–Today Australia finds itself riding shotgun in the passenger seat of a Chinese car speeding at breakneck pace toward a brand new General Motors land-crushing vehicle piloted by Ben Bernanke. The Bernank is driving a money bomb. The car is rigged with billions of inflation bomblettes (Federal Reserve Notes). He’s stepping on the accelerator.
–So who is going to blink in this game of inflation chicken? We were disappointed/satisfied to see Albert Edwards of Societe Generale use the same metaphor we’ve been stewing on for the last few days about the great currency game between the United States and China. It’s high-stakes game with more than just financial assets on the line. We’ll get to what’s at stake for Australia in just a moment.
–Last week as we left the office with Slipstream Trader Murray Dawes, he mentioned that one explanation for The Bernank’s behaviour is that the U.S. is sticking it to the Chinese good and hard. That is, the U.S. is exporting inflation to China and unleashing socially destabilising rising prices in food and fuel to force the Chinese to do what America has been asking for all along: allow the Yuan to appreciate. It’s War, which as Clausewitz wrote is the “continuation of politics by other means.”
–If you’re scoring at home, it’s not hard to see who’s winning the game. According to the almost useless official statistics from the United States Bureau of Labour Statistics, consumer price inflation in the U.S rose just 0.6% in the last year. If it were true, it would be the lowest level of inflation in consumer prices since the U.S. first started keeping/manipulating the figures since 1957.
–Why so sceptical of official inflation figures? Inflation happens by design in a fiat money system with fractional reserve banking. The gradual weakening of purchasing power is not something most consumers notice or worry about, as long as it’s accompanied by higher house prices and stock prices. This allows inflationary monetary policy to keep a low public profile while still eroding the value of middle class savings over time.
–The other more obvious reason to be sceptical of the official inflation figures is that they exclude food and fuel. The official statisticians remove them from the calculation because they are “volatile.” But you suspect they’re also removed because if you actually included them, inflation would be much higher.
–Why, you ask, would the producer of money in a financial system (the central bankers who are, in fact, the private banks) be worried if inflation were “too low”? Because they sell money. And in a deleveraging, disinflationary environment people hoard cash, or trade it for tangible goods like gold and food. If money isn’t circulating quickly enough (new loans, demand for credit) then the producers of money aren’t pushing enough new product/dope/smack.
–As one speaker at the Gold Symposium put it a few weeks ago, you should expect to see inflation in the things you need and deflation in the things you want. Cars and white goods and plasma TVs are getting cheaper in a world with excess productive capacity and over production. But where the rubber meets the road in daily life for billions of people, inflation is pushing up food and fuel prices.
–The bogus U.S. number is important because it gives the Fed covering fire to engage in QE2 and beyond without having to answer the accusation that it’s feeding inflation. See! There IS no inflation. And with the news out of Ireland that some sort of blah blah blah deal has been agreed to postpone a debt reckoning there, the markets reversed their bias for a stronger dollar last night. The result?
–Stocks were higher. Silver is up 7% after making a two-week low on Tuesday. Silver is up 60% in the last twelve months, by the way—a sure sign that in the trenches of the real economy savers are hedging cash positions with precious metals. Gold—which is up each of the last ten years—was up overnight too.
–But the main reason you’re not seeing any QEII related inflation in the American economy is that the inflation has been directly exported to China. According to statistics released this week, the food component of China’s consumer price index rose 10.1% in October. That was the fastest rate in two years.
–This is getting pretty serious for the Chinese, it would appear. Average wholesale prices for 18 types of vegetable in 36 cities surged by 62.4 percent year-on-yea, according to figures released by China’s Ministry of Commerce and reported by Xinhua. Chinese officials are worried that “hot money” capital inflows are pushing up prices, which is socially destabilising.
—Another Xinhua story reveals a rather Pavlovian command economy response to the problem:
Efforts would be made to ensure market supplies, improve subsidy systems, make price controls more targeted and strengthen market supervision, said a statement released Wednesday after a State Council, or Cabinet, executive meeting presided over by Premier Wen Jiabao.
The statement said the government would further support agricultural production to maintain steady growth of agricultural output and put state reserves of grains, edible oils and sugar on the market when necessary in order to guarantee supplies.
The authorities should keep a close eye on winter vegetable production to increase supplies through the winter, take measures to cut delivery costs of agricultural products, and increase cotton transportation from Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region.
They should also continue to reduce prices of power, gas and rail transport for chemical fertilizer producers, ensure coal supplies for power generation companies and increase production of oil, especially diesel oil, to guarantee a sufficient supply.
–Chinese officials have also agree to sell sugar from China’s strategic sugar reserves (who knew they even HAD a strategic sugar reserve), crack down on speculators and hoarders, and figure out a way to prevent excess liquidity (Fed money) from driving up consumer prices.
–Do you see the problem here? That is an awful lot of micro-economic management to engage in for a nation of 1.2 billion people. The government is trying to decide, on a daily basis, how much of what key goods and services should be available and at what price. It’s impossible.
–Not only is it impossible…it is an enormous act of cognitive hubris, or just arrogant. This, of course, is what Hayek referred to as “the fatal conceit.” He was simply pointing out the problem of knowledge in a command economy. No one man or group of men and women can ever have enough knowledge to allocate the productive resources of an economy efficiently. The more control you assert, the more scarcity you generate.
–By contrast, in a more open market system (we acknowledge there really aren’t any free markets left…just weird corporatist hybrids) there is only single factor which determines the allocation of resources and production: the customer. Based on his ever shifting tastes and preferences and substitutions, the customer tells business what he’s willing to buy and at what price.
–It’s really the only truly benevolent dictatorship ever produced by civilised society. The dictator is the economic liberty of every man and woman in the economy. And they don’t exercise their power autocratically. The order and prices generated by this system happens without the design or oversight of a State committee.
–Of course every time we write something like this some crank writes in accusing of us being a free market fundamentalist and/or a tool for big business. But those people are generally socialists and morons. And more importantly they are betraying the fact that they believe the State ought to exercise control over what people produce, what they can buy, how much they should pay, and many other more private and intimate aspects of your life.
–The important economic point is that even though not everyone perceives it as equitable, a free market system (which necessitates a liberal political order guaranteeing personal liberty and the rule of law) produces better outcomes and improving standards of living for people. The State doesn’t control prices or production. An economy’s resources are allocated based on the aggregate likes and dislikes of millions of people living their lives in the way they choose.
–The trouble today is that there is no free market anywhere. In the West, unsound money and an intrusive State have cozied up in bed with big business, big banks, and big weapons manufacturers to systematically put people in debt and create a permanent Welfare/Warfare state. This is not capitalism. It’s gangsterism. It’s the War of the State against All, all the time.
–And the model in the developing world, especially China (where the political model is still the war of the State against all and has been since Mao’s revolution) seems to imitate all the worst elements of the unsound money policies of the West. Of course the Chinese have a long tradition of treating gold as money. Culturally, the idea of sound money has deep roots in China.
–But politically and economically, it’s a pretty open question of whether this generation of Chinese central planners can manage the transition from the command model of export growth at any cost (air and water quality, labour standards) to an equally flawed central bank system that tries to manage the economy with unsound money and force everyone into permanent financial servitude to the banks.
–What is Australia’s position in all of this? It’s along for the ride. Yesterday’s capital spending figures from the Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics revealed that Aussie firms are planning nearly $133 billion in new resource projects. Seventy percent of those projects are in Western Australia and energy projects dominate the list with mining chugging along nicely.
–But the success of all those projects—indeed the assumption that there will be steady demand for those resources down the track—assumes that Ben Bernanke will not drive the Chinese economy off the road and into a ditch by exporting uncontrollable inflation. Of course if the Chinese allowed their currency to appreciate and de-pegged from the devaluing U.S. dollar, they could avoid a lot of this suffering.
–If, however, inflation goes from being merely problematic to the kind of social force that causes people to start fires and break windows, well then we’ll have reached a brand new phase in the currency wars. And while everyone will eventually lose a lot, the immediate loser could be China and by extension, Australia. Until next week…