All consequences are at your risk

Lasers battle cameras in Hong Kong

The Chinese military garrison in Hong Kong released a video under the banner ‘All consequences are at your risk’. This an excellent dictum, though only when applied to the behavior of investors, banks and central banks in financial markets. Readers of The Levelling will know that I think the consequences of risk taking across markets are badly distorted, and risk taking and risk baring are mis-aligned.

The dictum might also be applied to President Trump’s twitter account, whose latest salvo has been to up the ante in the trade war between China and the USA after a very lukewarm meeting between US and Chinese officials in Beijing. China, which has been relatively restrained during the trade war will now respond, potentially with a boycott of certain US goods. US tech and capital goods companies look vulnerable.

Then, I should say emphatically that the ‘consequences/risk’ dictum should not apply to largely peaceful crowds in Hong Kong who protest in favour of democracy and an open society of sorts. China, for its part in the domains of economics and technology, has shown an ability to learn from both history and other countries. It should also do so with regard to the situation in Hong Kong and resist the urge to adopt a heavy handed approach.

While the backdrop of the trade dispute helps to paint events in Hong Kong as a context between China and the West, this is not the case, my sense is that the protesters are more standing up for their preferred ‘system’ than against China. A more violent response will change all this.

One of many reasons I drawn to the case of the Hong Kong protesters is the parallels with Levellers. The Levellers were generally constructive in their approach and experts at pamphleteering (the social media of the day). Similarly, the Hong Kong protesters have a (rather short-term) list of demands and are also particularly resourceful, deploying lasers against facial recognition cameras.  The second reason is that the Levellers failed in their project, as many other idealistic, reform minded movements have. Recall the brutal way the Arab Spring was suppressed. The Hong Kong movement need to study the history of other groups, and guard against being outmaneuvered.

One trigger that may upset the balance of power is the scope for damage to the Hong Kong economy, property market and financial sector, and any contagion they may hold for international markets.

A transformation of the protests into a deeper conflict would have grave humanitarian and political implications, and I am simply reflecting my own expertise in focusing on the economic consequences here.

First, the Hong Kong stock market is the fifth largest in the world, heavily dependent on financial and property stocks, and a crucial gateway for Chinese companies that want to access liquid markets and international investors. A sell-off would be contagious via an unwind of investor positioning, the unwind of investment products and heightened credit risk across Asia.

Secondly, the Hong Kong property market, one of the pillars of the local economy, is one of the most precarious in the world in terms of valuation. A house price to income ratio of 18 times is eye watering in a market where the purchase of property is funded by relatively large cash deposits. Also, the property market is heavily financialized in terms of the number of funds and investment products that are tied to it.

The third risk is the Hong Kong dollar peg. In recent months the Hong Kong Monetary Authority has been spending more of its large reserves in supporting the peg. A stronger dollar, combined with lower local interest rates in Hong Kong has put upward pressure on the peg.

Well-established currency pegs are very hard to break, but any signs that the HK peg is pushing its lower limits in the context of a weaker local economy will at least fuel speculation about the peg. This in turn can lead to negative feedback on the local economy and property market, and by extension may also see investors worry more about the yuan. When the yuan weakens, international markets go ‘risk-off’.

There is now an unfortunate ‘perfect storm’ of factors gathering – stronger dollar, deeper trade dispute, acute tension on the streets of Hong Kong. For the sake of people in Hong Kong I hope it doesn’t worsen, though if it does expect contagion to spread quickly to financial markets.

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

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.