China

Where money talks

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If there was one thing that could be transplanted into Japanese business culture it would be the Chinese practice of “there is a price for everything”. So often do we see sensible deals slip thru the cracks involving  Japanese corporates based on petty rigidities which serve no other purpose but to scuttle their own long term fortunes. Just 6 hours in HK and already it smells of business opportunity. Clear skies too.

At least China has a policy in The Pacific

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Australian International Development Minister Concetta Fierravanti-Wells has attacked China’s aid to Pacific nations. Her argument was that China was lending funds to Pacific nations on unfavourable terms and constructing “useless buildings” and “roads to nowhere” in the region. Even if that were so, doesn’t this expose the Minister’s own inadequate policy? Shouldn’t she be preventing such activity by offering more favorable terms and better advice on infrastructure? Isn’t it China’s business to decide whether it deems such spending a waste?

Fierravanti-Wells said to The Australian,

You’ve got the Pacific full of these useless buildings which nobody maintains, which are basically white elephants … I’ve gone to islands and you’ll be driving along on some back road and all of a sudden you see this Chinese road crew building a road to nowhere and you think ‘hmm, what’s all that about’,”

It is all very well firing pot shots at China for its active Pacific policy but at least it has one. Indeed if the end result is that Pacific nations end up agreeing to China’s influence they do so willingly. The Minister can’t claim that these nations are not happy about the situation. Afterall had the ‘international development’ portfolio team done its homework it could see that China has pursued this policy for decades in Africa, Latin America, Pakistan and the Middle East. Who knew?

China has been a poster child of stepping up and filling the void left by The West. China understands that the nations we won’t deal with on the basis of human rights records, dictatorships and the like make perfect bed fellows which leads to even juicier returns provided said despots get the right ‘incentives’. China is not working to virtues.

How can we be surprised? UN sanctions are slapped on North Korea to bring it to heel. Two weeks later Chinese oil ships are trading with North Korea. No cleaner example of China’s disregard for world opinion. China is a master of strategy. It knows it will be stronger than the US in time. 20, 30 or 40 years  is of little concern. Just get the chess pieces in place. Find vulnerable or willing nations off the radar screen and show them love so they reciprocate in ways that strengthens Beijing’s policy directives.

There should be little surprise with this ‘transactional’ Australian government in allowing this state of affairs to occur. Because Tonga or PNG rate less important than China, Japan or the US in terms of trade dollars we apportion the same relative importance to their strategic value. That is about the level of the thinking.

China has the opposite view. It knows that buying influence in Port Moresby with new roads or bridges allows concessions where they really want them. Naval ports. The Chinese have already got East Timor to agree to a trading port which will accept ‘visits’ from PLA Navy vessels.

Our foreign policy is so poorly thought out that even Obama censured us for leasing a port to China! When we’re getting lessons from Obama on foreign policy what more proof do we want for the clueless ineptitude of our government? We’re too busy trying to bribe electorates with multi billion dollar submarine programs where the contractor isn’t even sure it can design what it promised, not to mention arriving in 50 years!

So the Minister best just understand the world we live in. With 5 prime ministers in 10 years is it any wonder we can’t formulate a coherent long term strategy? Australia can moan all it likes about China but its the smug nature of our political class who need to wake up. Complaining to PNG about it’s wealthy sugar daddy is unlikely to find a soothing voice if we offer nothing in return.

By the way, China will only be inspired to keep at it. If anything we’ve only highlighted how our of touch we are in responding and that must bring smiles all around.

My Button is bigger than yours

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Purile but effective. The message has gone around the world. How is it more people are worried about his language than the ability for a nation like the DPRK to possess a capability to strike the US? How many times have we seen the North Korean’s nuke technology end up  in the wrong hands – e.g. Syria. Spurn the US for its post war foreign policy but it’s a known devil.

Back to mine is bigger than yours – unorthodox message delivery but why is anyone in the least bit surprised? How can anyone feel outrage at something that has happened almost daily for nearly 12 months straight? One should be howling if he wasn’t doing it! Then one could truly call him an unhinged lunatic because one would be worried that he was unpredictable.

Let’s not forget that China has recently told the world what it thinks of the UN sanctions by continuing to trade oil with the rogue nation. Trump told Xi than no amount of theatre by hosting a dinner in the Forbidden City will give them any free passes like his predecessors. Let’s not forget the farewell message sent by China to Obama on his last state visit – no stairs, no red carpet and no senior delegates. He exited by the emergency stairs of Air Force One. What a humiliation.

It is reasonably unstatesmanlike to be sure but the message is pointed at China not Kim. Quit screwing around is the message. If China doesn’t take care of business with its ‘tenant’ the US will evict him for it.

For all those panicking that a nuke strike is on the horizon Korean CDS spreads are 52. At the first stage of the verbal exchange several months back they were mid 70s. Yawn.

2018 – no more space for multiple ‘elephants’ in the room

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The Contrarian Marketplace wishes everyone a Happy New Year and prosperous 2018.

As oft the case people are busy making new year’s resolutions. CM mission doesn’t change. It aims to further energize the spirit of enquiry. To be the maverick voice that will not be silenced. We live in a world where we need to become comfortable being uncomfortable. We can no longer hide behind group think Because we feel it is dangerous to challenge consensus views. CM won’t buckle to identity politics, victimhood or social justice.

However that will never exclude us from criticism and we welcome feedback to improve the offering. We will not take The Guardian approach of refusing to acknowledge the content might be the problem when appealing for readers to ‘donate’. CM is self funded. It will remain so because it never wishes to be beholden to others to peddle tailored messages to keep the lights on.  If CM doesn’t survive on its own merits then it dies through market forces.

In 2017, Brandon Tatum showed what impact a Tucson, Arizona police officer can have on today’s media. His videos have gone viral (50mn+ views) on topics from the NFL, BLM to anti-Trump protests. He is now working for the Conservative Tribune such has been his impact. He speaks in cold hard truths. One doesn’t have to agree with what he says but he makes compelling arguments. No accolades from the journalist associations to self congratulate. As we used to say at high school sports competitions- “look at the scoreboard.”

CM started two years ago to challenge conventional thinking on all manner of topics.  It was born out of a growing realization that the mainstream media on both sides of the fence was too biased. Investigative journalism has all but disappeared, replaced with clickbait headlines and little more than biased piffle for what can only loosely be described as content. It seems that journalists are paid on the number of shares or likes rather than the quality of input.  As Ariana Huffington once said, “I’ve long said that those of us in the media have provided too many autopsies of what went wrong and not enough biopsies.”

2017 has been a continuation of the ridiculous pandering to political correctness and our lawmakers seem even more determined to avoid censure from social media, somehow thinking it speaks for the majority. Gender neutral toilets, removing statues and same-sex marriage take priority to the oncoming fiscal/monetary train wreck and a fracturing geopolitical landscape. It is almost as if our elected leaders have the blinkers on.

2018 is shaping up to be one that our political class is ill prepared for. Out of one’s depth is not a harsh enough criticism. Too many governments (including conservatives) are running up the national credit card trying to bribe bewildered constituents into tolerating more of their nonsense. However at some point, appeasement will not work because government’s can’t economically afford it.

Silent voices are increasingly pushing back. Traditional parties are seeing their constituents abandoning them. Australia’s conservative Liberal Party is Exhibit A. It is no longer a party true to its core. After the Turnbull coup it has taken its constituents for mugs but they have left in droves. While the Libs champion superior leadership, how is it One Nation has taken a huge bite out of it’s support base? It doesn’t add up and its this sense of denial that guarantees they’ll be destroyed at the next election.

Look at the growth in nationalist parties in Austria, France, The Netherlands, Germany, Italy and even America. While they may not have outright majorities in every case the reality is that all of these parties surged in the most recent elections. Mainstream parties can mark it down as a one-off or ‘they’ll be back’ mentality but this time is different. Take Trump. His GOP hate him almost as much as the Democrats. While the mainstream media ties itself into knots over the relevance of well done steak and tomato ketchup to running a country or the fact he paid millions in tax, his brand of political incorrectness is refreshing.

Sure his words are vulgar at times and Obama knocks the sports off him for eloquence or as a nice guy but we are in a world of ruthless people. The geopolitical landscape is rapidly changing. The last US administration allowed a free-for-all for nations such as China and Russia to roam free on the global landscape. Russia’s actions in the Ukraine, Syria and Iran or China building man made military bases in contested Asia-Pac waters have filled a vacuum vacated by the US. We should be glad that we have a Trump who is putting his foot down that things have changed.

While Trump’s use of ‘Rocketman’ to describe North Korea’s leader may seem juvenile, China hasn’t fully worked him out. They stroked his ego by allowing him to be the first President to dine in the Forbidden City after his rhetoric saying that if they don’t deal with Kim he will. The resumption of Chinese oil trading with North Korea in full defiance of UN sanctions tells two things. China thinks the UN is a waste of space and it is testing Trump’s resolve to carry out his threats to take care of business with minor provocations. China’s military is nowhere a match for the US so this could backfire badly if they miscalculate. This will escalate again in 2018.

Don’t rule out India’s growing frustrations with China. China’s built a naval port in Sri Lanka’s Hambantota. Recently the Maldives signed a FTA with China which should be ringing alarm bells in Delhi. For the last decade, China has been strengthening its armed (ground and air) forces to India’s north too, including the funding of the upgrade of the 1300km construction of the Karakoram Highway (aka China-Pakistan Friendship Highway). It is no surprise that Russia has been replaced by the US and UK as preferred arms suppliers to India.

As written several days ago, the Middle East seems to be an unstable powder keg. The way the stars are aligning with respects to the death of the former Yemeni President Saleh, the cleaning of the House of Saud, the repudiation of Qatar by the Gulf states and ructions in Iran point to something larger to kick off. Do not be surprised to see Israel and Hezbollah clash again in 2018. It won’t be an Arab Spring. Afterall this is more a shift toward a more direct clash between Sunni and Shia, not just played through proxy wars in Yemen, Syria or Lebanon. One can’t sink Saudi and Emirati naval vessels off Yemen’s coast with Iranian Revolutionary Guard support indefinitely.

These geopolitical problems will only put pressure on global markets which are already overstretched asset bubbles in almost every form – equities, bonds and housing. The realisation that unfunded pensions are likely to wipe out the retirements plans of millions causing even more pressure on economic growth. There is no escaping the fact that the can has been kicked down the road for too long. Whether 2018 is the precise year it unfolds is still a moot point but we are moving ever closer to the impending financial collapse which will be uglier than 1929.

Central banks have no plausible ammunition left to play with. Bloated balance sheets filled with mislabeled toxic assets (liabilities). Record low interest rates offer next to no policy flexibility and tapped out consumers face oblivion if asset prices keel over. A systemic banking collapse is absolutely plausible. No amount of QE will work this time.

Yes, it would be nice to see 2018 trump 2017 for good news (it wouldn’t be hard) but sadly the punch bowl at the party is empty and the hangover won’t be pleasant. No amount of painkillers will let one avoid a throbbing headache which will last a very long time.

Forewarned is forearmed.

World government – why it would never work and why you shouldn’t want it to

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World government. Some criticise the US move to hobble the UN via funding cuts as justification for it. Some argue that international laws cramp the style of just about every government under the sun so those with power go out of their way to prevent it. The same people argue that the UN should be democratized and nation states should submit to international law and independent institutions set up to enforce it.

Presumably within this Marxist manifesto there should be no borders and total freedom of movement. However within this socialist dogma not one has put forward how it might work economically which is probably the best signal that it would fail to be a sustainable form of government. We’ve had multiple attempts at socialism and in every case it has failed. Oh how the left championed Chavez as a model of successful socialism. How quiet they are now. Still it doesn’t prevent them extolling the virtues of ‘equality’ even if some pigs are more equal than others.

Still suppose we entertain the prospect of a world government. We have to start somewhere. Regardless of whether we like it or not, a world government would need to address economic status to sign up willing participants. The US economy is 24% of world GDP with less than 5% of the world’s population. In order for the US to agree to join a world government they would rightly demand that they get 24% of the seats in a world parliament? Why would they join at 5%? What is the incentive? Virtue? Australia has a disproportionately large raw materials base relative to the population. Should the Aussies have just one vote if it ends up benefitting others more than itself?

We have a living working example of how fusing completely different economic systems doesn’t work, even when the population speaks the same language – German reunification. From Der SPIEGEL,

Today, the eastern German economy is still in a sorry state, and there are no indications that the situation will change. An estimated €1.3 trillion ($1.6 trillion) have flowed from the former West Germany to the former East Germany over the last 20 years. But what has that money achieved? Historic neighborhoods have been restored, new autobahns built and the telephone network brought up to date, but most of the money was spent on social benefits such as welfare payments. The anticipated economic upswing failed to materialize…Most of eastern Germany has turned into an economically depressed region that lags behind the west in all respects:

The per capita economic output in the east is only at 71 percent of the western level, with a disproportionately high share of economic output attributable to the public sector. The economic output generated by the private economy is only at 66 percent of the western level.

To close the gap, the eastern German economy would have to grow more rapidly than in western Germany, but precisely the opposite is the case. Germany’s leading economic research institutes expect the economy in eastern Germany to grow by 1.1 percent this year, compared with 1.5 percent in the west.

Since the fall of the Berlin Wall, the population of eastern Germany has declined by almost 2 million people, a trend that is continuing unabated.

The proportion of household income derived from welfare payments is 20 percent higher in the east than in the west.

Of Germany’s 100 largest industrial companies and 100 largest service providers, not one has its headquarters in eastern Germany.

The lesson is clear. When given a choice, the citizens of the former socialist state stampeded to the capitalist state because they knew ‘opportunities’ were far more abundant and desirable. The power of the free market. What better indication of a repudiation of socialism than those that have actually lived under it. Many ‘socialists’ today (who ironically have never experienced it) are envious. Indeed former PM Baroness Margaret Thatcher put it best, “the Labour Party would prefer the poor were poorer provided the rich were less rich” Instead of enterprise and looking for ways to get ahead, many sit back and complain why it isn’t handed to them on a platter.

So in the case of world government without borders, it would make complete sense for people from say Africa or the Middle East to move to NY, London or Berlin. As they left their homes in the millions, sheer logistical issues would come into play – housing, food, healthcare and sanitation. The only way to ration scarce resources would be to let the free market decide it. World government wouldn’t allow it. Shouldn’t a Congolese family have a claim to live in a penthouse on 5th Avenue or Mayfair in the interests of equality? Maybe the owners of the 5th Avenue apartment should have the property repossessed to promote equality. Surely a noble gesture for the other 99%.

What about filling the world parliament? How do we look to address balance? The Indians and Chinese represent 35% of the global population. Should they not occupy 35% of the seats? Is there a global vote? As an Australian do I get a say on the Chinese candidates? Do they mine? Assuming we had global votes, language barriers would be a problem. How would an English speaker be able to work out the depth in abilities of a Chinese candidate from Harbin who only speaks Mandarin? Even if we could translate his every word, what hope would we have of delving deep into his or her history or the subtleties of cultural ‘meanings’ hidden within language to be able to cast a ballot on as fully informed a basis as possible?

Or should we cut the pie of global government candidates based on religious grounds? Muslims represent 24% of the population. Should all countries submit to having 24% of the laws made by a global government Sharia compliant? Christians represent 31% of the globe. Should they have the right to enforce the world to take Christmas as a public holiday? If the international parliament votes to repeal Ramadan should it stand? Afterall that is the result of a properly functioning global democracy!

Some in favour of the UN being the ‘social democracy’ that binds us honestly believe that it would not fall foul of greed, corruption or poor governance. Do we seriously wish to put power in the hands of the UN as our global government if one of its groups thought the murderous dictator Robert Mugabe was a worthy ambassador for WHO? Do we think the UN to date has shown exemplary governance and ethics to provide a comfort level for we minions to hand over our regulatory frameworks? Take the former UNIPCC chair who directed UN procured funds toward his own ‘scientific research body’. Conflicts of interest anyone? The UN argues it is independent but how could it be if it is so self serving? To think there was a strong suggestion that the UN deploy blue helmets in Chicago to help quell gun violence. The question one should ask is why wasn’t such action taken when Obama was president? So much for a guarantee of independence if the UN so blatantly takes sides because they want to retaliate against Trump.

We already have a preview of world government policy looks like. Many Western governments are already pandering to political correctness in ways which are causing growing backlash among constituents.

Some on the left believe that nationalism is a “backward, regressive, half-baked ideology which is used by ruling elites to control their populations” Wasn’t the open minded Labour heartland in the Midlands one that leaned to Brexit? Wasn’t it in France where Marine Le Pen’s Front National doubled the number of voters ever seen for her party? Was it not Hungary that voted 99.4% in favour of a referendum to reject forced migration quotas? The surge in the AfD in Germany to 14%. The huge landslide in Austria where the young PM has given his immigration portfolio to the FPO? The surge in the eurosceptic 5 Star Movement in Italy…the list goes on. Even Switzerland handed back its free pass to join the EU (which is about as close as one gets to a world government) because it puts sovereignty and the wish to preserve culture and customs ahead of ‘socialist’ ideals. Isn’t that patriotism rather than nationalism? Lukas Reimann of the Swiss People’s Party, said:

It is hardly surprising that the EU looks like an ever less attractive club to join. What, after all, is the appeal of joining a club into which the entire world can apparently move?”

So what would a world government do to combat nationalism? Regulate against it! Restrict freedom of speech. Incarcerate those that protest against what they perceive as injustice. Of course it would be easy to simplify these people as racists or bigots for not conforming. The price of progressivism is to muzzle dissent. Identity politics and the victimhood it breeds are so pervasive that it creates the exact division it seeks to stop. For  those pushing for world government make no mistake that the elites among the commissars will still be more equal than others.

What is wrong with celebrating differences?  Isn’t visiting a foreign country to immerse oneself in a different culture half the fun of an overseas vacation? Learning about how civilization developed over millennia. Experiencing foreign cuisine, learning a foreign language or respecting local customs (e.g. wearing long sleeves and pants into a Buddhist temple) are not things to be frowned upon. They are exactly the reason why all of the tribes of the world can’t be homogenized into the one box. Yet the world government wouldn’t tolerate such thinking.

Yemen – Saleh’s death is the dangerous slice in the Iran & Saudi sandwich

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Even before the Arab Spring, CM (in a previous life) wrote that Yemen was a trouble spot. It’s former President Ali Abdullah Saleh (Sunni) has died of natural causes – he was assassinated in a spate of tribal violence in the capital Sana’a yesterday. No stranger to being an oppressive tyrant during his rule, after being ousted in the Arab Spring he was in recent years working with the Houthi tribe (Shi’ite) to regain power before switching back to a US backed Saudi-friendly deal maker. He proved that power is more important than religious sect. However the Houthi weren’t prepared to suffer a turncoat who betrayed them so Saleh was duly dealt with.

Why is Saleh’s death important? What it now does is give Saudi Arabia more will to take more decisive action against the Iran backed Houthi. It is no surprise that Saudi Arabia has cleaned house with the arrests of  royal family members to tighten the inner circle. It smells like the early stages of broader tit-for-tat skirmishes before all out conflict ensues. Yemen is often argued as a proxy war between the two.

While many are distracted by the US Embassy to Jerusalem as an unnecessary ‘in-the-face” action, it is a very firm line in the sand to where the US cards already lie. No big surprises. For now most Gulf States want Israel on their side to help them defend against and ultimately defeat Iran.

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At the narrow Bab al-Mandeb Strait separating Yemen and Djibouti/Eritrea, cargo ships make their way up the Red Sea to the Suez Canal, could become a major choke point. This year multiple US, Saudi and Emirati warships have been attacked by Houthi rebel forces. In January 2017 a  Saudi al-Madinah frigate was sunk in the strait. An Emirati HSV-2 swift naval craft was also put out of action in late 2015.

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Safe access to the strait is crucial at present because of Egypt’s reliance on imported LNG to maintain stable electricity supply. One LNG tanker heads to Egypt each weeknight through the canal. Just under 10% of global trade goes through it as well. Any blockage or restricted access would force ships to sail the long way around the Horn of Africa adding another 40% to the journey. This would have significant impacts on shipping and trade. Markets aren’t factoring anything at this stage.

The problem with naval conflict is that Yemen is backed by Iran which in turn is one of Russia’s best clients. Iran possesses the SS-N-22 Sunburn missile which is a supersonic anti-ship missile which even the US has no answer for. In recent years this has been upgraded to the Super Sunburn (P-270) which is even more lethal. It is a ramjet which travels at Mach-3 meaning if fired inside a 100km range then the target is likely to be toast (video here). It can be launched from a ship, submarine or land.

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Iran could blame a whole host of tribes (Sunni or Shia) sick of being under the jackboot of effective Saudi control/influence for an attack.

On December 2, Israeli jets bombed an Iranian military weapons base in Syria. Israel has warned Iran it won’t tolerate any military presence on Syrian soil. We shouldn’t forget that China has also deployed its special forces to Syria to help Assad. Clearly the Chinese see a good opportunity to clean up some of the spoils in the region. China is always happy to help out nations that are under sanction. It adds more mess into the geopolitical sphere.

While the GCC has stepped up its air attacks on Yemen post the death of Saleh, he was the only one that has been able to unite the country. Indeed it is possible that the secession of the south becomes an issue. At the time of reunification of North and South Yemen in 1990 many in the south felt their northern neighbors were pillaging too much of their oil reserve wealth. Even their private land was appropriated and spread among the Sana’a elite. Now that Saleh has gone, and Yemen fragmented again, we may see old scores settled. The Southern Movement (loyal to exiled President Hadi) in Yemen wants to take back what was stolen from them. So Saleh’s death may open a vacuum of more instability.

Iran would relish the opportunity of a fractured Yemen to further build its influence. Bab al-Mandeb may become a flashpoint to fight the proxy war. It is extremely messy, creates proper disruption and pushes Saudi Arabia and Iran closer to conflict.

Which ever way you cut it, diplomacy in the Middle East (what little there is) looks set to worsen. In a sense we are dealing with two large clients of Russia (Iran) and America (SA). Now China is siding with Russian interests by using it as a test run of its military muscle. China isn’t committing anything major but it wants to be at the negotiating table when it all goes pear shaped.

It smells very similar to the lead up to the Arab Spring. More turmoil and complacent markets which are not quite absorbing the realities of “local problems” spreading to another neighborhood. Sure we’ve seen many leaders overthrown in Libya, Tunisia, Egypt and so on in the last uprising but the pressure on Saudi is mounting hence the recent crackdown internally.

The other dark horse is Erdogan in Turkey. He is facing a corruption probe over money laundering to help Iran evade sanctions and he seems keen to externalise his problems so he can shut down the local threat. He is threatening to cut off ties with Israel if the US relocates the embassy but for a man with clear ambitions to revive the Ottoman Empire that fell less than 100 years ago that is a mere formality in the future.

The flashpoint remains Yemen. It has the perfect storm of a pawn in a global game of chess. While it whiffs of local tribes seeking revenge there are too many willing to help them achieve their aims which only plays to the broader ructions throughout the rest of the Middle East. Last week Houthi rebels launched a missile attack against the UAE nuclear power plant under construction. Power corrupts. Absolute power corrupts absolutely

“Bitcoin Bubble” the #1 searched item on Contrarian Marketplace – the Taxi Driver’s blog

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The only thing more dangerous than “Bitcoin Bubble” being the most searched item on this Contrarian Marketplace (CM) blog this month is whether I am tempted to buy it on the basis that in doing so I will call the top. Indeed Bit-coiners should be paying me (in gold please) I never make such a move.

Note in ZeroHedge today one Chinese official, Pan Gongsheng, a deputy governor of the People’s Bank of China predicts “that bitcoin will die of a grand theft, a hack into the blockchain technology behind the cryptocurrency or a collective ban by global governments.” This is consistent to what CM has been saying.