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Why Western Finance Will Continue to Dominate the Stock Markets

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Exclusive conversation with prof. Alessandro Pansa, Finance Professor at LUISS Guido Carli University, Rome and former CEO of Finmeccanica Group (now Leonardo SpA) the ninth-largest defence contractor in the world.

Recently the Shanghai-Hong Kong trade link has been signed, who will benefit the most from this agreement?

It’s an attempt to integrate more and more Hong Kong into the Chinese financial system, so at the moment I can not say who between the two cities will have the greatest benefit.

It is well known that when a territory is financially integrated it can also obtain a political homogenization, something that Hong Kong tends to reject in alternating phases. So it’s hard to say who will receive more benefits. It will benefit for sure China, which will control two financial centers of huge importance that in the end will tend to be integrated with each other to present a single financial center, which is now possible through the use of information technology.

Among the three financial centers of Shanghai, Hong Kong and Singapore, which of them will prevail among the others in the medium and short term?

Nowadays I should say Singapore, since it contains all the good factors in terms of stability, regulation, independence and the absence of a strong political authority, but all of this depends on the evolution of the chinese financial system, which is much less modernized than we think.

Today about 50% of global financial assets is held by 45 banks, 42 of which are Western, and only three are Chinese, but the chinese banks find a place in this ranking only because of the chinese companies being extremely indebted, so these banks have obviously large credits. From the point of view of financial technology China is still quite underdeveloped, you can not see these large Chinese banks as heads of international placements or financial consortium, even Singapore today represents an advantage thanks to its independence and neutrality and legal certainty system that goes around.

In your last article on Limes you wrote that: “The financial technology controlled by major Western intermediaries, prevails on the capital. The latter – whose accumulation is now concentrated in developing countries – has lost importance and became a kind of “raw material”. It is not worth much because freedom of movement makes it virtually infinite, and it becomes relevant only when, to generate an adequate return, is structured by banks that incorporate it in financial assets to be placed on the markets. All of this makes western banks ver powerful “. My question is: what is this financial technology you are referring to and how is capital structured?

Let’s start from an assumption: Western countries have historically operated as great capital accumulators and exporters; just to give an idea at the end of nineteenth century when Britain was dominating the financial markets in the world, it was a capital exporter for about 80% of the capital that was being produced at home. Today on the contrary western countries are capital importers. Most of the capital production is taking place: in the Middle East, from oil-producing countries and in the Far East. All of this is combined with the freedom of capital movements wanted in particular by US and British governments since the second half of the ’80, that has slowly been spreading around the world.

In a rational world who governs the financial markets? Those who accumulate capital, so it should be the emerging countries whether they are oil producers or countries with higher rates, except that the capital of companies has become practically infinite. In a world where capital movements are free, the need for companies to be financed is a very small percentage of the total world financial assets, that today are about 770 trillion dollars which is considerable amount. Except that capital, if you think about it, at the actual moment is available for each company so it is a good of scarce value unless it is turned into an asset that generates returns. The liberalization of capital movements involved that inactive capitals can not exist anymore.

So in which way you transform capital into an asset that creates returns? Through the financial technology, in other words through what is called financial innovation: the ability to do three things:

1. Building products, such as derivatives,

2. Placing them on the market through the placing power, or the ability to locate financial products; 3. Knowing how to invest properly in them, typical behavior of institutional investors which, by using algorithmic models and artificial intelligence, control a very high proportion of the assets.

Who has this technology? Western countries. They have it, because they are the ones who have historically guided the markets evolution and thanks to that they slowly have taken advantage on the rest of the world.

Regarding the topic of regulation. Why UK has always been a big financial center? Because it found itself to have a friendly financial regulation and legislative system, able thanks to the common law system to adapt the legislation to the needs of capital lenders or borrowers. So now the financial technology is something very expensive. The development of the algorithms and passive trading systems, the so called robotic ones, can be achieved only by the largest banks because they are able to used them by spreading on the huge amount of financial asset the investments, the people and the software to develop this technology.

So here they are those who are now in position to dominate the financial market because they have: competences in terms of financial innovation, placing power that no one has and relationships with institutional investors. I must say that now what really counts is the ability to work the capital.

Think about the Islamic world, if it was different, Islamic finance should prevail, but actually Islamic finance has remained a small segment after all.

By now the technological gap is much wider in terms of years needed by the rest of the world to be able to achieve the level of skills, placing power, credibility and authority of the major Western banks, which control the market.

What were in your career the most difficult moments and how you managed to overcome them?

The most difficult time was exactly when I became CEO of Finmeccanica, because the day before they arrested my President and CEO while I was general manager. Overnight I found myself in charge of a company under investigation by four different prosecutors accused, in my opinion incorrectly, for international corruption in an Italian political system between 2012/2013 not able to adequately protect state enterprises.

On one hand we had to rebuild the international credibility of the group, on the other we had to keep it from bankruptcy by immediately introducing a series of ethical standards that until then were not been adequately developed.

So I assure you that the first few months the only strength I had was in the fact that I had nothing to hide, I was not afraid of anything because I had nothing to fear, this gave me the opportunity to work seriously.

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Economy

Will the trade war between China and the United States come to end?

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USA China Trade War

Authors: Raihan Ronodipuro& Hafizha Dwi Ulfa*

The recent trade conflict between the United States and China has had a direct effect on some of the world’s economic players. These two countries are attacking each other with declarations and a trade war; the relationship between the two countries can be defined as a love-hate relationship because the two countries have a lot of mistrust for each other, but they still need each other.

The United States requires China as a global source of low-wage labor as well as a market for marketing American products, and China requires the United States as an investor in its companies as well as a market for marketing Chinese products known for their low-cost. What makes these two countries to be so cold to one another? To answer the question, let’s go back to when this trade war saga started.

Donald Trump is a successful businessman who owns enterprises and corporations all over the world. His candidacy for President of the United States in 2016 poses several concerns, including whether Trump is eligible to run for office. Trump replied by becoming the 45th President of the United States, succeeding Obama.

Trump adopted a protectionism agenda in order to shield the US economy from what he referred to as the “robber from China.” Trump has released a law stating that all steel and aluminum products entering the United States from Europe, China, Canada, and Mexico would be subject to 25% and 10% tariffs, respectively. Of course, China is outraged that the United States issued this order, as well as a related policy on all tribal products. Automobile components, as well as agriculture and fishery products, are manufactured in the United States.

In addition to the tariff battle, President Trump has expressly demanded that the TikTok and WeChat apps be prohibited from running in the United States. We know that these two technologies are very common in the larger population. Giant corporations, such as Huawei, have not survived Trump’s “rampage,” with the Chinese telecommunications giant accused of leaking US national security data to China through Huawei’s contract with US security authorities.

As a result, many US firms were forced to cancel contracts with Huawei or face sanctions. Google is one of the companies impacted by this contract termination, which means that all Huawei smartphone devices manufactured in 2019 and after will lack any of Google’s services such as the Google Play Store, Gmail, and YouTube.

Many of the world’s economic organizations predict a 0.7 percent drop in GDP in 2018 and a 2% growth in 2020. Coupled with the Coronavirus pandemic, the global economy has become increasingly stagnant, with global economic growth expected to be less than 0%.

Amid the tough trade negotiations between the United States and China, COVID-19 pandemic is also affecting their relationship. The United States domestic pressure to contain the pandemic, has led Trump to accuse China of being the virus spread source.  As a consequence, Trump put the US-China future relations at stake with his “China’s Virus” label. Besides, the United States absence from World Health Organization (WHO) during Trump administration along the pandemic, that become a new opportunity for China to expand its influence.  China uses the Covid-19 pandemic issue as an opportunity.

China’s successful in controlling the pandemic,  has also made China confident in facing the United States. Meanwhile, the United States is increasingly threatened by its position. Moreover, the United States dependence on overcoming Covid-19 which requires relations from many parties, including China, makes the United States’ position weak as a superpower.

This is what we hoped for when Biden took office. Many consider President Joe Biden to be willing to “soften” the United States’ stance on the trade war with China. After his inauguration on January 20, 2021, Biden has made many contacts with Beijing to address a variety of issues, one of which is the continuation of the trade war.

The United States and China agreed to meet in Anchorage, Alaska, on March 18-20, 2021, to discuss this issue. The meeting produced no bright spots in the escalation of the US-China trade war, but rather posed questions concerning the Middle East, Xinjiang, North Korea, and Taiwan.

The Biden administration stressed that it does not plan to abolish various regulations passed during the Trump administration’s term in the trade war with China, but it also does not intend to employ the same negotiation strategies as the Trump administration, which seemed to be very offensive. Besides, the Biden administration must be careful, If Biden prioritizes domestic challenges then China has room to push its agendas, including in the field of technology and territorial issues

Furthermore, the Biden administration’s policy has shifted from imposing tariffs on China to investing in industries that Biden believes are less competitive with China, such as nanotechnology and communication networks.

In conclusion, the trade war between the United States and China has ushered in a new age in the global economy, one in which China is going forward to replace the United States’ status as a world economic force, something that the United States fears.

The door to investment is being opened as broad as possible, the private sector is being encouraged to participate (under tight government oversight, of course), the cost of living is being raised, and the defense spending is being expanded. Today, we can see how the Chinese economy is advancing, becoming the world’s second largest economy after the United States, selling goods all over the world to challenge the United States’ status, and even having the world’s largest military after the United States.

The rise of China is what the US is scared of; after initially dismissing China’s problem as insignificant, the US under the Trump administration takes China and Xi Jinping’s problems seriously by starting a trade war that is still underway.

Will this trade war enter a new chapter in the Biden presidency, where the relationship with China will be more ‘calm’ and the trade war can be ended, or can it stalemate and maintain the stance as during the previous president’s presidency?

*Hafizha Dwi Ulfa is a Research Assistant of the Indonesian International Relations Study Center (IIRS Center) with analysis focus on ASEAN, East Asia, and Indo-Pacific studies.

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The “Retail Investor Revolution” in the U.S.

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Authors: Chan Kung and He Jun

Recently, the battle between retail investors and institutional investors is taking place in the U.S. stock market, with some short-selling institutional investors being driven to the brink of bankruptcy. The rise of the retail investor, which has led to huge volatility in the U.S. stock market, is nothing short of a “retail investor revolution” in a market dominated by institutional investors.

GameStop (GME), the world’s largest video game and entertainment software specialty retailer with a chain of nearly 7,000 retail stores worldwide, has continued to underperform in recent years under the impact of online gaming, with its stock price dipping from USD 28 per share in 2016 to USD 2.57 per share in April 2020. Nevertheless, since January 11, 2021, retail investors have been bullish on GME that it has soared to as high as USD 483 per share, a “crazy” move that drove Melvin Capital, a hedge fund with a large short position in the company, to the brink of bankruptcy. So far this year, short-sellers had lost USD 19.75 billion on GME, according to fintech and analytics firm S3 Partners. S3 Partners estimates that short positions in GME lost more than USD 7.8 billion on January 29 alone. The “long-short” battle between retail investors and institutional investors ended with the retreat of institutional investors.

Other U.S. stocks that have recently been caught up in the “long-short” battle have also been volatile. On January 28, American Airlines plunged after opening nearly 31% higher, closing up 9.30%. Castor Marintime, a Cypriot dry bulk shipping company, also plunged after opening with a 67.62% jump, closing up 14.77%. AMC Theatres, a U.S. cinema chain on the verge of bankruptcy, closed down 56.63% on the same day after soaring more than sevenfold in two weeks. Canadian mobile phone company BlackBerry and the U.S. fashion clothing chain Express also fell about 42% and 51%, respectively.

The U.S. capital market has long been dominated by institutional investors, and in mid-2018, institutional investors held 93.2% of the market value of the stock market, while individual investors held less than 6% of the market value. In the U.S. capital market, where institutions are the absolute majority, the market system and regulatory rules are set in favor of institutional investors. Market participants, i.e., investors (institutional investors and retail investors), regulatory authorities, and financing entities (enterprises) have formed a set of “self-consistent” system. However, the “retail investor revolution” has disrupted the conventional ecology of the market, with some young retail investors from the WallStreetBets (WSB) group on the Reddit forum throwing institutions into disarray. This “long-short” battle has put retail investors, represented by the “WallStreetBets”, at center stage and secured support from the top elites, including Elon Musk. In the face of this sudden “retail investor revolution”, the reasons and possible effects are worth in-depth observation and thinking.

First, who opposes the “retail investor revolution”?

The answer is of course, Wall Street as represented by institutional investors, who are the “establishment” in the capital market and represent the mainstream and value perspectiveof the financial market. Goldman Sachs, a prominent investment bank, saying the butterfly effect of the GME short squeeze is leading to the worst short squeeze in the U.S. stock market since the financial crisis. Over the past 25 years, the U.S. stock market has seen a number of severe short squeezes, but none as extreme as has occurred recently. Goldman Sachs warned that if the short squeeze continued, the entire financial market would collapse. According to Goldman Sachs, unsustainable excess in one small part of the market has the potential to tip a row of dominoes and create broader turmoil. In recent years, the pattern of low volume and high concentration in U.S. stocks has increased the risk of funds unwinding their position across the market.

Market maker brokers and trading platforms have also imposed strict restrictions on retail trading. In the midst of a fierce battle between retail investors and short sellers in the U.S. stock market, for example, several brokerage houses, including Robinhood, a zero-commission online brokerage, and Interactive Brokers, one of the largest online brokerages in the U.S., abruptly shut down buying of WSB related stocks such as GME, AMC, and Nokia. Robinhood said the restrictions had to be put in place because of the pressure on data processing and margins brought by the volume of retail trading. But the move immediately drew accusations from the market that the decision was “market manipulation”.

Second, what gathers a group of scattered retail investors?

According to Chan Kung, founder of the ANBOUND, the answer lies in the internet. A group of young retail investors gather in a Reddit subsection called WallStreetBets (WSB), and rely on the convenience of the internet to mobilize and convene, forming a force that can influence institutions in specific areas (such as WSB concept stocks). As in recent years, public use of social networking platforms in the social and political spheres has shifted to the stock market investment sphere.

Chan also pointed out in that the role of the internet is not only in mobilizing and convening, but also in providing and sharing quality analysis. The dominance of institutions in the stock market is not only reflected in funds, but also in research capabilities. They rely on professional teams to collect information, conduct market research, and conduct modeling and analysis, forming a certain information monopoly and an overall investment advantage over retail investors. However, the development of the internet has broken up this information monopoly. Due to the convenience of information acquisition and sharing, some small institutions and professional investors also have a high analytical ability. Their participation and sharing make the Internet platform another kind of “large institutions”, which provide investment analysis and advice to retail investors in a distributed manner. The rapid information sharing and investment actions make the retail investor cluster a “disruptor” and “challenger” that cannot be underestimated in the capital market. Chan Kung also pointed out that among the retail investors, a group of people with strong information ability will further decide the market trend in the future, and the investment in the capital market will gradually become information-oriented, and the size of the funds will not be as important as in the past.

Third, how would the U.S. financial regulators handle the short squeeze and the stock market turmoil?

The U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) said on January 29 that it is closely monitoring extreme price volatility and will review entities that “unduly inhibit” traders’ ability to trade certain stocks. The SEC also added that extreme stock price volatility has the potential to expose investors to rapid and severe losses and undermine market confidence, and that market participants should be careful to avoid “illegal” manipulative trading activity. The SEC is working with regulators to assess the current situation and review the activities of regulated entities, financial intermediaries, and other market participants. White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said that Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen and the White House economic team are closely watching the stock market activity around GameStop and other heavily shorted companies. She called the trading in the video-game retailer “a good reminder, though, that the stock market isn’t the only measure of the health of our economy.” Fed Chairman Jerome Powell declined to weigh in on the activity around GameStop. “I don’t want to comment on a particular company or day’s market activity or things like that. It’s just not something really that I would typically comment on,” Powell said. This information suggests that the U.S. regulatory authorities are cautious in their stance on market volatility, but hope that the market will remain stable and compliant.

Fourth, what will happen to the market relationship between retail investors and institutions?

The “retail investor revolution” has exposed the contradiction between retail investors and institutions, and made the market relationship between retail investors and institutions the focus of the market. Retail investors are within their rights to take legal action against brokerage houses for restricting trading. In the market, it is not only the so-called “regulators” that can deliver justice. Chan Kung stressed that the real problem with institutional restrictions is that if Wall Street establishes a firewall for market trading and prohibits retail investors from uniting to make the market, then the market becomes an inter-agency market, and may even further evolve into a false trading market, shaking the foundation of the entire market system. Therefore, this unprecedented short squeeze triggered by retail investors has exposed a systemic defect in the U.S. capital market. To solve this problem, there is the need to continue observing and following up.

Remarkably, the same problem exists in China. People who speculate in Chinese stocks gather on WeChat and online forums to lead a large number of hot money to hit the market. Drawing on the example of the “retail investor revolution” in the U.S., the following questions are worth considering: Is such trading activity legal? If it is “illegal”, then what kind of market has the Chinese stock market become? If there are certain winners in the market, limits on how much the stock price can go up and how much they can go down, and, in short, all the criteria that are set internally, isn’t the market trading becoming akin to sham game? Such questions are also worth pondering in China’s retail investors-dominated stock market.

Final analysis conclusion

The historical experience shows that the enthusiasm of the market can never prevent the laws of the market from working, and that the rules formed on the basis of previous experiences and lessons are still the main keynote of the market. At the same time, one should also see that with the changes in the information world and the changes in the behavior of retail investors, retail investors are forming a force that can affect the market. Therefore, certain changes in the market system and regulatory approach as a result are likely to be a future trend.

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Economy

ESG as the New Loadstar for the Global Economy

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The ills of the world economy and the frequency of crises may in part emanate from a loss of the sense of direction. With economic policy rules increasingly undermined at the level of countries and international organizations, the resulting loss of an anchor resulted in a rising frequency of economic crisis episodes. Instead of the weakening norms and top-down conditionality of international organizations a new set of rules and standards is starting to propagate throughout the global economy from the micro-level of the corporate and financial world. This new moral code is epitomized in the ESG (environment, social, governance) framework, with the propagation of ESG principles taking place across all key segments of the global economy.

The buy-side is witnessing a growing volume of assets under management that is tracking ESG principles by 2020 the value of global assets employing environmental, social and governance data to deliver investment decisions has almost doubled over four years, and more than tripled over eight years, to $40.5 trillion. Sell-side research is actively advancing ESG products in the corporate research space as well as in evaluating the macroeconomic implications of the use of ESG standards. The largest corporates are starting to compete in the ESG space, with a rising importance attached to corporate ESG ratings. At the country level governments are actively elaborating the national ESG strategies and evaluating the risks and the opportunities harboured in the rising global presence of the ESG agenda.

For corporates the importance of complying with ESG principles is driven increasingly by the rising share of ESG-driven investments, most notably among the largest institutional investors. According to PwC, ESG funds are set to hold more assets under management than their non-ESG counterparts by 2025, with ESG funds’ market share projected to rise to 57% in 2025, compared with the current 15%. In effect, companies not complying with ESG norms deprive themselves of a rising share of the global investment pool, which may impart negative implications for the companies market capitalization.

There may be also notable implications for countries and companies in terms of borrowing costs depending on the resilience and susceptibility to environmental factors as climate change. According to the estimates of the IMF, an increase of 10 percentage points in climate change vulnerability is associated with an increase of over 150 basis points in long-term government bond spreads of emerging markets and developing economies, while an improvement of 10 percentage points in climate change resilience is associated with a decrease of 37.5 basis points in bond spreads.

Importantly, there are notable regional variations in perceptions and regulatory regimes governing ESG factors as revealed by a Blackrock survey of 425 investors in 27 countries with nearly $25trn in assets under management. For more than half of the respondents in EMEA (51%), the top reason for adopting sustainable strategies was because it is the right thing to do, while just 37 per cent of respondents in the region said mitigating investment risk was a key consideration. At the same time in the Americas, mitigating risk is the second highest driver of adoption (49 per cent), followed by better risk-adjusted performance (45%) and mandate from board or management (45%).

The positive aspect of the ESG agenda is that it broadens the time-horizons of the world economy, including its financial and the real sectors, and allows for longer term risks and vulnerabilities to be incorporated into the current decision-making.

The Covid crisis was the bell toll that greatly underscored the importance of such a re-calibration of the time-horizons in economic strategies away from the excessive short-termism of the pre-Covid era. There is also the greater emphasis on sustainability as the core principle that aligns the operation of the corporate and financial markets with the broader global agenda as reflected in the UN development goals.

On the other hand, the transition towards the ESG principles also involves risks that have to do with the significant differentiation across countries in terms of values and preparedness to incorporate ESG standards. Developing economies, most notably those with a sizeable share of the mineral resource sectors in their economies, will likely find it more challenging to compete with advanced economies in the speed of ESG transformation indeed with respect to environmental standards there is the risk of green protectionism being employed against developing countries. Another risk may be the use of ESG norms as the new universal rules-based framework that separates rather than unites the global community.

In the end, just as the apocalyptic predictions regarding the coming of the WTO membership for Russia have proven to be unfounded so the ESG challenge may well turn out to be a factor of creative change rather than destruction. In many respects the ESG value code aligns well with the crucial exigencies facing Russia’s economy the need for longer time horizons in economic policy-making and investing as well as greater emphasis on environmental standards and social issues. For Russia’s financial realm this is an important element related to the development of deeper and less speculative markets, more emphasis being placed on education and support for the fledgling class of retail investors, and greater transparency and higher governance standards in the corporate world.

From our partner RIAC

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