After the 2007-09 financial crisis, the imbalances and risks pervading the global economy were exacerbated by policy mistakes. So, rather than address the structural problems that the financial collapse and ensuing recession revealed, governments mostly kicked the can down the road, creating major downside risks that made another crisis inevitable. And now that it has arrived, the risks are growing even more acute. Unfortunately, even if the Greater Recession leads to a lacklustre U-shaped recovery this year, an L-shaped “Greater Depression” will follow later in this decade, owing to 10 ominous and risky trends.
The first trend concerns deficits and their corollary risks: debts and defaults. The policy response to the Covid-19 crisis entails a massive increase in fiscal deficits – on the order of 10% of GDP or more – at a time when public debt levels in many countries were already high, if not unsustainable.
Worse, the loss of income for many households and firms means that private-sector debt levels will become unsustainable, too, potentially leading to mass defaults and bankruptcies. Together with soaring levels of public debt, this all but ensures a more anaemic recovery than the one that followed the Great Recession a decade ago.
A second factor is the demographic timebomb in advanced economies. The Covid-19 crisis shows that much more public spending must be allocated to health systems, and that universal healthcare and other relevant public goods are necessities, not luxuries. Yet, because most developed countries have ageing societies, funding such outlays in the future will make the implicit debts from today’s unfunded healthcare and social security systems even larger.
A third issue is the growing risk of deflation. In addition to causing a deep recession, the crisis is also creating a massive slack in goods (unused machines and capacity) and labour markets (mass unemployment), as well as driving a price collapse in commodities such as oil and industrial metals. That makes debt deflation likely, increasing the risk of insolvency.
A fourth (related) factor will be currency debasement. As central banks try to fight deflation and head off the risk of surging interest rates (following from the massive debt build-up), monetary policies will become even more unconventional and far-reaching. In the short run, governments will need to run monetised fiscal deficits to avoid depression and deflation. Yet, over time, the permanent negative supply shocks from accelerated de-globalisation and renewed protectionism will make stagflation all but inevitable.
A fifth issue is the broader digital disruption of the economy. With millions of people losing their jobs or working and earning less, the income and wealth gaps of the 21st-century economy will widen further. To guard against future supply-chain shocks, companies in advanced economies will re-shore production from low-cost regions to higher-cost domestic markets. But rather than helping workers at home, this trend will accelerate the pace of automation, putting downward pressure on wages and further fanning the flames of populism, nationalism, and xenophobia.
This points to the sixth major factor: deglobalisation. The pandemic is accelerating trends toward balkanisation and fragmentation that were already well underway. The US and China will decouple faster, and most countries will respond by adopting still more protectionist policies to shield domestic firms and workers from global disruptions. The post-pandemic world will be marked by tighter restrictions on the movement of goods, services, capital, labour, technology, data, and information. This is already happening in the pharmaceutical, medical-equipment, and food sectors, where governments are imposing export restrictions and other protectionist measures in response to the crisis.
The backlash against democracy will reinforce this trend. Populist leaders often benefit from economic weakness, mass unemployment, and rising inequality. Under conditions of heightened economic insecurity, there will be a strong impulse to scapegoat foreigners for the crisis. Blue-collar workers and broad cohorts of the middle class will become more susceptible to populist rhetoric, particularly proposals to restrict migration and trade.
This points to an eighth factor: the geostrategic standoff between the US and China. With the Trump administration making every effort to blame China for the pandemic, Chinese President Xi Jinping’s regime will double down on its claim that the US is conspiring to prevent China’s peaceful rise. The Sino-American decoupling in trade, technology, investment, data, and monetary arrangements will intensify.
Worse, this diplomatic breakup will set the stage for a new cold war between the US and its rivals – not just China, but also Russia, Iran, and North Korea. With a US presidential election approaching, there is every reason to expect an upsurge in clandestine cyber warfare, potentially leading even to conventional military clashes. And because technology is the key weapon in the fight for control of the industries of the future and in combating pandemics, the US private tech sector will become increasingly integrated into the national-security-industrial complex.
A final risk that cannot be ignored is environmental disruption, which, as the Covid-19 crisis has shown, can wreak far more economic havoc than a financial crisis. Recurring epidemics (HIV since the 1980s, Sars in 2003, H1N1 in 2009, Mers in 2011, Ebola in 2014-16) are, like climate change, essentially manmade disasters, born of poor health and sanitary standards, the abuse of natural systems, and the growing interconnectivity of a globalised world. Pandemics and the many morbid symptoms of climate change will become more frequent, severe, and costly in the years ahead.
These 10 risks, already looming large before Covid-19 struck, now threaten to fuel a perfect storm that sweeps the entire global economy into a decade of despair. By the 2030s, technology and more competent political leadership may be able to reduce, resolve, or minimise many of these problems, giving rise to a more inclusive, cooperative, and stable international order. But any happy ending assumes that we find a way to survive the coming Greater Depression.
• Nouriel Roubini is professor of economics at New York University’s Stern School of Business. He has worked for the International Monetary Fund, the US Federal Reserve, and the World Bank.
In September 2006, Nouriel Roubini told the International Monetary Fund what it didn’t want to hear. Standing before an audience of economists at the organization’s headquarters, the New York University professor warned that the U.S. housing market would soon collapse — and, quite possibly, bring the global financial system down with it. Real-estate values had been propped up by unsustainably shady lending practices, Roubini explained. Once those prices came back to earth, millions of underwater homeowners would default on their mortgages, trillions of dollars worth of mortgage-backed securities would unravel, and hedge funds, investment banks, and lenders like Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac could sink into insolvency.
At the time, the global economy had just recorded its fastest half-decade of growth in 30 years. And Nouriel Roubini was just some obscure academic. Thus, in the IMF’s cozy confines, his remarks roused less alarm over America’s housing bubble than concern for the professor’s psychological well-being.
Of course, the ensuing two years turned Roubini’s prophecy into history, and the little-known scholar of emerging markets into a Wall Street celebrity.
A decade later, “Dr. Doom” is a bear once again. While many investors bet on a “V-shaped recovery,” Roubini is staking his reputation on an L-shaped depression. The economist (and host of a biweekly economic news broadcast) does expect things to get better before they get worse: He foresees a slow, lackluster (i.e., “U-shaped”) economic rebound in the pandemic’s immediate aftermath. But he insists that this recovery will quickly collapse beneath the weight of the global economy’s accumulated debts. Specifically, Roubini argues that the massive private debts accrued during both the 2008 crash and COVID-19 crisis will durably depress consumption and weaken the short-lived recovery. Meanwhile, the aging of populations across the West will further undermine growth while increasing the fiscal burdens of states already saddled with hazardous debt loads. Although deficit spending is necessary in the present crisis, and will appear benign at the onset of recovery, it is laying the kindling for an inflationary conflagration by mid-decade. As the deepening geopolitical rift between the United States and China triggers a wave of deglobalization, negative supply shocks akin those of the 1970s are going to raise the cost of real resources, even as hyperexploited workers suffer perpetual wage and benefit declines. Prices will rise, but growth will peter out, since ordinary people will be forced to pare back their consumption more and more. Stagflation will beget depression. And through it all, humanity will be beset by unnatural disasters, from extreme weather events wrought by man-made climate change to pandemics induced by our disruption of natural ecosystems.
Roubini allows that, after a decade of misery, we may get around to developing a “more inclusive, cooperative, and stable international order.” But, he hastens to add, “any happy ending assumes that we find a way to survive” the hard times to come.
Intelligencer recently spoke with Roubini about our impending doom.
You predict that the coronavirus recession will be followed by a lackluster recovery and global depression. The financial markets ostensibly see a much brighter future. What are they missing and why?
Well, first of all, my prediction is not for 2020. It’s a prediction that these ten major forces will, by the middle of the coming decade, lead us into a “Greater Depression.” Markets, of course, have a shorter horizon. In the short run, I expect a U-shaped recovery while the markets seem to be pricing in a V-shape recovery.
Of course the markets are going higher because there’s a massive monetary stimulus, there’s a massive fiscal stimulus. People expect that the news about the contagion will improve, and that there’s going to be a vaccine at some point down the line. And there is an element “FOMO” [fear of missing out]; there are millions of new online accounts — unemployed people sitting at home doing day-trading — and they’re essentially playing the market based on pure sentiment. My view is that there’s going to be a meaningful correction once people realize this is going to be a U-shaped recovery. If you listen carefully to what Fed officials are saying — or even what JPMorgan and Goldman Sachs are saying — initially they were all in the V camp, but now they’re all saying, well, maybe it’s going to be more of a U. The consensus is moving in a different direction.
Your prediction of a weak recovery seems predicated on there being a persistent shortfall in consumer demand due to income lost during the pandemic. A bullish investor might counter that the Cares Act has left the bulk of laid-off workers with as much — if not more — income than they had been earning at their former jobs. Meanwhile, white-collar workers who’ve remained employed are typically earning as much as they used to, but spending far less. Together, this might augur a surge in post-pandemic spending that powers a V-shaped recovery. What does the bullish story get wrong?
Yes, there are unemployment benefits. And some unemployed people may be making more money than when they were working. But those unemployment benefits are going to run out in July. The consensus says the unemployment rate is headed to 25 percent. Maybe we get lucky. Maybe there’s an early recovery, and it only goes to 16 percent. Either way, tons of people are going to lose unemployment benefits in July. And if they’re rehired, it’s not going to be like before — formal employment, full benefits. You want to come back to work at my restaurant? Tough luck. I can hire you only on an hourly basis with no benefits and a low wage. That’s what every business is going to be offering. Meanwhile, many, many people are going to be without jobs of any kind. It took us ten years — between 2009 and 2019 — to create 22 million jobs. And we’ve lost 30 million jobs in two months.
So when unemployment benefits expire, lots of people aren’t going to have any income. Those who do get jobs are going to work under more miserable conditions than before. And people, even middle-income people, given the shock that has just occurred — which could happen again in the summer, could happen again in the winter — you are going to want more precautionary savings. You are going to cut back on discretionary spending. Your credit score is going to be worse. Are you going to go buy a home? Are you gonna buy a car? Are you going to dine out? In Germany and China, they already reopened all the stores a month ago. You look at any survey, the restaurants are totally empty. Almost nobody’s buying anything. Everybody’s worried and cautious. And this is in Germany, where unemployment is up by only one percent. Forty percent of Americans have less than $400 in liquid cash saved for an emergency. You think they are going to spend?
You’re going to start having food riots soon enough. Look at the luxury stores in New York. They’ve either boarded them up or emptied their shelves, because they’re worried people are going to steal the Chanel bags. The few stores that are open, like my Whole Foods, have security guards both inside and outside. We are one step away from food riots. There are lines three miles long at food banks. That’s what’s happening in America. You’re telling me everything’s going to become normal in three months? That’s lunacy.
Your projection of a “Greater Depression” is premised on deglobalization sparking negative supply shocks. And that prediction of deglobalization is itself rooted in the notion that the U.S. and China are locked in a so-called Thucydides trap, in which the geopolitical tensions between a dominant and rising power will overwhelm mutual financial self-interest. But given the deep interconnections between the American and Chinese economies — and warm relations between much of the U.S. and Chinese financial elite — isn’t it possible that class solidarity will take precedence over Great Power rivalry? In other words, don’t the most powerful people in both countries understand they have a lot to lose financially and economically from decoupling? And if so, why shouldn’t we see the uptick in jingoistic rhetoric on both sides as mere posturing for a domestic audience?
First of all, my argument for why inflation will eventually come back is not just based on U.S.-China relations. I actually have 14 separate arguments for why this will happen. That said, everybody agrees that there is the beginning of a Cold War between the U.S. and China. I was in Beijing in November of 2015, with a delegation that met with Xi Jinping in the Great Hall of the People. And he spent the first 15 minutes of his remarks speaking, unprompted, about why the U.S. and China will not get caught in a Thucydides trap, and why there will actually be a peaceful rise of China.
Since then, Trump got elected. Now, we have a full-scale
- trade war,
- technology war,
- financial war,
- monetary war,
- pretty much anything across the board. Look at tech — there is complete decoupling. They just decided Huawei isn’t going to have any access to U.S. semiconductors and technology. We’re imposing total restrictions on the transfer of technology from the U.S. to China and China to the U.S. And if the United States argues that 5G or Huawei is a backdoor to the Chinese government, the tech war will become a trade war. Because tomorrow, every piece of consumer electronics, even your lowly coffee machine or microwave or toaster, is going to have a 5G chip. That’s what the internet of things is about. If the Chinese can listen to you through your smartphone, they can listen to you through your toaster. Once we declare that 5G is going to allow China to listen to our communication, we will also have to ban all household electronics made in China. So, the decoupling is happening. We’re going to have a “splinternet.” It’s only a matter of how much and how fast.
And there is going to be a cold war between the U.S. and China. Even the foreign policy Establishment — Democrats and Republicans — that had been in favor of better relations with China has become skeptical in the last few years. They say, “You know, we thought that China was going to become more open if we let them into the WTO. We thought they’d become less authoritarian.” Instead, under Xi Jinping, China has become more state capitalist, more authoritarian, and instead of biding its time and hiding its strength, like Deng Xiaoping wanted it to do, it’s flexing its geopolitical muscle. And the U.S., rightly or wrongly, feels threatened. I’m not making a normative statement. I’m just saying, as a matter of fact, we are in a Thucydides trap. The only debate is about whether there will be a cold war or a hot one. Historically, these things have led to a hot war in 12 out of 16 episodes in 2,000 years of history. So we’ll be lucky if we just get a cold war.
Some Trumpian nationalists and labor-aligned progressives might see an upside in your prediction that America is going to bring manufacturing back “onshore.” But you insist that ordinary Americans will suffer from the downsides of reshoring (higher consumer prices) without enjoying the ostensible benefits (more job opportunities and higher wages). In your telling, onshoring won’t actually bring back jobs, only accelerate automation. And then, again with automation, you insist that Americans will suffer from the downside (unemployment, lower wages from competition with robots) but enjoy none of the upside from the productivity gains that robotization will ostensibly produce. So, what do you say to someone who looks at your forecast and decides that you are indeed “Dr. Doom” — not a realist, as you claim to be, but a pessimist, who ignores the bright side of every subject?
When you reshore, you are moving production from regions of the world like China, and other parts of Asia, that have low labor costs, to parts of the world like the U.S. and Europe that have higher labor costs. That is a fact. How is the corporate sector going respond to that? It’s going to respond by replacing labor with robots, automation, and AI.
I was recently in South Korea. I met the head of Hyundai, the third-largest automaker in the world. He told me that tomorrow, they could convert their factories to run with all robots and no workers.Why don’t they do it? Because they have unions that are powerful. In Korea, you cannot fire these workers, they have lifetime employment.
But suppose you take production from a labor-intensive factory in China — in any industry — and move it into a brand-new factory in the United States. You don’t have any legacy workers, any entrenched union. You are going to design that factory to use as few workers as you can. Any new factory in the U.S. is going to be capital-intensive and labor-saving. It’s been happening for the last ten years and it’s going to happen more when we reshore. So reshoring means increasing production in the United States but not increasing employment. Yes, there will be productivity increases. And the profits of those firms that relocate production may be slightly higher than they were in China (though that isn’t certain since automation requires a lot of expensive capital investment).
But you’re not going to get many jobs. The factory of the future is going to be one person manning 1,000 robots and a second person cleaning the floor. And eventually the guy cleaning the floor is going to be replaced by a Roomba because a Roomba doesn’t ask for benefits or bathroom breaks or get sick and can work 24-7.
The fundamental problem today is that people think there is a correlation between what’s good for Wall Street and what’s good for Main Street. That wasn’t even true during the global financial crisis when we were saying, “We’ve got to bail out Wall Street because if we don’t, Main Street is going to collapse.” How did Wall Street react to the crisis? They fired workers. And when they rehired them, they were all gig workers, contractors, freelancers, and so on. That’s what happened last time. This time is going to be more of the same. Thirty-five to 40 million people have already been fired. When they start slowly rehiring some of them (not all of them), those workers are going to get part-time jobs, without benefits, without high wages. That’s the only way for the corporates to survive. Because they’re so highly leveraged today, they’re going to need to cut costs, and the first cost you cut is labor. But of course, your labor cost is my consumption. So in an equilibrium where everyone’s slashing labor costs, households are going to have less income. And they’re going to save more to protect themselves from another coronavirus crisis. And so consumption is going to be weak. That’s why you get the U-shaped recovery.
There’s a conflict between workers and capital. For a decade, workers have been screwed. Now, they’re going to be screwed more. There’s a conflict between small business and large business.
Millions of these small businesses are going to go bankrupt. Half of the restaurants in New York are never going to reopen. How can they survive? They have such tiny margins. Who’s going to survive? The big chains. Retailers. Fast food. The small businesses are going to disappear in the post-coronavirus economy. So there is a fundamental conflict between Wall Street (big banks and big firms) and Main Street (workers and small businesses). And Wall Street is going to win.
Clearly, you’re bearish on the potential of existing governments intervening in that conflict on Main Street’s behalf. But if we made you dictator of the United States tomorrow, what policies would you enact to strengthen labor, and avert (or at least mitigate) the Greater Depression?
The market, as currently ordered, is going to make capital stronger and labor weaker. So, to change this, you need to invest in your workers. Give them education, a social safety net — so if they lose their jobs to an economic or technological shock, they get job training, unemployment benefits, social welfare, health care for free. Otherwise, the trends of the market are going to imply more income and wealth inequality. There’s a lot we can do to rebalance it. But I don’t think it’s going to happen anytime soon. If Bernie Sanders had become president, maybe we could’ve had policies of that sort. Of course, Bernie Sanders is to the right of the CDU party in Germany. I mean, Angela Merkel is to the left of Bernie Sanders. Boris Johnson is to the left of Bernie Sanders, in terms of social democratic politics. Only by U.S. standards does Bernie Sanders look like a Bolshevik.
In Germany, the unemployment rate has gone up by one percent. In the U.S., the unemployment rate has gone from 4 percent to 20 percent (correctly measured) in two months. We lost 30 million jobs. Germany lost 200,000. Why is that the case? You have different economic institutions. Workers sit on the boards of German companies. So you share the costs of the shock between the workers, the firms, and the government.
In 2009, you argued that if deficit spending to combat high unemployment continued indefinitely, “it will fuel persistent, large budget deficits and lead to inflation.” You were right on the first count obviously. And yet, a decade of fiscal expansion not only failed to produce high inflation, but was insufficient to reach the Fed’s 2 percent inflation goal. Is it fair to say that you underestimated America’s fiscal capacity back then? And if you overestimated the harms of America’s large public debts in the past, what makes you confident you aren’t doing so in the present?
First of all, in 2009, I was in favor of a bigger stimulus than the one that we got. I was not in favor of fiscal consolidation. There’s a huge difference between the global financial crisis and the coronavirus crisis because the former was a crisis of aggregate demand, given the housing bust. And so monetary policy alone was insufficient and you needed fiscal stimulus. And the fiscal stimulus that Obama passed was smaller than justified. So stimulus was the right response, at least for a while. And then you do consolidation.
What I have argued this time around is that in the short run, this is both a supply shock and a demand shock. And, of course, in the short run, if you want to avoid a depression, you need to do monetary and fiscal stimulus. What I’m saying is that once you run a budget deficit of not 3, not 5, not 8, but 15 or 20 percent of GDP — and you’re going to fully monetize it (because that’s what the Fed has been doing) — you still won’t have inflation in the short run, not this year or next year, because you have slack in goods markets, slack in labor markets, slack in commodities markets, etc. But there will be inflation in the post-coronavirus world. This is because we’re going to see two big negative supply shocks. For the last decade, prices have been constrained by two positive supply shocks — globalization and technology. Well, globalization is going to become deglobalization thanks to decoupling, protectionism, fragmentation, and so on. So that’s going to be a negative supply shock. And technology is not going to be the same as before. The 5G of Erickson and Nokia costs 30 percent more than the one of Huawei, and is 20 percent less productive. So to install non-Chinese 5G networks, we’re going to pay 50 percent more. So technology is going to gradually become a negative supply shock. So you have two major forces that had been exerting downward pressure on prices moving in the opposite direction, and you have a massive monetization of fiscal deficits. Remember the 1970s? You had two negative supply shocks — ’73 and ’79, the Yom Kippur War and the Iranian Revolution. What did you get? Stagflation.
Now, I’m not talking about hyperinflation — not Zimbabwe or Argentina. I’m not even talking about 10 percent inflation. It’s enough for inflation to go from one to 4 percent. Then, ten-year Treasury bonds — which today have interest rates close to zero percent — will need to have an inflation premium. So, think about a ten-year Treasury, five years from now, going from one percent to 5 percent, while inflation goes from near zero to 4 percent. And ask yourself, what’s going to happen to the real economy? Well, in the fourth quarter of 2018, when the Federal Reserve tried to raise rates above 2 percent, the market couldn’t take it. So we don’t need hyperinflation to have a disaster.
In other words, you’re saying that because of structural weaknesses in the economy, even modest inflation would be crisis-inducing because key economic actors are dependent on near-zero interest rates?
For the last decade, debt-to-GDP ratios in the U.S. and globally have been rising. And debts were rising for corporations and households as well. But we survived this, because, while debt ratios were high, debt-servicing ratios were low, since we had zero percent policy rates and long rates close to zero — or, in Europe and Japan, negative. But the second the Fed started to hike rates, there was panic.
In December 2018, Jay Powell said, “You know what. I’m at 2.5 percent. I’m going to go to 3.25. And I’m going to continue running down my balance sheet.” And the market totally crashed. And then, literally on January 2, 2019, Powell comes back and says, “Sorry, I was kidding. I’m not going to do quantitative tightening. I’m not going to raise rates.” So the economy couldn’t take a Fed funds rate of 2.5 percent. In the strongest economy in the world. There is so much debt, if long-term rates go from zero to 3 percent, the economy is going to crash.
You’ve written a lot about negative supply shocks from deglobalization. Another potential source of such shocks is climate change. Many scientists believe that rising temperatures threaten the supply of our most precious commodities — food and water. How does climate figure into your analysis?
I am not an expert on global climate change. But one of the ten forces that I believe will bring a Greater Depression is man-made disasters. And global climate change, which is producing more extreme weather phenomena — on one side, hurricanes, typhoons, and floods; on the other side, fires, desertification, and agricultural collapse — is not a natural disaster. The science says these extreme events are becoming more frequent, are coming farther inland, and are doing more damage. And they are doing this now, not 30 years from now.
So there is climate change. And its economic costs are becoming quite extreme. In Indonesia, they’ve decided to move the capital out of Jakarta to somewhere inland because they know that their capital is going to be fully flooded. In New York, there are plans to build a wall all around Manhattan at the cost of $120 billion. And then they said, “Oh no, that wall is going to be so ugly, it’s going to feel like we’re in a prison.” So they want to do something near the Verrazzano Bridge that’s going to cost another $120 billion. And it’s not even going to work.
The Paris Accord said 1.5 degrees. Then they say two. Now, every scientist says, “Look, this is a voluntary agreement, we’ll be lucky if we get three — and more likely, it will be four — degree Celsius increases by the end of the century.” How are we going to live in a world where temperatures are four degrees higher? And we’re not doing anything about it. The Paris Accord is just a joke. And it’s not just the U.S. and Trump. China’s not doing anything. The Europeans aren’t doing anything. It’s only talk.
And then there’s the pandemics. These are also man-made disasters. You’re destroying the ecosystems of animals. You are putting them into cages — the bats and pangolins and all the other wildlife — and they interact and create viruses and then spread to humans.
- First, we had HIV. Then we had
- SARS. Then
- MERS, then
- swine flu, then
- Zika, then
- Ebola, now
- this one.
And there’s a connection between global climate change and pandemics. Suppose the permafrost in Siberia melts. There are probably viruses that have been in there since the Stone Age. We don’t know what kind of nasty stuff is going to get out. We don’t even know what’s coming.
U.S. officials are seeking to block an undersea cable backed by Google, Facebook Inc. and a Chinese partner, in a national-security review that could rewrite the rules of internet connectivity between the U.S. and China, according to people involved in the discussions.
The Justice Department, which leads a multiagency panel that reviews telecommunications matters, has signaled staunch opposition to the project because of concerns over its Chinese investor, Beijing-based Dr. Peng Telecom & Media Group Co., and the direct link to Hong Kong the cable would provide, the people said.
Ships have already draped most of the 8,000-mile Pacific Light Cable Network across the seafloor between the Chinese territory and Los Angeles, promising faster connections for its investors on both sides of the Pacific. The work so far has been conducted under a temporary permit expiring in September. But people familiar with the review say it is in danger of failing to win the necessary license to conduct business because of the objections coming from the panel, known as Team Telecom.
Team Telecom has consistently approved past cable projects, including ones directly linking the U.S. to mainland China or involving state-owned Chinese telecom operators, once they were satisfied the company responsible for its U.S. beachhead had taken steps to prevent foreign governments from blocking or tapping traffic.
If the U.S. rejects Pacific Light’s application, it would be the first time it has ever denied an undersea cable license based on national-security grounds, and it could signal regulators are adopting a new, tougher stance on China projects.
The threat of a failed approval process reflects growing distrust of Chinese ambitions and comes amid escalating tensions between China and the U.S., part of a broad rivalry between the world’s two largest economic powers. A prolonged trade conflict has each side affixing tariffs on hundreds of billions of dollars in goods flowing between the two countries, while Washington has sought to blunt Beijing’s ambitions to expand military and economic influence in Southeast Asia, the Pacific, Africa and elsewhere.
A number of U.S. officials—as well as some from allied countries—also have been waging a high-profile campaign to exclude China’s Huawei Technologies Co. from next-generation mobile networks, and to limit its role in the undersea cable networks that ferry nearly all of the world’s internet data.
The Pacific Light project cost at least $300 million to build based on its route, according to consultants who advise companies on subsea cable construction. Companies like Google and Facebook have spent the past decade funding similar cables to handle ever-growing network traffic between the U.S. and Asia. The new link to Hong Kong would give them greater bandwidth to a major regional internet hub with links to growing markets in the Philippines, Malaysia and Indonesia as well as mainland China.
Team Telecom’s concerns over Pacific Light include Dr. Peng’s Chinese-government ties and the declining autonomy of Hong Kong, where pro-democracy protesters have been holding massive demonstrations for months against Beijing’s efforts to integrate the territory more closely. Dr. Peng is China’s fourth-biggest telecom operator. Listed in Shanghai, the private firm serves millions of domestic broadband customers. In the past, a cable link to Hong Kong would have been viewed as more secure than one to mainland China, but the distinction is becoming less relevant, these people say.
Proponents of the project say its approval would give the U.S. better oversight over the data that flows through the cable because Team Telecom could advise the FCC to force the companies to agree to certain conditions to protect security. Even if the U.S. thwarts this particular cable, the need for greater data capacity will still exist, and that data will just find its way through other cables that aren’t necessarily within the U.S.’s jurisdiction, they say.
The Internet’s Undersea Arteries
Roughly 380 active submarine cables carry almost all the world’s intercontinental internet traffic via about 1,000 landing stations.
Sources: U.K. Cable Protection Committee; Alcatel Submarine Networks
Team Telecom last year reversed its long-held stance on Chinese applications to provide telecom services through U.S. networks, and recommended for the first time the denial of an application based on national-security and law-enforcement concerns. In May, the Federal Communications Commission adopted the recommendation that came after years of deliberation, voting unanimously to deny an application from China Mobile Ltd. ’s U.S. arm even though it had previously approved applications from fellow state-owned operators China Telecom and China Unicom .
Though the FCC makes the final decision on whether to grant a license for the Pacific Light project, it has historically deferred to recommendations from Team Telecom after its members coalesce around a unified view. The ad hoc group has no resolution mechanism in the event of a dispute. It isn’t known how strongly other members of the team, including the Defense and Homeland Security Departments, feel about the issue.
Should the Justice Department hold firm in its opposition and win support from other Team Telecom members, the group’s negative view would likely kill the project. If other team members decide to fight the Justice Department on the issue—and it refuses to back down—any approval could be delayed indefinitely, leaving the project in limbo. It is possible regulators might extend the temporary permit in the interim. Team Telecom, meanwhile, could still recommend the FCC approve the project if the Justice Department changes its position.
Pacific Light Data Communication Co., the Hong Kong company managing the cable project, said it has already installed more than 6,800 miles of the cable system, which will be ready for service by December or January. Senior Vice President Winston Qiu said he hadn’t heard of any U.S. regulatory problems. “We didn’t hear any opposition,” he said.
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What are your thoughts on the U.S. citing national-security concerns as a reason for possibly stopping this venture? Join the conversation below.
Dr. Peng didn’t respond to emailed and faxed requests for comment. Repeated calls to its offices and those of its subsidiaries and biggest shareholder went unanswered.
A Google spokeswoman said the company has “been working through established channels for many years in order to obtain U.S. cable landing licenses for various undersea cables. We are currently engaged in active and productive conversations with U.S. government agencies about satisfying their requirements specifically for the PLCN cable.” A Facebook spokeswoman declined to comment.
A Justice Department spokesman declined to comment on the project and said its reviews and recommendations are “tailored to address the national-security and law-enforcement risks that are unique to each applicant or license holder.” The Pentagon referred questions to the Justice Department as the team’s lead agency. Spokesmen for the Department of Homeland Security and the FCC declined to comment.
The Pacific Light project has taken an atypical path. Google ownerAlphabet Inc. teamed up with Facebook in 2016 to provide its U.S. financing, adding to the tech companies’ growing inventory of internet infrastructure. Google took responsibility for its U.S. landing site. The Hong Kong end fell to a company controlled by a mainland Chinese real-estate magnate that had only recently entered the telecom sector.
The Chinese partner later sold its majority stake in the project to Dr. Peng, a company with interests in telecom, media and surveillance technology. In 2014, Dr. Peng signed a strategic cooperation agreement with Huawei to jointly research cloud computing, artificial intelligence and 5G mobile technology, according to an exchange filing. Dr. Peng’s website lists Huawei as a partner.
Dr. Peng’s chairman, Yang Xueping, is a former Shenzhen government official, according to the company’s website, and its subsidiaries have worked on several projects with government entities, including building a fiber-optic surveillance network for Beijing police, its website and filings show. Last year, Dr. Peng said in an exchange filing that two wholly owned subsidiaries had been fined 2 million yuan ($279,000) after some of their executives were convicted of bribing Chinese officials in connection with Beijing police projects.
Whether or not US President Donald Trump and his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping, agree to another truce at the upcoming G20 summit in Osaka, the Sino-American conflict has already entered a dangerous new phase. Though a negotiated settlement or a managed continuation of the status quo are possible, a sharp escalation is now the most likely scenario.NEW YORK – The nascent Sino-American cold war is the key source of uncertainty in today’s global economy. How the conflict plays out will affect consumer and asset markets of all kinds, as well as the trajectory of inflation, monetary policy, and fiscal conditions around the world. Escalation of the tensions between the world’s two largest economies could well produce a global recession and subsequent financial crisis by 2020, even if the US Federal Reserve and other major central banks pursue aggressive monetary easing.Much, therefore, depends on whether the dispute does indeed evolve into a persistent state of economic and political conflict. In the short term, a planned meeting between US President Donald Trump and his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping, at the G20 Summit in Osaka on June 28-29 is a key event to watch. A truce could leave tariffs frozen at the current level, while sparing the Chinese technology giant Huawei from the crippling sanctions that Trump has put forward; failure to reach an agreement could set off a progressive escalation, ultimately leading to the balkanization of the entire global economy.
JAW-JAW OR WAR-WAR?
. On the trade front, the US wants China to buy more American goods, reduce tariff and non-tariff barriers, open more financial and service sectors to foreign direct investment, and commit to maintaining currency stability and transparency with respect to foreign-exchange data.
On technology, the US is demanding that China strengthen intellectual-property protections, cease making the transfer of technology to Chinese firms a condition of market entry for US (and other) companies, and crack down on corporate cyber espionage and theft. A temporary deal could include any of the above, with the US offering medium-term (through the end of 2020, and possibly longer) exemptions to Chinese tech firms that use US components, semiconductors, and software. This would leave Huawei severely constrained, but not dead in the water.
The second possibility is a full-scale trade, tech, and cold war within the next 6-12 months. In this scenario, the US and China would adopt rapidly diverging positions after failing to successfully restart negotiations (with or without a truce). The US would follow through with import tariffs – starting at 10% but increasing to 25% – on the remaining $300 billion worth of Chinese goods that have so far been spared. And the Trump administration would pull the trigger on Huawei and other Chinese tech firms, barring them from purchasing components and software from US companies.
China, meanwhile, would take steps to protect its economy through macro-level stimulus, while retaliating against the US through measures that go beyond tariffs (such as expelling American firms). Huawei might survive within the Chinese market, but its growing global business would effectively be crippled, at least for the time being.
Beyond trade and technology, this scenario also implies increased geopolitical and military tensions. The possibility of some type of conflict over the East and South China Seas, Taiwan, North Korea, Xinjiang, Iran, or Hong Kong could not be ruled out.
Finally, in the third scenario, China and the US would fail to reach a deal on trade and technology, but they would forego rapid escalation. Instead of plunging into a total trade and technology war, the two powers might ratchet up their conflict more gradually. The US would impose new tariffs, but keep them at 10%, while renewing only temporarily exemptions that allow Huawei and other Chinese firms to continue purchasing key US-made inputs, while retaining the option of pulling the plug on Huawei at its discretion. Negotiations could continue, but the US would essentially hold a veto over Huawei’s bid to develop 5G and other key technologies of the global economy. Given that Trump could suddenly pull the plug on the company whenever it suits him, China’s leaders would probably abstain from blatant full-scale retaliation, but would still intervene to minimize the economic damage.
THE GOLDILOCKS OPTION…
The third scenario is the most likely for now, because China is playing a waiting game until November 2020, to see if the US elects a more even-keeled president. Even with a truce, therefore, any negotiations that are relaunched after the G20 summit will probably drag on indefinitely, with no real signs of progress. In the meantime, the Trump administration will want to apply additional pressure on China, while keeping its options open. Better, then, to start with a 10% tariff on that remaining $300 billion worth of exports. The US could always hike the rate to 25%, but at the risk of raising the costs of goods that many of Trump’s own lower-income voters rely on.
Where does that leave us? If both Xi and Trump find the third scenario attractive, neither will be willing to meet halfway on a deal. That makes the second scenario – a full-scale trade and technology war – the most likely outcome, given that a controlled escalation is inherently unstable.
As matters stand, the probability of a deal eventually being reached is low (my colleagues and I put it at just 25%). Still, we will know more after the G20 summit later this month. If Trump and Xi fail to broker a truce or a temporary agreement regarding Huawei, the US will probably follow through with 10% tariffs on the remaining $300 billion worth of Chinese exports. We will then be in the initial stages of the third scenario.
On the other hand, if Trump and Xi hold a friendly meeting and agree to a truce, the US will probably withhold new tariffs, and we will be in the early stages of the first scenario. This would make the probability of the two sides reaching a deal slightly higher. But a lurch to the third scenario – a precipitous escalation of the current confrontation – would still be more likely, followed eventually by a descent into a full-scale conflict. Where it will end is anyone’s guess, but an escalating trade and tech war is, in my view, more likely than an eventual deal.
The U.S. and Chinese governments both sent signals ahead of their trade talks in Washington last week that a pact was so near they would discuss the logistics of a signing ceremony.
In a matter of days, the dynamic shifted so markedly that the Chinese deliberated whether to even show up after President Trump ordered a last-minute increase in tariffs on Chinese imports because the U.S. viewed China as reneging on previous commitments.
Inside the cloistered Zhongnanhai government compound in Beijing, President Xi Jinping and his close advisers discussed how to respond to the tariff increase, given the talks were just days away, according to Chinese officials with knowledge of the decision-making process.
After huddling Tuesday to analyze a press conference given by the U.S.’s two top negotiators, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer, Chinese officials concluded that they should travel to at least avoid a rift that could be difficult to repair.
The recommendation went to China’s chief negotiator, Liu He, and ultimately to Mr. Xi. He decided to send the team even though Beijing was fully aware that the trip held little prospect of progress, given how quickly problems had arisen. “The goal was simply to keep the talks going,” said one of the Chinese officials with knowledge of the matter.
By the end of the week, that was as much as both sides could cite for their efforts: the avoidance of a serious rupture that would doom any prospect of a future deal and a commitment to stay near the negotiating table.
So far, the trade talks have provided little evidence that the two nations have found a formula for how to negotiate successfully since Messrs. Trump and Xi met in Buenos Aires Dec. 1, which paved the way to Washington last week.
China didn’t immediately impose new strictures on U.S. businesses, as it has done when things weren’t going well in the past. Mr. Liu is expected to brief Mr. Xi on the discussions he had in Washington before Beijing decides on the next course of action, according to the officials familiar with the process.
.. Bridging the trade rift may ultimately depend on the personal chemistry between President Trump and President Xi and their willingness to push matters forward after months of negotiations that have been full of positive intentions but thwarted by miscalculations, accusations of backtracking and unfulfilled expectations.
“The more heated moments have been in situations where we thought we had something and suddenly there was some backsliding,” said one person involved in the discussions on the U.S. side.
“We’ve expressed some pretty serious frustration at times,” this person said. “It’s been a necessary ingredient to success. You can be nice to someone, but sometimes you need to say ‘stop screwing me.’ ”
.. “We were in the process of planning for a signing summit with President Trump and President Xi upon the completion of this agreement,” Mr. Mnuchin later told reporters. One of the issues was where to hold the celebratory moment: Washington or Mr. Trump’s golf estates in Mar-a-Lago, in Florida, or Bedminster, N.J., say Trump aides.
To the Chinese, this was a matter of honor: The U.S. should trust Beijing to make the changes they said they would make, even if that meant changing regulations rather than laws. Besides, the U.S. was being unfair in refusing, upon the signing of a deal, to remove tariffs that had been assessed in the yearlong fight, the Chinese believed.
“There is a real desire on our end to keep the tariffs on,” one White House official said. “That is a sticking point.”
Shortly after Mr. Trump’s announcement of the tariff increase, Beijing’s trade negotiators, who had booked Air China tickets to Washington, received an urgent order: Stay put until further notice. “Looks like we’re not going,” one of them said early Monday morning.
Up until that moment, China’s leadership had expected the trip to bring months of negotiations to a close, according to Chinese officials close to the negotiation process, given that Chinese diplomats were already in discussion with their American counterparts about a possible summit between Messrs. Xi and Trump to finalize a trade agreement.
Now, the pressing question for Beijing became: Should it pull out of the planned talks to adhere to its longstanding public position that China doesn’t negotiate under threat? Or should China bite the bullet and still send the delegation to avoid a complete collapse of negotiations?
The Chinese side wanted more information from Washington before making the decision. But senior officials knew news of Mr. Trump’s tweets would inevitably cause market anxiety. The first order of business Monday morning: China’s central bank sped up a plan to release more funds for banks, a stimulus measure aimed at calming jittery investors and businesses.
State-backed funds were also instructed to buy what was necessary to prevent a free fall of shares. China’s Foreign Ministry spokesman released a statement at Monday’s regular press briefing that said only that the Chinese delegation was “preparing to travel to the U.S.” The spokesman didn’t say when the team would depart or give additional details.
On Tuesday morning, a group of officials at the vice minister level, including Liao Min, a trusted aide to Mr. Liu and a vice Finance Minister, and Wang Shouwen, a vice Commerce Minister, reached the conclusion the talks should proceed, a position endorsed by Mr. Xi though expectations of a positive result had fallen sharply.
The U.S. side made some calls that turned off the Chinese, too. By insisting that it wouldn’t remove any tariffs upon closing a deal, the U.S. gave Beijing little incentive to accept tough conditions. The U.S. position remained firm: no tariff removal until Beijing showed it would carry through on the commitments it made under the deal. On top of that, the U.S. wanted China to pledge not to retaliate if the U.S. were to reimpose tariffs if it found China in violation of some provisions.
Mr. Trump on Thursday let it be known he didn’t want the U.S. to appear soft on China, according to one person briefed on the matter.
The two days of negotiations went amicably nonetheless, according to people tracking the talks. Messrs Lighthizer and Mnuchin, who both were in the discussions, took Mr. Liu to a working dinner at the Metropolitan Club, a ritzy private club near the U.S. Trade Representative’s headquarters that is a Lighthizer favorite. Mr. Liu continued the talks on Friday despite the U.S. implementing the higher tariffs very early Friday morning.
Later that morning, Mr. Lighthizer greeted the Chinese envoy at the door of the USTR office—a gesture he rarely makes, but one which he could be sure would be captured by photographers and camera crews waiting outside.
By then, though, the U.S. team went into the talks not expecting to do a deal, figuring they would have a “non-meeting,” according to one person briefed on the discussions. U.S. officials at least wanted to make sure they didn’t leave with a complete break. The goal of the meeting was to be able to say the U.S. negotiators were still trying, this person said.
In an interview with Chinese media Friday, Mr. Liu disputed U.S. accounts that China reneged on commitments it had already made as part of the trade talks. “We are very clear that we cannot make concessions on matters of principle,” Mr. Liu said. “We hope our U.S. colleagues understand this.”
In his first week he withdrew from the unratified 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership. He prepared to pull out of the U.S.-Korea Free Trade Agreement (Korus) and the North American Free Trade Agreement. Earlier this year he imposed steep tariffs on imports of steel and aluminum, using a little-used national security law, and threatened the same for autos.
Today, Korus and Nafta have been replaced by updated agreements(one not yet ratified) that look much like the originals. South Korea accepted quotas on steel. Mexico and Canada agreed to higher wages, North American content requirements and quotas for autos.
These represent a step back from free trade toward managed trade, but they will have little practical effect: The limits on how many cars Mexico and Canada can ship duty-free to the U.S., for example, exceed current shipments. Mr. Trump hasn’t stopped threatening auto tariffs, but for now his officials have elected instead to seek broader tariff reductions with Japan and the European Union.
.. Meanwhile, the U.S. trade deficit that incenses Mr. Trump has grown during his presidency, especially with China and Mexico, as a strong American economy sucks in imports. His exhortations to manufacturers to bring jobs back to the U.S. have largely fallen on deaf ears.