Goldhater: Can India Fix Its Current Account Deficit?

♠ Posted by Emmanuel in , at 1/31/2014 10:28:00 AM
First came the James Bond film Goldfinger, then came the spoof movie Goldmember. Now we have the threequel...Goldhater. It is generally well-known that India is a major if not the #1 market for the precious metal since many cultural traditions are based on it--especially as gifts. However, the substantial rise in gold prices in the past decade or so has served to increase India's current account deficit. How to control rises in the deficit, then? India has been busy slapping one tax on gold after another:
India will not revise its record high import duty on gold and other restrictions on imports until the nation's current account deficit is firmly under control, Finance Minister P Chidambaram said in Davos on 23 January. India has a record high 10% import duty on gold and a rule that says 20% of all bullion imports must exit the country as exports.

The subcontinent used to be the world's largest consumer of the precious metal until the government made three upward revisions to the import taxes on gold, to reign in a record current account deficit (CAD). The country's CAD could hover below the $50bn mark in the year to 31 March, 2014, a $20bn reduction from previous estimates.
In the longer term, officials indicate that changing consumption patterns of gold will be affected less by government fiat and more by cultural changes away from prioritizing exchanges of the precious metal. According to RBI Deputy Governor K C Chakrabarty::
Speaking at a panel discussion on Gold and its status in India - at IIMB, he said gold intoxication [don't you just love that term?] is prevalent only to India, and society as a whole must work together to change mindsets.

"Stop giving or taking gold as dowry and stop giving gold to temples," he advised. Maintaining that RBI has never stopped import of gold, he said: "Do not borrow money from banks to import gold." "Consumer has never benefitted from gold and gold has given a negative return world-wide, it is not an investment but a speculation," he added.
To be sure, the Congress Party has an eye on winning the next elections too, and all of these restrictions of gold imports may partly be responsible for its current unpopularity. Will Congress Party leaders loosen restrictions, then? They at least claim to be sticking to their guns:
Answering a query about an earlier media report that Sonia Gandhi, the leader of the ruling Congress party, had written to the Indian government asking for gold import restrictions to be relaxed, Chidambaram said he had not read the letter.
"Until we have a firm grip on the current account deficit I do not contemplate any roll back in any measure. We will have a full idea of the current account deficit only when the budget is presented and when the year comes to an end," Chidambaram told CNBC TV18 in Davos.
We'll see...

Bet on Asia? How Macau Stomps Puny Las Vegas

♠ Posted by Emmanuel in , at 1/29/2014 02:00:00 PM
I did not fully appreciate how well and truly Las Vegas has been eclipsed by Macau. 2006 was the year Macau overtook Las Vegas in gambling revenues. Perhaps reflecting the dour, sour mood of a has-been nation experiencing the overwhelming misery wrought by the BushBama years, Las Vegas has gone nowhere since. However, Macau is going from strength to strength. From crackdowns on free-spending PRC officials siphoning government funds to gamble in Macau to an induced slowdown in growth on the mainland, it doesn't matter. Indeed, the worry is not about Macau losing paying customers, but not having enough facilities to welcome them:
Analysts expect Macau, the only place in China where casino gambling is legal, to widen its lead this year on the Las Vegas Strip, whose revenue was likely only about one-seventh of Macau's in 2013. Deutsche Bank analyst Karen Tang forecasts the territory's gambling revenue will grow by 20% in 2014. Aaron Fischer, an analyst at brokerage CLSA, predicts it will hit $77 billion by 2017. That compares with 360.7 billion patacas ($45.2 billion) in 2013. December's revenue totaled 33.46 billion patacas, also up 19% year to year, according to data from Macau's Gaming Inspection and Coordination Bureau.

In 2012, Macau's gambling revenue rose 14%. Investors in Macau casino stocks have profited handsomely thanks to the tremendous growth. Over the past year, top performers included Nasdaq-listed Melco Crown Entertainment Ltd. as well as Hong Kong-listed MGM China Holdings Ltd. and Galaxy Entertainment Group Ltd. , whose share prices all more than doubled. Each of those companies, along with Las Vegas Sands Corp. and Wynn Resorts Ltd. of the U.S. and SJM Holdings Ltd. of Hong Kong, is investing billions more in expansion projects in Macau, betting that the phenomenal growth over the past decade or so won't fizzle.

Many analysts remain bullish on the sector, which has been among the region's best performers for years, but investment concerns include issues such as Macau's limited hotel-room growth in the near term, delays on major infrastructure projects, and labor shortages amid a building boom, says Morgan Stanley analyst Praveen Choudhary.
In terms of gambling revenue, there is simply no contest as Las Vegas is a pipsqueak in comparison. To make a tennis comparison prior to the 2014 Australian Open (the sport is popular with gamblers), it's a Rafael Nadal versus Stanislas Wawrinka story. Las Vegas revenues were a puny 1/7th of Macau's. I thought it was a typo, but no. The big spenders are in the Orient; small fry go to Vegas. It's a microcosm of their nation's respective trajectories:
Las Vegas has been struggling to recover since the financial crisis, which left the vaunted Las Vegas Strip littered with abandoned, multibillion-dollar casino projects. For example, the Fontainebleau resort, which was supposed to have 4,000 rooms, halted construction and sold off all its furniture after falling into bankruptcy protection in 2009 as the economy sank. For 2013, analysts expect the Strip's revenue edged up 3% to $6.4 billion from $6.2 billion. Las Vegas represents about 10% of the U.S. gambling market, according to a 2011 report by PriceWaterhouseCoopers.
What's more, octogenarian billionaire Lui Che-Woo momentarily eclipsed Hong Kong's Li Ka-Shing as Asia's wealthiest person on the back of Macau's booming economy--it places either as first or second fastest-growing (after Mongolia) worldwide:
Lui Che-Woo, founder of casino operator Galaxy Entertainment Group Ltd., remained Asia’s second-richest person yesterday, trailing only Hong Kong real estate investor Li Ka-Shing, according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index. The gambling mogul’s net worth had risen $2.9 billion this year to $23.7 billion as of 5:30 p.m. yesterday in New York. Li has a $29.5 billion fortune and has been the richest in the region since April 9, 2012, when he passed Indian billionaire Mukesh Ambani.

Lui’s wealth is anchored by his family’s 51 percent stake in Galaxy, Asia’s third-largest casino operator by revenue. The company’s shares rose 129 percent last year as gaming revenue in Macau, the only city in China where casinos are legal, climbed 18.6 percent to $45.2 billion. Gamblers converged on the island’s biggest plot of land in Cotai, Asia’s version of the Las Vegas Strip and home of Lui’s biggest casino, Galaxy Macau.
Of course, all the Strip's bigwigs have set up shop in greener pastures--Sheldon Anderson, Steve Wynn, you name it. What sort of idiot would bet on America circa 2014? Not Steve Wynn. To paraphrase the old tagline, what economic misery happens Stateside stays in Vegas. The irony is not lost that Las Vegas' revenues are flatlining just as it has become the United States' fastest-growing city population-wise. That so many Yanquis are flocking to this faded gambling destination speaks volumes about how it's even more miserable elsewhere in America.  Fortunately, there are much more happenin' places elsewhere in the globe.

US-Owned Cruise Lines: Guaranteeing Misery at Sea

♠ Posted by Emmanuel in at 1/29/2014 01:02:00 PM
So many people to poison, so little time
American air lines and cruise lines are renowned worldwide for their absolutely abysmal standards (if they have any). There is nothing as soul-destroying as taking a flight on American, Delta, United. US carriers are rightly regarded as utter garbage by global standards, and these purveyors of human misery will never win any global travel awards.

Not content with immiserizing American flyers, Yanquis dabbling with the travel industry have expanded operations to cruise lines. Carnival Cruise Lines are famous for sickening passengers on their pile 'em high and sell 'em cheap misadventures to parts of travel misery unknown. And, of course, they recently decided to go one step further by grounding one of their vessels on the Italian coast and sending paying customers to the Great Port of Call in the Sky. The Costa Concordia may have fooled some into thinking it was operated by a "safe" European line, and people literally paid with their lives for this error.

So it is with the Royal Caribbean Explorer of the Seas turning into the Vomiter of the Seas as it somehow managed to sicken 600 passengers. Again, the Royal Caribbean name may have fooled some into thinking they were journeying on a decent European liner. Actually, Royal Caribbean used to be a pretty respectable liner.  It was founded by Norwegians after all, but it was purchased by US-based Celebrity Cruise lines in 1997. Celebrity, of course, is also famous for sickening its passengers in that quintessentially American style. It thus comes as no surprise that Royal Caribbean would adopt the same sort of, er, "management techniques."

Bottom line: Stay away from all these race-to-the-bottom American cruise lines. The Carnival-Celebrity axis of sink 'n' spew is justly derided, but they also have subsidiaries that try to dissociate themselves from their horrid US owners. Nice try, but I think the global public is [pardon the expression] catching on.

UPDATE: Royal Caribbean is now lowballing its ghastly cruises to $32/night. Classy, huh?

USAID Told to Get Lost Pt. 3 (Ecuador Edition)

♠ Posted by Emmanuel in , at 1/26/2014 05:59:00 PM
I almost forgot to post about this one (apologies). Mostly on the grounds of political interference, the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) has, in the past few years, been bounced from Russia and Bolivia. The proximate cause is when USAID provides funding to civil society organizations which may not be in the best standing with the leaders of these countries. And so the story repeats itself in Ecuador:
The United States has canceled aid to Ecuador worth $32 million over the coming years after long-running disputes with the government of socialist President Rafael Correa, according to U.S. officials. Correa, a U.S.-trained economist, has often been at odds with Washington since winning power in 2007. He accuses the U.S. government of trying to undermine him and this year Ecuador renounced U.S. trade benefits dating from the early 1990s [see here].

According to a U.S. State Department spokesperson, Ecuador recently informed the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) it could not undertake new activities or extend existing ones without an accord governing bilateral assistance. This led to the U.S. decision to cancel the aid. "Our planned $32 million in assistance programs for the coming years would have allowed us to partner with Ecuadoreans to achieve their own development goals in critical areas," said a letter dated December 12 from USAID to Ecuador seen by Reuters.
Ecuadorean grievances with American interference during the term of Correa are plentiful:
President Correa has made no secret of his disdain for US officials who he sees as overreaching their diplomatic duties and meddling in domestic affairs. In 2011, he kicked out the US ambassador for comments made in a diplomatic cable published by WikiLeaks that said Correa might have been aware of high-level police corruption. A year later, he granted asylum to the face of WikiLeaks, Julian Assange, who is still holed up in Ecuador’s London embassy.

“In some ways these actions, and the [USAID decision] can be put in there too, are intended to say that we are an independent sovereign nation,” [...] “In the perspective of many in Latin America, and with good reason, USAID is seen as an agent of US imperialism.”

Last year, Correa ordered his government to analyze the impact of a USAID exodus. Requests for comment to Ecuador’s Foreign Affairs Ministry were not returned Friday. Correa in June was granted wide-ranging powers to intervene in the operations of non-governmental organizations (NGOs), which often receive funding from USAID. The decree also created a screening process for international groups wanting to work in the country.
It is ironic, really. In the name of "development," the US funds politically-opposed NGOs that make no bones about their disdain for the host government and openly wish it replaced. Meanwhile, the supposedly "anti-imperialist" Ecuador is especially prone to muzzling dissenting voices. There are no real protagonists here. Still, the end result of this power play is (again) adios, USAID. 

Can [Mexico, Turkey] Withstand EM Selloff?

♠ Posted by Emmanuel in , at 1/24/2014 07:26:00 PM
OK, here's the quick version of What's Going On in the World Economy. Despite the US jokeonomy failing to revive from comatose to, say, zombified as witnessed by the labor force participation rate falling with no end in sight, the rumor is that the Fed will further slow down its purchases of US Treasuries. In turn, expectations of higher interest rates Stateside is causing a selloff in emerging markets as investors repatriate their funds.

Who, then, is macho enough to weather this Made In America @&^*storm? Argentina is putting the pedal to the metal on the highway to hell, but it was headed in that general direction anyway. Hence the emerging markets' latest battle cry to all those who care to listen: Developing countries are not all alike! We're not Argentina! Or so they say from Davos, Switzerland.

Among those protesting most loudly there is Turkey, most likely because many commentators have lumped it with the "developing economies likely to falter" category. And so the lira goes...but not as far as the Argentinean peso, officials claim:
Turkey's Deputy Prime Minister Ali Babacan said the lira's tumble on Friday was a "re-pricing process" due to recent political turmoil as well as the U.S. Federal Reserve's plan to gradually withdraw stimulus.

"What's happening in Turkey mostly is a re-pricing process. Not only just because of the Fed's tapering but also the recent political events have triggered some market volatility," he told a panel at the World Economic Forum in Davos. Turkey's lira tumbled to new lows on Friday and investors doubted its central bank's ability to stem the rout as Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan seeks to defuse a corruption scandal and stem a challenge to his power.
As an import-dependent economy with a quickly depreciating currency, I am unfortunately wary of Turkey's situation. OTOH, similar protestations about economic health are being made by Mexico:
The current volatility in currency markets will have some effect on Mexico, but without major disruption, Mexican Finance Minister Luis Videgaray said in an interview with Reuters Television. "Mexico is an emerging market, so all volatility is going to have some effect, but Mexico is well-positioned to weather the currency storm," Videgaray told Reuters TV on the sidelines of a gathering of business and political elites in this Swiss mountain resort...

Looking ahead, emerging markets are expected to face a volatile 2014 as the U.S. Federal Reserve scales back its stimulus programme. "We expected this year to be a volatile year for EM as the Fed tapers," he said, adding that volatility "will happen throughout the year as tapering goes on." The minister said Mexico's currency, the peso, was currently quite liquid. Should that change, Mexico would consider intervening, he said. "I don't see any problems of liquidity in the market for the Mexican peso," he said. "We would intervene to provide liquidity in the market, but this is not the case now; the peso is quite liquid now." 
Mexico has better macroeconomic fundamentals to withstand the EM selloff. Most importantly, it has a healthier balance of payments than Turkey, which has a gaping current account deficit it is (unsuccessfully) trying to belittle. Mexico will take its lumps, but I expect it to fare well among the EMs.

Party Like 2001: Argentina Again Headed for Default

♠ Posted by Emmanuel in , at 1/23/2014 01:33:00 PM
There is no shortage of bad news these days...even The Captain and Tennille of "Muskrat Love" fame are calling it quits. In a sort-of related story, the Argentinian love affair with the retro-Peronist Fernandez-Kirchners appears to be coming to an end. Buoyed earlier by disavowing its foreign debt and engaging in a program of massive government spending powered by money printing, things were bound to come to an unfortunate end sooner or later. 2014 may be the year when the hurt that has been storing up since Argentina's 2001 default comes back in a big way:
Thirteen years after that collapse, President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner is running out of time to avert another crisis. The policy mix that Fernandez and her late husband and predecessor, Nestor Kirchner, used to usher in 7 percent average annual growth over the past decade -- higher government spending financed by printing money -- is unraveling. 
Populism plus mismanagement equals a fine mess as the government has issued economic statistics from fantasyland to hide the extent of its woes. The government claims inflation "only" in the low double digits, but more reality-based calculations suggest more than that--even double:
Inflation soared to 28 percent last year, according to opposition lawmaker Patricia Bullrich, who divulges monthly estimates for economists cowed into silence by Fernandez’s crackdown on price reports that clash with official figures. By the government’s count, inflation was less than 11 percent.  
And we get to the most dispiriting thing: the 2001 crisis was accompanied by the Argentine currency board being shattered to smithereens as its pegged rate could not be maintained. Well, guess what? In 2014, the Argentine peso is worth even less than way back when. Some progress, huh?
The peso sank 3.5 percent to a record low of 7.14 per dollar yesterday, according to Banco de la Nacion Argentina, and has plunged more than 25 percent in the past 12 months. That’s its worst selloff since the devaluation that followed the default. Currencies from only three countries in the world have fallen more: war-torn Syria, Iran and Venezuela.

Power outages like the one that sunk Kanaza’s shop into darkness are becoming more frequent, deepening the economic slump, after the nation’s grid atrophied under a decade of government-set electricity price controls. The International Monetary Fund, which censured Argentina last year for misreporting inflation, predicts economic growth will slow to 2.8 percent this year, about half the 5.1 percent average across developing nations. 
No electricity, soaring inflation, violent protests, worthless currency...some successful anti-neoliberal project this is. The general pattern of what's happened in Venezuela and Argentina are similar. The populists Hugo Chavez and Nestor Kirchner were able to buy off public support in the face of rising global commodity prices. However, their successors Nicolas Maduro and Cristina Fernandez have been unfortunate enough to be in office at a time when commodity prices have slumped and these countries' economic fortunes have become pear-shaped. Against such an unfavorable backdrop, they have no money to go where their mouths are at.

Argentina is also beginning to play nice with the international community after years of playing the "screw the foreigners"  cards to win domestic approval. It's probably too little, too late:
As dollars vanish from the central bank, the government has begun to seek to normalize relations with foreign creditors. On Jan. 20, Argentina presented a proposal to the Paris Club of creditors to seek a negotiated resolution to outstanding debt of about $10 billion. The government also has begun talks to compensate Repsol SA for the stake in oil company YPF SA it nationalized in 2012, and is preparing to unveil new inflation and growth data to address International Monetary Fund concerns over the accuracy of official statistics. 

Lampooning PRC 'Non-Interference' in South Sudan

♠ Posted by Emmanuel in ,, at 1/21/2014 08:54:00 AM
Does China side with President Salva Kiir or Rick Machar? Both? Neither?
 Us folks working in development studies are simply fascinated by the mysterious foreign aid activities of China. Unlike rich countries which are members of the OECD Development Assistance Committee (DAC) and disclose who receives their aid, for which projects and in what amount, China does not feel an obligation to do so. A few years ago now, China released a white paper on foreign aid that gave a fleeting glimpse of its aid practices, albeit without disclosing how much it has actually provided over the years and much more.

China's practices do not really qualify as "official development aid" in the Western OECD sense. As AidData noted:
Chinese foreign aid has long been a subject of scrutiny and controversy. It doesn’t easily fit into the OECD’s definition of Official Development Assistance (ODA). Much is financed through the China Eximbank in the form of concessional loans that directly support Chinese economic interests, and carried out by embassies and consulates rather than development agencies. Most importantly, project-level data on Chinese aid is essentially non-existent
Such lack of transparency and emphasis on extractive industries in places alike the African continent occasions much hand-wringing. The cartoon above lampoons China on two of its main selling points to the rest of the world: (1) its non-interference in the internal affairs of other countries and (2) its status as a developing country alike them. South Sudan's early post-independence years are turning out to be tumultuous indeed, with political factions fighting in what remains an exceedingly poor country despite its vast energy reserves.

As is often the case, the countries that can least afford such unproductive conflicts often engage in them. The cartoon asks us, is China making the situation in South Sudan worse because of its indifference to politics for as long as it gets its cut of energy supplies? You can argue that China is caught in the midst of someone else's conflict it has played little part in fostering. OTOH, its indifference combined with a generous dole out to those willing to support its energy extraction needs may literally be fueling the conflict. At any rate, the current conflict crimping its supply is urging it to mediate to some extent between the two sides--both of which whose favor it has courted before.

There are no easy answers. All the same, China should be increasingly mindful about how Africans are portraying its activities as in the cartoon above.

Secrets of Orlando's 'Harry Potter' Theme Park Success

♠ Posted by Emmanuel in , at 1/21/2014 08:51:00 AM
You needn't be a movie star to enjoy Butterbeer,; just head to Orlando FL
Here's another example of the fallibility of what you read on the Internet--this time from, er, me. Three years ago, I thought that the development of a Harry Potter theme park in Orlando, Florida based on the world-conquering series of books and cinematographic adaptations was a bad idea. Why? Simply put, it deals with location, location, location. If the series were set in a sunny and humid climate where the protagonists wore beach shorts and flip-flops all the time, then there would be no problem. As it is, however, the series is set in a dark, dank, and damp England.

So, kudos are due to Universal Studios since things have turned out very well. They took risks and have been handsomely rewarded. All the same, the secret weapon behind its success is an unlikely one: Harry Potter happens in a virtual (non-existent) space you must reach by boarding a fictional train. However, the evocative appeal of hypothetical foodstuffs being served in this realm have long attracted attention from fans and foodies alike. Use "Harry Potter cookbook" for your search terms on Amazon and knock yourselves out. As it so happens, much of Universal's financial success has to do with being authentic--in spirit at least--to foodstuffs from the movie.

For the first time ever, we have an excerpt from Tourist Attractions & Parks magazine on food theming:
Yet, despite these three different [ride] thrills, the real story behind the success of Universal’s Harry Potter world centers around the less publicized but higher profit food, beverage, and merchandise operations that seem to have cast an irresistible spell on guests and their pocket books...

According to Brent Young, the president of Super 78, a visual solutions company with deep roots in the theme park industry, “it is well known in the creative community that theming food and beverage creates a consistent guest experience and park attendees are much more likely to want to interact with the themed environment in a real way.” This is what makes the food and beverage operations at the Wizarding World even more impressive:  Universal was able to take an existing concept, themed dining, and transform it into part of the overall “storyline” while still making mounds of money in the process.
Take, for instance, "butterbeer":
Up until the Wizarding World debuted, the fascinating drinks and meals that Rowling created in Harry’s World had been intricately described by the author but never really tasted.  After all, these dishes and beverages never actually exist beyond the pages of the novels [but see my rejoinder above on unofficial themed cookbooks].  This meant that, in developing the culinary side of Harry Potter’s world, Universal had to transform fictional items to real-world tastes.

An easy and less expensive route could have been to de-emphasize the culinary authenticity of that part of the Wizarding World.  Sources close to the project, though, explain that [series author J.K.] Rowling would have none of this.  Her dictate was that all aspects, not just the attractions and physical buildings, must transport the guest into Harry’s world.

As a result, Universal spent large amounts of time and money to refine the recipe for the iconic Butterbeer beverage from the Potter novels.  Numerous recipes and taste tests were held to refine every aspect from the first sip to the final aftertaste.  This was all done to insure that Butterbeer was not too sweet nor too bitter, not too syrupy nor too watery.  Not too everything nor too everything else but instead the perfect replication of a heretofore fictional drink.

The end product was one of the amusement industry’s most expensively designed beverages ever, and, according to these same sources, one of the most financially successful ones ever.  Indeed, this investment has yielded amazing revenue for Universal, more so than even their most optimistic expectations.
As far as I can tell, the shortcomings of the Orlando climate in mimicking that of England are more than made up for in the minds of punters (Brit-speak for paying customers) by authenticity to fictional foodstuffs. They stand in line for minutes and are more than happy to do so. Go figure; I guess there are good reasons why I'm not in the theme park business.

So Long, Asia: Africa is Now Fastest-Growing Continent

♠ Posted by Emmanuel in , at 1/19/2014 10:13:00 AM
At  midyear 2013, IMF bloggers declared Africa to be the second-fastest growing region in the world after (developing) Asia. Fast-forward a couple of months and it now has the distinction of being the world's fastest-growing region outright. Given that Africa has unfortunately lagged behind other regions in terms of growth during the past few decades, this occurrence is a welcome one, and this Asian certainly bears no grudges in seeing our African peers outperforming. Well done!

However, this distinction being bestowed by the African Development Bank, the AfDB unsurprisingly asks for more of the "good governance" agenda it has championed for quite some time alike its other regional development bank counterparts as well as the World Bank. It is still very much in vogue in development circles:
Africa is now the fastest growing continent in the world, the African Development Bank’s Annual Development Effectiveness Review 2013 [ADER] states. The report, just published, says this growth has been driven mainly by improved economic governance on the continent and the private sector. “Africa’s economic growth could not have happened without major improvement in economic governance.

More than two-thirds of the continent has registered overall improvement in the quality of economic governance in recent years, with increased capacity to deliver economic opportunity and basic services,” it says. 
What kinds of improvements in governance are we talking about here? The AfDB centers on another chestnut of these institutions, the ease of doing business. Instead of having to pay bribes to various officials working in different government agencies to start up a (formal) business, African nations are supposedly reducing such opportunities for petty corruption and making it easier for entrepreneurs to get started:
The report says the costs of starting a business, for instance, have fallen by more than two-thirds over the past seven years, while delays for starting a business have been halved. It says the private sector has become the main engine of growth as the continent continues to improve its business climate. This growth is increasingly driven by internal demand.

“This progress has brought increased levels of trade and investment, with the annual rate of foreign investment increasing fivefold since 2000. For the future, improvements in such areas as access to finance and quality of infrastructure should help improve Africa’s global competitiveness,” the report states.
Better yet, the growth seen in recent times should continue into the medium term:
According to the ADER, growth in the continent’s low-income countries exceeded 4.5 per cent in 2012 and is forecast to remain at above 5.5 in the next few years. Africa’s collective gross domestic product (GDP) reached US $953 while the number of middle income countries on the continent rose to 26, out of a total of 54.

“Strong economic growth has made major inroads into income poverty. The share of the population living below the poverty line has fallen from 51 per cent to 39 per cent. Some 350 million Africans now earn between US $2 and US $20 a day, and the middle class is increasingly becoming an active consumer market,” the report says.
Some good news amidst doom and gloom in the developed world. 

Why China Holds Upper Hand Over US in Asia for 2014

♠ Posted by Emmanuel in , at 1/18/2014 03:13:00 PM
Or so the Nikkei Asian Review believes. And the reasons for China reasserting its sphere of influence in the region are straightforward. On China's part, it has the bully pulpit in 2014 as the host of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC). So, member economies' ministers--maybe even the Philippine president the PRC has put in its doghouse--will be trooping to the Middle Kingdom over the course of the year:
Holding the rotating chair of the APEC forum this year, China will host a series of APEC meetings, including those of ministers in charge of trade, energy and finance, in various parts of the country starting in May. The series of APEC events will culminate in a summit of leaders in a Beijing suburb in early autumn, which will be chaired by Chinese President Xi Jinping.

The APEC meetings will cover issues in a wide range of areas, including trade and investment rules and environmental and energy cooperation. By presiding over them, China will try to demonstrate its growing presence in the Asia-Pacific region. "The Xi administration sees the proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership pact, which the Obama administration is actively promoting, as part of Washington's efforts to leave China out and cement the U.S-led international order in Asia," said one source close to U.S.-China relations.

This fear will probably prompt China to try to take advantage of its role as APEC chair this year to regain some of the lost ground in the competition with the U.S. for influence in the region.
OTOH, the United States foreign diplomatic machinery will be stuck in its usual holding pattern due to the midterm elections, set to be held just as APEC gatherings reach their summit:
The odds seem to be against the Obama administration, at least this year. The energy the Obama administration can devote to promoting its Asia policy will be fairly limited as it will have to concentrate on campaigning for the Nov. 4 midterm Congressional elections in early autumn, when the APEC summit will be held.

The quadrennial Congressional elections will be very important for Obama's Democratic Party, which has a majority of seats in the Senate, but not in the House of Representatives. If the Democrats fail to end the divided Congress by wresting control of the House from the Republican Party in November, the Obama administration could lose some steam, with two years left before his term expires.
If Obama becomes an even lamer duck due to electoral setbacks for his party, then he will have even less leeway on the foreign policy front to make a major push towards Asia. 

The Rise and Rise of FDI From the Global South

♠ Posted by Emmanuel in , at 1/17/2014 05:20:00 AM
Much has been made of the protectionism which firms such as those from China have encountered investing in the West. I have called specious arguments on "national security" grounds unvarnished racism, and such discrimination certainly plays a part. Moreover, I have been further vindicated by leaks that reveal massive American spying on its own citizens and those of the rest of world. Who's the real "national security" threat here when one of the largest US tech firms labels its government as an "advanced persistent threat"? You are, quite frankly, a bleeping moron to believe in US security guarantees, especially when it comes to online activity. Internet freedom is effectively unlimited America freedom to spy on you.

However, developing countries' efforts to invest elsewhere is largely driving the ongoing controversy. That is, there would be nobody to discriminate against if their firms stayed home. Accordingly, there's interesting stuff in the current issue of Global Finance about the ever-rising amount of FDI originating from poor countries. Otherwise put, these are countries that in the not-so-distant past would have been mere recipients of FDI:
By far the biggest FDI story of the past few years is the rise of developing and transitioning countries as a source of outward FDI, which jumped from $65 billion in 2003 to $481 billion in 2012. Naturally, China is in a league of its own. In 2012 it came in third among the world’s top 20 investor-economies, behind only the US and Japan. Beyond the acquisitions it has been making across OECD countries, China is aggressively developing natural resources and infrastructure from Africa to the Middle East.

For example, in 2013, PetroChina bought a 25% stake in the Iraqi oilfield of West Qurna 1, right around the time construction of the new Mombasa-Nairobi railway line began in Kenya, financed by the Export-Import Bank of China to the tune of $4 billion. But the new FDI landscape does not include just China. FDI originating from emerging markets is multiplying around the world. In 2013 a Chilean bank took over an American one, a Thai energy company made its first investment in Australia, and the largest Coca Cola bottling company in Mexico acquired a competitor in Brazil.
Notably, however, Global South investors do not invest in the same way their Global North counterparts--traditional TNCs--do:
Importantly, developing and transitioning country investors display characteristics that set them apart from traditional developed-world multinationals.

For one, state-owned enterprises and sovereign wealth funds generate the lion’s share of outward investment. This raises concerns about fair competition. “SOEs may have access to lower-interest loans and better financing conditions [than non-SOE competitors],” says Masataka Fujita, who heads the investment trends section in the division of investment and enterprise at Unctad. “SWFs even have a large amount of assets under management, and, like in the case of SOEs, their governance structure is not always transparent.” Their operations are also viewed with suspicion by host economies because a foreign government is behind them.

In addition, emerging markets companies seem to prefer mergers & acquisitions over greenfield investment as a mode of entry, especially when it comes to FDI into developed countries. “They look to OECD countries because these remain the world’s largest markets and because they are interested in the technology found here,” says José Guimón de Ros, associate professor of economics at the Universidad Autonóma de Madrid in Spain. “Since the crisis, many developed-country companies are under stress and therefore cheaper, so now is a good time to buy them.” Partially as a result of this phenomenon, cross-border M&A has held steady in 2013, stabilizing global FDI flows even as investment in new productive assets has declined.

Finally, emerging markets companies are inherently more familiar than their OECD counterparts with how to do business in a developing-country setting. In part as a result, the majority of investment from emerging markets is going to other emerging markets. According to Unctad, in 2011, China exported 70%, and Brazil 40%, of its outward FDI stock to neighboring emerging economies. “Regulations in developing countries are less complicated,” says Du The Huynh, senior lecturer at the Fulbright Economics Teaching Program in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. “The competition is also less fierce.”

The telecom sector illustrates this well. Vietnam’s largest mobile-network operator, Viettel, has successfully established itself in Mozambique, Haiti, Laos and Cambodia, countries that by most OECD investors’ standards are difficult places to do business.
True, the Western media headlines are dominated by South-North FDI. real Yet it's not mostly the formerly colonized investing in the heartlands of the erstwhile colonizers, but poor countries venturing where rich countries dare not--scared off by corruption and other bogeymen for white people. Yes, South-South investment is happening:

to paraphrase Aretha Franklin, Queen of Soul, poor countries are doin' it for themselves.

PRC Industrial Policy: Killing Off 75% of Solar Makers

♠ Posted by Emmanuel in , at 1/15/2014 10:52:00 AM
Well surprise, surprise: Having reached a settlement last August with the European Union which was previously set to slap anti-dumping tariffs on its solar panels, we now get word on the extent of China's subsidies for the industry. At year-end 2013, the PRC's government rolled back the industrial benefits allotted to this industry, and there is now expected to be a bloodbath on the production floor of China's manufacturers. How bad will things get? Try a 75% "death sentence" rate as only a quarter or so of firms will remain eligible for government support. From the Nikkei Asian Review:
The Chinese government is pushing for a drastic shakeout of the country's overcrowded solar cell industry, supporting only a quarter of players and practically telling the rest to get out of the business. The Ministry of Industry and Information Technology has announced a list of 134 producers of silicon materials, solar panels and other components of photovoltaic systems as meeting certain conditions, as measured by 2012 production, capacity utilization and technical standards.

In a sector said to have more than 500 companies, the ministry's move means that three-quarters didn't make the cut -- including the core subsidiary of Suntech Power, which went bankrupt in March, and Jiangsu Shungfeng Photovoltaic Technology, Suntech's startup rescuer.

These firms will not be able to get credit lines from financial institutions and thus will have a tough time borrowing, according to industry insiders. They will also no longer be eligible for refunds of export tariffs, a huge blow to companies that depend on overseas business. On the home front, it will be difficult for them to participate in state-run utilities' auctions, sharply curtailing their opportunities to win orders.
Bye bye subsidized loans, export tariff refunds, and ultimately financial viability. Even in this part of the world, the alternative energy revolution seems to have bitten the dust before it got started as matginal Chinese manufacturers are being fed to the 120 hungry dogs of cold, hard market reality. 

Which US-Led FTA Nego is Lamer, TPP or TTIP?

♠ Posted by Emmanuel in ,,, at 1/14/2014 02:58:00 PM
You say "TPP," I say "TTIP"; let's call both things off

One of the many reasons why the Doha Round of WTO trade negotiations has been put on indefinite pause is due to Americans holding out for stronger intellectual property protections. Typically hard-headed, the Yanquis have not really given up on their pet causes. Instead, they have merely resurrected them in plutilateral arrangements being touted by the US Trade Representative.

(1) Let us begin with the much-ballyhooed expansion of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). Originally a grouping of trade-willing APEC member countries Brunei, Chile, New Zealand and Singapore. the US is seeking to crash into their party. With the release of more leaked documents, the secretive TPP negotiations apparently involve the US barging into someone else's FTA and attempting to shape it to its own ends. Surprise, surprise. In simple terms, it aims to revive its failed Doha wish list with suck...I mean, "Asia-Pacific countries keen on concluding a high-quality FTA." Joseph Stiglitz, for one, is wary of its goals of extending medicine patents of American Big Pharma into near-eternity and circumscribing the ability of developing countries to manufacture generic versions--especially if they are needed due to health crises (i.e., "compulsory licensing"):
The IP chapter is also worrisome to others. Joseph Stiglitz, an economist, Nobel Prize winner and professor at the Columbia University School of Business, asked negotiators in an open letter sent Friday to resist proposals to weaken consumer rights in intellectual property. The letter was published by Knowledge Ecology International (KEI), a group lobbying for fairer distribution of information, which has taken a close interest in the TPP and was also concerned by the contents of the leaked treaty draft.

Negotiators should resist mandating extensions of patents terms, narrowing the grounds for granting compulsory license on patents and increasing damages for infringements of patents and copyrights, Stiglitz wrote. Moreover, they should also oppose mandating excessive enforcement measures for digital information and requiring more than 70 years of copyright protection, among other proposals, Stiglitz wrote.
Damn Yanquis. They keep yapping about freedom and transparency Obama-the-hypocrite style when, in reality, they seek to pull a fast one on a large chunk of the world's population.  Considering that the TPP expansion participants are generally a coalition of American sycophants, toadies, yes-men and hangers-on, it is remarkable how little traction US negotiators have gained. Can't cow the cowed, eh? American negotiators hoped for a end-of-2013 completion; I think events have shown them to be unrealistically optimistic about concluding a deal, let alone one so lopsided in favor of US interests. Either nothing is concluded, or one is that is watered-down and riddled with opt-outs.

(2) There is also the so-called Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) between the US and EU underway. However, alike TPP, it appears to be a US-led attempt to introduce its favored IP regimes first and a trade agreement second. Ho-hum, what else is new, Sammy?

TTIP negotiations last year were already going nowhere in particular rather quickly, and that was before the US was revealed to be a massive spy on European citizens and leaders. Why are we to believe that Europeans are so interested in further protecting the intellectual property rights of those who are so callously indifferent to violating European privacy rights on an unprecedented scale? Beats me, pal.

For both the TPP and TTIP, intellectual property is far from the only point of contention. Agriculture in particular is a tough nut to crack with many sensitivities in Asia and Europe. Which is lamer, then? It's hard to say since both negotiations don't seem to be heading anywhere at the moment, so call it a draw.

Message to the US: Did you simply think you could take the least popular items on your Doha wish list and get them accepted elsewhere? Think again.

World Bank President and Bono [?!] on Ending Poverty

♠ Posted by Emmanuel in , at 1/12/2014 10:44:00 AM

We haven't had a video feature in ages, so here's one that should be of general interest. Current World Bank President Jim Yong Kim has not really received much popular public attention--or even in development circles for that matter. (Notice how the YouTube clip doesn't actually name him but instead his title. Kim's reserved manner certainly doesn't generate outlandish headlines that he fed his out-of-favor uncle to 120 hungry dogs alike that other Kim.) What better way, then, to raise his public profile but to pair this reserved intellectual with the extroverted entertainer Bono? The latter is known for his passionate espousal of vastly increasing aid to the developing world, although he's encountered much criticism along the way about being ill-informed about the subject matter Still, it's a potentially smashing concept, and they actually try it out in this 2012 clip in which both discuss ways to end poverty.

The pairing works to a greater extent than you would expect: Bono actually provides a decent "big picture" overview of the challenges we face, while Kim does the same in spelling out the "small picture" minutiae on aid delivery challenges and so forth. Watch it and see what you think. With or without you, the quest to end poverty goes the name of love. [Insert your favorite U2 song allusions to poverty alleviation here.]

Economy Sucks, Tunisian Islamists Give Up Power?

♠ Posted by Emmanuel in , at 1/10/2014 09:35:00 AM
Yippee Arab Spring! Tunisia, another economic basket case for the IMF
This may be the ultimate application of Bill Clinton's principle of "it's the economy, stupid." It's no big secret that Tunisia is in dire economic straits. In the hands of the Islamist Ennahda party after the so-called Arab Spring, its economic plight has only worsened. At the moment, Tunisia is trying to convince IMF powers-that-be that its next tranche should be doled out soon as the natives become increasingly restless:
Tunisia's government, under pressure from protests over public spending cuts, said on Wednesday it had done enough to persuade the IMF to approve a $500 million loan tranche at meetings later this month. Strikes started in the southern and central towns of Kasserine, Thala and Gafsa on Tuesday and spilled over to the capital Tunis on Wednesday, after calls from transport and agricultural unions to protest over a vehicle tax hike. Riot police fired tear gas in some southern towns.
Ho hum, another post-Arab Spring economic failure; what else is new? Alike Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood-linked Freedom and Justice Party [sic], Tunisia's Islamist Ennahda has won every post-Arab Spring election. However, many Western commentators have been puzzled by its apparent willingness to give up power when (unelected) secularists confronted it--unlike its Egyptian counterpart. Why give in so easily when you have an "electoral mandate" in white people-speak?

The answer, perhaps, is that in the interests of self-preservation as the Tunisian economic is going to the dogs [arf-arf], Ennahda is willing to relinquish power as the IMF inevitably asks for more painful reforms. So here's how things may be happening in this version of events: The Islamists call for early elections, and then implicitly ask their supporters to refrain from voting for them. So, the secularists win and implement IMF austerity measures, causing widespread discontent. Eventually, unpopular IMF conditionalities undermine the popularity of secularists and make Tunisian voters welcome Ennahda again in the absence any real alternatives:
Another key factor behind Ennahda's decision to hand power to a transitional technocrat government, the journalist argued, is the rise in social tensions linked to Tunisia's ongoing economic malaise, which the Islamists want to distance themselves from before the next elections. Protests and strikes have multiplied, with unemployed youths demanding work, particularly in the country's impoverished interior, amid the prospect of unpopular taxes to fill the state's empty coffers.
"There are pitfalls everywhere. Ennahda's strategy of moderation also comes from a lack of alternatives. They know that the next government will have no magic wand, that they will still have the same problems, and they won't be able to say: 'You see, that wasn't our fault,'" Sellami said...
But government plans to meet IMF and the World Bank requirements are already threatening the fragile stability of the North African country. With the budget deficit expected to jump to 6.8 percent of gross domestic product for 2013, Tunisia's 2014 budget includes measure to raise one vehicle tax by 25 percent and to add another tax on big cars.
There are too many "what ifs" to say whether this ploy will work (or even if they will attempt it in the first place). That said--and their economic ham-fistedness aside--Ennahda is displaying more long-term political savvy than its more dogmatic Egyptian equivalent did. It may even start a trend of democratically elected governments giving up power voluntarily to ensure that the other guy takes the blame for the country going down the tubes absent any real chops in public economic management. 

As it so happens, the latter description fits Ennahda to a T.

Two Latin Americas? MERCOSUR vs Pacific Alliance

♠ Posted by Emmanuel in , at 1/09/2014 08:51:00 AM
Brazil is becoming Argentina, Argentina is becoming Venezuela, and Venezuela is becoming Zimbabwe - unnamed Brazilian official

Think of the Wall Street Journal's op-ed pages as a confused bastion of conservative thinking and you won't go far astray. It whitewashes George W. Bush's free-spending ways and features his Fox News-inspired brand of flag-waving USA#1 boosterism, for instance. Such wooly thinking is evident in a recent piece about "The Two Latin Americas" that purportedly contrasts anti-enterprise, anti-trade and anti-American countries (Argentina, Brazil, Venezuela) with pro-enterprise, pro-trade, and pro-American countries (Mexico, Peru, Chile and Colombia). The former group is composed of MERCOSUR customs union members doing poorly, while the latter group is composed of the more recently formed group the Pacific Alliance doing better.

You do not need to convince me that Argentina and Venezuela are run by left-wing ideologues/nutters with few sane ideas about how to run their countries. Argentina is so pathetic that it blatantly falsifies inflation data, while Venezuela is suffering from uncontrolled crime, rampant inflation, goods name it. Both like blaming everyone else for their myriad failings, but in the end, many rightly suspect the problem lies with them and not with anyone else if they keep blaming everyone except themselves for their problems. Brazil, though, I am not sure falls into the same category of economic mismanagement. True, it tries to strike a (my apologies) third way between populism and neoliberalism, but I think its current underperformance has more to do with a lack of diversification at a time of falling commodity prices than outright mismanagement.

Look past the WSJ op-ed pages' Manichaean, crusader-grade morality play [freedom good, markets good, America good!] and there is actually more to the story. In particular, the characterization of Chile is disingenuous. It probably would not fit into the mould of other Pacific Alliance countries as being led by staunchly conservative figures. Chile's leader Michelle Bachelet is an unapologetic socialist, and won their recent presidential elections on a platform of unabashedly redistributive policies that would make a WSJ op-ed page writer retch:
Bachelet ran on a platform of social policies to address a deep divide between rich and poor, and plans to raise the corporate tax rate. Chile, the world's top copper-exporting nation, is ranked the most unequal country in the 34-member Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).
So when did WSJ commentary start lauding a country run by some Latin American woman who talks like a commie campaigning on [heaven forbid] raising taxes? The morality play of pro-market, pro-American countries doing better plays to the choir--except that the one identified as one of the best-performing is actually rather leftist. Nor can they claim that Bachelet hasn't had the Obama-like opportunity to wreck Chile, since she was already its leader from 2006 to 2010 (this is her second term in office). Last I checked, Bachelet was also seeking to establish better ties with MERCOSUR nations and avoid precisely the kind of MERCOSUR - Pacific Alliance polarization the WSJ writer fetishizes about:
Chile under its next president, center-left Michelle Bachelet, is likely to cool toward Latin America's more conservative governments in favor of warmer relations with Brazil and other left-leaning countries in the region...But there is no indication it will withdraw from the Pacific Alliance, a nascent trade bloc that [her predecessor Sebastian] Pinera championed and that also includes Pacific-facing, investor-friendly nations Mexico, Colombia, and Peru.

However, there is concern in the Bachelet camp that Chile has forged those links at the expense of its relationship with other, left-leaning governments, particularly regional heavyweight Brazil and important neighbor Argentina.

That is something Bachelet wants to address. "We value the efforts of the Pacific Alliance integration, but we will focus on ensuring that our participation in it is not exclusive or antagonistic to other existing integration projects in the region," says Bachelet's campaign manifesto. "Chile has lost presence in the region, its relations with its neighbors are problematic, a commercial vision has been imposed on our Latin American links."
Hence, it's not really about creating "two Latin Americas":
Bachelet is keen to avoid any moves that would prove divisive for South America, said Michael Shifter, head of the Inter-American Dialogue think tank.

"I think we can expect that Bachelet will try to get a deeper relationship with Brazil under Dilma (Rousseff) and certainly avoid the sense that Chile is in one camp, Brazil is in another camp," Shifter said. His comments were echoed at a meeting of ex-presidents in Santiago last month, when former Brazilian head Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva and ex-Chile leader Ricardo Lagos called for closer regional integration.

It is important to avoid the sense that South America was being divided into two - with the more socialist Atlantic-facing countries like Argentina, Brazil and Venezuela in one camp and market-friendly Pacific-facing nations like Chile, Peru and Colombia in the other, said Lagos.
Nuff said. Read WSJ op-eds with a healthy dose of caution.

US Energy: Fracking Towns 1, Coal Towns 0

♠ Posted by Emmanuel in at 1/07/2014 08:24:00 AM
And that accent you've tried so desperately to shed: pure West Virginia. What is your father, dear? Is he a coal miner? - Sir Anthony Hopkins as mad genius "Hannibal Lecter" in the Silence of the Lambs.

The recent US energy boom due to the large-scale application of fracking has not been a boon to everyone. In a country as large as the US, some energy-producing communities were bound to benefit and others to suffer from the gales of Schumpeterian "creative destruction." In other words, capitalism often produces innovations alike natural gas fracking which render older technologies and industries based on them obsolete. In the process, the latter lose their economic viability. Although the Stateside coal mining industry has faced several challenges in the past, it has not really been decimated in the same way Europe's has. Or, until recently, that is. The advent of fracking has thus benefited communities producing natural gas at the expense of those producing coal:
Unprecedented pressures on the U.S. coal industry and nearly two years of mine closures and layoffs are reshaping the heart of the Central Appalachian coalfields in ways that many experts believe could be permanent. While the coal industry overall is losing market share to abundant natural gas, mines in Central Appalachia have become increasingly uneconomical. Natural gas is cheaper, and so is coal mined in two other big coal basins centered in Wyoming and Illinois.

A Wall Street Journal analysis of Mine Safety and Health Administration data reveals that the picture is bleakest across a swath of 26 counties in Kentucky's eastern coalfields, where coal has been the lifeblood for more than a century. The number of coal-mining and related jobs in the region remained fairly steady between 2000 through 2011, fluctuating from one quarter to the next by an average of about 400 jobs, but never dipping below 11,400.
Since 2011, the area has seen an unrelenting decline that left eastern Kentucky with just 8,000 mining jobs in the second quarter of this year. State officials say there are now fewer miners working in Kentucky than any other time in records dating to the 1920s—a decline largely driven by the eastern slice of the state.
From an international political economy perspective, the interesting question is if the US (after a rather long lag) will follow the path long since taken by European countries which no longer have substantial coal industries. Environmental concerns helped do in coal there, and the same thing may be happening in the US:
The human toll is starkly evident. In Kentucky's Harlan County, the number of mining jobs had fallen 48% from 2011 through June, according to the Journal analysis. The county's unemployment rate had risen to 16.3% as of August, the 13th highest of more than 3,000 counties in the nation, according to Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates. Some declines are sharper in neighboring counties. As of June, mining jobs were down 54% in Letcher County from 2011, and laid-off miners are the equivalent of nearly half of unemployed workers. In smaller Knott County, mining jobs are down 68% from 2011, and the number of laid-off miners roughly equals the county's unemployed population.

Analysts have started to compare Central Appalachia to other mined-out areas around the globe, such as Germany's Ruhr valley, or Great Britain, which employed 6,000 coal miners last year, compared with 150,000 in 1983, according to the British government. 
The epic battle between the UK's liberalizing Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and the unionist coal miner Arthur Scargill is legendary in helping break the power of unions in the UK. She famously broke his balls. Even after the Iron Lady passed away last year, bad blood persists three decades later. In the US, there is neither a champion of coal mining to rally around nor a strong union to back such interests. Hence, if coal mining goes Stateside, expect it to go quicker.

Enlivening Naypyitaw, Myanmar's "Ghost Capital"

♠ Posted by Emmanuel in , at 1/05/2014 08:06:00 AM
Where Google Earth fears to tread. Welcome to Naypyitaw
In the pantheon of vanity projects, there is none more hubristic than establishing a nation's capital in the middle of nowhere. The archetypal and best-known example is Brasilia, the erstwhile seat of Brazilian government. Lesser-known but no less the product of planning on a grand scale are Australia's capital of Canberra and Canada's capital of Ottawa. None of these so-called capitals are among these countries' liveliest cities; it is difficult to pre-plan a "happening" town, and they generally prove this point. Seen any rock albums entitled Live in [Brasilia, Canberra, or Ottawa]?

The debate between creating master-planned gateway cities and allowing them to emerge spontaneously (Le Corbusier versus Jane Jacobs) is a very interesting one with enormous policy implications. For instance, would any urban planner have allowed the emergence of megacities built on fault lines (San Francisco and Los Angeles)? Or, for that matter, megacities in arid regions alike Las Vegas and Phoenix which add insult to injury by drawing people away from ("Rust Belt") cities that do not have problems with water supplies or generating power for massive amounts of air-conditioning? People do not necessarily decide to live in places where it makes ecological sense to do so.

This all brings me to Southeast Asia's own, rather obscure Naypyitaw, the Burmese junta's own capital in the middle of rice paddies. Originally meant to seclude government from prickly opposition types in the old capital of Rangoon (today's Yangon) among other things, it has long suffered from having government and not much else. Sounds familiar, ey? However, its situation has been exacerbated by the ruling clique deciding on who can stay there, as well as the general isolation of sanction-ridden Myanmar. However, with the country now opening up to the world, things are looking up in the country and Naypyitaw is benefiting particularly:
Eight years after Naypyitaw — "Abode of the King" — was proclaimed the new government seat, it has become something more than a "ghost capital hacked out of the jungle," as it was once described. Private enterprise is staking some ground. More shops and restaurants have opened and 79 hotels are operating or under construction. Some foreign companies, notably the Japanese, have set up small branch offices.

A dozen impressive stadiums, meeting halls and hundreds of villas for visiting VIPs have been built here for the Southeast Asian Games, an 11-nation event (featuring all ASEAN members plus Timor Leste) that began Wednesday. Naypyitaw (nay-pee-thaw) will be in the spotlight again next year when Myanmar chairs the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations.
The sheer scale of the project, however, makes it difficult to "fill" Naypyitaw. Remember too that this was a country lumped with North Korea not so long ago in the hermit sweepstakes:
But the capital remains far from meeting the grand expectations that built it. It's 40 times the area of Washington, D.C., dotted with enormous public buildings that seem incongruous in one of the world's poorest countries. The U.S. Capitol is positively puny compared with the equivalent here. The main conference center dwarfs the United Nations building in New York, and the airport, home to just two international airlines, is designed to handle up to 10.5 million passengers a year. Vast empty spaces dominate. Many government workers live alone because their families don't want to move here.
It will be interesting to watch whether they can make Naypyitaw something more than a curiosity; an answer to a trivia question. Certainly, it will take the buy-in of more than the generals if it is to become so. It is very much a matter of political geography.

US Mess, EU's Problem: Refugee Crisis at Sea

♠ Posted by Emmanuel in ,,,, at 1/03/2014 01:16:00 PM
Did US interference make their lives any better? Take a guess...
For many people in conflict zones, the coming of the year 2014 is hardly "new," let alone "happy." The depressing truth as we begin another calendar year is simply that various messes the white man has contributed to are in no way sorted out, and that foreign adventurism--especially the so-called "war on terror," is not yet finished.

We are all familiar with friends who like getting into you trouble. A few drinks for them and they become belligerent. The archetypal "friend" that fits into this mold is the United States as it engages in drunken outbursts that implicate others. As it so happens, Italian authorities have been faced with a huge refugee crisis at the start of 2014 as a "greatest hits" of American foreign policy failure has come to roost on their shores. This has been ongoing for a number of years, but the volume is unprecedented. Egypt, Pakistan and Iraq are classic sites for Americans sticking their noses when they don't belong, while Tunisia indirectly implicates the US via the latter's championing of the overthrow of undemocratic leaders. As it so happens, folks are wishing to flee these places. I guess the freedom 'n' democracy shtick BushBama keep yakking about didn't pan out. Wonder why...
The Italian navy rescued more than 1,000 migrants in the 24 hours to Friday from boats trying to reach Europe, authorities said, as an immigration crisis that killed hundreds in the last year showed no signs of easing. Navy helicopters spotted four overcrowded boats struggling to stay afloat south of Sicily on Thursday and ships were sent to save them, the navy said in a statement. The 823 men, women and children aboard the four vessels were from countries including Egypt, Pakistan, Iraq and Tunisia.

Over the past two decades, Italy, Greece and the Mediterranean island of Malta have the brunt of the migrant flows [being the nearest EU countries, especially to North Africa] and have urged a coordinated European Union response.
Part of Europe's solution to this post-GWOT refugee crisis, I believe, is "make America foot the bill." Let me ask you this: would the people of Egypt (where people keep dying due to political conflict), Pakistan, Iraq and Tunisia (ditto for all three) say they are better off now than before the US-led global war on terror commenced? Somehow, I don't think many will agree as evidenced by the number of folks fleeing these playgrounds for Yankee interference.

Make no mistake; things are getting worse in these places.

And the World's Match-Fixing Capital is...Singapore [?!]

♠ Posted by Emmanuel in , at 1/01/2014 09:58:00 AM
Shuffle up and deal and...match-fix?
The recent race riots in Singapore came as a shock to the rest of the world given the tightly regulated nature of the city-state. How could such disorder happen? Well, preconceptions about the supposedly antiseptic nature of Singapore may receive a further knock: It is only recently that Singapore began tolerating gambling--especially on Sentosa Island--to help lure travelers with a penchant for gambling away from other Asian destinations such as Macao. In reality, however, Singaporeans have had a very long tradition of gambling with it practically coursing through citizens' veins. Consequently, their attitude towards match-fixing has thus been permissive:
Gambling is so entrenched that to keep [Singaporeans] away from the casinos, the government has levied an $80 charge on Singapore nationals just to get through the doors..."No more burying our heads in the sand, Singapore is a nation addicted to gambling, as is much of the region," said writer Neil Humphreys, author of the football novel "Match Fixer".

"I no longer tell people that I have written a book on match-fixing or that I regularly write about football," he added. "When I did in the past, the initial response was -- without fail -- to ask for betting tips on upcoming games. That response is uniquely Singaporean."

Humphreys added that given its long association, match-fixing scandals have little "shock factor" in Singapore, meaning there's scant public pressure for action. "Authorities are doing more than ever before when it comes to match-fixing, particularly in Singapore, but the sad reality is... not enough people care," he said. "Match-fixing is just not a national issue that particularly registers with the average Singaporean. It barely registers at all."
What's more, Singapore being a center of global finance and transportation have made it a most suitable home base for shadier types engaged in match-fixing. While gambling is officially semi-tolerated, authorities have not really cracked down hard on match-fixing, However, that too may change as international pressure is applied to Singapore-based match-fixers:
It's one of the world's smallest and wealthiest countries, but a deep gambling culture coupled with sheer entrepreneurial zeal has made Singapore a big player in global match-fixing, experts say. The arrests of two Singaporean men over a scandal in Britain has again thrown a spotlight on the Southeast Asian city-state, known for its cleanliness, strict law and order and high number of millionaires. Despite such advantages, Singapore is continually linked to match-rigging around the world, testament to a network that is proving hard to eradicate -- even when leading members are under arrest or police protection...

The latest developments are part of a chain of events set in motion more than 20 years ago, when Perumal started fixing games in Singapore before moving abroad to escape the attentions of Singaporean police.

"These Singaporean criminals recognised that there was money to be made in match-fixing at the low levels [smaller leagues where fixed matches are less likely to be caught], and later translated this national skill, if I could say that, to the global platform," said Chris Eaton, director of the Doha-based International Centre for Sport Security. Eaton, a former Interpol officer and ex-head of security at football's world body FIFA, calls Singapore the "epicentre of gambling in Southeast Asia".

Easy international transport, a passport accepted around the world and fluency in English and Mandarin have helped Singaporean fixers spread their influence abroad with the support of external investors, most believed to be from China.
It's all interesting stuff; but again, note that increased pressure is coming outside of Singapore. Its denizens, meanwhile, are more concerned about cashing in on the phenomenon. That's an entrepreneurial spirit for you.