The latest development out of China was a classic case of good news/bad news. On Thursday their central bank, the People's Bank of China (PBoC), unexpectedly cut interest rates for the first time since 2008. The good news is that the PBoC is reacting aggressively to their slowdown. The bad news is that their slowdown warrants such an aggressive reaction by the PBoC.
Actually, it might warrant far more. Or it might not. China is so opaque, it's almost impossible to say. You might be wondering how a country that announced 8.1 percent GDP growth in the first quarter of 2012 might be in such trouble. The answer: Those numbers are reported year-over-year, not quarter-over-quarter. In other words, even if we can trust them -- which is far from certain -- high growth figures don't necessarily mean that China has high growth right now.
When the financial crisis hit in 2008, China responded with a massive stimulus program. Except it wasn't "stimulus" in the way we usually think about it. The Chinese government didn't cut taxes or spend more. Instead, the Chinese government told their state-owned banks to lend more. A lot more. The chart below shows the percentage growth of China's high-powered (red) and broader (blue) money supply since 2005. Notice the post-Lehman surge in 2009.
This lending boom fueled an investment boom that made up for lost exports. But it also fueled a frothy housing sector. China's officials certainly noticed. Over the past year they have introduced a number of measures to rein in rising prices. Careful what you wish for. China in 2012 is starting to look a bit like the U.S. in 2006.
Something strange is happening now. It looks like a combination of too loose credit and too tight credit at the same time. Credit might be too loose for big state-owned enterprises (SOEs), but too tight for small-and-medium enterprises (SMEs). We can get an inkling of that in the chart above. Bank money (red) is barely growing recently, but broader money (blue) is accelerating. China's state-owned banks have said they might miss their 2012 lending targets, so this broader money growth is likely a story about China's shadow banks -- unregulated lenders who are banks in all but name. Shadow banks are happy to lend SOEs that enjoy explicit government backing, but less so for SMEs.
WHAT'S CHINESE FOR 'PONZI'?
What are big companies doing with shadow bank money?
When prices are falling, developers don't want to develop, and steel companies don't want to sell steel. They'd rather wait until the economy turns up and their scarce resources -- land or metal -- will make them more money. In the meantime, they're happy to play the role of hedge funds. Rather than borrow money to invest in their own businesses, many of them are borrowing money to speculate.
We have a word for this. It starts with a "p" and ends with "onzi".
Steel companies have been particularly bad (so much so that China's banking regulator recently issued a warning). They have taken out multiple loans with the same collateral, and then thrown this borrowed money into land and stocks. Even with housing prices retreating.
Then there's Zoomlion, a construction machinery company that just happens to be the most shorted company in Hong Kong. Zoomlion has managed this thanks to supercharging its sales by lending customers the money to buy their products.
Smaller companies are missing out on this credit boom. They're left asking banks if they can spare a dime. Well, maybe not anymore. Now they're turning to another U.S.-in-2006 standby: collateralized debt obligations (CDOs). In plainish English, a handful of small companies with bad credit ratings get together, issue debt, and then put all of their bond payments into a security. The idea is that pooling the risk reduces risk for investors -- and lets banks get the risk off their balance sheets. It can work out. But the very fact that it's happening should concern you. Also worrying: Local governments are guaranteeing these debts.
But maybe things aren't that bad. It's easy to fall into the trap of availability bias. When you've just been slapped by a housing bubble, every bad piece of evidence starts to look like a housing bubble. Still, it's undeniable that both credit and housing prices increased substantially since 2009 -- and that the latter are now falling. It's also undeniable that the behavior of China's shadow banks and big companies are reminiscent of our own circa 2006. And it's certainly undeniable that China's government is worried about growth if they're slashing interest rates for the first time in four years.
Maybe China's leaders will engineer a so-called "soft landing". They certainly have room to cut interest rates and reserve requirements. Or the government can spend money on infrastructure itself. But with Europe teetering and the U.S. slowing down itself, the last thing the world economy needs is for its biggest engine to break down too. Let's hope this is just a hiccup.
The First Lady took to the stage at the Democratic National Convention, and united a divided hall.
Most convention speeches are forgotten almost before they’re finished. But tonight in Philadelphia, Michelle Obama delivered a speech that will be replayed, quoted, and anthologized for years. It was as pure a piece of political oratory as this campaign has offered, and instantly entered the pantheon of great convention speeches.
Obama stepped out onto a stage in front of a divided party, including delegates who had booed almost every mention of the presumptive nominee. And she delivered a speech that united the hall, bringing it to its feet.
She did it, moreover, her own way—forming a striking contrast with the night’s other speakers. She did it without shouting at the crowd. Without overtly slamming Republicans. Without turning explicitly negative. Her speech was laden with sharp barbs, but she delivered them calmly, sometimes wryly, biting her lower lip, hitting her cadence. It was a masterful performance.
When something goes wrong, I start with blunder, confusion, and miscalculation as the likely explanations. Planned-out wrongdoing is harder to pull off, more likely to backfire, and thus less probable.
But it is getting more difficult to dismiss the apparent Russian role in the DNC hack as blunder and confusion rather than plan.
“Real-world” authorities, from the former U.S. Ambassador to Russia to FBI sources to international security experts, say that the forensic evidence indicates the Russians. No independent authority strongly suggests otherwise. (Update the veteran reporters Shane Harris and Nancy Youssef cite evidence that the original hacker was “an agent of the Russian government.”)
The timing and precision of the leaks, on the day before the Democratic convention and on a topic intended to maximize divisions at that convention, is unlikely to be pure coincidence. If it were coincidence, why exactly now, with evidence drawn from hacks over previous months? Why mail only from the DNC, among all the organizations that have doubtless been hacked?
The foreign country most enthusiastic about Trump’s rise appears to be Russia, which would also be the foreign country most benefited by his policy changes, from his sowing doubts about NATO and the EU to his weakening of the RNC platform language about Ukraine.
For the party elders, day one of the convention was about scolding the left back together.
Against a restive backdrop, the party’s top lieutenants were forced into the role of prime time peacemakers, tasked with encouraging Democratic unity in a party that has only lately acquiesced to tenuous detente. They did so through a combination of alarmist truth telling—borne from the reality of a Trump-Clinton matchup that has lately gotten tighter—and cold-water scolding about party division—driven equally by frustration and exhaustion.
The pressures of national academic standards have pushed character education out of the classroom.
A few months ago, I presented the following scenario to my junior English students: Your boyfriend or girlfriend has committed a felony, during which other people were badly harmed. Should you or should you not turn him or her into the police?
The class immediately erupted with commentary. It was obvious, they said, that loyalty was paramount—not a single student said they’d “snitch.” They were unequivocally unconcerned about who was harmed in this hypothetical scenario. This troubled me.
This discussion was part of an introduction to an essay assignment about whether Americans should pay more for ethically produced food. We continued discussing other dilemmas, and the kids were more engaged that they’d been in weeks, grappling with big questions about values, character, and right versus wrong as I attempted to expand their thinking about who and what is affected—and why it matters—by their caloric choices.
The Democratic chairwoman had few supporters—but clung to her post for years, abetted by the indifference of the White House.
PHILADELPHIA—As Debbie Wasserman Schultz made her unceremonious exit as chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee, what was most remarkable was what you didn’t hear: practically anybody coming to her defense.
The Florida congresswoman did not go quietly. She reportedly resisted stepping down, and blamed subordinates for the content of the leaked emails that were released Friday, which clearly showed the committee’s posture of neutrality in the Democratic primary to have been a hollow pretense, just as Bernie Sanders and his supporters long contended. She finally relinquished the convention gavel only after receiving three days of strong-arming, a ceremonial position in the Clinton campaign, and a raucous round of boos at a convention breakfast.
Physicists can’t agree on whether the flow of future to past is real or a mental construct.
Einstein once described his friend Michele Besso as “the best sounding board in Europe” for scientific ideas. They attended university together in Zurich; later they were colleagues at the patent office in Bern. When Besso died in the spring of 1955, Einstein—knowing that his own time was also running out—wrote a now-famous letter to Besso’s family. “Now he has departed this strange world a little ahead of me,” Einstein wrote of his friend’s passing. “That signifies nothing. For us believing physicists, the distinction between past, present, and future is only a stubbornly persistent illusion.”
Einstein’s statement was not merely an attempt at consolation. Many physicists argue that Einstein’s position is implied by the two pillars of modern physics: Einstein’s masterpiece, the general theory of relativity, and the Standard Model of particle physics. The laws that underlie these theories are time-symmetric—that is, the physics they describe is the same, regardless of whether the variable called “time” increases or decreases. Moreover, they say nothing at all about the point we call “now”—a special moment (or so it appears) for us, but seemingly undefined when we talk about the universe at large. The resulting timeless cosmos is sometimes called a “block universe”—a static block of space-time in which any flow of time, or passage through it, must presumably be a mental construct or other illusion.
Identity politics loomed large on the first night of the Democratic National Convention.
PHILADELPHIA––As successive speakers took the stage at the Democratic National Convention Monday, Farhad Manjoo of the New York Timesobserved that the participants were much more liberal than the ones that helped nominate Bill Clinton. One child spoke of having parents who were undocumented immigrants. Another was a college graduate who is here in this country unlawfully.
Those speakers alone would’ve marked a departure from the past. And alongside them were a lesbian veteran who spoke of serving in the days of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” A disability-rights activist with cerebral palsy and spastic quadriplegia spoke up against the prejudices faced by the community on whose behalf she works. And the whole roster highlighted the Democratic Party’s racial and gender diversity.
Stock-market crashes, terrorist attacks, and the dark side of “newsworthy” stories
Man bites dog. It is one of the oldest cliches in journalism, an acknowledgement of the idea that ordinary events are not newsworthy, whereas oddities, like a puppy-nibbling adult, deserve disproportionate coverage.
The rule is straightforward, but its implications are subtle. If journalists are encouraged to report extreme events, they guide both elite and public attitudes, leading many people, including experts, to feel like extreme events are more common than they actually are. By reporting on only the radically novel, the press can feed a popular illusion that the world is more terrible than it actually is.
Take finance, for example. Professional investors are fretting about the possibility of a massive stock-market crash, on par with 1987’s Black Monday. The statistical odds that such an event will occur within the next six months are about 1-in-60, according to historical data from 1929 to 1988. But when surveys between 1989 and 2015 asked investors to estimate the odds of such a crash in the coming months, the typical response was 1-in-10.
Two new novels ponder the still-urgent question of what could have compelled young women to do such terrible things.
The most fascinating part of the Manson story has always been the girls.
Not the man who cobbled together bits of hippie philosophy, Scientology and How to Win Friends and Influence People to gather followers who’d do his bidding and help make him a star (and when that didn’t work out, kill people to try to start a race war). The ones willing and vulnerable enough to be gathered. Who wanted a community to belong to.
Even now, no one knows whether Charles Manson believed his own insane manifesto, or was just using it as a tool to get what he wanted. But the girls believed. Patricia Krenwinkel, Leslie Van Houten, Susan Atkins—they believed. They belonged. And then, on two infamous evenings in 1969, they helped kill seven people.