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Environmentalism: A Slippery Slope of Ignorance and Hypocrisy

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Perusing through my morning news digest, I came across an article from The Daily Mail featuring a story on the employment of child labor in cobalt mines in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).

While I can be chillingly apathetic to social plight, especially, when it doesn’t concern my loved ones: something I impute to my upbringing in a third world country; I was deeply moved by this story, which shed light on the horrors of artisanal cobalt mining, employing children, working in dangerous conditions, with no safety measures, and being paid a pittance.

The kicker, though, of this story was that much of this cobalt would go into battery packs that would be installed in electric cars marketed to gullible, do-gooders around the world.

But, why would one want to buy cars that take hours to refuel and can only be refueled at specific points, thus, imposing a massive time cost on their usage? These contraptions don’t match in utility to gasoline-powered cars, let alone surpassing them. No wonder governments around the world are trying to get consumers to buy electric cars through purchase subsidies and tax exemptions of all sorts.

Ever heard of an iPhone or a Mac being subsidized or tax exempted by the government to boost sales? You won’t because products that offer value sell like hotcakes; it’s only products that don’t offer any that need government interventions to hard sell them.

Another way of hard selling electric vehicles is through ‘virtue signaling.’ The sales pitch involves promises of reducing users’ carbon footprint, stemming the tide of climate change, and protecting the environment. But most importantly, it involves washing your hands off of gasoline, a product bloodstained due to the endless wars fought over it, one of the major promulgators of environmental and social injustice and displacement of indigenous folks.

Buying electric cars is thus, a route to salvation, accumulating good Karma, penitence, and all other moral goods. More importantly, it is also a way of segregating oneself from the ranks of the ignorant, irredeemable, hopeless, uneducated folks who drive around in gasoline powered vehicles polluting the environment, melting the ice caps, perpetuating wars and injustice, and pushing the world one step closer to Armageddon. Electric cars make the do-gooders feel good about themselves.

But are electric cars the solution to environmental problems and a way to jack up one’s moral credit score?

Most electric cars run on Lithium-ion batteries because of their energy holding capacity and low-weight characteristics. As environmentalism garners mainstream acceptance and more and more people buy into its narrative, the market for these vehicles is exploding and so is the demand for Lithium-ion batteries.

Contrary to the name, Lithium-ion batteries contain not just lithium, but also cobalt, nickel, manganese, aluminum, and graphite. While nickel, manganese, and aluminum have a relatively stable supply, it is cobalt, lithium, and graphite that present predicaments that are incompatible with the narrative of environmentalism.

Most of the lithium used in electric car batteries is mined in the Lithium triangle of Latin America: an area embedded in the salt flats of Argentina, Chile, and Bolivia. Several mining companies from around the world have started operations in this region, but the news for the indigenous people isn’t good. Lithium is so valuable that it has been dubbed ‘white gold,’ but the local residents bemoan that they haven’t seen any returns from the mining operations flowing their way; despite the fact that the prized mineral comes from lands that are under their possession.

A lack of formal process to negotiate property rights between the indigenous peoples and the mining companies, compounded by lack of accountability and communication gaps has left the communities short-changed. Many indigenous representatives, who excitedly agreed to the mining operations, now regret as they grapple with reality.

One of the companies – Exar – that will begin operations in 2019 is projected to reap $250 million (in 2016 dollars) annually. The contract also requires Exar to make annual payments to the local communities – a clause that the official leader of these communities wasn’t aware of, until one of the reporters investigating the issue, enlightened him.

More worrisome than missing out on the windfall is the fear of water depletion from sources that the local communities depend upon for their survival. Scientists seem divided on this contentious issue. Regardless, locals are justified in their concerns over water, as lithium mining is a water intensive process and the region has faced persistent drought over several years.

The Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), an impoverished country in sub-Saharan Africa, contributes to around 60% of the global supply of cobalt, an essential element in the Lithium-ion battery.

The state of affairs of the artisanal cobalt mines of DRC was the subject of an extensive article in The Washington Post. Miners, of whom children make a significant portion (about 40,000 according to UNICEF in 2012), work in unforgiving and dangerous conditions with hand tools, no safety measures, and very little oversight. Mining accidents and related deaths are common and so are the long-term health effects of coming in contact with heavy metals.

While the DRC has both industrial and artisanal mines, suppliers prefer cobalt from the latter due to the lower cost, especially when global cobalt demand is on the uptick. A major hurdle in disincentivizing artisanal operations is the inability of cobalt to be designated as ‘conflict-mineral,’ as it doesn’t fuel a war or internal conflict.

China’s record on air quality hasn’t been lustrous, with widely circulating reports of smog engulfing its major cities. But the residents of some towns in north-eastern China, much to their despair, literally get to see a special kind of luster in the air at night, when faint light hits graphite particles floating in the air.

Graphite is an indispensible element in Lithium-ion batteries and its growing global demand has lead to China’s rise as the top supplier in the market.

The Washington Post, about a year ago, published a detailed report on the effects of Chinese graphite plants on nearby villages. The presence of graphite dust on crops and in the air presents the likelihood of this toxic substance being ingested or inhaled leading to heart and lung diseases. Locals have also complained of graphite plants releasing industrial waste into nearby rivers, polluting the local water supply. This has significant effects, not only on the human population, but also on the flora that grows around these water bodies.

According to The Post, their efforts to get major firms in the consumer electronics and electric vehicles business to comment on these revelations in their supply chains were met with generic responses of appeasement or refusal to disclose suppliers or complete silence.

But, investigative reports aside, there are two big elephants in the room. First, electric cars can deliver on their claim of reducing carbon footprint, only if they are run on electricity generated from renewable energy. That seems unlikely given that only around 15% of total US electricity generation is from renewable sources (2016); the picture does look brighter across the Atlantic in the EU-28, where renewable sources produced around 29% of total electricity (2015).

The second problem is slightly complex and involves a weighing of the total fossil-fuel based energy and products that go into producing electric cars (from mining to assembly line), including individual components, against the purported energy savings and environmental benefits. In the grand scheme of things, it’s highly unlikely that electric cars will produce a net good or that they will fare any better than regular cars.

Another embarrassing problem for the Church of Environmentalism is the hypocrisy of its clergy. Al Gore, the patron saint of the green movement, according to a recent report, lives in a house that in the past year burned enough energy to power a typical American household for 21 years. Just the outdoor heated swimming pool ended up consuming energy that could power 6 typical homes. This was revealed after the release of his new documentary film, “An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power,” which has him fly over melting icebergs in an aircraft running on petroleum-derivative fuel.

But Gore claims that his donations to Green Power Switch, a scheme to separate green-minded folks from their money, purge him of his sins towards Mother Nature.

Actor-turned-environmentalist Leonardo DiCaprio made headlines when he made a round trip from France to New York to accept a ‘green award.’ The close to 8000-mile long journey, completed on a private jet, didn’t please the environmental laity. But worry not because his charitable foundation, in 2016, pledged £10 million to various green initiatives.

Environmentalism, thus, is nothing but a way to feel good about yourself, to wash off the supposed sins of driving around in a gasoline powered car and using incandescent light bulbs. It’s also a great way to make bucket loads of money and undertake lucrative career transitions.

I don’t mean to suggest that oil drilling and petroleum products are good for the environment and don’t bear any social costs. They might, but they don’t push a holier-than-thou narrative and actually have to undergo strict environmental and health and safety audits, something that is lacking in the supply chain of green products.

An ex-dentist and a business graduate who is greatly influenced by American conservatism and western values. Having born and brought up in a non-western, third world country, he provides an ‘outside-in’ view on western values. As a budding writer and analyst, he is very much stoked about western culture and looks forward to expound and learn more. Mr. Malkar receives correspondence at saurabh.malkar[at]gmail.com. To read his 140-character commentary on Twitter, follow him at @saurabh_malkar

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Economy

Finding Fulcrum to Move the World Economics

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Domenico Fetti / Wikimedia Commons

Where hidden is the fulcrum to bring about new global-age thinking and escape current mysterious economic models that primarily support super elitism, super-richness, super tax-free heavens and super crypto nirvanas; global populace only drifts today as disconnected wanderers at the bottom carrying flags of ‘hate-media’ only creating tribal herds slowly pushed towards populism. Suppose, if we accept the current indices already labeled as success as the best of show of hands, the game is already lost where winners already left the table. Finding a new fulcrum to move the world economies on a better trajectory where human productivity measured for grassroots prosperity is a critically important but a deeply silent global challenge. Here are some bold suggestions

ONE- Global Measurement: World connectivity is invisible, grossly misunderstood, miscalculated and underestimated of its hidden powers; spreading silently like an invisible net, a “new math” becomes the possible fulcrum for the new business world economy; behold the ocean of emerging global talents from new economies, mobilizing new levels of productivity, performance and forcing global shifts of economic powers. Observe the future of borderless skills, boundary less commerce and trans-global public opinion, triangulation of such will simply crush old thinking.

Archimedes yelled, “…give me a lever long enough and a fulcrum on which to place it, and I shall move the world…”

After all, half of the world during the last decade, missed the entrepreneurial mindset, understoodonly as underdog players of the economy, the founders, job-creators and risk-taker entrepreneurs of small medium businesses of the world, pushed aside while kneeling to big business staged as institutionalized ritual. Although big businesses are always very big, nevertheless, small businesses and now globally accepted, as many times larger. Study deeply, why suddenly now the small medium business economy, during the last budgetary cycles across the world, has now become the lone solution to save dwindling economies. Big business as usual will take care of itself, but national economies already on brink left alone now need small business bases and hard-core raw entrepreneurialism as post-pandemic recovery agendas.

TWO – Ground Realities:  National leadership is now economic leadership, understanding, creating and managing, super-hyper-digital-platform-economies a new political art and mobilization of small midsize business a new science: The prerequisites to understand the “new math” is the study of “population-rich-nations and knowledge rich nations” on Google and figure out how and why can a national economy apply such new math. 

Today a USD $1000 investment in technology buys digital solutions, which were million dollars, a decade ago.Today,a $1000 investment buys on global-age upskilling on export expansion that were million dollars a decade ago.  Today, a $1000 investment on virtual-events buys what took a year and cost a million dollars a decade ago. Today, any micro-small-medium-enterprise capable of remote working models can save 80% of office and bureaucratic costs and suddenly operate like a mini-multi-national with little or no additional costs.

Apply this math to population rich nations and their current creation of some 500 million new entrepreneurial businesses across Asia will bring chills across the world to the thousands of government departments, chambers of commerce and trade associations as they compare their own progress. Now relate this to the economic positioning of ‘knowledge rich nations’ and explore how they not only crushed their own SME bases, destroyed the middle class but also their expensive business education system only produced armies of resumes promoting job-seekers but not the mighty job-creators. Study why entrepreneurialism is neither academic-born nor academic centric, it is after all most successful legendary founders that created earth shattering organizations were only dropouts.  Now shaking all these ingredients well in the economic test tube wait and let all this ferment to see what really happens.

Now picking up any nation, selecting any region and any high potential vertical market; searching any meaningful economic development agenda and status of special skills required to serve such challenges, paint new challenges. Interconnect the dots on skills, limits on national/global exposure and required expertise on vertical sectors, digitization and global-age market reach. Measuring the time and cost to bring them at par, measuring the opportunity loss over decades for any neglect. Combining all to squeeze out a positive transformative dialogue and assemble all vested parties under one umbrella.

Not to be confused with academic courses on fixing Paper-Mache economies and broken paper work trails, chambers primarily focused on conflict resolutions, compliance regulations, and trade groups on policy matters.  Mobilization of small medium business economy is a tactical battlefield of advancements of an enterprise, as meritocracy is the nightmarish challenges for over 100 plus nations where majority high potential sectors are at standstill on such affairs. Surprisingly, such advancements are mostly not new funding hungry but mobilization starved. Economic leadership teams of today, unless skilled on intertwining super-hyper-digital-platform-economic agendas with local midsize businesses and creating innovative excellence to stand up to global competitiveness becomes only a burden to growth.

The magnifying glass of mind will find the fulcrum: High potential vertical sectors and special regions are primarily wide-open lands full of resources and full of talented peoples; mobilization of such combinations offering extraordinary power play, now catapulted due to technologies. However, to enter such arenas calls for regimented exploring of the limits of digitization, as Digital-Divides are Mental Divides, only deeper understanding and skills on how to boost entrepreneurialism and attract hidden talents of local citizenry will add power. Of course, knowing in advance, what has already failed so many times before will only avoid using a rubber hose as a lever, again.  

The new world economic order: There is no such thing as big and small as it is only strong and weak, there is no such thing as rich and poor it is only smart and stupid. There is no such thing as past and future is only what is in front now and what is there to act but if and or when. How do you translate this in a post pandemic recovery mode? Observe how strong, smart moving now are advancing and leaving weak, stupid dreaming of if and when in the dust behind.

The conclusion: At the risk of never getting a Nobel Prize on Economics, here is this stark claim; any economy not driven solely based on measuring “real value creation” but primarily based on “real value manipulation” is nothing but a public fraud. This mathematically proven, possibly a new Fulcrum to move the world economy, in need of truth

The rest is easy  

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Evergrande Crisis and the Global Economy

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China’s crackdown on the tech giants was not much of a surprise. Sure, the communist regime allowed the colossus entities like Alibaba Group to innovate and prosper for years. Yet, the government control over the markets was never concealed. In fact, China’s active intervention in the forex market to deliberately devalue Yuan was frequently contested around the world. Ironically, now the world awaits government intervention as a global liquidity crisis seems impending. The Evergrande Group, China’s largest property developer, is on the brink of collapse. Mounding debt, unfinished properties, and subsequent public pressure eventually pushed the group to openly admit its financial turmoil last week. Subsequently, Evergrande’s shares plunged as much as 19% to more than 11-year lows. While many anticipate a thorough financial restructuring in the forthcoming months, the global debt markets face a broader financial contagion – as long as China deliberates on its plan of action.

The financial trouble of the conglomerate became apparent when President Xi Jinping stressed upon controlled corporate debt levels in his ongoing drive to reign China’s corporate behemoths. It is estimated that the Evergrande Group currently owes $305 billion in outstanding debt; payments on its offshore bonds due this week. With new channels of debt ceased throughout the Mainland, repayment seems doubtful despite reassurances from the company officials. The broader cause of worry, however, is the impact of a default; which seems highly likely under current circumstances.

The residential property market and the real estate market control roughly 20% and 30% of China’s nominal GDP respectively. A default could destabilize the already slowing Chinese economy. Yet that’s half the truth. In reality, the failure of a ‘too big to fail’ company could bleed into other sectors as well. And while China could let the company fail to set a precedent, the spillover could devastate the financial stability hard-earned after a strenuous battle against the pandemic. Recent data shows that with the outbreak of the delta variant, the demand pressure in China has significantly cooled down while the energy prices are through the roof. Coupled with the regulatory crackdown rapidly pervading uncertainty, a debt crisis could further push the economy into a recession: a detrimental end to China’s aspirations to attract global investors.

The real question, therefore, is not about China’s willingness to bail out the company. Too much is at stake. The primal question is regarding the modus operandi which could be adopted by China to upend instability.

Naturally, the influence of China’s woes parallels its effect on the global economy. A possible liquidity crisis and the opaque measures of the government combined are already affecting the global markets: particularly the United States. The Dow Jones Industrial Average (DJIA) posted a dismal end to Monday’s trading session: declining by more than 600 points. The 10-year Treasury yields slipped down 6.4 basis points to 1.297% as investors sought safety amid uncertainty. The concern is regarding China’s route to solve the issue and the timeline it would adopt. While the markets across Europe and Asia are optimistic about a partial settlement of debt payments, a take over from state-owned enterprises could further drive uncertainty; majorly regarding the pay schedule of western bondholders amid political hostility.

Economists believe that, while a financial crisis doesn’t seem like a plausible threat, a delayed response or a clumsy reaction could permeate volatility in the capital markets globally. Furthermore, a default or a takeover would almost certainly pull down China’s economy. While the US has already turned stringent over Chinese IPOs recently, a debt default could puncture the economic viability of a wide array of Chinese companies around the world. And thus, while the global banking system is not at an immediate threat of a Lehman catastrophe, Evergrande’s bankruptcy would, nonetheless, erode both the domestic and the global housing market. Moreover, it would further dent Chinese imports (and seriously damage regional exchequers), and would ultimately put a damper on global economic recovery from the pandemic.

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Economy Contradicts Democracy: Russian Markets Boom Amid Political Sabotage

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The political game plan laid by the Russian premier Vladimir Putin has proven effective for the past two decades. Apart from the systemic opposition, the core critics of the Kremlin are absent from the ballot. And while a competitive pretense is skilfully maintained, frontrunners like Alexei Navalny have either been incarcerated, exiled, or pushed against the metaphorical wall. All in all, United Russia is ahead in the parliamentary polls and almost certain to gain a veto-proof majority in State Duma – the Russian parliament. Surprisingly, however, the Russian economy seems unperturbed by the active political manipulation of the Kremlin. On the contrary, the Russian markets have already established their dominance in the developing world as Putin is all set to hold his reign indefinitely.

The Russian economy is forecasted to grow by 3.9% in 2021. The pandemic seems like a pained tale of history as the markets have strongly rebounded from the slump of 2020. The rising commodity prices – despite worrisome – have edged the productivity of the Russian raw material giants. The gains in ruble have gradually inched higher since January, while the current account surplus has grown by 3.9%. Clearly, the manufacturing mechanism of Moscow has turned more robust. Primarily because the industrial sector has felt little to no jitters of both domestic and international defiance. The aftermath of the arrest of Alexei Navalny wrapped up dramatically while the international community couldn’t muster any resistance beyond a handful of sanctions. The Putin regime managed to harness criticism and allegations while deftly sketching a blueprint to extend its dominance.

The ideal ‘No Uncertainty’ situation has worked wonders for the Russian Bourse and the bond market. The benchmark MOEX index (Moscow Exchange) has rallied by 23% in 2021 – the strongest performance in the emerging markets. Moreover, the fixed income premiums have dropped to record lows; Russian treasury bonds offering the best price-to-earning ratio in the emerging markets. The main reason behind such a bustling market response could be narrowed down to one factor: growing investor confidence.

According to Bloomberg’s data, the Russian Foreign Exchange reserves are at their record high of $621 billion. And while the government bonds’ returns hover at a mere 1.48%, the foreign ownership of treasury bonds has inflated above 20% for the second time this year. The investors are confident that a significant political shuffle is not on cards as Putin maintains a tight hold over Kremlin. Furthermore, investors do not perceive the United States as an active deterrent to Russia – at least in the near term. The notion was further exacerbated when the Biden administration unilaterally dropped sanctions from the Nord Stream 2 pipeline project. And while Europe and the US remain sympathetic with the Kremlin critics, large economies like Germany have clarified their economic position by striking lucrative deals amid political pressure. It is apparent that while Europe is conflicted after Brexit, even the US faces much more pressing issues in the guise of China and Afghanistan. Thus, no active international defiance has all but bolstered the Kremlin in its drive to gain foreign investments.

Another factor at work is the overly hawkish Russian Central Bank (RCB). To tame inflation – currency raging at an annual rate of 6.7% – the RCB hiked its policy rate to 6.75% from the all-time low of 4.25%. The RCB has raised its policy rate by a cumulative 250 basis points in four consecutive hikes since January which has all but attracted the investors to jump on the bandwagon. However, inflation is proving to be sturdy in the face of intermittent rate hikes. And while Russian productivity is enjoying a smooth run, failure of monetary policy tools could just as easily backfire.

While political dissent or international sanctions remain futile, inflation is the prime enemy which could detract the Russian economy. For years Russia has faced a sharp decline in living standards, and despite commendable fiscal management of the Kremlin, such a steep rise in prices is an omen of a financial crisis. Moreover, the unemployment rates have dropped to record low levels. However, the labor shortage is emerging as another facet that could plausibly ignite the wage-price spiral. Further exacerbating the threat of inflation are the $9.6 billion pre-election giveaways orchestrated by President Putin to garner more support for his United Russia party. Such a tremendous demand pressure could presumably neutralize the aggressive tightening of the monetary policy by the RCB. Thus, while President Putin sure is on a definitive path of immortality on the throne of the Kremlin, surging inflation could mark a return of uncertainty, chip away investors’ confidence: eventually putting a brake on the economic streak.

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