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Fake MAGA, Fake Markets

By: David Stockman

 -- Published: Friday, 6 September 2019 | Print  | Disqus 

We don’t put a lot of stock in the CNN/MSM running meme that the Donald is a fount of endless lies.

Most of what they call “lies” are debatable facts and factoids about propositions they don’t like – such as the truth that the Russia Collusion/Meddling story has not only been bogus from day one, but was actually an attempt by the Dems and their Deep State apparatchiks to unconstitutionally reverse the outcome of a presidential election.

But there can be no doubt that the Donald let loose a Whopper on Monday morning when he saw the futures market deep in the red, thereby continuing the 800-point carnage from his Friday exercise in Trade War lunacy.

So to stem the tide of red (and the near certainty that important chart points would have been violated), the Donald claimed from Biarritz, France, that “China called last night” and indicated a desire to resume trade talks, later elaborating that two “high-level” Chinese officials had reached out to the White House essentially begging to restart the stalled negotiations.

Not surprisingly, the Chinese immediately denied the claim, but by then the robo-machines had already hit their ignition keys and have spent the rest of the week attempting to erase Friday’s wounds.

That’s the Fake Market part of the story, which we will elaborate upon in Part 2.

But it is now also abundantly clear that the alleged Chinese calls never happened, and that the Donald had engaged in a grotesque level of market manipulation that any CEO or other corporate insider would have been indicted for in a heart beat.

As Zero Hedge noted Thursday, even White House insiders have now confessed the ruse:

And now, according to a CNN report, White House aides “conceded the phone calls Trump described didn’t happen they way he said they did,” and “instead, two officials said Trump was eager to project optimism that might boost markets, and conflated comments from China’s vice premier with direct communication from the Chinese,” precisely as we said had likely happened on Monday morning.

Our point here, however, is not to pile on the Donald with the rest of the “gotcha” crowd.

The real sin here is not that the Donald employed some bright white lies to talk his book. The real problem is that his book (MAGA) is a crock and the stock market he is continually trying to levitate is a testament to decades of monetary madness at the central banks, not an endorsement of the Donald’s toxic mix of Trade Wars, Fiscal Debauch and ultra-Easy Money.

So it needs be said again: The Donald is an economic half-wit whose views on trade, debt and money are a clear and present danger to prosperity. And he is bullying them into the policy arena at an exceedingly fraught time when the rotten economic fruits of 30 years of debt eruption and egregious money printing at the Fed are coming home to roost.

As to the matter of our rogue Keynesian central bankers, Trump outdid himself recently, showing that the ship of fools domiciled in the Eccles Building can’t hold a candle to the Donald’s monetary mind-melt:

Our Federal Reserve cannot “mentally” keep up with the competition – other countries. At the G-7 in France, all of the other Leaders were giddy about how low their Interest Costs have gone. Germany is actually “getting paid” to borrow money – ZERO INTEREST PLUS! No Clue Fed!

Sorry, folks. This is buck naked gibberish.

And it’s also a reminder of why the Donald doesn’t give a whit about the nation’s hemorrhaging fiscal accounts. During his first 31 months in office – and at the very top of the longest business cycle in history – he has added $2.7 trillion to the net public debt, yet he thinks it’s just ducky that the German government is getting paid to borrow money.

To the contrary, the race to the interest rate bottom is a historic financial catastrophe in the making, not some kind of international sports contest the Donald is losing; and if the other G-7 leaders were actually “giddy” about the slow-motion destruction of their bond markets and banking systems wrought by the ECB – then Drunk would be a better term for their mental condition.

After all, anything less than alarum about these 10-year yield quotes from today’s bond ticker is the same thing as failing the financial breathalyzer test. Apparently, all of the G-7 did – most especially the Donald.

  • Germany…….-0.71%
  • Belgium………-0.38%
  • Netherlands…-0.58%
  • France………..-0.44%
  • Italy……………..0.98%
  • Spain……………0.05%
  • Portugal………..0.09%
  • Greece…………1.57%

What the above ludicrous yields imply is that speculators and fools have driven bond prices to well above par and, therefore, to huge guaranteed capital losses on redemption or market correction.

The Italian 10-year, for example, was issued recently with a 3.0% coupon, meaning that today’s buyer will get whacked for a 65% loss upon redemption. Likewise, one year ago the Portugal bond was trading at a yield of 1.87% and the Spanish bond at 1.46% – again implying massive capital losses for speculators coming in at today’s tiny yields.

Needless to say, if the ECB is foolish enough to restart QE and drive its deposit rate even lower than the current absurd -0.40%, it will cause the European financial system to literally implode – with Deutsche Bank leading the way down the drain.

Yet the Donald wants the Fed to emulate that madness because by the dim lights under the Great Orange Combover the Fed is “clueless” and “mentally” incapable of keeping up with the monetary arsons elsewhere around the planet.

When it comes to the trade file, of course, the Donald is even more out to lunch, and his Trade War escalation with China last Friday left no room for doubt.

By pushing the tariffs to 30% on the $250 billion of Chinese imports already being taxed plus the 15% promised for the remaining $300 billion, the Donald has literally leapt beyond the bounds of any semblance of rationality.

To wit, when the whole enchilada become effective on December 15 – and we have little doubt that’s where things are heading – the Donald will have single-handedly imposed a $122 billion tax, or 22%, on the annual inflow of $543 billion of goods from China.

This is so over the top that we can say with absolute confidence that no occupant of the Oval Office or high level economic or trade advisor has ever contemplated something even remotely this crazy in their most agitated moments. In fact, no one in the current White House – other than the Donald and perhaps the certifiable whack job, Peter Navarro – ever contemplated this level of mindless economic warfare.

The fact is, this is sui generis. It’s the freakish doing of one man’s unchained ego and simple-minded notion that the $18 trillion global trading system is nothing more than an outdoor contact sport where the refs are crooked and America is robbed blind.

Even Nixon’s 10% tariff on all imports after Camp David in 1971 was far, far less unhinged, as stupid as it was. It was designed to force foreign government to revalue their FX rates against the temporarily (sic!) floating dollar, but was quickly abandoned after the Smithsonian Agreement established new, albeit short-lived, FX parities a few months later.

Moreover, the Nixon tariff was across-the-board, not a thermonuclear missile aimed singularly at America’s largest trading partner.

Yet the latter aspect is what makes the Donald current tariffs so threatening to the entire global economy: It is monkey-hammering complex supply chains which terminate in finished goods exported from China, but are comprised of raw materials, parts, components, semi-finished goods and all variants in between which are originated in countries all over the planet.

Thus, in order to generate $543 billion of exports to the US last year and $2.49 trillion to the entire world, China imported $2.13 trillion of stuff.

This included $342 billion of semiconductors, parts and manufacturing equipment, $175 billion of other electrical machinery, $202 billion of mechanical machinery and $102 billion of optical, photographic, measuring devices and related highly engineered capital goods.

It also imported $348 billion of petroleum, coal and other fuels, $202 billion of iron ore, alumina, nickel and other metal ores and $83 billion of soybeans, cereals, fruits, meats and other agricultural products.

Needless to say, this prospective 22% tax wedge against Chinese finished products versus those of all of their global competitors has triggered a frenzied melee of re-sourcing actions designed to relocate the country of origin for finished goods to any and all low wage venues other than uber-taxed China. These include Vietnam, Indonesia, India, Malaysia, Cambodia, Thailand, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Brazil and Mexico, just to name the obvious ones.

In the process, of course, supply chains will be massively roiled, sunk investments in the current China trade routes will be depreciated and uncertainty and business indecision will become rampant.

And exactly when is the global economy being put into this kind of unprecedented economic meat-grinder?

Well, at the very time that it has become buried under $250 trillion of debt – reflecting a $100 trillion eruption just to bailout the last crisis; and when the central banks have driven the global bond markets into subzero land and are therefore out of dry powder.

That is to say, they have little room left to cut rates and any return to massive QE will kill whatever remains of yield and therefore rational price signals in the world’s bond markets.

So this time there will be no central bank rescue or quick reflation like after March 2009. The Great Trumpian Recession will spread to the four corners of the planet and last for years to come – even as the massive government, household and business debt that has been accrued since 2007 triggers bankruptcies and impairments of magnitudes never before seen.

So the question recurs: Why in the world is the Donald risking the Great Trumpian Recession in his unhinged trade war on China?

A fourfold answer is usually given, but each of these “reasons” amount to hogwash on steroids. They include:

  1. the Warfare State’s phony beef against China’s alleged technology threat;
  2. the K-Street chorus of crybaby complaints about purported Chinese commercial theft of trade secrets and patents;
  3. the Fortune 500 whining campaign about how their investments are badly treated when they voluntarily choose to put assets and operations on the ground in the Red Ponzi; and
  4. the yawning bilateral trade imbalance, which saw Chinese imports of $543 billion during 2018 dwarfed by the mere $120 billion exported to China by US domestic companies.

Suffice it here to say that complaint #1 is a blatant case of the pot calling the kettle black. The overwhelming source of hostile cyber-intrusions in the affairs of other countries – and most especially their military and related technological sectors – is the $80 billion budget of the so-called US Intelligence Community (IC).

Whatever defensive or even counterattack measures may be attributed to the likes of Iran, Russia and most especially China are small potatoes by comparison. The cause celeb of the moment, the alleged “backdoor” spy-gear in Huawei products, is actually just the opposite: China’s #1 technology company simply refused to implant cyber-intrusion capacities demanded by the CIA and NSA – so the company was declared a national security threat by the IC.

As to the alleged Chinese theft of commercial trade secrets and patents, it only needs be recalled that something like 15,000 patent infringement suits are filed in US courts each year.

That’s because replicating, rearranging and reverse engineering other companies’ products is what competitive businesses do as a matter of course. And if they come too close to the protected intellectual property inside the four corners of the patent in question, they lose the lawsuit and have to pay damages – some times massive ones.

But here’s the thing. The cost of intellectual property protection is a cost of doing business in today’s world of global commerce.

It is not the job of Trade Nannies in Washington to function as corporate America’s no-cost litigator and enforcement agent. And most especially, it is not the function of the state to take $21 trillion of GDP and the jobs and livelihoods of tens of millions of consumers, workers and businesses hostage in a Trade War in order to enforce the patent infringement complaints of a relatively small handful of domestic companies.

Likewise, the answer to the whining of Fortune 500 CEOs about being forced to enter joint ventures and share technology when they choose to invest and operate in the Red Ponzi is quite simple: Just don’t!

Needless to say, it is actually an outrage to sacrifice the $21 trillion main street economy so that corporate CEOs can go on bubblevision and brag about their China “growth strategies” while not having to put up with the inconvenience of living by the Red Rules.

As it turns out, therefore, the only real issue involved in the bilateral trade relationship with the Red Ponzi is actually the $423 billion trade deficit that has the Donald on his high horse.

He’s dead right about the problem, but dead wrong about why it exists and what to do about it, as we will address in Part 2.

And by your way, today’s dead cat bounce in the stock market was just the chart-monkey’s attempting to regain the 50-DMA on the S&P 500 at 2947.

They didn’t make it.

Part 2

In Part 1 we pointed out that tearing down competitors’ products, reverse engineering and patent-compliant product modification is what good R&D departments do everywhere. That’s business, not theft.

If they don’t tread hard upon competitor products and patents, they are a complete waste of the company’s resources; and if they cross the line and violate the competitor’s patent, it’s evidence of excess zeal that will result in court-ordered damages and, possibly, of the need for better targeted work practices and managerial supervision.

We return to this intellectual property theft canard, however, because the Wall Street Journal in its zeal to provide stenography services to the Deep State and the FBI in particular, published a breathless story this AM entitled “U.S. Prosecutors Probe Huawei on New Allegations of Technology Theft” that shows just how ludicrous the whole matter actually is.

One example concerns a former contract engineer in Sweden for Huawei, Robert Read, who way back in 2002-2003 helped Huawei recruit laid-off workers from nearby offices of Ericsson AB during those years. The FBI actually got on to this alleged skullduggery owing to an earlier WSJ story in which Mr. Read had been quoted:

Mr. Read described how Huawei at its Sweden office stashed foreign-made equipment in a secure basement to be dissected by Huawei engineers. The chamber had counterparts in other Huawei facilities, according to current and former US officials. Mr. Read confirmed he was approached by investigators after the article’s publication.

Oh, Puleese!

What aggressive competitor worth his salt would not send recruiters to an area where another company had gotten in over its skis and had been forced to cause experienced, skilled engineers to hit the pavement? That’s actually called the free market at work, recycling labor and skills to places where they can be put to the best and highest use.

And as for these sinister teardown “chambers” where competitor products were being “dissected” what profitable advanced or even standard technology company in America doesn’t have one?

This example is not only ridiculous and betrays an utter ignorance about how business manage their product development and employee skill acquisition process, but raises an even more crucial question.

To wit, what in the hell is the FBI doing in the patent enforcement process to begin with?

This is absolutely not a legitimate function of the state. That’s because when companies are given the privilege of patent protection, they often reap lucrative profits during the monopoly period; and if they wish to maximize the harvest of such supra-normal profits, they need to spend litigation money to enforce their state-conferred monopolies.

Besides, since patent violation more often than not involves technically complex gray areas of dispute, why in the world should it be criminalized?

Patents are at best a debatable economic equity to be adjudicated in civil courts and prosecuted by the aggrieved party, not the Federales looking for new arenas of mission creep.

In fact, the FBI and US prosecutors are in this business because they have been drafted into the service of the Warfare State. The latter is the true Vampire Squid of the Imperial City, thrusting its blood funnels deep into every department of government and reallocating resources to the work of foreign threat inflation – the better to keep the entire Warfare State operation in clover.

In the present instance, the reallocation of tens of millions of FBI resources to prosecuting alleged Chinese intellectual property theft is the ultimate red herring. During their earlier economic development stages, Japanese, South Korean, and Taiwanese companies also recruited talent from established US or European companies and aggressively tore-down their products in order to replicate them.

But since their home countries were allegedly “allies” of Imperial Washington, no one started an all-out Trade War with them or attempted to demonize them as nefarious threats to national security.

Indeed, in the present instance, the blatant, clumsy and often ludicrous attempts at threat inflation against the Red Ponzi by US law enforcement tells you all you need to know. For instance, in the aforementioned WSJ story there is also made mention of alleged 2012-2013 theft of a T-Mobile robotic testing device by Huawei engineers.

But the case actually reads like the script of a slapstick movie. It seems that T-Mobile had a nifty robot named “Tappy” which could efficiently test the screens of smartphones by touching its sensor-laden arm to the glass and getting a read-out on all functions of the device being tested.

As it happened, Huawei was attempting to sell smartphones to T-Mobile, but”Tappy” was ixnaying the Chinese company’s devices at very high, unacceptable rates.

So in order to improve their smartphone offerings, Huawei sought repeatedly to license Tappy for quality control uses in their own factories back in China. This request was repeatedly refused by T-Mobile, however, because the testing technology embedded in Tappy’s arm was very proprietary and a tremendous cost-saver relative to human limbs, digits and brains.

At length, a zealous engineer from Huawei’s home office named “A.X.” was sent to the US to investigate Tappy’s technology, and literally took matters in his own hands:

Then, in May 2013, A.X. allegedly made a very bold move, removing Tappy’s arm and putting it in his laptop bag. T-Mobile employees confronted him about the missing arm. He denied having it, and that night he and F.W. measured and photographed the arm. The next day, A.X. said he had “found” Tappy’s arm in his bag. It was then that T-Mobile finally revoked A.X.’s credential to the lab.

Perhaps we should call this episode rampant stupidity by the T-Mobile lab personnel and be done with it. Yet, as it turned out, T-Mobile took Huawei to court and won a de minimis $4.8 million civil settlement for damages, suggesting whatever the Chinese learned overnight from Tappy’s borrowed arm really didn’t amount to a hill of beans.

Yet this purely commercial contretemps was latched onto by the FBI and has resulted in a ten-count criminal indictment including conspiracy to steal trade secrets, attempted theft of trade secrets, seven counts of wire fraud, and obstruction of justice.

Moreover, scratch any Washington pol ragging about China’s nefarious intellectual property theft and they will cite the T-Mobile case, as if Tappy’s borrowed arm represented some kind of act of war.

In short, the intellectual property theft, Red Rules for companies operating in China and cyber intrusion memes are utterly bogus reasons for the Donald’s Trade War against China.

The first two are K-Street specials promoted by business lobbies and lifetime Swamp Creatures like Robert Lighthizer, who have made a lucrative living inducing Washington to function as a Trade Nanny in behalf of US companies.

Taken together, they amount to Warfare State misdirection designed to inflate the China “threat” and thereby keep the Warfare State in business and luxuriating in overflowing budgets.

So what the Donald’s Trade War really boils down to in terms of actual commerce and economics is the hideously unbalanced bilateral trade accounts, which last year resulted in a $443 deficit with China.

As we have frequently noted, however, this freakish imbalance is not due to bad trade deals, the WTO or nefarious Chinese government subsidies to exporters, as the Donald constantly declaims.

Instead, it’s a function of the global bad money regime under which the Fed has inflated US domestic wages, prices and costs at 2.00% per year, when global competitive circumstances called for zero inflation or even deflation; and the Chinese central bank has reciprocated over the last 25 years by keeping its FX rate artificially low via buying up unwanted dollars on its FX markets – a bald-faced “dirty float” that resulted in the freakish accumulation of $4 trillion of FX reserves at the recent peak.

The outcome, of course, was $30 per hour fully loaded manufacturing wages in the US and $5 per hour equivalent wages in China. In turn, the resulting massive cost arbitrage caused supply chains to literally migrate from the US to China and its mostly East Asian suppliers.

So after several decades of this bad money induced industrial migration, the now massive US trade deficit with China is rooted in a deep economic cost gap that would never have developed in a world of honest money.

That is, under the old gold standard, the US would have experienced a self-correcting outflow of monetary assets (gold) in the face of yawning trade and current account deficits. In turn, that loss of banking system reserves would have caused domestic credit to shrink and domestic costs and wages to deflate, thereby curtailing imports and boosting exports.

In the alternative, under a true Milton Friedmanesque free market float, China’s exchange rate would have soared in the face of massive trade surpluses with the US, thereby making its exports less attractive in US end markets and US exports more competitive in China.

Needless to say, what we actually have is neither – meaning that under the central bank managed “dirty floats” and massive, persistent monetary inflation, trade accounts are never cleared.

To the contrary, the US piles up cumulative current account deficits with China and much of the rest of the world, which in 2019 dollars of purchasing power amount to about $19 trillion since the late 1970s. At the same time, China runs massive surpluses with the US, from which is finances its massive imports of materials and components and accumulates foreign financial assets for the balance.

Even a cursory review of the huge imbalances in the China trade at the product level demonstrates that bad money based economics is the culprit, not nefarious trade practices which can be eliminated through a negotiated trade deal – even if the blowhard in the Oval Office had the skill and patience to do it, which he does not.

Take the case of furniture and related products, where the US once had a thriving industry in the Southeast region, which has long since vanished.

That’s because in 2018 the US imported $13.7 billion of Chinese furniture goods, but only exported $93 million to China. That’s a 147X ratio of imports to exports, but it doesn’t stem from a ban on American furniture in China or massive subsidies to Chinese furniture exporters designed to provide Chinese foreign aid to the American middle class.

Nope, its just wage and cost arbitrage due to the cumulative effect of bad money inflation in the US and bad money deflation in China.

Likewise, during 2018 the US imported $12.5 billion from China in four-digit product code 9503, which includes toys, tricycles, scooters etc., while only exporting $43 million to China. That amounted to a 291X ratio of imports to exports, and most assuredly that, too, was grounded in a giant cost gap, not Chicom cheating.

If you add two related 4-digit product codes to the above two – including lamps and lighting and chairs and seats – the four product codes taken together encompassed $46.6 billion of imports from China in 2018 compared to a microscopic $136 million of exports.

That represents a 343X import/export ratio in these labor intensive product categories, and there is no conceivable trade deal which could close the gap. To paraphrase the infamous Clinton political advisor of the early 1990s, it’s the economics, stupid!

And the above four product codes are not aberrations. If we take the four main technology product codes (8471, 8473, 8517, and 8528) which represent computers, computer components and gear, smartphones and cellular devices and monitors, screens and projection equipment, respectively, the story is even more self evident.

During 2018, the US imported $155.0 billion of goods in these four categories from China, but exported only $3.1 billion to China.

That’s right. These four product codes alone generated a $152 billion bilateral trade deficit.

Indeed, the combined deficit in the eight product codes here enumerated totaled nearly $200 billion or 45% of the entire trade deficit with China. And there can be no doubt that the reason for this gigantic imbalance was the huge cost and wage differential between China and the US.

Stated differently, Foxcon now employs more than 1.1 million workers in dozens of Chinese factories, which source components globally and fabricate and assemble finished Apple iPhones, MacBooks etc. but not because Beijing functioned like the state government of Wisconsin and bribed Foxcon to locate in the Red Ponzi.

To the contrary, the Red Ponzi embodies a freakish communist state economy rooted in cheap debt, cheap labor and bad money. Accordingly, labor intensive products produced there will be inherently attractive to US retailers, importers and consumers.

Moreover, the attempt of Trump’s trade negotiators, led by beltway bandit Robert Lighthizer, to identify the specific Chinese practices and state policies which purportedly generated this lopsided outcome is as futile as the proverbial keen-eyed boy looking for his dropped bubble gum on the chicken coop floor!

That is, they will never find the offending practices because everything in the Red Ponzi is mispriced. If they want to eliminate the yawning bilateral trade deficits in these categories, they would actually have to go the old Cuba route and embargo Chinese goods entirely on the grounds that they are made by commies or some such purely political excuse.

Indeed, when you examine the other side of the equation – the $120 billion of US export to China last year – the products involved are capital or resource intensive commodities and materials, where the US is reasonably competitive on the world markets.

For example, 17 four-digit commodity-oriented codes accounted for $42 billion, or 35%, of US exports to China last year. These included petroleum, LNG, soybeans, lumber and wood, recovered waste paper, copper and aluminum scrap, cotton, pulp, frozen fish, hides and skins, corn, uncoated Kraft paper, petroleum coke and other miscellaneous commodities.

In the case of these items, however, China exported only $8.1 billion of stuff to the US. That is to say, trade in these commodity categories was subject to the same Red Ponzi distortions and mispricings, but since they involve de minimis labor costs, the US actually ran a huge trade surplus.

At the end of the day, the Donald is huffing and puffing down a dead-end that will eventually lead to a huge global trade dislocation and the Great Trumpian Recession.

Maybe even the Wall Street chart monkeys are beginning to sniff out this scenario.

After another apparently failed run today at the 50-DMA at 2947 on the S&P 500, they ended the day on the sidelines in a zone that marks 18 months of treading water.


Reprinted with permission from David Stockman’s Contra Corner.

Former Congressman David A. Stockman was Reagan's OMB director, which he wrote about in his best-selling book, The Triumph of Politics. His latest books are The Great Deformation: The Corruption of Capitalism in America and Peak Trump: The Undrainable Swamp And The Fantasy Of MAGA. He's the editor and publisher of the new David Stockman's Contra Corner. He was an original partner in the Blackstone Group, and reads LRC the first thing every morning.

Copyright © 2019 David Stockman

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