Monthly Archives: June 2015
By David Dayen
The Obama administration’s desire for “fast track” trade authority is not limited to passing the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). In fact, that may be the least important of three deals currently under negotiation by the U.S. Trade Representative. The Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) would bind the two biggest economies in the world, the United States and the European Union. And the largest agreement is also the least heralded: the 51-nation Trade in Services Agreement (TiSA).
On Wednesday, WikiLeaks brought this agreement into the spotlight by releasing 17 key TiSA-related documents, including 11 full chapters under negotiation. Though the outline for this agreement has been in place for nearly a year, these documents were supposed to remain classified for five years after being signed, an example of the secrecy surrounding the agreement, which outstrips even the TPP.
TiSA has been negotiated since 2013, between the United States, the European Union, and 22 other nations, including Canada, Mexico, Australia, Israel, South Korea, Japan, Norway, Switzerland, Turkey, and others scattered across South America and Asia. Overall, 12 of the G20 nations are represented, and negotiations have carefully incorporated practically every advanced economy except for the “BRICS” coalition of emerging markets (which stands for Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa).
The deal would liberalize global trade of services, an expansive definition that encompasses air and maritime transport, package delivery, e-commerce, telecommunications, accountancy, engineering, consulting, health care, private education, financial services and more, covering close to 80 percent of the U.S. economy. Though member parties insist that the agreement would simply stop discrimination against foreign service providers, the text shows that TiSA would restrict how governments can manage their public laws through an effective regulatory cap. It could also dismantle and privatize state-owned enterprises, and turn those services over to the private sector. You begin to sound like the guy hanging out in front of the local food co-op passing around leaflets about One World Government when you talk about TiSA, but it really would clear the way for further corporate domination over sovereign countries and their citizens.
Reading the texts (here’s an example, the annex on air transport services) makes you realize the challenge for members of Congress or interested parties to comprehend a trade agreement while in negotiation. The “bracketed” text includes each country’s offer, merged into one document, with notations on whether the country proposed, is considering, or opposes each specific provision. You need to either be a trade lawyer or a very alert reader to know what’s going on. But between the text and a series of analyses released by WikiLeaks, you get a sense for what the countries negotiating TiSA want.
First, they want to limit regulation on service sectors, whether at the national, provincial or local level. The agreement has “standstill” clauses to freeze regulations in place and prevent future rulemaking for professional licensing and qualifications or technical standards. And a companion “ratchet” clause would make any broken trade barrier irreversible.
It may make sense to some to open service sectors up to competition. But under the agreement, governments may not be able to regulate staff to patient ratios in hospitals, or ban fracking, or tighten safety controls on airlines, or refuse accreditation to schools and universities. Foreign corporations must receive the same “national treatment” as domestic ones, and could argue that such regulations violate their ability to provide the service. Allowable regulations could not be “more burdensome than necessary to ensure the quality of the service,” according to TiSA’s domestic regulation annex. No restrictions could be placed on foreign investment—corporations could control entire sectors.
This would force open dozens of services, including ones where state-owned enterprises, like the national telephone company in Uruguay or the national postal service of Italy, now operate. Previously, public services would be either broken up or forced into competition with foreign service providers. While the United States and European Union assured in a joint statement that such privatization need not be permanent, they also “noted the important complementary role of the private sector in these areas” to “improve the availability and diversity of services,” which doesn’t exactly connote a hands-off policy on the public commons.
Corporations would get to comment on any new regulatory attempts, and enforce this regulatory straitjacket through a dispute mechanism similar to the investor-state dispute settlement (ISDS) process in other trade agreements, where they could win money equal to “expected future profits” lost through violations of the regulatory cap.
For an example of how this would work, let’s look at financial services. It too has a “standstill” clause, which given the unpredictability of future crises could leave governments helpless to stop a new and dangerous financial innovation. In fact, Switzerland has proposed that all TiSA countries must allow “any new financial service” to enter their market. So-called “prudential regulations” to protect investors or depositors are theoretically allowed, but they must not act contrary to TiSA rules, rendering them somewhat irrelevant.
Most controversially, all financial services suppliers could transfer individual client data out of a TiSA country for processing, regardless of national privacy laws. This free flow of data across borders is true for the e-commerce annex as well; it breaks with thousands of years of precedent on locally kept business records, and has privacy advocates alarmed.
There’s no question that these provisions reinforce Senator Elizabeth Warren’s contention that a trade deal could undermine financial regulations like the Dodd-Frank Act. The Swiss proposal on allowances for financial services could invalidate derivatives rules, for example. And harmonizing regulations between the U.S. and EU would involve some alteration, as the EU rules are less stringent.
Member countries claim they want to simply open up trade in services between the 51 nations in the agreement. But there’s already an international deal governing these sectors through the World Trade Organization (WTO), called the General Agreement on Trade in Services (GATS). The only reason to re-write the rules is to replace GATS, which the European Union readily admits (“if enough WTO members join in, TiSA could be turned into a broader WTO agreement”).
That’s perhaps TiSA’s real goal—to pry open markets, deregulate and privatize services worldwide, even among emerging nations with no input into the agreement. U.S. corporations may benefit from such a structure, as the Chamber of Commerce suggests, but the impact on workers and citizens in America and across the globe is far less clear. Social, cultural, and even public health goals would be sidelined in favor of a regime that puts corporate profits first. It effectively nullifies the role of democratic governments to operate in the best interest of their constituents.
Unsurprisingly, this has raised far more concern globally than in the United States. But a completed TiSA would go through the same fast-track process as TPP, getting a guaranteed up-or-down vote in Congress without the possibility of amendment. Fast-track lasts six years, and negotiators for the next president may be even more willing to make the world safe for corporate hegemony. “This is as big a blow to our rights and freedom as the Trans-Pacific Partnership,” said Larry Cohen, president of the Communication Workers of America in a statement, “and in both cases our government’s secrecy is the key enabler.”
By Bill Bonner Of Bonner And Partners
Literally, Your ATM Won’t Work…
While we were thinking about what was really going on with today’s strange new money system, a startling thought occurred to us.
Our financial system could take a surprising and catastrophic twist that almost nobody imagines, let alone anticipates.
Do you remember when a lethal tsunami hit the beaches of Southeast Asia, killing thousands of people and causing billions of dollars of damage?
Well, just before the 80-foot wall of water slammed into the coast an odd thing happened: The water disappeared.
The tide went out farther than anyone had ever seen before. Local fishermen headed for high ground immediately. They knew what it meant. But the tourists went out onto the beach looking for shells!
The same thing could happen to the money supply…
There’s Not Enough Physical Money
Here’s how… and why:
It’s almost seems impossible. Hard to imagine. Difficult to understand. But if you look at M2 money supply – which measures coins and notes in circulation as well as bank deposits and money market accounts – America’s money stock amounted to $11.7 trillion as of last month.
But there was just $1.3 trillion of physical currency in circulation – about only half of which is in the US. (Nobody knows for sure.)
What we use as money today is mostly credit. It exists as zeros and ones in electronic bank accounts. We never see it. Touch it. Feel it. Count it out. Or lose it behind seat cushions.
Banks profit – handsomely – by creating this credit. And as long as banks have sufficient capital, they are happy to create as much credit as we are willing to pay for.
After all, it costs the banks almost nothing to create new credit. That’s why we have so much of it.
A monetary system like this has never before existed. And this one has existed only during a time when credit was undergoing an epic expansion.
So our monetary system has never been thoroughly tested. How will it hold up in a deep or prolonged credit contraction? Can it survive an extended bear market in bonds or stocks? What would happen if consumer prices were out of control?
Less Than Zero
Our current money system began in 1971.
It survived consumer price inflation of almost 14% a year in 1980. But Paul Volcker was already on the job, raising interest rates to bring inflation under control.
And it survived the “credit crunch” of 2008-09. Ben Bernanke dropped the price of credit to almost zero, by slashing short-term interest rates and buying trillions of dollars of government bonds.
But the next crisis could be very different…
Short-term interest rates are already close to zero in the U.S. (and less than zero in Switzerland, Denmark, and Sweden). And according to a recent study by McKinsey, the world’s total debt (at least as officially recorded) now stands at $200 trillion – up $57 trillion since 2007. That’s 286% of global GDP… and far in excess of what the real economy can support.
At some point, a debt correction is inevitable. Debt expansions are always – always – followed by debt contractions. There is no other way. Debt cannot increase forever.
And when it happens, ZIRP and QE will not be enough to reverse the process, because they are already running at open throttle.
The value of debt drops sharply and fast. Creditors look to their borrowers… traders look at their counterparties… bankers look at each other…
…and suddenly, no one wants to part with a penny, for fear he may never see it again. Credit stops.
It’s not just that no one wants to lend; no one wants to borrow either – except for desperate people with no choice, usually those who have no hope of paying their debts.
Just as we saw after the 2008 crisis, we can expect a quick response from the feds.
The Fed will announce unlimited new borrowing facilities. But it won’t matter….
House prices will be crashing. (Who will lend against the value of a house?) Stock prices will be crashing. (Who will be able to borrow against his stocks?) Art, collectibles, and resources – all we be in free fall.
The NEXT Crisis
In the last crisis, every major bank and investment firm on Wall Street would have gone broke had the feds not intervened. Next time it may not be so easy to save them.
The next crisis is likely to be across ALL asset classes. And with $57 trillion more in global debt than in 2007, it is likely to be much harder to stop.
Are you with us so far?
Because here is where it gets interesting…
In a gold-backed monetary system prices fall. But the money is still there. Money becomes more valuable. It doesn’t disappear. It is more valuable because you can use it to buy more stuff.
Naturally, people hold on to it. Of course, the velocity of money – the frequency at which each unit of currency is used to buy something – falls. And this makes it appear that the supply of money is falling too.
But imagine what happens to credit money. The money doesn’t just stop circulating. It vanishes. As collateral goes bad, credit is destroyed.
A bank that had an “asset” (in the form of a loan to a customer) of $100,000 in June may have zilch by July. A corporation that splurged on share buybacks one week could find those shares cut in half two weeks later. A person with a $100,000 stock market portfolio one day could find his portfolio has no value at all a few days later.
All of this is standard fare for a credit crisis. The new wrinkle – a devastating one – is that people now do what they always do, but they are forced to do it in a radically different way.
They stop spending. They hoard cash. But what cash do you hoard when most transactions are done on credit? Do you hoard a line of credit? Do you put your credit card in your vault?
No. People will hoard the kind of cash they understand… something they can put their hands on… something that is gaining value – rapidly. They’ll want dollar bills.
Also, following a well-known pattern, these paper dollars will quickly disappear. People drain cash machines. They drain credit facilities. They ask for “cash back” when they use their credit cards. They want real money – old-fashioned money that they can put in their pockets and their home safes…
Let us stop here and remind readers that we’re talking about a short time frame – days… maybe weeks… a couple of months at most. That’s all. It’s the period after the credit crisis has sucked the cash out of the system… and before the government’s inflation tsunami has hit.
As Ben Bernanke put it, “a determined central bank can always create positive consumer price inflation.” But it takes time!
And during that interval, panic will set in. A dollar panic – with people desperate to put their hands on dollars… to pay for food… for fuel…and for everything else they need.
Credit may still be available. But it will be useless. No one will want it. ATMs and banks will run out of cash. Credit facilities will be drained of real cash. Banks will put up signs, first: “Cash withdrawals limited to $500.” And then: “No Cash Withdrawals.”
You will have a credit card with a $10,000 line of credit. You have $5,000 in your debit account. But all financial institutions are staggering. And in the news you will read that your bank has defaulted and been placed in receivership. What would you rather have? Your $10,000 line of credit or a stack of $50 bills?
You will go to buy gasoline. You will take out your credit card to pay.
“Cash Only,” the sign will say. Because the machinery of the credit economy will be breaking down. The gas station… its suppliers… and its financiers do not want to get stuck with a “credit” from your bankrupt lender!
Whose credit cards are still good? Whose lines of credit are still valuable? Whose bank is ready to fail? Who can pay his mortgage? Who will honor his credit card debt? In a crisis, those questions will be as common as “Who will win an Oscar?” today.
But no one will know the answers. Quickly, they will stop guessing… and turn to cash.
Our advice: Keep some on hand. You may need it.
June 5, 2015
Memo to the Fed: you are the enemy of the middle class, capitalism and the nation.
The Federal Reserve is appalled that we’re not spending enough to further inflate the value of its corporate and banking cronies. In the Fed’s eyes, your reason for being is to channel whatever income you have to the Fed’s private-sector cronies–banks and corporations.
If you’re being “stingy” and actually conserving some of your income for savings and investment, you are Public Enemy #1 to the Fed. Your financial security is nothing compared to the need of banks and corporations to earn even more obscene profits. According to the Fed, all our problems stem from not funneling enough money to the Fed’s private-sector cronies.
Fed media tool Jon Hilsenrath recently gave voice to the Fed’s obsessive concern for its cronies’ profits, and received a rebuke from the middle class he chastised as “stingy.” Hilsenrath Confused Midde-Class “Responded Strongly” To “Offensive” Question Why It Isn’t Spending.
Memo to the Fed and its media tool Hilsenrath: we’re not here to further enrich your already obscenely rich banker and corporate cronies by buying overpriced goods and services we don’t need. Our job is not to spend every cent we earn on interest to banks and mostly-garbage corporate goods and services. Our job is to limit the amount we squander on interest and needless spending. Our job is to build the financial security of our families by saving capital and prudently investing it in assets we control (as opposed to letting Wall Street control our assets parked in equity and bond funds).
Your zero-interest rate policy (ZIRP) has gutted our ability to build capital safely. For that alone, you are an enemy of the middle class. Let’s say we wanted to buy a real asset that we control, for example, a rental house, rather than gamble our retirement funds on Wall Street’s Scam du Jour (stock buybacks funded by debt, to name the latest and greatest scam).
Thanks to your policies of ZIRP and unlimited liquidity for financiers, we’ve been outbid by the Wall Street/private-equity crowd–your cronies and pals. They pay almost nothing for their money and they don’t need a down payment, while we’re paying 4.5% on mortgages and need 30% down payment for a non-owner occupied home. Who wins that bidding process? Those with 100% financing at near-zero rates.
Here’s a short list of stuff we don’t need to buy:
1. New house: overpriced. Debt-serfdom for a wafer-board/sawdust-and-glue mansion? Pay your banker buddies $250,000 in interest to buy a $300,000 house? Hope the bursting of the real estate bubble doesn’t wipe out whatever equity we might have? No thanks.
2. New vehicle: overpriced. We can buy a good used car and a can of “new car smell” for half the price, or abandon car ownership entirely if we live in a city with peer-to-peer transport services. We can bicycle or ride a motorscooter.
3. Anything paid with credit cards.
4. Any processed food.
5. A subscription to the Wall Street Journal and other financial-media cheerleaders for you, your banker buddies and Corporate America.
How Wall Street Devoured Corporate America: Thirty years ago, the financial sector claimed around a tenth of U.S. corporate profits. Today, it’s almost 30 percent
Here’s how your cronies have fared since you started your low-interest rate/free money for financiers policies circa 2001: corporate profits have soared:
Now look at median household income adjusted for inflation: down 4%–inflation which we know is skewed to under-weight the big ticket items such as healthcare and college education that are skyrocketing in cost:
And here’s how the middle class has fared since the Federal Reserve made boosting Wall Street and the too big to fail banks its primary goal, circa 1982: the bottom 90% have treaded water for decades, the top 9% did well and the top 1% reaped fabulous gains as a result of your policies.
If you’re wondering why we’re not spending, look at our incomes (going nowhere), earnings on savings (essentially zero) and the future you’ve created: ever-widening income disparity, ever-greater financial insecurity, ever-higher risks for those forced to gamble in your rigged casino, and a political/financial system firmly in the hands of your ever-wealthier cronies.
Capital–which includes savings–is the foundation of capitalism. If you attack savings as the scourge limiting corporate profits, you are attacking capitalism and upward mobility. The Fed is not supporting capitalism; rather, the Fed’s raison d’etre is crony-capitalism, in which insiders and financiers get essentially free money from the Fed in unlimited quantities that they then use to buy up all the productive assets.
Everyone else–the bottom 99.5%–is relegated to consumer: you are not supposed to accumulate productive capital, you are supposed to spend every penny you earn on interest paid to banks and buying goods and services that further boost corporate profits.
This inversion of capitalism is not just destructive to the nation–it is evil. Funneling trillions of dollars in free money for financiers while chiding Americans for not going deeper into debt is evil.
Memo to the Fed: you are the enemy of capitalism, the middle class and the nation.