Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Another crisis to come?

NOW is a time of crisis. Japan's earthquake, tsunami, and more importantly unresolved nuclear containment problems are profound. This news has somewhat overshadowed a fragility in the middle east that has not been seen since the colonials were kicked out after WWII. The Saudis have moved into Bahrain, Quadafi is using merceneries and European purchased planes and armaments to pummel his own people, any shape of an Egyptian government is still completely unsettled, Yemen is unraveling and likely falling into the hands of real extremists, and now the Tunisians that started it all seem relatively stable. What North Korea makes of these possible "opportunities" is unknown, and Iran's reaction to the Saudi incursion into Bahrain is uncertain.

Through all of this we have been experiencing in short order material losses in many financial markets, due to ongoing uncertainty. That's frightening to almost everyone after the Sept. '08 to March '09 debacle, but there is so far no comparison. Equity losses are really not much more than one would have eventually expected as a normal correction after an almost straight run up since September of 2010. Credit markets are functioning with acceptable liquidity. The dollar, gold, and silver are not being overwhelmed as safe havens, even giving up a little as concerns about Japan's possible repatriation of investments.

That's today. Things could get worse. We don't know. It's a rough market now.

The real truth, the real concern over a longer time frame, however, is China. While the United States and to a lesser extent Japan and Germany remain the financial engines of the world, China has been the undeniable key to marginal world growth. It's been a phenomenal story. This weeks "The Economist" heralds the growth of "Bamboo Capitalism", a Chinese economy not dominated as generally perceived by a monolithic state run capitalism but by an unleashing of Chinese entrepreneural spirit that is virtually unfettered by any meaningful regulation. So what's this China worry?

While the Chinese in general are savers and those bamboo capitalists tend to support themselves on predatory small lending and then reinvesting their profits to an extent to which they stand on their own, the government run banks have financed commercial overbuilding to an extent not seen since the U.S. in the late 1980's/early 1990's. Remember the term "see throughs", those empty towers that the banks ended up writing off and selling at prices so low that they could eventually be used as the economy rebuilt in the mid-90's. That's where China is now, or is heading fast. That's a problem.

The far bigger problem is inflation, as food prices are rising in some areas at a 40%rate. Food is a necessity in every country and has been one of the catalysts of the unrest in the middle east. In China, food is not only a necessity, it is a cultural ritual. China's government leaders vow to control inflation, and the NYT today had a headline that read "China's Premier Points to Inflation as the Government's Top Priority". In a "plodding two and a half hour new conference" the premier blamed just about everything and everyone possible but "stressed that China's grass roots elections should be expanded to higher levels of government, and stressed that change must occur 'step by step' under the control of the Communist Party". If that eventually means tighter control, regulation, and taxation of the small business entreprenurial economy, a likely Communist thought, the vaunted bamboo capitalists could be crippled as rigid doctrine reigns.

One might remember that back in the heyday of 1970's and 1980's Latin American growth, every government assertion that they would stem inflation and support the currency was simply seen by global financial markets as affirmation that they had no idea what they were doing. Dictatorships and autocracies don't control markets. This China worry is real, and could lead over time, maybe months or even a few years, to political and economic upheavel. Couple that with the fact that workers at certain factories, primarily foreign owned ones the moment, are organizing work stoppages and pay and work rule demands, and there is some big stuff beginning to happen here.

Should China stumble from their committed five year 7% annual growth target to what would be seen as a quite respectable 3% in the developed world, it would shake the world economic balance more than any tsunami or deposed middle eastern despot.

You know, I really am not talking with any authority or with any special knowledge, and with no research of any value. Still, I guess I'm arrogant enough to think that there are not enough generalists in this specialized world and that this is worth writing about.

For now, it's just day to day with the significant issues that we already have. These were not expected, and the unexpected is part of life. Oh my goodness, that sounds both irrelevant and obvious, maybe even pompous. Please excuse me.


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