Opinion

Anatole Kaletsky

World War One: First war was impossible, then inevitable

Anatole Kaletsky
Jun 27, 2014 06:00 UTC

British troops advance during the battle of the Somme in this 1916 handout picture

Why does the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand — the event that lit the fuse of World War One 100 years ago Saturday — still resonate so powerfully? Virtually nobody believes World War Three will be triggered by recent the military conflicts in Ukraine, Iraq or the China seas, yet many factors today mirror those that led to the catastrophe in Sarajevo on June 28, 1914.

The pace of globalization was almost as dramatic and confusing in 1914 as it is today. Fear of random terrorism was also widespread — the black-hatted anarchist clutching a fizzing bomb was a cartoon cliché then just as the Islamic jihadist is today. Yet the crucial parallel may be the complacent certainty that economic interdependence and prosperity had made war inconceivable — at least in Europe.

An undated archive picture shows German soldiers offering to surrender to French troops, seen from a listening post in a trench at Massiges, northeastern FranceA 1910 best-selling book, The Great Illusion, used economic arguments to demonstrate that territorial conquest had become unprofitable, and therefore global capitalism had removed the risk of major wars. This view, broadly analogous to the modern factoid that there has never been a war between two countries with a MacDonald’s outlet, became so well established that, less than a year before the Great War broke out, the Economist reassured its readers with an editorial titled “War Becomes Impossible in Civilized World.”

“The powerful bonds of commercial interest between ourselves and Germany,” the Economist insisted, “have been immensely strengthened in recent years … removing Germany from the list of our possible foes.”

The real “Great Illusion,” of course, turned out to be the idea that economic self-interest made wars obsolete. Yet a variant of this naïve materialism has returned. It underlies, for example, the Western foreign policy that presents economic sanctions on Russia or Iran as a substitute for political compromise or military intervention.

China-Russia is a match made in heaven, and that’s scary

Anatole Kaletsky
May 22, 2014 17:27 UTC

putin-li

Check-mate.

As Russian President Vladimir Putin signed Russia’s historic $400 billion gas-supply agreement with China, he must have felt the satisfaction of a chess grandmaster revealing the inexorable outcome of a complicated endgame.

In theory, the next phase of the chess match between Russia and the West in Ukraine will only begin with the Ukrainian presidential election on Sunday. But Putin’s positioning of the pieces means the outcome is pre-ordained, no matter who emerges as the next president in Kiev.

putin & troopsNo wonder the Russian stock market and ruble have both rebounded — with the MSCI Russia index gaining 20 percent in dollar terms since its low point on March 14.

Abe’s disturbing lack of focus

Anatole Kaletsky
Apr 24, 2014 21:52 UTC

President Barack Obama’s trip to Asia this week has focused mostly on Japan’s territorial disputes with China. On this issue, Obama seems to be repeating the same mistakes he made in Ukraine.

By creating false expectations of U.S. support for the Japanese position, the president is encouraging Japan to escalate its belligerent rhetoric. That, in turn, makes Chinese military action to seize the disputed islands more likely. Everyone knows that there is no chance of the United States going to war with China to defend Japan’s claim to four uninhabited lumps of rock.

Luckily, a military confrontation in the East China Sea remains highly unlikely because the Beijing government’s top priority is economic and financial reform.  Unfortunately, this seems less true of Japan.

The case against a Chinese financial crisis

Anatole Kaletsky
Feb 24, 2014 17:13 UTC

A severe slowdown in China is viewed as among the greatest risks facing the world economy this year, and Thursday’s dismal news on Chinese manufacturing output exacerbated these fears. But the really important news from Beijing pointed in the opposite direction: Bank lending in China, instead of slowing dramatically as many economists had expected, accelerated in January to its fastest growth in four years.

This means China is unlikely to act as a brake on the global economy in the months ahead — despite the recent weak manufacturing figures. It also suggests that predictions of a credit crunch or financial crisis in China will likely prove wrong — or at least premature.

To welcome stronger bank lending in China is not to deny that credit growing at double the gross domestic product growth is unsustainable and will ultimately have to be curbed. The Chinese authorities themselves clearly believe this. The government and the central bank want to reduce credit growth and to replace the unregulated, opaque “shadow lending” system with properly supervised, well-capitalized modern banks.

Behind the wave of market anxiety

Anatole Kaletsky
Feb 6, 2014 23:33 UTC

What has caused the sudden anxiety attack that overwhelmed financial markets after the New Year? We may find out the answer at 8.30 on Friday morning, Eastern Standard Time.

Almost all agree that the market turmoil has been linked to alarming events in several emerging economies — including Turkey, Thailand, Argentina and Ukraine — that has spilled over into concerns about more important economies, such as China, Russia, South Africa, Indonesia and Brazil.

But why has near-panic hit so many emerging markets at the same time?

There seem to be four broad explanations. Whether this current volatility marks the end of the straight-line ascent in asset prices that started in March 2009, or whether it is just another opportunity to “buy on dips,” will largely depend on the relative importance of each of these factors.

This weekend, China will plot its economic future

Anatole Kaletsky
Nov 6, 2013 20:13 UTC

The ponderously named Third Plenary Session of the 18th Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party, which takes place this weekend, is a more important event for the world economy and for global geopolitics than the budget battles, central bank meetings and elections that attract infinitely more attention in the media and financial markets.

The obvious reason for this meeting’s importance is that China is destined in the long run to become the world’s biggest economy and a political superpower. And the Third Plenum, traditionally held roughly 12 months after the appointment of a new Party leadership, has been used twice before as an occasion for the new leaders to spell out the main strategies they hoped to implement as they consolidated their power. At the Third Plenum in 1978, Deng Xiaoping launched the market reforms that unleashed the power of the profit motive in China, and it was at the corresponding event in 1993 that Jiang Zemin accelerated the process of dismantling state-owned enterprises and integrating China into the world economy that culminated with China’s accession to the World Trade Organization in 2001.

A second, more immediate, reason for the world to pay attention to this weekend’s meeting is that China has recently become not just the strongest engine of growth in the world economy, but also the biggest source of potential economic surprises, both good and bad.

Dalian Man

Anatole Kaletsky
Sep 11, 2013 21:02 UTC

The Davos economic forum, held every winter in the Swiss Alps, allows its participants to look down at the world from above: topographically because of the high-altitude location, but also symbolically, because of the high incomes, high status or high-minded rhetoric that characterize the jet-setting global elite dubbed “Davos Man” by the American political scientist, Samuel Huntington. This week, however, I discovered a sub-species of Davos Man with a very different perspective. At the “summer Davos” that the World Economic Forum now organizes every year in China, participants look at the world sideways, from the East instead of down. The shift in viewpoint is striking, even for people who travel frequently to Asia, as I do, but rarely experience such total immersion in the eastern elite’s hopes and fears.

The biggest surprise at this week’s Dalian forum was the East-West divergence of opinion on the economic outlook, both in the months ahead and in the very long term. Western economists mostly believe that developing countries in general, and China in particular, are threatened by serious financial crises as U.S. monetary policy begins to be tightened, probably as soon as the Federal Reserve Board’s meeting next week. The consensus view is that emerging economies have invested and borrowed too much, taking advantage of the Fed’s easy money and will now face painful deleveraging similar to what Europe and the U.S. experienced five years ago. This deleveraging means, in turn, that the glory days for developing economies are probably over — and most of these countries, perhaps including China, may never escape the “middle-income trap” that has prevented further progress in many developing economies. The trap starts to hobble growth when per capita incomes rise to around $10,000 and many of the obvious opportunities for catching up with Western productivity are exhausted. China’s is $9,160 according to the IMF.

When I travelled to China this week, I expected obsessive discussion of the recent shift of economic sentiment against developing countries and the resulting collapse of bonds, shares and currencies in most emerging markets this year. And indeed warnings of ruinously compounding debt burdens and dangerously unsustainable investment bubbles did dominate Western presentations, both in Dalian and at an earlier academic seminar in Shenzhen, organised by Tsinghua University and the Institute for New Economic Thinking.

Were Bernanke’s comments a fire drill or a false alarm?

Anatole Kaletsky
Jul 11, 2013 14:14 UTC

Whenever Alan Greenspan was praised for delivering a clear message on U.S. monetary policy, he liked to reply something along the lines of: “If you think that, you have misunderstood what I said.” Ben Bernanke prefers the opposite approach. On May 22, he triggered one of biggest financial panics since 2008 by raising the possibility of reducing the Fed’s record-breaking monetary stimulus, while admitting that he had no idea when to start this process. He spent the subsequent six weeks trying to clear up the mess that he had created by explaining in painstaking detail the precise timing and conditions under which “tapering” might or might not take place. In the process he created even greater confusion and financial volatility. It now appears that he would have done much better for the world economy — and for his own reputation — by saving his breath and imitating Greenspan’s obfuscation.

The Fed minutes published on Wednesday revealed so many divergent opinions on the conditions, timing and even direction of any change in monetary policy, that all the recent speeches and press conferences on tapering could reasonably be described as white noise. Which raises the question of why investors reacted so strongly to all this confusion. Recent market behavior around the world suggests an explanation: while Fed tapering was not in itself a very important issue, Bernanke’s comments acted as a financial alarm bell, drawing attention to risks in the world economy that were forgotten or ignored. When we hear a fire alarm we naturally ask ourselves three questions: Is it a false alarm? Is it a fire drill? Or is it a real fire — and if so, where?

Similar questions may shed some light on the tapering scare. For the U.S. stock market, Bernanke’s May comments were clearly a false alarm, since the Fed was nowhere near a decision to tighten monetary policy, as we now know officially from the minutes. It is not surprising, therefore, that U.S. equity prices have rebounded to their pre-Bernanke record highs. But looking beyond the U.S. stock market, tapering speculation seems more like a fire drill than a false alarm.

We’re coming into financial hurricane season

Anatole Kaletsky
Sep 5, 2012 19:57 UTC

The North Atlantic hurricane season runs from mid-August to October, with a strong peak in storm activity around the middle of September. A less familiar but even more destructive pattern of disturbances is the financial hurricane season, which coincides with the meteorological one almost to the day.

Most of the great financial crises of modern history have occurred in the two months from mid-August: the Wall Street crashes of Oct. 22, 1907, Oct. 24, 1929, and Oct. 19, 1987; Britain’s abandonment of the gold standard on Sept. 19, 1931; the postwar sterling devaluation on Sept. 19, 1949; the collapse of the Bretton Woods global monetary system on Aug. 15, 1971; the Mexican default that triggered the Third World debt crisis on Aug. 20, 1982; the breakup of the European exchange-rate mechanism on Sept. 16, 1992; the Russian default on Aug. 17, 1998, the bankruptcy of Lehman Brothers on Sept. 15. 2008 – and this list could go on.

The coincidence between financial and meteorological hurricanes may not be entirely fortuitous. The global economy, like the world’s atmosphere, is a finely balanced complex system. In such systems, small perturbations can accumulate to trigger big effects. And just as the meteorological tipping points tend to occur when autumn air circulation starts to disrupt the humid air accumulated in the summer doldrums, something similar seems to happen to financial markets when trading becalmed by the summer holidays returns to normal. The result can be sudden and violent reaction to events accumulated over the summer that markets had seemed to ignore. The world economy does not, of course, experience hurricanes with the same regularity as the Caribbean. But when big events happen over the summer, financial disturbances become quite probable in the fall. This is probably the reason why September has historically been the worst month of the year for stock market performance. In fact, September is the only month in which Wall Street prices have, on average, declined since the 1920s.

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