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