The global economic recession which kicked off towards the end of the Bush presidency and the beginning of the Obama presidency reached a nadir around March 9, 2009. At that point in time, the SPX closed at 676.53. Fast forward to the present day, the SPX currently stands at 3,934.83. The financial charts don’t lie.
There has been a clear and unprecedented upswing since 2009, fuelled largely by government-backed programs to stimulate economic growth. A series of massive stimuli, backed by Federal Reserve Bank bond-buying programs and quantitative easing have facilitated a booming US economy.
During the Obama presidency, from 2008 – 2016, the QE programme embarked upon large-scale purchases of securities and Treasury bonds. The financial crash that began with the sub-prime mortgage crisis and heralded the collapse of Lehman Brothers was a massive global economic catastrophe. The Federal Reserve Bank acted quickly to shore up confidence in the economy by cutting interest rates to 0% – 0.25%.
Before QE kicked in, the Fed owned $477B of federal government-issued debt, out of a total of $5.8 trillion. This amounts to 8% of all federal debt. After the stimulus policies enacted by the Fed and the government, the Fed injected $900 billion + $292 billion + $800 billion into the economy. In terms of percentages, the Fed owned $2.5 trillion worth of Treasury securities, amounting to 18% of all debts.
Source: Dow Jones Industrial Average 2008 – Present Day
The objective of these monetary policies was to lower the cost of borrowing, to hyper-stimulate the economy to get businesses back into the swing of things. Since the global financial crisis, the world economy has been with it characterized by historically low, sometimes negative, rates of interest. The Fed also purchased $1.8 trillion in mortgage-backed securities offered through Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, between 2009 – 2016.
All of this money flooding the markets had to get soaked up into the economy. The funds found their way into savings accounts, fixed-interest-bearing accounts, retirement accounts, stock markets, debt repayments, living expenses, et al. The Dow Jones Industrial Average (DJIA) enjoyed unprecedented gains in the 12 years since the financial crisis hit.
Stock Market Gets a Massive Boost from Government-Backed Stimuli
During the Trump presidency, 2016 – 2020, the coronavirus pandemic struck in December 2019, and has roiled financial markets and ravaged the global economy ever since. To combat the massive decline in global demand, governments and central banks around the world have pushed the largest stimulus packages ever in history.
In the US, tens of millions of workers were furloughed, businesses shuttered operations, and economic activity ground to a halt. Were it not for the concerted efforts by the House, the Senate, and the Executive, financial ruin would have ensued. At $4 trillion, the tax breaks, loans, grants, and bailouts were the largest stimulus ever to be passed in the US.
Some $2.3 trillion was allocated to businesses, $651 billion in tax breaks, and $454 billion was allocated to the Federal reserve to stabilize financial markets. The PPP (Paycheck Protection Program) allocated $670 billion towards businesses impacted by the coronavirus. State governments and public agencies received a total of $253 billion, and $884 billion (approximately 20%) of relief when two workers and their families. Additional stimulus was passed, and it will pass again under Biden.
Stock markets around the world collapsed in March and April 2020, following consecutive months of global shutdowns, amid a rampant novel coronavirus pandemic. The quick response of governments around the world to lockdown their countries to foreign visitors, quarantine the sick and infirm, and attack the virus with every single resource available in the medical, pharmaceutical, scientific, public and private sector paid dividends.
While the loss of human life has been horrifying, governments have gone to great lengths to shore up economic activity to prevent the worst possible scenario coming to light: collapsed economies around the world. The stock market boom has been fuelled by a glut of new traders to the scene, many of whom heretofore had no interest in trading the financial markets.
The coronavirus created new economies, new realities, and new ways of doing business. In person was replaced by virtual, and seemingly moribund SMEs came roaring back to life with new ways of doing business.
Many business sectors were able to successfully transform operations during the pandemic. These include therestaurant industry, VR sector, the retail industry, e-learning, remote working, entertainment, pharmaceuticals and medical devices, virtual healthcare, contactless technology, logistics, and electronic transfers.
Impact of the Pandemic on the Financial Markets
There can be no denying the devastating effects of the pandemic on economic activity. Government imposed shutdowns have all but eviscerated the energy industry, causing the prices of crude oil, natural gas, and coal to plummet. These commodities enjoy rising prices with increasing demand. With shrinking demand and reduced supply, many energy companies have closed up shop completely.
Yet, the failure of energy companies has been a boon to the fittest operators, by removing excess supply, and shoring up the existing capacity with the companies who remain. Major energy titans like Texaco, Exxon Mobil, Shell, British Petroleum, and the like have been able to keep themselves afloat by way of massive reserves, government-backed loans and stimuli, and diversification strategies.
While travel and leisure stocks plunged (Carnival Cruise lines, Royal Caribbean, Princess, Delta Airlines, American Airlines, British Airways, Virgin Atlantic, Boeing et cetera), other commodities like gold have boomed. The likes of SPDR GLD, Barrick Gold, Newmont Corporation, Rio Tinto plc, and others have enjoyed strong gains. Much the same is true of platinum.
But the biggest winners during 2020, and in the opening quarter of 2021 remained the tech stocks. The performance of the NASDAQ composite index is a case in point. The election of Joe Biden to the highest office has brought with it a reshuffling of priorities vis-a-vis how the US will approach technology moving forward. A focus on green energy is the order of the day. This puts many oil, coal, and natural gas companies in a spot of bother, but it puts companies like Tesla, myriad solar-focused companies, and alternative fuel SMEs in the spotlight.
Given this new green focus, the stocks to watch for February include the likes of Greene Concepts Inc (OTCPK: INKW), a company which sells bottled water and recently sold out all of its supplies on Amazon. Another company with a forward-focus is Alternet Systems Inc. (OTCPK: ALY) which has been manufacturing ReVolt Electric Motorcycles, and yet another is a rather interesting turnaround with Barrel Energy Inc (OTCPK: BRLL) which was in the oil and gas sector, and now manufactures lithium-ion batteries.
For the full year ending December 31, 2020, the NASDAQ gained 43.2%, its fifth best year in recorded history. The Dow Jones Industrial Average gained 7.3%, and the S&P 500 index rose 16.3%. The performance of the NASDAQ is extraordinary, given the hullabaloo that ensued during the year. The tech-heavy index was led by strong performers such as Google, Netflix, Apple, Microsoft, Amazon, Tesla, Facebook, all of which comprise an agglomerated chunk of the NASDAQ.
Innovation, particularly cloud computing, sophisticated IoT technology, and the imminent roll-out of 5G across the board are expected to be the paradigm shift in the economy, led by the tech sector. Electric vehicles, driverless vehicles, robotics, virtual meetings, computing capabilities, and wearable tech are certainly exciting and potentially lucrative fields for the new economy.
How Long Will the Bull Market Last?
That’s the $100 million question that everybody wants to know. We already know that there are several gauges to use to assess the mood of the market, including speculative sentiment, unemployment numbers, inflation forecasts et al. One of them is the VIX (volatility indicator). The CBOE volatility index gauges the performance of the market in real time and determines the level of risk in the markets.
When the VIX is rising (when it’s high, it’s time to buy), there is increasing volatility and traders and investors tend to buy up stocks. When the VIX is falling (when the VIX is low look out below), that tends to be a signal that there will be future volatility, which spurs selloffs. Currently, the VIX is at a level of 21.53, up markedly since the previous close. The VIX is an important economic indicator with regards to stock market expectations, and volatility.
Iran has an integral role to play in Russian-South Asian connectivity
Iran is geostrategically positioned to play an integral role in Russian-South Asian connectivity. President Putin told the Valdai Club during its annual meeting in October 2019 that “there is one more prospective route, the Arctic – Siberia – Asia.
The idea is to connect ports along the Northern Sea Route with ports of the Pacific and Indian oceans via roads in East Siberia and central Eurasia.” This vision, which forms a crucial part of his country’s “Greater Eurasian Partnership”, can be achieved through the official North-South Transport Corridor (NSTC) and tentative W-CPEC+ projects that transit through the Islamic Republic of Iran.
The first one refers to the creation of a new trade route from Russia to India through Azerbaijan and Iran, while the second concerns the likely expansion of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC, the flagship project of China’s Belt & Road Initiative [BRI]) westward through Iran and largely parallel to the NSTC. W-CPEC+ can also continue towards Turkey and onward to the EU, but that branch is beyond the scope of the present analysis. The NSTC’s terminal port is the Indian-backed Chabahar, but delays in fully developing its infrastructure might lead to Bandar Abbas being used as a backup in the interim.
CPEC’s Chinese-backed terminal port of Gwadar is in close proximity to Chabahar, thus presenting the opportunity of eventually pairing the two as sister cities, especially in the event that rumored negotiations between China and Iran result in upwards of several hundred billion dollars worth of investments like some have previously reported. The combination of Russian, Indian, and Chinese infrastructure investments in Iran would greatly improve the country’s regional economic competitiveness and enable it to fulfill its geostrategic destiny of facilitating connectivity between Russia and South Asia.
What’s most intriguing about this ambitious vision is that Iran is proving to the rest of the world that it isn’t “isolated” like the U.S. and its closest allies thought that it would be as a result of their policy of so-called “maximum pressure” against it in recent years. While it’s true that India has somewhat stepped away from its previously strategic cooperation with Iran out of fear that it’ll be punished by “secondary sanctions” if it continued its pragmatic partnership with the Islamic Republic, it’s worthwhile mentioning that Chabahar curiously secured a U.S. sanctions waiver.
While the American intent behind that decision is unclear, it might have been predicated on the belief that the Iranian-facilitated expansion of Indian influence into Central Asia via Chabahar might help to “balance” Chinese influence in the region. It could also have simply been a small but symbolic “concession” to India in order not to scare it away from supporting the U.S. anti-Chinese containment strategy. It’s difficult to tell what the real motive was since American-Indian relations are currently complicated by Washington’s latest sanctions threats against New Delhi in response to its decision to purchase Russia’s S-400 air defense systems.
Nevertheless, even in the worst-case scenario that Indian investment and infrastructural support for Iran can’t be taken for granted in the coming future, that still doesn’t offset the country’s geostrategic plans. Russia could still use the NSTC to connect with W-CPEC and ultimately the over 200+ million Pakistani marketplaces. In theory, Russian companies in Pakistan could also re-export their home country’s NSTC-imported goods to neighboring India, thereby representing a pragmatic workaround to New Delhi’s potential self-interested distancing from that project which could also provide additional much-needed tax revenue for Islamabad.
Iran must therefore do its utmost to ensure Russia’s continued interest in the NSTC regardless of India’s approach to the project. Reconceptualizing the NSTC from its original Russian-Indian connectivity purpose to the much broader one of Russian-South Asian connectivity could help guarantee Moscow’s support. In parallel with that, Tehran would do well to court Beijing’s investments along W-CPEC+’s two branch corridors to Azerbaijan/Russia and Turkey/EU. Any success on any of these fronts, let alone three of them, would advance Iran’s regional interests by solidifying its integral geo-economic role in 21st-century Eurasia.
From our partner Tehran Times
The phenomenon of land grabbing by multinationals
Since 2012 the United Nations has adopted voluntary guidelines for land and forest management to combat land grabbing. But only a few people know about the guidelines, which aim to protect small farmers particularly in Third World countries.
When multinational investors buy up fields for their huge plantations, the residents lose their livelihood and means of support and will soon only be sleeping in their villages. If they are lucky, they might find work with relatives in another village. Many also try their luck in the city, but poverty and unemployment are high. What remains are depopulated villages and the huge palm oil plantations that have devoured farmland. People can no longer go there to hunt and grow plants or get firewood. The land no longer belongs to them!
Land grabbingis the process whereby mostly foreign investors deprive local farmers or fishermen of their fields, lakes and rivers. Although it has been widely used throughout history, land grabbing – as used in the 21st century – mainly refers to large-scale land acquisitions following the global food price crisis of 2007-2008.
From 2000 until 2019 one hundred million hectares of land have been sold or leased to foreign investors and the list of the most affected countries can be found here below:
Such investment may also make sense for the development of a country, but it must not deprive people of their rights: local people are starving while food is being produced and turned into biofuels for export right before their eyes.
In 2012, after three years of discussion, the UN created an instrument to prevent such land grabbing: the VGGTs (Voluntary Guidelines on the Responsible Governance of Tenure of Land, Fisheries and Forests in the Context of National Food Security:
Detailed minimum standards for investment are established, e.g. the participation of affected people or how to safeguard the rights of indigenous peoples and prevent corruption. Formally, the document provides a significant contribution to all people fighting for their rights.
The document, however, is quite cryptic. The guidelines should be simplified and explained. Only in this way can activists, but also farmers and fishermen, become aware of their rights.
Others doubt that much can be achieved through these guidelines because they are voluntary. After all, the UN has little or no say in the matter and can do no more than that. If governments implemented them, they would apply them as they will.
In Bolivia, for example, there are already laws that are supposed to prevent land grabbing. In the Amazon, however, Brazilian and Argentinian companies are buying up forests to grow soya and sugar cane, often with the approval and agreement of corrupt government officials. Further guidelines would probably be of little use.
At most, activists already use the guidelines to lobby their governments. Together with other environmental and human rights activists, they set up networks: through local radio stations and village meetings, they inform people of the fact that they right to their land.
Nevertheless, in many countries in Africa and elsewhere, there is a lack of documentation proving land ownership. Originally, tribal leaders vocally distributed rights of use. But today’s leaders are manipulated to pressure villagers to sell their land.
The biggest investors are Indians and Europeans: they are buying up the land to grow sugar cane and palm oil plantations. This phenomenon has been going on since 2008: at that time – as noted above – the world food crisis drove up food prices and foreign investors, but also governments, started to invest in food and biofuels.
Investment inland, which has been regarded as safe since the well-known financial crisis, must also be taken into account. Recently Chinese companies have also been buying up thousands of hectares of land.
In some parts of Africa, only about 6% of land is cultivated for food purposes, while on the remaining areas there are palm oil plantations. Once the plantations grow two or three metres high, they have a devastating effect on monocultures that rely on biodiversity, because of the huge areas they occupy. There is also environmental pollution due to fertilisers: in a village, near a plantation run by a Luxembourg company, many people have suffered from diarrhoea and some elderly villagers even died.
Consequently, the implementation of the VGGTs must be made binding as soon as possible. But with an organisation like the United Nations, how could this happen?
It is not only the indigenous peoples or the local groups of small farmers that are being deprived of everything. The common land used is also being lost, as well as many ecosystems that are still intact: wetlands are being drained, forests cleared and savannas turned into agricultural deserts. New landowners fence off their areas and deny access to the original owners. In practice, this is the 21st century equivalent of the containment of monastery land in Europe that began in the Middle Ages.
The vast majority of contracts are concentrated in poorer countries with weak institutions and land rights, where many people are starving. There, investors compete with local farmers. The argument to which the advocates of land grabbing hold -i.e. that it is mainly uncultivated land that needs to be reclaimed – is refuted. On the contrary, investors prefer well-developed and cultivated areas that promise high returns. However, they do not improve the supply of local population.
Foreign agricultural enterprises prefer to develop the so-called flexible crops, i.e. plants such as the aforementioned oil palm, soya and sugar cane, which, depending on the market situation, can be sold as biofuel or food.
But there is more! If company X of State Y buys food/fuel producing areas, it is the company that sells to its State Y and not the host State Z that, instead, assigns its future profits derived from international State-to-State trade to the aforementioned multinational or state-owned company of State Y.
Furthermore, there is almost no evidence of land investment creating jobs, as most projects were export-oriented. The British aid organisation Oxfam confirms that many land acquisitions took place in areas where food was being grown for the local population. Since local smallholders are generally weak and poorly educated, they can hardly defend themselves against the grabbing of the land they use. Government officials sell or lease it, often without even paying compensation.
Land grabbing is also present in ‘passive’ Europe. Russia, Ukraine, Romania, Lithuania and Bulgaria are affected, but also the territories of Eastern Germany. Funds and agricultural enterprises from “active” and democratic Europe, i.e. the West, and the Arab Gulf States are the main investors.
We might think that the governments of the affected countries would have the duty to protect their own people from such expropriations. Quite the reverse. They often support land grabbing. Obviously, corruption is often involved. In many countries, however, the agricultural sector has been criminally neglected in the past and multinationals are taking advantage of this under the pretext of remedying this situation.
No let-up in Indian farmers’ protest due to subconscious fear of “crony capitalism”
The writer has analysed why the farmers `now or never’ protest has persisted despite heavy odds. He is of the view that the farmers have the subconscious fear that the “crony capitalism” would eliminate traditional markets, abolish market support price and grab their landholdings. Already the farmers have been committing suicides owing to debt burden, poor monthly income (Rs. 1666 a month) and so on.”Crony capitalism” implies nexus between government and businesses that thrives on sweetheart deals, licences and permits eked through tweaking rules and regulations.
Stalemate between the government and the farmers’ unions is unchanged despite 11 rounds of talks. The farmers view the new farm laws as a ploy to dispossess them of their land holdings and give a free hand to tycoons to grab farmers’ holdings, though small.
Protesters allege the new laws were framed in secret understanding with tycoons. The farmers have a reason to abhor the rich businesses. According to an a January 2020 Oxfam India’s richest one per cent hold over four times the wealth of 953 million people who make up the poorest 70 per cent of the country’s population. India’s top nine billionaires’ Inc one is equivalent to wealth of the bottom 50 per cent of the population. The opposition has accused the government of “crony capitalism’.
Government has tried every tactic in its tool- kit to becloud the movement (sponsored y separatist Sikhs, desecrated Republic Day by hoisting religious flags at the Red ford, and so on). The government even shrugged off the protest by calling it miniscule and unrepresentative of 16.6 million farmers and 131,000 traders registered until May 2020. The government claims that it has planned to build 22,000 additional mandis (markets) 2021-22 in addition to already-available over 1,000 mandis.
Unruffled by government’s arguments, the opposition continues to accuse the government of being “suit-boot ki sarkar” and an ardent supporter of “crony capitalism” (Ambani and Adani). Modi did many favours to the duo. For instance they were facilitated to join hands with foreign companies to set up defence-equipment projects in India. BJP-ruled state governments facilitated the operation of mines in collaboration with the Ambani group just years after the Supreme Court had cancelled the allotment of 214 coal blocks for captive mining (MS Nileema, `Coalgate 2.0’, The Caravan March 1, 2018). Modi used Adani’s aircraft in March, April and May 2014 for election campaigning across the country.
“Crony capitalism” is well defined in the English oxford Living Dictionaries, Cambridge and Merriam –Webster. Merriam-Webster defines “crony capitalism” as “an economic system in which individuals and businesses with political connections and influence are favored (as through tax breaks, grants, and other forms of government assistance) in ways seen as suppressing open competition in a free market
If there’s one”.
Cambridge dictionary defines the term as “ an economic system in which family members and friends of government officials and business leaders are given unfair advantages in the form of jobs, loans, etc.:government-owned firms engaged in crony capitalism”.
A common point in all the definitions is undue favours (sweetheart contracts, licences, etc) to select businesses. It is worse than nepotism as the nepotism has a limited scope and life cycle. But, “crony capitalism” becomes institutionalized.
Modi earned the title “suit-boot ki sarkar” when a non-resident Indian, Rameshkumar Bhikabhai virani gifted him a Rs. 10 lac suit. To save his face, Modi later auctioned the suit on February 20, 2015. The suit fetched price of Rs, 4, 31, 31311 or nearly four hundred times the original price. Modi donated the proceeds of auction to a fund meant for cleaning the River Ganges. `It was subsequently alleged that the Surat-based trader Laljibhai Patel who bought the suit had been favoured by being allotted government land for building a private sports club (BJP returns ‘favour’, Modi suit buyer to get back land, Tribune June21, 2015).
Miffed by opposition’s vitriolic opposition, Ambani’s $174 billion conglomerate Reliance Industries Ltd. Categorically denied collusion with Modi’s government earlier this month. Reliance clarified that it had never done any contract farming or acquired farm land, and harboured no plans to do so in future. It also vowed to ensure its suppliers will pay government-mandated minimum prices to farmers. The Adani Group also had clarified last month that it did not buy food grains from farmers or influence their prices.
Like Modi, both Adani and Ambani hail from the western Indian state of Gujarat, just, who served as the state’s chief for over a decade. Both the tycoons are reputed to be Modi’s henchmen. Their industry quickly aligns its business strategies to Modi’s nation-building initiatives. For instance, Adani created a rival regional industry lobby and helped kick off a biannual global investment summit in Gujarat in 2003 that boosted Modi’s pro-business credentials. During 2020, Ambani raised record US$27 billion in equity investments for his technology and retail businesses from investors including Google and Face book Inc. He wants to convert these units into a powerful local e-commerce rival to Amazon.com Inc. and Wal-Mart Inc. The Adani group, which humbly started off as a commodities trader in 1988, has grown rapidly to become India’s top private-sector port operator and power generator.
Parallel with the USA
Ambani and Adani are like America’s Rockefellers and Vanderbilt’s in the USA’s Gilded Age in the second half of the 19th century (James Crabtree, The Billionaire Raj: a Journey through India’s New Gilded Age).
Modi government’s tutelage of Ambanis and Adanis is an open secret. Kerala challenged Adani’s bid for an airport lease is. A state minister said last year that Adani winning the bid was “an act of brazen cronyism.”
Threat of elimination of traditional markets
Farmers who could earlier sell grains and other products only at neighbouring government-regulated wholesale markets can now sell them across the country, including the big food processing companies and retailers such as WalMart.
The farmers fear the government will eventually abolish the wholesale markets, where growers were assured of a minimum support price for staples like wheat and rice, leaving small farmers at the mercy of corporate agri-businesses.
Is farmers’ fear genuine?
The farmers have a logical point. Agriculture yield less profit than industry. As such, even the USA heavily subsidies its agriculture. US farmers got more than $22 billion in government payments in 2019, the highest level of farm subsidies in the last 14 years, and the corporate sector paid for it. The Indian government is reluctant to give a permanent legal guarantee for the MSP. In contrast, the US and Western Europe buy directly from the farmers and build their butter and cheese mountains. Even the prices of farm products at the retail and wholesale levels are controlled by the capitalist government. In short, not the principles of capitalization but well-worked-out welfare measures are adopted to sustain the farm sector in the advanced West.
Threat of monopsonic exploitation
The farmers would suffer double exploitation under a monopsony (more sellers less buyers) at the hands of corporate sharks. They would pay less than the minimum support price to the producers. Likewise, consumers will have to pay more because the public distribution system is likely to be undermined as mandi (regulated wholesale market) procurement is would eventually cease to exist.
Plight of the Indian farmer
The heavily indebted Indian farmer has average income of only about Rs. 20000 a year (about Rs. 1666 a month). Thousands of farmers commit suicide by eating pesticides to get rid of their financial difficulties.
A study by India’s National Bank for Agriculture and Rural Development found that more than half of farmers in India are in debt. More than 20,000 people involved in the farming sector died by suicide from 2018-2019, with several studies suggesting that being in debt was a key factor.
More than 86 per cent of India’s cultivated farmland is owned by small farmers who own less than two hectares of land each (about two sports fields). These farmers lack acumen to bargain with bigger companies. Farmers fear the Market Support Price will disappear as corporations start buying their produce.
Modi sarkar is unwilling to yield to the farmers’ demand for fear of losing his strongman image and Domino Effect’. If he yields on say, the matter of the farm laws, he may have to give in on the Citizenship Amendment Act also. Fund collection in some foreign countries has started to sustain the movement. As such, the movement may not end anytime soon. Unless Modi yields early, he would suffer voter backlash in coming elections. The farm sector contributes only about 15 per cent of India’s $2.9 trillion economy. But, it employs around half its 1.3 billion people.
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