Christian Harbulot, director of the Economic Warfare School in Paris, provides an historical reconstruction of the economic balance of power between states. In this study, he demonstrates that the strategies that states put in place in order to increase their economic power – and their impact on the international balance of power – can only be interpreted through the concept of economic warfare.
According to Harbulot, the true goal of these economic clashes has so far been hidden. Therefore, there is no academic discussion or understanding of this topic that is capable of providing an effective reading of international relations. There are many factors that will potentially trigger tensions between states in the future: the crisis of liberal principles promoting a positive view of economic development and globalization as a tool for establishing peace between nations; gradual resource depletion; energy issues; challenges to the Western economic leadership posed by the process of deindustrialization and the development ambitions of emerging economies.
This perspective sheds light on the importance of recognizing the legitimacy of the concept of economic warfare and lay the theoretical foundations to analyze the economic strategies states adopt to increase their power. In Harbulot’s opinion, the principles of economic warfare can be historically retraced in the fight for survival and for the control of resources and territories. The first example of economic warfare in history is the incursions of the nomad populations aimed at raiding the wealth of sedentary populations. In modern times, the economic warfare increased its spatial scope so that maritime and terrestrial commercial routes became the theater of continuous clashes for the control of some specific resources.
At that time, maritime piracy became an effective tool to exert power. In fact, the British pirates – that were attracted by trade routes between Europe, Africa and America, became the ancestors of the British Royal Navy. Both at sea and on the ground, the economic dimension became a key feature in military and diplomatic operations. By the end of the Middle Age, some kings used the economic power in order to support their military actions. An example of this is the war between the French king Louis XI and Charles I of Bourgogne: the French king commanded his fleet to block corn and herrings supplies to the Flanders (in the kingdom of Bourgogne), convinced the bankers to stop funding his rival and encouraged the hosting of fairs in Lyon in order to reduce the money flux to Geneva, which at the time was the trade hub between Bourgogne, Germany, and Italy.
In the 17th century, the newly created states considered the security of their territory (cities and countryside) as a strategic priority. In this time, the Seven United Provinces of the North created the first model of sanctuary area, meaning the securitization of a given territory from any kind of attack from the enemy. A net of fortresses and natural barriers like rivers was meant to protect the Provinces from the attacks coming from Spain. Similarly, Vauban’s France built up fortifications along the frontiers of the newly acquired territories in the north. This defense system led to the concept of “pré-carré” (squared field) that made reference to the geometric shape coming out from the disposition of these fortifications on the map that looked like a garden, divided in different flowerbeds. From then, this term evolved to nowadays’ meaning of “external sphere of influence” from the diplomatic, military and economic point of view. In order to guarantee their territorial integrity, states also exploited the military capabilities of an allied state in exchange of economic concessions. Portugal, for instance, signed an alliance treaty with the United Kingdom in 1373 in order to get its protection against Spain’s attempt to incorporate it. If at the very beginning this alliance was set up between pairs, later on it became the framework for the establishment of British protectorate over Portugal, so that for centuries the UK offered military protection in return of financial and commercial control over Portugal. Economic warfare has always been a feature of each stage of colonization, from the Roman Empire to the maritime empires established in the 16th century that gradually acquired control of natural resources and trade routes. Human trafficking is the most evident example of how economic interest impacts power relationships. In this regard, the colonization process of North America clearly shows the overlapping of conflicting dynamics of different economic interests.
The exploitation of American settlers in cotton plantations as well as the fiscal policy and the trade restrictions applied, led Great Britain and its colonies to war. Harbulot mentions this historical case to show how the control of trade routes is a key feature of economic clashes between states. In the 16th century, before becoming an Empire built up on its maritime trade power, Great Britain was a poor country with no military power. At that time, Spain and Portugal dominated the sea routes. When the British decided to became a maritime power, they started with piracy actions threatening the superiority of the enemies’ fleets.
Under the reign of Elizabeth I, the British pirates started pillaging Spanish and Portuguese ships carrying precious metals from South America. Afterwards, the British started expanding their trade networks to Turkey, Russia, the Caribbean and Asia. Finally, in 1707 the birth of Great Britain out of the fusion between Reign of Scotland with the Reign of England, led to the creation of one of the greatest free trade area of the time and to the first model of mass consumption in the world. During the 17th century, the British tried to exploit the great trade potential of British territories overseas and established the East India Company that paved the way to the colonization of India.
The colonial aspirations of Great Britain led to a military escalation that was necessary to defeat local sovereigns opposing the British hegemony, and to face the rivalry with other European powers. Great Britain went to war with the Netherlands (1652-1784) to win the control of the main trade routes with their colonies, which was threatened by the dominant position of the Dutch company of East India. Again, the necessity of securing maritime routes, led the British Empire to many other wars like Afghanistan (1839 -1842 and 1878 -1880) in light of contrasting Russia’s expansionism in India; the opium war with Chinese Empire (1839-1842 and 1856-1860) in order to force the Qing dynasty to open up to world trade; the occupation of Egypt in order to control the strategic platform in Cairo; the Boer wars (1880-1881 and 1899-1902) to ensure strategic control over Cape Town. After taking into account the British case as an example of how the ability to control sea routes is a key asset in geostrategic clashes, Harbulot analyzes the overlapping between war and economics that became evident for the first time during the revolutionary and Napoleonic wars (1792 – 1815).
William Pitt – British Prime Minister at the time – tried to preserve Great Britain’s predominant position in international trade. His strategy aimed at controlling the sea routes and establishing an indisputable maritime advantage through the Royal Navy – which was the only British force that could compete with France’s military capacity. The British military fleet was therefore empowered with 105 ships, whereas the French one could count on only 70. While Prussia – Great Britain’s ally – was able to contain France and its allies on the continent, the British fleet weakened France’s economic potential through preventing its access to the sea routes. For the first time in history, the economic warfare became global and delineated two blocks: on the one hand, Great Britain put in place a maritime block against France; on the other hand France locked the access to British exports to Europe.
The original feature of these two blocks consisted in the fact that both states wanted to adopt economic retaliation strategies to win the conflict. For example, Russia’s withdrawal from Napoleon’s continental block triggered Napoleon’s Russian campaign, that had disgraceful consequences for the French Emperor. The overlapping between traditional and economic warfare paved the way to some mechanism for economic warfare that were kept in place even in peacetime. By the end of the 18th century, France’s industry resulted to be significantly weakened by the military efforts carried on during the revolutionary wars. Napoleon then chose the scientist Jean-Antoine Chaptal, to reform the French industry and protect it from Great Britain’s trade threats.
In addition, Napoleon instructed the National Industry Encouragement Society to detect the strength and the weaknesses of the British economy: France was willing to do everything in its power in order to fill the twenty-year gap with the British, even smuggling machineries that were illegally purchased or stolen in Great Britain. In the framework of the continental block imposed by France, Napoleon consolidated this system of economic defense through a militarization of the custom check-points (whose officers in 1815 represented 20% administrative personnel of France besides the army). Despite the costs of the wars with France, Great Britain managed to keep its advantages: the industrial revolution that had started long before compared to the rest of the continent made British products more competitive; British colonies ensured a significant supply of raw materials and British naval supremacy allowed the control of the main sea routes.
It was paramount for London to reduce trade barriers in order to export its products to Europe, therefore the British government adopted the first techniques of economic warfare peacetime. In particular, a commission led by the political economist John Bowring was instructed to negotiate with French authorities for the opening up of trade. What Bowring did in reality, was lobbying for the creation of groups supporting British liberal trade in France and using the local press to influence public opinion that was the main tool to reach this goal. It was only with WWI, though, that the principles of economic warfare were formalized.
Already in 1914, in light of the likely long duration of the conflict, the powers involved elaborated the typical practices of the economic warfare: i.e. reducing the availability of materials for the enemy’s army, and raw materials for its industry – with an extremely negative impact on the population – blocking trade and finance flows that directly hit the enemy’s food supplies. In addition, over the course of the conflict, some specific structures dedicated to the economic warfare were created. In 1915, the French Ministry of War set up a Control Section responsible for collecting necessary information to support economic warfare. Similarly, Great Britain created an independent organization, the War Trade Intelligence Department, attached to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. In 1916, Italy set up a special office entrusted with collecting and checking economic news, attached to the Ministry of War.
These structures were coordinated by an Inter-allied office located in Paris. During the conflict, economic warfare actions became more and more targeted against international objectives and supported by military operations, which became more sophisticated thanks to the development of aviation technologies. However, in 1918 there was no general consensus between France, Great Britain and the United States about the goals to reach. Paris wanted to use economic warfare to force Germany to surrender and accept international control on its possession of raw materials, so that France could still have the upper hand. Washington was aware of the leverage the economic warfare could play to stop Germany’s economic expansion and get to a peace treaty, however its main interest was to stress the liberal principles and play a dominant role in international trade; London aligned itself with the United States while keeping its focus on its economic interests. As the conflict ended, the structures dedicated to economic warfare were dismissed but were restored after the break out of WWII. In 1939, Great Britain created an actual Ministry for Economic Warfare, with similar tasks of the dismissed War Trade Intelligence Department.
In June 1940, Prime Minister Winston Churchill set up a new service called Special Operations Executive – that was basically the offensive component of the Ministry of Economic Warfare – and entrusted it to conduct sabotage operations on the continent and fuel uprisings in the territories occupied by the Germans. At this stage, the interaction between war and economy shed light on the problems related to the economic warfare. However, in the second half of the 20th century, this topic was overshadowed. On the one hand, during the Cold War, Western bloc countries were keen to cover the economic disparities between them and powered their ideological projection against the Soviet bloc. On the other hand, the United States – the new global superpower – elaborated their version of the British strategy of influence and promoted the free trade theories and competition as the main model for the Western world economy.
According to Harbulot, an effective analysis of the economic warfare must consider the evolution of the methods states used to conquer territories, increase their trade and power. Over the 19th century, states preferred to conquer markets (through economic warfare) rather than territories (through traditional warfare) in order to acquire more influence on the international level. Harbulot identifies the cases of Japan and Germany because of the importance these states gave to the seek for a “vital space”, to be conquered through territorial acquisition and trade influence. In 1854 U.S. commodore Matthew Perry forced Japan to open up its ports to Western powers. However, in 1867 Mutsuhito ascended the throne of Japan and decided to reverse the established balance of power. His modernization policies aimed at filling the gap with major Western economies and hinder their leadership.
The Meiji Restoration – whose slogan was “Enrich the country, strengthen the military” – was framed in a policy aimed at acquiring a comprehensive expertise in many fields, following the example of the leading countries in a given sector. Japan also pursued an expansionistic policy through the annexation of Korea and claimed a trade protection on China – that threatened the United States’ interests in developing business ties with the country. Japan’s main goal was to establish a sphere of regional co-prosperity with East Asia countries, occupied by the imperial army. Therefore, the Japanese empire occupied Manchuria and founded the state of Manchukuo, a classic example of the reproduction of military systems invented by the Portuguese and then imitated by the Dutch and the British. The Japanese combined the model of the Company of India with the one of the American railroads to create the Railroad Company of Manchuria. This latter was in charge of the administration of Manchukuo and of the management of the Japanese occupation troops; it possessed its own police forces, a central bank and even a merchant fleet. The State of Manchukuo was test site for the new approach to increase state power through the economy.
The case of Germany is quite different. Over the course of its history, Germany constantly sought to acquire new territories to guarantee food supplies for its population, as German lands were covered with forests and difficult for farming. By the end of the Middle Ages, German settlers started colonizing the lands of East Bavaria. While acquiring new territories was not always a peaceful process because of the resistance of the local population, the expansion via sea was far easier. The creation of the Hanseatic League allowed Germany to peacefully establish its dominion on the Polish shores between 16th and 17th centuries. The battles conducted by the Hohenzollern family completed the creation of a sphere of influence at the eastern borders of Germany. The debate around the strategic advantages of territorial versus trade expansion was very popular in the politics of the Second Reich. The unification of Germany pursued by Otto von Bismarck allowed the country to acquire more influence on the world stage. However, the increasing in its power at the end of 19th century was not only boosted by the changes brought by the industrial era, but also by the geostrategic competition with the British and French Empire: the German strategic core consisted in the “Konzern” (associations of both vertically and horizontally integrated enterprises), in banks and insurance companies that challenged their European competitors.
The debate on how to handle a hypothetical geo-economic success gained momentum at the end of WWI. As a result, in 1915 Samuel Herzog published in Germany “German economic warfare plan”, which could be considered as a draft handbook of economic warfare.
In his book, Herzog listed the economic tools that States could oppose to the Reich’s enemies. Some of them are helpful to influence or control the exports during the economic warfare; some others could ensure Germany’s success against the passive resistance of defeated countries. According to the author, in order to preserve Germany’s economic assets, it is necessary for the state to exercise its control over industries that have kept the upper hand against foreign countries. In addition, the state should protect private initiative in a way that it does not conflict with national economic interests.
Harbulot focuses then on the dissimulation of economic warfare: firstly, the economic dimension acquired a great prominence in the balance of power among individuals, groups and states; secondly, he underlined the high interdependence between the economic strength and the political and military power. Nevertheless, the historic phenomenon of economic warfare has always been denied, because the political justifications for economic expansions have always been perceived as aggressive and illegal.
The negative perception of the economic war as a consequence of cupidity is grounded on Saint Augustine and Thomas Aquinas’ just war theory. According to this theory, States are pushed to hide their war plans for economic purposes and to proclaim their intention to spread religions, to stimulate growth of developing countries and, more recently, to promote democracy. This dissimulation attitude causes the distortion of the balance of power.
It is worth noticing that international military organisations, such as NATO, have not developed a proper economic warfare doctrine yet, because of conflicting interests among member states.
Some examples of the dissimulation of economic warfare are the domination strategies implemented by colonial empires, as well as recovery strategies of countries aiming at avoiding colonisation or at increasing their power.
Firstly, domination was dissimulated by the pretext to conquer and impose one’s religion to colonised people. Secondly, the doctrine of liberalism and the idea of increasing power through trade expansion stimulated free trade and the opening of new markets. All these factors became the justification to the foundation of new empires.
Any commercial achievement could lead into an economic warfare, which could represent a coercive instrument to use against countries that try to close their market. As to some examples, the United Kingdom implemented its “gunboat diplomacy”, in order to export its products in the Middle East and East Asia markets and in 1840-41 the Royal Navy closed the Alexandrian harbour. Moreover, during the Opium Wars, the Western countries forced an “independent country” to participate in the drug trade.
With the Opium Wars, the strategy of “economic aggression” became evident. As a result, countries such as Japan were forced to modify their plan and to implement a significant economic penetration policy (represented by the above-mentioned slogan “enrich the country, strengthen the military”) with the aim of reducing disparities with Western countries. When, a century later, at the end of ‘80s, Japan became the world’s second largest economy, the USA and Europe denounced its expansionism, as well as its economic trade’s strategy. The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) even published a report on the “Japanese propaganda” aiming at hiding the protectionist measures taken by the US against other market economies, in violation of the principles of economic liberalism.
As for the recovery strategies, they focus on basic objectives and are strongly linked to geographic and cultural background. Due to its geographical morphology, Japan developed a solid maritime infrastructure, along with an industrial economy and became a model for South Korea, India, Brazil and China. In particular, South Korea opted for shipbuilding and for the creation of large private industrial conglomerates.
On the contrary, India chose to become a world leader in IT sector and pursued an education reform in order to improve science teaching. Moreover, the city of Bangalore, thanks to its favourable weather conditions, was transformed into a high-tech capital.
Brazil instead based its recovery strategy on the energetic sector, with the aim of becoming the regional leader in this field. Besides, Brazil used its soft power to claim the role of world’s sustainable development power due to its wide-scale production of electric power.
Finally, the Chinese recovery strategy was grounded on market opening, with the creation of special economic zones and the implementation of measures to attract foreign investments.
However China, as Japan did, developed an aggressive plan of foreign markets’ penetration, with the strong opposition of the United States. This triggered a debate around economic warfare in the Western world. In particular, China was deemed to become member of “normative” international organisation only in order to impose its own rules. As a matter of fact, reactions caused to a sceptic attitude against China could be considered as economic conflicts. This is true for protectionist measures on photovoltaic technologies taken by the Obama administration, as well as for the decision of the Australian government to refuse the participation of the Chinese company Minmetal in the Australian firm Oz Metal.
The paradigm of economic warfare changed after the Second World War, when the USA became the world geo-political, military and trade leader. Along with coercive methods of colonial empires, the USA expressed their economic power by pursuing a new strategy. In particular, in order to prevail over an allied country in the economic and cultural field, the United States established themselves as a superpower and managed to hold a stronger position in the hierarchy of the values, rules and arbitrages of market economy. As a result, the US imposed in peacetime to Western countries a “silent practice” of economic warfare.
Nevertheless, the availability of new markets after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the aggressive recovery strategies implemented by emerging economies modified the current stability of international economic relations. Furthermore, a growing competition, stemming from the two above-mentioned factors, pushed the USA to take into account the need of a “real” economic war. Asia’s increasing power and the EU internal market, actually undermined the supremacy that the USA had acquired by the end of WWII.
These changes in the balance of power highlight the new paradigm of the economic warfare: the relationship between ally and enemy is replaced by a direct or indirect conflict between two enemies.
Despite the fact that economic warfare was usually characterised by direct conflicts, globalisation has modified the world economic framework, both for emerging economies and developed countries.
States’ strategic interests diverge and become more and more complex. Therefore, a military or geo-political concern could be in contrast with an economic one, and vice versa. As a result, two countries could conclude a military alliance and fight for economic reasons at the same time.
Therefore, these new balances of power among States, where competition and cooperation co-exist, show that the current economic relationships are weaker than in the past. However, these changes do not reduce conflicts among states. During the ‘90s, the USA, as world leader, implemented a policy of economic security, started in the ‘70s with the introduction of Section 301 of the 1974 Trade Act (that enabled the country to oppose trade barriers penalizing its exports) and Section 301 of the 1988 Omnibus Trade and Competitiveness Act (that enabled the country to denounce unfair practices and protect American companies from intellectual property violations).
With the aim of fighting unfair competition, the USA decided to tighten their position on trade. Despite the objections of several states, these unilateral measures are still in force and are used as leverage against the Dispute Settlement Body of the World Trade Organisation. Torricelli’s (1992), Helms-Burton’s (1996) and D’Amato’s (2001) laws implemented these measures and forbade thee WTO membership to the countries that were hostile to the United States. Among the countries affected by these provisions (with the exception of Cuba, covered by a US embargo since 1962), Iraq, Libya, Iran and Nigeria were rich in oil reserves. Moreover, the appointment by the Clinton administration of the National Economic Council in 1993, working jointly with the National Security Council, proved the paramount importance of the national economic security.
The USA represented a model for several countries: France, for instance, appointed a Committee for Competitive Economic Security chaired by the Prime Minister in 1995; over the course of his first mandate. President Putin strengthened the role of some State bodies on the protection of the economic resources in Russia. The economic weakness of Western countries and the increasing power of the emerging ones will probably reinvigorate tensions between developing and industrialized countries, which dominate the world economy. While developing countries are eager to increase their power through massively expanding their trades to foreign markets, Western countries tend to separate power strategies based on military and diplomatic means, from those based on economic warfare.
Moreover, the Western policy of deregulation emphasises this paradox. While European advantages decrease, in fact, emerging countries increase their competitiveness with the financial support from bank authorities, which are directly or indirectly controlled by the state.
Therefore, a competitive imbalance – that is usually strengthened by the substantial role the financial sector plays in the functioning of market economies – weakens industrialized economies. Chinese managers, instead, successfully adapted the Communist dictatorship to the rules of market economy and pursued more ambitious targets than purely making profits.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union – caused by the arms race – China elaborated the idea of “war with no limits”, by combining military and economic instruments. The crisis of colonialism and the growing power of emerging countries undermined the Western notion of ethnocentrism, which the foundation of the theory of Western superiority.
Therefore, in the new global contest, Western countries are weakened by a number of contradictions:
Liberalism and Protectionism
In the United Kingdom and in the United States economic doctrine, liberalism justified the dismantling of protectionist systems in the countries that were their top export destinations. The goal was to an increase their exports and to minimize the impact of the destination countries on international financial markets.
Delocalization vs. National Interest
In the United States there are two conflicting economic trends: one aims at opening the markets and benefiting from delocalisation, the other stresses the importance of protecting American people’s interests.
The European Union’s inability to react to the challenges posed by economic warfare.
In the aftermath of WWII, during negotiations on Marshall Plan, there has been a considerable discussion in France on some U.S. economic needs, such as the obligation to feed animals with American soya and the distribution in the French market of films coming from Hollywood. General De Gaulle, Prime Minister since 1958, pursued an independent policy against the U.S. interests: he created the oil company Elf Aquitaine with the aim of reducing dependency from the seven Anglo-American oil companies; he limited the settlement of American multinational companies; he started casting doubts on the role of dollar as reserve currency. Nevertheless, his vision was defeated by the liberal idea of markets’ openness. Furthermore, the creation of the EU single market marginalised the discussion on the role of the economy in state power strategies. As a result, France dramatically changed some of its economic structures that had previously provided the country with a significant economic power.
In particular, the Commission Permanente de l’Electronique, which in the ‘60s rose awareness on the need of developing the electronics industry, was abolished. At the beginning of 21st century, Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin re-launched the debate on the “economic patriotism”, fostered by the drawbacks of emerging countries’ recovery policies. Some of them, in fact, evolved in real “fighter economies”, to fill the development gap with the West. Their offensive strategies integrated the range of techniques already implemented by Western countries in the past: collecting information via Internet, stealing patents, dumping measures, counterfeiting, metal smuggling (especially copper, whose world-wide demand is increasing).
While these unfair measures, which undermine the Western economic leadership, represent an issue for concern in the United States, in the EU they are considered as “exception that proves the rule”. Accordingly, the US adopted coercive instruments against these measures, in order to single hostile countries out. On the contrary, the European Union rarely followed this example. In 1984 the EU adopted a retaliatory measure in accordance with Section 301 of The US Trade Act, even though it was only applied six times in ten years.
In the centralized EU system, since the only competences left for Member States are national defence and public order, the United Kingdom, the Netherlands and Germany integrated the economic war paradigm in their modus operandi. France, instead, lobbied for amending the EU Treaties with the aim of improve its room for manoeuvre, but its attempts were not successful. More generally, the EU Member States proved not to be able to set up a shared strategy on this issue. As a result, the EU did not react to Putin’s measures protecting and promoting Russian industries – through state aids, customs duties benefits, and debt cancellation – and not even to the Russian threat of cutting gas supplies to Europe.
In the current international framework, the pacification process favoured by the leadership of the Western countries is weakened by multipolar geo-economic relationships and growing conflicts with emerging countries. As a result, the European Union – that does not consider economic warfare – cannot do much other than following the lead of the United States. Despite its image of cohesion, the EU is fragmented: Germany leads Northern Europe and is engaged both in increasing its power and promoting itself as a peaceful country in open contrast with its past; Southern Europe tries to solve its infrastructural problems, while post-Soviet countries are still under American, German and Russian influence.
To conclude, the economic warfare paradigm shall be taken into account in current international relations. Harbulot imagines a new political economy based on a consistent combination between state power strategies, trade expansion and territorial development. Nevertheless, these dimensions deal with three divergent interests. Therefore, the definition of short, medium and long-term priorities relies in the hands of the political power.
Financial Bubbles in the Coronavirus Era
There is reason to believe that the coronavirus will not be going anywhere soon. What is more, IMF experts warn that problems that existed before the pandemic will only worsen in the coming decades. One of these problems is the state of the global financial market, which is more susceptible to all kinds of financial bubbles than ever before.
When we talk about financial bubbles, we usually mean a sharp increase in the value of assets in an economic climate that has either stagnated or started to deteriorate. A similar situation is currently unfolding on the American stock market, which is experiencing an extraordinary rise in the value of hi-tech companies against the background of a record drop in GDP (by over 30 per cent in the second quarter of 2020) and a projected budget deficit (−15.5 per cent). This rise has been caused by three factors: 1) a soft monetary policy as a result of the need to service the rapidly growing public and corporate debt; 2) the huge liquid resources at the disposal of legal entities and individuals that are frantically looking for ways to make a profitable investment in anticipation of the increased risks and systemic uncertainties brought about by COVID-19; and 3) the speculative excitement caused by the technologies of the fourth industrial revolution. In order for us to judge how likely the optimistic sentiments of the global financial markets are to change, let us consider the impact of these factors separately.
The Debt as it Stands
A key element of the “new abnormality” that has characterized both the development of the global economy as a whole and the U.S. economy, in particular, is the debt model of economic growth. Investment and business activity has stagnated as interest rates around the world are hovering around zero, while the U.S. dollar (a key reserve currency) stubbornly refuses to depreciate and has even strengthened its value on the forex markets on a number of occasions, despite the fact that the situation at home is worsening. For example, U.S. national debt increased by $4 trillion in the first nine months of 2020, from $22.7 to $26.7 trillion. This is the largest increase in U.S. national debt ever. A considerable amount of this debt is financed through the extraordinary growth of the U.S. stock market, which currently accounts for over half of the combined capitalization of the world’s stock markets. A correction on the stock market (caused by an increase in interest rates, for example) could trigger numerous defaults on debt obligations. According to Fitch Ratings, more defaults were announced in the first five months of 2020 than in the whole of 2019 and may reach record numbers by the end of the year (the current record holder is 2009). And more than half of all corporate defaults around the world have occurred in North America.
Let us recall that the value of financial assets dropped by $50 trillion during the 2008–2009 crisis. However, central banks and the fiscal authorities compensated for these losses by injecting roughly the same amount of liquidity into the market. But the newly created financial resources did not jolt consumer demand, as had been hoped. Rather, they were largely swallowed up by various segments of the global financial market. International portfolio investments alone more than doubled in 2008–2019 – by $35 trillion.
The history of capitalism is not short on examples where the state tried to solve debt problems at the expense of the market, leading to the creation of financial pyramids. In 1720, for example, two giant financial bubbles burst at almost the same time in Europe. In an effort to clear themselves of the massive debts they had accumulated during the War of the Spanish Succession, the governments of France and England encouraged the growth of cash in circulation. This money was pumped into equity securities of Mississippi Company in France and the South Sea Company in England, which were joint-stock companies created with backing from their respective governments. The companies promised their investors huge profits that would come from overseas territories. The proceeds from the sale of shares were used to buy back government debt instruments. The stock market bubbles that appeared in France and Great Britain were the result of the governments trying to rid themselves of their excessive debt burdens and to stimulate their respective economies through inflation and debt-equity swaps. In a way, the current excitement on the U.S. stock market is reminiscent of the situation three hundred years ago.
A New Digital Bubble?
As of late September 2020, the four largest companies in the world by market capitalization were American digital brands: the computer giants Apple and Microsoft and the internet companies Amazon and Alphabet (Google). The total market capitalization of these companies has more than doubled this year to over $6 trillion. “Pessimists” believe that the U.S. over-the-counter (OTC) market is currently experiencing another boom similar to the dot-com bubble that burst in 2000. Meanwhile, “optimists” point to the huge success of FAANG stocks, Facebook, Apple, Amazon, Netflix and Google, as justification for the current market explosion. Shares in these companies outperformed the market throughout the 2010s, and prices have soared against the background of the pandemic. They currently make up 23 per cent of the total capitalization of the U.S. S&P 500 Index.
The growth in the market value of these companies is directly related to the activities of private and institutional investors around the world, who invest their savings in banks and various investment funds with their highly developed infrastructure in order to receive guaranteed profits. A number of retail investors have given an additional impulse to the dynamics of the OTC market by purchasing shares in newly created companies in the digital economy that have connected to free trading platforms such as Robinhood.
At the same time, the “optimists” believe that the comparisons with the dot-com bubble of 2000 are not entirely appropriate. A number of arguments support this claim: 1) the ratio between the market value of shares and the total annual profit is lower – 26.9 in September 2020 versus 45.8 in March 2000; 2) companies in the digital economy turn in real profits, as opposed to expected future returns; and 3) Nasdaq OTC hi-tech growth rates are more moderate – 23 per cent per year on average, compared to 43 per cent per year in the seven years before the tech bubble burst in 2000.
The dynamics of the market on the eve of the financial crisis in 2008–2009 were also characterized by an “irrational euphoria” similar to what we are seeing today. Back then, in the depths of the crisis, the G20 introduced a supranational financial monitoring system that was designed to prevent destabilizing spikes and falls in asset prices. However, experience has taught us that regulation cannot keep up with market innovation and is perennially unprepared for new challenges, primarily the digitalization of the global economy.
Technology and Politics
Historically, financial bubbles have tended to form whenever new revolutionary technologies have appeared, be it the invention of railways, electricity, automobiles, etc. Many new technologies have appeared during the Fourth Industrial Revolution (from smartphones and 3D printers to blockchain technologies and artificial intelligence) that have led to the mass automation of business processes and, consequently, the loss of jobs for a large part of the workforce, thus reducing production and operating costs significantly.
At the same time, we have not seen galloping inflation as a natural market reaction during this global crisis (all other things being equal) to the cheap money policy that has dominated the past decade. On the one hand, prices have been kept in check by the pandemic, which has pushed households and companies to hold onto their savings and made consumption more difficult due to the partial blocking of the economy. On the other hand, in the present context, a sizeable portion of the newly created liquidity is immediately swallowed up by the stock market, the U.S. stock market in particular, which continues to grow thanks to the advance funding of new technologies that are being developed at a fantastic pace. Exactly how long such a model can survive depends on at least three factors: 1) whether or not the soft monetary policy of near-zero or negative interest rates pursued by central banks will continue; 2) the ability of the market to adapt to new technological transformations; and 3) the smooth running of the international monetary system based on the U.S. dollar.
As for the latter, its functioning largely depends on the political system in the United States, and on the results of the November presidential elections in particular. One of three things will likely happen after that: 1) the current configuration of the global financial system will remain in place, with a few minor alterations here and there; 2) the existing system will undergo a major upheaval; and 3) the global financial system as we know it will collapse and a new model will take its place.
If the first scenario plays out, then the world economy will most likely continue to function in the same institutional format that we know today. If the second scenario prevails, then the radical reform of the existing system of global institutions could give the RIC countries (Russia, India and China) the bargaining power to insist on more favourable conditions for their integration into the world economy (for example, by moving away from reliance on the U.S. dollar in international transactions, promoting the use of their national currencies more actively, re-evaluating their positions within the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank alongside their partners in BRICS in order to effectively obtain a collective veto power, etc.). The third scenario would make it possible to create regional monetary and financial systems (as full-fledged independent financial structures of the emerging multipolar world) on the basis of various regional financial institutions that already exist, increasing the role of national currencies in mutual settlements and international financial instruments (or through the creation of new international liquidity in the form of national collective settlement monetary units).
Where Does Russia Stand amid the Global Turbulence?
The Russian economy demonstrated greater resilience during the first wave of the coronavirus crisis than the economies of both developed countries and the economies of its partners in BRICS. Despite the sharp decline in world prices for carbon fuel (Russia’s main export), in terms of key macroeconomic indicators, Russia has managed to maintain more stable positions than the G7 countries. As a result, the IMF predicts that Russia will have the lowest budget deficit among the world’s major economies by the end of 2020 (−4.8 per cent), with relatively low unemployment (4.9 per cent).
The Russian Federation is, in a sense, protected from financial bubbles as (unlike the United States) as it is more focused on developing the real sector of the economy rather than the financial sector. At the same time, the main problem of Russia’s integration into the global economy is the lack of stabilizing mechanisms to counter the volatile and hard-to-predict elements of the global financial market. We are talking here about the lack of a reserve currency, something that many countries use to protect themselves against external shocks, especially during periods of global crisis, when the demand for reserve assets rises sharply. Let us consider the following example. Russia has been a net creditor in the global financial system for years. As of year-end 2019, Russia’s external financial assets exceeded its external financial liabilities by $358 billion. Meanwhile, its investment income balance amounted to −$50 billion. This lop-sidedness is down to the fact that Russia places its international reserves in low-yield foreign assets and serves its foreign financial liabilities at higher interest rates. What this means is that the Russian Federation has been subsidizing those countries that issue reserve currencies for years while not always receiving adequate compensation and now living in economic isolation in the form of economic sanctions. In this context, Russia urgently needs to create its own reserve currency similar to the transferable rouble that the Soviet Union used in its trade with the Council for Mutual Economic Assistance in 1964–1990 and which existed long before other collective currencies (such as the special drawing rights, the European Currency Unit and the euro) were developed. This mechanism removed a number of inconsistencies at the regional level (the problem of imbalances in particular) that we are now seeing in connection with the use of the U.S. dollar as a means of carrying out international settlements, loans and investments around the world.
An oft-cited report by Goldman Sachs predicts that Brazil, Russia, India and China (the BRIC countries) will all be among the world’s top five economies by 2050 and, tellingly, the stock market is not the main source of financial resources for any of them. A common problem for the BRIC countries is the need to develop the enormous potential of their domestic markets by implementing large-scale infrastructure projects. A kind of dual system of monetary circulation whereby foreign trade is carried out using monetary units of account could help make this happen. Such a model would make it possible to separate the intrinsic value of money (its purchasing power) from its extrinsic value (its exchange rate). This is necessary to prevent newly created value (through the financial market) flowing from regions with low productivity to regions with high productivity. This is precisely what is happening in the Eurozone, and it is deepening the structural imbalances in the single European market. In addition, such a system would help resolve the issue of creating international liquidity without the need to move the national currency out of circulation to form unproductive national reserves or carry out speculative transactions.
The global economy has fallen into the trap of “new abnormality,” where incessantly creating money does not solve pressing socioeconomic problems. Other countries are following in the footsteps of the United States, repeating its domestic policy. This has resulted in the further deepening of social inequalities and imbalances at the national and global levels. Bearing in mind the fact that the United States’ share of global gross domestic product has been falling over the past 20 years, it is entirely possible that the U.S. dollar may be used less frequently in international transactions, even though the exchange rate proves favourable from time to time. To make matters worse, the unusual reaction of the markets to the monetary policy of the Federal Reserve System, along with the growing political tension in the United States, increases the risk of the destabilization of the current financial system. It should be stressed here that global economic leadership has always been tied to the leading countries consolidating their positions in both the economic and financial spheres. Clearly, we have reached the point where the only thing that will help stabilize the world economy in the long term is the more active involvement of the BRICS countries in the functioning of the global financial system.
From our partner RIAC
Innovative ideas and investment opportunities needed to ensure a strong post-COVID recovery
After the huge success of its opening day, AIM Digital, the first digital edition of the Annual Investment Meeting, continued to gain momentum as it reached Day 2. The three-day mega digital event, an initiative of the Ministry fo Economy, under the patronage of His Highness Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum, UAE Vice President and Prime Minister and Ruler of Dubai, concluded its second day with interactive activities that catalysed investment-generation, knowledge-enhancement, and local, regional and international collaborations.
Joined by more than 15K participants from over 170 countries, including 70+ high-level dignitaries from across the globe, the second day of AIM Dıgital witnessed a wide range of major events, from the Conference, Exhibition, Investment Roundtables, and Regional Focus sessions to Conglomerate Presentations and Startups competitions; all geared towards providing opportunities to achieve a digital, sustainable & resilient future.
In his keynote speech in the FDI session, Ministers Roundtable: Adapting to the New Flow of Trade and Investment, His Excellency Dr. Thani Al Zeyoudi, the UAE Minister of State for Foreign Trade, said: “It is my distinct honor to welcome you to the UAE’s first-ever digital edition of the Annual Investment Meeting. Thank you to everyone participating, including our panelists from the Governments of Costa Rica, Canada, Nigeria and Russia. Today’s discussion on how countries are ensuring the free flow of trade and investment could not be more timely, especially as the world grapples with the economic recovery and moves toward building a more resilient, post-COVID economy. The pandemic has significantly impacted global markets that created new challenges for trade and investment. While the challenges ahead are enormous, the UAE sees tremendous opportunity for governments and business leaders to work together through trade and investment to reshape policies, create new partnerships, leverage new technologies, and build a future global economy that is more diverse, inclusive, and sustainable. We know that FDI can bring new technology and know-how, lead to new jobs and growth, and is often the largest source of finance for economies – making today’s discussion even more imperative.”
He further stated that FDI has played a critical role in the UAE’s economic growth, with policies and measures in place, such as the Foreign Direct Investment Law enacted in 2018 to further open the UAE market to investors in certain sectors, and the issuance of Positive List, which allows for greater foreign investment across 122 activities, and increasingthe UAE’s FDI value by 32% in 2019. He also mentioned that the UAE came in 16th of 190 countries in the World Bank Ease of Doing Business 2020 Ranking due to the country’s digitization strategies and promising business regulatory environment.
His Excellency Al Zeyoudi furthered: “The UAE is continuing to refine and implement policies that will maximize competitiveness, increase collaboration, and provide opportunities to facilitate trade and investment. Our aim is to become the #1 country for foreign investment, target zero contribution from oil to our GDP in the next 50 years, and support research, development, and innovation. The UAE’s trade and investment strategy is centered on economic diversification and focuses on enhanced investment in industries such as communications, Blockchain, artificial intelligence, robotics, and genetics. We are also initiating measures to strengthen our position as a regional leader in supplying financial and logistical services, infrastructure, energy supplies, and other services.”
He added: “The UAE believes that increased partnership and cooperation with governments and the private sector will be key to achieving our objectives. We view platforms such as the Annual Investment Meeting as instrumental in bridging the gap between nations and supporting global efforts to strengthen international trade and investment. Through this platform, we hope that participants will uncover new, innovative ideas and investment opportunities needed to build back better and ensure a strong post-COVID recovery.”
Furthermore, world-class speakers shared their viewpoints in Day 2 of the Conference highlighting Foreign Direct Investment, Foreign Portfolio Investment, Small and Medium-sized Enterprises, Startups, Future Cities, and One Belt, One Road, including H.E. Amb. Mariam Yalwaji Katagum, Minister of State, Federal Ministry of Industry Trade and Investment of The Federal Republic of Nigeria; Victoria Hernández Mora, Ministry of Economy, Industry and Commerce of Republic of Costa Rica; Hon. Victor Fedeli, Minister of Economic Development, Job Creation and Trade of Ontario, Canada; and Sergey Cheremin, Minister of Moscow City Government Head of Department for External Economic and International Relations, among others.
Two Investment Roundtables were also held successfully at the second day of AIM Digital, concluding with strategies to facilitate sustainable, smart and scalable investments. The Energy Roundtable was led by Laszlo Varro, the Chief Economist of International Energy Agency, which works with countries around the globe to structure energy policies towards a secure and sustainable future. Among the notable participants include H.E. Arifin Tasrif, Minister for Energy & Mineral Resources of the Republic of Indonesia; and H.E. Gabriel Obiang, the Minister of Mines and Hydrocarbons of Equatorial Guinea. The Agriculture Roundtable was led by Islamic Development Bank Group, the multilateral development bank working to promote social and economic development in Member countries and Muslim communities worldwide, delivering impact at scale.
In addition, the second set of National Winners competed on Day 2 of the AIM Global National Champions League. Overall, a total of 65 countries competed at this international startups competition. The top five global champions that will win a total prize of USD50,000 will be announced on the last day of AIM Digital.The competition was launched in a bid to help startups in maximizing their potential to attract funding and promote their business ideas to a global audience, getting utmost exposure and expanding their network.
Participating in the Conglomerate Presentation feature of AIM Digital is Elsewedy Electric led by Eng. Ahmed Elsewedy, its President and CEO. Elsewedy Electric began as a manufacturer of electrical components in Egypt 80 years ago, and Electric has evolved into a global provider of energy, digital and infrastructure solutions with a turnover of EGP 46.6 billion in 2019, operating in five key business sectors, namely Wire & Cable, Electrical Products, Engineering & Construction, Smart Infrastructure and Infrastructure Investments. As part of its commitment to sustainability, it has established green energy and smart metering projects across Africa, the Middle East and Eastern Europe.
The Regional Focus Sessions featured the regions of Asia and Latin America and explored the risks, challenges and opportunities for growth and regional cooperation. Regional Focus Session on Asia brought together government officials and investment authorities from the ASEAN Member States and discussed their strategies to create a borderless and sustainable bloc that will push organic growth, as well as their approaches to gain resilience in the economy. Regional Focus Session on Latin America highlighted the significance of regional and international partnerships to combat the current pandemic and boost trade, investments and employment within the region.
Moreover, Country Presentations on Day 2 presented the outstanding features and investment opportunities in Colombia, Egypt and the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia which highlighted the countries’ status as attractive investment destinations.
Another highly anticipated event in the largest virtual gathering of the global investment community is the announcement of winners for the Investment Awards and Future Cities Awards which will take place on Day 3 of AIM Digital.AIM Investment Awards will grant recognition to the world’s best Investment Promotion Agencies and the best FDI projects in each region of the globe that have contributed to the economic growth and development of their markets. Likewise, AIM Future Cities Awards will give tribute to the best smart city solutions providers and for outstanding projects that have resulted to enhanced operational efficiency and productivity, sustainability, and economic growth.
Day 1 of AIM Dıgital welcomed the presence of globally renowned personalities such as the UAE Minister of Economy, His Excellency Abdullah bin Touq Al Marri who emphasised the vision of UAE’s wise leadership for the post-COVID era, reflecting great significance to enhancing the readiness of the country’s government sector, raising efficiencies and performance at the federal and local levels. Keynote remarks were delivered by H.E. Juri Ratas, the Prime Minister of Republic of Estonia; H.E. Rustam Minnikhanov, the President of the Republic of Tatarstan; H.E. Dr. Bandar M. H. Hajjar, the President of Islamic Development Bank Group (IsDB Group); H.E. Mohammed Ali Al Shorafa Al Hammadi, the Chairman of Abu Dhabi Department of Economic Development (ADDED); and Dr. Mukhisa Kituyi, the Secretary-General of the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD).
The UAE Minister of State for Entrepreneurship and SMEs, His Excellency Dr. Ahmad Belhoul Al Falasi, underlined in his Keynote Address for the SME Pillar, that it is crucial for Startups and SMEs to be given opportunities to bounce back from the impact of pandemic and provide a conducive environment that will empower them to have the capability of supporting growth and success.
The Global Leaders Debate featured prominent keynote debaters such as Armida Salsiah Alisjahbana, the Under-Secretary-General of the United Nations and Executive Secretary of United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (UNESCAP); Mohamed Alabbar, the Founder of Emaar Properties, Alabbar Enterprises and Noon.com; Mohammad Abdullah Abunayyan, the Chairman of ACWA Power; and Arkady Dvorkovich, the Chairman of Skolkovo Foundation, who discussed the strategies to restructure the economies in overcoming the consequences of the pandemic.
The first digital edition of the Annual Investment Meeting with the theme “Reimagining Economies: The Move Towards a Digital, Sustainable and Resilient Future, will be held until the 22nd of October 2020.
H.E. Dr. Thani Al Zeyoudi: Our aim is to become the #1 country for foreign investment
It is my distinct honor to welcome you to the UAE’s first-ever digital edition of the Annual Investment Meeting. Thank you to everyone participating, including our panelists from the Governments of Costa Rica, Canada, Nigeria and Russia. Today’s discussion on how countries are ensuring the free flow of trade and investment could not be more timely, especially as the world grapples with the economic recovery and moves toward building a more resilient, post-COVID economy.
As you know, the pandemic has significantly impacted global markets, creating new challenges for trade and investment. According to the United Nations’2020World Investment Report, global FDI flows are estimated to decrease by up to 40% this year, dropping well below their value of $1.54 trillion in 2019. This would bring global FDI below $1 trillion for the first time since 2005. Global FDI flows are expected to decline even further in 2021, by 5% to 10%, and only in 2022 do we expect to start seeing markets recover.
While the challenges ahead are enormous, the UAE sees tremendous opportunity for governments and business leaders to work together through trade and investment to reshape policies, create new partnerships, leverage new technologies, and build a future global economy that is more diverse, inclusive, and sustainable. We know that FDI can bring new technology and know-how, lead to new jobs and growth, and is often the largest source of finance for economies – making today’s discussion even more imperative.
For the UAE, FDI has played a critical role in our economic growth. In 2019, the UAE was the largest recipient of FDI in the region, largely due to our increased focus over the years on enhancing local conditions to attract FDI. With policies and measures in place, such as our Foreign Direct Investment Law enacted in 2018 to further open the UAE market to investors in certain sectors, and the issuance of our Positive List, which allows for greater foreign investment across 122 activities, the UAE was able to increase our FDI value by 32% in 2019. The UAE also came in 16th of 190 countries in the World Bank Ease of Doing Business 2020 Ranking due to our digitization strategies and promising business regulatory environment.
The UAE is continuing to refine and implement policies that will maximize competitiveness, increase collaboration, and provide opportunities to facilitate trade and investment. Our aim is to become the #1 country for foreign investment, target zero contribution from oil to our GDP in the next 50 years, and support research, development, and innovation. The UAE’s trade and investment strategy is centered on economic diversification and focuses on enhanced investment in industries such as communications, Blockchain, artificial intelligence, robotics, and genetics. We are also initiating measures to strengthen our position as a regional leader in supplying financial and logistical services, infrastructure, energy supplies, and other services.
The UAE believes that increased partnership and cooperation with governments and the private sector will be key to achieving our objectives. We view platforms such as the Annual Investment Meeting as instrumental in bridging the gap between nations and supporting global efforts to strengthen international trade and investment. Through this platform, we hope that participants will uncover new, innovative ideas and investment opportunities needed to build back better and ensure a strong post-COVID recovery.
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