Playing The China Trump Card by John Mauldin, Mauldin Economics
“I know the Chinese. I’ve made a lot of money with the Chinese. I understand the Chinese mind.”
– Donald Trump, 2011
Back in the olden days (pre-2000 or so), information junkies like me relied on printed newspapers, paper magazines, TV newscasts, and snail-mail newsletters. All these channels still exist, but they can’t begin to compete with the constant stream of data rushing into our tablets and smartphones. And on some days the stream rushes faster.
Last week, for instance, it seemed I couldn’t go five minutes without another story on either (a) China or (b) Donald Trump. For a day or so, I really wondered if someone had planted malware in my browser to make me think all other topics were inconsequential. It was all Trump and China, all day and all night. China has pushed the Fed into second place (for a few days at least) – perhaps we should be grateful that at least something has. Of course, there is the little problem that a bear market might be in the offing. Commodity prices seem to be in the toilet. Global currency markets are throwing up. Isn’t the world supposed to be on vacation in August?
Let’s see if we can find a connecting thought or three among all these topics. Plus, I want to show you how the current market meltdown is being brought to you courtesy of your friendly US Federal Reserve Bank. As our starting point, though, let’s cast an eye at The Donald and Chinese currency manipulation.
“Nobody Does Anything”
As we all know by now, on Aug. 11 the People’s Bank of China changed the way it manages the renminbi daily trading band against the US dollar. The result was a two-day drop for the RMB and a lot of consternation on trading floors around the world.
Taking questions at an event in Michigan that day, Donald Trump had this to say:
I think you have to do something to rein in China. They devalued their currency today. They’re making it absolutely impossible for the United States to compete, and nobody does anything. China has no respect for President Obama whatsoever, whatsoever.
Well, you have to take strong action. How can we compete? They continuously cut their currency. They devalue their currency. And I have been saying this for years. They have been doing this for years. This isn’t just starting. This was the largest devaluation they have had in two decades. They make it impossible for our businesses, our companies to compete.
They think we’re run by a bunch of idiots. And what’s going on with China is unbelievable, the largest devaluation in two decades. It’s honestly – great question – it’s a disgrace.”
Before you dismiss this as nonsense, remember that it comes from a Wharton School graduate.
Still not impressed? You’re right; it is indeed nonsense. Trump and all those who prattle on about Chinese currency manipulation have the economic comprehension of a parakeet. Is Trump really so clueless?
In one sense, it doesn’t matter. Trump isn’t talking to most of us. He draws an audience of frustrated, mostly middle-class Americans who are still hurting from the Great Recession. They want to blame someone. China is an easy target. So are illegal immigrants and Mexico and other faceless culprits. Furthermore, his audience has legitimate concerns. They are fully aware that both political parties ignore them.
A recent Gallup poll shows that 75% of our country believes there is significant corruption in government. They’re tired of it. They want to try something different. It is telling that a recent Michigan poll of Republican party activists found that 55% would go with either untested non-politicians or Ted Cruz, who is about as much of an outsider as you can find inside the Washington DC Beltway. I find almost nothing attractive about Donald Trump, but significant numbers in both parties have clearly demonstrated that they are looking for real change. Shades of Greece and Syriza’s coming to power, or France and the startling surge by Marine Le Pen’s Front National. The US is beginning to experience what our European friends have been living through the past few years.
Back to Trump and currency manipulation. I could do a sentence-by-sentence analysis of his populist harangue on China, but let’s take the really egregious statement:
How can we compete? They continuously cut their currency. They devalue their currency. And I have been saying this for years. They have been doing this for years. This isn’t just starting. This was the largest devaluation they have had in two decades. They make it impossible for our businesses, our companies to compete.
No, they haven’t. This whole myth that China has purposely kept their currency undervalued needs to be completely excised from the economic discussion. First off, the two largest currency-manipulating central banks currently at work in the world are (in order) the Bank of Japan and the European Central Bank. And two to four years ago the hands-down leading manipulator would have been the Federal Reserve of the United States. The leaders/aggressors in the currency wars come and go.
Today, the euro is off over 30% from its highs, as is the Japanese yen. Numerous other currencies are likewise well into double-digit slides. China has moved maybe 3 to 4%. Oh, wow.
Secondly, Donald (and to be fair I should address this to Senators Schumer and Graham, et al., too) the Chinese have not been continuously cutting their currency for years. In fact, if they have manipulated their currency, it was first to make it even stronger when the dollar was falling and then to hold those gains in the face of the steadily rising dollar. Meanwhile the rest of the world (Japan, Europe, Great Britain, Brazil, India, among others) was letting their currencies drift down. The simple fact is that the Chinese currency rose by 20% over the last five years up until a week ago, for reasons we will examine a little later. It is utterly wrong-headed to call a 20% rise over almost 10 years “continuous devaluation.” Yes, prior to that time they did allow their currency to devalue rather precipitously, but if you look back and think about it, they were faced with something of a crisis at the time. Most currencies do fall during periods of economic stress.
Don’t get me wrong. The United States and China have a several-page list of issues that need to be worked out between them. If you read my recent book on China, you learned about more than a few of those problems. But given that the Federal Reserve has been the most egregious currency manipulator in the world over the last five years, hearing the pot calling the kettle black probably sticks in the craw of most non-US citizens. I understand it makes for a great populist harangue. It’s always easiest to blame our problems on someone else. But it doesn’t get us anywhere we want to go.
Back to the main story. Let’s look at this fascinating chart from my friend Chris Whalen over at the Kroll Bond Rating