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The Fracturing continues – from Tehran to Taiwan

Sykes Picot divides the Middle East

A friend of mine, who is also a successful sportsman (rower) once told me that he trains every Christmas day, just in case his competitors take that day off. It is a quirky piece of advice but one that I have long since borne in mind.

Thus, as I returned home from my Christmas morning run, I was interested to read that Russia, China and Iran – were using the Christmas period for a naval training mission in the Gulf of Oman. Presumably, like my friend, they thought the US and its allies were taking Christmas day off.

The exercise points to the emerging rivalries of the 21st century. China and Russia are members of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO), which readers of the Levelling will know that I consider to be one of the geopolitical ‘gangs’ of the future. Their rival regional gang is the ‘Quad’ (India, USA, Japan and Australia).

The significance of the SCO, and the recent exercise with Iran, has now been heightened by the killing of Iranian general Quassem Soleimani. Indeed, it is just one of many implications (by the way in my last missive before Christmas I noted that in 1998 Bill Clinton had responded to impeachment by launching an airstrike on Iraq, and that another President might try the same tactic).  

The immediate one is that the USA will find its moral and diplomatic power diminished, and both its allies and foes again demanding whether the White House has a coherent approach to policy making (Israel’s muted reaction was telling).

For example, the missile strike on Soleimani cuts across an increasingly successful financial and clandestine war against Iran that was producing inflation, unrest and a surge in crime across the country. The airstrike will now allow the Iranian regime to paint its socio-economic troubles as being generated by the hand of the CIA and MI6 (there is a long held, view across Iran that foreign spy agencies are behind political and economic turmoil in the country).  

The killing of Soleimani also means a likely diminution in the American presence in Iraq, that Americans are less rather than more safe, and an altogether more uncertain outlook for some of the smaller states in the region, notably Bahrain, Dubai and Abu Dhabi. While the tension between both Iran and the US is perceived to have diminished following the Iranian riposte, I think this dispute is not over, and the event itself will lead to a hardening of attitudes.

To return to the SCO, Soleimani’s death will underline the rationale for this grouping and we should expect to see it become more prominent. Russia in particular may now look to play a stronger role in the long term future of Iraq and Syria (potentially with the backing of Chinese capital).

Russians will underline how the Kremlin was both concerned and emboldened by the 2003 invasion of Iraq, that it later took aggressive measures to defend what it perceived were threats to its hinterland (in Georgia and Ukraine).

At a grander level, the killing of Soleimani will cause tension within NATO, and will heighten calls by many for an EU army, that can at some stage have the capacity to act alone, though with the US under the NATO umbrella. It should also, at least in terms of the security and foreign policy push the UK towards rather than away from the EU, and in my view this partnership could well be one of the more stable pillars in the post Brexit relationship.

In sum, this critical event points to some near-term event risk, notwithstanding the apparent de-escalation (Iran’s public de-escalation points to stealth retribution), and an elevation of longer-term geopolitical risk (and by extension political risk in the US in the context of the election).

Geopolitical risk, or rather geopolitical events, rarely trouble broad equity and debt markets but my worry is that we are now seeing a fracturing of the world order (this weekend’s Taiwan election is a case in point and expect the newspaper pundits to talk of Taixit from Sunday), and the emergence of a one where geopolitical friction becomes the norm. Expect this to be increasingly reflected in the securities of pan-global companies, certain emerging market debt securities and in safe haven assets.

The real reason for calm across markets is central bank liquidity. They are the monetary battleships of the 21st century, more powerful than many armies. What might happen if they are deployed in a conflict?

Have a great week ahead,

Mike

Remaking a World on Fire

Notre Dame – a sign of the times?

It has been an eventful year for me, but the most striking moment was witnessing the fire at Notre Dame cathedral. Having run towards it, I was unprepared for the extent of the conflagration, green and orange flames bellowing out of the church as the sun blazed angrily in the background. It was a traumatic evening, where thousands of onlookers were silenced by the significance of what they saw.

At the same time, it would be wrong of me to try to draw a parallel between such an apocalyptic event and the state of our fracturing world, though that thought is at the back of my head, not least given the way in which the ‘old’ world order is increasingly vandalized by politicians, not to mention the outbreak of protests around the world.

A better parallel, as supersized cranes moved around Notre Dame this week, is that the time it will take to rebuild and remake the church, some five or more years, will also be the period of time required to put the era of globalization behind us and have the makings of the ‘next world order’.

The roadmap towards this ‘order’ will look something like this – economically the world will grapple with the ‘next recession’ which will be more severe in indebted economic sectors (China’s economy, corporate USA and some emerging countries), and will eventually culminate in some form of world debt conference. Once this is accomplished, the quest for a model of organic economic growth will begin.

Politically, I hope that we will see more independent, bottom up efforts by individuals and new groups/parties to rethink what the contract between people and those who govern for them will look like. Then in terms of geopolitics, the world will be increasingly dominated by the ways in which the three great ‘powers’ – the EU, USA and China pursue different paths on issues like the internet, democracy, human development and finance. This is a limited, big picture sketch, the rest is of course in the Levelling.

Forecasting – really more a form of ‘macrotainment’ than a science – is easier on a five year view, but given it is the end of the year, I also want to offer up a few pointers on at least two events over the next few months.

First, I expect economic and political headlines to be first driven by the unravelling of China’s credit boom – we will hear more about defaults of indebted Chinese companies and resulting pressure on its banks. Expect ‘China is Spain’ to be a headline we see a lot. The policy task for China’s leaders will be complicated by ongoing protests in Hong Kong and importantly, the result of Presidential elections in Taiwan on January 11th. My guess is that one result will be a drop in Chinese interest rates in 2020.

Second, impeachment will deepen America’s divides. With the process now started, it looks for right or wrong, that the Senate will not vote to impeach President Trump. The trial itself, especially if likes of Mick Mulvaney and John Bolton are called as witnesses, will prove a spectacle.

If we bear in mind that Bill Clinton responded to his impeachment with airstrikes on Iraq, then Trump’s emotional letter to Senators is mild by comparison. He may try other means of weaponizing impeachment – link it to the stock market (Trump has sent 21 tweets about the stock market in the last 30 days, the most since 2018), trade policy with Europe or immigration.

The immediate political implication of the Senate not impeaching the President is that the Democrats lose their ‘silver bullet’ against Trump, and with it the sense that morality, the law and institutions are powerful buttresses against bad behavior. In turn, this will colour the Democratic Presidential selection process. The Democratic candidate will need to have a very clear policy message, an ability to scrap with Trump in the political gutter (see my October 13 blog ‘Don the Robber’, https://thelevelling.blog/2019/10/13/donthe-robber/). So far, none of the leading Democratic candidates is strong on these points (someone like Mike Duggan of Detroit could fit this bill in my view).

For Trump, and his supporters, a failed impeachment will open up the road to the acceleration of his policies on immigration, trade (EU) and on identity-based politics. Mounting, structural risks like climate damage and indebtedness will get worse. The next election will be driven by identity, race and values, and there is a very good chance that Trump could win.

So, enjoy this Christmas, there is plenty of disruption to come in 2020!

I am back in touch on January 12.

With best wishes, Mike

Paul Volcker

Voclker, the anti-populist

This important week has been marked by the passing of Paul Volcker. Many commentators have already paid tribute to a remarkable man. Martin Wolf in the Financial Times referred to him as the ‘greatest man I have known’.

I have never met Volcker (though am privileged to share an excellent editor with him in John Mahaney at PublicAffairs who has edited ‘Keeping at it’) but I wanted to write about him because his legacy touches on the themes in ‘The Levelling’, and more importantly on the state of the world today.

In that context, Volcker stands for many of the things that are missing in our international political economy – a willingness to take unpopular though telling policy actions, the independence of central banks from markets and politicians, and the integrity of those in public life.

His accomplishments as a central banker, his role in helping survivors of the Holocaust recover their savings from the Swiss banks and his views on banking (i.e. the Volcker Rule) underline these qualities.

When he was appointed as Chair of the Federal Reserve, the central bank was nothing as powerful as it is today. Arthur Burns, the Chair from 1970 to 1978, was widely seen as being close to President Nixon, and had later been undermined by the Nixon White House. William Miller who followed Burns, had a short and inglorious career as a central banker (March 1978 to August 1979) and was promoted ‘out of the way’ to become Treasury Secretary. His legacy, a sharply weaker dollar and inflation barreling towards 15%, is beyond the imagination of many people today. Bluntly, high inflation became the policy problem of the day.

Volcker took the reins at the Fed with a clear view as to what needed to be done (‘This is going to be tough, but we are going to stick with it and the inflation rate is going to come down’). To the credit of President Carter who appointed Volcker, Carter also understood the consequences of what Volcker would do. During Volcker’s ‘job interview’ with Carter, Volcker thrice stressed the magnitude of the policy task at hand, to which Carter acquiesced.

By the mid 1980’s Volcker’s medicine was taking effect. Inflation was falling, but the personal costs of his role were also growing. Homebuilders regularly sent him blocks of wood to remind him of the burden that high rates were having on the housing market, and threats to his safety meant that Volcker needed a bodyguard.

Political resistance was also growing. In his book, Volcker mentions a meeting with President Reagan and his chief of staff, James Baker, where Baker reportedly insisted that Volcker not raise interest rates at a forthcoming Fed rate setting committee. Volcker’s response was to get up and leave the meeting.

Thus he cemented the independence of the Fed (Reagan later appointed several White House ‘friendly’ board members to the Fed to stymie Volcker), drove down inflation and in doing so triggered perhaps the most important macro trend of the past thirty years in the shape of the permanent, lower resetting of interest rates and inflation.

This enabled the economic boom in Reagan’s America and provided the structural basis for globalization. Globalization could not have happened and survived if the US economy, and by extension the rest of the world, had had to endure bouts of high inflation and sharp rises in interest rates. Many people today will know little about Volcker, but in a fundamental way, his actions have impacted their lives.

In the sense of the way in which we read our world today, Volcker could be described as an ‘anti-populist’. He was a humble technocrat, or expert, who confronted very tough decisions, with unpopular side-effects. There are at least two reasons as to why he should be studied.

The first is that the world is beset by the accumulation of near existential risks – indebtedness is the highest it has been since the second world war and the Napoleonic Wars before that and, the climate is warming at a rate never seen in the past two hundred years and many cities suffer paralyzing pollution. These and other risks badly need a Volcker type character to resolve them, or else they will be patched up in a crisis. Policy makers need courage, rather than new frameworks.

This is doubly true in a world where the ECB and the Fed are experimenting with new ways of encroaching into the political economy and by extension, of distorting markets. Quantitative easing and negative interest rates have not created organic economic growth. Instead they drive asset bubbles, build wealth inequality and give reckless politicians the cover to engage in poor policy (i.e. Trump’s trade war). Developed world monetary policy risks fatally compromising itself. Volcker would not approve, neither should we.

Deal done – Trump saves euro!

Wrong way!

In a missive I wrote earlier this year I puzzled whether Trump would fall victim to the same policy mistakes as Herbert Hoover (‘Is Trump Hoover?’,https://thelevelling.blog/2019/08/11/is-trump-hoover/). This does increasingly look to be the case, as the economy is slowed down by the debilitating consequences of trump’s trade war with China.

However, a reading of the Art of the Deal (consider quotes like ‘I’m the first to admit that I am very competitive and that I’ll do nearly anything within legal bounds to win. Sometimes, part of making a deal is denigrating your competition’) hint at some method behind this week’s trade related threats to China, the EU and France, not to mention the ongoing undermining of NATO.

It grants far too much credit to Donald Trump to describe him as the architect of a new world order, rather he is the bull in a china shop of increasingly brittle crockery. His role, in the context of the fracturing of the old, globalized word order is to help highlight what elements in that world order are fragile and which ones are resilient. The checks and balances in the US political system, and the wisdom embedded in them through the Federalist Papers for instance, are so far proving resilient.

Arriving in Europe this week, Trump clearly had two targets in mind – the EU and NATO, both of which lie on the deepening faultline of the consequences of America’s diplomatic estrangement from Europe. Trump has rarely had anything better to offer either institution save scorn and division. In my view this is a pity, and simply wrong.

NATO and the EU are fine examples of how collective action usually requires a strong common cause to enforce it, and that absent the magnetism of that common cause (broadly speaking the Cold War), cohesion between members begins to ebb. In addition, both institutions are finding that they have a common design flaw – namely the lack of an exit. Neither NATO nor the EU (not to mention the euro-zone) have processes where a recalcitrant member can be kicked out. Brexit shows us that even those who volunteer to leave, find it difficult.

To make an analogy, no public building can be used without a fire escape or carefully marked ‘exit’ in place, and it should be the same for multi-lateral institutions in a changing, multipolar world. This multipolar world is one where nations will increasingly have to take sides. In this context, Turkey’s membership of NATO will become increasingly problematic, and the position of EU members like Hungary, and prospective candidates like Serbia also looks strained. My prediction is that both NATO and the EU will have to change their uni-directional membership rules to include a ‘black-balling’ process.

That NATO rests on the emerging faultline of US-EU relations gives us a clue as to its future. The logical contradiction is that the White House could soon declare a trade war on Europe, at the same time as partnering with the EU to fight ‘real’ wars. To paraphrase Justin Trudeau, it is enough to make ‘jaws drop’, though it is not as peculiar as it seems. For instance, in October, as the final wrangling over the UK’s Brexit deal was taking place, French commandos joined their British counterparts in a joint operation called ‘Griffin Strike’, part of a larger cooperative exercise between Europe’s two military powers.

One way for the EU to contribute to its own security in the context of a multipolar world where the US is a less unambiguous ally, apart from making sure its military kit works (only one sixth of German helicopters and fighter planes are operational), is to develop its power as an economic and financial player.

Theoretically this approach fits into the ‘total war’ doctrine developed by Russian General Valery Gerasimov, where financial networks are just as useful strategic tools as fleets of submarines. The effect of American sanctions on Iran is one recent, powerful example of this.

To that end, the new Commission has a long task list, but it should focus on the following. First, bolster the international credibility of the euro by enforcing the Maastricht guidelines of debt levels to the point that countries with debt above the Maastricht threshold should have a portion of their debt deemed ineligible for ECB purchases and for collateral exchange.

Second, continue to clean up the follow of ‘dirty’ money across Europe’s banks and fintech players. The relatively new EBA (European Banking Authority) has failed to do this.  Third, think how infrastructure development in countries like Poland and Greece can be better supported by the EU and by EU based private investors, instead of those countries swaying towards Chinese state led investment.

If these and are other measures are enacted, Donald Trump may prove the catalyst for a stronger euro financial system.

Have a great week ahead,

Mike

Tall Tales

What’s the story?

When Robert Shiller won the Nobel Prize for Economics in 2013  (shared with Lars Peter Hansen and the great Eugene Fama), I recall being particularly pleased for him. He is, rightly I suspect, a skeptic of the antics of financial markets, having twice called the top in market bubbles (dot.com and housing crisis). He coined the phrase “irrational exuberance,” which was used to powerful effect by Alan Greenspan.

Then, famously during the dot.com crisis, he was derided by many in the financial community and on CNBC for his pronouncements that markets would collapse. He handled himself with grace and had the last laugh. In addition, he is an economist with a practical interest in markets and asset prices, and many of his housing and stock market metrics are now widely used.

Well before academics shared data publicly, Shiller made his long-term market valuation series available on the internet. This open source approach is perhaps one of the reasons why his long-term data is now widely referred to. The key metric here is what is called the Shiller P/E (price to earnings ratio) or, as he himself puts it, the CAPE, the cyclically adjusted price to earnings ratio. What this essentially does is normalize earnings across the economic cycle.

The CAPE is now at a level only previously reached in 1929 and 1999/2000. We know what happened next in both of those cases. This doesn’t seem to worry investors, largely because the market narrative is built around the notion that ‘a trade deal will be done any day now’ and that the Federal Reserve will continue to dose markets with liquidity.

Interestingly, the idea of the macro ‘narrative’ is the focus of Shiller’s most recent work (he has a book out entitled ‘Narrative Economics’ as well as several papers on the topic). Essentially, he investigates the ways in which we (households, investors, economists) tell stories about the behavior of economic events and market trends. I would argue that ‘The Levelling’ is a narrative on what is happening to the old world order and on how it would evolve.

Shiller’s ‘narrative’ based strand of research is not new. Pop economists have for a long time made sense of the world by coining understandable terms like ‘white van man’, and for an even longer time, stockbrokers have told stories around stocks and markets, and their clients have readily swallowed these stories.

I tend to classify the spectrum of the finance industry as having two ends – storytelling and quant. Story tellers are not good quants, and quants are not good storytellers. What is interesting now is that quant, be it through the provision of new and better datasets, is providing the narrative ammunition for storytellers to tell more elaborate, and possibly convincing, macroeconomic stories.

Storytelling is also a neat way of bunching together the various trends in markets. For instance, there is a notable divergence between what we might call drugged assets (assets that are under the spell of central bank liquidity) such as the Dax, quality corporate bonds, euro-zone debt and the S&P 500 index, and those like emerging market currencies, some commodities and crypto currencies (see last week’s missive) that do not have the outright benefit of central bank asset purchases, and that as a result tell a cleaner picture about the relatively weak global economy.

As we head into December expect many to continue the narrative that central bank liquidity will suppress volatility, and I suspect that in general this narrative will continue to hold into 2020.

One narrative that may pick up pace, is the idea I explored a few weeks ago of ‘Demonstration Contagion’ (link). Under this narrative, the panoply of protests around the world are both distinct and have common perceived causes such as inequality and climate damage. In particular, events in Hong Kong cut across many of these issues, and there is a great deal at stake economically and politically.

The new developments are that President Trump’s (by the way Shiller describes him as a ‘master of narratives’…Shiller is a master of irony) signing of the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act and the overwhelmingly pro-democracy tenor of last week’s council elections in Hong Kong, provide two threads to tie events in Hong Kong to the trade dispute between the US and China, and to January’s Presidential elections in Taiwan.

As such, protestors in Hong Kong have every incentive to continue to protest, and the Chinese authorities cannot but feel more uncomfortable. As crowds in Hong Kong this weekend hold aloft the image recently tweeted by Donald Trump of his head superimposed on the body of ‘Rocky’, the Demonstration Contagion narrative is only just warming up.

Have a great week ahead,

Mike

From Bitcoin to no coin

Falling down

Things are stirring in the cryptocurrency world. There is a burgeoning debate about central bank issued digital currencies, and in the past month bitcoin has fallen by over twenty percent.

In its short life as a trading asset, bitcoin has appeared to move in sync with equities, so this recent move may spark some concern. A more intriguing, related question is whether bitcoin is an indicator of risk appetite or a beneficiary of risk aversion. Indeed, within the less ‘independent’ crypto currency community there is a view abroad that bitcoin and crypto currencies are a ‘safe haven’ in the same way people might for instance, regard gold.

My own sense is that crypto currencies in general and bitcoin specifically are not safe havens. They have failed the purpose they were intended to fulfill in that they are not actively used as a means of exchange. Few retailers accept them, fewer consumers actively use them and transaction costs are still very high.

The technology associated with cryptocurrencies is also complex enough to dissuade most households from using them. For many people the process of setting up a crypto wallet, and mentally translating crypto prices into everyday currencies is too demanding to bother with. This ‘ease of use’ is a cognitive barrier to entry and something that will take time for many to overcome, even Millennials.

In addition, the infrastructure around cryptocurrencies is fragile in at least two respects. Parts of that system, such as exchanges are prone to hacking and ransoming, and can also be shut down at the whim of governments.

From the point of view of cryptocurrencies as assets, very basic data analysis suggests that optically bitcoin has a low correlation with safe havens like gold. This does not mean that bitcoin is a good diversifier or a safe haven. It has been highly volatile over the past two years and is subject to trading and liquidity risks not normally associated with safe havens.

A further clue as to the true nature of cryptocurrencies as investable assets comes from the community of people who hold and trade them. The micro-structure (or plumbing) of markets, as well as the anthropology and sociology of those who populate them (which will have to be the subject of a future missive) is crucial to the way they behave and subsequently to their risk characteristics.

In this light the fact that the biggest holder of bitcoins is apparently the FBI says a lot. A good deal of trading in cryptocurrencies takes place in Asia, other emerging markets like Russia and in hubs like Zug.

Though admittedly not scientific, nor thorough, I suspect that many bitcoin traders also trade equity futures and currencies and use the same equity trading rules (technical) to buy and sell bitcoin (cryptos now have their own rating system, FCAS). If this generalization holds, it suggests that risk budgeting may drive a positive correlation between cryptocurrencies and equities, especially at market highs and lows.

Another observation is that for its size (the top ten cryptocurrencies barely add up to the market cap of Citigroup) the crypto market attracts an inordinately large amount of attention, which may draw money in at high points. To my mind this points to bitcoin having a pro-cyclical bias in terms of its riskiness as a trading asset.

On a structural basis the fall in bitcoin may also signal trouble in the cryptocurrency world, which effectively exists to create means of exchange beyond the normal frameworks of governments and central banks. Note that bitcoin rallied to its year high in the immediate aftermath of Facebook’s announcement of the Libra project in mid June.

The current disarray surrounding Facebook’s Libra project is a sign of the operating and regulatory complexities facing cryptocurrencies. More powerful still is the incentive that central banks and fiscal authorities around the world have for the bitcoin not to succeed. Witness as an example the vigour with which the Chinese – who tightly control money flows – have clamped down on cryptocurrency exchanges.

The next steps in the crypto or digital currency (they are almost the same in that crypto currencies are digital currencies that use cryptography) industry for central banks to issue their own coins, and for the digital payments industry. More thorough regulation, cleaner cross-border payment processes and more reliable identification mechanisms will be part of the workload of central banks and governments.

It all suggests that instead of being a safe haven, bitcoin may become extinct.

Have a great week ahead

Mike

Europe’s next crisis

EU a beacon for the rest of the world

The decision of the German finance minister Olaf Scholz to acquiesce to a discussion on the creation of a euro-zone common deposit insurance scheme is welcome in the light of the half-baked nature of the euro-zone financial system. However, like the proverbial drunk searching for his keys under the streetlamp, it is also a case of tardy backwards looking, policy making.

For example, the facts that the market capitalization of Deutsche Bank trades at only one quarter of its book value and that the business model of Wirecard, Germany’s fintech leader, has been surgically dissected by the FT, suggest that reform of the domestic banking system is a more urgent and yet incomplete task for Germany (Mr Scholz may hope that one day Italian savers will bail out German banks).

While the ongoing focus on remedies to a future banking crisis is a reminder of Europe’s fragilities, the most damaging and alarming crises tend to strike in areas that policy makers have not yet tended to.

In that light, if Europe is going to have another crisis, it is much less likely to be economic in nature, such has been the develeraging of European economies and corporates in recent years, and such has been the focus on building new economic architecture in the euro-zone.

Rather as the new Commission takes office, their focus should be to look forward and grapple with the emerging debate in European values and identity, of which there are at least three strands.

The first of these relates to Europe’s place in the world. As globalization ebbs, and gives away to a multipolar world made up of at least three regions – US, China and Europe who do things increasingly distinctly, the organizing ethic of the EC must be to think of Europe as part of a system of great power rivalries as opposed to a cog in an integrated world. The weakening of the diplomatic ties and communications from Washington to Europe is just one sign of this.  The notion of a more singular EU points towards a deepening of efforts towards common European defence and security capabilities, a trade strategy that is prepared for ‘the worst’, and a greater effort to bolster Europe’s financial strength.

The second strand is that as the EU defines itself more clearly relative to the US, China and to a lesser extent Russia, individual member states will increasingly feel obliged or forced to take sides. Eastern European and Balkan countries, some of who enjoy investment flows from China and political support from Moscow will be the centre of attention here. Though there are few formal means of ‘bringing them onside’ there may soon be calls to curb EU aid to member states who are too closely aligned with China and Russia, or to change voting procedures to ensure that the likes of Hungary cannot sway or bloc EU wide votes.

Then, identity and the idea of European values crisis crosses country politics and has been brought to prominence with the clunky job description of ‘protecting our European way of life’ for Margaritis Schinas.

The recent rise of Vox in Spain is another example of the emergence of far-right wing political parties across Europe, and it is a possibility that we see a ‘Heimat’ coalition of such groups across the EU. Here, the EC can do several things, such as better defining what European values are in a practical sense that tallies with the everyday lives of Europeans and using social media to capture the values that resonate Europeans. Specifically, immigration is a policy area where the EC needs to have a much clearer and better organized approach, especially so in the case of refugees.

One additional factor worth highlighting, is that the generalized picture of the many protests around the world, from India, to Honduras to Lebanon, is that people want an end to inequality, corruption damage to the environment, and arguably, better democracy. The EU can take some comfort from the fact that, as a bloc, it is a leader in the field of liberal democracy, climate change and equality.

The final task for the new Commission is to dispel the sense that as Jean Monnet is reputed to have said, ‘Europe needs a crisis to move forward’. Brexit has shown how forcefully the EU can act when united and organized. Political chaos in Westminster and Washington makes Brussels look like a bastion of good sense.

Europe’s financial crisis has many lessons – the necessity to tackle emerging risks early and if anything to over rather than underreact, the need to coordinate well across countries, Commissioners and specialist areas, and the need to better communicate with Europeans as to what is being down in their name. The new Commission should internalize these lessons and move to pre-empt the ‘next’ crisis.

Have a great week ahead,

Mike

Demonstration contagion

Is this the beginning or end ?

In last week’s missive (link), I discussed the role of rising food prices as a trigger for public protest and I suspect, as a cause of future geopolitical strife. It is not a very happy topic but one that deserves some further analysis given that in recent weeks there has been a remarkable outbreak of protests across a range of countries – from riots in Honduras, to ongoing tension in Hong Kong to climate related demonstrations in India.

Were I one of the many apocalyptic writers who seize upon every misfortune as confirmation of their worldview I would tell you that this is the start of ‘The Levelling’, and that the ‘end’ will follow shortly.

Though I will spare my readers such a gloomy outlook, there is nonetheless a ‘Levelling’ like narrative that unites the motivation for the many international protests in the sense that most of them are provoked by factors that are associated with globalization (though in reality not usually caused by it).

For example, climate change has spurred Extinction Rebellion movements in Europe and environmental protesters in India. Factors that are associated with a lack of what I call ‘country strength’, such as corruption and weak institutions have been amongst the triggers for protests in Lebanon and Iraq, whilst the cost of living and rising fuel costs have brought people out onto the streets in Chile, Egypt, Ecuador and France. Inequality is also a driver, especially so in Chile, Mexico and Turkey.

Together these protests (by the way the number of Google searches on the world ‘protest’ is at a five year high) point to a world where there is limited patience for policy negligence and it negative socio-economic effects. I’ve had a look across the IMF and World Bank databases to find countries that are exposed to corruption, indebtedness, inequality and climate change. Many ‘candidates’ if I can put it like that are in Africa. One country worth watching – where inequality and indebtedness are high (as high as Jamaica), and where climate change is having a growing impact, is the US.  It still has strong institutions but consider what might happen in the context of a deep recession (with no fiscal buffer).

While there is no sense that the various protest movements are in anyway coordinated, they may still be contagious within and across countries.

Within countries, social media makes protests easier to organize at short notice, easier to spread (dis)information and easier to bring to the attention of the wider public. It was no surprise that in the aftermath of the Arab Spring, protestors faced massive social media and cyber counterattacks from the Egyptian and Syrian authorities.

Protests are contagious across countries to the extent that social media can heighten sensitivity to issues and spread the ‘methodology’ of either violent or peaceful protest. For example, one image that crops up in protests around the world is the clenched fist of the Serbian peaceful protest group Otpor. There is also increasing contagion in financial markets in the sense that in emerging markets at least investors are reacting negatively to signs of political strife.

The troubling thought for the outlook is that the economic stresses underlying these protests will not go away anytime soon – inequality takes time to tackle, most governments are fiscally constrained, and many have high debt levels (i.e. Lebanon). To make matters worse, climate change points towards a more radically stressed environment.

However, the positive reading from all of this, at a time when it should be said that the quality of democracy and the rule of law internationally are deteriorating (according to the latest Freedom House ‘Freedom in the World’ report and the Rule of Law indicators in the World Justice Project dataset) is that people want less corruption, more equal societies and better balanced growth.

In that context, what is to be done? There are specific actions that can help, such as the relocation of the World Bank to Africa to act as an anchor against corruption and to spread best practice in institution building.

More broadly, I see a lot of space opening up for new political parties and movements, some that are interlinked across countries and others that are connected by their political methodology (i.e. use of social media). Then, eventually I see the such protests leading to efforts to remake social and political contracts along the lines of the Levellers’ Agreement of the People’, at least in democratic countries, so that policy issues such as climate change, inequality and corruption are more formally recognized and curbed at a policy level.

It will be a bumpy road politically, but the flourishing of protests around the world shows that something profound is occurring.

Have a great week ahead,

Mike

Ne vous mêlez pas du pain

Food set to become a controversial geopolitical issue

‘Ne vous mêlez pas du pain’ – do not meddle with bread, is the sound advice that Anne Robert Turgot, the 18th century French economic thinker and administrator gave to Louis XVI. It was good advice, which the King did not heed.

Turgot knew better, he was Controller General of Finances in France between 1774-1776, a period marked by the ‘Flour Wars’ when bad harvests pushed up the price of grain, and consequently, bread. The riots were a precursor to the Revolution, at a time when nearly half of disposable income was spent on basic foods like bread (and salt).

The link between food prices and unrest has held since then (and has a pedigree going back to and beyond the Roman Empire). In 2007 as dollar and commodity price volatility marked the beginning of the global financial crisis, a spike in soft (agricultural) commodities led to unrest in countries as diverse as Haiti, Mozambique and Bangladesh.

Then four years later, a spike in grain and other food prices catalyzed the Arab Spring, markedly so in Egypt which is highly vulnerable from the point food security. Some countries in the region, notably Kuwait, ducked such unrest by introducing grants and subsidising food consumption for over a year.  

The case of the Arab Spring underlines two other factors, both also found in the likes of Venezuela today. First, rising food prices are usually the ‘last straw’ for citizens in countries that are badly run, corrupt, suffer poor institutions and that are often also oppressive. Second, in many of these countries, as in pre-Revolutionary France, staple food stuffs like bread make up between one third to one half of discretionary spending.

This was the case in India in recent years, where spikes, or more appropriately bubbles in onion prices led to political agitation. For example, in mid 2013 there was fivefold spike in the price on onions, partly due to shortages, partly due to hoarding. Similar, dramatic spikes have occurred to garlic prices in China.

Since that period (2012-2013) world food prices have thankfully been stable, according to the UN FAO global food price index. One area of recent turbulence which is worth watching is pork prices in China. Swine fever has led to a sharp rise in the price of pork, which because foodstuffs account for some 30% of China’s inflation basket, has driven CPI (consumer price inflation) to 3%, close to its highs of the last eight years.

While China is not at all as fragile as Egypt, the spike in pork prices if it persists, will have a number of short and longer term macro impacts, one of which is that China may not have the demand for the 20 billion dollars or so of soya beans it has promised to purchase from the USA.

Chinese consumers will feel more constrained, and the rise in prices will, in the context of weaker property prices, contribute to a sense of ‘squeeze’ (recall the phrase ‘squeezed middle’ (class) in England). Relatedly, higher headline inflation makes it more difficult for the People’s Bank of China to cushion weakness in the economy with rate cuts.

The spike in pork prices is also a reminder of how food is at the centre of geopolitics. China, though vast, has a relatively constrained arable land mass, and will in the future have to import more food as well as try to buy land or crop facilities in other countries. Other food ‘vulnerable’ countries are India, Indonesia, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Bangladesh, Pakistan, and Ethiopia. Global warming and diminishing water supplies in many of these countries may mean that food security becomes an even more acute risk factor.

In contrast, the US has vast expanses of farmland, a good chunk of which could be used for food stuffs if it were not for ethanol subsidies. In the future, it may use food in an altogether more strategic way.

In the shorter term, the investment impact of higher pork prices is to make Chinese consumers nervier, to constrain policy makers there.  That means that demand for hard commodities like oil and copper will be muted, Chinese interest rates volatile and overseas food producers more attractive.

Further out, trade wars may give way to food wars.

Have a great week ahead,
Mike

Lessons from Brexit, so far

Brexit, washed away

In the past week a short video clip of Laurel and Hardy’s struggle to get away on holiday, under the title ‘How England plan to leave the EU’, has gone viral (especially so in the German speaking world). Whilst an uncharitable view, European leaders are as I write, discussing a second Brexit extension, and the prospect of a Christmas general election in Britain is now high.

In my view the first part of Brexit is almost over, in the sense that terms now seem to have been agreed between the EU and London. The potential scenarios are now narrowing, and point towards a less disruptive form of Brexit in the near future. Against that backdrop, where I caveat plenty can go wrong, it is time to begin to draw some lessons from Brexit, especially as other parts of the world become more agitated.

In many respects Brexit is a global event because it was the first rupture in a world where the liberal order is being levelled, and where a sense of the fractured and chaos are now normal. The second such rupture was the election of Donald Trump, and today events in Hong Kong, Chile and Syria illustrate the emerging democratic, economic and geopolitical faultlines, where American policy in particular will be tested.

The savage and unpredictable political process that is Brexit has produced very few winners, but for observers outside the UK there are clear lessons.

One, which is ever important ahead of the 2020 election, is that unless issues like immigration, national identity austerity, declining human development (think education attainment and healthcare standards) are correctly channeled, they will destroy a nation. Britain is bitterly divided because of Brexit, as is the US by Donald Trump.

In Britain, previously sacrosanct roles such as that of the Queen, the functioning of Parliament and the Constitution has been pushed to breaking point, as it should be said, has any sense of ‘truth’ in politics. Like America, Britain’s checks and balances are just about holding up. That few political leaders today could pen something like the Federalist Papers is just one reason for Americans to revere its constitutional heritage. Hong Kong, and arguably the increasingly ‘managed democracies’ of Eastern Europe echo this tension.

Geopolitically, the European Union (EU) has emerged from Brexit with the lesson that when it is united, its size and technocracy are formidable. For all the castigation of the EU by British politicians, it has thoroughly outclassed London. The White House should take notice of this in case it considers a trade war with the EU.

In Brussels today, where a new Commission is soon to take office, Brexit is becoming a side issue and there is more and more attention being paid to the role that the EU needs to play in a multipolar world. Here it is stealing a march on the US and China, in two respects. The values of liberal democracy are more consistently being enunciated by European leaders, and the EU is fast becoming the first mover in setting the rules and regulations that govern new technologies.

More locally, one of the dramatic side-effects of Brexit is the way it has detonated the historic relationships between Ireland, England and Scotland. Scotland will very likely become an independent state in five years time, there is growing talk of a united Ireland, and Ireland itself will be the only EU country with strong cultural ties to the USA.

What happens to Scotland and Northern Ireland is a key part of the next chapter of Brexit. Scotland will need to think more clearly about its economic model as an independent country, and on the merits of being an EU member. Northern Ireland, whose socio-economic problems have long been neglected by London, arguably needs a Marshall style plan to transform its economy which is heavily dependent on state disbursements, and that needs to follow the example of social investment in countries like Sweden and Switzerland.

Then finally, what Britain (effectively England) does next after Brexit will be a vital lead indicator of where other countries can go in a world where globalization is being levelled out. One avenue is a purgatory of post Brexit recrimination, a lack of leadership to tackle underinvestment and a susceptibility to nationalism.

Another, more optimistic one that could reflect the best instincts of Britain is that a new generation of political leaders comes through to replace the likes of Boris Johnson and Jeremy Corbyn. They would then begin to tackle the many policy issues that have been given little thought as Brexit has raged on – the need for the UK to develop a new economic model especially one that focuses on the potential of its regions, what role the UK plays as a mid-sized geo-political power and the need to focus policy much more on human development issues like mental health and education.

You never know, the same might just happen beyond the shores of the UK.

Have a great week ahead,

Mike