Cheap and nasty money is what’s keeping a zombie global economy afloat
We are too used to quantitative easing to give it up easily - but this trickle-down economics obviously has not worked
I wish to make an apology.
In previous columns, readers may have gained the impression the world is awash with cheap and nasty debt generated by central banks in Europe, Japan, the United Kingdom and the United States that are flooding the markets with fake, printed money.
I have railed against economists who stubbornly hold onto dying mantras, such as the trickle down of wealth theory, while making up new indicators like inflation targets that cut across their own economic training.
Economics is in turmoil as favoured relationships between unemployment, productivity, growth, wages, inflation and interest rates no longer seem to apply.
Nobel Prizes in Economics are increasingly going to behavioural economists, whose job is to point out that we are all irrational and wrong.
I may have been heard to say that Western political leaders are unpredictable and impotent, hooked on debt, and slaves to low interest rates. The US is run by Twitter, Europe steered by bureaucrats and the UK by nobody.
Brexit is the biggest own goal to hit Britain since the Norman Conquest, while Europeans wallow in depression, hypochondria, entitlement and fake news.
All of which provides an ideal vacuum for strong leadership in China and Russia to advance their influence – occasionally through Facebook and Google.
Despite the intelligentsia injecting trillions into the global economy, the ordinary guy is only just managing, while the fat cats (those who own capital rather than labour) are richer than rich could be.
Trickle down obviously has not worked. About 80 per cent of humanity lives on US$10 a day. That’s a couple of cappuccinos for the rest of us.
Much has been reported of China shivering in the shadow of unregulated lending, which helped push overall debt levels up to 235 per cent last year (according to the International Monetary Fund) and maybe to 290 per cent by 2022.
In an economy of China’s size, that has a stonking US$28 trillion of leveraged yuan, too much of it supporting uneconomic, zombie state-owned companies. Apart from the crackdown on corruption, the best thing the authorities have done recently is to ban bitcoin, which could bring down the global economic system as we know it.
I had originally thought that the currently soaring markets – since 2009, the Dow is up 230 per cent, Hong Kong is up 120 per cent and Europe 90 per cent – would indicate the final days of this cycle.
It has now come to my attention that quantitative easing has been the best innovation since the pyramids, driving the previously sclerotic US economy that was been growing at a mere 2.2 per cent, to bound ahead at a rapid 2.4 per cent. Donald Trump’s plans to rebuild US infrastructure and reform the tax code could make him the best president ever. Bigly.
Governments may no longer have money but private business is booming with streets in Australia, Europe and America overflowing with new buildings and cars. Wealth is finally trickling down to the middle-class guy who (when he is not working all the hours he can get to pay his medical bills) is filling restaurants, ordering taxis and buying new phones. I cannot remember the last time I was on an empty plane. Happy days are here again!
The sick man of Europe is not the new European economic powerhouse but David Cameron – for being so wrong on Brexit. Leaving the EU means that Britain will move into the sunlit highlands of sustainable economic prosperity, where every citizen is happy, healthy, fulfilled and free from the jackboot of Brussels undemocracy.
China is booming on the back of the China Dream and “One Belt, One Road”. Economic growth will soon return to double figures as the foreign reserves pour in. Bitcoin, formerly thought to be no better than collecting tulips, will rise as the future currency of a world bathed in peace, prosperity and harmony.
Seriously, while this mood persists, equities will be the place to be because the markets have risen cautiously, showing no sign of a bubble or boom to cause a bust.
An unspoken warning comes from our very own financial Sage of Hong Kong, Li Ka-shing. He has just sold the iconic skyscraper, The Centre, for a cool 5 billion greenbacks (HK$40.2 billion). Meanwhile Richard, his son, is poised to take over an US$8 billion project in London. Independent decisions? Or a canny investor hedging his bets?
So this apology holds only until I make another apology for this apology when it becomes clear that this booming zombie economy is only working because the market has been flooded with cheap and nasty money.
Richard Harris is an investment manager, banker, writer and broadcaster – and financial expert witness