Even as tens of millions of Americans continue to still struggle to recover from the Great Recession, there are signs that the roller coaster global economy is about to take us on another wild ride, one that will cause even more misery. Of course, there will be a handful of speculators who, as in the Great Recession, will come out of the ordeal even richer than they were before. It is "nothing personal, just business."
This time it won’t be a U.S. domestic mortgage crisis that goes global, it will be a global debt crisis that goes local. The geniuses that have been driving our policy choices since World War II wanted a globally integrated economy and now they have one. In the last ten years, China and the emerging markets have racked up huge amounts of public and private sector debt, which they used to finance a production capacity that there just wasn’t the consumer demand to justify. In the process a bumper crop of billionaires were created but the planet’s natural resource base was eroded, water quality degraded and the air poisoned.
An analysis done by investment Swiss bank UBS concludes that the world now has an annual 553 million metric tons of excess steel-production capacity. For a sense of scale, that's roughly equivalent to the weight of 11,000 Montana class battleships. We should have had a hint that we were approaching a saturation point when American cornfields were plowed under to make way for 2.35 billion square feet of public storage space for Americans -- so that, as the late George Carlin observed, we could stash our ever mounting pile of stuff, a lot of it made in China.
Here in the U.S., Wall Street’s sycophant business press post-2008 hyped the "Chinese and emerging market growth miracles" as great places to invest, as they stepped up to be our factory for ever cheaper stuff. Missing was a critical footnote, that this so-called expansion was financed not by real demand, but by an expanding balloon of cheap debt that could all blow up if the Federal Reserve ever raised interest rates. And because so much of western corporate media made a Faustian bargain with the People’s Republic of China to not rock the boat, as a condition for getting to get to stay in China, we rarely caught a glimpse of the empty cities the PRC had built, which would have made the slowdown self-evident years ago.
Still this global crisis has been playing out in plain sight as the IMF notes: “Growth in emerging markets” is “projected to decline for the fifth year in a row.” As a consequence these firms and emerging market governments dependent on a robust China are already finding it harder and harder to make the payments on their loans. This puts them under pressure to devalue their currency and cut the prices they charge for their export commodities in hopes of raising sufficient cash to stay afloat.
This comes as the IMF warns of the continued existence of “high public and private debt in advanced economies and remaining gaps in the Euro architecture” that since the Great Recession remained unaddressed. This means there’s little bandwidth for a helping hand for emerging markets. So, as a consequence, we will see what we saw done in places like Puerto Rico and Greece, where the “market based solution” has been to ratchet up austerity on the people to squeeze out the money to keep the bond holders whole.
Earlier this month, the International Monetary Fund warned of $3.3 trillion worth of “over borrowing” in fragile emerging markets. For a sense of scale, that is equal to almost five U.S. bank bailouts. In 2004, the level of emerging market corporate debt, outside the banking sector, was $4 trillion. The IMF says that by 2014 it had ballooned to $18 trillion.
In essence the emerging markets “relied on rapid credit creation to sidestep the worst impact of the global crisis” which was made possible by the Federal Reserve’s cheap money policy meant to help dig us out of the huge hole made by the Great Recession. What seemed to have escaped the attention of many people was that we were digging and even bigger hole in the process.
This current, roiling global debt crisis has its roots in the 2008 mortgage meltdown, when Wall Street used offshore havens like the Cayman Islands to covertly peddle around the world what they knew to be problematic mortgage backed securities. Their strategy was simple and elegant because by using these murky jurisdictions, that are also great for tax avoidance, they eluded U.S. regulators.
By sowing the seeds of mass financial destruction far and wide, these predators made sure that they got these toxic assets off of their balance sheets before they blew up. It also helped them conceal from their U.S. investors, like pension funds, that they were actually selling short the very investments they had peddled to them as safe and sound in the first place. Of course, as the last vultures flying, they would also be well positioned to feast on the carrion of their prey.
Thanks to their Washington-based two-party grounds crew, TARP (the Toxic Asset Relief Program) was rolled out with hundreds of billions of dollars used to cover up the largest financial crime scene in history. Yet, now several years later, as Ben Bernacke takes a victory lap for saving us from the collapse of the world economy back in 2008, there’s an even larger crisis brewing, once again obscured by its offshore origins.
“Chinese firms have also taken advantage of the low global interest rates through off-shore bond issuance, which has increased substantially since 2010,” notes the IMF in their "2015 Global Finance Stability Report; Vulnerabilities, Legacies and Policy Changes, Risk Rotating to Emerging Markets." The IMF cautions this massive sea of red ink lurking off-shore “is not captured by official debt statistics.”
“Half of the debt issued abroad has been for operation in China. Since 2009, real estate developers have been the largest issuers of off-shore debt abounds among non-financial firms,” the IMF reports. “Since 2010, firms used bond issuance less for investment and more to refinance debt, most likely to take advantage of the favorable financing conditions.”
Hmmm. Did you say real estate developers?
In June of 201,4 Standard and Poor’s reported that China’s corporate borrowing had hit $14.2 trillion in 2013, outpacing the issuing of $13.1 trillion of debt by U.S. corporations. S&P observed that China was financing as much as third of this huge corporate debt load through its “shadow banking sector.” The rating agency took note of what it saw as a growing risk posed to global markets by a Chinese economy that was increasing corporate borrowing even as corporate balance sheets were actually deteriorating.
Also in the mix: $4 trillion dollars in municipal debt China issued to keep things humming locally and at the provincial level. Now the country finds itself at a tipping point it just can’t "grow out of."
“What we will see is that for the first time in modern history, the US economy will be pulled into recession by external forces,” says David Levy, chairman of the independent Jerome Levy Forecasting Center. Levy, who correctly predicted the 2008 melt down, says analysts need to keep in mind that emerging markets now account for more than 50 percent of the global GDP.
"Emerging markets are in danger of having a severe recession because they depend heavily on foreign credit," Levy said. He reasons that these markets will find themselves in a squeeze play as wary investors pull out, the price of their exports fails to rebound and they struggle to stay current with their creditors.
Ever since World War II, our collective economic story has been dominated by a corporate multi-national raison d’être that the road to global wellbeing was to be found only in a universal expansion of the so-called free market to every nation on the planet. We took the collapse of the Soviet Union as a validation of this narrative, and global capitalism became the only game on the planet. Over time, even the world’s most populous nation, China, bought into the premise that only free markets could bring broad-based prosperity and human wellbeing, while also creating a couple of hundred home-grown billionaires.
But as chunks of arctic ice fall away into rising and warmer seas, could it be that this very model of global “growth” for growth's sake is what is accelerating the destruction of the natural systems upon which life depends? Why is bigger always better? For the last few decades we have powered this perpetual pursuit of profits by proliferating debt and the burning of fossil fuels. What debt and fossil fuels have in common is that they provide a short term gain by using our future as the collateral.
Now both kinds of borrowing have come due.