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


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.

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


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.


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.


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.


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

When Reagan used to stick it to the Soviets

For all the flak that DJT copped today on social media for sticking it to the Rocketman, Venezuela and the United Nations, Reagan was no less tough in the rhetoric toward foes. Reagan’s speech in Berlin where he demanded Gorbachev “tear down that wall” was no less in your face than Trump telling Rocketman to smarten his act or face the music. The central instrument for burying the Soviet Union was Reagan’s massive defense build-up. He forked out $134 billion in 1980 and ramped it to $253 billion in 1989. American defense spending rose to 7% of GDP (c.4.5% now), dramatically increasing the federal deficit. The Soviet Union was compelled to keep up by raising the share of its defense spending from 22% to 27% of GDP, freezing the production of non-defence goods at 1980 levels. Economically it couldn’t keep up and by 1991 the Soviet Union folded. A small price to pay to end the Cold War. America did not wilt under Reagan as it has in recent years,

We should not forget the numerous occasions that former President Reagan openly used to ridicule the Soviets for being so backward. As the old saying goes, ‘never a truer word than that said in jest’. The joke about the curfew is a cracker.

Kim sends more firecrackers across Japan that could hit Guam


This cannot continue. Another missile fired across Japan’s shores. This missile flying 3,700km. Guam is technically in range by that measure. As I said on The Bolt Report, Kim’s technology will get to a point where he can become a serious threat. Taking out the threat before it gets even more capable is the only credible option. Even more biting UN sanctions haven’t stopped his quest to launch more missiles in utter defiance. My key thought is that China will be coerced into forcing regime change. It cannot afford to lose the strategic buffer North Korea provides but it can even less afford US military action on its back door. Unilateral action by China will not be frowned on by the majority of the rest of the world if Kim Jong Un is neutered.

Some discussions have also questioned whether he lobs missiles over Tokyo airspace. The danger here is a failure through dense commercial air traffic lanes. In any event the world community can’t sit by and let this oppressive regime continue a weapons program to use for extortion. Trump was on a morning breakfast program yesterday discussing North Korea where he effectively said for “China to start taking action”.

As I wrote last week, Japan’s entire Aegis destroyer fleet from Maizuru is at sea. They carry the SM-3 anti-ballistic missile system. Japan cannot take North Korea’s actions as anything other than the gravest threat to national security.

This crisis has to have an ending. It can only be Kim Jong Un’s. Watch China’s movements closely from here. They’re reaching breaking point on strategy.

Kim’s pulse will be electromagnetic if he picks the wrong target

Electromagnetic Pulse (EMP) is the latest buzzword coming from North Korea. The subject of EMP was revealed in James Bond 007 GoldenEye when Xenia Onnatop stole a helicopter and helped detonate ‘Petya’ over Sevrenaya. Anything with an electric circuit would be rendered unusable. Japanese breakfast programs were talking about what EMP might do if Kim Jong Un detonated a nuke at low altitude. Don’t forget the bomb dropped on Hiroshima exploded at 500ft. The impacts are greater.

The reality of EMP is more relevant in space. Much of the US military backbone comes from a vast array of spy and military satellites which help smart bombs and cruise missiles hit targets with such precision and connectivity between land, sea and sky. Much of the modern US satellite hardware is EMP resistant but it isn’t “bulletproof” to space junk. If Kim was able to detonate a nuke in space it could knock out some of the network. Apart from the billions invested in satellites we need to understand just how seriously America regards space as a sanctuary. Around 5 years ago the Chinese fired a missile to shoot down one of their older satellites. Apart from the advancement in Chinese technology which was of concern to the US it was also the amount of space junk from floating schrapnel that could damage US assets in space. If Kim hits satellites in low orbit he also risks taking out Russian and Chinese satellites too.

Remember when Reagan spoke of Star Wars in the 1980s? The point to weaponise space such that rogue enemy ICBMs could be taken out in the outer atmosphere.

The point here is simple. Should Kim threaten to drop an H-Bomb on Tokyo he leaves such a massive exposure to himself. US satellites remain active and he would be squashed in no time by military reprisals. There would be no way that China could stand by and back him were he to make such an attack.

The more disturbing point here is that he is rattling a sabre which is bearing ever closer to a line where the West is forced to take action to prevent his rogue status from having proper fangs. War on the Korean Peninsula is not an impossibility and the more the US chain is yanked the higher the likelihood action is taken. Markets aren’t pricing this.

Abe’s “Trump” card will be more effective than the UN


The Japanese newspaper front pages are all splashed with the latest North Korean nuke test. Japanese PM Shinzo Abe has to quit asking the UN to step up sanctions. That is a purely optical illusion. Kim Jong Un is playing a different game. He doesn’t care. Trump is Abe’s only viable card to get Japan out of this long term mess. If Kim does possess the H-bomb it is clear that he intends to exploit his new toy box to snub his critics and take even harder lines to extort money.

While war is the least desired outcome, Kim must be careful not to bring down his own demise. Obama was the first US president Kim had direct exposure to but he would be wise to treat Trump as completely different. Trump maybe willing to remove the cancer that many presidents before haven’t. The sad reality is that having a 33yo dictator who subjugates his people like his father and grandfather before with such disdain has little to lose.

Getting a capable nuclear arsenal is not desired. It is clear he’d be willing to sell his technology to other tinpot dictatorships to top up the DPRK’s coffers. This has been done before when Israel blew up Syria’s North Korean derived and supplied nuclear facility in 2007.

China seems to be having less impact on young Kim. This should worry them.  China is the economic lifeblood of North Korea. The geopolitical buffer is a strategic must for China. There must be some circles calling for it to be turned into a Chinese protectorate. A Chinese led regime change where Kim Jong Un is granted an exile is a far better outcome than allowing US forces led strike to take it over

Although China may threaten to support Kim if the US preemptively strikes to topple the regime, they have said Kim’s on his own if he does anything stupid.

Kim isn’t stupid. However he is playing a very dangerous game of chicken with a player who realizes that this nuclear arsenal investment has to be stopped. It isn’t a question of if but when.

The idea that conflict can’t or won’t break out on Korean Peninsula is naive. Recall that the Korean War was never officially ended. Gut instincts suggest that if anyone is to take heavy handed action it is the Chinese that must do so. Beijing must also be wary of calling Trump’s bluff.

Abe’s sleepless nights won’t end until something definitive happens to North Korea. It is fraught with many risks but doing nothing now is the riskiest of all strategies over the long run. The UN is unlikely to achieve anything. Besides if they devoted even a slither of the energy and time they do to beat up Israel  one might have confidence in sanctions. Sadly too many vested interests with North Korea

The concern is the risk of Kim Jong Un missing the target

At 6am this morning North Korea conducted a missile test which flew between Hokkaido and Japan’s main island Honshu. The real question is not so much the capability of his missiles but their short comings. The reality is a reasonable failure rate (c.33% in the past 3 years alone) has a high level of risk attached to it, especially when sending them over Japanese land. While most failures have been at the launch pad stage, the risk is that should the tracking and guidance systems fail mid flight over Japan even without warheads, considerable damage could be inflicted. Japan said it would shoot down such test missiles when Trump was threatening to intervene several months back but clearly swerved first in this game of chicken.

While Kim Jong Un’s technology is undoubtedly improving, the risk is that eventually it will reach a stage where he can be a belligerent imp with real capability. Up til now his armaments have been relatively crude. The sanctions put on the $12bn economy, mostly China, are biting. These missile tests would undoubtedly be costing Kim a relative bomb (no pun intended) to conduct. Still allowing his people to suffer isn’t a priority. The saber rattling is no different to his father and grandfather before him. Fire a few missiles, threaten others and get a cash injection to shut up and then go away.

Unfortunately this game of geopolitical chess gets worse as his capability gets better. He has nothing to lose whereas his neighbours stand to suffer relatively catastrophic downside. Tokyo is 125x larger in GDP terms than NK. Seoul 68x.

Does he intend to point one at Tokyo, Seoul, Guam or even Washington DC when he has the capability? This argument that a pre-emotive strike on North Korea won’t happen is getting weaker. China knows its strategic value as a buffer to the US. Bribing Pyongyang by buying its ginseng and coal is a cheap form of diplomacy. Beijing’s stance last month was telling. If the US preemptively strikes China will defend Kim. If Kim does anything stupid then he’s on his own.

Still if you know your enemy will eventually get to the stage it can physically harm you and threatens to do so it makes perfect sense militarily to eliminate the threat before it eventuates. After the capability is reached  the risks are factorfold higher. So for every argument that says conflict won’t happen (odds favor it not) the smarter bets will begin to ponder the growing chance something does.

Korean 5yr CDS have jumped 4bps to 62 today, still below the 70 during last month and well below Kim Jong Un’s first missile test at 120bps. GFC was around 700bps. So markets aren’t panicked just yet but gold back over $1300/oz is pricing it gets worse.

Don’t rule out a modern day Gulf of Tonkin incident. With each of these tests, electronic interference (cyber attack) could be a factor. To justify a retaliatory attack, guiding these missiles to hit a remote paddyfield in Aomori or inside Japan’s territorial waters is possible. China must be concerned about this. Electronic warfare is getting seriously capable. Remember when the Iranian centrifuges mysteriously blew up due to the Stuxnet virus? The virus told the centrifuge computers to spin the motors well above design tolerance such that they exploded.

Conspiracy theory maybe but geopolitics is a dirty game with huge long term implications and the rules are that there are none. Kim’s preemptive strike might not start with his finger on the button.