From Rotten Heart to Braveheart?

Boris was wrong!

Regular readers, especially those toiling away in dusty cities will be less than amused that I have written this note in the beautiful setting of Nafplio, in south west Greece, whilst attending the excellent Eliamep/JeanMonnet30 seminar.

That the Greek stock market is up 35% this year and its bond yields trade some 33 percentage points below their levels of five years ago suggests some closure on the euro-zone crisis.

Another sign of this came in the market reaction to additional stimulus from the ECB. Effectively European asset prices did nothing, which I hope will persuade the ECB to move on to other policy aspects of the euro-zone system such as the need to properly regulate Europe’s fintech and payments sector.

Another important milestone in the ‘story for Europe’ came with the announcement of the composition of the von der Leyen Commission. In a previous Sunday note I have mentioned the method behind the creation of European Commissions found in the tale of political ‘three cushion billiards’ recounted by the late Wilfried Martens, formerly Belgian Prime Minister, in his 2009 book ‘I Struggle, I Overcome’.

The Commission has done well this time, though it was not always the case. One of the first books I read that helped to explain how Brussels worked was Bernard Connolly’s ‘The Rotten Heart of Europe’. It was a huge hit (in the UK) and hugely controversial. Indeed, a second edition came with a cover recommendation from the then editor of the Spectator Boris Johnson (‘one wanted to stand on the desk and cheer’).

The book did much to propagate Euroscepticism in British politics, and I suppose we might trace some of the roots of Brexit to it. With some irony, Brexit has however shown that the Commission can function in a forceful way. The challenge for the EC is to now step up a level and reinforce itself for a multipolar world where it will compete more acutely with China and the US, with at the same time Russia snapping at its heels.

Perhaps for this reason the new EU President referred to her Commission as a ‘geopolitical one’. It is welcome that there is a growing realization in Brussels of the implications of the emerging multipolar world, but for my liking, Europe-Brussels does not yet have a strategic mindset, and does not fully have a sense of its power and identity in the world.

There has already been some controversy over the designation of a Commissioner with responsibility for migration as one who would ‘Protect our European way of Life’. This clumsy effort at communication is likely a nod to right wing parties across Europe, the kind of people who ‘value the Church and families as opposed to bike riding vegetarians’ as one person put it to me.

What this incident should do, is spark a serious debate on what the core values of the EU are, and in ‘The Levelling’ I invoke Alexander Hamilton to do this. The more public life in the US and the UK disintegrates, and the more heavy-handed China is in Hong Kong, the more we are reminded that liberal democracy is at the core of Europe’s value system. One of the challenges is to make the benefits of this clear to people in Poland and Hungary whose leaders contest such a view of the world.

Back to the Commission, where several appointments will have macro and investment implications. Overall, the Commissioners are less wealthy than the Trump cabinet, better organized than the Johnson government and more colourful than the Xi Jinping administration.

Trade first. The appointment of Irishman Phil Hogan as trade commissioner means the EC will hold a firm negotiating line on Brexit, and that it is increasingly focused on the risk that President Trump might open up a trade war with the EU. The appointment of Sabine Weyand to the trade team reinforces this view.

Then, the re-appointment of Margaret Vestager as EU Competition Commissioner underlines the fact that a growing market trend will be regulatory risk to large US tech companies. Europe has already taxed and fined the FAANG companies and some Democrats increasingly agree with this stance. As the 2020 election approaches, tech will be increasingly under regulatory scrutiny and like it or not Europe will lead the way.

The final point worth waking here is the emphasis that the EC is putting on green investment, on governance in Eastern European countries and on socially responsible finance. This all adds up to a much greater emphasis role for ESG (Environment, Social and Governance) in investing and markets, not just in Europe but further afield.

So, the EC is moving away from ‘Rotten Heart’ but is not yet ‘Braveheart’!

Have a great week ahead,

Mike

The consequences of bad behaviour

Waiting for comeuppance

In chapter five (page 127 to be exact) of The Levelling I wrote about the apparently growing tendency for some politicians to be self-centered and incompetent, and drew a contrasting portrait of Boris Johnson MP and the late Peter Carrington. It went as follows…

‘A further contrast in political types might help illustrate this point further. In July 2018 Boris Johnson resigned as British foreign secretary. Britain no longer has an empire, but the office of foreign secretary is still respected. During his tenure, however, Johnson made a number of gaffes and was generally seen to have damaged rather than advanced Britain’s interests. Similarly, in the aftermath of the Brexit referendum, he was also seen as a natural leader of the Tory Party, but the way he has conducted himself since then has led many party colleagues to the view that, even by the standards of politicians, he is too self-serving, and he has lost support within his party.

The day after Johnson resigned as foreign secretary, the death of Lord Carrington (at the age of ninety-nine) was announced. Carrington had been British foreign secretary from 1979 to 1982. He was generally recognized as an exemplar of integrity in public life. Early in his political life, he had served in Winston Churchill’s cabinet of the early 1950s; later he was defense secretary for Edward Heath and then foreign secretary to Margaret Thatcher. To cut a long and good story (of his life) short, he resigned as foreign secretary three days after the Argentine invasion of the Falkland Islands on the grounds that the invasion happened on his watch and was therefore his fault.

As political resignations go, this one was seen to be selfless and principled and stands in contrast to the tactical maneuvering of some politicians today. Carrington, along with many contemporary central bankers (Paul Volcker, Ben Bernanke, Janet Yellen, and Mario Draghi, for instance), is a good example of sincere public service and his behavior stands in contrast to that of successors like Boris Johnson.

The distinction I wish to draw is to have policy makers who are more responsible for and focused on policy making than on their own personal advancement. Advancing oneself is, of course, prevalent across all organizations and institutions, but the difference with politics is that people’s lives are affected by bad policy making’.

At the time, I did not think Boris Johnson would become Prime Minister, though there was a good chance that this might happen. Further, given everything that has happened with Brexit so far, it was still hard to imagine that in a few weeks his government has managed to effectively destroy the Tory Party, the Union and the very large stock of goodwill that Britain has built up with neighbouring countries like Ireland.

I believe that the Tory Party will soon formally split, and that the nucleus of a new centrist party in British politics will be formed around the twenty one MP’s who were expelled from the Conservatives.

Another consequence is that the barriers to Scottish independence are falling. Most of the arguments deployed by Brexiteers for ‘taking back control’ appear logical in the case of Scottish independence. Everything the Johnson government does shears away at the moral and emotional ties between London and Scotland. Moreover, the departure of Ruth Davidson as head of the Scottish tory Party will hand back a number of seats to the SNP. The challenge for Nicola Sturgeon now is to convince Scots that the SNP can execute new policy ideas that will make Scotland more stable economically, and richer in terms of human development.

Then, both the Irish government and the EC will feel that their opposite numbers in London have no credibility and no sincerity. Whereas they were often puzzled by Theresa May, Boris Johnson has done nothing to encourage Brussels to trust him. That is a pity because once Britain leaves the EU, the truly complex business of negotiating its future relationship with the EU will only begin. This is apparently lost on the Johnson government.

To return to the distinction I drew between Johnson and Carrington, there is an emerging theme in public life that the consequences of bad behavior are in many cases low. There are many instances, Jeffrey Epstein is the latest, where individuals have engaged in enabled, persistent abuse. Politics is sadly becoming similar. The world stage is increasingly replete with examples, with little distinction between leaders in emerging or developed countries.

In time, very bad, divisive behavior in politics hits its limits and is sanctioned. What is disappointing is that those limits are being stretched to breaking point.  At times, markets can sanction bad policy by politicians, but bad personal behavior is seemingly harder to check. Infuriatingly, social media seems to amplify and reward bad behavior in politics.

A more profound policy issue is that the lack of real economic growth, and the poor distribution of its benefits (in countries like the US) means that voters will look beyond reckless policy in search of economic rewards. In the US specifically, few on the right are prepared to stand up to the President. They might do well to look at the example set by the likes of Ken Clarke, Jo Johnson and Rory Stewart last week. Boris Johnson himself might do well to look at the example set by Peter Carrington.

Have a great week ahead,

Mike

Faultlines in a fracturing world

Cracks appear in the world order Source: Esquire

The front cover of ‘The Levelling’ – clearly the best part – shows a deflated globe. Another way of getting this message across might have been a crystal globe, with cracks appearing.

This came to mind last week as I was summing up some of the important geopolitical and economic catalysts for my first column as a contributor to Forbes, where the aim is that I write on events outside the USA for a largely USA centric audience (https://www.forbes.com/sites/mikeosullivan/2019/08/29/faultlines-in-a-fracturing-world/#3f9c31415890))

My sense, which is now reinforced daily by events such as the trade war, is that there is a fracturing of the old world order that is exposing a range of faultlines. The established world is cracking, the question is whether it will shatter, or whether it can be repaired.

There are at least two varieties of faultline. The first set is where we have the intersection of a disruptive macro development with an existing or incumbent industrial structure – think of the impact of negative interest rates on the European banking system, or the effect of the trade war on corporate supply chains or increasingly, the collision of ethics and technology (for instance opioid drugs or big data).

The second element in the fracturing of the world order relates to geographic areas and/or nation states. A number of them are increasingly making the news and are beginning to cause market ripples.  Strikingly, in each case the fracturing is picking up speed at an alarming rate such that we now go into September beset by three full crises.  

The one that preoccupies me most is the situation in Hong Kong, partly because I love the city and mostly because the ongoing demonstrations there are a microcosm of grander political battles to come – between a state of the world where people sacrifice their liberty for order and economic growth or one that we could call an open society/open economy model.

Should the situation deteriorate further, the onus will be on the US, EU and especially the UK to speak out more volubly, to China’s chagrin. Police violence and the recent arrest of some of the prominent demonstrators is an escalation in this conflict – I am not sure whether this is simply an error or a provocation to the protestors.

I have underlined in past notes that the Hong Kong protests are primarily an issue of liberty and identity, but market and investors are now also been drawn towards it with some focusing on the Hong Kong dollar peg as a source of volatility. I am not so sure – only a major political event such as a Chinese takeover of Hong Kong could push the peg to the top of its range. A more obvious Hong Kong contagion play might be the Chinese currency itself, with a long yen trade as an additional way of expressing risk aversion in Asia.

The situation in Hong Kong would be more alarming if we did not have Brexit as a benchmark, which was the first big rupture in the ‘end of globalization’ thesis. In a sense, nothing has happened with Brexit in that the UK has not yet left the EU, but at the same time the road to Brexit has taken a mind-boggling series of twists and turns.

A difficult, messy ‘hard-Brexit’ looks likely in late October, largely because Boris Johnson has caused so many people to lose faith in him and has whittled away any goodwill he had with Brussels. The step to prorogue Parliament took Brexit into a new realm, a very disturbing one for those who hold the view that what makes Britain are its laws, democracy and institutions. The move will possibly make a hard Brexit more likely, and certainly means that the post Brexit political climate will take on the bitterness of a civil war.

Finally, I am keeping an eye on the two biggest economies in Latin America – Argentina and Brazil. Both represent last chance experiments for populist politics, with the possible electoral overthrow of Mauricio Macri by Alberto Fernandez in Argentina and the increasingly troubled tenure of Jair Bolsonaro.

I recently wrote that the steep fall in the Argentine peso and in its government debt means that it is one of the few countries where sovereign risk is now beginning to be correctly priced, though the implications of Argentina’s attempt at yet another debt restructuring could lead to further downside for the currency and stock market. This would spill over to Brazil, whose stock market is vulnerable to an increasing lack of clarity in policy making and an increasingly contentious foreign policy. In each case, the strong dollar is an unwelcome financial headwind.

A potential formal default by Argentina may well also further damage the credibility of the IMF and by extension Christine Lagarde. The only good news is that Argentina’s woes will mean that austerity is no longer the knee-jerk response of bodies like the IMF to financial crises.

September promises to be lively.

With best wishes,

Mike