pursued an extreme version of this Treasury dumping, the U.S. president could stop it with a single phone call to the Treasury.

That’s because the U.S. controls the digital ledger that records ownership of all Treasury securities. We could simply freeze the Chinese bond accounts in place and that would be the end of that.

So don’t worry when you hear about China dumping U.S. Treasuries. China is stuck with them. It has no nuclear option in the Treasury market.

How did we get here?

Trump’s trade representatives have complained that China had backtracked on previous agreements and that China was trying to renegotiate key points at the last minute. The Chinese are not accustomed to such resistance from U.S. officials. But Trump and his team are unlike previous administrations.

China assumed it was “business as usual” as it had been during the Clinton, Bush 43 and Obama administrations. China assumed it could pay lip service to trading relations and continue down its path of unfair trade practices and theft of intellectual property. Trump has proven them wrong.

Trump was never bluffing. He means business, which China is finally learning.

There’s still time to reach a deal, however, before the tariffs actually have any practical impact. The tariffs only apply to Chinese goods that leave port after last night’s deadline. That means goods already en route to the U.S. will not be affected.

So it will be at least two weeks until Chinese goods are actually subject to the extra tariffs. So that leaves the window open for a deal.

Trump announced on Twitter early this morning that “there is absolutely no need to rush” to get a deal done, which removed any urgency from negotiations for the moment. You can expect the cat and mouse to continue for the next couple of weeks, with volatile swings in the stock market depending on the news of the day.

But Trump holds the superior hand as far as trade goes. China exports far more to the U.S. than the U.S. exports to China, so China has far more to lose in the trade war. Since the trade war began, the U.S. has suffered only minor impacts, while the impact on China has been overwhelming. The new tariffs will have even more serious effects on the Chinese economy.

A 25% tariff on $200 billion of goods could take 0.3–0.4% off Chinese growth. And if Trump carries through with 25% tariffs on an additional $300 billion of Chinese goods, it could subtract an additional 0.5% from Chinese growth.

That would cost China 0.8–1% of lost GDP at a time when the Chinese economy is struggling and can least afford it.

To go along with slowing growth, the Chinese financial sector is totally insolvent. Consumers’ savings have been used to finance ghost cities, white elephants, capital flight, Ponzi schemes, bribes and kickbacks.

There are some real assets to show (their trains are the best in the world) and some growth, but not nearly enough to cover liabilities.

With a debt-to-GDP ratio of about 250%, China is already well into the danger zone. How much more debt-financed stimulus can it take?

Research by economists Kenneth Rogoff and Carmen Reinhart indicates that debt-to-GDP becomes a drag on the economy at 90%.

China’s leadership can only hope the damage can be limited before the people begin to question its legitimacy.

Could China’s leadership lose “The Mandate of Heaven?”

Regards,

Jim Rickards
for The Daily Reckoning

The post Trump Attacks! appeared first on Daily Reckoning.

The Trade War Is Back

This post The Trade War Is Back appeared first on Daily Reckoning.

President Trump shocked markets yesterday when he announced that a new, heavy round of tariffs on Chinese goods will take effect this Friday. Complacent markets had assumed that a trade deal would get done, that it was just a matter of sorting out the details. Now that is far from certain. Failing a last minute deal, which is certainly possible, the trade war is back. And it could get worse.

What most surprised me about the new trade war was not that it started, but that the mainstream financial media denied it was happening for so long. The media have consistently denied the impact of this trade war. Early headlines said that Trump was bluffing and would not follow through on the tariffs. He did. Later headlines said that China was just trying to save face and would not retaliate. They did.

Today the story line has been that the trade war will not have a large impact on macroeconomic growth. It will. The mainstream media have been wrong in their analysis at every stage of this trade war. And it did not see this latest salvo coming.

The bottom line is that the trade war is here, it’s highly impactful and it could get worse. The sooner investors and policymakers internalize that reality, the better off they’ll be.

For years I’ve been warning my readers that a global trade war was likely in the wake of the currency wars. This forecast seemed like a stretch to many. But it wasn’t.

I said it would simply be a replay of the sequence that prevailed from 1921–39 as the original currency war started by Weimar Germany morphed into trade wars started by the United States and finally shooting wars started by Japan in Asia and Germany in Europe.

The existing currency war started in 2010 with Obama’s National Export Initiative, which led directly to the cheapest dollar in history by August 2011. The currency war evolved into a trade war by January 2018, when Trump announced tariffs on solar panels and appliances mostly from China. Unfortunately, a shooting war cannot be ruled out given rising geopolitical tensions.

The reasons the currency war and trade war today are repeating the 1921–39 sequence are not hard to discern. Countries resort to currency wars when they face a global situation of too much debt and not enough growth.

Currency wars are a way to steal growth from trading partners by reducing the cost of exports. The problem is that this tactic does not work because trade partners retaliate by reducing the value of their own currencies. This competitive devaluation goes back and forth for years.

Everyone is worse off and no one wins.

Once leaders realize the currency wars are not working, they pivot to trade wars. The dynamic is the same. One country imposes tariffs on imports from another country. The idea is to reduce imports and the trade deficit, which improves growth. But the end result is the same as a currency war. Trade partners retaliate and everyone is worse off as global trade shrinks.

The currency wars and trade wars can exist side by side as they do today. Eventually, both financial tactics fail and the original problem of debt and growth persists. At that point, shooting wars emerge. Shooting wars do solve the problem because the winning side increases production and the losing side has infrastructure destroyed that needs to be rebuilt after the war.

Yet the human cost is high. The potential for shooting wars exists in North Korea, the South China Sea, Taiwan, Israel, Iran, Venezuela and elsewhere. Let’s hope things don’t get that far this time.

But the easiest way to understand the trade war dynamics is to take Trump at his word. Trump was not posturing or bluffing. He will agree to trade deals, but only on terms that improve the outlook for jobs and growth in the U.S. Trump is not a globalist; he’s a nationalist. That may not be popular among the elites, but that’s how he sets policy. Keeping that in mind will help with trade war analysis and predictions.

Trump is entirely focused on the U.S. trade deficit. He does not care about global supply chains or least-cost production. He cares about U.S. growth, and one way to increase growth is to reduce the trade deficit. That makes Trump’s trade policy a simple numbers game rather than a complicated multilateral puzzle palace.

If the U.S. can gain jobs at the expense of Korea or Vietnam, then Trump will do it; too bad for Korea and Vietnam. From there, the next step is to consider what’s causing the U.S. trade deficit. This chart tells the story. It shows the composite U.S. trade deficit broken down by specific trading partners:

The Gap https://s3.amazonaws.com/paradigmpress-uploads/wp-content/uploads/2019/05/chart_the-gap-in-trade.pnin Trade - Chart

The problem quickly becomes obvious. The U.S. trade deficit is due almost entirely to four trading partners: China, Mexico, Japan and Germany. Of those, China is 64% of the total.

President Trump has concluded a trade deal with Mexico that benefits both countries and will lead to a reduced trade deficit as Mexico buys more U.S. soybeans.

The U.S. has good relations with Japan and much U.S.-Japanese trade is already governed by agreements acceptable to both sides. This means the U.S. trade deficit problem is confined to China and Germany (often referred to euphemistically as “Europe” or the “EU”).  The atmosphere between the U.S. and the EU when it comes to trade is still uneasy, but not critical.

But the global trade war is not global at all but really a slugfest between the U.S. and China, the world’s two largest economies. In the realm of global trade, the United States is an extremely desirable customer. In fact, for most, we are their best customer.

Think the still export-based Chinese economy can afford to sell significantly less manufactured goods across borders? Think that same Chinese economy can allow for a significant devaluation of U.S. sovereign debt? That’s their book, gang.

But China has finally come to the realization that the trade war is real and here to stay. Senior Chinese policymakers have referred to the trade war as part of a larger strategy of containment of Chinese ambitions that may lead to a new Cold War. They’re right.

Trump seems to relish the idea of bullying the Chinese in public. That’s certainly his style, but it’s also a risky strategy. To quote Sun Tzu: “Do not press a desperate foe too hard.”

China doesn’t like to be chastised publicly any more than anyone else, but culturally, saving-face may be more important to the Chinese. The Chinese are all about saving face and gaining face. That means they can walk away from a trade deal even if it damages them economically. Saving face is too important. But Trump is playing for keeps and will not back down either.

Unlike in other policy arenas, Trump has enjoyed bipartisan support in Congress. The Republicans have backed Trump from a national security perspective and the Democrats have backed him from a pro-labor perspective. China sees the handwriting on the wall.

This trade war will not end soon, because it’s part of something bigger and much more difficult to resolve. This is a struggle for hegemony in the 21st century. The trade war will be good for U.S. jobs but bad for global output. The stock market is going to wake up to this reality. The currency wars and trade wars are set to get worse.

Investors should prepare.

Regards,

Jim Rickards
for The Daily Reckoning

The post The Trade War Is Back appeared first on Daily Reckoning.