International political observers were shocked by Brexit and then Donald Trump‘s US Presidential victory. These two events are potent enough to unnerve the contemporary global order: first, in matters relating to security and, second as to trade. By the end of next March, Theresa May will likely invoke Article 50 of the Lisbon treaty and the complex process of Britain’s divorce from the European Union (EU) begins.
Also, it now has been a more than a month into Trump’s administration; and his flurry of Executive Orders have rocked the Washington, DC establishment.
This article examines the future of Multinational Corporations (MNCs) under this new Trump era and – with Brexit clearly on track – how MNCs will respond. Some global firms may arguably be in retreat given the political uncertainty introduced by these changes.
During the 20th century, China was lowering its bulwarks to trade and other exchange and started opening up to the world and the Soviet Union collapsing. The age of ‘Consumerism,’ had begun as Francis Fukuyama wrote in his seminal essay “The End of History.” At that time the idea of a global firm seemed quite attractive and lucrative. There was a vacuum, a space to be filled and the idea of the global firm was to fill this space. Companies grew, businesses sprawled begetting supply chains and creating jobs, trade relationships, luring stakeholders. Their businesses entail supply chains that cover 50% of world trade. Nevertheless, the global arbitrage that international trade has created is starting to shrink. Global business have become so large that it is, at times, difficult to manage the perplex, legal and logistical tapestry of carrying them out. Recalling the recent tax case of Apple Inc., Governments are now cracking on companies accused of tax evasion and as a result MNCs are stashing earnings in off-shore tax havens.
To give the above scenario some perspective, consider these facts: according to the UK Financial Times Stock Exchange (FTSE), the profits of the top 700-odd multinational firms have dropped by 25% and the ROE (return on equity) ratio is down by 7%- from “18% a decade ago to 11%”. The Economist magazine reported research “examining record of 500 large firms which shows “in eight out of ten sectors multinational firms have expanded their aggregate sales more slowly than their domestic peers”. We can see local firms, in some places, over taking or at least starting to take in some cases substantial market share from the MNCs. Take for example Uber’s surrender to the Sino giant Didi, in India and where Reliance mobile competing aggressively against Vodafone. Nevertheless this doesn’t means that global firms are totally in retreat but that their earlier dominance is now facing some heat from the local firms.
However, in some case global firms may have started to sense a change in hospitality by host countries to investment. This may provoke US and EU leaders such as Mr. Trump, Marine La Pen and other rightists and nationalists who are arguably perceived to be eager in targeting a scapegoat with their protectionist agendas. So, we see Mr. Trump’s success in exploiting the sentiments of the US people by peppering his slogans with rightest promises. His policies at face value may appear productive – that is, reducing taxes (now taking the shape of Border Adjustment tax), less regulations and bringing jobs back but they have caused an unnecessary and unwanted surge in the US dollar. This has led Janet Yellen to hint at an interest rate hike when the US Federal Reserve Bank’s FOMC (Federal Open Market Committee) meets next month in its policy setting meeting. It may be argued that a strong US dollar is not good for the US and its trading partners. Donald’s Trump’s proposed “twenty-percent tariff” (against Mexican imports), if implemented, will make the dollar appreciate further causing inflation. Economists will ask how? An article in The Atlantic explains by suggesting that “higher tax on imports paired with lower taxes on exports will theoretically cancel each other out, as demand increases for U.S. exports (such exports would be cheaper) and the U.S. will demand fewer foreign goods (since they’ll be more expensive). Economists assert that this will result in a shift in exchange rates that will offset taxes: in theory, the dollar will strengthen as a result of increased demand for cheaper American-made products. As a result of a stronger dollar, American-made products will be more expensive and foreign goods will become cheaper as a stronger dollar increases purchasing power thus, offsetting the import tax”.
Brexit is another complex facet where uncertainty is growing. Theresa May triggers article 50 by the end of next month financial and equity markets embrace for a long stretch of unpredictable negotiations that may take more than two years. According to many political analysts another key issue remains: immigration. In any case the EU is not going to allow the UK to enjoy preferential treatment without it (UK) allowing the free movement of people. We are going to see new trade deals between UK and other countries. But the UK is going to lose a huge export market in the form of the EU.
While we read through the tale of the slowdown of global businesses as a whole there exists a business, risk solution to this rise in populism and inclination for protectionism: Political Risk Insurance (or PRI). Lloyd’s of London, the oldest insurance market in the world, decided to move its subsidiary in Continental Europe after Brexit eventuated. Inga Beale, CEO of Lloyd’s of London, says “. “I wouldn’t be surprised if we start seeing much more political-risk insurance being bought all over the place,” in an interview. Daniel Wagner, a Managing Director of Risk Solutions at Risk Cooperative, describes in an article for the Huffington Post how he predicted in the 1990’s that the PRI industry will grow in the years to come. He holds the same view today: “The PRI industry stands at a similar precipice today. With the looming possibility of trade wars, deterioration in investment climates, and ever tightening lending standards, there is every reason to believe that, as much as the industry has grown – and that growth has been dramatic over the past 25 years – it also stands to grow dramatically in the coming 5-10 years.”
Certainly, the world is in the midst of a change. On political and as well as economic front. The global firms, as aforementioned, are already in for a correction. But Mr. Trump’s protectionism, his tweet-tantrums and talks of trade wars and the uncertainty of the British divorce from the EU, which, according to some, bodes ill for the bloc’s future, may accelerate the process of natural adjustment. Such an acceleration is detrimental to the international trade as a whole. We are standing on what seems the first page of this new chapter, let’s hope that there’s a pleasant quirk somewhere ahead.
Rebalancing Act: China’s 2022 Outlook
Authors: Ibrahim Chowdhury, Ekaterine T. Vashakmadze and Li Yusha
After a strong rebound last year, the world economy is entering a challenging 2022. The advanced economies have recovered rapidly thanks to big stimulus packages and rapid progress with vaccination, but many developing countries continue to struggle.
The spread of new variants amid large inequalities in vaccination rates, elevated food and commodity prices, volatile asset markets, the prospect of policy tightening in the United States and other advanced economies, and continued geopolitical tensions provide a challenging backdrop for developing countries, as the World Bank’s Global Economic Prospects report published today highlights.
The global context will also weigh on China’s outlook in 2022, by dampening export performance, a key growth driver last year. Following a strong 8 percent cyclical rebound in 2021, the World Bank expects growth in China to slow to 5.1 percent in 2022, closer to its potential — the sustainable growth rate of output at full capacity.
Indeed, growth in the second half of 2021 was below this level, and so our forecast assumes a modest amount of policy loosening. Although we expect momentum to pick up, our outlook is subject to domestic in addition to global downside risks. Renewed domestic COVID-19 outbreaks, including the new Omicron variant and other highly transmittable variants, could require more broad-based and longer-lasting restrictions, leading to larger disruptions in economic activity. A severe and prolonged downturn in the real estate sector could have significant economy-wide reverberations.
In the face of these headwinds, China’s policymakers should nonetheless keep a steady hand. Our latest China Economic Update argues that the old playbook of boosting domestic demand through investment-led stimulus will merely exacerbate risks in the real estate sector and reap increasingly lower returns as China’s stock of public infrastructure approaches its saturation point.
Instead, to achieve sustained growth, China needs to stick to the challenging path of rebalancing its economy along three dimensions: first, the shift from external demand to domestic demand and from investment and industry-led growth to greater reliance on consumption and services; second, a greater role for markets and the private sector in driving innovation and the allocation of capital and talent; and third, the transition from a high to a low-carbon economy.
None of these rebalancing acts are easy. However, as the China Economic Update points out, structural reforms could help reduce the trade-offs involved in transitioning to a new path of high-quality growth.
First, fiscal reforms could aim to create a more progressive tax system while boosting social safety nets and spending on health and education. This would help lower precautionary household savings and thereby support the rebalancing toward domestic consumption, while also reducing income inequality among households.
Second, following tightening anti-monopoly provisions aimed at digital platforms, and a range of restrictions imposed on online consumer services, the authorities could consider shifting their attention to remaining barriers to market competition more broadly to spur innovation and productivity growth.
A further opening-up of the protected services sector, for example, could improve access to high-quality services and support the rebalancing toward high-value service jobs (a special focus of the World Bank report). Eliminating remaining restrictions on labor mobility by abolishing the hukou, China’s system of household registration, for all urban areas would equally support the growth of vibrant service economies in China’s largest cities.
Third, the wider use of carbon pricing, for example, through an expansion of the scope and tightening of the emissions trading system rules, as well power sector reforms to encourage the penetration and nationwide trade and dispatch of renewables, would not only generate environmental benefits but also contribute to China’s economic transformation to a more sustainable and innovation-based growth model.
In addition, a more robust corporate and bank resolution framework would contribute to mitigating moral hazards, thereby reducing the trade-offs between monetary policy easing and financial risk management. Addressing distortions in the access to credit — reflected in persistent spreads between private and State borrowers — could support the shift to more innovation-driven, private sector-led growth.
Productivity growth in China during the past four decades of reform and opening-up has been private-sector led. The scope for future productivity gains through the diffusion of modern technologies and practices among smaller private companies remains large. Realizing these gains will require a level playing field with State-owned enterprises.
While the latter have played an instrumental role during the pandemic to stabilize employment, deliver key services and, in some cases, close local government budget gaps, their ability to drive the next phase of growth is questionable given lower profits and productivity growth rates in the past.
In 2022, the authorities will face a significantly more challenging policy environment. They will need to remain vigilant and ready to recalibrate financial and monetary policies to ensure the difficulties in the real estate sector don’t spill over into broader economic distress. Recent policy loosening suggests the policymakers are well aware of these risks.
However, in aiming to keep growth on a steady path close to potential, they will need to be similarly alert to the risk of accumulating ever greater levels of corporate and local government debt. The transition to high-quality growth will require economic rebalancing toward consumption, services, and green investments. If the past is any guide to the future, the reliance on markets and private sector initiative is China’s best bet to achieve the required structural change swiftly and at minimum cost.
First published on China Daily, via World Bank
The US Economic Uncertainty: Bitcoin Faces a Test of Resilience?
Is inflation harmful? Is inflation here to stay? And are people really at a loss? These and countless other questions along the same lines dominated the first half of 2021. Many looked for alternative investments in the national bourse, while others adopted unorthodox streams. Yes, I’m talking about bitcoin. The crypto giant hit records after records since the pandemic made us question the fundamentals of our conventional economic policies. And while inflation was never far behind in registering its own mark in history, the volatility in the crypto stream was hard to deny: swiping billions of dollars in mere days in April 2021. The surge came again, however. And it will keep on coming; I have no doubt. But whether it is the end of the pandemic or the early hues of a new shade, the tumultuous relationship between traditional economic metrics and the championed cryptocurrency is about to get more interesting.
The job market is at the most confusing crossroads in recent times. The hiring rate in the US has slowed down in the past two months, with employers adding only 199,000 jobs in December. The numbers reveal that this is the second month of depressing job additions compared to an average of more than 500,000 jobs added each month throughout 2021. More concerning is that economists had predicted an estimated 400,000 jobs additions last month. Nonetheless, according to the US Bureau of Labour Statistics, the unemployment rate has ticked down to 3.9% – the first time since the pre-pandemic level of 3.5% reported in February 2020. Analytically speaking, US employment has returned to pre-pandemic levels, yet businesses are still looking for more employees. The leverage, therefore, lies with the labor: reportedly (on average) every two employees have three positions available.
The ‘Great Resignation,’ a coinage for the new phenomenon, underscores this unique leverage of job selection. Sectors with low-wage positions like retail and hospitality face a labor shortage as people are better-positioned to bargain for higher wages. Thus, while wages are rising, quitting rates are record high simultaneously. According to recent job reports, an estimated 4.5 million workers quit their jobs in November alone. Given that this data got collected before the surge of the Omicron variant, the picture is about to worsen.
While wages are rising, employment is no longer in the dumps. People are quitting but not to invest stimulus cheques. Instead, they are resigning to negotiate better-paying jobs: forcing the businesses to hike prices and fueling inflation. Thus, despite high earnings, the budget for consumption [represented by the Consumer Price Index (CPI)] is rising at a rate of 6.8% (reported in November 2021). Naturally, bitcoin investment is not likely to bloom at levels rivaling the last two years. However, a downfall is imminent if inflation persists.
The US Federal Reserve sweats caution about searing gains in prices and soaring wage figures. And it appears that the fed is weighing its options to wind up its asset purchase program and hike interest rates. In March 2020, the fed started buying $40 billion worth of Mortgage-backed securities and $80 billion worth of government bonds (T-bills). However, a 19% increase in average house prices and a four-decade-high level of inflation is more than they bargained. Thus, the fed officials have been rooting for an expedited normalization of the monetary policy: further bolstered by the job reports indicating falling unemployment and rising wages. In recent months, the fed purview has dramatically shifted from its dovish sentiments: expecting no rate hike till 2023 to taper talks alongside three rate hikes in 2022.
Bitcoin now faces a volatile passage in the forthcoming months. While the disappointing job data and Omicron concerns could nudge the ball in its favor, the chances are that a depressive phase is yet to ensue. According to crypto-analysts, the bitcoin is technically oversold i.e. mostly devoid of impulsive investors and dominated by long-term holders. Since November, the bitcoin has dropped from the record high of $69,000 by almost 40%: moving in the $40,000-$41,000 range. Analysts believe that since bitcoin acts as a proxy for liquidity, any liquidity shortage could push the market into a mass sellout. Mr. Alex Krüger, the founder of Aike Capital, a New York-based asset management firm, stated: “Crypto assets are at the furthest end of the risk curve.” He further added: “[Therefore] since they had benefited from the Fed’s “extraordinarily lax monetary policy,” it should suffice to say that they would [also] suffer as an “unexpectedly tighter” policy shifts money into safer asset classes.” In simpler terms, a loose monetary policy and a deluge of stimulus payments cushioned the meteoric rise in bitcoin valuation as a hedge against inflation. That mechanism would also plummet the market with a sudden hawkish shift.
The situation is dire for most industries. Job participation levels are still low as workers are on the sidelines either because of the Omicron concern or lack of child support. In case of a rate hike, businesses would be forced to push against the wages to accommodate affordability in consumer prices. For bitcoin, the investment would stay dormant. However, any inflationary surprises could bring about an early tightening of the policy: spelling doom for the crypto market. The market now expects the job data to worsen while inflation to rise at 7.1% through December in the US inflation data (to be reported on Wednesday). Any higher than the forecasted figure alongside uncertainty imbued by the new variant could spark a downward spiral in bitcoin – probably pushing the asset below the $25000 mark.
Platform Modernisation: What the US Treasury Sanctions Review Is All About
The US Treasury has released an overview of its sanctions policy. It outlines key principles for making the restrictive US measures more effective. The revision of the sanctions policy was announced at the beginning of Joe Biden’s presidential term. The new review can be considered one of the results of this work. At the same time, it is difficult to find signs of qualitative changes in the US administration’s approach to sanctions in the document. Rather, it is about upgrading an existing platform.
Sanctions are understood as economic and financial restrictions that make it possible to harm the enemies of the United States, prevent or hinder their actions, and send them a clear political signal. The text reproduces the usual “behavioural” understanding of sanctions. They are viewed as a means of influencing the behaviour of foreign players whose actions threaten the security or contradict the national interests of the United States. The review also defines the institutional structure of the sanctions policy. According to the document, it includes the Treasury, the State Department, and the National Security Council. The Treasury plays the role of the leading executor of the sanctions policy, and the State Department and the NSS determine the political direction of their application, despite the fact that the State Department itself is also responsible for the implementation of a number of sanctions programmes. This line also includes the Department of Justice, which uses coercive measures against violators of the US sanctions regime.
Interestingly, the Department of Commerce is not mentioned among the institutions. The review focuses only on a specific segment of the sanctions policy that is implemented by the Treasury. However, it is the Treasury that is currently at the forefront of the application of restrictive measures. A significant part of the executive orders of the President of the United States and sanctions laws imply blocking financial sanctions in the form of an asset freeze and a ban on transactions with individuals and organisations. Decrees and laws assign the application of such measures to the Treasury in cooperation with the Department of State and the Attorney General. Therefore, the institutional link mentioned in the review reflects the spirit and letter of a significant array of US regulations concerning sanctions. The Department of Commerce and its Bureau of Industry and Security are responsible for a different segment of the sanctions policy, which does not diminish its importance. Export controls can cause a lot of trouble for individual countries and companies.
Another notable part of the review concerns possible obstacles to the effective implementation of US sanctions. These include, among other things, the efforts of the opponents of the United States to change the global financial architecture, reducing the share of the dollar in the national settlements of both opponents and some allies of the United States.
Indeed, such major powers as Russia and China have seriously considered the risks of being involved in a global American-centric financial system.
The course towards the sovereignty of national financial systems and settlements with foreign countries is largely justified by the risk of sanctions.
Russia, for example, is vigorously pursuing the development of a National Payment System, as well as a Financial Messaging System. There has been a cautious but consistent policy of reducing the share of the dollar in external settlements. China, which has much greater economic potential, is building systems of “internal and external circulation”. Even the European Union has embarked on an increase in the role of the euro, taking into account the risk of secondary sanctions from “third countries”, which are often understood between the lines as the United States.
Digital currencies and new payment technologies also pose a threat to the effectiveness of sanctions. Moreover, here the players can be both large powers and many other states and non-state structures. It is interesting that digital currencies at a certain stage may present a common challenge to the United States, Russia, China, the EU and a number of other countries. After all, they can be used not only to circumvent sanctions, but also, for example, to finance terrorism or in money laundering. However, the review does not mention such common interests.
The text does propose measures to modernise the sanctions policy. The first one is to build sanctions into the broader context of US foreign policy. Sanctions are not important in and of themselves, but as part of a broader palette of policy instruments. The second measure is to strengthen interdepartmental coordination in the application of sanctions in parallel with increased coordination of US sanctions with the actions of American allies. The third measure is a more accurate calibration of sanctions in order to avoid humanitarian damage, as well as damage to American business. The fourth measure is to improve the enforceability and clarity of the sanctions policy. Here we can talk about both the legal uncertainty of some decrees and laws, and about an adequate understanding of the sanctions programmes on the part of business. Finally, fifth is the improvement and development of the Treasury-based sanctions apparatus, including investments in technology, staff training and infrastructure.
All these measures can hardly be called new. Experts have long recommended the use of sanctions in combination with other instruments, as well as improved inter-agency coordination. The coordination of sanctions with allies has escalated due to a number of unilateral steps taken by the Trump Administration, including withdrawal from the Iranian nuclear deal or sanctions against Nord Stream 2. However, the very importance of such coordination has not been questioned in the past and has even been reflected in American legislation (Iran). The need for a clearer understanding of sanctions policy has also been long overdue. Its relevance is illustrated, among other things, by the large number of unintentional violations of the US sanctions regime by American and foreign businesses. The problem of overcompliance is also relevant, when companies refuse transactions even when they are allowed. The reason is the fear of possible coercive measures by the US authorities. Finally, improving the sanctioning apparatus is also a long-standing topic. In particular, expanding the resources of the Administration in the application of sanctions was recommended by the US Audit Office in a 2019 report.
The US Treasury review suggests that no signs of an easing are foreseen for the key targets of US sanctions. At the same time, American business and its many foreign counterparties can benefit from the modernisation of the US sanctions policy. Legal certainty can reduce excess compliance as well as help avoid associated losses.
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