Opinion

The Great Debate

Pakistan, Mexico and U.S. nightmares

Bernd Debusmann - Great Debate– Bernd Debusmann is a Reuters columnist. The opinions expressed are his own. –

What do Pakistan and Mexico have in common? They figure in the nightmares of U.S. military planners trying to peer into the future and identify the next big threats.

The two countries are mentioned in the same breath in a just-published study by the United States Joint Forces Command, whose jobs include providing an annual look into the future to prevent the U.S. military from being caught off guard by unexpected developments.

“In terms of worst-case scenarios for the Joint Force and indeed the world, two large and important states bear consideration for a rapid and sudden collapse: Pakistan and Mexico,” says the study – Joint Operating Environment 2008 – in a chapter on “weak and failing states.” Such states, it says, usually pose chronic, long-term problems that can be managed over time.

But the little-studied phenomenon of “rapid collapse,” according to the study, “usually comes as a surprise, has a rapid onset, and poses acute problems.” Think Yugoslavia and its 1990 disintegration into a chaotic tangle of warring nationalities and bloodshed on a horrific scale.

UK suffers from banks’ Darwinian hibernation

James Saft Great Debate – James Saft is a Reuters columnist. The opinions expressed are his own –

Britain’s banks are fulfilling their Darwinian role, to survive, rather than their economic one, to lend, and there is no easy or painless way out.

A glance at the latest Bank of England Credit Conditions Survey makes grim reading, with yet another marked tightening of lending conditions to households and businesses. Loans are harder to get and more expensive where available, which is hardly surprising given rising defaults and a hardening view that the UK will suffer a long and deep recession.

Why did the SEC fail to spot the Madoff case?

mark_williams– Mark T. Williams, a finance professor at the Boston University School of Management, is a risk-management expert and former Federal Reserve Bank examiner. The views expressed are his own. –

With Congress now probing the Bernard Madoff case, some claim the SEC missed the risk because of under staffing. Even if that’s an issue, one SEC enforcement officer using basic risk-management skills, asking probing questions, searching for clear answers, and exercising timely follow up could have helped in detecting this fraud before it grew to such a staggering size.

The central flaw at the SEC is that its current oversight approach is not sufficiently risk focused. Moreover, any changes in approach have tended to be in response to a specific event instead of incorporating an overall risk-based approach across all areas under their regulatory purview.

Obama’s radical environmental strategy

John Kemp Great Debate– John Kemp is a Reuters columnist. The opinions expressed are his own –

Most successful elected leaders must disappoint their most ardent supporters at some point, as the bright hopes of an election campaign give way to the complex realities and constraints of governing, and need to occupy and retain the political center-ground to win re-election.

The trick of really successful leaders is to let supporters down gently to avoid turning disappointment into frustration and anger, retaining allegiance and support even when the maximum agenda goes unfulfilled and compromises must be made. Political supporters have to be given enough policy gains to be kept loyal, even as some cherished objectives fall by the wayside.

Brace yourself: Political-market risks in 2009

prestonkeat– Preston Keat is director of research at Eurasia Group, a global political risk consultancy, and author of the forthcoming book “The Fat Tail: The Power of Political Knowledge for Strategic Investors” (with Ian Bremmer). Any views expressed are his own. For the related story, click here.

There are a number of macro risks that will continue to grab headlines in 2009, including the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq, cross-border tensions and state instability in Pakistan, and Iran’s 
ongoing quest to develop advanced nuclear technologies.

These risks are real, and will not be resolved easily or quickly. But there are two other general groups of political risks that could be defining both for investors and policy makers: first, the prospect of a number of interrelated market risks in developed and emerging Europe, and second, the challenges faced by the United States regarding multilateral leadership (particularly in the area of financial regulatory reform).

We are all Madoff investors

James Saft Great Debate – James Saft is a Reuters columnist. The opinions expressed are his own –

It was perhaps inevitable that we ended 2008, the year we learned we were up the creek, with a great financial scandal: the Madoff Ponzi case.

What is even more remarkable is the way in which the alleged fleecing of many billions of dollars from wealthy people and charities — investors who should have known better or employed people who did — serves as a mirror for the broader culture, showing how we went wrong and where we are left now that we realize our errors.

Health care degree leads to higher earnings

diana-furchtgott-roth_great_debate– Diana Furchtgott-Roth, former chief economist at the U.S. Department of Labor, is a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute.  The opinions expressed are her own. —

The economic outlook is bleak. Unemployment is rising.  Credit markets are dysfunctional.  Students are worried about job prospects, for good reason.

If you’re a young person choosing a career path, forget banking, forget autos, and forget Wall Street.  A new study coming out from the Hudson Institute in January, funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, shows that enrolling in a community college and earning a two-year degree or certificate in a health-related profession—the only field that showed significant job gains in November, and the one with the most jobs openings—can open a pathway to higher earnings.

A Christmas wish: End traffic congestion in 2009

diana-furchtgott-roth_great_debate– Diana Furchtgott-Roth is a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute and former chief economist at the U.S. Department of Labor. The opinions expressed are her own. —

Christmas Day in most cities will be serene, free of weekday traffic jams as workers enjoy a Thursday that is free of normal routines.  Many commuters wish that the free-flowing driving could last all year long. Traffic congestion wastes drivers’ time and gasoline, pollutes, reduces employment, and pushes businesses and shoppers away from cities.

There is hope. New global positioning system technology and congestion pricing can reduce traffic jams.  In mid-January, 10,000 transportation professionals, including people from the incoming Obama administration, will convene in Washington D.C. at meetings of the Transportation Research Board, part of the National Academy of Sciences, to discuss solutions.

New messenger, same mandate

Kevin P. Gallagher– Kevin P. Gallagher is professor of international relations at Boston University and co-author of “The Enclave Economy: Foreign Investment and Sustainable Development in Mexico’s Silicon Valley” and “Putting Development First: The Importance of Policy Space at the WTO.” The opinions expressed are his own. –

On the campaign trail, President-elect Barack Obama pledged to rethink U.S. trade policy.   The initial nomination of Xavier Becerra as United States Trade Representative was a signal that Obama will work to fulfill that promise. Congressman Becerra declined the offer and former Dallas Mayor Ron Kirk has been chosen to head the office instead.  Given Kirk’s enthusiastic support for NAFTA, he will receive close scrutiny as he takes over a USTR that has the mandate of rethinking U.S. trade policy.

Regardless of the messenger, Obama has pledged to fundamentally change U.S. trade policy.  To this end, there are four early priorities for Kirk and Obama: honor existing commitments under the WTO, press for an equitable completion of the Doha Round, conduct a thorough evaluation of major U.S. trade agreements, and enact comprehensive trade adjustment assistance legislation.

NYMEX oil benchmark again in question

John Kemp Great Debate– John Kemp is a Reuters columnist.  The views expressed are his own –

The record differential between the front-month and more liquid second-month contracts at expiry last week once again raised pointed questions about whether the NYMEX light sweet contract is serving as a good benchmark for the global oil market, or sending misleading signals about the state of supply and demand.

The expiring January 2009 contract ended down $2.35 on Friday at $33.87, while the more liquid February contract actually rose 69 cents to settle at $42.36 – an unprecedented contango from one month to the next of $8.49.

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