Our Fragile Markets, or Why China’s Your Daddy

By Henry Teitelbaum, Editor, P3 Planet

There seems to be very little western investors, governments or central banks can do to stem the tide of contagion from China’s collapsing stock markets.

While it’s tempting to dismiss this selloff as merely a correction in equity markets after they hit sky-high valuations, it’s troubling to see how quickly the wealth of millions of people has evaporated. Of greater fundamental concern for markets is that as China’s export-driven juggernaut slows, there are no real economic growth engines in the world to replace it. The fact is that our economies remain weak and vulnerable, and for that we have ourselves to blame.

During the past 20 years, when China’s booming economy was busy exporting goods and importing western technology and capital, governments in the US and Europe did very little to mobilize investment in the essentials of future growth at home. In Europe, the focus was on futile efforts to rein-in social spending, reform labor markets and keep jobs from disappearing, while in the US little attention was paid to economic fundamentals. Instead, successive governments, Democratic and Republican alike, threw everything behind politically popular efforts to expand home ownership to the millions.

Critically, nothing much happened at either the federal or state level to develop the public infrastructure that would be needed to support a thriving and productive 21st century economy. Whether it was upgrading roads and bridges, rail networks and airports, or building schools and public healthcare facilities, investment utterly failed to keep up with society’s needs. What we got instead was the biggest housing bubble in US history.

US Labor Productivity

Wrong-Headed Crisis Response

Even after that bubble burst, western leaders ignored or were thwarted from making these investments. Across the Euro-zone, governments focused on a self-defeating exercise in fiscal austerity, while in the US, an initial investment in fixing public roads was followed by political gridlock. Despite the opportunity to borrow long-term at historically low cost,  governments in both the US and Europe continually failed to make these urgently needed growth-generating investments.

The private sector has also failed us. Businesses across the US and Europe — rather than make bold investments in their flat-lining economies — have been sitting on their expanding piles of cash for years. Dividends to investors reached record levels while companies waited for that elusive economic turnaround that never seemed to take hold. Predictably, when the investment-starved turnaround finally did come, it was weak and woefully inadequate.

So here we are. The US, Europe and Japan are all still drowning in debt, either outright, or as a percentage of GDP. And investment spending, such as it is, isn’t anywhere near where it needs to be to allow economies to grow their way out of debt. So western economies, markets and indeed their financial systems are all looking very fragile indeed.

Investment Opportunities Ignored

It didn’t have to come to this. Investments in infrastructure create enormous value for economies that fully justify their cost. In the short-term, they generate jobs, which helps to put money into circulation in the economy through increased spending on goods and services. Whether it is public money, or private sector investment through Public Private Partnerships, the multiplier effect that follows quickly generates economic activity and tax revenue for the government.

Longer term, the completed asset supports better services for both the public and private sectors, leading to a more productive economy and a more attractive investment destination for both domestic and foreign businesses. The debt generated from building these public assets can also make for a safe, long-term  investment that can contribute to the stability of domestic markets in the face of turbulence elsewhere in the world.

Studies have repeatedly shown that infrastructure investments, particularly during times of economic bust, generate a much higher fiscal multiplier than other types of government investment, (http://www.frbsf.org/economic-research/publications/economic-letter/2012/november/highway-grants/).

In effect, they provide a Keynesian lift to aggregate demand at precisely the time when it is most needed. Further out in time, according to the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco, there’s a medium term boost to the economy when the asset, in their example a public road, increases the economy’s productive capacity.

The SF Fed concludes that combining these multiplier effects can mean that every $1 of government spending produces “at least” $2 of economic output.

China’s Treasury Bond Option

The colossal failure of western developed economies to adopt growth-oriented investment policies means their markets will remain extremely vulnerable to exogenous shocks such as the one China has generated. And it’s not just equities. Treasury yields could be in for a similar shock if China, now the biggest holder of US Treasurys ($1.27 trillion as of June 2015), decides to start selling off its holdings to support its markets.

In the absence of western leadership, what’s likely to happen in our fragile markets going forward will depend on how quickly and successfully China re-positions its economy towards domestic consumption. Let’s hope they decide they don’t need to sell their Treasury holdings to get there.

This blog has appeared in Medium and Business Daily.

Henry is available for freelance commissions and long-term assignments and is reachable at hthq@hotmail.com.