Vacuous China

November 21, 2014

Xi Jinping’s anti-corruption campaign shows no sign of abating, with admirals and generals fearing for their futures as much as mere civilian bureaucrats and Party cadres. Meanwhile Xi’s vicious clamp-down on dissent goes on apace, with more human rights lawyers being themselves tried on trumped-up charges and Internet censors now firing blunderbusses at great swathes of the webosphere. Today, Ilham Tohti’s life sentence has been confirmed by an appeal ‘court’ that held its ‘hearing’ inside his detention centre.

So, what better time to discover a video of Chinese rich kid students in California flaunting their Bentleys, Maseratis, Porsches and more?

Are you watching, Mr Mao?

 

A little clear thinking

November 18, 2014

I am posting a number of documents by Adair Turner relating to the concept of ‘helicopter money’. The term was coined by Milton Friedman and refers to the idea of simply dropping money into an economy to expand the monetary base without any commitment by a government or central bank to ‘pay’ for the money. Indeed, the point is to increase money supply, possibly permanently, in order to pay for government expenditure.

Printing money to cover a government’s bills is never going to be an easy policy to sell. But Turner has bravely put this option on the table because the place to which the major economies of the world are heading under current policy may actually be worse.

How so? Turner’s point is that the policy of central banks expanding their balance sheets and flooding financial markets with cash to force down interest rates to zero is merely fuelling asset bubbles – in real estate, in stocks, and even now in things like fine art. What the world needs is a return to somewhat higher interest rates to head off another speculative bubble and bust (selling some Apple shares yesterday at 18 times earnings and more than four times what I paid for them reminds me we may already be in bubble territory). The problem, of course, is that higher interest rates cannot come at the expense of another collapse in the demand in the real economy and hence a spiral of 1930s-style deflation. Logically, as Turner argues, the only option may therefore be to expand the monetary base, create a bit of inflation to allow a meaningful rate of interest, and simultaneously use the printed cash pay off some government debt and fund expenditures that maintain real economic growth.

Such a policy would (probably) put the fiscal boot on the other foot compared with the past six years. Almost all UK and US policy since 2008 has favoured those with assets – real estate, stocks and bonds — as asset values have been restored by the near-zero interest rate policy. If rates rise, those who hold assets under leverage will pay more debt service and asset prices will come under pressure. On the other hand, a positive real interest rate gives those with only a bit of cash (the young, the poor) some return on their money in the bank, while money creation can pay for lower taxes on work and investment in things like infrastructure. In other words, such a policy tilts the table away from those with assets and towards those without assets but with a willingness to work for a living. You begin to see quite how outrageous this proposal is…

The proposition is indeed shocking. However it is a measure of the times in which we live that you really should read what Turner is saying. He is not a red, and nor are the economists (like Milton Friedman and Irving Fisher) whom he cites in support. Turner is pretty much an Establishment figure…

The lightest iteration of what Turner is saying is an FT opinion piece from last week. I have not done this before, but I am reproducing it in the hope the FT won’t pursue me for breach of copyright. (Having only been paid £250 for my recent opinion piece for them, perhaps they will decide they owe me a bonus; one notes that deflation is already haunting the Pink’Un.)

November 10, 2014

Printing money to fund deficit is the fastest way to raise rates

By Adair Turner

No technical reasons exist for rejecting this, only the fear of breaking a taboo, writes Adair Turner

What is the right course for monetary policy? The International Monetary Fund seems to answer with forked tongue. Its latest World Economic Outlook urges that monetary policy should stay loose to stimulate growth. Yet its Global Financial Stability Review warns that loose monetary policy risks creating financial instability, which could crimp growth. In fact the best policy is to print money and raise interest rates. That sounds contradictory, but it is not.

The global economy is suffering the hangover from many decades of excessive private sector credit growth. In 1950 private credit in advanced economies was 50 per cent of gross domestic product; by 2007 it was 170 per cent.

After the 2008 crisis, households and companies began trying to pay back what they owed. This depressed consumption and investment, generating large fiscal deficits as tax revenues fell and social expenditure rose. It then seemed essential to balance public sector accounts, which has depressed growth further and made deleveraging harder.

Debt owed by the public and private sectors has actually increased as a proportion of GDP, from 170 per cent five years ago to 200 per cent today. Weak demand has led to below-target inflation in all major economies.

Economists agree that this is how we got into the current mess, but they disagree about how to get out of it. Some, such as Paul Krugman and Lawrence Summers, argue for more relaxed fiscal policies. Cutting taxes or increasing public expenditure is the most certain way to stimulate demand. In Milton Friedman’s words it is an injection directly “into the income stream”. But this route out of recession would increase public debt even further. It seems blocked.

Instead, most countries have opted to combine fiscal tightening with ultra-loose monetary policy, setting short-term interest rates close to zero and using quantitative easing to reduce long-term rates and boost asset prices.

There are no technical reasons to reject such measures, only the fear of breaking a taboo.

But there are dangers. Sustained low interest rates create incentives for highly leveraged financial engineering. They make it easier for uncompetitive companies to survive, which could stymie productivity growth. And they work by restarting growth in private credit – which is what led to our current predicament. The Bank for International Settlements therefore argues that monetary policy should be tightened as well as fiscal, but that would depress demand yet further.

We should indeed seek a swift return to higher interest rates, to remove the dangerous subsidy to high leverage. But paradoxically, the best way to do that, particularly in Japan and the eurozone, would be to deploy a variant of Friedman’s idea of dropping money from a helicopter. Government deficits should temporarily increase, and they should be financed with new money created by the central bank and added permanently to the money supply.

Money-financed deficits would increase demand without creating debts that have to be serviced. This would lift either real output or inflation and allow interest rates to return to normal more quickly. True, banks might amplify the stimulus by creating additional private credit, but they can be restrained with higher reserve requirements.

There are no technical reasons to reject this option, only the fear that once we break the taboo, money-financed deficits will be used on too large a scale.

Despite that fear, de facto monetisation is inevitable in some countries, even if policy makers deny it.

Japan’s official policy involves using sales tax increases to make government debts sustainable, while massive monetary stimulus spurs inflation and growth. In fact there is no believable scenario in which Japan will generate fiscal surpluses sufficient to pay back its debts, nor one in which the Bank of Japan will sell all its holdings of government debt back to the market.

All the same, the pretence undermines the effectiveness of the policy. Japan should either delay the next sales tax increase, or announce a temporary fiscal stimulus financed with new money. It should make clear that the debt the government owes the central bank will never need to be repaid, dispelling fears of a massive future fiscal tightening.

Orthodox theory sees helicopter money as risky. But current quantitative easing policies are at least as risky, and have produced adverse side effects. In the UK the Bank of England has bought £375bn of government bonds to try to stimulate the economy through swollen asset prices and rock-bottom interest rates. It could instead have created new money to finance a smaller one-off increase in the fiscal deficit. If it had done so, a return to normal interest rate disciplines would now be nearer.

 

More. Turner for grown-ups:

Turner’s original CASS business school speech on this subject (2013)

And the slides that go with the CASS speech. (Lots of them, but many worth having if you live in the UK and are about to have people knocking on your door in the run-up to the May national elections asking you to vote for them. ‘Come in,’ you can say. ‘Have a seat and let’s look at the slides together!’)

A bit of Q&A with Turner and Michael Woodford from the Institute For New Economic Thinking blog.

Finally, on Thursday 20 November, the UK parliament will hold a backbench debate on the topic of ‘money creation and society’. It will be the first time that the issue has been addressed in a full debate in the House since the 19th century. You can watch here on Parliament TV and discover just how ill-equipped our politicians are to deal with the aftermath of the global financial crisis.

 

 

Possibly one of those days that the world changed (for the better)

November 12, 2014

This looks like very big news.

Obama and Xi Jinping have reached an understanding (no written agreement, mainly — I am guessing — because of the difficulty of ratifying one in a Republican-dominated congress) on curbing carbon energy emissions.

I am just pasting the New York Times coverage below. You can also click through to a supporting opinion piece by John Kerry.

Some immediate thoughts:

  1. China is promising that its carbon emissions will peak, at the latest, in 2030. Cynics will say the Chinese have not said what the peak will be, or limited it. However China’s carbon emissions per unit of GDP are already officially targeted to fall 40-45% 2020 vs 2005. And China has set and met/is meeting targets to cut energy consumption per unit of GDP 19% in 2005-10 and 16% in 2010-15. These targets were in the last two five-year plans and it would be hard to move away from what is now a 10-year trajectory line in cutting energy intensity in forthcoming five-year plans. In sum, I think the emissions peak by 2030 is a very meaningful target that will not be rendered meaningless by political jiggery-pokery.
  2. China also promised to make renewables 20% of total energy production by 2030. Last year was the first one in which Chinese installation of renewables’ generating capacity exceeded that of carbon electricity generating capacity. A cursory reflection on the numbers suggests to me that installation of power generation capacity going forward will, in just a few years, be almost all renewable in order to achieve the 2030 target. (If your ‘investment advisor’ has not already shorted the stock of Harbin Electric and Dongfang Electric, the two most exposed coal turbine and boiler makers, sack him/her. You probably don’t want to own Shanghai Electric either.)
  3. The US has promised huge cuts versus trend line carbon emissions, too. More cerebrally-challenged Republicans are already doing their nuts.
  4. Obama is back. He’s done healthcare. Now he might go down as the President who saved the planet. So much for playing too much golf…
  5. Xi Jinping’s domestic position goes from strength to strength. But it is a little frightening when one guy commands so much popular support in a society with too few checks and balances on executive power.
  6. Here’s a speculative thought. If the delivery of this understanding turns out to be as good as what appears to be written on the tin, the Nobel Committee will have to think very seriously about giving Obama and Xi a joint Peace Prize. At first blush that might seem a tough choice for the committee, given China’s human rights record and the anti-dissent crackdown under Xi. But should a prize be given, it would be even tougher on President Xi. How could he accept after Liu Xiaobo already got the prize in 2010? This is very premature, but I throw out the thought.

Meanwhile, make a note of where you were when you heard this potentially historic news. I was in the library.

U.S. and China Reach Deal on Climate Change in Secret Talks

By

NOV. 11, 2014

President Obama and President Xi Jinping of China were greeted by children during a ceremony inside the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on Wednesday. Credit Feng Li/Getty Images

BEIJING — China and the United States made common cause on Wednesday against the threat of climate change, staking out an ambitious joint plan to curb carbon emissions as a way to spur nations around the world to make their own cuts in greenhouse gases.

The landmark agreement, jointly announced here by President Obama and President Xi Jinping, includes new targets for carbon emissions reductions by the United States and a first-ever commitment by China to stop its emissions from growing by 2030.

Administration officials said the agreement, which was worked out secretly between the United States and China over nine months and included a letter from Mr. Obama to Mr. Xi proposing a joint approach, could galvanize efforts to negotiate a new global climate agreement by 2015.

Related in Opinion

  • Op-Ed Contributor: John Kerry: Our Historic Agreement With China on Climate ChangeNOV. 11, 2014

It was the signature achievement of an unexpectedly productive two days of meetings between the leaders. Mr. Obama and Mr. Xi also agreed to a military accord designed to avert clashes between Chinese and American planes and warships in the tense waters off the Chinese coast, as well as an understanding to cut tariffs for technology products.

A climate deal between China and the United States, the world’s No. 1 and No. 2 carbon polluters, is viewed as essential to concluding a new global accord. Unless Beijing and Washington can resolve their differences, climate experts say, few other countries will agree to mandatory cuts in emissions, and any meaningful worldwide pact will be likely to founder.

“The United States and China have often been seen as antagonists,” said a senior official, speaking in advance of Mr. Obama’s remarks. “We hope that this announcement can usher in a new day in which China and the U.S. can act much more as partners.”

As part of the agreement, Mr. Obama announced that the United States would emit 26 percent to 28 percent less carbon in 2025 than it did in 2005. That is double the pace of reduction it targeted for the period from 2005 to 2020.

China’s pledge to reach peak carbon emissions by 2030, if not sooner, is even more remarkable. To reach that goal, Mr. Xi pledged that so-called clean energy sources, like solar power and windmills, would account for 20 percent of China’s total energy production by 2030.

Administration officials acknowledged that Mr. Obama could face opposition to his plans from a Republican-controlled Congress. While the agreement with China needs no congressional ratification, lawmakers could try to roll back Mr. Obama’s initiatives, undermining the United States’ ability to meet the new reduction targets.

Still, Mr. Obama’s visit, which came days after a setback in the midterm elections, allowed him to reclaim some of the momentum he lost at home. As the campaign was turning against the Democrats last month, Mr. Obama quietly dispatched John Podesta, a senior adviser who oversees climate policy, to Beijing to try to finalize a deal.

For all the talk of collaboration, the United States and China also displayed why they are still fierce rivals for global economic primacy, promoting competing free-trade blocs for the Asian region even as they reached climate and security deals.

The maneuvering came during a conference of Pacific Rim economies held in Beijing that has showcased China’s growing dominance in Asia, but also the determination of the United States, riding a resurgent economy, to reclaim its historical role as a Pacific power.

Adding to the historic nature of the visit, Mr. Obama and Mr. Xi were scheduled to give a joint news conference on Wednesday that will include questions from reporters — a rare concession by the Chinese leader to a visiting American president.

On Tuesday evening, Mr. Xi invited Mr. Obama to dinner at his official residence, telling his guest he hoped they had laid the foundation for a collaborative relationship — or, as he more metaphorically put it, “A pool begins with many drops of water.”

Greeting Mr. Obama at the gate of the walled leadership compound next to the Forbidden City, Mr. Xi squired him across a brightly lighted stone bridge and into the residence. Mr. Obama told the Chinese president that he wanted to take the relationship “to a new level.”

“When the U.S. and China are able to work together effectively,” he added, “the whole world benefits.”

But as the world witnessed this week, it is more complicated than that. Mr. Xi won approval Tuesday from the 21 countries of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum to study the creation of a China-led free-trade zone that would be an alternative to Mr. Obama’s Trans-Pacific Partnership, a 12-nation trading bloc that excludes China.

On Monday, Mr. Obama met with members of that group here and claimed progress in negotiating the partnership, a centerpiece of his strategic shift to Asia.

Negotiations for the Trans-Pacific Partnership are much further along than those for the nascent Chinese plan, known as the Free Trade Area of Asia Pacific, and some analysts said the approval by the Pacific Rim nations of a two-year study was mainly a gesture to the Chinese hosts to give them something to announce at the meeting.

For all the jockeying, the biggest trade headline was a breakthrough in negotiations with China to eliminate tariffs on information technology products, from video-game consoles and computer software to medical equipment and semiconductors.

Dieting Fat Controller still loves a pork pie

November 8, 2014

 

 


osborne 2014 vs 2013

 

 

Britain’s Chancellor George Osborne has lost an impressive amount of weight in the past year. So much so that I was thinking I might have to stop calling him The Fat Controller.

Fat Controller in front of trains

It turns out, however, that George still loves a pork pie.

Witness the recent furore over Britain’s increased European Commission bill to reflect an upward revision to the estimated size of the British economy. The bill is linked to the size of the economy, then Britain gets a rebate (negotiated back in the 1980s) to reflect Britain’s relatively lower receipts of EU agricultural subsidies.

Anyhow, first Brave Dave Cameroon said he wasn’t going to pay the £1.7 billion extra charge. Then people slightly less dim than Cameron realised that Britain has to pay the bill, because there is nothing unusual or exceptional about it. It is just the regular bill, amended on the basis of statistical revisions that occur periodically in all statistical systems.

So now the Fat Controller is claiming in the press to have ‘halved’ the £1.7 billion bill. What he means is that because there is an automatic rebate, the bill is really only about £850 million. But George wants to pretend this represents him having ‘negotiated a deal’ with the EU on a trip to Brussels this week.

He has done no such thing. George’s trip secured some very marginal fiddling around with payment due dates, doubtless because EU officials just wanted to get him out of the building as fast as possible. But he hasn’t ‘negotiated’ anything of any substance. Whatsoever.

Instead, George is just telling bare-faced Porky Pies. Like some fantasist kid in a school playground.

And that is why I am going to continue to call him the Fat Controller. No matter how much weight he loses.

 

More:

The Guardian explains pretty clearly.

Menaced in a Cambridge pub

November 7, 2014

They say there is no crime in this town, but there could be.

I return from a drink with a Japanologist, and decide that one for my road is in order at the pub at the end of our road, the Red Bull in Newnham, Cambridge.

Inside is frequent bar-propper Rory McGrath, of television fame. I don’t know him, but various people I do do. Since he does a comedy telly programme about Three Men on a Boat (I have watched perhaps 10 mins, have no view on it), puttering around the UK on narrow barges talking about who knows what, I show him a couple of pics that I took of a narrow barge that was granted permission to come up among the colleges recently. I blogged about it.

All good so far. Then, I say: ‘Listen, I don’t know you, but I was very surprised about the idea that Griff Rhys Jones might be a closet Nazi.’ This seems to me like standard pub banter. If you haven’t followed the story, RJ gave a long interview to the Telegraph in which he said that if the next government introduces a ‘mansion tax’ he might emigrate. The point is that RJ is quite funny, and yet, confronted in middle age with a modest tax on the huge capital gain he has made on London property, he suggests he might move to somewhere where I suspect he does not even speak the language.

Well, this set Mr McGrath off on the kind of frighteningly aggressive one-on-one verbal assault that I have not seen since I complained about being short-changed, as a student, on a marijuana purchase in Ladbroke Grove in circa 1985. That earlier incident did involve a knife, but the bile from McGrath was very much the same. It made me wonder if even comedians fall into the stylised description of John Carey’s classic work in which the British intelligentsia is shown to be drearily self-interested, drunk, and small C conservative.

I walked home thinking that McGrath must have some sort of point. But I can’t see it. Even if Rhys Jones spent 100% of purchase price fixing up his principal London home, he still made 4 million quid tax free. The mansion tax would be frivolous by comparison. Indeed it would be a much less rational tax, and a much lower tax, than one linked to capital appreciation. Andy Wightman sets out the numbers clearly on his blog.

These people — RJ — used to be our heroes. So what happened? I cannot even begin to imagine. To paraphrase, perhaps we are looking at: ‘All money corrupts, and lots of money corrupts a lot.’

Meanwhile Rory McGrath, was essentially trying to pick a physical fight with words of crushing violence. It appears he has form in this area. What do I say? I say: Fat. Drunk. And this evening ignorant. Sober up, my friend. I hope we will kiss and make up.

Damn and blast

November 5, 2014

A new study from the Centre for Research and Analysis of Migration at University College London shows that migrants from the European Union make a net contribution to the UK fiscal system — it looks to me, very roughly, like a cumulative 1 percent of GDP over the past 10 years.

I tell this to Camilla the Polish cleaner as she starts folding washing in the kitchen. She looks suspicious. I ask why. She says that the UK benefits system is outrageously generous and that fake ‘single mothers’ with husbands or fiancees ‘living’ at second addresses of convenience are driving around Cambridge in Audis while claiming benefits.

I ask her to unpack these assertions. First, she says, when she had cancer last year there were bleeding-heart liberals from the council coming round to her flat encouraging her to claim housing benefit because she was too ill to work. Naturally, she refused and sent them packing. ‘I have my savings,’ she says, and she never intended to let cancer keep her out of the labour market for more than a year. It did not.

Fair enough. But does she actually know any fake single mothers whose partners are living at separate addresses so that they can claim benefits? It costs at least £80 a week in Cambridge to rent a room. Would the benefits you could get by this ruse be substantially more than the £80 cost? She doesn’t know because she doesn’t claim benefits. And, no, she doesn’t have any actual cases of fake single mothers with Audis to present. But there are definitely Polish people who drive Audis.

Camilla goes back to earning her £10-an-hour, telling me how much she likes our house and her job. ‘People ask me why I do cleaning,’ she says, ‘but just now I am happy to have less pressure and spend more time with my kids.’ She used to be the Operations Manager of a chain of hotels in and around Cambridge. The last cleaner, a Hungarian, was a Research Chemist and left last year after being offered a too-good-to-refuse job in a research laboratory. She apologised that we poor English people would have to do our own cleaning for a couple of weeks, until Camilla showed up.

So this is all rather bad news for UKIP and Theresa May. How to loathe those who pay in more than they take out? The Brits, of course, are substantial net drainers of the welfare system at present. But self-loathing is hardly a viable election strategy.

Britain’s Essex-born Tory Immigration Minister was quick, when the report was published, to suggest that the Tories have never claimed EU migrants are net benefit scroungers (ho, ho, ho — this chump trained as a lawyer). Instead the problem is all about putting too much pressure on public infrastructure [which the Tories have failed to invest in for several decades]. If you have a sub to the FT, you can read his weaselly drivel here.

The serious point about the study is that it highlights the brain drain from continental Europe to the UK, as over-regulated labour markets in southern Europe, and eastern European countries with a dearth of professional jobs, force hard-working young people onto planes to the UK, with its highly deregulated labour market. Once there, all they have to do is to compete with poorly educated, monolingual Brits who drink during the day…

 

Farage with beer

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The point is well made by David Green of centre-right think-tank Civitas in The Guardian.

Anyhow, all this leads us to the blog post I need to write about Italy.

Singaporean takeaway

October 27, 2014

I failed to write anything the week ending 18 October despite an interesting trip to participate in the 10th anniversary of the Lee Kwan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore. (They invited you, you’re thinking. Yes, they did. As Saul Bellow once wrote: ‘There is nothing too rum to be true.’)

I also had a wonderful side-visit that week across the causeway to Johor Bahru, about which I will say nothing more than that if you have never read Han Suyin’s classic novel And The Rain My Drink, you should get on and do so. The book is particularly recommended for Chinese, Indians, Malays, Japanese and assorted gweilos, all of whom feature amid the chaos of the Emergency in Malaya/Singapore. What is more, there is a new edition, published by Monsoon Books that contains two, new short forewords; one is by Han’s former ‘liberal’ Special Branch husband; and one is by a well-known Malaysian human rights lawyer. The forewords unlock a few secrets about the writing of and background to the book. The copy I picked up in Singapore has the cover contained in the previous link; the copy available on Amazon has a different cover but an online review indicates it has (at least) the additional foreword by Han Suyin’s second husband. The book is not a bad gift.

Aside from the trip to JB (the treatment of hundreds of thousands of Malaysians who cross the border for work each day is pretty shocking on both sides; waiting time is frequently hours), the week in Singapore gave me a chance to speak with a bunch of policy people and a couple of ministers, and so here are a few thoughts about a place I don’t often talk about:

 

Singapore menu du jour:

1. The Great Unwashed are becoming the Great Ungrateful. In the 2011 election, Harry Lee’s People’s Action Party (PAP) got, by Singapore standards, a kicking, hit by a negative vote swing of almost 7 percentage points which took it down to 60 percent of votes cast. More and more people have had enough of the PAP’s arrogance, its brutal elitism and its lack of the common touch. On top of this there is Singapore’s hideous inequality (Gini of income inequality at a record 0.54), the out-of-control immigration (including horrific numbers of dumb, fat gweilos), and the apparently congenital inability of PAP politicians to think in terms of the population’s interests as a whole. Back in the UK, the PAP makes me think of David Cameron and George Osborne on a really bad day.

2. Never underestimate Harry, or indeed Little Harry. The PAP remains a formidable machine when it comes to co-opting Singapore’s best and brightest. A reasonable example is chipper Minister for Culture, Community and Youth, Lawrence Wong, whom I had the pleasure to chat to. He is a big supporter of new PAP measures to curb real estate speculation and increase welfare transfers to the poor. It is not fundamental change, however it is change at the margin. The PAP’s logo may have been inspired by that of Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists, but the PAP has enjoyed considerably more success and longevity.

Oswald

Oswald

 

 

 

Harry

Harry

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

3. So the big PAP trope just now is that the party is becoming much more touchy-feely and getting down with the labouring masses. At a public forum, many-times minister — most recently Foreign Minister — George Yeo, who became the most senior PAP figure since the 1960s to lose his seat in 2011 (‘arrogance’, said one of my taxi drivers), summed up the required shift in elegant philosophical terms. He said that Singapore must move on from ‘utilitarianism’ and seek policies that work for as many people as possible. In other words, the crude majority (assuming there even is one in the next election, in 2015) should no longer ride rough shod over the interests of minority groups, be they the very poor, Malays, whomever. He didn’t use the second philosophical designation, but what he meant is that Singapore needs to shift from utilitarianism to something more Pareto efficient, where policy gains for the majority do not come at the expense of other people.

4. Unfortunately I am a sceptic and I don’t believe the PAP will change its stripes – at least not fast enough to prevent even more trouble at the next election. At the same forum I commended George Yeo for calling for a move to a more mature, thoughtful policy framework. Then I asked him when he thinks Singapore will stop hanging people. (Singapore releases poor and patchy data, but in some years has had the highest per capita state execution rate in the world.) The response was interesting: no more new George/new PAP. He simply said that killing people has a deterrent effect and that most Singaporeans are in favour of it. This is the old PAP we know and love: not letting facts or logic get in the way of what it wants to do. First, there is no statistically robust evidence – and there are many studies – that capital punishment has a deterrent effect, so the claim to the contrary is disingenuous. Second, the logical case against capital punishment doesn’t hinge on the debate about deterrence anyway. Instead — at least for me — the sledgehammer argument against capital punishment is that you cannot guarantee in any legal system not to make mistakes; and when you do make a mistake, you cannot bring wrongly-hanged people back from the dead. I have looked in detail at miscarriage of justice cases in both the UK and the US, each of which has a better, more transparent legal system than Singapore. So when George offered the sop that he is open to looking for better ways to kill people, I wasn’t overly impressed. In reality of course, the PAP is sufficiently embarrassed at some level about its barbarism that the number of killings has fallen sharply as its political support has waned in the 2000s and 2010s; in 2012, the number of convictions subject to mandatory capital punishment was reduced.

Oh, Clegg

October 8, 2014

 

clegg 3

clegg1

clegg2

 

Just watched Nick Clegg’s conference speech. It isn’t bad or anything. The list of things achieved is longer than you might think. The policy prescriptions are sensible, though limited.

But where is his anger? Why not just say: ‘It isn’t easy to go to work with a smile on your face when you know that David Cameron, George Osborne and Theresa May will be there.’ Or: ‘People say that we have been lucky to get into government. Is it really lucky to be stuck in an office with those people?’

Well, with seven months to go to a national election, it is getting to Blue door, Yellow door, Red door time.

I sent them £50 and a rant about fiscal unfairness when returns on capital are taxed less heavily than work. 18% and 28% for capital gains, versus 20% and 40% for work. Why don’t more people think this is absurd?

Targeted consumer boycotts

October 8, 2014

Here is a very interesting article from Foreign Policy about possible future strategies in the Hong Kong protests. It is written by academic researchers of successful non-violent protest movements around the world.

Following my FT oped, the idea of targeted consumer boycotts is what jumps out…

In addition… there were lots of comments on the FT article. As with this blog, I don’t think that comments which do not add substance, or challenge substance, in what is being said are useful. But several people did say things on the FT site that seem to me interesting enough to re-post. I was struck by the comparison with Singapore. Is it possible the Harry and the PAP are more responsive on the question of social equity and competition than the Hong Kong government? I think the full answer would be more nuanced than the commenter suggests, but it is an interesting idea.

Great article.  So true.  We Chinese generally don’t take to the streets unless our bellies are empty.  Usually too busy working and making money!

Singapore has a supermarket chain run by the National Trade Union Congress, which was put in place to keep prices competitive.  Its produce is often superior to the so-called upmarket chains.  I remember as a child the beginning of this chain and how it put the lid on the supermarket chains left behind by the British.  In fact, one of those chains, Fitzpatrick ended up going out of business!

As for food, there are many hawker centres where hawker stalls are rented out at ridiculously low rents to stallholders who “inherited” these stalls from their parents or other relatives.  As a result, you get delicious food (from secret recipes passed down generation to generation) at super-low prices.  I just had a “home-cooked” type meal of rice and dishes (1 veg, 1 meat and 1 toufu) for a total of S$3, in the Central Business District.  And it gets cheaper in the “heartlands”.

At the last General Elections, the PAP lost seven seats to the opposition.  It is now implementing even more social transfers in response to popular sentiment.

I think that’s what ordinary Hongkongers want.  Someone to listen to their woes and take action.

I came across the following stats at Bloomberg to quantify the hurt inflicted on so many living in HK as a result of money and power being in the hands of so few.

Hong Kong’s Gini coefficient, a measure of income inequality, rose to 0.537 in 2011 from 0.525 in 2001, the government said last June. The score, a high for the city since records began in 1971, is above the 0.4 level used by analysts as a gauge of the potential for social unrest.

The average gross household income of the poorest 10 percent of the population fell 16 percent to HK$2,170 a month in 2011, from 10 years earlier, according to a government report. The comparable income for the richest 10 percent jumped to HK$137,480 a month, a 12 percent increase.

Not good for creating social harmony.

Studwell’s refocus on economic questions is correct, and would be very good for Hong Kong, but it would never receive the kind of universal support that the Western press has given the democracy movement. In fact, the West is proposing the opposite of Studwell’s economic fairness: to break the current Chinese social structure and open the gates for multinational business, a kind of Yeltsin years for China. Every Western journalist knows that democracy without campaign finance will lead to the election of money – i.e., the election of a tycoon or someone backed by one (CY Leung was an anti-tycoon candidate compared to Henry Tang, and look where he is now).  Studwell seems concerned with actually improving Hong Kong, but that is not what the press coverage of the democracy movement is about, otherwise they would have used real facts rather than cinderella stories. Nevertheless, the FT should be commended for printing this piece, as well as for keeping comment board open.

There is no questions that HK is run by monopolies, duopoly and oligopolies and things are more expensive than it could have been.

However, the author who learn much by looking in the back yards, especially the VAT inclusive prices here..  For example, one can run a price comparision between watsons.com.hk and boots.com, Johnson baby shampoo 500ml cost £3.35/£0.67 per 100ml at boots and cost HKD56.9/£4.60 for the 800ml version -> £0.575 per 100ml.

Toyrus HK : Nerf CS18 : HKD399.9 / £32.07,  ToysrUS UK : £39.99
HK Electricty prices : Max HKD186.4 or £0.1495 per kwh
http://www.hkelectric.com/web/DomesticServices/BillingPaymentAndElectricityTariff/TariffTable/Index_en.htm

UK Electricity prices: British gas £0.1535 per kwh.

Looks like we all have our own ‘monopolies’ problem to deal with (for us, including the one at Brussels).

It is encouraging to read an FT an article which says it like it is regarding Hong Kong and much of Asia, perhaps best summarised as ‘Winner takes all, loser hard luck’. Consider the Gini coefficients of wealth inequality and you’ll find Hong Kong and Singapore, two of the ‘wealthiest’ places on the planet with the worst ‘developed nation’ Gini coefficients, these being on a par with some of the poorest African nations. It’s long been apparent that the propertly developers, Government, ‘managed land releases and sales’ operate in a manner beneficial to the few and disenfranchising the majority. Arguments that this is a hang over from the past don’t quite stack up, as the present leaders have all the powers they need to do something about it. One has to ask why not, with the answer perhaps reducing to such tolerance of vast inequalities being an inherent part of the region’s social fabric and culture. Surprising that the majority have tolerated this for so long but then this too, fortitude in the face of injustice, even from within, is a regional trait. Perhaps, with modern dissemination of information, so that it is clearer to all as to what is going on, the majority will start to exercise their influence. Without this, nothing is likely to change.

How to make enemies and alienate people…

October 6, 2014

Here is the FT op-ed I wrote over the weekend. It just went live on their online edition.

Can’t say it is likely to get me many tycoon dinner invites, but I do think it is true:

 

 

October 6, 2014 5:14 pm

Hong Kong should focus its fight on the tycoon economy

The real target is the anti-competitive, anti-consumer economy, writes Joe Studwell
A woman holds a placard at a large pro-democracy protest in Hong Kong on October 1, 2014. Hong Kong has been plunged into the worst political crisis since its 1997 handover as pro-democracy activists take over the streets following China's refusal to grant citizens full universal suffrage. AFP PHOTO / ALEX OGLE (Photo credit should read Alex Ogle/AFP/Getty Images)©AFP

Hong Kong stepped back from the brink on Friday night, when chief executive CY Leung belatedly authorised a senior official to “hold talks” with protesters and those same protesters decided, for now, not to enter government buildings. It was a fortunate outcome. Beijing would characterise the occupation of official property as an attack on the Chinese state.

What Hong Kong needs is not a strategy that backs Xi Jinping, the Chinese president, into a corner, but one that resonates with his own mindset. This is why the protesters should refocus on Hong Kong’s tycoon economy, and the anti-competitive, anti-consumer arrangements that define it. You may think,like the Heritage Foundation, that Hong Kong is a free market. However, except for external trade, it is not. Instead it is what one of the richest men in the city once described to me as “a nice bowl of fish soup”. That soup is fed to the few, making ordinary people poorer, stoking resentment, and indirectly contributing to acute pollution.

Cartels are everywhere in Hong Kong. Supermarkets are a duopoly, one whose pricing power allows the chains to charge higher prices for the same products in some of Hong Kong’s most deprived areas. Drug stores are a duopoly. Buses are a cartel: high-priced, mostly cash-only, running shoddy, dirty diesel vehicles with drivers who earn a pittance. Electricity is provided by two, expensive monopolies that handle everything from generation to distribution, one on Hong Kong island and the other in Kowloon. The container ports are an oligopoly, with the world’s highest handling charges. Yet they will not supply onshore electricity to vessels, which must instead run diesel generators that pollute the city air.

The biggest stitch-up remains the lousy construction standards and sky-high costs in a residential property market dominated by the “Four Families”, which in the 1990s were estimated to be selling property for between two and four times what it cost to develop.

You may think of the territory as a free market but, except for external trade, it is not

Add in the jiggery-pokery of a Boys’ Own stock market with 1970s-style governance, and a taxation system that tycoons circumvent by taking out their money through tax-free dividends, and you begin to get the picture.

Hong Kong has had a Competition Ordinance and a Competition Commission since 2012. But so far nothing has changed. In a striking contrast with mainland China, where the Communist party after 1989 first increased transfer payments to the urban poor, and then increased transfers and cut taxes for the rural poor in the 2000s, the Hong Kong government lets a colonial rentier economy carry merrily on.

Mr Xi launched his new administration with not only a brutal anti-corruption campaign, but also an anti-monopoly drive. Unfortunately he seems unaware that Hong Kong is at least as rigged as the mainland.

So here is a plan. Speak to Mr Xi in terms he understands. Refocus the protests on the cartels. I am no protester, but it is not hard to think of peaceful tactics that would be difficult for the tycoons to ignore as they sweep into their basement car parks and ascend in private elevators to their penthouse offices. Where possible, boycott the cartels.

Would this be the end for the tycoons? Not at all. In my experience they are people of extraordinary entrepreneurial acumen. Like all of us, they enjoy a capacious free lunch. But if that is taken away they will adjust and add more value to the economy by doing so.

It is time for Hong Kong to work for the majority. If the protesters make Mr Xi understand the economic problem, it becomes easier to compromise on the politics – probably with a more open nomination process in 2022. I hold, perhaps wrongly, that Beijing’s intransigence is born of ignorance, not malice.


The writer is author of ‘How Asia Works: success and failure in the world’s most dynamic region’

 

More:

This just went up from Han Donfang. Very much worth a read. The lead explains who he is if you do not know.

And here is a nice piece from The Age about CY Leung trousering US$7m during the sale of his insolvent firm. Now that is leadership.


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