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Options in Dealing with Economic Depression

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The current global economy still maintains positive growth, and neither main advanced economies nor emerging economies have experienced economic recession, let alone worsened into a major depression. However, the sustainability of global economic growth is facing challenges, and the deterioration of the global trade war has exacerbated the slowdown in global economic growth. The economy of the United States has begun to show signs of slowing down, and many investment banks expect that the possibility of a recession in the U.S. economy is increasing. The recovery of the European economy has been relatively fragile. The economic growth of Germany and France has slowed down, while the economic “internal friction” caused by Brexit has further weakened the European economy. Meanwhile, the deterioration of the trade war has increased the downward pressure on China’s economy. If the trade war extends to science and technology, as well as the finance, it may also trigger China’s domestic economic conflicts and deep-seated economic structural problems, which will cause more troubles to the Chinese economy.

In the past century, the United States has experienced two long-term debt cycles, leading to the prosperity of the 1920s and the Great Depression of the 1930s. History repeated itself where the United States enjoyed prosperity in the early 21st century and experienced the financial crisis began in 2008. 11 years after the 2008 financial crisis, will there be another Great Depression? This remains to be seen. However, in the context of the current deterioration of the global trade war, the global economy is still unable to rid itself of the laws of the “Crisis Triangle” (Chan Kung, 2015). With the structural problems of global overproduction and excess capital, we cannot help but consider the economic downturn and the possibility of an economic depression.

When the economic depression is approaching, how should policies respond? In other words, how to manage economic depression through policy adjustments? From the perspective of dealing with the debt crisis, Ray Dalio, the founder of Bridgewater Associates, provides some policy management options in the face of economic depression: one is fiscal austerity, the other is debt default/restructuring, the third is debt monetization or money printing, and finally there is the redistribution of wealth (from the rich to the poor). Each policy choice has a different impact on the economy, and the key is for policymakers to find the right policy combinations.

When the economic and capital market bubbles burst, it is almost an instinctive response for the government to tighten fiscal policy, hoping to reduce the degree of the bubble and promote deleveraging. But in many cases, wrong choices would be made. Dalio believes that in an economic depression, the better way of managing is that the central bank should promote ample liquidity, such as rapidly reducing short-term interest rates to 0%; while bad management is slowing down and providing limited liquidity and tightening up prematurely. If the government is unwilling to take action at the beginning, this will make the economic depression worse. During the Great Depression in the United States in the 1930s and the Lost Decade of Japan in the 1980s, the governments of these countries were slow to act, which resulted in a long depression. However, when the financial crisis broke out in 2008, the U.S. government learned the lessons well and quickly moved to inject liquidity into the market, leading to a shorter economic depression.

To deal with the economic recession, an important task that cannot be avoided is debt restructuring. There are usually several approaches: The first is to provide liquidity, including bank liquidity and emergency lending. The second is to solve the debt problem of lenders, including debt restructuring, recapitalization, and debt nationalization. The third is to divest debts, including setting up asset management companies to absorb these debts. For example, in the late 1990s, China established four major asset management companies to absorb bad debts from banks. The fourth is sovereign default and reorganization. After the 2008 financial crisis, the United States nationalized some banks, which is also a common practice. In the short term, debt restructuring is intended to diversify the impact of the debt crisis, so that short-term debt pain is not unbearable; in the long run, policymakers must realize that institutional reforms must be carried out to solve the root cause of the debt problem.

During economic depressions, loan institutions, especially those that are not protected by ordered guarantees, often encounter “runs.” The central bank and the central government ordered the need to determine as soon as possible which institutions are systemically important and need rescue. Most importantly, the central government needs to do its best to ensure the security of the financial/economic system and minimize government/taxpayer costs. Part of the funds needed for rescue comes from the government (through budget allocations) and part from the central bank (money printing). In the process of alleviating the credit crisis and stimulating the economy, if the government finds it difficult to raise funds through taxation and borrowing, the central bank will be forced to increase the amount of money printed and provide more funds to purchase national debt. The central bank and central government’s response actions should focus on several key points: 1) provide debt guarantees to reduce panic; 2) provide liquidity; 3) support the solvency of systemically important institutions; 4) recapitalize/nationalize/cover loss of systemically important financial institutions.

When the economy is in depression, the gap between rich and poor will become huge, and might even cause serious social problems. From historical experience, if the rich and the poor share social resources and the economy is in recession at this time, there may be economic and political conflicts. At this time, both left-wing and right-wing populism will rise. How the people and the country respond to populism will determine whether the economy and society can smoothly survive the depression. At this time, increasing taxes on the rich often becomes a politically attractive policy choice, because the rich use assets and wealth to make more money, and the central bank’s purchase of financial assets also allows the rich who hold more financial assets to earn more. This will also be the time for the “left-leaning” political trend to accelerate the redistribution of social wealth. If taxes are increased, they will usually be increased in the form of income tax, real estate tax and consumption tax. However, tax increases should not reach the stage that drives the rich to transfer their funds to safer places, leading to the “hollow” policy of tax increases for the rich.

The above-mentioned four types of policy ideas to deal with economic depression provide a brief policy framework for decision-makers to choose when an economic depression occurs. It should be pointed out that although this framework has a certain degree of versatility, it is mainly built on the basis of a market economy with a relatively complete system, and is mainly from the perspectives of investment and of dealing with debt crises. In the real world, the Great Depression is often a systemic collapse of the economy and finance of the world or a country. To cope with this extreme and complex systemic crisis often requires more complex policy responses and economic and financial resources. In any case, thinking about extreme risk scenarios in advance will enable us to find more rational and forward-looking policy responses, thereby reducing risks and losses.

Final analysis conclusion:

The downward pressure on both global economy and Chinese economy is increasing. Although there is still a gap between the economic recession and depression, policymakers need to plan ahead, think ahead and prepare for policy measures when an economic depression occurs in the face of an increasingly uncertain world.

Mr. He Jun takes the roles as Partner, Director of China Macro-Economic Research Team and Senior Researcher. His research field covers China’s macro-economy, energy industry and public policy

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Economy

The Blazing Revival of Bitcoin: BITO ETF Debuts as the Second-Highest Traded Fund

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It seems like bitcoin is as resilient as a relentless pandemic: persistent and refusing to stay down. Not long ago, the crypto-giant lost more than half of its valuation in the aftermath of a brutal crackdown by China. Coupled with pessimism reflected by influencers like Elon Musk, the bitcoin plummeted from the all-time high valuation of $64,888.99 to flirt around the $30,000 mark in mere weeks. However, over the course of the last four months, the behemoth of the crypto-market gradually climbed to reclaim its supremacy. Today, weaving through national acceptance to market recognition, bitcoin could be the gateway to normalizing the elusive crypto-world in the traditional global markets: particularly the United States.

The recent bullish development is the launch of the ProShares Bitcoin Strategy ETF – the first Bitcoin-linked exchange-traded fund – on the New York Stock Exchange. Trading under the ticker BITO, the Bitcoin ETF welcomed a robust trading day: rising 4.9% to $41.94. According to the data compiled by Bloomberg, BITO’s debut marked it as the second-highest traded fund, behind BlackRock’s Carbon fund, for the first day of trading. With a turnover of almost $1 billion, the listing of BITO highlighted the demand for reliable investment in bitcoin in the US market. According to estimates on Tuesday, More than 24 million shares changed hands while BITO was one of the most-bought assets on Fidelity’s platform with more than 8,800 buy orders.

The bitcoin continued to rally, cruising over the lucrative launch of BITO. The digital currency rose to $64,309.33 on Tuesday: less than 1% below the all-time high valuation. In hindsight, the recovery seems commendable. The growing acceptance, albeit, has far more consequential attributes. The cardinal benefit is apparent: evidence of gradual acceptance by regulators. “The launch of ProShares’ bitcoin ETF on the NYSE provides the validation that some investors need to consider adding BTC to their portfolio,” stated Hong Fang, CEO of Okcoin. In simpler terms, not only would the listing allow relief to the crypto loyalists (solidifying their belief in the currency), but it would also embolden investors on the sidelines who have long been deterred by regulatory uncertainty. Thus, bringing larger, more rooted institutional investors into the crypto market: along with a surge of capital.

However, the surging acceptance may be diluting the rudimentary phenomenon of bitcoin. While retail investors would continue to participate in the notorious game of speculation via trading bitcoin, the opportunity to gain indirect exposure to bitcoin could divert the risk-averse investors. It means many loyalists could retract and direct towards BITO and other imminent bitcoin-linked ETFs instead of setting up a digital custodianship. Ultimately, it boils down to Bitcoin ETFs being managed by third parties instead of the investor: relenting control to a centralized figure. Moreover, with growing scrutiny under the eye of SECP, the steps vaguely intimate a transition to harness the market instead of liberalizing it: quiet oxymoronic to the entire decentralized model of cryptocurrencies.

Nonetheless, the listing of BITO is an optimistic development that would draw skeptics to at least observe the rampant popularity of the asset class. While the options on BITO are expected to begin trading on the NYSE Arca Options and NYSE American Options exchanges on Wednesday, other futures-based Bitcoin ETFs are on the cards. The surging popularity (and reluctant acceptance) amid tightening regulation could prove a turn of an era for the US capital markets. However, as some critics have cited, BITO is not a spot-based ETF and is instead linked to futures contracts. Thus, the restrain is still present as the regulators do not want a repeat of the financial crisis. Nevertheless, bitcoin has proved its deterrence in the face of skepticism. And if the BITO launch is to be marveled at, then the regulations are bound to adapt to the revolution that is unraveling in the modern financial reality.

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Economy

Is Myanmar an ethical minefield for multinational corporations?

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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.

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Economy

The Covid After-Effects and the Looming Skills Shortage

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coronavirus people

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

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