No End in Sight to the Brexit Madness


November 22, 2017

No End in Sight to the Brexit Madness

The slow-motion self-immolation that is Brexit continues for the U.K. Speaking in Brussels on Monday, Michel Barnier, the senior European Union official in charge of negotiating the terms of Britain’s departure, confirmed that British banks were set to lose their so-called E.U. passport, which currently enables them to offer services throughout the twenty-eight nations in the bloc. “On financial services, U.K. voices suggest that Brexit does not mean Brexit,” Barnier said. “Brexit means Brexit, everywhere.”

As if to reinforce the point, a meeting of E.U. ministers on Monday confirmed that two big E.U. agencies that are currently headquartered in London, the European Banking Authority and the European Medicines Agency, would be moving to Paris and Amsterdam, respectively. “The twenty-seven will continue to deepen the work of those agencies, together,” Barnier said. “They will share the costs for running those agencies. Our businesses will benefit from their expertise. All of their work is firmly based on the E.U. treaties which the U.K. decided to leave.”

In the months after the Brexit vote, which took place almost a year and a half ago, “Leave” supporters used the fact that the U.K.’s economy continued to expand and create jobs to claim that the prophets of doom had been mistaken. But to those Britons who are willing to acknowledge reality, these latest developments were the latest confirmation that the consequences of the historic vote are now starting to be felt. “While not surprising, these moves mark the beginning of the jobs Brexodus,” Vince Cable, the leader of the Liberal Democrats, and a prominent opponent of Brexit, said. “Large private-sector organizations are also considering moving to Europe, and we can expect many to do so over the next few years.”

To be sure, the country’s economy hasn’t collapsed. The gross domestic product is rising, and the unemployment rate has fallen to 4.3 per cent, its lowest level since 1975. But the rate of G.D.P. growth has fallen this year, and consumer-price inflation has risen because a fall in the value of the pound has made imported goods more expensive. This has hit living standards. Earlier this month, the National Institute of Economic and Social Research, an independent think tank, estimated that Brexit has already cost each British household about six hundred pounds, which is roughly eight hundred dollars. “It is almost certain that the relative deterioration in the UK economy and the accompanying fall in living standards over the past year are a consequence of the vote by the British people to leave the European Union,” Garry Young, a senior economist at the institute, wrote.

If Theresa May’s government had presented a credible path to the prosperity that it claims will accompany Britain’s departure from the E.U., the economic slowdown could perhaps be written off as an inevitable and temporary transition cost. But, of course, no such credible path has been offered. Beset by internal divisions, ministerial departures, and the hangover from a disastrous general election that saw it reduced to a minority in the House of Commons, May’s government has stumbled along, making barely any progress in negotiating the terms of Brexit, which was originally pegged for March, 2019.

In September, May announced that Britain wanted to push Brexit back two years, until 2021, and said that it would abide by all the E.U. rules during the transition period. But, even after that concession, the negotiations with Brussels remained bogged down. At the end of last week, Donald Tusk, the E.U.’s President, said that, if Britain wanted talks to begin a new trade agreement that would preserve its access to the huge European market, it would have to make concessions in a number of areas, including the settlement of Britain’s financial obligations to the E.U.; the legal protections that would be afforded E.U. citizens living in the United Kingdom; and the future of the border between Northern Ireland, which is leaving in the E.U., and the Republican of Ireland, which isn’t.

In his speech on Monday, Barnier, a former Foreign Minister of France, appeared to broaden the E.U.’s demands, strongly hinting that, if Britain wanted a favorable trade deal, it would have to abide by European regulations in many areas, even though it would no longer be a member of the Union. “The U.K. has chosen to leave the E.U.,” Barnier said. “Does it want to stay close to the European model or does it want to gradually move away from it? The U.K.’s reply to this question will be important and even decisive, because it will shape the discussion on our future partnership and shape also the conditions for ratification of that partnership in many national parliaments and obviously in the European parliament.”

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Boris Johnson and Michael Gove are backing the embattled Prime Minister Theresa May

Although Barnier’s language was polite, his meaning was clear: the E.U. will not countenance Britain trying to set itself up as a haven from regulation and taxes for international companies that want to do business in Europe but don’t like being subject to oversight from Brussels. And, indeed, that is precisely the scenario that some of May’s colleagues—including Boris Johnson, the Foreign Secretary, and Michael Gove, the Environment Secretary—have in mind. In their vision, post-Brexit Britain would turn into a European version of Singapore or Hong Kong during the days of British colonial rule. “We may choose to remain identical to the EU or we may embrace a vision more aligned with pro-competitive regulation,” Johnson and Gove wrote, last week, in a letter to May. “Other countries must know this choice is in our hands, and they must know it on day one.”

To give them a bit of credit, May and Philip Hammond, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, seem to grasp that Johnson and Gove are pursuing a fantasy. They understand that the E.U. won’t allow Britain to both have its cake (access to the giant E.U. market) and eat it (freedom from E.U.-style regulation). They also recognize that if companies such as Honda and Nissan no longer have free access to and from Europe for the outputs and inputs of their British factories, they will have little choice but to relocate at least some of their facilities to the Continental mainland. The same goes for big international financial institutions, such as Deutsche Bank, JPMorgan Chase, and Goldman Sachs.

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 Bye, Bye, London Post-Brexit?

So May and Hammond are still trying to pursue a so-called soft Brexit, which would preserve as much market access as possible. But, at every turn, they and their allies are being undermined and vilified by the Little Englanders and the conservative Fleet Street newspapers. Last week, the Daily Telegraph published photographs on its front page of fifteen Conservative M.P.s who have had the temerity to suggest that the parliament should have the right to sign off on the final Brexit deal. The paper labelled them “The Brexit mutineers.” Some of these M.P.s subsequently received threats.

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With opinion polls suggesting that most Britons, if given a chance, would now vote to remain in the E.U., a second referendum seems like a good idea.

“How can this be happening in a country known for its pragmatism?” the Oxford economist Simon Wren-Lewis asked in a blog post. How indeed? With opinion polls suggesting that most Britons, if given a chance, would now vote to remain in the E.U., a second referendum seems like a good idea. But the opposition Labour Party, for reasons of its own, has already committed to accepting the first Brexit vote. About the only people calling for a do-over are the Liberal Democrats, who have just twelve seats in the Commons, and a few figures who are even less popular, such as Tony Blair and Lloyd Blankfein, the chief executive of Goldman. (In a tweet last week, Blankfein said, “So much at stake, why not make sure consensus still there?”) The country is still in the grip of Brexit madness, and, sadly, there is no relief in sight.

The enigma of Malaysia’s high household income growth


November 6, 2017

The enigma of Malaysia’s high household income growth

 

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 Who is fudging the household income figures, if not this Prime Minister cum Finance Minister? Malaysians are a whiney lot.

 

Why does the official report of rising household income seem incredible and implausible? Is Income really stagnating, or is it flourishing but Malaysians are a whiney lot?

 

By Dr. Lee Hwok Aun@www.freemalaysiatoday.com

Statistics are meant to inform, but sometimes they confuse. Take Malaysia’s household income figures. We keep hearing complaints of stagnant incomes and difficulties coping with the rising cost of living. But since the release of the Household Income and Basic Amenities Survey Report 2016 last month, an official success story is making the rounds – all the way to the 2018 Federal Budget speech.

The speech celebrates the rise in median household income, calculated from the Household Income Survey (HIS), from RM4,585 in 2014 to RM5,288 in 2016. Simultaneously, average household income rose from RM6,141to RM6,958, or at an annual growth rate of 6.4%. In real terms – that is, accounting for inflation – income grew 4.3% per year. The rest of this article refers to growth rates in real terms, which more accurately reflect purchasing power.

By the government’s account, household incomes have been growing quite substantially. Yet the budget is stacked with lavish handouts and financial relief, as though income growth has been sluggish, insufficient. Granted, this is an election budget, but a clearly the proliferation of social assistance is also addressing areal groundswell of economic discontent.

Statistics should be validated by the reality they intend to measure. If the government reports that the Malaysian economy has grown by 10% this year, most of us would disbelieve that outright. It can’t be that high; the economy is not ballooning like the early- to mid-1990s! But looking at Malaysia’s steady international trade, investment and domestic consumption, visible construction projects, low unemployment, and economic conditions as a whole, the actual figure of about 5% GDP growth seems credible and plausible.

So why does the official report of rising household income seem incredible and implausible? Is Income really stagnating, or is it flourishing but Malaysians are a whiney lot?

An examination of empirical evidence exposes three enigmas in the official household income statistics, raising questions about the reliability of the government’s high growth report.

First, income gains of the past half-decade are driven by inexplicably rapid growth in the 2012-2014 period, during which real household incomes expanded8.2% per year – faster than in the booming 1990s (Figure 1). Furthermore, households in the bottom 40% (B40)enjoyed stupefying 14.6% income growth per year. Suchhyperrates are usually the exception but were supposedly the norm – during a time of modest 5.4% economic growth.

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Two years ago, when the 2014 Household Income Survey Report documented a spectacular fall in inequality from 2012 to 2014, I raised concerns that those results departed too far from reality (http://www.themalaymailonline.com/what-you-think/article/malaysias-spectacular-drop-in-inequality…-for-real-lee-hwok-aun, https://m.malaysiakini.com/news/315933). This phenomenal success bypassed attention. It was not mentioned in the 2016 Budget speech; the government was apparently not taking its own statistics seriously.

In releasing the 2016 income statistics, the government reaffirms the questionable 2014 calculations – without explanation. Of course, we might point to two outstanding policy shifts as income boosters: minimum wage, which came into full effect in 2014, and BR1M, introduced in 2012. Their possible effects cannot be ignored.

But upon examination, these turn out to be the second and third enigmas in the income statistics.Minimum wage and BR1M fail to explain the rise in household income.

The official household income statistics aggregate various income components (the proper term is gross household income):

  1.  Income from wages and salaries, also including allowances, bonuses
  2.  Self-employment: income through selling goods and services
  3. Property and investment income: land and property rent (including imputed rent of owner-occupied homes), interest, dividends
  4. Transfers received from public sources (BR1M, etc) or family members

A breakdown of these sources shows that the share of wages and salaries in gross household income has declined, while the share of property and investment income and transfers have increased (Figure 2). Therefore, it is most unlikely that minimum wage contributed to high overall income growth.

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Furthermore, when we compute growth rates household wages and salaries, we find modest numbers for 2012-2014 and 2014-2016 (Figure 3). Happily, we can compare this particular finding with calculations from another data source. The growth of individual wages and salaries, based on the Wages and Salaries Survey data, registered similar rates. Minimum wage surely boosted wage growth to some extent, as indicated by the higher rate in 2014 when it took effect. But it fails to account for rapid household income expansion.

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BR1Mis the last big factor standing. The share of transfers in household income increased – so far so good.

Figure 3

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But the case for BR1M as an explanation for income growth soon crumbles. First, the BR1M payments are popularly known by the annual amounts paid, whereas household income is handled on a monthly basis. When investigating BR1M’s impact on household income, we must convert into their monthly amount. The problem with the BR1M explanation is that the quantum per month is so minuscule relative to household income per month. In 2012 and 2016, B40 household’s income averaged RM1,847 and RM2,848, while BR1M payments for households earning below RM3,000 per month, were RM42 and RM83 (RM500 and RM1000 divided by 12). BR1M accounted for only 2.3% and 2.9% of the household income of the B40, its principal recipients.

The second pertains to timing. BR1M was introduced in 2012 at RM500 per year, increased to RM650 in 2014, then RM1,000 in 2016. The big differences took place in 2012 and 2016, not in 2014. However, the huge leap in household income occurred between 2012 and 2014!

In light of these enigmas, discrepancies and gaps, the government’s household income calculations for 2014 and 2016 remain implausible and demand a fuller accounting, particularly to provide reasons for the unfathomably high growth in property and investment income and transfers received.

There are empirical grounds, not just anecdote or intuition, to question the veracity of the official statistics, and to restrain celebration of Malaysia’s purported achievements in raising household income.One can speculate some possibilities. Perhaps transfers have been over-counted, or imputed rent over-estimated. For those living in houses they own, the gross household income numbers include an imputed amount of rent – that is, an amount they would receive if they rented out the house. Imputed rent, although it is not actual income received, is a useful piece of information. But it is misleading to include imputed rent in household income and report the sum as an indication of purchasing power and material well-being.

The Department of Statistics must be commended for publishing increasingly detailed reports on the 2014 and 2016 Household Income and Basic Amenities Surveys, but the disclosures are still inadequate. In line with the government’s commitment to Open Data, the natural next step should be to make the raw datasets accessible, to facilitate collaborative and constructive work and arrive at a fuller comprehension and credible measure of this vital issue of household income.

Dr. Lee Hwok Aun, Senior Fellow,  Yusof Ishak Institute– ISEAS, Singapore

Trump’s Federal Reserve Nominee Chairman–Jerome Powell


November 3, 2017

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Trump’s Federal Reserve Nominee Chairman–Jerome Powell

by Kenneth Rogoff*

https://www.project-syndicate.org/commentary/jerome-powell-fed-chair-pick-by-kenneth-rogoff

Jerome Powell, US President Donald Trump’s pick to succeed Janet Yellen as Fed Chair, will face some extraordinary challenges at the outset of his five-year term. But the greatest challenge of all will be to stay out of Trump’s shadow and uphold the Fed’s independence.

Image result for Jerome PowellFederal Reserve Chairman Designate Jerome Powell with President Donald J. Trump.

Jerome Powell “is a sane and sober choice that heralds short-term continuity in Fed interest-rate policy, and perhaps a simpler and cleaner approach to regulatory policy.”–Kenneth Rogoff

 

CAMBRIDGE – With the appointment of Jerome Powell as the next Chair of the United States Federal Reserve Board, Donald Trump has made perhaps the most important single decision of his presidency. It is a sane and sober choice that heralds short-term continuity in Fed interest-rate policy, and perhaps a simpler and cleaner approach to regulatory policy.

Although Powell is not a PhD economist like current Fed Chair Janet Yellen and her predecessor, Ben Bernanke, he has used his years as an “ordinary” governor at the Fed to gain a deep knowledge of the key issues he will face. But make no mistake: the institution Powell will now head rules the global financial system. All other central bankers, finance ministers, and even presidents run a distant second.

If that seems hyperbolic, it is only because most of us don’t really pay attention to the Fed on a day-to-day basis. When the Fed gets it right, price stability reigns, unemployment remains low, and output hums along. But “getting it right” is not always easy, and when the Fed gets it wrong, the results can be pretty ugly.

Famously, the Fed’s efforts to tame a stock-market bubble in the late 1920s sparked the Great Depression of the 1930s. (Fortunately, of the candidates Trump was considering for the Fed post, Powell is the one least likely to repeat this mistake.) And when the Fed printed mountains of money in the 1970s to try to dull the pain of that decade’s oil shocks, it triggered an inflationary surge that took more than a decade to tame.

At times, the rest of the world seems to care more about Fed policy than Americans do. Little wonder: perhaps more than ever, the US dollar lies at the heart of the global financial system. This is partly because much of world trade and finance is indexed to the dollar, leading many countries to try to mimic Fed policies to stabilize their exchange rates.

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Thank You, Dr. Janet Yellen for Your Service to the International Financial Community

Powell will face some extraordinary challenges at the outset of his five-year term. By some measures, stock markets look even frothier today than they did in the 1920s. With today’s extraordinarily low interest rates, investors seem ever more willing to assume greater risk in search of return.

At the same time, despite a strongly growing US and global economy, inflation remains mystifyingly low. This has made it extremely difficult for the Fed to normalize policy interest rates (still only 1%) so that it has room to cut them when the next recession hits, which it inevitably will. (The odds of a recession hitting in any given year are around 17%, and that seems like a good guess now.)

If Powell and the Fed cannot normalize interest rates before the next recession, what will they do? Yellen insists that there is nothing to worry about; the Fed has everything under control, because it can turn to alternative instruments. But many economists have come to believe that much of this is smoke and mirrors.

For example, so-called quantitative easing involves having the Fed issue short-term debt to buy up long-term government debt. But the US Treasury owns the Fed, and can carry out such debt purchases perfectly well by itself.

Some argue for “helicopter money,” whereby the Fed prints money and hands it out. But this, too, is smoke and mirrors. The Fed has neither the legal authority nor the political mandate to run fiscal policy; if it tries to do so, it runs the risk of forever losing its independence.

Given that monetary policy is the first and best line of defense against a recession, an urgent task for the new chair is to develop a better approach. Fortunately, good ideas exist, and one can only hope that Powell will quickly move to create a committee to study long-term fixes.

One idea is to raise the Fed’s inflation target. But this would be problematic, not least because it would breach a decades-long promise to keep inflation around 2%. Moreover, higher inflation would induce greater indexation, ultimately undermining the effectiveness of monetary policy. Paving the way for effective negative-interest-rate policy is a more radical – but by far the more elegant – solution.

Bank regulation is also part of the Fed’s mandate. The 2010 Dodd-Frank financial-reform legislation, which has spawned 30,000 pages of rules, has been a boon for lawyers. But the massive compliance costs ultimately fall on small and medium-size businesses. It would be far better simply to require banks to raise much more of their resources in equity markets instead of through bonds. That way, shareholders, not taxpayers, would take the big hit in a crisis.

I have not mentioned the elephant in the room: the threat to the Fed’s independence posed by a president seemingly intent on challenging all institutional norms. When President Richard Nixon was intent on being re-elected in 1972, he put heavy pressure on then-Fed Chair Arthur Burns to “juice” the economy. Nixon was re-elected, but inflation soared and growth collapsed. No one should be wishing for a replay – even if Nixon eventually was impeached.

*Dr. Kenneth Rogoff, Professor of Economics and Public Policy at Harvard University and recipient of the 2011 Deutsche Bank Prize in Financial Economics, was the chief economist of the International Monetary Fund from 2001 to 2003. The co-author of This Time is Different: Eight Centuries of Financial Folly, his new book, The Curse of Cash, was released in August 2016.

 

Here’s Fareed Zakaria–Wither Trump’s America


November 2, 2017

Here’s Fareed Zakaria–Wither Trump’s America

Engage the World says Thinker Fareed Zakaria, not retreat into your shell, my American friends. Embrace globalisation and open rule-based trading environment, and together, we can prosper.  Your economy and what you do matters to us in Asia and the rest of the world.–Din Merican

Be Prepared–An Assertive China Ahead


November 2, 2017

Be Prepared–An Assertive China Ahead

by  Yu Tao

https://thediplomat.com

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The Assertive Globalist– Chinese President Xi Jinping’s assertive defence of globalisation in his address to world economic and political leaders at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland in early 2017 surprised many. Few expected the Chinese President and head of the Communist Party to attend the spiritual home of global capitalism for the first time, and fewer still to hear such a forthright speech.

The Chinese Communist Party(CCP) concluded its 19th National Congress on October 24, and announced its new leadership on Wednesday morning. Unsurprisingly, this new central leadership team is headed by Xi Jinping, who has been China’s most powerful politician since the CCP’s last National Congress in 2012. After being re-elected as the general secretary of China’s only ruling political party and the chair of its Central Military Commission, Xi will lead the 89 million members of the Chinese Communist Party – and the 1.3 billion citizens of the People’s Republic of China – for the next five years, and possibly beyond.

The Assertive Dragon under Xi Jinging embraces globalisation and win win partnerships

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The America First Eagle under Donald Trump surrenders global leadership and antagonizes the rest of the world.

Xi’s public speeches during and after the Party Congress were not merely a summary of what has been done in the last five years. Instead, through these speeches, Xi not only ambitiously set the tone for the politics of China in the next five years and even beyond, but also confidently declared that China had entered a “new era” under his leadership. One of the major policy shifts that we can expect to see in Xi’s China is that the country will become much more outward-looking in international politics, asserting more proactive roles in major global issues that go beyond the immediate relevance to China’s national and regional interests.

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“Observe calmly; secure our position; cope with affairs calmly; hide our capacities and bide our time; be good at maintaining a low profile; and never claim leadership.” Deng Xiaoping

For decades, China has been intending to become a “quiet achiever” in the arena of global politics. In the late 1980s, Deng Xiaoping instructed Chinese diplomats to keep a low profile, and this strategy is often translated into English as “hide our capabilities and bide our time.” Back then, the Chinese leadership believed that their priority was developing China’s domestic economy, and they were unwilling to get involved with international politics that had little direct relevance to China.

 

However, as China’s economy grows bigger, China’s weight on the international arena has increased extensively. China has demonstrated that it has the capacity to mobilize its military and economic resources to evacuate its nationals from Libya and Yemen, places that are not traditionally considered as within the reach of China’s sphere of influence. In the first six months of 2017, over 62 million Chinese citizens traveled to other countries as tourists – to illustrate, this figure is larger than the combined total populations of Australia and Canada. Since 2016, China has also been holding second place in the Elcano Global Presence Index, a widely-accepted measure that ranks 100 countries according to their economic performance, military capacity, and soft power.

With China’s influence in the world becoming more obvious, the expectation that China should play a more proactive role in international politics has increased from both within and outside China. The Chinese leadership has also become more confident in their commercial and military capacity over the years.

Since Xi became China’s top leader in 2012, as well as becoming more assertive in defending China’s key interests in regions surrounding the country, China has also started creating a more comfortable international environment for itself through grand global projects such as the “Belt and Road Initiative,” an ambitious plan to link China with Central Asia, the Middle East, Russia, Europe, and Africa through physical infrastructure, financial arrangements, and cultural exchanges.

Judging from Xi’s speech at the Party Congress, it is obvious that the current Chinese leadership is very happy with, and confident in, their way of doing things. As stated in his speech at the opening ceremony, Xi believes that China has “blaz[ed] a new trial for other developing countries to achieve modernization. It offers a new option for other countries and nationals who want to speed up their development while preserving their independence.”

With such a level of confidence and optimism, under Xi’s leadership in the next five years, China will not be shy about – in Xi’s own words – offering “Chinese wisdom and a Chinese approach to solving the problems facing mankind.” China is likely to achieve this by further pushing its flagship international development project, the Belt and Road Initiative, which many observers believe marks China’s push to take a more influential role in international affairs.

China’s transition from a “quiet achiever” to an “assertive player” in the global arena is also likely to be reflected by its changing approach in international communication and soft-power construction. In his Party Congress speech, Xi called his comrades to build “stronger confidence” in the Chinese culture. He also said clearly that China will “enhance its cultural soft power” through presenting “a true, multi-dimensional, and panoramic view of China.” That is to say, China will not be shy about telling its stories to an international audience, and it is determined to tell these stories in effective ways.

Xi made it clear that China will prompt “the building a community with a shared future to mankind,” also known as a “community of common destiny.” This new strategy for China’s foreign policies aims at pursuing “open, innovative, and inclusive development that benefits everyone.” Of course, this does not mean the Chinese Communist Party will compromise on what it considers key national interests. For example, Xi set a strong tone on the Taiwan issue, stating that the CCP has “the resolve, the confidence, and the ability to defeat separatist attempts for ‘Taiwan independence’ in any form.” This part of the speech attracted much applause from the Congress delegates. Indeed, as many China watchers have pointed out, a considerable amount of people in China believe that the Communist Party will lose its legitimacy to rule China if it loses Taiwan.

The message that Xi sent through his speech indicates that the Chinese leadership is ready to look beyond the regions and issues that are immediately related to their country, to move their country “closer to the center stage” of the world, and to lead their country to “make greater contributions to mankind.” By stating that “no country can alone address the many challenges facing mankind and no country can afford to retreat into self-isolation,” Xi also sets a clear, albeit in explicit, contrast to Donald Trump’s isolationism, portraying China as a responsible power that committed itself to major global affairs including peace, development and climate change.

If the blueprints outlined by Xi in the last few days are to be faithfully implemented, the world will be expected to see a fundamental switch in China’s diplomacy and foreign policies in the next few years. Under the leadership of the new Central Committee of the CCP, with Xi at the top, China is likely to transfer itself from a quiet achiever into an outward-looking, proactive, and probably rather assertive player that is not shy about telling the world what it sees as more appropriate and justifiable international order.

China adopted such a strategy once before, under Mao Zedong’s leadership between the 1950s and 1970s, intending to make itself the leader of the “third world” outside United States, the Soviet Union, and their allies. At that time, China offered enormous international aid to its followers and launched extensive propaganda wars, but the world was predominately shaped by the bilateral relations between the two superpowers. However, the game in the global arena has changed fundamentally between then and now. As China already emerged as the world’s Number Two in many aspects, the shift in its style, attitude, and behavior in global affairs is likely to have a profound impact on the international order in the years to come.

Yu Tao is a lecturer in Chinese Studies in the University of Western Australia (UWA), where he teaches contemporary Chinese society and language, and coordinates the Chinese Studies major.

 

The Demise of Dollar Diplomacy


October 17, 2017

The Demise of Dollar Diplomacy

by Barry Eichengreen*

http://www.project-syndicate.org

Pundits have been saying last rites for the dollar’s global dominance since the 1960s – that is, for more than half a century now. But the pundits may finally be right, because the greenback’s dominance has been sustained by geopolitical alliances that are now fraying badly.

WASHINGTON, DC – Mark Twain never actually said “Reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated.” But the misquote is too delicious to die a natural death of its own. And nowhere is the idea behind it more relevant than in discussions of the dollar’s international role.

Pundits have been saying last rites for the dollar’s global dominance since the 1960s – that is, for more than a half-century now. The point can be shown by occurrences of the phrase “demise of the dollar” in all English-language publications catalogued by Google.

The frequency of such mentions, adjusted for the number of printed pages per year, first jumped in 1969, following the collapse of the London Gold Pool, an arrangement in which eight central banks cooperated to support the dollar’s peg to gold. Use of the phrase soared in the 1970s, following the collapse of the Bretton Woods system, of which the dollar was the linchpin, and in response to the high inflation that accompanied the presidencies of Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, and Jimmy Carter in the 1970s.

But even that spike was dwarfed by the increase in mentions and corresponding worries about the dollar starting in 2001, reflecting the shock of the terrorist attacks that September, the mushrooming growth of the US trade deficit, and then the global financial crisis of 2008.

Yet through all of this, the dollar’s international role has endured. As my coauthors and I show in a new book, the share of dollars in the foreign-currency reserves held by central banks and governments worldwide hardly budged in the face of these events. The greenback remains the dominant currency traded in foreign-exchange markets. It is still the unit in which petroleum is priced and traded worldwide, Venezuelan leaders’ complaints about the “tyranny of the dollar” notwithstanding.

To the consternation of many currency traders, the value of the dollar fluctuates widely, as its rise, fall, and recovery in the course of the last year have shown. But this does little to erode the attractiveness of the dollar in international markets.

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America First–Then What is Future of the US Dollar in the Trumpian Era?

Central banks still hold US Treasury bonds because the market for them is the single most liquid financial market in the world. And Treasury bonds are secure: the federal government has not fallen into arrears on its debt since the disastrous War of 1812.

In addition, US diplomatic and military links encourage America’s allies to hold dollars. States with their own nuclear weapons hold fewer dollars than countries that depend on the US for their security needs. Being in a military alliance with a reserve-currency-issuing country boosts the share of the partner’s foreign-exchange reserves held in that currency by roughly 30 percentage points. The evidence thus suggests that the share of reserves held in dollars would fall appreciably in the absence of this effect.

This under-appreciated link between geopolitical alliances and international currency choice reflects a combination of factors. Governments have reason to be confident that the reserve-currency country will make servicing debt held by its allies a high priority. In return, those allies, by holding its liabilities, can help to lower the issuer’s borrowing costs.

Here, then, and not in another imbroglio over the federal debt ceiling this coming December, is where the real threat to the dollar’s international dominance lies. As one anonymous US State Department official put it, President Donald Trump “does not seem to care about alliances and therefore does not care about diplomacy.”

South Korea and Japan are thought to hold about 80% of their international reserves in dollars. One can imagine that the financial behavior of these and other countries would change dramatically, with adverse implications for the dollar’s exchange rate and US borrowing costs, were America’s close military alliances with its allies to fray.

Nor is it hard to imagine how this fraying could come about. President Donald Trump has painted himself into a strategic corner: he needs a concession from North Korea on the nuclear-weapons issue in order to save face with his base, not to mention with the global community. And, for all of Trump’s aggressive rhetoric and posturing, the only feasible way to secure such a concession is through negotiation. Ironically, the most plausible outcome of that process is an inspections regime not unlike the one negotiated by Barack Obama’s administration with Iran.

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Visualizing the Size of the U.S. National Debt

How big is the U.S. National Debt?

The best way to understand these large numbers? We believe it is to represent them visually, by plotting the data with comparable numbers that are easier to grasp.

Today’s data visualization plots the U.S. National Debt against everything from the assets managed by the world’s largest money managers, to the annual value of gold production.

1. The U.S. national debt is larger than the 500 largest public companies in America.
The S&P 500 is a stock market index that tracks the value of the 500 largest U.S. companies by market capitalization. It includes giant companies like Apple, Exxon Mobil, Microsoft, Alphabet, Facebook, Johnson & Johnson, and many others. In summer of 2016, the value of all of these 500 companies together added to $19.1 trillion – just short of the debt total.

2. The U.S. national debt is larger than all assets managed by the world’s top seven money managers.
The world’s largest money managers – companies like Blackrock, Vanguard, or Fidelity – manage trillions of investor assets in stocks, bonds, mutual funds, ETFs, and more. However, if we take the top seven of these companies and add all of their assets under management (AUM) together, it adds up to only $18.9 trillion.

3. The U.S. national debt is 25x larger than all global oil exports in 2015.
Yes, countries such as Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and Russia make a killing off of selling their oil around the world. However, the numbers behind these exports are paltry in comparison to the debt. For example, you’d need the Saudis to donate the next 146 years of revenue from their oil exports to fully pay down the debt.

4. The U.S. national debt is 155x larger than all gold mined globally in a year.
Gold has symbolized money and wealth for a long time – but even the world’s annual production of roughly 3,000 tonnes (96 million oz) of the yellow metal barely puts a dent in the debt total. At market prices today, you’d need to somehow mine 155 years worth of gold at today’s rate to equal the debt.

5. In fact, the national debt is larger than all of the world’s physical currency, gold, silver, and bitcoin combined.

That’s right, if you rounded up every single dollar, euro, yen, pound, yuan, and any other global physical currency note or coin in existence, it only amounts to a measly $5 trillion. Adding the world’s physical gold ($7.7 trillion), silver ($20 billion), and cryptocurrencies ($11 billion) on top of that, you get to a total of $12.73 trillion. That’s equal to about 65% of the U.S. national debt.

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To get there, Trump’s administration will have to offer something in return. The most obvious bargaining chip that could be offered to make the North Korean regime feel more secure is a reduction in US troop levels on the Korean Peninsula and in Asia in general, With that, the US security guarantee for Asia will weaken, in turn providing China an opportunity to step into the geopolitical breach.

And where China leads geopolitically, its currency, the renminbi, is likely to follow.

*Barry Eichengreen is Professor of Economics at the University of California, Berkeley, and a former senior policy adviser at the International Monetary Fund. His latest book is Hall of Mirrors:The Great Depression, the Great Recession, and the Uses – and Misuses – of History.