The World In a (Cracked) Nutshell: Things Happen
By: William A. Wheatley
Picture used with permission from William Reid of www.northernpecans.blogspot.com
Investors and people in the business world need to be aware of world events and the impact they have on their business outcomes. Recent events of which we should all be aware are:
- The Russian-Turkish Rivalry
- The Apparent Steadying of the European Economy
- The Death of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia
- Prison Riot in Mexico City
- The Northwards Spread of the Vika Virus
- Trade Dispute between Russia and Ukraine
- Rapid Changes in the Syrian Civil War
- Economic, Security and Political Developments in Central Africa
- Growing Civilian Casualties in Afghanistan
- The Weakening of the Indian Rupee
- Growing Stresses between North and South Korea
- Poor Performance of Japan’s Economy
- The Persistent Decline of Oil and Gas Prices
- American Political Chaos
Some of these are of more concern to some of us than others – it all depends on the nature of our investments and business interests. Let’s look at these and their impacts. It is through politics that events will have their greatest impact on business and investment clients.
American Political Chaos
American politics is becoming increasingly chaotic because fewer and fewer people identify with either of the two, dominant political parties, but are now “independents.” These “Independents,” however, cover the entire spectrum of politics from far right to far left. In my neighborhood alone, which is majority Democrat by voter registration, I know voters who are not affiliated with either the Democratic Party nor with the Republican Party who have not registered as members of a party because (1) the Republican party is too far to the left for them; (2) the Democratic Party is too far to the right for them; (3) The Republican Party is too far to the right and the Democratic Party is too far to the Left; (4) the Republican party and the Democratic Party are both too far to the right; and (5) The Republican Party and the Democratic Party are both too far to the left. Many of these “Independents” are not registered to vote at all, because they don’t think they should have to declare their party preferences when registering. At the same time, they say they are angry because they have no voice in the selection of candidates. Many of the Independents, many of the Republicans, and Many of the Democrats are angry at both major parties, are angry at the government in Washington because they feel it does not represent them or serve their interests, and so they’re “Mad as Hell and aren’t going to take it any more.”
This has resulted in a primary campaign in which the front-runner in the Republican Party is an outsider to the political process, Donald Trump, who, until recently, was a Democrat and espoused Liberal positions, but who now has the backing of a large swath of the conservative Republican voters. On the Democrat side, the establishment candidate, Hillary Clinton, has the vast majority of convention delegates so far but is running neck and neck with “Democratic Socialist” Bernie Sanders, who is supported by the leftists in the party and the young voters in the party. For much of his political career, Bernie Sanders was a card-carrying official of the Trotskyite Marxist (with overtones of Maoism) Socialist Workers’ Party, but he then became a Democrat and proclaims himself a “Democratic Socialist.” It seems that the younger generation of voters has given up on capitalism, thinks Socialism is the most equitable economic system, and hates banks and big business. We will not know for sure how the Independents will vote until the November elections, but it is not impossible that the election will be between Trump and Sanders.
How does this affect investment and business? If Sanders wins, but the House and Senate remain Republican-controlled, there will likely be a standoff between the White House and Congress and the government will do very little. This means that business can proceed to do its own thing, and investors can invest without fearing a change in the regulatory environment. If Trump wins, and Republicans retain control of the House and Senate, there is likely to be a reform of regulation to promote business and investment. In either case, investors and businesses will likely not suffer at the hands of the US government, despite the present political chaos in America.
The death of Justice Scalia foretells a standoff in the Supreme Court, now evenly divided between liberals and conservatives. Republicans in the Senate seem poised to prevent President Obama from being able to appoint a successor to Scalia, saving the seat to be filled by an appointee of the next president.
In Mexico prison riots were sparked by battles between the Zetas cartel and the Gulf Cartel. The resulting fires spread to a number of areas of the prison. 49 people were killed. Conditions in other prisons in Mexico’s overpopulated prison system threaten to spark more unrest. The inability of the Mexican federal and state governments to reduce the influence and control of drug gangs over broad swaths of territory causes increasing concern. Continuing flows of migrants from south of Mexico through Mexico into the United States continue to raise flags, particularly political flags, in the US, where Republican candidates pledge to stop illegal immigration and Democrat candidates pledge to legalize it.
Middle East (West Asia)
Tensions between Turkey, which seeks the ouster of the regime in Syria, and Russia, which is actively supporting the regime with a military presence and military action in Syria, remain one of the major flashpoints in the world and the one flashpoint that could bring two nations to war with each other. Syria has already shot down a Russian jet that strayed over Turkish territory (but they shot it down over Syria). For the immediate future, Syria will remain the front line between Turkey and Russia.
Russia has desired for centuries to establish control over the Bosporus, which has been under Turkish control since the Turkish Sultan conquered Constantinople and renamed it Istanbul. Turkey has the ability to close the strait and keep a significant Russian fleet bottled up in the Black Sea. Turkey and Russia have fought wars against each other periodically for the past 300 years. The current tensions between Turkey and Syria are much deeper than just the issues involving Syria, but are not likely to provoke a conflict. If they come into conflict over Syria, however, each might take advantage of that to try to make gains in the Black Sea and Baltic areas. Russia’s entry into the Syrian conflict seems to have taken Turkey (and a number of other interested countries) by surprise. We all seem to have forgotten that nature abhors a (power) vacuum – and that when one exists, someone will fill it. Turkey has a number of potential conflicts along its borders other than Syria. Within its borders is ISIS, definitively an enemy of the regime. The Kurds in northeastern Syria and northern Iraq are seen by the Turks as enemies. Refugees streaming across Turkish borders from Syria and Iraq are a problem for Turkey if Europe will not let them go from Turkey into Europe. Because of the myriad crises along Turkey’s borders, Turkey is not in a strong position to intervene decisively in the Syrian conflict. Russia is likely to bog down in Syria, finding itself unable to withdraw without its withdrawal causing the collapse of the Assad regime. If other Middle Eastern States start to take an active role in Syria, the conflict could widen dramatically. Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Israel are all affected by the Syrian Crisis and might be tempted to take an active role. Russia and the US have agreed to a cease fire, but must convince the various rebel and Islamist groups in Syria, and the other interested parties, to engage in a cease fire for it to become real. If a cease fire is not achievable, an active conflict between Russia and Turkey, or between either and other states in the Middle East, could have profound impact on investors and businesses around the world.
The agreement reached last week by Saudi Arabia, Russia, Venezuela and Qatar to freeze oil production at current levels helps to prevent further declines in oil prices, but will not reverse the trend because the current global oversupply in oil is partly the result of those levels of oil production. Of course, the dramatic increase in American oil production is also a significant contributor to global oil price declines, but the “free market” in the US will cure that factor by causing a reduction in US oil production. Oil drilling in the US is now dramatically reduced, with fewer than 10% as many rigs operating now compared with a year ago. While oil will remain at low levels until the surplus of stored oil is absorbed, eventually the market will right itself. In the mean time, there may be buying opportunities for investors interested in buying shares of companies whose share prices are depressed below the real value of the companies. It is also an opportunity for oil speculators who are positioned to buy oil and hold it until prices recover. This will have the effect of removing oil from the market and hastening the recovery of the oil market.
The Venezuelan opposition is stepping up its efforts to oust President Nicolas Maduro from office. Possible conflict between the opposition and Maduro’s supporters could impact oil production in this important contributor to the world’s supply of oil. Until recently, it was difficult to determine the state of Venezuela’s economy because Venezuela has no independent official statistical agencies, but it is clear that Venezuela’s Socialist economy is in full collapse, having shrunk by 10% this year alone with inflation threatening to reach 700%.
Argentina, similarly, has been a significant unknown, with the official statistical agencies controlled by allies of the previous Argentinian government, skewing the results of their analysis to support the positions of the previous government. Now that President Mauricio Macri has taken office, he has moved to restore the independence of these statistical agencies. This has led to statistics that reveal the true inflation afflicting the Argentinian economy.
Bolivians are voting in a referendum on lifting term limits for the Bolivian presidency, which could risk the rise of a Marxist dictatorship in that country.
In the midst of all of this the Zika outbreak is moving northward. However, the fear of microcephaly may be overblown, because not all areas infected with Zika have similar rates of microcephaly. Scientists suspect that the combination of the Zika virus with certain insecticides used in certain areas may be causing local epidemics of microcephaly.
Central and South Asia
In Afghanistan, civilian casualties are continuing to rise even as Afghan forces, led by US Special Operations forces make gains against the Taliban and ISIS in Afghanistan. The level of civilian deaths was the same in 2015 as in 2014, but the level of civilians injured was the highest since civilian casualty records began in 2009. The Afghan government says that in areas of fighting, an increasing number of civilians is choosing to flee their homes, and that both death and casualty levels would be higher if they had not “chosen” to do so. This could affect the economies of other nations if the current conflict spreads into Pakistan.
In India, the Rupee is weakening, despite having been a much stronger currency than many of its emerging market rivals over the past two years. Last week, the Rupee approached an all-time low against the US dollar. The drop in the Rupee seems to be the result of falling levels of investor confidence in the global economy, as well as a response to some troubling economic data that emerged recently in India. India’s economy may continue to slow in the first quarter of the year, providing risky buying opportunity for adventurous investors.
East Asia and Pacific
Increasing tensions between North and South Korea, bolstered by the largest joint military and naval exercise by South Korean and US forces, give rise to concern. In the South China Sea, rising tensions between the conflicting territorial claims of the nations bordering that sea are primarily due to the expansive claims by China over virtually the entire sea. China has been building islands on which it places military-capable runways in the middle of the South China Sea, in order to bolster (and defend) its territorial claims. This risks increasing nationalism on the part of Japan, the Philippines, and South Korea, all of which are increasing their investments in their military forces, in particular in their navies. While actual conflict appears only a remote possibility, the increasing militarization gives rise to concern. Here again, is the operation of the vacuum principle. In the face of military weakness on the part of the United States, local powers are seeking to fill the power vacuum. In the meantime, Japan’s economy continues to struggle to generate growth. In the fourth quarter of 2014, it expanded just 0.5%, but shrank by 0.4% in comparison with the fourth quarter of the previous year. Domestic factors were the largest reasons for the poor performance of the economy. The real estate sector remained weak and consumer spending levels were disappointing. Export markets remained weak in the face of weak external demand. This places more pressure on Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to undertake more stimulus measures. While there may be buying opportunities in Japanese shares, it may be some time before they recover value. The Chinese Yuan will remain highly visible. Despite concerns over China’s economy, the Yuan is stronger than most of its emerging market rivals. This encourages Chinese companies to outsource rather than to build new capacity in China, which further stalls the Chinese economy.
Boco Haram, Al Qaeda, ISIS and affiliated groups in Africa continue to provide a source of political and economic instability. Nigeria faces significant economic and security problems. After taking office last year, President Muhammadu Buhari has taken significant steps to revive Nigeria’s economic and political stability, and to reduce the levels of unrest and corruption. Oil prices have fallen dramatically, which has harmed the oil-dependent national economy and dramatically reduced government revenues. Although Nigeria has mounted a strong military campaign against Boko Haram in the northeast, this has failed so far to bring an end to the Boko Haram threat to Nigeria.
The Central African Republic recently underwent the second round of voting in its presidential election. This round pitted former CAR prime ministers Faustin Touadera and Anicet Dologuele against one another. Both candidates promise to bring peace and stability to the republic and to restore the economy, but their ability to do so in the face of the Boco Haram regional threat is questionable. Boko Haram has mounted attacks in a number of central and western African countries, making foreign investment keep its distance.
In northern Africa, the failed nation-state of Libya dominates the area by spreading instability, terrorism and uncertainty. Libyan oil, once a significant supplier of Europe’s fuel needs, flows only intermittently, with ports often controlled by terrorists. No solution for Libya in particular (and northern Africa in general) appears in the offing. Egypt is taking a stronger role, but likely lacks the ability to exert power to bring ISIS and related groups in northern Africa to heel, despite having largely quelled the Muslim Brotherhood within its own borders. Islamist extremism is still strong in Egypt, and stronger in pockets of northern Africa like Libya. This is unlikely to change in the absence of any likelihood of a defeat for ISIS in the near future in Syria and Iraq.
We look at Europe last, because Europe is on the receiving end of the consequences of what is going on elsewhere in the world. The United States is as well, but it is a player of little influence as long as it tries to “lead from behind” and so it is a contributor to the instabilities that are impacting the Europeans rather than simply being a recipient of their consequences.
A major trade spat has developed between Russia and Ukraine. Two weeks ago, Russia prevented more than 150 trucks from Ukraine from travelling through Russia on their way to Kazakhstan. The Ukrainian government responded by banning Russian trucks from crossing Ukraine on their way to other countries. Economic ties between Russia and Ukraine have become significantly worse since the free trade deal between Ukraine and Europe took effect last month.
Despite the troubles between Russia and Ukraine, the economies of Central Europe in general have continued to grow, driven by high domestic demand and growing demand for exports from Central Europe in West Europe. Poland, the regions largest economy, grew by 3.6% year-on-year in the fourth quarter, continuing its impressive rates of economic growth. Hungary Slovakia and Romania also experienced impressive rates of growth in the fourth quarter, thanks to those countries strong manufacturing sectors. Poland has backed Ukraine in its recent trade dispute with Russia, which could inflame tensions between Poland and Russia.
The European economy in general remains stable. It is not known how it will respond to a possible (but unlikely) withdrawal from the European Union by the United Kingdom. What is more likely is a weakening of the voice of Europe in British affairs. All in all, we can expect a steadier European economy. The domino-effect crises that have occurred over the last six years have dominated the picture, ranging from the Greek economic collapse to the struggles of all the southern European economies. Despite the continuing problems in Greece, most of the news out of Europe over the past year has concentrated on the region’s slow and steady recovery from the struggles. Although the results from Europe have been unspectacular, they are much better than previous years and give the impression of steadiness, if not growth. The four largest economies outside of Eastern Europe grew by between 1% and 2% on a year-on-year basis, ranging from 1% in Italy (a good performance compared with recent history) to 1.9% in Britain. Countries that have taken steps to boost competitiveness (Spain and Eastern Europe) show growth rates in excess of 3%. This news is dampened somewhat by the fact that Greece and Finland remain in recession that are likely to continue in 2016. Overall growth in the European Union in 2015 was 1.8%, a better performance than in recent years. The British “motto” of World War II comes to mine: “Keep calm and carry on.”
So, we have just described the State of the World in a nutshell – a cracked nutshell. Nuts in cracked nutshells can leak crumbs out, reducing the size of the nut, and the nut itself is more likely to spoil. Our nations’ leaders need to concentrating on un-cracking the nut rather than on saving the contents, because they can’t save the contents while the nut remains cracked. Without global security (a coherent nutshell), the global economy itself cracks up. While there will always be trouble spots in the world, the task of the world’s leaders is to keep them contained so they don’t spread. In the absence of American exercise of power, the wildfires are spreading rapidly, and the global economy threatens to crack up along with the nutshell. Many are the times I have cracked the kernel of a walnut when attempting to crack only the shell and extract the kernel whole. It is time to restore security to broad swaths of the world, and there is no one capable of doing it but the United States. If we do not do it, we will suffer along with the rest of the world.