The Coming Trade War and Global Depression

Henry C.K. Liu

First appeared in Asia Times on Line on June 18 2005


Many historians have suggested that the 1929 stock market crash was not the cause of the Great Depression. If anything, the 1929 crash was the technical reflection of the inevitable fate of an overblown bubble economy. Yet, stock market crashes can recover within a relatively short time with the help of effective government monetary measures, as demonstrated by the crashes of 1987 (23% drop, recovered in 9 months), 1998 (36% drop, recovered in 3 months) and 2000-2 (37% drop, recovered in 2 months). Structurally, the real cause of the Great Depression, which lasted more than a decade, from 1929 till the beginning of the Second World War in 1941, was the 1930 Smoot-Hawley tariffs that put world trade into a tailspin from which it did not recover until World War II began. While the US economy finally recovered from war mobilization after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1940, most of the world’s market economies sunk deeper into war-torn distress and never fully recovered until the Korea War boom in 1951.

Barely five years into the 21st century, with a globlaized neo-liberal trade regime firmly in place in a world where market economy has become the norm, trade protectionism appears to be fast re-emerging and developing into a new global trade war of complex dimensions. The irony is that this new trade war is being launched not by the poor economies that have been receiving the short end of the trade stick, but by the US which has been winning more than it has been losing on all counts from globalized neo-liberal trade, with the EU following suit in locked steps. Japan of course has never let up on protectionism and never taken competition policy seriously.  The rich nations needs to recognize that in their effort to squeeze every last drop of advantage out of already unfair trade will only plunge the world into deep depression. History has shown that while the poor suffer more in economic depressions, the rich, even as they are fianancially cushioned by their wealth, are hurt by political repercussions in the form of either war or revolution or both.

During the Cold War, there was no international free trade. The economies of the two contending ideology blocks were completely disconnected.  Within each block, economies interact through foreign aid and memorandum trade from their respective superpowers.  The competition was not for profit but for the hearts and minds of the people in the two opposing blocks as well as those in the non-aligned nations in the Third World. The competition between the two superpowers was to give rather than to take from their separate fraternal economies. 

The population of the superpowers worked hard to help the poorer people within their separate blocks and convergence toward equality was the policy aim even if not always the practice. The Cold War era of foreign aid and memorandum trade had a better record of poverty reduction in either camps than post-Cold War globalized neo-liberal trade dominated by one single superpower. The aim was not only to raise income and increase wealth, but also to close income and wealth disparity between and within economies.  Today, income and wealth disparity is rationalized as a necessity for capital formation. The New York Time reports that from 1980 to 2002, the total income earned by the top 0.1% of earners in the US more than doubled, while the share earned by everyone else in the top 10% rose far less and the share of the bottom 90% declined.

For all its ill effects, the Cold War achieved two formidable ends: it prevented nuclear war and it introduced development as a moral imperative into superpower geo-political competition with rising economic equality within each block.  In the years since the end of the Cold War, nuclear terrorism has emerged as a serious threat and domestic development is pre-empted by global trade even in the rich economies while income and wealth disparity has widened everywhere.

Since the end of the Cold War some fifteen years ago, world economic growth has shifted to rely exclusively on globalized neo-liberal trade engineered and led by the US as the sole remaining superpower, financed with the US dollar as the main reserve currency for trade and anchored by the huge US consumer market made possible by the high wages of US workers.  This growth has been sustained by knocking down national tariffs everywhere around the world through supranational institutions such as the World Trade Organization (WTO), and financed by a deregulated foreign exchange market working in concert with a global central banking regime independent of local political pressure, lorded over by the supranational Bank of International Settlement (BIS) and the International Monetary Fund (IMF).

Redefining humanist morality, the US asserts that world trade is a moral imperative and as such trade promotes democracy, political freedom and respect for human rights in trade participating nations.  Unfortunately, income and wealth equality are not among the benefits promoted by trade.  Even if the validity of this twisted ideological assertion is not questioned, it clearly contradicts US practice of trade embargo against countries the US deems undemocratic, lacking in political freedom and deficient in respect for human rights.  If trade promotes such desirable conditions, such practice of linking trade to freedom is tantamount to denying medicine to the sick.

President George W Bush defended his free trade agenda in moralistic terms. “Open trade is not just an economic opportunity, it is a moral imperative,” he declared in a May 7, 2001 speech. “Trade creates jobs for the unemployed. When we negotiate for open markets, we’re providing new hope for the world’s poor. And when we promote open trade, we are promoting political freedom.”  Such claims remain highly controversial when tested by actual data.

Phyllis Schlafly, syndicated conservative columnist, responded three weeks later in an article: Free Trade is an Economic Issue, Not a Moral One.  In it, she notes while conservatives should be happy to finally have a president who adds a moral dimension to his actions, “the Bible does not instruct us on free trade and it’s not one of the Ten Commandments. Jesus did not tell us to follow Him along the road to free trade. … Nor is there anything in the U.S. Constitution that requires us to support free trade and to abhor protectionism. In fact, protectionism was the economic system believed in and practiced by the framers of our Constitution. Protective tariffs were the principal source of revenue for our federal government from its beginning in 1789 until the passage of the 16th Amendment, which created the federal income tax, in 1913. Were all those public officials during those hundred-plus years remiss in not adhering to a “moral obligation” of free trade?”  Hardly, argues Schlafly whose views are noteworthy because US politics is currently enmeshed in a struggle between strict-constructionist paleo-conservatives and moral-imperialist neo-conservatives.  Despite the ascendance of neo-imperialism in US foreign policy, protectionism remains strong in US political culture, particularly among conservatives and in the labor movement.

Bush also said China, which reached a trade agreement with the US at the close of the Clinton administration, and became a member of the WTO in late 2001, would benefit from political changes as a result of liberalized trade policies.  This pronouncement gives clear evidence to those in China who see foreign trade as part of an anti-China “peaceful evolution” strategy first envisioned by John Forster Dulles, US Secretary of State under Eisenhower in the 1950s. It is a strategy of inducing through peaceful trade the Communist Party of China (CPC) to reform itself out of power and to eliminate the dictatorship of the proletariat in favor of bourgeois liberalization.  Almost four decades later, Deng Xiaoping criticized CPC Chairman Hu Yaobang and Premier Zhao Ziyang for having failed to contain bourgeois liberalization in their implementation of China’s modernization policy. Deng warned in November 1989, five months after the Tiananmen incident: “The Western imperialist countries are staging a third world war without guns. They want to bring about the peaceful evolution of socialist countries towards capitalism.”  Deng’s handling of the Tiananmen incident prevented China from going the catastrophic route of the USSR which dissolved in 1991.

Yet it is clear that political freedom is often the first casualty of a garrison state mentality and such mentality inevitably results from hostile US economic and security policy toward any country the US deems as not free.  Whenever the US pronounces a nation to be not free, that nation will become less free as a result of US policy. This has been repeatedly evident in China and elsewhere in the Third World.  Whenever US policy toward China turns hostile, as it currently appears to be heading, political and press freedom inevitably face stricter curbs. For trade to mutually and truly benefit the trading economies, three conditions are necessary: 1) the de-linking of trade from ideological/political objectives, 2) equality must be maintained in the terms of trade and 3) recognition that global full employment at rising, living wages is the prerequisite for true comparative advantage in global trade.

The developing rupture between the sole superpower and its traditionally deferential allies lies in mounting trade conflicts. The US has benefited from an international financial architecture that gives the US economy a structural monetary advantage over those of the EU and Japan, not to mention the rest of the world.  Trade issues range from government subsidies disputes between Airbus and Boeing, banana, sugar, beef, oranges, steel, as well as disputes over fair competition associated with mergers and acquisition and financial services. If either government is found to be in breach of WTO rules when these disputes wind through long processes of judgment, the other will be authorized to retaliate. The US could put tariffs on other European goods if the WTO rules against Airbus and vice versa. So if both governments are found in breach, both could retaliate, leading to a cycle of offensive protectionism. When the US was ruled to have unfairly supported its steel industry, tariffs were slapped by the EU on Florida oranges to make a political point in a politically important state in US politics.

Trade competition between the EU and the US is spilling over into security areas, allowing economic interests to conflict with ideological sympathy.  Both of these production engines, saddled with serious overcapacity, are desperately seeking new markets, which inevitably leads them to Asia in general and China in particular, with its phenomenal growth rate and its 1.2 billion eager consumers bulging with rapidly rising disposable income.  The growth of the Chinese economy will lift all other economies in Asia, including Australia which has only recently begun to understand that its future cannot be separated from its geographic location and that its prosperity is interdependent with those of other Asian economies. Australian iron ores, beef and dairy products are destined for China, not the British Isles. The EU is eager to lift its 15-year-old arms embargo on China, much to the displeasure of the US. Israel faces similar dilemma in its close relations with the US on military sales to China. Even the US defense establishment has largely come around to the view that US arms industry must export, even to China, to remain on top. The Bangkok Post reported on June 7 that Rumsfeld tried to sell to Thailand F-16 warplanes capable of firing advanced medium-range air-to-air missiles (AMRAAMs) two days after he lashed out in Singapore at China for upgrading its own military when no neighboring nations are threatening it. The sales pitch was in competition with Russian-made Sukhoi SU-30s and Swedish JAS-39s. The open competition in arms export had been spelled out for Congress years earlier by Donald Hicks, a leading Pentagon technologist in the Reagan administration. “Globalization is not a policy option, but a fact to which policymakers must adapt,” he said. “The emerging reality is that all nations’ militaries are sharing essentially the same global commercial-defense industrial base.”  The boots and uniforms worn by US soldiers in Afghanistan and Iraq were made in China.

The WTO is the only global international organization dealing with the rules of trade between its 148 member nations. At its heart are the WTO agreements, known as the multilateral trading system, negotiated and signed by the majority of the world’s trading nations and ratified in their parliaments. The stated goal is to help producers of goods and services, exporters, and importers conduct their business, with the dubious assumption that trade automatically brings equal benefits to all participants.  The welfare of the people is viewed only as a collateral aim based on the doctrinal fantasy that “balanced” trade inevitably brings prosperity equally to all, a claim that has been contradicted by facts produced by the very terms of trade promoted by the WTO itself.

Two decades of neo-liberal globalized trade have widened income and wealth disparity within and between nations. Free trade has turned out not to be the win-win game promised by neo-liberals.  It is very much a win-lose game, with heads, the rich economies win, and tails, the poor economies lose. Domestic development has been marginalized as a hapless victim of foreign trade, dependent on trade surplus for capital.  Foreign trade and foreign investment have become the prerequisite engines for domestic development. This trade model condemns those economies with trade deficits to perpetual underdevelopment.  Because of dollar hegemony, all foreign investment goes only to the export sector where dollars can be earned.  Even the economies with trade surpluses cannot use their dollar trade earnings for domestic development, as they are forced to hold huge dollar reserves to support the exchange rate of their currencies.

In the fifth WTO Ministerial Conference held in Cancun in September 2003, the richer countries rejected the demands of poorer nations for radical reform of agricultural subsidies that have decimated Third World agriculture. Failure to get the Doha round back on track after the collapse of Cancun runs the danger of a global resurgence of protectionism, with the US leading the way.  Larry Elliott reported on October 13, 2003 in The Guardian on the failed 2003 Cancun Ministerial meeting: “The language of globalization is all about democracy, free trade and sharing the benefits of technological advance. The reality is about rule by elites, mercantilism and selfishness.” Elliot noted that the process is full of paradoxes: why is it that in a world where human capital is supposed to be the new wealth of nations, labor is treated with such contempt?

Sam Mpasu, Malawi’s commerce and industry minister, asked at Cancun for his comments about the benefits of trade liberalization, replied dryly: “We have opened our economy. That’s why we are flat on our back.” Mpasu’s comments summarize the wide chasm that divides the perspectives of those who write the rules of globalization and those who are powerless to resist them.

Exports of manufactures by low-wage developing countries have increased rapidly over the last 3 decades due in part to falling tariffs and declining transport costs that enable outsourcing based on wage arbitrage. It grew from 25% in 1965 to nearly 75% over three decades, while agriculture’s share of developing country exports has fallen from 50% to under 10%.  Many developing countries have gained relatively little from increased manufactures trade, with most of the profit going to foreign capital. Market access for their most competitive manufactured export, such as textile and apparel, remains highly restricted and recent trade disputes threaten further restrictions. Still, the key cause of unemployment in all developing economies is the trade-related collapse of agriculture, exacerbated by the massive government subsidies provided to farmers in rich economies.  Many poor economies are predominantly agriculturally based and a collapse of agriculture means a general collapse of the whole economy.

The Doha Development Agenda (DDA) negotiations, sponsored by the WTO, collapsed in Cancun, Mexico over the question of government support for agriculture in rich economies and its potential impacts on causing more poverty in developing countries. The Doha negotiations since Cancun are focused on the need to better understand the linkages between trade policies, particularly those of the rich economies, and poverty in the developing world.  While poverty reduction is now more widely accepted by establishment economists as a necessary central focus for development efforts and has become the main mission of the World Bank and other development institutions, very little effective measures have been forthcoming. The UN Millennium Development Goals (UNMDG) commits the international community to halve world poverty by 2015, a decade from now. With current trends, that goal is likely to be achievable only through death of half of the poor by starvation, disease and local conflicts.  The UN Development Program warns that 3 million children will die in sub-Saharan Africa alone by 2015 if the world continues on its current path of failing to meet the UNMDG agreed to in 2000. Several key venues to this goal are located in international trade where the record of poverty reduction has been exceedingly poor, if not outright negative.  The fundamental question whether trade can replace or even augment socio-economic development remains unasked, let alone answered.  Until such issues are earnestly addressed, protectionism will re-emerge in the poor countries.  Under such conditions, if democracy expresses the will of the people, democracy will demand protectionism more than government by elite.

While tariffs in the past decade have been coming down like leaves in autumn, flexible exchange rates have become a form of virtual countervailing tariff.  In the current globalized neo-liberal trade regime operating in a deregulated global foreign exchange market, the exchanged value of a currency is regularly used to balance trade through government intervention in currency market fluctuations against the world’s main reserve currency – the dollar, as the head of the international monetary snake.

Purchasing power parity (PPP) measures the disconnection between exchange rates and local prices. PPP contrasts with the interest rate parity (IRP) theory which assumes that the actions of investors, whose transactions are recorded on the capital account, induces changes in the exchange rate. For a dollar investor to earn the same interest rate in a foreign economy with a PPP of four times, such as the purchasing power parity between the US dollar and the Chinese yuan, local wages would have to be at least 4 time lower than US wages. 

<>PPP theory is based on an extension and variation of the "law of one price" as applied to the aggregate economy.  The law of one price says that identical goods should sell for the same price in two separate markets when there are no transportation costs and no differential taxes applied in the two markets.  But the law of one price does not apply to the price of labor. Price arbitrage is the opposite of wage arbitrage in that producers seek to make their goods in the lowest wage locations and to sell their goods in the highest price markets.  This is the incentive for outsourcing which never seeks to sell products locally at prices that reflect PPP differentials.

What is not generally noticed is that price deflation in an economy increases its PPP, in that the same local currency buys more. But the cross-border one price phenomenon applies only to certain products, such as oil, thus for a PPP of 4 times, a rise in oil prices will cost the Chinese economy 4 times the equivalent in other goods, or wages than in the US.  The larger the purchasing power parity between a local currency and the dollar, the more severe is the tyranny of dollar hegemony on forcing down wage differentials.

Ever since 1971, when US president Richard Nixon, under pressure from persistent fiscal and trade deficits that drained US gold reserves, took the dollar off the gold standard (at $35 per ounce), the dollar has been a fiat currency of a country of little fiscal or monetary discipline. The Bretton Woods Conference at the end of World War II established the dollar, a solid currency backed by gold, as a benchmark currency for financing international trade, with all other currencies pegged to it at fixed rates that changed only infrequently.  The fixed exchange rate regime was designed to keep trading nations honest and prevent them from running perpetual trade deficits. It was not expected to dictate the living standards of trading economies, which were measured by many other factors besides exchange rates.

Bretton Woods was conceived when conventional wisdom in international economics did not consider cross-border flow of funds necessary or desirable for financing world trade precise for this reason. Since 1971, the dollar has changed from a gold-back currency to a global reserve monetary instrument that the US, and only the US, can produce by fiat.  At the same time, the US continued to incur both current account and fiscal deficits. That was the beginning of dollar hegemony.

With deregulation of foreign exchange and financial markets, many currencies began to free float against the dollar not in response to market forces but to maintain export competitiveness.  Government interventions in foreign exchange markets became a regular last resort option for many trading economies for their preserving export competitiveness and for resisting the effect of dollar hegemony on domestic living standards.

World trade under dollar hegemony is a game in which the US produces paper dollars and the rest of the world produce real things that paper dollars can buy. The world’s interlinked economies no longer trade to capture comparative advantage; they compete in exports to capture needed dollars to service dollar-denominated foreign debts and to accumulate dollar reserves to sustain the exchange value of their domestic currencies in foreign exchange markets. To prevent speculative and manipulative attacks on their currencies in deregulated markets, the world’s central banks must acquire and hold dollar reserves in corresponding amounts to market pressure on their currencies in circulation. The higher the market pressure to devalue a particular currency, the more dollar reserves its central bank must hold. This creates a built-in support for a strong dollar that in turn forces all central banks to acquire and hold more dollar reserves, making it stronger. This anomalous phenomenon is known as dollar hegemony, which is created by the geopolitically constructed peculiarity that critical commodities, most notably oil, are denominated in dollars. Everyone accepts dollars because dollars can buy oil. The denomination of oil in dollars and the recycling of petro-dollars is the price the US has extracted from oil-producing countries for US tolerance of the oil-exporting cartel since 1973.

By definition, dollar reserves must be invested in dollar-denominated assets, creating a capital-accounts surplus for the US economy. A strong-dollar policy is in the US national interest because it keeps US inflation low through low-cost imports and it makes US assets denominated in dollars expensive for foreign investors. This arrangement, which Federal Reserve Board chairman Alan Greenspan proudly calls US financial hegemony in congressional testimony, has kept the US economy booming in the face of recurrent financial crises in the rest of the world. It has distorted globalization into a “race to the bottom” process of exploiting the lowest labor costs and the highest environmental abuse worldwide to produce items and produce for export to US markets in a quest for the almighty dollar, which has not been backed by gold since 1971, nor by economic fundamentals for more than a decade. The adverse effects of this type of globalization on the developing economies are obvious. It robs them of the meager fruits of their exports and keeps their domestic economies starved for capital, as all surplus dollars must be reinvested in US treasuries to prevent the collapse of their own domestic currencies.

The adverse effect of this type of globalization on the US economy is also becoming clear. In order to act as consumer of last resort for the whole world, the US economy has been pushed into a debt bubble that thrives on conspicuous consumption and fraudulent accounting. The unsustainable and irrational rise of US equity and real estate prices, unsupported by revenue or profit, had merely been a de facto devaluation of the dollar. Ironically, the recent fall in US equity prices from its 2004 peak and the anticipated fall in real estate prices reflect a trend to an even stronger dollar, as it can buy more deflated shares and properties for the same amount of dollars. The rise in the purchasing power of the dollar inside the US impacts its purchasing power disparity with other currencies unevenly, causing sharp price instability in the economies with freely exchangeable currencies and fixed exchange rates, such as Hong Kong and until recently Argentina.  For the US, falling exchange rate of the dollar actually causes asset prices to rise. Thus with a debt bubble in the US economy, a strong dollar is not in the US national interest.  Debt has turned US policy on the dollar on its head.

The setting of exchange values of currencies is practiced not only by sovereign governments on their own currencies as a sovereign right.  The US, exploiting dollar hegemony, usurps the privilege of dictating the exchange value of all foreign currencies to support its own economic nationalism in the name of global free trade. And US position on exchange rates has not been consistent. When the dollar was rising, as it did in the 1980s, the US, to protect its export trade, hailed the stabilizing wisdom of fixed exchange rates.  When the dollar falls as it has been in recent years, the US, to deflect the blame of its trade deficit, attacks fixed exchange rates as currency manipulation, as it targets China’s currency now which has been pegged to the dollar for over a decade, since the dollar was lower. How can a nation manipulate the exchange value of its currency when it is pegged to the dollar at the same rate over long periods?  Any manipulation came from the dollar, not the yuan.

The recent rise of the euro against the dollar, the first appreciation wave since its introduction on January 1, 2002, is the result of an EU version of the 1985 Plaza Accord on the Japanese yen, albeit without a formal accord.  The strategic purpose is more than merely moderating the US trade deficit.  The record shows that even with the 30% drop of the dollar against the euro, the US trade deficit has continued to climb. The strategic purpose of driving up the euro is to reduce the euro to the status of the yen, as a subordinated currency to dollar hegemony.  The real effect of the Plaza Accord was to shift the cost of support for the dollar-denominated US trade deficit, and the socio-economic pain associated with that support, from the US to Japan. 

What is happening to the euro now is far from being the beginning of the demise of the dollar.  Rather, it is the beginning of the reduction of the euro into a subservient currency to the dollar to support the US debt bubble. Six and a half years since the launch of European Monetary Union, the eurozone is trapped in an environment in which monetary policy of sound money has in effect become destructive and supply-side fiscal policy unsustainable. National economies are beginning to refuse to bear the pain needed for adjustment to globalization or the EU’s ambitious enlargement.  The European nations are beginning to resist the US strategy to make the euro economy a captive supporter of a rising or falling dollar as such movements fit the shifting needs of US economic nationalism.

It is the modern-day monetary equivalent of the brilliant Roman strategy of making a dissident Jew a Christian god, to pre-empt Judaism’s rising cultural domination over Roman civilization. Roman law, the foundation of the Roman Empire, gained in sophistication from being influenced by if not directly derived from Jewish Talmudic law, particularly on the concept of equity - an eye for an eye.  The Jews had devised a legal system based on the dignity of the individual and equality before the law four century before Christ.  There was no written Roman law until two centuries B.C. The Roman law of obligatio was not conducive to finance as it held that all indebtedness was personal, without institutional status.  A creditor could not sell a note of indebtedness to another party and a debtor did not have to pay anyone except the original creditor. Talmudic law, on the other hand, recognized impersonal credit and a debt had to be paid to whoever presented the demand note. This was a key development of modern finance. With the Talmud, the Jews under the Diaspora had an international law that spans three continents and many cultures.<>

The Romans were faced with a dilemma. Secular Jewish ideas and values were permeating Roman society, but Judaism was an exclusive religion that the Romans were not permitted to join.  The Romans could not assimilate the Jews as they did the more civilized Greeks. Early Christianity also kept its exclusionary trait until Paul who opened Christianity to all.  Historian Edward Gibbon (1737-94) noted that the Rome recognized the Jews as a nation and as such were entitled to religious peculiarities.  The Christians on the other hand were a sect, and being without a nation, subverted other nations.  The Roman Jews were active in government and when not resisting Rome against social injustice, fought side by side with Roman legionnaires to preserve the empire.  Roman Jews were good Roman citizens.  By contrast, the early Christians were social dropouts, refused responsibility in government and civic affairs and were conscientious objectors and pacifists in a militant culture.  Gibbon noted that Rome felt that the crime of a Christian was not in what he did, but in being who he was. Christianity gained control of Roman culture and society long before Constantine who in 324 A.D. sanctioned it with political legitimacy and power after recognizing its power in helping to win wars against pagans, the way Pope Urban II in 1095 used the crusade to keep Papal temporal power longer.  When early Christianity, a secular Jewish dissident sect, began to move up from the lower strata of Roman society and began to find converts in the upper echelons, the Roman polity adopted Christianity, the least objectionable of all Jewish sects, as a state religion.  Gibbons estimated that Christians killed more of their own members over religious disputes in the three centuries after coming to secular power than did the Romans in three previous centuries.  Persecution of the Jews began in Christianized Rome.  The disdain held by early Christianity on centralized government gave rise to monasticism and contributed to the fall of the Roman Empire.

By allowing a trade surplus denominated in dollars to be accumulated by non-dollar economies, such as yen, euro, or now the Chinese yuan, the cost of supporting the appropriate value of the dollar to sustain perpetual economic growth in the dollar economy is then shifted to these non-dollar economies, which manifests themselves in perpetual relative low wages and weak domestic consumption.  For already high-wage EU and Japan, the penalty is the reduction of social welfare benefits and job security traditional to these economies. For China, now the world’s second largest creditor nation, it is reduced to having to ask the US, the world’s largest debtor nation, for capital denominated in dollars the US can print at will to finance its export trade to a US running recurring trade deficits.<>

The IMF, which has been ferocious in imposing draconian fiscal and monetary “conditionalities” on all debtor nations everywhere in the decade after the Cold War, is nowhere to be seen on the scene in the world’s most fragrantly irresponsible debtor nation.  This is because the US can print dollars at will and with immunity.  The dollar is a fiat currency not backed by gold, not backed by US productivity, not back by US export prowess, but by US military power.  The US military budget request for Fiscal Year 2005 is $420.7 billion. For Fiscal Year 2004, it was $399.1 billion; for 2003, $396.1 billion; for 2002, $343.2 billion and for 2001, $310 billion.  In the first term of the Bush presidency, the US spent $1.5 trillion on its military.  That is bigger than the entire GDP of China in 2004. The US trade deficit is around 6% of its GDP while it military budget is around 4%.  In other words, the trading partners of the US are paying for one and a half times of the cost of a military that can someday be used against any one of them for any number of reasons, including trade disputes.  The anti-dollar crowd has nothing to celebrate about the recurring US trade deficit.

It is pathetic that US Secretary of Defense Donald H Rumsfeld tries to persuade the world that China’s military budget, which is less that one tenth of that of the US, is a threat to Asia, even when he is forced to acknowledge that Chinese military modernization is mostly focused on defending its coastal territories, not on force projection for distant conflicts, as is US military doctrine.  While Rumsfeld urges more political freedom in China, his militant posture toward China is directly counterproductive towards that goal. Ironically, Rumsfeld chose to make his case about political freedom in Singapore, the bastion of Confucian authoritarianism.

Normally, according to free trade theory, trade can only stay unbalanced temporarily before equilibrium is re-established or free trade would simply stop. When bilateral trade is temporarily unbalanced, it is generally because one trade partner has become temporarily uncompetitive, inefficient or unproductive. The partner with the trade deficit receives more goods and services from the partner with the trade surplus than it can offer in return and thus pays the difference with its currency that someday can buy foods produced by the deficit trade partner to re-established balance of payments.  This temporary trade imbalance is due to a number of socio-economic factors, such as terms of trade, wage levels, return on investment, regulatory regimes, shortages in labor or material or energy, trade-supporting infrastructure adequacy, purchasing power disparity, etc.  A trading partner that runs a recurring trade deficit earns the reputation of being what banks call a habitual borrower, i.e. a bad credit risk, one who habitually lives beyond his/her means. If the trade deficit is paid with its currency, a downward pressure results in the exchange rate. A flexible exchange rate seeks to remove or moderate a temporary trade imbalance while the productivity disparities between trading partners are being addressed fundamentally.

Dollar hegemony prevents US trade imbalance from returning to equilibrium through market forces. It allows a US trade deficit to persist based on monetary prowess. This translates over time into a falling exchange rate for the dollar even as dollar hegemony keeps the fall at a slow pace. But a below-par exchange rate over a long period can run the risk of turning the temporary imbalance in productivity into a permanent one.  A continuously weakening currency condemns the issuing economy into a downward economic spiral. This has happened to the US in the last decade. To make matters worse, with globalization of deregulated markets, the recurring US trade deficit is accompanied by an escalating loss of jobs in sectors sensitive to cross-border wage arbitrage, with the job-loss escalation climbing up the skill ladder.  Discriminatory US immigration policies also prevent the retention of low-paying jobs within the US and exacerbate the illegal immigration problem.

Regional wage arbitrage within the US in past decades kept the US economy lean and productive internationally.  Labor-intensive US industries relocated to the low-wage South through regional wage arbitrage and despite temporary adjustment pains from the loss of textile mills, the Northern economies managed to upgrade their productivity, technology level, financial sophistication and output quality. The Southern economies in the US also managed to upgrade these factors of production and in time managed to narrow the wage disparity within the national economy. This happened because the jobs stay within the nation. With globalization, it is another story.  Jobs are leaving the nation mercilessly. According to free trade theory, the US trade deficit is supposed to cause the dollar to fall temporarily against the currencies of its trading partners, causing export competitiveness to rebalance to remove or reduce the US trade deficit or face the collapse of its currency.  Either case, jobs that have been lost temporarily are then supposed to return to the US.

But the persistent US trade deficit defies trade theory because of dollar hegemony. The current international finance architecture is based on dollar hegemony which is the peculiar arrangement in which the US dollar, a fiat currency, remains as the dominant reserve currency for international trade. The broad trade-weighted dollar index stays in an upward trend, despite selective appreciation of some strong currencies, as highly-indebted emerging market economies attempt to extricate themselves from dollar-denominated debt through the devaluation of their currencies. While the aim is to subsidize exports, it ironically makes dollar debts more expensive in local currency terms. The moderating impact on US price inflation also amplifies the upward trend of the trade-weighted dollar index despite persistent US expansion of monetary aggregates, also known as monetary easing or money printing.

Adjusting for this debt-driven increase in the exchange value of dollars, the import volume into the US can be estimated in relationship to expanding monetary aggregates. The annual growth of the volume of goods shipped to the US has remained around 15% for most of the 1990s, more than 5 times the average annual GDP growth. The US enjoyed a booming economy when the dollar was gaining ground, and this occurred at a time when interest rates in the US were higher than those in its creditor nations. This led to the odd effect that raising US interest rates actually prolonged the boom in the US rather than threatened it, because it caused massive inflows of liquidity into the US financial system, lowered import price inflation, increased apparent productivity and prompted further spending by US consumers enriched by the wealth effect despite a slowing of wage increases.  Returns on dollar assets stayed high in foreign currency terms.

This was precisely what Federal Reserve Board chairman Alan Greenspan did in the 1990s in the name of pre-emptive measures against inflation. Dollar hegemony enabled the US to print money to fight inflation, causing a debt bubble of asset appreciation. This data substantiated the view of the US as Rome in a New Roman Empire with an unending stream of imports as the free tribune from conquered lands. This was what Greenspan meant by US “financial hegemony.”

The Fed Funds rate (ffr) target has been lifted eight times in steps of 25 basis points from 1% in mid 2004 to 3% on May 3, 2005.  If the same pattern of “measured pace” continues, the ffr target would be at 4.25% by the end of 2005. Despite Fed rhetoric, the lifting of dollar interest rate has more to do with preventing foreign central banks from selling dollar-denominated assets, such as US Treasuries, than with fighting inflation.  In a debt-driven economy, high interest rates are themselves inflationary.  Rising interest rate to fight inflation could become the monetary dog chasing its own interest rate tail, with rising rate adding to rising inflation which then requires more interest rate hikes. Still, interest rate policy is a double edged sword: it keeps funds from leaving the debt bubble, but it can also puncture the debt bubble by making the servicing of debt prohibitively expensive.

To prevent this last adverse effect, the Fed adds to the money supply, creating an unnatural condition of abundant liquidity with rising short-term interest rate, resulting in a narrowing of interest spread between short-term and long-term debts, a leading indication for inevitable recession down the road.  The problem of adding to the money supply is what Keynes called the liquidity trap, that is, an absolute preference for liquidity even at near zero interest-rate levels. Keynes argued that either a liquidity trap or interest-insensitive investment draught could render monetary expansion ineffective in a recession. It is what is popularly called pushing on a credit string, where ample money cannot find credit-worthy willing borrowers.  Much of the new low cost money tends to go to refinancing of existing debt take out at previously higher interest rates. Rising short-term interest rates, particularly at a measured pace, would not remove the liquidity trap when long term rates stay flat because of excess liguidity.

The debt bubble in the US is clearly having problems, as evident in the bond market. With just 14 deals worth $2.9 billion, May 2005 was the slowest month for high-yield bond issuance since October 2002. The late-April downgrades of the debt of General Motors and Ford Motor to junk status roiled the bond markets. The number of high-yield, or junk bond deals fell 55% in the March-to-May 2005 period, compared with the same three months in 2004. They were also down 45% from the December-through-February period. In dollar value, junk bond deals totaled $17.6 billion in the March-to-May 2005 period, compared with $39.5 billion during the same three months in 2004 and $36 billion from December through February 2005.  There were 407 deals of investment-grade bond underwriting during the March-to-May 2005 period, compared with 522 in the same period 2004 - a decline of 22%. In dollar volume, some $153.9 billion of high-grade bonds were underwritten from March to May 2005, compared with $165.5 billion in the same period in 2004 - a 7% decline. Oil at $50, along with astronomical asset price appreciation, particularly in real estate, is giving the debt bubble additional borrowed time. But this game cannot go on forever and the end will likely be triggered by a new trade war’s effect on reduced trade volume.  The price of a reduced US trade deficit is the bursting of the US debt bubble which can plunge the world economy into a new depression.  Given such options, the US has no choice except to ride the trade deficit train for as long as the traffic will bear, which may not be too long, particularly if protectionism begins to gather force. 

The transition to offshore outsourced production has been the source of the productivity boom of the “New Economy” in the US in the last decade. The productivity increase not attributable to the importing of other nations’ productivity is much less impressive. While published government figures of the productivity index show a rise of nearly 70% since 1974, the actual rise is between zero and 10% in many sectors if the effect of imports is removed from the equation. The lower productivity values are consistent with the real-life experience of members of the blue-collar working class and the white collar middle class who have been spending the equity cash-outs from the appreciated market value of their homes. World trade has become a network of cross-border arbitrage on differentials in labor availability, wages, interest rates, exchange rates, prices, saving rates, productive capacities, liquidity conditions and debt levels. In some of these areas, the US is becoming an underdeveloped economy.

The Bush Administration continues to assure the public that the state of the economy is sound while in reality the US has been losing entire sectors of its economy, such as manufacturing and information technology, to foreign producers, while at the same time selling off the part of the nation to finance its rising and unending trade deficit. Usually, when unjustified confidence crosses over to fantasized hubris on the part of policymakers, disaster is not far ahead.

To be fair, the problems of the US economy started before the second Bush Administration. The Clinton Administration’s annual economic report for 2000 claimed that the longest economic expansion in US history could continue “indefinitely” as long as “we stick to sound policy”, according to Chairman Martin Baily of the Council of Economic Advisors (CEA) as reported in the Wall Street Journal.  The New York Times report differed somewhat by quoting Baily as saying: “stick to fiscal policy.”  Putting the two newspaper reports together, one got the sense that the Clinton Administration thought that its fiscal policy was the sound policy needed to put an end to the business cycle. Economics high priests in government, unlike the rest of us mortals who are unfortunate enough to have to float in the daily turbulence of the market, can afford to aloofly focus on long-term trends and their structural congruence to macro-economic theories. Yet, outside of macro-economics, long-term is increasingly being re-defined in the real world.  In the technology and communication sectors, long-term evokes periods lasting less than 5 years.  For hedge funds and quant shops, long-term can mean a matter of weeks.

Two factors were identified by the Clinton CEA Year 2000 economic report as contributing to the “good” news:  technology-driven productivity and neo-liberal trade globalization. Even with somewhat slower productivity and spending growth, the CEA believed the economy could continue to expand perpetually. As for the huge and growing trade deficit, the CEA expected global recovery to boost demand for US exports, not withstanding the fact that most US exports are increasingly composed of imported parts. Yet the US has long officially pursued a strong dollar policy which weakens world demand for US exports. The high expectation on e-commerce was a big part of optimism, which had yet to be substantiated by data. In 2000, the CEA expected the business to business (B2B) portion of e-commerce to rise to $1.3 trillion by 2003 from $43 billion in 1998. Goldman Sachs claimed in 1999 that B2B e-commerce would reach $1.5 trillion by 2004, twice the size of the combined 1998 revenues of the US auto industry and the US telecom sector.  Others were more cautious. Jupiter Research projected that companies around the globe would increase their spending on B2B e-marketplaces from US$2.6 billion in 2000 to only $137.2 billion by 2005 and spending in North America alone would grow from $2.1 billion to only $80.9 billion. North American companies accounted for 81% of the total spending in 1998, but by 2005, that figure was expected to drop to 60% of the total. The fact of the matter is that Asia and Europe are now faster growth market for communication and technology.

Reality proved disappointing. A 2004 UN Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) report said: In the United States, e-commerce between enterprises (B2B), which in 2002 represented almost 93% of all e-commerce, accounted for 16.28% of all commercial transactions between enterprises. While overall transactions between enterprises (e-commerce and non e-commerce) fell in 2002, e-commerce B2B grew at an annual rate of 6.1%.  As for business-to-consumer (B2C) e-commerce, UNCTAD reported that sales in the first quarter of 2004 amounted to 1.9 per cent of total retail sales, a proportion that is nearly twice as large as that recorded in 2001. The annual rate of growth of retail e-commerce in the US in the year to the end of the first quarter of 2004 was 28.1%, while the growth of total retail in the same period was only 8.8%.  Dow Jones reported on May 20, 2005  that first-quarter retail e-commerce sales in the U.S. rose 23.8% compared with the year-ago period to $19.8 billion from $16 billion, according to preliminary numbers released by the Department of Commerce. E-commerce sales during the first quarter rose 6.4% from the fourth quarter, when they were $18.6 billion. Sales for all periods are on an adjusted basis, meaning the Commerce Department adjusts them for seasonal variations and holiday and trading-day differences but not for price changes.

E-commerce sales accounted for 2.2% of total retail sales in the first quarter of 2005, when those sales were an estimated $916.9 billion, according to the Commerce Department. Walmart, the low-priced retailer that imports outsourced goods from overseas, grew only 2%, indicating spending fatigue on the part of low-income US consumers, while Target Stores, the upscale retailer that also imports outsourced goods, continues to grow at 7%, indicating the effects of rising income disparity.

The CEA 2000 report did not address the question whether e-commerce was merely a shift of commerce or a real growth.  The possibility exists for the new technology to generate negative growth.  It happened to IBM – the increased efficiency (lower unit cost of calculation power) of IBM big frames actually reduced overall IBM sales, and most of the profit and growth in personal computers went to Microsoft, the software company that grew on business that IBM, a self-professed hardware manufacturer, did not consider worthy of keeping for itself. The same thing happened to Intel where Moore’s Law declared in 1965 an exponential growth in the number of transistors per integrated circuit and predicted that this trend would continue the doubling of transistors every couple of years.  But what Moore’s Law did not predict was that this growth of computing power per dollar would cut into company profitability. As the market price of computer power continues to fall, the cost to producers to achieve Moore’s Law has followed the opposite trend: R&D, manufacturing, and test costs have increased steadily with each new generation of chips. As the fixed cost of semiconductor production continues to increase, manufacturers must sell larger and larger quantities of chips to remain profitable. In recent years, analysts have observed a decline in the number of “design starts” at advanced process nodes. While these observations were made in the period after the year 2000 economic downturn, the decline may be evidence that the long-term global market cannot economically sustain Moore’s Law.  Is the Google Bubble a replay of the AOL fiasco?

Schumpeter’s creative destruction theory, while revitalizing the macro-economy with technological obsolescence in the long run, leaves real corporate bodies in its path, not just obsolete theoretical concepts.  Financial intermediaries and stock exchanges face challenges from Electronic Communication Networks (ECNs) which may well turn the likes of NYSE into sunset industries.  ECNs are electronic marketplaces which bring buy/sell orders together and match them in virtual space. Today, ECNs handle roughly 25% of the volume in NASDAQ stocks.  The NYSE and the Archipelago Exchange (ArcaEx) announced on April 20, 2005 that they have entered a definitive merger agreement that will lead to a combined entity, NYSE Group, Inc., becoming a publicly-held company.  If approved by regulators, NYSE members and Archipelago shareholders, the merger will represent the largest-ever among securities exchanges and combine the world’s leading equities market with the most successful totally open, fully electronic exchange. Through Archipelago, the NYSE will compete for the first time in the trading of NASDAQ-listed stocks; it will be able to indirectly capture listings business that otherwise would not qualify to list on the NYSE. Archipelago lists stocks of companies that do not meet the NYSE’s listing standards.

On fiscal policy, US government spending, including social programs and defense, declined as a share of the economy during the eight years of the Clinton watch.  This in no small way contributed to a polarization of both income and wealth, with visible distortions in both the demand and supply sides of the economy.  This was the opposite of the FDR record of increasing income and wealth equality by policy. The wealth effect tied to bloated equity and real estate markets could reverse suddenly and did in 2000, bailed out only by the Bush tax cut and the deficit spending on the War on Terrorism after 2001.  Private debt kept making all time highs throughout the 1990s and was celebrated by neo-liberal economists as a positive factor.  Household spending was heavily based on expected rising future earnings or paper profits, both of which might and did vanished on short notice.  By election time in November 1999, the Clinton economic miracle was fizzling.  The business cycle had not ended after all, and certainly not by self-aggrandizing government policies.  It merely got postponed for a more severe crash later.  The idea of ending the business cycle in a market economy was as much a fantasy as Vice President Cheney’s assertion in a speech before the Veterans of Foreign Wars in August 26, 2002 that “the Middle East expert Professor Fouad Ajami predicts that after liberation, the streets in Basra and Baghdad are sure to erupt in joy ….”

In their 1991 populist campaign for the White House, Bill Clinton and Al Gore repeatedly pointed out the obscenity of the top 1% of Americans owning 40% of the country’s wealth. They also said that if you eliminated home ownership and only counted businesses, factories and offices, then the top 1% owned 90% of all commercial wealth. And the top 10%, they said, owned 99%. It was a situation they pledged to change if elected. But once in office, Clinton and Gore did nothing to redistribute wealth more equally - despite the fact that their two terms in office spanned the economic joyride of the 1990s that would eventually hurt the poor much more severely than the rich. On the contrary, economic inequality only continued to grow under the Democrats.  Reagan spread the national debt equally among the people while Clinton gave all the wealth to the rich.

Geopolitically, trade globalization was beginning to face complex resistance worldwide by the second term of the Clinton presidency.  The momentum of resistance after Clinton would either slow further globalization or force the terms of trade to be revised. The Asian financial crises of 1997 revived economic nationalism around the world against US-led neo-liberal globalization, while the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) attack on Yugoslavia in 1999 revived militarism in the EU. Market fundamentalism as espoused by the US, far from being a valid science universally, was increasingly viewed by the rest of the world as merely US national ideology, unsupported even by US historical conditions. Just as anti-Napoleonic internationalism was essentially anti-French, anti-globalization and anti-moral-imperialism are essentially anti-US. US unilateralism and exceptionism became the midwife for a new revival of political and economic nationalism everywhere. The Bush Doctrine of monopolistic nuclear posture, pre-emptive wars, “either with us or against us” extremism, and no compromise with states that allegedly support terrorism, pours gasoline on the smoldering fire of defensive nationalism everywhere.

Alan Greenspan in his October 29, 1997 Congressional testimony on Turbulence in World Financial Markets before the Joint Economic Committee said that “it is quite conceivable that a few years hence we will look back at this episode [Asian financial crisis of 1997]…. as a salutary event in terms of its implications for the macro-economy.”  When one is focused only on the big picture, details do not make much of a difference: the earth always appears more or less round from space, despite that some people on it spend their whole lives starving and cities get destroyed by war or natural disasters. That is the problem with macroeconomics.  As Greenspan spoke, many around the world were waking up to the realization that the turbulence in their own financial markets was viewed by the US central banker as having a “salutary effect” on the US macro-economy.  Greenspan gave anti-US sentiments and monetary trade protectionism held by participants in these financial markets a solid basis and they were no longer accused of being mere paranoia.

Ironically, after the end of the Cold War, market capitalism has emerged as the most fervent force for revolutionary change.  Finance capitalism became inherently democratic once the bulk of capital began to come from the pension assets of workers, despite widening income and wealth disparity. The monetary value of US pension funds is over $15 trillion, the bulk of which belong to average workers. A new form of social capitalism has emerged which would gladly eliminate the worker’s job in order to give him/her a higher return on his/her pension account. The capitalist in the individual is exploiting the worker in same individual. A conflict of interest arises between a worker’s savings and his/her earnings. As Pogo used to say: “The enemy: they are us.”  This social capitalism, by favoring return on capital over compensation for labor, produces overinvestment, resulting in overcapacity. But the problem of overcapacity can only be solved by high income consumers. Unemployment and underemployment in an economy of overcapacity decrease demand, leading to financial collapse. The world economy needs low wages the way the cattle business need foot and mouth disease.

The nomenclature of neo-classical economics reflects, and in turn dictates, the warped logic of the economic system it produces. Terms such as money, capital, labor, debt, interest, profits, employment, market, etc, have been conceptualized to describe synthetic components of an artificial material system created by the power politics of greed. It is the capitalist greed in the worker that causes the loss of his/her job to lower wage earners overseas. The concept of the economic man who presumably always acts in his self-interest is a gross abstraction based on the flawed assumption of market participants acting with perfect and equal information and clear understanding of the implication of his actions. The pervasive use of these terms over time disguises the artificial system as the logical product of natural laws, rather than the conceptual components of the power politics of greed.

Just as monarchism first emerged as a progressive force against feudalism by rationalizing itself as a natural law of politics and eventually brought about its own demise by betraying its progressive mandate, social capitalism today places return on capital above not only the worker but also the welfare of the owner of capital. The class struggle has been internalized within each worker. As people facing the hard choice of survival in the present versus wellbeing in the future, they will always choose survival, social capitalism will inevitably go the way of absolute monarchism, and make way for humanist socialism.

Next: Dollar hegemony as monopolistic tariff