Hong Kong Headed for Crisis Again

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I’ve been visiting Hong Kong for over 35 years. My first visit was in 1982 and my most recent was in May 2018.

All large cities change over time. New districts are developed. New buildings are erected and some old ones torn down.

Cities on the water, like Hong Kong, can use landfills to build more land and transform colourful (if dangerous) dockside alleys into sleek convention centres and hotel districts. None of that is unexpected, especially in dynamic cities like Hong Kong.

Yet in addition to physical infrastructure (which changes), cities have a kind of soul or zeitgeist, which is less susceptible to change.

St Mark’s Square in Venice, the Louvre in Paris and the Houses of Parliament in London are all defining and, if not eternal, at least help to keep a place rooted over time.

My visits to Hong Kong in the late 1990s and early 2000s were characterised by the same energy and dynamism I had encountered decades earlier.

I had routinely described Hong Kong to friends as the most energetic city in the world after New York.

The ‘One country, two systems’ seemed to work well together.

Yet as China’s growth ‘miracle’ gathered steam from 2002-2007, a legal heavy hand and gloomy administrative culture directed from Beijing descended on Hong Kong. You could feel it in the air.

At first, I noticed the lack of energy. The city was still rich and active, but there was a ‘business as usual’ attitude that was less driven than the energetic venue I had always known. Then I noticed a more depressed attitude among the bankers, investors and event planners I associated with.

They still made money, but the typical upbeat smile had been replaced with a more worried look.

This was accompanied by a rise in street protests against the heavy hand of Beijing on matters such as free speech, government autonomy and the relative importance of Hong Kong in the Chinese master plan.

Clearly, Shanghai had come into its own as the financial centre of China, so Hong Kong’s special role had been greatly diminished. The starkest evidence of change came during my last visit in May 2018…

I was presenting to a group of elite policymakers and property developers at the prestigious Asia Society local headquarters. At one point, one of the local elites took me aside, looked over his shoulder and at a near whisper said, ‘Be careful what you say.’

Global investors are accustomed to treating Hong Kong as a bastion of free markets and fair dealing. Those assumptions were suddenly no longer true, as Beijing began to treat Hong Kong as just another piece on a chessboard of market manipulation and geopolitical ambition.

The Chinese authoritarianism evident in Hong Kong last year only cemented that policy shift. What developments can we expect now that the freewheeling Hong Kong we knew from 1960-2005 has come to an end?

Last year’s unrest in Hong Kong was another symptom of the weakening grip of the Chinese Communist Party on civil society. The unrest spread from street demonstrations to a general strike and shutdown of the transportation system, including the cancellations of hundreds of flights.

This social unrest died down after the proposed bill to extradite Hong Kong citizens to China was pulled off the table. But now Beijing is clamping down hard with its proposed legislation to punish dissent.

Expect the pro-democracy protests to resume again. They may even grow larger. How will China react?

A direct Chinese invasion cannot be ruled out if local authorities cannot squash the unrest.

Of course, that would be the last nail in the coffin of the academic view of China as a good global citizen.

That view was always false, but now even the academics have started to understand what’s really going on. The situation in Hong Kong today is eerily reminiscent of the days leading up to the Tiananmen Square massacre on 4 June 1989.

In both cases, a particular cause for complaint gave rise to demonstrations, which soon grew and led to wider demands for political liberty and justice. Tiananmen started as a demonstration against inflation, which drew college students and housewives.

At its height, over one million protestors were active in Beijing, while demonstrations sympathising with the Tiananmen protestors appeared in over 400 Chinese cities.

Tiananmen Square is immediately adjacent to the Forbidden City and the Chinese leadership compound, so the demonstrators posed a potential threat to the government itself. Finally, hard-line Communist Party leaders ordered tanks and troops to attack the demonstrators.

No one knows the exact number killed, but estimates range from the low thousands to the tens of thousands. The entire incident has been covered up and is never mentioned in official communications or taught in Chinese schools…

As I described earlier, Last year’s Hong Kong demonstrations began on a small scale to protest a proposed law that would allow extradition of Hong Kong people to Beijing for trial on charges that arose in Hong Kong.

That would have deprived Hong Kong people of legal protections in local law, and could have subjected prisoners to torture and summary execution. The demonstrations grew exponentially and involved hundreds of thousands of protestors.

The list of demands also grew to include more democracy and freedom, and adherence to Hong Kong’s rule of law. Now the protests look like they’re starting again, and rightly so. Here’s China’s dilemma…

If Beijing tolerates more protests (and they succeed), they may lead to greater autonomy for Hong Kong at a time when Beijing is trying to strengthen and centralise its control. But if Beijing cracks down on the protestors, it will have another Tiananmen Square massacre on its hands with two important differences.

Hong Kong is a major city and will not be as easy to control as a confined square in Beijing.

And the rise of social media, mobile devices and live streaming guarantee that Beijing will not be able to hide or cover up any atrocities.

The jury is out on which path the Communists would take. But with China’s increasing belligerence in the region, don’t count out a strong response.

Unfortunately, the resolution may not be the peaceful one hoped for but another bloody massacre.

With the U.S. warning China against strong action in Hong Kong, let’s just hope the situation doesn’t light a powder keg resulting in a shooting war.

In case investors didn’t have enough to worry about with the coronavirus, they may have a whole lot more to deal with before too long.

Regards,

Jim Rickards
for The Daily Reckoning

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Is War Next?

This post Is War Next? appeared first on Daily Reckoning.

Remember the pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong against Chinese authoritarianism?

Well, guess what? They’re about to start again. And U.S.-Chinese relations could get even worse than they are right now.

Are you prepared for a bumpy ride?

Let’s unpack this…

Last year’s protests came in response to a proposed law that would have allowed the extradition of Hong Kong residents to Beijing for trial on charges that arose in Hong Kong.

That would have deprived Hong Kong residents of legal protections in local law and subjected prisoners to torture and summary execution.

The legislation was proposed by Hong Kong’s Chief Executive Carrie Lam, who many consider a puppet of Beijing.

The demonstrations grew exponentially, ultimately involving hundreds of thousands of protesters.

The list of demands also grew to include more democracy and freedom and adherence to Hong Kong’s rule of law.

Due to social media, these protests were seen around the world.

The proposed bill behind the original protests was scrapped last October, which was a victory for the pro-democracy protesters.

The protests didn’t end altogether, but tensions were at least diffused to a great extent and the world moved on.

Well, here comes round two…

China’s Communist parliament is preparing to roll out legislation that would ban “treason, secession, sedition (and) subversion” in Hong Kong.

This is different from the previous legislation because this bill actually originates in Beijing, not Hong Kong. It’s a direct assault on Hong Kong’s democracy. The Chinese parliament would insert the legislation directly into Hong Kong’s constitution.

It’s scheduled for passage next week.

Pro-democracy activists have called for mass protests this weekend in response to what they rightly consider a Chinese invasion of their autonomy.

We could be in for a fresh round of protests, with as many or more people. China’s reaction will be key.

Will they try to put the protests down by force? That could have major consequences.

Yesterday, news emerged that the U.S. Senate is introducing bipartisan legislation to impose sanctions on officials and business entities that enforce the new law.

And President Trump warned yesterday that the U.S. would react “very strongly” to the Chinese legislation.

In response, China’s foreign ministry warned Beijing would “fight back” against any U.S. interference.

At a time when U.S.-Chinese relations are already at a low ebb due to China’s almost criminal handling of the coronavirus pandemic, it looks like things are about to get even worse.

This situation could become very interesting.

But you shouldn’t be surprised. The current trajectory of U.S.-China relations is following a familiar course. It started with the currency war…

When my first book, Currency Wars, was published in 2011, I made the point that currency wars don’t exist all the time, but when they emerge they can last for 15 or 20 years.

The reason is that the currency devaluations just go back and forth between major trading partners and no one is any further ahead in the long run.

Readers said, “OK, we get that, but what comes next?”

The answer is trade wars. Once currency devaluations fail, countries turn to tariffs to slow down imports and help their own exports.

That’s where the U.S. and China are now, with the ongoing trade war (which could get worse).

But that’s also a dead end from an economic perspective. Again, the question is: What comes next?

Well, with history as a guide, we can see that today’s pattern is a repeat of what the world went through in the 1920s and 1930s.

First came currency wars (1921–1936). Then came trade wars (1930–34) and then finally a shooting war (1939–1945).

Are we heading for another shooting war with China? The signs are not good.

Trade war tariffs can be weaponized to pursue geopolitical goals. Trump is using tariffs to punish China for its criminal negligence (or worse) in connection with the spread of the Wuhan virus to the U.S. and the rest of the world.

This also has historical precedent.

Between June and August 1941, President Franklin Roosevelt placed an oil embargo on Japan and froze Japan’s accounts in U.S. banks.

In December 1941, the Japanese retaliated with the sneak attack on Pearl Harbor. Will China now escalate its retaliation to the point of armed conflict?

We’ll find out soon, possibly in the South China Sea or the Taiwan Strait. The latest reemergence of tensions in Hong Kong only adds kerosene to the fire.

Investors should prepare for U.S.-China geopolitical tension to grow worse. Maybe a lot worse. That’s the lesson of history.

Regards,

Jim Rickards
for The Daily Reckoning

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The Coin-Toss Election

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The political climate is fragile and feverish, with the nation amid a crisis that is both fast-changing and unparalleled in living memory.

The biggest change in my election forecast is that Trump’s chances of reelection in November have plunged from 74% (the pre-COVID forecast) to 50% as of today.

This does not mean Trump will lose; he could very well win. But it will be a very close election. Deciding the outcome between Trump and Biden as of now is basically a coin toss. Many factors, some foreseeable and some unforeseen, could tip the balance.

Trump’s strengths are that he is an excellent campaigner, has enormous amounts of mo‌ney for the campaign and seems to have unlimited stores of energy. He also has the power of incumbency, which usually propels a sitting president to a second term.

Trump’s weaknesses are the depth of the New Depression and his handling of the COVID-19 pandemic. Amost no one blames Trump for the outbreak, but many found his response belated and overly optimistic in the initial stages. He did some things right (the China travel ban), but many responses were bungled (defective testing kits, shortages of masks and protective clothing, shortages of ventilators).

In stages, these mistakes were overcome. Masks and protective clothing were mass-produced. Ventilators were surged to those locations that most needed them. New hospital beds were made available through Navy hospital ships and temporary hospitals built by the Army Corps of Engineers. Testing kits gradually became available, although there is still a severe shortage.

Instead of taking credit in a measured way for these positive developments, Trump wasted time in petty disputes with corrupt journalists. Those fights might be OK in the normal political arena, but there’s nothing normal about a pandemic. Trump didn’t seem to know the difference and alienated even his supporters in the process with his pontificating and sideshow antics.

These Trump deficiencies (despite many positive accomplishments) began to show up in the polls.

Large employment losses in states that Trump must carry, especially Pennsylvania, will not help Trump’s chances in November. On the other hand, if Trump can reopen the economy and recover some of these losses, he may benefit from a positive trend even if net losses remain.

What about Joe Biden?

Biden may have pulled even with Trump in the election horse race, but he’s not a sure thing by any means. Before Biden can even turn to the campaign against Trump, he must still try to obtain unity in his own party.

Bernie Sanders withdrew from the race, which essentially guaranteed the nomination for Biden. But will the “Bernie Bros” actually turn out on Election Day? Key components of the Democratic base might not be motivated to vote.

The left wants a Biden administration ban on anyone who has worked on or near Wall Street, the fossil fuel industry, the health insurance sector and the lobbying world, to name a few.

In short, the price that Bernie Sanders’ supporters are demanding from Biden may well make Biden unelectable in key swing states like Florida, Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin.

If Biden does not embrace the socialist agenda, his lost support from the Sanders movement may make him unelectable for other reasons. Biden is between a rock and a hard place, and the Bernie Bros intend to keep him there in order to pursue their goals.

One way for Biden to appease the Bernie Sanders movement without going all-in on the progressive agenda is to choose a progressive running mate. In the eyes of progressives, the right running mate will be able to “keep an eye” on Biden and pursue the Bernie agenda inside the White House even if the specifics are not shouted from the rooftops.

Here’s a summary of the struggle going on inside the Biden camp regarding a VP choice as reported by Tal Axelrod for The Hill on April 19, in an article titled “Progressives Look for Concession From Biden With Running Mate”:

“Joe Biden absolutely has to pick a progressive champion as his VP pick. He has to unify the party, and that’s the key,” Charles Chamberlain, head of Democracy for America, told The Hill. “What we saw during the primary is… that we have two major factions of this party, the corporate wing, more establishment Democrats, and there is [the] progressive, ascendant left. And he absolutely has to choose from that progressive left to unify the party.”

Biden could pick from a number of progressive women to serve as his VP. Among the most prominent contenders who have been floated are [Elizabeth] Warren and Stacey Abrams, the former Georgia gubernatorial candidate and state House minority leader.

Both have openly expressed interest in the role, with Abrams saying she would be an “excellent” running mate for Biden and Warren confirming that she would accept an offer to be his No. 2.

Amy Klobuchar, the Minnesota senator, has also been mentioned as a leading candidate.

There are others, but these three have gotten the most attention.

But there’s no free lunch for Biden. The choice of Stacey Abrams for vice president would undoubtedly rally progressive and minority voters to turn out for Biden. That’s critical. But it helps Biden in places he is highly likely to win anyway such as California and New York.

Abrams’ ultra-leftist views and strident persona would drive away many moderates in critical swing states such as Michigan and Pennsylvania and possibly tip those states to Trump.

What we have today is a too-close-to-call election and six long months to go before Election Day.

Trump is aided by a solid base and a well-organized campaign strategy. Biden is aided by an electoral vote head start in big states like California and New York and a friendly media that will not criticize his many shortcomings.

The Democrats may hold a “digital” convention and keep Biden under wraps as much as possible until the October debates (where his cognitive decline may be difficult to disguise).

Republicans want to get the economy open for business and show some growth in the aftermath of a second-quarter collapse.

But there is one potential development that could move the odds in Trump’s favor…

Remember the “Russia collusion” accusations against Trump? The accusation was that he colluded with Russians to interfere in the 2016 presidential election. Trump campaign aides and early appointees such as Gen. Michael Flynn, Carter Page, George Papadopoulos and others were all said to be in on the conspiracy to “steal the election.”

There was only one problem with these claims. None of them were true. Multiple congressional investigations all reached the conclusion that there was no merit to the claims. The two-year, $30 million Mueller investigation found no evidence of Russian collusion by Trump or his team.

Multiple internal reviews and inspector general reports not only found no collusion, but also revealed extensive wrongdoing by the FBI and the U.S. intelligence community when it came to false representations, doctored reports, illegal surveillance of American citizens and other egregious abuse of constitutional rights.

Well, a day of reckoning may be coming soon. U.S. attorney John Durham has been conducting a multiyear investigation of his own at the request of the U.S. attorney general, William Barr. This investigation targets the wrongdoers in the Obama administration Justice Department, intelligence community and diplomatic corps.

High-profile subjects of inquiry include former FBI head James Comey, former National Security Adviser Susan Rice, former U.N. Ambassador Samantha Power and many other former high-ranking officials.

Guess what? Joe Biden has been listed as someone who requested and was privy to these reports, which raises serious questions.

The Durham investigation is criminal, so a wave of indictments and prosecutions may be coming soon. The exact timing is uncertain, but mid-July seems a likely date for announcement of the results of the investigation and any indictments.

Attorney General William Barr said Monday that he doesn’t expect criminal charges to be filed against Biden (or Obama). But Biden’s involvement in the Russiagate scandal could have implications for the election. We’ll see.

Investors have their hands full today dealing with the Wuhan virus, the new depression and an unsteady stock market. Now you can add legal fireworks to the list of things that may disrupt markets.

Regards,

Jim Rickards
for The Daily Reckoning

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Trump vs. Biden: Who Will Win?

This post Trump vs. Biden: Who Will Win? appeared first on Daily Reckoning.

The novel coronavirus has dominated the headlines for the past two months, as it should. There’s no bigger story in the world. And besides its human toll, I believe we’ll be dealing with its economic fallout for years.

But let’s not forget, this is an election year. Today I want to tie together the pandemic, the economy and the election.

What we are witnessing is a cascade of complex systems.

A pandemic is one complex dynamic system. The economy is another. A political season is still another.

Each complex system is highly unpredictable and capable of throwing out shocks (called “emergent properties” by physicists).

These three dynamic systems could exist on their own without affecting each other. But that’s not the case today.

A contagious virus, an unstable economy and a highly contested election are crashing into each other. Any one of these systems is difficult to model and predict. Collectively, it’s almost impossible.

All three systems go around in a circle affecting each other and being affected by each other. The pandemic has crashed the economy, and the economic collapse will affect the election. They all interact.

There’s no early end to this complex dynamic in sight.

There’s much that we don’t know about the pandemic and the political outcome. We know more about the economy because the specter of mass layoffs and business failure is already plain to see.

Even at that, we don’t know how long the economic distress will last and how long a recovery will take.

At this point, it’s fairly clear that the presidential election will feature Donald Trump versus Joe Biden.

There is some chance that Biden will stumble because of his cognitive disabilities, but it’s more likely the media will cover for him and he’ll be on the ballot on Election Day.

The principal factor in my election model this year was the probability of a recession before Election Day. No president seeking reelection to a second term has lost in the 20th or 21st centuries unless a recession occurred late in his first term.

Jimmy Carter and George H.W. Bush both lost their reelection bids, and both suffered recessions shortly before the election. Absent a recession late in a first term, the incumbent wins.

Until March, the odds of a recession before Election Day were less than 30% (many analysts set those odds even lower). This meant that Trump’s odds of winning were the reciprocal of 30%, which put the odds of winning at 70% (or higher).

And Trump’s odds would have likely improved by 2% per month. This means that if nothing changed, Trump would be an 86% favorite to win on Election Day.

Yet things did change.

Because of coronavirus, the odds of a recession switched to 100%. In theory, that would put the odds of Trump’s reelection at 0%. But Trump certainly has a better chance of reelection than zero. Basically, you have to set aside the rule book in this case.

This isn’t just a garden variety recession. It was deliberately imposed and accepted as a legitimate trade-off to prevent a massive public health crisis that could have overwhelmed the health care system.

I’m not going to get into a debate about whether it was necessary or not, but the point is it was a choice. It wasn’t because the economy suddenly collapsed on its own (although the economy was weaker than most people think it was).

So past comparisons don’t really hold up. This is a completely unprecedented situation.

But if you’re trying to forecast the election, how do you do it?

The best place to start the modeling process is to make the odds 50/50 (which really is just an educated starting place in the absence of better information).

That means Biden’s odds of winning are also 50% (for now).

In other words, the election has gone from being close to a sure thing for Trump to a coin toss.

Stock markets certainly have not had time seriously to contemplate President Biden and his pledges of higher taxes, open borders, the Green New Deal, late-term abortions and gun confiscations.

But that’s coming soon and is another huge headwind for markets.

So you can see how coronavirus, the economy and the election are all densely connected. Few would have imagined seven months ago where we’d be today. But here we are.

We still have nearly six months until the election. The best approach is to reserve judgment on what will happen six months from now.

But I’ll be watching developments closely and giving my readers the best available forecasts using my predictive analytic models and decades of experience.

Regards,

Jim Rickards
for The Daily Reckoning

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Don’t Believe the Happy Talk

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Nothing like what we’re witnessing has ever happened before. Even the savviest analysts cannot yet internalize what happened.

As I explained earlier, comparisons to the 2008 crisis or even the 1929 stock market crash that started the Great Depression fail to capture the magnitude of the economic damage of the virus. You may have to go back to the Black Plague of the mid-14th century for the right comparison.

Unfortunately the economy will not return to normal for years. Some businesses will never return to normal because they’ll be bankrupt before they are even allowed to reopen.

Businesses like restaurants, bars, pizza parlors, dry cleaners, hair salons and many similar businesses make up 44% of total U.S. GDP and 47% of all jobs. This is where many of the job losses, shutdowns and lost revenues occurred.

The U.S. government response to the economic collapse has been unprecedented in size and scope. The U.S. has a baseline budget deficit of about $1 trillion for fiscal year 2020. Congress added $2.2 trillion to that in its first economic bailout bill. A second bailout bill added an additional $500 billion. Another bill may add another $2 trillion to the deficit.

Combining the baseline deficit, enacted legislation and anticipated legislation brings the fiscal 2020 deficit to $5.7 trillion. That’s equal to more than 25% of GDP and will push the U.S. debt-to-GDP ratio to as high as 130% once the lost output ($6 trillion annualized) is taken into account. The previous record debt for the U.S. was about 120% of GDP at the end of World War II.

This puts the U.S. in the same category as Greece, Lebanon and Japan when it comes to the most heavily indebted countries in the world.

The Federal Reserve is also printing money at an unprecedented rate. The Fed’s balance sheet is already above $6.7 trillion, up from about $4.5 trillion at the end of QE3 in 2015. The first rescue bill for $2.2 trillion included $454 billion of new capital for a special purpose vehicle (SPV) managed by the U.S. Treasury Department and the Fed.

Since the Fed is a bank, it can leverage the SPV’s $454 billion in equity provided by the Treasury into $4.54 trillion on its balance sheet. The Fed could use that capacity to buy corporate debt, junk bonds, mortgages, Treasury notes and municipal bonds and to make direct corporate loans.

Once the Fed is done, its balance sheet will reach $10 trillion.

That much is known. What is not known is how quickly the economy will recover. The best evidence indicates that the economy will not recover quickly, and an age of low output, high unemployment and deflation is upon us.

Here’s why the economic recovery will not exhibit the “pent-up demand” and other happy-talk traits you hear about on TV…

The first reason the economic downturn will persist is the lost income for individuals. Unemployment compensation and PPP loans will only scratch the surface of total lost income from layoffs, pay cuts, reduced hours, business failures and individuals who are not only unemployed but drop out of the workforce entirely.

In addition to lost wages through layoffs and pay cuts, many other workers are losing pay in the form of tips, bonuses and commissions. Even a fully employed waitress or salesperson cannot collect tips or sales commissions if there are no customers. This illustrates how the economy is tightly linked so that problems in one sector quickly spread to other sectors.

In addition to lost individual income, there is a massive loss of business income. Earnings per share of publicly traded companies are not only declining in the second quarter (and likely the third quarter) but many are negative.

Lost business income will be another source of lower stock valuations and a source of dividend cuts. Reduced dividends are also a source of lost income for individual stockholders who rely on dividends to pay for their retirements or medical expenses.

Programs such as PPP and other direct government-to-business loans will not come close to compensating for the losses described above. The loans (which can turn into grants) will help for a month or two but are not a permanent solution to lost customers.

For still other firms, the loans won’t help at all because the firms are short of working capital and will simply close their doors for good and file for bankruptcy. This means the jobs in those enterprises will be permanently lost.

From these straightforward events (lost individual income, lost business income, dividend cuts and bankruptcies) come a host of ripple effects.

Once the government aid is distributed, many recipients will not spend it (as hoped) but will save it. Such savings are called “precautionary.” Even if you are not laid off, you may worry that your job is still in jeopardy. Any income you receive will either go to pay bills or into savings “just in case.”

In either case, the money will not be used for new spending. At a time when the economy needs consumption, we will not get it. The economy will fall into a “liquidity trap” where saving leads to deflation, which increases the value of cash, which leads to more saving. This pattern was last seen in the Great Depression (1929–40) and will soon be prevalent again.

Even if individuals were inclined to spend, there would be reduced spending in any case because there are fewer things to spend money on. Shows and sporting events are called off. Restaurants and movie theaters are closed. Travel is almost nonexistent, and no one wants to hop on a cruise ship or visit a resort until they can be assured that the risk of COVID-19 is greatly reduced.

This will guarantee a continued slow recovery and persistent deflation, which makes the slow recovery worse.

In addition to these constraints on demand, there are serious constraints on supply. Global supply chains have been seriously disrupted due to shutdowns and transportation bottlenecks. Social distancing will slow production even at those facilities that are open and can get needed inputs.

One case of COVID-19 in a factory can cause the entire factory to be shut down for a two-week quarantine period. Companies that depend on the output of that factory to manufacture their own products will also be shut down.

Beyond these direct effects of lost income and lost output, there are significant indirect effects on the willingness of entrepreneurs to invest and of individuals to spend.

First among these is the “wealth effect.” When stock values drop 20–30% as they have recently, investors feel poorer even if they have substantial net worth after the drop. The psychological effect is to cause people to reduce spending even if they can afford not to.

This means that spending cutbacks come not only from the middle class and unemployed but also from wealthier individuals who feel threatened by lost wealth even if they have continued income.

Finally, real estate values will collapse as tenants refuse to pay rent and landlords default on their mortgages, putting properties into foreclosure.

None of these negative economic consequences of the New Depression are amenable to easy fixes by the Congress or the Fed.

Deficit spending will not “stimulate” the economy as the recipients of the spending will pay bills or save money. The Fed can provide liquidity and keep the lights on in the financial system, but it cannot cure insolvency or prevent bankruptcies.

The process will feed on itself expressed as deflation, which will encourage even more savings and discourage consumption. We’re in a deflationary and debt death spiral that has only just begun.

Based on this analysis, investors should expect the recovery from the New Depression to be slow and weak. The Fed will be out of bullets. Deficit spending will slow growth rather than stimulate it because the unprecedented level of debt will cause Americans to expect higher taxes, inflation or both.

The U.S. economy will not recover 2019 levels of GDP until 2022. Unemployment will not return even to 5% until 2026 or later.

This means stocks are far from a bottom. The S&P 500 Index could easily hit 1,870 (it’s 2,943 as of this writing) and the Dow Jones Index could fall to 15,000 (it’s 24,360 as of this writing).

Those are levels at which investors might want to consider investing in stocks.

Any effort to “buy the dips” in the meantime will just lead to further losses when the full impact of what’s described above begins to sink in.

Got gold?

Regards,

Jim Rickards
for The Daily Reckoning

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Rickards: This Time IS Different

This post Rickards: This Time IS Different appeared first on Daily Reckoning.

Stocks stumbled out of the gate today, at least partially on fears about a resurgence in coronavirus cases.

South Korea, which did an excellent job containing the virus, has reported a new batch of cases. Japan and Singapore also reported new cases. Infections are increasing in Germany as well, where lockdown restrictions are being lifted.

We can also expect a rise in U.S. cases as several states lift their own restrictions.

From both epidemiological and market perspectives, the pandemic has a long way to go. Its economic effects are already without precedent…

In the midst of this economic collapse, many investors and analysts return reflexively to the 2008 financial panic.

That crisis was severe, and of course trillions of dollars of wealth were lost in the stock market. That comparison is understandable, but it does not begin to scratch the surface.

This collapse is worse than 2008, worse than the 2000 dot-com meltdown, worse than the 1998 Russia-LTCM panic, worse than the 1994 Mexican crisis and many more panics.

You have to go back to 1929 and the start of the Great Depression for the right frame of reference.

But even that does not explain how bad things are today. After October 1929, the stock market fell 90% and unemployment hit 24%. But that took three years to fully play out, until 1932.

In this collapse the stock market fell 30% in a few weeks and unemployment is over 20%, also in a matter of a few weeks.

Since the stock market has further to fall and unemployment will rise further, we will get to Great Depression levels of collapse in months, not years. How much worse can the economy get?

Well, “Dr. Doom,” Nouriel Roubini, can give you some idea.

Roubini earned the nickname Dr. Doom by predicting the 2008 collapse. He wasn’t the only one. I had been warning of a crash since 2004, but he deserves a lot of credit for sounding the alarm.

The factors he lists that show the depression will get much worse include excessive debt, defaults, declining demographics, deflation, currency debasement and de-globalization.

These are all important factors, and all of them go well beyond the usual stock market and unemployment indicators most analysts are using. Those economists expecting a “V-shaped” recovery should take heed. That’s highly unlikely in the face of all these headwinds.

I’ve always taken the view that getting a Ph.D. in economics is a major handicap when it comes to understanding the economy.

They teach you a lot of nonsense like the Phillips curve, the “wealth effect,” efficient markets, comparative advantage, etc. None of these really works in the real world outside of the classroom.

They then require you to learn complex equations with advanced calculus that bear no relationship to the real world.

If economists want to understand the economy, they should talk to their neighbors and get out of their bubble.

The economy is nothing more than the sum total of all of the complex interactions of the people who make up the economy. Common sense, anecdotal information and direct observation are better than phony models every time.

So what are everyday Americans actually saying?

According to one survey, 89% of Americans worry the pandemic could cause a collapse of the U.S. economy. This view is shared by Republicans and Democrats alike.

Ph.D. economists dislike anecdotal information because it’s hard to quantify and does not fit into their neat and tidy (but wrong) equations. But anecdotal information can be extremely important.

With so many Americans fearing a collapse, it could create a self-fulfilling prophesy.

If enough people believe something it becomes true (even if it was not true to begin with) because people behave according to the expectation and cause it to happen.

The technical name for this is a recursive function, also known as a “feedback loop.” Whatever you call it, it’s happening now.

Based on that view and a lot of other evidence, we can forecast that the depression will get much worse from here despite the initial severity.

But as usual, the Ph.D. crowd will be the last to know.

Below, I show you why you shouldn’t believe the happy talk. We’re in a deflationary and debt death spiral that has only just begun. Read on for details.

Regards,

Jim Rickards
for The Daily Reckoning

The post Rickards: This Time IS Different appeared first on Daily Reckoning.

China: More Bark Than Bite

This post China: More Bark Than Bite appeared first on Daily Reckoning.

I’ve made many visits to China over the past thirty years and have been careful to move beyond Beijing (the political capital) and Shanghai (the financial capital) on these trips.

My visits have included Chongqing, Wuhan (the origin of the coronavirus outbreak), Xian, Nanjing, new construction sites to visit “ghost cities,” and trips to the agrarian countryside.

My trips included meetings with government and Communist Party officials and numerous conversations with everyday Chinese people.

In short, my experience with China goes well beyond media outlets and talking heads. In my extensive trips around the world, I have consistently found that first-hand visits and conversations provide insights that no amount of expert analysis can supply.

These trips have been supplemented by reading an extensive number of books on the history, culture and politics of China from 3,000 BC to the present. This background gives me a much broader perspective on current developments in China.

An objective analysis of China must begin with its enormous strengths. China has the third largest territory in the world, with the world’s largest population (although soon to be overtaken by India).

China also has the fifth largest nuclear arsenal in the world with 280 nuclear warheads, about the same as the UK and France, but well behind Russia (6,490) and the U.S. (6,450). China is the largest gold producer in the world at about 500 metric tonnes per year.

Its economy is the second largest economy in the world, behind only the U.S. China’s foreign exchange reserves (including gold) are the largest in the world.

By these diverse measures of population, territory, military strength and economic output, China is clearly a global super-power and the dominant presence in East Asia.

Yet, these blockbuster statistics hide as much as they reveal.

China’s per capita income is only $11,000 per person compared to per capita income of $65,000 in the United States. Put differently, the U.S. is only 38% richer than China on a gross basis, but it is 500% richer than China on a per capita basis (of course the massive economic fallout from the coronavirus will have an impact).

China’s military is growing stronger and more sophisticated, but it still bears no comparison to the U.S. military when it comes to aircraft carriers, nuclear warheads, submarines, fighter aircraft and strategic bombers.

Most importantly, at $11,000 per capita GDP, China is stuck squarely in the “middle income trap” as defined by development economists.

The path from low income (about $5,000 per capita) to middle-income (about $10,000 per capita) is fairly straightforward and mostly involves reduced corruption, direct foreign investment and migration from the countryside to cities to pursue assembly-style jobs.

The path from middle-income to high-income (about $20,000 per capita) is much more difficult and involves creation and deployment of high-technology and manufacture of high-value-added goods.

Among developing economies (excluding oil producers), only Taiwan, Hong Kong, Singapore and South Korea have successfully made this transition since World War II. All other developing economies in Latin America, Africa, South Asia and the Middle East including giants such as Brazil and Turkey remain stuck in the middle-income ranks.

China remains reliant on assembly-style jobs and has shown no promise of breaking into the high-income ranks.

To escape the middle income trap requires more than cheap labor and infrastructure investment. It requires applied technology to produce high-value added products. This explains why China has been so focused on stealing U.S. intellectual property.

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.

But now the U.S. and other countries are cracking down on China’s technology theft and China cannot generate the needed technology through its own R&D.

In short, and despite enormous annual growth in the past twenty years, China remains fundamentally a poor country with limited ability to improve the well-being of its citizens much beyond what has already been achieved.

And that has serious implications for China’s leadership…

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.

If China’s job machine seizes, as parts of it did during the coronavirus outbreak, Beijing fears that popular unrest could emerge on a potentially scale much greater than the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests. This is an existential threat to Communist power.

President Xi Jinping 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.

Even before the crisis, China has had serious structural economic problems that are finally catching up with it.

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.

Meanwhile, China’s real year-over-year growth tumbled 6.8% in the first quarter.

Besides the slowdown from the pandemic, China confronts an insolvent banking system and a real estate bubble.

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. The Chinese landscape is littered with “ghost cities” that have resulted from China’s wasted investment and flawed development model.

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. Again, that was before the crisis.

Essentially, China is on the horns of a dilemma with no good way out. 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.

The question is, will China pursue an aggressive posture against the U.S. to distract the people?

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.

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 making a specific prediction, but wars have started over less. This is a very dangerous time.

Regards,

Jim Rickards
for The Daily Reckoning

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China, Iran Are on the March

This post China, Iran Are on the March appeared first on Daily Reckoning.

There is so much focus on the COVID-19 pandemic right now that Americans can’t be blamed if they’re not spending much time studying other developments.

That’s understandable, but inattention may be as dangerous as the virus itself. That’s because America’s adversaries are taking advantage of the situation by challenging U.S. interests in a set of geopolitical hot spots.

They believe we’re too distracted by the virus containment effort to mount a firm response.

At the same time, geopolitical confrontation is a classic way to rally a population against an outside threat, especially when they’re still hurting from the pandemic and the economic consequences. It’s one of the oldest tricks in the books to get the people behind the government.

This appears to be the case with China and Iran right now.

China in particular is trying to divert attention away from its own cover-up of the pandemic, which allowed it to spin out of control. So it’s engaging in a global propaganda campaign to try to blame the U.S. for the spread of the virus.

Both China and Iran have lied about the damage caused by the virus in their own countries. China officially reported about 4,600 fatalities and Iran officially reported about 6,200. But reliable sources suggest that the actual count of fatalities may be at least 10 times greater in both countries.

This could put actual fatalities in China and Iran about equal to the U.S. (over 70,000 dead).

Meanwhile, the U.S. has been reeling economically, and there’s no reason to believe that China and Iran are feeling any less pain. Let’s first consider China…

Not surprisingly, China has tried to take advantage of the situation by acting aggressively in the South China Sea and threatening Taiwan.

The South China Sea is a large arm of the Pacific Ocean surrounded by China, Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei and Indonesia.

All six countries have claims to exclusive economic zones that extend several hundred miles from their coastlines.

Parts of the sea are international waters governed by the Law of the Sea Convention and other treaties. All of the other nations around the South China Sea have rejected China’s claims. But they’ve been pushed back to fairly narrow boundaries close to their coastlines.

China has ignored all of those claims and treaties and insists that it is in control of the entire body of water including islands, reefs and underwater natural resources such as oil, natural gas, undersea minerals and fisheries.

China has also become even more aggressive by designating the South China Sea reefs as city-level administrative units to be administered by mainland China.

And China has pumped sand onto reefs to build artificial islands that have then been fortified with airstrips, harbors, troops and missiles.

China has said it will never seek hegemony, but that’s clearly not true. It most certainly seeks hegemony in the region.

And it’s willing to enforce it. Several encounters have happened lately where Chinese coast guard vessels have rammed and sunk fishing boats from Vietnam and the Philippines.

But China’s aggression in the South China Sea can also jeopardize U.S. naval vessels.

The U.S. operates “freedom of navigation” cruises with U.S. Navy ships to demonstrate that the U.S. also rejects China’s claims. It’s not difficult to envision an incident that could rapidly escalate into something serious.

It’s also fair to assume that a weakened U.S. Navy has emboldened Chinese actions recently.

The two aircraft carriers the Navy has in the western Pacific, the Theodore Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan, were both taken out of action due to outbreaks of the coronavirus among their crews. That’s been a dramatic reduction in power projection in the region.

But neither side will back down, as neither wants to appear weak. This makes warfare a highly realistic scenario. It’s probably just a matter of time.

Meanwhile, Iran has harassed U.S. naval vessels in the Persian Gulf, launched new missiles and continued its support of terrorism in Iraq, Yemen and Lebanon.

These actions are more signs of weakness than strength, but they are dangerous nonetheless.

In the past 10 years, we’ve been through currency wars, trade wars and now pandemic.

Are shooting wars next? Pay attention to China, Iran and, yes, North Korea. They haven’t gone away either.

The world is a dangerous place — and the virus has only made it more dangerous.

Regards,

Jim Rickards
for The Daily Reckoning

The post China, Iran Are on the March appeared first on Daily Reckoning.

This “Cure” for the Economy Could Kill It

This post This “Cure” for the Economy Could Kill It appeared first on Daily Reckoning.

The economy remains under lockdown, although some states are beginning to relax restrictions. As with so many other aspects of American life, there’s been a red state/blue state divide.

Red states are generally more willing to reopen their economies, while harder-hit coastal blue states are generally more reluctant to open theirs.

Regardless, the economic consequences of the lockdown have been devastating, and we’ll be feeling their effects for a very long time. We’ll also be feeling the effects of the massive monetary and fiscal responses to the crisis for a long time.

There are so many government “stimulus” programs underway to deal with the New Depression it’s hard to keep track.

The Federal Reserve has at least 10 asset purchase programs going including purchases of corporate debt, Treasury debt, municipal bonds, commercial paper, mortgages and more.

Many of these are being done in a “special-purpose vehicle” using $425 billion given to the Fed by the Treasury as a kind of Fed bailout. (Of course, the Treasury money comes from the taxpayers, so you’re paying for all of this.)

Regardless of the legal structure, the Fed is on its way to printing $5 trillion of new money on top of the $5 trillion it has already printed to keep the lights turned on at the banks.

On the fiscal side, Congress has authorized $2.2 trillion of new spending on top of the baseline $1 trillion deficit for fiscal year 2020, and just authorized another $600 billion last week.

A new bill for $1.5 trillion of added spending is now being debated. Added together, that’s $5 trillion of deficit spending for this year, and possibly more next year.

Meanwhile, stimulus supporters hope that the checks Americans are getting from the government will give the economy a boost by way of increased consumer spending.

But a recent survey showed that 38% of recipients saved the money and 26% paid off debt. So the stimulus really isn’t stimulating. It’s main effect is to increase the deficit and the national debt.

But don’t worry, say the supporters of Modern Monetary Theory (MMT). We know how to stimulate the economy and who cares about the debt? It hasn’t been a problem yet and we can expand it a lot more.

Until a few months ago, MMT was a quirky idea known to very few and understood by even fewer.

It actually wasn’t modern (the idea has been around for over 100 years) and it wasn’t much of a theory because there was no way to test it in a controlled environment.

The basic idea is that the U.S. government could merge the balance sheets of the Treasury and the Federal Reserve and treat them as if they were a consolidated entity. (That’s not legally true, but never mind.)

The Treasury could spend as much money as it wanted on anything it wanted. MMT asks, if the Treasury doesn’t spend money, how are people supposed to earn any?

Ideas like hard work, innovation and entrepreneurship don’t enter the discussion. In MMT, all wealth comes from the government and the more they spend, the richer we get.

The Treasury finances this spending by issuing bonds. That’s where the Fed comes in.

If the private sector won’t buy the bonds or wants too high an interest rate, the Fed can just crank up the printing press, buy the bonds with money created from thin air, stick the bonds on its balance sheet and wait.

So the Fed can just give the Treasury an unlimited line of credit to spend as much as it wants.

When the bonds come due in 10 or 30 years, the Treasury can repeat the process and use new printed money to pay off the old printed money.

It all sounds nice in theory, but it’s an invitation to disaster.

If inflation breaks out, it will be too late to get it under control. You can’t just flip a switch. Inflation is like a tiger. Once it gets out of its cage, it’s very difficult to get it back in.

If confidence in the dollar is lost (something the Fed and Treasury can’t control), hyperinflation could wreck the economy. That could lead to social unrest, riots and looting, especially if the wealth disparities created by the Fed’s support of the stock market continue to grow.

Would there be any winners if MMT ran off the rails? There would be one big winner – gold.

Regards,

Jim Rickards
for The Daily Reckoning

The post This “Cure” for the Economy Could Kill It appeared first on Daily Reckoning.

War on Cash Kicking Into Overdrive

This post War on Cash Kicking Into Overdrive appeared first on Daily Reckoning.

In the depths of the 2008–09 financial crisis, Obama’s first chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, remarked that one should never let a good crisis go to waste. You probably recall him saying that.

He was referring to the fact that crises may be temporary but hidden agendas are permanent.

The global elites and deep state actors always have a laundry list of programs and regulations they can’t wait to put into practice. They know that most of these are deeply unpopular and they could never get away with putting them into practice during ordinary times.

Yet when a crisis hits, citizens are desperate for fast action and quick solutions. The elites bring forward their rescue packages but then use these as Trojan horses to sneak their wish list inside.

The War on Cash Is Decades Old

The USA Patriot Act that passed after 9/11 is a good example. Some counterterrorist measures were needed, of course. But the Treasury had a long-standing wish list involving reporting cash transactions and limiting citizens’ ability to get cash.

They plugged that wish list into the Patriot Act and we’ve been living with the results ever since, even though 9/11 is long in the past.

Obviously, the effort to eliminate cash is hardly new. It has been going on for many years and in many forms.

The U.S. discontinued the use of large-denomination bills in the late 1960s. Until 1969, $500, $1,000, $5,000 and even $10,000 bills were issued, even though they were printed decades earlier.

Today the largest bill is a $100 bill, but it has lost 80% of its purchasing power since 1968, so it’s really just a $20 bill from those days. Europe has ended the 500-euro note and today the largest note in euros is 200 euros.

Ignore the Official Reasons

Harvard professor Ken Rogoff has a book called The Curse of Cash, which calls for the complete elimination of cash. Many Bitcoin groupies say the same thing. Central banks and the IMF are all working on new digital currencies today.

The reasons for this are said to include attacks on tax evasion, terrorism and criminal activity. There’s some truth to these claims. Cash is anonymous, so it can’t be tracked.

But the real reason is because the elimination of cash would allow elites to impose negative interest rates, account freezes and confiscation.

They can’t do that as long as you can go to your bank and withdraw your cash. That’s the key.

In other words, it’s much easier for them to control your money if they first herd you into a digital cattle pen. That’s their true objective and all the other reasons are just a smokescreen.

And now, predictably, the latest attack on cash comes courtesy of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Crisis Meets Opportunity

This crisis is even larger and scarier than the 2008 crisis, which gives elites even more opportunity to ram their agendas through without serious opposition. They don’t intend to let it go to waste.

Sure enough, government agents and tech vendors are now claiming that cash is “dangerous” because it could contain traces of the coronavirus.

While that’s not impossible, it’s highly unlikely and no more likely than getting the virus from 100 other sources including package deliveries and shopping carts.

Should we ban cardboard boxes and shopping carts too?

If you’re really concerned about getting coronavirus from cash, it’s simple to wear sanitary gloves during any transactions (I do). Then put the cash to one side. The virus cannot live more than 10 hours or so on an inorganic surface. After a while, your cash is safe.

But if you get scared into giving up cash because of COVID-19, then don’t complain when you find that your financial freedom is also gone when the world moves to 100% digital money.

Because that’s the endgame here.

How to Protect Your Wealth

The time to protect yourself is now. The best way is to keep a portion of your wealth outside of the banking system.

I strongly recommend that you own physical gold (and silver). I recommend you allocate 10% of your investable assets to gold. If you really wanted to be aggressive, maybe 20%. But no more.

Just make sure you don’t store it in a bank, because it would be subject to confiscation. That defeats the whole purpose of having this sort of protection in the first place.

One Small Positive

As bad as the COVID-19 crisis is, and it is that bad, there’s one small positive to come out of it: It’s finally snapped investors out of their complacency regarding gold.

I recommended gold at $1,100 per ounce, $1,200 per ounce, $1,300 per ounce, $1,400 per ounce, $1,500 per ounce and so on… you get the picture.

But few people cared. They just yawned. Now that gold is $1,750 per ounce (up 75% since 2015), everyone wants gold!

There’s only one problem. You may not be able to get any.

That’s also something I predicted. I said years ago that when you most want your gold, you won’t be able to get it because everyone will want it at the same time and the dealers will be back-ordered and the mints and refiners will shut down.

Now it appears that’s exactly what’s happening.

The U.S. Mint at West Point is closing. That mint produces 1-ounce American Gold Eagle coins, so this will add to the shortage of Gold Eagles. The Royal Canadian Mint also closed for coin production temporarily a few weeks ago.

Gold refiners in Switzerland are either closed or are operating on reduced hours. Gold logistics firms like Brink’s are also cutting back hours and reducing distribution of gold bullion.

You Still Have a Chance

It’s still possible to find some gold bars or coins from dealers who have inventory, but delays are long and commissions are high. The scarcity factor will only get worse as gold prices continue their rally in this third great bull market in history that began in 2015.

Gold is difficult to get now but not impossible. If you don’t have yours yet, don’t wait any longer.

If you have to pay a bit of a premium for physical gold over the officially listed gold price, don’t worry about that. It means nothing in the long run.

I see gold going to at least $10,000 an ounce ultimately, so paying a little more right now is not an issue. It’s just an indication of the skyrocketing demand for physical gold right now.

When the next panic hits, and it will hit, there won’t be any gold available at any price.

Regards,

Jim Rickards
for The Daily Reckoning

The post War on Cash Kicking Into Overdrive appeared first on Daily Reckoning.