From Opium Wars to Currency Wars

August 19, 2019

In 1842 the Qing dynasty surrendered Hong Kong to the British Empire following the First Opium War. Then, in 1898, the British pledged to cede it back to China after 100 years had passed. Excluding the period of Japanese occupation during the Second World War, Hong Kong remained under British rule until its peaceful handover to the Chinese in 1997. This transition was structured by the Sino–British Joint Declaration, which guaranteed Hong Kong would remain a capitalist economy and have its own currency and separate legal system until the year 2047. This rubric was known as “One Country Two Systems.”

Regrettably, the current conflict between Hong Kong and the mainland was inevitable because the people of Hong Kong have a long history of thinking of themselves as a part of a western-style democracy—one that has been prospering for 177 years–and would never easily relinquish their freedoms. The salient question now is will China send the People’s Liberation Army into Hong Kong to quell protestors that were originally incensed about a “fugitives bill.” This bill would allow Hong Kong citizens to be extradited to China. President Trump has already indicated that he is behind President Xi. And, with American/Sino relations at a low point, the time may be ripe for China to expedite the complete annexation of Hong Kong both territorially and systemically.

Until very recently, Hong Kong has enjoyed its quasi-independence from mainland China, growing economically both as a manufacturing hub and one of the financial capitals of the world. But, unhappiness with the proposed extradition bill has led to civil unrest. Hong Kong’s chief executive, Carrie Lam, agreed to suspend the bill but not remove it entirely. That has simply reminded the people of their eventual fate.  The truth is it was never going to be possible for the 7.4 million free citizens of Hong Kong to change the way that the communist autocratic regime controls 1.4 billion mainland Chinese.

Gordan Chang author of “The Coming Collapse of China,” believes revolution is on the horizon for China; starting with Hong Kong. And these seeds of revolution have already begun. On Monday, August 5th, defying Beijing, seven districts in Hong Kong participated in a general strike, leading to the cancellation of hundreds of flights and the eventual shut down of the main airport. A quarter of the entire population of Hong Kong has now taken to the streets.

The civil unrest in China has also started to impact the value of its currency–the yuan broke below the important level of 7 yuan to the dollar.

China’s central bank suggested that the depreciation was in response to Mr. Trump’s decision to extend punitive tariffs to the entire value of China’s exports. However, China is not manipulating its currency lower as Trump would suggest. Rather, China is desperately trying to keep it from crashing.

Hayman Capital’s Kyle Bass believes that if the Chinese yuan were to trade freely, it could be looking at as much as a 30% – 40% devaluation. The Chinese government is working hard to prevent a free-fall currency collapse. And it’s unclear if the 7-yuan breach was a test to see if markets would allow the yuan to devalue slightly without experiencing massive capital flight out of China.

Because China now has both a fiscal and current account deficit, it is in desperate need of US dollars for trade and debt repayments.

And the truth is large Chinese commercial banks have become even more dependent on dollar-denominated debt. The Bank of China’s annual report showed the total amount of dollar debt stood at 2.21 trillion yuan ($314 billion) at the end of 2018, up 12% on the year. However, as dollar debt has increased, dollar assets remained unchanged at 1.67 trillion yuan, bringing the dollar-debt to dollar-asset gap up 81% to 536.5 billion yuan.

However, despite China’s woes, many market pundits believe that China’s over $3 trillion in foreign currency reserves leaves both China and its currency out of danger. But those pundits may be surprised to know that it’s not just China skeptics that question the potency of China’s foreign reserves. According to the IMF, China’s reserves have been below the recommended levels since 2017. Despite its substantial foreign reserves, which have surged by 430% from 2004 to 2015, money supply and short-term debt have increased even faster; growing 860% and 780% respectively, over the same period.

China’s total debt has skyrocketed to $40 trillion (over 300% of GDP), from around just $2 trillion back in 2000. Not surprisingly, the amount of bad loans has increased alongside the pace of state-directed unproductive debt. Official data shows that the amount of non-performing commercial loans (NPLs) has recently reached 2.16 trillion yuan—a 16-year high. This number is still a very low percentage of total loans outstanding, but that is because the government ameliorates the default process by papering over most of those NPLs. The PBOC may be forced to soon print 10’s of trillions of yuan to bail out its faltering banking system, which would send the value of its currency plunging from its current precarious position.

If the pace of yuan decline were to continue, it would force China’s major trading partners to devalue along with the yuan–or risk an export-led recession. Thus, putting a tremendous strain on the ability of these countries to carry their tremendous amount of dollar=based debt.

The trade war is increasing the difficulty of keeping the Chinese economy and currency levitated.  According to the Nikkei Asian review, more than 50 multinationals from Apple to Nintendo to Dell are working on relocating their manufacturing bases out of China to escape the punitive tariffs placed by the United States. With the large outflow of economic activity, China is going to have a harder time feigning its illusory 6% growth rate.

Any Pentonomics follower knows I have maintained for some time that China’s economy is built on an enormous debt bubble that will one day burst. Europe, Japan, and the US share much the same fate. This will have hugely negative ramifications for the global economy. China looks like it is now a gentle gust of wind from having its entire house of cards blow.

The Red nation is now having to fight three wars simultaneously; a trade with the United States; amalgamating the freedom-loving citizens of Hong Kong into the communist dictatorship of the mainland; and, a currency crisis that would destabilize the eastern bloc nations and take the developed western world down with it.

Investors need to factor in the natural progression of the dynamics between China, Hong Kong, and the free world. That is; from Opium wars to currency wars, to military wars. China has labeled the protestors as terrorists that must be severely punished “without leniency, without mercy.” This war might not be confined to China and its territories much longer. The political, economic, and military tensions between China and the West are intensifying rapidly.

Michael Pento is the President and Founder of Pento Portfolio Strategies, produces the weekly podcast called, “The Mid-week Reality Check” and Author of the book “The Coming Bond Market Collapse.”