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The light side (SMEs) and the dark side (virtual currency) in post-covid Italy

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With a view to assessing the impact of the pandemic that has been afflicting Italy since the beginning of 2020, I think we should examine the careful analysis made by the National Commission for Listed Companies and the Stock Exchange (Consob) in its report on the year 2020.

2020 was one of the worst years for Italy in economic and social terms since the end of World War II. After experiencing a significant fall in GDP, the country has been moving towards economic recovery since the second half of the year and, more markedly, in the early months of 2021, and is showing its own willingness to tackle the unresolved problems, by also taking advantage of the change in the EU’s fiscal policy attitude, which is a necessary foundation for cohesion among Member States.

The 2020 results confirmed the assessment that savings and exports are the two pillars of the country’s economic and social strength. The protection of savings by public institutions follows rules that have been tested and perfected over time. Nevertheless, they need to be updated in the light of technological innovations in the financial sphere. The most solid protection, however, remains its anchorage to real activity, the progress of which is shaped in Italy by export performance. On the other hand, private consumption and public spending show that they have not the momentum they have in other major world economies.

One of the few positive aspects emerging from the report is that the savings ratio of Italian households compared to their disposable income grew by 50% in 2020. Excluding savings invested in listed companies, its yield remained rather low, close to zero.

Considering the amount of financial assets owned by Italian households, each percentage point of return can be estimated at around 30 billion euros, i.e. almost 2% of GDP, the size of a good public budget plan and fiscal manoeuvre of the past.

Taking into account the management charges, savings have contributed significantly to sustaining market stability, but without producing real growth, although this effect is now the result of a crisis that arose for particular and contingent reasons.

Exports experienced difficulties, declining in volume by about one-seventh compared to 2019, due to the concomitant effect of falling global demand and quarantine-related obstacles to domestic production.

Imports fell more sharply, thus enabling Italy’s foreign current account balance to remain positive and increasing slightly with regards to GDP.

In 2020 Italy’s international investment position improved further, showing a surplus for the first time in three decades. The international financial market only partially recorded and acknowledged this favourable structural position of the country.

In the first quarter of 2021, world trade rose to higher levels than pre-crisis levels and Italy’s exports continued to grow at double their rate, thus confirming the resilience and dynamism of Italian companies in the sector – a traditional cornerstone of our economy.

The financial account balance with foreign countries, which had recorded a slight negative balance in 2020, also turned positive, thus confirming the role of Italian savings as a pillar of stability – another Italy’s point of strength.

Confidence in the Italian economy’s ability to react has grown, as shown by the significant reduction in the spread between BTP and Bund interest rates. This is also the result of the decisions taken by the ECB to purchase significant amounts of public bonds and by the European Commission to suspend – albeit temporarily – the Stability Pact and launch the Next Generation EU Plan (NgEU).

The report under consideration, however, states that for the recovery phase to continue, we need to complement and supplement the decisions taken so far to boost companies’ risk capital in view of improving their financial leverage and making them more willing to undertake new initiatives.

This phase provides an important opportunity for the tax reform that has been urged for some time and reaffirmed in the framework of the National Recovery and Resilience Plan (NRRP) implementing the Next Generation EU Plan.

State intervention for social purposes has reached unusual forms and levels, without anyway reducing citizens’ pressure on public resources. This is not surprising because the rational content of human action leads to choose obtaining the best result at the lowest cost.

Private companies, especially the exporting ones, have been forced by competition to solve their problems without delay, so as to avoid being excluded from the market. Their ability to do so is a cornerstone of growth and a foundation for the good and smooth functioning of the democratic system, which has the power to correct the income distribution determined by productive and commutative activity through regulations, taxes and levies.

Conversely, when these forms are insufficient and savings are not used by private individuals, the State resorts to debt, but not always following a well-founded assessment of the intergenerational redistributive effects.

In this regard, the report insists on the fact that – on the basis of the yardstick provided by the laws in force – it is no longer possible to distinguish – with technical and legal certainty – of what currently currency and financial products legally consist – a content that is interrelated due to the connection ensured by the conversion platforms between virtual and traditional instruments.

The market uses a different yardstick from that of the existing legislation, which needs to be incorporated and integrated into it. The activity in movable assets, securities  and forms that takes place in the field of financial information is also increasingly interfering with international relations and geopolitical equilibria, the stability of which plays an important role for exchanges with currency and nominal funds, especially as a result of the growing weight they have in a political scenario that is no longer at the height of the peace and prosperity achieved in the last thirty years of integration and cooperation between States.

However, the willingness expressed in various fora by government authorities to seize the opportunities opened up by technological innovations in capital movements and management should not be seen as acquiescence to the loss of market transparency, but as a desire to recover it by making use of the same financial innovations.

Therefore, the favourable attitude towards new techniques must be matched by clear rules on the emergence and exchange of encrypted instruments and their intertwining with traditional monetary and financial assets/liabilities, whether already digitalised or not, as an essential guide for operators managing liquidity and savings.

The spreading of virtual instruments has prompted the emergence of “technology platforms” enabling faster and cheaper ways for accessing payment and securities trading services than those offered by banks and other intermediaries and brokers.

We need to be careful, however, as the custody and exchange functions they initially performed have evolved to accommodate increasingly articulated and complex transactions, including the granting of credits secured by one’s own or others’ virtual instruments, or the conclusion of derivative contracts using cryptocurrencies (Altcoin, Crypto token, Stabe coin, Bitcoin, INNBC, etc.) as collateral, even for several transactions of the same type.

These new market segments are evolving rapidly and there seems to be a dangerous repetition of the experience before the 2008 crisis, when derivative contracts grew to ten times the size of global GDP.

Although with the necessary distinctions, it is likely that something similar is happening in the market for virtual monetary and financial products, especially the encrypted ones.

The use of these instruments in closed forms outside the participants in the initiative (permissionless) precludes private supervision (such as the one carried out by boards of auditors and certification bodies) or public supervision (by supervisory authorities). Without adequate safeguards (rules and bodies), the result is a deterioration in market transparency, which is the foundation of lawfulness and operators’ rational choices.

The well-known negative effects include the shielding that these techniques allow for criminal activities, such as tax evasion, money laundering, terrorist financing and kidnapping. The concentration in the possession of cryptocurrencies that has recently been ascertained may reflect this aspect of the problem.

For Italy, the problem raised has particular connotations compared to other countries due to the existence of a constitutional provision that attributes to the Republic the task of encouraging and protecting savings in all its forms, as well as the task of regulating, coordinating and controlling the credit exercise and operation.

It would be improper and inappropriate to attribute to the specific phrase “savings in all its forms’ and to the credit to be protected a connotation that would also embrace virtual instruments, without going through a specific regulation.

If this were to happen, the responsibility for the consequences suffered by savers could fall on the State, as has already happened in the past, because of the covert or overt legitimisation of their existence and the awareness that through financial innovations market manipulation and the consequent ruin of savers can be achieved.

Therefore, the existence and operation of a security system – even if left to private individuals – must be guaranteed and supervised by the State which, however, must bear in mind that the spreading of digital techniques in finance poses specific requirements and needs that must be addressed globally, otherwise its effectiveness will be reduced.

The legitimisation of the existence of “virtual savings”, in various forms, is now a reality that intersects with savings generated in the traditional way, i.e. without spending a portion of the income produced by labour or capital.

We are faced with radical changes that must be tackled being fully aware of their content and urgency in view of avoiding negative consequences on the micro and macro-systemic stability of the securities market and, in this way, on the savings and economic growth needed to protect them and use them properly.

An obligatory step is to reaffirm that the legal validity of contracts is only guaranteed by their denomination in sovereign currency. If – as it would appear to be the case – we intend to recognise the existence of private currencies, users must make it clear in a specific contractual clause that they are aware of the risks they are running in using non-public currencies.

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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The Assembly Lines of Grand Eurasia

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The changing landscape of the global economy in recent years is increasingly characterized by a more active role of developing economies in building their own platforms for economic cooperation. In the process of assembling these platforms for the Global South one of the key issues is the algorithm of the aggregation process in Eurasia — the two other continents of the Global South already have their pan-continental platforms, namely the African Union and the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) in Africa as well as CELAC in Latin America. In case a comprehensive pan-Eurasian platform for developing economies were to be formed this would open the gateway to the completion of the assembly of platforms that span the entire expanse of the Global South.

As is the case with the expansion of the BRICS grouping, the building of the Grand Eurasia as a platform for the region’s developing economies can proceed either along the formation of a core and its gradual expansion or via an “integration of integrations” route, whereby all of the main regional integration blocs of the Global South in Eurasia are brought together. There is also the possibility that both these tracks could be pursued simultaneously.

In the scenario involving the formation of the Eurasian core for the Global South, the main question is its composition and the resulting scenarios of further expansion. One possible modality would be the RIC (Russia-China-India) serving as a core, with further additions focusing on the largest Eurasian economies such as the G20 countries from Eurasia — Saudi Arabia, Indonesia or Turkey. This route would clearly result in the assembly process being slow and lacking connectivity to other smaller developing economies of the continent.

Another possible format for the Eurasian core could be the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) or its more extended version of SCO+. Such a core would have the benefit of comprising all of the largest economies in Eurasia (Russia, China, India), while leaving open the possibility of smaller economies joining this Eurasian “circle of friends”. Despite the more inclusive approach to forming the Eurasian platform, the country-by-country approach to expansion would still leave the assembly process too slow and ad hoc.

The only real way to expedite the construction of Grand Eurasia is via the “integration of integrations” scenario that may involve the aggregation of Eurasia’s leading regional integration arrangements (and their developing institutions) represented by developing economies.

Such a platform of developing economies across the expanse of Eurasia can bring together such regional arrangements as: South Asian Association for regional Cooperation (SAARC), ASEAN, Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU) as well as the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). In the case of SCO there may be the possibility to resort to an extended SCO+ format which would involve the addition to SCO of those Eurasian economies that are outside of the main regional integration arrangements. The resulting SAGES platform may represent the main assembly line for economic cooperation among the Eurasian developing economies that is based on the mechanism of “integration of integrations”.

Still another possibility would be an assembly process modelled on the UN, which would involve the creation of a forum for all the developing economies of Eurasia with a Eurasian Security Council represented by the largest economies of the continent (G20 members (China, India, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Indonesia, Turkey) as well as possibly Iran). Another possibility in this UN-type scenario is the SAGES Economic Council that brings together the main regional blocs of Eurasia as a more inclusive version of the UN Security Council.

In the end, there are multiple possible trajectories for the assembly process of the Grand Eurasia — the most attractive appears to be the “integration of integrations” track as it appears to be more expeditious and inclusive. At the same time, there are also risks and challenges involving this scenario as the domain of “integration of integrations” remains largely unexplored across the terrain of the Global South. In this respect, there may be important synergies in the innovation process of “integration of integrations” along the Eurasia track as well as the BRICS+ route that represents a global rather than regional platform for the cooperation across regional integration arrangements. The Global South is approaching a crucial point in its economic development, whereby a common platform for cooperation across all developing economies may represent the most important gateway to economic modernization in decades.

From our partner RIAC

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Policy Support Indispensable for China’s Economic and Financial Recovery

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According to the latest statistics from the People’s Bank of China (PBoC), monetary and financial data showed a return to growth in June. At the end of June, the balance of broad money (M2) was RMB 258.15 trillion, a year-on-year increase of 11.4%, and the growth rate was 0.3 and 2.8 percentage points higher than that at the end of last month and the same period of the previous year respectively. Meanwhile, the balance of narrow money (M1) was RMB 67.44 trillion, a year-on-year increase of 5.8%, where the growth rate was 1.2 and 0.3 percentage points higher than the end of last month and the same period of the previous year respectively. The balance of currency (M0) in circulation was RMB 9.6 trillion, a year-on-year increase of 13.8%.

In the first half of the year, the net cash investment was RMB 518.6 billion. At the end of June, the stock of social financing was RMB 334.27 trillion, up 10.8% year-on-year, and the growth rate was 0.3 percentage points higher than that in May, though still lower than the 11% growth rate in the same period last year. The growth rates of the M2, M1 and social financing scales have all shown the tendency of increase simultaneously. Researchers at ANBOUND believe that this reflects that driven by the intensification of macroeconomic policies, the overall financial and economic situations are showing an upward recovery trend.

Figure: Monthly Monetary & Social Financing Growth Rates and Price Level Change (in percentage)

Source: People’s Bank of China & National Bureau of Statistics, chart plotted by ANBOUND

However, in terms of credit growth, which accounts for the main part of social financing and currency, the balance of RMB loans at the end of the month was RMB 206.35 trillion, a rise of 11.2% year-on-year, and the growth rate was 0.2 percentage points higher than that at the end of last month and 1.1 percentage points lower than the same period last year. In June, RMB loans rose by RMB 2.81 trillion, being a year-on-year increase of RMB 686.7 billion. This shows that despite the substantial growth of RMB credit in June and that the overall recovery has been achieved, the upward momentum remains insufficient. Continued support from macro policies will still be needed to enable China’s finance and economy to recover comprehensively. In addition, at the end of June, the balance of RMB deposits was RMB 251.05 trillion, a year-on-year increase of 10.8%, and the growth rate was 0.3 and 1.6 percentage points higher than that at the end of the previous month and the same period of the previous year respectively. In June, RMB deposits increased by RMB 4.83 trillion, a year-on-year increase of RMB 974.1 billion. The rapid growth of deposits is consistent with the previous survey results of the Chinese central bank, indicating that under the continuous impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, the market still lacks confidence in consumption and investment, which affects credit demand to a certain extent.

On the other hand, the stock of social financing at the end of June was RMB 334.27 trillion, a year-on-year increase of 10.8%. Among them, the balance of RMB loans issued to the real economy was RMB 205.09 trillion, a year-on-year increase of 11.1%. The balance of foreign currency loans issued to the real economy was RMB 2.33 trillion, a year-on-year increase of 0.5%. Entrusted loans decreased by 0.5% year-on-year, trust loans fell by 29.6% year-on-year, and undiscounted bank acceptances fell by 19.2% year-on-year. The corporate bond balance was RMB 31.48 trillion, an increase of 10.1% year-on-year. The government bond balance was RMB 57.72 trillion, up 19% year-on-year. The domestic stock balance of non-financial enterprises was RMB 9.96 trillion, a year-on-year increase of 14%.

The cumulative increment of social financing in the first half of 2022 was RMB 21 trillion, which was RMB 3.2 trillion more than the same period last year. Among them, RMB loans issued to the real economy increased by RMB 13.58 trillion, a year-on-year increase of RMB 632.9 billion. Foreign currency loans issued to the real economy increased by RMB 45.8 billion, a year-on-year decrease of RMB 182.3 billion. The entrusted loans decreased by RMB 5.4 billion, which was a year-on-year decrease of RMB 109.1 billion; while trust loans decreased by RMB 375.2 billion, making it a year-on-year decrease of RMB 348.7 billion. Undiscounted bank acceptance bills decreased by RMB 176.8 billion, a year-on-year decrease of RMB 171.4 billion. Corporate bond net financing was RMB 1.95 trillion, a year-on-year increase of RMB 391.3 billion. The net financing of government bonds was RMB 4.65 trillion, an increase of RMB 2.2 trillion year-on-year. Additionally, the stock financing of non-financial enterprises in the country was RMB 502.8 billion, an increase of RMB 7.3 billion year-on-year.

These data changes reflect that the scale of social financing in May and June has increased significantly under the circumstance that monetary policy easing has intensified since the second quarter. The increase in the scale of social financing in June reached RMB 5.17 trillion, an increase of RMB 1.47 trillion year-on-year. The stock of social financing has basically filled the gap left by the sharp decline in social financing in March and April, and the overall social financing has seen a recovery to the long-term trend. In realizing the incremental recovery of the social financing scale, it should be pointed out that government bond financing has played a major role, and its incremental growth has reached RMB 2.2 trillion. In fact, this was essentially driven by the massive issuance of local government bonds in May and June. It has been estimated that in June alone, the incremental scale of government bond financing reached RMB 1.6 trillion, which is a significant continuous increase from RMB 1 trillion in May. This has played a major role in the RMB 3.3 trillion increase in the scale of social financing. Furthermore, the decline in non-standard financings such as entrusted loans, trust loans, and bank drafts is due to the substitution effect brought about by credit easing on the one hand, and this is closely related to the effect of the shrinking real estate market on the other hand. In the first half of the year as a whole, the rise of RMB 13.58 trillion in credit to the real economy, which was an increase of RMB 632.9 billion year-on-year, also means that the central bank’s sustained goal of maintaining credit growth has been achieved.

For the growth rate of the social financing scale to be 10.8%, this would signify that China’s timely adjustment of monetary policy in the first half of the year has a positive effect on stabilizing the country’s finance and on promoting stable growth. This may be the basis for the PBoC to emphasize the return to stabilization policy. As far as the second half of the year is concerned, the scale of social financing is still under great pressure to maintain the growth rate. This is especially true when the peak of local bond issuance has passed and the quota has been exhausted. The issuance of government bonds, which played a supporting and bottom-up role for social growth in the first half of the year, will then see a decline in its effect. This, in turn, will increase the reliance on RMB loans or other direct financings for social financing growth. Promoting the growth of bank loans will remain the main task in the future. In other words, China’s macroeconomic policies such as monetary and fiscal policies still need to provide continuous support for economic recovery through total easing and structural adjustment.

Final analysis conclusion:

In June, the growth rate of monetary and social financing in China showed a simultaneous increase, indicating that the overall financial and economic situations of the country are showing a recovery trend. This, all in all, is driven by the intensification of macroeconomic policies. Nonetheless, under the circumstance of the withdrawal of local government bond issuance, there will still be pressure to maintain the continued growth momentum of monetary and social financing in the future. Hence, the ongoing support from macro policies will become indispensable.

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The Real Estate and Banking Crisis in China Is Spreading to Other Aspects of the Chinese Economy

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The continuing real estate and banking crisis in China is starting to spread to the other aspects of the Chinese economy.  With the real estate market in trouble, with many contracted apartments and homes not being finished, and contracted owners refusing to pay on their mortgages until the apartments are finished, the economic consequences of this crisis are starting to leak into the other parts of the Chinese economy.

One of the main pillars of the Chinese economy has been the steel industry.  For decades the Chinese domestic economy has depended on the real estate industry to provide an outlet for the tremendous amount of steel produced by China each year.  For the last two decades the huge amount of construction on skyscrapers, factories, huge apartment complexes, and dwellings have been able to soak up the oversupply of steel produced by the Chinese steel industry.  Steel has also been the feedstock for the manufacture of the budding Chinese auto industry, as well as manufacturing key parts for the autos produced overseas.

A key indicator of the health of the Chinese steel industry has always been China’s purchase of iron ore from overseas.  In the year 2020, at the height of the Covid epidemic, China imported 1.17 billion tons of iron ore.  In 2021 the amount decreased to 1.1 billion tons.  In the first 5 months of 2022 China only imported 447 million tons of iron ore.  This figure is down 5.1 percent from the same period in 2021.  Some of these imports can be attributed to panic buying because of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. 

Li Ganpo, founder and chairman of Hebei Jingye Steel Group, has warned that a third of China’s steel mills could go into bankruptcy this year.  According to a transcript seen by Bloomberg…”The whole sector is losing money and I can’t see a turning point for now…”

Along with the decrease in the manufacture of finished steel products, is the increase in the inventory of finished steel products which increased by 20.5 million tons in a snapshot taken of Chines steel inventory in June 1 2022,to June 10 2022.

Chinese Thoughts on Money

In the West, and throughout most of the world, money is an economic good.  Money in the West is governed by the philosophy of a return on investment which creates more wealth.  Money is used as an intermediation between buyer and seller.  In China, according to the geopolitician Peter Zeihan, money is considered by the CCP as a political good.

According to Mr. Zeihan “Investment decisions not driven by the concept of returns tend to add up. Conservatively, corporate debt in China is about 150% of GDP. That doesn’t count federal government debt, or provincial government debt, or local government debt. Nor does it involve the bond market, or non-standard borrowing such as LendingTree-like person-to-person programs, or shadow financing designed to evade even China’s hyper-lax financial regulatory authorities. It doesn’t even include US dollar-denominated debt that cropped up in those rare moments when Beijing took a few baby steps to address the debt issue and so firms sought funds from outside of China. With that sort of attitude towards capital, it shouldn’t come as much of a surprise that China’s stock markets are in essence gambling dens utterly disconnected from issues of supply and labor and markets and logistics and cashflow (and legality). Simply put, in China, debt levels simply are not perceived as an issue.”

In China, money is a political good, and only has value if it can be used to achieve a political goal. That political good is maximum employment.

The concepts of rate of return or profit margins do not exist in China, and therein lies the danger; eventually the law of supply and demand will win out, and the Chinese economy will have to face a correction. The longer it takes to face this economic correction, the greater damage that the inevitable correction will cause to the Chinese economy.

China is Not Capable of Non-Steady State Economic Growth

Lacking an impartial judiciary system, the Chinese economy is incapable of “Non-Steady State Growth.”  Non-Steady State Growth occurs when a new technology increases production of a good or service which expands the economy at a rapid clip.  Non-Steady State Growth can only occur in a business environment where an impartial judicial system is able to fairly adjudicate contract disputes.  With the heavy hand of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) interfering in judicial conflicts, and favoring members of the  CCP in contract disputes, this type of constraint inhibits research into new and promising technologies.

This means that the Chinese economy is stuck in Steady-State Growth.  Steady state growth depends on a constant amount of inputs to help the economy grow.  However, at a certain point, inputs do not result in growth as marginal utility becomes saturated and has a zero growth rate.

A Domino Effect Seems to be Forming in the Chinese Economy

A domino effect is defined as “…how one action can have a knock-on effect to related subjects. Knock one domino over, and you don’t just affect the first domino, but all the ones who stand in its path…”

In economics a domino theory can be used to explain how economic weakness, or loss, can spread to other areas of the economy causing a recession or depression.

In the current economic environment in China, the Evergrande implosion has begun to infect other areas of the real estate market in China, which in turn has infected the Chinese banking system.  With Chinese buyers of homes and apartments refusing to make any more mortgage payments until stalled construction on apartment complexes are completed, the economic damage has spread to the Chinese banking system.

In July, thousands of Chinese depositors were protesting the freezing of their money in rural banks in central China.  In the city of Zhengzhou, the protestors had gathered at the main branch of the Chinese central bank demanding their money back.  Officials sent police, disguised in civilian clothes, to break up the demonstration using violence and arresting the protesters.

With construction stalled on numerous unfinished apartment building and complexes, the demand for steel has collapsed, which will inevitably lead to higher unemployment levels for Chinese steel workers, many who are employed by State Owned Enterprises.

With a total of debt that exceeds 300 percent, the Chinese government is sitting on a mountain of debt which many economic analysts say is a disaster waiting to happen.  Some analysts say since the debt is state owned, there is little chance of default. 

With the Chinese real estate market imploding, which is leaking into the Chinese banking system, which in turn is affecting the Chinese steel industry, China faces a hurricane of economic problems all happening at the same time.

It is not inconceivable, that these accumulating crises may lead to a sudden economic collapse of the Chinese economy.

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