Hidden Gems

Small and free

One of the rituals associated with the World Economic Forum’s conference in Davos in late January is that a growing number of think tanks uses this event as an opportunity to release headline grabbing studies (Oxfam’s ’22 richest men in the world have greater wealth than all the women in Africa’ is one example). Of the prominent ones to catch the eye, the Bloomberg Innovation Index, the Economist Intelligence Unit’s Democracy Index and the WEF’s own, interesting Social Mobility Index, all stand out, for at least two reasons.
 
The first is that they underline the accelerated rise and fall of nations (in the Transparency International Corruption Perception Index, America has fallen to its weakest rating in eight years – at a time when ‘trust in government in the US’ is only 17% according to the Pew Research Centre) and the ongoing crisis of democracy worldwide (the Economist Intelligence Unit reports that ).
 
The second is that small, advanced economies top the league tables in nearly all of the studies published last week. For instance, the least corrupt countries in the world are New Zealand, Denmark, Finland, Singapore, Sweden and Switzerland, while the top ten countries in the WEF Global Social Mobility index are also small, advanced countries. Then, eight of the top ten countries in the EIU Democracy Index are also small, advanced states (New Zealand, Ireland, Switzerland, the Nordics), and to top it Singapore, Switzerland, Sweden, Israel, Denmark & Finland are in the top ten most innovative countries as ranked by Bloomberg.
 
Given that innovation, corruption, democracy and inequality are the key issues of our day, it is surprising that more investors and commentators, especially those in large economies, do not study the success of small states more carefully.
 
Regular readers will however know that this topic is one that is dear to my heart and is something I have written a great deal on with David Skilling of Landfall Strategy (his note on the ‘Decade Ahead for Small States’ is worth a read, https://www.landfallstrategy.com/commentary/2020/1/15/into-the-next-decade-for-small-economies).
 
At the risk of repeating myself, I think a few aspects of the ‘success of small states’ are worth restating as the new decade begins.
 
One is that, as growth slows globally, and at some stage the world economy faces the prospect of a recession, there will be a debate as to how (apart from taking on more debate and undertaking more QE) long term economic growth can be generated. The recipe for this lies in the many public goods (education, institutions) that are being denigrated in large developed and many emerging economies, but that remain healthily manifest in many small, advanced states.
 
Most of these economies are also highly globalized and offer a convincing rebuttal to the view that globalization creates inequality. Inequality is a function of the way in which individual states process globalization and the effect of financial markets on their economies. The US is the best example I can find, where wealth inequality is at record high levels. In contrast Ireland does experience income inequality at a gross level, but its highly redistributive tax system levels this out.
 
What small states in aggregate do well, with I should say some glaring omissions, is think strategically about the impact of the wider world on their economies and societies (Denmark for instance has a ‘Minister for Silicon Valley’), and then try to buffer these outside influences.
 
The other interesting phenomenon regarding small states and the wider world is how they are reacting to changes in geopolitics. Brexit has robbed Ireland and the Netherlands of a natural ally in Brussels, and both nations are now part of the ‘Hanseatic league 2.0’ group of small EU states that broadly speaking are pro-growth, fiscally responsible nations. On a broader scale, David Skilling and I have written on the need for a ‘g20’ of smaller, advanced states. Such a body might be one of the coalitions of the 21st century, given that many small, advanced states have far more in common (democracy, leaders on environmental policy, focused on soft power). A platform like this might also give countries like Singapore, now torn between America and China as geopolitical partners, a different platform.
 
If readers are not convinced of my entirely biased case for small states, consider their investment performance. Over the last ten years, a portfolio of resilient, larger cap, export-oriented stocks in the twelve leading, small advanced economies have handily beaten Asian and European indices, and are not far off matching the S&P index. Time to pay more attention to small, advanced economies.
 
Have a great week ahead,
Mike

Peak Stocks, Peak Trump?

Only way is up

I recently gave a ‘Levelling’ related talk in Paris, where one of the points I made related to the way in which markets and finance have dominated our lives. I am often sensitive to the way markets are discussed in France. In contrast to the USA, where markets are seen as a source of wealth and to a degree, a part of American culture, in France, the opposite is the case.

This, in my view has something to do with France having a much longer economic history (August Landier and David Thesmar’s book ‘Le Grand Méchant Marché is worth a read on this point), and therefore more financial crises, than the US. Indeed, when John law was blowing up the French economy, the US was a ‘frontier market’ and colony of King George I.

One perspective on markets that I think interesting is they way they act as laboratories, signalling the impact of real-world events and economic policies. Markets can be brutally honest in this regard, pricing the effect of tragedies, wars and economic blight in an unsentimental way.

Some recent market behaviour has been revealing. For instance, the price of soya beans fell once the US and China signed their ‘trade’ deal. The drop in soya bean prices likely reflects a very sceptical view on the quality and enforceability (specifically that China would buy large amounts of US agricultural produce). In my view, this scanty deal only serves to provide the President with some politically helpful headlines, eases the stress on the Chinese economy and, profoundly underlines the fracturing in the relationship between the two countries.

In contrast to weakness in agricultural commodities, there are other market price moves that tell us little about the real economy, but a lot about how the plumbing of markets works. The recent, rapid rise in the price of Tesla stock is a case in point (the value of the company has doubled in the past six months and its equity value is worth more than the likes of Volkswagen, who produce far, far more electric cars). The rise in the value of Tesla tells us little about the health of the car market (modest in the US, weaker in Germany and China), but a lot about investor behaviour and the state of banking.

First, in terms of investor behaviour, by October of last year there was a sizeable community of investors sceptical that Tesla would ever become a profitable business. This set of investors had established large ‘short’ positions in Tesla stock. However, as markets rose, they were forced to cover or buy back these short positions, pushing the price ever higher. Anyone who thinks the sharply rising price is an indicator of Tesla’s future is mistaken, it is simply a function of investor positioning.

Another reason for the hubristic move in Tesla stock is that the federal Reserve has been infusing markets with more liquidity. There was a time when earnings, corporate strategy and good governance were determinants of stock performance. Today, in the USA at least, it seems that liquidity is the pre-dominant driver. In the aftermath of the global financial crisis, the banking system has changed in that the nature or species of participants in lending markets has become more diverse.

Hedge funds, private investors and asset managers now participate in lending marketplaces that were once the preserve of banks. The other change is that regulation has pushed banks to have smaller balance sheets, so to that end they are less sizeable players in many corners of financial markets.

At the same time, the amount of debt in the world has ballooned. The effect of this debt load, the changed composition of the banking marketplace and the refinancing pressures it puts on the marketplace is that the Fed now needs to lubricate the wheels of capital markets more often.

As it does so, it adds fuel to speculative fire, which in recent weeks has taken many measures of risk taking to extremes (Tesla’s rise is one example). Regular readers will know that I hold central banks guilty as charged for encouraging people to take on, rather than calibrate risks.

One upshot of this is that strength of the stock market is being used as a self-marketing tool by President Trump (in a recent note I commented that the number of his stock market specific tweets had increased sharply since November). Trump also loudly eggs Fed Chairman Powell on to be more accommodative. As such the Fed is now losing credibility, in a way not seen since the mid 1970’s, and it is entangling itself in asset prices in a way that will compromise it and the US economy.

As for President Trump, the potential near-term peak in equities might mean we have seen peak Trump, especially given the commencement of the impeachment hearings next week. His approach is that of a classically short-term property speculator – take on debt, pump up the value of an asset and then try to sell it. As he does so he is mortgaging the pensions of future generations, and potentially, his next four years in the White House. The stock market is due a correction, and so is Trump.

Perhaps someone, even in Paris no less, will write a book called ‘Le Grand Méchant Président’.

Have a great week ahead,

Mike

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