The Duran: Five Years of Sanctions, and Russia is still growing

The Duran’s Alex Christoforou and Editor-in-Chief Alexander Mercouris discuss the state of the Russian economy under Vladimir Putin, five years after the first sanctions were imposed on Russia for the accession of Crimea to the Russian Federation. Its monetary policy is discussed and contrasted with the negative rates in Western countries.

My comment: The Russian Central Bank is not immune from the same fallacious economic thinking we see in the West. Conventional wisdom says that high interest rates combat inflation, while low interest rates fuel it. Obviously, this mantra falls short when you apply it to our current reality. One country leader who gets it is Turkey’s president, who, like Trump, is pressing his own Central Bank head to relax borrowing costs. Higher interest rates are good for people who save in Treasury bonds, but what percentage of the population holds assets in the form of Russian Treasuries? Pension funds do require Government debt instruments in order to protect themselves against inflation; and Government debt is far safer than [private] commercial paper. Being cut off from foreign capital markets, there’s no reason to keep interest rates high, even with a banking sector left largely unregulated on the asset side.

As for the West, the fact investors are buying bonds which have negative yields means that the outlook on inflation is dismal and they still see this Government-issued instrument of saving as worthwhile. True, negative interest rates are a tax on the reserve accounts banks hold at the central bank. It’s a tax on bank liquidity. But there is no liquidity crisis in countries like Germany, the UK, and the US, and indeed there can’t be such a crisis, as long as their banking sectors meet their capital requirements. When bank assets shrink in value relative to bank liabilities, which are stable in value, this erodes their equity and makes it harder for them to borrow and can even lead to bankruptcy – unless the institutions in question are well-connected to the ruling class, in which case, the Central Bank and Treasury intervene with all sorts of bailout schemes. One reason as to why the Fed, the BoE, and the ECB adopted QE and near zero interest rate policy was in the logic that flooding the banks with reserves will revive lending. This move only makes sense in the fantasy world of mainstream economic thought – which preaches the fiction that banks lend out reserves to customers when they make loans. In reality, however, that doesn’t happen. Loans create deposits, while reserves are shuffled back and forth [as necessary] for legal accounting and settlement purposes only.

In July I wrote a piece on Russia’s macro picture, and pointed out why its budget surplus doesn’t put drag on the domestic private sector, due to the foreign sector’s large deficit against Russia [7 percent of Russia’s GDP in 2018]. With a budget surplus of 2.7 percent of GDP last year, that left Russia’s domestic private sector in a net financial surplus of 4.3 percent of GDP. The same situation is projected for this year.

On the question of affordable Government investment in public infrastructure and public services… it’s not about accruing financial savings before the Government can invest. After all, we’re talking about balance sheet statements [the Sovereign keeping a ledger in his own unit of account], not savings in actual physical materials. Russia has the technology, the skilled labor, and necessary materials to expand public services and physical infrastructure; and it doesn’t require foreign currency for any of this. For a country like Russia, a country with monetary sovereignty, there is never a “lack of its own money.” The challenge, or art of public finance, however, is to conduct fiscal policy in such a manner to accommodate investment, job creation, and income growth while keeping prices in check. So long as wages and profits are rising faster than prices, you achieve real growth, and that’s what matters.

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Government by Blackmail: Jeffrey Epstein, Trump’s Mentor and the Dark Secrets of the Reagan Era

It is here that the full breadth of the Epstein scandal comes into view. It is a criminal and unconscionable blackmail operation that has been run by influential figures, hidden in plain sight, for over half a century, exploiting and destroying the lives of untold numbers of children in the process. Over the years, it has grown many branches and spread well beyond the United States, as seen by the activity of Covenant House in Latin America and Epstein’s own international effort to recruit more girls to be abused and exploited.

All of this has taken place with the full knowledge and blessing of top figures in the world of “philanthropy” and in the U.S. government and intelligence communities, with great influence over several presidential administrations, particularly since the rise of Ronald Reagan and continuing through to Donald Trump.

Read the full article by Whitney Webb here.

Michael Hudson on Real Estate & Speculation

Historian and economist Michael Hudson in a seminar from two years ago on real estate & financial speculation. Well worth the listen. Can’t recommend it enough.

Some Key Takeaways

Land is the most important thing in economics, the largest resource, and that’s why it’s the least talked about in the economics profession, hostage and or ally to the vested interests.

Thorstein Veblen observed that finance capital is real estate. The object of real estate developers is to tax the population via rent and interest, to inflate the price of property and then find “a sucker to buy.”

In the US, 80 percent of loans are mortgage loans. And 80 percent of capital gains are comprised of land.

The purpose of a city is to ensure that people can live, work, and do business there. But finance capitalism [as opposed to the industrial capitalism envisioned by the classical economists] is all about turning the city into an investment good – which means eroding the aforementioned activities [living, working, and (wealth creative) business].

Hong Kong’s budget [which includes all the expenses of running the public infrastructure] is based on taxing the rental value of property. The tax scheme it employs is not the Georgist single tax system. Even though the HK Government taxes the rental value of property, it’s still facing rising property prices. That’s because HK doesn’t capture anywhere near the full value of land.

Australian Governments have been content to neglect the manufacturing sector and encourage private debt growth and asset price inflation, relying instead on the resource exports sector – with China being their biggest customer.

The Chicago Boys, the first thing they did in Chile after bringing down Allende, in addition to assassinating every land reformer and labor union leader, closed every economics school in the country. They realized that you can’t have a [pseudo] free market without having a totalitarian state [complete control over the curriculum]. The Chicago School controls all of the major referee economic journals in North America – hence the lack of criticism of unearned income [like interest, rent, and patents].

Breaking with the tradition of Classical Economics, the modern ‘free market totalitarians’ insist that there is no economic rent, that there is no free lunch.

Big lenders to developing countries [Hudson cites Argentina as an example] try to assess the growth in the balance of payments of the debtor nation in question, in order to pocket all that growth for themselves.

The FIRE sector [finance, insurance, and real estate] effectively imposes a private land value tax on the country. Would-be debtors outbid themselves, who will pledge more of the rental value to the bank.

Foreign oligarchs wish to place their money outside, in case their Governments will try and confiscate their illicit wealth. Instead of putting their money in the stock and bond markets, they prefer to put it into real estate. This leads to asset price inflation, making it harder for households, workers, and SMEs to live, earn, and operate.

To the ‘rich people create jobs’ myth, Hudson argues that many in fact are job destroyers. He gives the example of a corporate raider, who borrows money at 1 or 2 percent from a bank, with which he acquires a company whose stock yields 6 or 7 percent, he doesn’t want to hire more people; he wants to lay off workers, to cut corners, to use the pension fund to pay the bank, and to threaten workers with company default if they don’t give up their current pension plans and other benefits.

The way to make money fastest is in an economy that’s being looted. Adam Smith said the rate of interest [referring to the interest payments the population had to make to the creditors] is often highest in countries going fastest to ruin.

Hudson says that the one identity that’s left out in Identity Politics is the identity of the person who has to work for a living.

The dream of finance capitalism / rentier markets is neofeudalism: that all income above subsistence be pledged to the rent-seekers, to the usurers, to the monopolists, to the plutocracy.

The practice of a Government borrowing in foreign currency [swiss franks and euros for instance] to finance domestic projects, which will require domestic currency to be printed anyway is ‘fake economics.’ Instead of being stuck with paying principal plus interest in a foreign currency [to fatten bankers], it’s much better for the Government to simply print its own interest-free currency.

High population levels don’t inflate property prices. Hudson gives India and China as examples and contrasts them with Western countries. It’s how much the banks are able to squeeze from the population that determines property prices, not the population level itself.

John Stuart Mill said that economic rent is what landlords make in their sleep.

There’s agreement among all the mainstream parties that the top 10 percent wealthiest in society should benefit at the expense of the bottom 90 percent.

Why do politicians allow financiers to dictate to them economic policy? Bribery, campaign contributions, blackmail, and crime.

For old people and retirees, who can’t afford to pay land value tax, the Government can freeze the money obligation on them for a given time period. However, the back tax [the arrears] will be collected from the sale of the property when the owner dies or moves out. Nobody has to be kicked out in the streets.

My enumeration ceases here. But there are many other important points Hudson makes. I encourage readers to make time and watch the whole seminar. To me, the notion of seizing the Natural Commons for the people is not only economically sound, but morally just, whether one’s of a particular faith or no faith. Treating land as capital, as a commodity, an instrument for speculation – to me – is not only economically unsound and false, but a sin against Man and an affront to God. In spite of my atheist brain, that is how my heart perceives it.

Exiled Oligarch bitches about the CCP

Kyle Bass interviews infamous Chinese businessman Guo Wengui, also known as Miles Kwok, to hear a series of ‘shocking’ accusations against the Chinese Government and Party. Kwok talks about the workings behind several recent high-profile news items and touches on the CCP’s management of the economy. He also makes an alarming forecast about Alibaba co-founder Jack Ma. Filmed on October 5, 2018 at an undisclosed location.

My comment: China’s foreign currency reserves DO NOT sit within China, but in special accounts at the ledgers of foreign central banks. US dollars owned by the Chinese [in reserves and treasuries] sit on the Federal Reserve’s ledger! These accounts can be frozen or deleted outright, if there’s sufficient political will for such an action, just like the US and the UK did with Venezuela’s foreign assets. China’s economic model rests on being a huge net importer of aggregate demand. China’s physical output capacity is unquestionable, it’s a fact. To say that the Chinese economy is fake is nonsense. As for the amount of bad loans Chinese banks make, what’s so surprising? Look at all the bad debt, at all the derivatives in Western countries. China isn’t in danger of insolvency. The Government spends and taxes in its own fiat currency. It can operate with negative equity, denominated in its own currency, indefinitely. The CCP makes an assassination look like an accident. The US-Israel Deep State makes an assassination look like a suicide [if Epstein’s death wasn’t faked]. His prediction that the CCP is going to collapse in two years time is pure fantasy.

I find it amusing that rich businessmen associated with governments unloved by the Western Establishment are called oligarchs, but if these oligarchs are critical of their own governments and friendly toward the Western Establishment, they are deemed as honest merchants, honest entrepreneurs, and even whistle blowers. It doesn’t matter that the Saudi regime violates human rights and liberties, that it tortures and kills people – it doesn’t matter because the Saudis treat oligarchs well. And that’s what matters in the eyes of the West. We don’t have a problem with your methods, with your crimes, so long as you show respect to our trans-national ‘business community.’

Kyle Bass, even though expressing doubt over some of Kwok’s claims [in some cases pure slander, like the reference to Hu Jintao] didn’t ask for any type of proof. It’s no secret that corruption and violent score-settling exists among and between China’s elites within the political sphere and the bureaucracy [the party-created and state-created oligarchs]. But why must we act so surprised, as if these things don’t happen in our own countries too, I don’t know?

The 2nd Zimbabwean Hyperinflation

by Serban V.C. Enache

Zimbabwe is once again facing rampant inflation, a rate of almost 100 percent recorded in the month of May.

I felt the need to investigate its macros. As usual, the graphs are based on info from tradingeconomcis. An important development is that last month, the Government removed the legal tender status of foreign currencies and made the new Zimbabwean Dollar [RTGS] the sole legal tender.

The country dropped its national currency back in 2009, and replaced it with a multi [foreign] currency system in efforts to combat hyperinflation at the time. The recent reverse measure, taken by Emmerson Mnangagwa’s administration, comes in response to dire commodity shortages across the country. Mnangagwa replaced Robert Mugabe as president two years ago in a coup. However, without sufficient US dollars to pay for imports, the country’s fuel stations have frequently run out and gasoline prices more than doubled between the months of January and April.

Fuel going up, coupled with the currency’s depreciation, made the cost of food, transportation, and housing utilities to soar. Due to the lack of confidence, as expected, more and more vendors set prices in US dollars.

In a milestone deal with the IMF last month, the Government agreed to cease net money creation [deficit spending] in order to pay its bills, which was a root cause of the sudden hyperinflation. The IMF is monitoring economic reforms for a year under a mutually agreed program. Debt relief was promised at the end of this year, provided the Government respects the deal. Companies are meant to trade RTGS dollars on an official market, but there were few takers. Analysts said that the Government’s gamble to force greater adoption of the RTGS might very well backfire, pushing transactions in foreign currencies underground.

With all these developments in mind, let’s see Zimbabwe’s flow of funds, and later on we’ll look at other indicators. The country has been a net exporter of Aggregate Demand and a net importer of goods for ten years straight. The Domestic Private sector [composed of domestic firms and households] has been going severely into debt for those same ten years. Only in the last two years was it able to net save financial assets, when the Government seriously expanded fiscal deficit spending.

We also see how the country’s money supply shot up, especially in 2018 and 2019. The M2 measurement [which includes cash and checking deposits + savings deposits, money market securities, mutual funds, and other time deposits] reached an all time high of 10.55 billion US dollars last March.

The unemployment figure has remained stable throughout years, but I don’t put much faith in the accuracy of this data, simply because of how the State defines being unemployed. For example, people like subsistence farmers, who consume all of their own output, are categorized as employed. And more to the point, the graph below is based on the “strict unemployed” definition [one who has been without work, is available for work and is actively seeking work]. The broader definition doesn’t require the latter condition.

Those working in the grey [informal] economy include people who do unpaid labor for a family business or paid employees who are not entitled to sick leave or paid holidays. In Zimbabwe, there are a great many who work in these circumstances. If we count as employed those workers on a payroll with taxes deducted at source and pension coverage, then the unemployment estimate is huge.

On to trade. South Africa owns the largest share of Zimbabwe’s exports. In my opinion, the country is far too dependent on its southern neighbor for commerce, and South Africa’s socio-political stability looks bleak these days. It would be better to seek out markets in different countries, in order to minimize risk and better handle potential negative demand shocks [for Zimbabwean exports] and negative supply shocks [for Zimbabwean imports].

The graph below shows Zimbabwe’s exports by countries of destination.

The graph below shows Zimbabwe’s imports by countries of source.

According to the World Bank, Zimbabwe’s exports sector as percentage of GDP last year was 22.9 percent and its imports sector 25.5 percent.

It’s safe to say that strategic bilateral relations cannot be formed, so long as Zimbabwe’s political class doesn’t compromise on a certain vector the country needs to maintain long term. Foreign investors [state and private agents] won’t be willing to come in, if they believe their investments will be at risk at the next election cycle, or if the chances for political instability and social upheaval are high. In recent years, Russia has been paying more attention to Africa, the northern states in particular, investing mostly in oil rigs and nuclear power plant deals. That’s one potential partner state with which the Mnangagwa administration should seek to do business.

Going back to Zimbabwe’s main trade partner, South Africa… that country is experiencing serious problems in rising criminality, and Ramaphosa’s land reform [confiscation without compensation] is bound to fail. In South Africa, since 1994, 21 percent of farms were put into Black African ownership. But more than 80 percent of those farms failed to remain economically active. If you ask Black farmers the reason for that miserable success rate, they blame the Government, and that’s absolutely true. That’s how you know it was a simulation of reform and not a legit effort behind it; because a singular reform, in and of itself, can’t be successful when everything else remains the same. In order to be a commercial success, an agribusiness requires access to infrastructure, to financial and physical capital, crop insurance, skilled labor, competent management, and access to markets capable of absorbing its output at a price which covers operation costs plus the markup.

South Africa [and Zimbabwe] needs a holistic approach to its national problems, and that means a combination of measures. Changing ownership doesn’t fix anything. The goal should be to decommodify land, which can be done via nationalization or [my personal preference] through site value taxation. Complementary measures should include: community land trusts, community banking, a national infrastructure investment plan, a national health care and education service, a national trade strategy, and last but not least, asset-side reform of the financial sector.

Reducing bureaucracy should be a priority as well. Currently, Zimbabwe is ranked 155th in 190 countries in the category of ‘ease of doing business.’ The more complex the laws and regulations are, the more wasteful and corrupt the system is. The State-dirigist method and Single Tax philosophy don’t require more time spent between citizen and bureaucrat, quite the opposite!

After Mugabe’s land reform, Zimbabwe isn’t out of the woods, and its population is growing too.

Using the printing press without any regard to budgetary rules, without any clear goal in mind, will only make the situation worse. The Zimbabwean Dollar [RTGS], in order to appreciate in value, requires a combination of tighter supply and higher demand for it. The Government’s specialists need to determine the country’s potential output vis-a-vis actual output and adjust fiscal policy in consequence. A negative output gap occurs when actual output is less than what the economy can produce at full capacity – while a positive output gap is the reverse and is inflationary.

The Government should aim for a near zero fiscal deficit; should temporarily ban the importation of luxury items, at least for a few years if not several years; should prioritize the importation of vital commodities – fuel, water, pharmaceuticals, grain, milk, and the like. The Central Bank should be ordered to run permanent zero interest rate policy. Reduced interest payments into the economy means a smaller supply of Zimbabwean currency. And the Government should only accept RTGS in payment of its exports, and it should only guarantee bank deposits denominated in RTGS. This combo would be sufficient to halt inflation, bring price stability and political confidence in state institutions and fuel hope for a better tomorrow.