Geithner, Obama and China

Geithner, Obama and China by David Kotok
January 24, 2009

David R. Kotok co-founded Cumberland Advisors in 1973 and has been its Chief Investment Officer since inception. He holds a B.S. in Economics from The Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, an M.S. in Organizational Dynamics from The School of Arts and Sciences at the University of Pennsylvania, and a Masters in Philosophy from the University of Pennsylvania. Mr. Kotok’s articles and financial market commentary have appeared in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Barron’s, and other publications. He is a frequent contributor to CNBC programs. Mr. Kotok is also a member of the National Business Economics Issues Council (NBEIC), the National Association for Business Economics (NABE), the Philadelphia Council for Business Economics (PCBE), and the Philadelphia Financial Economists Group (PFEG).


Following Treasury Secretary designee Tim Geithner’s public confirmation hearing, an extensive Q & A occurred in writing. We have posted a copy of the US Senate Finance Committee’s 100-page text on our website. See: . This is must reading for any serious investor, economist, strategist, analyst, or observer. In this text you will find what is on the minds of the Senators, and you will gain insight into the polices that will be forthcoming from the Obama administration.

One telling example is found in the following quote that has already created international consternation. Geithner twice answered questions about currency and China. In so doing he has placed the Obama administration squarely in the middle of the tension between the United States and the largest international buyer and holder of US debt: China. This happened as the same Obama administration is unveiling a package that will add to the TARP financing needs and the cyclical deficit financing needs and cause the United States to borrow about $2 trillion this year. Two trillion dollars of newly issued Treasury debt – and this is how the question was answered. Not once but twice.

Geithner (on page 81 and again on page 95) answered: “President Obama – backed by the conclusions of a broad range of economists – believes that China is manipulating its currency. President Obama has pledged as President to use aggressively all the diplomatic avenues open to him to seek change in China’s currency practices.”

“Manipulation?” “Aggressively?“ This is strong language. Geithner did not do this on his own authority. These are prepared answers. He is citing the new President, not once but twice.

China’s response was fast and direct. China’s commerce ministry said in Beijing that China “has never used so-called currency manipulation to gain benefits in its international trade. Directing unsubstantiated criticism at China on the exchange-rate issue will only help US protectionism and will not help towards a real solution to the issue.”

Are we seeing the world’s largest and third largest economies calling each other names in the middle of a global economic and financial meltdown?

The world is in recession. The economic growth rates in the major and mature economies are now negative numbers. In China the growth rate is at least 4 and maybe as much as 8 points below last year. All the governments of the world that are running deficits are enlarging them in order to finance stimulus packages. Their central banks are bringing the policy interest rates toward zero. Trillions will need to be borrowed by those governments. Either they will be financed by the outright massive printing of money through the central bank mechanism, or they will be financed by those in the world who have savings. China is the largest single holder of financial savings in the world. Japan is next.

Why are we picking a fight with China? The implied question is why are we alluding to one with Japan, whose currency is currently the strongest of the G4 majors? In a world where global finance is mostly in US dollars, British pounds, euros, and yen, this is engaging in a dangerous sport.

The pound has lost one third of its value against the dollar since the crisis began. It is destined to weaken more. The euro struggles because of the structural issue of having to conduct monetary policy in the sovereign debt of the various euro zone member countries. The gap between those sovereign interest rates has reached nearly 3% between the weakest and strongest. This is an extremely difficult task for the European Central Bank to manage.

And Japan is getting killed by the flight to the strong yen. Japan will intervene soon to weaken the yen; they have as much as said so. The yen is strengthening against the Chinese Yuan; that is Japan’s largest trading partner. The yen is 1.5 standard deviations above the JPY/USD exchange rate. It is nearly 3 standard deviations above the JPY/EUR cross rate that has been established during the ten years the euro existed. And it is over 3 standard deviations above the JPY/GBP cross rate.

So that leaves the dollar likely to get stronger. Right now it is the default choice of the world. We have currency strength not because we are so desirable but because we are currently better than the others. All bad; we’re not as bad as they are. Or all bad and the others are even worse.

So what do we do within 72 hours of launching the Obama administration that says it is seeking “change?” We fire the first public salvo in what could easily become a trade war or a threat to global financial integration.

What makes us so credible? Is it our proven record of regulatory oversight of our financial markets, as demonstrated by the Madoff scandal and the SEC? Is it the way our rating agencies work so diligently to place a coveted “AAA” on paper that was peddled to the rest of the world and was found out to be highly toxic? Is it the way we honor the promises of federal agencies by having tier-one-eligible Fannie and Freddie preferred held in the US and abroad by institutions, and then essentially cause a structural default on that preferred (actually, dividend suspension)? Or is it the way the actions of Treasury and the Federal Reserve allowed a primary dealer (Lehman) to fail, thus triggering a global contagion?

C’mon? Where is the plan to restore confidence and credibility and transparency and consistent policy for the United States? And how does the Obama administration believe that launching a fight with China is beneficial?

In the 1930s the severe recession of 1929-1931 was turned into the depression of 1931-1933 because of protectionism. Every historian knows that. Every economist learns it in school. This is well-known by Geithner and even better-known by Larry Summers and Paul Volcker. They are the three members of the Obama economic troika.

The statement Geithner repeated twice was certainly known to them in advance. Why did they not temper it? What is the plan? Do they want to threaten and see if China backs down? This, too, is dangerous. Do they intend to pursue the Schumer tariff scheme? There are more questions than answers.

Lastly, Larry Summers was going to attend the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. He has cancelled. Why? Was it because he did not want to have to face the private conversations that would follow such statements as have been made by Geithner in the name of the President?

Watch Davos closely. And remember that the absence of statements is as revealing, if not more so, than the presence of them. Not one mention of trade openness appears in our reading of the 100 pages of answers to the Senate. Maybe someone else can find an affirmation of free and open trade. I cannot.

We fear protectionism. It starts with rhetoric. We now have that threat. If it is pursued, it ends badly for everyone. No one wins.

Geithner’s answers are sobering. We are now in the realm of fiscal policy and national policy. This is not in the realm of the central bank; the Federal Reserve is not the player here. The Fed is doing all it can to unfreeze the financial system and restore it to functionality. If permitted to complete its task, that policy will work. If stymied or corrupted by conflicting policy in trade or federal finance, the recession will worsen and the pain will become more severe.

We are maintaining our 50-50 allocation between bonds and stocks in balanced accounts. Our normal baseline is 70% stocks and 30% bonds. Thus we are 20 points below baseline in stocks and 20 points above in bonds. We were planning to raise the stock portion as the credit markets improved. That change is now on hold. We continue to favor tax-free municipal bonds and taxable high-grade instruments and continue to avoid Treasury notes.

We believe cash at near zero percent interest is not desirable. We find that the amount of cash on the uninvested sidelines now approaches nearly half the value of the security markets. It has no precedent at that size. It represents future purchases of securities when and if this mess finally starts to clear.

David R. Kotok, Chairman and Chief Investment Officer, email:

Copyright 2008, Cumberland Advisors. All rights reserved.

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