Trade regionally

As the yuan becomes the currency of trade regionally and internationally, China will inherently reduce its hoard of US dollar reserves, usually held as US government bonds, for it generally accumulates the currency by settling deals with exporters in dollars.
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Plus, as China’s currency rises in value and no longer needs such significant reserves to remain devalued below the dollar and as the rest of the world embraces emerging-market currencies as investment-grade, the world’s central banks will have much less use for US currency reserves. From the US perspective, US government debt will no longer be nearly as attractive, and concordantly, the international sovereign debt markets will demand higher returns and will not absorb infinite amounts of debt.

Sen. Schumer and his ilk may not realize it, but thanks in part to their actions, the global currency market has taken steps down a path that leads to a US situation akin to Greece’s: a market that will no longer tolerate runaway spending and simply will no longer finance the debt. A shift away from the US dollar as the reserve currency should not be held to blame for these consequences; the US and its leadership continue to choose to borrow recklessly, and the market will correct for it if the US does not.

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Light of US

In light of the US’s role in global economic destabilization, and whereas major European powers have pledged fiscal prudence in stark contrast to the US, Chinese officials have expressed concern over the worldwide reliance on the dollar as a reserve currency and as the currency of international settlement. Moreover, given the trillions of dollars that China now holds, Beijing has become more and more cognizant of the fact that ill-considered US fiscal and monetary policy could ravage the value of its currency portfolio.
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The precariousness of settling all trade in foreign currencies manifested itself recently with the slipping and yo-yoing of exchange rates with China’s biggest partner: Europe.

After a recent Asian economic policy summit, when Russian President Dmitry Medvedev was asked about the viability of the yuan as an international reserve and trade currency, he commented, “‘Three to five years ago, any discussion of this seemed like a fantasy that may never come true,’ he said. ‘Now we’re discussing it in absolute seriousness with a number of countries, including our American partners, who are perhaps least interested in other currencies replacing the dollar.’”

Now, this transition towards a yuan more central to the operation of international commerce will not happen quickly. According to the Journal, “China’s central bank made clear that any movement in the yuan will be gradual, and economists think it will be especially cautious while the status of the global economy remains uncertain. Analysts generally expect a rise of 2% to 5% against the dollar over the next year.” Moreover, at this point, the Chinese government remains unwilling to make the yuan fully convertible, which would be essential to promoting the yuan to investment-grade currency. Yet as the basket-pegged rate appreciates towards the market rate were the currency to float, this change to full convertibility becomes ever more plausible.

The Dénouement of the Dollar

Perhaps under pressure from US leaders like Sen. Chuck Schumer, perhaps under market pressure, the Chinese central government has decided to take the yuan off a dollar pegging and peg it instead to a more flexible basket of international currencies, as it had been before 2008. Now, initially, this will hurt US consumers by making imports from abroad more expensive in US dollars when purchased from China, and it will likewise hurt US retailer and some manufacturing firms.

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In the longer run though, it also allows US companies invoicing in US dollars better access to untapped Chinese markets by making US goods comparatively cheaper and increasing the purchasing power of Chinese consumers. The Wall Street Journal reported that, in the long-term, this will likely help “consumer-focused companies such as beverage giant Coca-Cola Co., car maker General Motors Co., and cellphone seller Motorola Inc. It could also be a boon to companies that feed China’s industrial demand, such as construction-equipment makers Caterpillar Inc. and Komatsu Ltd., and mining companies BHP Billiton and Rio Tinto.” Indeed, China already comprises the largest world market for cars, cellphones, beer, and iron ore, and the Chinese market now accounts for 16.6% of electronic components maker Intel’s revenue last year and 30% of Yum Brands Inc.’s revenue each quarter. Yum Brands, which owns over 3,500 KFCs, Pizza Huts and other restaurants in China, has been opening one new branch per day on average.

This shift towards a stronger yuan extends farther than exchange rate pegging though; the Chinese central bank has announced a shift towards settling trade deals in yuan. As the Journal reported separately, “Trade deals by companies in China have typically been done in dollars or other foreign currencies. The yuan-settlement program, started last July, allowed companies in Shanghai and the southern province of Guangdong to use yuan instead when trading with companies based in Hong Kong, Macau and a handful of foreign countries.”

Embraces Euro-Socialism as New Europe Rejects It

Over the weekend in Toronto, Obama dug his hole even deeper. As the Wall Street Journal reports, by the end of the conference, “the wealthiest of the Group of 20 countries said they would halve their government deficits by the year 2013 and ‘stabilize’ their debt loads by 2016, a signal to international markets and domestic political audiences they are taking seriously the need to wean themselves from stimulus spending.”

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Now, this seems superficially like a significant positive for U.S. taxpayers and the young adults who will inherit the fiscal excesses of the administration, especially given that “a White House statement said that government debt in the fiscal year ending Sept. 30, 2015, would be at an ‘acceptable level.’” Yet several questions stem from his analysis of the U.S. fiscal future. First and foremost, one must ask how he is budgeting, given that his party has decided not to fulfill its Constitutional duty of proposing a budget, and the budget proposed by the Republican Study Committee does not balance the budget before 2020, and the $20 trillion in publicly-held debt would then clock in at a similar percentage of GDP as Greece’s. Moreover, while he asserts that the debt in 2015 would be at an “acceptable level,” 2015 is the year in which Moody’s expects that the US will lose its AAA credit rating.

To explain the inexplicable, “President Obama said that next year he would present ‘very difficult choices’ to the country in an effort to meet deficit goals.” Moreover, “the President cited his disappointment with the U.S. tax code. ‘Next year, when I start presenting some very difficult choices to the country, I hope some of these folks who are hollering about deficits and debt step up, ’cause I’m calling their bluff,’ Mr. Obama said.”

He will be calling more than his opponents’ bluffs; he has already called his own on not raising taxes for any family making less than $250,000 per year. And whereas all of the U.S.’s peer nations like the U.K., France, and especially Germany have pushed for strong austerity measures made with spending cuts and no or minor tax increases, Obama’s outdated, neo-Keynesian policy consists of higher taxes and more spending. Moreover, the U.S. remains the last of the major economies to enforce worldwide taxation of all U.S. corporations and individuals, doing so at higher rates than U.S. peer nations.

Perhaps this is why the German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble articulated the rest of the developed world’s frustration with the U.S. during an interview with the French paper Le Monde, “Mr. Obama’s giant stimulus spending has had little impact on the country’s jobless rate, which remains well above 9%.”

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As much as the action is now lauded as the prompt and efficacious action needed to prevent a financial apocalypse, Joseph Cassano, the man who led the division of AIG responsible for the mortgage trades, testified that “I think I would have negotiated a much better deal for the taxpayer than what the taxpayer got.” He argued that when the Treasury stepped in, they unloaded the derivatives as fast as possible for whatever price they could get.

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To analogize, imagine that an elderly parent’s retirement portfolio crashes, so their children come in and sell everything at the absolute lowest point rather than evaluate which assets will regain value.

Cassano asserted that when the Treasury took over, it paid the counterparties to the contracts whatever they deemed fitting to close them out. As Gensler had discussed earlier, the CDSs represent a market product with a value that markets assign, whereas insurance represents a banking product that has a very calculable value. Basically, the Treasury assumed that AIG misunderstood their own products and that those with the most to gain by overestimating the value of the contracts could best evaluate the situation. They might as well have handed Goldman Sachs a blank check and told them, “Figure it out yourselves.”

Taxpayers foot

By contrast, a credit-default swap is sold upfront for a cash value, so both parties know precisely the cost of the deal for the time defined in the contract. In the meantime, Goldman does not have to worry about future costs to insure, and AIG can use the capital upfront to invest, leverage, and compound its value. Most significantly though, a CDS requires the issuer (AIG in this case) to post capital if the investment loses value.

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From Goldman’s perspective, this hedges two kinds of risk: the risk of default, for then the insurance-like benefits would trigger, and the risk of declining value, for then the counterparty would have to post collateral. It allows Goldman to pay a fixed, upfront fee to guarantee the safety of its investment. Likewise, the contract allows AIG the opportunity to leverage itself farther, for it does not need to hold as much capital for an immediate payment as it would for under an insurance policy. Because it would have been posting collateral in the weeks and months leading up to a default as the underlying asset declined in value, AIG would not need to have the entire lump sum available at once; it would need the lump sum over a protracted period of time.

Likewise, whereas one buys an insurance policy to protect an asset that one owns, a credit-default swap is a contract derived from an underlying asset, but neither party must own the asset. So, if Goldman expects that a decline in this set of residential mortgages would pose a risk to its portfolio (even though it does not own this particular set), it could purchase a CDS contract from AIG to protect against that larger risk without the added deployment of capital required to own the underlying asset. Plus, either party can trade its end of the contract to someone willing to buy its interest. This would be impossible with an insurance policy.

Now, Gensler’s appraisal of AIG’s situation reflects a more complete understanding of both the instruments and the players. Because of the decline in value of the collateralized debt obligations (the mortgage bundles), AIG had to make collateral payments to all of the parties to whom it had sold CDSs. Now, the financial products division of AIG benefited from AIG’s “AAA” credit rating, but because of the way in which AIG was structured, the financial products division did not have access to any of the capital in the other divisions, even though that capital factored into its credit rating. So, it met those obligations for collateral by opening and using credit lines, but just as it needed to use its rating to borrow, the credit markets froze. This resulted in the crisis into which the government entered.

Treasury Misunderstands Credit

In the dark days of 2007 and 2008 when investment banks began closing their doors, the financial products division of the insurance giant AIG began to receive collateral calls on their credit-default swap contracts to the tune of tens of billions of dollars. This is the point at which the government stepped in to settle the situation and prevent a collapse of the system by closing out the complex insurance-like contracts, or so the official story goes.

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Gary Gensler, Chairman of the Commodity Futures Trading Association, disagreed with that analysis in nuanced, but significant ways in testimony before the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission. Most importantly, the inherent danger of both AIG and credit-default swaps were vastly misrepresented. Much of this stems from a general misunderstanding of what precisely a CDS does. Basically, it allows the seller to issue it based on an underlying asset and insure that it will not default. The defining differences between a CDS and an insurance contract have to do with the possession of the underlying asset; normally, to insure an asset, one must own the underlying and collateral must be posted at the front end of the deal.

So, to demonstrate the differences between the two scenarios, one can trace each kind of deal. If Goldman Sachs owns a set of residential mortgages and wants to hedge its risk on those mortgages, it could purchase an insurance policy on which it pays over time, and if the mortgages default, it could redeem its contract that it had made with AIG. But, from Goldman Sachs’ position, if the mortgages lose most of their value but do not enter default, then its insurance policy is useless. Likewise, AIG makes the money parceled out over time and has little ability to predict the amount of insurance that would be purchased in the future. Plus, AIG must have immediate access to the full insured value in the event of emergency.

Priopretary trading

The second major loophole, which the Wall Street Journal characterizes as big enough to “drive a trader’s ego through,” does not prevent the proprietary trading of all securities, but it in fact allows for speculation on over 60% of the US bond market. Specifically, companies remain able to trade Treasurys, bonds issued by government-backed entities like Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, as well as municipal bonds however they see fit, leaving them speculative access to a $20 trillion market.

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Lawmakers left this exemption first and foremost because of the flawed perception of US debt as safe from losses, a view belied by the impending US credit downgrade. Moreover, anyone with access to news media could testify to the riskiness of Fannie and Freddie, and financial news sources continue to warn about the overvaluation of the municipal bond sector. Nefariously, politicians left this exemption to allow the private sector to sop up as much government debt as possible as they do not foresee a time when the US will not spend more than it collects.

Yet when these banks leverage these positions, perhaps expecting US bonds to drop in value, the positions could become extremely risky or have very unfortunate effects on the US ability to borrow. While banks may not engage in these practices, the exemption simply shows politicians’ skewed priorities.

While the bill does allow for regulators to stop any high-risk trading that affects the soundness of the institution, one is then left with a conflict of interest in which the US government is telling banks how much US debt they can safely hold.

Lawmakers Skewed Priorities

As part of the Frank-Dodd bill for financial “reform,” financial institutions that benefit from government protections like federal insurance of deposits will be restricted from investing any more than 3% of the bank’s capital for the profit of the bank. As menacing as this may sound, it ignores two significant loopholes that lawmakers left in the bill.

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Perhaps unintentionally when the bill was ramrodded through a partisan conference committee in the dead of night, lawmakers left a significant amount of ambiguity on the regulation surrounding the making of markets. Because large banks fill the crucial role of making markets and buying securities ahead of when customers demand them, markets and securities can remain very liquid. Likewise, banks can make a profit on making markets if the security purchased rises in value between when the market is made and when the consumer purchases the product.

In line with this, companies have been shifting traders from proprietary trading desks to making markets for other divisions. One of these traders might trade a security for which he expects there to be demand in a week or a month and then unload that security if he no longer expects a demand for it, pocketing the difference for the firm. There is no easy way to curb this practice without harming market-making, which remains essential for financial markets to function, yet it either castrates the bill’s provisions relating to proprietary trading, or it leaves all the power in the hands of unaccountable regulators.