The first hard data release of the month for China was hardly guaranteed to reassure. Two-way trade in USD terms dropped 6.3% in the first quarter from its level of a year ago, the second most severe setback since the Crash and only the third such instance in the whole era of ‘Opening Up’.
Between Li Keqiang, Mario Draghi, and the BLS, markets everywhere had a wild ride into the weekend.
Starting east and working west, the upshot of the Chinese ‘Twin Sessions’ was a perseverance with the so-called ‘New Normal’ theme – namely, with the idea that headline, GDP-style growth should be lower in future with the emphasis shifting from brute volume to the encouragement of a shift in the productive structure towards the provision of higher-value added, more technology-rich goods, towards service in place of smokestacks, aall the better to spread the benefits of industrialization to the domestic populace.
Taken over a forty year history, US gasoline is trading in its 3rd percentile – 1.8 sigmas from the mean – when expressed as a ratio of the price of heating oil. In seasonal terms, this makes sense as the winter draw for space heating coincides with the consumption lull in (discretionary) road transport and the anticipatory change of emphasis by the refiners. Given the severe weather being endured Stateside these past several weeks, it should surprise no-one to learn that stocks of heat are more than 8% below the mean for thetime of year, while those for mogas are 4.3% above that norm. Hence the wider price differential.
More than half a century ago, in his role as an advisor to the men responsible for trying to set Taiwan on the road to prosperity, a redoubtable economist called Sho-Chie Tsiang argued that the monetary authorities should stop suppressing interest rates and directly rationing credit and should move instead toward a more market-oriented system where real rates were sufficiently elevated to encourage productive saving.
His reasoning was that the existing combination of what we might call Z(Real)IRP with ‘macro-prudential’ control was plagued with several significant drawbacks.
In his magisterial 1936 work, ‘A World in Debt‘, Freeman Tilden treated the business of contracting a loan with a heavy serving of well-deserved irony, describing how the debtor gradually mutates from a man thankful, at the instant of receiving the funds, for having found such a wise philanthropist as is his lender to one soon becoming a little anxious that the time for renewal is fast approaching. From there, he turns to the comfort of self-justification, undertaking a little mental debt-to-equity conversion in persuading himself that his soon-to-be disappointed creditor was, after all, in the way of a partner in their joint undertaking and so consciously accepted a share of the associated risks.
Still struggling to move from its ‘Three Overlay’ period – essentially the indigestion added by the post-GFC ‘stimulus’ burst to the already unbalanced economic structure – to its vaunted ‘New Normal’ – slower headline growth but growth of much higher quality, to be concentrated not in building steel mills, metal smelters, and dormitory towns just for the sake of it but on high-tech and clean energy and all sorts of other touchy-feely, Googleworld concepts – China nonetheless managed to eke out a face saving final quarter GDP number of 7.4% yoy and an industrial production uptick to 7.9%.
Somewhat lost in the excitement over the ongoing plunge in the oil price, the tepid endorsement given at the low turn-out election to Shinzo Abe’s sacrifice of the pensioner to the property speculator, and the susurration of rumours that Draghi will soon admit that he has suffered the heaviest defeat suffered by a Roman at the hands of his northern tormentors since Varus lost three whole legions in the Teutoburger Wald, before scuttling back to take up his dream job in the Quirinale, the Chinese have been holding their agenda-setting Central Economic Work Conference.