Gavekal on Russia and Japan
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I look at dozens of sources a day on global macroeconomics, but one source I go to every day is my good friends at Gavekal. The Gavekal partnership – father Charles Gave, son Louis-Vincent Gave, and noted economist and journalist Anatole Kaletsky – spans three continents: Charles is based in Paris, Anatole is in London, Louis has set up shop in Hong Kong, and the firm also has an office in the US. And they have an extensive team of outstanding analysts.

Gavekal’s publishes global macro articles for its clients on an almost daily basis, and for today’s Outside the Box they have allowed me to share two of them with you. First, Louis Gave gives us a very insightful analysis of Russia’s permanent interests and makes a very interesting case connecting Middle East oil and Crimea.

The author of the second piece is Gavekal Asia Research Director Joyce Poon, who has been rising on my must-read list because she consistently thinks differently and more deeply than most conventional analysts. Her analysis here on Japan is very intriguing, convincing, and counterintuitive to standard economic theory. But, you’ll note, the end result is to still short the yen.

Incidentally, Anatole Kaletsky will speak at our Strategic Investment Conference this year, as he has for the past several years. This is a must-attend conference.

There has been a great response to the exclusive-to-Mauldin-Economics video interview by Jim Bruce of Janet Yellen when she was the president of the San Francisco Fed. He interviewed her in the course of producing the gonzo documentary on the Federal Reserve, Money for Nothing. The original interview was quite wide-ranging – over two hours – and Jim has edited the interview to just over 10 minutes of the most pertinent and interesting pieces segments. Given that today is the day Yellen chairs her first Fed meeting, I think it might be interesting to see what her views are on the role of the Federal Reserve.

What's fascinating to me are the risks inherent in so many of her beliefs:

  • That the Fed can reduce “the pain that people feel when they want to have jobs” by stimulating financial markets with ultra-low rates
  • That the Fed will be able to control inflation no matter how profligate Washington gets
  • That the Fed wasn't irresponsible in deliberately fueling the housing bubble, and shouldn't raise rates to puncture a bubble because it might impact the economy.  

These are the views that are going to be driving Fed policy and shaping the monetary environment in which we all invest. I think it’s worth your time to consider. You can watch the interview here.

As you receive this I am on a plane to Buenos Aires, where I will spend the day before flying on to Salta and then driving three hours up through a beautiful canyon to Cafayate. Sometime early in the week I will make a 4- to 5-hour trek over the roughest terrain I’ve ever driven on, back to see my old friend Bill Bonner at his hacienda at 10,000 feet in the Andes. He retreats there for two months every year, where he continues to write and pursue his avocation of building things with his own hands. In theory there is internet, but in practice I was completely cut off for a few days when I was there last year. Withdrawal was acute, but I survived. I might even need to stay a few days longer with just my books to see if the reflexive tics go away.

As soon as I get back to the resort at La Estancia, I will once again be connected to the world and will be able to write my weekly letter as usual. With everything happening so fast these days, it almost seems like I should be writing to you three times a week. But that is why we have the other writers like Grant Williams and our Outside the Box contributors to supplement my humble weekly missives.

Have a great week, and follow me on Twitter as I try to post from Argentina and from South Africa in a few weeks.

Your getting ready to feast at almost daily asados analyst,

John Mauldin, Editor
Outside the Box

subscribers@mauldineconomics.com

 

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Russia’s Permanent Interests

By Louis-Vincent Gave

Nineteenth century statesman Lord Palmerston famously said that “nations have no permanent friends or allies, they only have permanent interests.” As anyone who has ever opened a history book knows, Russia’s permanent interest has always been access to warm-water seaports. So perhaps we can just reduce the current showdown over Crimea to this very simple truth: there is no way Russia will ever let go of Sevastopol again. And aside from the historical importance of Crimea (Russia did fight France, England and Turkey 160 years ago to claim its stake on the Crimean peninsula), there are two potential reasons for Russia to risk everything in order to hold on to a warm seaport. Let us call the first explanation “reasoned paranoia,” the other “devilish Machiavellianism.”

Reasoned paranoia

Put yourself in Russian shoes for a brief instant: over the past two centuries, Russia has had to fight back invasions from France (led by Napoleon in 1812), an alliance including France, England and Turkey (Crimean War in the 1850s), and Germany in both world wars. Why does this matter? Because when one looks at a map of the world today, there really is only one empire that continues to gobble up territory all along its borders, insists on a common set of values with little discussion (removal of death penalty, acceptance of alternative lifestyles and multi- culturalism...), centralizes economic and political decisions away from local populations, etc. And that empire may be based in Brussels, but it is fundamentally run by Germans and Frenchmen (Belgians have a hard enough time running their own country). More importantly, that empire is coming ever closer to Russia’s borders.

Of course, the European Union’s enlargement on its own could be presented as primarily an economic enterprise, designed mainly to raise living standards in central and eastern Europe, and even to increase the potential of Russia’s neighbors as trading partners. However, this is not how most of the EU leaders themselves view the exercise; instead the EU project is defined as being first political, then economic. Worse yet in Russian eyes, the combination of the EU and NATO expansion, which is what we have broadly seen (with US recently sending fighter jets to Poland and a Baltic state) is a very different proposition, for there is nothing economic about NATO enlargement!

For Russia, how can the EU-NATO continuous eastward expansion not be seen as an unstoppable politico-military juggernaut, advancing relentlessly towards Russia’s borders and swallowing up all intervening countries, with the unique and critical exception of Russia itself? From Moscow, this eastward expansion can become hard to distinguish from previous encroachments by French and German leaders whose intentions may have been less benign than those of the present Western leaders, but whose supposedly “civilizing” missions were just as strong. Throw on top of that the debate/bashing of Russia over gay rights, the less than favorable coverage of its very expensive Olympic party, the glorification in the Western media of Pussy Riot, the confiscation of Russian assets in Cyprus ... and one can see why Russia may feel a little paranoid today when it comes to the EU. The Russians can probably relate to Joseph Heller’s line from Catch-22: “Just because you're paranoid doesn't mean they aren't after you.”

Devilish Machiavellianism

Moving away from Russia’s paranoia and returning to Russia’s permanent interests, we should probably remind ourselves of the following when looking at recent developments: 1) Vladimir Putin is an ex-KGB officer and deeply nationalistic, 2) Putin is very aware of Russia’s long-term interests, 3) when the oil price is high, Russia is strong; when the oil price is weak, Russia is weak.

It is perhaps this latter point that matters the most for, away from newspapers headlines and the daily grind of most of our readers, World War IV has already started in earnest (if we assume that the Cold War was World War III). And the reason few of us have noticed that World War IV has started is that this war pits the Sunnis against the Shias, and most of our readers are neither. Of course, the reason we should care (beyond the harrowing tales of human suffering coming in the conflicted areas), and the reason that Russia has a particular bone in this fight, is obvious enough: oil.

Indeed, in the Sunni-Shia fight that we see today in Syria, Lebanon, Iraq and elsewhere, the Sunnis control the purse strings (thanks mostly to the Saudi and Kuwaiti oil fields) while the Shias control the population. And this is where things get potentially interesting for Russia. Indeed, a quick look at a map of the Middle East shows that a) the Saudi oil fields are sitting primarily in areas populated by the minority Shias, who have seen very little, if any, of the benefits of the exploitation of oil and b) the same can be said of Bahrain, where the population is majority Shia.

Now of course, Iran has for decades tried to infiltrate/destabilize Shia Bahrain and the Shia parts of Saudi Arabia, though so far, the Saudis (thanks in part to US military technology) have done a very decent job of holding their own backyard. But could this change over the coming years? Could the civil war currently tearing apart large sections of the Middle East get worse?

At the very least, Putin has to plan for such a possibility which, let’s face it, would very much play to Russia’s long-term interests. Indeed, a greater clash between Iran and Saudi Arabia would probably see oil rise to US$200/barrel. Europe, as well as China and Japan, would become even more dependent on Russian energy exports. In both financial terms and geo-political terms, this would be a terrific outcome for Russia.

It would be such a good outcome that the temptation to keep things going (through weapon sales) would be overwhelming. This is all the more so since the Sunnis in the Middle East have really been no friends to the Russians, financing the rebellions in Chechnya, Dagestan, etc. So having the opportunity to say “payback’s a bitch” must be tempting for Putin who, from Assad to the Iranians, is clearly throwing Russia’s lot in with the Shias. Of course, for Russia to be relevant, and hope to influence the Sunni-Shia conflict, Russia needs to have the ability to sell, and deliver weapons. And for that, one needs ships and a port. Ergo, the importance of Sevastopol, and the importance of Russia’s Syrian port (Tartus, sitting pretty much across from Cyprus).

The questions raised

The above brings us to the current Western perception of the Ukrainian crisis. Most of the people we speak to see the crisis as troublesome because it may lead to restlessness amongst the Russian minorities scattered across Eastern Europe and Central Asia, and tempt further border encroachments across a region that remains highly unstable. This is of course a perfectly valid fear, though it must be noted that, throughout history, there have been few constants to the inhabitants of the Kremlin (or of the Winter Palace before then). But nonetheless, one could count on Russia’s elite to:

a) Care deeply about maintaining access to warm-water seaports and

b) Care little for the welfare of the average Russian

So, it therefore seems likely that the fact that Russia is eager to redraw the borders around Crimea has more to do with the former than the latter. And that the Crimean incident does not mean that Putin will try and absorb Russian minorities into a “Greater Russia” wherever those minorities may be. The bigger question is that having secured Russia’s access to Sevastopol, and Tartus, will Russia use these ports to influence the Shia-Sunni conflict directly, and the oil price indirectly?

After all, with oil production in the US re-accelerating, with Iran potentially foregoing its membership in the “Axis of Evil,” with GDP growth slowing dramatically in emerging markets, with either Libya or Iraq potentially coming back on stream at some point in the future, with Japan set to restart its nukes ... the logical destination for oil prices would be to follow most other commodities and head lower. But that would not be in the Russian interest for the one lesson Putin most certainly drew from the late 1990s was that a high oil price equates to a strong Russia, and vice-versa.

And so, with President Obama attempting to redefine the US role in the region away from being the Sunnis’ protector, and mend fences with Shias, Russia may be seeing an opportunity to influence events in the Middle East more than she has done in the past. In that regard, the Crimean annexation may announce the next wave of Sunni-Shia conflict in the Middle East, and the next wave of orders for French-manufactured weapons (as the US has broadly started to disengage itself, France has been the only G8 country basically stepping up to fight in the Saudi corner ... a stance that should soon be rewarded with a €2.7bn contract for Crotale missiles produced by Thales and a €2.4bn contract for Airbus to undertake Saudi’s border surveillance). And, finally, the Crimean annexation may announce the next gap higher in oil prices.

In short, buying a straddle option position on oil makes a lot of sense. On the one hand, if the Saudis and the US want to punish Russia for its destabilizing actions, then the way to do it will be to join forces (even if Saudi-US relations are at a nadir right now) and crush the oil price. Alternatively, if the US leadership remains haphazard and continues to broadly disengage from the greater Middle East, then Russia will advance, provide weapons and intelligence to the Shias, and the unfolding Sunni- Shia war will accelerate, potentially leading to a gap higher in oil prices. One scenario is very bullish for risk assets, the other is very bearish! Investors who believe that the US State Department has the situation under control should plan for the former. Investors who fear that Putin’s Machiavellianism will carry the day should plan for the latter (e.g., buy out-of-the-money calls on oil, French defense stocks, Russian oil stocks).

Japan’s Self-Defeating Mercantilism

By Joyce Poon

In the 16 months since Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe launched his bold plan to reflate Japan’s shrinking economy the yen has depreciated by 22% against the dollar, 28% against the euro and 24% against the renminbi. The hope was to stimulate trade and push the current account decisively into the black. Yet the reverse has occurred. Japan’s external position has worsened due to anemic export growth and a spiraling energy import bill: in January it recorded a record monthly trade deficit of ¥2.8trn ($27.4bn). Having eked out a 0.7% current account surplus in 2013, Japan may this year swing into deficit for the first time since 1980. So why is the medicine not working?

The standard response revolves around timing issues: the so called J-curve effect usually means that the boost to exports after a currency devaluation lags the rise in the value of imports by about 12-18 months. In addition, consumers may be busily buying goods ahead of April’s scheduled sales tax increase, temporarily jacking up imports. On a more structural note, there is also the suspicion that exports are not benefitting from the cheaper yen partly because so much production has been pushed offshore.

This may all be true, but there is more to the story than the trade data. After all, a big devaluation has a ricochet effect across the broad economy that changes the outlook for producers, consumers, the government and providers of capital. The transmission mechanism can be thought as working in the following way. Consumers are immediately hit with an implicit “tax” as imported goods cost more, while export-oriented firms get an effective subsidy. In the capital markets, the effect is to lower the value of domestic bonds in foreign currency terms, with the result that yields rise. This means that the cost to the government of financing its deficit rises, forcing a reduction in government spending. As a result of these effects, resources are shifted from the household and government sectors and into the corporate sector. The effect of this resource reallocation should be to boost productivity, which in turn initiates a virtuous circle of rising incomes and ultimately higher consumption.

Unfortunately, Japan defies this textbook paradigm because in addition to devaluing, it is also engaging in massive quantitative easing. This keeps bond yields low, enabling the government to keep financing its deficit at low cost. There is thus no incentive for the government to cut spending— and in fact the consumption tax hike will be offset by even more spending. Furthermore, low bond yields suppress the financial income of household savers.

The end result of all this is that the government bears none of the burden of the adjustment and the household sector bears all of it, through higher import costs and lower financial income. With the household sector’s spending power thus crimped, companies have no incentive to invest in domestically-focused production. Instead, all their investment will be geared toward exports—mercantilism on steroids.

A mercantilist policy can feel like it is working during periods when strong global growth allows excess exports to be absorbed without ruinous price falls. Between 2001 and 2006 the yen devalued by almost 40% on a real effective exchange rate basis and Japan’s current account improved sharply. Japan may not have won back its global competitiveness (its share of the global export pie fell by 1.5 percentage points in the period), but strong external conditions did allow exports to grow 9% a year in dollar terms.

Today, Japanese exporters do not face such benign conditions and any successful mercantilist boost can only come from eating the lunch of rivals.

Since all the leading economies favor policies that support production over consumption, the world is getting more goods than it can absorb. The result is ongoing price declines, which have the effect of deferring the ultimate global recovery.

What this means is that Japan’s ultra-mercantilism is self defeating. In a global environment of weak demand and disinflation any volume increase in its exports will have to be paid for through price reductions. To be sure, in the short term the trade balance is likely to improve somewhat as a result of the J-curve effect taking hold. But in the longer term Japan looks to be entering a cycle where it must run harder just to stand still.

There are a few ways this could all end happily. Japan might embrace a structural reform agenda that boosts productivity, raises wages and pushes up domestic demand. Alternatively, world growth could surprise on the upside, creating a rerun of 2001-06. Energy prices could collapse, closing Japan’s trade deficit and reducing the incentives for mercantilist policy. But we are not holding our breath on any of these possibilities.

Instead, Japan’s most likely path is that the yen keeps falling, the BoJ keeps printing money, and the dollar value of exports stagnates as devaluation and price cuts offset any volume increases. And so, paradoxically, the current account will continue to deteriorate into permanent deficit, despite ultra-mercantilism. At this point the game will have changed in Japan and Abenomics will have manifestly failed to deliver on its stated objectives.


Disclaimer

John Mauldin is president of Millennium Wave Advisors, LLC, a registered investment advisor. All material presented herein is believed to be reliable but we cannot attest to its accuracy. Investment recommendations may change and readers are urged to check with their investment counselors before making any investment decisions.

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Posted 03-20-2014 5:51 PM by John Mauldin
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