|The weight of economic activity is shifting from the US & Europe to Asia & Iberoamérica|
Energy squeeze – higher prices
The longer-term energy story is complex. The developed world is now barely increasing its use of energy and energy demand is projected to remain stable for the forseeable future, at least for the next couple of decades. Energy use in the emerging world, by contrast, continues to grow relentlessly every year.
The emerging world now uses more energy than the old developed world. This is what you would expect to happen, for as the weight of economic activity shifts from the US and Europe to Asia and Iberoamérica, so too will demand for energy. But it means the price paid by the developed world will be increasingly determined by the emerging world. The so called “West” (the US and Europe) has never been in this position since industrialisation. There is a weak parallel with the rise of Opec in the 1970s when the oil producers cut supply and quadrupled the price. At that time, the US and Europe found other sources of oil and reduced their dependence on Opec. But this time the squeeze comes from the demand side, not the supply, and there is not much the US and Europe can do about it.
And what next for the commodities markets
The Chart below provides an overview contrasting developed countries with emerging economies' share of GDP and their world share of some of the most important commodity markets and other indicators:
|Source: The Economist Daily Charts|
Many analysts believe that the long-running boom in commodity prices (for some of the world's most important raw materials) has been driven up by financial speculation as much as physical need. Hence the commodities market may be heading for a massive crash on the scale of sub-prime. The commodity boom has not reached the excess so evident in the subprime era but it is pretty big nevertheless. Recently, some analysts have speculated that the gigantic merger between the mining company Xstrata and the commodity trading house Glencore is a signal of the prospect of a looming crash in the commodities markets. Just before the subprime crash, many massive subprime acquisitions came at the end of a massive boom in the securities markets and those doing the deals appeared to have sensed that the party was coming to an end and that they had to do something spectacular to be able to reap the super profits to be had in the final stages of the blowout. The Geo-Trade Blog believes it is possible that this deal may be the signal that the commodity markets are today where debt markets were on the eve of the credit crunch.
Printing Money and Bubbles in Markets
In the immediate aftermath of the subprime crash, printing money or quantitative easing (QE) as it is also known helped a wide variety of financial institutions to avoid facing up to their losses, covertly recapitalising US and European banks that were, to all intents and purposes, insolvent. Over the last few years protests from countries including Thailand, Australia, South Africa and China have been heard complaining that the US' unprecedented monetary expansion was responsible for causing dangerous bubbles in commodity markets going way beyond US equities. The US government also knows, although it denies it, that the more money it prints, the more speculative pressures push up global food prices.
While the causes behind the Arab Spring unrest in 2011 are complex, it must be noted that it was surging food price that provided the spark. Hence the large emerging economies view "quantitative easing" as a developed country policy aberration, dressed up as a "legitimate technical solution" that they do not agree with at all. Brazil's finance minister has described it as "throwing dollars out of a helicopter and the Russian PM has described it as "economic hooliganism". The emerging economies clearly perceive the current trials and tribulations of the developed countries very differently to the conventional wisdom that underpins the policy decisions and assumptions that justify QE in the developed world. Emerging Economies are aghast that the US is now shouldering declared federal liabilities of $9,100bn - making it by a long way the world's largest debtor. Furthermore US Government debt is set to reach 42pc of GDP by 2015 according to official estimates. And more and more interest is being shown in the fact that the US' total sovereign liabilities including off-balance sheet items such as Medicare and Mediaid amount to $75,000bn - no less than five times annual GDP.