Sitting quietly

Blaise Pascal – for how long can he sit quietly?

At this stage in the coronavirus crisis, many of us consider ourselves experts on pandemics and biology. The speed of the coronavirus through our world is paced by the speed at which our concern and curiosity is fuelling a quest for information.

One thread that has become evident to me, is that historically epidemics have not always been greeted with calm and grace. In periods when medical knowledge was not as well developed as it is now, and when democracy and public health education were fledgling, epidemics were often met with violence and disorder.

For example, in the early 1830’s cholera spread across Europe but efforts to contain it in countries as diverse as Scotland, Prussia and Russia were greeted with public attacks on doctors, nurses, and quarantine officers. At times, anyone in a white coat was a target. The general fear was that authorities were using the cholera epidemic to poison people so as to reduce the burden on the state or that doctors simply wanted cadavers for anatomy schools. We trust experts more today!

Compared to the nineteenth century, what is remarkable today is the degree to which populations – mostly in Asia and Europe so far – have followed the lockdown guidelines. In general, adherence to the lockdown has been highest in countries where trust in government (and perhaps fear in some cases) is greatest.

The next stage of the crisis, coming over the next two weeks, will severely test this trust. Whilst I am now tired of reading commentators quoting Blaise Pascal’s ‘All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone’, millions of people across the world will face severe stress in terms of how they sustain themselves. This much was made clear by last Thursday’s initial jobless claims figure in the USA. At the height of the economic pain of the global financial crisis (March 27, 2009) the jobless number hit 665,000. Last week’s figure was ten times that.

With the number of coronavirus deaths per capita, per day, in the US now higher than during the US Civil War, the pressure on the US economy and its healthcare system will grow. The same will be true of many other countries, and though part-time or partial work schemes in economies like France and Germany may lessen the economic uncertainty, it will still weigh heavily. For instance, the past week has already seen food shortages in Italy, mile long queues for food banks in Pennsylvania. In many cases, loans, compensation and government payouts in the US will not arrive in bank accounts for weeks.  

As this urgent, difficult stage of the coronavirus crisis develops, obligations on governments will grow. In Europe, there is an opportunity for what we might stereotypically call the ‘Northern’ countries to repair the diplomatic damage to the idea of EU solidarity of recent weeks (I am thinking of the Dutch in particular!) and undertake to ensure that food and basic staples can reach parts of the EU where they are needed.

In the USA, the past three years have seen a hollowing out of expertise in government. Consider that in 2017 and 2019 the Pentagon and White House economists respectively developed studies to plan for a coronavirus like pandemic, but the executive did very little to prepare for such an eventuality. In the longer-run, the state of healthcare and the fragility of the US labour market should become major political issues. In the meantime, I expect that both corporate America and the military will play a greater logistical role in meeting the needs of this next phase of the crisis in the US.

As this occurs, the debate on the marginal usefulness of the lockdown (in terms of its contribution to lives saved versus its economic impact) will grow. It has already been marked by what I call the ‘cure is worse than the problem itself’ brigade.

Two more weeks of lockdown in Europe will test the sanity of its citizens (though will I hope also show the value of this strategy) and business people. At very least, political leaders will have to outline some kind of roadmap to normalisation – the continued isolation of vulnerable members of society, wearing of masks, a gradual return to normal working patterns for example. Balancing this will be incredibly hard to do, and control. At this point, market volatility may give way to a pick-up in social and political volatility.

Have a great week ahead,

Mike

Why did nobody notice it?

Not amused

During a visit to the London School of Economics in November 2008 Queen Elizabeth II demanded about the debt bubble, “Why did nobody notice it?”. She might ask the same about the onset of the coronavirus crisis, particularly of her prime minister and her eldest son. The defining characteristic of the coronavirus crisis has been its speed. For example, markets have fallen by the same magnitude as during the dot.com crisis, but this time the fall took 16 days not 16 months.

The speed is explained by the sudden restriction placed on human movement by the crisis, and the fact that in general we are used to dealing with single set piece economic or financial crises (market bubble, classic recession, regional – EM or EU – crisis) and not five overlapping crises at the same time. The speed and drama of the crisis is heightened by the fact that it is breaking things – diplomatic relations, investment funds, political careers and economies.

The policy response has not, as I have outlined in previous mails – been well coordinated between fiscal and monetary policy, nor between nations. That so many policy makers repeat Mario Draghi’s mantra of  ‘do whatever it takes’, betrays the fact that the magic of those words is vested in Draghi himself.

Still monetary and fiscal support has come thick and fast and will help stem market pain. My worry is that given we are at the late stage in a very long expansion, it will be harder for policy to significantly boost trend economic growth. Of the other policy measures – the quest for vaccines and treatments is the most exciting, whilst Russia and Saudi Arabia’s adherence to their oil price war is the most disappointing.

From here, I see three scenarios.

Easter: Under this optimistic case (25% likely) the fruits of isolation in Europe begin to show, the race for treatments and vaccines is promising, while central bank liquidity dampens market distress. As such, workers, companies and governments begin to get a sense as to the parameters around the crisis and some visibility as to when and how it can be managed. A slow return to ‘normal’ then begins in Europe and the US in late April. Stock markets hit new highs in October and Donald Trump stays in the White House.

Summer: ‘Isolation’ is increasingly debated on ethical, economic and political grounds. It proves hard to enforce across America and harder still to prosecute in emerging economies. Under this ‘main’ scenario (55%) the second derivative in infections and macroeconomic indicators only begins to significantly improve in mid-summer. As a result, many businesses close or are near to ‘broken’, despite fiscal support. At the same time, investment in ‘newer’ industries – data (5G, AI, Cloud), healthtech and digital finance is accelerated. Still, high unemployment and low trend growth are significant policy issues into 2021.

Winter: Under this ‘pessimistic’ (20%) scenario, much of the world’s workforce is disrupted by the virus, and second waves become the norm. Social unrest, political disunity and a breakdown in diplomacy between nations (US and China for instance) are some of the resulting side-effects. Monetary and fiscal policies cannot contain the full effects of bankruptcies and unemployment, to the extent that central banking ‘accidents’ crop up. The 1930’s is the nasty template to follow here. Property markets and alternative asset classes like private equity are hard hit.

While broad scenarios are useful for framing problems, they are often overly simplistic. One distinction to draw here is between the short to medium term return to normal in terms of end of isolation and return to work, and the enduring long-term imbalances that result from, and are exacerbated by this crisis.

Ideally, following a two-month period of isolation in the US (taking us to mid-May) a return to normal might be in sight.

However, under the surface of the world economy the following trends will have been deepened by the crisis – the end of globalization and the resulting multipolar world, the biggest debt load since the Napoleonic Wars and central banks who are running out of effective policy measures. In the alphabet soup of U, V,L and W shaped recoveries that forecasters talk about, we might well have a cyclical V, followed by a structural L.

With three of the G7 leaders now in quarantine, world political leadership is under strain. It has two battles to fight – beating the virus, and then resolving the end of globalization in as constructive and imaginative a way possible.

With best wishes

Mike

Recession Rehearsal

Powell troubled by low rates

The last week has seen many different expressions of adaptive behaviour. First, the Democratic Party establishment and organisation have rallied around Joe Biden, and helped to push him to stunning turnaround in the Party’s campaign for President.

Then there has been widespread adaptation to the coronavirus – people have stopped shaking hands, travel only when necessary and it seems, lead incrementally more healthy lives (though a half-marathon I had entered was cancelled). In some cases however, stoicism wins out – the London Tube is as packed as ever.

In markets, investors – a great deal of whom are unsentimental robots – are adapting to extreme volatility. It has been one of the most extraordinary weeks in markets as investors try to position around the uncertainties introduced by the coronavirus. If and when we get it, a mid-twenties reading on the Vix volatility index would suggest that what might be described as ‘normal’ trading is getting underway. 

Then, policy makers have also been adapting, slowly. My sense is that to a large extent the policy reaction to the coronavirus is a rehearsal for how the next recession is met. So far, it has been a shambles. 

Jerome Powell, in making a 50 basis point cut in interest rates revealed that he is beholden to both equity and bond markets, and it seems, to politics. His action underlined the existence of the Fed ‘put’ – that the central bank will ride to the market’s rescue in times of turbulence.

The delivery of the rate cut was poor.  It focused insufficiently on the sense that this move would provide ‘insurance’ and on the ways it might combat the economic panic (e.g. risk of bankruptcies) associated with the coronavirus.

With the idea of a ‘rehearsal’ in mind, Powell’s move contributed to a feeling that when the ‘real’ recession comes, the Fed will have relatively little monetary ammunition and may, like the ECB and Bank of Japan (BoJ), have to resort to extraordinary measures like negative interest rates. 

If that is where the Fed is headed to, then the lesson for them from the likes of the BoJ, ECB and Riksbank in Sweden is not a happy one. The rush towards very low to negative rates in those monetary jurisdictions undercut banking sectors – a key reason why Europe and Japan have had weak recoveries, and also why to date US banks have outcompeted their international rivals. Sharply cutting rates, in tandem with a compressing yield curve, undercuts the balance sheets of banks, and in some cases can deepen a downturn. The Fed needs to study this carefully.

The second issue with the political response to the economic side-effects of the coronavirus crisis so far, is that despite G7 conference call and very general statement of intent, there is little apparent leadership and coordination.

The fracturing of international politics has made sincere collaboration difficult in practice (America might for example have announced a moratorium on sanctions on China). Moreover, the absence of a serious fiscal response in countries like Italy (the support measures announced come to only 0.3% of GDP), and the notable lack of open thinking on how deregulation might serve to boost business, is worrying.

I may be a little too critical here, but the sum of the week’s policy activity highlights depleted economic arsenals. Debt is too high and few countries have a decent fiscal surplus. Those that do, like Germany, don’t have the will to spend it.

It also points to a depleted international policy community – where the goodwill, leadership and force of mind that existed in the 1980’s or 1990’s (I am thinking of the likes of James Baker or Robert Rubin) is no longer visible. In Europe, Christine Lagarde has been strangely quiet.

There is now a need, an opportunity and hopefully time for someone like Kristalina Georgieva, or even departing Bank of England boss Mark Carney, to so a postmortem on the economic policy response to the coronavirus crisis. With world debt to GDP at its highest level since the Second World War, the next recession will be for real.

Humanity and Adversity

Change to come for the CCP?

Adversity for some often breeds humanity in others. It was not the case last week when US Commerce Secretary suggested that the coronavirus sweeping China would help bring manufacturing jobs back to the US, and in doing so would further reset the trade relationship between the US and China.

The virus is the first major domestic crisis that the Chinese authorities have faced since perhaps, the mini economic crisis brought on by the side-effects of the global financial crisis. As such it is a policy test, and a watershed moment in the relationship between the Chinese Communist Party and the people it governs. In this respect, China may join other large countries or regions where the social contract between the people and those who govern them is being severely stressed.

In the UK, the social contract has been left in tatters by Brexit, in the US the idea of the ‘American Dream’ is undercut by falling human development rates and stark inequality, while in Europe there is general confusion on the part of the grass-roots as to what ‘European values’ are in a tangible sense. So far, Asian countries have done better here, Japan is an example.

China’s social contract, which uncharitably could be referred to as a Leviathan one, is simply put, an exchange of liberty for prosperity. It has held over the past thirty years, largely due to the prosperity and startling physical infrastructure development that the CCP have engineered and very tight political control. To date, most policy challenges have been met with success, to the extent that a long article in the New York Times in 2019 referred to China as the ‘land that failed to fail’.

Given the tragic human cost and the consternation that the coronavirus is causing, there are reasons to think of this as a watershed of sorts for policy in China.

One is that the spread of the virus may highlight the limits of high economic growth in China. The intensive movement of people within the country, urbanization and a hyper connected transport network are economic assets, but also pose risks. In his book ‘How Nature Works’ the Danish physicist Per Bak likens socio-economic systems to piles of sand.

The sand piles can continue to build until, upon the addition of a marginal amount of sand, they collapse. Similarly, cities and nations grow until that growth produces side-effects (the health scares in the rapidly urbanizing London of the mid 19th century that gave us the engineering genius of Joseph Bazalgette, are another example).

There will be many side-effects of the virus crisis. One may be an economic stimulus program that is focused on upgrading healthcare infrastructure and health related education in China.

Another aspect is diet. One of the first thematic investment notes I put together (some ten years ago) was on the topic of ‘Feeding Asia’, or rather how diet in countries like China would come to resemble that in the West and as a result how demand for dairy products, fruit, meat would go parabolic (it did for a while).

This particular crisis may see another step change in diet in China, toward – and I am speculating – synthetic meats, a stronger tendency towards organic foods, greater demand for seafood related foodstuffs and for vitamins/food supplements generally.

Two other related areas are worth thinking about. The first is how this crisis reflects on China’s ‘Leviathan’ approach to government. Has technologically enabled central control of society allowed the authorities to prevent the spread of the virus? Or will this episode begin to sow doubts in the minds of Chinese in the government’s ability to safeguard them. Relatedly, China’s social media networks have both spread alarming scare stories, whilst at the same time served to coordinate people and facilitate remote family get-togethers over the holiday period.

Concomitantly, the crisis will serve the interests of those factions within the Communist Party who on one hand argue for greater central control of Chinese society, versus those on the other who argue that the next phase in China’s development is, like the USA in the 1930’s, to deepen its social welfare system. As such, it will deepen the numerus rivalries and factions within the Party.

Finally, more broadly, a few weeks ago (‘Peak Markets, Peak Trump’, 12 January) I wrote about markets ability to coldly appraise the financial impact of events. They are doing so again now with the coronavirus crisis, though it seems to me that markets are primarily pricing the cost of firm’s reactions to the crisis (i.e. cancelled flights, disrupted supply chains).

Economically sensitive assets – government bonds, copper, oil are all much weaker, and in particular emerging market currencies look vulnerable. I suspect that volatility will continue to spill over to stocks, at least till we are in mid February. ‘Peak Markets’ ay have been the right headline after all, I still wonder about ‘Peak Trump’.

Have a great week ahead,

Mike

The Dude, Don and the dollar

Diplomacy, Trump style

In an increasingly fractured world there are still some things that unit the most disparate countries. In recent years a trader, named ‘the Dude’, has popped up in Turkey’s financial markets. ‘The Dude’ has been known to trade in huge volumes, on occasions boosting the average volume of the Istanbul Exchange by up to 10%.

He came to mind last week after I read William Cohan’s fascinating article in Vanity Fair where he detailed a range of enormous trades in the S&P futures market that appear to have taken place just before market moving tweets from the US President. Regular market participants have been left flummoxed by the size and prescience of these trades, and it is to be hoped that the market regulator will get to the bottom of the matter. However, one cannot help pondering the identity of these ‘Dude’ like traders.

Beyond trading, there is oddly, much ore that unites Turkey and the USA. Turkey has become the graveyard of US diplomacy as the sanctioning of the Turkish army’s incursion into northern Syria by President Trump arks the end of the moral, democratic and military backstop that American has extended to the rest of the world for the past seventy years.

That Mikes Pence and Pompeo have only managed to agree a stay of execution for the Kurds illustrates the atrophying in American power, and the schoolboy-ish letter that President Trump sent to his Turkish counterpart makes matters even worse.  

Economically, Turkey has two interrelated lessons for the USA and the rest of the world. First, Turkey is a salient tale in the rise and fall of nations. Since the early 2000’s when Kemal Dervis had righted the banking system and the prospect of membership of the EU was dangled in front of it, Turkey made great progress. Lately this has come to a halt as policy making, the quality of institutions and the rule of law have been degraded.

It leads me to think of Edward Gibbon’s ‘A History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.’ Gibbon, who sought to explain why the Roman Empire disintegrated believed that Rome became complacent, institutions weakened and the leaders in Roman public life lost their sense of civic virtue (or what Machiavelli later simply called ‘virtu’ – the good of the republic or common good).

The importance of institutional quality and the need for a sense of civic ethic is evident in other books that track the rise and fall of nations such as Acemoglu and Robinson’s ‘Why Nation’s Fail?’.

Acemoglu, like Dani Rodrik, is one of the leading economists in the world, and Turkish. Both of them I am sure, lament the direction that their country has taken, and both would have clear policy answers to set it back on course. Both are based in Boston, and it is hard not to think that their work (Acemoglu and Robinson have a new book out, ‘The Narrow Corridor’), as well of course as that of Gibbon, deserves reading in Washington.

It might also be more widely read on Wall Street, because as Turkey again shows, political risk is becoming a greater force in markets. Typically, and doubly so in the age of quantitative easing (QE), political and geopolitical risk have not played a significant role in developed economy markets.  The behavior of the Turkish lira, its debt and equity markets in the past three years suggests that for emerging markets at least, political risk is now a dominant market factor.

The case of Brexit and sterling suggest that developed markets are not immune. The perplexing issue however, is how investors (at least those who, to go back to William Cohan’s article, do not have premonitions of market turning tweets) can react to heightened policy uncertainty.

The puzzle is deepened by the fact that number of measures of policy uncertainty are at all time highs, while volatility is close to its historic lows. Indeed, for most investors the political risk they are most concerned about is the prospect of an Elizabeth Warren Presidency, which whilst arguably good for American institutions could be tough on corporate profits and taxes.

Back to the current incumbent of the White House, who is attacking his country’s central bank and institutions with nearly the same vigour that Mr Erdogan is employing in Turkey.

The reason that the dollar is not as volatile as the lira is that it is the reserve currency in a reasonably healthy economy in a world where most other large economies are weak. For dollar based investors however, dollar strength is a good opportunity to diversify, especially for those who think that the ‘American empire’ has peaked. In the shorter term, hedges such as gold and equity volatility, are beginning to look more attractive. If the ‘Dude’ sized trader in the S&P futures market is found out, they may be doubly interesting.  

Have a great week ahead,

Mike

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

From the Banquet at Hongmen to Hong Kong

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Have a great week ahead,

Mike