Global Agenda: Spinning out of control

It is entirely possible that the flip side of the woes of the developed world are the serious problems of the developing world.

By PINCHAS LANDAU
July 28, 2011 23:10
4 minute read.
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Much of what is happening in the global economy would have been unimaginable not long ago. Just the idea that the United States would be in a position of even technical default, let alone that its own obtuse politicians would deliberately put it in that position, would have been labeled mind-boggling as recently as two years ago.

The developing European disaster was more predictable.

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But even so, only one week after another bigger, more comprehensive rescue plan was unveiled, the situation in the markets has reverted to where it was prior to the announcement of the plan. And that has staggered even the skeptics and cynics.

The flip side of the woes of the developed countries is the strength of the developing countries. That is the accepted mantra. The future belongs to China, or maybe India, or maybe both. And while these giants will dominate most of the world, another major player is emerging in South America: Brazil.

These are the countries of the future – or so everyone has been programmed to believe.

Unfortunately, things are not that simple. It is entirely possible that the flip side of the woes of the developed world are the serious problems of the developing world. These latter seem to be very different from the former, but they may not be. What is certain is that they stem from the same source.

When you get down to the roots, the global problem is that the global economy is totally unbalanced. That was clear back in 2007, before the crisis exploded. What has made matters worse is that after experiencing the severe crisis and dislocation of 2008-2009, and spending vast amounts of money addressing the immediate symptoms of the crisis, the world has not made any meaningful progress toward rebalancing its economy.

In simple terms, the Americans are still focused on consumption; their efforts are still directed to stimulating the economy via increased household spending. And the Chinese are still focused on investment and exports.

The extent of the problem was highlighted by an event earlier this week that some analysts believe will prove to be a milestone in the development of the Chinese economy and hence, by extension, of great significance to the global economy. For the first time, two high-speed trains crashed into each other. Mind you, these were “old” high-speed trains, compared to the newer models that go much faster.

But that’s not the point. The issue here is that this crash exposed a harsh truth about China’s incredible record of rapid growth, specifically its enormous investments in infrastructure, which makes it the mirror image of the crumbling American economy.

Yes, the Chinese have more high-speed trains than anyone else, but they have cut lots of corners in building the system, and the cracks are now beginning to show up. Same for houses and schools, as an earthquake last year highlighted. In fact, it’s the same pattern right across the economy: too much investment, sloppily executed because of the rush to meet government- imposed targets, standard incompetence and, especially, corruption. But the warnings in advance and the public outcry after a disaster occurs are all stifled by the authorities (Reuters managed to report this week on the “guidelines” provided to Chinese media with regard to their reporting of the train crash).

Nor is it just China. India has enormous problems, too, albeit different ones. Then there’s Brazil, which is again a very different story, although these countries are commonly lumped together under the “BRIC” label (the R is for Russia, which is totally different from the other three).

Brazil this week announced a tax on derivative transactions in the foreign-exchange market. This is the latest round in an ongoing struggle between the Brazilian government and large financial institutions that have been pouring money into Brazil, to take advantage of its high interest rates and rapid growth. This inflow has sent the real, Brazil’s currency, spiraling higher and higher against the dollar (by an amazing 48 percent since the end of 2008) and euro, making Brazil’s exports uncompetitive.

The government has started this tax, at the rate of 1%, as a warning shot – as if there haven’t been previous warnings, all of which have failed to reverse the real’s rise. If necessary, the tax could rise as high as 25%, which sounds absurd, but that’s what the law says, and the Brazilians are getting desperate.

Anyway, 25% is not so much in Brazil. It turns out that the Brazilian economy, which has come a long way over the last decade, still has major problems – one of which is the cost of finance for ordinary people. Currently, the average rate of interest on consumer loans is at 47%, up from 41% last year.

So that’s getting worse, not better, despite the huge inflow of hot money.

Not surprisingly, when faced with finance costs of that magnitude, the cost of servicing this consumer debt is also horrendously high: 24% of disposable income last year, higher this year. For the famously indebted US consumer, the cost of servicing debt is “only” 16%, while for the other big emerging economies, such as China and India, the rate is well below 10%. Hardly surprising, the delinquency rate on these debts is rising rapidly. In short, expect unbalanced Brazil to tumble into trouble too.

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