When Every Country Wants to Sell, Who Buys?

Understandably for the US, which sustained a consumption supercycle for several decades, the post-financial crisis period has kicked off a new trend: Americans want to consume less, and make more.

Americans want to own less stuff, use less energy, and produce their own goods. In short, Americans want to sell. Indeed, it has been the stated goal of the current Administration to significantly increase exports for several years now. And, it's working.

However, to extract itself from several decades of deflation, Japan has also wanted to increase its exports to the world.

And Europe, too, wants to increase exports to extract itself from its own deflation. Eurozone inflation just fell again, to a quarter of the ECB's target. That's the lowest reading since the crisis year, 2009.

And with inflation just barely above 1.00% in the US, America also wants to increase exports. Indeed, in the most recent trade data from the Commerce Department, US exports hit an all time high in 2013 as the country now emerges as a huge, first order extractor and exporter of raw commodities. But the problem here, if it has not become obvious, is that all regions of the OECD want to significantly increase exports at the same time.

In the latest data, total exports from the US in February reached $190.4 billion. For the full year 2013, US exports totaled $2.271 trillion--a very significant portion, nearly 14%, of our GDP Let there be no doubt that the US economy is increasingly reliant on exports:

The composition of US exports is predictably concentrated now in commodities, and especially chemicals and petroleum products.

Americans meanwhile have started to consume again to be sure. However, in conformity to many of the conditions which now characterize the US economy, the US is importing goods at a more suppressed level. 2013 imports are flat, at around $2.74 trillion, when compared to last year. Also, at this level, they are only just a little above the 2008 figure of $2.5 trillion. Given current trends, the US will surely see successive, new all time highs in total exports.

But more importantly, if the trend continues for another several years, the gap between imports and exports will narrow further, and the US is going to start running trade surpluses. For the US to flip from its longstanding position as trade deficit nation to trade surplus nation may bring renewed strength in the US Dollar, and with it, the kind of ongoing struggle that most exporters experience when trying to export through a strengthening currency.

Meanwhile, exports have been the optimal goal of the developing world for decades. The Non-OECD has lived off trade surpluses for a long time, cleverly exploiting over-consumption in the West. Unsurprisingly, It's rather obvious that one of the problems emerging economies have had to face the past five years is the lower level of demand emanating from the developed, OECD, economies. When you begin to see the challenge of a world in which everyone wants to produce, sell, and export -- rather than borrow, import, and consume -- you can begin to understand better the fundamental problem the world economy faces.

We are in a quest for final demand.

The Scarcity of Inflation

Understandably, with the economies of Japan, Europe, and the US off the lows from several years ago, many are now looking forward to an era of rising interest rates and the return of inflation.

The problem is that inflation readings not only are failing to tick up, they have been falling. Everywhere.

Inflation readings over the past two years have fallen in Europe, and in the US. In Japan, which has attacked its currency with vigor the past year, food and energy inflation have finally started to rise to a meager 1.00%--but this has not helped wages. Even in the developing world, inflation has slowed down remarkably. It would seem that in the developing world too, after 15 years of very strong growth and a great industrial buildout, demand is also running at lower levels. From a late December Wall Street Journal Article, Low Inflation Test World's Central Banks:

Inflation in both advanced and emerging economies picked up in the early stages of the economic recovery, eventually straddling central banks' inflation targets closely enough that many policy makers were charting an exit from their extraordinary monetary policies. But persistently weak demand in recent years has pushed inflation back into uncomfortably subdued territory...Fed officials have forecast consistently that inflation would pick up, but that hasn't happened...The situation in Europe is perhaps more fraught. European Central Bank President Mario Draghi has said the euro currency bloc may see a "prolonged" period of low inflation. ECB forecasts support that view, with inflation averaging just 1.3% in 2015, well below its target of just under 2%...In China, the world's second-largest economy, inflation as measured by consumer prices has fallen to below 3.5% this year from 8% five years ago. Some economists say years of state-directed overinvestment in factories and a buildup of excess capacity could push prices even lower.

So, all nations now want more inflation in order to lessen the burden of the private and public debts built up over the past decade. And also, most national economies wants to tip the balance of consumption and production in favor of production, so that the cash flows from sales rise and are also available to service past debts.

The paradox of thrift, which marked the first couple years after the 2008 crisis, is still very much with us. But the paradox of thrift has gone global now. Interestingly, for very conservative economic thinkers, this is presumed to be a very good thing. Everyone, everywhere, making and producing more than they consume, is held up as an ideal.

The problem is that someone has to consume. Otherwise, the global economy is going to tip back into overproduction. Which will of course aggravate deflation.

US Federal Reserve Capitulates to Low Inflation

One of the more startling revelations on the inflation question came from the US central bank in late December, when its long term forecast for inflation essentially admitted its own inability to generate inflation. Incredibly, the Federal Reserve forecast allowed that its own inflation target of 2.00% would be missed for the next two years (See: FRBM Economic Projections December 18, 2013 - opens to PDF). Let's pause and consider the implications.

Since the implosion of the Tech Bubble in the year 2000, the United States has undertaken not one, but two historically aggressive monetary easing cycles. The first took rates down to 1.00% and the second to 0.0%, where we stand today. Also during that time the US spent trillions on two wars, made significant boosts to security and defense spending, and conducted fresh rounds of investment in roads and highways. After the financial crash of 2008, the US increased fiscal spending on infrastructure once again, this time on rail and renewable energy. In addition the US oversaw a sustained period of well above trend expenditures on social safety net programs. The majority of economic observers, not only on the political right but also on the left, worried intensely about the potential effects of soaring budget deficits in the years after 2008. And yet, after more than a decade of wildly above trend government spending, much of which called upon natural resources, there is no monetary inflation to be found. Most important, as of the most recent jobs report, wages remain stagnant.

Indeed, the only sustained inflation that can be found both in the United States and globally is sourced directly from two key areas: energy and food. Here, it's not reflationary policy but peak cheap oil, soaring populations, upgraded food diets, the repricing of fertilizer, and the decline of arable land per capita that are to blame. The weak dollar explanation for resource price pressure has long, long faded into the past. That was a story with some relevance over ten years ago, when the sky-high US Dollar began its great decline after the bursting of the Tech Bubble, and as natural resources globally began to reprice. You could be forgiven, therefore, for concluding that the Repricing of the Planet which began in 2000 was the direct result of global monetary policy. That's only partially true.

Rather, the world economy has seen consumption crowded out by resource cost pressures, thus forcing most world economies into a classic race to devalue in order to maintain trade flows. Indeed, the only global currency that has roughly tracked the repricing of the planet is Gold, which is still up nearly five times since the lows of last decade. Moreover, it is bracing to consider that without successive bubble creation, the supertrend towards lower inflation, disinflation, or even outright deflation would have proceeded more quickly.

Mainstream Economists Are Starting to Understand

Since 1995, every bubble that has been created, from tech stocks, to housing, to credit, has eventually burst and deflated. The pattern now coming into view is gaining clarity: an underlying era of secular deflation has spread slowly among the developed economies. Monetary authorities have only fought off this trend periodically, as each new reflationary effort slides backward into deeper levels of disinflation.

In the most recent data release from the OECD, dated April 1, 2014, inflation slowed again, over the past year, to 1.4%. Over the past five years, excepting food and energy, inflation in the OECD has only occasionally risen to the 2.00% level. And over the past two years, even OECD inflation readings including those two categories is below 2.00%. Indeed, inflation in the developed economies has fallen for the third year in a row.

A mainstream economist who finally kicked the door open on this problem was Larry Summers, who in November gave a speech to the IMF asserting a secular era of stagnation has lingered over the OECD for some time now, and that the Europe and the US are in danger of turning Japanese. Summers' speech has fostered a conversation over the past month or two, and Matthew O'Brien wrapped up the various reactions in his piece, Does the US Economy Need Bubbles to Live?:

Larry Summers thinks the economy is broken, and has been for awhile....It's not just the Great Recession and the not-so-great recovery. It's the 8 years before that too. As Summers points out, even low interest rates, deficit-financed tax cuts, and nonexistent lending standards weren't enough to overheat the economy then. Sure, housing prices boomed, but nothing else did. Inflation was low, and unemployment wasn't that low. In other words, demand wasn't excessive, but it wasn't sustainable either...Summers worries that this isn't only a story about our economic past, but about our future, too. That we won't be able to create enough jobs without bubbles, now and forever. It's a new old idea called "secular stagnation." Economist Alvin Hansen first proposed it in the late 1930s when it looked like slow population growth might slow investment, and create a permaslump. But, thankfully, the baby boom, and 16 years of pent-up consumer demand proved him wrong.

Ah, but there's the problem. The prospect for a new baby boom is very low, in an era of falling fertility rates. Moreover, the historic energy transition the global economy has faced the past ten years is now beginning to cut in a surprising direction: high oil prices constrain the global economy from faster growth, but, cheap natural gas and coal fund the bulk of powergrid growth at relatively low cost.

In one sense, this sounds like a goldilocks world: steady, but very slow growth, with low inflation. The difficulty comes when you consider that wages and demand are weak, and global labor remains in surplus at a time when much of the resource repricing from the past decade remains.

In Part II: Why Demand Will Become Even More Scarce, we look at the unlikely prospect that inflation will appear anytime soon. There is little coming in the way of wage growth, and the reserve of surplus labor -- especially in the OECD -- remains fairly high. We will also look at whether energy prices may rise enough to place any pressure on inflation, with particular emphasis on coal and natural gas.

Click here to access Part II of this report (free executive summary, enrollment required for full access).

This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at https://peakprosperity.com/when-every-country-wants-to-sell-who-buys/

Always look forward to an article from Gregor.  Turning Japanese seems the most likely outcome to me.  You can't print more resources and resource constraints are deflationary, because essentially, increased prices for energy and food takes money out of circulation that would otherwise be spent on other goods and services.  Decrease demand on goods and services puts downward pressure on jobs, wages and GDP. I don't expect interest rates or government bond rates to go up any time soon, if ever. Welcome to the post peak world.

I particularly like how his articles are organized and move you through the rationale.  One of my favorites was "The 10 Next Predictable Steps to Japan's Unfolding Disaster" from early 2013.

On my son's 18th birthday his friends came, dutifully. They almost enjoyed themselves. But it is clear that they preferred their company over the internet.
On my son's 21st birthday his mother is taking him overseas to Moldova and Moscow. Is he excited? He is tailing along like a limp rag, dutifully. His greatest concern is "Will he have internet access?"

He has no designs on a driver's license, and zero interest in that great consumer passion-a car. He is content with his 5 year old computers. The 3D monitor was a flop.

His consumer items are Food, hot showers, education and the gym.

His output will be code.

Good luck selling him anything.

Time for a good mental flossing, I think.

A vast number of people who just don't give a damn.
Or words to that effect.


…they just didn't stop it.
There are starving people, largely because poor people don't make a rational decision to refrain from having children they have no reasonable chance to feed.  The 1/2% pulled the strings of governments and controlled the media to maximize their wealth, just as their predecessors did.  The well fed and entertained masses did just what they were encouraged to do, failing to look behind the curtain to see OZ, just like every group before them in human history.

Any other generation, put in the baby boomers place would have done the same thing.  

I tend to place the lion's share of the blame where the lion's share of the wealth goes.  The puppet masters were in the best position to bring about change, yet they chose not to.

Aloha! Mahalos to Mr McDonald. Everything boils down to debt and the corrupt monetary system we now have that makes debt its basis. The scramble for the spoils as mentioned in the Four Horsemen doco can be directly attributed to the decay of our labor units due to the failed "store of value" that our money should have. So if debt is the basis of our monetary value then debt and that credit rating are key and not trade balances. Trade balances apply to every currency except the reserve currency. To use Clinton's catch phrase … IT'S THE MONEY STUPID!
As Mr Robey's link points out there are also a Four Horsemen at the US Treasury. Out of some 35 line items on the US Treasury Daily Statement there are four outlay line items that regularly devour our entire net tax revenues every year. They are Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid and Defense Vendors. Those four outlay line items rise consistently more than any others. How can there be a true recovery when government outlays continue at a historical record pace. Our treasury is making a fool of Keynes!

I do not understand this idea of late that the natural gas boom will save America. As the son of a geophysicist for Chevron I traveled around the world watching this thing called "depletion" take its toll on all of Chevron's oil fields. We went from Venezuela in the 1960s to California in the 1970s to Australia in the 1980s in search of new oil. The talks I have had with royalty owners on the Haynesville Shale, one of the first fracking hypes, are all shocked at how fast their royalty checks have collapsed over a one year period, some as much as 90%. With such a depletion rate how is it that America is saved? It seems that fracking is a very short term energy solution. Is it all just a cheap trick? Is all of our economy and our economists just more cheap trix? Is America really just one cheap trick piled upon many other cheap trix?

It all comes down to basics. Food, water, clothing and shelter. It has been the same since caveman days. You can pretend that life is much more with your iPads and iPhones and nano tech and market bubbles. In reality the American government and its enforced money has evolved into nothing more than Bread & Circus, like Rome in its final days. We're all shoveling monetary smoke …




Aloha!Good luck selling him anything.
Except small screen content! They're buying that in the $$billions!
I too have studied the 20 somethings and they have their small screens like binkies wherever they go. I have a Nexus and I must admit it is a good idea and many times I opt for the small screen rather than the 42 incher! But what I buy is "content". I am down to 30 minute content! Maybe someday I will achieve "Three Minute Nirvana"! The "fix" is down …
We babyboomers have been buying content all our lives in the form of the Brady Bunch, Gilligans Island, Dallas and Miami Vice. The kids now buy content only its not "our content". Its theirs! Its PewDiePie and the likes of Tobascus and they believe in "viral" and they believe in "clips"! In other words their content went from the one hour babyboomer shows down to the millennium five minute clip! Advertisers like the idea that they can get the same perpetual viewers on a five minute video as they could on a hour long Dallas at a fraction of the cost repeating constantly day and night for years on end. Change is all that is constant. Like Sumner Redstone(head of Viacom) preached twenty years ago … CONTENT IS KING!

What a disappointment this piece of writing for me! Where are the questions? What is the willingness of this author to question the "facts" he uses (with statistical data you can prove almost everything outside of  common sense), the ideology he professes (if I remember well his references were Summers and Krugman among some others which I do not know - not exactly the kind of folks that would have developed some deeper understanding of our current predicaments) has a syntax and rational that seems to me at the opposite side of the rational of the crash course.  And he assumes and builds his conclusion on assumptions which may or may not hold water when he uses them as facts and proofs. It is for me still a stretch to imagine a trade surplus for the US except in a situation of total collapse of the US social, economic and political fabric. Thrift! What thrift? Not enough demand? It seems to me the current data show the max demand possible given that nominal and real wages are on the skids, effective workers participation against total population decreases and there is for those concerned, i.e. the middle class no extra money available as is tapped out and can not add any more leverage to their budgets…, low inflation world wide hm tell that an Uruguayan, Swiss, Turk, Argentinian, low middle class US resident…the list is almost endless a.s.o.
This essay does not pass the most simple smell test it seems to me because it is and was the music that was endlessly played at UBS which was for too long my employer. The only weird thing that springs to my eye is how such a guy can be associated to Chris Martensons activities…! Paul Feuermann, Basle and Montevideo

I must point out whenever the "official" inflation rate is sued that it is completely distorted for the few things it does measure, and it utterly excludes far too many things which really ought to be measured.
What it measures wrong are too numerous to go into here, but they include:

  • Using 'owner's equivalent rent' instead of the full cost of buying and owning a home
  • Weighting healthcare at just 4.7% in the CPI basket when healthcare constitutes 17% of GDP
  • Using geometric weighting to exclude anything that has gone up 'too fast' in price 
  • Using hedonics to hold down the prices of things due to 'quality improvements'
On that final point, hedonics, let's just peek at automobiles which the BLS notably and constantly adjusts for quality.

According to the BLS the price of new cars has not really changed all that much…up a skinny 5.4% between 2003 and 2012. [note: I downloaded the data and ran the series.  An hypothetical car starting at $10,000 in 2003 would cost $10,540 at the end of 2012).

But for anyone trying to purchase a car would have found the cost had gone up much more than that.

From the NADA we find that the average car new car price in 2003 was $27,565 but in 2011 it was $30,659 for an increase of 11.2%.

That's a huuuuuge difference and the longer the BLS stays with its massive hedonic revisions the wider that gap will become.

Now I will admit that cars are becoming better but that is not the same as costing less.  They cost more today than in the past, and that means insurance costs more too, among other things.

The other main area where the CPI is totally missing the inflationary picture is with respect to the things it does not cover.

Not included in it are:

  • The cost of government (e.g. a tax increase does not factor in at all....note that there are houses in New Jersey where the property tax bill is up several hundred percent over the past 10 years, but that is not counted in the CPI and so it is not a part of the government's accounting of inflation).
  • Rising asset prices for stocks, bonds and the like.
That last one is a doozy.  It really is the largest legacy mistake of the Greenspan Fed era and it's just plain wrong.



Chris said,

The other main area where the CPI is totally missing the inflationary picture is with respect to the things it does not cover.

Not included in it are:

  • The cost of government (e.g. a tax increase does not factor in at all....note that there are houses in New Jersey where the property tax bill is up several hundred percent over the past 10 years, but that is not counted in the CPI and so it is not a part of the government's accounting of inflation).
  • Rising asset prices for stocks, bonds and the like.
That last one is a doozy.  It really is the largest legacy mistake of the Greenspan Fed era and it's jsut plain wrong.
The central bankers don't even try to hide it either;

We now own just shy of 24 percent of the stock of Treasury coupon securities. Having concentrated our purchases of Treasuries further out on the yield curve, and done so in size, we have driven nominal interest rates across the credit spectrum to lows not seen in over a half century.

This has allowed U.S. businesses to restructure their balance sheets, manage their earnings per share through share buybacks financed with bargain-basement debt issuance, bolster stock prices through enhanced dividend payouts and position themselves for financing growth once they see the whites of the eyes of greater certainty about their economic future. By driving nominal interest rates to half-century lows, we have also reduced the hurdle rate by which future cash flows of publicly traded businesses are discounted. Thus, through financial engineering, we have helped bolster a roaring bull market for equities: The indexes for stocks have nearly tripled from the lows reached in March 2009.


Apparently the author does not have a house he needs fuel for and does not shop and does not eat at restaurants.   I have been surveying small restaurant owners recently who report that costs are getting out of control.  They are turning heat off or way down at night to save money.   John Williams using 1980 era calculation of inflation reports it at ~9% currently which seems more inline with what I and those I talk to are experiencing.   In the crash we can have the prices of everyday needs stuff skyrocket while the casino assets (which is all now under the FED and its partner banks dealing) crash.  How will the ~$16T in foreign hands act when much is returned to the US?   If the FED tries to mop it up it will kill small business.  There is no way out now.

ShadowStats is currently showing 1990 based inflation at roughly 5% and 1980 based inflation at 8-9%.
I sort of go by my gut.  My medical insurance premiums are way up, co-pays are way up, water utility bills are up and food is way up.  These alone represent a significant percentage of my expenditures.  In order for inflation to be 2%, everything else I expend on would have to be deflating significantly.  Guess what?  I haven't noticed anything I spend money on getting less expensive.  Therefore, I ignore what the government is reporting.  

Actually, it's really easy.  I no longer believe much of anything our government says.

[quote=KugsCheese]Apparently the author does not have a house he needs fuel for and does not shop and does not eat at restaurants.   I have been surveying small restaurant owners recently who report that costs are getting out of control.  They are turning heat off or way down at night to save money…  
For those who lived through the "Regan Years" and "Nixon Years" for that matter, there was an ugly term coined - Stagflation.
Everything became more expensive yet, wages stayed the same and the "economy" did not grow. Well, at least for those of us who actually WORKED for a living.
There does seem to be deflation and inflation at the same time. It has been discussed here on PP before. It is most likely the WORST position to be in.
When someone was between a "rock-and-a-hard-spot" situation, a dear departed friend of mine had a favorite saying, "It sucks to be you!"
In this case, "It sucks to be US!"

I've wondered for a long time about the basic problem created when a fraction of a populace can be productive enough to provide everything for everyone.  While seemingly wonderfully abundant on its face, this creates a dilemma.  It is a good situation for those hard-working producers, but how are all the rest of us supposed to make money to earn their products?  Ideally, the economy would be balanced, with everyone having a specialty that earns them a piece of the pie - but sadly it is not so.  The economic model based on earnings breaks down and artificial "make-work" programs are generated to put the rest-of-us to work paid for by transfer payments from the taxes on production.  But when dealing with this problem on a global scale where some countries are willing to begger-thy-neighbor, real inequities appear.  One country with its dollar-hedgemony prints money to keep its standard of living high, and pays another country to do its dirty work who oppresses its workforce in order to be the low-cost producer and capture the market.  Sooner or later the fundamental problem gets out of control, and the consuming country can't afford to buy and the producing country has no customers. 
Should the productive people just give their excess production to the rest of us?  Should world trade be broken up to encourage local economies and provide work for all?  Should everyone receive a guaranteed "income" like Switzerland is talking about?  Should free-markets reign and let the unproductive economic losers die off?  Some economic genius needs to figure out a new model that works for this mass-produced globalized world…

My apologies if this sounds brusque, but to answer that question, "who buys", I think the answer is "I am buying".   I am looking to buy what ever I need from the first country that offers it to me.
Here is my list.

I will buy (doesn't exist yet) a weather tight roof made of all solar panels.  I want this roof and when it appears on the market, I am a buyer.                                                                                                      I will buy an inexpensive three wheel, tilting, all electric enclosed vehicle with cabin heat for winter from the first country that offers it.

I will buy a complete aquaponic, fish/vegetable raising set up from any company from any country that offers it as long as there is complete back up service etc. 

I will buy 3D printers, especially the 3D printer that can make itself.

I will buy lithium ion batteries for my electric car.

There is more on my list as I am sure there are plenty of items on everybody's list.  Everybody in the whole world that is.



Funny you ask.  I'm a solar installer, and there is a weather-proof method of installing solar arrays without an roofing beneath.  Called "easy Roof" by IRFTS.com   Its a large plastic flashing made specifically for solar modules.  Yes, the answer for the "rest of us" is to become one of the productive class by being an innovator of something that everyone wants. 

Although Peak Prosperity WAS sufficiently good to get me to subscribe for a month and I still occasionally review, but when an article appears where the writer makes statements which parrot the government's assertion that there is no inflation I cannot believe what I am reading.
Peak Prosperity loses credibility when such tripe is put forth.  It is almost as bad as Peak Prosperity's promotion of "global warming".  

If Peak Prosperity's propensity for promoting the party platform without positive proof continues, there is no chance of me spending money here again.

Peak Prosperity has had some very good articles and information in the past, but it is quite obvious to any prudent person that low inflation and  global warming are nothing more than government and special interest group propaganda meant to maintain their influence and incomes at the expense of the masses.

Have been on my mind for some time.  Read Ayn Rand "Atlas Shrugged" or at least see the movies (Part 1 and 2…the final part 3 releases this summer.The seemingly unanswerable questions you put forth may be why "they" (you know…THEM) are starting WW III over in Ukraine.  History repeats.

  Sedonix thank you for alerting me about weather tight solar roofs.  I will be looking into that. Rodney7777