Wednesday, August 24, 2011

The gold bubble

Readers will recollect that a short while ago I warned against putting money in gold, and there is now the clearest possible evidence that gold is a bubble: the price of gold dropped by $160 an ounce in just the last two days - its largest 48-hour absolute fall in more than three decades.

Why the drop?

At present, the drop is due to expectations that the Fed will announce some moves to shore up the economy. If those do not materialise at a level that satisfies the speculators, then expect gold to leap up again, and beyond the price level 2 days ago; however, if the Fed does move in a manner that satisfies speculators, then expect speculators to sell gold and lower the price even more, and buy equities thus raising those prices.

My guess: the Fed will announce some moves, but those will be inadequate for the speculators; the gold price will therefore stabilise, and equities will rise marginally.

But my guess is as good as yours.

In general, expect this kind of yo-yo-sideways-yo-yo-sideways movement for the foreseeable future of the global economy, declining gently or swiftly for the next decade.

Unless something serious is done by global leaders, or unless there is divine intervention.
Sphere: Related Content

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Buenos Aires as a "European" city

Buenos Aires (BA) is sometimes considered the most European of the cities in the Americas.

I know very few cities in the Americas so am not in a position to say whether or not that is true.

But BA is certainly very European. In some ways, it has the feel of an Italian city (mixing latest architectural styles with unkempt traditional buildings). In other ways it is quite Spanish (for example, in language - though its version of Spanish is quite distinct not only from Spanish itself, but also from other South American forms of Spanish). Yet it also has people who have settled here from Africa (some 4% of the population), not to mention Russians, Ukrainians, Latvians, Germans, Greeks, Dutch, Arabs, Armenians, Jews, Gypsies, Chinese, and some hundreds of Indians (if one excludes the thousands of Indian IT and other "temporary" workers).

The most interesting aspect of Argentina is its British (or, more precisely, Scottish) connection. Though only some 100,000 people of Scots origin live in Argentina now, that connection subtly imbues a lot of things in Argentina.

For exmaple:

My wife and I have been here a week and we've had only one warm sunny day, the rest has been cold, grey with rain. We even had giant hailstones one mid-day, but we had got off the bus in the centre of BA - 40 mins on the "rapido" from where we are staying - and were in a cafe eating interesting Argentinian snacks and watching the hail stones on the tv, when we met an older Argentinian twosome who recommended the vegetarian "tart" and started talking with us in English. Towards the end of our meal the man, Sanchez, asked if we liked coffee after lunch. I agreed, so he invited us to a very English shop with a surprise behind it. The window held English-style trousers, jackets and caps, cuff-links, etc and we went through the first part which then went on to displays of pipes, tobaccos, and then a whole wall display of different cigars. But the area then opened into a comfortable "gentleman's club" lounge where we sat and chatted while drinking coffee as Sanchez smoked a cigar and, when my wife declined coffee, looked hard at her and then offered a port. Well, said my wife: yes, please! Interesting, as she had just been looking round the room and thinking, this is where one would drink port! And she had not had one for years. Though she told me that it wasn't as rich and aromatic as those from Portugal. The room had a corner full of small wooden cupboards with keys where members kept their favourite cigars in their own humidors. Not sure whether that was the way things were in London in the 17th to 19th centuries...

That afternoon we took the subway to visit the Natural Sciences Museum which had a good display of Argentinian birds, of which there are many - in fact, more species than any other area in the world. Very interesting and beautiful. In the city itself, 2e have seen bright yellow fly catchers, "oven birds" with their clay "oven" nests, and a red cardinal - that that last was in a cage hanging on a tree in the street outside a house... My point was only that from museums to gentleman's clubs, the city is still influenced by the few Scots more than most Argentinians (or, for that matter, even the Scots themselves!) realise.

As for the English, their legacy survives in many place names (though other, more obviously British place names were changed following the Falklands War). The legacy also survives in the Anglican churches here as well as in the work of the South America Missionary Society, in the popularity of football and polo, and so on.

In some ways sadly, though probably only to be expected, the Scots and English communities are now fully integrated into Argentina, and even the English Club has disappeared.
Sphere: Related Content

Visit to the Universidad San Andres (University of St Andrew) in Buenos Aires

Here is a small university (total students: roughly two thousand, more or less evenly divided between the undergraduate and the postgraduate) with an extremely high standard.

They managed to get substantial donors before starting, and so attracted world-class Argentinian professors, offering salaries comparable to industry.

Interestingly, they search for exceptionally intelligent youngsters in poorer areas of the country and provide them special academic assistance so that they are not penalised when compared with bright youngesters who have had top quality secondary education, both academically and socially. When those from the poorer regions outperform their richer peers, the University offers them special recognition!

Most universities in this country don’t seem to have much space or sports facilities or even libraries.

By contrast, here there is a feeling of space, the buildings are generously proportioned and beautiful, the grounds well maintained, and San Andres has one of the biggest libraries in the country, with over 70,000 volumes.

I was particularly impressed with the work of their librarians who are systematically collecting and conserving old maps, manuscripts and books relating to Argentine history and literature.

No wonder that, academically, the University outperforms all the other universities (which are very much larger) in the social sciences, law, economics, humanities, mathematics and education. Sphere: Related Content

Monday, August 15, 2011

Why the world has an unstable, vulnerable and volatile money system - and what to do about it

Roger Lowenstein explains why the Gold Standard was immorally abandoned by the main party (the US) which engineered it, as well as the consequences, positive and negative, in an easily-readable piece:

As I have stated publicly, verbally as well as in print, I find it extraordinary that no christian minister, priest or evangelist, was willing to denoouce the unilateral breaking of an international treaty.

Nor was anyone prepared to condemn Nixon for a public sin that had been condemned as long ago as by the prophets Moses, David and Isaiah (Leviticus 19:35, Deuteronomy 25.15; Isaiah 1.22, Amos 8.5, Micah 6.11, and so on).

That public sin is the reason why we have the global system of money which is so unstable, vulnerable and volatile.

Naturally, it is difficult to get back to the gold standard or the silver standard. But it would not be difficult to arrive at a stable system of money creation where only that much money can be produced in a country as the GDP of that country (I know this is difficult to assess, but it is far easier to assess than dollar flows). Also, GDP can be judged fairly accurately in retrospect and there could be a method of smoothing out all inaccuracies in measuring GDP by having a 3-year rolling average for the production of new money.
Sphere: Related Content

Ministers plan removal of UK rioters’ benefits

According to news reports, plans are being drafted to remove welfare allowances from those who are convicted of rioting.

This will satisfy public anger at such rioting, expressed for example by an apparently widely-supported public petition.

However, such political sops will exacerbate rather than address the root problem which led to the rioting - and that is the feeling of hopelessness and helplessness on the part of people who have fewer and fewer public benefits and feel excluded from the explosive growth in private wealth since the policies of Mrs Thatcher were put in place (and there has been no retreat from such policies, whichever party has been in power).

Till that root problem is addressed, we can expect to see even greater disaffection leading to MORE such incidents, because while it is just to punish rioters for rioting, it is not just to take away what little possibility they have of living a human life.

Sphere: Related Content

Sunday, August 07, 2011

President Obama's role, if one understand the current crisis as it really is: a cultural crisis

Dr Mangalwadi argues in his latest publication, THE BOOK THAT MADE YOUR WORLD, it was essentially Biblical values that built up the US and North European countries.

He does not say this, but one of the central Biblical values is loving your enemy and accepting what is true, right or beautiful in what s/he says.

With the elimination of Biblical values from public life in the US over the last several decades, we have had the rise of a radical RIGHT which, in Paul Krugman's words, is "prepared to create repeated crises rather than give an inch on its demands". Many of the demands of the right are entirely sensible, but they want the cost of the demands to fall entirely on the middle classes and on the poor.

By contrast, what was apparently a radical LEFT has turned out (e.g. in Clinton and Obama) to be soft and accommodationist.

If President Obama wants to change the world and change the USA, he will have to see change in himself first. Then he will have to lead not only financial and legislative change in the country but also political and cultural change.

So far, he has not proved equal to the few battles that he has taken on. The question is whether he will grow sufficiently in stature in the next few weeks to be able to take on the even larger challenges that he must if he is to leave any sort of positive legacy. Sphere: Related Content

Saturday, August 06, 2011

What President Obama needs to do to win the next elections

The US economy will strengthen over the next few weeks.

Therefore President Obama has a window of opportunity right now.

Will he use it well?

That is what will determine whether he wins the next election.

What might it mean for him to use the opportunity well?

It will mean showing that he (and the US) have the ability and the will to lead the world to a new level of globalisation.

That involves incorporating minimum standards of health, safety, living standards and environmental care into global trade rules.

Paradoxically, doing that will help job creation, and therefore the economy as a whole, even in the US.

In fact, incorporating such rules into global trade is the only way the US economy can revive (otherwise, US manufacturing will constantly be undercut by China's).

Getting the economy motoring, and restoring the US to global leadership, is the only way President Obama can hope to renew his mandate. Sphere: Related Content

Thursday, August 04, 2011

The alternatives for the US economy

Official US economic growth data suggest that the US economy nearly stalled in the first half of the year.

The US Congress debt deal comes with drastic spending cuts in an economy already sluggish, suggesting that the deal may tip the economy into recession.

In any case, the US cannot help its economy, as long as it does not revive its manufacturing industry, and it cannot do so as long as China continues to produce and sell goods in the US and the rest of the world at unnaturally low prices.

The US supported Chinese membership of the WTO in the hope that China would play the game by the rules. In fact, however, Chinese finance and economy are opaque, making it impossible to ascertain how much money the Chinese are really printing, how much subsidy is being given to which manufacturers, and so on.

The US has only the following alternatives:

(a) The US can try to bring China to book so that it is forced to play by WTO rules (the US has signally failed to do anything of that sort, even at the height of its comparative power vis-a-vis China).

(b) The US can withdraw from the WTO and go its own way, so that the US is not constrained by WTO rules.

(c) The US can begin to offer global leadership to integrate ecological and social considerations into WTO rules - which would have the effect of creating a global level playing field, on which the US could in fact compete (unlike the current "tilted" playing field in which the US cannot compete).

(d) The US can offer its companies targeted incentives to re-start manufacturing (specifically in new technologies). Any such move will produce loud howls from China and perhaps from the EU, but that is a problem that can be faced.

There is no other alternative if the US wants to revive its economy. Sphere: Related Content

Not God's Type

That's the title of a beautifully-written autobiography by Holly Ordway, an English Literature Prof, and competitive fencer.

I don't much care for fencing but, apart from that, I found the book a touching, moving, and profound exploration of atheism (though her atheism was mature, quite unlike my own child-atheism).

I have never written properly about my journey, while she is an excellent chronicler of her two-steps-forward-one-step-sideways-one-step-backward spiritual journey.

Much like mine, however, was the shock involved in discovering that the irrational position is that of the atheist.

Discovering too, then, what God is really like, was sweet and strange for her (as it was for me).

A short book, it can be read easily and quickly - though it merits savouring.

Published by Moody Publishers, USA, last year (2010). Sphere: Related Content

Wednesday, August 03, 2011

increasing tensions in East Asia

In case you have not been watching this region:

Following China's massive spending for several decades on its military, navy and air force as well as its ventures in space, its neighbours have been getting increasingly worried.

Now China has warned the US to stay out of the region, chased a US unmanned reconnaisance plane out of international air space, threatened to ram a Philipppine survey ship, and called "irresponsible" a Japanese defense paper that draws attention to China's naval threat and "overbearing" behaviour. In other words, China wants to decide where anyone can go, even in international airspace and waters, and China wants to censor any expressions of concern about what it is doing.

Expect more temperature-raising moves by China in the South China Sea (or, more correctly, East Asian Sea) area, but expect, as I have said earlier, if there is to be a major war launched by China, it will be against India as it has the weakest umbrella from the USA, and is therefore the weakest country bordering China. Sphere: Related Content

The Socio-Economic Roots of Poverty

AT the Geneva Institute of Leadership and Public Policy, I was recently asked to speak on this subject. Here is a summary.

I started with my theory of the EXPECTED NATIONAL LEVEL OF MINIMUM PROSPERITY (ENLMP) – the value of the physical resources of a country divided by the population of that country.

In order to achieve the ENLMP, countries need to eliminate looting/stealing/murder - that is, they need to have a culture that identifies and weakens structures of oppression/exploitation, which can only happen if the culture succeeds in minimising pride, arrogance, and corruption.

Different societies have different worldviews, and some worldviews are more likely than others to lead to prosperity.

The colours below are meant to have no pejorative connotations; rather, to help to remember the worldviews, and the differences between them.

A "black" worldview is one in which the fear or respect of nature/gods/fate discourages change but of course allows great sustainability. Many tribal societies have this kind of a worldview.

A "white" worldview considers the next life more important than this one, leading to possibly to great spirituality and certainly to great sustainability, but again, little progress. Examples are traditional Buddhist, Jain, Hindu, Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic cultures.

A "yellow" worldview is dominant in empires and dictatorships, where the leadership needs to display sufficient power to prevent threats to their position. There can sometimes be great material progress, but challenging questions are discouraged – the current arrangement is considered in everyone's best interest and is presented as the only one that will work. This includes not merely ancient empires but also, for example, the Russian and Chinese empires today. It also includes current Anglo-American capitalism where, if you question the basic assumptions of the global economic and financial system, you are excluded and punished.

The "green" worldview wishes to balance environmental and human concerns, individuals and society, tradition and progress. The Green worldview originates in the Jewish scriptures, and is mediated to our world primarily as a result of the Protestant Reformation, which liberated individuals from the overwhelming importance of family, clan and society (but made individuals responsible for society). That liberation had an INTELLECTUAL component (the freedom to read and to think and to debate and to come to one's own conclusions), a PRACTICAL component (as this world is regarded as important, the intellect was not merely free to speculate, it was also expected to engage with this world), a SOCIAL component (freedom cannot exist if there is military, economic, political or spiritual oppression - which is why it was essential to deconstruct at least a part of the Holy Roman Empire), a MORAL component (the work ethic for everyone, and an ethic of responsibility for everyone but specially for the rich) and an EMOTIONAL component (loving strangers and even one's enemies). Inspired by Jesus and the Bible, individuals therefore worked to reform society. Secularised versions of Reform were then unleashed as European thought and progress impacted an increasing number of peoples around the world. We could say that the modern world itself has been formed as a result of the impact of the Reformation, whether in Biblical or in secular versions. In Europe itself, from the 16th century, incredible progress resulted, lifting Northern Europe from being one of the poorest parts of the world throughout history, to becoming as rich as any part of the world by the 18th century, and becoming the richest part of the world by the 19th century - in other words, far above the ENLMP. Sadly, wealth often leads to arrogance, and the European elites adopted Rationalism and Evolutionism as battering rams to liberate themselves from the spiritual, emotional, social, intellectual and practical demands of the Green worldview.

The result was the "red" worldview, epitomised by modern America, which thinks that rationalsm, evolutionism, science and technology can solve all of the world's problems. Morality and law are of course therefore considered what I term "necessary inconveniences" which one should find as efficient a way around as possible, while one makes as much money as possible. This red worldview has led to unprecedented material progress, but also to the biggest gap between the rich and the poor in history, and unprecedented damage to the environment.

Today, all countries have a mix of these worldviews. It is up to you to identify in what parts of your country, in what age-groups, and at what levels of their hierarchy in your country, which worldview dominates.

Then you will be able to understand the roots of poverty in your country, and you will be able to identify some key matters that you may not have considered till now, if you want to enable your country to become prosperous. Sphere: Related Content

The causes of Poverty

We need to find and change the root causes of poverty rather than simply treating
the symptoms, said Mr Mohan Philip, of the Adarsh Rashtriya Party, at the Geneva Institute of Leadership and Public Policy.

According to him, one part of poverty is due to poor political leadership, or a case of those in power only looking outfor themselves.

Another part of it is simply the nature of organizations – an institution may begin with good intentions, but people with vested interests will soon take over, leading to corruption.

Then, when there is rampant oppression of the poor, they might even become willing to start armed revolution.

That can only be prevented if the leaders provide justice that is equitable, distributive, and restorative. Sphere: Related Content

Monday, August 01, 2011

So the US has raised its debt ceiling, as I predicted; what's next?

Readers will recollect that I predicted, in contrast to many doomsayers, that the US would indeed have a deal on raising its debt ceiling.

Expect therefore a burst of confidence for a short while.

Then reality will set in and the real debate will start, regarding how to reduce the level of unemployment in the US, and how to boost the economy.

Expect, therefore, yet more money to be printed (Quantitative Easing III).

The stimulus effect of that will shore up confidence for a while.

When that wears out, the US will have to finally face the fact that it can no longer duck the real issues that have been facing it for some time now: is it going to lead the world through responsible financial, monetary, economic and ecological policies, or is it going to initially lose global leadership and, soon after, become irrelevant globally. Sphere: Related Content