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The Oh-no moment…

I couldn’t resist the pun. Long time readers of the blog would know very well that the insights of Taiichi Ohno hold a special place in my corpus of intelligent and wise things to have around. So it is a rather “Deming – like” sort of conundrum to have at hand an Oh No!! moment from Japan itself : Bernanke just felt a chill down his spine.

If you are not plugged in into the vast array of paralyzing news that flows around you or perchance missed this rather telling problem that has arisen in Japan of late.

In April 2013, Japan announced a QE program of $1.4 trillion, an amount equal to roughly 25% of the Japanese GDP. To put this into perspective, the US’s QE1, QE 2, QE 3, and QE 4 programs which were spaced out over four years are an amount equal to roughly 16% of US GDP.

When people refer to QE (Quantitative Easing) by the central bank, they almost always refer to it as if it were the only driving factor in the land. You have to remember that both Japan and the US has been running budgetary deficits as well. For Japan, it looks like this : Japan Government Budget (as % of GDP).

Japan Government Budget

For the US, it looks like this : US Government Budget (as a % of GDP)

United States Government Budget

But,

Japan announced a larger program relative to its economy all at once. The idea was that by throwing around a big enough amount of money, Japan’s economy would finally waken from its 20-year slumber and take off.

This effort has been an abysmal failure. Japan’s second quarter GDP grew at just 0.6% quarter over quarter, registering the single biggest growth MISS in a year (economists were expecting 0.9% which, by the way had already been revised lower).

Put in plain terms, Japan announced the single largest QE effort in history, and not only did its economic growth projections have to be lowered, but it is failing to even meet these lowered growth projections.

So, the noted result is that the GDP came in lower than the lowered forecast. For now. Oh no!!!

So what is supposed to happen?

The central bank – BOJ, Bank of Japan, being one of the bigger behemoths (financially speaking) in a country, can wish into existence more money which they then use to buy bonds. Why bonds and particularly govt. issued bonds? The point is that that’s where a lot of people have parked their monies because of the current state of the economy – accepting a nominal return in exchange for safety. By buying bonds with seemingly inexhaustible (though the only currency that is truly inexhaustible is stupidity but even a simple familiarity with the human being shows that they do get tired from time to time) i.e. magically created monies, the BOJ hopes to drive down the yield on the said bonds such that if people holding bonds currently felt that they were getting a whole lot of safety, they were going to get even less return for that safety. Ergo, those monies would be then retrieved and ploughed back into comparatively riskier assets such as stocks (i.e. the preferred funding mechanism for new ventures) which then leads to hiring instead of firing and so on.

Except that the GDP measure that is supposed to show the increase in “virtuous” activity that all this QE was supposed to engender has not worked out as well as one would have expected.

And so what is one to make of this?

Perhaps this Oh-No!! moment can lead us to what I appreciate as the central Ohno (the Taiichi kind) precept i.e. Respect for People. You see, when the BOJ (and as an agent for action, one cannot deal with a more ill-suited agent. In a firm, the BOJ would be the payroll + performance manager combined) wades onto the scene, the fundamental action is to whip people around, to coerce them into an action. You see the problem?

Let’s get something straight here – while stupidity is a truly inexhaustible resource in this world, between the ears of each and every human being is an explosive and creative engine. Unleashing this engine can only be contemplated as an extension of the inherent respect that every man, woman and child are inherently owed as their endowment.

All the machinations of central planners and allied commentators take the track of either, “Messing with/exciting the animal spirits”, or “Devaluing the efforts of people in the past i.e. through inflation” or the like.

As these Oh-No’s pile up, perhaps, it would be a wise thing to see how Ohno studied the matter in a factory on a small island far away…

Post-Scarcity Economics by Tom Streithorst

The LA Times Review of Books has an article by Tom Streithorst about his new book titled – Post-Scarcity Economics. In a sense, he chalks out the parameters of the debate concerning the direction of this country and in general of the world, should a technocrat assume the reins of power.

WE LIVE LIKE GODS, and we don’t even know it.

And so begins this auto-review of this book. There’s lot of meat and potatoes in this review – in fact, it is more than a review:

Progressive economists, led by Paul Krugman, have argued persuasively that what the world economy needs now is government deficit spending to put money in workers’ wallets, to stimulate consumption, to give the private sector a reason to invest and expand. This is the classic Keynesian solution, one proved by years of experience. Krugman tells us that the problem with the world economy now is lack of demand. Indeed, solving the problem of demand has been the essential capitalist dilemma of the past 80 years. As productivity rises, we can make more with the same level of inputs. Demand has to rise just as fast or the economy shrinks. For an economy to be at full employment, demand needs to equal the society’s productive capacity. If it does not, then supply will shrink to meet demand and millions of workers will become redundant. To achieve full employment, we must find a way to instead push demand up to meet the economy’s productive capacity. Since the Great Depression, we have solved this problem of demand three different ways: war, rising wages, and debt.

What I’d like to attempt is a simple minded critique of the same. That is to follow…

Why currency wars happen?

First Ms. Lagarde and now Mr. Bernanke (in the recent testimony on Capitol Hill) assure us that there is no currency war happening. Well, that’s true on the face of it.

However, why do currency wars begin? Because they work. Initially. Unless you’re willing to say the following that the populace of an advanced economy is going to sit back and watch their exports and by implication their jobs affected. But you might say – China has been manipulating their currency for at least a decade.

However, I think the issue with China is that it serves primarily as a low cost manufacturer by default for most of the advanced economies. While each developed economy didn’t particularly like the idea of currency manipulation by China, it affected each equally, more or less. This is quite different when each developed economy is trying to jumpstart their economies and boost exports by devaluing their currencies. The first few actors will benefit from this practice and the longer that these activities persist, the effects die down.

But please be under no illusions – these are desperate measures that have pricing volatility effects on every supply chain.

Amending the Supply Chain Prediction…

NOT!!!

However, here’s Ms. Lagarde of IMF : Lagarde sees Currency Worries, Not ‘War’.

"There’s been lots of talk of currency wars, and we have not seen any such thing as a currency war. We’ve heard currency worries, not currency wars," said Lagarde. "We’ve not seen confrontation but deliberation, dialogue, discussions and clearly this G-20 meeting has been extremely helpful and productive."

Lagarde’s comments echoed those of the G-20 nations on Saturday, who declared that there would be no currency war. This has taken the heat off Japan, which has been criticized for its expansive policies that have driven down the yen following the election of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

We’re all diplomats for now. Like I said in my prediction, we’ll first take the time to get this wrong to the fullest extent possible before we admit to the possibility that it was a war all along. So far we have no confrontations but deliberation, dialogue and discussions only. But confrontations arise from accusations – so until we see all sorts of accusations thrown about, it’s quite alright to be in the mode of Supply Chain worries.

Like this kind:

Bank of Korea Governor Kim Choong-soo told the Wall Street Journal on Sunday that he was concerned over the weakening yen’s impact on his country’s economy. The governor stressed the importance of strengthening financial safety nets to give smaller nations the confidence to not have to stockpile currency reserves.

However, be not alarmed when such protestations erupt from the smaller economies. When you sniff the first wave of accusations between the larger economies, you’d do well to have already taken a long hard look at every and any extended supply chain and start diversifying options – especially options that have a strong currency component to it.

General Motors suspends Volt production

As widely expected, GM is suspending the production of the Volt for five weeks as reported here : General Motors suspends Volt production.

General Motors Co. is suspending production of its Chevrolet Volt electric car for five weeks amid disappointing sales.

A GM spokesman said Friday that the company will shut down production of the Volt from March 19 until April 23, idling 1,300 workers at the Detroit-Hamtramck assembly plant.

The Volt was rolled out with great fanfare in late 2010 but has since hit bumps in the road.

and

GM sold 7,671 Volts last year, below its original goal of 10,000 cars. The company stopped publicly announcing sales targets last year. It sold 1,023 Volts in February and 603 in January.

"The fact that GM is now facing an oversupply of Volts suggests that consumer demand is just not that strong for these vehicles," said Lacey Plache, chief economist for auto information site Edmunds.com.

GM spokesman Chris Lee said the company was "taking a temporary shutdown" of the assembly line.

"We’re doing it to maintain our proper inventory levels as we align production with demand," he said.

Yup, align production with demand.

Now, here’s my good ol’ post about GM’s woes : Will GM go bankrupt again?

A puzzling and precipitous divergence

Its been a few months of good (or rather better) news on the employment front – the employment situation being a lagging indicator implies that the economy is on the mend and has been so for a few months. So what is the divergence then? See here below:

image

This is the Baltic Dry Index (BDI). You can see the steady build up that kicks off in August 2011 and continues till about Nov 2011. After that, it drops precipitously going into 2012. Now isn’t that a puzzling divergence? Well, it isn’t if you think that the general economy is going to tank again but can you really say that with today’s picture, today’s expectation – rosy getting rosier?

Well, at the very least I get to check whether the BDI is any good as an indicator?

Ready for a recession?

Are you ready for the coming Recession? “Why, when did the last one end”, you may ask me. And the truth is that it never ended. The below chart captures it quite well – this is a 1 year chart of the Baltic Dry Index (never heard of it? Well, now you have)

 

image

The Baltic Dry Index is best described as (Baltic Dry Index: BALDRY):

The Baltic Dry Index is a daily average of prices to ship raw materials. It represents the cost paid by an end customer to have a shipping company transport raw materials across seas on the Baltic Exchange, the global marketplace for brokering shipping contracts.

and

The BDI is one of the purest leading indicators of economic activity. It measures the demand to move raw materials and precursors to production, as well as the supply of ships available to move this cargo. Consumer spending and other economic indicators are backward looking, meaning they examine what has already occurred. The BDI offers a real time glimpse at global raw material and infrastructure demand. Unlike stock and commodities markets, the Baltic Dry Index is totally devoid of speculative players. The trading is limited only to the member companies, and the only relevant parties securing contracts are those who have actual cargo to move and those who have the ships to move it.

 

However, if you want to place in context the fluff about the US (or World) economy floated by your “favorite” news agency or administration spokesman – just pull up the 5 year chart of the Baltic Dry Index.

 

image

The aftermath of the Great Recession and consequent efforts to revive the US (and worldwide) economy is reflected in the period of mid-2009 to mid-2011. All that stimulus and confidence measures have largely achieved naught.

If the Baltic Dry Index meanders at the bottom of the chart above on a go forward basis – then there is a great likelihood that the Great Recession from 2009 will resume with all its consequent effects.

Sorry folks – this is terrible news but forewarned is forearmed.

About me

I am Chris Jacob Abraham and I live, work and blog from Newburgh, New York. I work for IBM as a Senior consultant in the Fab PowerOps group that works around the issue of detailed Fab (semiconductor fab) level scheduling on a continual basis. My erstwhile company ILOG was recently acquired by IBM and I've joined the Industry Solutions Group there.

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