War

This can’t wait

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John Mauldin has written an informative piece entitled “this can’t wait” which sums up a lot of pieces I’ve written on the sickening state of public pension unfunded liabilities and the debt super cycle that is facing us. While Mauldin is trying to sell his investment services on the back of this, I wasn’t when I wrote mine. Public service announcement? Maybe but the stats of the black holes we face in pensions and central bank QE which has failed to boost money velocity will bite. Hard. There will be no “I told you so” glory because almost everyone will lose big.

Even if people want to criticize me for being a perma-bear there is no harm in being aware of what is likely coming.

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

Pick your Pocahontas moments Mr President

There is a time and a place for everything. Using an event to celebrate the achievements of the Navaho ‘wind talkers’, who served bravely in WW2 in intelligence coding, by throwing in a jibe at Elizabeth Warren being ‘Pocahontas’ is just unnecessary. It is not about falling into outrage but in order to pay proper respects to people who risked their lives for America, it would be far better if President Trump just celebrated their achievements rather than used it as a platform to take potshots at his political opponents of which Elizabeth Warren isn’t much chop. It reminds of that Far Side cartoon when the Lone Ranger eventually learns what ‘Kemosabe’ means. Indeed it was a kemosabe thing to say.

Forbidden fruit(cake) in the Fordbidden City

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Sun Tzu once said, “All men can see the tactics whereby I conquer, but what none can see is the strategy out of which victory is evolved.”

Let us not mistake China for one second. China is the master of the long game. It knows Trump has a maximum of 8 years in power. Letting him dine in the Forbidden City, the first ever foreign head of state to do so, speaks volumes of respecting an unpredictable foe. Xi Jinping knows his adversary is not all about bark. Better to cater to his huge ego and make him feel he has their attention (which he does) and get him to work solutions in their favour now it is clear they do not have carte blanche to use the USA as a door mat as they did with the previous administration.

Recall Obama’s final state visit to China. Air Force One was met with no senior officials, no red carpet and no stairs. Obama had to climb down Air Force One’s emergency exit . No more telling display of complete lack of respect to the leader of the most powerful nation.

China built man made islands in contested regional waters and did so knowing it had a maximum of 8 years to extend its future power base. Even Australia was dim witted enough to lease a port to the Chinese. Yet it was done with military precision when it knew it could.

Now China realises that Trump is not kidding over North Korea and is doing his darnedest to get China to commit to removing the snake head or otherwise America will do it for China. China, as CM has written many times before does not want to lose the strategic buffer North Korea provides from pro-US countries. China knows it could turn the lights out (China is responsible for 80%+ of imports & exports to the hermit kingdom) on Pyongyang in a heartbeat. Yet as a priority it has not been toward the top of the list.

The flip side to China taking care of the North Korean solution could mean that the US gives it certain concessions elsewhere. Foreign policy is very often about ‘optics’. China taking care of North Korea would be seen as preferable to the world than an attack by the US. China wins only if China takes care of it by itself. America wins in either scenario. China knows it is vastly militarily inferior to this US so the idea that China rushes to defend North Korea is more bark than promise to bite.

So view the idea of allowing the forbidden fruitcake (a sop to the liberal media) to dine in the most treasured of places in China as none other than the ultimate display of respect that Trump has the upper hand (which he does) but at the same time allow China to extend the ‘timing’ of any action on dealing with the ‘Rocket Man’ to give maximum optic effect for Xi. Yes, Xi Jinping and Donald Trump must have been summoning The Untouchables – “keep your friends close, keep your enemies closer” (Xi) vs “in my neighborhood they said you can get much further with a kind word and a gun than just a kind word!” (Trump).

The press might want to critique the President’s skill with chopsticks but they should focus on the fact that China put its most expensive national crockery on display to bring Trump over to their side in negotiations over regional problems. To that end call him a fruitcake all you like but this is a win-win for both supposed tyrants.

Highways to Hell. Railways to Ruin

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Zero Hedge has an interesting expose on a report that China is expediting the construction of a 6 lane highway toward North Korea’s border. It makes perfect sense and supports what CM has said about China taking action on North Korea and replacing Kim Jong Un with a puppet they can control. Forget the WW3 rhetoric. It is far cleaner to have China deal with the problem. The constant jaw-boning from Trump is to get China to hurry up. Of course there is a limit to the patience. The so-called G1112 Ji’an–Shuangliao Expressway is under construction. China’s Jilin province has even upgraded road infrastructure inside some parts of North Korea. It would be useful in getting tanks and troops to the border quickly. There is method in the madness and it is quite a common infrastructure to put in place for obvious reasons. North Korea is hugely strategic to China’s border security – a buffer from the US backed South Koreans.

Probably many are unaware that Mongolia which divides China and Russia has a railway developed by the Russians which runs on a Russian rail gauge. Mongolia is rich with resources so any raw materials exported to China must change bogeys at the border. It is the same with the Kazakh-China border. Russian rail gauges. So in the event of war, troops and supplies can be efficiently transported. Sure an enemy can bomb a railway but in terms of transporting lots of equipment and heavy armaments quickly rail is very efficient.

While the news looks startling it is nothing more than business as usual for the Chinese. Before the highway is completed the Chinese still have around 150,000 troops stationed near the border.

Try taxing the bullets if guns won’t be banned

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Sensless acts of violence as we saw several days ago in Las Vegas once again sent out calls to ban guns. The latest stats from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) can be seen here. There has been a huge shift in gun manufacture since GFC. Over 9mn guns of all types were made in the US in 2014 ( the latest figs to hand), Twice the level of 2008. Less than 5% are exported. One can see the proliferation in weapons sales by type below. Banning guns in the US is a taboo subject because there are many “responsible” gun owners as they like to view themselves. Comedian Chris Rock had perhaps the best solution if guns couldn’t be banned  – to tax bullets to exorbitant levels that the cost per shot would limit such atrocities. To be sure if Paddock went to a gun smith asking for $100,000 worth of bullets then surely that would be a red flag in itself!

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60 deaths and 500 wounded people is no laughing matter but we should ask ourselves why have weapons manufacture/purchase skyrocketed like they have? If less than 5% of guns are going overseas then the home market is the only place they are ending up. Note these stats only include civilian and police purchases not military.

While 2014 sales were down from the peak of 10.5mn ownership is still estimated by the ATF to be around 35% of households down from 50% in the 1970s.

Smith & Wesson and Ruger shares have soared as demand has fueled earnings since GFC. Since 2017 the shares have slackened off for both companies. Is this because there is a feeling of economic hope and a lower level of uncertainty? Or could it be the risk of a ban on weapons was greatly reduced when Trump took office. The latter seems most plausible.

Do we deduce that the rebound in gun sales since GFC has been driven by the fear of a lack of security? The concern that localized theft, car jackings and break & enter would rise pushing the need for self protection? The FBI stats (below) show the prevalence of crime has been in a long term decline per head of population for almost 25 years  in 2015 there has been a small bump but relatively inconsequential.

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Perceptions can often be far removed from reality however the purchase stats speak for themselves. Economically the value of crime in a recession should fall as the access to black markets is curtailed and the “bang for the buck” per stolen item is likely less meaning the risk-reward ratio is more acute.

Reading through the newsfeeds on who Paddock was, which political affiliation he had or those host of other conspiracy theories the fact remains innocent people were slaughtered. Parents, children, relatives and friends must surely carry a psychological burden which is unfathomable.

After the Port Arthur Massacre in Australia in 1996 the federal government had an amnesty where the state bought back guns. In Australia there was nowhere near the scale on an absolute or relative basis versus the US. Will the US amend the second amendment? It is unlikely but Rock’s suggestion of an exorbitant bullet tax would certainly limit the extent of damage and flag irrational purchase orders.

The other question lies in the black market. If one wants to get a gun, provided they have the financial ammunition there is little to stop such atrocities even if guns were banned. Yes Australia hasn’t seen a massacre since yet there was never a big problem in the first place. 661,000 firearms were removed from circulation. Or 1 gun for every 33 people. In the US it is c.1 gun for every person in circulation. Even if a third of households have them we are looking at 1 gun per 3 people in the US.

The Aussie government offered $500/gun average. If Trump ran the same programme (albeit 21 years later) and taking into account inflation then conservatively at $1,000 a gun he would be looking at a cost of $320bn. To put that in perspective the annual US military budget is around $680bn. So a combined spend of $1 trillion.

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.