I was holed up in a villa in the province of Algarve, about 300 km south of Lisbon, really hopping to stay away from the world for a bit. I was sitting in my room watching the movie “Frantic” by Roman Polanski, which is a story of a troubled man in the heart of Paris with nobody willing to help him, or even to take seriously.
He just flew in with his wife from San Francisco and she disappeared as he was taking a shower, but police and the US embassy think that she is just having an affair in Paris.
They’re giving him dirty jokes. Finally he says to the diplomat: “you’re talking about my wife here, but it sounds like you’re thinking about yours!”
And then he is on his own in the foreign city.
The story is fascinating, and notice this – Polanski is the master of close ups and the use of light which make the message remarkable.
I’m convinced that this movie is Harrison Ford’s life performance.
Also - the music selection: from Ennio Morricone to Grace Jones, with Paris in the background, is intoxicating.
There are some Polish people who can really tell a story, no?
Polanski has these boyish looks, to the point that back in the day they wouldn’t let him into theaters to watch his own movies.
Just see him in “The Tenant” with Isabelle Adjani, it will rock your world.
On that note, it is the importance of individual performance that makes me distrust the “teamwork” buzzword.
For me, the idea of “teamwork” is not right, for it translates into “joint effort”.
A great movie or a brilliant painting is not a joint effort, a great company isn’t either.
Back to Algarve - it is important to note that Portugal is the world’s former capital. This is the nation that first unlocked the secrets of deep-water navigation. It was Portugal that figured out how to master ship and wind and wave to make landfall anywhere in the known world. From that access, the Portuguese were able to trade anything they wanted.
Shipyards on the River Duoro built the fleets that dominated global trade, with the commercial traffic ultimately flowing to Lisbon. More than any other location in the world, Portugal is a monument about how a change in technology can change everything.
Now the Portuguese economy is booming again, in part because of its aggressive attraction of courting foreign investors. Portuguese citizenship is available after six years of residence, or three years if claiming citizenship by marriage.
There was a massive expulsion of Jews from the Iberian Peninsula in the 15thand 16thcentury, and an interesting initiative was announced just a few years ago. The Spanish and Portuguese governments said that they want to make amends for their past sins, and they’re also in need of productive people to restore their economies. They now offer citizenship – full passports – to the descendants of families expelled from their countries. The governments regard the expulsion as tragedy, or – in the words of Spain’s justice minister – “a historical error”. I guess what goes around, comes around.
Now the Jewish descendants of those expelled can claim a passport, which would allow them to travel freely in 28 EU countries.
I was sitting on the Saturday evening at a small train station under sapphire tinted skies typing this essay and waiting on the last train to Albufeira, where my villa was.
I was thinking how I got where I am in my life, and then it occurred to me: we have two lives, and the second one starts when we realize that we only have one.
I am with Confucius on this one.
Montenegro is a tiny Balkan country with rugged mountains, medieval villages and a narrow strip of beaches along its Adriatic coastline.
The place is a hidden treasure, located roughly opposite the sea from Bari, Italy, and the ferry ride takes about 10 hours, if you are interested in an all night party on the ship.
Famous as the most relaxed and chilled Balkan country, it is a touristy place even though the traveling Germans don’t come here much, you hear some English around, but the huge majority of visitors are Russians.
There are some splendid hotels, especially in Budva, with prices going up to a grand per night, and that’s in Euros, the currency they use here, even though they are not a part of the EU.
Accordingly, the properties are pricey, certainly not for salaried employees from Mother Russia. Whoever is buying them is getting capital out and is permitted to do so. Some 6000 Russians are permanent residents in Montenegro
Accumulated Russian investment reached $1.3 billion in 2016, and this in a sparsely populated country of about 600 thousand, which makes Montenegro’s foreign investment per capita the highest in Europe.
Sign of new times, in my view.
It is clear that what happened in the world in the last 10 years shows how everything works together and is interconnected. The financial crisis of 2008 slowed down the buying power of Europe and US from China, which then weakened so much that they appointed a dictator for life (Xi). Note that strong countries don’t need dictators; they can rely on their political system.
As Chinese demand for raw materials and energy slumped, it destabilized Russia and Saudi Arabia, which is now encircled by Shia countries, led by Iran and has appointed a 34 year old prince with the task to manage. One of his first moves was to gather the rich Arabs under house arrest in a Ritz hotel in Riyadh and shake them down for money. Guess that’s how business is done over there.
In Russia, Putin is still holding to power, but we don’t know what is going on inside the Kremlin and who is in the shadows. So Russia is the wild card.
What we know is that their budget is blown due to the collapse in energy prices.
There is one more domino that has yet to fall – as manufacturers weaken, the orders for industrial machinery drop.
Consider this recent piece of news from Bloomberg:
Thyssenkrupp AG, the steel giant and one the pillars of German economy, looks set to be kicked out of DAX, Germany’s main equity benchmark. The industrial conglomerate has halved its market value during the past twelve months and it is failing to fulfill index membership criteriaof the exchange.
Thyssenkrupp CEO wants to float the company’s elevator unit to generate cash needed to cover unfunded pension liabilities and fix its operations.
Thyssen’s problems demonstrate what ultra low interest rates do to the markets – overinvestment with cheap money and no returns enough to pay out pensions.
The Americans call it a double-whammy.
Montenegro, along with Serbia, has been for a long time in the Russian sphere of influence. The country lies in the region where there are always security challenges, but in stark contrast to, say, Poland, which is easier to conquer with it’s wide-open plains, Montenegro has rugged mountains where only some valleys can be taken, mountains bombed, but that’s it.
During the Balkan war in the 1990’s Montenegro joined Serbia in attacks on Dubrovnik, a city just north along the coast, in Croatia. Subsequently, it was bombed by the US forces flying out of Brindisi, but not as heavily as Serbia.
And you have to be careful in conversations with the locals (and people speak good English here) – you mention the wrong neighboring nation and its bound to send a chill going through the room.
Another problem is the terrible traffic along the coast. I was having a morning coffee on a patio watching a guy with a bag maneuvering between moving cars on a busy street. And it reminded me of a Kevin Hart stand up routine – “I was carrying a bag of chicken and got hit by a car”, he said. “But I never dropped the chicken. If they tell you that these KFC commercials don’t work – don’t believe it.”
The Nissan car company profits are down 99 percent,and this is not a typo - they plunged in the first quarter to $21.25 million, which amounts to a rounding error, really.
A near-total wipeout – which triggered the wiping out of 12,500 jobs, the immediate suspension of manufacturing in Indonesia and Spain and an announcement that Japan’s second-largest car company will reduce its model lineup by at least 10 percent by 2022. It is quite possible there won’t be a Nissan by 2022 if they continue on this road. And it’s already starting – I called a dealership in Schwyz looking for a deal and I got a marijuana shop instead. And they said they’re cool with whatever.
What’s caused the downfall, of course, is all the money being spend on electric cars, for which there is no market. Or rather, there’s no money to be made from making them.
Nissan committed billions to development of electric cars they won’t be able to sell – unless the ability of people to buy them somehow increases by 30-50 percent or more. Besides, the market for electric cars is really confined to Europe because of the regulations, and China where electricity prices are the lowest.
And none of this is healthy and sustainable economics.
And Nissan is not alone in this – for Tesla, in their most important US market the plunge in registrations has been huge. In the second quarter registrations of the Model X plunged by 40% compared to a year ago, registrations of the Model S plunged by 54%, to just 1,205 vehicles. This type of drop is devastating for any automaker, unless it plans to discontinue the model soon.Then it gets wild in the EU with their constant drive for regulations and taxes that can be extracted from it. Keep in mind that taxes from cigarette products are declining and something needs to make up for the drop. From 2020 only 95 grams of CO2 emissions per kilometer driven are permitted per car produced. If the output is higher, there will be drastic fines, like half the price of the car. For car companies this means the consumption of fuel must be around four litters per 100 kilometers. But there are no combustion engines that can comply with this standard, except for the smallest ones. So, the European car manufactures have no choice but to produce electric cars, for which there is no market to speak of. BMW just announced that it is accelerating its electric car plans by two years, they aim to have 25 electrified models in 2023. It will be interesting to watch their bottom line by then, unless they can somehow suspend reality. Their CEO Harald Krüger already said that he will not seek another term with the company.
Another problem is, the governments have completely failed to take into consideration the availability of electricity to fuel cars.
If every car is plugged into the power grid, then the concern becomes – will we just simply shift the CO2 emissions from cars to power plants?
And consider this - when it gets cold, the battery will lose on average 20-25% of its charge. The idea that electric cars will replace fossil fuels is really a dream. That will maybe work in warm territories, but when it gets cold, they will require more energy production to service them. And this comes at a time when power plants also have increased demand to keep people warm.
Now I slow down for the Electric Love part, and obviously I refer the song by Serena Ryder. And there is a line in it I don’t fully get, but these are the best ones because you can get your imagination fly.
“Our love's electric and now, babe
So close to water that we'll never know.”
Finishing on the subject of cars, I like the ones that roar. Last month we took delivery in Toronto of a new M BMW sedan. I asked my younger son how fast does this thing go off the line. He said: “the power hits you like a sock full of quarters”.
Now, that’s how guys talk.
I was lying flat on the fuel tank of my motorcycle just blasting it on the A31 north, and this thing was roaring like mad passing the cities of Dijon, Nancy, Metz and finally reaching Luxembourg.
I booked a posh Sofitel hotel for the night, located in the middle of the European institutions buildings, all of them made of glass, steel and mirrors. No smoke during the weekend, they’re not in session.
I walked into the tremendous lobby, and I stand out after my rides - the motorcycle jacket, hair a bloody mess, helmet in one hand and the bag in the other. The receptionist looked at my Canadian ID and she asked – “did you just come straight from there?”
This city-state has a population of 600,000 with about half of it being foreigners.
The EU institutions contrast with the city’s old quarters and fortifications and give it a special flavor. In Luxembourg, the repeated invasions by Germany, especially during World War II, resulted in the country's strong will for mediation between France and Germany that, among other things, led to the foundation of the European Union and the Euro currency.
Now the city of Luxembourg is the seat of several major institutions and agencies of the EU.
Luxembourg is also the world's second largest investment fund center (after the United States), and the most important private banking center in the Eurozone.
In March 2010, the Sunday Telegraph reported that most of Kim Jong-Il's (the North Korean Rocket Boy’s) $4 billion in secret accounts is in Luxembourg banks.
In 2013, Luxembourg ranked as the 2nd safest tax haven in the world, behind only Switzerland.
Their Euros are printed in Germany, and have a serial number starting with R, if you’re interested. Actually, a lot of Euro notes for several EU countries are printed in Great Britain by the De La Rue company, and they will likely loose the business with the Brexit “no deal, crashing out” ordeal that is coming.
It is important to comprehend a critical point here. The European currencies are not safe to keep for long. A US dollar bill from 1861 is still a legal tender. That is no the case in Europe – not even Britain. Why do you think the narcos from all over the world deal with dollars? They know the currency is here to stay. Europe routinely cancels their currencies. They demonetize both, previous coins and notes. They always cancelled the notes to ensure people pay taxes. If you had a bundle of cash you didn’t pay taxes on, cancelling the old notes forced capital out of hiding and it was then taxed.
I’d say, if you want to safe cash, get the old $100 bills while you still can. The new ones they can pick up on a scanner going through an airport these days.
There is a major difference between Europe and the US and apparently it takes a Polish guy to point it out. The United States was founded upon the distinction between the public and the private, and the public was held in suspect. The idea of the United States was that the government was dangerous and therefore we need to make them so incapable of making decisions that they would leave everybody alone.
But Europe is built on a totally different premise. While the US constitution promises the freedom to pursue fortune and happiness, the EU promises to everyone fortune and happiness. That’s worlds apart.
I came to Luxembourg with some hesitation – it is too EU-ish for me, like, being the heart of the milieu that I don’t like.
But then I was totally taken by the vibe of the city.
In the afternoon I went for a late lunch over the famous big bridge with great views all around. In the old town a trumpet band all dressed in red was playing at the Place D’Armes under the trees, but then I found one better - a slim brunette woman playing violin on the street with a man accompanying on a piano. And a great violin play brings me into different reality every time.
And in life I take the experiences I go through and I adjust my thinking.
Sometimes you bend, sometimes you stand, sometimes you turn your back to the wind, no?
Switzerland as a whole is about the size of the US states of Massachusetts and Rhode Island taken together. There are three official languages here plus a forth one, Romansh, which is how some people from the mountains speak (about 1% of the population).
The country’s roots go back to 1291 when local notables formed an alliance bringing together Uri, Schwyz and Unterwalden, the first three cantons. There was a strong business case for doing it – with the opening of the Gotthard Pass at stake was the control of the cross-Alpine trade.
It was also an act of independence against Habsburg rule, which couldn’t be tolerated, of course. The new bailiff Hermann Gessler was dispatched from Vienna to regain control with cruel oppression. One of his moves is a famous legend now – in the city of Altdorf he raised a pole in the central square with his hat on top demanding that whoever passes bows with respect. One William Tell didn’t, so he got arrested and was ordered to shoot an apple off his son’s head. Tell put one arrow in his quiver and another in his crossbow. Then he shot the apple clean off his son’s head.
“Why the second arrow?” asked Gessler.
“If the first arrow had struck the child, the second would be for you.”
A little later, with their defeat of a Habsburg army in 1315, Switzerland's existence inside the Holy Roman Empire took root.
And the process of bringing the confederation together was long. Geneva, for one, finally joined in 1815 as the 22nd canton and it made an interesting contribution. When the Calvinists banned jewelry from use there in 1541, goldsmiths and jewelers in Geneva brainstormed the invention of watches, since a functional timepiece was acceptable. It’s been one of the most successful industries of the country ever since – and the Swiss know how to add charm to the passing of time. It is clearly a place where people thrive, as we’re all organic creatures who need the right climate to develop and you can find it here. A recent Bloomberg story described a group of new, young Swiss millionaires who made it big betting on volatility of the pound during the messy Brexit divorce. Some of them are sporting private jets now.
Living here gives the feeling that making money is a natural progression.
For me the French speaking part of Switzerland, the west of the country, is the best-kept secret in Europe. You may sense that I am hooked.
So, fast-forward more than 700 years from the adventure of William Tell - I spent the last weekend at the Radisson Blu in Andermatt, a hotel advertised as “Scandinavian design in the heart of the Alps”.
For me the hotel looks like IKEA on steroids at this is good, Swiss touch only adds to the experience. Consider also that this is high up in the Alps, ears ringing and shortage of oxygen is obvious when you first get here on the twisty mountain road. Some experience, this.
Switzerland was granted neutrality at the congress of Vienna in 1815 and they steadfastly refused to give it up ever since. In the mid 19th century they established a constitution, borrowing rather extensively from the less then a century old US constitution. Officially Switzerland maintains a policy of “aggressive neutrality”, which means it will defend its own interest with vigor – and they’re in terrifyingly over-prepared position to fight.
Now, let’s relax a bit. I had an excellent foie gras for dinner with a glass of red wine.
With all the wineries I saw on the hills in the valleys, the Swiss only export about 2% of their wines out to the world; they keep the rest to themselves.
And the wine is good, I enjoy it, but it doesn’t end with wine here.
I was relaxing by the fireplace in the hotel lobby on Friday night when the waitress came up and asked if I would like a shot of the Studer Swiss Gold Vodka.“Thank you, but no. After vodka I see white Teddy Bears everywhere.”And she laughed and it was a nice end of the day.
There are some systemic risks out there with the ability to blow up, and they’re interesting if you’re like me, a context person.
The first is Europe, or, more specifically the European Union.
Christine Lagarde will replace Mario Draghi as the head of the European Central Bank later this year. It is clear that the Super Mario was unsuccessful in resolving banking issues stemming from the 2008 financial crisis (just look at the stock performance of European banks since then). He just “papered over” the problems by pumping huge amount of liquidity into the markets.
The Americans call it: “kicking the can down the road.”
I am not sure if Mrs. Lagarde fully realizes what is she walking into, but the European elites seem to think that there is still some road available to kick the can further down, hence her appointment. She is a lawyer without any real world banking experience (give it to Draghi, he is an ex Goldman Sachs banker).
The problem with lawyers is that they think that to solve a problem all you need to do is enact a new law, which then the people have to follow.
The thing with bankers is – they know that this is not how the real life works.
So, Europe is in a holding mode for now, brewing persistently, but the one region that is definitely not is South-East Asia – political events there are clearly accelerating.
Just last week, not only did president Trump meet with the North Korean leader Kim Jong Un (whom he refers to casually as the Rocket Boy) for the second time, but the meeting took place in the DMZ, making Trump the first sitting American leader to cross into North Korean territory proper. Their nuclear program is nothing less than a quest for survival for the country – its neighbors have it (Russia, China) or are capable to have it within short time (Japan, South Korea). It appears that what is being negotiated is letting the program continue, but without intercontinental missile carrying capacity. Notice that with this swift move, president Trump drop-kicked the North Korean nuclear problem on the laps of its neighbors, taking the US of A out of the fight.
Now have a look at China – it’s history shows that it never unites for long. Some countries unite well, like Germany, some not so well, like Italy, but to keep China united usually requires some ammunition.
There are three major problems that China is facing at the moment – first, their economy was built for a world that is going away, never to come back. Second, there is no way to replace the foreign markets with domestic consumption due to terrible demographics and the fact that China (except for coastal cities in the east) really is a poor country.
The third issue is this – the Chinese government has been pumping money into their economy with the goal to guarantee employment, so that people don’t protest, and the hell with profit margins. These are loans that are not repayable, the amounts are staggering, and they know full well that they’re entering the end of the road.
Now enter Hong Kong, the real flashpoint.
A step back in time: the British seized the city, located in the delta of Pearl River, to exploit local labor and to control the trade.
When China itself started exploiting cheap labor, the reason for existence for HK changed to financial and logistic hub. It was then, when the Chinese government negotiated with Margaret Thatcher the return of the city to China. She gave in, however, it was agreed that over the next 50 years (until 2047) Hong Kong would be an independent democracy.
Give it to her: she was good.
What followed is what the Chinese call One Country – Two Systems.
They tolerated the situation as long as the economy was booming.
With the output now in the plateau mode at best, trade wars, supply lines security disruptions, internal tensions; we’re into a new reality.
In short – China will not allow Hong Kong to be independent anymore, the protests will be crushed, and the city will be folded into China.
This is the end of Hong Kong as we know it, and hopefully it will go down with a just whisper, but I wouldn’t put my money on it.
Situated along the coast of the Mediterranean Sea between the Llobregat and Besòs River, lies Barcelona, Spain’s second-largest metropolis. It’s history goes back four thousand years.
The Gothic Quarter on the right side of La Rambla is my favorite. The artist Picasso occupied a residence here for some years.
And it’s not just the city that is great; there are wineries and historical sites within a short drive.
I arrived at the Montsarrat monastery on a great, sunny morning, resisted the lineup to see the Black Madonna and went for the mass instead. That was a good decision – the inside of this church high up in the mountains is the most beautiful I remember.
The finishes, the colors and the paintings are nothing short of phenomenal.
Unfortunately, someone with no sense of harmony and no sense of space replaced the original church organ with something that looks like it was lifted from IKEA.
Still, it is worth the hour drive from Barcelona, absolutely fantastic place.
Later I took my tour through the Sagrada Família basilica, whose original interior is as inviting and spiritual as a church can be.
Gaudi was a genius, I am convinced of that.
As for the exterior, my views are mixed, but since they’re still building it, I give them the benefit of doubt.
There is little doubt that Spain was once the Financial Capital of the West. Their conquest of America produced mountains of gold and silver to the point that they really impacted the European economy creating waves of inflation. Then, on one day in July 1715 the famous Spanish Fleet was sunk with a massive treasure that was long held in the New World precisely because of the risk of being attacked when bringing it home.
The British wanted to prevent the Spanish from funding themselves for the Succession War sinking ships trying to make it back to Spain. This fleet was 11 ships carrying not only gold and silver but also more than 1200 pieces of rare jewelry.
The war was critical in changing the European balance of power, and with the riches of the New World at stake, Spain was a major economic prize.
And Spain borrowed heavily in Europe for the war and, as it couldn’t bring its gold from America, they had become a serial defaulter ending in a 3rd world status, the loss of the treasure fleet in 1715 being the nail in the coffin.
The New World wealth that had made Spain a world power in the 16th and 17th Century now made it a fraction of what it once was.
The country never returned to its imperial status, in part because the rugged Pyreneesseparate itfrom the North European Plains, where most of the economic action is.
Later in the evening I was sitting on a small balcony of a boutique hotel called Pulitzer, just off the Plaça de Catalunya sipping Penedès wine, Catalonian flags displayed on several buildings around.
If you read the Spanish constitution, its very confusing because it will say in one breath that there is one unified Spanish nation and the government exists to protect that, and also there is a number of autonomous regions with their own nations that also need to be protected. And it goes back and forth between these two things. The Catalonian separatist movement goes back hundreds and hundreds of years – this region was always wealthier than the other parts of Spain, especially than the interior of the country. There is strong push towards independence here, but of course the businesses don’t want to loose ties to Madrid and letting Catalonia go independent is really an existential tread to Spain.
At over one trillion euros, the Spain GDP is nearly five times that of Greece, so they’re not easily disposable. If Spain fails, the euro fails, so Spain will not be allowed to fail.
If the euro goes first, watch for a new reality, Paradise City.
I was walking through the Traboules, hidden passageways in the old quarter of Lyon, France, some of them dating back to the 4thcentury. The word “traboules” is a corruption of the Latin “trans-ambulare” (to pass through) allowing the inhabitants more direct access to the fresh water from the river Soane.
That evening the great city was under an intense heat wave and, as I was finding my way through buildings, courtyards and up and down staircases, the air just stood still but the cool, massive ancient walls provided some relief. Every traboule is different – each has a unique pastel color, a particular curve or spiral staircase, vaulted ceilings or Renaissance arches.
Lyon is an amazing town and it has changed a lot over the years.
“When I came here long time ago,” said the Dutch guide lady, “the city was grey and dirty. It is beautiful and green now.”
Lyon area, like most of the French metropolitan territories is rich. Phenomenally productive farmland, very inhabitable climate zone. Great rivers for industry and internal transport and a population far younger and aging more slowly than the European norm.
Remarkably, the French economy has always been held mostly in house, in stark contrast to Germany. The French know full well that should the Americans walk away from the Bretton Woods agreement, the global security that enables the European Union – which is at heart a union of exporters dependent upon global access – life will change. That obviously upsets president Macron, but it doesn’t overly hurt France.
And the Americans are walking away from providing global security. Consider this tweet by president Trump of June 24th:
“China gets 91% of its oil from the Straight, Japan 62%. So why are we protecting the shipping lines for another countries (many years) for zero compensation. All of these countries should be protecting their own ships...”
This new approach will dramatically re-shape the economies and political systems of global exporters, and what does the US need to do to trigger it? Not a damn thing.
But France is different - in a world without the Americans running things, it is by far in the best position to chart an independent course in the new order that is coming. It has easy access to the North Sea, Atlantic Ocean and Mediterranean Sea, giving France – and France alone – fingers in every pot that matters to Europe.
The French designed the EU for strategic reasons and so never lashed their economy to Europe. They also have the longest and most active history of engaging in military interventions. French forces are capable, experienced, professional, never rusting on the shelves. One of the great things about having a strong national system with no international dependencies or exposures is that you can choose your battles rather than having them chosen for you.
Strong as the French cities are, Paris is stronger than all of them combined, giving the country centralization and unity. Again, in a stark contrast to Germany.
France is a country to watch, for all the good reasons.
The next day I was riding my motorcycle back from Lyon to Geneva through the Massif Central. The views were great, the heat brutal but I didn’t feel it as I was moving high speed.
It occurred to me as I was leaning down in curves, that it is the creative part of my life that I enjoy the most – the book and the essays, of which there are a lot here, something like seventy. The chance of a major break through is unknown, but I take the risk.
I was always a risk taker; it is impossible to change it now. And I don’t even want to.
The great actor Gary Cooper has this inscription on his gravestone: “he was lucky and he knew it.”
Voyons ce qui se passé. We’ll see what’s next.
I was riding north on the A5 towards Heidelberg, pushing it hard on the (mostly) no speed limit German highway. My only concern was that my luggage for the weekend would come loose and fly off as I was approaching speeds illegal anywhere else in the world and the wind force was brutal. Eventually I hit the speed limiter and had to slow down. No, not in the bike, but I lifted my head from behind the little screen and was not able to put it back down.
I live for the rush, adapting to the unknown.
Later, it started raining, so I stopped under an overpass to put my rain gear on.
I could get the sniff from the fields on both sides of the highway.
As I was waiting for the rain to let up I was thinking how Europe is a special please peopled with cultures as different as night and day. And there are no secrets in Europe, everyone’s noses are perennially in everyone else’s business.
Germany cannot hide how good they are, and that makes them a target. Its mere existence is interpreted by everyone as an existential threat.
The solution? Attack first, and they did it twice in the last century.
It needs to be understood that the European Union is able to exist because the United States keeps the European countries safe from both outside powers and one another. With Germany in the same currency zone as moribund economies, the price of the Euro is weaker than a purely German currency would have been. The exports exploded.
The problem with EU is that you have a single currency, but you don’t have a single economy.
Germany, for one, has this mercantilist view of the world that dates back to the eighteenth century. Lets make stuff, sell it to the rest of the world and bring the money back home. Germany never focused on developing the domestic market. The result is that even the EU statistics show the per capita worth of an Italian household on a net basis is higher than a German. The Germans are focused on international trade, which is nonsense, because it’s the domestic consumption that makes all the difference.
What’s more, remove the American security overwatch and the whole European thing comes crashing down. Then the Germans either need to massively deindustrialize so that their economy matches their current military power, or they need to massively re-arm so that their military can sustain their current economic power. Take a guess which way they will go.
And inaction is not an option, and the reason for it is the fact that as big as Germany is, the Germans will never enjoy a quantitative advantage over their collective competitors. They are located in the middle of North European Plane, with no mountains in the east and the west to provide natural protection.
Germany is a quirky place and I actually like it. 60% of their firms are not listed and kept private, which means that they can’t raise money in the stock market to operate - they need to go to a bank for a loan. Subsequently any swings in business environment have a magnified effect on their banking system. Now, you have a bank with the country’s name in it (Deutsche) on life support for the longest time and its stock price is in single digits. It sells at about 6 Euro a share as I write it, used to be about 120 just ten years ago. Sad story, this.
Going back to my weekend trip, the WIFI was working only in the reception area (in a four-star place) and they displayed a sign that telefax services are available around the clock. I was making my way to dinner when I saw it and I thought – did they just defrost you?
In 1997 two distinguished scholars, Myron Scholes and Robert Merton, shared the Nobel Prize in Economics for their work on methods to valuate financial instruments called derivatives. Subsequently they teamed up with a veteran Wall Street banker named John Meriwetherin a company called Long Term Capital Management.
The fund blew up spectacularly in 1998 almost taking the Western financial system down with it. Which is hilarious, or it would be if not for all the money lost and damage to the economy. It took a consortium of 14 major banks led under the gun by Federal Reserve to restore liquidity in the markets.
Perhaps the problem with university professors is that they live in their heads, with little interest and understanding how the life works in the trenches.
If they did, they would realize that common sense is the most misleading tool one can use to forecast events.
I wouldn’t call it hubris, just a disconnect from reality.
What is hubris, however, is the practice of governments to manipulate interest rates (price of money in time) in an attempt to combat the old and true business cycle by making funding artificially cheap. I’ll be kind and say that the results are mixed.
And the counter argument to this logic is really simple:
Low interest rates force people to savemore, not spendmore. If the rate of return is low, one needs to save more for retirement, for the house, for children’s education. This fact flies in the face of European Central Bank’s QE policy.
Obviously they have a different goal in mind – keep the debt of member states artificially cheap, so they don’t blow up like the LTCM.
The Greek 10 year bond now pays 2.7% a year. How disconnected from reality is that? Add a zero to that number for a sanity check. Greece is not even a real country – it was always a proxy for somebody else.
So, for this sweet arrangement to work somebody has to suffer because the economy is zero sum game, so here it is.
The pension funds need 7 – 8% return to meet their obligations. Where are the investment grade instruments that pay that? Out of necessity they’re chasing risky debt (like Turkish bonds, which add currency risk as their lira is in a free fall).
Note that in a global economy every investment needs to filtered through currency risk.
I am of the opinion that the system will reset itself at some point, it could be in a few months or in a few years, but it will, and it could be the biggest trade of our lives.
Take the United States, the strongest economy in the world. They’re claiming almost full employment and at the same time forecasting trillion dollars budget deficits as far as the eye can see. This doesn’t make any sense any way you look at it.
So how can the reset look like? There are a few elements that are clear already.
First, the value of all sovereign debt out there and the value of all currencies is purely based on people’s confidence in governments. There is nothing else backing it up since Nixon took the dollar off the gold standard in 1971.
This confidence is still running pretty high, as indicated by the price of gold, which is trading sideways for the last few years. Gold is not a hedge against inflation, is a hedge against governments loosing control over their economies.
When the stats go up, watch down below.
Granted, gold is not what it used to be – with all these metal detectors at the airports and elsewhere it is hard to move, almost like a real estate. Which may explain the ultra high prices paid for paintings – it’s way easier to cut them out from the frame, roll them up and move to wherever you want to be next.
That’s playing it safe, not being confident about knowing how things will work out.
Second thing is, the bondholders will eventually take a haircut. Notice that in a liquidation mode, any listed firm has tangible assets that will give some money back. Government bonds are backed by nothing.
It looks to me that the big money is getting ready for something. Don’t underestimate them.
Tom Kubiak is the author of The Traveler