Who is the stubborn child?

Who is the stubborn child ? President Trump continues to harrangue the Fed, with his latest line being that the Fed is behaving like a ‘stubborn child’. I take a different view, in an oped for DowJones/Marketwatch I argue that over accommodative monetary policy stores up financial risks for the future and gives politicians the cover to engage in bad policy.. https://lnkd.in/eYmWJ7g

As the dust settles on last week’s market-moving, dovish communications from the Federal Reserve and the European Central Bank, commentators continue to debate the Fed’s independence and the ECB’s wisdom.

Yet, beyond the shorter-term noise of markets and the sting of tweets from President Trump, there is a much deeper issue — that the comfort blanket the Fed and other central banks extend to stock and bond markets is enabling reckless politicians to do and say reckless things.

While the majority of central bankers have engaged in quantitative easing and super-low interest rates out of necessity rather than choice, this is a policy experiment that has arguably reached the limits of its usefulness. Politicians are beginning to take advantage.

In particular, quantitative easing is very much like a doctor administering morphine — it will dull pain but won’t cure that patient. Quantitative easing dulled the pain of the aftermath of the global financial crisis, but it has done little to fix the eurozone, and has done much to extend wealth inequality and encourage indebtedness, not just in the U.S., but in Europe, Japan and by extension in some emerging markets.

The Leviathan-like bargain central banks appear to have struck is to buy financial and economic stability in exchange for an inordinate level of influence over world affairs. The costs of this bargain are growing, in the dulling of market sensitivities to economic and financial imbalances, to wealth inequality and to the numbing of the urgency for politicians to address a litany of critical issues.

A much more profound concern relates to the intersection of central banks and politics, against the backdrop of what political scientist Larry Diamond has called a “political recession.” The widespread political volatility, agitation and generalized voter dissatisfaction we witness today are manifestations of lower expectations of income growth caused by the threat of structurally lower growth, and arguably the poorly distributed gains of globalization.

Very few politicians have responded to these threats in a thoughtful way, perhaps because the outsize presence of central banks and their willingness to calm markets removes a vital source of pressure on those politicians. For example, populist parties in Italy would show much less bravado if the European Central Bank hadn’t been buying billions of euros of its debt over the last seven years.

Equally, the White House might be much more careful and strategic in how it dealt with China if there was a sense that the Fed would not automatically respond to the collateral damage created by the trade dispute.

There are growing signs that because central banks are the only game in town, policy makers are less coherent in their thinking. For instance, in the not-so-recent past it might have been expected that a large cohort of Republicans and Democrats would resolutely oppose both a burgeoning fiscal deficit that is expected to total $897 billion this fiscal year, according to the Congressional Budget Office, has and a near-record-level of U.S. debt to GDP. The fashion for MMT (Modern Monetary Theory, or the idea that government debt should be monetized) is another indication of how giddy the policy community become when they contemplate the full range of the monetary toolkit.

The longer the major central banks worry about the economic consequences of poor policy the longer populistic policy will continue. That inflation is dead in many countries, and 20% of the world’s bonds have zero to negative yields should alert central bankers to the growing faultiness in the world economy and the futility of using monetary policy to fix these. For investors, it is hard to escape the sense that asset prices are over inflated, and that we are at peak wealth and that the long-run returns   will be lower than we have seen in the last 10 years.

Central bankers must push the risks and responsibility associated with inequality, indebtedness, a half-baked eurosystem and low productivity back to elected politicians. If they don’t, then akin to the rising risk of global climate damage, the long-term negative consequences of these faultlines will grow.

Long-run financial stability is badly served by overgenerous central banking. The world’s major central banks should agree to use extraordinary measures like quantitative easing only under preset conditions (great market and economic stresses).

In reality, today’s central bankers risk caring more about data dips, market volatility and bad trade policy than the threat of burgeoning financial imbalances and the eventual damage these imbalances will do to the economy.

Iron Dukes, Emperors and the power of money

The Emperor points the way forward for globalization

Geopolitics has much less of an effect than on broad markets than many people think. Perhaps only large wars and battles between strategic adversaries cause significant shifts in asset prices. Indeed, in the era of globalization, much has been made of the fact that no two democracies have gone to war. Yet, globalization is fading, and, in many countries, ‘managed’ democracy is preferred to the purer version. Geopolitics might be on the way back as a market force.

For the moment, quantitative easing (QE) will continue to dampen most geopolitical risks, though the ongoing geopolitical tussling between Iran and the US might test this and has already boosted commodity prices.

In addition, and we wrote on this last week, the coming G20 meeting will shine light on the diplomatic schism between the US and China. I expect very little to come from the summit in terms of the trade dispute, and that the G20 meeting will simply mark another milestone in the evolution of a multipolar world in that other countries will look on as the two largest geopolitical players become further estranged.

One geopolitical contest that had a significant market and economic impact was the Battle of Waterloo, the 204th anniversary of which occurred last week (June 18th). It was an epic contest between two of the most important leaders in European history, and adorned with anecdotes and quotes (my favourite is from Wellington, when during a pounding from French guns his officers asked for orders he replied ‘there are no orders, except to stand firm to the last man’).

More seriously, from the point of view of finance there are maybe three points worth mentioning. The first is information. Henry Percy, aide de camp to Wellington had, after the Battle, to row halfway across the Channel with the news of the Duke’s victory, as an absence of wind had halted his sloop. On arriving in England he found that many (in the City) already knew of the victory owing, allegedly, to a network of agents assembled by Nathaniel Rothschild who is said to have made a fortune on the event and thereby spawned the phrase ‘buy on the sound of cannons’. Today, social media has become an integral part of geopolitics, through ‘total war’ based approaches to conflict.

The second theme is debt. Wars generally strain finances. Some might recall that Larry Lindsey, an economic adviser to George W Bushes’ administration left his job after producing what at the time was considered to be a high estimate of the costs of the second Iraqi War (it turned out to be a conservative estimate).

Beyond that, I recommend that readers delve into David Graeber’s book “Debt: The First 5,000 years,” where he, for example, speaks of primordial debt. One theme that runs through his book is that periods of significant debt accumulation are historically associated with insurrection. In particular, the Napoleonic Wars saw an explosion in country debt.

It is sobering then that, along with the period around the Napoleonic Wars, the major peaks in world indebtedness (debt to GDP) have been the post-Second World War period, the run-up to the global financial crisis and now. US corporates, China and select developed countries like France and Italy are some of the leading culprits here.

One trend that is striking is the way in which debt cycles evolve. The sectors with the most leverage a decade ago – housing and banks – are, with some exceptions like Canada, Hong Kong and Australia, those with much lower leverage now. Equally, countries and companies that experienced debt crises two decades ago – I am thinking of the late 1990s EM debt crisis and the 2001-2002 corporate crisis in the USA – are now guilty of running high debt levels. Perhaps there is a generational aspect to this where lessons from economic history are quickly forgotten.

The third aspect of the Napoleonic Wars that is interesting is the way they conditioned the world economy – high debt pushed Britain to steady its finances and permitted its navy to secure trade routes across the globe.

In that light the geopolitical contest between China and the US will increasingly shape macro and market themes such as the strength of the dollar and the configuration of supply chains and the ways in which debt mountains are pared back. One might also argue that in a world that is more geopolitically and financially stressed (indebtedness), country risk may become a much more important factor in markets. The dinner between the Chinese and American Presidents at next week G20 meeting may just be the beginning of a new phase.

Have a great week ahead,

Mike

How Britain can address the end of globalization – today’s Times

Moving on through the end of globalization

Note this oped was published in today’s Times, https://www.thetimes.co.uk/edition/business/britain-needs-to-find-its-place-in-the-era-of-post-globalisation-f20sjksvn

Most Britons have had enough of Brexit, many will think it can’t get any worse. They may be wrong. Once the Tory leadership contest is over the Brexit circus will start over again. When it does, the risk is that any forbearance the EU showed Theresa May evaporates, and that it takes a tougher line on financial services for example. This will come as little comfort to business people, workers and the Treasury.

There is a glimmer of hope however, which is that in the Dante’s inferno that is world politics, Britain is not alone. Many other countries are suffering political or even democratic recessions, and a good number of others are at the wrong end of an accelerated cycle in the rise and fall of nations. In this context, Brexit is not an event, or the event, but rather part of a global process.  

This ‘levelling’ process is the end phase of the period of globalization that has carried so much with it over the past thirty years, and the fallow period that will follow as a new ‘order’ is built up. It is no surprise that the most acute political debates today relate to aspects of globalization – wealth inequality, migration and the role of technology in our societies for instance.

Neither is it a surprise that the two countries that have delivered the most significant political shocks in recent years (Brexit and the election of Donald Trump) are those that have been in the vanguard of globalization.  

In this respect Westminster, and much of the British media, need to look up and string together the many strands of change occurring in economics, foreign policy and politics around the world. Brexit has allowed many politicians a ‘policy holiday’ in that it has permitted them to engage in parlour games while neglecting both domestic policy and what can be described as a paradigm shift in world affairs.

This paradigm shift may offer some avenues for a post-Brexit Britain, though it may well be that the next generation of politicians, rather than the current one, makes this journey. Several trends are worth flagging.

One is that globalization is ceding to a multipolar world, made up of three large regions – the US, EU and China each of whom have increasingly distinct approaches to things like technology, democracy, war, economics and politics. These ‘poles’ will increasingly do business with each other, to the detriment of twentieth century institutions like the IMF and World Trade organization. The opportunity for mid-sized nations like Britain is to first arbitrage the differences between these large regions in say law and finance, and to become more distinctive in terms of national identity.

A second trend relates to economics. The world is replete with economic imbalances like record indebtedness, very high inequality and inordinately powerful central banks. Like climate change these represent growing, though unchallenged risks in terms of the policy response. There is a potential advantage to countries who tackle these issues early rather than in the midst of a crisis. Britain should act here, and where possible lead other countries.

The other aspect of economics that is vital is the need for countries like Britain, most of Europe and increasingly the emerging world, to rediscover the ingredients of organic growth. In the last decade economic growth has become heavily financialized, and this creates obvious risks. The majority of the non-London UK economy is in bad need of a framework that will focus on increasingly Britain’s economic potential, and coherently drawing together areas like taxation, education and finance. This is the kind of response that Brexit requires.

Michael O’Sullivan is the author of The Levelling (PublicAffairs),

What Boris should say on Hong Kong

St Mary’s, Putney – site of the Putney Debates

I spent much of last week in London where in between meetings and torrential rain I managed to get down to Putney to pay homage to St Mary’s Church. Those of you who have read ‘The Levelling’ will at this stage know that the nave of St Mary’s is adorned with the following quote ‘For really I thinke that the poorest he that is in England hath a life to live as the greatest he.” It comes from Colonel Thomas Rainsborough, an officer and military hero in Oliver Cromwell’s New Model Army and a leading member of a group called the Levellers.

The Levellers were a prominent mid 17th century group who created the first popular representation of constitutional democracy in the form of their Agreements of the People. Standing in front of St Mary’s I wondered what the Levellers might think of today’s world and its bizarre goings on.

In particular two political events, or rather processes, might interest them – the election of the next Tory leader and by extension British Prime Minister, and protests in Hong Kong, both of which are watershed moments.

To start in Westminister, where Boris Johnson has taken the lead in the Tory leadership race, and with Jeremy Hunt or, my wildcard bet Rory Stewart, as the likely challenger to a Boris centric No. 10. The Levellers liked their politicians to be modest and honest as the following quote shows ‘by woefull experience found the prevalence of corrupt interests powerfully inclining most men once entrusted with authority’. In that respect they would eschew the cult of personality that has infected the Westminster circus.

The Levellers, being a practical lot, would also scratch their heads at the lack of really concrete policy proposals from the major candidates. They would also worry that the spectacle of Brexit has distracted so many in politics from the business of government and that as a result there has been a policy holiday whilst elected officials have engaged in three years of parlour games. This lack of policy leadership is now showing in infrastructure, crime and social cohesion and is an underlying risk for the UK in general.

In that respect most Britons have had enough of Brexit, many will think it can’t get any worse. They may be wrong. Once the Tory leadership contest is over the Brexit circus will start over again. When it does, the risk is that any forbearance the EU showed Theresa May evaporates, and that it takes a tougher line on financial services for example. This will come as little comfort to business people, workers and the Treasury.

One last thought on Brexit, which is that in my view Brexit is really a national crisis of identity that happens to have been channelled towards European politics. One sign of this crisis of identity is the lack of voice and diplomatic clout that Britain has with regard to the situation in Hong Kong.

I recall the television pictures of bowed head of Chris Patten at the handover ceremony in 1997, an image that perhaps said more about Britain’s place in the world than that of China (incidentally one of the interesting elements of the handover was a memorandum that Prince Charles authored on it – there are not many copies in circulation but worth a read if you can find one!).

Indeed, few of the Tory leadership candidates are willing to speak forcefully about the situation in Hong Kong at a time when many natives of the city regard the current protest as a vital test and perhaps the decisive one at that. For those in Hong Kong that I have spoken with, the culture, way of life and public life of Hong Kong are at risk of being subsumed.

From a markets point of view the reaction to protests in Hong Kong has been relatively muted and should remain so given that the extradition Bill has been delayed.  In the event that tensions rise again, the risks are high given that Hong Kong is the fifth largest stock exchange in the world, has probably the most overvalued property market and a currency peg. One might well argue that the economic and sentiment impact of Hong Kong being subsumed by China should be comparable to those of Britain leaving the EU.

Against this background, one news item to watch, beyond the US-China trade dispute, is a speech on US foreign policy (vis a vis China) by Vice President Mike Pence on June 24 at the Wilson Centre in Washington. The last such speech by Pence in October 2018 at the Hudson Institute was I felt, breath taking in its hostility to China, and there is a risk that ahead of the G20, we get a repeat of this.

As a last word, my sense at this juncture is that markets are vulnerable to a resetting of very dovish rate expectations by the Fed, to the realisation that the trade dispute between the US and China is a schism rather than a tiff, and that the earnings season sees recent macro weakness played out in profit and loss statements. Safe assets are very well bid – look at bunds and gold – risky assets are looking complacent.

Have a great week ahead

Mike

Charlie Chaplin and the Japanese bond market

The future all over again – satire and dictatorship

On May 15 1932 there was an attempted coup d’etat in Japan, led by a militant, nationalistic faction in the Imperial Army. The principal victim was the Japanese Prime Minister, Inukai Tsuyoshi. The perpetrators of the coup were given relatively light prison sentences, a pointer to the less democratic and belligerent Japan that would soon follow.

The bizarre element of the coup, which fortunately did not succeed was a plan to murder the actor Charlie Chaplin. The thinking was that such a deed would incite popular fury in the US, and thus lead to war, in which Japan would prevail. At the time of the coup Chaplin was watching a sumo wrestling match with the Prime Minister’s son, and thereby escaped the assassins.

This was more than lucky and in many ways Chaplin’s film The Great Dictator is a fine riposte to the destructive nationalism and totalitarianism that took hold across the world from the mid 1930’s. It is a film that still resonates today.

The view that this incident presents of Japan is also interesting. At the time, economically at least Japan was still an emerging market. Indeed the poor performance of the Japanese stock market around the second world war period is responsible for the historic muted performance of emerging markets relative to developed over the past seventy years.

While our view of Japan today is of a placid country, its history in the past two centuries is a reminder of the pitfalls of isolationism, nationalism and war – concerns that are now echoing louder across the international political economy debate. It should be said at the same time that that the post second world war relationship between the US and Japan is a good example of how two feuding countries can come together (Al Alletzhauser’s ‘House of Nomura’ is good on this topic).

That relationship is pivotal today for a number of reasons. First, a series of military equipment purchases by Japan, mostly notably of over 100 F-35 stealth fighters, manifestly aligns it as America’s fulcrum in Asia and unambiguously points to a change in its defence doctrine.

Second, as the world’s third largest economy, and a cyclical one at that, Japan is a large cog in the trade dispute between the US and China. There was a time when America feared the rise of Japan as it now does China, and any fans of economic history may know that during the 1980’s and 1990’s Donald Trump was an eminent Japan-trade basher. For those of you who want a market scare, the April 13 1987 cover of Time magazine carried an image of Uncle Sam pitted against a sumo wrestler under the banner ‘Trade Wars – the US gets tough with Japan’. The stock market crashed five months later. Does history teach us anything?

Japan may profit strategically from the curbing of China by America, though economically it will suffer from the diminution in world trade and through the side-effects of a stronger yen. In that respect, this weekend’s G20 finance minister’s meeting, lead by Taro Aso, is important as it offers an opportunity to begin to mend relations between the US and China. If this does not happen, then Japan’s bond market offers up a vision of what a trade damaged financial landscape may look like.

Last week, Japanese two year bond yields dipped towards minus 20 basis points, very close to the lows of the last decade. That German and many other euro-zone bond yields are at similarly low levels (indeed globally 11 USD trillion worth of bonds trades with negative yields) will encourage many commentators to suggest that Europe is the next Japan. In this respect if bond yields are a forecast of future growth, this is not an optimistic view.

Here, one of the central tenets of The Levelling is that there is too much debt in the global financial system, and that too little is being done about it. Quantitative easing makes this worse by diminishing the urgency which with indebtedness should be tackled and creating the circumstances where economic actors feel that they can take on even more debt. In many cases, Japan being one, debt clogs and distorts the economic system, and until it is paid back or restructured, economic growth in indebted countries (most of the world) will remain sluggish. Its all enough to make me think of Charlie Chaplin’s depression era film Modern Times.

Have a great week ahead,

Mike

Darwin comes to politics

Are political species about to become extinct?

Darwin has finally come to politics. Last week’s European elections saw the further paring back of incumbent parties that have been the pillars of the political establishment in Europe since the second world war. For example, in France the Socialists and Republicans received only single digit levels of support, in the UK the Tories and Labour were roundly humiliated and in Germany, the Social Democrats have seen their vote fall precipitously.

The collapse in the popularity of established political parties is just one element of the breaking down of the order of the past thirty years. To many who have grown up with the reassuring predictability of two-party political systems this will be very confusing, others might simply ask why it taken so long for Darwinian disruption to impact politics.  

Indeed, innovation and disruption characterize many industries and many walks of life. Should politics be exempt? Take business as an analogy: new companies and ventures often succeed because of a new technology or a shift in consumer behavior. Of the top companies by market capitalization in the United States, a good number did not exist twenty years ago.

However, in politics, many of the political parties prominent today have been around for a very long time. To take this analogy further: if the French Socialist Party, the Democratic Party in the United States, or the Tory Party in the United Kingdom were stocks, they would trade at a sharp valuation difference from their peers. If they were companies, their sales would be falling and talk would grow of a takeover.

In many ways, political parties have it easy; they are not subject to the same stresses as companies. Indeed, political parties are also lucky in that unlike, say, consumer goods companies, their “consumers” have been more loyal in their preferences. This stickiness is under threat. Persistently lowered income expectations, demographics, immigration, and the influence of social media all tend to lead voters to be less anchored by party heritage and identity.

Allegiances to parties tend to be built through families and communities and are only broken by the deepest of crises. In this way, the change of preferences being registered by many voters is a sign of both how societies are changing, and of the stresses being placed on those societies.  

Another reason established parties are drifting from their political moorings is that many of them are associated with events and individuals in history. As time passes, events foundational to their rise have less meaning and relevance for younger generations.

So far, diminished support for incumbent parties in Europe is occurring in tandem with the rise of both new parties and a resurgence in some parties with singular identities (i.e. Greens). What we have so far seen little of is a split in a major party. In coming months, it is not unreasonable to think that this could happen in the United Kingdom, in the sense that the Tories are split between Brexiteers and Remainers, while Labour is cleft between hard-left-wing Corbyn socialists and a moderate New Labour faction.

What is even more interesting is that US politics has apparently been spared the dislocations evident across Europe. Party unity may only be cosmetic. We can easily paint a picture of a political spectrum being stretched on the right between the Trump/Pence Republicans and the Bush country-club Republicans and then on the other side between the Sanders/Warren/AOC Democrats versus the Obama/Clinton Democrats. In the US, it may be that a fiscal or debt crisis is needed to break the Republicans or a more profound socio-economic crisis leads to a breech in the Democratic party.

One way in which mainstream parties have managed to survive in recent years is that they have co-opted radical people and causes. This was the case with the Republicans and Donald Trump and with the Tories and the Brexit referendum. The success of the Brexit Party in the EU Parliamentary elections now leaves the Tories exposed, whilst the financial and economic damage that Donald Trump’s trade war is doing may leave many Republicans questioning the party’s economic credentials and its fast evaporating reputation as the guardian of the economy and finance.

In the absence of a deus ex machina in the form of a third party government or international body (it could be the OECD in the run up to the G20 meeting), senior Republicans need to step forward with a framework that can safeguard the intellectual property rights of American companies, its national security whilst at the same time avoiding unnecessary economic and diplomatic shocks.

I can think of few current Republican senators and Congressmen/women who are ready to do so.

Have a great week ahead,

Mike

Secrets of leadership – vision and ‘glue’

The Levelling is published on this coming Tuesday (in the US). As an author who has to sell books, I should perhaps say that differently, something like ‘Globalization is dead, the Levelling is coming’.

In the very last part of the book I wrote that I finished the final edits whilst on holiday in Corsica, and that I had noted that such was the volatile state of world affairs, that I wished nothing too dramatic would happen until the book was published lest it upset the thesis of The Levelling.

What is strange is that while the last seven months have been very volatile in terms of financial market action and economic performance, relatively little has occurred in terms of what Harold Wilson called ‘events’. The one traumatic, unexpected event I witnessed during that time was the fire in Notre Dame, while the event that has yet to happen, is Brexit.

Elsewhere, President Trump has been busy prosecuting the end of the American century and the beginnings of a multipolar world, and unbeknownst to him, the onset of the ‘Levelling’. His actions have sidelined the institutions of the 20th century, many of whom are defunct. He is squandering American soft power at a moment when it arguably most needs it – in Latin America for instance, and he is vandalizing the wiring of the global economy.

Here, when economists and commentators address the issue of the trade war, they tend to focus on high level indicators such as the impact of tariffs on growth and inflation. What will be far more telling, but not yet obvious are the disruptive changes that tariffs and tough trade rhetoric do to corporate supply chains and to investment plans. There are already signs that corporate spending across Asia and the US is dropping, and we should expect that in many cases cross border investment flows will slow.

Arguably, uncertainty for corporates might be lower were there a vision for a post trade war international economic order. None exists, not in the White House and not in bodies like the World Trade Organisation (WTO). If anything, the White House is reacting against the vision offered by the concept of the Chinese Dream or Made in China 2025.

The notion that vision is important, leads me, by a tangent to the question of leadership. There are thousands of books on the topic – from the points of view of management studies, military experts, sports people and so on. Many writers have poured forth on the secret sauce of leadership, on ingredient of which must be ‘vision’ or more aptly the ‘vision thing’ as. Ronald Reagan had it in a very broad sense, George H Bush mulled what he called ‘the vision thing’ and Bill Clinton worked hard to enunciate his vision. Theresa May had none.

The reason that leadership is on my mind is that once the dust clears on the European Parliamentary elections, the haggling over the runners and riders in the next EU executive will take place. Here the most notable change will not be the entry of any particular character, but the exit of Mario Draghi from the European Central Bank. Europe and the euro-zone will and should miss him.

It is my personal view that Draghi is perhaps the only true European leader of recent years. He has had vision – and has demonstrated another key quality of leadership – that of binding people together in difficult circumstances. At a time when the shortcomings of the euro-zone system were laid bare, and there was a risk that the entire apparatus might pull asunder, his political skills acted as a glue to hold it together.

In the style of much of the leadership literature, Mr Draghi’s leadership skills are probably transferable to other domains – he might as easily take the reins at Barcelona FC or Juventus. It may well be more fun than becoming the next Italian Prime Minister or President. For its part, the EU will have to replace the Draghi ‘glue’ with an overhaul of the machinery of the euro-zone system.

Finally, again, in contrast Theresa May had no leadership ‘glue’ with which to bind the many factions in the Tory Party together. My sense is that whomever succeeds her, will need that ‘glue’ to help colleagues accept the reality of the Brexit deal on offer from the EU, and to face into the challenge of piloting Britain’s new, lonely furrow in world affairs.

Have a great week ahead

Mike

How to reconnect Europeans with the EU

The EU elections, like the Eurovision song contest is, for some, a chance to poke fun at the EU and at the more colourful characters contesting seats. Turnout will be relatively low, reflecting the fact that for many Europeans, power lies in national assemblies, and also the fact that they do not entirely understand the role and purpose of the EU Parliament.

In this respect the EU Parliamentary elections will do little to bridge the political and emotional gulf between the EU and its citizens. My own experience is that whether I am in the north of Greece, west of France or south of Ireland, Europe’s citizens are losing their sense of what the EU means to them in a tangible way.

The core elements of the project need to be remade, and done so in a way that brings them closer and more meaningful to Europeans. One example is the constitution. One frequently noted rejoinder during debates on the politics of the EU is to ask whether anyone has in fact read the EU constitution. Few have.

The EU constitution is some four hundred pages long (at seventy thousand words, it is seven times as long as the French and Dutch constitutions), and it is unlikely that many Europeans have read it or that they keep a copy close to hand.

Lawyers and academics will tell us that constitutions are legal documents and as such are long and complicated. Still, weighty texts like the European Constitution put distance between people and those who govern over them.

This is one of the ways in which politics today has created a sense of disconnect between insiders and outsiders. From a socio-political point of view, it is a disturbing divide because Europeans are losing confidence in the European Union, and as multiple economic and humanitarian crises take their political toll, Europeans are losing their sense of what Europe stands for.

One proposal, which may go just a small way to repairing the gap between the EU and its citizens, is for Europeans to have a short, tangible and agreed account of what it means to be European.

One thoroughly modern response might be to use artificial intelligence to optimize the constitutions of the various European states and to condense them into one, meaningful page. The algorithm would extract core beliefs and principles from the constitutions of a range of countries and boil them down into a single, short document.

A more straightforward tack would be produce a short document that highlights the meaning and relevance of the European Union for its many citizens. It could be done as follows, and maybe the next Commission might take this up.

The exercise would involve European citizens running pilot projects to discover what they feel they have in common, where they feel they are different, and what policies might, to their advantage, draw them together. To think aloud, an initial pilot project could be based on the participation of a retired Portuguese teacher, a Polish bank clerk, a German policewoman, a Latvian student, an Italian pensioner, and a Swedish nurse.

Their goal is to produce, on a single sheet of paper, the answers to the following questions: What do they, as Europeans, have in common? What can they stress as common values and aspirations, what policies might bring them closer together as Europeans (i.e. the Erasmus pan-European student-exchange program).

The answers might start off with the fact that most Europeans have a common history, one that has been marked by wars, scarred by the rise and fall of empires, shrouded in Christianity, and shaped by the passage of monarchy to democracy and autarchy, the rise of learning and culture, and, from the thirteenth century onward, the evolution of great cities.

This is an altogether broad and historical view of European identity, and it might well permit the inclusion of countries, such as Russia, that are not considered part of Europe today. The sum total of this historic experience might well inspire citizens to say that they have the following common values: peace (not to have another European war), the influence of the Christian church(es), democracy, recognition of the benefits of social democracy, and free movement of EU citizens.

This may just be a starting point, and it might even gain clarity through the participation of the growing number of pan-European couples and their children. Such an exercise may not also produce the unity of views that pro-Europeans may desire, but it will make Europeans think about what defines their region at a time when the US and China are reinforcing their own identities.

The next trick will be to get Europe’s leaders to react to such a template.

From the Banquet at Hongmen to Hong Kong

…as I was saying…regular readers of the Sunday letter will know that I have taken a break from it in recent weeks to recast the note around my forthcoming book ‘The Levelling’, and I hope that some will be happy it is back.

For those of you who are new to my list (please let me know if I should not have you on the list, or if you have colleagues or friends who would like to join it) I will send out a letter each Sunday morning (the one time people have a chance to read something) that mixes history, politics, markets, geopolitics and economics.

Given the intersection of these factors a good place to start this week is the Banquet at Hongmen, which occurred in China in 206 BC. In an age that is in Game of Thrones overdrive the story of Hongmen will appeal to many (indeed there is already a film about it called White Vengeance (2012)). In China, the tale is short-hand for duplicity and assassination and it featured in the Chinese press last week as part of the more popular response to President Trump’s tariff increase on China.

As an anchor point, ‘Hongmen’ serves a number of purposes that of course effortlessly dovetail into the themes of The Levelling. The first is that internal politics matter – Hongmen occurred at a time when the Qin and Han dynasties were contesting power. In this regard, for all that we hear today about the 2020 Presidential election campaign, we hear equally little about political debate within the Communist Party on topics like trade and relations with the USA.

Second, the cycles of the rise and fall of nations matter a lot. China has had many such cycles and America has effectively to complete a full cycle. Some may feel that this comes across in the bravoura of America’s interaction with other countries, but we should also bear in mind the context and patience that China’s history affords its leadership.

A third related point here is that China’s long history has given it a deep culture and sense of civilization. This is lost on some. Kiron Skinner a State Department official has recently tried to cast US-China relations as a ‘Clash of Civilisations’.  This is a lazy use of Samuel Huntington’s work. A better parsing of the situation is multipolarity, where the world moves away from globalization towards a system driven by three large regions (US, EU and China) who do things in distinctly different ways.

In this context, the trade dispute is a marker of China’s rise and the belated realization of America’s elite as to how it should curb this. Tariffs are not at all the apt tool. There are better avenues. For example, America is extremely powerful financially, in terms of the usage of the dollar, depth and centrality of its markets and the power of its banks. Indeed, one could argue that the US is more hegemonic in finance than it is militarily.

Another avenue is leadership in international rules and standards. Many new fields such as artificial intelligence, genetic editing and cyber war have grown so quickly that they have bypassed international laws, philosophies and norms regarding them. One challenge for the US is to take the lead in outlining new standards and laws in these areas. Unfortunately this is something it does not appear prepared to do, especially in areas like climate change. If anything the US is ceding soft power to China.

To jump to finance, the market view of the trade dispute is that some form of resolution will be forthcoming. The drop in volatility on Friday suggested that US markets are moving from being positioned for a risky outcome, to one that is more sanguine. Other Asia centric ones like the KOSPI index South Korea and the Australian dollar will need to strengthen in order to give the all clear.

If a trade deal is struck, it will mark the beginning of a formal rivalry between the US and China, the start of more ‘nation first’ patterns in consumption and corporate investment and the end of bodies like the World Trade Organisation. There may be many more flash points.

Here, many tend to focus on great naval battles of the future in the South China Sea. In my view, one looming touchpoint is Hong Kong, where there is a fierce debate ongoing around a proposal to permit the imprisonment in China of those sentenced by courts in Hong Kong. For a city-state with a very expensive housing market, dollar currency peg and large stock market, this may be one area where geopolitics again ripples through markets.  

Have a great week ahead,

Mike

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