Trade Embargo

China’s bullying is a blessing in disguise

We should view China’s recent bullying as a blessing in disguise. Our government should resist quickly bending to its will for we would only embolden Beijing by such a rapid display of weakness.

China’s true colours are on display. Barley tariffs, meat bans and now minerals are up for debate. All because we wish to have an inquiry into the beginnings of the virus.

We are not blameless. Our universities squeezed the Chinese student lemon until the pips squeaked. These educational institutions never built in contingencies. They are culpable for such pathetic risk management processes. Our property market has benefited from Chinese investment. Our primary industries rode the back of this panda and now fear they could end up inside.

However China is welcome to source its coal from Indonesia if it so chooses. We have globally competitive cost curves which would be welcomed in other nations.

Of course there will be short term disruptions but the entire global supply chain is being rewritten. That can only be in our favour. We aren’t playing aggressor while covering up a pandemic. This isn’t lost on most of the world, even if governments might tiptoe around the subject.

We should be revitalizing our relationship with Japan. At least we know when we sign a contract, the Japanese will stick to it rather than the Chinese style of starting negotiations after a deal is inked.

Why would we move away from our relationship with America? Much more opportunities in partnering with the US and India as well.

Chinese military aggression is self evident. Its investment in defence and space is exponential. While a fraction of US military spending the Chinese power projections in the South China Sea as well as the Paracels, Spratly and Senkaku Islands should raise concerns. Man made military island bases in the Pacific as well as ‘trading’ ports around the world which would welcome Chinese naval vessels.

Don’t take our word for it. Japan revealed in its 2019 Defense White Paper just how much China has been toying with it. Look at the trend of Japanese Air Self Defense Force jet scrambles to intercept Chinese military aircraft approaching its shores. Less than 100 a decade ago to over 600 in 2018.

The map at the top of this post shows how many times PLA Navy ships have sailed through Japanese territorial waters in what would be our equivalent of the Indonesian Navy sailing through the Bass Strait between Victoria and Tasmania without warning.

China’s true colours should make the rest of the world sit up and take notice. While China has trapped many countries in debt turning them into financial colonies, this pandemic will create a world that wants to rely less on China. The Middle Kingdom might be a formidable trading bloc but its domestic economy is challenged and the louder the external rhetoric, the more we know how much it is hurting inside.

We needn’t fold at the prospect of threats. Best forge new all weather friendships. China will quickly learn how fast the world that is not in debt slavery to it will ignore the Forbidden City. We can forget pandering to the Paris Accord which China ignores while we are at it.

Surely there must be some mistake?!

Has the World Economic Forum (WEF) taken leave of its senses? Not even we think President Trump is a “world-class speaker” despite his capacity to draw huge crowds and make us all sit up and listen. There is a touch of irony to see Trump included by the WEF in this category. Poor old Al Gore will speak but presumably dud predictions has put him on the B-list.

A brief study of the upcoming live sessions published by the WEF reveals it isn’t hard to work out what an utter waste of aviation fuel the summit will be. Woke causes feature broadly. See the following list of live streams available;

The 26th Annual Crystal Award Ceremony

Join us in honouring exceptional Cultural Leaders who are improving the state of the world through their outstanding contributions to inclusive and sustainable change.

Redesigning Democracy in the Digital Age

From data dignity to quadratic voting, join economist and best-selling author Glen Weyl for an exploration of radical solutions to societal decision-making in the wake of unprecedented technological change.

The Fight for Artistic Freedom

Join Wanuri Kahiu on her journey from filmmaker to unintentional leader for freedom of expression in Kenya after her film.

On Music and the Human Spirit

On the 250th anniversary of Beethoven’s birth, conductor Marin Alsop shares lessons on how music can help cultivate joy in the darkest of times.

The Reality of Racial Bias

From politics to the public sector and from housing to education, racial bias perpetuates a crushing structural disadvantage for people around the globe. Join Phillip Atiba Goff as he illustrates how data and evidence-based approaches can be used to turn racial bias into a solvable problem.

The Role of Faith for a Cohesive and Sustainable World

Eighty-four per cent of the global population identifies with a religious group. With eroding social cohesion and near climate breakdown, how can the power of faith foster a cohesive and sustainable world?

Musical Moments: Yo-Yo Ma plays Bach’s Cello Suite No. 1

Cellist Yo-Yo Ma, 2008 Crystal Awardee and a member of the World Economic Forum’s Board of Trustees, performs Bach’s Suite for Solo Cello No. 1 to inspire a conversation about how culture helps us to seek truth, build trust and act in service of one another.

Free to Be (LGBTI)

Fifty years after the Stonewall riots in New York and the birth of the gay liberation movement, LGBTI youth still face rejection and discrimination, resulting in high mental illness and suicide rates among LGBTI youth. How can schools and families contribute to safe and inclusive environments for all?

Seeing the Other

Join photojournalist Rena Effendi to learn about her mission to give a voice to the voiceless through her collection of portraits and places celebrating the strength of the human spirit. Rena Effendi is a Fellow of the New Narratives Lab, a mentorship programme dedicated to fostering a new and diverse generation of cultural leaders.

An Insight, An Idea with Jin Xing

A conversation with choreographer and 2020 Crystal Awardee Jin Xing on her journey from male army colonel to one of China’s most influential female TV personalities.

The Power of Youth

From the 2018 March for Our Lives fighting for gun control in the US to the Global Climate Strike in 2019, young people are mobilizing and increasingly influencing today’s most pressing political and environmental issues. How can these movements transform their will for change into action?

The Beauty of Inclusion

Join Thando Hopa, the first woman with albinism to appear on the cover of Vogue, on her journey to unearth the missing stories needed to achieve equality for all persons. Thando Hopa is a Fellow of the New Narratives Lab, a mentorship programme dedicated to fostering a new and diverse generation of Cultural Leaders.

A Conversation with will.i.am

Join a conversation with musician will.i.am and young activist Naomi Wadler on the fight to end gun violence, and how they are influencing policy change and inspiring the next generation.

Augmented Voices

Join vocalist and researcher Harry Yeff, also known as Reeps100, who reveals our true range of communication and the hidden potential of the human voice.

How to Turn Protest into Progress

Anti-government protests fuelled by anger about inequality, corruption and political repression are paralysing cities and nations. How can movements transition from protest to political change more effectively? This session was developed in partnership with Tortoise Media.

Power of Narratives

Powerful narratives, consisting of shared causal and principled beliefs, are the prerequisite for human collaboration, yet also lead nations to war and move markets. How might societies co-create powerful narratives for a cohesive and sustainable world?

Being Out and Equal

While openness about being LGBTI at work increases well-being and productivity, more than half of the community avoids being open about their sexual orientation and gender identity in professional settings for fear of negative consequences. What are best practices to create open and inclusive workplaces for all? Access the Platform for Shaping the Future of the New Economy and Society on TopLink.

Although we shouldn’t be too critical of WEF. Economics does find its way into the subject matter.

Behind close doors, we note that Greta Thunberg will speak on a panel discussing “Averting a Climate Apocalypse“, Al Gore will speak on “What’s at stake: The Arctic” and Christina Figueres will speak on “Swapping subsidies for Green Incentives.” Precious little open-mindedness to be expected in those sessions.

Other topics will include the following;

After Brexit: Renewing Europe’s Growth

As the European Central Bank maintains interest rates at record lows, the economic forecast for the region remains weaker than desired. What will a new Commission and the eventual withdrawal of the United Kingdom mean for the European economy?

Shaping the Global Growth Agenda

In 2019, global debt levels soared to a record $250 trillion, alongside a “race to the bottom” for interest rates. What level of debt, inflation and interest rates are healthy for economies to grow?

Stakeholder Capitalism: Creating Common Standards for Social Excellence

From supply chain labour standards to operating in conflict-affected regions, navigating the social responsibilities of a company is a complex endeavour. What difficult decisions are chief executives facing in the pivot towards a broader social purpose?

In the face of all the dire predictions of climate doom to be reported by the media, we can be rest assured the assembled globalists will be telling our government officials that we minions stand the best chance of survival – economic, environmental and otherwise – if we submit to their superior intelligence.

50 years of Davoz. The Global Shapers will be the rope the Multistakeholders use to hang the rest of us with

Davos is upon us. That event where the world’s elite congregate via private jet and helicopter transport to tell the rest of us to reconsider our use of a second hand SUV to take the kids to soccer practice for the sake of the planet.

This event marks 50 years. What started as a good idea is now nothing more than a networking event for crony capitalists looking to exploit gutless governments into backing their schemes and ridiculing those that don’t sign up for multi-million dollar memberships.

We should applaud the World Economic Forum (WEF) for helping perpetuate the culture of systemically brainwashing our youth.

In the 2020 Global Risks report, we get the following table which highlights adults (‘Multistakeholders’) and the youth (‘Global Shapers’). Who knew that environmental issues took the Top 5 positions among the kids? Privacy be damned. Adults were more concerned with politics and trade wars. Hint hint President Trump.

The long term outlook produced even more drama. The adults seem to have appeased the kids on climate but their private jet powered life styles at the very least mention global governance failure and the risk of asset bubbles popping.

The youth on the other hand ramped up the global warming rhetoric to 11. The Top 6 concerns are climate and #8 turns out to be about climate refugees. That’s the result of a Marxist education, one that NZ is only too proud to boast about. Forget rational debate to engage kids on how to see two sides of an argument. They will be admonished for speaking out against the orthodoxy. Or doxxed on social media. Or both. Is it any wonder we have a mental health crisis?

Although it is worth mentioning that the deteriorating global economic fundamentals highlighted in the same report risk handing the kids their ideal utopia by way of a deep recession thanks to excessive global debt levels and low interest rates. It is unlikely these self-entitled ‘Global Shapers’ have ever contemplated, much less lived through such an outcome with all of their earth ending hysteria. Best tell them that if they pursue their dream of 100% renewables and zero carbon emissions they can bask in the shared misery of having let their teachers blindly mislead them by never challenging them on anything. Experience is a hard teacher. They’ll get the test first and the lesson afterwards. But such reality will be too late and take decades to fix.

Perhaps these ‘Global Shapers’ would do well to study the reasons why inequality and social upheaval will continue to grow if the world pursues the barking mad drive to decarbonise the world. The report even makes a point to talk of the disruption in France by the yellow vests. It noted,

In France, for example, the persistence of the “gilets jaunes” movement had caused businesses more than US$11.4 billion in losses by December 2019 and complicated the government’s plans for economic revival.

The yellow vests are protesting over regulation and climate related taxes.

Under the chapter of ’10 years left’, we got the following passage which is full of untruths as to beggar belief.

Governments, markets and, in an increasing number of societies, voters are awakening to the urgent realities of climate change—it is striking harder and more rapidly than many expected. The last five years are on track to be the warmest on record. Climate-related natural disasters such as hurricanes, droughts and wildfires are becoming more intense and more frequent, reportedly now averaging a disaster a week. Polar ice is melting more quickly than anticipated, with drastic implications for sea levels and coastal populations. Severe weather is worsening: the last year witnessed unprecedented wildfires and devasting storms across the globe, sea ice loss in the Arctic and record-breaking heatwaves in Europe.”

Yet how was it that Queenslanders voted to keep the incumbent government in power because of its support for a coal mine? Why is China committing to 300-500 new coal-fired power plants?

How is it that the UN has reported categorically that it has ‘low confidence’ on any shift in the behaviour of natural disasters? In the UNIPCC’s March 2018 report on weather extremes with respect to anthropogenic induced global warming) it says,

“…There is low confidence in observed trends in small-scale phenomena such as tornadoes and hail because of data inhomogeneities and inadequacies in monitoring systemsin some regions droughts have become less frequent, less intense, or shorter, for example, in central North America and northwestern Australia. There is limited to medium evidence available to assess climate-driven observed changes in the magnitude and frequency of floodslow confidence for the attribution of any detectable changes in tropical cyclone activity to anthropogenic influences..low confidence in projections of changes in extreme winds.. low confidence in projections of changes in monsoonslow confidence in wave height projections…overall low confidence because of inconsistent projections of drought changes…low confidencein projected future changes in dust storms…low confidence in projections of an anthropogenic effect on phenomena such as shallow landslides.”

Where is the evidence of 10s of millions of climate refugees fleeing rising sea levels an coastal populations?

Virginie K. E. Duvat of the Institut du Littoral et de l’Environnement, University of la Rochelle-CNRS, La Rochelle sponsored by the French National Research Agency; French Ministry of Environment, Energy and Oceans (MEEM) wrote.

Analysis “using tide gauges and satellites showed 30 Pacific and Indian Ocean atolls including 709 islands, revealed that no atoll lost land area and that 88.6% of islands were either stable or increased in area, while only 11.4% contracted.

This confirms a 2010 study by Webb & Kench which revealed,

that 86% of islands remained stable (43%) or increased in area (43%) over the timeframe of analysis. Largest decadal rates of increase in island area range between 0.1 to 5.6 ha. Only 14% of study islands exhibited a net reduction in island area. Despite small net changes in area, islands exhibited larger gross changes.

There is even reference to properties sold in Florida and the risk they become uninsurable. Then why is the Florida house price index at record highs?

What about record breaking cold waves in Europe and Canada? Unprecedented wildfires and storms? Not according to the data.

Unprecedented media sensationalism more like it.

One comment made in the report was the fact that 14x more women die than men during natural disasters. Is this proof there are only two biological genders or are the studies on non-binary deaths during disasters incomplete? This may have to be a separate break out session.

The report also issues this stark warning.

Aside from a number of vanguard first-mover champions, most companies, too, appear ill-equipped to address climate risk.

Ill-equipped or paying lip service?

Take Josh Bayliss, CEO of Virgin Group. He said,

“It’s definitely true that right now every one of us should think hard about whether or not we need to take a flight.”

Why doesn’t he close down the airlines in the portfolio? Instead of waiting for his customers to grow a conscience and do the right thing why not force their choice? The obvious answer is that it’s hypocritical.

Yet even our own ASIC feels the need to force the minds of corporates to deal with climate change. Forget the data that shows reporting on the subject has collapsed since 2011 from an already low level because the free market mechanism reveals that pricing to offset such fears simply don’t exist in any meaningful way. The regulator’s wish to enforce reporting only proves it needs to construct a narrative to ward off a problem that doesn’t rate much of mention other than virtue signaling.

Perhaps this urgency to get regulators to pressure corporate leaders showed up with this snippet in the WEF report,

In the World Economic Forum’s survey of business leaders, none of the top 10 risks globally are environmental, suggesting a critical blind spot…industry partners of the World Economic Forum ranked environmental risks higher than business leaders surveyed more broadly…Overall, lack of consistent awareness-raising among business leaders may create first-mover advantages for some, but it also potentially demonstrates the much more concerning overarching risk: that many businesses may not be planning for the physical and financial risks that climate change may have on their activities and across their value chains.

So in plain English that says that the majority of corporates that don’t pay into the WEF’s Davos slush fund are evil and if we can get the governments of the world to force change, its members will be the first beneficiaries of any new climate legislation.

Yes, Global Shapers are merely the rope that the Multistakeholders will use to lynch the rest of us with.

Boeing 737 MAX-8 – question the pilots not the plane

There is something to be said about the group think behind countries stepping up to ground the 737 MAX-8. Of course safety is of maximum importance. It always is. However had the FAA held the slightest inkling that switching off the Boeing 737 AOA would still cause crashes it would be grounded immediately. The FAA is comfortable that airlines that follow the updated airworthiness directive (AD) will not experience danger. So confident in that decision the AD called for a continuation.

If anything blanket groundings are more a slap in the face of pilots in questioning their skill to fly these planes without all of the gizmos. As a passenger you should question the airlines that ground as a reflection on the level of pilot training and confidence in them during a crisis situation.

It’s a bit like having your parking camera and sensors go on the blink. Is reversing into the car space with your left arm on the passenger seat looking over your shoulder impossible without these aids? No. Do you stop driving your car because you’re afraid you can’t park it? The problem is all of these aids are to a point dumbing down the ability to drive using feel. Perhaps we should demand The NHTSA grounds Tesla for the spate of autopilot accidents ending in death of drivers.

Would Boeing risk such massive corporate negligence by letting the planes still fly if they had the slightest doubt switching off the AOA would cause more crashes? This is not a Ford Pinto moment. It’s a serious flaw to be sure but the plane has got a clean bill of health without autopilot AOA. That’s why the FAA hasn’t grounded it.

Boeing assures customers it has a software upgrade to be released in coming weeks. There are 4,800 orders outstanding. The new Leap X engines are so much more efficient than the CFM-56 variant they replace. The secret sauce in the engines is made by NGS Advanced Fibers (50% owned by Nippon Carbon) in Japan. Airlines want them. Period. Efficiency helps them stay in business.

The Boeing 737 fleet has done around 1 billion flight hours combined. This is a 50 year old plane which has been modernized. Think of it like a Porsche 911. The basic shape is the same. The plane is airworthy. The software is faulty. As passengers we should pray that the pilots have the skills when the systems fail, not fail when the systems let them down.

Hard Brexit in a Tweet

Sometimes perspective on a No Deal Brexit is this simple. Nary a Leave voter wanted to have any political ties or rules set in Brussels. That’s kind of what “Leave the EU” on a ballot means. There were no other interpretations.

Despite PM May’s warning that changing Conservative leaders would “put our country’s future at risk and create uncertainty when we can least afford it given the deal she has managed to achieve many Brits would welcome it all the same. CM has been a huge seller of May since she called an early election.

Time to put a leader in charge that will throw it back at Brussels. No Deal for the EU is a disastrous outcome for the continent. It is the deal they least want because it would reveal how impotent Juncker and Tusk are. Time to find a spine and tell the hostage takers their ransom demands won’t be met.

Indian Motorcycles upbeat on 2018 outlook at 2Q stage

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Indian Motorcycles – owned by Polaris Industries –  saw a mid single digit bump in unit sales in 2Q18. Gross profit was up 17% in the m/cycles segment although some funnies in the like for likes with the wind down of the Victory brand. Slingshot soft. Polaris Off Road Vehicles strong. Group 2Q ahead of market expectations, even factoring in the buyback and retirement of around 2.2% of outstanding shares in 2Q.

Exciting new launches like the Indian FTR1200 flat tracker next year will keep the registers ticking over. Scout series continues to do well. Heavier Indians finding it tougher going which is in line with market trends. Doing well with limited editions.

Polaris see the Indian brand performing strongly in international markets and expect momentum to improve over the year. Indian market share growing in domestic (at the expense of H-D) and international markets including Europe. Expect a $40mn impact from tariffs across all Polaris lines.

Share Buyback Activity: During the second quarter of 2018, Polaris repurchased and retired 1,429,000 shares of its common stock for $177 million. Year-to-date through June 30, 2018, it has repurchased and retired 1,562,000 shares of its common stock for $192 million. As of June 30, 2018, the company has authorization from its Board of Directors to repurchase up to an additional 4.9 million shares of Polaris common stock equivalent to c.10% of outstanding.

Indian had a contrasting set of results vs Harley. Both complaining of sluggish domestic market in big bikes but Indian remaining the more agile of the two with innovation. FTR1200 will hit it out of the park.

Shipping industry needs to save ITSELF before it has any chance of saving the PLANET

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Yet more eco-mentalism being celebrated by the UN International Maritime Organisation (IMO) with little thought to the very economics that has crippled shipping companies for so long. Shipping companies need to save themselves before bothering to save the planet.  Although the back slapping for the supposed “watershed agreement” (their words) will be achieved by 2050. The most pressing global issue of our times and these metal hulks which burn the ugliest, dirtiest and cheapest fuel (bunker) available have 32 years to get there. Perhaps the irony is that bankruptcy might take half the ships out of service meaning the emissions target could be hit decades earlier. A brief look at history.

It wasn’t so long ago that Korea’s largest container transporter Hanjin Shipping declared bankruptcy.  The above chart shows the daily shipping rates for the industry which remain tepid for the past decade. The problem with the shipping industry is the fleet. Ships are not built overnight. Surging order books and limited capacity meant that as the pre GFC global trade boom was taking place, many shipping companies were paying over the odds without cost ceilings on major raw material inputs (like steel). This meant that ships were arriving at customer docks well after the cycle had peaked at prices that were 3x market prices because of the inflated materials.

The pricing market was looking grim in 2016. CM wrote, “These are the latest prices in 2016 vs the 5 year average by type. New LNG, grain and oil carriers etc are holding up but the used market is being slaughtered. Ships are generally bought with a 25-yr service span at the very least. Global seaborne trade growth has shrunk from 6%+ growth in 2011 to less than 2% now.”

Ship Prixces

According to Weber’s Week 4 report, VLCC rates for the route from the Arabian Gulf to China dropped to $10,925 per day on January 26 from $18,389 per day on January 19, which represents a 40% fall week-over-week. The average rate for all VLCC routes dropped to $13,179 per day from $19,974 per day on January 19. The current rates are 67% lower year-over-year.

Clarkson’s note 2010 build Capesize rates have fallen from $20,000/day 6 months ago to less than $3,900/day as of April 2018. 84K CBM LPG carriers have fallen from over $800,000/mth in April 2016 to $542,000/mth today.

Take a look at the financials of global leader Maersk. It recorded $US27.1bn of revenue in 2012 but only $24bn in 2017. Yet profitability slumped from $2.1bn to a paltry $25mn. Maersk carries around $34 billion in deferred tax loss carry forwards. That is the extent of the ‘financial baggage’ it still carries. The three major Japanese shipping companies have had a hell of a hit to profitability in recent years. See below.

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If the volume of goods transported by sea increases 3% every year, the volume in 40 years will be 3.3 times today’s volume. To cut total CO2 emissions in half by 2050, CO2 emissions per ton-mile need to fall by 85%. NYK is looking at the following ship that will cut emissions by 69% in 2030.

If the shipping industry is not fixed through market forces it will be difficult to repair the profitability and balance sheets that would allow the companies to invest in more eco friendly vessels. Bankruptcies are mergers are needed to streamline the sector.

According to Clarksons, the global fleet of all types of commercial shipping is 50% larger than it was before the GFC despite the World Trade Organization saying growth in global trade has crept up from $14.3 trillion in 2007 to $15.46tn in 2016 (+8%). Scrapping rates have fallen 40% since 2012 but since 2017 have risen moderately, appealing to owners with too much tonnage on their hands.

The International Chamber for Shipping’s secretary general Peter Hinchliffe said, “This is a ground-breaking agreement — a Paris agreement for shipping — that sets a very high level of ambition for the future reduction of carbon dioxide emissions…We are confident this will give the shipping industry the clear signal it needs to get on with the job of developing zero carbon dioxide fuels so that the entire sector will be in a position to decarbonise completely.”

What a wonderfully naive plan. At least the IMO can feel warm and fuzzy despite so many headwinds ahead of an industry still in structural distress.

World on the brink of WW3? Press on the blink more like it

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When you read a title like “world on the brink” it is easy to be misled to thinking this is a Trump/Putin related incident. The fact is the Iranian backed Houthi in Yemen have been lobbing ballistic missiles at Riyadh and staging border skirmishes for years. The Americans have been advising Saudi Arabia where to strike the Houthi in Yemen. This is a decades old fight and since the death (assassination) of former President Saleh last year the Houthi have become even more emboldened than they were during the Arab Spring 8 years ago.

Yet it is so easy to draw conclusions. Did the mainstream media report the sinking of a Saudi naval frigate in the Bab-al-Mandeb strait in Jan 2017 which took the lives of 176 sailors? Has the Israeli shekel collapsed since Trump and Putin exchanged verbal salvos? No. The Tel Aviv indices? No. Surely a relatively liquid financial barometer in a country that has been warned not to intervene by Putin too. Would quickly price in any fears.

The situation over Syria may be tense but if you look at what Putin is really trying to do he is weighing the size of Trump’s guts to call his bluff. We shouldn’t forget when Russia first intervened in Syria several years ago, Putin told Obama that US forces had two hours to get out of harm’s way. That is the warning one would give the Luxembourg armed forces, not the most powerful military in the world. Obama heeded Putin. Putin had carte blanche. That’s why nothing happened with the Ukraine. Sanctions were put in place but no one made any attempt to ‘change behviours.’

It is worth nothing that Syria is Rosoboronexport’s (Russia’s military export wing) 2nd largest customer after Iran. Putin is sick of having the West try to remove his clients. Assad is key to Russia’s foothold in the Middle East. With an essentially pro-Iran Iraqi government and Syria as well as Hezbollah Putin has a geopolitical doormat from the troubled separatist states to Russia’s south to Lebanon.

The problem Putin faces is if Trump yanks his chain, does he shoot US missiles down as threatened? He said they’ll attack launch sites which effectively equals sinking US naval vessels as that is how they are launched. This is perhaps the easiest way to escalate a skirmish out of Putin’s control. If Putin doesn’t do anything, Trump holds one over him. So Putin is hoping by the use of very strong language that Trump backs down. It is not exactly the best way to handle on either side but this is the first time in almost a decade where the US has a leader that won’t be pushed around. Unpredictablity is a strength not a weakness

Looking at history. The NVA was supplied by the Russians during the Vietnam War and the Afghans were supplied by the Americans in the war with Russia. Nothing new. The Russians returned the favour when the “Coalition” deposed Saddam and entered Afghanistan. Proxy wars have been fought for over 50 years.

The US is dispatching a carrier battle group to the Mediterranean. Theresa May is sending a UK submarine. The Russians are conducting military exercises with 11 warships in the same area. Of course scare stories are amock and clickbait media will report how we’re two seconds from a thermonuclear exchange.

It begs the question had Obama suggested to Putin he was bombing Syria, he would be praised for level headed genius. If Trump managed to bomb Syria with no Russian response then would we see the media have a mea culpa moment? Not a chance. It would be palmed off as a lucky break. If we go back in history, we can see good nations that did nothing let tyrants get away with murder. Have a look at Russia and China in the last decade. Man made military bases in territorial waters of other nations, early warning systems on the contested  Spratly’s and agreements in Vanuatu and Sri Lanka which provides naval ports for China. Putin is getting the old ‘union’ back together and there are plenty of willing despots happy to ride his coattails.

Putin is livid at the outcome of the nerve agent scandal seeing the expulsion of so many diplomats. He is not one that likes criticism as many an oligarch has found out the hard way. The question for those that fear what Trump might do should worry more about what will happen if he doesn’t. The downside is that the media likes Putin more than Trump. For a president with a glass jaw, his moves will be far more heavily scrutinized than Putin’s. He’s damned whichever way he turns. Putin on the other hand  willl be excused for being a dictator, whatever he chooses to do. The media will hope it dies down as they turn a blind eye and pillory their own governments for not taking in enough refugees.

Appeasement is an ever widening feature of governments in the West today. There are Neville Chamberlains everywhere. Who will stand up to Putin if Trump doesn’t? Whether Syria is the right battleground is beside the point. Because if it isn’t Syria it will end up being somewhere else.  The problem is only Trump “can” credibly shirt-front the former KGB officer.

 

Waking up to a horror of our own creation

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Some will say I am a pessimist. I’d prefer to be called an optimist with experience. At only age 16 (in 1987) I realized the destructive power financial markets had on the family home. Those memories were etched permanently. We weren’t homeless or singing for our supper but things sure weren’t like they use to be. It taught me much about risk and thinking all points of view rather than blindly following the crowd. That just because you were told something by authority it didn’t mean it was necessarily true. It was to critically assess everthing without question.

In 1999, as an industrials analyst in Europe during the raging tech bubble, we were as popular as a kick in the teeth. We were ignored for being old economy. That our stocks deserved to trade at deep discounts to the ‘new economy’ tech companies, no thanks to our relatively poor asset turnover and tepid growth rates. The truest sign of the impending collapse of the tech bubble actually came from sell-side tech analysts quitting their grossly overpaid investment bank salaries for optically eye-watering stock options at the very tech corporations they rated. So engrossed in the untold riches that awaited them they abandoned their judgement and ended up holding worthless scrip. Just like the people who bought a house at the peak of the bubble telling others at a dinner party how they got in ‘early’ and the boom was ahead of them, not behind.

It was so blindingly obvious that the tech bubble would collapse. Every five seconds a 21 year old with a computer had somehow found some internet miracle for a service we never knew we needed. The IPO gravy train was insane. One of my biggest clients said that he was seeing 5 new IPO opportunities every single day for months on end. Mobile phone retailers like Hikari Tsushin in Japan were trading at such ridiculous valuations that the CEO at the time lost himself in the euphoria and printed gold coin chocolates with ‘Target market cap: Y100 trillion.’ The train wreck was inevitable. Greed was a forgone conclusion.

So the tech bubble collapsed under the weight of reality which started the most reckless central bank policy prescriptions ever. Supposedly learning from the mistakes of the post bubble collapse in Japan, then Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan turned on the free money spigots. Instead of allowing the free market to adjust and cauterize the systemic imbalances, he threw caution to the wind and poured gasoline on a raging fire. Programs like ‘Keep America Rolling’ which tried to reboot the auto industry meant cheaper and longer lease loans kept sucking consumption forward. That has been the problem. We’ve been living at the expense of the future for nigh on two decades.

Back in 2001, many laughed me out of court for arguing Greenspan would go down in history as one of the most hated central bankers. At the time prevailing sentiment indeed made me look completely stupid. How could I, a stockbroker, know more than Alan Greenspan? It was not a matter of relative educations between me and the Fed Chairman, rather seeing clearly he was playing god with financial markets.  The Congressional Banking Committee hung off his every word like giddy teenagers with a crush on a pop idol. Ron Paul once set on Greenspan during one of the testimonies only to have the rest of the committee turn on him for embarrassing the newly knighted ‘Maestro.’ It was nauseating to watch. Times seemed too good so how dare Paul question a central bank chief who openly said, “I know you think you understand what you thought I said but I’m not sure you realize that what you heard is not what I meant.”

We all remember the horrors of the collapse of Lehman Brothers and the ensuing Global Financial Crisis (GFC) in September 2008. The nuclear implosions in credit markets had already begun well before this as mortgage defaults screamed. The 7 years of binge investment since the tech bubble collapse meant we never cleansed the wounds. We would undoubtedly be in far better shape had we taken the pain. Yet confusing products like CDOs and CDSs wound their way into the investment portfolios of local country towns in Australia. The punch bowl had duped even local hicks to think they were with the times as any other savvy investor. To turn that on its head, such was the snow job that people who had no business being involved in such investment products were dealing in it.

So Wall St was bailed out by Main St. Yet instead of learning the lessons of the tech bubble collapse and GFC our authorities doubled down on the madness that led to these problems in the first place. Central banks launched QE programs to buy toxic garbage and lower interest rates to get us dragging forward even more consumption. The printing presses were on full speed. Yet what have we bought?

Now we have exchange traded funds (ETFs). Super simple to understand products. While one needed a Field’s Medal in Mathematics to understand the calculations of a CDO or CDS, the ETF is child’s play. Sadly that will only create complacency. We have not really had a chance to see how robots trade in a proper downturn. ETFs follow markets, not lead them. So if the market sells off, the ETF is rapidly trying to keep up. Studies done on ETFs (especially leveraged products) in bear markets shows how they amplify market reactions not mitigate them. So expect to see robots add to the calamity.

Since GFC we’ve had the worst post recession recovery in history. We have asset bubbles in bonds, stocks and property. The Obama Administration doubled the debt pile of the previous 43 presidents in 8 years. Much of it was raised on a short term basis. This year alone, $1.5 trillion must be refinanced.  A total of $8.4 trillion must be refinanced inside the next 4 years. That excludes the funding required for current budget deficits which are growing despite a ‘growing economy’. That excludes the corporate refinancing schedule. Many companies went out of their way to laden the balance sheet in cheap debt. In the process the average corporate credit rating is at its worst levels in a decade. Which means in a market where credit markets are starting to price risk accordingly we also face a Fed openly saying it is tapering its balance sheet and the Chinese and Japanese looking to cut back on US Treasury purchases. Bond spreads like Libor-OIS are already reflecting that pain.

Then there is the tapped out consumer. Unemployment maybe at record lows, yet real wage growth does not appear to be keeping up. The number of people holding down more than one job continues to rebound. The quality of employment is terrible. Poverty continues to remain stubbornly high. There are still three times as many people on food stamps in the US than a decade ago – 41 million people. Public pension unfunded liabilities total $9 trillion. Credit card delinquencies at the sub prime end of town are  back at pre-crisis levels. We could go on and on. Things are terrible out there. Should we be in the least bit surprised that Trump won? Such is the plight of the silent majority, still delinquent after a decade. No wonder Roseanne appeals to so many.

A funny comment was sent by a dyed-in-the-wool Democrat, lambasting Trump on his trade policies. He criticized the fact that America had sold its soul for offshoring for decades. Indeed it had but queried that maybe he should be praising Trump for trying to reverse that tide, despite being so late to the party. Where were the other administrations trying to defend America all this time? Stunned silence.

Yet the trends are ominous. If we go back to the tech bubble IPO-a-thon example. We now have crowd funding and crypto currencies. To date we had 190 odd currencies to trade. Of that maybe a handful were liquid – $US, GBP, JPY, $A, Euro etc – yet we are presented with 1,000s of crypto currency choices. Apart from the numerous breaches, blow ups and cyber thefts to date, more and more of these ‘coins’ are awaiting the next fool to gamble away more in the hope of making a quick buck. Cryptos are backed by nothing other than greed. Yet it sort of proves that more believe that they are falling behind enough such they’re prepared to gamble on the biggest lottery in town. One crypto used Wikipedia as a source for its prospectus.

Yet the media remains engrossed on trying to prove whether the president had sex with a porn star a decade ago, genderless bathrooms, bashing the NRA, pushing for laws to curtail free speech, promoting climate change and covering up crime rather than look at reporting on what truly matters – the biggest financial collapse facing us in 90 years.

There is no ‘told you so’ in any of this. The same feelings in the bones of some 30 years ago are back as they were at the time of Greenspan and Lehman. This time can’t be avoided. We have borrowed too much, saved too little and all the while blissfully ignored the warning signs. The faith and confidence in authorities is evaporating. The failed experiment started by Greenspan is coming home to roost. This will be far worse than 1929. Take that to the bank, if it is still in operation because you won’t be concerned about the return on your money but the return of it!

Yemen – Saleh’s death is the dangerous slice in the Iran & Saudi sandwich

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Even before the Arab Spring, CM (in a previous life) wrote that Yemen was a trouble spot. It’s former President Ali Abdullah Saleh (Sunni) has died of natural causes – he was assassinated in a spate of tribal violence in the capital Sana’a yesterday. No stranger to being an oppressive tyrant during his rule, after being ousted in the Arab Spring he was in recent years working with the Houthi tribe (Shi’ite) to regain power before switching back to a US backed Saudi-friendly deal maker. He proved that power is more important than religious sect. However the Houthi weren’t prepared to suffer a turncoat who betrayed them so Saleh was duly dealt with.

Why is Saleh’s death important? What it now does is give Saudi Arabia more will to take more decisive action against the Iran backed Houthi. It is no surprise that Saudi Arabia has cleaned house with the arrests of  royal family members to tighten the inner circle. It smells like the early stages of broader tit-for-tat skirmishes before all out conflict ensues. Yemen is often argued as a proxy war between the two.

While many are distracted by the US Embassy to Jerusalem as an unnecessary ‘in-the-face” action, it is a very firm line in the sand to where the US cards already lie. No big surprises. For now most Gulf States want Israel on their side to help them defend against and ultimately defeat Iran.

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At the narrow Bab al-Mandeb Strait separating Yemen and Djibouti/Eritrea, cargo ships make their way up the Red Sea to the Suez Canal, could become a major choke point. This year multiple US, Saudi and Emirati warships have been attacked by Houthi rebel forces. In January 2017 a  Saudi al-Madinah frigate was almost sunk in the strait. An Emirati HSV-2 swift naval craft was also put out of action in late 2015.

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Safe access to the strait is crucial at present because of Egypt’s reliance on imported LNG to maintain stable electricity supply. One LNG tanker heads to Egypt each weeknight through the canal. Just under 10% of global trade goes through it as well. Any blockage or restricted access would force ships to sail the long way around the Horn of Africa adding another 40% to the journey. This would have significant impacts on shipping and trade. Markets aren’t factoring anything at this stage.

The problem with naval conflict is that Yemen is backed by Iran which in turn is one of Russia’s best clients. Iran possesses the SS-N-22 Sunburn missile which is a supersonic anti-ship missile which even the US has no answer for. In recent years this has been upgraded to the Super Sunburn (P-270) which is even more lethal. It is a ramjet which travels at Mach-3 meaning if fired inside a 100km range then the target is likely to be toast (video here). It can be launched from a ship, submarine or land.

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Iran could blame a whole host of tribes (Sunni or Shia) sick of being under the jackboot of effective Saudi control/influence for an attack.

On December 2, Israeli jets bombed an Iranian military weapons base in Syria. Israel has warned Iran it won’t tolerate any military presence on Syrian soil. We shouldn’t forget that China has also deployed its special forces to Syria to help Assad. Clearly the Chinese see a good opportunity to clean up some of the spoils in the region. China is always happy to help out nations that are under sanction. It adds more mess into the geopolitical sphere.

While the GCC has stepped up its air attacks on Yemen post the death of Saleh, he was the only one that has been able to unite the country. Indeed it is possible that the secession of the south becomes an issue. At the time of reunification of North and South Yemen in 1990 many in the south felt their northern neighbors were pillaging too much of their oil reserve wealth. Even their private land was appropriated and spread among the Sana’a elite. Now that Saleh has gone, and Yemen fragmented again, we may see old scores settled. The Southern Movement (loyal to exiled President Hadi) in Yemen wants to take back what was stolen from them. So Saleh’s death may open a vacuum of more instability.

Iran would relish the opportunity of a fractured Yemen to further build its influence. Bab al-Mandeb may become a flashpoint to fight the proxy war. It is extremely messy, creates proper disruption and pushes Saudi Arabia and Iran closer to conflict.

Which ever way you cut it, diplomacy in the Middle East (what little there is) looks set to worsen. In a sense we are dealing with two large clients of Russia (Iran) and America (SA). Now China is siding with Russian interests by using it as a test run of its military muscle. China isn’t committing anything major but it wants to be at the negotiating table when it all goes pear shaped.

It smells very similar to the lead up to the Arab Spring. More turmoil and complacent markets which are not quite absorbing the realities of “local problems” spreading to another neighborhood. Sure we’ve seen many leaders overthrown in Libya, Tunisia, Egypt and so on in the last uprising but the pressure on Saudi is mounting hence the recent crackdown internally.

The other dark horse is Erdogan in Turkey. He is facing a corruption probe over money laundering to help Iran evade sanctions and he seems keen to externalise his problems so he can shut down the local threat. He is threatening to cut off ties with Israel if the US relocates the embassy but for a man with clear ambitions to revive the Ottoman Empire that fell less than 100 years ago that is a mere formality in the future.

The flashpoint remains Yemen. It has the perfect storm of a pawn in a global game of chess. While it whiffs of local tribes seeking revenge there are too many willing to help them achieve their aims which only plays to the broader ructions throughout the rest of the Middle East. Last week Houthi rebels launched a missile attack against the UAE nuclear power plant under construction. Power corrupts. Absolute power corrupts absolutely