Notes from the Edge

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The June 18th cover for The Spectator

 

With the BREXIT vote now only days away its worth taking a moment to consider the dramatic political shift that seems to be happening around the globe. Where once left/right politics dominated, or pro-capitalism vs. pro-socialist forces clashed, today the challenge is far more frightening. Today we sit on the brink of the end of the new internationalism and face the rise of old nationalism.

In Jon Ronson’s funny and insightful book THEM: Adventures with Extremists, the author describes his final meeting with a founding member of the Bilderberg Group (yes, that Bilderberg Group) Lord Healy, who explains that at the end of the Second World War a real effort was made to encourage trade and economic growth as a way of deferring future wars. The Bilderberg Group is but one of many, slightly shadowy and often undemocratic, organizations that exist to further those goals, encouraging powerful people to air out their issues and discuss ways to make that vision of the world more likely.

But for millions of people the new internationalism that has been fostered through trade agreements, globalization and corporatism has made the world more hostile to millions of “left behind” voters. It has seemingly given power to cigarette manufactures in Africa, or created unfair and uncompetitive “tax free zones” in South Pacific nations. It has fostered sweatshops in Sri Lanka, dangerous factories in Bangladesh, all at the expense of industrial workers in Western developed nations. In Europe this internationalism is blamed for feckless leadership on humanitarian, fiscal and bureaucratic issues. In America it is blamed for the rust belt through the mid-west.

The response to the growing frustration on all these issues has been a resurgence of nationalism and political “strong-men”. Putin’s Crimea grab was as much about returning pride to Russia as it was about diverting attention from his own domestic issues, reestablishing  Russia’s place as a significant regional power. Across Europe there are rumblings, both of renewed regional nationalism from within countries, as well as growing concern that a “leave vote” in Brexit could destabilize the entire EU experiment. In the United States these issues have given power to the Donald Trump populism, but have also fired the Bernie Sanders campaign.

Energy to these issues have undoubtedly been fueled as a result of 2008, a disaster so wide reaching and so disruptive to the Internationalist narrative about the skill set of the political and corporate classes that it shouldn’t be surprising that millions of people seem ready to do irreparable harm to the status quo. The subsequent inability to provide a strong and sustained economic recovery like some recessions of the past has only made matters worse. Every ill, every short coming, every poor decision and every injustice inherent within the structure that we inhabit is now expected to be resolved by setting the whole thing on fire and assuming that the problem is solved.

I am constantly surprised by how little people actually want to see changed by referendums like these. During the Scottish Referendum, the expectation was that Scotland would continue on exactly as it does, but without any association to London. The Leave campaign in Britain is quite sure that while Britain will no longer be part of the common market, a deal can be worked out that will allow free trade to continue unabated and for British people who live in places like Spain and Italy to continue to do so without visas or travel restrictions. Donald Trump is quite convinced that he can have a trade war with China without upsetting American business interests there, and the host of smaller countries like Venezuela or Turkey can slide into despotism without adverse impacts to their international reputation.

We’re at the edge, with the mob pushing for change (any change) with little real understanding of the consequences. It is little surprise that the technocrats and political establishment are so unlikable and so uninspiring in the face of the radicals and revolutionaries that want to see a sizable change that can’t be brought about until everything is torn down. And while it is true that the status quo can’t remain, it is equally unlikely that the end of the EU, or a British exit will stem the tide of migrants from Eritrea, or that tearing up NAFTA will return factories to Michigan, or that Marine Le Pen can turn the clock back on France and bring back the beret.

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I expect market volatility over the next while as investors and deal makers try and figure out the correct response to either a leave or remain vote. If Britain does leave, the next 100 days will be telling as pronouncements will be made to try and smooth the troubled waters. But the real work will come in the next 2 years, as negotiations will begin to do all the hard work that the referendum creates. You can’t just burn it all down, you have to build something in its place. How successful the reformers are at the latter will be the real test of the new nationalism.

 

Russia’s Trade War Shows Europe to be The Better Economy

Putin-SmirkSince I first wrote about the Ukraine much has happened. Russia has been unmasked as a bizarre cartoon villain seemingly hellbent on destabilizing the Ukrainian government, assisting “rebels” and being indirectly responsible for the murder of a plane full of people. All of which came to a head last week when it appeared that Russia might have just started a war with the Ukraine (still somewhat indeterminate).

Russia’s moves with the Ukraine may have more to do with challenging the West, and some of the other recent militaristic actions show that may be its real intent. Russia announced in July that it would be reopening both an arctic naval base and a listening post in Cuba built back in the 1960s. Combined with many heavy handed tactics at home including essentially banning homosexuality, Putin is making a brazen attempt to assert its regional dominance and stem the growth of Europe’s influence in the most aggressive way it can. To some extent this seems to be working with his own population, but it isn’t making him popular globally.

Europe’s response to Russia has been to hurt it with economic sanctions, which since the Ukrainian situation first began have been escalating in severity. Two weeks ago Russia responded in kind. How? By banning food imports from sanctioning nations.

If you don’t know much about the Russian or European economies this may seem like potent response from one of the BRIC countries and major global economies. But Europe is a big economy, and agricultural exports don’t make up a significant part of GDP, with the same being true for the United States. And while sanctions targeted at farms can be politically dangerous (farmers are typically a well organized and vocal lobby) the most interesting thing about these sanctions is what it tells us about the Russian and European economies respectively.

First, Russia imports a great deal of food, mostly from Denmark, Germany, the United States and Canada. So sanctions imposed by Russia are really going to hurt the Russians as food prices begin to rise and new food suppliers (expected to be from Latin America) have to ship food farther. But more interesting is the sanctions Russia chose not to impose. Europe is heavily dependant on oil & gas for its energy needs. So why not really make Europe feel the pinch and create an energy crisis? Because Russia needs oil revenue.

16% of Russia’s GDP is made up from the oil and gas sector. Beyond that oil and gas make up more than half of Russia’s tax revenues and 70% of it’s exports. In other words Russia can’t stop selling its oil without creating an economic crisis at home every bit as severe as in Europe. Banning imports of food and raising the cost of living may not be the ideal outcome from sanctions you impose, but it is mild in comparison to creating a full on catastrophe.

By comparison Europe starts to look very good, and it’s a reason that investors shouldn’t be quick to write off Europe and all its recent economic troubles. It’s a large and dynamic economy, filled with multi-national companies that do business the world over. It is backed by stable democracies and a relatively prosperous citizenry. By comparison Russia is a very narrow economy, dependent on one sector for its economic strength run by a (in all but name) dictator with an incredibly poor populace. A few years ago it was quite trendy in the business news to write off Europe as a top heavy financial mess, and while I wouldn’t want to dismiss Europe’s problems (some of which are quite serious) it’s important to have some perspective about how economies can rebound and which ones have the flexibility to recover.