Thinking

Why Housing Has Outperformed Equities Over the Long Run

Jorda et al. are at it again. Over the past few years, they have constructed the most useful international macrofinancial dataset extending back to 1870 and covering 16 rich countries. The Policy Tensor has worked with the previous iteration of their dataset. I documented reemergence of the financial cycle; the empirical law that all financial booms are, without exception, attended by real estate booms; and that what explains medium-term (8-20 year) fluctuations not just in real rates (a result originally obtained by Rey) but also in property returns, is the consumption to wealth ratio; as well as the fact that equity returns are explained by balance sheet capacity, not the consumption to wealth ratio.

There are two main findings in Jorda et al. (2017). First, they corroborate Piketty’s empirical law that the rate of return exceeds the growth rate. The gap is persistent and is only violated for any length of time during the world wars. Excluding these two ‘ultra-shortage of safe asset’-periods, the gap has averaged 4 percent per annum. That is definitely enough to relentlessly increase the ratio of wealth to income and drive stratification, as Piketty has shown.

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Jorda et al. (2017)

The second finding is truly novel. Jorda et al. (2017) find that housing has dramatically outperformed equities over the long run. This is true not just in the aggregate but also at the country level.

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Jorda et al. (2017)

Matt Klein over at Alphaville is truly puzzled by this failure of standard asset pricing theory. As he explains,

The ratio between the average yearly return above the short-term risk free rate and the annual standard deviation of those returns — the Sharpe Ratio— should be roughly equivalent across asset classes over long stretches time. There might be short periods when an asset class’s Sharpe ratio looks unusually high, especially in individual countries, but things tend to revert to their long-term average sooner or later.

More generally, the expectation of asset pricing theory is that Sharpe ratios should be roughly equal across not just asset classes but arbitrary portfolios as well. Deviations from equality imply the existence of extraordinary risk premia which ought to be eliminated through investors’ search for higher risk-adjusted returns.

This, of course, goes back to the hegemonic idea of Western thought. Competition serves as the organizing principle of evolutionary biology, economic theory, and international relations; as the cornerstone of America’s national ideology; and as the guiding star of modern governance and reform efforts. But there are some rather striking anomalies of this otherwise compelling broad-brush picture of the world—persistent sources of economic rents and the existence of substantial risk premia, eg on balance sheet capacity.

But I believe something much more elementary is going on with property. The next figure shows the global wealth portfolio. We see that housing constitutes the bulk of global wealth.

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Jorda et al. (2017)

What explains the superior risk-adjusted performance of housing is the fact that housing assets are not, in fact, owned by the rich or market-based financial intermediaries like other asset classes, but quite broadly held by the small-fry. More technically, the marginal investor in housing is your average householder who finds it extraordinarily hard to diversify away the risk posed by her single-family home to her balance sheet. Since it is so hard for her to diversify this risk away, she must be compensated for that risk.

In other words: The risk premium on property is high because returns are low when the marginal value of wealth to the marginal investor is high (ie, when times are bad for the average householder); and conversely, returns on property are high precisely when the marginal value of wealth to the marginal investor is low (ie, when times are good for the average householder). This is as it should be, given the relatively progressive vertical distribution of national housing wealth.

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Thinking

How Long Can China Defy the Laws of Macrofinancial Gravitation?

The International Monetary Fund has warned that China’s debt is approaching “dangerous” levels. The Fund expects China’s non-financial sector debt to exceed 290 per cent of GDP by 2022, compared with 235 per cent last year. How long can China’s debt binge last? Recent research by economists at the Bank of International Settlements suggests not long.

Drehmann, Juselius and Korinek (2017) have emphasized the role played by debt service burdens in puncturing credit booms. There is an interesting lead-lag structure between new lending and debt service burdens. New lending mechanically increases the debt service burden, but the weight is felt with a lag.

When taking on new debt, borrowers commit to a pre-specified path of future debt service. This implies a predictable lag between credit booms and peaks in debt service which, in a panel of household debt in 17 countries, is four years on average.…Debt service peaks at a well-specified interval after the peak in new borrowing.…The reason is that debt service is a function of the stock of debt outstanding, which continues to grow even after the peak in new borrowing. 

Credit booms have a clear mechanical path. An exogenous increase in the risk-bearing capacity of the financial sector drives a lending boom. Credit-to-GDP ratios rise. Debt service ratios follow. At some point, debt service becomes too onerous to sustain, the lending boom is arrested and a financial crisis breaks out.

We illustrate these dynamics with the US experience. Figure 1 plots the detrended Credit-to-GDP gap and the Debt Service Ratio for the US private nonfinancial sector. We see that the credit gap peaked at 12.4 and the debt service ratio peaked at 18.4 just as the Great Recession began in the last quarter of 2007. The denouement of the credit boom triggered the onset of the Global Financial Crisis (GFC) as credit defaults made their way to dealer balance sheets.

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Figure 1. US private nonfinancial debt service ratio and credit gap.

 

Figure 2 plots the Chinese nonfinancial sector’s credit gap and debt service ratio. As of 2016Q4, China’s credit gap was an astounding 24.6; twice as high as the peak American gap of 12.4. And China’s debt service ratio was 20.1 as of 2016Q4, already larger than America’s peak ratio of 18.4.

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Figure 2. Chinese nonfinancial sector’s credit-to-GDP gap and debt service ratio.

The importance of these indicators comes from the fact that they are the strongest predictors of financial crises. In particular, the BIS researchers quoted above have shown that positive shocks to the debt service ratio significantly increase the probability of a financial crisis over the near term (1-3 years). They find that “debt service is the main channel through which new borrowing affects the probability of financial crises.”

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Figure 3. Nonfinancial private debt service ratios in the United States and China.

Figure 3 displays the debt service ratios of the United States and China for 1999Q4-2016Q4. Since then the Chinese government has pushed through yet another credit expansion (which is what prompted the scolding from the IMF). It is hard to escape the conclusion that Beijing would find it hard to achieve a soft landing.

Mechanically, we know what will happen soon. A correction in property prices will destabilize the $28 trillion shadow banking flywheel built on top of real estate. Whether or not it leads to a dramatic implosion would depend on the strategy pursued by Beijing. Xi is definitely sold on Geithner’s financial Powell doctrine. But whether the crisis can be contained with techniques of financial fire-fighting that have evolved since 2007 remains to be seen. What is certain is that Beijing would have to absorb a significant portion of private liabilities onto the national balance sheet. As a result, public debt is likely to balloon.

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Thinking

Towards a Natural History of Capitalism: economic rents, regimes of accumulation, and oligarchy

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Margin Call (2011)

This is an ongoing conversation with Ted Fertik. 

It was great talking today man. The first battle in the great war between Braudel and Marx was very productive. You have really helped me clarify my own thoughts. Tell me if this sounds like a reasonable offer for an armistice:

The labor theory of value explains some fraction of the variation in economic value and wage slavery is an important feature of the lived experience in modern times. I personally find a narrower Marxist frame quite useful: examine the strategies used by capitalism to deal with labor militancy within the larger political economy. On such home turf so to speak, attention to wage labor, labor’s share of labor productivity growth, and more generally the tug-of-war between labor and capital is decidedly warranted. But working with Braudel we can go much, much further. Here’s a strategy.

We pay attention to the connection between regimes of accumulation built on economic rents (ie, earnings over and above what would obtain under free market competition) on the one hand and oligarchy on the other. Think about this: If competition were the dominant fact of the market-capitalism quasi-object then the distribution of wealth ought to get more diffuse under greater competitive pressure and over time simply due to entropy.

But how then do we explain higher rates of accumulation precisely when competition is supposed to be the fiercest, ie in the modern neoliberal era?? The reality is that neoliberalism is an intensification of market discipline only for the losers while the winners have grown fat feasting on the anti-market.

Industrial concentration, rents, and oligarchic distributions of wealth track each other. The political economy of this threefold comovement demands interrogation. What ties the three together is the fact that regimes of rapid rates of wealth accumulation are built on the systematic harvesting of persistent economic rents. Rents serve not only as attractors of capitalism’s attention, as in the standard picture; but also as sources of high rates of accumulation itself.

This gets more interesting as you go into the details. For instance, oligopolistic firms share their rents with their employees. What explains the distribution of compensation of employees is interfirm variation rather than within-firm variation. In measuring the rates of accumulation, we therefore have to include what looks like extraordinary labor compensation (high salaries, bonuses and stock options) at oligopolistic firms (beginning with CEO compensation) as well as their supernormal profits.

The beauty of the neoliberal regime is that the capital market acts to ‘rationalize’ sectors into stable oligopolistic regimes. These rents find their way all the way to the coffers of core market-based financial intermediaries who use their privileged access to lucrative asset classes that are unavailable to retail investors and where the rates of return are higher (eg, fixed-income derivatives) and their privileged information on order flow and endogenous fluctuations, to corner some serious rent. That’s your market-based financial regime of accumulation. Then you have surveillance platform capitalism of the Valley, pace Zuboff. And so on and so froth throughout the history of capitalism. I think this is a powerful frame of reference.

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Geopolitics

Does the US Enjoy Nuclear Primacy Over North Korea?

The issue of nuclear deterrence in the Korean peninsula is usually posed in terms of how reliably the United States and its key regional allies can deter an attack by North Korea. That has it exactly the wrong way around. The question is not whether the US can deter North Korea; that’s a triviality. The real question is whether North Korea can deter the United States.

As I’ve explained at length before, strategic nuclear deterrence is extraordinarily stable when both sides enjoy an assured second-strike capability, ie the ability to retaliate with a devastating counterblow after having absorbed a massive first-strike. Under highly asymmetric conditions, nuclear deterrence is much less stable. If the stronger party can expect a splendid first-strike to destroy the deterrent of the weaker party with certainty, it is hard to see how the latter can deter the former. Of course, certainty is unachievable in practice. The question is just how certain the stronger party has to be for deterrence to fail. Of all the asymmetric deterrence scenarios, the confrontation between the unipole and North Korea is arguably the most one-sided. If North Korea can deter the United States, then deterrence is unlikely to fail anywhere else as well.

So does the United States enjoy nuclear primacy over North Korea? Concretely, if President Trump demanded a military solution to the “problem”, will the generals be able to put forward a viable operational plan to disarm North Korea without exposing the United States and its allies to catastrophic risk? Can the US take out the entire North Korean arsenal in counterforce strike before they have a chance to retaliate?? As usual, the devil is in the details.

The United States would enjoy nuclear primacy over North Korea if it could be near-certain of destroying North Korea’s nuclear capabilities in a splendid first-strike, or if it could be near-certain that it will be able to intercept North Korean missiles before they stuck populous cities and strategic bases of the United States and its regional allies. So we need to evaluate the capabilities of the both the United States and North Korea. Moreover, in order to assess the likelihood of deterrence failure, we also need to assess the balance of resolve. Having a first-strike capability is one thing; having the willingness to carry out a splendid first-strike quite another—much more is involved than simply hard power capabilities.

According to US intelligence, North Korea has an arsenal of some 60 odd nuclear warheads. More importantly, in the assessment of the intelligence community, North Korea has achieved miniaturization, ie they have figured out how to make the warheads small enough to mount them on an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM). The beleaguered state’s gains in missile knowhow have also crossed a critical threshold. In the assessment of analysts at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies, the July 4 test launch suggested that the missile had a range of 10,000km, putting the US west coast and midwest within reach. On July 28, North Korea fired a second test missile in a near-vertical trajectory that reached an altitude of 3,500km before falling harmlessly in the Sea of Japan. Analysts reckon that even New York, Boston and DC are now within operational reach of North Korean missiles. It’s still not clear whether they have figured out how to ensure that the warhead doesn’t burn up upon reentry into the dense lower atmosphere. It shouldn’t take long for them to achieve that capability. In any case, US strategists must assume that the North Koreans have the capability to strike the most populous US cities and, a fortori, US military bases in the region and the cities of its regional allies.

Can the United States be near-certain that its theater and intercontinental missile defense systems will be able to intercept North Korean missiles? The short answer is no. Of the last 5 tests of the ICBM ballistic missile defense system, 3 have failed. Theater missile defense (TMD) may perform better under test conditions, but is likely to fare even worse under actual warfighting conditions because North Korea has many more short-range platforms to strike Japan and especially South Korea (where it can even use artillery to deliver nuclear payloads) and they can deploy many more decoys to distract the systems. North Korea also has electronic warfare capabilities that can potentially interfere with TMD systems.

On the other hand the United States has a formidable repertoire of counterforce capabilities. The United States can use low-orbit platforms like satellites, air-breathing unmanned platforms (ie surveillance drones), and manned fixed-wing aircraft to generate near-continuous targeting solutions. The US can utilize a full-spectrum of air-, land- and sea-based launch platforms to take out North Korean targets. Lieber and Press (2017) have shown that North Korea would find it hard to ensure the survivability of its nuclear deterrent against the United States since the US can substitute seamlessly between multiple platforms for cueing, targeting, and strike solutions (“fire-control solutions”). In other words, the United States enjoys nuclear primacy over North Korea in the sense that the US can carry out a splendid first-strike against the North Korean arsenal with near-certainty.

 

 

But the problem is that the balance of resolve favors North Korea. No conceivable interest of the United States or its regional allies can be served by exposing themselves to North Korean nuclear strikes even an iota. Even though the US could take it out on demand, the very existence of the North Korean deterrent means that Japan and South Korea would resist a preemptive strike against North Korea. US assurances that the risk is small are quite unlikely to satisfy Seoul and Tokyo. Both allies would expect compelling reasons why they must run even a small risk of a nuclear attack.

Put another way, the United States is deterred because North Korea hasn’t raised the stakes enough to threaten a vital interest of South Korea and Japan. It is in the US interest to prevent a North Korean deterrent capable of striking US cities. But the US would find it impossible to convince Seoul and Tokyo that they need to run the risks necessary to achieve that goal. The United States cannot find a persuasive reason because there isn’t one. So much for nuclear primacy.

 

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Markets, World Affairs

The Never-Ending Greek Debt Slavery Saga Revisited

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Obedience is not enough. Unless he is suffering, how can you be sure that he is obeying your will and not his own?

George Orwell, 1984

‘To say [Varoufakis’ Adults in a Room] is the best memoir of the Eurozone crisis,’ writes Adam Tooze, ‘is an understatement.’ I would second that had I read others. Memoirs are simply not my genre. But the former Greek finance minister’s testament is a different matter altogether.

Although far from disinterested, Varoufakis is a reliable reporter from the trenches. His critique of the Troika is truly devastating. Simply put: They knew. They knew that their plan was guaranteed to fail. They knew that Greece was bankrupt and would never be able to pay back all the money that it owed. They knew that without debt relief in one form or another, there was simply no path back to sustainability. They knew that austerity was devastating the Greek economy and worsening its debt burden. They knew that pouring good money after bad was a non-solution. They, Varoufakis insists, did not even want their money back.

Yet, utilizing an impressive arsenal of Kafkaesque red tape they obstructed all potential solutions, and using all available means of diplomatic and financial coercion, arm-twisted successive Greek governments to submit to never-ending debt slavery. Why? Adam Tooze explains it best:

The main function of disciplining Greece, Varoufakis tells us, was to serve as a warning to the French of the price of fiscal indiscipline. In other words its purpose was to perpetuate and widen discipline. But that in turn was not so much an economic as a political problem. Berlin wanted to avoid the terrifyingly difficult distributional politics of even larger scale exercises in cross border bail outs and “transfers”. Holding the line in Greece was a way of containing what could have become a spiraling political disaster for the CDU and their coalition partners.

We will return to the strategic rationale for putting Greece in debtors’ prison. But first, How did we get here?

Greece was a victim of global macro forces well beyond its control. In 2001, Greece gave up monetary independence and adopted the euro. This meant that regaining lost competitiveness and correcting macro imbalances would require a real devaluation (ie, wages would have to fall in nominal terms); thus requiring an extraordinarily painful ‘structural adjustment’ programme in IMF-speak.

Bond markets responded to the advent of the euro by compressing sovereigns spreads; meaning that Greece could borrow at virtually the same interest rate as Germany. (See Figure 1.) Greece was thus able to borrow large sums from bondholders—debt that was only revealed to be unsustainable when sovereign spreads widened with the onset of the eurozone crisis.

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Figure 1. The spread between Greek and German sovereign bond yields.

At the same time, northern banks dramatically expanded their lending to Greece. Greek debt to foreign banks grew from €135 billion as of 2004Q1—surely up from a much lower level since 2001—to €217 billion in 2008Q1. (See Figure 2.)

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Figure 2. Foreign banks’ credit to Greece.

More generally, Shin (2012) has shown that a banking glut in Europe was the principal driver of the financial boom in the European periphery as well as the United States. The idea here is straightforward: Fluctuations in the risk-bearing capacity of global banks drive fluctuations in the supply of credit. But let me offer a more precise thesis.

The credit boom preceding the financial crisis in the US and peripheral Europe was the great sucking sound of the wholesale market for collateralized funding. The extraordinary expansion of mortgage credit to, say, US households was due to demand for raw material (ie, mortgages) required for the manufacture of private-label mortgage-backed securities. (There was a persistent ‘shortage of safe assets’ in the global financial system.) In 2003-07, Pozsar (2015) shows, Wall Street was hard at work feeding the machine it had constructed to intermediate between cash pools (central banks, corporate and state treasuries, money-market mutual funds, et cetera) demanding ultra-safe assets in the money markets and portfolio managers demanding risk assets for their relatively high yields in capital markets. No wonder that Mehrling et al. (2013) describe shadow banking as ‘money market funding of capital market lending’.

Note that the centrality of the wholesale funding market does not undermine the role of the dealers’ risk-bearing capacity as the main state variable (or explanatory variable). To the contrary, funding markets exist in only as much as dealers make them. Physically, the interdealer funding market—the supercore of the dealer ecosystem and hence the global financial system—is a network of phone and Internet connections between traders at global banks. The point is that Shin (2012)’s finding—that fluctuations in balance sheet capacity drive fluctuations in credit supply—is only being fleshed out here; not superseded. [Of course, the risk-bearing capacity of the sell side ought to be measured relative to the financial size of the buy side. See Farooqui (2017) for the primacy of the relative scale of balance sheet capacity in pricing the cross-section of stock returns.]

The preceding paragraphs may seem like a digression. They are anything but. For the ‘excess elasticity’ of global finance was the fundamental reason why Hollande and Merkel had to impose debt slavery on Greece. The denouement of the financial boom unleashed by the unprecedented expansion of European balance sheet capacity came when excessive bank leverage met mounting losses on subprime loans. Germany and France could not acknowledge the scale of the bailout required by the banks to their audiences at home. They had to be bailed out without recourse to more public funds. While American policymakers used the AIG bailout to secretly bail out Goldman Sachs and JP Morgan, the Europeans used the Greek bailout to secretly bail out French, German and Dutch banks.

The [big] three French banks’ loans to the Italian, Spanish and Portuguese governments alone came to 34 per cent of France’s total economy – €627 billion to be exact. For good measure, these banks had in previous years also lent up to €102 billion to the Greek state.…

Why did Deutsche Bank, Finanzbank and the other Frankfurt-based towers of financial incompetence need more? Because the €406 billion cheque they had received from Mrs Merkel in 2009 was barely enough to cover their trades in US-based toxic derivatives. It was certainly not enough to cover what they had lent to the governments of Italy, Ireland, Portugal, Spain and Greece – a total of €477 billion, of which a hefty €102 billion had been lent to Athens. [The €102 billion in this quote is quite likely a typo—that’s the French banks’ exposure to Greece. As Varoufakis tells us later, the German banks’ exposure was €119 billion.] 

So, of every €1000 handed over to Athens to be passed on to the French and German banks, Germany would guarantee €270, France €200, with the remaining €530 guaranteed by the smaller and poorer countries. This was the beauty of the Greek bailout, at least for France and Germany: it dumped most of the burden of bailing out the French and German banks onto taxpayers from nations even poorer than Greece, such as Portugal and Slovakia. 

This disturbing transformation of the banking crisis in the northern core into a sovereign debt crisis on the periphery was accomplished in the very first phase of the eurozone crisis; well before Varoufakis arrived on the scene.

As soon as the bailout loans gushed into the Greek finance ministry, ‘Operation Offload’ began: the process of immediately siphoning the money off back to the French and German banks. By October 2011, the German banks’ exposure to Greek public debt had been reduced by a whopping €27.8 billion to €91.4 billion. Five months later, by March 2012, it was down to less than €795 million. Meanwhile the French banks were offloading even faster: by September 2011 they had unburdened themselves of €63.6 billion of Greek government bonds, before totally eliminating them from their books in December 2012. The operation was thus completed within less than two years. This was what the Greek bailout had been all about.

Thereafter, the European strategy was to enact a morality play to cover up the crime; complete with bloodletting—aka austerity—and moral sermons blaming the victim. The Troika’s treatment of Greece was tantamount to economic warfare. By the time Varoufakis got in the cockpit, the Europeans had developed the full apparatus of control. The reason he found the Troika to be Kafkaesque, is that the insiders were committed to controlling the narrative. They could not negotiate honestly with Varoufakis both because they feared the markets and because they would then be admitting guilt. While some individuals involved in the ‘institutions’ even admitted the crime to Varoufakis, institutionally the Troika was designed to bury the dirty little secret.

This is, of course, not to disagree with Adam Tooze about the role played by political constraints in Berlin, Paris, and indeed, Washington. Indeed, political constraints are precisely what drove the bank bailouts underground and started the Greek Debt-Slavery Saga.

VAROUFAKIS SAYS he had a financial deterrent to get Draghi to back off from financial strangulation and give him breathing room.

[The €33 billion] Greek debt to the ECB were legally momentous: any haircut of that sum or delay in its repayment would open Draghi and the ECB up to legal challenges from the Bundesbank and the German Constitutional Court, undermining the credibility of its overall debt-purchasing programme and causing a rift with Chancellor Merkel, who would never take on both the Bundesbank and the German Constitutional Court at the same time. Facing their combined might, Draghi was sure to find his freedom drastically curtailed, thus undermining the markets’ faith in his hitherto magical promise to do ‘whatever it takes’ to save the euro – the only thing preventing the currency’s collapse. 

‘Mario Draghi is about to unleash a major debt purchasing programme in March 2015, without which the euro is toast,’ I said. ‘The last thing he needs is anything that will impede this.’…I had no doubt that if a Syriza government signalled early on its intention to retaliate by haircutting the Greek SMP bonds held by the ECB in this way, it would deter the ECB from closing down the banks.

Calling the deterrent “potentially very powerful,” Tooze reports that

…the faction within the Tsipras cabinet that wanted to avoid a break was too strong. Varoufakis was never allowed to make the critical threat at the right moment. Greece was driven to a humiliating compromise without ever having deployed its deterrent.

Game-theoretically speaking, whether Varoufakis’ deterrent was effective cannot be answered without knowledge of the preferences of other players. Even if Draghi himself could be deterred, as indeed seems likely, that was only going to grant Greece a short term lease on life. There is no reason to believe that it would’ve forced the Troika to negotiate in earnest. A Greek threat to activate the deterrent could just as easily have yielded a Schäuble solution with the Troika turning the screws to push Greece out of the eurozone in the service of discipline. We cannot answer that without knowing just how much Merkel feared Grexit.

A distinct possibility is that the deterrence strategy was leaked to the Germans by someone in the Greek war cabinet—infiltrated as it was by the Troika—and that Merkel let it be known to Tsipras that the activation of the threat, or perhaps even its deployment against Draghi, would harden the Troika’s stance. What I mean to suggest is this: Tsipras is not a scoundrel. Why did he capitulate if the deterrent was in fact effective? Did he know something about the preferences of Greece’s jailers that Varoufakis did not? Could it be that Varoufakis’ dirty bomb was a recipe for tactical victory but strategic defeat? Is that why Tsipras capitulated instead of deploying the deterrent?

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Geopolitics

Maritime Primacy, Network Externalities and Asymmetric Blocpolitik

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Map 1. Great power blocs, independent powers, contested zones.

In an interesting and contemplative article in the current issue of the National Interest, Michael Lind casts a fresh look at world politics. His approach is to reformulate economic and security alliances as carriers of joint information about the world economy and the global balance of power. This frame of reference allows Lind to go beyond both realism and international economics. The former sees military alliances as temporary and flexible outcomes of great power balancing. In the latter, trade agreements and economic partnerships are divorced from great power politics and geared towards purely economic ends. Neither approach captures the real geoeconomics of blocpolitik.

[In theory, a state] can join one set of security alliances for purposes of military protection, a different trade bloc for commercial purposes and a third set of international alliances, perhaps drawn together by political creed and social values. In the real world, this kaleidoscopic complexity does not exist.

By construction, the overwhelming overlap of international security and economic alliances cannot be explained by purely economic logics. Likewise, the survival of the US-led Atlantic and Pacific security alliances 25 years after the capitulation of the Soviet Union is a glaring anomaly of realism. These anomalies stem from mistakenly treating ‘security and trade policy as distinct realms, each with its own internal logic and unconnected to the other.’ Lind’s novel approach allows him to put both economics and international power politics at the center of the frame of reference. He also pays attention to the neocolonial aspects of blocpolitik.

For the hegemonic power that orchestrates a bloc, the bloc multiplies national military power and wealth by adding foreign populations and foreign resources to its own. Given low fertility rates and the difficulty of raising productivity levels by innovation, the quickest and most effective way to boost the overall GDP of a bloc is to add more countries to it. Needless to say, strength based on territorial expansion as well as internal growth was the strategy of past empires. In the modern era, based on the rules of national self-determination and popular sovereignty, incorporation of additional territories by conquest would be resisted as illegitimate. But blocs that are similar to informal empires can be built up by means of security alliances and trade deals, which may be hard to distinguish from de facto colonialism where one partner is a weak protectorate and the other a great or superpower.… [Emphasis mine.]

In a world economy divided among great-power blocs, industries with increasing returns to scale, like manufacturing, are likely to be most productive and dynamic in the blocs with the largest integrated markets—that is to say, the internal markets of populous nation-states and even more populous blocs. Technological and commercial efficiencies enabled by scale can, in turn, permit higher growth, higher per-capita income and the possibility of raising more taxes in absolute terms, even with lower rates of taxation—taxes to be spent on, among other things, the military. This is the successful strategy the larger and richer American bloc used to drive the smaller and poorer Soviet bloc into bankruptcy.

So it makes economic and strategic sense for great powers to expand their blocs and grow their retinue of protectorates. Small and weak nations too gain from admission into great-power blocs.

The exporters and importers of small nations can be guaranteed access to bloc-wide markets and suppliers, and incorporated into bloc-wide supply chains. As de facto protectorates of the bloc’s dominant nations, weak countries can engage in “free riding” when it comes to defense, spending relatively little on the military.

The reference frame immediately solves the mystery of the endurance of the Western alliance. Indeed, the end of the Cold War led not to a dismantling of Nato but rather an American bid to convert ‘hegemony within its Cold War bloc into universal hegemony—turning the entire planet into a single sphere of influence.’ This bid failed ‘thanks to Chinese and Russian resistance and the war-weariness of the American public.’

‘There is not the slightest chance,’ Lind insists correctly, ‘that Chinese and Russian regimes, of any character, no matter how liberal or democratic, will ever accept as legitimate a permanent U.S. military presence along their borders.’ Whether or not Russia’s near-abroad and the South China Sea are turned into contested zones of Cold War-style military standoffs, ‘the division of the world among regional blocs and spheres of influence—will have come to pass.’

There would be neither enduring, widely accepted U.S. global military hegemony nor a rule-governed global free market. Instead, there would be, at least in the short run, a version of the world envisioned by Burnham and Orwell: an American-led “Oceania,” a Chinese “Eastasia” bloc of some kind, and a Russia-centered “Eurasia” much smaller and weaker than the former USSR. Over time, India might join the United States and China as a leading military and economic power, perhaps as the center of its own bloc—let us call it “Southasia.” Populist nationalism within Europe will doom any attempt to turn the continent into a centralized, independent bloc capable of acting as a unit in world affairs. Instead, Europe may remain a U.S. protectorate, drift into neutrality or, in the worst-case scenario, become a “shatterbelt” for which external powers once again compete.

One can quibble with Lind’s position on the European Union. The possibility of a great power based on the continent ought not to be so easily dismissed. But there are bigger issues with Lind’s prognosis.

My main beef is with Lind’s underemphasis on the extreme asymmetry of great power blocs. Russia’s sphere of influence in its near-abroad is a faint echo of the Warsaw alliance. China’s sphere is nearly non-existent. The only country firmly within the Chinese sphere is North Korea. Even Mongolia and the nations of the central Asian steppe are not yet in the Chinese sphere of influence. Meanwhile, the United States has a retinue of some sixty protectorates; including almost all the great industrial nations of the world—Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Australia, Germany, France, Italy, Britain, and Canada. Moreover, the United States remains the preeminent foreign power in Central America, South America, Africa, Southwest Asia, and Southeast Asia. Even lesser powers that pursue stridently independent foreign policies from Washington—Vietnam, India, Iran, Cuba, Brazil and Venezuela—are likely to seek admission into the US bloc.

Instead of a world ‘divided among great-power blocs’ what we have is a near-unipolar configuration of global alignments. The US bloc militarily, economically, and technologically dwarfs the rest of the world combined. Due to the diffusion of reconnaissance-strike capabilities, the US can no longer impose primacy on China or Russia in their immediate neighborhoods. In particular, China is now in a position to hold all US surface assets in the Western Pacific at risk. In the event of a major confrontation, the US will no longer be able to send aircraft carrier groups to the Taiwan Straits to intimidate China. It will instead have to rely on less effective long-range and undersea platforms to project power.

As China closes the power gap, the exit from the unipolar world approaches. Even in a multipolar world, however, the US bloc would continue to enjoy decisive advantages. Above all, the United States would continue to enjoy maritime primacy until another great power becomes at least somewhat competitive in open ocean warfare. We are so far from that scenario that no other power has even contemplated mounting such a challenge. Because the plumbing of the world economy is sea-based, maritime preponderance gives the US bloc a decisive advantage against other blocs.

A second advantage that is no less decisive is that blocs enjoy network externalities. Beyond the economies of scale, blocs are also containers of technology and situated knowhow. To put it bluntly, the US bloc contains the entire tripolar core of the world economy. From an international politics perspective, these externalities generate a bandwagon effect whereby states outside face tremendous incentives to seek admission into the US bloc. This is why, for instance, Kerry got his opening in Myanmar.

So while I agree with Lind that international politics will become more contested as this century progresses, I seriously doubt that Russia or China will be able to forge a bloc even vaguely comparable to the US bloc. They will definitely try—China’s development bank and the New Silk Route are efforts in precisely this direction—but it will be uphill all the way. Blocpolitik is a useful frame of reference but we should not implicitly endow it with false symmetries.

 

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Markets

The Tendency of Commodity Prices to Fall Over the Long Run

The Prebisch-Singer hypothesis states that real commodity prices have a tendency to fall over the long run. Harvey et al. have shown that the historical evidence from four centuries of commodity price data is consistent with the hypothesis. The most convincing explanation of the phenomena is that, with important exceptions, the income elasticity of primary commodities is less than 1. This means that incomes grow faster than demand for primary commodities, so that prices must fall to clear markets. This mechanism is subject to ecological constraints since if the ecological constraint bites, prices must rise to clear markets. So far, fundamental ecological limits have not trumped the tendency of commodity prices to fall over the long run. The tendency introduces a dynamic, systematic bias in favor of the core and against the periphery of the world economy since, by construction, nations or regions specializing in primary goods belong to the latter. In what follows, I’ll illustrate the tendency for a large number of commodity classes since 1850. All data is from David S. Jacks’s website.

Overall, the picture is that non-fuel commodity prices have fallen. Figure 1 shows the unweighted average of 37 non-fuel commodities. While there is a medium term cycle, the trend is clearly negative.

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Figure 1. Non-fuel real commodity prices (1850-2010).

The main exception is energy prices, which have shown a tendency to rise over the long run. See Figure 2.

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Figure 2. Real energy prices (1850-2010).

We should not expect the real price of gold (or other precious metals) to fall over the long run because it was, and still approximately is, the numeraire. Indeed, there is no long term trend in precious metal prices. See Figure 3.

 

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Figure 3. Precious metal prices (1850-2010).

Figure 4 shows the price of beef and other animal products. We see that even though pork and hide prices have fallen over the long run, the price of beef (and lamb) have increased significantly. This is because the income elasticity of beef is greater than 1 since it is not yet a necessity for the bulk of global households. Indeed, as mass affluence spreads around the world, we should expect the demand for beef to grow faster than global income.

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Figure 4. Animal product prices (1850-2010).

Let’s move to proper commodities starting with grains. Growing wheat, rice and corn is the mainstay of the world’s farmers. The real price of their product has been falling systematically over the past 150 years. See Figure 5.

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Figure 5. Grain prices (1850-2010).

I know what you are thinking: These farmers ought to plant cash crops such as cotton. Not so fast. The prices of cash crops have also fallen just as much if not more than grains. Figure 6 shows non-food soft commodities.

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Figure 6. Non-food soft commodity prices (1850-2010).

Figure 7 shows the systematic decline in the price of “drug foods” that played such an important role in the early modern world economy.

 

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Figure 7. Drug food prices (1850-2010).

What about metals and minerals? Are commodities that are dug out lucky as a class? The evidence does not support that conclusion. Figure 8 shows metal prices. The data is noisier but the common trend component is clear.

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Figure 8. Metal prices (1850-2010).

Figure 9 shows the prices of minerals such as iron ore and sulphur. Here the trend is even more manifest.

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Figure 9. Mineral prices (1850-2010).

I hope to have convinced you of the tendency of commodity prices to fall over the long run. The finding raises the stakes for the politics of global inequality and the international division of labor. But trend analysis is merely the first step. For a full analysis of the role of commodities in the global condition, we have to look at how both the terms of trade between the town and the countryside (defined in terms of price levels) and the volatility of commodity prices affects commodity producers and informs their politics.

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