'Buy Gun Stocks; Yanks Like Shooting Each Other'

♠ Posted by Emmanuel in at 3/31/2009 03:55:00 PM
The behavior of Americans is a subject of fascination to the rest of the world. Having American relatives, I must admit to being occasionally puzzled by their behavior. In the past, I have done my fair bit of pop anthropology in describing US culture as one based on commerce. However, when an old grad school roommate from Greece had too much to drink, he would tell me a more elaborate version of the American gothic which went something like this: "You know these Americans, Emmanuel. First they eat too much. So, they cannot fit in compact cars and have to buy hulking SUVs. To park these giant SUVs, they must in turn buy huge houses with huge garages. Having little savings, though, they need to borrow trillions from the Chinese."

Whatever you make of my old roommates' caricature, I'm thinking that if I gave him a ring in Athens, he'd add more to the story. Given the bursting of the housing bubble, many Americans have become unemployed, foreclosed, or any other number of undesirables in a highly financialized and commercialized society. Earlier, I posted in jest that Ozzy Osbourne may offer a way out for many overindebted Americans. It's no laughing matter that more seem to have followed this suggestion in a dark application of Americana. The Christian Science Monitor suggests there may be a link to unusually tough times:
Four Oakland, Calif., police officers shot down. An Alabama man strolling a small town with a rifle, looking for victims. Seven elderly people shot dead at a North Carolina nursing home. And on Sunday, six people, including four kids, died in an apparent murder-suicide in an upscale neighborhood in Santa Clara, Calif. The details in all these cases are still emerging. In most, the exact motive has yet to be determined – or may never be fully understood.

On a broader level, however, such incidents may be happening more often because an increasing number of Americans feel desperate pressure from job losses and other economic hardship, criminologists say. "Most of these mass killings are precipitated by some catastrophic loss, and when the economy goes south, there are simply more of these losses," says Jack Levin, a noted criminologist at Northeastern University in Boston.

Direct correlation between economic cycles and homicides is difficult to prove, cautions Shawn Bushway, a criminologist at the University at Albany in New York. But an economic downturn of this breadth and depth hasn't been seen since data began to be collected after World War II, he also points out. "This is not the average situation," Mr. Bushway says.

Still, criminologists do say that certain kinds of violent crimes have risen during specific economic downturns. The recession in the early 1990s "saw a dramatic increase in workplace violence committed by vengeful ex-workers who decided to come back and get even with their boss and their co-workers through the barrel of an AK-47," Mr. Levin says.
Say what you will about American gun culture, but one thing you can count on is it not going away. Accordingly, the rather tasteless post title is not from me but a paraphrase of Reuters columnist Bernd Debusmann's latest missive on how Ruger and Smith & Wesson stocks are up bigtime early in 2009 while nearly all else is, ah, shot:
In the first two months of this year, around 2.5 million Americans bought guns, a 26 percent increase over the same period in 2008. It was great news for gun makers and a sign of a dark mood in the country. Gun sales shot up almost immediately after Barack Obama won the U.S. presidential elections on November 4 and firearm enthusiasts rushed to stores, fearing he would tighten gun controls despite campaign pledges to the contrary.

After the November spike, gun dealers say, a second motive has helped drive sales: fear of social unrest as the ailing economy pushes the newly destitute deeper into misery. Many of the newly poor come from the relentlessly rising ranks of the unemployed. In February alone, an average of 23,000 people a day lost their jobs.

Tent cities for the homeless have expanded outside a string of American cities, from Sacramento and Phoenix to Atlanta and Seattle, for people who are living the American dream in reverse. First they lose their jobs, then their health insurance, then their homes, then their hopes. The encampments are reminiscent of Third World refugee camps.

Often former members of the middle class, tent dwellers’ accounts of their plight to television cameras have a common theme: “I never thought this could happen to me.” Unlike the victims of Katrina, the 2005 hurricane that destroyed much of New Orleans, many of the newly-poor are white.

The FBI says it carried out 1,213,885 criminal background checks on prospective firearms buyers in January and 1,259,078 in February, jumps of 28% and 23.3% respectively. Keen demand turned the stocks of publicly-trade firearms companies like Smith & Wesson (up 80% since November) and Sturm Ruger (up more than 100%) into shining stars on the New York Stock Exchange.
Isn't commerce grand? Just don't forget to, er, pack some heat. In all likelihood, this gun-buying spree is probably motivated by self-protection more than anything else, unfortunately feeding into a cycle of higher gun ownership and a higher probability of gun violence. For better or worse, guns are as American as mom, apple pie, bankruptcy and foreclosure. Obama striking down the Second Amendment is as likely as Americans stopping to borrow money. As my friend would probably add to his commentary: "The trouble started when the Americans could not pay the mortgages on their McMansions as home prices tanked. Rather than face economic reality, they went to the gun store and fed the family...with lead."

There is a real political economy aspect to the right to bear arms. Sometimes, it isn't particularly pretty.

4/6 UPDATE: The bloodbath continues as to become almost unexceptional -
A 22-year-man who shot and killed three Pittsburgh police officers over the weekend had been stockpiling guns and ammunition, buying and selling the weapons online "because he believed that as a result of the economic collapse, the police were no longer able to protect society," according to a court report.

The shootings came during a particularly violent three days across the U.S., with shootings that left 14 dead in Binghamton, N.Y., and six dead in Washington state, where a father shot five of his children, ages 7 to 16, using a rifle, and later, himself. It also follows just two weeks after four police officers were fatally shot in Oakland, Calif., in the deadliest day for U.S. law enforcement since Sept. 11, 2001. Last month, a North Carolina man shot and killed eight people before police shot him and ended the rampage, and a 28-year-old man killed 10 people, including his mother and four other relatives, across two rural Alabama counties before killing himself.

PRC's Great Currency Game, or Nothing Special?

♠ Posted by Emmanuel in ,,, at 3/30/2009 01:11:00 PM
The story that dollar debasement going forward will occur is a familiar one. TIME even has a photo essay comparing present-day America with Weimar-era Germany. One certainly hopes this comparison isn't apt for a number of reasons, but you certainly cannot rule it out. Life is a cabaret, old chum. Much has been made in recent days of China's proposal to diversify out of dollars which the US has certainly done everything humanly possible to debase; this point is not really under much contention outside of neo-Bushian "strong dollar" comments from Obama administration officials. This new Reuters article notes that the bluster behind China's call for a new reserve currency would amount to little if it weren't for the PRC's other currency ploy which has not attracted that much attention.

Drudge Report readers and other yokels are certainly unaware that China is busy signing swap arrangements with other countries outside the context of the Chiang Mai Initiative with ASEAN+3 countries (which has evolved to being more regional from its origin as a series of bilateral swaps). Reuters sees this process as China being more assertive on the economic diplomacy front. With a real long-term view--think 25, 40, 50 years down the road--the Chinese are playing a great currency game which Americans can't, fixated as they are on a four-year election cycle:
The political intent of Zhou's message [on elevating the status of SDR to true reserve alternative] could not be clearer: as the crisis of capitalism erodes U.S. influence, China is losing faith in the dollar and sees the time ripening for the yuan to assume its rightful role as a major world currency. "It has the potential to lead to one of the most profound reforms of the global monetary system in the coming decades," Jun Ma, Deutsche Bank's chief China economist, said of Zhou's blueprint.

However, with 5,000 years of history behind it, Beijing is ready for a long game. Zhou knew his trial balloon would immediately be shot down, save for backing from Russia. Hence his acknowledgement that creating a new international monetary order would require "extraordinary political vision and courage".

Translation: Beijing realizes that a currency does not lose its global domination overnight. Even after the United States overtook Britain in economic size in the late 19th century, it took two world wars that drained Britain's Treasury and its military might before the dollar supplanted sterling. The American grandmaster will not surrender his title lightly...
And here's the novel part, unbeknown to most except the most informed (like my dear IPE Zone readers; also this brief blurb):
...Zhou's essay takes on a different complexion if read in the context of a flurry of moves by China in the usually dull arena of trade finance.

Since mid-December, China has sealed currency swap accords totaling 650 billion yuan ($95 billion) with the central banks of South Korea, Malaysia, Indonesia, Hong Kong, Belarus and, in a deal announced on Monday, Argentina. These are pawns that are not being moved at random, and financial diplomats say more agreements are in the pipeline.

The proximate purpose is to grease the wheels of trade, which have been gummed up by the global credit crunch. Importers in the six countries will be able to pay for Chinese goods in yuan instead of in dollars, the principal export-import currency. But the potential repercussions for global currency politics are more far-reaching: if Asia got accustomed to the practice, the yuan could evolve into a regional currency, giving Beijing the status and influence that goes with it.

A former senior international monetary official said the pacts were in keeping with what he said was China's greater assertiveness in global forums over the past two years or so. "They want to play a stronger role, and these small steps such as giving bilateral swaps to Indonesia, Malaysia and Korea are a lot more important than the SDR proposal," said the official, who declined to be named as the issues are sensitive.

Getting comfortable with the internationalization of the yuan for trade should, in turn and in time, make Beijing more willing to move toward capital account convertibility -- a precondition for the yuan to become part of a revamped SDR.

Now, there is no sign China wants to speed up the opening of its capital account -- even though the yuan, if it could be bought and sold for non-trade purposes, would be more attractive for central banks as an alternative reserve asset to the dollar. But, as some economists see it, pricing and settling trade in yuan will inevitably lead to greater use of the Chinese currency offshore for financial and investment purposes.

"The swaps should be seen as a political statement with the intention of turning the yuan into a regional reserve currency," said Ben Simpfendorfer with Royal Bank of Scotland in Hong Kong.
Already there are pilot efforts in Hong Kong to see if settlement can be performed in yuan on a wider basis:
Take the scheme, due to be launched soon, that will allow trade between Hong Kong and the mainland province of Guangdong to be settled in yuan rather than in U.S. or Hong Kong dollars. The 200 billion yuan swap that Beijing signed with Hong Kong in January will provide an initial pool of Chinese currency needed for paying export and import invoices in yuan.

But imagine if the experiment takes off: banks would eventually need access to the mainland interbank market for funding, according to a financial diplomat in Beijing. And should banks in Hong Kong -- and other centers -- be allowed to adjust their positions with each other? If so, an offshore interbank market in yuan would sprout.

"We must understand that it is an inevitable trend that an overseas yuan investment market will grow after foreign trade settlement in yuan becomes widely accepted," Ye Xiang, a co-founder of VisionGain Capital, a Hong Kong investment management firm, wrote in Caijing magazine.
There are terribly plenty obstacles that China faces if it wants the yuan to be an eventual contender for a dollar replacement including classic functions of money--store of value, medium of exchange, and unit of account. Of course, unlike the dollar, the yuan is not yet freely traded, has no large international capital market, is subject to currency controls, and is not yet accepted by other countries for trade settlement. Indeed, I am still unclear on the mechanics of these swap arrangements as China would effectively have to loan yuan in order for other countries to pay in yuan. China is gradually putting these pieces in place if you believe Reuters, setting the stage for a showdown in a couple of years' time:
Many pieces will need to be moved around the board before China is in a position to force a draw with the dollar, let alone declare checkmate. But Beijing, thinking strategically, is unlikely to be too perturbed if Zhou's gambit founders in London [at the G20 meeting].
Also read this article from Bernama on how Indonesia is keen on seeing China take on a more aggressive role in global economic affairs. Certainly, there is no lost love between the US and many other countries like Indonesia. As I've mentioned many times, Indonesia believes it was hurt by the worst of Washington Consensus-style policies of fiscal austerity and belt-tightening during the Asian financial crisis whereas the US now splurges in troubled times because it can by drawing on the dollar's status as the preeminent reserve currency.

Would a world where the dollar loses its prominent role be a better place? The debate rages on. And I love a cabaret.

Obama Gives UAW, Organized Labor the Shaft

♠ Posted by Emmanuel in , at 3/30/2009 12:16:00 PM
Say what you will about organized labor's agenda, but it seems to me like it's being given a bum deal. Real liberals have criticized Obama for cozying too much to moneyed interests, and this story will do nothing to allay that particular concern. Democratic presidents of recent vintage have displayed a similar modus operandi: court the votes of organized labor and then largely forget about them when in power. Think of Bill Clinton signing on to NAFTA and allowing those human rights violators China to join the WTO. Why, just a few months ago, Obama was being heralded as the champion of the United Auto Worker's union as he garnered its approval:
"From the streets of Chicago to the state legislature in Springfield, Ill., to the halls of the U.S. Senate, Barack Obama has been a voice for dignity and justice for working people. He has a strong program for a safe and secure America, which will protect our citizens and help our country prosper in a new century.

"On every issue that counts, we can count on Barack Obama to stand with our members, our families and our communities. He has pledged to rebuild America's manufacturing base and to assist the auto industry as we re-tool toward a cleaner, more modern transportation system. Sen. Obama supports free choice in the workplace; he will fight to deliver quality, affordable health care to every American; and he understands the need to change our trade policies so that U.S. workers and U.S. companies can compete fairly in the global economy.

"As president Barack Obama will unite our country – and the active and retired members of the United Auto Workers will be proud to work with him to change our country for the better."
That sounded all very well and good. Now, however, the Obama administration is forcing the UAW to go on a diet as it refuses to throw billions more at those wealth-destroying enterprises par excellence GM and Chrysler. And, get this--the administration is asking investment bankers to assess how much improvement organized labor is making in reducing wages:
The Obama administration refused on Sunday night to give fresh bail-out money to General Motors and Chrysler, telling the carmakers to come up with new plans or risk insolvency. GM has received $13.4bn in government aid and had asked for an additional $16.6bn. Chrysler has received $4bn and had asked for another $5bn. But both companies failed to meet targets on cutting their debt and reducing the cost of benefits paid to workers.

The crisis talks between the companies and the administration’s auto task force cost the job of Rick Wagoner, chief executive of General Motors, who was asked to step down by the White House after 30 years with the carmaker.

Officials said on Sunday night that Chrysler would be given 30 days and GM 60 days to reach agreement with debtholders and unions, with new tougher targets for cost cutting, or they would lose their last chance for a government bailout, almost certainly sending them into bankruptcy. “That’s going to mean a set of sacrifices from all parties involved: management, labour, shareholders, creditors, suppliers, dealers,” President Barack Obama said Sunday on CBS, before the details had been laid out.

“Everybody is going to have to come to the table and say it’s important for us to take serious restructuring steps now in order to preserve a brighter future down the road... They’re not there yet,” Mr Obama said. The task force, whose members include former investment bankers Steve Rattner and Ron Bloom, decided that the companies had failed to prove their viability and would not, therefore, receive the combined $21.6bn of taxpayer money they had asked for [my emphasis].
This is quite brilliant if the objective is fomenting class warfare. To improve matters, I suggest they hire John Thain and Charles Prince to oversee this task force. If Obama is organized labor's "champion," then I'm Jimmy Hoffa.

G-20 Protests: Let Leftist Profs Be Leftist Profs, Etc.

♠ Posted by Emmanuel in at 3/29/2009 09:50:00 AM
And so the world is awash with protests over the upcoming G-20 meeting. In London just yesterday, they were 35,000 strong--not a bad showing. I will soon post at greater length about the G-20's prospects--more hopeful than you'd probably expect--but for now let us cover the sideshow. A criticism many have had of the so-called anti-globalization movement has been its rather scattershot agenda, throwing together anarcho-syndicalists, deep ecologists, neo-primitivists, rioters, party animals, etc. into the mix. Same here. If you think this world is run pretty poorly by the axis of spending (Barack Obama, Gordon Brown, and someone TBA), you'd be pretty hard-pressed to see an improvement from these guys. As usual, their challenge is lame and unfocused.

Now, as I've learned, academia is certainly an interesting place filled with all sorts of characters you'd be hard-pressed to find elsewhere. Even by American standards, British academia is, well, downright weird. Where else can you find it common for unreconstructed Marxists to teach...in business schools? Pinko Business Management--now there's a course offering for you (full of the inherent contradictions of capitalism, no doubt). As the death place of Herr Marx, Britain has long been teeming with those convinced that the downfall of capitalism is right around the corner. Certainly, the current time is a fruitful one to strike a chord for change especially with the ham-fisted handling of the subprime crisis in the US and the UK.

I found it rather amusing when Professor Chris Knight of the University of East London--formerly a "polytechnic" akin to a community college in the States--got suspended for getting into the anti-globalization spirit. Here are some choice statements that got him into trouble:
"We are going to be hanging a lot of people like Fred the Shred [former RBS Chairman Fred Goodwin] from lampposts on April Fool's Day and I can only say let's hope they are just effigies...To be honest, if he winds us up any more I'm afraid there will be real bankers hanging from lampposts and let's hope that that doesn't actually have to happen.

"They should realise the amount of fury and hatred there is for them and act quickly, because quite honestly if it isn't humour it is going to be anger. I am trying to keep it humorous and let the anger come up in a creative and hopefully productive and peaceful way.

"If the other people don't join in the fun - I'm talking about the bankers and those rather pompous ministers - and come over and surrender their power obviously it's going to get us even more wound up and things could get nasty. Let's hope it doesn't."
Is Professor Knight trying to incite a mob riot? I really think not as he just got caught up in the spirit of the moment. As you'll gather from his website, his PhD thesis was on "Menstruation and the origins of culture. A reconsideration of [Claude] Levi-Strauss's work on symbolism and myth." From what I gather, it has something to do with lunar activity--hence the graphic on his website. Is this chap Carlos the Jackal II? No tampon jokes please, but I doubt it. It's more likely that he's just another timid academic in the ever-popular leftist, Noam Chomsky-wannabe mold.

This op-ed from the Sunday Herald asks the right question: if a million protesting Britain's imminent participation in the Iraq invasion did basically nothing, what more this march or even the larger one planned on April 1? The University of East London certainly has made more of this nonsense than warranted. Last I heard, Professor Knight was wandering around alone. So much for solidarity. If this guy is a troublemaker, then Paul Schaffer really leads the world's most dangerous band. I fear him far, far less than a real public menace like Boy George.

Bilateral Mania: Antipodes Strike FTA with ASEAN

♠ Posted by Emmanuel in , at 3/29/2009 07:39:00 AM
I almost forgot to mention this news closer to home: A few months ago, I mentioned that the ten-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) was engaging in several bilateral trade negotiations--with China, Japan, South Korea, India, Australia and New Zealand. There are a number of reasons for this deal frenzy after a long history of ASEAN being little more than a talk shop, including stalled WTO negotiations leaving these countries hungering for more elsewhere and lingering fear of China leaving them far behind economically. Because negotiations seemed more advanced, I expected the ASEAN-India deal to be inked as scheduled in December 2008. For a number of reasons, it's been delayed. This means the rather mouthful ASEAN-Australia-New Zealand Free Trade Agreement (AANZFTA) came to fruition sooner.

The press blurb on the ASEAN Secretariat's website dating from February 27 of this year is informative, including this nugget on how ASEAN countries are significant trade partners for the Antipodean pairing:
Through the AANZFTA Agreement, ASEAN, Australia and New Zealand effectively create a free trade area of over 600 million people with a combined GDP of US$ 2.3 trillion (based on IMF 2007 figures), which is expected to have reached US$ 2.7 trillion, according to the IMF forecast for 2008. Intra-regional (ASEAN, Australia and New Zealand) trade has been growing an average of about 16 per cent per annum since the start of the FTA negotiations in 2005. The Ministers noted the increase in Australian and New Zealand investments to ASEAN which reached US$ 1.1 billion in 2007. With the liberalization of barriers to trade and investment under the AANZFTA Agreement, the Ministers expressed confidence regarding the further growth and expansion of intra-regional trade and investment. Taken together, Australia and New Zealand comprise ASEAN’s sixth largest trading partner. ASEAN as a group is the second and the third largest trading partner of Australia and New Zealand, respectively.
Unfortunately for Jagdish Bhagwati, regional trade deals certainly look like the wave of the (near) future. Few doubt that ANZ's economic fortunes going forward are tied to Asia. Look east, young man, look east.

Why Do Aussies Keep Bashing Chinese Investors?

♠ Posted by Emmanuel in , at 3/27/2009 05:54:00 PM
I find this utterly disgraceful. The Chinalco bid for a share in Rio Tinto being "reviewed" for three months has been covered here and elsewhere as a sign of incipient protectionism. There is, however, a lesser profile bid by another Chinese mining concern for a similarly endangered Australian entity. In this case, it's Minmetals for Oz Minerals. Just as Rio Tinto overextended itself with acquisitions at the height of the commodity boom, so did Oz Minerals. As is usually the case for these things, "national security" concerns are being invoked.

The purported catch here is that Oz Minerals' most lucrative mine is located inside one of Australia's weapons testing ranges, the Woomera Prohibited Area. I simply do not think this is an insurmountable difficulty as it is not especially difficult to agree with Chinese investors that transport from the mining site to the main road not veer off track. Getting blown up by munitions testing seems to be a pretty good deterrent against wandering around. Plus, it's fairly easy to monitor activity on flat desert lands from a long distance. Hence, I have no choice but to cry foul. From the Financial Times:
The Australian government has blocked a A$2.6bn (US$1.8bn) recommended bid by China’s Minmetals for Oz Minerals on the grounds that the mining group’s flagship mine is located in a military zone.

Wayne Swan, Australia’s treasurer, said “alternative proposals” would be considered from the Beijing-based metals group but it could not approve the deal if it included Oz’s Prominent Hill copper and gold mine, located in the Woomera Prohibited Area in South Australia. “It is not unusual for governments to restrict access to sensitive areas on national security grounds,” Mr Swan said.

Mr Swan’s surprise decision will fuel speculation Canberra may also block Chinalco’s controversial plan to invest $19.5bn in Rio Tinto, the Anglo-Australian mining group. Australia’s Foreign Investment Review Board is assessing the deal by the Chinese aluminium producer on “national interest” grounds, which includes investments made by state-backed entities.

Blocking the deal also threatens Oz’s survival. The miner, which had already warned it risked bankruptcy without the Minmetals takeover, is locked in talks with bankers owed A$1.3bn to extend debt repayments beyond March 31. The Woomera Prohibited Area includes a weapons testing range that Mr Swan said made a “unique and sensitive contribution to Australia’s national defence...An important part of this [national interest] assessment is whether proposals conform with Australia’s national security interests, in line with principles that apply to foreign government related investments,” he said.
And it's not over yet as there's, geez, a third Sino-Aussie deal endangered along similar grounds:
As well as deliberating on Chinalco-Rio, the regulator is examining Hunan Valin Iron and Steel of China’s planned A$1.2bn investment in Fortescue Metals, Australia’s third biggest iron ore group.
My broader point is this: developed countries keep complaining that China is propping up its currency artificially by buying US Treasuries and other reserve assets. Fine. However, when the PRC then tries to diversify into other things it has clear use for such as ensuring a steady supply of raw materials, countless roadblocks are thrown in its way. It always returns to global economic imbalances: you cannot have it both ways by telling the Chinese "don't buy debentures" and then "don't buy equity stakes" when they try to diversify.

Hey buddy, this is free trade. If you keep running external deficits (like Australia), then you have no choice other than to accept offsetting capital inflows. You can try and be a Robinson Crusoe-style autarky, but North Korea is not a particularly shining model of development. And some people still wonder why the Chinese are upset...

Seychelles: Rich and Famous to Heavily Indebted

♠ Posted by Emmanuel in , at 3/27/2009 05:45:00 AM
You can easily picture Robin Leach of "Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous" fame yukking it up with the great and the good in Seychelles, the idyllic island playground for the uber-wealthy. The official website purports that is a travel destination for romance, sailing, diving, and fishing--a potent mix for sure. Unfortunately, the current economic crisis has not favored the Seychelles as revenues from tourism and fishing have dried up. This is rather unfortunate as the country has borrowed big in expectation that the good times would continue to roll. This Fortune article suggests "think again," although it's a little too late as they country has already sought IMF emergency financing:
Last year, as tourism and fishing revenue began slowing, the Seychelles defaulted on a $230 million, euro-denominated bond that had been arranged by Lehman Brothers before its own bankruptcy. The IMF came in in November with a two-year, $26 million rescue package, and the country has since taken a series of emergency steps: It laid off 12.5% of government workers (1,800 people), floated its currency (the Seychelles rupee, which has fallen from eight to the U.S. dollar to 16, effectively doubling the prices of imports), lifted foreign exchange controls and agreed to sell state assets.

The IMF has given a thumbs-up to the initial progress, but it warned that the economy would contract 9.5% this year. The government of Australia is sending tax experts to help overhaul the revenue collection system and audit local companies.

Now the Seychelles is negotiating with the governments of Britain, France and other Western countries including the U.S. - the so-called Paris Club - to reschedule $250 million in debt it owes them. It is asking for 50% of it to be forgiven - a rate it hopes its commercial creditors will then apply to its remaining $550 million outstanding. "We borrowed more than we can repay," complains Ralph Volcere, the editor of Le Nouveau Seychelles Weekly and a vocal government critic. "This was wholly irresponsible."
Debt relief from large Western lenders is a usual plea, although these lenders may not look favorably on some of the Seychelles' efforts to generate revenue by talking up its status as a tax haven when those lenders are cracking down on tax havens to increase their own revenue take. Moreover, isn't there something jarring about a champagne-and-caviar destination with oodles of five-star resorts asking for debt relief? Still, its efforts at increasing its UNCLOS waters for fishing may be more plausible:
Seychelles officials have another idea though: to promote the country's longstanding virtue of being an off-shore business haven, with no corporate tax, no minimum capital requirements, only one shareholder or director required, and an annual licensing fee of just $100.

It also hopes to grow revenue from fishing licenses in its territorial waters, and on March 26 it will present a proposal to the United Nations to expand its exclusive rights to the surrounding seabed, potentially increasing prospects of revenue from underwater minerals, oil and gas.

Trade Down? Use Shipping Containers for Housing

♠ Posted by Emmanuel in , at 3/27/2009 04:10:00 AM
I remember watching an episode of Seinfeld where the character Kramer decided to live in a shipping container to cut down on living expenses. It seemed like a funny idea at the time, but some people are actually ingenious enough to make this idea more plausible and actually desirable. Not only does it make good use of shipping containers as international trade is going to the dogs, but it's also environmentally friendly in the sense of recycling old discarded containers for livable housing. But first, let's get to declines in container trade. We start in the US of A via Portworld:
The top 10 US box ports registered their 19th-straight [year-on-year] decline in monthly box volumes in February, a clear indication of slowing economic growth. The statistics, from the National Retail Federation (NRF) and IHS Global Insight monthly Port Tracker report, cover total box volumes handled at key US box ports in California, Texas, Washington, New York/New Jersey, Virginia, Georgia and South Carolina. The report pegged February throughput at one million twenty-foot equivalent units (TEUs), 17.7% down from throughput for the same month last year.
And if shipping is down at the receiving end, it must also be down at the sending end:
The volume of containers handled in Chinese ports in February fell 17% year-on-year as the country's export sector slowed, reports said. Last month, box volumes amounted to 6.97 million TEUs, representing a 22.5% fall from January's 8.99 million TEUs. Collapsing consumer demand in the US and Europe has hit the Asian export markets.
So if container ports aren't busy, a lot of containers are being left unused. That's where these two recent features come in. By coincidence (or not), both tout twelve innovative designs, although there is some overlap. The earlier one comes care of TreeHugger, and here is a sample conversion of what appears to be a single twenty-foot equivalent unit (TEU):

There are also projects using multiple containers in "Crate Expectations." More recently, Yahoo! has gotten into the act. Here is another installation from Bangkok, Thailand featuring not just one but four containers:

Good stuff--stylish yet environmentally-friendly is the way to go in a time of declining trade. If economic slowdown gives you containers, make container homes ;-)

Investors to Stimulus Lubber Gordon Brown: Stop It

♠ Posted by Emmanuel in ,, at 3/26/2009 08:25:00 AM

As I've said again and again to the point of grating on blog readers, this is exactly what the rest of the world needs to do to the United States: like Barack "Trillions in Deficits" Obama, British PM Gordon "British Jobs for British Workers" Brown has been throwing good money after bad at stimulus packages without much afterthought. Like the US, the UK thought that its currency's status as a reserve unit could finance unprecedented fiscal expansion. As I've said before, both plan a level of (fiscal) debauchery unseen since the heyday of Sodom and Gemorrah. Well, the UK now finds itself in a bit of a pickle as a gilt auction has just failed (cue "Hey Big Spender" above to up the irony factor):
Wednesday’s failed government bond auction [NOTE: see my explanation below] looks ominous for investors, as auctions rarely fail in the sovereign market. For a government looking to raise a record amount to pay for fiscal stimulus packages and bank bail-outs, a trend of bond auction failures could put serious pressure on the public finances. This would force the Debt Management Office to reconsider how it will raise the £148bn – a record annual amount – it plans to issue in bonds in the 2009-10 financial year. It could even put pressure on the Bank of England to increase interest rates to push up bond yields and make the securities more attractive to investors.
The repercussions are forcing Brown to rethink his free-spending ways:
Gordon Brown last night backed away from plans for a recession-busting spending spree in next month's budget, after City investors delivered a stern message about the health of the public finances by shunning a sale of government debts for the first time since 2002.

In New York to canvass support for a deal at next week's G20 London summit on a worldwide economic rescue package, the prime minister said he had no plans to add to the £20bn fiscal stimulus announced by Alistair Darling last autumn, saying there were other "effective and quicker ways" of kick-starting demand.

Back in London, investors sent shockwaves through financial markets by shunning a £1.75bn auction of government IOUs - gilts - amid mounting fears about the Treasury's ability to pay for its bank bailouts and fill the hole left by collapsing tax revenues. "This is a bit of a shot across the government's bows," said Jonathan Loynes, of Capital Economics.

The prime minister's enthusiasm for an international economic agreement on tackling recession had been widely interpreted as an attempt to win political cover for a renewed spending spree at home, but he played that idea down yesterday. "Nobody is suggesting that people come to the G20 meeting and put on the table the budget that they're going to have for the next year. What we are suggesting is that we have together to look at what we have done so far cumulatively," he said.
I will soon outline a non-wussy plan (as opposed to an Olive Oyl one) to get the US to behave. Yes, it involves flexing LDC muscle as if it were 2009 instead of 1964. Uncle Sam has been a very, very naughty boy indeed. With the notable exception of Britain for reasons you can deduce from reading the articles linked to above, most other countries have shown displeasure at America's plan to run up ten trillion or so dollars in debt over the next decade. A stimulus-addled United States is a danger to itself and the world economy. If market discipline is not enforced, then other ways should be found to make it cut the crap. Go ask Gordon Brown (reprise "Hey Big Spender"). Why should anyone have to put up with this nonsense?

The notion of a "failed" auction simply means HM Treasury did not find enough buyers for the entire face value of bonds announced prior to auction (£1.75B) at prices deemed acceptable by the government. Only £1.627B worth of 40 year gilts were awarded as other investors are requiring a higher yield for the risk they perceive in holding British gilts. In other words, the auction's "bid-to-cover ratio"--the ratio of bids received to bids accepted--was less than 1.

Exactly: EU Says US Policies on "Road to Hell"

♠ Posted by Emmanuel in ,, at 3/26/2009 04:52:00 AM

Sometime ago, I lauded the first Czech PM Vaclav Havel's high opinion of Frank Zappa as encapsulated by then-US Secretary of State James Baker's clear annoyance when he said, "You can do business with the United States or you can do business with Frank Zappa." The obvious flaw in Baker's reasoning was that Zappa was very much your archetypal exponent of American capitalism. Now it seems current (endangered) Czech PM Mirek Topolanek is also a big music fan. (The Czech Republic is current EU rotating head.) In this case, I believe that he's cranking Aussie AC/DC. Like me, ol' Mirek has a similarly dim view of America's so far ineffective efforts to revive its moribund economy. Yes, he says, America is on the road to hell. Friedrich Hayek and Angus Young--what a combination.

He is hardly alone as several other countries are being hurt by these infantile policies. Obamanite protectionism [e.g., 1, 2, 3, 4] has been widely noted here in addition to ridiculous stimulus packages that do nothing other than destroy the dollar's value--a real concern among those who hold it as a reserve currency. Just yesterday, another Geithner slip from the line that the currency is fine and dandy caused the beleaguered greenback to sag in FX markets. What else can I say? I think that, if possible, the rest of the world would prefer not to be taken along for a doomed ride by America's junk policies. In the real world, however, we are nearing a time when others will have to work together to stop this abusive behavior. It's time to hold Washington's feet to the fire. From the Financial Times:
European Union hopes for a new era in relations with the US were thrown into chaos on Wednesday when the holder of the EU presidency condemned American remedies for the global recession as “the road to hell”.

Barely a week before Barack Obama is due to arrive in Europe on his first official visit as US president, Mirek Topolanek, the Czech Republic’s prime minister, put the 27-nation EU on a collision course with Washington...

“The US Treasury secretary talks about permanent action and we, at our spring council, were quite alarmed at that...The US is repeating mistakes from the 1930s, such as wide-ranging stimuluses, protectionist tendencies and appeals, the Buy American campaign, and so on,” he told a European parliament session in Strasbourg. “All these steps, their combination and their permanency, are the road to hell.”

US officials made no comment on the remarks. But the Obama administration says it took great pains to ensure that the Buy American provisions in the $787bn (€579bn) stimulus that the president signed into law last month were consistent with World Trade Organisation rules. It followed, therefore, that any attempt to make them permanent would continue to be consistent with WTO rules.

EU diplomats said it was the most extraordinary outburst from a political leader in charge of running the EU’s affairs since Silvio Berlusconi, Italy’s prime minister, caused uproar in 2003 when he likened a German socialist member of the European parliament to a Nazi concentration camp guard.

Other leaders of EU member states, including Angela Merkel, Germany’s chancellor, disagree with US calls for big fiscal stimuli to battle the recession. But they have couched their opposition in more diplomatic language than Mr Topolanek’s. The Czech leader was speaking eight days before Mr Obama was due to arrive in London for a G20 summit of the world’s developed and emerging economies.
The analogy to the 1930s is inapt, but the analysis is generally correct as you'd expect me to say. Moreover, why should a group of countries that follows sound money principles be punished for not going along with a heavily distorted view of stimulus manna from above? My view will never change in that observing sound money principles will pay off in the long run. Short-term pressure by exporters to engage in currency debasement to "increase competitiveness" comes at the expense of long-term costs in inflicting mountains of debt on future generations and making holders of your currency think twice. The US would like you to think this tradeoff doesn't exist, but it should know better.

A Petition Against Protectionism

♠ Posted by Emmanuel in at 3/26/2009 02:59:00 AM
Since both Jonathan Dingel and Ben Muse have already done so--both of whom maintain what I consider as peer blogs--I thought it only proper to mention this petition from the Atlas Economic Research Foundation against the troubles with protectionism. As this place has threatened to become the International Protectionism Economy Zone due to seemingly endless stories of trade barriers being erected, here you go. What follows is a snippet of the statement:
But the fact that protectionism destroys wealth is not its worst consequence. Protectionism destroys peace. That is justification enough for all people of good will, all friends of civilization, to speak out loudly and forcefully against economic nationalism, an ideology of conflict, based on ignorance and carried into practice by protectionism.

Two hundred and fifty years ago, Montesquieu observed that “Peace is the natural effect of trade. Two nations who differ with each other become reciprocally dependent; for if one has an interest in buying, the other has an interest in selling; and thus their union is founded on their mutual necessities.”

Trade’s most valuable product is peace. Trade promotes peace, in part, by uniting different peoples in a common culture of commerce – a daily process of learning others’ languages, social norms, laws, expectations, wants, and talents.

See? US Frowns On Alternative Reserve Currency

♠ Posted by Emmanuel in , at 3/25/2009 12:48:00 AM
In recent days, we have gone on a mini-binge of reserve alternative stories [1, 2, 3]. Bang on schedule, the United States is pooh-poohing the notion that an alternative reserve currency and medium of exchange for world trade is needed. Debase the dollar? Not me, says the US. First up, let's see what Obama has to say:

There is no need for a global currency to replace the dollar as suggested by Chinese leaders, President Barack Obama said Tuesday. "The dollar is extraordinarily strong right now," he said, because the American economy and political system are stronger than many others.
Yes, whatever. These guys are starting to sound exactly like Bush and Paulson with the tragicomic "strong dollar" theme that any reasonably informed commentator would see through. Speaking of whom, US Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner and Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke also chimed in with the same message. From MarketWatch:

Federal Reserve Board Chairman Ben Bernanke and Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner flatly rejected on Tuesday a call from a senior Chinese official to drop the dollar as the world's key reserve currency. Zhou Xiaochuan, head of the People's Bank of China, proposed the creation a new international reserve currency in an essay published on the central bank's Web site on Monday.

The proposal is the latest sign of tension between China and the U.S. over important global economic matters. Zhou is expected to attend the Group of 20 meeting in London on April 2 where reform of the global financial system is on the table...
The MarketWatch article also contains currency watchers' opinions of what is going on. Both commentators seem to be suggesting China is just firing a warning shot across the bow, not taking aim at the mast:

Axel Merk, president and chief investment officer at Merk Investments, said that Zhou's views "reflect China's frustration in relying on the U.S. dollar as the world's reserve currency, when U.S. policy makers conduct monetary policy based on domestic considerations." "That's a friendly way of expressing that the U.S. may be trying to debase the dollar, raising concern in China about the value of its massive U.S. dollar denominated reserves," Merk said in a research note. Central banks around the world won't be willing to yield power to a new world monetary authority, specifically the IMF, Merk said. "We believe China may realize sooner rather than later that building a diversified basket of reserves followed by a free floating exchange rate, will provide China with the advantages China's central bank governor is seeking," he said.

Marc Chandler, currency strategist at Brown Brothers Harriman, said that China has not sought to undermine the U.S. dollar. "Just as important is what China is not saying," Chandler said. "It is not saying it will dump dollars. It is not saying it will buy more euros." The support for a new international reserve asset seems to be an attempt to get around the contradictory pressures on a national currency that is also a reserve asset, he said. "The dollar's role seems as secure as ever," Chandler said. "There is no clear national alternative and a new international asset cannot simply be foisted on countries. The dollar remains numeraire, imperfections and all."
It is no surprise to me that the United states is keen to scuttle the Chinese proposal. After all, who would remain as keen to fund America's enormous deficits if its currency were no longer the world's main reserve currency and medium of exchange in international trade? Once more, I am surprised how uninformed commentary on this proposal has been in much of the blogosphere. For instance, there has not been much discussion of the evolution of the international monetary system in the postwar period--something Zhou goes into at some length. To be honest, your average Amerocentric blogger wouldn't know the difference between an SDR and a DDR3.

To get things done, China will need the assent of many other countries also concerned about ongoing dollar debasement. Think of other Asian exporters and Middle East oil exporters who too have played a significant role in funding US deficits in recent years. As the commentator Chandler said, China needs to put its money where its mouth is at by moving away from dollar purchases if it is to be taken seriously. With PRC exports to the US shrinking anyway, this should be happening in fairly short order if China is really serious about it.

Can the IMF be the place where moving away from the dollar to an upgraded SDR? Again, effective American "veto power" in having a 15% share of SDRs or voting rights will likely block any such initiative from being started without significant LDC cooperation. So far, it is notable that China has resisted calls to participate more in the IMF. Whether it is wary of US influence or wants more changes like upgrading SDRs we cannot really tell from the outside looking in. Ultimately, though, the ball is in China's court. How it accumulates or diversifies away from dollars will be key in determining whether this latest tantrum is just more bluster or something more significant.

California's Tent City of the Foreclosed is Closed

♠ Posted by Emmanuel in , at 3/24/2009 10:03:00 AM
I thought it right to post about this to achieve some, ah, closure. In times past, I have marveled about the existence of a tent city of the foreclosed at the heart of America's wealthiest state, California [1, 2]. Recently, I had an upsurge in hits for these two older posts, making me wonder what was going on. It turns out that Ontario, CA was featured on the Oprah Winfrey show. For so long, Hollywood has sold the California Dream like a giant Beach Boys soundtrack. However, the housing implosion in the boom-to-bust Inland Empire has meant skyrocketing foreclosure rates, forcing many to live in the now-infamous Tent City of the Foreclosed. It appears this shantytown has given the California Dream a black eye as officials are now in a hurry to close it down in embarrassment. From Reuters:
The mayor of California's state capital unveiled plans on Thursday to shut down a sprawling "tent city" of the homeless that has drawn worldwide media attention as a symbol of U.S. economic decline. Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson promised to first make alternative shelter space available for the estimated 150 men and women who inhabit the squalid encampment near the American River, at the edge of the city's downtown.

Johnson, who toured the area with California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger a day earlier, said he hoped to have the ramshackle settlement cleared of tents and debris in the next two to three weeks. "We want to move as quickly as we can," he told a news conference, insisting the city was determined to treat the tent dwellers with compassion. "They are people out there. We have to do whatever we can do," he said. "We as a city are not going to shy away from it. We're going to tackle it head-on." Advocates for the homeless applauded the mayor's action. Municipal authorities in Sacramento have been debating the fate of the tent city for weeks.

Sacramento has one of the highest mortgage foreclosure rates in the United States, and the homeless total in the city and surrounding county is estimated to have jumped nearly 10 percent last year to nearly 2,700. About half are believed to be living outdoors, according to a local survey.
And so ends the California Dream, as fake as a Hollywood set--or an AAA CDO for that matter. At least in the Tent City of the Foreclosed you had a tent ownership society, to paraphrase Dubya. Now it's gone like Greta Garbo.

My Wish Come True? China Backing $ Alternative

♠ Posted by Emmanuel in , at 3/23/2009 04:21:00 PM
Well here's some potentially very welcome news. In recent days, I have discussed proposals emanating from the UN concerning the creation of an alternative reserve currency to the US dollar [1, 2]. I liken the US to a lumbering giant drunk on massive amounts of debt plied by LDCs even its behavior becomes more and more irregular with its various stimulus cravings. What is common to the various UN proposals has been the absence of a key dollar victim/co-perpetrator in creating massive global economic imbalances--China. Well, it appears that my wish is coming true (at least in part) as China realizes the future extent of its losses if it continues accumulating money-losing $ holdings as the US prints money like there's no tomorrow. So, it's time to stop juicing the debt addict and allow it to collapse under the weight of its habitual binging. Cold turkey is what's best for America.

The Financial Times pointed out that the governor of the People's Bank of China (PBoC), Zhou Xiaochuan, has released a missive on the PBoC website suggesting measures reminiscent of those proposed by the UN and Stiglitz. However, China getting in the action would be the game-changer as I've suggested many, many times before. I suggest that you read the PBoC missive in its entirety even if the translation is not the best. The juicy parts I will excerpt here. This is the intro:
The outbreak of the current crisis and its spillover in the world confronted us with the long existing but still unanswered question--i.e., what kind of international reserve currency do we need to secure global financial stability and facilitate world economic growth, which was one of the purposes for establishing the IMF? There were various institutional arrangements in an attempt to find a solution, including the Silver Standard, the Gold Standard, the Gold Exchange Standard and the Bretton Woods system. The above issue, however, as the ongoing financial crisis demonstrates, is far from being solved, and has become even more severe due to the inherent weaknesses of the current international monetary system.

Theoretically, an international reserve currency should first be anchored to a stable benchmark and issued according to a clear set of rules, therefore to ensure orderly supply; second, its supply should be flexible enough to allow timely adjustment according to the changing demand; third, such adjustments should be disconnected from economic conditions and sovereign interests of any single country. The acceptance of credit-based national currencies as major international reserve currencies, as is the case in the current system, is a rare special case in history. The crisis called again for creative reform of the existing international monetary system towards an international reserve currency with a stable value, rule-based issuance and manageable supply, so as to achieve the objective of safeguarding global economic and financial stability.
After alluding to how the US keeps abusing the privilege of issuing the world's standard reserve currency such as Bernanke's various money for nothing gambits, Zhou geets to discussing the benefits of a true supranational reserve currency:
A super-sovereign reserve currency not only eliminates the inherent risks of credit-based sovereign currency, but also makes it possible to manage global liquidity. A super-sovereign reserve currency managed by a global institution could be used to both create and control the global liquidity. And when a country's currency is no longer used as the yardstick for global trade and as the benchmark for other currencies, the exchange rate policy of the country would be far more effective in adjusting economic imbalances. This will significantly reduce the risks of a future crisis and enhance crisis management capability.
Like yours truly, the PBoC guv'nor realizes that there are tough obstacles to getting this done. That is, the United States will not let its (waning) hegemony slip without a fight by letting an alternative currency be established as a store of value in providing reserve liquidity as well as a medium of exchange in settling world trade. From the Chinese perspective, broadening its portfolio is certainly desirable:
The reestablishment of a new and widely accepted reserve currency with a stable valuation benchmark may take a long time. The creation of an international currency unit, based on the Keynesian proposal, is a bold initiative that requires extraordinary political vision and courage. In the short run, the international community, particularly the IMF, should at least recognize and face up to the risks resulting from the existing system, conduct regular monitoring and assessment and issue timely early warnings.
Here are the steps Zhou envisions if the SDR is to become a real alternative reserve currency as opposed to its current status as little-held unit of account:
(1) Set up a settlement system between the SDR and other currencies. Therefore, the SDR, which is now only used between governments and international institutions, could become a widely accepted means of payment in international trade and financial transactions.
(2) Actively promote the use of the SDR in international trade, commodities pricing, investment and corporate book-keeping. This will help enhance the role of the SDR, and will effectively reduce the fluctuation of prices of assets denominated in national currencies and related risks.
(3) Create financial assets denominated in the SDR to increase its appeal. The introduction of SDR-denominated securities, which is being studied by the IMF, will be a good start.
(4) Further improve the valuation and allocation of the SDR. The basket of currencies forming the basis for SDR valuation should be expanded to include currencies of all major economies, and the GDP may also be included as a weight. The allocation of the SDR can be shifted from a purely calculation-based system to one backed by real assets, such as a reserve pool, to further boost market confidence in its value.
These are fine words; I hope they translate into action. I just hope that China will be willing to side with LDCs when push comes to shove as the US inevitably objects to reform of the IMF in a way that diminishes its influence over the organization. Remember, it still holds a "veto" due to it having over 15% of SDR holdings that are equivalent to votes at the IMF where an 85% majority is required to push changes through. If China really wants an alternative reserve currency to become a reality, it certainly should be willing to play a larger role in international institutions. It should also be willing to put Uncle Sam on debt rehab despite its outstanding reputation as a debt pusher. I feel chuffed for now; we may finally be getting somewhere. And the UN is nowhere in sight for this proposed solution.

China getting fed up with dollar debasement--who'd have thought of it? Nobody likes being played for a fool. Heck, it only took five or so years and a major financial calamity for China to get the message.

Olive Oyl Globalization: Stiglitz's UN Populism

♠ Posted by Emmanuel in , at 3/23/2009 01:32:00 AM
Cartoon watchers of all ages are familiar with Popeye damsel in distress Olive Oyl. When in trouble, she calls for Popeye to come to the rescue. To paraphrase her in the context of today's offering, "Woe is me, LDC!" Now, the history books are littered with past efforts at creating meaningful groupings that promote an LDC agenda. Among others, the Non-Aligned Movement, the G-77, and the New International Economic Order have tried to counteract the influence of industrialized countries at important multilateral institutions such as United Nations and the Bretton Woods twins (World Bank and IMF). The reason why you don't hear much about these past efforts is that none have really made a mark on global economic governance.

That's not to stop Joseph Stiglitz, however, from giving it another go. If LDCs are squealing like Olive Oyl during the current crisis, is Stiglitz our Popeye? (I hope he has large forearms.) From the Financial Times comes word of yet another plan to make these institutions more accountable to LDC concerns. Is it 1964 or 2009? See for yourselves:
The Group of 20 should be replaced by a new Global Economic Council, an advisory panel of senior international economists has said. Under the panel’s proposals, the council, which would be a United Nations body, would become the main forum for setting the agenda for worldwide economic and financial policy.

The proposal, made by an 18-member UN commission headed by Joseph Stiglitz, the Nobel-prizewinning economist, will be raised at next week’s expanded G20 summit in London, at which heads of state will debate a global response to the world financial crisis. It is part of a draft 10-point plan put forward by the panel, appointed last October by the 192-member UN General Assembly, to study reform of international financial institutions...

The new UN body, which would be independent of the Security Council in which the main powers hold a veto, would have a membership of 20 to 25, Mr Stiglitz told the FT. The proposal goes to the general assembly this week.

The panel’s plan also proposes a new global reserve system that would provide support to developing countries on a regular basis and would not be subject to veto by industrialised countries that dominate existing international financial institutions, such as the IMF [also see this recent post].

The plan calls for developed countries to set aside 1 per cent of their fiscal stimulus plans, in addition to existing foreign aid budgets, to spend in developing countries. “While the decision on stimulus is national, it should be judged on its global impacts,” the panel says in a draft document.

It also calls on advanced economies to abide by pledges to avoid protectionism “and . .. insure that stimulus packages and recovery programmes do not further distort the economic playing field and further increase global imbalances”. The draft criticises “misguided policy recommendations” by institutions such as the IMF that have prevented developed countries from adopting the counter-cyclical stimulus policies being pursued by the developed countries.

The draft document says that a global response to the financial crisis “must encompass more than the G7 or G8 or G20, but the representatives of the entire planet, from the G192”.

There is much to discuss here but probably little to look forward to in terms of becoming a reality. The UN-phobic William Easterly will have a field day with this globalization-by-committee approach. From my POV, some of these suggestions appear rather impracticable and will fall on deaf ears like in so many times past:

  • The G20 is already weak-kneed as it is; adding another layer of UN bureaucracy to the proceedings is bound to hinder rather than help;
  • The UN already has a General Assembly in addition to a Security Council; why would adding another grouping help matters along? And don't forget UNCTAD, either;
  • Stiglitz proposes a global reserve system to replace that overseen by the IMF, but won't that require setting up an alternative institution to the IMF?;
  • Why would the many industrialized countries already running large fiscal deficits readily be able to fork out 1% of their respective stimulus packages to help LDCs?
  • The G-192 sounds like a recipe for gridlock; if the G-77 was unwieldy, what is this thing?

Bottom line: while I await the final document, Stiglitz's suggestions certainly mirror initiatives past that have fallen by the wayside. Plus, many are recycled from his recent book. That this one is being captained by an American at a tony Ivy League institution certainly does it no favors in terms of legitimacy.

I am perplexed why Stiglitz is keen on portraying LDCs as hapless victims when many now have increased political-economic clout. LDC populism without realism has not, in times past, proven to be a recipe for reform of global economic governance. If Stiglitz is concerned about exacerbating global economic imbalances, the best course of action is not to recycle the "woe is me" approach taken so many times before. Rather, making large LDC funders of US deficits force Uncle Sam to shape up or feel the wrath of reserve sales is the way to go. As I've said, US protectionism may be a way of generating this desired result as offended countries chafe at ridiculous protectionist policies. Sorry Dr. Stiglitz but realpolitik beats Olive Oyl each time out.

Fight Rejoined Over Soya Export Tax in Argentina

♠ Posted by Emmanuel in , at 3/21/2009 06:01:00 PM
It baffles me how long this has been going on: In May of last year, I posted about Argentina's efforts to keep the local market well-supplied with soybeans as farmers preferred selling to export markets given the prevailing high prices of commodities. Fast-forward nearly a year and things are rather different as soybean prices have fallen markedly alongside those of other commodities (see chart). Plus, a continuing drought is worsening prospects down on the farm. Now Argentinean farmers are unhappy that, despite the fall in soya's price and hence the original justification given by Argentinean President Cristina Fernandez-Kirchner, the export tax remains in place. Worse, a revenue-starved government (attributable to the fall in commodity prices) has just said that it would send tax proceeds to local governments--not a popular move, to say the least. Like before, farmers have blocked streets to stop the transport of soya and mounted roving strikes. From Reuters:
Argentine farmers blocked roads and called an anti-government strike [for a week] on Friday, reigniting a year-long standoff over soy taxes and challenging the president three months before a mid-term vote. The protests erupted a day after ruling party lawmakers refused to debate an opposition-led bill to cut the taxes, further dimming prospects of a quick resolution to a conflict that has weakened President Cristina Fernandez.

Her cash-strapped government is battling to retain some $4.9 billion in tax revenue from soy exports in the run-up to the congressional vote, which is expected in June.
"A great opportunity was lost yesterday," said Mario Llambias, president of the Argentine Rural Confederations, one of the country's four main farming groups, as he called the seven-day freeze on grains and livestock sales from Saturday.

Fernandez further riled farmers in the agricultural powerhouse with an announcement that revenue from the levies would be shared with provincial governments. "We've gone back to the 2008 situation," said Alfredo de Angeli, the outspoken leader of a local FAA branch, who was arrested by military police last year when he blocked the same highway in the eastern province of Entre Rios.

Protesters stopped traffic by parking tractors on several highways in the fertile Pampas region, some burning tires in scenes reminiscent of last year, when blockades caused sporadic food shortages and sent local financial markets tumbling. Friday's protests pushed U.S. soy futures and local livestock prices higher, while the peso and Argentine bonds fell. Mario Balletto, a Citigroup analyst in Chicago, said "seven days will not cause too much excitement but the uncertainty that it could become longer would be supportive" for prices.

Fernandez has refused to lower the tax on soybeans from the current rate of 35 percent, even as global prices have slid 40 percent from last year's record high and a severe drought has slashed corn and wheat production. She defends the levies as a way to share wealth in a country where roughly one in four people lives in poverty.

Soy is Argentina's top crop and income from taxes on soybeans, oil and meal has become more important for the government as the economy slows after years of robust growth...the farming conflict is leading major soy buyers like China to look to the United States and Brazil for supplies, industry analysts said.

The current grains harvest, valued at about $17 billion, is expected to earn the government $5.6 billion in export levies, the vast majority from soy, according to a recent estimate by the Argentine Rural Society.
Aren't Peronist politics supposed to be populist? You don't hear of counterprotests.

Investment Grade Debt for Libya? Yessiree Bob

♠ Posted by Emmanuel in at 3/21/2009 05:39:00 PM
Picture this: a country whose leader was not so long ago synonymous with terrorist activity is now a near-shining model of economic rectitude, while its historical antagonist the United States is a basket case whose currency the community of nations will soon suggest others flee from. How time change, eh? From MarketWatch:
[Standard & Poor's] assigned Libya A- long-term and A-2 short-term foreign and local currency ratings, citing the strength of its balance sheet. The ratings agency assigned the sovereign rating following a request from Libya's government, said David Beers, global head of sovereign ratings at Standard & Poor's, in a phone interview with MarketWatch.

"I think it's fair to say that their motivation to ask for the rating is in keeping with the broader philosophy of recent economic reforms," Beers said. "The rating is useful in terms of helping the country attract more foreign investment. Unsurprisingly, the focus of investor interest has been overwhelmingly in the oil and gas sector," Beers said. Other sectors that will likely draw investors are banking and tourism, he said.

Located in North Africa, Libya has the largest proven oil reserves in Africa. A member of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries, it also holds vast reserves of natural gas. Its leader, Moammar Gadhafi, has been in power since 1969...

S&P assigned a stable outlook on Libya's ratings. "The ratings on Libya are supported primarily by what we consider is one of the strongest balance sheets among A-rated sovereigns, comprising substantial public assets and negligible debt, relatively low financial contingent liabilities, and the solid medium-term growth prospects of the country's energy sector," said Standard & Poor's credit analyst Ben Faulks in a statement...

S&P expects the sharp fall in oil prices and OPEC-driven cuts in production to cause a significant contraction of Libya's real and nominal gross domestic product this year. However, due to its strong balance sheet, Libya is well-equipped to confront likely fiscal and current account deficits and to moderate what could otherwise be a significant shock to the economy, S&P said.

The country's medium-term growth prospects are "promising," and international oil companies have demonstrated great interest in Libya, attracted by low production costs and the fact that some 75% of the country remains unexplored, the agency said. Infrastructure is underdeveloped following years of international isolation.

"The main constraint on the ratings on Libya is our belief that decision-making is more centralized and the political process more complex than in many A-rated peers, leading to less predictability in policy-making," S&P said.
At this point, Moammar could teach Barack a thing or two--especially about socialism.

North-South Divide: UN To Say "Let's Ditch the $"

♠ Posted by Emmanuel in ,, at 3/20/2009 01:13:00 AM
It's times like this when you should be glad about my semi-fastidious approach to classic IPE problematiques. Today, we return to the never-ending issue of a North-South divide between industrialized and developing countries concerning reserve currencies. It is no secret that the US is resorting to all sorts of dollar molestation tactics to buoy its economy. The US government will print something on the order of $2 trillion in IOUs to pay for a $787 billion stimulus package and a plan to refinance foreclosed mortgages (many of which will foreclose again anyway). Plus, you have news that the Fed plans to add $300B or so more to its balance sheet by purchasing long-dated Treasuries to try and lower consumer borrowing costs. In effect, the US government is cranking the printing press not only to mint its IOUs but also to allow the Fed to buy up Treasuries that America herself issued. What a plan.

These actions have not endeared the US to LDCs, just as the US running chronic external deficits didn't at the turn of the 1970s culminating in the "Nixon Shock" demise of the dollar-gold standard. LDC unhappiness stems from the US being unconcerned as the value of the world's standard reserve currency, the dollar, sinks. In response to dollar molestation, necessary commodities become dear, swelling many LDCs' import bills--especially those of oil importers. Many have long been concerned about America's willingness to abuse this privilege of issuing dollars, including John Maynard Keynes who suggested the creation of the bancor. Postwar Britain not being the dominant power at the Bretton Woods conference, this idea was quickly shelved by the US, which naturally favored a multilateral system built on American hegemony.

Hence, special drawing rights (SDRs) established during the turn of the seventies did not really allay LDCs fears; it has never really fulfilled the role of an alternative reserve denomination as SDR holdings remain minuscule among various countries' reserve holdings. Given current global conditions, however, LDCs are once again clamoring for a genuine dollar alternative. From Reuters comes this potential bombshell:
A U.N. panel will next week recommend that the world ditch the dollar as its reserve currency in favor of a shared basket of currencies, a member of the panel said on Wednesday, adding to pressure on the dollar.

Currency specialist Avinash Persaud, a member of the panel of experts, told a Reuters Funds Summit in Luxembourg that the proposal was to create something like the old Ecu, or European currency unit, that was a hard-traded, weighted basket. [He] said the recommendation would be one of a number delivered to the United Nations on March 25 by the U.N. Commission of Experts on International Financial Reform. "It is a good moment to move to a shared reserve currency," he said.

Central banks hold their reserves in a variety of currencies and gold, but the dollar has dominated as the most convincing store of value -- though its rate has wavered in recent years as the United States ran up huge twin budget and external deficits...

Persaud said that the United States was concerned that holding the reserve currency made it impossible to run policy, while the rest of world was also unhappy with the generally declining dollar. "There is a moment that can be grasped for change," he said. "Today the Americans complain that when the world wants to save, it means a deficit. A shared (reserve) would reduce the possibility of global imbalances."

Persaud said the panel had been looking at using something like an expanded Special Drawing Right, originally created by the International Monetary Fund in 1969 but now used mainly as an accounting unit within similar organizations.
So there you have it. After all this time, the question of an alternative reserve currency remains unresolved as old ideas are being resurrected. Actually, this proposal mirrors a more recent one by the historically LDC-friendly UN Conference for Trade and Development (UNCTAD) to reduce the asymmetries in the world economy where industrialized countries able to print reserve currencies can splurge while LDCs are forced to save [see my recent post on this point and also this UNCTAD summary]:
[UNCTAD Chief Macroeconomist Heiner Flassbeck] said it was essential to examine this problem from a broader perspective - namely that under the current system, some countries were not allowed to “print unlimited amounts of money” or run large budget deficits without causing their currency to “fall down a very deep hole.” This represented a fundamental asymmetry in the global economy that was in no one’s interest. In effect, countries who are the victims of currency speculation, or “carry-trade” (portfolio investments based on borrowing in low-yielding currencies and investing in high-yielding ones) are forced to take “pro-cyclical” measures (such as interest rate hikes or public budget cuts or freezes) that aggravate the crisis in the real economy in order to reassure international currency speculators. This perverse phenomenon underlined the importance of UNCTAD’s proposal to develop a multilateral framework for an automatic stabilization of real exchange rates that would defeat the purpose of any speculative attack on a currency. This would enable all countries to regain the policy space needed to act in the interest of the real economy and avoid “beggar-thy-neighbour” policies or “devaluation wars” reminiscent of the 1930s...

Such a global reserve currency was part of the original proposals of John Maynard Keynes at the 1944 United Nations Bretton Woods Conference (which he had termed the “bancor”), but it was resisted by the United States at the time. Instead, the IMF constitution enables it to issue an artificial liquidity called “Special Drawing Rights” (SDRs), but its emission has been blocked by the United States’ de facto veto at the IMF and suffers from a number of limitations compared to Keynes’ original proposal, including the IMF’s governance structure. Nobel Prize laureate Joseph Stiglitz, who also chairs the Commission of Experts of the President of the United Nations General Assembly on Reforms of the International Monetary and Financial System, has repeatedly emphasized that the need for a new global reserve system which would be more stable than the US dollar has become more dire today: it is an idea “whose time may have finally come.”

In a nutshell, the system would work as follows: when a country faces a devaluation attack, the monetary authorities of the revaluing currency would automatically stave off the attack by a symmetrical intervention to stop the “undershooting” with its own currency, which is available in unlimited amounts: it can be printed. Nominal exchange rate changes would be readjusted periodically by governments, not markets - which contrary to neo-classical theory have empirically been proven not to be able to get “the price right.” These adjustments would be based on the objective criterion of changes in Purchasing Power Parity, or “inflation differentials.” Unlike the Post-World War II Bretton Woods system of fixed exchange rates (which was based on the US dollar and collapsed in 1970s), the value of each currency would be anchored to a new artificial global currency based on a basket of currency values, like the European “ECU” was used in Europe prior to Monetary Union.
One hopes this new proposal does not fall on deaf ears like both times before--at the Bretton Woods Conference and during the demise of the dollar-gold standard. Certainly, the US is much weaker at this point and cannot exercise as much hegemonic power as way back when. I, however, think the remedy to the US holding the rest of the world hostage to "quantitative easing" (dollar molestation) is for China to show solidarity with third world concerns and stop buoying the dollar. I wish the UN the best but do not pitch my hopes too high.

The Official Anthem of Protectionist Mania 2009

♠ Posted by Emmanuel in , at 3/19/2009 08:45:00 AM

I'm strapped for time but, in light of this place becoming the International Protectionist Economy Zone, here's my choice for this year's new official song. This one is off Jamaican disco goddess Grace Jones' classic album from 1980, Warm Leatherette. I was inspired to look for this song appropriately entitled "Bulls--t" on YouTube and, sure enough, here it is. I suggest they play it at the next G-20 meeting before proceedings get underway:

And if I wander down the wrong road,
It's alright baby, just let me go,
If I get tired of all those a--holes,
It's alright cause' I want them to know.

I'm sick and tired of all this bulls--t,
Rough s--t, same s--t

Juice protectionism, mining protectionism, trucking protectionism..I really am tired of these never-ending variations on a pathetic theme.

If Geithner's the Lone Ranger, Where's Tonto?

♠ Posted by Emmanuel in at 3/19/2009 05:32:00 AM
Kindred over at IPE@UNC uncovered startling online evidence that Treasury Secretary Geithner may truly be a one-man show. It reminds me of a somewhat offensive joke about the Lone Ranger and sex education, although this one is more appropriate:
The Lone Ranger and Tonto find themselves in very big trouble. 100 Indians to the north, 75 to the east, 200 to the south and 400 to the west. The Lone Ranger turns to Tonto and says: "What do you think we should do Tonto?"

Tonto replies: "What you mean we white man?"

Geithner's is truly a thankless task. The stakes are pretty high if you screw up, to say the least. Just a few days ago, I said in jest that he'd be pricing women's pantyhose in the near future given the US government's continuing usurpation of the private sector's previous remit. Given his expanding portfolio, he could use some warm bodies real soon.

Gotcha 2! China Blocks Coca-Cola's Huiyuan Bid

♠ Posted by Emmanuel in , at 3/18/2009 11:14:00 AM
There I was just a few minutes ago, feeling all sympathetic to China being thwarted yet again by Western protectionism when, uh, the PRC returned the favor. About half a year ago, I discussed at greater length Coca-Cola wanting to buy China's largest juicemaker, Huiyuan. It needn't have wasted its time. From the Financial Times:
China on Wednesday formally rejected Coca-Cola’s proposed $2.4bn takeover of the country’s leading juice maker on competition grounds. The decision represents a major blow to multinational companies seeking to make acquisitions in China. The planned deal, the largest ever foreign takeover of a Chinese company, was the first major test of the country’s revamped anti-monopoly regime that was given extra teeth last August.

China’s ministry of commerce said that allowing the deal to proceed would hurt small local juice companies, could have pushed up juice market prices and limited consumers’ choices. Huiyuan, which is listed in Hong Kong, boasts a 42 per cent share of the domestic market in pure fruit juices. The announcement follows an earlier report in the Financial Times that the regulator had demanded that Coke relinquish the China Huiyuan Juice brand after the acquisition. People familiar with the matter said the ministry’s thinking reflected wider worries in Beijing about the loss of a leading brand to a foreign company. The demand was regarded as a deal breaker because the US company offered to pay a huge premium on the basis of Huiyuan’s strong brand image...

MofCom’s decision is a huge setback to the selling consortium which comprises Zhu Xinli, Huiyuan founder chairman, who owns 36 per cent of the company and France’s Danone, which owns 23 per cent. Warburg Pincus, the US private equity firm, owns 6.8 per cent.
You could say that this decision is retaliation for then-US Trade Representative Susan Schwab singling out China for subsidies given to "famous brands" in the dying days of the Bush administration--something the PRC clearly intended Huiyuan to be in the future given its insistence that Coca-Cola give up the name after purchasing the concern. Yes, American football fans, it's like the city of Cleveland asking that the Browns name and brand remain in the city's hands after its then-owner split for Baltimore. What more can I say? This has become the International Protectionism Economy Zone.

UPDATE: I neglected to mention pertinent history for those unfamiliar with the story. The US gave Chinese energy firm CNOOC the political run-around after it expressed interest in buying Unocal over dubious "national security" concerns. Rather than be subject to undue scrutiny, CNOOC dropped the bid. Also, Huawei Technologies' bid for 3Com was dropped after being subject to political point scoring described by a Huawei senior exec as "bulls--t."