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De–dollarization of the BRICS

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What might be behind the well-orchestrated attack on leaders of the BRICS countries?

Gold is one of the most fascinating of all rare metals. Throughout all history it has been given a special, at times sacred or spiritual value, since six thousand years ago when the Egyptian Pharoahs’ tombs were filled with it to accompany the dead on their journey.

In times of world financial crisis as in the 1930’s, gold is preferred by central banks and ordinary citizens as a store of value when paper money loses value.

We are approaching another of those times when the accumulated paper debt of the dollar system is debasing the worth of paper dollars. What’s highly significant in this light is to see which central banks are buying all the gold they can get.

The dollar today is no longer backed by gold. That has been so since Nixon unilaterally abrogated the 1944 Bretton Woods Treaty and took the dollar off its statutory gold backing to float free in August, 1971. He did so at the insistence of then Under Treasury Secretary Paul Volcker and Volcker’s patron, David Rockefeller at Chase Manhattan Bank.

Nixon took that desperate measure, simply said, because the Federal Reserve vaults of reserve gold were disappearing as France, Germany and other trading partners of the United States demanded gold in exchange for their accumulated trade dollars, as was allowed under the Bretton Woods rules.

Since 1971, with no gold backing it, other than the carefully-guarded fiction that the Fed still has the world’s largest stock of gold reserve in its deep vaults, alleged by the Fed to exceed 8,000 tons, the fiat dollars in world circulation have expanded without limit.

This is the source of the Great Inflation the world economy has undergone over the past forty five years, as dollars in circulation have expanded exponentially by some 2,500% since 1970. The confidence in holding dollars, still the world’s leading reserve currency, has been maintained by Washington through various tricks and deceptions.

After the oil shock of October, 1973 Secretary of State Henry Kissinger spoke of a “petrodollar.” The dollar value was backed not by gold but by oil, everyone’s oil.

The price of oil had been manipulated by Kissinger and others in 1973, as I detail in my Gods of Money book, to increase by 400% in a matter of months, forcing Germany, France, Latin America and much of the world to buy dollars.

Washington made certain as well in 1975, when Germany, Japan and other nations tried to buy OPEC oil in their own national currencies, that Saudi Arabia and OPEC countries would accept only dollars for their black gold, the oil.

Since September, 2014 the world dollar price of oil has collapsed. It has gone from levels of $103 a barrel down to close to $30 today. That’s a collapse of 70% in demand for dollars for the world’s largest commodity measured in dollars.

In this political and financial context, the central banks of Russia and China are buying gold for their central bank reserves at a fever pace.

Not only that, the Peoples’ Bank of China recently announced it has abandoned its peg to the US dollar and diversify into a basket of currencies led by the Euro. However the moves of Russia and China central banks to gold are far more strategic.

Russia’s heart of gold

While all eyes are on the oil price and the ruble to dollar rate, the Central Bank of Russia has quietly been buying huge volumes of gold over the past year.

In January, 2016, the latest data available, the Russian Central Bank again bought 22 tons of gold, around $800 million at current exchange rates, that, amidst US and EU financial sanctions and low oil prices. It was the eleventh month in a row they bought large gold volumes.

For 2015 Russia added a record 208 tons of gold to her reserves compared with 172 tons for 2014. Russia now has 1,437 tonnes of gold in reserve, the sixth largest of any nation according to the World Gold Council in London.

Only USA, Germany, Italy, France and China central banks hold a larger tonnage of gold reserves.

Notably also, the Russian central bank has been selling its holdings of US Treasury debt to buy the gold, de facto de-dollarizing, a sensible move as the dollar is waging de facto currency war against the ruble. (As of December, 2015, Russia held $92 billion in US Treasury Bonds down from $132 billion in January 2014.)

More significantly, after the Russian Central Bank Governor Elvira Nabiullina declared in May 2015 that she saw no need to buy all domestic gold production as the bank’s gold needs could easily be satisfied on the open market internationally, something that would drain ruble reserves, there has been an apparent about face.

The Central Bank of Russia is now buying all domestic Russian gold output. Only after that is exhausted in terms of meeting their monthly targets does she import. Nabiullina stated recently, “We believe it is necessary in terms of creating additional financial cushion for the state in the face of such externaluncertainties.”

That’s very significant as Russia, whose central bank gold reserves were robbed during the Yeltsin years in the early 1990, has grown to become the world’s second largest gold mining country after China. It’s a major support to her gold mining industry and to the ruble.

China and Kazakhstan too

Only slightly smaller volumes of gold are being bought in past months by China. And a significant monthly addition to its gold reserve is being made as well by Kazakhstan.

For the past forty months, Kazakhstan, has been increasing its central bank gold reserves. Kazakhstan along with Russia is a member of the Eurasian Economic union along with Belarus, Armenia and Kyrgyzstan. Belarus has also been increasing its bullion reserves.

China bought another 17 tons of gold in January and will buy a total of another 215 tons this year, approximately equal to that of Russia. From August to January 2016 China added 101 tonnes of gold to its reserves.

Annual purchases of more than 200 tons by the PBOC would exceed the entire gold holdings of all but about 20 countries, according to the World Gold Council. China’s central bank reserves of gold have risen 57% since 2009 acording to data the PBOC revealed in July, 2015.

Market watchers believe even that amount of gold in China’s central bank vaults is being politically vastly understated so as not to cause alarm bells to ring too loud in Washington and London.

Kyrgyzsan, Russia and China are also members of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization.

These Eurasian countries are all of them part of China’s mammoth One Belt, One Road Great Project, sometimes called the New Economic Silk Road project to criss-cross all Eurasia with networks of high-speed rails and to develop major new ports in the region to change the economic map of Eurasia.

Last year China announced it was mapping the rail lines of the Silk Road to enable the Central Asian and Russian gold reserves now lacking infrastructure for development to become economically attractive to those countries.

The currencies of Russia, China and other Eurasian countries are moving to become as “good as gold,” a term applied to the US dollar some six decades ago.

The fact that Russia also has an extremely low debt-to-GDP ratio of some 18% compared to 103% for USA and that of the EU Eurozone countries of 94%, of Japan more than 200% of GDP, is a fact that Western rating agencies engaged in the US Treasury’s financial warfare against the Russian Federation conveniently ignore.

Russia has a far more healthy economy than most of the West that is declaring her a failed state.

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Turkey and Trump’s sanctions-based “political economy”

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By the end of last year, the Turkish economy had slipped into a technical recession, boosting in 12 months by only 2.6%, despite the fact that a year ago the government expected GDP to grow by 3.8%. The slowdown is particularly striking against the background of sustainable development over the past seven years: in 2010, the country’s GDP grew by 8.5%, in 2011 – by 11.1%, in 2012 – by 4.8%, in 2013 – by 8.5%, in 2014 – by 5.2%, in 2015 – by 6.1%, in 2016 – by 3.2% and in 2017 – by 7.4%  This trend has turned Turkey into one of the fastest developing economies, earning it 17th position worldwide in nominal GDP and 13th in the GDP value regarding purchasing power parity.

The situation changed by the middle of 2018, when relations with Washington deteriorated to the point of a trade war. The Trump administration resorted to the much-practiced method of targeting the “dissenters”: it raised drastically customs duties on steel and aluminum imported from Turkey (which, however, did not prevent the United States from becoming the second buyer of Turkish metallurgical produce by the end of the year). On August 1 the US introduced sanctions against Turkish Interior and Justice Ministers. At that time, the main stumbling block (at least on the surface of it) was Turkey’s refusal to release American priest Andrew Brunson who was detained in 2016 on charges of  espionage and links to Fethullah Gulen’s movement along with the Kurdistan Workers ’Party. For some time Donald Trump’s propaganda slogans were dominated by the maxim “to save rank-and-file pastor Brunson”.

Turkey responded by slapping import duties on American goods: cars, alcohol, tobacco, cosmetics. And, of course, it put two US ministers on its sanctions list.

But the forces were clearly far from equal. As a result, the Turkish lira collapsed. At the beginning of 2018 one dollar traded for 3.8 liras, whereas by the end of the year it sold for 5.3 liras. Moreover, at the peak of the weakening of the national currency, the dollar cost almost 7 liras. The Central Bank of Turkey was forced to raise the interest rate, even despite opposition from the country’s omnipotent president. Today, the rate has climbed up to the red level of 24%. Consequently, there has been a drop in the sales of real estate, cars, and a number of other industrial goods. Prospects for inflation have materialized too – in October, inflation hit a fifteen-year high, exceeding 25 percent.

Recep Tayyip Erdogan put the blame for the crisis on Turkey’s foreign ill-wishers. This time – with a lion’s share of truth.

In October, the court sentenced Branson to imprisonment for exactly the time he had already served. The pastor returned home, mutual sanctions were lifted, which partly calmed the markets. But only partly.

According to the Turkish Statistical Institute (TSI), the country’s GDP increased by 2.6% by the end of the year. At the same time, the service sector grew by 5.6%, agrarian – by 1.3%, industrial – by only 1.1%. Exports, compared to the previous year, increased by 7% – to 168 billion dollars (a record figure in the entire history of the Turkish Republic). Foreign trade deficit, amid a boost of imports prices,  decreased by 28.4% to $ 55 billion, while imports proper dropped by 4.6% to 223 billion dollars. Tourism revenues increased by 12.3% to 29.5 billion

At first glance, the situation is far from critical, but, according to the TSI, over the year, per capita GDP dropped from $10,597 to $ 9,632; household expenditures, although going up by 1.1% on the year, went down by 8.9% in the fourth quarter. In December unemployment rate among the able-bodied population reached 13.5% – more than 4.3 million people.

Nevertheless, Berat Albayrak, Minister of Treasury and Finance of Turkey, sounded optimistic: “The worst days for the economy are over. The government is confident that the growth of the Turkish economy in 2019 will match the forecasts laid down in the New Economic Program. ”

In general, the above-mentioned program envisages the implementation of reforms that will protect export-oriented small and medium-sized enterprises, strengthen their competitiveness, stimulate the economy to secure a high level of added value. An important part of the document is a clause that stipulates cutting government spending on expensive infrastructure projects, often designed to foster the image rather than the economy.

Specialists differ in assessing the prospects for the Turkish economy: forecasts vary from a slight increase to a further decline. In particular, according to the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, “Economists expect the cooling to continue. The OECD forecasts a further reduction in the economic growth of (Turkey-author) for 2019 to minus 1.8 percent.” So far, the trend is as follows: industrial production, for example, in January 2019 fell by 7.3% against January last year.

Among the chronic illnesses of the Turkish economy is a deficit of the balance of payments, which the government traditionally tries to compensate with foreign loans and foreign investment – these primarily provided economic growth in previous years. Now this source seems nearly exhausted as investors worldwide are growing increasingly wary of developing markets. The position of Turkey is aggravated by the uncertainty of foreign capital about the independence of the Central Bank, its concerns about the unpredictability of the country’s policy and the adequacy of its economic course (first of all, its adherence to ambitious projects with questionable economic efficiency).

Also, potential investors are deterred by the strained relations between Ankara and Washington. For many, President Trump’s recent treat to “ruin” Turkey for its policy on Syrian Kurds and his recent decision to abolish customs preferences for a number of Turkish goods came as signaling the continuation of a trade war. Significantly, these statements were made after the Turkish leadership confirmed its determination to acquire Russian air defense systems, thereby making it clear that pursued a course towards independence in strategic decision-making.

For Turkey, the United States is a fairly important trading partner, which in 2018 accounted for almost five percent of Turkish exports ($ 8.3 billion) and more than five percent of imports ($ 12.3 billion).

The recession in the Turkish economy has a certain negative impact on Russian-Turkish economic results. Last year, Turkey became Russia’s sixth largest trading partner. In particular, it accounts for a considerable share of Russian exports of metals, grain and, most importantly, energy carriers (the second, after Germany, importer of oil in the world). In February, according to Gazprom, the export of Russian gas to non-CIS countries decreased by 13% in annual terms. The company said the main reasons behind the decrease were the warm weather in Europe and the crisis in Turkey.

The Russian economy has succeeded in adapting to the extensive sanction pressure from Washington and, it looks like the Trump administration has now chosen to “attack from the flank”, targeting one of Moscow’s major foreign economic partners. It would not be a mistake to assume that the ability of the Turkish leadership to resist pressure from its “strategic ally” and NATO partner in the near future will largely determine not only economic, but also political relations between Moscow and Ankara. 

First published in our partner International Affairs

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Ambiguity in European economic leadership

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Europe’s economic situation remains uncertain! The European economic crisis and austerity policies remain in place. On the other hand, there is no sign that the EU is passing through the current situation. Two conservative /Social Democrats in Europe have not been able to effectively counteract the economic crisis over the last few years.

 This same issue has led to anger by European citizens from traditional European parties. Subsequently, the trend of European citizens to nationalist and extremist parties has increased in recent years.

The events that have taken place in France in recent months have led to disappointment with the eurozone leaders over the current deadlock.The most important point is that Macron was planned to assume the title of the Europe’s economic leader in the short term, and that was to be after succeeding in creating and sustaining economic reforms in France and the Eurozone.

 Meanwhile, European citizens expressed their satisfaction with the election of Macron as French President in 2017. They thought that the French president, while challenging austerity policies, would strengthen the components of economic growth in the European Union. Moreover, EU leaders also hoped that Macron’s success in pursuing economic reforms in France would be a solid step in pushing the entire Eurozone out of the economic crisis.

 In other words, in the midst of anti-Euro and extremist and far-right movements in Europe, Macron was the last hope of European authorities to “manage the economic crisis” which was raising inside the Eurozone: the hope that has soon faded away!

The main dilemma in France is quite clear!”Failing to persuade French citizens” on his economic reforms, and Macron’s miscalculations about the support of French citizens for himself, were among the important factors in shaping this process. Macron had to give concessions to protesters to prevent further tensions in France.

 After the country’s month-long demonstrations, Macron was forced to retreat from his decision on raising the fuel price. Besides, he had no way but to make promises to the French citizens on issues such as raising the minimum wages and reducing the income tax. This had but one meaning: Macron’s economic reforms came to an end. Right now, European authorities know well that Macron is incapable of regaining his initial power in France and the Eurozone by 2022 (the time for the France general elections).

 Therefore, Macron has to forget the dream of EU’s economic leadership until the last moments of his presence at the Elysees Palace. Of course, this is if the young French president isn’t forced to resign before 2022! The European authorities and the Eurozone leaders have no alternative for Macron and his economic reforms in Europe. That’s why they’re so worried about the emergence of anti-EU movements in countries such as France and Germany.

 For example, they are well aware that if Marin Le Pen can defeat Macron and come to power in France during the upcoming elections, then the whispers of the collapse of the Eurozone, and even the European Union, will be clearly heard, this time with a loud voice, all over the Europe.

First published in our partner Tehran Times

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Economy

Economic integration: Asia and the Pacific’s best response to protectionism

Armida Salsiah Alisjahbana

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Deepening economic integration in Asia and the Pacific is a longstanding regional objective. Not an end in itself but a means of supporting the trade, investment and growth necessary to achieve the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. It is a priority for all member states of the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (UN ESCAP). China has a valuable contribution to make so I am beginning 2019 with a visit to Beijing. One to discuss with Chinese leaders how we can strengthen our collaboration and accelerate progress.

The case for deeper integration in Asia and the Pacific is becoming increasingly apparent. Recent trade tensions highlight Asia and the Pacific’s vulnerability to protectionism from major export markets. UN ESCAP analysis shows how regional supply chains are being disrupted and investor confidence shaken. Export growth is expected to slow and foreign direct investment to continue its downward trend. Millions of jobs are forecast to be lost, others will be displaced. Unskilled workers, particularly women, are likely to suffer most. Increasing seamless regional connectivity – expanding the infrastructure which underpins cross border commercial exchanges and intraregional trade – must be part of our response.

We should build on the existing Asian transport infrastructure agreements UN ESCAP maintains to further reduce regulatory constraints, costs and delays. For instance, UN ESCAP members are working to improve the efficiency of railway border crossings along the Trans-Asian Railway network. There is great potential to improve electronic information exchange between railways, harmonise customs formalities and improve freight trains’ reliability. The recent international road transport agreement between the governments of China, Mongolia and the Russian Federation grants traffic rights for international road transport operations on the sections of the Asia Highway which connect their borders. We should expand it to other countries. There is also huge opportunity to develop our region’s dry ports, the terminals pivotal to the efficient shipment of sea cargo to inland destinations by road or rail. A regional strategy is in place to build a network of dry ports of major international significance. UN ESCAP is looking forward to working with China to implement it.

Sustainable energy, particularly cross-border power trade, is another key plank UN ESCAP member States’ connectivity agenda. Connecting electricity grids is not only important to meet demand, ensure energy access and security. It is also necessary to support the development of large-scale renewable energy power plants and the transition to cleaner energy across Asia and the Pacific. The fight against climate change in part depends on our ability to better link up our networks. ASEAN’s achievements in strengthening power grids across borders is a leading example of what political commitment and technical cooperation can deliver. At the regional level UN ESCAP has brought together our region’s experts to develop a regional roadmap on sustainable energy connectivity. China is currently chairing this group.

For maximum impact, transport and energy initiatives need to come in tandem with the soft infrastructure which facilitates the expansion of trade. UN ESCAP analysis ranks China among the top trade facilitation and logistics performers in our region. This expertise contributed to a major breakthrough in cross-border e-commerce development and ultimately led to a UN treaty on trade digitalisation. This has been adopted by UN ESCAP members to support the exchange of electronic trade data and documents and signed by China in 2017. Now, UN ESCAP is working to support the accession and ratification of twenty-five more countries who recognise the opportunity to minimise documentary requirements, promote transparency and increase the security of trade operations. Full implementation of cross-border paperless trade in Asia and the Pacific could reduce export costs by up to 30 percent. Regional export gains could be as has high as $250 billion.

As we look to the future and work to accelerate progress towards the 2030 Agenda’s Sustainable Development Goals, economic integration must remain a priority. A strong UN-China sustainable development partnership is essential to take this agenda forward and strengthen our resilience to international trade tensions and economic uncertainty. Working with all the countries in our region, we have a unique opportunity to place sustainability considerations at the heart of our efforts and build seamless regional connectivity. That is an opportunity, which in 2019, UN ESCAP is determined to seize.UNESCAP

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