Hamilton would have a plan for Brexit

Neither Leave nor Remain, but go forward

This article is published by the excellent UnHerd.com, https://unherd.com/2019/10/alexander-hamilton-rap-star-nation-builder/

The fracturing of the world order by events such as Brexit, and the growing consensus that we ‘live in interesting times’ mean that today is a busy and stimulating time for those who enjoy drawing historical comparisons with the present.

One particular strand is the manner in which some have drawn upon America’s Revolution as philosophical support for Britain taking back control from Europe. Others have gone further. The former Tory minister and now Brexit Party MEP Ann Widdicombe, in her maiden European Parliament speech cast Brexit as ‘oppressed people rising against oppressors, colonies rising against empires‘.

The idea that Britain is emasculated by Brussels in the way a colonial vassal state might be is scarcely believable, especially so when heard from Dublin, Belfast, Edinburgh and likely much of the Commonwealth. Breaking free from Brussels will not solve the many issues facing Britain, but it may eventually crystalize a serious debate on the future.

When this happens, the example of the Founding Fathers, and especially one of their leading lights Alexander Hamilton, will be worth delving into. From this point, Britons can choose between the purgatory of Brexit or alternatively they can agree that a long period of rebuilding is called for. If this is the case, Alexander Hamilton is very much the man to listen to.

Hamilton was a man of many achievements – a talented military officer and aide to George Washington, a driver and interpreter (through the Federalist Papers) of the US Constitution and the first Secretary of the Treasury, to list just a few accomplishments.

Today, interest in Hamilton has undergone a revival, thanks in part to the musical bearing his name, even if it does not reflect all of his achievements. Hamilton stands out as someone who planned, established, and built many of the important institutions of the United States.

He had a hand in the creation of its currency framework; in the foundation of the Treasury, a prototype central bank (the Bank of the United States), the Coast Guard, and West Point; and in the structuring of the army. He was also a mastermind of American foreign policy and its trade relationship with Britain.

He was also one of the lead authors of the Federalist Papers, the collection of essays that sought to clarify, strengthen, and promote the US Constitution. Few men or women have had as enduring an impact on their nation. Brexit would be easy if its proponents had the foresight to create their own ‘Federalist Papers’, or ‘Brexit Papers’.

In my view, the many achievements of Hamilton make him shorthand for the establishment of the institutions, laws, and skill sets needed for countries and regions to be able to thrive, in the sense of enjoying durable economic growth, high human development, and a stable public life. All of these factors are on the wane in Britain and the wider world today and need to be revived.

In the last chapter of ‘The Levelling’ called ‘The Hamilton Project’ I ask a notional Hamilton what advice he would give to the EU, the US and China in order that each prospers in the 21st century. For instance, he would advise the US to take the lead in crafting the laws and frameworks needed to marshal new technologies like gene editing and cyberwarfare.

In that context, there are a number of things that Britain can learn from Hamilton, notably the way he conducted politics and the way he thought about nation-states and government.

To start with the conduct of public life, and mindful of the consequences of the Johnson government’s approach to politics, the nascent democracy within which Hamilton acted was a noisy, nasty and chaotic as the Brexit climate is today. Hamilton’s enemies used the press ruthlessly against him. For his part he was careful that the will of the people be channeled by institutions and laws, and that ‘fake’ views of his policies be rebutted.

He was diligent in seeking out political opponents and seeking to convince them of his views. The conciliatory and relatively open way Hamilton and others built a consensus over the Constitutional Convention is a model for relations across the British political spectrum, as well as relations between London and Brussels, should be handled.

That they are not is in part a question of leadership, and the quality of this particular political generation. Hamilton and the Founding Fathers are the benchmark for political classes worldwide in terms of their vision, comportment and the durability of their policies.

In time, it may be that Brexit catalyses a new generation of politicians and potentially parties and that this ‘next generation’ is the one to shape what ‘Global Britain’ becomes.

Here, Hamilton would also be a useful guide. He might set the scene by counselling that, as the trade war between the US and China is showing, a globalized world is ceding to a multipolar one where Britain will simply be a mid-sized power like South Korea and Australia.

The notion of Global Britain will need to be conceived in the context of this reality, with implications for corporate governance, tax laws, the legal system and the City. It may also mean that Global Britain is founded on a meaningful security and defence agreement between the UK and the EU.

Hamilton would then focus on at least two other areas – both at the centre of the Brexit vote. One is low, poorly distributed economic growth and the other is immigration.

Trend economic growth in the UK as proxied by productivity has slowed dramatically and has become too financialized in the sense that it has increasingly relied on the accumulation of debt and priming by central banks to keep it going. The distraction of Brexit has meant that there has been too little attention paid to the rattling engine room of the economy. It has been hollowed out by austerity and the labour market has changed radically for the worse in terms of the way workers have exchanged flexibility for security.

What debate there has been so far has focused on redistributive measures, a difficult policy to execute ahead of a likely world recession. What is much more important is to rediscover the source of high, organic economic growth.

The secret sauce of ‘growth’ lies in many of the things Hamilton developed and that equally Britain is well known for – education, good institutions and laws. If he were with us today, Hamilton would lay out a plan to boost human development (education, longevity, mental health and equality), and to harness the parts of ‘intangible infrastructure’ (e.g. education, socially friendly use of technology, rule of law) that Britain is good at.

Then given the uncertainty, animosity and opportunity afforded by Brexit, Hamilton might propose a very clear contract on immigration. The aim of this would be to lay out the conditions that immigrants are welcomed into Britain, the help given to them to settle, assimilate and find work, their rights in the UK and a framework that would ensure they are respected and integrated into British society.

Given his aptitude for the infrastructure of state, Hamilton could not neglect Scotland and Northern Ireland. He would recommend a Marshall style fund to help reshape Northern Ireland’s economy and society, with the implementation of this to be carried out by countries like Sweden and Switzerland who excel in public policy. For Scotland Hamilton’s work on currencies and state banks will come in handy as independence becomes a reality.

Much if not all of the media is obsessed with the very short-term drama, and to an extent who could blame them such is the entertainment value. However, attention needs to be drawn to the deeper issues facing Britain and the potential solutions to them if Britain is to truly prosper and be at peace with itself after Brexit. Sometimes, history and historical figures can anchor and steer these debates. I would urge Britons to look beyond usual historical references like Churchill to Alexander Hamilton. He embodies the idea of nation building.

His view would be that Brexit is simply a manifestation of decline and that this can be reversed by honestly locating Britain’s place in the emerging multipolar order of the 21st century, by developing a new ‘contract’ with immigrants and most importantly by rediscovering the sources of organic economic growth.

Beyond Brexit – a plan for Northern Ireland

Light ahead for Northern Ireland?

I am trying hard not to write about Brexit, partly because it is so unpredictable and partly because so much else has been written and said about it. There are however two economics related angles that are worth mentioning. The first relates to the challenge of reviving the British economy after Brexit, and I covered this in a Times oped earlier this week (Times.html). The other is the longer socio-economic future of Northern-Ireland.

One of the frustrating and revealing aspects of Brexit is the way it has shown a lack of real interest in the North from some British politicians. For instance, in the recent past Boris Johnson has compared the border between Ireland and Northern Ireland to the boundaries of London’s congestion charge zone.

This  level of ignorance is a pity because the reality is that Northern Ireland is one of the poorest economic regions of the UK, falls well behind the level and rate of growth of Ireland the Irish Republic and continues to suffer social, political and economic rigidities. Social divisions are being mended all too slowly, local politics at Stormont is inadequate and the economy remains embarrassingly overdependent on government spending.

Brexit has shone a light on many of these issues and has illuminated the lack of appreciation many in Westminster have for Northern Ireland in particular and Irish history in general. Arguably, a film (‘Titanic’) and tv series (‘Game of Thrones’) have done more for Northern Ireland’s fortunes than its local and London based leaders.

In particular Theresa May’s Brexit strategy was fatally snared by a shoddy understanding of the complexities presented by the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic. Indeed, there is a risk for Britain that Brexit is replaying the divisions and debilitating bitterness of the Ireland’s separation from Britain in the 1921 Anglo-Irish treaty.

Yet, while there have been very few if any winners in the Brexit process so far, it does represent a valuable opportunity for London, Washington, Dublin and Brussels to recognize that Northern Ireland needs a second wind in terms of its socioeconomic development. Irish America can add an important voice of support here. Northern Ireland should not be parked as a political issue but should be cultivated economically and socially.

A provocative but potentially fruitful suggestion is that a portion of Britain’s Brexit exit ‘settlement’ to the European Union be set aside as the basis or seed capital for a Marshall Plan–type fund for Northern Ireland. This could then become a joint UK-EU financed fund with further funding from the UK, the EU and its institutions like the European Investment Bank. The fund would not substitute for spending in Northern Ireland by London but would have the long-term aims of increasing socio-cultural harmony, human development and the economic potential of Northern Ireland’s economy.

Another interesting source of funding is the growing appetite in capital market for social impact investment opportunities. This potential supply of funding is not yet met with a large, coherent supply of impact investment projects, partly because this kind of investing is not yet well understood and partly because it is difficult to create large scale projects here. Northern Ireland could be a model for doing social impact investing in a meaningful way.

The really interesting part of the proposal is that neither London, Dublin, Brussels or even Washington would be involved in planning and running such a program. This would be done by a group of small, advanced economies – the likes of Sweden, Singapore and Switzerland.

This approach would have political and economic attractions. The first is that few if any of these small, advanced countries has political ‘baggage’ with respect to Northern Ireland and would be therefore less likely to fall foul of the distrust that bedevils politics in the North (for example, the advice of New Zealand technocrats might be easier to take, and more credible than policies crafted in London or Washington). 

Secondly, and more tellingly, small advanced countries are the source of the secret sauce of economic, social and human development. They tend to dominate the league tables of socio-economic success, from ‘most globalized’ to “most innovative nation” or most “prosperous nation.” Indeed, the small advanced country model is acknowledged in Northern Ireland’s ‘Economy 2030’ plan.

What small, advanced and open economies have in common are drivers like education, strong institutions, the rule of law, and the deployment of technology—their intangible infrastructure. Northern Ireland needs better ‘intangible infrastructure’, applied in an imaginative and constructive way.

A few examples of what a small state led fund might tangibly focus on include the kind of skill-based apprentice schemes found in Austria and Switzerland, rezoning of housing from deeply politically entrenched areas using the social-impact-investing model found in Belgium, investment in cultural projects that are common to all communities (such as is done in Scandinavia and Switzerland), and the establishment of poles of excellence in certain professions, such as legal financial services.

Such a fund might draw on the expertise and governance capabilities of small states. This might well add energy and transparency to policy decisions and the employment of detailed rolling five-year plans might help speed up what is at times a sclerotic policy process.

Given the frequent and urgent manner in which parties to the Brexit process annunciate the risks to Northern Ireland in general and the Peace Process in particular, it is time they do something to set it on a positive course. It is also high time that Brexit produces at least one good news story.

From Rotten Heart to Braveheart?

Boris was wrong!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Have a great week ahead,

Mike

Faultlines in a fracturing world

Cracks appear in the world order Source: Esquire

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

September promises to be lively.

With best wishes,

Mike

The State of Politics

I passed through London last Wednesday and after lunch had the good luck to pop into Chatham House to see Prime Minister Theresa May’s last public speech. Truth be told, the invite I received specified only that a senior politician would be speaking, and as I trundled down the motorway towards Bordeaux airport early that morning, I was expecting be treated to a last hustings hurrah from Jeremy Hunt. Instead, Theresa May turned up to deliver a speech on ‘The State of Politics’ (though not under Chatham House Rules).

I had not seen her speak before and after I did many things fell into place. As she is at the end of her tenure as PM she deserves at least a ceasefire from the criticism that has been directed at her. However, the general lack of emotional investment in her comments and her willingness to avoid engagement on questions led me to think that she naturally won few passionate political friends in Westminster and Brussels.

To be fair, some comments did strike a chord and her thoughts on the antagonistic, negative and now habitually hostile approach to politics in the UK and US were worth listening to. In particular she lamented the lack of compromise in politics today, the deepening of divisions (the ‘Squad’ debate in the US is a very good case in point) and the rise of absolutism. What she meant here is much less the enforcement of the primacy of principles, but the conviction of those with extreme views that their perspective is right to the point that other competing views are excluded. That at least is my too wordy definition of what she said.

Absolutism can have many political effects – some voters are drawn by strong views while others are put off. In general, what we can call absolutist views get more media and social media attention than more moderate views. Bad ideas fly faster than good ones. In the longer-run, absolutism may end up breaking apart very well-established political parties, further destroying bi-partisanship and generally producing bad policies.

We might well argue that absolutism is everywhere, even in financial markets. A pronounced trend in recent months has been the strong rise of bond and equity prices in tandem, to the point that the correlation between them has reached historical extremes. The price action in each, major asset class suggests a strong degree of conviction, almost to the point of absolutism.

Surely, neither equities nor bonds can both be right? Indeed, both could be wrong. Bond prices reflect weaker economic growth, potentially lower trend growth and the apparent willingness of central bankers (Korea cut rates last week for instance) to force rates lower.

Equities exuberantly reflect this ‘surrender’ of central bankers, but in my view do not reflect lower growth. In that respect an ongoing macroeconomic shock (a longer, deeper, sillier trade dispute is the likely cause in the near term), in the context of very low unemployment may well be the signal that equities have peaked.

One remarkable offshoot of the absolutism in equities and bonds (in the sense that both have risen together) is that wealth – at least financial wealth has risen sharply. Indeed, I would hazard that with house prices generally now more choppy, the mass of household wealth (financial plus housing wealth less debt) is close to a peak. There are other signs that this may be the case, such as generous IPO (initial public offering) pipelines that suggest that business men and women want to sell businesses,

Ironically, whether we are at a peak in wealth will depend very much on the major central banks, whose overly generous approach to quantitative easing has spurred the creation of financial wealth, and at least in the case of the USA has pushed wealth inequality to historic highs. The Fed in particular is now wrapping itself in policy knots, because any change in policy could produce a large wealth effect, at least for the middle classes.

Central banks are however likely to treat any recession as an excuse to cut rates and open up the policy toolbox. This means that household balance sheets in developed countries should be relatively solid, and that financial risks will be focused mostly on corporate balance sheets (in the US and China) and on government balance sheets (in China and select EU and EM countries).

The exceptions are perhaps Hong Kong and Australia – where property prices and leverage are high. I would also put the UK in this bracket. As I left the May speech on Wednesday, I picked up a copy of the Evening Standard, whose headline read ‘property slump accelerates with biggest drop in prices in a decade’. If this continues, the ‘state of politics’ will become even more complicated. May is leaving at the right time!

Have a good 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