Opinion

The Great Debate

What the shipping market tells us about the air freight and export market

An interesting contrast is shaping up in global trade, where some indicators of the movement of raw materials are crashing even as exports from China and air traffic continue to show outstanding strength.

Depending on your reading of the data you could decide that the threat of a double-dip recession is overblown or, perhaps more simply, not a threat but a promise.

First, the good news, at least if you are exposed to Chinese exporters. China said last week that export sales rose a stunning 43.9 percent in June from the year before, taking the trade surplus to $20 billion, its highest in eight months.

Exports to the European Union and the U.S. both rose by 40 percent in the month, somewhat confounding concerns about Europe’s woes and the ongoing effects of a weak and jobless recovery in America.

Exports to faster-growing emerging markets were even stronger: up 84 percent to Russia and 59 percent to India.

Stress tests and cargo cults

How are European officials orchestrating the bank stress tests like Pacific islanders speaking into coconuts and waiting for cargo to drop from the skies?

They both make the elemental error at the heart of all cargo cults; they mistake necessity for sufficiency and hope that imitation and affect will make up for a lack of substance.

Most often associated with the south Pacific after World War II, cargo cults are religions whose practitioners try to use magic to produce the results of more powerful technologically sophisticated cultures.

In praise of default

Join us for a live chat today at 1 p.m. ET with James, who will be taking questions about his piece.

Call me a default-ista.

For a huge number of borrowers, be they U.S. homeowners or the sovereign nation of Greece, a default or radical rescheduling of debt might just be the best, most practicable option.

More to the point, default in many of these situations may be not just in the best interests of the debtor but of the economy as a whole.

Inflation or Deflation, why settle for just one?

If you are trying to decide whether to fret about inflation or deflation, don’t bother: you may just get both.

Yes, in the spirit of these austere times, it is a two for one offer; deflation comes first, followed by an almighty inflation after central banks press the “go nuclear” button on the quantitative easing machine.

It seems clear that, at least in the near term, the stars are aligned for deflation. Rather than lancing a massive debt bubble, policy-makers have added to it and the intense pressure to clean balance sheets has spread from corporations and households to nations.

The $5 trillion rollover

Banks around the world must refinance more than $5 trillion of debts in the coming three years, a massive rollover that poses threats to financial stability and growth.

The need to replace these debts, which are medium and long term, will place pressure on bank profit spreads and in turn may either prompt deleveraging, where banks sell assets that they can no longer economically finance, or simply lead to a bout of credit rationing, where borrowers must pay more to borrow, thus crimping investment and economic growth.

For banks in the UK, according to the Bank of England Financial Stability Report, the refinancings amount to about $1.2 trillion by the end of 2012.

China move like history in slow-motion

Asked about 175 years after the fact what he made of the French Revolution, Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai is said to have thought for a moment and concluded: “It is too soon to tell.”

Tell a U.S Congressman up for reelection or an unemployed auto parts worker in Ohio the same thing about China’s new policy to give the yuan more latitude in how it trades against the dollar and, once you’ve picked yourself up off the ground, you’ll have a different answer.

China on Saturday said it would end the yuan’s currency peg to the dollar, allowing it to trade more freely. It also made clear that no big move was forthcoming, preparing the way instead for “gradual” appreciation.

Euro woes increase risk of trade wars

Europe won’t just be exporting deflation to the rest of the world, it will export serious trade tensions as well: first between the United States and China, and, possibly, eventually between Europe and the United States.

The austerity required to get Greece and other weak euro zone nations’ budgets in shape will exert a powerful deflationary force, as many countries which formerly imported more than they exported will be forced to cut back.

As well, the euro has dropped very sharply. Germany’s quixotic campaign against speculators — banning naked short selling against government debt and government credit default swaps — gave the euro its latest shove downward, but the trend has been strong for months. The euro is now about 15 percent below where it started the year against the dollar, making U.S. exports less competitive and adding to pressure on the United States to be the world’s foie gras goose: being force-fed everyone else’s exports while its own unemployment rate remains high.

Dollar favorite in glue factory derby

The dollar may hang by the slender thread of the U.S. recovery, but this is probably enough to make it the major currency of choice.

It is not so much that the dollar is strong, but that the case for its major peers — the euro, pound and yen — is so weak.

The euro zone faces tremendous pressure; Greece may, just, have been rescued, but it, along with Portugal, Spain, Ireland and Italy are unleashing powerful deflationary forces making quantitative easing by the European Central Bank a real possibility. Further contagion within the euro zone is also a  strong possibility, meaning market risk will compound fundamental risk.

Eerie calm before Britain’s election

To look at sterling and gilts, you would hardly know that Britain is sailing into a general election which will likely deliver a weaker government with a diminished ability, if not will, to grapple with high debts, an uncertain role in the global economy and an aging population.

It is impossible to say what will be the result on Thursday, nor what deals may be made between the surging Liberal Democrats, a bedraggled Labour party which will still have a significant wodge of votes and the Conservatives, who must be both hoping that their hour has arrived and that that hour does not prove to be Monday morning at 8 a.m., pouring with rain and all the trains are late.

There is a huge range of scenarios — a weak minority or majority government or a coalition of some form — but the common denominator across almost all likely outcomes is that all raise the risk of a weak government unable or unwilling to push through aggressive deficit-reduction measures.

Europe shambles as Greek fire spreads

Europe desperately needs to get out in front of its solvency problem, Greek edition; not because it is right, not even because it will work in the long term, but to stem rapid and costly contagion through financial markets to other weak links in the euro zone, not least to banks.

Whether euro zone institutions will have the agility and resolve to quickly put in place out-sized measures for Greece is doubtful.

That Greece on Wednesday was paying more than 20 percent, or about double the rate of Hugo Chavez’s Venezuela, to borrow money for two years showed that investors were expecting either a default or very large burden sharing by existing creditors, and possibly a, by definition, disorderly exit from the euro by Greece. Spain joined the list of sovereign downgrades, as Standard & Poor’s cut its rating a notch to AA, a day after the debt rating agency slashed Greece to junk status and cut Portugal to AA.

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