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The birth of the modern concept of economic war and Bernard Esambert’s thought

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Without my friend Bernard Esambert there would not certainly be the current concept of “economic warfare”.

 Having studied at the Ėcole Polytechnicque, he is a natural heir to the best Colbertian, Saint-Simonian, positivist – and later Gaullist – tradition – which pervades the background and education of the modern and post-revolutionary French elites, with governments that pass and ruling classes that remain, as it must always be.

 It is no coincidence that, at the beginning of a book he wrote in 1971, Le Trosième Conflict Mondial, Esambert mentioned an old Saint-Simonian song, written by Rouget de Lisle, which glorified science and technology, as the new leaders of peoples after the so-called âge de l’obscurité. Rouget de Lisle, a French army officer, was the poet who wrote the words and music of La Marseillaise.

 Two facts that, symbolically, are certainly not by chance.

 After having been a mining engineer (and the engineering sector is traditionally a great area of recruitment for the intelligence Services and the French senior management) Esambert became a great commis d’Ėtat. Une vie d’influence, just to recall the title of one of his recent books, Une vie d’influence – dans les coulisses de la Ve République.

 Finally, Esambert became a point of reference for Georges Pompidou, who later called him to collaborate with him – as a man of influence – at the Presidency of the Republic.

 As Benedetto Croce – a too much forgotten philosopher – used to say, you can always and only implement “the possible liberalism”, well knowing that the real economy is made up of an agreement between private enterprise and State management, which is the one that always really counts.  

 It has always been and it will always be so. This is the first criterion for setting the scene of an economic warfare which – as Bernard Esambert himself noted for the first time – applies always and everywhere, and is never forgotten, unless severely defeated, even by the modern States that want to win a challenge that always lasts and has never one single face – a warfare, financial, technological, political, cultural and organizational one.

 The economic warfare worked well also in ancient Greece: the overpopulation in Athens; the need for commercial outlets in Central Asia; the expansion of Greeks to Southern Italy, where the Bruttians, after having taken their idols with them, hid in the mountains without ever seeing the sea again.

 The faces of economic warfare are always manifold and all of them always work. Whoever forgets some of them is always bound to lose.

 Certainly there are the current young and brilliant French analysts operating in the intelligence Services and the training sector, who belong to the Ėcole de Guerre Ėconomique (ĖGE) founded precisely by Esambert, based on an old idea developed by Christian Harbulot. There are also the new Italian initiatives in the academic world, all designed more to showing up and flattering the Heads of the intelligence Agencies, for whatever small favours – the usual and often imaginary “small powers” of the Italian academic world, always a bit stingy, after the long season of the roadshow organized by the Intelligence Department (DIS), at the time of the Interior Minister, Marco Minniti, as “Authority responsible for the Intelligence Services”, from 2013 to the end of Renzi’s Government.

 In this regard, we should also recall Ambassador Giampiero Massolo, who was the first supporter of the Italian intelligence services’ roadshow in the Italian academic world – now very badly damaged – more to improve the Agencies’ image than to really seek new recruits for the intelligence Services, which have always well selected their people inside and outside the universities, without any need for chattering or showing off.

 Moreover, as we all know, the young people who were recruited by means of the website sicurezzanazionale.gov.it were quickly dismissed from the Agencies and now vegetate in other sectors of the Public Administration.

 It is not a matter of “young” and “old” people or of creating some fashionable opportunities for declining universities, but rather of ensuring that the whole Italian ruling class endeavours for a well-designed and, above all, stable economic warfare.

 As far as I know, for the time being there exists only one specific Master in Economic Intelligence in Italy, organized by the Institute of High Strategic and Political Studies (IASSP) in Milan. I have been told that also Harbulot participated in it.

But once again, this has nothing to do with the decades-long tradition of intelligence and economic ruling class in France, Great Britain and even the United States, not to mention also the small countries that walked out from the Warsaw Pact, with great intelligence and efforts.

 It was Esambert himself, already present in an old but already usual and obvious Davos Conference – a now well-known fashionable meeting of those who believe they are authoritative people but, indeed, are nothing – who told about the exit of the old General Jaruzelsky, the strong man of the Polish counter-coup to avoid the occupation by a weak Warsaw Pact, when the old Polish General, whose right-hand man was a NATO spy, openly said he wanted Western investment in Poland and was also ready to progressively liberalize the zloty, as well as finally accept the Western business rules and Western capital coming to Poland.

 Obviously subject to the control of the old-but-new-regime.

 Here is the real success of an excellent economic warfare – not the many small stories that the globalized rich people usually tell to their useless and always gauchistes children, since it is fashionable.

  Incidentally, it should be recalled that even Adam Smith, the inventor of “political economy” according to the basic rules of the British global interests of his time, was a free trade theorist in the markets where Great Britain had to settle, but supported the strictest protectionism, just when it came to closing the national or colonial British markets to the attack of the cheap goods of European competitors and, later, of the 13 colonies that were to become independent on the East Coast of North America.

 Here, once again, the problem is scarcity, which just today – as always said by Esambert – seems far away, at least from what Mao Zedong called “the world’s metropolises”.

 However, there is instead the natural and induced scarcity. Nowadays we live in induced scarcity, which does not need wars “for raw materials” –  as the German geopolitics of the 1930s theorized – but it is the induced scarcity of modern consumption, which needs technology, expert management and States capable of expanding strategically, as well as modern factories. Here it is the new and inevitable economic warfare.

 Either we win or lose, but always continuously. In contemporary economic warfare, there is no “declaration of peace”. Quite the reverse.

 This is the real core of the issue. If we can no longer build monopolies by managing scarcity – as always happened when modern capitalism was established, according to  Adam Smith – how can we today favour the national companies and the typical products of our region, if there are no longer real trade wars, such as the penetration of the East India Company in the Far East and in China, or the British oil trade closures in the Middle East, to take Kurdish oil in Haifa when Churchill, as First Lord of the Admiralty, turned the British military navigation from coal into oil navigation, or the operations of the Belgian royal family alone in Congo, or the French possessions in Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia?

 The choice of Habib Bourghiba – Mussolini’s guest in Rome – to secretly deal with De Gaulle’s France Libre, when he realized that Rommel and his Afrika Korps were in disarray, can be considered a technique of economic and commercial warfare. He sold his Destour covert network, previously operating with the Axis, in exchange for independence, after the victory of the Western liberal democracies which Habib, indeed, did not like so much.

 Lacking a real effective and modern colonial experience, Italy still does not know how to export its productive potential, which is what really counts.

 From Giolitti’s to Mussolini’s time, Italy treated its colonies as simple ways out for the rural overpopulation, especially when the exit routes to the United States or South America were blocked.

 Italy made the only mistake it should not make.

 It even lost the Libyan oil, which was taken back only with the coup of Gaddafi, a creature of Italy’s intelligence Services.

 The Italian politicians currently in power support the idea of going abroad to transfer our potential for economic warfare either as door-to-door sellers of the all too famous Made in Italy – which, indeed, almost sells itself – or in search of external and distant areas where to make our agonizing small and medium-sized enterprises survive as long as possible, so as to squeeze every last drop of the labour cost differential.

 Either fashion, the brand – now in foreign hands – or begging to prolong the agony of some SMEs which are interesting for political, electoral and financial reasons.

 Two attitudes which are deeply wrong – precisely in substance. As Esambert used to say, every country goes to sell abroad certainly not to repeat the plot of the beautiful 1959 movie by Francesco Rosi, The Magliari, set – not by chance – in Germany, but to win and wipe out its competitors.

 This movie could teach much to the Italian politicians currently bleating for German “help”. They should watch it again and think about the behaviour of the two main characters -masterfully interpreted by Renato Salvatori and Alberto Sordi – who are defeated when trying to antagonize their Polish rivals, the previous “magliari”.

 You never go abroad to propose a factory or a business, but you always go – willingly or unwillingly – to propose a way of doing business, a success story, a lifestyle, a product that must therefore be ipso facto protected, supported, advertised – for which imitations must be stopped, on site and elsewhere, and for which it is necessary to create a stable dependence of the target country and a powerful image in the foreign market of reference.

 Nothing to do with the ramshackle, slow, inefficient, impolitic style – all aimed at simply making a deal, at striking a “bargain” – often characterizing our foreign policy, even in countries that Italy should tread very carefully and in which it should proceed with extreme caution.

 Foreign countries must be conquered with trade, exactly as they could be conquered with a real battled war, if this were possible today.

 In fact, every trade treaty is a peace treaty which, however, must clearly show the will of those who have won, i.e. – in Italy’s specific case – the productive system of those who have come from outside.

 Certainly, today even economic wars are no longer made – at least in principle – to support a market that can absorb our surplus.

 Marx’s old criterion of surplus value, which is certainly useful today as a way to analyse the evolution of modern capitalism.

 As Esambert always says, economic wars are made to create room – outside and inside the old national perimeter – for counteracting and fighting against everybody’s adverse actions – both friends and foes – in our productive system.

 Whoever loses faces – without time limits – the disasters of globalization (uncontrolled immigration, pollution, the classic combination of unemployment and inflation), while whoever wins offloads the problems on his global competitors.

  And again there is no time limit.

 When Spain was still under Franco’s regime, the State of Madrid created an instrument of economic warfare just with SEAT, in 1950, thanks to a small contribution of FIAT capital.

 Later in 1985, SEAT became part of the German group Wolkswagen Aktiengesellschaft – created on the basis of an old project by the Führer.

  The huge Catalan factory was inaugurated in Martorell by King Juan Carlos in 1993.

 FIAT left and VW came in powerfully, with no local or European competitors.

 Was it not an economic warfare operation? Of course it was.

 At that time, Italy was numbed with the Clean Hands judiciary probe and no one noticed that Germany was taking over Spain’s basic industries after the end of the Caudillo’s regime.

 This happened also in other parts of the world.

 Starting from the imprisonment and the related suicide of the old ENI President, Cagliari, until the never resolved issues of Gardini’s death, in the connection between the takeover of Montedison and the fanciful creation of Enimont, the whole Clean Hands judicial investigation was, however, an accelerated operation to sell off Italy’s primary industrial system, pending the fall of the Berlin Wall and the truly endogenous crisis of the Italian political system.

 There was, at first, the sale of primary assets, ranging from the motorway company Società Autostrade to the food holding  SME – of which I had a first-hand experience – and later the redesign of the system of bribes from companies to the political system, which began with ENI’s disruption following Cagliari’s imprisonment, until the creation of a new network of funding to a “new” political system, where all parties were renamed – according to a potentially two-party system – “progressive” and “conservative” or even “liberal”.

Was it not an economic warfare operation? Of course it was. Many large and small companies became attractive to large foreign investors that were favoured, while the Italian State-owned and private companies faded away, struck by the new moralists’ blows.

 What happened, at that time, in Mitterrand’s France or in the Great Britain led by Margaret Thatcher who, however, was ousted from Downing Street by a clique of Tories, involved in a large helicopter business affair?

 We can also recall Liu Tenan, the Chinese Head of the “Development Commission”, expelled from the CPC; Rouhani himself in Iran that saw the 1979 Revolution in danger because of corruption, or Ana Mato, the Health Minister who resigned because of the scandal that in 2014 sullied the reputation of the entire Partido Pupular in Spain –  not to mention the fact at least 2.3% of the world GDP fuels global corruption.

 Can we believe that all this came only from what had happened in Italy?

 Once again the usual moralistic parochialism sets in, a short-lived legacy of the snobbery of Italy’s old Action Party, whose liberal Socialism – taunted by Croce – led Italy to be a pale imitation of Great Britain, the eternal myth of all poor politicians and managers wearing grisaille suits.

 Hence the final formula: the mix of legal and non-legal, advertising, political, military, strategic and monetary protection and support for the local ruling classes, as well as the fair and rational relations with the target country, are called exactly “economic warfare”.

 There is no other way to make foreign policy and establish international relations, even non-economic ones. There is only and always economic warfare.

 Hence, after this explicit and direct phase of the inevitable economic clash for survival between nations, there is the phase in which “companies are used as armies and management and business schools are used as schools for officers”, and entrepreneurs and business leaders are seen as new generals. In fact Akira Kurosawa, the director of the movie Seven Samurai and a descendant from a Samurai family, wanted – in a later movie of 1980, Kagemusha (Shadow Warrior) – to describe Japanese business leaders as new Samurai.

 Every economic action is a “covert” act of war. Every act of war can also be turned into an economic action, which instead of being a cost – unsustainable in the long run – is a real bargain or can even become so.

 Economic warfare shifts the cost of operations onto the victim.

 Attractiveness and competitiveness are now complementary, while Italy is the 7th world exporter of goods, but it only ranks 18th in terms of Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) in the territory.

 The current FDI is an instrument of external hegemony, not a system of national power or of projection of our economic and non-economic power onto the countries that receive our goods or that – in any case – should consume them, instead of our competitors’ products.

 The economic warfare also stems from the fact that all the great Western countries produce more or less the same goods.

 Nevertheless, in Italy 43% of the companies currently listed on the Stock Exchange are owned by foreign businesses. Obviously, there is no direct correlation between the quality of management of the various industries and their ownership. However, do you believe that if a French bank manager has to organize a strategy for his own company, he will pay heed to the large multifarious group of his small investors – as currently happens in Italy – or will he rather consider the ideas coming from some State think tanks in Paris, or possibly from one of his Ministers, or even from a colleague in Lyon or Grenoble?

 According to the 2018 data, in Italy the foreign investors’ shareholdings of listed companies currently amount to 196.4 billion euro, i.e. 43% of the total.

 The shareholdings of listed joint stock companies owned by Italian businesses are worth 25.8%, with the State holding 2.7% of the total portfolio. Hence it is certainly not difficult to imagine that, in this framework of international economic equilibria, Italy would have an extreme need for a policy of economic warfare.

 This also applies to cultural or humanitarian operations.

  Goodness knows what the organization Mèdecins sans Frontières was for France, or the management of the U.S. or Canadian grain overproduction was for the U.S. power projection policy in third countries or in those suffering humanitarian crises.

 Whoever eats your wheat becomes your friend, whoever is saved by your doctors will never make war on you but, above all, will gladly buy your products, when the crisis is over and France or the United States will present local governments with the bill for its humanitarian operations.  

 Moreover, in 2011 the Italian multinationals were as many as 6,500 Italian, while currently they are decidedly fewer and often smaller.

 Not to mention Italy’s cultural and hegemonic penetration – virtually nothing, apart from a few old-style and ramshackle elite operations for socialites.

 We need more than beautiful girls, superstar chefs or art exhibitions. It takes guts to penetrate and hegemonize a distant market. It is an operation in which companies and the intelligence Services shall participate simultaneously, and shall be ever less tied to the cliques of revolving-door government and also less parochial in their actions. Even humanitarian organizations, some universities – less familist than usual – as well as the fashion world, newspapers, TV networks, cinema and all the many other instruments of attraction and seduction shall take part in this operation.

 An operation which, however, must be stable and well-designed, otherwise we risk repeating what happened when an Italian President of the Republic, while visiting the Chinese Great Wall, learnt that the German Prime Minister was coming for a flying visit to Beijing so as to sign an agreement between the German and Chinese large car manufacturers.

 A dinner, some greetings and a quick return to Berlin.

 Unless the full criterion of the “economic warfare” is followed –  as must be done according to Bernard Esambert’s guidelines – Italy will always be relegated to the sidelines of the great global economic development and it will not reap the fruits but only the damage of globalization – as is already currently happening.

Advisory Board Co-chair Honoris Causa Professor Giancarlo Elia Valori is an eminent Italian economist and businessman. He holds prestigious academic distinctions and national orders. Mr. Valori has lectured on international affairs and economics at the world’s leading universities such as Peking University, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and the Yeshiva University in New York. He currently chairs “International World Group”, he is also the honorary president of Huawei Italy, economic adviser to the Chinese giant HNA Group. In 1992 he was appointed Officier de la Légion d’Honneur de la République Francaise, with this motivation: “A man who can see across borders to understand the world” and in 2002 he received the title “Honorable” of the Académie des Sciences de l’Institut de France. “

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Innovative ways to resume international travel

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International travel was predictably impacted as a result of covid 19 and the tourism industry suffered severe losses.

According to the UNWTO (United Nations World Tourism organization) barometer, the period from January-October 2020 witnessed a whopping 72% drop in tourist arrivals (international tourist arrivals dropped by 900 Million when compared to the January-October 2019 period). The loss in export revenues, year on year, from the tourist sector were a staggering 945 Billion USD. Tourist arrivals across regions witnessed a drop. According to the UNWTO barometer, the drop in tourism would cause a loss of 2 Trillion USD to the global economy.

Countries looking to resume international flights

During the midst of the pandemic, agreements were signed to facilitate essential travel between various countries (priority was given to workers, students or individuals who had to travel for emergency purposes).

Countries which have been successful in dealing with the pandemic have been looking to gradually resume international flights. Since October 2020, Singapore whose economy is significantly dependent upon tourism  had signed agreements with certain countries to ensure that travel for important purposes was less restrictive — either the quarantine period was reduced, or in some cases was not required at all.

New Zealand will be allowing quarantine free travel from Australia for the first time from April 19. New Zealand PM, Jacinda Ardern:

‘The Trans-Tasman travel bubble represents a start of a new chapter in our COVID response and recovery, one that people have worked so hard at’

Australia has been permitting travellers from New Zealand to enter most parts of the country without quarantine, though this has not been reciprocated.

A travel bubble has also opened between Taiwan (which has reported a little over 1,000 cases and 10 deaths) and the Island of Palau (which has reported 0 deaths) where travellers need not quarantine themselves (there are a number of other restrictions though).

Vaccine Passports, Digital Pass and differing perspectives

As countries get ready to open up travel, there has been a debate with regard to using ‘vaccine passports’ (these are documents which show that travellers have been vaccinated against Covid-19 or recently tested negative for the virus).

One country which is using this experiment domestically is Israel. It has issued a document known as ‘Green Pass’ to those who have been vaccinated or if they have developed immunity. This Green Pass can be used  for entry into gyms, hotels,  restaurants and theatres. The UK and US too are mooting the idea of introducing such an arrangement. This idea has faced fervent opposition in both countries. In UK, opposition parties Labour, Liberal Democrats and the Scottish National Party (SNP) have opposed the idea of such a covid certification document. The reasons cited for opposition are concerns with regard to ‘equity, ethics and privacy’.  The UK government has stated that a covid status certificate would not be introduced before June, and trials of various schemes to ensure safe opening up of the UK economy would carry on.

In the US, Republicans are opposing the idea of a vaccine passport saying that such an idea would be an attack on personal freedoms. Donald Trump’s son Donald Trump Jr urged Republicans to ‘vocally and aggressively’ stand up against vaccine passports.

If one were to look at international travel, International Airport Transport Association (IATA) has introduced a travel pass, a digital certificate, which will confirm a flyer’s COVID-19 test result and vaccination status. Singapore will be accepting travellers using this mobile digital pass from May 2021.While the pass has been tested by Singapore Airlines, 20 airlines (including Emirates and Malaysia Airlines) are in the process of testing the pass.

While one of the pitfalls of a covid status certificate or Vaccine passport is the impingement upon privacy, it has also been argued that developing countries will be at a disadvantage given the relatively slow rate of vaccination in the developing world. While remarking in the context of Africa,Dr. John Nkengasong the head of the Africa Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said:

‘We are already in a situation where we don’t have vaccines, and it will be extremely unfortunate that countries impose a travel requirement of immunization certificates whereas the rest of the world has not had the chance to have access to vaccines.’

Conclusion

In conclusion, it is important for innovative ways to resume international travel. Safety needs to be balanced with equity, for this it is imperative that all actors engage in a constructive manner. A number of observers have suggested that vaccine passports/covid status certificates should be made optional, and that there is nothing wrong in using technology per se but it should not be thrust on anyone. The fight against the pandemic and revival of international travel are a golden opportunity for countries to reverse the increasing sense of insularity and inequity which has risen in recent years.

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

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USA China Trade War

Authors: Raihan Ronodipuro& Hafizha Dwi Ulfa*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Authors: Chan Kung and He Jun

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

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

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

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

First, who opposes the “retail investor revolution”?

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

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

Second, what gathers a group of scattered retail investors?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Final analysis conclusion

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

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