Saturday, 20 November 2010

Finding An Alternative

The Senkaku Islands, as they are known in Japan – in China they are known as the Diaoyu Islands, are a group of unproductive volcanic rocks lying in the East China Sea. They are only remarkable because both China and Japan – and Taiwan too, for that matter – claim ownership of the rocks. If there weren’t deposits of oil shale in the island chain, then it is quite likely that their ownership would not be disputed.
At present, Japan controls the islands and recently asserted its control by seizing a Chinese trawler, allegedly fishing illegally in the disputed waters. China responded by cutting off the supply of Rare Earth Elements to Japan. The price of REEs has risen considerably in recent weeks as Japan seeks alternative sources (China controls 97% of the global production of REEs). This is very much a scarcity story.
What is interesting is the Japanese response to scarcity. The rising price of REEs has led to greater economy in their use. There has been a boost to the technologies of resource economies so that less REEs are used per unit of output (an increase in ‘resource productivity’). There has also been a race to diversify supply away from China to other areas where REEs could be found. A rising price makes more marginal deposits commercially viable. There has, finally, been a boost to the mineral salvage industry to recover REEs from discarded electrical equipment.
In many ways, this is the response that we would expect to any incipient scarcity. Perhaps this is the answer to Peak Oil?
© The European Futures Observatory 2010

Friday, 19 November 2010

A Prelude To Scarcity

In recent days, there has been quite a lot of interest in the issue of long term scarcities. This is an area upon which we have been working for over a year now – longer if we include the work on the Post-Scarcity World – and it seems to be an area that is coming into fashion. The argument for scarcity is well rehearsed. In 2000 there were 6 billion souls on the planet. By 2050 the mid-estimate of the UN is that there will be 9 billion people. Balanced against this increase in potential demand for resources is the view that we are coming to the point of peak production for many resources, thus potentially restricting their supply. The result of this clash of rising demand against falling supply will be an ‘Age Of Scarcity’.

Of course, the transition to the Age Of Scarcity is not likely to be discontinuous. We are likely to drift into a position of scarcity over a number of years, with, every now and then, a prelude of what is to come. We would argue that this is what is happening with food prices. After a long period of falling food prices in real terms, from 1980 to about 2002, food prices appear to have started to rise on a long term trend. This trend, underpinned by growing demand in the emerging economies and by modest improvements in crop yields, looks set to continue for some time to come.

Every now and then, a combination of natural disasters, the impact of climate change, the impact of trade nationalism, and so on, serves to tighten the markets a bit. It happened in 2008, and is again happening in 2010. To this extent, we are witnessing over a small period of time what may well happen over a longer time frame. We are witnessing a prelude to scarcity.

© The European Futures Observatory 2010

The Economist food-price index: Malthusian mouthfuls | The Economist

Thursday, 18 November 2010

How Rich Are The Poor?

My son is currently living in Taiwan, so stories about Taiwan naturally catch my attention at the moment. There was a story in The Economist about how Taiwan is on the verge of becoming richer than Japan. The counter-intuitive nature of that comment really did catch my attention.

The Economist is quoting IMF figures when it states that the GDP per head of Taiwan is set to be $34.7K this year, against $33.8K for Japan. However, once we start to drill into the figures a different picture emerges. The Dollars used are not real Dollars but ‘PPP Dollars’ (Purchasing Power Parity Dollars). PPP Dollars are an artificial construct that attempts to weight income in terms of the cost of living across countries. The Japanese figure is discounted more heavily than the Taiwanese figure because Japan has a much higher cost of living. However, the adjusted figures do suggest that Taiwan has a better standard of living than Japan, which fits in with the impression that my son creates.

Does this matter? In a sense it doesn’t. These figures a a bit arbitrary and the PPP weightings are something of a guesstimate rather than an accurate measurement. However, there are times when it is important. According to some measures, China will move from the third largest economy in the world to overtake Japan as the second largest economy in the world this year. What we lose in this statistic is exactly how poor China is. The ranking of number two is a volume effect (well over a billion Chinese citizens) rather than an income effect. According to the IMF again, but for 2009 instead of 2010, China ranks 99th for GDPO per head in PPP Dollars (Taiwan ranks 37th and Japan ranks 17th).

Which is the rich country and which is the poor? China could be seen as a rich nation – the second largest economy in the world – whilst at the same time being one of the poorest - 99th in terms of GDP per capita. We haven’t quite come to grips with this dichotomy as yet, and some would say that this will be one of the future challenges that we face.

© The European Futures Observatory 2010

Taiwan and Japan: X not V | The Economist

Wednesday, 17 November 2010

The Luck Of The Irish

The case of Ireland and its present difficulties does pose a few questions that have a much longer perspective. If the Euro experiment were ever to work, then there would need to be a great degree of monetary co-ordination, along with a fair amount of fiscal co-ordination. The establishment of the ECB has, by and large, achieved monetary co-ordination. It was the role of the Stability and Growth Pact to harmonise fiscal policy by limiting budget deficits to 3% of GDP and public debt to 60% of GDP. The failure of the Stability and Growth Pact, almost from inception lies at the heart of Ireland’s present difficulties.

In recent years, Ireland has based its ‘Celtic Tiger’ credentials on a policy of the competitive reduction of Corporation Tax. Businesses, particularly UK businesses, have responded by relocating in the low tax environment. That now appears to have been something of a mistake. Now that the Irish bubble has burst, the nations bailing out Ireland – the victims of competitive tax policies – have a say in the future management of the Irish economy. Just as the Greek bailout is predicated by the reduction of public spending to more sustainable levels, so an Irish bailout is likely to be predicated by the raising of taxes to more sustainable levels.

This is of tremendous significance because it would imply the loss of Irish fiscal sovereignty. The Irish government has gambled on a low tax Tiger Economy and has lost and now it has to pay the price accordingly.

© The European Futures Observatory 2010

Hamish McRae: Sovereign defaults in the eurozone are inevitable

Friday, 5 November 2010

X Marks The Spot

When we last wrote about Mr Osborne’s Gamble (that fiscal tightening and monetary loosening will bring us out of recession), we left the issue of politics on one side. If the Gamble fails to work in an adequate time frame, we are unlikely to be able to leave politics out of the equation because this will be the arena in which the consequences of failure will be felt, as President Obama found to his cost this week. It is interesting that the political arena in the UK has experienced a significant long term change this year through the generational rebalancing of British politics.

Over the course of this year, Mr Brown has been replaced by Mr Miliband as leader of the Labour Party and Mr Clegg has moved from obscurity to Deputy Prime Minister on behalf of the Liberal Democrats. There has been no change in the leadership of the Conservative Party. The one thing that all of the current party leaders have in common is that they belong to Generation X, and that they have replaced Baby Boomers as party leaders. We have already felt some of the consequences of this, but far more are to come.

To recap on generations, the Baby Boomers in the UK represent a generational cohort that has almost been a golden generation. They grew up in the rising prosperity in the 1950s, they provided the flower power generation of the 1960s, they benefitted from the great housing inflation of the 1970s and 1980s, and they are currently starting to retire on gold plated pension schemes. They are self-absorbed, self-indulgent, and spoilt.

The children of the Boomers – Generation X – have experienced a different life pattern. They grew up in a world of strikes and three day weeks, of stagflation, of youth unemployment in the Thatcher years, and of a struggle to get onto the housing ladder. They are the original punk generation who have lived a life of low paid and insecure jobs, and who have learned to get by through making the best of a bad job. This ability to muddle through is what the Xers are bringing to the leadership roles into which they are now moving.

One of the great attributes of the Xers is their pragmatism, and this is starting to show though in politics. For example, the Liberal Democrats gave a clear promise in their manifesto not to increase VAT (a UK sales tax). Within weeks of attaining power, that undertaking had been abandoned because of expediency as part of a more general fiscal tightening. Again, each Lib-Dem MP signed a written pledge not to increase Student Tuition Fees. Again, within weeks of attaining power that pledge was abandoned in the name of fiscal pragmatism. The Boomers accuse the Xers of not keeping their word, which they haven’t. However, this does not prick the Xer conscience because the situation warranted this change of heart.

When we take this thinking to Mr Osborne’s Gamble, we can speculate that if the gamble doesn’t pay off, then the policy will be changed – in short order – to a policy that does work. The most likely candidate would be that the fiscal tightening will not be tightened as hard as originally planned. There are lots of areas in which the policy can be reversed. Many of the spending cuts will adversely affect the Boomers, who are now flowing into the ranks of the retired.

As these parts of the public sector are cut back, the Boomers will howl with rage like children who have had their toys taken from them. For example, there was an absolute furore when it was suggested that free bus passes for all retirees – irrespective of their wealth or income – be removed. The Boomer sense of entitlement was outraged at this suggestion, which was made in the cause of saving public spending. There is likely to be more of this in the near future, particularly as local government works out which areas of the public sector to retreat from. Politically, it would be tempting for an Xer Chancellor of the Exchequer to buy Boomer votes by not pruning so hard if the gamble fails to work as planned.

To our view, this gives shape to Plan B. Renewed Quantitative Easing will provide an early warning signal of the gamble not paying off. If things continue to worsen, then the pragmatic aspect of the present government is likely to come into play to allow for some fiscal easing as well, possibly by spending a bit more on the ageing Boomers.

In this respect, we are fortunate to be surrounded by pragmatic Xers because the last thing we need right now are doctrinaire politicians.

© The European Futures Observatory 2010

Thursday, 4 November 2010

The Pace Of Change

We live in a world that demands things to be done instantly. President Obama has just been punished for not taking the US economy out of the worst recession in recent history in less than two years. When I offer the opinion that the recovery could well take the rest of this decade, I am usually met with sheer disbelief. We want everything done now, and we expect that in others.

Of course, not all in the world march to that tune. The issue of political reform in China is one case in hand. There is much pressure from the west – principally the US, but also the European nations as well – for China to reform its political institutions. China replies that it is, but at a pace of gradual reform rather than at breakneck speed. Exactly how far things have moved can be seen in John Humphrys’ report for the BBC.

In a 30 year retrospective, Mr Humphrys reports on how much has been achieved in one generation. By comparison with 1980, China is a much more open, tolerant and pluralist society. By western standards there is still a long way to go, but perhaps the cause for political reform might be helped more by congratulating the Chinese government for what it has achieved rather than berating it for what it has yet to achieve?

Sometimes we should be a bit more tolerant ourselves.

© The European Futures Observatory 2010 

BBC News - Humphrys: 'I was wrong about China'

Wednesday, 3 November 2010

Is America The New Weimar?

I am currently reading Keynes' "Essays In Persuasion". I have read the first section, which is about the question of Germany's reparations after World War I. The victorious Allies, in the Treaty of Versailles, saddled the new German Republic with an enormous war reparation, which far exceeded the ability of the German economy to stand the repayments. 

We all know the story of how that led, indirectly, to the great Weimar inflation, the destruction of middle class savings, and the rise of Hitler. What is less well known is the pattern of inter-Allied debt, and how the insistance upon strict settlement of those debts made both a German default and the rise of Hitler almost inevitable. If there ever was a case of 'penny wise and pound foolish', then this was it.

As I read about Keynes' view on this, I couldn't help but make the comparison between Weimar Germany and contemporary America. Both superpowers of their day, both suffering from an aggressive and war like foreign policy, both in hock to a set of foreign creditors. Germany had recently lost a war, and one could argue that America is currently in the process of losing one.

Following the analogy, that would imply that the US will face a crisis in servicing its debt on the near future. I believe this to be the case. One can suspect that the US will be unable to repay the debt that it is incurring. If so, then are we just around the corner from a large bout of inflation? The hyper-inflation of the 1920s wiped out most of the Weimar debt. Will the same occur for the US in this decade?

© The European Futures Observatory 2010

Essays in Persuasion (Palgrave Insights in Psychology)

Essays in Persuasion

Tuesday, 2 November 2010

The Chinese Keynesians

BBC News - China wealth fund urges US to spend on infrastructure
This is such an interesting story. It would appear that the China Investment Corporation wants the US Federal Government to spend $1 trillion on infrastructure investments over the next five years. The stated purpose of this spending would be job creation. What I find interesting is the implicit money-go-round: Washington hires workers, who spend their salaries on Chinese products, which provides money to the CIC, who then lend the trade surpluses to Washington to hire workers. There is a nice symmetry to this and it is a classic Keynesian case for public works.
What is also interesting is the tacit rejection of Quantitative Easing as a way to reduce the number of jobless. In many respects, this is something of a false comparison. QE is very much a Keynesian approach to monetary policy and is a necessary condition for a fiscal stimulus to work. The use of QE without further fiscal stimuli is, as yet, an untried policy, the results of which we have yet to see. This is Osborne’s Gamble.
However, I do find it interesting that a Communist body is advocating the use of a Keynesian approach to support a markect based Capitalist economy. The irony here is great.
© The European Futures Observatory 2010