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Cycles that shape the world

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Megatrends are shaping the world and of course geopolitics as well and we are most of the time unaware of this. Demography, migration, sustainability (environmental and budgetary) are key issues for Europe and the world from a long term perspective. It is lesser known that megatrends often develop by cycles of different types and lengths.

Nikolai Kondratiev was exiled to the Russian Gulag and executed in 1938 because Stalin did not like his views on the Soviet economy and his theory of economic cycles. How accurate and powerful Kondratiev’s theory was is demonstrated not so much by Stalin’s rage as by the fact that history is cyclical: war followed by peacetime, economic boom by recession, political tranquility by political crisis.

Academics probe into past cycles because they want to be able to predict the future. Why are there cycles in the first place? Why is expansion followed by stagnation and then recession? Simply because production or human output is not constant, but there is a mysterious equilibrium, a certain level which production should not fall short of or exceed. The economy is unaware of this tipping point and when it deviates from the equilibrium, markets crash and an overproduction or overvaluation crisis breaks out. Long periods of economic boom are inevitably followed by a bust and recession. The problem is we never know when and how hard the next crisis will hit. At the height of the crisis in late 2008, the Queen of England asked a simple but pertinent question of her country’s brightest minds. Visiting the London School of Economics, she wondered out loud: “Gentlemen! Why did no one foresee this awful recession?” Of course no one could give a straight answer; the eminent economists just stared at their shoes. A lot of people are convinced that the cycles and crises of the past could provide some guidance. Economists started to investigate economic cycles in the middle of the 19th century, discovering medium-term cycles first and then long-term cycles in the early 20th century. The four main types of economic cycles are known as the Kitchin wave, the Juglar wave, the Kondratiev wave and the Braudel wave. There are innumerous other types — every economist studying cyclical fluctuations was keen to have one named after themselves — but the others do not really deserve attention.

The Kitchin inventory cycle, is a short business cycle of about 40 months. Inventories fluctuate as the short-term approach of businesses influences their stocking and destocking policy. The cycle named after Joseph Kitchin, which is not a proper macroeconomic cycle, is followed by the Juglar cycle, often identified as ”the” business cycle. In 1860, French economist Clement Juglar identified the presence of economic cycles 7 to 13 years long. The low point of such a cycle is marked by an overproduction or financial crisis.

The Juglar cycle is the only one that politics can respond to, simply because this is the longest timeframe that successive governments can comprehend. When we talk about anticyclical policy, economic stimulus plans and recovery packages, we talk about the vicious side of this wave.

The third cycle on our list is called the Kondratiev or long technological wave. The Kondratiev wave spans a period of 50 to 60 years and is divided into a phase of high-growth expansion and a phase of recession. How did Kondratiev discover these waves? He observed prices, wages, interest rates, industrial production and the use of raw materials in the USA, England and France. A thorough analysis of these data revealed a sinusoid running through 150 years. Kondratiev noted that turning points in the wave coincided with revolutions and wars. Some divide the Kondratiev wave into four ”seasons”. The Kondratiev Spring is a time of rapid growth, falling unemployment, improving productivity and relatively stable prices. The economy is in its youth. The Kondratiev Summer sees growth level off as the economy reaches its limits in output and resources, and with it a brief recession as a warning of things to come. The brief recession in the Indian summer shakes up the economy as the Kondratiev Autumn arrives. Stability and normalcy is restored in society, which becomes consumption-oriented and prices begin to soar. With the Kondratiev Winter comes a collapse of the system and brumal depression sets in. A major three to four-year crisis is followed by a decade of deflationary stagnation.

There are several explanations for the Kondratiev wave. Some say that it exists because every generation spends 25 to 30 years of its life in active work, which roughly corresponds to half of the cycle. Others suggest that these waves arise from important innovations that launch technological revolutions (the railway) or investments that bring major improvements in a sector (education), which take roughly a Kondratiev cycle to trickle down to the economy. There are those who think that the next Kondratiev wave will build on the revolution in nanotechnology. Previous cycles have all had a key innovation that opened a new chapter in history. The first cycle (1790-1842) the steam engine, the second one (1843-1897) the railway, the third one (1898-1949) electricity and the car, the fourth one (1950-2000) the airplane and nuclear energy.

The longest cycle is named after the great French economic historian Fernand Braudel. The Braudel wave or secular cycle encompasses the changes of the deepest structures, which are only discernible over long periods of 100 to 200 years. As the pace of change in the world around us accelerates, the cycle’s span is shortened from 200 years to around a century. This fourth wave follows the evolution of comprehensive systems such as the interrelation between agriculture and industry or services and the industry.

Believers in the wave theory claim that these four superimposed heaving waves determine the rhythm of the economy and of history. When the crests or troughs of two waves coincide it has disastrous consequences for humanity. In the decades following the Napoleonic War, in a period of extreme uncertainty, a Braudel and a Kondratiev wave peaked synchronously. The stock market crash and crisis of 1873 was set off by an overlap of a Kondratiev and a Juglar cycle. The Great Depression of 1929 occurred at the low-point of a Kondratiev wave. Nikolai Dmitriyevich Kondratiev timed the publication of his book to perfection. The Major Economic Cycles came out in 1926, when the West’s economic growth looked unbreakable. Three years later people were rushing to the library for a copy of the Soviet economist’s book. The oil crisis of the 1970s was a tumult of waves. A Juglar, Kondratiev and Braudel apex at the same time. Some economists consider the whole theory nothing more than pseudoscience. On the other extreme those who could not give their name to a cycle search for and claim to have found mathematical (read: mystical) correlations between the waves, such as the formula 1 Kondratiev = 3 Kuznets = 6 Juglar = 12 Kitchin. As crises demonstrate, people will take anything to the extreme, be it the economy, science, economics or quantum physics. There is one discipline where exuberance is almost a prerequisite: futurology, whose key drive is to predict the future, which is in fact an important incentive to examine the past. The good Reverend Thomas Malthus is widely considered the first pioneer of futurology. He predicted over 200 years ago that food production would not be able to keep up with population growth, which would lead to famines worldwide. His theory did have one fault, though: he could not possibly foresee the technological developments that gave us modern farm machinery, fertilizers and GMO crops. Although there are many people starving in the world today, the global trend is just the opposite: despite the exponential population growth there is an abundance (if not oversupply) of food on Earth. Starvation in the third (developing) world is the result of political and financial anomalies and war rather than a problem of production capacity.

Jared Diamond, an evolutionary biologist, professor of geography at UCLA and critically acclaimed author of numerous popular science books, believes that there is no need for computerized risk analysis, research of trends and complex climate models to know what the future holds for mankind. Various groups of the human race, civilizations, have always outgrown their natural environment, which led to their decline or extinction. One of his favorite examples is that of the indigenous people of Easter Island. When Polynesians populated the island about 1,500 years ago, it was covered by lush vegetation. When discovered by a Dutch explorer in 1722, the island was barren with nothing but hundreds of monumental statues and a few locals wandering around. The islanders were so primitive that it was hard to believe that their forefathers had had the technological prowess to erect the huge moai. The natives cleared the forests to replace them with arable crops and to use the timber to erect the statues and to build canoes. After centuries of irresponsible logging, the islanders ran out of trees to cut down while the population exploded. Deforestation led to soil erosion, which in turn reduced crop yields and, with the forests gone, they had no canoes for fishing. The island became overpopulated, the food supply dwindled, the ecosystem collapsed, and the natives began killing each other, even resorting to cannibalism. For many this might be a worrying reminder no matter if they believe in waves or not.

Hungarian economist, PhD in international relations. Based in Brussels for fourteen years as diplomat and member of EU commissioners’ cabinets. Two times visiting fellow of Wilson Center in Washington DC. University professor and author of books on EU affairs and geopolitics. Head of department, National University of Public Administration, Budapest.

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Economy

The Blazing Revival of Bitcoin: BITO ETF Debuts as the Second-Highest Traded Fund

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It seems like bitcoin is as resilient as a relentless pandemic: persistent and refusing to stay down. Not long ago, the crypto-giant lost more than half of its valuation in the aftermath of a brutal crackdown by China. Coupled with pessimism reflected by influencers like Elon Musk, the bitcoin plummeted from the all-time high valuation of $64,888.99 to flirt around the $30,000 mark in mere weeks. However, over the course of the last four months, the behemoth of the crypto-market gradually climbed to reclaim its supremacy. Today, weaving through national acceptance to market recognition, bitcoin could be the gateway to normalizing the elusive crypto-world in the traditional global markets: particularly the United States.

The recent bullish development is the launch of the ProShares Bitcoin Strategy ETF – the first Bitcoin-linked exchange-traded fund – on the New York Stock Exchange. Trading under the ticker BITO, the Bitcoin ETF welcomed a robust trading day: rising 4.9% to $41.94. According to the data compiled by Bloomberg, BITO’s debut marked it as the second-highest traded fund, behind BlackRock’s Carbon fund, for the first day of trading. With a turnover of almost $1 billion, the listing of BITO highlighted the demand for reliable investment in bitcoin in the US market. According to estimates on Tuesday, More than 24 million shares changed hands while BITO was one of the most-bought assets on Fidelity’s platform with more than 8,800 buy orders.

The bitcoin continued to rally, cruising over the lucrative launch of BITO. The digital currency rose to $64,309.33 on Tuesday: less than 1% below the all-time high valuation. In hindsight, the recovery seems commendable. The growing acceptance, albeit, has far more consequential attributes. The cardinal benefit is apparent: evidence of gradual acceptance by regulators. “The launch of ProShares’ bitcoin ETF on the NYSE provides the validation that some investors need to consider adding BTC to their portfolio,” stated Hong Fang, CEO of Okcoin. In simpler terms, not only would the listing allow relief to the crypto loyalists (solidifying their belief in the currency), but it would also embolden investors on the sidelines who have long been deterred by regulatory uncertainty. Thus, bringing larger, more rooted institutional investors into the crypto market: along with a surge of capital.

However, the surging acceptance may be diluting the rudimentary phenomenon of bitcoin. While retail investors would continue to participate in the notorious game of speculation via trading bitcoin, the opportunity to gain indirect exposure to bitcoin could divert the risk-averse investors. It means many loyalists could retract and direct towards BITO and other imminent bitcoin-linked ETFs instead of setting up a digital custodianship. Ultimately, it boils down to Bitcoin ETFs being managed by third parties instead of the investor: relenting control to a centralized figure. Moreover, with growing scrutiny under the eye of SECP, the steps vaguely intimate a transition to harness the market instead of liberalizing it: quiet oxymoronic to the entire decentralized model of cryptocurrencies.

Nonetheless, the listing of BITO is an optimistic development that would draw skeptics to at least observe the rampant popularity of the asset class. While the options on BITO are expected to begin trading on the NYSE Arca Options and NYSE American Options exchanges on Wednesday, other futures-based Bitcoin ETFs are on the cards. The surging popularity (and reluctant acceptance) amid tightening regulation could prove a turn of an era for the US capital markets. However, as some critics have cited, BITO is not a spot-based ETF and is instead linked to futures contracts. Thus, the restrain is still present as the regulators do not want a repeat of the financial crisis. Nevertheless, bitcoin has proved its deterrence in the face of skepticism. And if the BITO launch is to be marveled at, then the regulations are bound to adapt to the revolution that is unraveling in the modern financial reality.

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Is Myanmar an ethical minefield for multinational corporations?

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Business at a crossroads

Political reforms in Myanmar started in November 2010 followed by the release of the opposition leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, and ended by the coup d’état in February 2021. Business empire run by the military generals thanks to the fruitful benefits of democratic transition during the last decade will come to an end with the return of trade and diplomatic sanctions from the western countries – United States (US) and members of European Union (EU).  US and EU align with other major international partners quickly responded and imposed sanctions over the military’s takeover and subsequent repression in Myanmar. These measures targeted not only the conglomerates of the military generals  but also the individuals who have been appointed in the authority positions and supporting the military regime.

However, the generals and their cronies own the majority of economic power both in strategic sectors ranging from telecommunication to oil & gas and in non-strategic commodity sectors such as food and beverages, construction materials, and the list goes on. It is a tall order for the investors to do business by avoiding this lucrative network of the military across the country. After the coup, it raises the most puzzling issue to investors and corporate giants in this natural resource-rich country, “Should I stay or Should I go?”

Crimes against humanity

For most of the people in the country, war crimes and atrocities committed by the military are nothing new. For instances, in 1988, student activists led a political movement and tried to bring an end to the military regime of the general Ne Win. This movement sparked a fire and grew into a nationwide uprising in a very short period but the military used lethal force and slaughtered thousands of civilian protestors including medical doctors, religious figures, student leaders, etc. A few months later, the public had no better options than being silenced under barbaric torture and lawless killings of the regime.

In 2007, there was another major protest called ‘Saffron Uprising’ against the military regime led by the Buddhist monks. It was actually the biggest pro-democracy movement since 1988 and the atmosphere of the demonstration was rather peaceful and non-violent before the military opened live ammunitions towards the crowd full of monks. Everything was in chaos for a couple of months but it ended as usual.

In 2017, the entire world witnessed one of the most tragic events in Myanmar – Again!. The reports published by the UN stated that hundreds of civilians were killed, dozens of villages were burnt down, and over 700,000 people including the majority of Rohingya were displaced to neighboring countries because of the atrocities committed by the military in the western border of the country. After four years passed, the repatriation process and the safety return of these refugees to their places of origin are yet unknown. Most importantly, there is no legal punishment for those who committed and there is no transitional justice for those who suffered in the aforementioned examples of brutalities.

The vicious circle repeated in 2021. With the economy in free fall and the deadliest virus at doorsteps, the people are still unbowed by the oppression of the junta and continue demanding the restoration of democracy and justice. To date, Assistant Association for Political Prisoner (AAPP) reported that due to practicing the rights to expression, 1178 civilians were killed and 7355 were arrested, charged or sentenced by the military junta. Unfortunately, the numbers are still increasing.

Call for economic disengagement

In 2019, the economic interests of the military were disclosed by the report of UN Fact-Finding Mission in which Myanmar Economic Corporation (MEC) and Myanmar Economic Holding Limited (MEHL) were described as the prominent entities controlled by the military profitable through the almost-monopoly market in real estate, insurance, health care, manufacturing, extractive industry and telecommunication. It also mentioned the list of foreign businesses in partnership with the military-linked activities which includes Adani (India), Kirin Holdings (Japan), Posco Steel (South Korea), Infosys (India) and Universal Apparel (Hong Kong).

Moreover, Justice for Myanmar, a non-profit watchdog organization, revealed the specific facts and figures on how the billions of revenues has been pouring into the pockets of the high-ranked officers in the military in 2021. Myanmar Oil & Gas Enterprise (MOGE), an another military-controlled authority body, is the key player handling the financial transactions, profit sharing, and contractual agreements with the international counterparts including Total (France), Chevron (US), PTTEP (Thailand), Petronas (Malaysia), and Posco (South Korea) in natural gas projects. It is also estimated that the military will enjoy 1.5 billion USD from these energy giants in 2022.

Additionally, data shows that the corporate businesses currently operating in Myanmar has been enriching the conglomerates of the generals and their cronies as a proof to the ongoing debate among the public and scholars, “Do sanctions actually work?” Some critics stressed that sanctions alone might be difficult to pressure the junta without any collaborative actions from Moscow and Beijing, the longstanding allies of the military. Recent bilateral visits and arm deals between Nay Pyi Taw and Moscow dimmed the hope of the people in Myanmar. It is now crystal clear that the Burmese military never had an intention to use the money from multinational corporations for benefits of its citizens, but instead for buying weapons, building up military academies, and sending scholars to Russia to learn about military technology. In March 2021, the International Fact Finding Mission to Myanmar reiterated its recommendation for the complete economic disengagement as a response to the coup, “No business enterprise active in Myanmar or trading with or investing in businesses in Myanmar should enter into an economic or financial relationship with the security forces of Myanmar, in particular the Tatmadaw [the military], or any enterprise owned or controlled by them or their individual members…”

Blood money and ethical dilemma

In the previous military regime until 2009, the US, UK and other democratic champion countries imposed strict economic and diplomatic sanctions on Myanmar while maintaining ‘carrot and stick’ approach against the geopolitical dominance of China. Even so, energy giants such as Total (France) and Chevron (US), and other ‘low-profile’ companies from ASEAN succeeded in running their operations in Myanmar, let alone the nakedly abuses of its natural resources by China. Doing business in this country at the time of injustice is an ethical question to corporate businesses but most of them seems to prefer maximizing the wealth of their shareholders to the freedom of its bottom millions in poverty.

But there are also companies not hesitating to do something right by showing their willingness not to be a part of human right violations of the regime. For example, Australian mining company, Woodside, decided not to proceed further operations, and ‘get off the fence’ on Myanmar by mentioning that the possibility of complete economical disengagement has been under review. A breaking news in July, 2021  that surprised everyone was the exit of Telenor Myanmar – one of four current telecom operators in the country. The CEO of the Norwegian company announced that the business had been sold to M1 Group, a Lebanese investment firm, due to the declining sales and ongoing political situations compromising its basic principles of human rights and workplace safety.

In fact, cutting off the economic ties with the junta and introducing a unified, complete economic disengagement become a matter of necessity to end the consistent suffering of the people of Myanmar. Otherwise, no one can blame the people for presuming that international community is just taking a moral high ground without any genuine desire to support the fight for freedom and pro-democracy movement.

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The Covid After-Effects and the Looming Skills Shortage

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coronavirus people

The shock of the pandemic is changing the ways in which we think about the world and in which we analyze the future trajectories of development. The persistence of the Covid pandemic will likely accentuate this transformation and the prominence of the “green agenda” this year is just one of the facets of these changes. Market research as well as the numerous think-tanks will be accordingly re-calibrating the time horizons and the main themes of analysis. Greater attention to longer risks and fragilities is likely to take on greater prominence, with particular scrutiny being accorded to high-impact risk factors that have a non-negligible probability of materializing in the medium- to long-term. Apart from the risks of global warming other key risk factors involve the rising labour shortages, most notably in areas pertaining to human capital development.

The impact of the Covid pandemic on the labour market will have long-term implications, with “hysteresis effects” observed in both highly skilled and low-income tiers of the labour market. One of the most significant factors affecting the global labour market was the reduction in migration flows, which resulted in the exacerbation of labour shortages across the major migrant recipient countries, such as Russia. There was also a notable blow delivered by the pandemic to the spheres of human capital development such as education and healthcare, which in turn exacerbated the imbalances and shortages in these areas. In particular, according to the estimates of the World Health Organization (WHO) shortages can mount up to 9.9 million physicians, nurses and midwives globally by 2030.

In Europe, although the number of physicians and nurses has increased in general in the region by approximately 10% over the past 10 years, this increase appears to be insufficient to cover the needs of ageing populations. At the same time the WHO points to sizeable inequalities in the availability of physicians and nurses between countries, whereby there are 5 times more doctors in some countries than in others. The situation with regard to nurses is even more acute, as data show that some countries have 9 times fewer nurses than others.

In the US substantial labour shortages in the healthcare sector are also expected, with anti-crisis measures falling short of substantially reversing the ailments in the national healthcare system. In particular, data published by the AAMC (Association of American Medical Colleges), suggests that the United States could see an estimated shortage of between 37,800 and 124,000 physicians by 2034, including shortfalls in both primary and specialty care.

The blows sustained by global education from the pandemic were no less formidable. These affected first and foremost the youngest generation of the globe – according to UNESCO, “more than 1.5 billion students and youth across the planet are or have been affected by school and university closures due to the COVID-19 pandemic”. On top of the adverse effects on the younger generation (see Box 1), there is also the widening “teachers gap”, namely a worldwide shortage of well-trained teachers. According to the UNESCO Institute for Statistics (UIS), “69 million teachers must be recruited to achieve universal primary and secondary education by 2030”.

From our partner RIAC

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