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.
“Here is what I would like for you to know: In America, it is traditional to destroy the black body—it is heritage.”
Last Sunday the host of a popular news show asked me what it meant to lose my body. The host was broadcasting from Washington, D.C., and I was seated in a remote studio on the far west side of Manhattan. A satellite closed the miles between us, but no machinery could close the gap between her world and the world for which I had been summoned to speak. When the host asked me about my body, her face faded from the screen, and was replaced by a scroll of words, written by me earlier that week.
The host read these words for the audience, and when she finished she turned to the subject of my body, although she did not mention it specifically. But by now I am accustomed to intelligent people asking about the condition of my body without realizing the nature of their request. Specifically, the host wished to know why I felt that white America’s progress, or rather the progress of those Americans who believe that they are white, was built on looting and violence. Hearing this, I felt an old and indistinct sadness well up in me. The answer to this question is the record of the believers themselves. The answer is American history.
Defining common cultural literacy for an increasingly diverse nation.
Is the culture war over?
That seems an absurd question. This is an age when Confederate monuments still stand; when white-privilege denialism is surging on social media; when legislators and educators in Arizona and Texas propose banning ethnic studies in public schools and assign textbooks euphemizing the slave trade; when fear of Hispanic and Asian immigrants remains strong enough to prevent immigration reform in Congress; when the simple assertion that #BlackLivesMatter cannot be accepted by all but is instead contested petulantly by many non-blacks as divisive, even discriminatory.
And that’s looking only at race. Add gender, guns, gays, and God to the mix and the culture war seems to be raging along quite nicely.
As the world frets over Greece, a separate crisis looms in China.
This summer has not been calm for the global economy. In Europe, a Greek referendum this Sunday may determine whether the country will remain in the eurozone. In North America, meanwhile, the governor of Puerto Rico claimed last week that the island would be unable to pay off its debts, raising unsettling questions about the health of American municipal bonds.
But the season’s biggest economic crisis may be occurring in Asia, where shares in China’s two major stock exchanges have nosedived in the past three weeks. Since June 12, the Shanghai stock exchange has lost 24 percent of its value, while the damage in the southern city of Shenzhen has been even greater at 30 percent. The tumble has already wiped out more than $2.4 trillion in wealth—a figure roughly 10 times the size of Greece’s economy.
The Islamic State is no mere collection of psychopaths. It is a religious group with carefully considered beliefs, among them that it is a key agent of the coming apocalypse. Here’s what that means for its strategy—and for how to stop it.
What is the Islamic State?
Where did it come from, and what are its intentions? The simplicity of these questions can be deceiving, and few Western leaders seem to know the answers. In December, The New York Times published confidential comments by Major General Michael K. Nagata, the Special Operations commander for the United States in the Middle East, admitting that he had hardly begun figuring out the Islamic State’s appeal. “We have not defeated the idea,” he said. “We do not even understand the idea.” In the past year, President Obama has referred to the Islamic State, variously, as “not Islamic” and as al-Qaeda’s “jayvee team,” statements that reflected confusion about the group, and may have contributed to significant strategic errors.
A new book by the evolutionary biologist Jerry Coyne tackles arguments that the two institutions are compatible.
In May 1988, a 13-year-old girl named Ashley King was admitted to Phoenix Children’s Hospital by court order. She had a tumor on her leg—an osteogenic sarcoma—that, writes Jerry Coyne in his book Faith Versus Fact, was “larger than a basketball,” and was causing her leg to decay while her body started to shut down. Ashley’s Christian Scientist parents, however, refused to allow doctors permission to amputate, and instead moved their daughter to a Christian Science sanatorium, where, in accordance with the tenets of their faith, “there was no medical care, not even pain medication.” Ashley’s mother and father arranged a collective pray-in to help her recover—to no avail. Three weeks later, she died.
In 1992, the neuroscientist Richard Davidson got a challenge from the Dalai Lama. By that point, he’d spent his career asking why people respond to, in his words, “life’s slings and arrows” in different ways. Why are some people more resilient than others in the face of tragedy? And is resilience something you can gain through practice?
The Dalai Lama had a different question for Davidson when he visited the Tibetan Buddhist spiritual leader at his residence in Dharamsala, India. “He said: ‘You’ve been using the tools of modern neuroscience to study depression, and anxiety, and fear. Why can’t you use those same tools to study kindness and compassion?’ … I did not have a very good answer. I said it was hard.”
Former Senator Jim Webb is the fifth Democrat to enter the race—and by far the most conservative one.
In a different era’s Democratic Party, Jim Webb might be a serious contender for the presidential nomination. He’s a war hero and former Navy secretary, but he has been an outspoken opponent of recent military interventions. He’s a former senator from Virginia, a purple state. He has a strong populist streak, could appeal to working-class white voters, and might even have crossover appeal from his days as a member of the Reagan administration.
In today’s leftward drifting Democratic Party, however, it’s hard to see Webb—who declared his candidacy Thursday—getting very far. As surprising as Bernie Sanders’s rise in the polls has been, he looks more like the Democratic base than Webb does. The Virginian is progressive on a few major issues, including the military and campaign spending, but he’s far to the center or even right on others: He's against affirmative action, supports gun rights, and is a defender of coal. During the George W. Bush administration, Democrats loved to have him as a foil to the White House. It’s hard to imagine the national electorate will cotton to him in the same way. Webb’s statement essentially saying he had no problem with the Confederate battle flag flying in places like the grounds of the South Carolina capitol may have been the final straw. (At 69, he’s also older than Hillary Clinton, whose age has been a topic of debate, though still younger than Bernie Sanders or Joe Biden.)
For centuries, experts have predicted that machines would make workers obsolete. That moment may finally be arriving. Could that be a good thing?
1. Youngstown, U.S.A.
The end of work is still just a futuristic concept for most of the United States, but it is something like a moment in history for Youngstown, Ohio, one its residents can cite with precision: September 19, 1977.
For much of the 20th century, Youngstown’s steel mills delivered such great prosperity that the city was a model of the American dream, boasting a median income and a homeownership rate that were among the nation’s highest. But as manufacturing shifted abroad after World War II, Youngstown steel suffered, and on that gray September afternoon in 1977, Youngstown Sheet and Tube announced the shuttering of its Campbell Works mill. Within five years, the city lost 50,000 jobs and $1.3 billion in manufacturing wages. The effect was so severe that a term was coined to describe the fallout: regional depression.
Highlights from seven days of reading about entertainment
British Cinemas Need to Do Better for Black Audiences
Simran Hans | Buzzfeed
“The myth that black people don’t go to the cinema becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, predicated on the assumption that cinemagoers are only interested in seeing themselves represented on screen. This seems to be at the heart of the problem.”
Hump Day: The Utterly OMG Magic Mike XXL
Wesley Morris | Grantland
“Not since the days of peak Travolta and Dirty Dancing has a film so perfectly nailed something essential about movie lust: Male vulnerability is hot, particularly when the man is dancing with and therefore for a woman. It aligns the entire audience with the complex prerogatives of female desire.”
The Fourth of July—a time we Americans set aside to celebrate our independence and mark the war we waged to achieve it, along with the battles that followed. There was the War of 1812, the War of 1833, the First Ohio-Virginia War, the Three States' War, the First Black Insurrection, the Great War, the Second Black Insurrection, the Atlantic War, the Florida Intervention.
Confused? These are actually conflicts invented for the novel The Disunited States of Americaby Harry Turtledove, a prolific (and sometimes-pseudonymous) author of alternate histories with a Ph.D. in Byzantine history. The book is set in the 2090s in an alternate United States that is far from united. In fact, the states, having failed to ratify a constitution following the American Revolution, are separate countries that oscillate between cooperating and warring with one another, as in Europe.