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Will China 2009 Repeat United States 1929?

Posted by Larry Doyle on December 7, 2009 12:05 PM |

“Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it.”

George Santayana (Spanish born American Philosopher, Poet and Humanist who made important contributions to aesthetics, speculative philosophy and literary criticism. 1863-1952)

The economic boom of The Roaring Twenties here in the United States was closely linked with the massive financing of debt provided to post WWI-Europe. The U.S. was the envy of the world given its economic engine and subsequent economic surplus. Economic historians are well aware that the excess capacity in the United States precipitated The Great Crash of 1929.

Fast forward 80 years. Is China 2009 the equivalent of the United States 1929? Is the United States 2009 the equivalent of Europe 1929? How will the relationship between the People’s Republic of China and the United States play out? I addressed this critically important dynamic this past January in writing, “Prisoner’s Dilemma.”

I recently read and reviewed a fabulous piece produced by Black Swan Trading addressing this topic. This short piece, entitled Currency Currents, is strongly recommended. I submit:

Therefore, I think the key macro event i.e. major sustained risk event, will likely flow from protectionism. Rebalancing is the trigger for protectionism in a world when the major player, China, suppresses its currency.

That is the point of Michael Pettis’ Quotable above. Beggar they neighbor policies through currency suppression is the new policy. I think this is reflected in gold rising against all paper currencies from two perspectives: 1) a valuation perspective, and 2) rising systemic risk flowing from said policies.

Although there are great differences between 1929 and 2008, the global payments imbalances that led up to the current crisis were nonetheless similar in many ways to the imbalances of the 1920s. A few countries, dominated by one very large one, ran massive current-account surpluses and in the process rapidly accumulated reserves. In the 1920s it was the U.S. that played the role that China is playing today. The U.S. economy was plagued in the 1920s with overcapacity caused by substantial increases in U.S. labor productivity. This in turn was a consequence of significant investment in the agricultural and industrial sectors and mass migration from the countryside to the cities.

Although U.S. capacity surged in the 1920s, domestic demand did not rise nearly as quickly. As a consequence, the U.S. ran large annual trade surpluses ranging from 1% to 3% of GDP during the 1920s, or 0.4% of global GDP (China, although only 6% of world GDP, has run trade surpluses of roughly the same magnitude). U.S. overcapacity didn’t matter when there was sufficient foreign demand. It could be exported, mostly to Europe, while foreign bond issues floated by foreign countries in New York permitted deficit countries to finance their net purchases.

But as the U.S. continued investing in and increasing capacity, without increasing domestic demand quickly enough, it was inevitable that something eventually had to adjust. The financial crisis of 1929-31 was part of that adjustment process. When bond markets collapsed as part of the crash, bonds issued by foreign borrowers were among those that fell the most. This, of course, made it impossible for most foreign borrowers to continue raising money, and by effectively cutting off funding for the trade-deficit countries, it eliminated their ability to absorb excess U.S. capacity.

There is no certainty as to how our current situation will play out. The stakes are exceptionally high. The game has many hands yet to be dealt.


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