In 2019 – the last year for which we have complete statistics – all classes of financial investment had a total increase of 23 trillion US dollars, particularly Stock Exchange securities and public debt instruments. The global value of Stock Exchange securities alone grew by 17 trillion US dollars, from 67,000 to 84,000 US dollars, while, finally, the global value of bonds alone grew by 6 trillion US dollars.
A very weak house of cards. In fact, two events alone, such as the closure of the Straits of Hormuz, or a new “democratization” in the Middle East, would be enough to trigger an inflation led by oil or other raw materials cost, which would bring the whole great house of cards of public and private debt down.
A “short-term life”, an “altered stage” of finance that currently – with fintech and derivatives, born with Clinton’s banking reform – can afford not to consider the financial flows data, but only a manipulated calculation of probabilities, against which, however, you can insure yourself.
The entire Eurozone, which believes to be smarter than the others, lives on trade surpluses – often huge as in Germany – but also with a mix of low domestic wages and booming foreign trade, which makes the EU economies extremely vulnerable to asymmetric attacks from some non-EU expanding countries – not to mention the USA and China, which will tolerate for a short time yet this difference in level, which harms them significantly.
The European Target 2, the interbank payment system that no longer allows to resort to foreign currency reserves to offset banks’ liquidity deficits, has now a full balance of over 1 trillion euros, of which 800 billion euros are German flows only, which therefore live on purchases by the Euro area.
Hence a system that amplifies the asymmetric shocks, which are inherent in a “rigid” currency and not lender of last resort as the euro, but which favours above all the holders of greater surpluses than the EU countries, which are currently less capable of achieving trade surpluses. Therefore, for Italy, beating the surplus within the Eurozone is a primary goal of economic and financial warfare. It can be done.
Certainly Keynes’ old and still valid idea – launched at the Bretton Woods Conference – to find a single currency and also an account currency, namely bancor, which would revalue the currency of the country recording a surplus and devalue the country recording an excessive deficit, was defeated by the USA, the winning country, which had also financed Great Britain – that paid its debt to the USA until 1973 – but which wanted above all to internationalize the dollar, so that it could have a “high” value despite its structural trade deficit.
Therefore, this enables the EU countries which record higher balance of payments surpluses to purchase bonds – for example, Italian ones – while the further reduction in value of the Greek, Spanish and Portuguese bonds is maintained by favouring one or the other markets of government bonds and securities. Currently the shopping of public debt instruments is a primary method of economic warfare.
In this very weakened framework, the huge Covid-19 pandemic broke out.
It is the seal – if ever there was a need – of a new war economics.
This means: a) initial planning of actions; b) predefined distribution of resources; c) hierarchy of goals; d) careful selection of public and private spending.
Furthermore, democratic Socialism, but also social Catholicism, were born from the experiments that the great capitalist economies carried out during the First World War, such as the Beveridge Plan – a continuation of war Socialism by other means – just to paraphrase Von Clausewitz’s well-known statement – but also the subsequent democratization of Germany following the end of the Third Reich, which led the winners to maintain the workers’ co-participation in the management of small and large companies.
When this health and human tragedy is over, we can think about a sort of new “Glorious Thirties”, as a French economist called the years from 1945 to 1975.
Nevertheless, we shall give up what the Maoist Red Guards called the “four old habits”, i.e. old ideas, old culture, old habits and old behaviours.
But obviously we shall do so within our eternal Western culture, which respects all the others and, often, enhances them.
Old ideas: balancing the budget as a goal in itself. Let us consider that currently the EU Member States’ Constitutions enshrine precisely the “balanced budget” principle. It is a laughing matter. What should be done if Vesuvius erupted? Could we leave the whole Campania region without aid? What about Smith’s invisible hand?
What if a new pandemic broke out? What should be done? Are we not aware of the fact that probably also the current financial criteria may be undermined, not only by people’s demands, but precisely in their intrinsic structure?
Old culture: what if we rethought all the finance and productive economy?
What if, for example, we rebuilt the internal market, without thinking – as it will never happen – that trade-induced capitalization will be such as to refinance the system? The mountains of money on which the global “billionaires” are sitting like Uncle Scrooge are not really cashable now, even if it seems so.
Hence we are building a “Monopoly” that looks like a real system, but it is not so any longer.
Old habits: what if we tried to control production so as to avoid – even manu military – companies’ delocalization abroad? What if we understood, for example, that a mechanic from the Piaggio company in Pontedera is not at all interchangeable with a poor Indian immigrant?
Surely they will never make the same Vespa scooter. Hence, what if we invested not in the quick planned obsolescence – possibly with much advertising rhetoric – but in items capable of being a non-monetary investment for buyers?
This is the theory of generalized wear – even in goods production – that Ezra Pound expressed in the 45th Canto of his most important work.
However, there are no industrial nations by vocation or mission.
Nevertheless, the shrinking of the Welfare State following the eventful advent of the so-called “Second Republic” in Italy has been based on the concept – which is very hard to prove scientifically – that the cost of market limitation is always greater than the cost of a restructuring crisis.
This has never been the case, not even on a simple accounting level.
Hence a war economics against the pandemic is needed to rebuild the old Welfare State with new formulas.
The war economics, as it was studied after the Second World War, is made of many things: the economic “war cycles”, which absorb the Schumpeterian creative destruction; the calculation of the national income; the estimate of real capital and its depreciation, not to mention the input-output tables.
There is an old study by the Naval War College, drafted by Jim Lacey in 2011, which tells how US economists probably determined the allies’ real victory in the war against the Axis powers.
In 1931, a British intelligence cell supervised the German industrial reconstruction, while in the 1930s and 1940s, the economic experts – not the poor ideologists of the current tout va bien – identified the industrial sectors which had to be selectively funded, as a priority, to secure the victory and the war efforts.
A cost-benefit analysis was made – not the ridiculous one that is currently so fashionable for infrastructure in Italy – but the one based on Leontief’s matrices.
Preference for strategic bombing, for example, as well as for precision weapons and for surgical actions on convoys.
The battle of materials theorized by Ernst Jünger was made by the Allies, not by the Third Reich.
Hence, in the current Covid-19 times, selective investment is needed in biological sciences and electronic infrastructure – all public investment, even if some private entities would have the possibility to invest in these fields – but also in technical and mass information, scientific training and all the new technologies.
The private sector may currently have the capital to invest, but it has not the heads for it while, in the medium or long-term, the public sector can afford a return on non-financial investment and, in any case, lower than the one that a private investor in the same sector would expect.
This is the reason why, based on my first-hand experience of that era, I can say it was silly to privatize IRI’s large product and business sectors.
This is also the reason why energy is still mostly public in Italy, precisely because the capitalists in the sector would have been forced to – or would have anyway preferred – a “shorter” timeframe for the return on capital.
As is the case with household appliances, cars and even computers. As often currently happens, they are homogeneous products, but selected by consumers on the basis of structurally non-efficient criteria such as colour, fashion, user-friendliness, advertising, etc.
The next industrial revolution will be much less advertising-based than the current one. The market is already rather updated and selective.
The Washington Consensus is also over. Disciplined fiscal policy is not necessary, as the most recent European history has shown us. Quite the reverse. “Fiscal moderation” does not produce capital and investment. Also the “public spending readjustment” does not produce the desired effects, because the average wages of those who remain at work are lowered and the positive interest rates do not always guarantee the investment expansion, but probably above all the unearned and unproductive income.
Furthermore, there is no free “market” of exchange rates, considering that it is guided by exquisitely political evaluations and that the privatization of public companies does not ensure greater quality of management. Quite the reverse. It entails a distribution of “donations and contributions” to the new political parties – as happened with the “Second Republic” in Italy. Finally, deregulation is not necessary given that it permits the exploitation of the lower labour costs, but does not automatically optimize the production formula.
With these economic and financial mechanisms, the wealth produced in the Glorious Thirties has been drained. However, much less wealth than expected has materialized.
The offensive weapons of war economics are still traditionally the same: limiting the financial flows in the enemy country; the embargo; the manoeuvres on the public debt (to cause the fiscal crisis of the State or its insolvency). Today it is a matter of overturning these rules, so as to identify those that capitalize on the Covid-19 epidemics and stop their adverse actions.
For Italy, the cost of this epidemics is now quite clear: if it ends next May, although it is unlikely, the cost for companies – generically calculated – will be approximately 300 billion euros.
If the epidemics lasts until next December, companies’ losses will be over 640 billion euros.
Obviously all this requires a war economics, both in terms of a planned strategy for investment and subsidies and in terms of the future reprogramming of Italy’s production system.
This system shall be targeted to take essential market shares away from the States that would currently like to benefit from our crisis, both to acquire our companies at low prices and to make the remaining Italian companies ancillary to their production formula.
This is the new war economics.
Is Myanmar an ethical minefield for multinational corporations?
Business at a crossroads
Political reforms in Myanmar started in November 2010 followed by the release of the opposition leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, and ended by the coup d’état in February 2021. Business empire run by the military generals thanks to the fruitful benefits of democratic transition during the last decade will come to an end with the return of trade and diplomatic sanctions from the western countries – United States (US) and members of European Union (EU). US and EU align with other major international partners quickly responded and imposed sanctions over the military’s takeover and subsequent repression in Myanmar. These measures targeted not only the conglomerates of the military generals but also the individuals who have been appointed in the authority positions and supporting the military regime.
However, the generals and their cronies own the majority of economic power both in strategic sectors ranging from telecommunication to oil & gas and in non-strategic commodity sectors such as food and beverages, construction materials, and the list goes on. It is a tall order for the investors to do business by avoiding this lucrative network of the military across the country. After the coup, it raises the most puzzling issue to investors and corporate giants in this natural resource-rich country, “Should I stay or Should I go?”
Crimes against humanity
For most of the people in the country, war crimes and atrocities committed by the military are nothing new. For instances, in 1988, student activists led a political movement and tried to bring an end to the military regime of the general Ne Win. This movement sparked a fire and grew into a nationwide uprising in a very short period but the military used lethal force and slaughtered thousands of civilian protestors including medical doctors, religious figures, student leaders, etc. A few months later, the public had no better options than being silenced under barbaric torture and lawless killings of the regime.
In 2007, there was another major protest called ‘Saffron Uprising’ against the military regime led by the Buddhist monks. It was actually the biggest pro-democracy movement since 1988 and the atmosphere of the demonstration was rather peaceful and non-violent before the military opened live ammunitions towards the crowd full of monks. Everything was in chaos for a couple of months but it ended as usual.
In 2017, the entire world witnessed one of the most tragic events in Myanmar – Again!. The reports published by the UN stated that hundreds of civilians were killed, dozens of villages were burnt down, and over 700,000 people including the majority of Rohingya were displaced to neighboring countries because of the atrocities committed by the military in the western border of the country. After four years passed, the repatriation process and the safety return of these refugees to their places of origin are yet unknown. Most importantly, there is no legal punishment for those who committed and there is no transitional justice for those who suffered in the aforementioned examples of brutalities.
The vicious circle repeated in 2021. With the economy in free fall and the deadliest virus at doorsteps, the people are still unbowed by the oppression of the junta and continue demanding the restoration of democracy and justice. To date, Assistant Association for Political Prisoner (AAPP) reported that due to practicing the rights to expression, 1178 civilians were killed and 7355 were arrested, charged or sentenced by the military junta. Unfortunately, the numbers are still increasing.
Call for economic disengagement
In 2019, the economic interests of the military were disclosed by the report of UN Fact-Finding Mission in which Myanmar Economic Corporation (MEC) and Myanmar Economic Holding Limited (MEHL) were described as the prominent entities controlled by the military profitable through the almost-monopoly market in real estate, insurance, health care, manufacturing, extractive industry and telecommunication. It also mentioned the list of foreign businesses in partnership with the military-linked activities which includes Adani (India), Kirin Holdings (Japan), Posco Steel (South Korea), Infosys (India) and Universal Apparel (Hong Kong).
Moreover, Justice for Myanmar, a non-profit watchdog organization, revealed the specific facts and figures on how the billions of revenues has been pouring into the pockets of the high-ranked officers in the military in 2021. Myanmar Oil & Gas Enterprise (MOGE), an another military-controlled authority body, is the key player handling the financial transactions, profit sharing, and contractual agreements with the international counterparts including Total (France), Chevron (US), PTTEP (Thailand), Petronas (Malaysia), and Posco (South Korea) in natural gas projects. It is also estimated that the military will enjoy 1.5 billion USD from these energy giants in 2022.
Additionally, data shows that the corporate businesses currently operating in Myanmar has been enriching the conglomerates of the generals and their cronies as a proof to the ongoing debate among the public and scholars, “Do sanctions actually work?” Some critics stressed that sanctions alone might be difficult to pressure the junta without any collaborative actions from Moscow and Beijing, the longstanding allies of the military. Recent bilateral visits and arm deals between Nay Pyi Taw and Moscow dimmed the hope of the people in Myanmar. It is now crystal clear that the Burmese military never had an intention to use the money from multinational corporations for benefits of its citizens, but instead for buying weapons, building up military academies, and sending scholars to Russia to learn about military technology. In March 2021, the International Fact Finding Mission to Myanmar reiterated its recommendation for the complete economic disengagement as a response to the coup, “No business enterprise active in Myanmar or trading with or investing in businesses in Myanmar should enter into an economic or financial relationship with the security forces of Myanmar, in particular the Tatmadaw [the military], or any enterprise owned or controlled by them or their individual members…”
Blood money and ethical dilemma
In the previous military regime until 2009, the US, UK and other democratic champion countries imposed strict economic and diplomatic sanctions on Myanmar while maintaining ‘carrot and stick’ approach against the geopolitical dominance of China. Even so, energy giants such as Total (France) and Chevron (US), and other ‘low-profile’ companies from ASEAN succeeded in running their operations in Myanmar, let alone the nakedly abuses of its natural resources by China. Doing business in this country at the time of injustice is an ethical question to corporate businesses but most of them seems to prefer maximizing the wealth of their shareholders to the freedom of its bottom millions in poverty.
But there are also companies not hesitating to do something right by showing their willingness not to be a part of human right violations of the regime. For example, Australian mining company, Woodside, decided not to proceed further operations, and ‘get off the fence’ on Myanmar by mentioning that the possibility of complete economical disengagement has been under review. A breaking news in July, 2021 that surprised everyone was the exit of Telenor Myanmar – one of four current telecom operators in the country. The CEO of the Norwegian company announced that the business had been sold to M1 Group, a Lebanese investment firm, due to the declining sales and ongoing political situations compromising its basic principles of human rights and workplace safety.
In fact, cutting off the economic ties with the junta and introducing a unified, complete economic disengagement become a matter of necessity to end the consistent suffering of the people of Myanmar. Otherwise, no one can blame the people for presuming that international community is just taking a moral high ground without any genuine desire to support the fight for freedom and pro-democracy movement.
The Covid After-Effects and the Looming Skills Shortage
The shock of the pandemic is changing the ways in which we think about the world and in which we analyze the future trajectories of development. The persistence of the Covid pandemic will likely accentuate this transformation and the prominence of the “green agenda” this year is just one of the facets of these changes. Market research as well as the numerous think-tanks will be accordingly re-calibrating the time horizons and the main themes of analysis. Greater attention to longer risks and fragilities is likely to take on greater prominence, with particular scrutiny being accorded to high-impact risk factors that have a non-negligible probability of materializing in the medium- to long-term. Apart from the risks of global warming other key risk factors involve the rising labour shortages, most notably in areas pertaining to human capital development.
The impact of the Covid pandemic on the labour market will have long-term implications, with “hysteresis effects” observed in both highly skilled and low-income tiers of the labour market. One of the most significant factors affecting the global labour market was the reduction in migration flows, which resulted in the exacerbation of labour shortages across the major migrant recipient countries, such as Russia. There was also a notable blow delivered by the pandemic to the spheres of human capital development such as education and healthcare, which in turn exacerbated the imbalances and shortages in these areas. In particular, according to the estimates of the World Health Organization (WHO) shortages can mount up to 9.9 million physicians, nurses and midwives globally by 2030.
In Europe, although the number of physicians and nurses has increased in general in the region by approximately 10% over the past 10 years, this increase appears to be insufficient to cover the needs of ageing populations. At the same time the WHO points to sizeable inequalities in the availability of physicians and nurses between countries, whereby there are 5 times more doctors in some countries than in others. The situation with regard to nurses is even more acute, as data show that some countries have 9 times fewer nurses than others.
In the US substantial labour shortages in the healthcare sector are also expected, with anti-crisis measures falling short of substantially reversing the ailments in the national healthcare system. In particular, data published by the AAMC (Association of American Medical Colleges), suggests that the United States could see an estimated shortage of between 37,800 and 124,000 physicians by 2034, including shortfalls in both primary and specialty care.
The blows sustained by global education from the pandemic were no less formidable. These affected first and foremost the youngest generation of the globe – according to UNESCO, “more than 1.5 billion students and youth across the planet are or have been affected by school and university closures due to the COVID-19 pandemic”. On top of the adverse effects on the younger generation (see Box 1), there is also the widening “teachers gap”, namely a worldwide shortage of well-trained teachers. According to the UNESCO Institute for Statistics (UIS), “69 million teachers must be recruited to achieve universal primary and secondary education by 2030”.
From our partner RIAC
Accelerating COVID-19 Vaccine Uptake to Boost Malawi’s Economic Recovery
Since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, many countries including Malawi have struggled to mitigate its impact amid limited fiscal support and fragile health systems. The pandemic has plunged the continent into its first recession in over 25 years, and vulnerable groups such as the poor, informal sector workers, women, and youth, suffer disproportionately from reduced opportunities and unequal access to social safety nets.
Fast-tracking COVID-19 vaccine acquisition—alongside widespread testing, improved treatment, and strong health systems—are critical to protecting lives and stimulating economic recovery. In support of the African Union’s (AU) target to vaccinate 60 percent of the continent’s population by 2022, the World Bank and the AU announced a partnership to assist the Africa Vaccine Acquisition Task Team (AVATT) initiative with resources, allowing countries to purchase and deploy vaccines for up to 400 million Africans. This extraordinary effort complements COVAX and comes at a time of rising cases in the region.
I am convinced that unless every country in the world has fair, broad, and fast access to effective and safe COVID-19 vaccines, we will not stem the spread of the pandemic and set the global economy on track for a steady and inclusive recovery. The World Bank has taken unprecedented steps to ramp up financing for Malawi, and every country in Africa, to empower them with the resources to implement successful vaccination campaigns and compensate for income losses, food price increases, and service delivery disruptions.
In line with Malawi’s COVID-19 National Response and Preparedness Plan which aims to vaccinate 60 percent of the population, the World Bank approved $30 million in additional financing for the acquisition and deployment of safe and effective COVID-19 vaccines. This financing comes as a boost to Malawi’s COVID-19 Emergency Response and Health Systems Preparedness project, bringing World Bank contributions in this sector up to $37 million.
Malawi’s decision to purchase 1.8 million doses of Johnson and Johnson vaccines through the AU/African Vaccine Acquisition Trust (AVAT) with World Bank financing is a welcome development and will enable Malawi to secure additional vaccines to meet its vaccination target.
However, Malawi’s vaccination campaign has encountered challenges driven by concerns regarding safety, efficacy, religious and cultural beliefs. These concerns, combined with abundant misinformation, are fueling widespread vaccine hesitancy despite the pandemic’s impact on the health and welfare of billions of people. The low uptake of COVID-19 vaccines is of great concern, and it remains an uphill battle to reach the target of 60 percent by the end of 2023 from the current 2.2 percent.
Government leadership remains fundamental as the country continues to address vaccine hesitancy by consistently communicating the benefits of the vaccine, releasing COVID data, and engaging communities to help them understand how this impacts them.
As we deploy targeted resources to address COVID-19, we are also working to ensure that these investments support a robust, sustainable and resilient recovery. Our support emphasizes transparency, social protection, poverty alleviation, and policy-based financing to make sure that COVID assistance gets to the people who have been hit the hardest.
For example, the Financial Inclusion and Entrepreneurship Scaling Project (FInES) in Malawi is supporting micro, small, and medium enterprises by providing them with $47 million in affordable credit through commercial banks and microfinance institutions. Eight months into implementation, approximately $8.4 million (MK6.9 billion) has been made available through three commercial banks on better terms and interest rates. Additionally, nearly 200,000 urban households have received cash transfers and urban poor now have more affordable access to water to promote COVID-19 prevention.
Furthermore, domestic mobilization of resources for the COVID-19 response are vital to ensuring the security of supply of health sector commodities needed to administer vaccinations and sustain ongoing measures. Likewise, regional approaches fostering cross-border collaboration are just as imperative as in-country efforts to prevent the spread of the virus. United Nations (UN) partners in Malawi have been instrumental in convening regional stakeholders and supporting vaccine deployment.
Taking broad, fast action to help countries like Malawi during this unprecedented crisis will save lives and prevent more people falling into poverty. We thank Malawi for their decisive action and will continue to support the country and its people to build a resilient and inclusive recovery.
This op-ed first appeared in The Nation, via World Bank
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