East / Southeast Asia's Demographic Bifurcation

♠ Posted by Emmanuel in ,, at 9/30/2013 05:49:00 AM
There's are always interesting demographic discussions about the "West and the Rest," but there are also interesting demographic variations within regions.Take the Asia-Pacific: While Japan is emblematic of the problems with a shrinking population, it will soon be joined in that situation by a number of East Asian neighbors absent large rises in fertility or large-scale inward migration:
"Japan was largely the only country that was aging and shrinking in terms of its labor force and population in the previous decade. But in the coming decade, several Asian countries – including China, South Korea, Hong Kong [...] will see their labor forces shrink. This will have important implications for GDP [gross domestic product] growth, consumer spending and asset prices, judging from Japan's experience..."

Japan is home to the fastest aging population in the world, with almost a quarter of its population over the age of 65. The country has struggled with sluggish growth stemming from a shrinking workforce, which has put pressure on the government to boost productivity levels.
OTOH, you have the more demographically promising Southeast Asian countries that have not yet reached a similar stage in the demographic transition as their wealthier northern neighbors:
The U.N. sees the working-age population in Indonesia and the Philippines peaking in 2058 and 2085 respectively, later than previously anticipated. At the same time it brought forward forecasts for other Asian countries including China, where the working-age population is expected to peak in 2015, and its total population, currently around 1.3 billion people, is seen decreasing after 2030.

BofAML's Chua says demographics are useful indicators of real GDP growth, noting a strong correlation between changes in working-age population and growth in the real economy over the past decade (2002-2012). 
To be sure, demographics alone do not drive economic growth. However, Japan's example does illustrate the pitfalls to having too few working-age people going forward. Previously marginalized as development laggards, more are taking notice of Indonesia and the Philippines as investment opportunities partly for demographic reasons. 

Rousseff+Lula Double Act Unloads on US Net Spying

♠ Posted by Emmanuel in ,, at 9/27/2013 10:14:00 AM
Cybersecurity is not an end unto itself; it is instead an obligation that our governments and societies must take on willingly, to ensure that innovation continues to flourish, drive markets, and improve lives. - Barack Obama [really]

It's been a busy time for followers of Internet governance as Brazil's president and her immediate predecessor unloaded both barrels at the United States' extreme abuse of its dominant position in the World Wide Web's infrastructure. Dilma Rousseff captured global attention not only by snubbing the White House's invitation for a state visit, but more recently by crucifying the double-talking American louse at the United Nations General Assembly.

[I] Here is the key part of her speech where she calls for the much-needed multilateral governance of the Internet to avoid rehashes of Americans spying on world leaders as well as you and me:
The problem, however, goes beyond a bilateral relationship. It affects the international community itself and demands a response from it. Information and telecommunication technologies cannot be the new battlefield between States. [The time] is ripe to create the conditions to prevent cyberspace from being used as a weapon of war, through espionage, sabotage, and attacks against systems and infrastructure of other countries.

The United Nations must play a leading role in the effort to regulate the conduct of States with regard to these technologies. For this reason, Brazil will present proposals for the establishment of a civilian multilateral framework for the governance and use of the Internet and to ensure the effective protection of data that travels through the web.

We need to create multilateral mechanisms for the worldwide network that are capable of ensuring principles such as:

1 – Freedom of expression, privacy of the individual and respect for human rights.
2 – Open, multilateral and democratic governance, carried out with transparency by stimulating collective creativity and the participation of society, Governments and the private sector.
3 – Universality that ensures the social and human development and the construction of inclusive and non-discriminatory societies.
4 – Cultural diversity, without the imposition of beliefs, customs and values.
5 – Neutrality of the network, guided only by technical and ethical criteria, rendering it inadmissible to restrict it for political, commercial, religious or any other purposes.
[II] Less noticed is a recent interview with Hindu News of former Brazilian President Lula. (Alike his country's soccer stars, he seemingly goes by one name.) For better or worse, he and his handpicked successor will forever be entwined alike Putin and Medvedev or Chavez and Maduro. While leaving Rousseff to steal the limelight at the UN, he nevertheless two put in his two cents' worth, as the Yanquis would say:
The U.S. president should apologise to the world for thinking that it can control global communications and ignore the sovereignty of other countries. The U.S. can’t just capture the activities of India, Brazil, China and several other countries. This is very serious. We need to force the United Nations to make a decision on this. Where is the security in the world today, with the U.S. intelligence agency snooping on everything? Where is the confidence in mobile communication or emails? When the NSA revelations came out, the U.S. vice-president (Joe Biden) called Brazil to apologise. It’s not the vice-president who has to apologise, it’s the U.S. president who should apologise to us. What would happen if the U.S. was target of spying? Now, they can steal any information and industrial secrets; they have access to information of our scientists. It means the end of freedom within the territory of a nation state [...]

The independence and economic growth of countries such as India and Brazil seem to bother the U.S, which is now committing a crime against democracy. The argument that they are doing this to take care of the security of other countries is absurd. Nobody asked them to do so. Nobody hired the American espionage system. Democracy is less democratic if one nation has the power to intervene in others. 
Be a man, Barack. Own up to your nation's cowardly actions and welcome those to make Internet governance better reflect its changing user base.

Make a Killing? US FTAs and Big Tobacco

♠ Posted by Emmanuel in ,, at 9/26/2013 10:39:00 AM
There is a debate surrounding the pending Trans-Pacific Partnership expansion about whether participants' policies aimed at curbing tobacco use will be dismantled in the name of free trade. Large American tobacco companies--collectively known as "Big Tobacco"--have certainly not shied away from using texts of trade liberalization measures in faulting curbs to their unfettered access to emerging markets.  Outgoing New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg has been especially vocal about what he believes is a major assault on global health led by the United States.

As per current TPP drafts, some argue that negotiating LDCs will be made to relent on the sorts of public policies that have proven effective Stateside in reducing smoking:
The proposal put forward by the US Trade Representative (USTR) last week in Brunei would reduce prices for US tobacco in low- and middle-income countries and make it more difficult for these countries to enforce anti-tobacco policies like package warnings and advertising and marketing restrictions.   This proposal would impact the nine TPP countries – Australia, Brunei Darussalam, Chile, Malaysia, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore, Vietnam, and the United States -- six of these fall into the World Health Organization’s Western Pacific Region, which had the highest smoking rate among men in 2009. 

To put the implications of this proposal into perspective, consider these two points: Tobacco use caused 100 million deaths in the 20th century.  If current trends persist, it is projected to cause 1 billion deaths in the 21st century.  More than 80% of those future tobacco-related deaths will occur in low- and middle-income countries (LMICs). Tobacco use in the United States is steadily declining, due largely to widespread anti-tobacco campaigns and stringent anti-smoking policies – the same kinds of policies that the TPP will make difficult to enforce in developing countries.

So, why is the US effectively hindering the export of its good anti-tobacco policies to the LMICs that need them most?  A few key issues have risen to the surface during this debate. A “carve-out” for tobacco – where tobacco would simply be excluded from the terms of the TPP agreement – was proposed by Malaysia and makes sense. But the USTR worries that a carve-out would set a precedent that could be used to block a variety of other US exports on health grounds.
In other words, how exceptional is tobacco based on health grounds? The fear is that all sorts of products would be excluded by other countries and dilute the FTA. Left unresolved, the tobacco issue may even spoil TPP negotiations altogether:
The White House has tried to finesse the issue, recently proposing that the TPP agreement acknowledge tobacco as a health concern but otherwise treat it no differently from other products. That compromise has satisfied no one. Health advocates are furious that the White House dropped its previous proposal for a stronger tobacco control exception in the TPP agreement. The business community opposes any special treatment for tobacco. With that controversy spilling into the press and threatening the conclusion of the TPP talks—the Obama administration's signature international economic initiative [...]

As the tobacco industry's tactics on trade shifted, the controversy reignited. Tobacco companies began using trade and investment agreements to file legal challenges to block new cigarette labeling and advertising restrictions. Australia is fighting four different trade and investment cases against its cigarette packaging law. Similar cases have been filed against Norway and Uruguay and threatened against Togo. Investment disputes are expensive and the outcomes can be unpredictable. Many developing countries do not have the expertise or resources to fight. Even New Zealand and Canada backed away from planned tobacco regulations in the face of litigation threats.
 Thomas Bollyky of the CFR's suggestions in making a limited exception seem to make sense:
  • This exception must explicitly encompass the full range of tobacco control measures addressed under the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control and permitted under U.S. laws.
  • This exception should be limited to nondiscriminatory tobacco control measures. An exemption from legal challenge cannot serve as a pretext for TPP countries to favor domestic cigarette producers. This condition is consistent with overall U.S. trade policy and the terms of the 2001 U.S. executive order on tobacco and trade.
  • This exception must not include the cross-reference that exists in most U.S. trade agreements to the health exceptions in World Trade Organization agreements. Such references might inappropriately interfere with tobacco litigation already filed under those other agreements against Australia and other TPP countries.
My take is that fair warning is appropriate concerning the possible effects of cigarette smoking and ought not to be sacrificed to a distortion of the term "liberalization." Consumer interests are not well-served by hiding the facts about the health consequences of cigarette smoking and arguing otherwise is a sham. Smoke if you must, but do so while knowing the possible consequences.

Add this to the already lengthy list of obstacles to TPP. 

Singapore Needlessly Discriminates Against Expats

♠ Posted by Emmanuel in , at 9/25/2013 04:30:00 PM
The cute (and very rare) Singapore baby
Here's another interesting feature about the politics of migration being waged right here in Southeast Asia. One of the reasons why the People's Action Party of (PAP) Singapore lost 40% of the popular vote in the 2011 elections is frustration over foreigners purportedly taking away plum jobs, scarce housing and using public services, leaving its citizens to seethe. It even seems its losses are widening. In response, the PAP has ushered in curbs on hiring foreigners--a "Singapore for Singaporeans" sort of policy. With anger not yet subsiding, the government is now seeking to advertise openings first to locals as a policy response:
Singapore will widen foreign-worker curbs to professional jobs as the government clamps down on companies that hire overseas talent at the expense of citizens, stepping up efforts to counter a backlash against immigration.

The Southeast Asian nation said yesterday it will set up a job bank where companies are required to advertise positions to Singaporeans before applying for so-called employment passes for foreign professionals. The unprecedented policy will target jobs that currently pay at least S$3,000 ($2,400) a month, an amount that will be raised to S$3,300 by January. 
In case you're curious, the unemployment rate in Singapore is 2.1%--3% for Singaporeans. While it is minuscule by Western standards, Singaporeans are apparently not keen to compare themselves with the old world:
The job bank will be set up by mid-2014, the Ministry of Manpower said in a statement yesterday. Companies with 25 or fewer employees will be exempt from the new rules, as well as jobs that pay a fixed monthly salary of S$12,000 or more, it said. The cap was set as that would include 95 percent of the local workforce, it said.

“This is a step up from the government’s efforts to tighten the quality and the quantity of the foreign worker inflows,” said Chua Hak Bin, an economist at Bank of America Corp. in Singapore. “We’re moving to another phase now where they’re looking to ensure that opportunities for the middle-income Singaporeans are maintained.”

The nation’s unemployment rate rose to 2.1 percent in the second quarter, with the resident jobless rate at about 3 percent. That “translates to 50,000, 60,000 Singaporeans without jobs,” Tan, the minister, said. “What the regime allows is that there may be a better matching of demand and supply” between companies and job-seekers, he said. 
At any rate, I am convinced that there is nothing structurally amiss with immigration to Singapore for the very simple reason that its total fertility rate is well below the replacement rate of 2.1 children per woman. It has not reached that level since 1976. Barring migrants wholesale would result in depopulation in quite short order since its current total fertility rate is 1.2:

My take is that there is currently slack in Singapore's mostly white-collar labor market due to a number of factors such as reduced hiring in service sectors alike banking post-global financial crisis. These will soon even out, though, easing complaints from locals that foreigners are "stealing their jobs" and so forth. Natalist policies haven't exactly born fruit.  Make no mistake: Singapore's real problem in the medium- to long-term is not having too many people, but having too few of them. (Cue Barbra.)

PS: Besides, isn't Singapore supposed to be the world's most adaptive nation?

Reasons to Doubt Trans-Pacific Partnership Expansion

♠ Posted by Emmanuel in at 9/24/2013 09:29:00 AM
There is an excellent compilation at the Financial Times as to why few expect a "high-quality" agreement to emerge from ongoing TPP negotiations. That is, one with few loopholes and opt-outs for different participants. Given the highly diverse interests of the twelve nations looking to expand this agreement--they range widely in levels of development, size and so on--it is thus unlikely that an agreement that pleases all will be concluded in the next few months. Or, an agreement may be struck, but one which features a bevy of loopholes and opt-outs catering to the special interests of each nation.

At any rate, here are four reasons to be pessimistic
  1. The TPP seeks much stricter protection of intellectual property than many want. Poorer countries fear that such provisions will make it more difficult for them to use cheaper generic drugs, potentially denying their populations access to life-saving medicines. More generally, strict enforcement of IP is judged to favour advanced countries at the expense of poor ones, which have traditionally absorbed technological advances through copying. To enforce IP rights in too draconian a manner is, say opponents, a victory for protectionism, not for free trade.
  2. The agreement seeks to regulate the role of state-owned enterprises, so that they do not enjoy unfair access to licences, contracts or state finance. This is seen as an assault on the sort of state capitalism in countries such as China. It is difficult, however, to see how meaningful rules could be imposed on Vietnam, a TPP member, where SOEs are used by senior Communist party officials as a cash cow for favoured projects and sometimes as personal piggy banks. Even Japan, where the Post Office is in state hands, and the US, which has Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, may fall foul of some provisions. Temasek, the Singaporean sovereign wealth fund, is believed to be concerned that new rules could affect the performance of some of the companies in which it has invested. Malaysia’s bumiputra policies, which favour ethnic Malays in the awarding of state contracts, may also run counter to the TPP.
  3. The TPP calls for a controversial investor-state dispute settlement that would, theoretically, allow companies to sue governments if they believed they were being treated unfairly. Australia has argued that this would weaken sovereign power in favour of multinationals. Anti-fracking activists say such a mechanism would allow oil companies to sue local authorities for imposing strict environmental guidelines. Canada has raised concerns that cigarette companies could use the provisions to take governments to court over anti-tobacco regulations. In Malaysia, Anwar Ibrahim, the opposition leader, has characterised the TPP as an attempt by the US “to impose its brand of economic model” on unwilling countries. 
  4. As in every trade negotiation, each country is seeking exceptions for sensitive industries. Japan was allowed to join talks on the basis that it would drop its age-old agricultural protectionism. Yet when Japanese negotiators turned up to talks in Brunei in July, they sought exceptions for “five sacred” agricultural commodities: rice, wheat, beef, dairy products and sugar. Japan is by no means alone. Canada (and the US) want protection for their dairy industry in the face of strong potential competition from New Zealand. Vietnam wants an exception for its textile industry so that it can enjoy tariff-free access to the US while continuing to use yarn made in non-TPP countries, especially China. The sugar lobby is particularly vocal in the US. “There are a lot of areas where the US wants everyone else to change, but doesn’t want to change much itself,” says Jeff Schott at the Peterson Institute.
I've already mentioned agriculture before which I believe will ultimately prove to be the largest stumbling block. However, something unmentioned is the eccentric but enduring American complaint about the US auto industry's lack of access to the Japanese market despite producing unsuitable cars for use there [1, 2].

Venezuela Nationalizes Toilet Paper Factory

♠ Posted by Emmanuel in ,, at 9/23/2013 12:50:00 PM

"I am the Great MADURO", etc., etc.
[NOTE: For those unfamiliar with the "Beavis and Butt-head" reference, see here and here.] If this is an example of socialists taking over the "commanding heights" of the economy, I am at a complete loss for words. To me at least, toilet paper manufacturing as a strategic sector bog-gles the mind, but it may make sense in Venezuela. It is no big secret that the Chavistas have nationalized broad swathes of the Venezuelan economy. Supply problems? Central planning will solve them, free market be damned. From Economics 101, I was taught that price controls and import controls create rather than alleviate goods shortages. Apparently this stupid bourgeois logic holds no water in modern-day Venezuela. Silly me. Instead of relenting on government controls to remedy the supply situation for various goods including toilet paper, the ultimate solution apparently involves nationalizing these enterprises lock, stock and barrel. You got it--TP users of Venezuela, unite!
On Saturday, Vice President Jorge Arreaza announced the "temporary occupation" of the Paper Manufacturing Company's plant in the state of Aragua. The aim, he explained, is to review the "production, marketing and distribution (of) toilet paper [...] The People's Defense from the Economy will not allow hoarding or failures in the production and distribution of essential commodities," the vice president said. 

By the "People's Defense," Arreaza was referring to a government agency created on September 13 by President Nicolas Maduro to "defeat the economic war that has been declared in the country," according to a report from state-run ATV. This group is charged with looking at inefficiencies across various industries in the nation, including foods and other products, and taking action presumably in the South American nation's best interests.
For what it's worth, Venezuela's leaders see a conspiracy to hoard toilet paper--presumably to, ah, dump them when prices have risen sufficiently:
But the government has said private companies aren't doing their part, accusing them of hoarding their products in hopes of selling it later at a higher price. They've also suggested the problem is tied to a broader conspiracy. "There is no deficiency in production," Commerce Minister Alejandro Fleming said in May according to ATV, "but an excessive demand generating purchases by a nervous population because of a media campaign."
Be afraid. Be very, very afraid. To paraphrase Marx, the TP expropriators have been expropriated (or something like that).

US Now Sends More Immigrants to Mexico

♠ Posted by Emmanuel in , at 9/23/2013 12:05:00 PM
What would Cheech and Chong do about the United States now sending more migrants to Mexico than Mexico sends to the United States? That comedy act is stuck in a time warp where the supposedly backward Mexico always sends its unwashed masses to the United States in search of employment. So are today's uniquely Amerocentric debates about whether to give amnesty to illegal immigrants. Wake up to today's North American reality, boys and girls: On balance, the United States has sent more people to Mexico than vice-versa over the most recently recorded five-year period. The graphic above is from the New York Times, which also offers the thought-provoking companion article about how the real land of opportunity is Mexico:
Rising wages in China and higher transportation costs have made Mexican manufacturing highly competitive again, with some projections suggesting it is already cheaper than China for many industries serving the American market. Europe is sputtering, pushing workers away. And while Mexico’s economy is far from trouble free, its growth easily outpaced the giants of the hemisphere — the United States, Canada and Brazil — in 2011 and 2012, according to International Monetary Fund data, making the country more attractive to fortune seekers worldwide [...]

The shift with Mexico’s northern neighbor is especially stark. Americans now make up more than three-quarters of Mexico’s roughly one million documented foreigners, up from around two-thirds in 2000 [my emphasis], leading to a historic milestone: more Americans have been added to the population of Mexico over the past few years than Mexicans have been added to the population of the United States, according to government data in both nations.
In previous posts I've covered how Mexico is increasingly becoming the North American economic dynamo contrary to outdated beliefs that it is merely an entry route for drugs to the USA or a perennial source of migrants. The implications are meaningful and interesting. First, the emergence of Mexico as a manufacturing hub in the Americas challenges China's role as factory to the world given the latter's geographic disadvantage. Second, the US Census folks do not--and probably cannot--account for such migratory shifts as nearby countries become more progressive than the United States. Hence, expectations that declines in US birth rates will be more than compensated for by migration to the US are probably overstated. Detroitification or depopulation of the US is a very real threat if so. Third, it does bother me that the rest of the world so easily imbibes American prejudices about Mexicans when the latter hold the better cards in today's global political economy.

Make no mistake: the real Americans us folks from the developing world are better off emulating are probably those south of the border with their young, dynamic and manufacturing-savvy economy. Their football team may be doing poorly at the moment, but hey, I would readily forego the World Cup finals for a place at the top of the World Economy league table. Go south, young Yank, go south--but learn Spanish before you do.

Things change, my dear. At this rate I may be laughing my head off hearing Mexican policymakers debating what to do with all those Yanqui "illegals" in a few years' time.

Cola's Final Frontier: Coke v Pepsi in Myanmar

♠ Posted by Emmanuel in ,, at 9/21/2013 02:19:00 PM
He thought he was the King of America
Where they pour Coca-Cola like vintage wine

In 1986 Elvis Costello penned the lyrics above to the first song of his album King of America, "Brilliant Mistake." I thought it was pretty crafty way back when, but even then, the snobbery against drinking carbonated beverages was their cultural unsophistication as Costello intoned. Nowadays, of course, we are more concerned with the unhealthy amounts of sugar and caffeine they contain. Such concerns have caused cola consumption to steadily fall Stateside since 2005, but it remains a highly saturated market with the average American drinking a whopping 714 8 oz servings of carbonated beverages in 2012.

Supersaturation of the home market has caused both Coca-Cola and Pepsi to take on a two-pronged strategy. The first is developing ostensibly healthier drinks. The second, of course, involves going abroad in search of new or undersaturated markets. Reflecting the latter concern, it is unsurprising that the current heads of these venerable American brands are foreign-born and that they gained their reputations by growing business abroad: India-born Indra Nooyi has been Pepsi CEO since 2006 and Turkey-born Muhtar Kent has been Coca-Cola CEO since 2009.

Together they have been duking it out in cola wars waged around the world in a battle for carbonated supremacy. Compared to the 714 colas each American consumes, there is room for much sales (and waistline) growth elsewhere. Nowhere is this competition as intense in Southeast Asia as Myanmar. Returning to this market for the first time since Eisenhower was president after decades-long US sanctions were lifted. Coke finds challenges and opportunities in equal measure. While Pepsi was first to re-enter Myanmar last year, it has had to up its pace in market development with the entry of Coke by signing new bottling agreements. Over a third of Pepsi revenues are now in the developing world. OTOH, Coke's Muhtar Kent compares Myanmar opening up to the world to the fall of the Berlin Wall, and fellow MNC Unilever likens it to "another Vietnam" in terms of possible future returns. (Should we be glad that "Vietnam" is now shorthand for promising new markets as opposed to unpromising battlefields?)

The stage is thus set for another battle royale for the hearts and waistlines of the Burmese consumer. (Coca-Cola counters with CSR efforts on the latter point, though.)  Indeed, the only ones losing out economically may be domestic firms that grew during the years of international isolation (see the clip above). Local firms are going into a cost-leadership strategy from what I can tell while ceding the foreigner / upscale segments to the MNCs. Either way, there may be no greater beverage grab of this magnitude to come for years unless North Korea opens to the world, too.

NPR has a very interesting write-up concerning Myanmar's isolation: Coca-Cola went back to its promotional strategies during the 1800s to account for ways to gain product attention in a "media dark" environment:
[Southeast Asia Marketing Director Shakir] Moin says he started to go back in the Coca-Cola archives. He was looking at how the company marketed its product before the internet, before TV, even before radio. Eventually he found his perfect model for Myanmar, place where nobody knew anything about Coke — Atlanta, 1886.

Back then the hot advertising trend was wall posters. Moin noticed that in the beginning, Coke didn't use the posters to talk about friends or happiness or style. It talked about what the product tasted like. It simply described it. Moin pulled out two words in particular that would form the core of his Myanmar campaign — "delicious, refreshing." Those two words from the 1800s are now on the Myanmar bottle, and on the billboards and fliers that advertise the product.

Moin pulled another trick from the early days of Coke. They offered free samples. Samples has brought people into the pharmacy soda counters in Atlanta in 1886, now free samples attract crowds at Buddhist festivals in Myanmar. It's a way to get people to taste the product, but just as importantly, it's a way to show off Coke at its best.

The Tricky Business of Catering to PRC Tourists

♠ Posted by Emmanuel in ,, at 9/20/2013 11:06:00 AM
Since I am currently writing up some tourism-related research, two recent articles about the global industry catering to Chinese travelers caught my eye. While there is some debate going on as to whether tourism is the world's largest industry, we can safely conclude that it is a very large one. Combine that fact with China becoming the second-largest economy in the world and the embrace of Chinese tourism is only natural: As early as the mid-Nineties, I remember visiting Parisian luxury boutiques and seeing the effects of the first wave of PRC tourists as most had salesladies who were fluent in Mandarin. However, that is pretty much a baseline expectation nowadays.

(1) To be sure, the cruise ship industry has been hurt by high-profile incidences of American liners alternatively sickening and killing their passengers. Fortunately, its tarnished reputation is not (yet?) global. There are pockets of opportunity alike China. Again, it's only natural that the Chinese would take to the open sea since they have the world's busiest seaports--the infrastructure is already there. What has been lacking, however has been marketing: Chinese with an interest on going on cruise ships cannot be away for too long since they probably are too busy making money (unlike, say, their American counterparts who can go on decade-long cruises if there were some Wall-E style). Hence the popularity of short trips around East/Southeast Asia:
When the Mariner of the Seas arrived in Shanghai in June, it became the largest ocean liner with a home port in China — a 138,000-ton mega-ship that boasts an ice rink, 10 pools, a rock-climbing wall and a mini golf course. But the 3,800 passengers it can carry don’t get long to enjoy the array of amenities. The ocean-going giant, owned by Royal Caribbean International, mostly makes three- and four-night trips to South Korea that start at about the equivalent of $500 per person. 

The preference for such short cruises is one of the major challenges international cruise lines face as they focus more resources on luring Chinese customers, says Zinan Liu, the Shanghai-based managing director for China and Asia for Royal Caribbean, whose parent company is the world’s second-largest operator, with slightly more than 23 percent of all cruise passengers. (Carnival Corp. is the largest, with a little more than 48 percent.) 

If Chinese take to cruising in the same way as North Americans and Europeans, they could provide as many as 40 million cruise guests a year, according to a 2010 market analysis by Royal Caribbean. That is twice the number of passengers expected worldwide this year. But unless they work for international companies, most Chinese take vacations only during the public holidays clustered around traditional festivals like Chinese New Year, usually a week or less at any one time.
(2) However, all is not just moneymaking with PRC tourists. Whereas the rest of the world once had to deal with loud, brash Americans and pack-rattish Japanese, today the accusations of poorly-mannered tourists are aimed at the Chinese:
Now it is China’s turn to face the brunt of complaints. The grievances are familiar — they gawk, they shove, they eschew local cuisine, and last year, 83 million mainland Chinese spent $102 billion abroad — overtaking Americans and Germans — making them the world’s biggest tourism spenders, according to the United Nations World Tourism Organization.

Their numbers have also placed them among the most resented tourists. Mainland Chinese tourists, often laden with cash and unfamiliar with foreign ways, are tumbling out of tour buses with apparently little appetite for hotel breakfast buffets and no concept of lining up [...]
Certainly, more cultured Chinese are ashamed of the poor behavior of some of their compatriots who believe that spending a lot means they do not need to observe manners:
But the greatest opprobrium seems to be coming from fellow Chinese. In May, a mainland Chinese tourist in Luxor, Egypt, discovered that a compatriot had carved his own hieroglyphics on the wall of a 3,500-year-old temple. “Ding Jinhao was here,” it declared. A photo of the offending scrawl spread rapidly on Chinese social media, and outraged citizens tracked down the 15-year-old vandal. The uproar subsided after his parents issued a public apology. 

Embarrassed by the spate of bad press that month, Wang Yang, China’s vice premier, publicly railed against the poor “quality and breeding” of Chinese tourists who tarnish their homeland’s reputation. “They make loud noises in public, scratch graffiti on tourist attractions, ignore red lights when crossing the road and spit everywhere,” he said, according to People’s Daily. 
As the saying goes, you take the good with the bad and try to mitigate the latter through better customer education. There remain instances when the customer is not always right.

UPDATE: This rude Chinese tourists trope is gaining popularity. The South China Morning Post adds to it. 

Can Brazil Escape Abusive, US-Centric Internet?

♠ Posted by Emmanuel in , at 9/19/2013 09:06:00 AM
Absolute power corrupts absolutely - Lord Acton

Think of Barack Obama as the cyber-equivalent of Bashar al-Assad. Just as Assad does not own up to his chemical-attacking ways, so does Obama not own up to his Internet-abusing ways. All his pleas for "Internet Freedom" as they turn out, are meant to make it easier to spy on you and me. American digital hypocrites are thick on the ground, and Obama is just another one of their sorry lot. It is digital entrapment plain and simple.

Internationally, the US-centric Internet infrastructure which makes it so very easy for the US government to ask companies to disclose information about their users over alleged (yawn) national security concerns has come under sustained attack in the wake of disclosures that citizens and their leaders the world over have been hit by American snooping. Importantly, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers remains a US-based concern despite being responsible for allowing the Internet to function by maintaining control over IP addresses and suchlike. Given the increasing number of Internet users worldwide, many other countries have become concerned that the Internet's increasingly "global public goods" nature is not matched by changes in governance.

That introduction then brings us to Yanqui snooping: (mostly American) critics make the fallacy that since the strongest proponents of imbuing UN agencies with more voice in Internet governance are purportedly China, Iran, Russia, and Saudi Arabia, what they really are after is to improve their ability to wall off their Internet users from the rest of the world. Especially in the wake of disclosures about the extent of US spying, however, there are any number of other nations with legitimate concerns about near-absolute US power over the Internet corrupting absolutely. It is thus fascinating that Brazilian President Dilma Rouseff has been so aggrieved that she put off a state visit to America. What's more, she is urging Brazil to better insulate its telecoms infrastructure from more dastardly Yanqui deeds:
[Brazilian] President Dilma Rousseff ordered a series of measures aimed at greater Brazilian online independence and security following revelations that the U.S. National Security Agency intercepted her communications, hacked into the state-owned Petrobras oil company's network and spied on Brazilians who entrusted their personal data to U.S. tech companies such as Facebook and Google. The leader is so angered by the espionage that on Tuesday she postponed next month's scheduled trip to Washington, where she was to be honored with a state dinner...

While Brazil isn't proposing to bar its citizens from U.S.-based Web services, it wants their data to be stored locally as the nation assumes greater control over Brazilians' Internet use to protect them from NSA snooping...
There is also a fairly comprehensive set of actions Brazil intends to take to better deal with those Yanqui spies:
Rousseff says she intends to push for international rules on privacy and security in hardware and software during the U.N. General Assembly meeting later this month. Among Snowden revelations: the NSA has created backdoors in software and Web-based services.

Brazil is now pushing more aggressively than any other nation to end U.S. commercial hegemony on the Internet. More than 80 percent of online search, for example, is controlled by U.S.-based companies. Most of Brazil's global Internet traffic passes through the United States, so Rousseff's government plans to lay underwater fiber optic cable directly to Europe and also link to all South American nations to create what it hopes will be a network free of U.S. eavesdropping.

More communications integrity protection is expected when Telebras, the state-run telecom company, works with partners to oversee the launch in 2016 of Brazil's first communications satellite, for military and public Internet traffic. Brazil's military currently relies on a satellite run by Embratel, which Mexican billionaire Carlos Slim controls. Rousseff is urging Brazil's Congress to compel Facebook, Google and all companies to store data generated by Brazilians on servers physically located inside Brazil in order to shield it from the NSA.
Internet freedom has become a laughingstock since the most egregious violator of this principle is the United States. If Silicon Valley is hit by commercial fallout over spying, it is well-deserved anyway for meekly playing along with the US government. (Hear that, my blog service provider?) Will the Internet become "Balkanized" or further fragmented as others follow Brazil's example? European governments have been targeted by similar intrusions but do not complain as loudly. OTOH, what benefit do we Internet users gain from the present system which facilitates American intrusion as it abuses its position?

There are legitimate reasons for placing more Internet governance in an international organization contrary to the claim that doing so will simply allow authoritarian regimes to keep better tabs on their citizens. Go ask Brazil. Even if its efforts are for naught as some security experts say, I applaud its courage in raising a question that others have cowered from asking and, better yet, doing something about it. Moreover, I suspect the solution is not for individual countries to try and wall themselves off from the rest of the world but to join nearly-unimpeachable critics of US Internet abuse in asking for basic guarantees concerning security. The pressure being applied at the moment is insufficient, but think of what may occur if millions threaten to flee Facebook, Google, etc. if such concerns remain unaddressed.

In the meantime, do yourselves a favor by not posting sensitive information online. Obama's operatives are definitely watching.

Li Ka-Shing: When Shanghai Overtakes Hong Kong

♠ Posted by Emmanuel in , at 9/18/2013 02:13:00 PM
Here's a nice illustration of a recurrent debate concerning Asian political economy that I will be able to use for classroom purposes. Hong Kong-based tycoon Li Ka-Shing, known as "Superman" for his business prowess, has offered a pointedly Asian opinion on the prospects of Shanghai overtaking his hometown as the world's gateway to China. While teaching development studies, I make it a point to differentiate the perceived utility of political and economic freedom. The Western view, of course, is that both go hand in hand. On the other hand, many Asian commentators believe that leaders have the right to withhold political freedom provided that economic freedom of the growth-promoting variety is given.
Hence Li Ka-Shing's very Asian point: As the Chinese megacity is granting more economic freedom of the sort Hong Kong enjoys--Shanghai is soon to become a free trade zone with looser capital controls, currency convertibility and so on that other PRC cities do not enjoy--Hong Kong's comparative advantage in those respects may be eroded. What's more, the clamor for too much political freedom among Hong Kong's residents is distracting it from the real task at hand of maintaining its economic preeminence. A card-carrying CCP member could not have said it any better:
Li Ka-shing, Asia’s richest man, said Hong Kong needs to raise its competitiveness if it wants to avoid losing out to Shanghai, where China is setting up a free trade zone, Radio Television Hong Kong reported. Li, the 85-year-old chairman of Hong Kong-based Cheung Kong Holdings Ltd. (1) and Hutchison Whampoa Ltd. (13), said the Shanghai free trade zone “will affect Hong Kong heavily,” RTHK reported on its website, citing comments Li made at a briefing yesterday.

The [Shanghai Free Trade Zone] may allow freer yuan convertibility, liberalize interest rates and relax restrictions on foreign investment, which may threaten Hong Kong’s status as China’s biggest financial center. The former British colony risks falling behind its rivals if citizens there don’t start rallying behind Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying, a Chinese official said yesterday.

China is a big market and in the long term it can’t just rely on Hong Kong as its only hub,” said Kevin Lai, a Hong Kong-based economist at Daiwa Capital Markets Ltd. “I worry more about the deteriorating political environment in Hong Kong than about Shanghai establishing a free-trade zone.” Leung’s government has increasingly been drawn into a debate about the speed of electoral reform, as opposition lawmakers press for the open nomination of candidates for the election of Hong Kong’s next leader in 2017, rather than by committee as legislated.
Stupid politics, Li Ka-Shing is probably saying...what about making money, Hong Kong's real purpose? And what are we to make of those "Occupy," er, more-communist-than-mainland-self-styled-Communists?
Li said that Occupy Central, the movement proposed by some civic groups to pressure the Hong Kong government into accelerating the introduction of full democracy, may damage the economy and the city’s reputation as a financial center, according to the RTHK report.

Hong Kong residents should focus on the economy rather than politics, as Singapore leapfrogs the Chinese city as a financial center by many measures, the Standard newspaper reported today, citing remarks made to a business delegation by Wang Guangya, director of the Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office. The city should give more support to Leung, he said.
He may be 85, but alike octogenarian Lee Kuan Yew, he's as sharp as tacks and unafraid to offer an unpopular opinion if it needs to be aired. For what it's worth, the various "Occupy" movements are closely associated with US-based protests. I think he missed an opportunity here to say, "Do you want to make Hong Kong's economy like America's?"

That should shut them up real good.

Japan's Trade Deficits & Halting Nuclear Power

♠ Posted by Emmanuel in , at 9/17/2013 11:02:00 AM
Deficit-running Japanese are about as unnatural as surplus-running Americans, but we now have to reconsider this conventional wisdom. (Things change, my dear.) Recent years have witnessed an unwelcome turnaround in Japan's trade balance as it has swung from surplus to deficit in a fairly big way. While recent easy money "Abenomics" have lifted the general economic outlook there, there is a good reason why most analysts are less sanguine about the prospects for fixing the trade balance.

A contributing factor to this degradation in the external balance has, of course, been Japan's rising import bill from energy imports in the wake of the Fukushima nuclear power plant incident. With practically all of its nuclear powers shut, the nation's energy needs have been met largely by imports because Japan has few energy resources of its own. Not only do rising energy costs dent the spending power of Japanese consumers then as their electricity bills rise, but they also dent Japan's supposedly "mercantilist," export-oriented orientation:
So far, power companies have applied to restart about a dozen of Japan's 50 reactors. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe wants to see the reactors back on line, as they are a vital part of his plan to turn the economy around. Since the Fukushima disaster, Japan has been forced to import huge amounts of coal, liquid natural gas and other fuels.

Mr Abe's government blames these imports for the huge trade deficits posted by Japan since 2011. The average household electricity bill has risen by 30% since Fukushima, denting the government's attempts to boost consumer spending.
One of the Abe government's campaign promises was to bring these nuclear power plants back online. (His Liberal Democratic Party has long been supported by the energy industry for better or worse.) However, even if all fifty existing reactors were to come back in operation as they likely will in a few years' time, the interesting thing is that it is estimated that Japan would still run an external deficit:
After the 1979-1980 oil shock, Japan bounced back smartly, exporting millions of its cheap, durable and fuel-efficient cars and iconic electronic gadgets such as Sony Corp's Walkman. Today, however, there is no turnaround in sight.

Even though increased fuel imports since the March 2011 Fukushima disaster have been a major drag on trade, restarting all of Japan's nuclear reactors would not bring it back into the black, estimates suggest.

The only one of Japan's 50 reactors in operation was shut for planned maintenance on Sunday, with no firm date for bringing back an energy source that had covered about a third of the country's electricity needs.
The "real" culprit may be Japan offshoring production to nearby countries over the years to cope with rising production costs at home due to yen strength. This trend has only accelerated in recent times, causing a diminution of recorded Japanese export output:
That is because of the "hollowing out" of Japanese manufacturing as firms shift production and procurement overseas. Years of yen strength contributed to that shift, but the currency's retreat failed to reverse the trend as the desire to move closer to faster growing markets, tariffs, lower taxes and labor costs all played a role.

A Cabinet Office survey of manufacturers showed the share of overseas production of Japanese companies rose to 17.7 percent last year from just over 13 percent a decade ago and is seen reaching 21.3 percent in five years.
Japan temporarily shutting down its nuclear reactors that account for a third of its energy needs will likely be remembered as a short-lived, awkward moment in its postwar history. However, its shift to running trade deficits is probably becoming more structurally ingrained. As Don Henley once sang--here with admittedly unlikely regard to huge Japanese trade surpluses--those days are gone forever; it should just let them go.

Third World Solidarity? Petronas Ditches PDVSA

♠ Posted by Emmanuel in ,, at 9/16/2013 04:20:00 AM
Just when you thought things could not get worse for Venezuela's economic situation, they do. In recent times, Venezuela has sought to partner with other developing countries for exploiting its energy reserves in the likely belief that they would be more understanding of its political-economic situation. Having offended American oil giants through forced nationalization, it arguably had little choice but to look East.

Today's case in point is Malaysia. Just as Venezuela uses its control over a state-owned oil firm to further national objectives, so does Malaysia. Alike that of Venezuela, Malaysian leadership has also been accused of despotic tendencies--especially its perennial party in power UMNO. Allegations of electoral irregularities? Check that too. Despite similarly relaxed attitudes towards Western-style platitudes about good governance, however, it appears Malaysia has its limits and is now fed up with Venezuela. As a result, Malaysia's state-owned oil firm Petronas wants to sell its stake in a partnership with Venezuela's counterpart PDVSA:
Malaysian oil company Petronas said it is exiting one of the biggest petroleum projects in Venezuela's Orinoco belt, after what sources close to the venture and within the firm said were disagreements with Venezuelan authorities and state-run PDVSA. The flagship project, called Petrocarabobo, has planned investments of about $20 billion over 25 years and calls for building a 200,000 barrel per day upgrader to convert heavy crude into light crude oil.

When the venture was formed in 2010, Venezuela touted it as a sign that oil companies were willing to put up with demanding fiscal conditions in exchange for access to the world's largest oil reserves. Petroleos de Venezuela (PDVSA) has 60 percent of the project. Petronas belongs to a consortium that holds 40 percent. Its other partners are Spain's Repsol, India's ONGC and two smaller Indian firms, Oil India and Indian Oil Corp. Petronas holds an 11 percent stake. Sources close to ONGC and Oil India said on Wednesday they were unlikely to buy the stake being shed by Petronas. 
I wonder why there are no takers. To begin with, Venezuelan crude in the Orinoco is heavy and sour, which makes it difficult to refine unlike light, sweet crude oil. On top of this challenge, you have the Venezuelans constantly changing revenue-sharing arrangements adding to the confusion:
"This should not come as a surprise. We have not been excited about this project for the past two years because of the dealings with the government," said the source, who requested not to be identified as he was not authorized to speak to media [...]

One source close to the project told Reuters that frequent changes in the fiscal framework, disagreements with the government of Chavez's successor - Nicolas Maduro - about the business terms, and long delays led to the decision to withdraw. 
So much for third world solidarity since even Malaysians are no longer willing to put up with the arbitrariness of Chavez's successor Maduro. If even the Chinese withdraw next given their unconcern over Western conceits alike transparency and good governance, who will be left to provide the technical capabilities to extract this heavy and sour crude? 

Does US Discourage PRC FDI? Uncle Sam Sez No

♠ Posted by Emmanuel in , at 9/14/2013 07:07:00 PM
This is a follow-up to a recent post about the Chinese food conglomerate Shuanghui International attempting to purchase US pork producer Smithfield. If it pushes through, this deal will be the largest Chinese acquisition of an American firm to date. However, as I mentioned earlier, there are all sorts of dubious "national security" concerns which many believe the US deploys as an excuse for blatantly discriminatory attitudes towards China. I have called it "hog farm protectionism" in this case. Recently, Greg Gilligan, chairman of the American Chamber of Commerce in China, weighed in on these goings-on back in the US of A prior to the completion of the CFIUS process for this acquisition. He too believes that making pork a "national security" issue is, well, hogwash at a time when the United States needs job-creating FDI...even from [gasp, choke!] China:
American policy makers need to ask why the U.S. is not attracting more job-creating Chinese investment. While weakness in European economies has certainly played a role in this recent trend by offering Chinese investors bargain asset prices, we can't ignore the perception that the U.S. harbors an underlying hostility to Chinese investment. Recent political opposition to Shuanghui's acquisition of Smithfield reinforces this perception. Indeed, the response to this deal is representative of several worrying trends.

One is Washington's tendency to define American national security interests unreasonably broadly. Some opponents of the Smithfield deal have suggested that pork production is a national security issue. It's hard to credit that argument in an economy where Americans already have access to an unimaginable array of foods, including a wide range of meats. Another is Washington's lack of transparency in its approach to vetting these deals. Politicians and policy makers are starting to move the goal posts with each deal. One example of this is the CFIUS process itself, the results of which aren't published. Earlier this year, a U.S. district court judge refused to throw out a claim by Chinese-invested Ralls Corporation that it had been denied due process when, without adequate explanation, regulators demanded that it divest its interests in four wind farms. The lack of clarity about how Washington will decide investment issues is a problem.
Meanwhile, back in DC, the folks at the US Treasury replied to what they believed to be a mischaracterization of Committee on Foreign Investment in the US (CFIUS) procedures by Mr. Gilligan. Assistant Secretary for International Markets Marisa Lago counters:
Greg Gilligan, in "America Needs the Smithfield Deal" (Sept. 4) mischaracterizes the role and processes of the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS) and inaccurately describes the U.S.' policy on foreign investment.Contrary to Gilligan's claims, the CFIUS review process is non-discriminatory and transparent in its rules and procedures [...]

Unlike other countries that place restrictions on investments in broad swaths of the economy, impose ownership caps, or review foreign investment for economic and other considerations unrelated to national security, CFIUS applies the same rules to each transaction that it reviews, regardless of the country of the investor or the economic sector of the investment. We welcome investment in our entire economy and from all countries, and from private and state-owned investors alike. Unless a transaction presents a national security risk, we welcome it.

And while we are required by law to keep information filed with CFIUS confidential, the rules that govern the CFIUS process, including its governing statute and regulations, are publicly available and fully disclosed online. It is a process that enables us to protect national security in a manner fully consistent with our policy to encourage foreign investment.
Her response reminds me of Robert S. McNamara's: answer the question that you wish to answer, not what was actually asked. Many discussions that make or break PRC investment are conducted in backroom, informal meetings and not in public deliberations. So, saying that the rules are disclosed does not necessarily mean that the investors-to-be have a fair opportunity to air their views during deliberations. More importantly, she skirts the problem that "national security" is made to cover pretty much everything they can think of: If the Chinese purchase is unpopular with the political classes, they will find a way to relate it somehow to "national security."

Going back to Gilligan, the evidence he cites for Chinese contempt is that the PRC is increasingly resorting to similarly vague and open-ended reasons that may be used to discourage US investment in the future:
Rules passed in 2011 allow the Ministry of Commerce to review a transaction's national security impact based on considerations of "economic stability" and "social order," without defining what these terms mean. Beijing also imposes an opaque and unpredictable review process on many foreign investments. It is hard for American businesses, or our government officials, to persuade Beijing to change such rules when Washington increasingly behaves in the same way.
At any rate, the CFIUS has since cleared the way for the Shuanghui-Smithfield deal. Whether through embarrassment if it went ahead with "hog farm protectionism," do remember that past years have witnessed US opposition over what I would argue are similarly specious "national security" grounds. Consider the cases of Huawei-3Com and CNOOC-Unocal where the prospective Chinese investors pulled out knowing they would be turned down anyway.

Still, the Smithfield deal shows improvement on the part of the US, but keep in mind that the more relaxed Canadians have permitted far larger deals with the Chinese in industries supposedly subject to "national security" concerns. Me? I will reserve judgment until a larger mooted purchase of an American firm in energy or high-technology sectors by a Chinese one comes around.

Demographic Consequences of US Economic Stagnation

♠ Posted by Emmanuel in ,, at 9/12/2013 10:24:00 AM
US Labor Force Participation Rate
In development theory, there is thing called the "demographic transition" which argues that birth rates should diminish as a country becomes wealthier and more urbanized. Instead of "spreading their bets" by having many children in the hopes that at least one will succeed and be able to take care of them in their old age, wealthier folks believe that having fewer children endowed with high "human capital" via education and so on will better guarantee their success. It is also more difficult to have large families in households where both parents work and in cities where living costs and living space are at a premium. Moreover, the introduction of social safety nets such as pensions lessened the need for privately planning for retirement.

OK, so that's the theory, and it's held up quite well over the years. However, many developed countries are now entering a twilight zone characterized by vanishing economic prospects and diminished expectations for the future where most believe that the standard of living of future generations will be lower than current generations for obvious reasons. In the face of such difficulties, could a "reverse demographic transition" occur in which parents have more children again to assure them that at least one will make it and help provide for them in their old age?

Well, no. The United States provides some insights. Actually, the total fertility rate--the number of children a woman bears--fell to 1.89 in 2012. This is well below the replacement rate of 2.1 children per woman. In other words, if this trend continues, the United States will indeed suffer from depopulation, "Detroitification," unless migration can compensate. Looking into Census figures, it is indeed the case that current projections the US population will reach 420 million in 2060 are predicated on large-scale increases in migration. (Read the fine print.) In the absence of migration reform, though, I am not certain that the politics will necessarily be in place for that to happen.

All this brings us to the likely culprit for birth decline. Simply put, there are few jobs out there in America right now, and most of those which are available are of the low-skilled variety. Yes, the US has become a nation of burger flippers--employment statistics amply demonstrate that. With low-paying, short-lasting jobs becoming the norm, couples do not have enough security in raising families. Wages have been falling for over a decade, and there is little reason to believe they will rise significantly anytime soon. I disagree with Paul Krugman about the causes of this poor job situation--which is actually much worse when you account for women joining the labor force in large numbers in recent decades. Still, we can agree that America is, well, doomed.

How exactly a nation of burger flippers whose young people struggle just to find jobs of ever-decreasing remuneration is going to support droves of greedy seniors is beyond me. So is the point of higher education if all you will do is flip burgers for that matter.

Let us end with migration: something the Census does not sufficiently account for IMHO is the rising affluence of any number of traditional migrant-sending countries and other LDCs. Given better prospects of finding work there compared to the US (where there are few), I would expect net migration to move closer to zero. As bad as things are now, they can get worse.

Oh by the way, do you want fries with that?

Spain, 'Russian Galacticos' & Soccer (Un-)Economics

♠ Posted by Emmanuel in ,, at 9/11/2013 05:26:00 PM
I nearly forgot to make this post as the transfer deadline for trading players has ended, but as they say, better late than never. So, there are two parts to this story dealing with the economics of soccer in relation to the "real economy": Spain's Real Madrid and the dismantling of the "Russian galacticos." Never heard of them? Well, read on...

First, I am astounded by the spending of Spain's largest football team Real Madrid considering that there are now "financial fair play" regulations that are supposed to limit what teams spend relative to what they earn. They are supposed to be penalized for spending more than what they earn, but Madrid is supposedly the world's largest football club in terms of revenues. So, Real Madrid may actually afford their latest star signing, Gareth Bale, formerly of Tottenham Hotspur, for an astronomical (and unprecedented) EUR 100 million. Legendary French player Zinedine Zidane has even said that no player is worth that much money.

More importantly, the optics of Bale's transfer do not favor Real Madrid. After all, the unemployment rate in Spain is 26.3%. Also consider that the youth unemployment rate in Spain is at a similarly inconceivable 56.1%. At age 24, Bale would still belong in the "youth" age group (15-24). What exactly does his signing say to an increasingly inequitable society beset by very limited employment opportunities for Spain's young people due to structural factors? Let me put it to you this way: the transfer fee excludes wages, but EUR 100 million alone would be the equivalent annual household income for 4,376 Spanish households. As I said, the optics are quite bad in recession-hit Spain. That he's even a "migrant worker" of sorts makes things worse since there are so many jobless at home.

Next, did you hear the one about the Russian galacticos? Real Madrid popularized the term when they had stars such as Zinedine Zidane, Luis Figo, Ronaldo (de Lima), Roberto Carlos (the only Brazilian player of note using his surname?), David Beckham, Raul, and Iker Casillas in the early Noughties. Unbeknownst to many, Russian club Anhzi Makhachkala recently spent a similar fortune attempting to assemble a team for the age that is now disposing of in a fire sale. I am not making a specious analogy: Roberto Carlos himself played for Anzhi for a while. during his twilight years. Mind you, there were marquee players in their prime as well in the  $400M spending spree including 3-time Champions League winner Samuel Eto'o and Christopher Samba.

Never heard of Anzhi Makhachkala? It is owned by Russian billionaire Suleyman Kerimov who made his fortune through his participation in the phosphate cartel (phosphate is a key component of fertilizer). With the recent demise of this cartel, let's just say Kerimov's future revenue streams to fund his dream team have disappeared. With this team underperforming by its own admission in the Russian league, there was no reason to keep it intact besides:
But this was no joke. In the hours that followed a series of announcements, each more puzzling than the other, confirmed "The Anzhi Project", at least as we previously knew it, was coming to an end. Suleyman Kerimov, Anzhi's billionaire backer since January 2011, was no longer happy to finance a gravy train. The club's budget, officially quoted at an extravagant £116m per season (second only to Zenit St Petersburg in Russia), was to be reduced to between £32m and £45m.
There have also been comic signings of buying and selling players for the same amount in quick succession as the phosphate cartel and a large part of Kerimov's fortune went away:
On July 4, Anzhi sign Russian starlet Aleksandr Kokorin from Dynamo Moscow for $25 million. Thirty-three days later, he's sold back to Dynamo for the exact same amount. On July 15, Anzhi buys veteran midfielder Igor Denisov from Zenit St Petersburg for $20m. A month later, he goes to Dynamo Moscow for ... exactly $20m.
This after hiring and firing coaches Roman Abramovich-style and the rest of that circus. They say that the best way to make a small fortune in football is to start with a big one, and that joke apparently holds in Russia. Simply put, the economics were dubious from the start. Not only is Kerimov trying to unload football players but even the potash business as prices drop. As for Real Madrid, even if Gareth Bale's signing does not impose significant financial hardships on the club, the very act of signing him does not bode well in a most austerity-hit nation.

But then again, whoever said that football finances had anything to do with economic reality?

China: #1 in Shale Gas Reserves, Paltry Production

♠ Posted by Emmanuel in ,, at 9/09/2013 05:36:00 AM
Much has been made of the United States growing energy independence as it taps shale gas reserves at home. A salutary effect has been reducing the trade imbalance America is legendary for. However, the US is far from the only country with a lot of shale gas reserves. China purportedly has the most, but it has been quite slow in tapping these reserves. The numbers tell the story of China's backwardness:
Beijing has struggled to find a way to emulate the frenetic exploration and production activity of the shale gas boom in the United States, and the latest setback makes reaching even a modest 2015 output target of 6.5 billion cubic metres (bcm) unlikely. This is only a fraction of the 224 bcm of shale gas the United States produced in 2011, and would amount to just 6 percent of China’s total current output of natural gas.
Why this sloth? There are environmental concerns over fracking in places such as Europe, but let's just say they are outweighed in China's case by the more immediate cause of energy security. Others would even argue that shale gas is less polluting than burning coal. So China lags behind despite its even larger dependence on imported energy. It's a combination of various things, with less readily accessible reserves and uncertain land ownership featuring large:
When [Shell] began a multibillion-dollar effort to tap China shale gas a few years ago, it seemed like a can't-miss wager. China has the world's most extensive shale gas reserves, biggest energy market, and a government pushing for expanded gas production.But for Shell and its state-controlled partner, China National Petroleum Corp. the reality on the ground makes its bet look riskier.

The region's rough terrain, poor infrastructure and deeply buried gas formations present tough technical challenges. The area is so densely populated and intensely farmed that drilling sites are being built within 360 feet of homes in villages like Maoba—upsetting residents who complain of noise, dust and environmental concerns. To ease the way, Shell and its partners are compensating local residents and local government officials for using their land and roads and other inconveniences.
You would have thought that in an authoritarian regime alike China, it's easier to excavate since the state owns more land and can evict people if it is deemed necessary, but no: it's proven easier to pay US (private) landowners for mining for shale gas. By contrast, in China you have militant residents who do not want to deal with the mess of fracking since they will not benefit directly from state-owned resources. I argue that a lot of their environmental complaints would be mitigated otherwise. Such difficulties are compounded by rudimentary infrastructure in parts of China with lots of shale and an unclear regulatory framework:
Some shale-rich countries, including China, are short on developed roads, water and drilling contractors trained in modern safety standards. Others like France and Bulgaria have put up legal barriers to the hydraulic fracturing needed to extract shale gas. And unlike in the U.S., where landowners generally own rights to gas beneath their property, minerals in many countries are owned by the state, giving residents little financial incentive to support drilling near their homes [...]

Regulatory concerns also heighten China risks. The country hasn't finalized fracking regulations. And to fight inflation, the government controls prices at which gas may be sold, which could weigh on profits.
So there are still areas China is falling behind the United States. Good governance champions will highlight that the unclear regulatory framework for this industry in China is harming prospects for mining shale reserves.

Is US Suing S&P Payback for Ratings Downgrade?

♠ Posted by Emmanuel in , at 9/06/2013 09:30:00 AM
In run-of-the-mill stories, there are heroes and villains: I've been in this town so long that back in the city I've been taken for lost and gone and unknown for a long, long time. Today, however, we instead have two major baddies duking it out: the US government and credit rating agency Standard & Poors. It's the political economy equivalent of Aliens vs. Predator. Apparently, the US government was, like many, suckered into buying securities of dubious creditworthiness by inflated ratings slapped on them by S&P and its peers. So many years after the global financial crisis hit its peak, the United States sued S&P for misrating these securities earlier in 2013.
The plot is not that straightforward, though. Recall that S&P is the only major credit rating agency to have downgraded US debt from Triple-A status exactly two years ago. I argue that action was too little, too late anyway in that America's debt problems are only going to get worse due to fiscal mismanagement unmatched by any other country in absolute terms: anyone else owe $16.7 trillion?

It appears that S&P is now trying to absolve its past actions by accusing the US government of using the suit as revenge for its ratings downgrade:
Standard & Poor's Ratings Services escalated its legal battle with the U.S. Justice Department, accusing it of filing its $5 billion lawsuit against S&P in "retaliation" for the company's downgrade of America's debt in 2011. S&P's defense, made in a court filing on Tuesday, shows that the world's largest credit-rating company is digging in as it fights the Justice Department's Feb. 4 lawsuit, which accused S&P of misrepresenting its rating process in the years before the financial crisis [...]

The Justice Department "commenced this action in retaliation for [S&P's] exercise of their free speech rights with respect to the creditworthiness of the United States of America," lawyers for S&P wrote in court documents filed Tuesday in the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California. A Justice Department spokeswoman said in a statement that "the allegation is preposterous." S&P referred questions back to its Tuesday response to the U.S. lawsuit [...]
While this tactic is not unusual for those sued by the Feds, proving it is ludicrously difficult:
It isn't unusual for companies sued by the federal government to claim political payback, said some lawyers who have been following the lawsuit. S&P could eventually decide to drop the payback argument, they said, depending on what documents are unearthed during the discovery process or if the judge overseeing the lawsuit indicates that line of defense doesn't hold water [...]

[L]awyers also said that proving retaliation will be difficult for S&P. It will be an uphill battle to prove that there was direct communication between different government agencies [i.e., Treasury and Justice] and to indicate any such goal, as of the alleged retaliation by the government, the lawyers said. 
As with most half-truths, both villains are partly correct. I, of course, would state the facts of the matter thusly which casts both in a negative light: 
  • The United States deserves an even bigger downgrade than what S&P made given the true extent of its future liabilities. 
  • S&P provided deliberately misleading ratings since it was financially beneficial for it to do so.
In the end, that's all there is to it. The S&P conspiracy theory is too elaborate and veers too far away from coherence to be admissible. For this round, the US government villains at least have a logical case against the ratings villains. Besides, if the US government really wanted to hurt S&P, it could easily put it out of business

MEDSploitation: Pol Eco of Cuban Doctor Exports

♠ Posted by Emmanuel in ,, at 9/04/2013 01:29:00 PM
A longstanding fixture of Cuba's outreach has been sending physicians to fellow Latin American nations. Witness the still-ongoing Venezuela-Cuba oil-for-doctors scheme: 90,000 barrels per day for 30,000 doctors. Despite its proto-communist economy being in shambles for decades now, Cuba still retains a reputation for training physicians--in quantity if not necessarily in quality. With a surplus of them at home and a perpetual shortage of foreign exchange, it was perhaps inevitable that they became one of the island nation's top exports. TIME talks about the current controversies over Cuban doctor exports to Brazil and the differentials in terms of physicians to population:
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), Brazil — despite its recent economic boom and constitutional guarantee of universal health care — has only 1.8 doctors per 1,000 people. (Cuba, despite its endless economic bust, has 6.7.) Almost two-thirds of all health care spending in Brazil is private, even though three-fourths of the population depends on public medical services.
Coming from a self-styled worker's paradise, what exactly is in it for the Cuban physicians working in Brazil? Unfortunately, it appears the ratio of wages paid to these doctors relative to Cuba's remuneration from host states is very low:
But Cuba’s medical-diplomacy mission, which currently has 40,000 doctors serving abroad and brings the Cuban government some $6 billion a year (of which the doctors themselves get only a tiny fraction), is a fixture in the third world, and was generally praised for its work in Haiti after the 2010 earthquake. And it points up the fact that Brazil’s problems are hardly unique. In fact, six of Latin America’s seven largest economies have two or fewer doctors per 1,000 people. (The exception is Argentina, which has 3.2.)
The Havana Times complains about this opaqueness over how much Cuba receives relative to what the physicians do:
In different comments, we read of “new slaves”, that the Cuban State is a kind of “foreman” and that Cuban doctors are “sheep” denied the right to demand their rights, individuals subjected to that which Jose Marti, when writing of a certain form of socialism much spoken of in his time, called “modern slavery.” Unfortunately, I do not know how much money will be paid directly to the doctors under the agreement entered into with the pertinent agencies of Cuba’s Ministry of Public Health. Our local and biased press has not published this detail, and we will have to find out from the doctors themselves [...]

It is both just and necessary for the Cuban State to take in a reasonable part of the money paid by Brazil, in order to re-invest it in Cuba’s public health programs. This money represents investments in many areas, including the country’s educational system, capable of creating a highly qualified labor force. It is also both just and necessary to respect the individual rights of our medical professionals, to pay them a percentage of the earnings that will guarantee their professional and personal dignity, as well as that of their families (without which they will not be able to practice their profession adequately).

What we need is transparency, on the basis of broader democratic, socialist concepts, throughout the selection, hiring and other processes related to the work of our professionals beyond Cuban borders. If Cuban doctors working in Brazil, for instance, were entitled to openly discuss their payment conditions and to arrive at an agreement with public health authorities that isn’t simply imposed on them, then we would be wrong to speak of any kind of slavery.
Call it Transparency, ah, Internationale. I too would love to know exactly what these Cuban physicians earn relative to the amount of treatment they give to better calculate the rate of exploitation, but alas, the Cuban government is perhaps not the best model of public transparency [!?] Rest assured though that economic necessity drives this increasingly controversial trade.