Ruble in Trouble; Russia Raids SWF Soon?

♠ Posted by Emmanuel in ,, at 9/18/2014 01:30:00 AM
Sorry, Vlad, but your currency is more worthless than the dollar right about now.
No, no, it's not what you may think--Russia may raid its sovereign wealth fund, AKA stabilization fund or rainy day fund, soon. To be precise, it's the "Russia Direct Investment Fund." But first, a little bit of background from current events: new and recent EU sanctions have sent the Russian ruble tumbling to all-time lows. Whereas US sanctions had limited direct effect on Russian trade, EU sanctions have hit it squarely in the gut since the grouping is Russia's largest trading partner:
Russia's currency dropped to an all-time low against the dollar on Tuesday as investors fret about long-term economic damage from Western sanctions...The Russian currency fell more than 1 percent to 38.80 rubles against the U.S. dollar by noon Moscow time Tuesday. The ruble has lost over 2.7 percent in just two days...

Economist Alexei Kudrin, who served as finance minister under President Vladimir Putin for 11 years until 2011, said Tuesday that the sanctions could send Russia into a long recession. "The sanctions that have been imposed are going to have an effect (on the economy) for the next one or two years because they have limited opportunities for investment in this uncertain environment," Russian news agency Interfax quoted him as saying...
Capital flight is taking off anew amidst all this economic uncertainty. Certain Russian geniuses even manage to cut off their nose to spite their face by banning EU agricultural imports which the country does not produce in significant amounts:
Market jitters were further fueled by reports that the Russian government is preparing more retaliatory import bans, which could ultimately hurt Russian consumer spending. Russia in August banned imports of dairy products, meat and vegetables from the EU and the U.S., causing price hikes for some items.

Amid the uncertainty, investors continue to pull money out of the country at an accelerating pace. Experts like Kudrin predict some $110 billion could be withdrawn this year, almost twice as much as last year's $61 billion.
What's a developing country to do? First, Russia is reportedly protecting the SWF against Western sanctions by reincorporating the fund into the central bank. Ironically, some of the investors in Russia's SWF are the very same countries applying sanctions against Russia. Strange but true:
Russia is preparing to transfer the ownership of a $10 billion sovereign wealth fund to the central bank from a sanctioned [Western sanctions] state-development lender, according to two people with knowledge of the plan. Russian Direct Investment Fund’s co-investors, which include sovereign funds in Europe and Asia, are concerned that sanctions may affect their investments in Russia if the state lender controls the assets, according to one of the people, who asked not to be identified because the information is private.

The fund, created in 2011 to stimulate investments in privately held businesses and wean the state off its dependence on commodities, has secured the backing of funds including France’s Caisse des Depots et Consignations and Japan Bank for International Cooperation and last year hired Goldman Sachs Group Inc. as an adviser. Penalties over Ukraine have led Russia to invest in state-owned lenders VTB Group and Russian Agricultural Bank, whose access to international funds has been curbed, and the measures may also impede co-investors from dealing with RDIF.
Next, having secured access to RDIF away from Western sanctions and possibly freezing, I suppose there's no "rainy day" for Russia like today. With oil prices falling besides, "stabilization" is certainly on the cards. Net result? Don't bet against Russia raiding RDIF soon:
[T]he Finance Ministry is allowing, if the need arises, for the possibility of taking funds from the sovereign wealth fund next year for the first time since the aftermath of the global crisis. The Reserve Fund, which collects windfall oil revenue and was set up to cover budget shortfalls, stood at $91.7 billion as of Sept. 1.

"To ensure the unconditional fulfillment of all of the obligations in 2015, in a situation if federal budget revenues come short … the government will have the right to direct the resources to fill the shortfall of up to 500 billion rubles from the Reserve Fund," the Finance Ministry said in the budget.

Economists have warned that once the government starts digging into the stash, it can be depleted within around a year if Moscow is hit with more punitive measures by the West and if oil prices drop significantly.
Let's just say Russia will be in for a fairly severe test over its actions in Ukraine soon. While Putin's macho man act against Western sanctions may win plaudits at home in the meantime, we'll see whether the same holds in a few months' time when the combined force of sanctions--devaluation, recession, etc. hits. 

Unpaid Advert: IMF's Lagarde Plugs IPE

♠ Posted by Emmanuel in at 9/17/2014 01:30:00 AM
Christine Lagarde is famously the first non-economist to head the International Monetary Fund. Aside from being in charge during a time of transition when more developing countries want greater representation at the lender of last resort--see the cartoon above and an earlier post on this matter--the economics profession is coming under fire post-global financial crisis. Do economists really know how to run an economy, let alone a world economy? Nowadays, of course, "everything else" is beginning to gain more consideration in global economic governance. Not only do we need to bring political, social and technological factors back into consideration, but also a gendered focus:
In truth, some IMF staff also fear that gender issues are a distraction from the more pressing problems of financial stability, say, or monetary policy. But to Lagarde these naysayers miss the vital point: she thinks the IMF, like the rest of the policy world, urgently needs to overhaul how it does “economics”. “When I got here I found silo-thinkers,” she explains. “They thought that things like women’s contribution to the economy, or climate change, or income inequality, didn’t matter. But it does.”
In many ways, then, she wants to consider all the other things economists neglect and have marginalized at the IMF for most of its history. She wants to practice IPE, in other words:
This partly reflects her own background: unlike most of her predecessors, Lagarde has not had economic training. Some critics consider this a handicap. She disagrees. “There are three things,” she says, ticking the points off her fingers, her spinach pushed aside. “Firstly, I am a quick learner. Secondly, I know when I am out of my depth. But thirdly, my management style is all about bringing people together. So I ask people to explain. And that is very important, because economics has too much jargon, so many models, that ordinary people just cannot understand it. And that is dangerous.”

She is particularly concerned about what she sees as a structural disconnect between economic and political structures. On the one hand, she notes, the global economic system is becoming increasingly integrated; on the other hand, the global political system is fragmented and becoming more so because of a backlash against the way that globalisation is hurting some people. “What we are seeing with all this regionalism, with the Scottish people wanting to go their own way, is going in the direction of less globalisation,” she says.
To be sure, this sort of stuff is old hat to IPE specialists. Dani Rodrik, for instance, questioned whether globalization has gone too far back in 1997. Given the copious amount that's been written about the IMF by IPE scholars of all stripes, for example, I think that Lagarde would do well to engage with our field since many of these areas have already been covered by political economists instead of mainstream economists. 

Bitcoin Crashed, But Will Apple Pay Take Off?

♠ Posted by Emmanuel in , at 9/16/2014 01:30:00 AM
You're showing your age if you remember "master charge" (all small caps).
I'm kind of surprised Apple didn't name its payments service "iPay." It could have eased the terminological transition to lending, "iOwe," and the unfortunately common American phenomenon of being unable to pay debt on time, "iDefault"--which, in direr circumstances, leads to the state of being "i(M)Bankrupt." All kidding aside, "Apple Pay" is an expected development that nevertheless holds much promise, the first emanating from it being an Apple service and the expectations people have that it will have a higher chance of success in the company's Reality Distortion Field

Apple's fearsome reputation aside, Apple Pay also deals with many of the obstacles which render Bitcoin a non-starter. To wit, I enumerated the following not so long ago:
  1. Has this payments service addressed legal impediments to payments handling such as (a) occupying a grey area questionable by monetary authorities, and (b) meeting anti-money laundering / counter-terrorist financing legislation worldwide or AML-CTF?
  2. Would mainstream banks course their transactions through this payments service?
  3. Would mainstream retailers accept its payments?
  4. Would consumers use this currency secure in the knowledge that (1)-(3) are met?
Apple is usually quite comprehensive in ticking the boxes, and its relatively late entry into the payments arena is largely attributable to performing due diligence on these four factors in a way the upstart outsider Bitcoin hasn't. In other words, it meets the three necessary characteristics of money as a store of value, medium of exchange, and unit of account--especially the first two. Given how Apple's fashionably late entries into the music and mobile telephony spaces have revolutionized those categories, the FT is predicting the same for payments. At the outset, all the major players all already lined up:
But such is the sway of the tech company that JPMorgan, Visa and the other banks and payments networks sent senior executives to Mr Cook’s presentation on Tuesday to pay homage. Bank chief executives fawned about the “exceptional customer experience” and the “exciting move”.

They are also paying hard cash for the privilege of being involved: 15 cents of a $100 purchase will go to the iPhone maker, according to two people familiar with the terms of the agreement, which are not public. That is an unprecedented deal, giving Apple a share of the payments’ economics that rivals such as Google do not get for their services.
How about this for a star-studded lineup of the Who's Who of American finance:
The list of early Apple Pay partners is impressive, including the 11 biggest US card issuers, representing 83 per cent of the market, and retailers such as McDonald’s and Walgreens which together have 220,000 US stores ready to receive iPhone payments. While it lacks retailers such as Walmart and Best Buy, which in 2012 teamed up to develop a mobile wallet of their own, Apple’s ability to wrangle representatives from three big groups of the payments world – banks, credit card companies and merchants – is no mean feat. 

Part of the reason the 50-year-old credit card system remains “antiquated” is because it relies on a complex ecosystem of players that rarely agree on how best to change their industry. However the chief executive of one payment technology company, who asked not to be named, said he was surprised that the banks were so willing to concede to Apple after what happened to the record labels.
Actually, the FT article is useful in understanding how this situation will unfold if Apple Pay is successful, which is by no means guaranteed. There have been, after all, several Apple flops over the years. Let's begin with the head of the credit chain: Banks, strictly speaking, are not endangered unless Apple decides to go into the business of providing credit, which I doubt. Ditto for mass and specialist retail. So, they are relatively safe since Apple has little reason to go into their lines of business.

However, there is a case to be made that the existing payments handling services--Visa and MasterCard--are likely to feel the squeeze. What they do is facilitate payments--on credit or debit--from existing bank accounts. In effect, Apple Pay fulfills the very same service as Visa and MasterCard do. Since terms are undisclosed, what will determine whether Apple Pay supplants Visa & MC are the following:

1. Swipe fees per transaction being lower for retailers via Apple Pay than Visa/MC;
2. Royalties per transaction paid by banks to Apple Pay being lower than Visa/MC; and the hard part:
3. Apple Pay handling transactions outside of Apple-branded consumer devices.

Mind you, (3) has already happened with iTunes for Microsoft Windows being a notable example, so I'd be very uncomfortable if I were Visa/MC right about now. Sure Apple is playing nice, but cutting Visa/MC out will become a more realistic proposition as more payments are coursed through Apple Pay and reach critical mass. If Apple is already the middleman, there is certainly no need for another to pile on more fees for banks and consumers alike.

At present Apple will not charge retailers anything, only banks:

Apple declined to talk with Digital Transactions News about Apple Pay’s pricing or operational aspects. But clues can be found in the Web site it created for software developers working on applications for Apple Pay. The “Getting Started” section poses some common questions, including, “How much does it cost to accept Apple Pay?”

Here is how Apple answered its own question: “Apple does not charge users, merchants or developers to use Apple Pay for payments. Your credit and debit transactions will continue to be handled by the payment networks.”
Translation: Apple will not upset the Visa/MC gravy train just yet, but in time, what's there to stop it from approaching retailers offering to do (1) and banks offering to do (2) and cutting the existing payments services altogether? What they currently enjoy is brand recognition: both Visa and MasterCard are global top 100 brands. But guess what? Apple eclipses them both by a huge margin in valuation. Remember Nokia? It too used to appear on this list with regularity--until iPhone came around.

MasterCard, in other words, may soon be joining "master charge" in the Great Cash Register in the Sky.

Can German-Style Apprenticeships Save America?

♠ Posted by Emmanuel in ,, at 9/15/2014 01:30:00 AM
Stamping out ignorance and providing work is the German way.
There's an excellent feature in the WSJ on German firm Festo, a supplier to German firms like VW and Mercedes-Benz, following these MNCs Stateside. Not only is it bringing manufacturing know-how to the US but also vocational knowledge in the form of the German apprenticeship model. The latter has proven to be more successful in avoiding the job-skill mismatches prevalent in US higher education. Festo even has a specialized unit dedicated to training. After all, what is the point of having an ever-increasingly expensive college degree in the face of ever-decreasing job opportunities?

Unfortunately, most Anglophone universities haven't bothered answering this question, staffed as they are by inveterate rent-seekers with a vested interest in propagating the College Myth. So, it's up to prospective employers from more enlightened parts of the world to pick up the slack. Just in time, the Germans are here to help the Yanks:
German robotics company Festo AG wants to make American factory workers more tech-savvy. As robotics take an ever more prominent role on factory floors, training workers and keeping their skills up-to-date has grown in importance. The German company sees in the U.S. "a mismatch in the labor market between what businesses need and the kind of education young people are getting," said Nader Imani, chief executive of Festo Didactic, the company's stand-alone education division. 
Labor economists see things the German way. Instead of all this guff about the knowledge economy and other vapid American happy talk only nitwits buy into, the truth is that many jobs of the future will require skills somewhere between a high school and a college degree. It is, quite frankly, financially insensible to pay for a college degree without any idea of what sorts of jobs they will help you get afterwards. Consider the US labor market going forward:
Anthony Carnevale, a labor economist who runs Georgetown University's Center on Education and the Workforce, says roughly two million U.S. jobs go unfilled because of shortfalls in skills, training or education. Of those, roughly 600,000 are jobs that require more than a high-school diploma but less than a bachelor's degree. Mr. Carnevale predicts roughly one-third of U.S. job openings through 2020 will require such middle skills, with a vocational certificate, industry-based certification, some college credits or an associate degree—but not a classic four-year college degree.

American training in these areas has deteriorated since the early 1980s, he said. German companies with operations in the U.S. have complained for years that factory workers lack specific skills they require to get the job done. Executives and American policy makers have said the U.S. could benefit from Germany's approach to apprenticeships and on-the-job training. "The German system coordinates employees need with what employers want pretty well," said Joseph Parilla of the Brookings Institution, an expert on competitiveness. 
Americans have a deservedly bad rap for the quality of their education. Spend a lot and get little and return is the operative principle. Instead of copying the American uni-jobless model, there is a much better case for the rest of the world to copy the German apprenticeship model. The world's young people deserve so much better since the honest truth is that not everybody is going to be the next Silicon Valley billionaire. Rather, most would be quite happy to receive the appropriate training for jobs that actually exist instead of going on a wild goose chase with an uncertain ending.

Unfortunately, the latter represents the state of US higher education as far as employment opportunities are concerned replicated the world over. Let Germany show us the way.

BRICS Fight, Brazil v PRC: 'Valemax' Cargo Ships

♠ Posted by Emmanuel in ,, at 9/13/2014 01:30:00 AM
Frank, it's the big hit...the mothership! [Captain Beefheart]
The height of the pre-global financial crisis frenzy was manic not just in financial markets but also in others. Most notably, there was this great expectation that China was the be-all and end-all of global commerce as commodity prices surged globally. After all, who would feed materials to this giant workshop to the world? Post-global financial crisis, we are learning that even the great China growth story has its limits. With many of the markets for its finished goods in less-than-fighting condition, Chinese growth has slowed down too.

Unfortunately, one of those who bought into the great China growth story circa 2008 was fellow BRICS nation Brazil. Seeing the PRC as the primary growth market for steel exports, Brazil gambled large in reducing its cost disadvantage with Australian-sourced iron ore by building the largest bulk carriers ever made, Valemax-class vessels:
It is now almost three years since a ship the width of a football pitch and longer than the Eiffel Tower set off from Brazil bound for China. The world’s biggest bulker — the Vale Brasil and its sisterships of 400,000 dwt — were expected to herald a new era of cheaper freight. But the ultimate success of a bold $8bn plan to construct 35 vessels by their Brazilian mining group owner, Vale, remains an unproven gamble. The ships are still mired in controversy because of the unwillingness of the Chinese government to give them a clear green light to operate in the local ports for which they were constructed.
Contrary to plan, Vale instead encountered resistance from Chinese shipping concerns who sought to have the vessels prohibited from delivering to China by declaring them unsafe:
Brazil needs a kickstart and the Valemax superships were meant to provide it when they were ordered in 2008 at the height of the China commodity boom. Vale, the world’s biggest single provider of iron ore, was concerned that shipping rates from Brazil to China had soared to over $100 per tonne. This was double the cost to BHP Billiton and Rio Tinto of carrying rival cargoes to Chinese steel mills from Australia.
But as we subsequently found out, the Chinese shipping lobby was unhappy about seeing Vale damage its own lucrative dry bulk maritime business. The Chinese owners convinced the Ministry of Transport that there were safety fears and a ban was imposed on the discharge of all bulkers over 250,000 dwt. The Vale Brasil found itself unable to dock at its planned discharge point of Dalian and had to reroute to Italy.
Hence, while Vale is inordinately proud of its hulking vessels, even its own route charts show they are not calling at Chinese ports they were intended to serve.  More recently, however, the Chinese have themselves begun considering costs savings from using these vessels. There is news that Chinese logistics firm COSCO will even help Vale construct Valemax ships for serving the PRC market on a leaseback deal:
Vale signed an accord with China Ocean Shipping Co. to transport iron-ore with giant vessels known as Valemax as the world’s largest producer seeks to curb costs amid slumping prices of the steel-making ingredient. Vale will transfer four of its 400,000-metric ton vessels to Cosco, as China’s largest shipper is known, and charter them for 25 years, the Rio de Janeiro-based miner said in a statement today. Cosco will also build 10 vessels of similar size to ship Vale’s iron ore. No financial terms were given.
With global iron ore prices slumping to a five-year low post-global financial crisis, the explanation for state-owned COSCO's volte face is simple: it eked out a bit more profit banning Valemax from ships delivering to China when steel prices were high and customers did not mind paying a premium. Now that they are low, steel customers are squeezing logistics firms for lower prices that less efficient (read: smaller) vessels cannot deliver on. Hence the sudden shift to accepting Valemax ships.

You can't fight progress forever, and these seafaring leviathans are the future.

Poland's Turn to Experience Russian Gas Pains

♠ Posted by Emmanuel in ,,, at 9/12/2014 01:30:00 AM
Where'd all the gas go? Nobody may really know...except the Russians.
Energy geopolitics between Russia and its European "customers" are fascinating to watch. On one hand, Russia has no marketing concept whatsoever about "fulfilling the contract" and other niceties in dealing with Western and Central Europeans it treats with utter contempt. Take that, NATO members! On the other hand, those Europeans are not exactly spoiled for choice when it comes to other sources of energy, so they must grin and bear Russia using energy as a weapon. Those Germans couldn't have picked a worse time to discontinue nuclear power, for instance.

Today's case in point is Poland. With 60% of its natural gas supplies coming from Russia, its energy profile is no different from many other dependent European "customers." A few days ago, it declared wholehearted support for beefing up NATO forces in Eastern Europe in the wake of the Ukraine crisis:
Speaking to journalists at the end of the first day of the NATO summit in Newport, Wales, Bronislaw Komorowski told journalists that alliance leaders will announce on Friday plans to beef up defences in eastern Europe following the crisis in Ukraine.

Though conceding that there will be no permanent NATO deployment in the region – as Poland and the Baltic states had been pushing for – he welcomed the construction of airbases and fuel and ammunition depots which would be used by a rapid reaction force, of around 4,000 troops, which could use the facilities at a moments notice.
Russia being the land of hardball, the Poles had it coming: all of a sudden, gas supplies from Russia are experiencing disruption. Russia claims technical difficulties, but most would suspect otherwise given the timing. Also consider that Poland has been re-exporting gas to Ukraine to make up for that lost through Russian export bans and you can put things together for yourselves. Just in time for the coming winter; fancy that:
A decision by Russia to cut gas exports to Poland without warning has rekindled fears about Europe's reliance on Siberian gas at a time of increasing tension between Moscow and the west. The Polish state energy group, PGNiG, said it was trying to find out why volumes had been slashed by up to 24% when it had been exporting gas itself to Ukraine to make up for Russian shortfalls there.

Its counterpart in Kiev, Ukrtransgaz, accused Kremlin-controlled Gazprom of penalising Poland and undermining onward gas supplies to Kiev. "Today Russia started limiting gas supplies to Poland in order to disrupt the reverse (flows) from Poland that we receive ... Poland stopped reverse supplies to Ukraine in the range of 4m cubic metres," said Ihor Prokopiv, chief executive of Ukrtransgaz, according to the Russian news agency, RIA.
Then again, others would argue that disrupting supplies right now when it's warm makes little sense as a political statement:
Jonathan Stern, a gas expert at the Oxford Institute for Energy Studies and a member of the EU-Russia Gas Advisory Council, believed there was more likely a technical, not a political problem.
"If Gazprom wanted to punish the Poles then it would not do so surely when the weather was warm and in breach of its contractual obligations," said Stern who met the Russians for a gas summit in Vienna this week. "The Russians are acutely aware that any (commercial) moves at this time will be interpreted in the worst possible light (by the west)."
On top of everything, Russia dishonoring gas contracts would eat into revenues. I guess when your economy is tanking, it may not matter much if it takes a bigger hit by annoying the customers. Then again, LNG exports to Asia may be the next big thing in Russia's plans. 

Counting Illicit Outflows from Brazil, 1960-2012

♠ Posted by Emmanuel in , at 9/11/2014 01:30:00 AM
A Reuters news article points us to a new study from Global Financial Integrity (GFI) on the level of illicit outflows from Brazil. GFI has produced reports for several other developing countries, but Brazil is of particular importance as a Latin American bellwether. Given the uncertainties surrounding developing countries in this region, questionable capital flows are of some interest:
The Brazilian economy lost at least US$401.6 billion in illicit financial outflows from 1960 to 2012. These outflows represent the proceeds of crime, corruption, and tax evasion, and have serious negative consequences for Brazil. Outflows were found to drain resources from the Brazilian economy, to drive the underground economy, and to exacerbate inequality.

Furthermore, the report found that illicit outflows are growing.  Annual average illicit outflows increased from US$310 million in the 1960s to US$14.7 billion in the first decade of the twenty first century before jumping to US$33.7 billion over the last three years of the study, 2010-2012.  On average, Brazil’s illicit outflows are equivalent to 1.5% of the country’s official GDP.
What I find curious with this and other GFI studies is that most outflows are attributed to trade misinvoicing. That is, the value of imports or exports is misreported by under- or over-invoicing their value. Through this channel money flows overseas since it is a way to work around foreign exchange and capital controls:
Trade misinvoicing is the major conduit of illicit financial flows from Brazil.  The report reveals that the vast majority of Brazil’s illicit outflows—92.7%, or US$372.3 billion of the US$401.6 billion in total outflows—were channeled through the misinvoicing of trade transactions. The remaining US$29.4 billion in the illicit outflows detected by GFI occurred via hot money outflows, such as unrecorded wire transfers.
What I am more convinced of is that inequality relates to the amount of these capital outflows:
We also examined the link between economic growth, income inequality, and capital flight. While the lack of an unbroken series on the Gini coefficient prevented its inclusion in our model, regression analysis with a shorter time period (1970-2011) showed that worsening income inequality also seems to drive capital flight, although the relationship is only significant at the 90 percent level [marginal significance]. A possible explanation is that rising income inequality implies a larger number of high net worth
individuals (HNWIs). It is the HNWIs rather than the common man that can finance capital flight and take advantage of the world’s shadow financial system to shelter wealth.
As large as these outflows already are, note that others which are not so easy to capture may increase the sums involved:
Economic sources and methods cannot capture illicit financial flows in a comprehensive manner. The difficulty arises from the fact that we are in part trying to capture financial flows generated from purely illegal activities such as drug trafficking, bribery and kickbacks related to corruption, and arms or human smuggling, which are typically designed to evade detection by regulatory authorities and law enforcement. Such activities are often settled in cash, so that the parties to the illegal transaction cannot be traced. Hence, gap analysis of officially recorded data has inherent limitations in capturing illegal transactions.

Reviving Japan: From Abenomics to Womenomics

♠ Posted by Emmanuel in ,, at 9/10/2014 01:30:00 AM
While Japan is a country which much to be proud of, its record in promoting gender equality may not be one of them--yet. Among OECD countries, the wage disparity among sexes is third greatest in Japan after South Korea and Estonia. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe recently made a gesture towards rebalancing this disparity by appointing five female cabinet ministers, matching the previous record. Why not more, you may ask? Remember that in a parliamentary system like Japan's, cabinet members are not political appointees but sitting ministers. With admittedly few female Liberal Democratic Party parliamentarians, selection is made more difficult:
Japan's prime minister picked five women for his Cabinet on Wednesday, matching the past record and sending the strongest message yet about his determination to change deep-seated views on gender and revive the economy by getting women on board as workers and leaders.

Japan has a vast pool of talented, well-educated women, but they are far under-represented in positions of power in government and corporations. Women make up 10 percent of parliament and just 3.9 percent of board members of listed Japanese companies, versus 12 percent at U.S. corporations and 18 percent in France. Women here have long complained about the obstacles to getting taken seriously at work, receiving equal pay for equal work and finding child care or helpful spouses.
Equality may be a good in itself, but is there reason for us to believe that females are necessarily better administrators, civil servants, lawmakers or managers? Women may be less prone to groupthink and excessively aggressive behavior, true. Moreover, I do not think that Abe is looking to make the opposite argument that women "outdo" men. Rather, they should have equal opportunities insofar as Japan is wasting a lot of talented people for discriminatory reasons. What's more, they may bring a fresh perspective to issues their country is facing:
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe reiterated Wednesday that a key part of his "Abenomics" growth strategy is making greater use of women and promoting them to leadership posts — a campaign dubbed "womenomics," a term he has embraced. Abe has set a goal of having women in 30 percent of leadership positions in both the private and public sectors by 2020. "Realizing a society where women can shine is a challenge our Cabinet has undertaken," he said during a news conference. "I look forward to the wind of change these women will bring."
Perhaps these women will finally begin to promote migration into Japan to revive its moribund demographics and hence its economy?

UPDATE: SCMP has a profile of Yuko Obuchi, Japan's new industry minister charged with reinvigorating her country's moribund industrial base. Aged 40, she is the youngest minister in the postwar era. Her job # 1 is restarting nuclear power plants closed in the wake of Fukushima: I have discussed the urgency of doing so before.

Fee for Westerners on the 'Jihadi Highway': $25

♠ Posted by Emmanuel in , at 9/09/2014 01:30:00 AM

Yonder lies adventure...for $25, whitefella jihadist.

Does god really care for your life in the suburbs? /
A dull little life full of dull little things /
Bring up the babies to be just like daddy /
And maybe you'll be there when he gives out the wings.

California-via-Blightly resident Richard Thompson's scathing indictment of the dreariness of modern life is partly shown by Americans and Britons dreaming of a more adventurous one that involves, er, killing fellow Americans and Britons as transplanted jihadists. To reach the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), however, these Western-hating Westerners must cross the border between Turkey and Syria. Apparently, there is now a roaring trade smuggling them into the latter's warzone.
More recently, the [Turkey-Syria] border has also become known as the jihadi highway, an easy way for non-Syrians from European countries such as the U.K., France and Belgium to join in Syria’s civil war. They often fight on the side of militant groups such as the Islamic State, which now controls large swathes of land south of Turkey’s border as well as significant parts of Iraq. And if the English-accented man shown in videos beheading two American journalists is identified as a British citizen, he may well have crossed the same border. 
Actually, the market-clearing price has gone up due to marginally higher difficulty entering jihadi paradise. Not much higher, mind you, but still...
As international condemnation of the murders draws renewed attention to this porous crossing point for Western passport-holding fighters, Turkey has stepped up patrols, added highway checkpoints and erected new fencing. It hasn’t worked, according to interviews with refugees, injured fighters recuperating in Turkish hospitals and with the smugglers who have long operated a black market ferrying people back and forth. As late as this week, illegal trips that skirted the Turkish controls were both simple and numerous.

The price: $25, with assurances that large amounts of equipment could be taken across with zero chance of inspection, according to three men who offered their services as traffickers. That’s up from about $10 a person before Turkish authorities cracked down on border security.
Ah, the smell of commerce; the World Cup of Jihad has switched locations. It's all unfolding according to an infamous dead guy's script. The prominence and sheer number of Western jihadists eager to kill and maim their own raises questions Anglophone countries have failed to answer. There is no better way to undermine the usual racist excuse that "foreigners" are destroying Western cultures than to point out that Anglos are the most avid of jihadists. Why is it that women are among the most eager to join an inherently sexist cause?

Those are big questions, but in the meantime, there is no shortage of Anglos desperate to fork over their $25 at the border for a taste of adventure.

Zimbabwe Blues: Comrade Bob Mugabe, IMF & PRC

♠ Posted by Emmanuel in , at 9/08/2014 01:30:00 AM
For those who've run their country into the ground, we salute you.
If nothing else, you have to admire President Robert Mugabe's longevity. Once a pro-independence protagonist, he's turned into...someone else. At 90 he's still fit as a fiddle. That he's been up to no good for so long, however, deserves additional comment. Despite encountering international opprobrium for a very long time, there's always been China offering financial gestures of third world solidarity with Zimbabwe. To be sure, Comrade Bob has not changed Zimbabwe into a socialist republic by constitution. However, he's been able to draw on China in tight spots time and again. He is still on top at age 90, after all.

To make a long story short, Zimbabwe is an economic basket case. After Comrade Bob expropriated white farmers in in 2008, annualized inflation reached 500 billion percent. Ever the political survivor, he hangs on somehow. Being especially strapped for cash at the moment even by Zimbabwean standards, he is in the process of negotiating with the IMF for restored funding. His country has effectively been in default with the IMF for a number of years, but seeks to become "current":
The International Monetary Fund is appointing a resident representative in Zimbabwe for the first time in 10 years as the southern African country seeks to mend relations with the lender. Christian Beddies is the IMF’s first appointment in Zimbabwe since 2004 when the Washington-based lender closed its office in the country, two officials with knowledge of the situation said, declining to be identified because they aren’t authorized to speak to media on the matter. Beddies has arrived in the country, one of the people said.

The IMF is “finalizing the process for appointing a resident representative in Harare,” who should be in place in July, the IMF said, without identifying the appointees. Zimbabwe has been in default to the IMF since 1999, former Finance Minister Tendai Biti said last year. The government said in March it will make a “token payment” to the IMF as the country works on a program to reduce its debt.
As always, the IMF will demand politically unpopular concessions--conditionalities--that Comrade Bob would rather avoid. Aside from not getting IMF emergency funding, being in its doghouse usually means not being able to access international financial markets (which the country is at least a decade away from anyway). Hedging his bets, Comrade Bob recently made a trip to Beijing for his first meeting with new President Xi Jinping. Who wouldn't welcome large, no-strings-attached soft loans? He's received them before, you know. However, he was not able to wangle cold, hard cash this time around but only some token projects. What's more, it seems the Chinese are wising up to him as they have asked for and received all sorts of collateral in return:
In recent years, perceptions have grown in the west that China builds ties and reaps economic rewards in Africa and elsewhere in the developing world through no-strings-attached deals. But Beijing’s relatively hard-nosed reception of Mr Mugabe shows that its open-wallet policy has limits. Mr Mugabe, one of Africa’s longest-serving leaders, was hoping for a $10bn financial bailout package, with an initial tranche of $4bn as sanctions cut off his ability to tap western loans, according to Zimbabwean media.

Instead, he obtained a $2bn deal for the future construction of a coal mine, power station and dam. For this infrastructure deal, Chinese loan payments had to be secured against future Zimbabwean mining tax revenues.

On top of this, Zimbabwe received a token agreement to conduct feasibility studies for other telecoms and infrastructure projects, $8m in donated rice and a $24m grant to build schools and clinics. For the feasibility studies, it had to commit to set aside revenues from state-owned companies in order to obtain loans from China’s state-owned banks – a sign of the depth of Beijing’s unease over Zimbabwe’s economy.
Ideology aside, let's just say Comrade Bob's public financial management chops are, er, non-existent. Commie bonding has its limits. Namely, inability to manage public finances to any appreciable extent. Comrade Bob, the IMF still beckons.