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The Chinese debt issue

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Despite the “phase one” trade agreement signed between the United States and China in January 2020, the coronavirus issue has greatly distorted the Chinese economy.

It should be recalled that China had pledged to buy 200 billion U.S. dollars of U.S. goods and “specific products” over a two-year period.

Certainly the Chinese government has reacted to the coronavirus crisis with acceptable speed, injecting a huge amount of liquidity into the economy, through the Central Bank,as well as proportionately reducing financing costs and increasing credit to businesses by 67%.

 The Chinese authorities still have some room for providing more stimulus through monetary and fiscal policy, since the central government’s debt alone remains below 25% of GDP and is mainly refinanced at national level.

 But there is the excessive level of debt in real estate and the increase in costs for infrastructure and protection-sanitation activities, which could put the public budget at risk in the short term.

 The debt of non-financial private Chinese companies accounts for 155% of Chinese GDP, but there is a strong increase in household debt, which has been going on for at least five years.The local governments’ debt is currently worth 60-70% of Chinese GDP.

 There has been a significant increase in the insolvencies of companies, especially small and medium-sized ones, given the reorientation of the whole Chinese economy from the export to the domestic market, with the expansion of the formal economy, which has knocked out the companies that produced at very low cost, especially for the export markets.

 This adds to the U.S. request for cancelling part of the its public debt securities held in Chinese banks.

The underlying logic is the following: China is immediately blamed for hiding news about the coronavirus and hence the cancellation of at least part of the U.S. debt held in Chinese hands is requested.

It should also be recalled that China has approximately 20% of the North American public debt available.

It is the first time that a financial operation of such magnitude is based on a “conspiracy theory”, i.e. the hypothesis – currently denied by all experts – that the Covid-19 virus has been artificially processed in the Wuhan laboratories, which are located a few hundred metres from the even more famous wet market of the city.

 There is purely strategic relevance in all this: China’s ability to make debt is also at the basis of the Belt and Road Initiative, i.e. the economic and geopolitical project which is more disliked by the United States than we can imagine.

 That is probably the U.S. real goal.

 Therefore, asking for default on part of its debt held in China is a way to make Chinapay the bill for the pandemic and, above all, to stop the development of China as the U.S. only challenger in terms of global economic and military power.

This is one of the best moments for the United States: approximately 60 million Chinese are still in quarantine and, while SARS cost 1.5 points of GDP in 2003, nowadays – according to the most optimistic forecasts -Covid-19 is expected to cost China 2.1 points of GDP.

 Hence, while the risks of recession in China were low after the January 2020 agreements with the USA, currently the combination of the coronavirus crisis and the U.S. financial and legal pressure makes us think that the Chinese recession could be fast and strong, if these two factors persisted.

A solution could be China’s acquisition of a large part of the debt of the poorest nations that the Covid-19 crisis has bankrupted.

It has already happened with Pakistan or Sri Lanka, given that the debt service granted by China has led to the actual requisitioning of the infrastructure already built in those countries by China itself. The Chinese government, however, has mainly followed the indications of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, which advise to cancel the debt partly or totally.

China replies to the U.S. accusation of having produced or spread a truly “Chinese” virus throughout the world by saying that the World Health Organization itself has established that the virus has no precise development area and cannot therefore be associated with any specific country.

Furthermore, China does not accept at all the fact that, while Covid-19 has appeared for the first time in Wuhan, this necessarily means that it was “born” in Wuhan, considering that the appearance or even the very traceability of the virus are issues which are still being studied by scientists.

Obviously China reiterates that the coronavirus is not “artificial”, but completely natural, as all the most authoritative virologists in each country have established.

China also maintains that Covid-19 has not been “made” in Wuhan, since the P4 laboratory in that city is a partnership between China and France (with some activity even funded by the United States) and there have been no virus infections among the staff.

 But all this is not enough: over 5,000 American citizens have signed a class action in Florida to claim damages from the Chinese government for the coronavirus infection.

 Similar lawsuits have been initiated in Nevada and Texas, others in Minnesota and even in California.

 Under international law, the legal proceedings started by the U.S. government against the Chinese government for damage resulting from Covid-19 could be worth 1.2 trillion U.S. dollars.

 The legal basis for these legal proceedings and appeals is, above all, the delay with which the Chinese government provided data to the WHO, but the institutions where to appeal against China could be the WHO itself, the International Court of Justice, but also the Permanent Court of Arbitration or the ordinary civil courts in Hong Kong and the USA itself.

Nevertheless, considering that pandemics may break out anywhere, no country has an interest in “setting the precedent” for the coronavirus. What if a new pandemic were to break out in Lithuania or Madagascar?

 The International Liability Act for Health and Environmental Damage caused by one country to another applied, for the first time, in a 1920 lawsuit in which a factory in British Columbia released dangerous fumes to and across the Canadian-U.S. border.

 Many North American legal experts tell us that there is a parallel between the current coronavirus situation and the old dispute between Canada and the United States in which Canada paid damages without question.

 As far as current private international law is concerned, in principle States cannot be sued for public activities related to their sovereignty.

 To be entitled to sue China, it would be necessary to demonstrate that the activity carried out in the Wuhan P4 laboratory was completely private and hence aimed at simply manufacturing or marketing pharmaceutical products.

 From this viewpoint, domestic courts can never be called upon to judge the dispute.

Furthermore, in Italy, a foreign State may still be brought to trial, but only when its activities end up infringing the mandatory principles of international law.

However, when there is no possibility of damages action, there may also be the option of an inquiry committee made up of independent members.

 It could operate under the aegis of the U.N. Security Council, or even of other equally relevant international bodies.

Furthermore, according to other financial and economic analysts, the economic crisis from Covid-19 will not lead to recession in China, but even to a very strong public economic stimulus and hence to greater future short-term debt.

 After the first signs of epidemic, besides other “dedicated” financial operations, the Chinese Central Bank has injected the equivalent of 170 billion U.S. dollars of liquidity into the economy.

It is probably the largest and fastest response to the current pandemic economic crisis ever provided in the world.

 Certainly, the Chinese economy is now much different from the one that withstood the pressure of SARS in 2003.

Nowadays the service sector is the primary one, with a contribution to economic growth which is 40% higher than in the days of SARS.

 Meanwhile, however, the outflow of capital from China is increasing. The renmimbi is about 7 to the dollar, and some professional Western investors are wondering whether the Chinese economy can carry the new debt burden, which is necessary to push the economy forward, during and after the coronavirus pandemic.

 How much is China’s domestic debt support capacity? 250%? No one knows until the debt to GDP ratio reaches the ceiling.

 Obviously, the U.S. claim for damages will only exacerbate internal tensions within the Chinese economy and will temporarily enable the United States to economically and strategically outdistance China from it.

Again in economic and financial terms, in 2020 China will certainly record its first GDP decline since 1976, but the United States is not doing very well either.

 About half of the American population is now locked up at home.

 In the last week for which we have data, the cost of unemployment insurance has reached 3.5 million, the highest level in the history of the ambiguous North American welfare state.

 The International Monetary Fund also predicts a reduction in world income of at least 2 trillion U.S. dollars.

 The real issue is whether there will be any recovery at the end of 2020.

What are the variables at stake? Simply the amount of stimulus to the State economy, consumer confidence, as well as the number of Covid-19 infection cases.

 In the worst case scenario, there will be a yearly 3.5% reduction in Chinese GDP in 2020. A second wave of crisis can be expected in early 2021, but if there is no new virus infection, China’s GDP decrease is expected to level off at 2% in 2021 and then stabilize in mid-2023.

In the E.U. case, the crisis is expected to lead to a 9% GDP reduction in all Member States, which will certainly not mean a decrease in internal tensions.

On the worst possible assumption, the persistence of a significant amount of infections and of lockdowns could lead to structural recession and it would take at least four to five years to go back to pre-Covid-19 rates.

 It will be necessary to reduce spending significantly, from 20 to 30%, as well as advance receipts and provide more aid to companies and consumers.

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. “

Economy

Free-Market Capitalism and Climate Crisis

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Free market capitalism is an economic system that has brought about tremendous economic growth and prosperity in many countries around the world. However, it has also spawned a number of problems, one of which is the climate crisis. The climate crisis is a global problem caused by the emission of greenhouse gases, primarily carbon dioxide, into the atmosphere. These externalities are chiefly a consequence of day to day human activities, such as the burning of fossil fuels, deforestation, and conventional agriculture. The climate crisis is leading to rise in temperatures, sea levels, and more erratic weather patterns-The floods in Pakistan and depleting cedars of Lebanon are vivid instances for these phenomena, which are having a devastating impact on the planet.

One of the main reasons that free market capitalism has contributed to the climate crisis is that it prioritizes short-term economic growth over long-term environmental sustainability. Under capitalism, companies are primarily motivated by profit and are not required to internalize the costs of their pollution. This means that they are able to pollute without having to pay for the damage that they are causing. Additionally, the capitalist system is based on the idea of unlimited growth, which is not sustainable in the long-term. As long as there is an infinite demand for goods and services, companies will continue to produce them, leading to ever-increasing levels of pollution and resource depletion.

Another pressing issue that free market capitalism is recently going through is that it does not take into account the externalities of economic activities. Externalities are the unintended consequences of economic activities, such as pollution and climate change. Under capitalism, companies are not required to pay for the externalities of their activities, which means that they are able to continue polluting without having to pay for the damage that they are causing. In her book “This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs Climate” Naomi Klein argues that the current system of capitalism is inherently incompatible with the urgent action needed to address the Climate crisis.

To address the climate crisis, it is necessary to put checks and balances over the free market capitalism and/or make a way towards a more sustainable economic system. This can be done through a number of different effective policies, such as:

Carbon pricing: This can be done through a carbon tax or a cap-and-trade system, which would make companies pay for the carbon emissions that they are producing. In the article “The Conservative Case for Carbon Dividends” authors suggest that revenue-neutral carbon tax is the most efficient and effective way to reduce the carbon emissions.

Increasing renewable energy investments: an increment in the investments in clean energy technologies, such as solar and wind power, can result in the reduction in  the use of fossil fuels.

Regulating pollution: Governments can regulate pollution to limit the amount of greenhouse gases that are emitted into the atmosphere.

Encouraging sustainable practices: Governments can encourage sustainable practices, such as recycling and conservation, to reduce the use of resources.

It is remarkable that evolving Capitalism can be harnessed to address the climate change. The private sector has the resources and innovation to develop and implement new technologies and sustainable practices, but they need the right incentives and regulations to do so. Finding the balance between economic growth and environmental protection must be a priority for capitalists.

The free market capitalism has been the driving force behind global economic growth, but at the same time, it has contributed to the ongoing climate crisis. The solution to this problem is not to reject capitalism, but rather to reform it to the societies’ suitable demands. Government should consider providing a level playing field so as to make the probable transition from fossil-based energy systems to Green energy technologies possible. The capitalists should not consider short-termism over long term environmental sustainability. Government intervention to put a price on carbon emissions, invest in renewable energy, regulate pollution, and encourage sustainable practices is necessary to avoid the worst impacts of the climate crisis and build a sustainable future for all. However, here is the catch:  Is achieving net-zero-carbon emissions by mid-century a probable target? The answer is quite uncertain, however it is critical point to strive for in the face of  escalating Climate Crisis.

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Economy

Egypt’s “Too Big to Fail” Theory Once Again at Test

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Authors: Reem Mansour & Mohamed A. Fouad

In the wake of 2022 FED’s hawkish monetary policy, the Arab world’s most populous nation, Egypt, saw an exodus of about USD20bn of foreign capital.  A feat that exerted pressure on the value of its pound against the dollar slashing it by almost half.  This led to USD12bn trade backlog accumulating in Egypt’s ports by December 2022.

Meanwhile, amidst foreign debt nearing USD170bn, inflation soaring to double digits, and a chronic balance of payment deficit, Egypt became structurally unfit to sustain global shocks; the country saw its foreign debt mounting to 35% of GDP, causing the financing gap to hover at USD20billion. 

While it may seem all gloom and doom, friends from the GCC rushed to inject funds in the “too big to fail” country, sparing it, an arguably, ill-fate that was well reflected in its Eurobond yields spreads and credit default swaps, a measure that assesses a sovereign default risk. 

For the same reason in early 2023, the IMF sealed a deal worth of USD3bn, with the government, which unlocked an extra USD14bn sources of financing from multilateral institutions, and GCC sovereign funds, to fill in a hefty portion of the annual foreign exchange gap, albeit  a considerable amount averaging USD6bn per annum is yet to be sourced from portfolio investments.  

With the IMF stepping in, the Egyptian government agreed on a structural reform program that requires a flexible exchange rate regime, where the Egyptian pound is set to trade within daily boundaries against the US dollar, rationalize government spending, especially in projects that require foreign currency; and most importantly the program entails stake-sales in publicly owned assets, paving the way for the private sector to play a bigger role in the economy.

In due course, through its sovereign fund, Egypt planned initial offerings for shares in companies worth about USD5-USD6bn, and expanded the sale of its shares in local banks and government holdings to Gulf investment funds. 

Through the limited period of execution of these reforms, the EGP hit a high of 32 against the greenback, and an inflow of portfolio investments amounting to USD1bn took place, according to the Central Bank of Egypt. 

Simultaneously, Citibank International, cited a possible near end of the devaluation of the Egyptian pound against the US dollar.  Also, in a report to investors, Standard Chartered recommended to buy Egyptian treasury bills, and pointed to the return of portfolio flows to the local debt market in the early days of January, 2023. Likewise, Fitch indicated the ability of the Egyptian banking sector to face the repercussions of the depreciation of the pound, and that the compulsory reserve ratios within Egyptian banks are able to withstand any declines in the value of the pound because they are supported by healthy internal flows of capital.

While things seem to be poised for a recovery, the long term prospects may lack sustainability.  The Egyptian government needs to accelerate its plans to shift gears towards a real operational economy capable of withstanding shocks and dealing with any global challenges. Egypt, however has implicitly held the narrative that the country is ‘too big to fail”. This is largely true to the country’s geopolitical relevance, but even this has its limitations when the price to bail far outweighs the price to fail.

Former President George W. Bush’s administration popularized the “too big to fail” (TBTF) doctrine notably during the 2008 financial crisis. The Bush administration often used the term to describe why it stepped in to bail out some financial companies to avert worldwide economic collapse.

In his book “The Myth of Too Big To Fail” Imad Moosa presented arguments against using public fund to bail out failing financial institutions. He ultimately argued that a failing financial institution should be allowed to fail without fearing an apocalyptic outcome. For countries, the TBTF theory comes under considerable challenge.

In August 1982, Mexico was not able to service its external debt obligations, marking the start of the debt crisis. After years of accumulating external debt, rising world interest rates, the worldwide recession and sudden devaluations of the peso caused the external debt bill to rise sharply, which ultimately caused a default. 

After six years of economic reform in Russia, privatization and macroeconomic stabilization had experienced some limited success. Yet in August 1998, after recording its first year of positive economic growth since the fall of the Soviet Union, Russia was forced to default on its sovereign debt, devalue the ruble, and declare a suspension of payments by commercial banks to foreign creditors.

In Egypt, although the country remains to face a number of challenges, signs remain relatively less worrying than 2022, as global sentiment suggests that leverage will be provided in the short-term at least. Egypt’s diversified economy, size and relative regional clout may very well spare the country the fate of Lebanon. However, if reforms do not happen fast enough, the TBTF shield may become completely depleted.

Hence, in order to avoid an economic fallout scenario a full fledged support to the private sector’s local manufacturing activity and tourism is a must.  Effective policies geared towards competitiveness are mandatory, and tax & export oriented concessions are required to unleash the private sector’s maximum potential and shift Egypt into gear.

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Sanctions and the Confiscation of Russian Property. The First Experience

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After the start of the special military operation in Ukraine, Western countries froze the assets of the Russian public and private sector entities which had been hit by blocking financial sanctions. At the same time, the possibility that these assets could be confiscated and liquidated so that the funds could be transferred to Ukraine was discussed. So far, only Canada has such a legal mechanism. It will also be the first country to implement the idea of confiscation in practice. How does the new mechanism work, what is the essence of the first confiscation, and what consequences can we expect from the new practice in the future?

Loss of control over assets in countries that impose sanctions against certain individuals has long been a common phenomenon. The mechanism of blocking sanctions has been widely used for several decades by US authorities. A similar methodology has been adopted by the EU, Switzerland, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Japan and some other countries. Russia and China may also resort to these tactics, although Moscow and Beijing rarely use them. In the hands of Western countries, blocking sanctions, however, have become a frequent occurrence. Along with the ban on financial transactions with individuals and legal entities named in the lists of blocked persons, such sanctions also imply the freezing of the assets of persons in the jurisdiction of the initiating countries. In other words, having fallen under blocking sanctions, a person or organisation loses the ability to use their bank accounts, real estate and any other property. Since February 2022, Western countries have blocked more than 1,500 Russian individuals in this way. If you add subsidiary structures to them, their number will be even greater. The volume of the property of these persons frozen abroad is colossal. It includes at least 300 billion dollars in gold and foreign exchange reserves.

This is not counting the assets of high net worth Russian individuals worth $30 billion or more which have been blocked by the G7 countries. However, the freezing of property does not mean its confiscation. Although the blocked person cannot dispose of his assets, it formally remains his property. At some point, the sanctions may be lifted, and access to property restored. In practice, restrictive measures can be in place for years, but theoretically, the possibility of recovering assets still remains.

After the start of the special military operation (SMO), calls began to be heard in Western countries to confiscate frozen property and transfer it to Ukraine. Confiscation mechanisms have existed before. For example, property could be confiscated by a court order as part of the criminal prosecution of violators of the sanctions legislation. However, such mechanisms are clearly not suitable for the mass confiscation of property. Blocking sanctions are a political decision that do not require the level of proof of guilt that is required in the criminal process. To put it bluntly, the hundreds of Russian officials or entrepreneurs put on blocking lists for supporting the SMO did not commit criminal offenses for which their property could be subject to confiscation. The sanctions have spurred the search for such crimes in the form of money laundering or other illegal operations. But the amount of funds raised in this way would be a tiny fraction of the value of the frozen assets. To implement the idea of confiscation of the frozen assets of sanctioned persons and the subsequent transfer of the proceeds for them, Ukraine needed a different mechanism.

Canada was the first country to implement such a mechanism. The 2022 revision of the Special Economic Measures Act gives Canadian authorities the executive power to order the seizure of property located in Canada which is owned by a foreign government or any person or entity from that country, as well as any citizen of the given country who is not a resident of Canada (article 4 (1)). The reason for the application of such measures may be “a gross violation of international peace and security, which has caused or may cause a serious international crisis” (Article 4 (1.1.)). The final decision on confiscation must be made by a judge, to whom a relevant representative of the executive branch sends a corresponding petition (Article 5.3). Furthermore, the executive authorities, at their own discretion, may decide to transfer the proceeds from the confiscated property in favour of a foreign state that has suffered as a result of actions to violate peace and security, in favour of restoring peace and security, as well as in favour of victims of violations of peace and security, or victims of violations of human rights law or anti-corruption laws (art. 5.6).

The first target of the new legal mechanism will be the Canadian asset of Roman Abramovich’s Granite Capital Holding Ltd. The value of the asset, according to a statement by Canadian authorities, is $26 million.

Roman Abramovich is on the Canadian Blocked List, i. e. his property is already frozen, and transactions are prohibited. Now the property of the Russian businessman will be confiscated and, with a high degree of probability, ownership will be transferred to Ukraine. This is a relatively small asset (from the standpoint of state property), but the procedure itself can be worked out. Further confiscations may be more extensive.

The Canadian experience can be copied by other Western countries. In the US, work on such a mechanism was announced back in April 2022. although it has not yet been adopted at the legislative level. In the EU, such a mechanism is also not finally fixed in the regulatory legal acts of the Union, although Art. 15 of Regulation 269/2014 obliges Member States to develop, inter alia, rules on the confiscation of assets obtained as a result of violations of the sanctions regime. The very concept of violations can be interpreted broadly. So, for example, Art. 9 of the said Regulation obliges blocked Russian persons to report to the authorities of the EU countries within six weeks after blocking about their assets. Violation of this requirement can be regarded as a circumvention of blocking sanctions.

There are several consequences of the Canadian authorities’ initiative.

First, it becomes clear that the confiscation rule is not dormant. Its use is possible and is a risk. This is a serious signal to those Russians and Russian companies that have not yet come under sanctions, but own property in the West. It can be not only frozen, but also confiscated. This risk will inevitably be taken into account by investors and owners from other countries, which could potentially be the target of increased Western sanctions in the future. Among them are China, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and others. It is unlikely that the confiscation of Russian property will lead to an outflow of assets of these countries and their citizens from Canada and other Western jurisdictions. But the signal itself will be taken into account.

Second, the Russian side is very likely to take retaliatory measures. Western companies are rapidly withdrawing their assets from Russia. The representation of Canadian business in the Russian Federation was small even before the start of the operation in Ukraine. If the practice of confiscation becomes widespread, then the Russian side can roll it out in relation against the remaining Western businesses. However, so far, Moscow has been extremely hesitant to freeze Western property. While the US, EU and other Western countries have actively blocked Russians and their assets, Russia has mainly responded with visa sanctions. The confiscation could overwhelm Moscow’s patience and make the retaliatory practice more proportionate.

Finally, the practice of confiscation modifies the very Western idea of sanctions. It currently implies, among other things, that the “behavioural change” of sanctioned persons would result in the lifting of sanctions and the return of property. The freezing mechanism was combined with this idea. However, the confiscation mechanism contradicts it. Sanctions now become exclusively a mechanism for causing damage.

From our partner RIAC

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