The monetary distortions, imbalances and perverse incentives are finally bearing fruit: trade wars.
What ignites trade wars? The oft-cited sources include unfair trade practices and big trade deficits. But since these have been in place for decades, they don’t explain why trade wars are igniting now.
To truly understand why trade wars are igniting and spreading, we need to start with financial repression, a catch-all for all the monetary stimulus programs launched after the Global Financial Meltdown/Crisis of 2008/09.
These include zero interest rate policy (ZIRP), quantitative easing (QE), central bank purchases of government and corporate bonds and stocks and measures to backstop lenders and increase liquidity.
The policies of financial repression force risk-averse investors back into risk assets if they want any return on their capital, and brings consumption forward, that is, encourages consumers to borrow and buy now rather than delay purchases until they can be funded with savings.
As Gordon Long and I explain in the second part of our series on Trade Wars, financial repression generates over-capacity and over-consumption: with credit almost free to corporations and financiers, new production facilities are brought online in the hopes of earning a profit as the global economy “recovers.”
Soon there is more productive capacity than there is demand for the good being produced: this is over-capacity, and it leads to over-production, which as a result of supply and demand, leads to a loss of pricing power: producers can’t raise prices due to global gluts, so they end up dumping their over-production wherever they can.
If the producers are state-owned enterprises subsidized by governments and central banks, these producers can sell at a loss because their only function is to sustain employment; profitability is a bonus.
Over-capacity, subsidies and over-production force corporations to slash costs to maintain profitability. Cost-cutting is a never-ending process in a world stuffed with too much capacity: labor costs are slashed by offshoring factories and offices; quality is reduced by buying the cheapest low-quality components and scrimping on quality controls, R&D is trimmed and testing is hurried to get the next product cycle out early enough to maintain a slight competitive advantage.