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The Red Curtain

For personal reasons Ireland is one of my touchstones when trying to understand the ways in which the world is changing, and more generally it is an interesting laboratory to witness the effects of the rise and fall of globalization on a small open economy.

Globalization has markedly changed Ireland such that the Ireland of the 20th century is drifting steadily out of the collective memories of Irish people. In the middle of the 20th century, the country had few active trade and diplomatic links, something that led the writer Seán Ó’Faoláin to remark that ‘Ireland …is behind a Green Curtain that we have been rigging up for the last thirty years – thought proof, world proof, life proof’.

That is a remark on a country that was waiting to be reconnected with the world, but it recently came to mind when thinking of China.

In the last week, under heavy pressure from the Chinese authorities, Didi Chuxing, the ride hailing company announced it would renege its NYSE market listing and instead list in China/Hong Kong. Also, this week the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) have suspended their tennis tournaments in China in response to the disappearance of the player Peng Shuai.

She had been ‘recalled’ to China having accused accused Zhang Gaoli formerly a high-ranking Chinese Communist party official, of sexual assault, and she is since believed to been held under duress. While the Epstein trial shows that powerful men can behave appallingly wherever they are, the treatment of Peng is sinister, tone deaf to international public opinion and, has been repeated in the cases of other public figures.

As background I have just started reading the fascinating ‘Red Roulette’, Desmond Shum’s account of what happens to wealthy Chinese who rise too high too quickly (to spoil the surprise Shum details the murder, ‘suicides’ and disappearance of numerous Chinese billionaires).

Couple this with China’s antagonizing of nearly all of its neighbours (some of whom also threaten it), other snippets such as a collapse in passport issuance by the Chinese government (notwithstanding COVID), the exigencies of China’s COVID policy and a growing range of moves to establish self-sustainability and in some cases international monopoly in areas like data (LinkedIn has been cut off in China) and rare earths, and the picture grows of a China that is reinforcing its strategic autonomy, but also cutting itself off from the rest of the world and to adopt Ó’Faoláin’s terminology, enveloping itself in a ‘Red Curtain’.

This ‘Red Curtain’ process, if my view is correct, will be gradual but nonetheless meaningful. David Skilling points out that trade ties between the EU and China are still strong, and that American banks are keen to further implicate themselves in the Chinese financial system (Jamie Dimon of JPM is notable here, though less so for his diplomacy). However, Germany’s new government is markedly less China friendly than the Merkel one, and various EU level oversight processes will curb foreign (Chinese) investment into Europe.

In the big picture, the ‘Red Curtain’ is consistent with other countries or leaders (Brexit/Johnson, Trump, Bolsonaro) turning away from internationalism, and confirms the trend towards multipolarity.

China’s size, the late stage of its very long business cycle (with a slowing property market) mean that the prospects of a ‘Red Curtain’ need to be taken seriously.

Diplomatically, it raises the problem that a more closed off China is harder to read from outside, and somewhat harder to deal with (ask Lithuania). Domestically, there is a risk that this more ‘closed’ approach creates a sense of risk aversion across entrepreneurs, a lack of debate about policy issues (especially at a local level) and as a result of this, a policy mistake. One structural policy error might be that productivity slows.  

From an investors point of view what is interesting is that the heavy-handed approach of Chinese regulators and politicians has turned Chinese equities (especially those listed abroad like Alibaba) into ‘value’ investments. In contrast if US companies that export to China (think of Apple and Tesla) were to be cut off by the ‘Red Curtain’, their valuations would crater.  As an aside, I wonder if the ‘Red Curtain’ will split the MetaVerse in the sense that it offers a distinctly different experience to those that use Chinese technology, to those using Western technologies and platforms.

Notably on the other side, more fund managers have mentioned to me that the Chinese government bond market begins to look attractive compared to those in the West. In that context, Chinese assets – having for long being regarded as a structural emerging market growth play – are becoming interesting for value investors.

Ultimately, whether this value is realized depends on one factor – the mind and ambition of Xi Jinping – by installing himself as China’s leader for the foreseeable future, he has tied the fate of his country to the wishes of one man, which history tells us is a risky strategy, especially if it leaves China ‘thought proof, world proof, life proof’.

The PitchBook Economy

The PitchBook Economy

One of the marked trends of the past year has been innovation in financial markets – which with the benefit of experience I can say is usually an entertaining and ultimately dangerous phenomenon. We have seen and explosion of activity in the options market, unconventional financial structures like SPAC’s (Special Purpose Acquisition Companies) become conventional weapons of acquisition and the crypto currency/coin market has blossomed, partly on the back of impressive technology platforms such as FTX.

Two further points are worth noting. One is that as ever, innovation and speculation go hand in hand – a chart of the price of Tesla and the price of bitcoin following the same parabolic upwards path (they only go up) shows how the options market, technological innovation and animal spirits are all umbilically linked. Second, promisingly for the broader economy, waves of innovation often start in the financial markets and spread out towards other sectors.

Much of this financial innovation has been cast as the ‘democratisation of finance’, giving people access to low-cost trading platforms and multiple types of assets (and leverage). When all is said and done it will more likely be remembered as the ‘democratization of risk’ – the distribution of risk from large institutions and hedge funds to retail investors (note that in the last year inflows into US equity funds exceed the total of the previous 19 years).

While much of the financial media fixates of the ‘democratisation of finance’ and the meme stocks that define it, there is another, almost opposite trend taking place at the other end of markets – the deepening of private capital investments.

This is defined by a quest by higher end asset managers, large family offices, well connected financial investors for access to non-quoted (e.g. venture capital, pre IPO stakes) investments in companies that are at the heart of technology driven sectors. To a certain degree, not least in its sociology and anthropology, the contrast between the search for private investments and the hurly burly of retail trading reflects growing social divisions.

It might also be exemplified by differences in the tools of the trade. To a large extent the rise in equity markets over the past twenty years, and all of the wealth that has been created around them, is exemplified by the Bloomberg terminal, which provides data on nearly all quoted markets and thousands of companies. It is hard to get exact figures for the usage of Bloomberg terminals but what I can glean is that it has plateaued at around 330,000 in recent years.

In the private capital world the tools of choice are ‘rolodex’s’ in the modern sense that private capital operators rely largely on trusted networks, and Pitchbook – an information service that provides otherwise hard to get detail on private companies (such as funding rounds, identity of shareholders, financial profiles). The idea it seems, is that Pitchbook saves the effort that would be incurred by junior analysts in venture and corporate finance teams.

The ‘Pitchbook’ economy has sprung from several factors. One is an explosion in entrepreneurship. For instance, George W Bush is reputed to have said ‘the French don’t have a word for entrepreneurship’ but even in France the venture and startup culture is very healthy, fueled by a rising number of business schools, incubator platforms like Station F, supportive state bodies like the BPI and government support (inEurope the value of venture activity is seven times what it was in 2014). The same is true in other European countries and individual American states like Texas.

A second change is the role that technology has played in permitting companies to grow faster (and fail faster too it must be said). I was struck by a line in Azeem Azar’s excellent ‘Exponential Age’ where he remarks that when he started writing the book, TikTok was little used, and when he finished some twenty months later it was the most downloaded app’.

In the Pitchbook economy, capital moves very quickly towards companies that are perceived to be able to win in the sense of establishing a market foothold. Commensurate with this, competition between venture capital firms, banks and new investors (Tiger Global is increasingly spoken of) is heating up. Against this backdrop investors talk of the growing number of unicorns (startups worth a billion dollars) and decacorns (startups worth ten billion dollars of which there are 30 globally – almost the same as the total for the three previous years).

At this relatively early stage in the emergence of what I call the Pitchbook economy the rising private investment sector has several implications. One is a change in the way people work and regard employment. It seems to me that any younger people are willing to try the entrepreneurship/growth company route than be seduced by the security of large corporations. There is now a cachet associated with entrepreneurship, and for the moment a sense that the payoffs can be significant. Labour and pension structures have yet to adjust.

A second is that the digitization and the ‘greening’ of our economy will accelerate – I find it hard not to think of private growth companies in Europe that are not involved to some degree in either trend.

We will also likely see rapid consolidation across sectors. The neobank market in Europe is in my view becoming congested and some operators will simply not make any money (N26 has wisely pulled out of the US market) and in the mobility sector BOLT is now becoming the dominant player.

As a final comment, the one factor that unites the private capital and public markets is financial liquidity. The bloating of stock market valuations is matched by the very demanding valuations of private companies. In that respect, the ‘Pitchbook’ economy will only prove itself once we go through a monetary tightening cycle, and we get a sense of who the survivors are.

Have a great week ahead,

Mike

The Interregnum

While the rest of you were struggling under grey skies and rain, I spent the end of last week under the blue skies and fresh Atlantic breeze of Porto, Portugal. Now, before I lose half my audience through jealousy, I can say that I was working at a corporate event on the topic of the uncertain future for globalization.

With supply chains in chaos and the key trade relationship between the US and China still in a delicate state, the future of globalization is something that bears heavily on corporations as they emerge into the post covid recovery.

While many of the people I met felt that the image of a deflated globe (see the logo above, and cover of ‘The Leveling’) was too pessimistic a representation of the state of the world economy, my current roadmap is that we are on a path away from the globalization of the period 1990-2020 (fall of communism to the fall of Hong Kong), and towards a new multi polar form of world order, that has largely yet to be constructed.

To give this phase or path a name, I propose ‘Interregnum’, an English term to denote a pause between periods of government (notably used between the end of the reign of Charles I and the ascension of Charles II to the throne between 1649/60 – highly relevant to the Levellers by the way).   

Today, the Interregnum is the mid stage of a paradigm shift (see Thomas Kuhn’s Structure of Scientific Revolutions) and is characterized by noise, uncertainty, and multiple contests between the ‘old’ and the ‘new’ (finance is a good example with the emergence of ‘DeFi’ or decentralized finance).

In the Interregnum, new leaders have yet to emerge (think of the USA, Russia and China) and the firm ‘rules of the game’ of the new world order have not yet been fixed (there is no binding agreement on the rules of engagement of cyberwarfare for example).

That’s not an optimistic sounding diagnosis, though a realistic one, and one that should also challenge the view that everything is well in our world.

What is also confusing is that in the context of globalization (an intertwined, interconnected and interdependent world where nations are willing to sacrifice some sovereignty for better trade relations), there are several emerging trends that could be taken as representing a return to globalization, but in fact do not do so.

One of these is the upturn in the business cycle, which has had a huge helping hand from government spending and developed world central banks. Indeed, one interesting snippet from the earnings calls of large US banks is that households are cash rich and this should fuel consumer spending into the second half of next year. In contrast, I suspect that China is now close to a recession.

More broadly, my point is that a rise in economic activity is not the same thing as a resumption of globalization. Globalization is a very specific pattern of activity and while many of the drivers of globalization such as the flow of people and ideas are in abeyance, other, distinct patterns are emerging.

In general, globalization and the business cycle (see the NBER page on business cycles) have a very odd relationship. Prior to the beginning of this wave of globalization the world enjoyed a regular rhythm of short business cycles. In contrast, the period of globalization has been marked by the two longest periods of expansion in modern economic history (1991-2001, 2009-2020), punctuated by the dot.com bubble and the global financial crisis.

A partial explanation for this is that the positive effects of globalization – China exporting deflation, emerging economies growing up, greater global consumption and the international disintermediation of financial risks have all helped to dampen and sustain business cycle expansion phases.

Another positive trend that bears watching is the acceleration of the digital economy, which from an investment point of view is exciting and disruptive. There is a temptation to say that the advent of the digital economy portends the revival of globalization but my sense is that the effects of digitization will be largely confined to industry verticals and nation states.

Consider the point someone made to me of the hundreds of thousands of Indian ‘tele-doctors’ – they will disrupt the Indian rather than say the UK health system. Consider also the vast amounts of data that will be created by the application of 5G and then 6G to our cars – the use and storage of much of this will be local (at least in Europe) than global.

However, the idea that technology is transforming the nature of economic activity is a very important one, and one that gives clues as to what will replace globalization. For corporations, globalization meant that they could optimize their activities through an interconnected network of activity – a factory in Mexico, fed by research and development in Zurich from a head office in Berlin, inspired by marketing specialists in Barcelona and sold to consumers in North America.

The effective end of cheap labour, the rise of protectionism as a political issue and advances in robotics most likely mean that the trend of ‘going abroad’ is slowing. What is more interesting is what is happening to consumers and workers – to a large extent they are ‘coming home’ – feeling freer that they can, even at the margin, work from the city of their choice and consume more services online (from legal advice to trying on clothes virtually).

I am not sure what the long term effects of this can be but I suspect that in Europe at least people flows will be better distributed around second and third cities (Bordeaux, Porto, Munich, Malmo for example) and that there will be greater attention to local political issues (one sub trend I have picked up on is the growth in applications that seek to make participation in local democracy easier and more innovative – see Polyteia, Citizen Lab, Civocracy and Fluicity for example).

That’s probably a hopeful way to end this chapter of the debate on the future of globalization, or ‘what’s next?’

Have a great week ahead,

Mike 

Great War to Total War

To the north and east of Paris lie two of the great medieval cities of France, Amiens and Reims, both possessed of spellbinding cathedrals that have played a central role in the history, and especially, the monarchy of France. The cathedral of Reims sticks in my mind because the marathon/semi-marathon of Reims starts directly in front of it and the early morning view through the stained-glass windows is as inspiring as any sporting setting.

The cathedral at Amiens – where the skull of St John the Baptist was reportedly brought – stays with me for a different reason. Amongst its many tombs and graves it has a tablet to the memory of Raymond Asquith whose life story is an impressive, near caricature of the elite of his generation – he was a distinguished scholar (Balliol and All Souls), part of the London intellectual scene and notably the eldest son of prime minister Herbert Asquith.

At the age of 38, Raymond Asquith, father of three children, led a charge at the battle of Flers de Courcelette (September 1916) and was shot in the chest. He reportedly lit a cigarette, so as to distract the attention of his men from his injuries but died later.

At a time when Europe has commemorated Armistice Day, Raymond Asquith’s particular story is a reminder of several factors – the intertwining of French and British history over the past one thousand years, the fact that elites were once very close to wars and their consequences and in the case of the First World War, how the tactics of war proved disastrous.

Today, elites are far away from the ‘front’ in many respects, France and Britain are still locked in a close, troubled relationship, and the tactics of war have changed greatly.

For some, the dreadful end to the first period of globalization (Great War) echoes to the end of the second period of globalization in the sense that geopolitical tension in general and a Great Power rivalry (US-China) looms large in the newsflow. Anyone who has read in detail the build-up of the German and British navies in the early 20th century will worry that America and China are following a similarly dangerous path – China has more ships than America, America has better sailors, generally better equipment though China it seems has more tricks up its sleeve (hyper sonic anti-ship missiles).

What is more interesting and worthwhile (than predicting a naval battle in the South China Sea) is the way in which the idea of war is changing. In previous notes I have referred to the Russian (Gen Gerasimov) doctrine of total war, which is a view of conflict that covers many strategies such as cyber, border testing, propaganda, and covert attacks, for example. This approach is very much in display across Eastern Europe – the encouragement of discord in Bosnia, the hollowing out of Hungarian politics and in particular the harnessing of Belarus as a form of geopolitical attack dog against the EU.

An excellent steer as to the tactics of ‘total war’ is David Kilcullen’s ‘The Dragons and Snakes’ where he examines the new, unconventional forms of conflict pursued by the likes of Russia and China. One striking example Kilcullen describes is Russia’s efforts to drive immigrants and asylum seekers through the border with Norway, the aim being to test Norway’s reaction, its border security and to generally aggravate NATO (by the way, recently, the cables of a Norwegian undersea surveillance system have mysteriously been cut). To a large degree this tactic is being repeated in Belarus. The suspicion that most of the immigrants have been flown into Belarus suggests that sadly for the immigrants, this is a manufactured crisis that targets the EU’s sensitivity to the migrant issue.

The build-up of Russian troops in Belarus and in Ukraine is also threatening, though in my rather amateur view does not portend an outright conflict but rather represents Russia’s aggressive way of delineating the limits of its tolerance for NATO. It is hard to see what gain an outright military conflict might bring for Russia.  If a full conflict in Ukraine is triggered, by instinct is that the USA in particular will surprise to the upside in terms of the vigour of its response.

In the past five years Russia has extended its military footprint around the world – notably in the Middle East and lately through African countries like the Central African Republic where the activities of Russian mercenaries have had ugly consequences. What remains to be seen is whether foreign policy adventures can, in the eyes of the Russian people, substitute for sluggish economic growth and a horribly mismanaged response to COVID.

What is also critical is the response of NATO and the EU. The situation around Belarus is complicated by many factors – consider that Poland recently bought drones from Turkey, though Turkish Airlines has flown some of the migrants to Belarus, and also that Turkey – a NATO member – imports lethal, sophisticated arms from Russia, whilst also facing off against it in multiple theatres. Consider also the position of smaller Baltic states like Lithuania and Estonia who foreign and security policies has been becoming more vocal and sophisticated, and who will expect the full diplomatic support of larger countries like France.

A savvy approach would be to try to reduce migrant flights into Belarus and in my view to double up on sanctions on the Lukashenko regime and to more robustly support Belarus’ pro-democracy movement. The USA will not be displeased either if this spat lead’s Germany and the EU to reconsider their energy ties to Russia. As for Russia itself, this latest move, sadly and unnecessarily in my view, deepens the divide between it and Europe, and is yet another cleavage in an increasingly fractured post-globalization world order.

Have a great week ahead,

Mike 

Pantomime Monetary Policy

Christmas is approaching and in Britain and Ireland at least, that means that pantomime season is upon us. Pantomime is a form of theatre or musical, usually based around fables and children’s stories and involves a healthy dose of slapstick comedy. A key feature is audience participation, where a protagonist on stage engages in a mock argument with one saying “Oh, yes it is!” and “Oh, no it isn’t.

While I am not, unfortunately, an aficionado of the pantomime, it oddly enough has me thinking about central banking.

More and more, facts, trends and signals pop up that seem to contradict the logic of current monetary policy in the developed world to the effect that many investors and economists are proclaiming ‘oh, yes it is’ with respect to higher inflation, extended asset prices and inappropriate monetary policy, whilst central bankers hold to the ‘oh, no its not’ chorus.

What is new, is that markets are now beginning to chip in.

In recent weeks the yield on short-term debt (i.e. 2 year bond yields) in the key economies of Canada, Australia and Britain have spiked dramatically higher, signalling the view that central banks are entering into new terrain in terms of adjusting to a world of higher, noisy inflation.

That has stopped some central bankers like Christine Lagarde from continuing to harp ‘oh, no it isn’t’ as she did at a press conference last week, though credit risk of some periphery countries (notably Italy) is starting to rise (relative to Germany).

Overall, there is a generalised rise in bond market volatility (especially in instruments that try to price inflation expectations), which other asset classes do not yet seem to have picked up on.

It is also worth making the point that assets that are not in thrall to central banks (EM equities and many commodities) are behaving quite differently to those that are (i.e. Nasdaq). I do think that as the economic cycle becomes ever more noisy, that the idea of ‘pantomime monetary policy’ (PMP), where there is growing discord between central banks and markets, is here to stay.

There are several factors at work – activity levels are very high (the ISM Services index just hit a 25 year high), asset prices (real estate, equities, credit and crypto) are at highs, the end of globalization and scarring of economies and labour markets by the coronavirus are creating a complex set of inflationary pressures, whilst the strain that underinvestment (link to an excellent thread by the CEO of Freeport) and shifts in trade are placing on supply chains is complicating this. Add to this the risk that China could well be in a recession, and the outlook is very muddy.

For the time being, the risk to politics and profits is from higher prices. If I were a pantomime villain, or simply a populist politician, inflation would be my best friend. We wrote about this a few months ago (A Face in the Crowd), warning that rising prices (which contrary to government statements in countries like the UK and US, are not being outstripped by wage growth) will soon become a contentious public issue. The populist panto villain knows that in the short run a government or a central bank can do little about inflation (especially if it is only caused by extraneous issues). As if to illustrate this, last week Andrew Bailey the Governor of the Bank of England declared that he was ‘very sorry’ that the cost of living was rising so quickly, but, against expectations, declined to raise interest rates.

In this context, the panto villain can rabbit on about the ‘price of things’ or ‘the pound/euro in your pocket’ (i.e. the price of milk is up 26% over the last year in the USA) and gain an easy audience.

He or she also knows that a government or central bank that tries to do anything meaningful to bring down prices will be equally unpopular. So, my prediction is that in 2022 political battles and some elections will be swayed by the issue of inflation (something that many have never experienced by the way).

The second implication of PMP, is that without the ‘fairy godmother’ of enlightened fiscal policy, overly generous monetary policy will run wild and produce even greater socio-political imbalances.

The great lesson of the collapse of globalization is that it produces ongoing imbalances (indebtedness, climate damage and financial flows) that need to be energetically buttressed. Most of the highly globalized countries in the world (small, advanced economies) do not by and large have a problem with inequality because they use their tax systems to channel the benefits of globalization. The UK and US did not do so, and that is perhaps why we have had the twin shocks of Brexit and Trump.

Following from this, few governments have sought to channel and capture the effects of excessively easy monetary policy through asset charges or taxes or measures that would redistribute the benefits of higher asset prices (the primary effect of quantitative easing) across societies. As a result, and consistent with the above prediction, housing affordability will become a pan-national, lead political issue.

So, dear audience…

Is inflation back to haunt us? ‘Oh yes it is!’

Will central banks step in, especially to curb asset price inflation? ‘Oh no they won’t!’

Is the world a stable place? ‘Oh no its not!’

Will it all end badly? ‘Oh yes it will!’

Ole Ole!

Last Sunday night I sat and watched the excruciating demolition of Manchester United by Liverpool in England’s Premiership League. It was a brutal sporting moment, not only for the extent of the defeat (0-5) but the way it exposed an uncertain United team and called into question the future of their manager Ole Gunnar Solskaer.

For the uninitiated, he is a United hero – having scored the winning goal in the 1999 Champions League final, though such exploits offer little sanctuary today, during the week Barcelona sacked their manager Ronald Koeman, who scored the winning goal for them in the 1992 Champions League final.

Solskaer’s apparently uncertain situation is part of a pandemic of managerial sackings (mostly in the UK). Steve Bruce another former United player lost his job as manager of Newcastle as its new Saudi Arabian owners took control.

Should Solskaer leave United, he will be the fourth manager since Sir Alex Ferguson retired. Together with Sir Matt Busby, Ferguson is distinguished by not only great success, but longevity of tenure. He and Busby are two of the longest serving topflight managers and it is worth mentioning both are Scottish – another distinguishing characteristic of the best managers in the history of British football.

Today, there are few Scots at the helm of British football clubs (I count five in the 90 main League clubs) and few have tenure. Indeed, in the post war period the average tenure of a British football manager was seven years, at the start of the 1990’s it was three years and today it is not far off 450 days. Those readers who are not football fans will be wondering at the relevance of this trend.

In my view, football is a sign of the way we live now, and a very public testimony to the forces acting on public and corporate life (there is even a Harvard Business School case study on Sir Alex Ferguson’s management technique, and he co-authored a book with venture capitalist Michael Moritz). To exaggerate a little, in football, the robustness of an institution is on display every week, and not only quarterly earnings in the case of companies, or elections in the case of politics.

In this respect there are parallels in the corporate world, a striking one is that the tenure of CEO’s is shortening to about five years for the large US companies, with a small group of ‘survivor’ CEO’s managing to stay on for longer, according to work at Harvard and some consulting firms. Turnover of CEO’s is also at record levels.

This can be attributed to many factors – more demanding shareholders and the rise of activism, the strains and complexity of running a large organisation (not to mention the attractive compensation that comes with this). In addition, we might also link it to the speed at which new technologies, markets and corporate forms emerge and commensurately with which incumbent firms are left – obvious examples are Nvidia versus Intel, Tesla versus GM and Stripe versus Citigroup.

Another interesting aspect is that like football, companies, financial institutions, and investment funds increasingly talk about the need to manage talent, both in the sense of recruiting creative people, equipping, and supporting them in the right way and locating them in the correct place in organisations.

There is a good debate in academia as to whether individuals or firms are responsible for innovation, and a recent, interesting paper out of the NYU and Rotterdam University shows that individuals (rather than firms) tend to be the locus of invention. I still think that firm culture, or indeed national economic culture, is very important in permitting innovation and allowing a good chunk of the financial benefits of innovation to flow to individuals. Again, football is a good case study here.

A final, worrying thought is that, while football has largely left ills of the past (such as extreme hooliganism) behind it, it is a stage for some of the uglier phenomena of our time, in particular social media led abuse of players and club officials. Ironically, in a post Brexit Britain that is retreating from globalization, the Premier League is a platform for European skill (for example Wolves a club in the West Midlands, a region that voted 60% Leave, has a distinctly Portuguese squad)

As I send this, Manchester United have beaten Spurs by three goals, so it looks like Ole may stay for the time being. He can draw a little comfort from Sir Alex Ferguson’s early years. I still prize a photo of my teenage self with Sir Alex in 1987 – two year later in 1989 he was struggling to make his mark at United and some fans hung a banner ‘Three years of excuses and it’s still crap’. He went on to be the most successful manager of all time.

Have a great week ahead, Mike

What Will Bond Do Next?

In 1965 the writer Kingsley Amis, well known as a serious critic, poet and author, published the book ‘The James Bond Dossier’, an analysis of Ian Fleming’s Bond novels. The book which contains studied lists of Bond’s victims, lovers (at my count Bond prefers English, American, French and then Swedish ‘friends’) and adversaries (few governments, mostly individuals and warped older male sociopaths at that), helped Amis enter the world of popular culture – he clearly had a sense of the allure and longevity of the Bond brand.

That brand has become a multi-billion dollar business, so much so that Amazon will now partake of the next chapter in the Bond saga (following its purchase of MGM), reflecting a world where Bond must now compete for our attention with the likes of Jason Bourne, Bureau des Legendes and Homeland.  

This next chapter is marked by the departure of Daniel Craig as Bond and widespread speculation not only on the identity of the new Bond but also on the degree to which the character should reflect an apparently ‘woke’ world.

A recalibration of Bond might be in the offing but in my view Bond as a character should be faithful to the individual set out in Fleming’s books (the excellent ‘Geographies, Genders and Geopolitics of James Bond’ by Lisa Funnell and Klaus Dodd underlines how Fleming’s conception of Bond was influenced by his father, brother and several colleagues) but can also reflect what that character might be like in the 21st century.

To this end some commentators describe the Bond films as a requiem for the British Empire, and others, such as Mark Tinker’s fine ‘Market Thinking’ blog quip that the future Bond films could be like ‘The Crown but with more guns’.  

What is perhaps a more interesting aspect of the Bond genre is what the plots (yes, the Bond films have plots) tell us about the world we live in and how they reflect the nature of Ian Fleming’s role in Intelligence (he worked at Room 37 at the Admiralty). He was given charge of a small but telling operation whose aim was to conceive high impact missions that had little chance of success, but that would confuse the enemy. His playbook of operations was called the Trout Memo – after the fly-fishing technique designed to entrap trout.

Some of the films based on Fleming’s work have been spot on in identifying threats and trends. On the whole and perhaps reflecting Fleming’s own operations, many of them involve the disruption of supply chains and the resulting profiteering – for instance Goldeneye was based on the deployment of an electromagnetic device to rob the Bank of England (don’t forget that Goldfinger plotted to use a dirty bomb to steal gold from Fort Knox), Tomorrow Never Dies Involved the manipulation of the media, in Die Another Day a satellite is used to manipulate the weather over North Korea and so on, though all of this does make me wonder who exactly is behind the widespread disruption of supply chains today.

While I rule myself out of the running for the next ‘Bond’, I wouldn’t mind a crack at writing the next Bond script, and can think of three pitches, based on the evolving world before us.

The first, relatively conventional script might be, modestly, called ‘Bond – The Levelling’. It would weave together some of the emerging, dangerous threats to humanity, a world riven by the wild side-effects of climate change (a very recent US National Intelligence Estimate focused on climate change as a disruptive force for security). Bond, in order to stop a global hedge fund manipulating weather patterns, needs to fly to the USA, though he and a female agent of the Japanese PSIA are stuck in Taiwan. They cross to China and hijack one of China’s top secret hypersonic glider craft which takes them undetected to the US in hours.

The second scenario might be called ‘MoonShot’, something that came to mind when reading a very interesting Bank of America note on the technologies of the future (e.g. the flying car eco-system). Here Bond is up against a villain with enhanced Emotional Artificial Intelligence who plots to collapse property prices by enticing people to buy real estate in the MetaVerse. Early in the film Bond is captured and subject to experiments in Synthetic Biology, and an army of duplicate, bad Bonds is launched using Holograms, 6G and Wireless Electricity.

My final attempt at a Bond script deals with a commodity that is in increasingly short supply, democracy, and that like some Bond films, is coming under attack from within. The villain in the film is a well-known political figure, who has launched a new media operation called ‘Truth’ whose aim is to spread lies. The confusion caused by this brings the apparatus of democracy to the edge of collapse, political representatives act like the assassins we see in Bond films (please see Las Vegas Councilwoman Michele Fiore’s campaign video as she seeks to be elected Governor of Nevada).

Sometimes, reality is stranger than fiction. 

Crisis, What Crisis?

After an absence of over eighteen months, I made it across the Channel to the UK. Such has been the barrage of Brexit bad spirit from political marauders like David Frost and tales of fuel, labour and food shortages, not to mention rising COVID cases, have been so apocalyptic that I worried I might not make it through the Channel tunnel. Thus, expecting to perform a Bond like infiltration behind enemy lines, I, passenger locator form between my teeth, turned up early at the Gare du Nord Eurostar terminal.

The great surprise was that the trip through both passport controls took a total of three minutes, tribute less to my Bond style skills of evasion but more to the robots manning UK passport control. This speedy passage set me wondering whether the UK’s budding Winter of Discontent is just a political mirage or, as some hold, a building economic catastrophe.

My own experience, limited to central London, was that prices were considerably higher than I could remember, staff shortages were evident across the board (coffee shops closed early, a restaurant booking was cancelled because of lack of staff, and the passport control at St Pancras exit poorly manned). Plenty of anecdotes were passed to me regarding petrol shortages and general blockages in freight and goods.

In the markets, short term bond rates (two year gilts) have rocketed from 0% to 0.60%, investors are pricing in very high inflation in swap markets together with a rate increase this year from the Bank of England. Taken together, it does not auger well for post-Brexit Britain, and I suspect that as winter approaches, more and more commentators will trot out the ‘Winter of Discontent’ headline.

There are appealing parallels between the situation today and that of the late 1970’s ‘Discontent’.

For example, a lorry driver strike during the winter of ‘78/’79 is matched by the current Brexit induced lorry driver shortage, and in the 1970’s food shortages and high inflation led to misery (though far more pronounced than today).

Famously in early 1979 the then prime minister Jim Callahan returned from an international political summit in the Caribbean, joked about having swum in the warm sea there and then blamed the media for exaggerating the chaos gripping Britain. The next day he was greeted by a headline in the Sun that went ‘Crisis, What Crisis?’ and thus his political demise accelerated. Fittingly, Boris Johnson has spent much of the week in Marbella, though so far, he has the media on his side.

He and colleagues will blame inflation and shortages on international supply chain issues, though he has so far done a very poor job of mastering and marshalling the economic side effects of Brexit. The fact that Northern Ireland has had far fewer supply chain and labour market issues, and has seen trade with the Republic pick up noticeably, suggests that Brexit rather than global supply chain problems are provoking discontent in England.

The lesson I take (a few weeks ago I wrote on the political volatility that higher inflation would create, A Face in the Crowd) from the late 1970’s winter of discontent is that it produced a political revolution – Callahan, the unions and the Labour party were discredited, and this prepared the ground for Margaret Thatcher to come to power. In that light the question is whether, following the shock of Brexit, another political revolution is brewing.

Two avenues present themselves – there is much chatter about Boris Johnson’s reluctance to remain in Downing Street for long, and the Labour party has shown itself incapable of scoring into the open goals that the post Brexit environment has provided. This opens up the way for new leaders to come through on the left and centre – though I am hard pressed to identify many candidates.

Having written much about the rigidity of the two-party system in the UK, and the failure of political entrepreneurship (a few recent initiatives to launch new political parties have fizzled out). If there are to be revolutions I suspect that the middle ground of the Tory party is one place to watch, the possibility that moderate parties in Northern Ireland like the Alliance and some independent candidates gain in popularity, and of course that Scottish independence reshapes the political dynamic and power of Britain.

While it would be tempting to conclude that Britain is a Brexit basket case, my long running theory is that politically Britain is a crucible for many of the forces that have driven globalization and that are now undercutting it. In that framework, Brexit was simply the first major rupture in the beginning of the end of globalization, and by extension, the rule is that what happens in Britain will later reverberate across other countries.

The risk then is that we have a global ‘winter of discontent’. There are some signs of this – coal prices have quadrupled in China, cargo ships are blocked up around the coast of the US where amongst other effects meat prices are rising, and Congress woman Alexandria Ocasio Cortez has been tweeting in favour of ‘Striketober’. The only comforting observation I have found is that the front page of the Economist talks of an energy crisis, which according to my ‘Economist frontpage’ rule of thumb, signals the end of the crisis.

The broad risk, to draw all of these strands together, is that the rise in prices of food, labour and energy proves to be more enduring than transitory. Central bankers have largely read prices rises as ‘transitory’, but a research paper from an important figure in the arcane world of central banking (Jeremy Rudd) suggests that central banks are complacent about inflation. If interest rates have to rise more quickly that households are ready for, a rise in the price of a pint of beer will be the least of our worries.  

Well Sealed Windows

When Willy Brandt came to power (as German Chancellor) in October 1969 his first speech to the Bundestag (then in Bonn) contained phrases like ‘we want to dare more democracy’, ‘we want a society which offers more freedom and requires more shared responsibility’, and ‘we want to be and to become a nation of good neighbours’.

Brandt was one of maybe five prominent, respected and enduring Chancellors (starting with Adenhauer, Schmidt, Kohl and of course Merkel – with apologies to Gerhard Schröder who doesn’t make my list) who brought stability to Germany and who managed to fulfill Brandt’s desire of being a good democracy (to the extent that when asked a few years ago what she associated with Germany, Angela Merkel replied: well-sealed windows). 

As I write, Olaf Scholz has a chance to join this list because the arithmetic of the recent election dictates that he will most likely head a new coalition government, which some describe as a traffic light government (SDP in red, Greens and FDP in yellow). One might also think of it in terms of an ESG government in the sense of the responsible investing terminology (Environment, Social and Governance). Unlike many other European countries, there seems to be a willingness amongst these three parties to put together a workable government.

Yet, if Scholz does indeed lead the government, he may immediately suffer from two political curses.

The first is what I call the ‘curse of political giants’, which also holds across football and industry and highlights that whenever a dominant leader retires (think Merkel or Sir Alex Ferguson) there is a messy interregnum, usually involving several short lived leaders, until a new leader proper with his or her own ideas comes along. Football fans will get the analogy if I say that the risk for Scholz is that he is the David Moyes of German politics rather than the Juergen Klopp! (Armin Laschet is the Mourinho of German politics?)

The second risk is what I call the ‘curse of NO’. Someone on the European political stage (I think it was Enda Kenny) wittily described European political summits along the lines of ‘everyone agrees….and then Angela Merkel says ‘no’.

Merkel’s long won stature as a leader and the economic power of her country gave her immense power. Scholz will, like most political mortals, lack this magic power, and will also have to contend with some strong personalities in his cabinet (I have already written on Annalena Baerbock).

Some commentators may argue that this adds up to a recipe for introspection and inaction on the part of the next German government, and that the atrophying of Germany’s already modest army is just another sign of its weakness (a popular view in the AUKUS countries). In fact, it may well be that Germany represents the future – a progressive country where the Greens are an increasingly normal (than fringe) party.

Indeed, taking the triumvirate of the three large European countries – France, Germany and Italy one could and should hold that they stand in very good political health compared to the large English-speaking countries.

They are led by able, serious people – in sharp contrast to Boris Johnson’s ‘managed chaos’ (this week he stumbled over basic economic concepts of ‘real wages’ and productivity), and who at least in the cases of Macron and Draghi have visions of what they want to achieve.

In addition, the three countries have in their own ways vanquished political extremists and have relatively healthy democracies. In contrast, with trials of perpetrators of the January 6 attack on Congress still ongoing, 56% of Americans think that their democracy is under attack according to a survey for CNN.

If my rosy view of Europe is correct, one looming question is whether (assuming Scholz becomes Chancellor) the leaders of the three large countries can work together and more specifically what are the issues upon which they might choose to collaborate.

The obvious area is economic growth and the stalled plan for a broad fiscal stimulus to relaunch Europe’s recovery. Each leader has a personal interest in the more efficient workings of the euro-zone financial system, and this may well spur capital market and further fiscal reform. Germany has a substantial deficit in terms of required investment in energy, telecoms and defense investment. At the same time, European foreign policy will still be driven by the French, with a more active contribution from Rome.

Another area, which is again becoming topical given the recent judgment by Poland’s top court that the Polish constitutions supersedes EU law, is to clarify further the idea of European values, and to take tangible actions and exert political force to ensure that the likes of Hungary adhere to them. It is not inconceivable that the great test of the political will of the ‘triumvirate’ will be to prune the EU down to 26 nations and force the ejection of Hungary, and in so doing, in Willy Brandt’s words to ‘dare more democracy’.

Have a great week ahead,

Mike

Out Foxed

In 1933 President Franklin Roosevelt appointed Joe Kennedy, patriarch of the Kennedy clan and father of the future President, to be the first head of the SEC (Securities and Exchange Commission). The odd, and subsequently effective rationale for this was only a fox could ‘out fox the foxes’. Kennedy was well known at the time as a speculator and to put it politely ‘entrepreneur’. When he left the SEC in 1935 (by which time his net worth was close to USD 4 billion in today’s terms) his work there was widely praised, and he even made the frontpage of Time magazine.

What is worrying today is that if Kennedy took the path from ‘rogue’ to regulator, the events of the past week suggest that the heads of many of the important institutions are taking the opposite path. Note that in the past week, two of the more experienced regional federal Reserve chiefs (Eric Rosengren in Boston and Robert Kaplan at Dallas) have ‘retired early’ following the revelation that they engaged in large security transactions in recent years.

I am surprised that this news has not received greater attention, especially when seen in the context of reports that Fed Chair Jerome Powell has a very large securities portfolio (reportedly over USD 50mn) and reports that senior American politicians like Nancy Pelosi actively trade securities and derivatives. More than any time in history, the Federal Reserve is the key to the path of the bond and stock market moves (at record high valuations by the way), and the fact that senior members of the Fed’s monetary policy committee have traded speaks less to complacency and more to weak standards and vastly diminished credibility.

Add to this the scandal embroiling the head of the IMF Kristalina Georgieva (whilst at the World Bank she allegedly manipulated the findings of a study to show China in a more favourable light) and the ongoing travails of WHO chief Tedros Adhanom, and a picture build of rudderless, increasingly corrupted world institutions of the twentieth century.

One might say that this has always been the case. Take the IMF for example – the three former heads have been involved in scandals – Christine Lagarde (the Bernard Tapie/French government), Rodrigo Rato (fraud and embezzlement) and of course Dominique Strauss Kahn.

Then in Europe, where few if any central bankers have any banking or markets experience and thus a penchant for trading (thankfully), senior ECB officials Philip Lane and Benoit Coeuré have ‘steered’ hedge funds and investment banks towards the ‘correct’ views of ECB policy in private meetings, thus helping those investors make large profits.

So, if the IMF has form in the area of corruption, it has not been the case for the Fed. I cannot think that recent Chairs (Yellen and Bernanke) would sanction securities trading by senior colleagues. In my view, and consistent with the overall ‘Levelling’ thesis, we are at a point in history where evidence of the degradation and obsolescence of the institutions of the 20th century is piling up. Within that thesis a number of things are increasingly clear.

First, as the world becomes multipolar, it is now nearly impossible for international institutions like the WHO, WTO and IMF to straddle the breakdown in relations between China and the US, and the competing demands that each country will place upon them. As a result we will likely see more regional institutions develop than international ones – the Asian Development Bank being an example.

Second, in a hyper financialized world it seems that the trade-off between good governance, probity and exemplary leadership on one hand, and large financial rewards is just too much for some.

Third and relatedly, one of the issues that is increasingly debated in the corporate and venture capital world is the need to attract and keep top talent. If world institutions are to attract people of experience and quality (which seems to have been a problem at the IMF for example) then they will likely have to change remuneration structures (Mark Carney’s tenure at the Bank of England is an example).

For the time being, these scandals raise doubts about the operational capability and credibility of the institutions I have mentioned. At a crucial point in the monetary cycle, when inflation is showing signs of a durable pickup, the strength in depth of the Fed is severely weakened, and in my view opens the risk of a monetary accident. Jerome Powell’s prospects of being reappointed Fed Chair have taken a knock, and Lael Brainard may well take his place.

With regard to other institutions – the IMF in particular, it has changed its policy view so many times in recent years and has repeatedly been shown to have adopted the wrong policies, that it is near defunct. I feel that there is too much policy time and energy spent on chattering about reform of bodies like the WTO (according to Bloomberg, the new WTO head has already threatened to resign), which at this stage are beyond reform in that they cannot be repurposed to address the challenges of the 21st century.

We should rather spend time thinking about the problems that lie ahead and think about the rules and institutions that can be crafted to tackle them, in the context of a world where the large nations at least, are unable to cooperate. It’s a job for game theorists, historians, systems experts and psychologists, but not central bankers. 

Have a great week ahead,

Mike