The asymmetries of Putin vs the West (or, why The Economist keeps looking stupid)

It has been some time since this blog has taken its title at face value and looked at some of the large scale asymmetries at work in the world around us. The Ukraine conflict, however, presents just such a chance. Plenty has been written on the subject now by armchair experts in Eastern European strategy, many of whom no doubt only recently become epidemiology experts too. I offer a few simple thoughts about the asymmetric nature of the game Putin is playing, and in every case I start with the panacean truisms one finds in the media.

“Russian GDP is not even as big as South Korea, it is overreaching itself!”

The globalist response to almost any conflict has been to look to economic indicators – at least, the ones we are familiar with – as a measure of how powerful a country is or can be. I will give such commentators the benefit of the doubt that in most cases, they are aware there is some nuance and that localised imbalances can affect outcomes; but still, by and large, they will believe that historical determinism tells us that a country’s GDP will indicate the way the winds are blowing.

What Putin is exposing, however, is that for Russia (and China, amongst others), expenditure in materiel capital has to be matched with the commitment to expend human capital. On a GDP basis, many others will be more powerful than Russia; but judged on the basis of its hard resources multiplied by the factor with which it is willing to use them, Russia’s position on the world stage is not one of punching “above its weight”; it is very much a significant player (which, let’s be honest, is exactly how it is treated within the world of realpolitik). This is a case of asymmetric capital deployment.

The Western response in offering the Ukraine arms and supplies is a case in point: it costs the West nothing to do this. Indeed, given the realities of the military-industrial complex, offering military equipment which is in turn paid for through loose monetary policy actually helps the West. The problem is, it does not do much to help the Ukraine. Putin knows that no Western government at this stage is willing to lose the life of a single soldier in defence of Kiev; China knows likewise about Taiwan. And they are able to gamble that even with the best of wills in armament support, if the West has no boots on the ground, its commitment will be as fickle as the next budget discussion in Cabinet. Only blood counts.

So whilst it is absolutely true that Russia is not rich enough to match much of the West, it really does not matter because that is not the game being played. I suspect not a single Ukrainian soldier coming under a rocket attack is thinking to himself, “well the joke is on you, you’re overreaching your GDP base”. Unless the West changes its tune on how to respond, the Russian bear is not going to be paying too much attention. Instead, as one of my friends pointed out, “there is no significant military force standing between Russia and Paris today, a situation we have not faced for generations”. Another added, “but there is a lot of GDP standing in the way”.

“Russia is on the decline anyway, in ten years time this will be seen as a massive mistake!”

Again, this is very possibly true. After all, the big difference between the Russian threat and the Chinese threat is that it seems difficult to imagine Russia being more important in ten years time than today. Again however, I suspect this is cold comfort to the dying Ukrainian civilian, who is most probably not shouting to the incoming tanks “well you’re on the wrong side of history!”. As Keynes says, in the long run, we’re all dead.

The fact is that in this kind of game, a grenade in the hand is worth two on the production line. Most incidents like the Ukraine are not played out over the kinds of timeframe that the Cold War was; once an aggressor gets its way, it can be almost impossible to dig them out again other than at enormous costs which, as described above, people are unwilling to pay. Yet the fact is that Russia is doing this today, not years down the line when history has come to bite it. This is a case of asymmetric timing.

All powers are likely to rise and fall cyclically. Russia doubtless is on a down cycle already – but so what? History is not decided by trajectories (much as historical determinists and progressivists would love to believe), and still less are real objectives today affected by those long term trends. A power willing to punch today can easily and consistently outcompete the larger power waiting for things to fall into the natural order of things. Obama’s pushing of this wording is perhaps his most pernicious legacy as a clarion call to inaction.

“The whole world is watching this and will be judging Russia!”

Whilst the first two popular claims may well hold true, even if they are irrelevant, this last one is questionable due to one last great asymmetry, which constitutes the eternal dilemma of the policeman. The West is of course judging Putin – for now. Sanctions will come in. There is discussion of banning Russia from the SWIFT payment system for instance, as well as the removal of this season’s Champions’ League final from St Petersburg (Russia’s involvement in the Eurovision Song Contest however, has been subject to confusion).

The problem though, is precisely that the whole world is watching this – through the 24 hour news cycle, through social media, through memes. Yet the policeman’s dilemma is, why do I prioritise this over anything else? And with the fragmentation of Western attention, through so many channels, the cohesion of Western attention is less than in generations past, even as the volume of that attention is more. This is asymmetric focus.

The Russians know that Western observers struggle with creating a hierarchy of what is supposed to be important. Modern media has dampened our sense of proportionality, meaning that there is a perception of crying wolf. How much better or worse is Biden’s performance over the Ukraine, compared to the retreat from Kabul for instance? Or Obama’s red lines in Syria? Or his response to the last time Russia invaded the Ukraine? In the heat of the moment, everyone is entitled (as many are) to believe this is the most important issue in the world today; yet that same raw sensation will also see it be less to tomorrow. Maybe another invasion, maybe another form of Covid, maybe just forest fires will do the trick. Our lack of media curation has brought us to this.

I would additionally add that, in all of human history, sanctions have only ever to my knowledge worked in one example: South Africa. In this case, it worked because the target society of the sanctions (white South Africans) looked up to and respected those sanctioning them – they cared. Not the case with Russia, or with China. Probably not even the case with India. The corollary is that asymmetric focus is only solved when the matter is close to home – culturally, ethnically. Sweden, for instance, is not a member of NATO, but will still be able to count on American and European physical support in the event of a Russian invasion in a way the Baltic states might struggle with. Let’s be honest, because they’re white. This is the only thing which cuts through the ADHD of modern life. Are the Ukrainians really white enough and middle class enough for people to sustain their care? We will find out.

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If this sounds cynical, that is because it is. Asymmetries unlock many of the answers where there is more heat than light and war has been so unknown for so long. As long as Putin is playing a different game, the constant refrains about meaningless measures will remain rhetoric whilst real people are suffering. Grasping these asymmetries can lead to small but very effective changes in policy, and consequently enormously different outcomes. Given that the US purported to know about the coming invasion so long ago, a single battalion of American soldiers, under the guise of ordinary joint training exercises, would have made Putin pause for thought.

One must always ask oneself, “what would Putin do?“.

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PS – where now those anti-nuclear deterrent voices?

North Shropshire was never much of a surprise

Tory mauling in North Shropshire by-election was self-inflicted by Boris  Johnson | Financial Times

Since the by-election in North Shropshire, described variously by lazy journalists and commentators as “stunning” and “shocking“, a lot has been written about how historic the North Shropshire result has been. Clearly, it was an extremely poor showing for the Tories and, arguably, for Boris personally. The actual historical context, of the seat being held by the Tories for two centuries, is also somewhat true – it certainly has not been held by Labour or the current Liberal Democrat party before this. However, the Tories of two centuries ago were clearly not the Tories of today, so unlike some of the Red Wall seats which fell to the Tories in 2019, the historicity of this claim is rather tenuous – those seats, for instance Workington or the Don Valley, were literally in the camp of just one party (Labour) since 1918.

So much for the soft stuff. The statistical context is even more important. The fact is that whilst North Shropshire was a bad result, it nonetheless was much to be expected. Most obviously, incumbent governments will of course always suffer during mid-term by-elections, since there is little reason for voters to turn out for anything other than “sending a message. In the 146 contested Parliamentary by-elections since 1979, only 7 have resulted in the incumbent party of government not losing vote share. Most of these have some particular backstory to them as well, such as the Blaenau Gwent or Glenrothes by-elections under Labour. Gains by the Tories such as Copeland or Hartlepool are, by definition, remarkable.

The second most obvious point to make is that by-elections in the aftermath of major crises – domestic or global – will always magnify this swing effect. The statistical evidence is more limited here, but it is worth noting that the greatest swings against have tended to come in the wake of enormous economic dislocations, in the early 1990s for the Tories (Newbury and Christchurch) and in a statistical basis of one, in 2009 for Labour (Norwich North). These represent the only times since 1979 that real GDP growth has slipped into negative territory, and it shows. Since Covid-19 has created an economy dislocation some 2.5x greater than the 2008 crisis, it stands to reason that anti-government swings will be larger still. It is imperfect but it stands up to scrutiny.

Most importantly however, it should also be noted that swings against incumbent governments have, over time, been larger and larger. This is a secular trend divorced from specific party politics, since it has continued as a trend throughout various Tory and Labour governments. Below is a chart of the swing against in all by-elections since 1979 where the ruling party has lost a seat. Not only can you visually see the increasing size of the swings against, but statistically it also works out that whereas in the 1980s a government could expect an average swing of ~-15% against at an election, by the 2010s one could expect a ~25% swing against on average. Swings have increased by 10% in and of themselves.

The obvious question to ask is why this has occurred, to which I will only for now speculate. The first reason is the ongoing evidence of partisan de-alignment since 1979, which has become more pronounced even after 2010. The second could be the ongoing evolution of social media and its impact on the 24 hour news cycle, something which actually affects by-elections more than general elections. After all, electorates are used to being inundated during a general election and have done since the 1930s. But the amount of national focus on individual by-elections, first from television and now through social media, has made both dealignment as well as the “bloody nose” concept more pronounced. Regardless of the specifics, governments are going to find it ever harder to win by-elections.

This is not to say that the Conservatives had anything other than a poor result. But long-term increases in anti-government swing + largest economic dislocation in a century = almost certain defeat for a government. Boris still did worse than he needed to; but anyone believing this was not the opposition’s to lose is kidding themselves.

What Covid-19 mortality might look like if we all counted like the Germans

Germany Covid

One of the less covered aspects of the Covid-19 crisis has been the wildly differing ways in which countries – and within the US even states – count the dead. This in turn has made comparability between countries almost meaningless, with very little to be learned between the numbers of deaths in Italy for instance, and those in Sweden. And by the time you bring China into the discussion, comparability ceases even to be mentioned. The singular failing of the WHO is not failure to combat the virus (which it has little power to do), but failure to at least coordinate consistent numbers. On this basis alone, the WHO has been a fiasco.

The problem is that how one counts deaths, even though it sounds like it should be scientific process, is actually an art. There will always be huge amounts of subjectivity in interpreting whether a virus like Covid-19 constitutes the “primary cause” of death, or whether it is merely a “contributary factor”. The discipline with which a group of medical practitioners understand and stay within guidelines on this reflects all sorts of local conventions and culture. Generally, one might assume that the more technocratic a society is, the more strict they would be.

Step forward Germany. Throughout recent months, German numbers have been hailed as an example of what good governance should look like, with early testing being seen as key. Yet if you look at the details, a puzzle is presented: although German total deaths are much lower than that of France, for instance, its total numbers of infections are almost the same.

Total Covid deaths

Note: mortality rate defined as reported Covid deaths as % of total infections “Non-German Europe” are countries coloured in red; Source: Worldometer.info

All the good governance in Germany would, one assumes, mostly have led to lower deaths through lower infections, yet this has not occurred. Rather, the gap between total deaths is partly filled by the differences in counting methodology. In fact broadly speaking “Greater Germany”, encompassing Austria, Switzerland and Denmark, together average a mortality-to-infection rate at around one-third that of Non-German Western Europe (and this is already distorted by the fact that in Switzerland, non-German cantons are reporting much higher mortality than their German brethren).

So what is going on? Whilst I have no doubt that the Germans are doing better, they are not doing that much better. But at present, if there is a difference in counting methodology, I also have no doubt that I would lean towards the German over the non-German way. What then would the UK and other countries’ mortality rates look like under the German system?

First, I have assumed a simple re-basing of these mortality rates to the Greater German average, creating a like-for-like “Germanic deaths” number for each country. This lowers them substantially. “But”, I hear you cry, “is the German healthcare system not better?” Well, perhaps it is – though in fact there does not appear to be much consensus on this from various authorities. But let us say for the sake of argument that there is a qualitative difference, we might use a simple proxy such as the number of hospital beds per capita to readjust this number and make it more apples-for-apples.

Greater Germany Covid

Source (for beds): Nationmaster.com

Greater Germany does have a better-than-average provision of hospital facilities, particularly in Austria and in Germany itself. Taken together, the Germanic average of hospital beds per capita is higher than most other Western European countries, although France is also quite high. If we then adjust the “Germanic deaths” number upward again, by the number of beds, we have an indicator of what German-style Covid-19 death counts might look like.

European Covid like for like

Note: “adjusted” figures adjusted for hospital beds per capita compared to Greater Germany

Despite making this adjustment upwards, non-German Covid-19 deaths, whilst higher than Germany’s (and almost certainly correctly so), are still substantially below the current reported numbers. In other words, if the UK used German-style death counting, its numbers of Covid-19 deaths might be about half the current number and possibly well below. The same applies to all other countries in the region. I would posit that this is the basis of real comparability, not the published statistics.

Of course, this is all back-of-the-envelope stuff and many will complain that this does not take into account all the nuances of each country’s policies and virus reactions. But there can be no doubt that:

  1. Each country is counting in a different way;
  2. If the UK were counting along German lines, reported deaths would be much lower; and
  3. Conversely, if Germany were counting along UK lines, their numbers would be higher.

However taking into account what has been happening in each country, if I were to guess at who’s numbers are a better and more accurate representation of the real situation, I know where my money would be. But then, I am Austrian.

 

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(For reference I did the same analysis incorporating the Asian OECD statistics, which seem remarkably similar to Germanic numbers. China in particular, whatever else is may have covered up, has a stringent policy of how it reports Covid deaths and the region as a whole would likely be similar. However the outcomes from this analysis did not move the needle enough to start having to justify commonality between Asia and Europe)

Asia OECD Covid

Physics, philosophy and why people don’t want “Centrism”

Physics & Philosophy

For a while, it seemed that “centrism” was back on the agenda. In the US, Howard Schultz, the “burnt coffee magnate”, was considering a run for Presidency and was only one of a long queue that included Beto O’Rourke and Michael Bloomberg (who has decided not to run). In Britain, renegade Labour and Tory MPs founded The Independent Group, designed to coral a fragmented anti-Brexit sentiment in into a movement, replete with the usual platitudes about a “new type of politics”. Every centrist potential presidential candidate is feted by the media as an answer to Trump and AOC; the TIG has actually had success in forcing policy changes from the Labour Party. It seems that, three years after the events that led to 2016, and two decades after the Third Way of Bill Clinton and Tony Blair, sensible politics was hoisting itself back into the public consciousness and relevance.

But here’s the problem: people don’t actually want “centrism”. Politicians on both sides of the Atlantic have taken onboard the very real desire for non-partisanship and somehow mangled this interpretation into support for centrism which is about as far from reality as they could be. It is unclear whether this misunderstanding is at least rooted in good faith about what ordinary people want, or whether it is part of a more sinister move to hijack the non-partisan agenda into something more appealing to those who only ever considered Trump and Brexit as aberrations. Indeed, from some parts of the spectrum supporters of these centrist trends are even preparing themselves for failure, by raising the red herring of “polarisation”. According to this, it is the public’s problem – they are too polarised these days to accept the logic of centrism. Shame on them.

There are two principal reasons why centrism is destined for failure, and none are the problem of the electorate. They are rooted in the two things which centrism stands for. First is compromise. There is some truth to the idea that the electorate is too polarised for compromise today; but this has always been the case. In politics, compromise has rarely been highly regarded since it inevitably results in the worst of all worlds, and usually are a by-word for kicking the can down the road. The Missouri Compromise or “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” come to mind for US history. The Barnett Formula, the EVEL answer to the West Lothian Question, and even the British opt-outs at Maastricht in 1992, are cases in point for Britain. The fact is that compromise is rarely satisfactory and tells of an inherently unstable equilibrium which as yet still needs to be resolved. Voters are quite tired of this given the questions thrown up by two decades of globalisation, automation and the 2008 financial crisis, and compromise is not going to answer them.

The second reason is that “centrism” above all (be it consciously or surreptitiously) is about defending the status quo – the exact opposite of popular opinion today. Whether Schultz or the TIG, advocates of the new politics are effectively trying to preserve a now discredited consensus around major issues of the day including free trade of the sort we have come to know, liberal immigration, a focus on GDP, the pursuit of “growth” and exports, keeping interest rates and inflation low and above all the protection of large corporates rather than SMEs. But that is from a pre-2016 world. Today the electorate, having been woke by the events of that year want something quite different – in a weird way, what they want is not centrism but extremism at both ends. Yes, they want to break the deadlock of existing parties, but they don’t want to return the consensus of old. Yes, they do not want the old “Left” vs “Right”, but neither do they want the compromise and consensus of the old “Centre”.

I have previously referred to what I call the Physics and Philosophy paradigm, and it is perhaps worth explaining more here. The problem with studying physics and philosophy is that each seems so different at the beginning and none of it makes sense until the loop completes at the end. Nothing makes sense until everything makes sense – whether in academia, business or anything else.

PhyPhi

Politics, too, is like this. At the beginning, one only sees things labelled for us as “Left” and “Right”, and the expanse of the political firmament is limited by lines of sight from traditional perspectives. Hence, at the beginning of 2016, this is what the American political world imagined it was seeing:

PhyPhi - pre 2016 politics

What we do not see at first glance is how these two ostensibly opposed directions may link up again at the other end of the circle. Yet if we tilt the planet up to peak behind, it is revealed what the political firmament had become by the end of the that year:

PhyPhi - post 2016 politics

Trump and Sanders were not, at the end, all too far away from each other in many of the crucial questions being posed on a number of areas such as trade, international companies and overseas cash-piles, and even infrastructure and healthcare. Both had moved right around the planetary orbit until they almost met again at the other side – the dark side of the planet invisible to the conventional commentariat sitting comfortably on the light side. And in that dark side are all the commonalities which are so hard to digest, principally amongst them the sense that the starting point for policy had to be the domestic and national, not the trade or people beyond the borders. In a sense, Trump and Sanders were in the “centre”, but a “centre” a world away from the “centre” prescribed by Bloomberg. The old centrists are wrong: their centrism was not being rejected due to cultural, regional and partisan polarization – it was not because the two sides were too different, but rather because they were too similar.

And this, ultimately, is where we are today. The TIG’s polling numbers have dramatically collapsed in the face of Nigel Farage’s new Brexit Party, declining from the mid-teens to low single digits since the party’s inception earlier this year. Bloomberg never ran. Howard Schultz has been non-committal about a presidential campaign and Democrats have been begging him not to run; the likes of known centrist Amy Klobuchar are failing to gain traction whilst complete outsiders like Andrew Yang are doing so. Yang, if anyone, is the 2020 heir to the 2016 dark-side-of-planet movement.

“Centrism” is an idea of a bygone age, one where the recent past was a story of success, where defending the status quo seemed like common sense and where just a small amount of compromise would be enough to navigate through foreseeable difficulties. But politics has changed in the last few years. Whether you are for or against Brexit, or whether you are for or against Trump or Sanders or Andrew Yang, the stasis engendered by the old “centre” is as irrelevant as defeating Communism or the Nazis. Although much of the mainstream media remain seduced by the familiarity of what was, voters on both sides have moved on; and most of them have now marched so far around the unseen side of the planet that only candidates who themselves see the future, will be positioned to reap its rewards. Centrism is dead; long live the Dark Side!

 

 

Out really means out – why Britain should reject the “WTO option” even under Hard Brexit

brexit-trade-barriers-810x521

The sheer amount of ignorance in British public discourse about how trade works is one of the most disappointing lessons from the whole sorry Brexit drama. As a Remainer I have no qualms in picking out the likes of Dan Hannan as an example of this, whose comprehension of the subject (and of economics in general) seems to have been plucked from half-remembered A-level text books, or, at a stretch, incidental discussion from reading History at Oxford. Amongst his favourite refrains is that which tells us that “at least we will still have WTO to fall back on”. Yet of all the options, this is probably the very worst. In the event of Hard Brexit, Britain should actually reject the WTO too.

This is not the place to get into the minutiae of what the WTO actually is or how it works. There are plenty of people who have written in easier detail that I can about this. Instead there are two common misconceptions about the WTO which need to be digested before we even get onto whether it is good for Britain or not. The first is that the WTO is not actually about regulating tariffs; its core notion is that of making sure that everyone abides by the Most Favoured Nation (MFN) principle, meaning that however you structure your trade (higher tariffs, lower tariffs, no tariffs) you must at least treat everyone the same. Clearly, this is a starting point on lowering tariffs but it does not actually reduce tariffs in and of themselves. Secondly, the WTO is not a single set of regulations, but rather applies to each country differently depending on their schedules of entry. In other words, upon joining the WTO, each country basically agrees to its own unique set of tariffs and commitments.

The blog referred to above gives the helpful example of shoes – a sector in which the UK happens to be an exporter:

8% is charged by the EU on shoes imported from all other WTO members (except under a free trade agreement, such as EU-Japan, or preferences on shoes from developing countries). The import duty rate in other countries will be different. The US’s import duties on shoes vary from duty-free to around 10% or higher. Japan charges 20%–30% duty on many shoe imports.

In other words, the WTO does not set monolithic rules, even at a lowest common denominator, as many casual observers seem to believe. The reason I highlight this is to emphasise that the WTO is not some magic bullet for providing a minimum level of trade freedom. It is merely a mechanism for getting countries to discuss ways to lower tariffs. How much each country has to commit to upon entry to the WTO is, much like any other trade deal or indeed any other non-deal trading relationship (which is how most trade is done), dependent on their economic strengths. A larger economy, offering both greater consumption power and usually some irreplicable exports, will always get a better “deal” out of the WTO as a whole (or any other trade negotiation such as an FTA) than a smaller economy. With or without the WTO, with or without an FTA. That is just the way life works.

Moreover, the WTO largely does not cover services, which matters for Britain. After all according to the ONS, British services exports constituted 44% of total exports in the 2017-2018 fiscal year, representing a trade surplus of +£107bn (+€124bn) compared to the trade deficit of -£139bn (-€161bn) in goods. Contrast this with Germany, France and Italy for instance who have a trade surplus in goods and deficit in services. Yet if you delve into the WTO’s website to look at something like architectural services, something Britain has had some success at, you will find the following wording:

Currently, architectural and engineering services, like all services are included in the new services negotiations, which began January 2000. Principles of trade in architectural and engineering services are contained, like for all services, in the GATS.

In other words, nothing has been agreed. The same wording applies to everything else including finance, law, advertising and so on. GATS itself, the precursor to the services agreement, is essentially toothless. As a result, you might have noticed that prior to the Brexit referendum in 2016 nobody anywhere had been talking about the WTO for almost a decade. Instead, partly in order to cover services, most countries have gone on to think about regionally integrated trade deals like ASEAN, the TPP, APEC, the East African Union, Mercosur and, er, the EU.

The problem for Britain is that the WTO is an unfinished project. People seem to forget that the intention for global “free trade” was supposed to be a multi-step process, starting with the trade in goods before moving onto the trade in services, tackling non-tariff barriers and eventually encompassing freedom of labour and capital. The trade in goods came first, naturally, because in the era in which the GATT discussions commenced, most economies including the OECD were still ones that made stuff. There was no real asymmetry in economic structure at that time and if anything, GATT and WTO were forecast to open up emerging markets to developed nation goods such as industrial equipment whilst the latter continued to develop their basic industries such as agriculture and natural resources.

However over the course of time this changed. The OECD became notably more services-based, including in their export mix. On the other hand the emerging markets, led by China, came to dominate the manufacturing industry not just at the low end but increasingly at the higher ends too – Korean autos for instance, Chinese industrial equipment and so on. It was therefore imperative that the next phase of global “free trade”, that of services, was completed – but it never was. The Doha Round, in the back of everyone’s memories, collapsed ignominiously. China’s accession to the WTO in 2001 on these ossified terms has probably contributed significantly to its rise and America’s comparative decline. It certainly led to Trump. If you are a modern economy, the WTO is probably bad for you.

We have not even touched on the specifics of how and whether Britain could easily join the WTO and on what conditions. The likelihood is that Britain could join pretty quickly – if it did so exactly on the current EU schedules (ie the 8% tariff for shoes above). But as noted, each set of schedules was designed to suit a specific economy and the existent schedules suit the EU as a whole. With a focus on protecting agricultural exports for instance, they are probably not ideal for Britain. If it wanted to join on a different, bespoke set of schedules, this would require agreement from all WTO members which would almost certainly throw up objections both legitimate (British government subsidy for financial services for instance) and illegitimate (Russia or Argentina purposefully creating trouble). Furthermore this would require time, unlike the replication of the EU schedules – the shortest period of time for a WTO accession has been several years.

This brings us to the central conclusion that if Britain goes through with Hard Brexit, it would be better to reject the WTO altogether and act unilaterally. The WTO as it exists today suits some countries like Germany and China and Japan, but specifically ill-suits the UK given the commitments Britain would have to make on accepting manufactured goods but getting no such commitments on services in return. Neither is Britain a big enough an economy to enter into renegotiations to remake the rules in its own favour, as the Quadrilateral could. Moreover, rushing into the WTO would actually undermine Britain’s ability to strike independent trade deals as most of what it has to offer – a market for consumer goods – would be given up already. Leverage in bilateral negotiations by trading goods access for services access, would be eliminated including with the EU.

Indeed in recognition of Britain’s place as a middle-sized economy, it makes more sense to try and protect certain industries, even at the cost of near-term price increases.  Whilst signing up to the WTO does not restrict Britain’s ability to lower tariffs, it would prevent the country from strategically increasing tariffs where necessary, for instance incubating industries struggling to find their feet after seventy years in the wilderness. The fact is that a vibrant SME sector really only exists in economies that have reached a critical mass in exports such as the US, Germany and Japan. For all other economies, creating national champions is a better guarantee of long-term economic survival (more of this in future posts).

Brexit is a political, not an economic, debate. That political choice should be made on its own merits, but decisions about trading relationships need to be clear-headed afterwards. Relying on the WTO sounds like a short-cut for preserving some stability for British trade, but it is a false friend. The reason why nobody else pays attention to the WTO anymore is the same reason why Britain must abandon it too – if indeed it actually ends up with Hard Brexit come 29 March.

The Chinese New Economy: Alibaba as Sauron and why the old economy will be the winners

Sauron eye

Anyone familiar with the Chinese new economy will be aware of the rise of the internet giants of Alibaba and Tencent, along with their satellite businesses. Most will also be aware of the largely exclusive ecosystems within which Chinese online life is led – platforms that encompass everything from messaging to shopping to transport to payments and beyond.

It seems astonishing to remember that barely five years ago many commentators fretted over whether China could ever achieve real innovation. The Harvard Business Review for instance posed the question “Why Can’t China Innovate?”, baldly stating:

Can China lead? Will the Chinese state have the wisdom to lighten up and the patience to allow the full emergence of what Schumpeter called the true spirit of entrepreneurship? On this we have our doubts.

This of course is all rather a fading memory now. Innovation can broadly be divided into three areas: upstream (essentially, “how it works”), midstream (“how it’s made”) and downstream (“how it’s used”). For years, China as a manufacturing hub had made quite noteworthy progress on midstream innovation but most uneducated observers – including many in government – have an unhealthy obsession with upstream blue-sky invention. Yet as we can see with the likes of Berners-Lee, inventors are rarely rewarded and rightly so, since the real creativity and invention from the likes of Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg and Jeff Bezos is in the downstream. Jobs was an arch innovator in how technology is actually used and therefore spread through an economy, with a vision of how lives are actually impacted and changed. Chinese companies, particularly through the big online giants, are clearly doing the same: modern life in China is now lived in quite an advanced but different manner to modern life in OECD countries. Alibaba and Tencent have contributed towards the creation of a real and organic Chinese modernity and technological innovation within China arguably outpaces even the US even leaving aside issues of theft.

So it is worth spending a moment to look at these two major ecosystems and how they really behave – who they are, as it were. First, there is a question of why ecosystems exist in China in the first place in a way which outside of China they do not. Amazon comes the closest of the American tech players to demand a closed ecosystem but even they seem to find limits. Western shareholders have always rewarded single-capacity specialization, and often find the idea of any conglomerate absurd, let alone a tech company offering bicycles and banking.

In China though, this has been natural, for two reasons. First, there is the historical socio-anthropological tendency within Chinese society to build a “closed loop universe” within one’s own family or clan, which has extended to the national level through the Communist Party and SOEs. My own preference for explaining this remains Karl Wittfogel’s hydraulic empire theory, which tells us that most ancient civilisations relied on centralized power to deliver water to its people, enshrining the principles of autocracy and top-down governance at the government and family level. This in turn typically leads to closed-loop systemic thinking since everything has to work together or else nothing works – diversity of thought is only bad news. Secondly though, and somewhat ironically, these ecosystems have become so broad precisely because they are making up for assurances which the Chinese government cannot offer. When you make a purchase on TMall, you have more faith in the Alibaba-backed guarantee that your products will be delivered and that your payment is safe, than one does with the disparate parts of the national banking, postal or legal system offered by the government. The tech giants had to offer a total universe, or else consumers would have been reluctant to actually engage with the new business model in the first place.

Chinese ecosystems (2)

Source: SCMP

So much for why they exist – the bigger issue is how to understand who they are, what their personalities and identities are and how they should be understood from the outside. One possibly analogy, given their conflict, is that of the Cold War. In this world, Alibaba are the Soviet Union – a sprawling empire with a strong centralized view on how things are supposed to be done. Tencent on the other hand are the United States, a beacon of freedom and inspiration but which has its own agenda focused on generating and owning consumption. JD.com are Britain: commercially-minded, focused on trade and fully acquiescent into the American (Tencent) world. Lastly you have Meituan – which owes its existence to Tencent, but like France to the US is entirely ungrateful and maintains the pretence of wanting an ecosystem of its own.

Upon reflection however, a new analogy came to me which may be a touch more accurate, which is Middle Earth. In this version of events, Alibaba are indisputably Sauron, the lurking, evil presence which looks across the lands of men with an unrelenting will to dominion. They provide you the tools to “help” only so that they can own them and you. They invest in you because they need to control your system from the inside. Resistance is futile; eventual subjugation can be the only outcome. The interesting one is Tencent, who I liken to the High Elves of Rivendell. The things about the Elves is this: they are generally on the side of good, and can facilitate it; but they are not themselves a force for good since they sit far away from the battle, detached from it all. They too provide tools, but they may not tell you how to use them; their attention is ultimately elsewhere. The forces of Men ranged against Sauron – let us assume these are essentially a proxy for traditional retail and consumer business in the region – ultimately have to find the solution for themselves, aided at times by the Elves but not reliant on them. If I were to stretch this analogy ad absurdum, perhaps this makes the Dwarves JD.com with their grubby focus on gold and commerce; whilst Meituan the slightly nobler Rohirrim, since they, er, move around a lot on delivery scooters like the horses of the Riddermark. Which start-up will be the valiant hobbit which destroys Alibaba, God only knows.

The serious point to all this is that for old economy companies, it feels like making a choice is inevitable. But the more one looks at the giants of the new economy, the more apparent it is that in the conflict of “internet+” vs “+internet”, it will likely be the latter – especially established asset owners – that win out. In particular, it is difficult to imagine that in this inflated global asset price environment, that the business which need, as Alibaba and JD.com especially are doing, to build out a network of physical infrastructure can be the eventual winner. Well, maybe one early mover can, but the world is not about to be flooded with online victors – by and large, the winners will be whoever of the old economy players adapts best to the new, rather than a new economy player.

And this then comes down to the vision thing. I have another analogy: I call it the “Physics & Philosphy” dilemma™. P&P is a little known but highly intellectual degree at Oxford (arguably the most esoteric of all) which combines two subjects that are not immediately connected. Yes, it is true that in the first term, courses such as Logic may play a part in both areas but then it would appear the two diverge. Yet we should see this like the rings of Saturn: you start off at one point travelling in two opposite directions on the ring, and whilst they move far apart to begin with in the end they meet again. In P&P, the questions at the other end of the circle see the two disparate subjects poetically rejoin on questions such as: what lies beyond the Universe? What happens if time stops? What if light bends? What is not obvious when you start the degree, become enormously obvious by the time you end it.

And seeing what is on the other end of this ring – what exists on the “dark side of the planet” as it were – is the very thing that marks out business geniuses from mere mortals. It took Amazon 14 years to become profitable, but there seems little doubt that Bezos had an idea of what lurked out of his sight in the distance. Likewise Jobs as he labored through various versions of Apple. But the point is, old economy companies can equally achieve this. We know the famous examples of IBM and Intel reinventing themselves based on their competencies; Apple itself did so. Further back in history are companies like Berkshire Hathaway and General Electric, and even Nokia who started life in rubber products. Reinvention is hard, but the world has not ended just because a series of new giants seem to own everything in sight. If the old economy is to learn anything, it is that with courage and vision, and a will to innovate internally if imperfectly, the future is still going to be theirs. For every Amazon which succeeds, there will still be a dozen Walmarts and Targets which make it, stronger than before.

The technology giants will go down in history mostly as the midwives of change, delivering the new baby to their old economy counterparts. We are already seeing them do this, below the surface as Alibaba and JD.com start to crystalise value in real businesses where they can (finance, technology etc rather than the core e-commerce platforms which have rarely made money for anyone). In many ways they are merely pioneering the examples of what the future looks like, so that old economy companies can learn from it but probably implement it better – the Chinese O2O supermarket businesses are a case in point. Indeed the cheerleading nature of the new economy player’s roles in businesses like retail, ahead of its time, loss-leading and ultimately doomed as a standalone business, begs another more controversial comparison. The tech giants are St John the Baptist, crying in the wilderness; the old economy players are Jesus.

Why commentators like Martin Wolf are still firmly thinking inside the box on China

aging-population

China’s rise is not about following the conventional economic norms, and the reality is that an ageing population is probably better than a young one

China has always been a black box. For the whole of my professional life, companies (investment banks being amongst the worst) happily hire someone – anyone at all – who claims to know the Chinese market if they can make even a sliver of money. Consequently, these people are given free rein to build their own silos. For boards in London or New York, China remains “a faraway nation of whom we know nothing”. It is from this mysterious, exotic ignorance that reliably insightful commentators, from publications which should know better, produce some tired answers to tired questions. Sad to say, amongst them was a recent piece from Martin Wolf at the Financial Times titled The Future May Not Belong to China.

Now, the future may very well not belong to China. Much of what Wolf outlines from his Capital Economics report (rather too much from one source for my liking) is unarguably true: the over-investment, the under-consumption, the increasing corporate debt and reliance on exports. But they only change from fact to “problem” when seen through the same old prism of economic development. China though has been disrupting the whole framework through which one sees these issues, confounding a whole mini-industry of untiring China bears. Who can forget the inflation crisis of 2010 – 2011? The Chibor crisis in the summer of 2013? The stock market crisis in 2015? The capital outflow crisis over 2016 – 2017? In each of these and many others besides, China was to be “found out”; it never was, not because the facts were inaccurate but because the basis for observation by outsiders was so incomplete (although to be fair some of the facts were also inaccurate). The fact that the naysayers and doom-mongers have been consistently wrong may be a cheap point to make, but it is worth making nonetheless. The only laws of economics, it seems, are the ones amateur journalists derive from their undergraduate readings of Adam Smith, Ricardo and Keynes.

china bears

A non-exhaustive list of China bear headlines since 1990

However I would submit two additional unrelated and possibly more controversial theses. The first is that the way China encounters these perceived crises is actually a mark of its success in terms of being on a pathway to global power, rather than a failure. There is a reason why China encounters “difficulties” where Japan, during its own precipitous rise in the 1970s, did not: China is actively trying to change the world it is living in. These crises are the tremors generated by moving tectonic plates, as Chinese objectives grate against the rules and outcomes it is being measured against. Currency and capital flows, interest rates, debt and the banking system – these are all examples of Chinese policy that do not make macro-economic sense until you factor in that it wants to change the system and if it plays its cards right, it probably can. We are faced with the first occasion since the United States back in the 1840s, where the world may have to accommodate a new power, and accordingly the rules will change. For China, this friction is good.

japan china gdp

Source: The Economist (2010)

To run through just one example of this, let us look at capital outflows. The reason capital outflows seem like a “crisis” is that the Chinese government wants to control the currency rather than let it be determined by the market. To pay for this, it must use foreign exchange reserves to keep the exchange rate stable. This becomes a huge cost when the environment is weak – except that the reason China does this is to try and make the RMB a regionally accepted trade and reserve currency. This could be done through just trade alone, but in China’s case it will also be done through the crypto-imperialism of the Belt & Road and other initiatives. If it succeeds, it will both eat into America’s ability to project power through the dollar, as well as ultimately encourage greater consumption of Chinese-made goods which in turn once again brings capital flows back into balance. It is a risky and expensive, all-or-nothing gamble; but unlike merely acquiescing into the current world system, if it succeeds it will have changed the regional financial and trade landscape. A price, some would say, worth paying.

The second thesis focuses on the cliché that China may be facing the middle income trap – that it may “get old before it gets rich”. This is typically paired with the curiously British trait of enthusiasm for India as an alternative story. Yet I would argue that with the coming of automation, China is actually on the right side of history on this and that far from fearing age, the adage should be turned on its head: for many comparable countries it is youth, not age, which will be a great peril; and these countries may be too young to ever get rich.

We have for some decades been fed the neoliberal trope that a younger population is good for the economy, and that pursuit of youth, through birthrates or immigration, is a Good Thing. Yet we are fast approaching the point where this notion is being exposed, because automation is actually a process which will eat into youth employment rather than any other. China’s workforce is actually declining and has been for some years, just in time for robots to start taking over.

The process of classic industralisation is just one of various models for a country to develop. But in this particular model, families can contribute labour rather than capital in order to obtain greater earnings, and thereby over time accumulate household assets. For many countries though, this industrialisation may never now be possible. The Economist noted as much when opining that the pathway of development exhibited by the China + ASEAN axis is probably irreplicable by anyone else including markets in Africa and South America. Goods may be manufactured in some of these economies, but it will be robots that do most of it and young median households will never cross either the asset-owning or educational thresholds required to survive automation before it hits.

Now, it may be that these countries find other models to become rich, but I doubt it. Agriculture or resource extraction will be possible for only a precious few. The mercantile model is not stable or sustainable. Services, as we have seen, actually produce a lower return on labour than industrialization does since jobs are often of a lower quality. In any case one of the stark lessons of 2016 was the fact that in 29 out of 50 states in the US, trucking was the single most common form of employment – and this, more so than manufacturing, is where automation will first hit.

us job types

Source: NPR (2015)

The fact is that to weather automation, median family assets need to reach a critical mass enough to be “invested” into the economy such that they can be gainers from robot productivity rather than victims. The most obvious if questionable form of asset-ownership would be home-ownership, but in an ideal world it would take other forms. China’s urban population has just about caught this train (financial income growth has far outstripped wage growth in recent years), but younger populations in India or Vietnam may not make it. Young people inevitable have fewer assets having had less time to earn; if their family does not reach this critical automation-neutralising financial position, they face eternal unemployment. OECD economies mitigate this conundrum somewhat through welfare transfers, but welfare is another privilege of long term asset accumulation by Society – a privilege emerging markets do not have. It is a race against time and any country that fails to achieve this will be left without a chair when the music stops.

In this context, I have little time for those who argue, as Wolf does, that India is “the most interesting other economy” (Americans I have noticed, tend to use Vietnam as their preferred example). As one of my friends commented, “the human race will probably be extinct before India has an airport like Pudong”. Taken individually, each of these points (China’s extra-economic rise and youth being a greater concern than age) have huge implications about the rules and framework for emerging market development theory. Taken together however, they may represent a perfect storm which leading to an inflection point in global economic development. In this case, being wedded to the old ideas, commentators like Wolf are probably missing it.

Why Britain could demand asymmetric labour access to the EU – and why it might be best for both sides

Freedom of movement

The disputes over Brexit negotiations have mostly been premised on the idea of reciprocity – or rather, retaliation. If we do not give them rights, they will not give them to us. This has been particularly true when discussion freedom of movement, possibly the single most important driver of Brexit voting in 2016. On the face of it, there seems to be logic in the EU demanding that EU nationals be allowed to freedom of movement into the UK if the UK wants the same thing in return. However this may belie the reality, which is that asymmetric access is perfectly viable and indeed valid.

To give one example of where this makes sense, let us examine Chinese policy with regards Hong Kong. Here, Hong Kong residents have an almost unhindered access to the Mainland and its economy, not only in terms of movement and residency, but also asset ownership including real estate and businesses. Chinese Mainlanders on the other hand face extremely stringent rules on coming to Hong Kong and particularly for settling here. Work visas are required almost exactly as they are of any foreigners. Yet this is essentially just one country with ultimately one government. And yet it suits both sides.

Why? Well there are two main reasons for allow one-way borders. The first is when one area needs skills the other has. This was historically true of Hong Kong and the services it provided to mainland China in terms of capital and skills, although today this is no longer so relevant. In the case of Britain and the EU, there are arguably skills which those across the channel, all things being equal, would prefer to have. Banking and finance might be part of this, but it seems unlikely. Much more relevant is that Britain is far more innovative than the rest of Europe and particularly so compared to the larger countries. In the European Commission’s innovation rankings for instance, Britain comes fifth but well ahead of Germany, as well as France, Italy and Spain. This is something the EU would surely rather not lose: startups and business ideas which could change the world but which need a large market to be tested and improved. For this reason, one-sided migration would be net positive.

European countries ranked by innovation

European innovation

Source: European Innovation Scoreboard 2018 (European Commission)

The second reason is the defensive one and relies on a resource Britain has an abundance of: parochialism. One of the reasons China has no particular fear of opening the border to Hong Kong is that there is very little chance that people will want to cross the border and stay there. Oddly enough, Britain is in the same boat, since Britons have historically been far less likely to move to another European country than many others, especially those of a working age. If we look at northern European migrants to other northern European destinations (in other words, intra-EU migration which strips out the retirement population) Britain figures as one of the least mobile populations behind even France. Only Germany is marginally behind and this is due to its outstanding export economy.

Total intra-Northern European emigrants as a percentage of total population

Intra-European migration

Source: People on the Move (Bruegel Jan 2018)

This reflects only “rich” Europe; if eastern and southern Europe were included the numbers would be even more stark. This peculiarly British parochialism can be seen in everything from the lack of language learning in British schools through to the reluctance of British footballers to move to European leagues which are better for their career. In other words, the British are much more disinclined to move and settle in the EU than the other way around, so that offering asymmetric access will only help business without causing any employment displacement.

This is a classic and enjoyable case of hidden asymmetry, the defining theme of this blog. The simple fact is that just because access is unequal does not mean that it is imbalanced or not beneficial to both sides. Reciprocity may seem “fair” on the face of it but may not actually be relevant – when there are cultural asymmetries as in this case, there is a good case to argue that reciprocity is not needed. Unless indeed retaliation is the core objective.

The hidden costs of parenting – why PPP could become PPPP

stress-cost-of-kids

Purchasing power parity or “PPP” has for many years been as good a proxy as any for allowing comparability between figures such as different countries’ GDP. China’s economy, for example, has a nominal GDP of just US$12 trillion, compared to America’s US$19.4 trillion. Yet when re-based on PPP, China’s GDP is actually US$23.2, making it the largest in the world. I for one accept that this is a useful indicator of economic strength, in the sense that China as a country is able to mobilise more economic resources than its nominal GDP would strictly suggest, since labour and capital there are cheaper. Likewise, a preferred measure of living standards is that of GDP per capita at PPP, or sometimes (better) average wages at PPP. In this way, some comparability may be afforded which accounts for street food in China appearing so much cheaper than in the West for instance.

Yet a friend of mine recently noted that in a sense, PPP-based comparisons of wages and living standards were very much geared towards the individual. A great leveler, he reckoned (as a relatively new parent complaining about the costs of the endeavor) was the arrival of children into his life. Because whilst in theory a basket of goods for PPP calculation includes items needed for raising children, in reality behavioral differences distort its reality. PPP, he felt, did not reflect the full costs of parenting and its effects seemed most intuitive to a single person. When considering where to live, PPP in his life could and perhaps should be re-adjusted to Parental PPP or “PPPP”.

There are three main buckets to consider in making any such adjustments:

1. Direct additional costs of education
2. Consumption choices
3. Real estate costs

The theory here is as follows: wherever you live in the world, the likelihood is that you will as a parent attempt to make up for the deficiencies of the world around you as best you can, in the interest of your children. This comes out of your own resources, and actually in many countries where life is “cheap”, when it comes to raising children those expenses shoot right up again. For instance, as a single person one may choose to drink tap water; as a parent one begins to invest in water cleansing machinery or bottled water (especially in Asia). Education is an important element too, since although many countries provide free universal education, parents recognize their limitations and will correspondingly pay for tuition and other aid. A surprisingly large selection of countries such China actually see parents effectively paying for education despite it being notionally free – and this is before getting to the issue of boarding schools paid for by expats. Lastly, real estate requirements are different and in some parts of the world rents / price counter-intuitively increase with the size of a property, commanding a premium due to restricted space.

So a comprehensive, scientific adjustment to PPP would require a sophisticated model which includes all these factors. To test it though, I instead looked at a simplistic account using only one factor that I could readily find, HSBC’s analysis of how much parents pay for their children’s education in several countries:

Cost of parenting
Source: HSBC – The Value of Education report 2017

Using this data as a rough proxy for all-in childcare costs (imperfect, but it is all I have to hand) I then readjusted the standard PPP index as provided by the OECD. The assumption I have made is that one-third of a parent’s income is used on children, a figure broadly in-line with statistics also published by the OECD. Thus I left two-thirds of income adjusted on the official OECD PPP basis, whilst the remaining one-third I have adjusted using a new index created by comparing total childcare spend. The results look like this:

Value of 30000

Basic and clumsy though this analysis is, it shows some interesting trends. First, as my friend suspected, the “real” living costs for a parent in places like China and India may be in fact higher than initially assumed, due to a surprisingly high need for private spend. But even more notable is how much value is added by the welfare societies of France and the UK, where the median family does not spend anything like as much for education particularly at the tertiary level. Median wages go a lot further in Europe and Canada than in the US under this system – and indeed US$30,000 almost matches the value of US$30,000 in China. The same kind of logic no doubt applies to issues such as universal healthcare. Assuming my calculations are even remotely accurate, life is fundamentally as cheap in Europe as it is in China, whilst life in the US remains the most expensive.

This methodology is very preliminary, full of assumptions and no doubt lacking. I would be happy to hear opinions on how best to improve it. However the basic theory is strong, namely that PPP may have a simple underlying flaw due to not accounting for changes in life cycle; in some cases PPP probably needs to become PPPP to be meaningful for public policy and for investment purposes alike. Essentially, single life remains localised whilst parenthood is becoming globalised. Since parenting costs are only going to increase as we go forward, the issue becomes particularly prominent. PPPP could be the future.

**************

For those keen to see the underlying data, below is the table of calculations:

PPPP table

How all politics really works – in one simple chart

Introducing the General Theory of Government 

The events of 2016 were curious because of their dichotomy: on the one hand, they were such a shock to the political classes, on the other hand they were also entirely predictable. Yet the commentariat both then and since appeared to miss (or simply forget) the most basic and obvious premise of how all politics works: namely that the ruler has to offer the ruled a mixture of both material and psychological well-being. The desire for identity is as legitimate a concern as any amount of wealth, and any government that fails to provide one or the other over a long period of time will suffer the occasional revolt. Understanding this explains Brexit, Trump and any other examples one might care to mention.

I do not claim this to be revolutionary, but given its lack of profile and given the impending elections in the US which will doubtless cause another round of soul-searching, I think it is useful to visualize this concept in a simple, easy to comprehend model. With no further ado therefore, all politics can be represented in this single chart:

General Theory - basic model

The Wealth-Identity Trade-off Model

It should be easy to see where I am going with this. Into the x-axis goes all those things which politicians want to focus on: taxes, welfare spending, the cost of living. Into the y-axis are all those things politicians seem not to think exist anymore such as ethnicity, religion and language. And, in a democracy at least, any government which consistently offers too little of one or other of these parameters, will find themselves cast out. We have for perhaps too long been living in a world where the governing classes have not only mistaken how to deliver W (Sanders, &c), but completely ignored i (Trump, Farage &c). Political parties across the spectrum have spent the last few decades obsessing over the x-axis whilst assuming that the y-axis will tend to itself. Rectifying this will be, as I have alluded to before, the dominant theme of the next two decades at least in the West.

I would hope this is all intuitive enough not to need vast amounts of explanation, but in a series of posts I intend to outline the basic premise of the General Theory and specifically its core idea, the Wealth-Identity Trade-off Model (WITM™). I will go on to examine how and when a society ceases to function properly; what a society really comprises within the model (“Median Man”, or “MM“); and lastly look at some applied examples in the world today and perhaps yesterday.

What I am proposing is not in itself, I think novel; however like all good things I believe this theory synthesizes simple, intuitive ideas which have at best not been expressed before in such a manner, or perhaps may not have been coherently identified. To anyone who disagrees with this, or who have contrary opinions, I look forward to hearing them. Additionally, since these are blog posts which may one day find their way into a book, I will not footnote everything in detail. However I trust that enough is articulated to allow the reader to comprehend what I intend.