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Geo-economics and power

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After the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union, the international system witnessed a number of transformations like globalization of trade exchanges, de-industrialization of the Western World and the rise of new powers like China, Brazil and even post-Soviet Russia.

Before then the geo-economic analysis considered the enterprise as the center of the economic balance of power and was mainly focused on competition. At the present stage, this model appears not to be accurate enough to address the contradictions between power politics, market practices and territorial approaches. The chart elaborated by French strategist Christian Harbulot (PMT) allows considering other elements like power, market and territory that better address the complexity of this analysis.

The main challenge is finding a convergence between long-term business interests and state power politics strategies while taking an environmental friendly approach. The enterprises, for example, tend to have a preference for short-term policies, whereas state-led industrial policies are set on a long-term basis.

Nevertheless, there are indeed some cases in which coordination between corporate development strategies and state-led economic policies is successful: for instance, Russian state-led Gazprom as far as the choice of international markets for Russian gas supplies is concerned, and the American Boeing, that refused to open a branch for aircraft assembly in China, in order to avoid transferring sensitive technologies.

On top of business and state policies coordination problems, the economic needs of the territories do not necessarily merge with state-led or business practices, which refer to the logic of competition, like in the case of de-localizations.

The graph below (PMT) highlights the intersection between the three above-mentioned levels (power, market, territory). Its goal is providing a dynamic reading of different economic scenarios, not exclusively centered on the enterprise or on financial actors, whose decisions do not always take into account environmental contexts. This cross-referenced analysis facilitates the drafting of anticipation or corrective economic strategies.

The interpretation of power politics must take into account a political understanding of economic relations, which are promoted especially in developing countries. The interpretation of the market operations, mainly performed by entrepreneurs, must consider a certain amount of detachment from political objectives, especially in the Western world. Lastly, the interpretation of the actions of local stakeholders must consider the fact that the territory has always suffered from the aggressiveness of competition, to which territorial representatives tried to react through innovative management and appealing policies.

Another category that also influences economic decision-making is civil society that does not account to state, business or local stakeholders. Civil society’s stances are progressively boosting a broader reflection on market economy and advocating an ethical regulation of economic affairs through some forms of sustainable development.

The organization and management of strategic provisions is a fundamental feature of any discussion related to strategic economic development and the increase of state power. The strategic decision that are more often taken in order to increase strategic provisions security are: creating a special State-business committee, establishing partnership with other states, research and development investments, relaunching production capacity, adopting a recycle policy.

The creation of a State – Business commission on strategic provisions could better connect the public and the private sector so that services provided by the states in key sectors (defense, foreign affairs, industry, ecology, etc.) are available to the business sector. The Committee for strategic metals (COMES), established in France in 2011, is an example of this synergy even though its high level of specialization sometimes limits its broader efficiency.

Many of the OCSE countries, like the United States and Japan, set up a reserve of strategic raw material provisions to draw from in case of a block in supplies. However, this option presents some problematical aspects: 1) setting aside a certain amount of strategic raw materials to accumulate in the reserve can determine a lack of capital supplies for the entrepreneurs; 2) it is not really clear what is more convenient to fill the stockpile with. Accumulating low-alley materials or semi-finished products can be difficult for a country where the first transformation process of final products does not take place.

In order to keep supplies constant over time, the securitization of strategic provisions must rely on the partnership with foreign countries or companies as well. A good example of partnership could be setting up a mining site in a state possessing a given raw material and working on its production and transformation capacities through transferring capitals and know-how.  In this regard – as many businessmen highlight – the choice of the partner countries depends on geopolitical risk factors. Argentine and Brazil, for instance, are more likely to attract foreign investment compared with the Democratic Republic of Congo that is not considered as a safe country.

Investing in research and development (R&D), instead, is fundamental to find alternative solution to the substances that are either too expensive or toxic, and to decrease the quantities that are needed without affecting the performance.

Relaunching domestic production capacity contributes to the requalification of the abandoned production sites or whose value for some reasons decreased over time. This option can be challenging for a number of reasons: reopening existing plants is expensive, sometimes the know-how of a given district disappeared over the years, and it is difficult to identify what is the best business opportunity to restore (mines, transformation chains, etc.). On top of a cutting waste practices, businessman prefer to adopt a material recycling policy, especially in the automotive and aeronautical sector. However, even recycling has its downsides, like expensive and polluting processes, and cannot be considered as a determined solution because there is still some waste percentage that cannot be fully eliminated.

Nevertheless, even in a context of perfect synergy between the investments, the policies presented so far are just the starting point for the securitization of strategic provisions. A successful strategy to address this issue requires an accurate assessment and forecast of the current and the future needs of both enterprises and people of a given community. Before pursuing any kind of policy in this field, the state must necessarily have a clear perspective on its own plan for strategic provisions.

An accurate forecast should envisage future needs and the kind and quantity of the materials that are necessary for the functioning of technologies of the future. Identifying supply chains is another aspect worth considering – especially as far as rare materials are concerned – in light of the possible risks for the industrial plants.

The French government in the early ’70 adopted a similar plan after the oil crisis: assessment of future energy needs, development of technologies to cope with it (nuclear power plants), and identification of uranium supply chains and implementation of a strategy based on a reduction in hydrocarbons provisions. The creation of the COMES is part of this plan.

The issue of provisions can be observed from two different angles. Strategic provisions are mainly raw materials of which the state needs constant supply: energy sources like oil, gas, uranium and rare earth elements that are indispensable for the functioning of information technologies and communication, to “green” energy and defense technologies. The Strategy of provisions, instead, consists in the policies to be adopted to guarantee a sufficient supply of strategic materials to sustain prosperity of the French socio-economic model over time.

The enterprise is the main actor of the economy and plays a significant role vis-à-vis the economic war that is relentlessly replacing traditional conflicts in the international arena at the present moment. An example of the combination between war and economics is the fight in the acquisition of post-war reconstruction contracts, like in Bosnia and Kosovo in the ‘90s but even more in Iraq or Libya. In Africa, especially in the Great Lakes region, great powers compete between each other for the control of strategic raw materials that are vital for the future of industrialized economies.

At this stage of globalization in which the future of the economy is mainly determined by non-state actors, the presence of the State is highly put into question. Nevertheless, it would be impossible to completely cut out the state from the economy because the roles it inevitably plays in a market: client, sponsor and producer all at the same time.

According to the definition provided by British historian and WWII expert Liddel Hart, setting up a “strategy” means coordinating and canalizing all the resources of a given state (political, military, diplomatic, economic, cultural) towards the outcome desired. With the end of the Cold War, the importance of the military element is progressively decreasing, while trade and economic resources became the main domain of competition between states.

This new setting of inter-state competition is also the result of the rise of new actors, the BRICS countries, alongside the West and Japan, which represent the traditional industrial powers. As far as European countries are concerned, there are some less evident elements to rely on in order to draft a more accurate plan for the future: ensuring state control on strategic sectors through providing incentives for domestic enterprises and, most importantly, aiming at economic growth, employment and gaining presence on foreign markets.  

The United States and China are the major great powers that show how state support to the private sector – especially vis-à-vis the protection of strategic sectors and promoting domestic business abroad – is not only possible but also indispensable at power politics.

An interesting feature of the French economy is the difference of treatment – and sometimes the conflict – between multinational and small/medium enterprises. Multinational corporations are the driving force of the economy and although for a long time benefited from the national industrial policies, they are currently trying to weaken the ties with the state. Small and medium enterprises are instead more rooted in the national territory but are often struggling for financing, access to foreign markets, protection of their specific know-how and acquisition of new capacities that are indispensable for their survival. The state should then play a key role in coordinate public and private sphere. However, mutual mistrust between these two sectors – although understandable – turns out to be a hurdle for development in most European countries.

In the United States the situation is quite different: strong ties between public administration, private sector, academia and think tank built up a network that strongly favors communication and obtaining information. This aspect tends to get little attention in Europe, where state power is considered as a limit to overcome rather than an opportunity to take. It is true that public institutions have a significant advantage in terms of intermediation capacities and access to information compared to the private actors. However, if oriented towards the needs of the real economy, multi-level coordination between public and private sector can provide a competitive advantage for both multinational and small/medium enterprises.

Creating competitive clusters allows to use the networks at its full capacity, helps local sharing of good-practices with regard to economic intelligence, protection of intangible heritage of information, and know-how of the enterprises. The state cannot refuse to take this pressing challenge: it must promote the access to good practices especially for small enterprises following the rules of transparency.

In recent years, investment funds became a popular topic in the debate around economic power as possible threat to the survival of western corporation model, especially as far as middle-eastern and Chinese sovereign funds are concerned. However, Chinese investments in European companies are still quite low and mainly concentrated in sectors like raw materials, energy resources and other operations that does not lead to a real control the enterprise.

In some cases, however, some acquisitions are deemed to gain technological (or other) competences, without a real interest to invest in the local development of the acquired undertaking, as the cases of Intel (investment fund with CIA connections), Carlyle Group (in the aerospace industry) and TPG (that from 2006 controls the main French company producing smart cards) demonstrate. In this framework, there are several instruments aiming at protecting State’s sovereignty, which is threatened by massive purchasing of economic activities by sovereign funds. Firstly, a screening of foreign investment in strategic fields can be put in place, especially to protect Small and Medium Enterprises. Secondly, a change of attitude is needed, in order to accept that developing countries will control more and more European companies. In these cases, however, the principle of reciprocity shall be respected.

Particular relevance has to be granted to standard and rules, which are normally set out at the international level. Accordingly, lobbying within international organizations, as the United States knows very well, is of the highest importance. Otherwise States could elaborate their own standards or invest, for example, in the International Organization for Standardization, as China is doing.

In this subject matter, the European Union is not able to “speak with one voice”. In particular, the lack of a Union’s comprehensive strategy, and thus the predominance of national interests, is particularly evident. In accordance with the Treaties, in fact, in the internal market, the protection of competition takes precedence over an effective industrial policy. In light of the foregoing, new priorities should be set out, in order to enhance the coordination that could increase the penetration in non-EU markets (especially concerning some strategic sector, i.e. the defense one) and improve the existing competition. Nevertheless, it should be noticed that these changes might not be possible without the creation of real “United States of Europe”.

The current debate often focuses on energy security, not only from an economic point of view. The need to swift from “energy security” to the “energy supply” has been underlined, as well as the importance of securing the energy flows. This is demonstrated by the so-called “oil wars”, as the two Gulf wars, the war in Afghanistan and in Libya could surely be defined. However, despite the fact that the oil supply is one of the main causes of these conflicts, delicate international geopolitical balances are crucial elements to be take into account.

Along with the control of the “black gold”, the “gas issue” should be given a great importance for several reasons. Research demonstrates that the increasing in energy demand in the next years (from developing countries in particular) could not be satisfied by oil only. Furthermore, it is necessary to find alternative solutions in order to overcome difficulties stemming from extraction techniques in newly discovered oil fields.

Accordingly, States are trying to revise their energy policy, by reducing consumption and improving the quality of their infrastructures to avoid leaks, by diversifying their energy sources, especially by increasing the use of renewable energy (i.e. wind, sun and wave power), and by controlling the use of national resources (as France does with hydropower and nuclear energy).

Moreover, security of supplies is related to raw materials, where the interplay between economic and geopolitical aspects is evident. Agricultural products, minerals and rare earths elements are only few examples.

China holds more than 90% of rare earth elements and uses this monopoly to achieve its political purposes, against Japan for instance, towards which the Chinese government applies restrictions on exports in light of their territorial disputes. Furthermore, conflicts arise in relation to abundant resources, such as cultivable lands (as it happens with land grabbing) or common goods, such as water, air, biodiversity and the genetic heritage. In this framework, countries, in a globalized word, have to deal with the scarcity of resources, caused by demographic growth, as well as by the increasing of material and immaterial trade flows, flows of goods and people, information and money. In particular, supplies are granted only when flows are safe and this implies several economic and military consequences.

On the one hand, different economic elements shall be protected: the ownership of infrastructures, the technical control of the exploitation of resources, the choice of transport routes (such as pipelines for the European supply) and the control on access routes (such as harbours).

On the other hand, security depends on military capacity to oversee production and export areas, as well as on seaway’s extension and control. Examples are the protection of the Gulf of Aden by EU’s Atlanta and NATO’s Ocean Shield operations.

One of the main geopolitical issues in the current debate concerns rare earth elements These include 17 elements that are fundamental for high-tech industries, even though they are used in small quantities. For instance, lanthanum can be found in electric vehicle batteries and in sonar; samarium in some missiles’ elements; gallium in night vision devices; indium in flat panels. These specific Raw materials are actually at the center of the dispute between China and the United States, which are two of the main actors in international relations of XXI century. Evidence supports the predominance of China in this field: the country holds between 34 and 50% of world reserves and produced, in 2010, 95% of rare earth elements (130,000 tonnes out of 133,000). This was possible after having progressively abandoned the exploitation of western sites and the complete integration in the global economy system. Therefore, Pekin is able to use this leverage in its dialogue with western countries, by imposing very high prices or, even worse, by breaking their supply chain. There is no doubt, however, that a problem of dependence exists and that it is not clear how to solve it. Nevertheless, China’s position seems not to be so safe. The country should become an importer of rare earth elements by the end of the current decade.

Between 2006 and 2010 China reduced its export share of these metals from 5 to 10% per year. Furthermore, their production was limited, to avoid the depletion of reserves. However, China-Japan tensions of September 2010 (following the Japanese inspection of a Chinese vessel in “contested” waters) have worsened their relationship. As a result, the Chinese Trade Minister set 30% reduction of export share.

China was trying to use rare earth metals as an economic weapon, which led to a real embargo on its exports towards the European Union, Japan (representing one fifth of its final demand) and United States, whose diplomats were able to obtain by their Chinese colleagues full assurance concerning liability in the future. This demonstrated that Sino-US relations are of the highest importance in the American politics. Currently, 87% US imports of rare earth elements come from China, while the remaining 13% is from domestic reserves.

The Chinese embargo forced the United States to implement a strategic vision that was missing so far, because of the dependence of the country form external resources. Therefore, the US needed to undertake some measures stimulating mining, refining and transformation of this kind of raw materials.. As a result, the US pursued a policy of differentiation of trade partners.

Nevertheless, the exploitation of mines in order to obtain rare earth elements is rather difficult, both at the administrative (the re-opening of one of these mines takes 9 years) and at the political level (environmental organisations are often against these projects). Molycop case represents a successful story in this field. The enterprise, in fact, owned Mountain Pass mine, which is the biggest site of non-Chinese rare earth metals in the world, and obtained in 2010 (few months after the above-mentioned diplomatic tensions with China) the authorization to relaunch the activity. Molycorp’s efforts ended at the end of 2012 and the company increased its production from 3.000 tonnes to 20.000 tonnes per year and received 531 million dollars of funds. Currently, the company is the only one that extracts these materials outside China. The step of this process will be summarised in the following paragraph.

In June 2010 Molycorp signed an agreement with Canadian company NeoMaterial, which provides technical assistance and know-how on the production of rare earths elements. Moreover, in December of the same year, Molycorp set up a joint-venture with the Japanese Hitachi, in order to create several associated enterprises producing alloys and magnets in the United States. Furthermore, Molycor signed a memorandum of understanding with Sumitomo Corporation trough which Molycorp completed its supply chain of rare earth metal-manufacturing products. These products are then delivered to Sumitomo Corporation. In April 2011 Molycorp acquired the American branch of the Japanese enterprise Santoku for 17.5 million dollars and the Estonian Silmet for 89 million dollars. Therefore, Molycorp can actually count on a network of customers that goes from the Far East to Europe.

Molycop has secured funds, mines, know-how, logistical cooperation and a network of buyers, and became the only western enterprise with a full control of the entire supply chain of rare earth elements, from the mining to the sale process . The United States could thus avoid direct conflicts with China, after the threat of embargo and the increase in prices.

Despite the fact that China could not be excluded from rare earth elements-market, its power shall be controlled, as tensions arisen in 2010 showed. The idea of an embargo in September 2010 stimulated competition and pushed western countries to diversify their supply sources. As a result, the offer increased and Chinese power decreased.

Economy

Rebalancing Act: China’s 2022 Outlook

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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

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The US Economic Uncertainty: Bitcoin Faces a Test of Resilience?

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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.

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Platform Modernisation: What the US Treasury Sanctions Review Is All About

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Image source: home.treasury.gov

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.

From our partner RIAC

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Pragmatic Proposals to Optimize Russia’s Pledged Rehabilitation of Ethiopia

Russian Ambassador to Ethiopia Evgeny Terekhin pledged that his homeland will help rehabilitate his hosts after getting a clearer understanding...

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Surging electricity demand is putting power systems under strain around the world

Global electricity demand surged in 2021, creating strains in major markets, pushing prices to unprecedented levels and driving the power...

New Social Compact8 hours ago

Grace and a Tennis Celebrity

Among the character traits we cherish in fellow humans, grace is often more noticeable in its absence.  The recent saga...

Central Asia10 hours ago

Kazakhstan, like Ukraine, spotlights the swapping of the rule of law for the law of the jungle

When a Russian-led military force intervened earlier this month, it did more than help Kazakh President Qasym-Johart Toqayev restore and...

Russia16 hours ago

Neighbours and Crises: New Challenges for Russia

Through all the discussions that accompanied the preparation of the Valdai Club report “Space Without Borders: Russia and Its Neighbours”,...

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