Global Trade, CDS Spreads, Negative Rates – Hobson’s Choice by Ben Hunt, Salient Partners
If you don’t like what’s being said, change the conversation.
– Don Draper, Mad Men: “Love Among the Ruins” (2009)
|Dalek:||The Dalek stratagem nears completion. The fleet is almost ready. You will not intervene.|
|The Doctor:||Oh really? Why’s that, then?|
|Dalek:||We have your associate. You will obey or she will be exterminated.|
|The Doctor:||I said, “No.”|
|Dalek:||What is the meaning of this negative?|
|The Doctor:||It means, “No.”|
– Doctor Who: “Bad Wolf” (2005)
It is better for reputation to fail conventionally than to succeed unconventionally.
– John Maynard Keynes, “The General Theory of Employment, Interest, and Money” (1936)
|Bobby:||What do you mean you don’t make side orders of toast? You make sandwiches, don’t you?|
|Waitress:||Would you like to talk to the manager?|
|Bobby:||You’ve got bread and a toaster of some kind?|
|Waitress:||I don’t make the rules.|
|Bobby:||Okay, I’ll make it as easy for you as I can. I’d like an omelet, plain, and a chicken salad sandwich on wheat toast, no mayonnaise, no butter, no lettuce, and a cup of coffee.|
|Waitress:||A number two, chicken salad san, hold the butter, the lettuce, and the mayonnaise, and a cup of coffee. Anything else?|
|Bobby:||Yeah. Now all you have to do is hold the chicken, bring me the toast, give me a check for the chicken salad sandwich, and you haven’t broken any rules.|
|Waitress:||You want me to hold the chicken, huh?|
|Bobby:||I want you to hold it between your knees.|
|Waitress:||You see that sign, sir? Yes, you’ll all have to leave. I’m not taking any more of your smartness and sarcasm.|
|Bobby:||You see this sign? [sweeps all the water glasses and menus off the table]|
– “Five Easy Pieces” (1970)
Honestly, if you’re given the choice between Armageddon or tea, you don’t say “what kind of tea?”
– Neil Gaiman (b. 1960)
In the end the Party would announce that two and two made five, and you would have to believe it. … The heresy of heresies was common sense. And what was terrifying was not that they would kill you for thinking otherwise, but that they might be right.
– George Orwell, “1984” (1949)
You had a choice: you could either strain and look at things that appeared in front of you in the fog, painful as it might be, or you could relax and lose yourself.
– Ken Kesey, “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” (1962)
|And, first, we will ask you to consider with us, how and in what respect the kings of Argos and Messene violated these our maxims, and ruined themselves and the great and famous Hellenic power of the olden time. Was this because they did not know the truly excellent saying of Hesiod, that the half is often greater than the whole?|
– Plato, “The Dialogues of Plato: Laws, Book III” (c. 370 BC)
|Some people see the glass half full. Others see it half empty. I see a glass that’s twice as big as it needs to be.|
– George Carlin (1937 – 2008)
Five Easy Pieces for the World-As-It-Is
Our story so far…
In the second half of 2014, export volumes in every major economy on Earth began to decline, the result of divergent monetary policies that crystallized with the Fed’s announced tightening bias in the summer of 2014. This decline in trade activity – which is far more impactful than a decline in trade value, because it means that the global growth pie is structurally shrinking – accelerated in 2015 and 2016 as Europe and Japan intentionally devalued their currencies to protect their slices of the global trade pie. In game theoretic terms, Europe and Japan have been “free riders” on the global system, using currency devaluation to undercut the prices of competing US and Chinese products in a way that avoids domestic political pain.
But if there’s an iron law of international politics, it’s this: once the strategic interaction between nations begins to shift from cooperation to competition, once a principal player decides to defect and go for free rider benefits, then the one and only equilibrium of the new game has ALL principal players abandoning cooperation and competing with each other. Moreover, once one principal player begins to compete with a new and terrible weapon (i.e., mustard gas in World War I or negative interest rates in monetary policy or Trump-esque debate tactics in a Republican primary), then all principal players must adopt those tactics or lose the game. Universal competition is a highly stable equilibrium, both on the international stage and the domestic stage, particularly in the way it plays out in domestic politics, where there is never a shortage of populist politicians ready and willing to blame global trade for a host of ills. And because universal competition is such a stable equilibrium, typically only a giant crisis – one that shakes the principal players to their domestic political cores – gets you back, maybe, to a Cooperative game.
Yikes, that sounds pretty dire, Ben. Are you sure? What about some prominent sell-side economists who recently published notes saying that you’re wrong about global trade? While it’s true, say these voices of consensus, that global trade values as measured in dollars are declining as commodities slide and the dollar gets stronger, aggregate global trade volumes are not contracting, so we really don’t have anything to worry about.
Hmm … here’s what the World Trade Organization (the gold standard in the field) says about seasonally-adjusted quarterly export volumes in the four economies that matter for international relations. The chart below starts with the low-water mark of all four geographies in Q1 2009, draws a line to the respective high-water marks hit in the second half of 2014, and then connects to the current index value. I find this sort of minimum-to-maximum-to-current data representation to be a very effective way of isolating inflection points in data series that should (if all is well with the world) grow at a pretty steady linear clip. And no, that’s not an error in the Japan and China graphs. Both countries’ export volumes peaked more than 5 years ago, essentially flatlined (a dip and recovery around the European crisis of 2012 not shown), and rolled over in late 2014. It’s pretty stunning, right? This is the primary reason why I think Japan gets no respect with their monetary policy experiments, and why I think we are already past the event horizon for China to float or otherwise devalue their currency. China has been trying to jumpstart industrial production growth for years now, nothing has worked, and the downturn since Q3 2014 not only puts them embarrassingly behind both the US and Europe in export activity, but also gives the lie to the idea that they can stimulate their way out of this.
Global Trade – Source: World Trade Organization, as of 12/09/15. For illustrative purposes.
To paraphrase George Soros, I’m not expecting a shrinking of the global trade pie and an expansion of competitive, protectionist domestic policies; I’m observing it. Something derailed the global trade locomotive in the second half of 2014, and