‘I Struggle, I Overcome’

Bismark wonders what is going on in Europe

The Iron Chancellor Otto von Bismark is said to have remarked that ‘if you like laws and sausages, you should never watch either one being made’. These wise words might well also apply to the making of government, with the recent political scramble in the EU being a case in point. Like a good horse race, or even decent murder mystery, all of the leading candidates at the start of the week (i.e. Timmermans, Weber, Vestager) dropped out of sight and we ended up with some surprise nominations.

Watching proceedings from Paris and Madrid, there seemed to me to be very little process to the nominations, and many Europeans will be left mystified as to how their leadership has come to power. It should be said that in other parts of the world, the formation of governments and cabinets is equally opaque. Famously Dick Cheney, appointed to lead the search for George W Bush’s Vice-Presidential candidate, ended up picking himself.

If there was a method to the creation of the new executive in Europe it is to be found in the tale of political ‘three cushion billiards’ recounted by the late Wilfried Martens, formerly Belgian Prime Minister, in his 2009 book ‘I Struggle, I Overcome’.

In 2004, faced with the prospect of that Guy Verhofstadt could become EU President – a move many Brussels insiders rejected – Martens charmed Manuel Barroso into becoming a candidate, but instead of nominating Barroso he instead proposed Chris Patten, knowing that Patten’s candidature would be rejected and thereby leaving an open space for Barroso. Europeans should be grateful to have such devious leaders.

In the end, the EU has ended up with a leadership that is reasonably well balanced in terms of gender, parties and regions. The losers in the process were the Visegrad Four (Poland, Hungary, Czech Republic and Slovakia), paying the price for their spurning of liberal democracy and the rule of law.

It is notable that two of the prominent leaders in – Lagarde and von der Leyen are women – and this is a positive development. In particular, Lagarde is a role model not just for women but for all young people in France in that her background shows that the route to career success for a French person does not have to pass through ENA. Perhaps the most significant turn in her career was her failure to gain entry to ENA, and she then spent much of her career practicing law in the US.

On a more pessimistic note, the careers of Lagarde and von der Leyen (who studied at the LSE under the name Rose Ladson because of the threat of kidnaping by the Baader Meinhof gang) highlight the risks facing Europe in the future, and worryingly, the lack of willingness to tackle them.

First, the market reaction to Christine Lagarde’s appointment was revealing. Bonds in the riskiest, most indebted nations rallied hard. Italy, which has an entirely unsustainable debt load, a track record of no growth and a reckless government now has a ten-year bond yield of 1.74%. This reflects the market’s assessment that Lagarde’s policy approach at the ECB will be to dose any manifestations of the shortcomings of the euro-zone with more liquidity.

Such an approach increases the long-term risks to the euro. My fear is that Lagarde’s approach will be to dampen crises with politics and easy money, and not to fix the structural issues that provoke those very crises. It cannot be healthy that central banks dull markets’ appreciation of risk. In my view it would be much better to have an ECB President who will pushes Brussels to complete the building out of the euro-zone financial system.

Critics of Lagarde will also point out that under her stewardship, the IMF has lost credibility and Argentina may prove this point in coming months. In my book ‘The Levelling’ I devote some space to the ways in which the institutions of the 20th century like the IMF have become outmoded. In the case of the IMF, it may no longer have a role in a multipolar world where regional approaches to policy are gaining traction. In addition, its analytical and policy prescriptions are increasingly being proven wrong.

Then, Ursula von der Leyen’s previous appointment was as German defence minister, a posting that led some to suggest that she might become the next head of NATO.   Germany’s army, where only a fifth of tanks and helicopters are combat ready and where there is a chronic problem of recruitment is emblematic of a Europe that on one hand is peaceful, but on the other is not prepared for a significant security challenge. In the EU, only France can boast of a credible military and security force.

In the near future, Europe will be increasingly confronted by a range of military and security issues – risks that security guarantees to the Baltic states might be triggered, ongoing cyber attacks on member states, the ‘soft’ incursion of Russia into Hungary and Serbia for instance, the consequences of the disintegration of Syria and Libya and the pressures created by migrants and refuges, to name just a few. Coordination, training and spending all need to be radically stepped up. My worry is that if the state of German army helicopters is a sign of readiness, then the EU will be caught out.

Have a great week ahead

Mike

Taking sides in the fight for democracy

Last week was a busy one, two days in Copenhagen for the excellent Fund Forum, then through Dublin on Wednesday to present ‘Opportunities and Challenges for a small, advanced economy’ at the Irish state’s ‘National Economic Dialogue’ and finally to London for the UK launch of ‘The Levelling’. Appearances on CNBC, Sky and a lecture at the London School of Economics were amongst the highlights.

In other media one input I would like to flag is a feature in The Economist (https://www.economist.com/open-future/2019/06/28/globalisation-is-dead-and-we-need-to-invent-a-new-world-order). The interview reflected a question that I get on a recurring basis which is how we ‘lost globalization’?

There are several strands to the response here. First, globalization has been a force for good but is now receding, trade flows are the most obvious example. Second, as globalization retreats we become more aware of its perceived side effects, such as inequality, the changes in our lifestyles and our diets, and generally “the way we live now,” to borrow Anthony Trollope’s words. Relatedly, the aftermath of the global financial crisis and the responses to it have left a range of im- balances in place.

Third, people are now reacting to these imbalances and side effects. This is manifest in growing political volatility, which in my view will bring about a revolution in politics as people search for more accountable and responsible forms of governance, rather than less democratic forms of government.

As it stands, many people like blame the ills of specific countries at the door of globalization. Radical political leaders—such as Nigel Farage, formerly of the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP); Marine Le Pen, formerly of France’s National Front; and the Five Star Movement in Italy—and media pundits like Sean Hannity of Fox News have spoken out loudly against globalization. The notion that everything is the fault of globalization is very convenient. It makes for an expedient culprit, and it is so pervasive that we have lost sight of its meaning and implications.

Globalization has few defenders, as it is now unfashionable and po- litically unprofitable to show support for it. It has no outright owner, though some international research bodies and thought leaders like the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) and the World Economic Forum (WEF) are closely associated with it.

Similarly, many economic, political, and social stresses, such as inequality, poverty, and the decline of agriculture, are ascribed to the evils of globalization, regardless of the true origins of those stresses (in fact, during globalization the world poverty level has collapsed from 35 percent of the world population in 1990 to 11 percent in 2013). In addition, the public understanding of globalization is not strong.

Understandably, few people take the trouble to sift through trade reports or examine the flow of labor around the world. Thus, as with the issue of “Europe” in British politics, where few politicians have said or can say anything positive about Europe, globalization is vulnerable to becoming a catchall for the negative aspects of economic growth and so functions as a sort of political doormat.

There is, however, a strong case to be made that globalization, the most powerful economic force the world has witnessed in the past twenty years, has been a force for good. It is now so pervasive in its effects and has produced so many startling outcomes—for example, the rise of Dubai, the successes of small states like Singapore, growing wealth in emerging economies (from 2000 to 2010 wealth per adult in Indonesia increased sixfold), the emerging-market consumer, and fast-changing consumer tastes—that we risk taking it for granted.

With the G20 meeting in Osaka now over, there was not in my view sufficient urgency on the demise of globalization and what might take its place.

In particular, the Russian leader’s comments that liberalism is obsolete opens up a new avenue of attack in the debate on globalization, and one that will delight Mr Putin’s admirers. His remarks which I feel are just a demonstration of ‘maskirovka’ (the Russian military doctrine that is centred around deceiving and destabilizing opponents). That the American President did not upbraid Putin is striking, but not surprising. It teaches us that the idea of liberal democracy needs to be defended, and its benefits more clearly elucidated.

Hong Kong, Latin America and Eastern Europe are the battlegrounds here, and ongoing contests between ‘liberal’ and ‘managed’ versions of democracy in countries like the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland help to uncover the motivation for Mr Putin’s remarks.

The immediate challenge here is for the new leader of the EU, whomever he or she is, to take up the case for liberal democracy. In my view, this is a core value of the EU and it is high time that countries who wilfully slip towards corrupt and mendacious approaches to governance should be asked to take sides.

Have a great week ahead,

Mike

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