Global Investing

We’re all in the same boat

The withering complexity of a four-year-old global financial crisis — in the euro zone, United States or increasingly in China and across the faster-growing developing world — is now stretching the minds and patience of even the most clued-in experts and commentators. Unsurprisingly, the average householder is perplexed, increasingly anxious and keen on a simpler narrative they can rally around or rail against. It’s fast becoming a fertile environment for half-baked conspiracy theories, apocalypse preaching and no little political opportunism. And, as ever, a tempting electoral ploy is to convince the public there’s some magic national solution to problems way beyond borders.

For a populace fearful of seemingly inextricable connections to a wider world they can’t control, it’s not difficult to see the lure of petty nationalism, protectionism and isolationism. Just witness national debates on the crisis in Britain, Germany, Greece or Ireland and they are all starting to tilt toward some idea that everyone may be better off on their own — outside a flawed single currency in the case of Germany, Greece and Ireland and even outside the European Union in the case of some lobby groups in Britain. But it’s not just a debate about a European future, the U.S.  Senate next week plans to vote on legisation to crack down on Chinese trade due to currency pegging despite the interdependency of the two economies.  And there’s no shortage of voices saying China should somehow stand aloof from the Western financial crisis, even though its spectacular economic ascent over the past decade was gained largely on the back of U.S. and European demand.

Despite all the nationalist rumbling, the crisis illustrates one thing pretty clearly – the world is massively integrated and interdependent in a way never seen before in history. And globalised trade and finance drove much of that over the past 20 years. However desireable you may think it is in the long run, unwinding that now could well be catastrophic. A financial crisis in one small part of the globe will now quickly affect another through a blizzard of systematic banking and cross-border trade links systemic links.

Just take the euro zone for a start. HSBC economists on Friday said the costs of a euro zone breakup would be “a disaster, threatening another Great Depression” and far outweighed the costs of repairing the flawed fiscal backstops to the monetary union — especially given the wealthier creditor countries within the union tend to ignore the benefits they’ve reaped from the euro over the past 12 years. Aided by the “entangling effects” of the euro, it showing that cross-border holdings of capital have exploded from about 20% of world GDP in 1980 to stand at more than 100% now (global GDP was estimated by the IMF to be about $62 trillion last year). By contrast, the first wave of globalisation in the late 19th and early 20th century saw cross-border holdings peak at 20% of world GDP before WW1 reversed everything.

“A euro break-up would be a disaster, threatening another Great Depression,” wrote HSBC chief economist Stephen King and economist Janet Henry. ” Cross-border holdings of assets and liabilities within the eurozone have risen dramatically, leading to a tangled web of mutual financial dependency. With the re-introduction of national currencies, disentanglement would proceed at a rate of knots, undermining financial systems, generating massive currency moves, threatening hyper-inflation in the periphery and triggering economic collapse in the core.”

Emerging consumers’ pain to spell gains for stocks in staples

Food and electricity bills are high. The cost of filling up at the petrol station isn’t coming down much either. The U.S. economy is in trouble and suddenly the job isn’t as secure as it seemed. Maybe that designer handbag and new car aren’t such good ideas after all.

That’s the kind of decision millions of middle class consumers in developing countries are facing these days. That’s bad news for purveyors of everything from jeans to iphones  who have enjoyed double-digit profits thanks to booming sales in emerging markets.

Brazil is the best example of how emerging market consumers are tightening their belts. Thanks to their spending splurge earlier this decade, Brazilian consumers on average see a quarter of their income disappear these days on debt repayments. People’s credit card bills can carry interest rates of up to 45 percent. The central bank is so worried about the growth outlook it stunned markets with a cut in interest rates this week even though inflation is running well above target

from MacroScope:

Give me liberty and give me cash!

Come back Mr Fukuyama, all is forgiven.

In his 1992 book "The End of History and the Last Man", American political scientist Francis Fukuyama famously argued that all states were moving inexorably towards liberal democracy. His thesis that democracy is the pinnacle of political evolution has since been challenged by the violent eruption of radical Islam as well as the economic success of authoritarian countries such as China and Russia.

Now a study by Russian investment bank Renaissance Capital into the link between economic wealth and democracy seems to back Fukuyama.

Looking at 150 countries and over 60 years of history, RenCap found that countries are likely to become more democratic as they enjoyed rising levels of income with democracy virtually 'immortal' in countries with a GDP per capita above $10,000.

from The Great Debate:

What is the best strategy against Chinese cyberattacks?

By Ian Bremmer
The views expressed are his own.

All eyes should be peeled on China, but not for the reason you think. While the biggest structural risk right now is global rebalancing, especially between China and the U.S., there is another important threat from China: cyberwars. Cyberattacks are one of the biggest fat tails (along with climate and North Korea).

It’s no surprise that the latest Google hack attack came from China. The presumption is that the vast majority of cyber attacks hitting the U.S. are coming from the Chinese government. It’s very hard to know where threats are originating – country-wise and/or person-wise -- because it’s very difficult to go back and figure out the paper trail. But at a minimum, there is an environment in China that tolerates cyber attacks.

Proprietary information around technologies – gaining profit shares, increasing revenues – allows a country to be much more economically competitive. China has leverage because everyone wants to get into China. If you want to make something in their country, you have to share the technology.

from MacroScope:

The iPod – the iCon of Chinese capitalism

Walking past Apple's sleek shop along London's Regent Street on Sunday, my wife asked me what I wanted for Father's Day.

"An iPad?" I ventured, half-jokingly.

"Are you sure you want one? Don't you care how they're made?" came her disapproving reply.

She was, of course, referring to the rash of suicides among Chinese workers at Foxconn, the Taiwanese manufacturer of Apple's much desired iPads and iPhones.

from MacroScope:

Brazil joins fellow-BRIC China in world’s Top 5

Volkswagen's Brazil car factory. Sales are booming as the economy roars ahead

Volkswagen's Brazil car factory. Sales are booming as the economy roars ahead

Distracted by the upheaval in the Middle East and $120 per barrel oil,  few noted Brazil's ascent last week to the ranks of the world's top five economies. Strange given that the move comes just months after China displaced Japan as the second-biggest economy in the world.

Goldman Sachs Asset Management head Jim O'Neill points out that  Brazil -- part of the BRIC group of big emerging economies -- grew 7.5 percent in 2010. By the end of last year the economy was valued around $2.2 trillion. That's next only to the United States, China, Japan and Germany. And bigger than France and Britain.

from Davos Notebook:

Will Goldman’s new BRICwork stand up?

RTXWLHHJim O'Neill, the Goldman Sachs economist who coined the term BRICs back in 2001, is adding four new countries to the elite club of emerging market economies. But does his new edifice have the same solid foundations?

In future, the BRIC economies of Brazil, Russia, China and India will be merged with those of Mexico, Indonesia, Turkey and South Korea under the banner “growth markets,” O'Neill told the Financial Times.

Hmmm.  Doesn't quite grab you like BRICs, does it? The Guardian helpfully offers an amended branding banner of  "Bric 'n Mitsk" (geddit?). But which ever way you cut it, it's hard to see a flood of investment conferences and funds floating off under the new moniker.

from Reuters Investigates:

Vietnam’s Capitalist Roaders

A woman dressed in the traditional Vietnamese "ao dai"costume serves tea to Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung (front R) during the opening ceremony of the 11th Party Congress in Hanoi January 12, 2011

VIETNAM-CONGRESS/

Vietnam's ruling communists  opened an eight-day party congress on Wednesday with a candid  admission the fast-growing economy had become unstable, as  delegates began the process of reshuffling leaders and  charting new policies. 
   As leaders sang the national anthem to begin the  five-yearly event, streets in the chilly capital Hanoi were  festooned with red and yellow banners, some bearing the iconic  hammer and sickle. Propaganda posters bore the smiling  likeness of revolutionary leader Ho Chi Minh or of proud,  uniformed workers. 
   The economic backdrop is less festive. Inflation surged to  a 22-month high in December, the government is struggling to  bring down a hefty fiscal deficit, the currency has been  depreciating for three years and the trade deficit remains  stubbornly high.  

A Reuters Special Report takes a close look at Vietnam's new breed of captitalists, as the country of 90 million takes a page out of China's Communist Party playbook and promotes a more consumption-led economy. This is a development path divergent from that of its East Asian neighbours, whose economies became Tigers or Dragons (as the case may be) on the back of exports not consumers.

from Davos Notebook:

Groundhog Day in Davos

groundhog

The programme may strike a different  note -- this year's Davos is apparently all about Shared Norms for the New Reality -- but much of the discussion at the 41st World Economic Forum annual meeting in Davos this month will have a distinctly familiar ring to it.

Last January, the five-day talkfest in the Swiss Alps was dominated by Greece's near-death experience at the hands of the bond market and recriminations over the role of bankers in the financial crisis, as well as worries about China's rapid economic ascent and a lot of calls for a new trade deal.

Fast forward 12 months and not much has changed.

Ireland has joined Greece in the euro zone's intensive care unit and Portugal and  Spain are getting round-the-clock monitoring. The annual round of bankers' bonuses is once again stirring up trouble. China looms larger than ever on the global stage, after overtaking Japan in 2010 to become the world's second-biggest economy. And trade ministers who signally failed to make headway last year say they really must get down to business when they meet on the sidelines of Davos this time round.

BRICs chipped

It may come as a bit of a surprise but in the end developed market stocks did quite well last year. For one thing, they outperformed the much-touted BRICs (Brazil, Russia, India and China). Here is the graphic to show it.

EM_BRICP1210