Trade Embargo

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

When you’re sorry, you’re sorry

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What is it with these supposed heartfelt apologies designed to show sincerity and compassion. Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews has apologized for any hurt that may have been caused 160 years ago to Chinese gold prospectors subject to a tax on entering Victoria meaning many had to walk on foot from South Australia. Andrews said, “It is never too late to say sorry, particularly if you mean it…On behalf of the Victorian government, on behalf of the Victorian Parliament, I express our deepest sorrow and I say to you that we are profoundly sorry.”  One of Andrew’s MPs, Mr Hong Lim, said that the form of the apology had been in discussions for two years,  How sincere can an apology truly be if you have to craft it over 24 months? If you’re sorry, you’re sorry – surely the words should drip from the tongue not require speech writers. Pathetic. Try apologising to your better half 2 years after your crime and see what response you get…

A record to be proud of?

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A lot of people may look at the unemployment statistics and marvel at the seemingly low rates. I noted Queensland’s Palaszczuk government now employs more than 250,000 staff with the bureaucracy ballooning by more than 2500 full-time-equivalent workers in three months supposedly in health and education. Don’t get me wrong – the public sector provides vital services – fire, police and ambulance, to name just three-which are served by top drawer people. However looking across the globe, we see since the turn of the decade the OECD reports that pretty much every country has grown its public sector payroll at the same time government debt climbs and the economy slows.

Forbes wrote an interesting article pointing out an obvious longer term issue as follows:

“In many states, public service has little to do with serving the public and everything to do with using the public’s money to serve politicians. Whenever we open the books, California is consistently among the worst offenders. Recently, we found ‘animal collection curators’ making $110,290; city librarians earning $222,320; public utility commission bosses at $550,028; and county hospital doctors making $1.274 million.

This spring, at Forbes, we exposed 50,000 Illinois public employees earning six-figure salaries who cost taxpayers $8 billion. In California the numbers are exponentially larger: 218,667 employees making six-figures who cost $35 billion. For example, Illinois has 72 ‘city managers’ out-earning every governor of the 50 states. But, in California, the salaries of 171 assistant city managers average $201,550!

Using our interactive mapping tool, quickly review (by ZIP code) the 220,000 California public employees who earn more than $100,000. Just click on a pin and scroll down to search the results rendered in the chart beneath the map.”(You can see that via the previous link)…

In total, there’s roughly $35 billion in total benefit flowing to highly-compensated government workers when counting the 21,332 federal employees based in California with six figure salaries.”

A while back I wrote on the awful state of government pension funds in the US and the risk of insolvency given the unfunded portions were multiples of the state tax collections (for California it was 3x annual tax intake). I wrote:

“To put this in perspective the California Public Employee Retirement System (CalPERS) lost around 2% of its funds in 2015/16. The fund assumes an aggressive 7.5% return. Dr. Joe Nation of Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research thinks unfunded liabilities have surged to $150bn from $93bn in the last two years. Furthermore suggesting the use of a more realistic 4% rate of return. CalPERS has an unfunded liability of $412bn (or the equivalent of 3 years’ worth of state revenue). California collects $138bn in taxes annually in a $2.3 trillion economy (around the size of Italy). With over-inflated asset markets and increasingly negative returns on highly rated paper, the growth in unfunded liabilities is even more concerning as any market correction (likely to be severe given such blatant manipulation to date). If the correction is huge it will push the unfunded portion to even more dizzying levels.”

Since the Global Financial Crisis (GFC) we’ve been living on borrowed time. It doesn’t take a genius to work out that this endless printing and hoovering up of toxic waste on the public purse then hiding it to mask reality can’t go on forever. It is a legalized Ponzi scheme at best. Even the legality can be questioned. Manipulation of financial markets is taking away the one way to reset and create price discovery.  Talking to some of my old pension fund manager clients, many lament that they are being buried by regulation on one side and government participation which is destroying fundamental performance based on individual company merits. Sure robotic (algorithmic trading) makes sense for a lot of capital allocation but not all.

I still hold that we are on the precipice of the largest economic shock since 1929. The worst part about it is that central banks have no ammunition left. Negative rates worked in Norway for a period but they aren’t working in Japan. Why? Well confidence remains the biggest neck. If you give money away and people stuff it between the mattresses then you aren’t instilling them with hope. Most Japanese know that the “national insurance” they put away is nothing but a massive black hole which will likely never return to them after retirement. So at negative rates, their investment opportunities are made riskier to get less return.

December 4th is a big day. Italian referendum which is likely to fail, throwing Italian politics back into its normal rhythm (volatility) and an Austrian presidential rerun which should favour the right wing FPO after the voter fraud discovered at the previous one held in May.

Throw on top of that Schulz taking an escape pod from the EU, Marine Le Pen edging closer to a presidency next year and we have the settings for overpriced asset markets, stretched government budgets, record levels of debt accumulation, insolvent pension funds, bloated public sectors and impotent central banks out of bullets to resurrect us. With thermonuclear fuel failing to reset us, the only way out of this is to massively cut taxes, deregulate and let the people’s confidence lead us out. In case you hadn’t noticed, more government doesn’t work.

Perhaps Reagan put it best about government – “if it moves tax it. If it keeps moving, regulate it. If it stops moving, subsidize it!”

Trump is actually just the type of politician to shake us from this drug induced slumber over the last few decades. Be thankful we didn’t get Clinton – it would have been more of the failed policies under Obama that crushed the middle class and small business, the incubator of innovation and jobs creation.

Trumped by the Joker but don’t underestimate the one benefit of unpredictability

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It ain’t over til it’s over but Trump has certainly made it a whole lot harder to “Make America Great Again.” This election has thrown up more twists and turns than a Los Angeles freeway junction. The week post the DNC has seen Trump try to intentionally strike out. Talking of rigged elections, crying babies and sacrifices. Even to the ‘uneducated’ some will find it is at an “unnecessary” appeal. He sounds like he isn’t serious.

Wikileaks part 3 is a fast, slider, curve and fork ball all in one. Trump will need a total and complete bases loaded home run to claw back the gap in polls. But don’t get excited by another 4 years of Obama. Hillary Clinton will be ill equipped to handle the coming deep recession.  No smoke and mirrors can cover this up. This will be brutal.

As the world starts to tear up TPP, FTAs and other trade agreements we should start to see rising geopolitical friction. Perhaps one of Trump’s few redeeming features is his “unpredictability.” Foreign powers are for less likely to play chicken with a foreign adversary like that. In an increasingly unstable world having that as a “trump” may actually be better for keeping the balance of power and peace. Under the predictablity of Hillary Clinton and a continuation of Obama 2.0 countries like China will see that as extra incentive to exert influence in the Pacific. The Chinese are smart and patient but will seize the fourth ball and take a walk to the next base if so granted.