John Perkins original book, “Confessions of an Economic Hitman” and his current book, “New Confessions of an Economic Hitman” brought to light some of the strategies the US has used over the years in order to gain control of foreign reserves that American companies may want to seize, such as oil.
According to Perkins, the method of achieving this end was to use external consultants such as the one he worked for. They would arrange large loans for those countries via the World Bank and its partner organizations. However, the governments in question never received the money. Instead, the money would be transferred, directly or indirectly, to American companies, including construction firms like Halliburton or suppliers like General Electric. These American entities would then launch infrastructure projects which may have included power grids, or industrial parks and highways. These projects generated huge profits. However, not surprisingly, those profits went to the American companies and a few rich local familes. In the end, these countries that were already weighed down by huge debts just saw their debts grow larger, which in turn pressured the already poor and middle class.
Typically, a developed country with a dictator that sits on a perch makes for a soft target. Dictators are often propped up by failed systems like corrupt police force and military. They are usually the most eager to redeem their images so if you can take photos with them signing agreements about huge infrastructure projects it will help soften their soily images. Therefore, they are happy to stand on the podium and tell their ill-informed, semi-literate populace about the development the government is bringing to their country.
As an example, in the 70s, large loans were provided to build a power grid in Panama. The real goal was to force the then Dictator Omar Torrijos into a situation where he owed the US a lot of money in order to have something to blackmail him with because at that point, his bankrupt country would be beholden to them. As Africans would say, you hold both the yam and the knife. In 1977, Torrijos signed a deal with the US, which guaranteed that the government of Panama would have full control of the Panama Canal starting 1999. In 1981, he was killed in a car crash.
Looking at the situation today with the number of sanctions and tariffs being thrown around one has to wonder who the principle targets of the current administration are. Russia? The truth is, Russia and the US have been playing spy games on each other for years. The real targets are the emerging economies. “I have no doubt that there are economic hitmen targeting emerging economies like Turkey’s,” Perkins said in an interview to the Turkish based Anadolu Agency. But Turkey is not the only country where the US has imposed sanctions and tariffs. Currently, sanctioned countries include the Balkans, Belarus, Burma, Cote D’Ivoire (Ivory Coast), Cuba, Democratic Republic of Congo, Iran, Iraq, Liberia, North Korea, Sudan, Syria, and Zimbabwe.
In today’s globalised world economic hitmen are no longer only US based. Today they may come from any number of other countries, including Russia and China. Globalisation has created huge opportunities for economic hitmen around the planet.
Trump’s administration sees infrastructure as one of the key areas to boost US economy. However, the recently published Infrastructure plan has been criticised for lack of money and is highly dependent on private capital. The US is already running large deficits and the national debt now currently stands at $21.8 trillion.
China, with its strong infrastructure achievements and the largest amount of foreign exchange reserves (China has by far the largest foreign currency reserves with over two and a half times more than the second largest reserve holder, Japan. When China and Hong Kong reserves are considered together, the total is $3.6 trillion), is constantly looking for low-risk long-term investment projects to achieve asset preservation and appreciation. By targeting the US, China could balance its foreign exchange levels while accelerating the rejuvenation of American infrastructure. This would also transform China into a job creator in the US.
China is currently employing this strategy throughout Africa along with their One Belt, One Road initiative. China has been the largest trading partner of Tanzania for many years with some 350,000 Tanzanians doing jobs related to trade with China. Also Chinese companies have built a number of mega projects in Tanzania, including roads and bridges, creating about 150,000 jobs.
Interestingly, on his last trip to the continent just before being replaced, Rex Tillerson said that African countries should be careful not to forfeit their sovereignty when they accept loans from China, the continent’s biggest trading partner.
Would Trump be open to outsourcing the development of the US infrastructure to Chinese firms? The short term boost to Trump’s reputation may blind him to the longer term complications. Could the US itself become a target of the economic hitmen?
WTI Oil has been falling steadily from the October high of $76.9, trading currently at $50.96. That is a 33.7% decline in just over a month and a half. Although this may be good news for the end consumer it is causing serious problems elsewhere.
One of the more complicated situations regarding the price of oil has arisen in the province of Alberta. In fact, Alberta is currently in a crisis as the province’s oil is being sold at a discount of about $45 a barrel to WTI. Alberta Premier Rachel Notley has said the price gap between Canadian and U.S. crude is costing the Canadian economy $80 million a day.
You would think that oil being sold for that much of a discount would be bought up in no time, however the reality is more complicated. Where the oil is produced geographically matters, because it needs to be transported from its point of production to a refinery. This impacts the price received for the oil.
Tim McMillan, president and CEO of the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers, said the main issue is there isn’t enough pipeline capacity. In late August of this year, a Federal Court of Appeal ruling put a halt on the Trans Mountain expansion project; in 2017, the federal government scrapped the Northern Gateway pipeline; and Keystone XL is still hung up in legal wrangling in the United States.
A Scotiabank Economics report ,released this week echoed that point where they said, “Alberta’s oil producers are facing an extraordinary challenge caused by pipeline bottlenecks combined with growing production.” As of 2017, the oil sands were filling up some 2.7 million barrels per day, according to Natural Resources Canada. When that’s combined with other oil sources, the oil awaiting export is roughly the same as pipeline capacity from Western Canada, and so there’s a pinch point: If pipeline capacity is reduced for maintenance, or if companies book pipeline space, but don’t actually send oil — so-called air barrels — then there’s a backlog.
So not only is the falling price of oil exacerbating the current situation in Alberta, we may expect to find a similar situation south of the border. The Permian Basin, which covers 75,000 square miles over West Texas and southeast New Mexico, is the most prolific oil producing basin in the country – so much so that it’s become difficult to find ways to get the product to market. Wells Fargo recently projected that oil pipeline constraints in this area may last until 2020, versus its previous prediction of the third quarter of next year. That means more transport by rail or truck.
The International Energy Agency (IEA) wrote just recently in a report on energy investment that, “Higher prices and operational improvements are putting the US shale sector on track to achieve positive free cash flow in 2018 for the first time ever.” How quickly things can change as the sector may be forced to relive the last downturn where the ink on the chapter 11 filings has hardly had time to dry.
In 2014, the market downturn forced a bunch of companies operating on the edge out of business. Nearly 100 shale companies filed for bankruptcy in 2015 and 2016. Oil was trading around $40 at the time. Although this downturn forced drillers to become more efficient, the BNEFestimated that break-even prices still range from $31.61 a barrel for the best Permian Midland wells to $188.25 for the weakest Permian Delaware wells.
GlobalData Energy came out with an interesting report in June that analysed recent wells drilled by 26 operators in the area. It found that the break-even oil prices for wells with lateral lengths of 4,500 to 10,500 feet ranged from $21 to $48 per barrel. So if you assume somewhere from $30 to $50 breakeven then we can expect to soon see another flood of bankruptcies as oil continues to tank.
“It is different this time,” “This is the place everybody wants to be,” has been the talking points when referring to the impressive rise of Vancouver and its real estate market. Unfortunately all markets that experience a rapid escalation of asset prices, as we have seen in Vancouver, eventually experience a painful contraction whereby, as macro investor Raoul Pal puts it, “The big uglies come out.” Are we starting to see what those big uglies are in the Vancouver real estate market?
Vancouver has been the victim of a number of economic events in the world that have culminated in the development of its current dangerous real estate bubble. Central bankers driving interest rates down to historic lows and keeping them there for years, the rapid rise of China’s economy along with the massive number of its newly printed Chinese millionaires, the rise of corruption in China, the exodus of this corrupt money along with Chinese government efforts to reign it in, are just a few of these events.
Life in Vancouver, where the talk of real estate riches and Vancouver suddenly becoming the place to be, has become the favourite subject among its residents, although they may not be aware that other regions in the world have experienced the same impact and will experience the same result.
Top residential real estate brokerages in the US have been promoting US homes to investors in China for years. Brokerage firms in Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and other countries have done the same. They have set up units in China and have partnered with Chinese real estate portals, such as juwai.com. However, one place where the real estate bubble is most prevelent is in China itself. According to a recent report by Bloomberg, a fifth of China’s housing is empty. That’s 50 Million homes!
This is what happens when rampant speculation in a market is not contained. Unfortunately when there is money to be made people disregard the splitting hangover that the all night party can bring.
So what has the impact been in Vancouver?
For too long Vancouver disregarded the longer term risks and turned a blind eye to the massive amounts of corrupt speculative money that was pouring in from China. The low interest rates fuelled the building in Vancouver in order to satisfy the insatiable thirst for Vancouver real estate. (This was pretty much the same story in Australia and New Zealand). There was a rapid rise in prices pushed up by Chinese buyers, in addition to Vancouver residents rushing into the market for fear of missing out. The result was Vancouver real estate became quickly unaffordable to many of its own residents.
Only recently has the government tried to halt the rise. In 2016, Vancouver became the first Canadian City to collect an empty homes tax, charging one per cent of the home’s assessed value if the owners are not living in it or are renting it out for less than six months. In addition, the government also imposed a 20% foreign property buyers tax.
Elsewhere, New Zealand’s parliament banned many foreigners from outright buying existing homes in the country – a move aimed at making properties more affordable. New Zealand is also facing a housing affordability crisis which has left home ownership out of reach for many.
Canada, New Zealand and others are not the only ones taking measures to reign this in. China has begun cracking down. Over the last decade, an estimated $3.8 trillion in capital has left China. Net foreign direct investment over the same period of time has amounted to $1.3 trillion, leaving the country with a net loss. To reduce capital flight, the Chinese government has developed a complex system of capital controls, such as limiting transfers of $50,000. However, that has not stopped the Chinese from being creative. The CEO of a Chinese company moved $750,000 from China to Metro Vancouver for a real estate deal with the help of nine strangers who each brought $50,000 into Canada for “tourist purposes,” according to a B.C. Supreme Court judgment.
But in spite of these controls the damage has been done and now increasing interest rates may just be fuelling the fire as the news starts to trickle in.
According to economists at the Royal Bank of Canada, owning a home in Vancouver is the most unaffordable it has ever been in any Canadian City. In fact, they found affordability to now be “at crisis levels” where it would take a record 88.4 per cent of one’s income to cover ownership costs. Statistics Canada reported that, “Credit market debt as a proportion of household disposable income increased to 169.1 per cent as growth in debt outpaced income. In other words, Canadians owed $1.69 in credit market debt for every dollar of household disposable income.”
Credit reporting agency TransUnion released data showing that Vancouver residents have the highest debts among those who are in major cities, owing an average of $38,753 in non-mortgage, consumer debt through the first quarter of 2018.
Vancouver residents, and Canadians in general, are growing increasingly anxious about their ability to handle higher interest rates, with a new survey showing a rising proportion of consumers fear they will be pushed over the brink. Rightly so, they are concerned mostly about their high-ticket items such as a mortgages and car loans.
As we began this article, the explanation for Vancouver’s real estate rise was its attraction as a city, at least according to many of its residents, its natural beauty and idyllic west coast location. Although in my opinion this is true (considering it is my home town) to a point. There is a difference between speculation and purchasing a home to live in. The first clue that we were dealing with speculators, as is the case in China, should have been the number of empty houses and condos in Vancouver (which was the reason the city eventually created the empty homes tax).
What has been the effect of these controls on speculators?
Vancouver is now ranked as the worst place in the world for luxury homebuyers seeking a return on their investment, according to a global survey of 43 “prime residential” cities. The Knight Frank Prime International Residential Index found that, while luxury property prices globally were up an average of 4.2% in the third quarter, compared with the same period in 2017, they fell 11.2% in Vancouver, where luxury home sales have tanked. No other Canadian city made the list, and Vancouver ended up ranked No. 43.
For those in Vancouver who refuse to believe bubble talk and believe that the Chinese will keep purchasing and supporting the real estate market for years to come, they may want to rethink that. Beijing has warned of its zero tolerance for dual nationality. Now some foreign citizens who held on to their Chinese identity documents fear the consequences of returning, according to South China Morning Post. In addition, it is hard to believe that the Chinese will be rushing to give up their Chinese citizenship at a time in history when China promises to be the next great economic powerhouse.
The problem with living through a bubble is often the most vulnerable get hurt, as we saw very clearly during the housing bubble and financial crisis of 2007 in the US. The same is most likely to be true for the Vancouver residents that extended themselves purchasing overpriced real estate that they could ill afford. The international speculators will move on as they continue their worldwide search for return. As in other locations, it is likely that they will not hang around long enough to see the real damage that remains once all the air has been taken out of the bubble.
Music is a powerful force in life. Not only is it a dominant art form, a form of entertainment that goes back to the beginnings of human history, it has also been used as a form of communication. The reason it is so effective as a communication tool is because it drives emotions and it is emotions that play a large part in our decision making process.
Wherever you encounter a form of sales or commercialism of a product you are bound to find some kind of catchy music attached. There is a long history of branding campaigns that have become successful mainly because of the emotion and message communicated through the music.
We make decisions everyday but some decisions have a greater impact than others. One of the most powerful decisions you make as a citizen is your power to vote. For this reason music has been an integral part of political campaigns and elections for years. The problem is that quite often the politicians prefer to choose music that conveys their message by just using popular music that has already created an impact in order to play it safe. The music is more often than not used without the consent or knowledge of the copyright holder. When they do this they ironically disregard copyright law (a law they are supposed to be upholding).
The true artist creates for the sake of creation. The work is the focal point. This is why whenever you find a piece of music or artistic expression used for any other purpose other than that for what it was conceived, a work of art, the artist becomes incensed. The artist knows that there is a danger that the use of their work for commercial purposes can forever change the association of that music with the listening public.
Rihanna recently sent a cease-and-desist letter to Donald Trump, with the Anti singer deploying legal action after her “Don’t Stop the Music” was played at the president’s rally Sunday in Chattanooga, Tennessee. Trump is also experiencing a backlash from the likes of Axel Rose for his use of Sweet Child o’ Mine. Over the weekend, the controversial Guns N’ Roses frontman complained on Twitter that Trump had used the hit against the band’s wishes. He explained that a legal loophole allowed the president, whose administration he referred to as “s***bags,” to do it.
This is not isolated to the midterm elections or the Trump campaigns. The unlawful use of the popular song goes back much further.
When Independent billionaire Ross Perot ran in 1992 in a three way race against Bill Clinton and George H. Bush. He was one of the most unconventional presidential candidates in American political history, so his choice of campaign song was Patsy Cline’s 1961 love song “Crazy.” It attracted attention because his critics dismissed him as such.
During his successful 2000 presidential campaign, George W. Bush picked Tom Petty’s 1989 hit “I Won’t Back Down,” to be played during his events. Petty threatened to sue the campaign for its unauthorised use of the tune, and Bush stopped playing it.
When Sarah Palin ran as John McCain’s 2008 Republican presidential running mate she chose to play Heart’s 1970s hit “Barracuda” at campaign events. The band objected to the use of the song and got the campaign to stop playing it. Ann and Nancy Wilson didn’t want the song to be associated with the views of Sarah Palin. During the same campaign, Jackson Browne won a suit against John McCain when the Republican presidential candidate played “Running on Empty” in an ad bashing Barack Obama on gas conservation.
Ex-Talking Head frontman David Byrne successfully sued Florida Republican Charlie Crist for using “Road to Nowhere” in a video to attack opponent Marco Rubio during a 2010 U.S. Senate campaign.
Of course, the opposite effect can happen. Mick Fleetwood, from the group Fleetwood Mac, recently said Bill Clinton’s campaign never requested permission for what became his iconic 1992 campaign anthem, “Don’t Stop,” but the band generally voted Democratic and didn’t object to the exposure.
Legally speaking, copyright laws allow political candidates to use just about any song they want, as long as they’re played at a stadium, arena or other venue that already has a public-performance license through a songwriters’ association such as ASCAP or BMI. However, the law contains plenty of gray area and the artist does have the ability to protect their “right of publicity.”
Another day, another day of mud slinging. The media is after Trump and Trump is after the media. Trump cries fake news on one hand, yet on the other he produces fake news. It doesn’t take much digging to discover the number of false or misleading statements he has made. The Washinton Post did a count of these statements throughout his first 100 days. However, this is not an attack on Trump, it is simply the process of making the sitting President accountable for his words and actions and has been done throughout the years with all administrations. When the voting public catches the President with his pants down (in reference to Nixon, not Clinton!) he is called to answer, which Nixon was and forced to resign.
One of the problems we face today regarding the news is the facility of its distribution, especially in this era of social media. It is simple to write, simple to publish, simple to distribute and very cheap to do. This has pulled everybody who is anybody with an opinion into the news game. We looked into propaganda side of this during the Russia accusations.
At one time, the American population would get home from work to watch the Six O’Clock newscast. You would get your news for the day, which was a mix of mainly local news with a portion for national and international stories. That was it and that was enough. If you wanted something lighter or deeper and more informed there was a selection of magazines and newspapers.
The big change came with news all day, all the time. What were once headlines with an overview to give the public a general idea have become stories with a team to analyze every word and every angle. CNN was the first but should not be considered the only one. All of these all day news networks are bombarding the public with the same headlines all day long. They put together round tables to beat the crap out of a story. They parse every word in hopes of making some discovery that may drive their ratings a little higher. The constant barrage of news and information also has additional detriments to our well being, as we posted here.
To make matters worse, what used to be independent local news stations were eventually bought up one by one by conglomerates. For example, The Sinclair Broadcast Group is the largest owner of television stations in the United States, currently owning or operating a total of 193 outlets across the country in nearly 80 markets, ranging from markets as large as Washington, D.C. to as small as Steubenville, Ohio. The stations are affiliates of various television networks, including ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox as well as numerous specialty channels. Many stations are owned outright by the company, while others are owned by legally distinct companies but operated by Sinclair through a local marketing agreement. The Fox Broadcasting Company operates an American television network made up of 17 owned-and-operated stations and over 185 affiliates. Sinclair’s aggregate televised reach covers about 40 percent of the U.S.
Unfortunately, with this kind of power and control some members of the media use their platforms to push their own personal bias and agenda to control exactly what people think. How do we know? The nightly newscasts of all these affiliates are scripted. They are all told what to read each and every day, regardless of where they are located.
A video compilation was published earlier this year on YouTube that presents this idea perfectly. It shows dozens of news anchors at local affiliate stations owned by the Sinclair Broadcast Group reciting word-for-word the exact same message on “fake” news. The video shows CBS, ABC, NBC, and Fox affiliates sharing the message.
This is, as the anchors in the video clearly outline, ”Extremely dangerous to our democracy.” However, that it is up to each individual to decide.
Thirty-one years ago, on Oct. 19,1987, the Dow Jones Industrial Average plunged 22.6%, its largest one-day percentage-point drop ever.
You may have noticed that the financial media has started to highlight the point drops as opposed to the percentages. To say the Dow lost 500 points makes better news than saying it lost 2%. In percentage terms though this years recent plunges pale in comparison to what “could” happen as we have seen in history.
Here are five of the worst stock market crashes in U.S. history, based on daily percentage losses (source: ajc.com):
Oct. 19, 1987
Percentage change: -22.61 percent
About: Known as “Black Monday,” this devastating crash began in Hong Kong, spread to Europe and then hit the U.S. hard.
Oct. 28, 1929
Percentage change: -12.82 percent
About the crash: The Wall Street Crash of 1929, also known as the Great Crash or the Stock Market Crash of 1929 started on Oct. 24 and signaled the beginning of the 12-year Great Depression. Black Monday, the fourth and worst day of the crash, saw a drop of 12.82 percent.
Dec. 18, 1899
Percentage change: -11.99 percent
About the crash: During the Panic of 1896, the U.S. experienced an acute economic depression caused by a drop in silver reserves and deflation.
Oct. 29, 1929
Percentage change: -11.73
About the crash: Black Tuesday was the fifth day of the the Wall Street Crash of 1929, also known as the Great Crash or the Stock Market Crash of 1929 that started on Oct. 24 and signaled the beginning of the 12-year Great Depression.
Nov. 6, 1929
Percentage change: -9.92
About the crash: Just a week after the height of the 1929 Stock Market Crash, investors saw another dip.
As many often refer to these numbers when speaking about this event the real point of interest should be in what they were saying back then, which not many financial media tend to refer to. Ironically they were saying many of the things they say today.
We looked back at a Nightly News Broadcast of that time in order to gain a better understanding of the mindset of the time. You would be advised to watch the broadcast because in the words of Philosopher George Santayana, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” (See The Nightly News Broadcast October 19, 1987 at the bottom of the post)
The 1987 crash lost much more than the crash of 1929, and although (as they said at the time), “Conditions today are much better than they were then,” “today’s precipitate decline struck fear in hearts and pocket books of even Wall Street veterans.”
All the same actors showed up as they do today with the same speech tracks. New York Stock Exchange Chairman at the time, John Phalen, tried to be reassuring. “We are extremely fortunate today that the country is in a very strong position.”
The word of the Economists was that they were worried that the market plunge at the time could impact the psychology of even those that didn’t own stocks. They worried the consumer would stop borrowing and spending which could grind the economy to a halt. Compare those worries of the time to today. They are the same. The big difference is that today consumers are already heavily indebted. They are carrying mortgage debts, auto loan debts, student loan debts and credit card debts that are far higher than they were in 1987.
The broadcast pointed out that, “A week ago most economists were saying that the stock market decline was merely a correction.” This is also familiar territory. Of course it is always a correction until it isn’t, however making that judgement before the fact is just a guess. On October 19, 1987, that guess turned out to be very wrong. They went on to say that, “Today’s plunge was so huge, so shocking, that no economist, no Wall Street analyst was willing to predict where it would end.” Irony so thick you could cut it with a knife.
By the end of the day, everyone was looking to Washington for some action that may help stop the carnage. At the time President Ronald Reagan ignored the plunge and continued to “brag” about the Reagan recovery. This doesn’t sound to different to anything we would expect today. Although we can probably assume that no matter what kind of serious drop that the stock market may go through in the future, Trump will be quick to blame the Federal Reserve (however that will not stop him from taking credit it for it if it keeps moving up).
All in all, it is a fascinating 9 minutes to watch. We shouldn’t expect to hear anything different today than we did 31 years ago and that means we should have a pretty good idea of what to expect in the future.
The current Trump trade war with China and the fact that The Shanghai Composite Index is off roughly 24% for the year has placed a lot of the recent news focus on China. However, understanding the Chinese takes much deeper digging into the Chinese mindset as opposed to just looking at current economic numbers. The Trump administration strategy towards China may produce some short term benefits in terms of public support but the Chinese are working on a much longer timeline with which to accomplish their goals.
The best way to understand China is to be there and speak with those with whom we have business relationships, which is exactly how we gained the following insights.
In order to get to where China is today, they required expertise that they didn’t originally have. According to Professor Paul Gillis, a former head of PwC in China turned academic at Peking University’s Guanghua School of Management, and now the pre-eminent foreign analyst in China’s accounting industry, the then big eight western accounting firms clearly saw the opportunity developing in China back in the 1980s.
“They began building up representative offices to advise foreign firms entering China, at first often working out of hotels. By 1992, they had won the right to audit, working with Chinese partners, and were helping to develop China’s accounting standards. They pulled in all manner of outside experts to help them understand the country.”
The domination of Chinese accounting by four foreign multinationals soon became a source of annoyance in the official halls of Beijing. Paul Gillis wrote that by 2006, Ding Pingzhun, director-general of the government-aligned Chinese Institute of CPAs (CICPA), spoke of the Big Four as firms that “lord themselves arrogantly across China”.
These firms indirectly and or directly have under their tutorship approximately 60% of the Corporate sector in China. Because of this China knows that the US is intimately familiar with China’s business internal operations (shadow banking and corruption) and thinks they may be using this knowledge to form policy to secretly undermine them and weaken them.
For this reason, China believes that the US has been planning this attack using tariffs since 2000 from the Republican administrations. The expected George W. Bush to implement tariffs during his Presidential administration, however, the attack on New York on 9/11 most likely derailed the initial opportunity. The 2008 crash most likely took away the second opportunity for Bush to apply any meaningful tariffs against China. By the time Trump came along and implimented this strategy the Chinese were not surprised as they had been expecting such a move for some time.
The Chinese understand the recent US moves to reduce corporate taxes in order to repatriate money offshore and induce these companies to return their manufacturing bases back to the US. The Chinese also realise that an agreement between North Korea and South Korea (with the US brokering) could create a much cheaper labor base. The threat is that this could take away a lot of labour intensive industries from China.
They believe that the tariff program was put in place to try and weaken or slowdown China’s growth in manufacturing and thus their world influence. It is not a secret that China has been going after markets in the Middle East, Africa and Central America spreading their influence in order to breakaway from any stranglehold that the US may currently have on them. In addition, to facilitate this in the future China has taken on the massive development of the One Belt, One Road initiative which if successful will change the face of international trade.
China is playing on a much longer timeline so they are prepared for some pain and suffering. In China, Xi has now solidified his position for life. China knows that the US changes party power every 4 years and is betting that the democrats get back in and reverse the Trump plan.
In order to deal with the Chinese one has to understand some important character traits.
Of all the idiosyncrasies of Chinese culture, the concept of “Face” is perhaps most difficult for Westerns to fully grasp. And because “saving face” is such a strong motivating force in China, it’s also one of the most important concepts in understanding the Chinese Mind. It goes back centuries and appears in many Chinese sayings and proverbs.
“Men can’t live without face, trees can’t live without bark.”
(ren hou lian, shu hou pi)
“A family’s ugliness (misfortune) should never be publicly aired”
(jai chou bu ke wai yang)
A traditional insult is to say that someone “has no face”.
(mei you mianzi)
Similarly, one of the worst things is to “lose face”.
The management of “Face” goes much deeper than just impression management (or “protecting and enhancing your ego”) in the Western sense. Although nobody, regardless of culture, wants to look bad or have their ego bruised, the Chinese concept goes beyond the narrow Western concept of face (and is perhaps closer to the Arab concept of “honour”).
While an American businessperson might be respected back home for his frankness and being a “straight-shooter,” he would likely be viewed in China as uncultured, overbearing, and rude. President Trump’s remarks against the Chinese on the world stage do not, by any means, go unnoticed by the Chinese public.
During Hu Jintao’s 2006 visit to the US, there were a large number of missteps on behalf of the Bush administration that were believed to be an intentional campaign to make China lose face on the international stage. If this was truly the case, the Chinese have not forgotten.
The current trade war should be looked at as an economic battle that could drag on for some time and not as a short term tactic on behalf of the Trump administration. They have opened up Pandora’s box. According to a recent article in the Washington Post, the tough tone on behalf of the US effectively ties Xi’s hands.
“James Zimmerman, former chairman of the American Chamber of Commerce in China stated,
“Getting the Chinese to the bargaining table should be all about face-saving — not a chest-thumping exercise, Xi has no choice but to stand firm and stand tall.”
Trump’s bravado approach to try to win concessions from Beijing has provoked a public fury that could ultimately derail his efforts. Although the Trump administration believes that a trade war can be won and that they are in a position to win against China, it should be perfectly clear that today’s China is a much stronger adversary on the economic, military and cyber front, than they ever were. If their back is against the wall it will only be a matter of time before “Xi hits the fan.”
What may go wrong if you are right?
The debate around the stock market’s performance continues to rage on. On one side the argument is that the market gains are justified because of explosive company earnings, Trump’s tax cuts or that the US markets are the only game in town. The competing view is that nothing has been fixed since 2007 and this is just all makeup on a pig. Low interest rates and company buybacks are fueling the drive for better returns. It is believed that it is all a slow motion train wreck ready to collapse.
The purpose of this piece is not to add anything new to the debate but to highlight some issues that could arise in the event of the return of extreme volatility. Bear and Bull calls that appear initially correct could suddenly violently flip in a second as any number of unforseen events suddenly appear out of nowhere. Understanding historically how some of these events have been brought on may help dampen any future surprises.
The collapse of the Internet bubble, perhaps one of the largest financial fiascoes in U.S. history, came after a three-year period, starting in January 1997, when investors would buy almost anything even vaguely associated with the Internet, regardless of valuation. Investors ignored huge current company losses and were willing to pay 100 times expected earnings in fiscal 2002. They were provoked by bullish reports from sell-side securities analysts and market forecasts from IT research firms, such as IDC, Gartner and Forrester Research.
There are many of us who were around during the dot com bubble of 1999 to 2001 and lived the collapse of so many high flying overvalued stocks with huge cash burns and no profitability. The claim at the time was that it was a “new world.” Profitability did not matter. Eye balls mattered. As long as you had large traffic flows to your site you could worrry about profitability later.
All this activity did influence the economy and everything was firing on all cylinders. This held true for a while as long as investors kept throwing money at these wild west startups. The day the financing dried up, so did the company’s prospects of continuing as a going concern. The darlings of the day including pets.com, webvan.com, eToys.com, GeoCities, TheGlobe.com, go.com or flooz.com all but disappeared. This meant that these and thousands of companies like them ran out of cash and fired all their employees.
Even if you are paying attention and think you understand the valuations you may be mistaken. The problem today is that companies and accountants are coming up with all kinds of clever ways to mask the true financial state of a company. This means that more and more professional and individual investors are not looking deeply enough into the details, as it takes more and more effort. Besides, it is not in reason to have to become an accounting forensic scientist just to figure out a company’s profitability.
Jim Grant’s excellent “Current Yield Podcast” highlights the current environment of financial reporting in his show “Read the Footnotes,” and “Loan Sharks,” where for example they discuss how WeWork came up with different adjusted EBITA to suit their purpose. Fundamental analysis is usually how financial analysts make their judgements on a stock. If the company beats the analysts estimates it could rise considerably. If that analysis is flawed then the stocks are moving on false premises. Eventually stocks will always revert to their fundamental values, which indeed they did in 2001 to 2003.
What does this have to do with today’s market? A new report by the Wall Street Journal highlighted that a record number of IPOs, or 83% of US listed IPOs over the first three quarters of 2018, were companies that lost money in the 12 month prior to their going public. However, there are still many more that appear to have impressive balance sheets until their true financial state is exposed. Lurking within the financial statements and communications of public companies is a troubling trend. Alternative metrics, once used sparingly, have become increasingly ubiquitous and more detached from reality.
In 2011, Groupon Inc. announced plans for a highly anticipated initial public offering. But enthusiasm for the offering waned when the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) issued a comment letter questioning Groupon’s use of a profit metric it called “adjusted consolidated segment operating income.” It was believed that no company had ever used that metric before; it was intended to measure operating profit without including marketing expenses, stock-based compensation, and acquisition-related costs. Management argued that a $420 million loss from operations reported on its 2010 income statement should really be considered a $60 million gain.
The financial crisis of 2007-2008 that led to a decline in stocks was different. It began in 2007 with a crisis in the subprime mortgage market in the United States, fuelled by the Fed, and developed into a full-blown international banking crisis with the collapse of the investment bank Lehman Brothers on September 15, 2008. Excessive risk-taking by banks such as Lehman Brothers helped to magnify the financial impact globally.
When this crisis hit and volatiliy exploded so did trading volumes. We remember trading on a few different plaftorms during this period only to see them seize up from the volumes daily. You could be correct on a trade but find yourself not able to get out.
Then this showed up:
SEC Halts Short Selling of Financial Stocks to Protect Investors and Markets
Commission Also Takes Steps to Increase Market Transparency and Liquidity
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Washington, D.C., Sept. 19, 2008 — The Securities and Exchange Commission, acting in concert with the U.K. Financial Services Authority, took temporary emergency action to prohibit short selling in financial companies to protect the integrity and quality of the securities market and strengthen investor confidence. The U.K. FSA took similar action yesterday.
They changed the rules of the game. A large number of traders were caught holding short positions in financial stocks having to scramble to get out of them. A massive short squeeze erupted.
Just when investors and traders had positioned themselves for larger gains on the short side, the Fed stepped in with extraordinary monetary policy adjustments which included never before seen bailouts. Investors that never fully understood the old adage “don’t fight the Fed” paid dearly.
Readers may be aware of some of these facts but it is essential to highlight that even though you may be correct in your trading or investment decisions and thesis, you are working with a dynamic system that has the leverage to change the rules to its advantage. Many of these adjustements could put the trader and investor at an extreme disadvange. We advise you to listen to the RealVision interview with Marc Cohodes as his experience with Goldman Sachs during this time illustrates this perfectly.
In 1971 the New York Stock exchange incorporated as a non-profit. The change to for profit status was organizational and the result of a transaction first approved in April 2005 by the New York Stock Exchange governing board. In March 2006 the New York Stock Exchange, a non-profit corporation, merged with Archipelago Holdings, Inc. into a new organization NYSE Group, Inc. as a publicly traded and for-profit company. In April 2007 the company in a stock swap transaction combined with Euronext, the European stock exchange, becoming NYSE Euronext.
Interestingly enough, we began to see the advent of high frequency trading. One of the ways exchanges such as the NYSE make money are by allowing big-deal firms to install their computers closer to the actual exchange, so their electronic trade requests will arrive milliseconds earlier than competitors. High frequency and algorithmic trading now accounts for a very large percentage of total exchange trading volume.
The May 6, 2010, Flash Crash, also known as the Crash of 2:45, the 2010 Flash Crash or simply the Flash Crash, was a United States trillion-dollar stock market crash, which started at 2:32 p.m. EDT and lasted for approximately 36 minutes.
The Chief Economist of the Commodity Futures Trading Commission and several academic economists published a working paper containing a review and empirical analysis of trade data from the Flash Crash. They concluded the following:
“Based on our analysis, we believe that High Frequency Traders exhibit trading patterns inconsistent with the traditional definition of market making. Specifically, High Frequency Traders aggressively trade in the direction of price changes. This activity comprises a large percentage of total trading volume, but does not result in a significant accumulation of inventory. As a result, whether under normal market conditions or during periods of high volatility, High Frequency Traders are not willing to accumulate large positions or absorb large losses. Moreover, their contribution to higher trading volumes may be mistaken for liquidity by Fundamental Traders. Finally, when rebalancing their positions, High Frequency Traders may compete for liquidity and amplify price volatility.”
Traders and investors that still believe that we have free markets may get a rude awakening. Aside from the famous flash crash, we are still not able to forecast how these algorithm trading bots will react in the case of a market event or Black Swan.
So as an investor or trader you may be holding a short position or long position and be correct in your analysis only to find the profitable company you have been invested in has just declared bankruptcy, or have your trading platform seizes up under the massive volume hitting the markets due to a shock to the market, rendering you helpless, have your brokers suddenly adjust all margins putting you at a severe disadvantage, have the Fed step in with a nuclear option not yet known, have the SEC ban short selling or suddently watch in horror as prices tank as most of the market’s liquidity disappears because a number of large program trading algorithms have been turned off. Complacency in these markets in any form can be deadly.
According to futurist George Gilder the era of Google could be coming to an end. In his recent book “Life after Google”, Gilder explains why Silicon Valley is suffering a nervous breakdown and what to expect as the post-Google age dawns.
Is it worthwhile paying attention to what somebody like George Gilder says? Putting aside the fact that nobody can accurately predict the future on a consistent basis (as has been shown by Gilder’s track record), it is possible to make informed statements about the future based on sound logic. Here Gilder does base his assumptions on more than conjecture.
So where does Gilder come up with such an outlook regarding Google? As Peter Thiel pointed out, “Google’s algorithms assume the world’s future is nothing more than the next moment in a random process. George Gilder shows how deep this assumption goes, what motivates people to make it, and why it’s wrong: the future depends on human action.”
The argument is based on an analysis of big data. Right now, big data looks like it holds all the answers for any questions a person or company might have. William Terdoslavich wrote in InformationWeek, “At the heart of big data is the search for “insight — some correlation or finding that eludes the seeker until he or she adds another terabyte or 10 of data, just in case it is lurking there. At a certain point, the law of diminishing returns has to kick in. Adding another 100TB becomes redundant.”
Nassim Taleb pointed this out by the following analogy, “We humans do not predict when it’s safe to cross a road by adding more different data-points, like e.g. the color of the eyes of by-passing car-drivers, to our decision-making process, but by filtering the data and only assess what’s relevant to get across safely.”
In 1972, Gordon Bell formulated what is now known as Bell’s law of computer classes. It describes how types of computing systems (referred to as computer classes) form, evolve and may eventually die out. New classes of computers create new applications resulting in new markets and new industries. Gilder believes that Google can’t continue on the present path as we now need an entirely knew infrastructure.
Kurt Godel, the brilliant Austrian mathematitian exposed the limitations of mathematics (the incompleteness theorems). He proved that there can be no human construct, no human system of thought that does not rely on some reality outside of itself. It shows that human intelligence could not be recreated by a traditional computer.
Google was built on ads. All these arguments can be seen as presenting a case where Google’s system of aggregating huge amounts of data to create adverts will inevitably break down. There is also the concern that Google and Silicon Valley in general have put security on the back burner. The fear is that Google has been avoiding the challenge of security across the internet by giving away most of its products for free, and financing itself with an ingenious advertising strategy. This has become more apparent with the recent massive data breach at Google+.
But is it really possible for a company such as Google, which is so engrained in everybody’s daily life, to cease to exist? A good way to understand the present and future is to look at the past in order to gain some insight.
Comparing the 1955 Fortune 500 companies (here) to the 2017 Fortune 500 (here), there are only 60 companies that appear in both lists. In other words, fewer than 12% of the Fortune 500 companies included in 1955 were still on the list 62 years later in 2017, and 88% of the companies from 1955 have either gone bankrupt, merged with (or were acquired by) another firm, or they still exist but have fallen from the top Fortune 500 companies (ranked by total revenues). Many of the companies on the list in 1955 are unrecognizable, forgotten companies today (e.g., Armstrong Rubber, Cone Mills, Hines Lumber, Pacific Vegetable Oil, and Riegel Textile). One recent name that was driven into extinction by its own technology was Kodak. They came up with the first digital camera but did not capitalize on it.
It’s reasonable to assume that when the Fortune 500 list is released 60 years from now in 2077 (although it could happen much sooner), almost all of today’s Fortune 500 companies will no longer exist as currently configured, having been replaced by new companies in new, emerging industries.
In any case there was a time when Google didn’t exist and the world was inundated with search engines. Nobody was really crying out for somebody to build a new one. To imagine Google being replaced by another technology wave is by no means difficult. It is probably just a question of how fast it happens.