Hedge Fund CIO: "The US Will Benefit From Existential Competition With China... Provided We Don't Destroy Each Other"

By Eric Peters, CIO of One River Asset Management

Survival Of: “Those who came before us made certain that this country rode the first waves of the industrial revolutions, the first waves of modern invention, and the first wave of nuclear power, and this generation does not intend to founder in the backwash of the coming age of space,” said the President of the United States. “We mean to be a part of it - we mean to lead it. For the eyes of the world now look into space, to the moon and to the planets beyond, and we have vowed that we shall not see it governed by a hostile flag of conquest, but by a banner of freedom and peace. We have vowed that we shall not see space filled with weapons of mass destruction, but with instruments of knowledge and understanding,” continued John F. Kennedy in 1962, the USSR’s Sputnik orbiting overhead, a 184-pound metallic ball, 22 inches in diameter.

The Fittest: “Behind me stands a wall that encircles the free sectors of this city, part of a vast system of barriers that divides the entire continent of Europe,” said the President of the United States. “Standing before the Brandenburg Gate, every man is a German, separated from his fellow men. Every man is a Berliner, forced to look upon a scar,” continued Ronald Reagan, standing before the Brandenburg Gate in 1987, eighteen years after Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon. “As long as this gate is closed, as long as this scar of a wall is permitted to stand, it is not the German question alone that remains open, but the question of freedom for all mankind. Mr. Gorbachev, open this gate! Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” Two years later, the Berlin Wall fell, ending the greatest national competition in human history.

Monopolies: “Today the House of Representatives has taken an historic step toward continued prosperity in America, reform in China and peace in the world,” said the President of the United States. “If the Senate votes as the House has just done, to extend permanent normal trade relations with China, it will open new doors of trade for America and new hope for change in China,” continued Bill Clinton in 2000, overly confident in the triumph of democracy, capitalism. “Bringing China into the WTO and normalizing trade will strengthen those who fight for the environment, for labor standards, for human rights, for the rule of law. America, of course, will continue to defend our interests, but at this stage in China's development we will have more positive influence with an outstretched hand than with a clenched fist.”

Competitors: Nineteen years later, China landed a rover on the dark side of the moon. In 2020 it pioneered quantum-entanglement satellite communication. In 2021, Beijing released its 14th Five-Year-Plan with ambitions to achieve supremacy across exploration/research/technologies essential to national security and development. 1. Artificial Intelligence. 2. Quantum computing. 3. Semiconductors. 4. Brain Science. 5. Genomics and biotechnology. 6. Clinical medicine and health. 7. Deep space, deep earth, deep ocean, and polar research. It also included China’s vision for 2035, when the country seeks/expects to “be among the most innovative nations globally.”

Communists:At the heart of capitalism is creative destruction.” Joseph Schumpeter brought forward economic principles with piercing logic. Competition is key to progress - firms “strive to survive,” he argued. Excessive policy responses to successive financial crises have derailed that pathway by socializing financial losses, allowing incumbents to deepen competitive moats. The policy narrative is that financial losses risk economic depression, justifying the prioritization of bailouts. Yet, even at low unemployment rates, workers earn a share of the national income seen in the 1950s. Unlike previous inflations, corporate profit margins survived the most recent one due to lack of real competition. Political urgency should be squarely focused on restoring it.

Metaphors: Life expectancy in America has dropped for a nearly unprecedented second year in a row - down to 76 years. While countries all over the world saw life expectancy rebound during the second year of the pandemic after the arrival of vaccines, the US did not. American children are less likely to live to age 5 than children in other high-income countries. Even Americans who are not obese or do not smoke, appear to have higher disease rates than their peers in other countries. And in 2020, a Pentagon study revealed that 77 percent of young Americans do not qualify for military service without a waiver due to being overweight, drug use, or mental or physical problems. 44 of those 77 failed to qualify for more than one reason.

* * *

Anecdote: “You Americans generally do not understand the Chinese,” said the CIO from Asia, visiting us in Connecticut. “And we Chinese generally do not understand Americans,” she continued, a unique thinker, independent, aggressive, blunt. “And this is where I hunt for opportunities, in these kinds of misunderstandings,” she said, our teams brainstorming, looking for ways to work together more closely. “Do you think our countries will have a direct military conflict?” I asked, knowing that no one knows, but interested in how she would respond. “It is not in China’s interest, and it would be economically devastating, so only if there is a miscalculation, an accidental conflict,” she said. “China has too little food to feed 1.4bln people and the US is the world’s largest exporter, so this gives me hope we will avoid a great war,” I said. “China also needs energy, metals, nearly everything,” she added.

“So here is my base case,” I said, “The US is in desperate need of a worthy competitor, so we need China as badly as China needs us. The EU was designed simply to prevent another devastating war, and if it can accomplish that it will be a minor miracle. We should expect no more from them. Russia is a failed state. India is decades away from mattering. That leaves only China.”

I graduated college in 1989, the year the Berlin Wall fell, twenty years after Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon. With no real competitor to keep the flame alive, great cities like San Francisco are in chronic decline, our politicians are abdicating leadership to the regulators and central bankers, who in turn have short-circuited creative destruction. 77% of our youth are now unfit for military service, and the nation is needlessly divided.

“I want to see what can be accomplished by two great powers in fierce competition, using today’s technology. Imagine the incredible things we will discover, invent, produce. And perhaps, to be in true competition - the kind that awakens us from this slumber - we need to truly believe this is an existential struggle, even if it need not be. It’s probably necessary, healthy. Provided we don’t destroy each other.” 

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