Posts Tagged ‘China’

The petrodollar system is being undermined by exponential growth in technology and shifting geopolitics. What comes next is a paradigm shift…

 

In the summer of 1974, Treasury Secretary William Simon traveled to Saudi Arabia and secretly struck a momentous deal with the kingdom. The U.S. agreed to purchase oil from Saudi Arabia, provide weapons, and in essence guarantee the preservation of Saudi oil wells, the monarchy, and the sovereignty of the kingdom. In return, the kingdom agreed to invest the dollar proceeds of its oil sales in U.S. Treasuries, basically financing America’s future federal expenditures.

Soon, other members of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries followed suit, and the U.S. dollar became the standard by which oil was to be traded internationally. For Saudi Arabia, the deal made perfect sense, not only by protecting the regime but also by providing a safe, liquid market in which to invest its enormous oil-sale proceeds, known as petrodollars. The U.S. benefited, as well, by neutralizing oil as an economic weapon. The agreement enabled the U.S. to print dollars with little adverse effect on interest rates, thereby facilitating consistent U.S. economic growth over the subsequent decades.

An important consequence was that oil-importing nations would be required to hold large amounts of U.S. dollars in reserve in order to purchase oil, underpinning dollar demand. This essentially guaranteed a strong dollar and low U.S. interest rates for a generation.

[ZH: Still, the underlying concept of how Petrodollar recycling, or as some call it, petrocurrency mercantilism works, leaves some confusion. So in order to alleviate that, here courtesy of Cult State, is a quick and simple primer that should hopefully answer all questions. From CultState:

So what is petrocurrency mercantilism?

It’s when a national bank and an energy producer collude to generate artificial demand for a currency at the expense of the purchasing power of other currencies.

The flowchart below shows how it all works.

Given this backdrop, one can better understand many subsequent U.S. foreign-policy moves involving the Middle East and other oil-producing regions.

Recent developments in technology and geopolitics, however, have already ignited a process to bring an end to the financial system predicated on petrodollars, which will have a profound impact on global financial markets. The 40-year equilibrium of this system is being dismantled by the exponential growth of technology, which will have a bearish impact on both supply and demand of petroleum. Moreover, the system no longer is in the best interest of key participants in the global oil trade. These developments have begun to exert influence on financial markets and will only grow over time. The upheaval of the petrodollar recycling system will trigger a resurgence of volatility and new price trends, which will lead to a renaissance in macro investing.

Let’s examine these developments in more detail.

First, TECHNOLOGY is affecting the energy markets dramatically, and this impact is growing exponentially. The pattern-seeking human mind is built for an observable linear universe, but has cognitive difficulty recognizing and understanding the impact of exponential growth.

Paralleling Moore’s Law, the current growth rate of new technologies roughly doubles every two years. In the transportation sector, the global penetration rate of electric vehicles, or EVs, was 1% at the end of 2016 and is now probably about 1.5%. However, a doubling every two years of this level of usage should lead to an automobile market that primarily consists of EVs in approximately 12 years, reducing gasoline demand and international oil revenue to a degree that today would seem unfathomable to the linear-thinking mind. Yes, the world is changing—rapidly.

Alternative energy sources (solar power, wind, and such) also are well into their exponential growth curves, and are even ahead of EVs in this regard. Based on growth curves of other recent technologies, and due to similar growth rates in battery technology and pricing, it is likely that solar power will supplant petroleum in a vast portion of nontransportation sectors in about a decade. Albert Einstein is rumored to have described compound interest (another form of exponential growth) as the most powerful force in the universe. This is real change.

The growth of U.S. oil production due to new technologies such as hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling has both reduced the U.S. need for foreign sources of oil and led to lower global oil prices. With the U.S. economy more self-reliant for its oil consumption, reduced purchases of foreign oil have led to a drop in the revenues of oil-producing nations and by extension, lower international demand for Treasuries and U.S. dollars.

China has agreed with Russia to purchase Russian oil and natural gas in yuan.
◦As an example of China’s newfound power to influence oil exporters, China has persuaded Angola (the world’s second-largest oil exporter to China) to accept the yuan as legal tender, evidence of efforts made by Beijing to speed up internationalization of the yuan. The incredible growth rates of the Chinese economy and its thirst for oil have endowed it with tremendous negotiating strength that has led, and will lead, other countries to cater to China’s needs at the expense of their historical client, the U.S.
◦China is set to launch an oil exchange by the end of the year that is to be settled in yuan. Note that in conjunction with the existing Shanghai Gold Exchange, also denominated in yuan, any country will now be able to trade and hedge oil, circumventing U.S. dollar transactions, with the flexibility to take payment in yuan or gold, or exchange gold into any global currency.
◦As China further forges relationships through its One Belt, One Road initiative, it will surely pull other exporters into its orbit to secure a reliable flow of supplies from multiple sources, while pressuring the terms of the trade to exclude the U.S. dollar.

The world’s second-largest oil exporter, Russia, is currently under sanctions imposed by the U.S. and European Union, and has made clear moves toward circumventing the dollar in oil and international trade. In addition to agreeing to sell oil and natural gas to China in exchange for yuan, Russia recently announced that all financial transactions conducted in Russian seaports will now be made in rubles, replacing dollars, according to Russian state news outlet RT. Clearly, there is a concerted effort from the East to reset the economic world order.

ALL OF THESE DEVELOPMENTS leave global financial markets vulnerable to a paradigm shift that has recently begun. In meetings with fund managers, asset allocators, and analysts, I have found a virtually universal view that macro investing—investing based on global macroeconomic and political, not security-specific trends—is dead, fueled by investor money exiting the space due to poor returns and historically high fees in relation to performance. This is what traders refer to as capitulation. It occurs when most market participants can’t take advantage of a promising opportunity due to losses, lack of dry powder, or a psychological inability to proceed because of recency bias.

A current generational low in volatility across a wide spectrum of asset classes is another indicator that the market doesn’t see a paradigm shift coming. This suggests that current volatility is expressing a full discounting of stale fundamental inputs and not adequately pricing in the potential of likely disruptive events.

THE FEDERAL RESERVE is now in the beginning stages of a shift toward “normalization,” which will lead to diminished support for the U.S. Treasury market. The Fed’s total assets stand at approximately $4.5 trillion, or five times what they were prior to the financial crisis of 2008-09. The goal of the Fed is to “unwind” this enormous balance sheet with minimal market disruption. This is a high-wire act a thousand feet in the air without a safety net or prior practice. Additionally, at some not-so-distant future date, the U.S. will need to finance enormous and growing entitlement programs, and our historical international sources for that financing will no longer be willing to support us in that endeavor.

The market participants with whom I met theoretically could have the ability to accept cognitively the points made in this article. But the accumulation of many small losses in a low-volatility and generally trendless market has robbed them of confidence and the psychological balance to embrace any new paradigm proactively. They are frozen with fear that the lower- return profile of recent years is permanent—ironic in an industry that is paid to capture price changes in a cyclical world.

One market legend with whom I spoke suggested he wouldn’t have had the success he enjoyed in his career had he begun in the past decade. Whether or not this might be true, it doesn’t mean that recent lower returns are to be extrapolated into the future, especially when these subpar returns occurred during the quantitative-easing era, a period that is an anomaly.

I have been fortunate to ride substantial bets on big trends, earning high risk-adjusted returns using time-tested techniques for exploiting these trends. Additionally, I have had the luxury of not participating actively full-time in macro investing during this difficult period. Both factors might give me perspective. I regard this as an extraordinarily opportune moment for those able to shed timeworn, archaic assumptions of market behavior and boldly return to the roots of macro investing.

The opportunity is reminiscent of the story told by Stanley Druckenmiller, who was promoted early in his investment career to head equity research at a time when his co-workers had vastly more experience than he did. His director of investments informed him that his promotion owed to the same reason they send 18-year-olds to war; they are too dumb to know not to charge. The “winners” under the paradigm now unfolding will be market participants able to disregard stale, anomalous concepts, and charge.

RELATEDLY, THERE IS a running debate as to whether trend-following is a dying strategy. There is plenty of anecdotal evidence that short-term and mean-reversion trading is more in vogue in today’s markets (think quant funds and “prop” shops). Additionally, the popularity of passive investing signals an unwillingness to invest in “idea generation,” or alpha. These developments represent a full capitulation of trend following and macro trading.

Ironically, many market players who wrongly anticipated a turn in recent years to a more positive environment for macro and trend-following are throwing in the towel. The key difference is that now there is a clear catalyst to trigger the start of the pendulum swinging back to a fertile macro/trend-following trading environment.

As my mentor, Bruce Kovner [the founder of Caxton Associates] used to say, “Nobody rings a bell at key turning points.” The ability to properly anticipate change is predicated upon detached analysis of fundamental information, applying that information to imagine a plausible world different from today’s, understanding how new data points fit (or don’t fit) into that world, and adjusting accordingly. Ideally, this process leads to an “aha!” moment, and the idea crystallizes into a clear vision. The thesis proposed here is one such vision.

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The United States is the undisputed capital of the unicorn – private companies worth more than $1 billion. This title though, is becoming more and more under threat, primarily from China.

You will find more statistics at Statista

As Statista’s Martin Armstrong notes, according to CB Insights, there are currently 215 unicorns in the world, of which 108 are from the U.S.

When it comes to the ‘birth’ of new unicorns however, America’s strength is clearly being diluted.

In 2013, 75 percent of new unicorns were born in the United States, fast forward to 2017 though, and this share has fallen to just 41 percent.

The number of new unicorns from around the world has remained reasonably stable over this time, but it is the rapid increase in activity in China – from 0 percent in 2013 to 36 percent this year – that is putting the most pressure on U.S. dominance.

Authored by James Rickards

 

China is a relatively open economy; therefore it is subject to the impossible trinity.

China has also been attempting to do the impossible in recent years with predictable results.

Beginning in 2008 China pegged its exchange rate to the U.S. dollar. China also had an open capital account to allow the free exchange of yuan for dollars, and China preferred an independent monetary policy.

The problem is that the Impossible Trinity says you can’t have all three. This model has been validated several times since 2008 as China has stumbled through a series of currency and monetary reversals.

For example, China’s attempted the impossible beginning in 2008 with a peg to the dollar around 6.80. This ended abruptly in June 2010 when China broke the currency peg and allowed it to rise from 6.82 to 6.05 by January 2014 — a 10% appreciation.

This exchange rate revaluation was partly in response to bitter complaints by U.S. Treasury Secretary Geithner about China’s “currency manipulation” through an artificially low peg to the dollar in the 2008 – 2010 period.

After 2013, China reversed course and pursued a steady devaluation of the yuan from 6.05 in January 2014 to 6.95 by December 2016. At the end of 2016, the Chinese yuan was back where it was when the U.S. was screaming “currency manipulation.”

Only now there was a new figure to point the finger at China. The new American critic was no longer the quiet Tim Geithner, but the bombastic Donald Trump.

Trump had threatened to label China a currency manipulator throughout his campaign from June 2015 to Election Day on November 8, 2016. Once Trump was elected, China engaged in a policy of currency war appeasement.

China actually propped up its currency with a soft peg. The trading range was especially tight in the first half of 2017, right around 6.85.

In contrast to the 2008 – 2010 peg, China avoided the impossible trinity this time by partially closing the capital account and by raising rates alongside the Fed, thereby abandoning its independent monetary policy.

This was also in contrast to China’s behavior when it first faced the failure of its efforts to beat impossible trinity. In 2015, China dodged the impossible trinity not by closing the capital account, but by breaking the currency peg.

In August 2015, China engineered a sudden shock devaluation of the yuan. The dollar gained 3% against the yuan in two days as China devalued.

The results were disastrous.

U.S. stocks fell 11% in a few weeks. There was a real threat of global financial contagion and a full-blown liquidity crisis. A crisis was averted by Fed jawboning, and a decision to put off the “liftoff” in U.S. interest rates from September 2015 to the following December.

China conducted another devaluation from November to December 2015. This time China did not execute a sneak attack, but did the devaluation in baby steps. This was stealth devaluation.

The results were just as disastrous as the prior August. U.S. stocks fell 11% from January 1, 2016 to February 10. 2016. Again, a greater crisis was averted only by a Fed decision to delay planned U.S. interest rate hikes in March and June 2016.

The impact these two prior devaluations had on the exchange rate is shown in the chart below.

Major moves in the dollar/yuan cross exchange rate (USD/CNY) have had powerful impacts on global markets. The August 2015 surprise yuan devaluation sent U.S. stocks reeling. Another slower devaluation did the same in early 2016. A stronger yuan in 2017 coincided with the Trump stock rally. A new devaluation is now underway and U.S. stocks may suffer again.

 

China cannot keep the capital account closed without damaging badly needed capital inflows. Who will invest in China if you can’t get your money out?

China also cannot maintain high interest rates because the interest costs will bankrupt insolvent state owned enterprises and lead to an increase in unemployment, which is socially destabilizing.

China cannot maintain a strong yuan because that damages exports, hurts export-related jobs, and causes deflation to be imported through lower import prices. An artificially inflated currency also drains the foreign exchange reserves needed to maintain the peg.

Since the impossible trinity really is impossible in the long-run, and since China’s current solutions are non-sustainable, what can China do to solve its policy trilemma?

The most obvious course, and the one likely to be implemented, is a maxi-devaluation of the yuan to around the 7.95 level or lower.

This would stop capital outflows because those outflows are driven by devaluation fears. Once the devaluation happens, there is no longer any urgency about getting money out of China. In fact, new money should start to flow in to take advantage of much lower local currency prices.

There are early signs that this policy of devaluation is already being put into place. The yuan has dropped sharply in the past month from 6.45 to 6.62. This resembles the stealth devaluation of late 2015, but is somewhat more aggressive.

The geopolitical situation is also ripe for a Chinese devaluation policy. Once the National Party Congress is over in late October, President Xi will have secured his political ambitions and will no longer find it necessary to avoid rocking the boat.

 

China’s President Xi Jinping awaits appointment to a second term at the 19th National Congress of the Communist Party of China, starting October 18. His reappointment is a foregone conclusion.

China has clearly failed to have much impact on North Korea’s nuclear weapons ambitions. As war between North Korea and the U.S. draws closer, neither China nor the U.S. will have as much incentive to cooperate with each other on bilateral trade and currency issues.

Both Trump and Xi are readying a “gloves off” approach to a trade war and renewed currency war. A maxi-devaluation of the yuan is Xi’s most potent weapon.

Finally, China’s internal contradictions are catching up with it. China has to confront an insolvent banking system, a real estate bubble, and a $1 trillion wealth management product Ponzi scheme that is starting to fall apart.

A much weaker yuan would give China some policy space in terms of using its reserves to paper over some of these problems.

Less dramatic devaluations of the yuan led to U.S. stock market crashes. What does a new maxi-devaluation portend for U.S. stocks?

We might have an answer soon enough.

A brief perspective on the geopolitical strategic posturing and amalgamation occurring in real time. Political commentary by Chris Anthony.

 

China On Pace To Dethrone The US

Posted: October 9, 2017 in Uncategorized
Tags: , ,

 

“Not sure whether China will be nice to self-ruled Taiwan? Wait until after the 19th National Congress of the Communist Party.

What’s in store for the hotly disputed, resource-rich South China Sea, where Beijing has taken a military and technological lead since 2010? Wait until after the Congress.

Coffee maker wouldn’t start today? Wait until after the Congress.

Wait. But you get the idea: This event, due to start Oct. 18, is monumental enough to put a lot of Asia on hold — and make it worry.”

That’s how Ralph Jennings opened his piece for Forbes on Wednesday. Humor aside, the point he’s making is the same one I made at the end of September — that China’s upcoming National Congress is a really big deal.

China sets the regional tone on nearly all matters, as Jennings points out in his article:

“Chinese foreign and economic policies shape much of Asia. China’s ever-growing efforts to build and fund infrastructure around the subcontinent through initiatives such as One Belt, One Road have obvious impact on smaller countries that might otherwise struggle to finance their own projects. Neighbors from Japan to India are watching China for foreign policy cues that affect their iffy diplomatic relations with the region’s major power.”

But China’s geopolitical influence extends far beyond Asia. The country has long been viewed as the rising global superpower on pace to dethrone the United States. Much has been written and said about

China’s willingness to embrace this role as more and more countries turn to it for guidance.

China is highly conscious of this trend. It feels the world’s eyes aimed squarely in its direction and very much wants everything at the upcoming Congress, during which President Xi Jinping is expected to be reaffirmed as leader and appoint his own trusted allies to key positions of power, to go smoothly.

This is why, as I pointed out last month, the Chinese government has implemented a system-wide crackdown – both in the streets and in cyberspace – on political dissent ahead of the Congress. It all goes back to perception and the desire to present to the world the “One China” the country’s government says exists.

But perhaps there’s even more to it than that. It may be that once power is further solidified under Xi at the Congress, China will be ready to fully embrace the role of world leader. On Wednesday, its state-run Xinhua News Agency ran an article titled “China offers wisdom in global governance,” which opened with the following:

“With its own development and becoming increasingly closer to the center of the world stage, China has been injecting positive energy into the international community in pursuit of better global governance over recent years.”

Xinhua writes that China’s leadership ability is already well-established and that even though it’s currently undergoing a restructuring of its own, its vision for the world is one rooted in peace and innovation:

“As the world’s second largest economy and the biggest contributor of global economic growth, China’s innovative concepts on improving global governance and promoting global peace and common prosperity have gained wide recognition and support from other countries.

“Undergoing structural reforms, China is implementing its new concept of innovative, coordinated, green, open and shared development, eyeing a quality growth model driven by innovation.

“Meanwhile, the country is assuming its international responsibility to promote common development with other countries in the interconnected world.”

Continuing, Xinhua points to international acceptance of One Belt, One Road as evidence of China’s ability to take the lead in adapting to the modern era:

 

“The Belt and Road Initiative, building a community of shared future for mankind and the principle of extensive consultation, joint contribution and shared benefits, all proposed by China, have been incorporated in U.N. resolutions, showing wide international consensus on the concepts.

“Equality, mutual respect and win-win cooperation feature in the Chinese plans, which also safeguard the irreversible trend of globalization.”

This “win-win cooperation” is China’s guiding principle, Hu Angang of Tsinghua University in Beijing, told Xinhua. He even dubbed the philosophy “win-winism,” as the state news organ explains:

 

“’Win-winism’ highlights an open world economy for common development of all countries and joint efforts to address global challenges such as climate change and terrorism, and exchanges of different cultures, said the researcher.”

Xinhua goes on to write that Liu Wei, president of Renmin University of China, says the country has taken the lead by “putting forward new concepts, thoughts and plans to reshape the global governance system.”

With China in the spotlight ahead of the National Congress, it shouldn’t be taken lightly that the superpower would allow such bold language by one of its state mouthpieces. Indeed, it could be that a post-Congress China will be a far more assertive player on the world stage.

 

The geopolitical reality in the Middle East is changing dramatically.

The impact of the Arab Spring, the retraction of the U.S. military, and diminishing economic influence on the Arab world – as displayed during the Obama Administration – are facts.

The emergence of a Russian-Iranian-Turkish triangle is the new reality. The Western hegemony in the MENA region has ended, and not in a shy way, but with a long list of military conflicts and destabilization.

The first visit of a Saudi king to Russia shows the growing power of Russia in the Middle East. It also shows that not only Arab countries such as Saudi Arabia and the UAE, but also Egypt and Libya, are more likely to consider Moscow as a strategic ally.

King Salman’s visit to Moscow could herald not only several multibillion business deals, but could be the first real step towards a new regional geopolitical and military alliance between OPEC leader Saudi Arabia and Russia.

This cooperation will not only have severe consequences for Western interests but also could partly undermine or reshape the position of OPEC at the same time.

Russian president Vladimir Putin is currently hosting a large Saudi delegation, led by King Salman and supported by Saudi minister of energy Khalid Al Falih.

Moscow’s open attitude to Saudi Arabia—a lifetime Washington ally and strong opponent of the growing Iran power projections in the Arab world—show that Putin understands the current pivotal changes in the Middle East.

U.S. allies Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Turkey and even the UAE, have shown an increased eagerness to develop military and economic relations with Moscow, even if this means dealing with a global power currently supporting their archenemy Iran. Analysts wonder where the current visit of King Salman will really lead to, but all signs are on green for a straightforward Arab-Saudi support for a bigger Russian role in the region, and more in-depth cooperation in oil and gas markets.

In stark contrast to the difficult relationship of the West with the Arab world, Moscow seems to be playing the regional power game at a higher level. It can become an ally or friend to regional adversaries, such as Iran, Turkey, Egypt and now Saudi Arabia. Arab regimes are also willing to discuss cooperation with Russia, even though the country is supporting adversaries in the Syrian and Yemen conflicts and continues to supply arms to the Shi’a regime in Iran.

Investors can expect Russia and Saudi Arabia to sign a multitude of business deals, some of which have already been presented. Moscow and Riyadh will also discuss the still fledgling oil and gas markets, as both nations still heavily depend on hydrocarbon revenues. Arab analysts expect both sides to choose a bilateral strategy to keep oil prices from falling lower. Riyadh and Moscow have the same end goal: a stable oil and gas market, in which demand and supply keep each other in check to push price levels up, but without leaving enough breathing space for new market entrants such as U.S. shale.

Putin and Salman will also discuss the security situation in the Middle East, especially the ongoing Syrian civil war, Iran’s emerging power, and the Libya situation. Until now, the two have supported opposite sides, but Riyadh has realized that its ultimate goal, the removal of Syrian president Assad, is out of reach. To prevent a full-scale Shi’a triangle (Iran-Iraq-Syria-Lebanon), other options are now being sought to quell Tehran’s power surge. Moscow is key in this.

Putin’s unconditional support of the Iranian military onslaught in Iraq and Syria, combined with its support for Hezbollah in Lebanon or Houthis in Yemen, will be discussed and maybe tweaked to give Riyadh room to maneuver into the Russian influence sphere. The verdict on this isn’t yet out, but Riyadh’s move must be seen

in light of ongoing Moscow discussions with Egypt, Libya, Jordan and the UAE.

A growing positive Putin vibe in the Arab world is now clear. The strong leadership of Russia’s new Tsar has become a main point of interest for the (former pro-Western) Arab regimes. The U.S. and its European allies have only shown a diffuse political-military approach to the threats in the MENA region, while even destabilizing historically pro-Western Arab royalties and presidents. Putin’s friendship, however, is being presented as unconditional and long lasting.

Even though geopolitics and military operations in the Middle East now are making up most headlines, the Saudi-Russian rapprochement will also have economic consequences. Riyadh’s leadership of OPEC is still undisputed, as it has shown over the last several years. Saudi Arabia’s eagerness to counter the free-fall of oil prices has been successful, but a much bigger effort is required to bring prices back to a level of between $60-75 per barrel. Russia’s role—as the largest of non-OPEC producers—has been substantial, bringing in not only several emerging producers, but also by putting pressure on its allies Iran, Venezuela and Algeria.

The historically important Moscow-Riyadh cooperation in oil and gas is unprecedented. Without Russia’s support, overall compliance to the OPEC production cut agreement would have been very low, leading to even lower oil prices.

The Saudi-Russian rapprochement could, however, be seen as a threat by the West and OPEC itself. Western influence in the region has waned since the end of the 1990s, not only due to the peace dividend of NATO, but especially because OECD countries are moving away from oil. Saudi Arabia had to find new markets, which happened with China and India. The Saudi future is no longer based on Western customers or support, but lies in Asia and other emerging regions. The FSU region has also popped up on Saudi screens. Investment opportunities, combined with geopolitical support and military interests, are readily available in Russia and its satellite states.

For OPEC, the Moscow-Riyadh love affair could also mean a threat. Throughout OPEC’s history, Riyadh has been the main power broker in the oil cartel, pushing forward price and production strategies; most of the time this was done in close cooperation with all the other members, most of them Arab allies. This changed dramatically after Saudi Arabia and Russia agreed to cooperate in global oil markets. Through the emergence of this OPEC/ non-OPEC cooperation, Moscow and Riyadh have grown closer than expected. The two countries now decide the future of global oil markets before they discuss it with some of the other main players like UAE, Iran, Algeria and Nigeria. King Salman’s visit is seen as another step toward a more in-depth cooperation in oil and gas related issues.

Besides global oil market cooperation, Saudi Arabia is and will become more interested to invest in natural gas development, not only to have an interest in Russia’s gas future but also to bring in Russian technology, investment and LNG to the Kingdom.

At the same time, media sources are stating that Saudi Arabia is NOT asking Russia to take part in the long-awaited Aramco IPO in 2018. Russian individual investors and financial institutions, however, are expected to take an interest.

Putin understands not only Russian chess tactics but also the Arab “Tawila” approach. Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman already will prepare his Tawila strategy, putting enough stones on the table to ensure his successful end game. MBS, currently de-facto ruler of the Kingdom, is targeting a full house—Russian cooperation in energy, defense and investments—while softening Moscow’s 100% percent support of the Shi’a archenemy Iran.

For both sides, Moscow and Riyadh, the current constellation presents a win-win situation. Moscow can reach its ultimate goal in the Middle East: to become the main power broker and knock the US from the pedestal. For Riyadh, the option to counter the Iranian threat, while also bolstering its own economy and hydrocarbon future, is now within reach.

King Salman’s trip could go down in history as the point of no return for the West. Pictures of Russian President Vladimir Putin and King Salman of Saudi Arabia could replace historic pictures of King Saud and U.S. President Roosevelt (Bitter Lake, 1945). In a few years, King-to-be Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman might tell his children that this was one of the pillars that changed not only the Middle East but also supported his Vision 2030 plan of becoming a bridge between the old (West) and the new (Russia-Asia).

By Chris Hedges

The American empire is coming to an end. The U.S. economy is being drained by wars in the Middle East and vast military expansion around the globe. It is burdened by growing deficits, along with the devastating effects of deindustrialization and global trade agreements. Our democracy has been captured and destroyed by corporations that steadily demand more tax cuts, more deregulation and impunity from prosecution for massive acts of financial fraud, all the while looting trillions from the U.S. treasury in the form of bailouts. The nation has lost the power and respect needed to induce allies in Europe, Latin America, Asia and Africa to do its bidding. Add to this the mounting destruction caused by climate change and you have a recipe for an emerging dystopia. Overseeing this descent at the highest levels of the federal and state governments is a motley collection of imbeciles, con artists, thieves, opportunists and warmongering generals. And to be clear, I am speaking about Democrats, too.

The empire will limp along, steadily losing influence until the dollar is dropped as the world’s reserve currency, plunging the United States into a crippling depression

and instantly forcing a massive contraction of its military machine.

Short of a sudden and widespread popular revolt, which does not seem likely, the death spiral appears unstoppable, meaning the United States as we know it will no longer exist within a decade or, at most, two. The global vacuum we leave behind will be filled by China, already establishing itself as an economic and military juggernaut, or perhaps there will be a multipolar world carved up among Russia, China, India, Brazil, Turkey, South Africa and a few other states. Or maybe the void will be filled, as the historian Alfred W. McCoy writes in his book “In the Shadows of the American Century: The Rise and Decline of US Global Power,” by “a coalition of transnational corporations, multilateral military forces like NATO, and an international financial leadership self-selected at Davos and Bilderberg” that will “forge a supranational nexus to supersede any nation or empire.”

Under every measurement, from financial growth and infrastructure investment

to advanced technology, including supercomputers, space weaponry and cyberwarfare, we are being rapidly overtaken by the Chinese. “In April 2015 the U.S. Department of Agriculture suggested that the American economy would grow by nearly 50 percent over the next 15 years, while China’s would triple and come close to surpassing America’s in 2030,” McCoy noted. China became the world’s second largest economy in 2010, the same year it became the world’s leading manufacturing nation, pushing aside a United States that had dominated the world’s manufacturing for a century. The Department of Defense issued a sober report titled “At Our Own Peril: DoD Risk Assessment in a Post-Primacy World.” It found that the U.S. military “no longer enjoys an unassailable position versus state competitors,” and “it no longer can … automatically generate consistent and sustained local military superiority at range.” McCoy predicts the collapse will come by 2030.

Empires in decay embrace an almost willful suicide. Blinded by their hubris and unable to face the reality of their diminishing power, they retreat into a fantasy world where hard and unpleasant facts no longer intrude. They replace diplomacy, multilateralism and politics with unilateral threats and the blunt instrument of war.

This collective self-delusion saw the United States make the greatest strategic blunder in its history, one that sounded the death knell of the empire—the invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq. The architects of the war in the George W. Bush White House, and the array of useful idiots in the press and academia who were cheerleaders for it, knew very little about the countries being invaded, were stunningly naive about the effects of industrial warfare and were blindsided by the ferocious blowback. They stated, and probably believed, that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction, although they had no valid evidence to support this claim. They insisted that democracy would be implanted in Baghdad and spread across the Middle East. They assured the public that U.S. troops would be greeted by grateful Iraqis and Afghans as liberators. They promised

that oil revenues would cover the cost of reconstruction. They insisted that the bold and quick military strike—“shock and awe”—would restore American hegemony in the region and dominance in the world. It did the opposite. As Zbigniew Brzezinski noted, this “unilateral war of choice against Iraq precipitated a widespread delegitimation of U.S. foreign policy.”

Historians of empire call these military fiascos, a feature of all late empires, examples of “micro-militarism.” The Athenians engaged in micro-militarism when during the Peloponnesian War (431-404 B.C.) they invaded Sicily, suffering the loss of 200 ships and thousands of soldiers and triggering revolts throughout the empire. Britain did so in 1956 when it attacked Egypt in a dispute over the nationalization of the Suez Canal and then quickly had to withdraw in humiliation, empowering a string of Arab nationalist leaders such as Egypt’s Gamal Abdel Nasser and dooming British rule over the nation’s few remaining colonies. Neither of these empires recovered.

“While rising empires are often judicious, even rational in their application of armed force for conquest and control of overseas dominions, fading empires are inclined to ill-considered displays of power, dreaming of bold military masterstrokes that would somehow recoup lost prestige and power,” McCoy writes. “Often irrational even from an imperial point of view, these micromilitary operations can yield hemorrhaging expenditures or humiliating defeats that only accelerate the process already under way.”

Empires need more than force to dominate other nations. They need a mystique. This mystique—a mask for imperial plunder, repression and exploitation—seduces some native elites, who become willing to do the bidding of the imperial power or at least remain passive. And it provides a patina of civility and even nobility to justify to those at home the costs in blood and money needed to maintain empire. The parliamentary system of government that Britain replicated in appearance in the colonies, and the introduction of British sports such as polo, cricket and horse racing, along with elaborately uniformed viceroys and the pageantry of royalty, were buttressed by what the colonialists said was the invincibility of their navy and army. England was able to hold its empire together from 1815 to 1914 before being forced into a steady retreat. America’s high-blown rhetoric about democracy, liberty and equality, along with basketball, baseball and Hollywood, as well as our own deification of the military, entranced and cowed much of the globe in the wake of World War II. Behind the scenes, of course, the CIA used its bag of dirty tricks to orchestrate coups, fix elections and carry out assassinations, black propaganda campaigns, bribery, blackmail, intimidation and torture. But none of this works anymore.

The loss of the mystique is crippling. It makes it hard to find pliant surrogates to administer the empire, as we have seen in Iraq and Afghanistan. The photographs of physical abuse and sexual humiliation imposed on Arab prisoners at Abu Ghraib inflamed the Muslim world and fed al-Qaida and later Islamic State with new recruits. The assassination of Osama bin Laden and a host of other jihadist leaders, including the U.S. citizen Anwar al-Awlaki, openly mocked the concept of the rule of law. The hundreds of thousands of dead and millions of refugees fleeing our debacles in the Middle East, along with the near-constant threat from militarized aerial drones, exposed us as state terrorists. We have exercised in the Middle East the U.S. military’s penchant for widespread atrocities, indiscriminate violence, lies and blundering miscalculations, actions that led to our defeat in Vietnam.

The brutality abroad is matched by a growing brutality at home. Militarized police gun down mostly unarmed, poor people of color and fill a system of penitentiaries and jails that hold a staggering 25 percent of the world’s prisoners although Americans represent only 5 percent of global population. Many of our cities are in ruins. Our public transportation system is a shambles. Our educational system is in steep decline and being privatized. Opioid addiction, suicide, mass shootings, depression and morbid obesity plague a population that has fallen into profound despair. The deep disillusionment and anger that led to Donald Trump’s election—a reaction to the corporate coup d’état and the poverty afflicting at least half of the country—have destroyed the myth of a functioning democracy. Presidential tweets and rhetoric celebrate hate, racism and bigotry and taunt the weak and the vulnerable. The president in an address before the United Nations threatened to obliterate another nation in an act of genocide. We are worldwide objects of ridicule and hatred. The foreboding for the future is expressed in the rash of dystopian films, motion pictures that no longer perpetuate American virtue and exceptionalism or the myth of human progress.

“The demise of the United States as the preeminent global power could come far more quickly than anyone imagines,” McCoy writes. “Despite the aura of omnipotence empires often project, most are surprisingly fragile, lacking the inherent strength of even a modest nation-state. Indeed, a glance at their history should remind us that the greatest of them are susceptible to collapse from diverse causes, with fiscal pressures usually a prime factor. For the better part of two centuries, the security and prosperity of the homeland has been the main objective for most stable states, making foreign or imperial adventures an expendable option, usually allocated no more than 5 percent of the domestic budget. Without the financing that arises almost organically inside a sovereign nation, empires are famously predatory in their relentless hunt for plunder or profit—witness the Atlantic slave trade, Belgium’s rubber lust in the Congo, British India’s opium commerce, the Third Reich’s rape of Europe, or the Soviet exploitation of Eastern Europe.”

When revenues shrink or collapse, McCoy points out, “empires become brittle.”

“So delicate is their ecology of power that, when things start to go truly wrong, empires regularly unravel with unholy speed: just a year for Portugal, two years for the Soviet Union, eight years for France, eleven years for the Ottomans, seventeen for Great Britain, and, in all likelihood, just twenty-seven years for the United States, counting from the crucial year 2003 [when the U.S. invaded Iraq],” he writes.

Many of the estimated 69 empires that have existed throughout history lacked competent leadership in their decline, having ceded power to monstrosities such as the Roman emperors Caligula and Nero. In the United States, the reins of authority may be in the grasp of the first in a line of depraved demagogues.

“For the majority of Americans, the 2020s will likely be remembered as a demoralizing decade of rising prices, stagnant wages, and fading international competitiveness,” McCoy writes. The loss of the dollar as the global reserve currency will see the U.S. unable to pay for its huge deficits by selling Treasury bonds, which will be drastically devalued at that point. There will be a massive rise in the cost of imports. Unemployment will explode. Domestic clashes over what McCoy calls “insubstantial issues” will fuel a dangerous hypernationalism that could morph into an American fascism.

A discredited elite, suspicious and even paranoid in an age of decline, will see enemies everywhere. The array of instruments created for global dominance—wholesale surveillance, the evisceration of civil liberties, sophisticated torture techniques, militarized police, the massive prison system, the thousands of militarized drones and satellites—will be employed in the homeland. The empire will collapse and the nation will consume itself within our lifetimes if we do not wrest power from those who rule the corporate state.