Mutually assured construction, supply chain finance after Greensill, breaking the iron plate?
Policy preview: mutually assured construction
“Gentlemen, you can’t fight in here! This is the War Room!” Dr. Strangelove, or How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love The Bomb
The Trump Administration formally named China as a ‘currency manipulator’ in January 2019, but withdrew the designation January 2020 after striking the ‘Phase 1 Trade Agreement’. As part of the deal, both sides also agreed to honour currency related commitments undertaken through their G20 membership – effectively a pledge not to seek to interfere in the market to adjust the value of the renminbi, or the US dollar, to the advantage of one side over the other. The trade pact’s purchase agreements have effectively gone by the wayside due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Despite the trade agreement’s fragile state, and the Biden Administration’s continuation of an openly confrontational stance vis-a-vis Beijing, the Treasury Department under its new Secretary Janet Yellen has not re-applied the currency manipulator label to Beijing.
Even if Chinese-US relations further deteriorate, however, one should not expect the Biden Administration to re-impose the designation even amid escalating claims that Beijing’s intervention in currency markets is stepping up as demand from Beijing plays a key role in driving the recovery from the pandemic.
The reason is straightforward, if counterintuitive. The Biden Administration sees Beijing’s intervention in currency markets as evidence of China’s continued dependence on US capital markets. This is where the ‘new Cold War’ differs significantly from the Soviet-Western Cold War to which it is so often compared. The Soviet Union was not integrated into Western capital markets, and while its trading relationship with the West grew steadily from the 1970’s until its collapse, it was primarily in raw materials, never reached even a fraction of the supply-chain integration that has developed between China and the US.
The diversification of US supply chains away from China will likely continue, the Biden Administration has effectively called for it to do so even if in a less direct manner than Trump did. Continuing to maintain Beijing’s integration into US-led Western capital markets under such circumstances, however, can be seen as one of Biden Administration’s policy goals as well, and one where it differs significantly from its predecessor.
Labelling China as a currency manipulator authorised the Trump Administration to take punitive measures in response, but it never seriously did so – using other frameworks to justify its tariffs regime. That may have been at least in part because of the long-held belief China could respond by selling off its US Treasury stock. However, the capital markets integration discussed above means that this would be all-but certain to collapse key Chinese markets as well.
Under Biden, Washington appears to believe the status quo – of China needing to keep the renminbi at a relatively low value, buying foreign exchange in the process – leads to an effective form of economic deterrence.
Dollars and sense: supply chain finance after Greensill
“Sooner or later, everything old is new again.”
The collapse of Greensill Capital in recent weeks had political, reputational and economic implications for a wide swathe of the United Kingdom. The future of some of its largest steel plants has once again been thrown into doubt, its employment of a host of civil servants and former prime minister David Cameron has led to a series of embarrassing revelations, and questions are being raised about the process in which it became involved in managing certain National Health Service (NHS) payments to staff and pharmacies. Additionally, a misunderstanding of Greensill’s business, or at least its purported business, risks having a further negative affect on the supply chain finance industry – and in this case it is very much not deserved.
Supply chain finance rarely makes it into the public forum but is a bedrock of the modern global trading system. It is best understood as payments ahead of delivery of a product – think of a farmer borrowing to pay for seed and repaying with the crop – and is arguably the oldest form of finance. Its expansion helped fuel the mercantilist era beginning in the 16th century and the industrial revolution thereafter.
This is precisely why Greensill’s proposition of ‘disrupting and growing the supply chain finance sector’ failed to pass the sniff test amongst many critical journalists – the fact that it is such an established legacy form of financing means that it has effectively been a shrinking market for decades, potentially more.
As global financial markets have become more complex, derivatives markets have grown, and all manners of financing have become available, they effectively have squeezed the space for supply chain finance. This is not to be bemoaned but combined with the thin margins resulting from the short-term nature of most supply chain loans and the record low interest rate margins means the sector was an unlikely place to find a firm selling itself as a tech unicorn as Greensill did.
Greensill’s collapse was precipitated by revelations that it was not really a supply chain financier. It was effectively offering long-term unsecured loans mislabelled as supply chain financing. No other significant lenders have been implicated in the scandal.
In fact, the Greensill revelations come exactly at a moment when supply chain finance has the potential to expand. The trend against globalisation may seem an unlikely driver of growth but with the US remaining hostile to China despite the presidential transition, the post-Brexit ‘global Britain’ agenda, and the pandemic-induced realisation that diversification of supply sources can add significant resiliency, supply chain finance will play a key role.
It would be unwise to tar the entire sector with the black brush that has painted over Greensill – doing so could limit the post-pandemic recovery and the effort to make supply chains more resilient to another bout of trade wars or in the face of future global health concerns.
Power play: breaking the iron plate?
“Hillary used the word ‘glass ceiling’ … but in Japan, it isn’t glass, it’s an iron plate” Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike
Japan faces a key test in hosting the rescheduled 2020 Olympics this summer, after a year’s delay to the COVID-19 pandemic, yet it lags similarly-developed nations in its immunisation programme by some distance, with just 1% of the population inoculated as of the time of writing. It is a potential make-or-break moment for the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) and its relatively new prime minister, Yoshihide Shuga, who took office last September when predecessor Shinzo Abe stood down citing health concerns.
Abe’s eight years as prime minister broke a trend of short-lived premierships but the present challenges may re-ignite the trend. Japan is scheduled to host elections for its key lower house this October and Shuga’s popularity has fallen from near 70% during the handover from Abe, which came as Japan was relatively unaffected by COVID-19, to closer to 30% for much of 2021 as COVID-19 infection numbers rose and the vaccination programme lagged. These were compounded by a series of corruption scandals involving LDP parliamentarians and officials, although it should be noted that Abe himself brushed off a number of similar revelations.
Shuga, in contrast, does not have the reputation as a solid economic manager that Abe had garnered. His greatest challenge may not be at the ballot box, however.
The LDP has governed Japan almost unbroken since 1955, only falling out of government between 1993-1994 and in 2009-2012. Although the party is generally conservative and right-leaning, it has accomplished this impressive feat in no small measure due to its sense of political opportunism and ability to read the prevailing political winds. Shuga is up for re-election as party leader on 30 September.
Shuga may find some comfort in the fact his party is bereft of other major political challengers, or at least ones not affected by the same issues he faces. However, this provides a key opening from a position adjacent to the party, that of Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike.
A former LDP MP, she ran to become the party’s leader in 2008, finishing in third. Citing then-US presidential candidate Hillary Clinton’s reference to the ‘glass ceiling,’ she said she aimed to break the ‘iron plate’ for female politicians in Japan. This comment appeared to be reinforced by the fact the LDP withheld its approval of her ultimately-successful candidacy for Tokyo Governorship in 2016.
Koike created her own party to run in the 2017 national election, though did not stand herself, but relations were somewhat healed when the LDP endorsed her re-election in 2020. She retains significant popularity within the LDP, and in contrast to Shuga, has received plaudits domestically for her efforts to combat the pandemic. The Olympics will also offer her an opportunity to grow her international profile. By the time the election comes around, she may well not just be back in the LDP, but sitting atop it.
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