What is going on with China right now ?

China was admitted into the World Trade Organization in 2001 with the understanding that they would participate in free trade and to international norms.

Until the 1970s, China’s economy was managed by the communist government and was kept closed from other economies. Together with political reforms, China in the early 1980s began to open its economy and signed a number of regional trade agreements. China gained observer status with GATT and from 1986, began working towards joining that organization. China aimed to be included as a WTO founding member (which would validate it as a world economic power) but this attempt was thwarted because the United States, European countries, and Japan requested that China first reform various tariff policies, including tariff reductions, open markets and industrial policies.

That has not happened. China has followed a mercantilist trade policy, stealing intellectual property, requiring companies selling to the Chinese to share ownership with often corrupt entities owned by the Peoples Liberation Army and relatives of regime principals.

Mercantilism is a policy that is designed to maximize the exports and minimize the imports for an economy. It promotes imperialism, tariffs and subsidies on traded goods to achieve that goal. These policies aim to reduce a possible current account deficit or reach a current account surplus. Mercantilism includes an economic policy aimed at accumulating monetary reserves through a positive balance of trade, especially of finished goods. Historically, such policies frequently led to war and also motivated colonial expansion.[1] Mercantilist theory varies in sophistication from one writer to another and has evolved over time.

America has been largely passive in tolerating this behavior until Donald Trump became president. Some of this passivity may reflect Chinese influence with US politicians.

While it may seem politics as usual in Washington today, some are alarmed.

“Nobody in the 1980s would have represented the Russian government. And now you find so many lobbying for the Chinese government,” said Frank Wolf, a retired U.S. representative from Virginia who long served as the co-chairman of the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission. “I served in Congress for 34 years. I find it shocking.”

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Risk Register

There are, of course, many items that could be placed in a risk register for our ongoing management of COVID-19. I find myself drawn to those categorizable as, or perhaps triggered by, human perception and behavior. By way of limiting the scope of this post to reasonable attention spans, here are my current top 3:

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How to Think About 2019-nCov

In the wake of Ebola, NVD-68, and Zika, we should have all learned our lesson by now. We haven’t. This is 2020—Iowans took a week to count the votes of 5% of their population, and an elderly white Northeastern president is principally opposed by a gaggle of downright ancient white Northeasterners. There aren’t any quick fixes for emergent idiocies like those, but a few simple heuristics will go a long way toward avoiding panic over coronavirus.

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Book Review: Red Plenty, by Francis Spufford

Red Plenty by Francis Spufford

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The idea of centralized economic planning is a very seductive one.  It just seems to make sense that such planning would lead to more efficiency…less waste…and certainly less unnecessary human suffering than an environment in which millions of decision-makers, many of them in competition with one another, are making their own separate and uncoordinated decisions, resulting in pointless product redundancy, economic cycles driving unemployment, and lots of other bad things.

Red Plenty…part novel, part nonfiction…is about the Soviet Union’s economic planning efforts as seen from the inside.  The characters include factory managers, economic planners, mathematicians, computer scientists, and “fixers.”  Published in 2010, Red Plenty is now quite timely in view of the current vogue for socialism in American political discussion.

Marx drew a nightmare picture of capitalism, when everything was produced only to be exchanged; when true qualities and uses dropped away, and the human power of making and doing itself became only an object to be traded.  The alternative? A dance to the music of use, where every step fulfilled some real need, did some tangible good, and no matter how fast the dancers spun, they moved easily, because they moved to a human measure, intelligible to all, chosen by all.

How might this actually be accomplished? Stalin mocked the idea that planning an economy required much in the way of intellectual depth or effort.  Get the chain of command right, Stalin seemed to be saying, build it on the right ideological principles, and all that was left was a few technical details, a little bit of drudgery to be carried out by the comrades at Gosplan with the adding machines.  But it turned out to be a little more complicated than that.

Maksim Maksimovich Mokhov is one of the lords of the Gosplan file room, in which there are hundreds of folders, each tracking the balances and plans for a particular commodity. A good man, who takes his job seriously, Maksim has risen as high as you could go at Gosplan before the posts become purely political appointments..his was the level at which competence was known to reach its ceiling…Not just a mechanical planner, he realizes that the file folders  cast only the loosest and most imperfect net over the prodigious output of the economy as the whole, and has worked to understand the stress points, the secret path dependencies of the plan.  His specific responsibility is the chemical and rubber sector, and he is particularly concerned, at the time when he enters the story, about problems in the viscose subsector.

Arkhipov, Kosoy, and Mitrenko run one of the most important plants in the viscose supply chain, and they are three worried men.  The plan goals aren’t being met, and they know that the path to career death is separated by only a few percentage points of plan fulfillment from the other one, the upward path, the road to glory and local fame. (A couple of decades earlier, it wouldn’t have been just career death on the table.) This plant makes two viscose-derived products, yarn and tire cord.  The yarn line works fine, the tire cord line, not so much…but no problems with the machine can be found.  There is no prospect of getting a replacement machine in any relevant timeframe.

Arkhipov and his associates come up with a plan to solve their problem…read the book to see what it is and how it turns out.

Nikita Khrushchev, in September 1959, told a crowd that “the dreams cherished for ages, dreams expressed in fairytales which seemed sheer fantasy, are being translated into reality by man’s own hands.”  Modern technology, combined with the benefits of a planned economy would make it possible.

Because the whole system of production and distribution in the USSR was owned by the state, because all Russia was (in Lenin’s words) ‘one office, one factory’, it could be directed, as capitalism could not, to the fastest, most lavish fulfillment, of human needs.  

The American exhibition in Moscow in mid-1959 (site of the “kitchen debate” between Khrushchev and Nixon) was attended by 3 million Soviets (including some of the characters in this book), and although many of them thought that the American claims of broad-based prosperity were exaggerated or worse, the experience surely helped feed the longing for a better life for the Soviet Union’s ordinary people.

Leonid Vitalevich Kantorovich pioneered the application of mathematics to the optimization of economic activities…these methods surfaced as a possible toolkit for the planning organizations circa 1960. Could these methods help achieve Khrushchev’s stated goal of broad-based prosperity?

For example, consider several factories, producing a common set of products but with different efficiency characteristics.  Which products should be made by which factories in order to optimize overall efficiency? A set of equations can be constructed representing the constraints that must be observed–labor, machine utlization, etc–and the relative weighting of the variables to be optimized.  Although these techniques have been used to a considerable degree in capitalist countries, they would seem tailor-made for a starring role in a planned economy.  Selling the new methods in the Soviet Union, though, could be tricky:  the linear-programming term “shadow prices”, for example, sounded like something that might have politically-dangerous overtones of capitalism!

One of the first applications involved potatoes, the distribution of same. The BESM (computer) is using Leonid Vitalevich’s shadow prices to do what a market in potatoes would do in a capitalist country–only better. When a market is matching supply with demand, it is the actual movement of the potatoes themselves from place to place, the actual sale of the potatoes at ever-shifting prices, which negotiates a solution, by trial and error.  In the computer, the effect of a possible solution can be assessed without the wasteful real-world to-ing and fro-ing, and because the computer works at the speed of flying electrons rather than the speed of a trundling vegetable truck, it can explore the whole of the mathematical space of possible solutions, and be sure to find the very best solution there is, instead of settling for the good-enough sollution that would be all there was time for, in a working day with potatoes to deliver.

And even in the planned Soviet economy, there is still a market in potatoes, right here in Moscow, the leftover scrap of capitalism represented by the capital’s collective-farm bazaars, where individual kolkhozniks sell the product from their private plots…The market’s clock speed is laughable.  It computes a the rate of a babushka in a headscare, laboriously breaking a two-rouble note for change and muttering the numbers under her breath…No wonder that Oscar Lange over in Warsaw gleefully calls the marketplace “a primitive pre-electronic calculator.”

So put the BESM to work minimizing distance that the potatoes have to travel..a proxy for efficiency and freshness:  price is not a consideration, since the state selling price of potatoes has been fixed for many years.  But BESM can only work with abstract potatoes: Not, of course, potatoes as they are in themselves, the actual tubers, so often frost-damaged or green with age or warty with sprouting tublices–but potatoes abstracted, potatoes considered as information, travelling into Moscow from 348 delivering units to 215 consuming organizations…The economists recognize the difficulty of getting a computer model to mirror the world truly.  They distinguish between working at zadachi, ‘from the problem’, and of fotografii, ‘from the photograph’…This calculation, alas, is from the photograph.  It deals with potato delivery as it has been reported to Leonid Vitalevich and his colleagues.  There has been no time to visit the cold-stores, interview the managers, ride on the delivery trucks. But the program should still work.

The author notes that “the idea that the computer had conclusively resolved the socialist calculation debate in socialism’s favour was very much a commonplace of the early sixties.”

But despite all the planning paperwork, despite the attempts at computerization, people like Chekuskin remain essential to keep the Soviet economy functioning at all.  He is a fixer, he works the system to ensure that his customers–factories, for the most part–can get the parts and materials they need in order to keep operating.  Before the revolution, he was a salesman: now, the economic problem is not selling, but buying.  Chekuskin explains what a real salesman was, back in the day:

You’re thinking of some fellow who works in a sales administration, sits by his phone all day long like a little king, licks his finger when he feels like it, and says, “You can have a litttle bit”…That’s not a salesman.  You see, the world used to be the other way up, and it used to be the buyers who sat around examining their fingernails, hard enough as that is to imagine.  A salesman was a poor hungry bastard with a suitcase, trying to shift something that people probably didn’t want, ’cause back in those days, people didn’t just get out the money and buy anything they could get their hands on.  They had to be talked into it.”

But with Communism, the things changed.  Back then, people didn’t want to buy.  Now, they don’t want to sell.  There’s always that resistance to get past.  But the trick of it stays the same:  make a connection, build a relationship.

Volodya, is a young propagandist recently assigned to the huge locomotive plant in Novocherkassk, a dismal town that also features a university.  Unfortunately, it was classified by the planners as a “college town”, in need of the calorific intake required to lift pencils and wipe blackboards, but there were forty thousand people living and working in the industrial zone out by the tracks now, and between the students and the loco workers, a locust would have been hard put to it to find a spare crumb. White bread was a distant memory, milk was dispensed only at the head of enormous queues.  Sausages were as rare a comets.  Pea soup and porridge powered the place, usually served on half-washed plates.

Eventually, people can’t stand it anymore–and decisions by two separate planning organizations have the result that on the very same day, food prices are increased and so are the production quotas at the locomotive factory.   There is a raucous mass protest, featuring signs like MEAT, BUTTER, AND PAY and CUT UP KHRUSHCHEV FOR SAUSAGES.  The loco plant manager, Korochkin, does not handle the situation well, and the rage grows.

The ensuing catastrophe is vividly described as it is observed by the horrified Volodya.  Troops open fire on the protestors:  26 people are killed an 87 wounded.  Death sentences and long prison terms are handed down.

This was a real event:  it happened in 1962.  News about the events did not appear in the state-controlled press for thirty years.

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Our ‘Xanatos Gambit’ President’s Energy Export Strategy Tree

In my last post — President Trump’s ‘Xanatos Gambit’ Trade Policy — I spoke to how President Trump has set up his political strategy on trade policy to make any outcome on the USMCA Trade agreement that he negotiated to replace the NAFTA agreement would be to his advantage over House Democrats and the “purchased by the multi-national corporation China Lobby” GOP Senators.  In this post I am going to lay out President Trump’s “Global  Energy Dominance” export policy’s “Xanatos Gambit” strategy tree vis-à-vis the 2020 presidential elections.

To start with, I’m going to refer you back to this passage from my last post on how the Trump Administration is “gaming” economic growth measurements:

This is where Pres. Trump’s ‘Xanatos Gambit’ strategy tree kicks in via a macroeconomic and trade policy manipulation of the very simple economic equation of gross domestic product:

GDP = US ECONOMIC ACTIVITY + EXPORTS + FOREIGN INVESTMENT – IMPORTS – EXTERNAL INVESTMENT

The American economy just grew 3.2% in the 1st quarter of 2019.  It would have grown another 0.3% but for the 30-odd day federal government shut down.  The “markets” were expecting 2.5% GDP growth.  The huge half-percent GDP “miss” boiled down to:

1. The USA exported more.

2. The USA imported less and

3. There was more external foreign investment than expected.

All three were the result of a combination of Trump administration policies on oil/LNG fracking, tax & regulatory cuts and trade/tariffs.

The Trump Administration upon coming into office in January 2017 had a huge windfall of energy projects that the Obama Administration had held up approval of in the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.   This windfall neither began nor ended with the  Keystone XL oil pipeline There was a whole cornucopia of oil and natural gas energy infrastructure projects that Democratic Party interests, only some of them environmental, that the Obama Administration was using the FERC to sit on for a whole lot of reasons that I refer to as “The Economic Cold Civil War.

While the media was spending a great deal of time talking about things like the Congressional votes to open the Arctic Wildlife Refuge in the early days of the Trump Administration’s energy policy implementation.  President Trump spent a great deal of his early political capital on getting his earliest political appointments through the Senate to the FERC to get those projects turned loose as a part of President Trump’s “Global  Energy Dominance” export policy.  The first fruit of this export infrastructure energy policy focus started paying off with the  Louisiana Offshore Oil Port (LOOP) coming on-line in 2018.  See this Apr 16, 2019 article by Julianne Geiger at Oilprice.com:

U.S. Doubles Oil Exports In 2018

The United States nearly doubled its oil exports in 2018, the Energy Information Administration reporting on Monday, from 1.2 million barrels per day in 2017.

The 2.0 million barrels of oil per day exported in 2018 was in line with increased oil production, which averaged 10.9 million barrels per day last year, and was made possible by changes to the Louisiana Offshore Oil Port (LOOP) which allowed it to load VLCCs (Trent Note: Very Large Crude Carriers) .

The changes to LOOP and to the sheer volume of exports were not the only changes for the US crude oil industry. The destination of this oil shifted in 2018 as well, and even shifted within the year as the trade row between China and the United States took hold.

Overall, Canada remained the largest buyer of US oil in 2018, at 19% of all oil exports, according to EIA data. During the first half of 2018, the largest buyer of US crude oil was China, averaging 376,000 barrels per day. Due to the trade row, however, US oil exports to China fell to an average of just 83,000 barrels per day in the second half, after seeing zero exports to China in the months of August, September, and October.**

[**Please note above the nice thing about energy exports is how futile a energy user embargo is against it.  China’s economic embargo of US crude products only hurt itself.]

The impact of the Trump Administration’s energy export policies from those early days of his administration in terms of liquefied natural gas (LNG) export facilities are now impacting the American economy. A large part of the extra 0.7% GDP growth achieved over the 2.5% Wall Street forecasts in the first quarter of 2019 came from the Corpus Christ 1 and Sabine 5 LNG export facilities coming on-line in late 2018 and making their first full export capacity quarter in Jan – Mar 2019.  The Cameroon 1 and Elba Island 1-6 LNG export facilities were also scheduled to come on-line in Late Feb-Early March 2019, and were very likely large contributors to LNG export surge.

This is how CNBC described 2019’s 1st quarter:

Robust demand for Texas oil and gas in the first two months of 2019 pushed the state’s export activity into high gear, strongly outpacing the national rate and contrasting with a slight decline by California.

Texas represented nearly 20% of all U.S. exports in the January-February period while California accounted for roughly an 11% share.

California has seen its share of total U.S. exports fall in recent years while Texas has been growing its share due mainly to the new oil boom.

CNBC table of US Exports in the 1st Quarter of 2019 Source: https://www.cnbc.com/2019/04/25/texas-exports-boosted-by-oil-rise-3-times-faster-than-us-increase.html
CNBC table of US Exports in the 1st Quarter of 2019  Source: https://www.cnbc.com/2019/04/25/texas-exports-boosted-by-oil-rise-3-times-faster-than-us-increase.html

And this is only the beginning for the US economy in 2019. See the following text and LNG export facility graphic from a Dec 10, 2018 report by the US Federal government’s Energy Information Administration:

U.S. liquefied natural gas export capacity to more than double by the end of 2019

U.S. LNG exports continue to increase with the growing export capacity. EIA’s latest Short-Term Energy Outlook forecasts U.S. LNG exports to average 2.9 Bcf/d in 2018 and 5.2 Bcf/d in 2019 as the new liquefaction trains are gradually commissioned and ramp up LNG production to operate at full capacity. The latest information on the status of U.S. liquefaction facilities, including expected online dates and capacities, is available in EIA’s database of U.S. LNG export facilities.

EIA projection of Liquefied Natural Gas Export Capacity from 2016 - 2021. Date of projection Dec 2018
EIA projection of U.S. Liquefied Natural Gas Export Capacity from 2016 – 2021. Date of projection, Dec 2018.

Given the above information, barring a war or serious election year intervention to kill the economy by the Federal Reserve, the cascade of LNG export infrastructure coming on-line in the 2nd and 4th quarters of 2019  will mean something on the order of a full percentage increase in GDP growth (in a range of 4.0% to 4.5%) in Jan – Mar 2020 over Jan – Mar 2019.  That is what going from 3.6 billion cubic feet per day (Bcf/d) of natural gas export capacity to to 8.9  Bcf/d in Dec 2019 does for you.

This extra 1% GDP will be happening just in time for the Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primary.

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