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Adapting to a Fast-Forward World

Adapting to a Fast-Forward World

The world is going through a period of accelerating change, as four secular developments illustrate. Firms and governments must make timely adjustments, not only to their business models and operational approaches, but also to both their tactical and strategic mindsets.

LONDON – Firms and governments must increasingly internalize the possibility – indeed, I would argue, the overwhelming probability – of an acceleration of four secular developments that influence what business and political leaders do and how they do it. Decision-makers should think of these trends as waves, which, especially if they occur simultaneously, could feel like a tsunami for those who fail to adapt their thinking and practices in a timely manner.

The first and most important trend is climate change, which has evolved from a relatively distant concern, on which there is ample time to take remedial action, to an imminent and increasingly urgent threat.

The mobilization of various concerned segments of society, owing partly to unusual climatic disruptions in recent years, has greatly increased the pressure on companies to act now. BP’s recent announcement that it intends to achieve “net-zero” carbon emissions by 2050 – a notable promise by an energy company that operates in several highly challenging settings – is the latest example of business responding to such calls. It is only a matter of time until this pressure also prompts governments to take further steps, not only to encourage green activities, but also to tax and regulate those that cause pollution.

Second, privacy concerns have grown alongside technical innovations involving artificial intelligence and big data.

Society is increasingly recognizing that recent technological advances allow not only for more efficient compilation of huge amounts of personal data, but also for using this information to monitor and alter behaviors.

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The White Swans of 2020

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The White Swans of 2020

Financial markets remain blissfully in denial of the many predictable global crises that could come to a head this year, particularly in the months before the US presidential election. In addition to the increasingly obvious risks associated with climate change, at least four countries want to destabilize the US from within.

NEW YORK – In my 2010 book, Crisis Economics, I defined financial crises not as the “black swan” events that Nassim Nicholas Talebdescribed in his eponymous bestseller, but as “white swans.” According to Taleb, black swans are events that emerge unpredictably, like a tornado, from a fat-tailed statistical distribution. But I argued that financial crises, at least, are more like hurricanes: they are the predictable result of built-up economic and financial vulnerabilities and policy mistakes.

There are times when we should expect the system to reach a tipping point – the “Minsky Moment” – when a boom and a bubble turn into a crash and a bust. Such events are not about the “unknown unknowns,” but rather the “known unknowns.”

Beyond the usual economic and policy risks that most financial analysts worry about, a number of potentially seismic white swans are visible on the horizon this year. Any of them could trigger severe economic, financial, political, and geopolitical disturbances unlike anything since the 2008 crisis.

For starters, the United States is locked in an escalating strategic rivalry with at least four implicitly aligned revisionist powers: China, Russia, Iran, and North Korea. These countries all have an interest in challenging the US-led global order, and 2020 could be a critical year for them, owing to the US presidential election and the potential change in US global policies that could follow.

Under President Donald Trump, the US is trying to contain or even trigger regime change in these  four countries through economic sanctions and other means.

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The Biometric Threat

The Biometric Threat

As with so many other convenient technologies, the world is underestimating the risks associated with biometric identification systems. India has learned about those risks the hard way – and should serve as a cautionary tale to the governments and corporations seeking to expand the use of these technologies.

NEW DELHI – Around the world, governments are succumbing to the allure of biometric identification systems. To some extent, this may be inevitable, given the burden of demands and expectations placed on modern states. But no one should underestimate the risks these technologies pose.

Biometric identification systems use individuals’ unique intrinsic physical characteristics – fingerprints or handprints, facial patterns, voices, irises, vein maps, or even brain waves – to verify their identity. Governments have applied the technology to verify passports and visas, identify and track security threats, and, more recently, to ensure that public benefits are correctly distributed.

Private companies, too, have embraced biometric identification systems. Smartphones use fingerprints and facial recognition to determine when to “unlock.” Rather than entering different passwords for different services – including financial services – users simply place their finger on a button on their phone or gaze into its camera lens.

It is certainly convenient. And, at first glance, it might seem more secure: someone might be able to find out your password, but how could they replicate your essential biological features?

But, as with so many other convenient technologies, we tend to underestimate the risks associated with biometric identification systems. India has learned about them the hard way, as it has expanded its scheme to issue residents a “unique identification number,” or Aadhaar, linked to their biometrics.

Originally, the Aadhaar program’s primary goal was to manage government benefits and eliminate “ghost beneficiaries” of public subsidies.

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Empty Gestures on Climate Change

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Empty Gestures on Climate Change

When climate campaigners urge people to change their everyday behavior, they trivialize the challenge of global warming. The one individual action that citizens could take that would make a real difference would be to demand a vast increase in spending on green-energy research and development.

MALMÖ – Switch to energy-efficient light bulbs, wash your clothes in cold water, eat less meat, recycle more, and buy an electric car: we are being bombarded with instructions from climate campaigners, environmentalists, and the media about the everyday steps we all must take to tackle climate change. Unfortunately, these appeals trivialize the challenge of global warming, and divert our attention from the huge technological and policy changes that are needed to combat it.1

For example, the British nature-documentary presenter and environmental campaigner David Attenborough was once asked what he as an individual would do to fight climate change. He promised to unplug his phone charger when it was not in use.

Attenborough’s heart is no doubt in the right place. But even if he consistently unplugs his charger for a year, the resulting reduction in carbon-dioxide emissions will be equivalent to less than one-half of one-thousandth of the average person’s annual CO2 emissions in the United Kingdom. Moreover, charging accounts for less than 1% of a phone’s energy needs; the other 99% is required to manufacture the handset and operate data centers and cell towers. Almost everywhere, these processes are heavily reliant on fossil fuels.

Attenborough is far from alone in believing that small gestures can have a meaningful impact on the climate. In fact, even much larger-sounding commitments deliver only limited reductions in CO2 emissions. For example, environmental activists emphasize the need to give up eating meat and driving fossil-fuel-powered cars. But, although I am a vegetarian and do not own a car, I believe we need to be honest about what such choices can achieve.

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The Problem With “Green” Monetary Policy

The Problem With “Green” Monetary Policy

Although there is increasing support for the idea that central banks should actively contribute to the fight against climate change, monetary policymakers have no mandate to do so, and for good reason. Tackling climate change is – and must remain – the responsibility of elected governments and parliaments.

FRANKFURT – As an alarming new United Nations report shows, climate change is probably the biggest challenge of our time. But should central banks also be worrying about the issue? If so, what should they be doing about it?

Central-bank representatives who do decide to make public speeches about climate change cannot deny the scale and scope of the problem; to do so would be to risk their own credibility. But the same is true when central bankers feel obliged to discuss the distribution of income and wealth, rising crime rates, or any other newsworthy topic. The more that central banks’ communications strategy focuses on trying to make themselves “popular” in the public’s eyes, the greater the temptation to address topics outside their primary remit.

Beyond communicating with the public, the question, of course, is whether central banks should try to account for environmental considerations when shaping monetary policy. Obviously, climate change and corresponding government policies in response to it can have powerful effects on economic development. These consequences are reflected in all kinds of variables – growth, inflation, employment levels – that will in turn affect central-bank forecasts and influence monetary-policy decisions.

Likewise, natural disasters and other environmental events – actual or potential – can pose implicit risks to entire classes of financial assets. Regulators and supervisors charged with assessing risk and associated capital needs must take this environmental dimension into account. At a minimum, the high uncertainty stemming from these risks implies a huge challenge for assessing the stability of the financial system and corresponding macroprudential measures.

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The Growing Threat of Water Wars

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The Growing Threat of Water Wars

In 2015, United Nations member states adopted the Sustainable Development Goals, which include an imperative to “ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all.” Yet, in the last four years, matters have deteriorated significantly.

NEW DELHI – The dangers of environmental pollution receive a lot of attention nowadays, particularly in the developing world, and with good reason. Air quality indices are dismal and worsening in many places, with India, in particular, facing an acute public-health emergency. But as serious as the pollution problem is, it must not be allowed to obscure another incipient environmental catastrophe, and potential source of future conflict: lack of access to clean water.

We may live on a “blue planet,” but less than 3% of all of our water is fresh, and much of it is inaccessible (for example, because it is locked in glaciers). Since 1960, the amount of available fresh water per capita has declined by more than half, leaving over 40% of the world’s population facing water stress. By 2030, demand for fresh water will exceed supply by an estimated 40%.

With nearly two-thirds of fresh water coming from rivers and lakes that cross national borders, intensifying water stress fuels a vicious circle, in which countries compete for supplies, leading to greater stress and more competition. Today, hundreds of international water agreements are coming under pressure.

China, India, and Bangladesh are locked in a dispute over the Brahmaputra, one of Asia’s largest rivers, with China and India actively constructing dams that have raised fears of water diversion. India’s government has used water-flow diversion to punish Pakistan for terrorist attacks. Dam-building on the Nile by Ethiopia has raised the ire of downstream Egypt.

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Is the Global Dollar in Jeopardy?

Is the Global Dollar in Jeopardy?

The US Federal Reserve is right to be concerned, if not worried, about the greenback’s dominance of international trade and finance. Fortunately for consumers, growing potential competitive pressure – call it the Libra effect – creates an incentive to make the existing system work better.

WASHINGTON, DC – Since the end of World War II, the United States dollar has been at the heart of international finance and trade. Over the decades, and despite the many ups and downs of the global economy, the dollar retained its role as the world’s favorite reserve asset. When times are tough or uncertainty reigns, investors flock to dollar-denominated assets, particularly US Treasury debt – ironically, even when there is a financial crisis in the US. As a result, the Federal Reserve – which sets US dollar interest rates – has enormous sway over economic conditions around the world.

For all the associated innovation evident since the launch of the decentralized blockchain-based currency Bitcoin in 2009, the arrival of modern cryptocurrencies has had essentially zero impact on the global taste for dollars. Promoters of these new forms of money still have their hopes, of course, that they can challenge the existing financial system, but the impact on global portfolios has proved minimal. The most powerful central banks (the Fed, the European Central Bank, and a few others) are still running the global money show.

Suddenly, however, there is a new, potentially serious player in town: Facebook’s Libra initiative. Facebook and a currently shifting coalition of firms are planning to launch their own private form of money that would, in some sense, be secured by holdings of major currencies.

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The Allure and Limits of Monetized Fiscal Deficits

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The Allure and Limits of Monetized Fiscal Deficits

With the global economy experiencing a synchronized slowdown, any number of tail risks could bring on an outright recession. When that happens, policymakers will almost certainly pursue some form of central-bank-financed stimulus, regardless of whether the situation calls for it.

NEW YORK – A cloud of gloom hovered over the International Monetary Fund’s annual meeting this month. With the global economy experiencing a synchronized slowdown, any number of tail risks could bring on an outright recession. Among other things, investors and economic policymakers must worry about a renewed escalation in the Sino-American trade and technology war. A military conflict between the United States and Iran would be felt globally. The same could be true of “hard” Brexit by the United Kingdom or a collision between the IMF and Argentina’s incoming Peronist government.

Still, some of these risks could become less likely over time. The US and China have reached a tentative agreement on a “phase one” partial trade deal, and the US has suspended tariffs that were due to come into effect on October 15. If the negotiations continue, damaging tariffs on Chinese consumer goods scheduled for December 15 could also be postponed or suspended. The US has also so far refrained from responding directly to Iran’s alleged downing of a US drone and attack on Saudi oil facilities in recent months. US President Donald Trump doubtless is aware that a spike in oil prices stemming from a military conflict would seriously damage his re-election prospects next November.

The United Kingdom and the European Union have reached a tentative agreement for a “soft” Brexit, and the UK Parliament has taken steps at least to prevent a no-deal departure from the EU. But the saga will continue, most likely with another extension of the Brexit deadline and a general election at some point.

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Four Collision Courses for the Global Economy

Four Collision Courses for the Global Economy

Between US President Donald Trump’s zero-sum disputes with China and Iran, UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s brinkmanship with Parliament and the European Union, and Argentina’s likely return to Peronist populism, the fate of the global economy is balancing on a knife edge. Any of these scenarios could lead to a crisis with rapid spillover effects.

NEW YORK – In the classic game of “chicken,” two drivers race directly toward each other, and the first to swerve is the “loser.” If neither swerves, both will probably die. In the past, such scenarios have been studied to assess the risks posed by great-power rivalries. In the case of the Cuban missile crisis, for example, Soviet and American leaders were confronted with the choice of losing face or risking a catastrophic collision. The question, always, is whether a compromise can be found that spares both parties their lives and their credibility.

There are now several geo-economic games of chicken playing out. In each case, failure to compromise would lead to a collision, most likely followed by a global recession and financial crisis. The first and most important contest is between the United States and China over trade and technology. The second is the brewing dispute between the US and Iran. In Europe, there is the escalating brinkmanship between British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and the European Union over Brexit. Finally, there is Argentina, which could end up on a collision course with the International Monetary Fund after the likely victory of the Peronist Alberto Fernández in next month’s residential election.

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The Twilight of the Global Order

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The Twilight of the Global Order

The recent G7 summit in Biarritz signaled a broader shift in international governance away from constructive cooperation and toward vague discussions and ad hoc solutions. The conclusion of the summit could be a marker of the world order’s future – ending not with a bang, but with a whimper.

MADRID – We live in an era of hyperbole, in which gripping accounts of monumental triumphs and devastating disasters take precedence over realistic discussions of incremental progress and gradual erosion. But in international relations, as in anything, crises and breakthroughs are only part of the story; if we fail also to notice less sensational trends, we may well find ourselves in serious trouble – potentially after it is too late to escape.

The recent G7 Summit in Biarritz, France, is a case in point. Despite some positive developments – French President Emmanuel Macron, for example, was praised for keeping his American counterpart, Donald Trump, in check – little was achieved. And, beyond the question of substantive results, the summit’s structure portends a progressive erosion of international cooperation – a slow, steady chipping away at the global order.

It is somewhat ironic that the G7 presages the future, because it is in many ways a relic of the past. Formed in the 1970s, at the height of the Cold War, it was supposed to serve as a forum for the major developed economies: Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the United Kingdom, and the United States.

After the fall of the Soviet Union, the G7 continued to shape global governance on issues ranging from debt relief to peace operations and global health. In 1997, the G7 became the G8, with the addition of Russia. Still, the body epitomized an era of Western preeminence in an institutionalized liberal world order in full bloom.

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The Anatomy of the Coming Recession

The Anatomy of the Coming Recession

Unlike the 2008 global financial crisis, which was mostly a large negative aggregate demand shock, the next recession is likely to be caused by permanent negative supply shocks from the Sino-American trade and technology war. And trying to undo the damage through never-ending monetary and fiscal stimulus will not be an option.

NEW YORK – There are three negative supply shocks that could trigger a global recession by 2020. All of them reflect political factors affecting international relations, two involve China, and the United States is at the center of each. Moreover, none of them is amenable to the traditional tools of countercyclical macroeconomic policy.

The first potential shock stems from the Sino-American trade and currency war, which escalated earlier this month when US President Donald Trump’s administration threatened additional tariffs on Chinese exports, and formally labeled China a currency manipulator. The second concerns the slow-brewing cold war between the US and China over technology. In a rivalry that has all the hallmarks of a “Thucydides Trap,” China and America are vying for dominance over the industries of the future: artificial intelligence (AI), robotics, 5G, and so forth. The US has placed the Chinese telecom giant Huawei on an “entity list” reserved for foreign companies deemed to pose a national-security threat. And although Huawei has received temporary exemptions allowing it to continue using US components, the Trump administration this week announced that it was adding an additional 46 Huawei affiliates to the list.

The third major risk concerns oil supplies. Although oil prices have fallen in recent weeks, and a recession triggered by a trade, currency, and tech war would depress energy demand and drive prices lower, America’s confrontation with Iran could have the opposite effect. Should that conflict escalate into a military conflict, global oil prices could spike and bring on a recession, as happened during previous Middle East conflagrations in 1973, 1979, and 1990.

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Are Central Banks Losing Their Big Bet?

Are Central Banks Losing Their Big Bet?

Following the 2008 global financial crisis, central banks bet that greater activism on the part of other policymakers would be their salvation, helping them to normalize their operations. But that activism never came, and central bankers are now facing a lose-lose proposition.

ZURICH – In recent years, central banks have made a large policy wager. They bet that the protracted use of unconventional and experimental measures would provide an effective bridge to more comprehensive measures that would generate high inclusive growth and minimize the risk of financial instability. But central banks have repeatedly had to double down, in the process becoming increasingly aware of the growing risks to their credibility, effectiveness, and political autonomy. Ironically, central bankers may now get a response from other policymaking entities, which, instead of helping to normalize their operations, would make their task a lot tougher.

Let’s start with the US Federal Reserve, the world’s most powerful central bank, whose actions strongly influence other central banks. Having succeeded after 2008 in stabilizing a dysfunctional financial system that had threatened to tip the world into a multiyear depression, the Fed was hoping to begin normalizing its policy stance as early as the summer of 2010. But an increasingly polarized Congress, exemplified by the rise of the Tea Party, precluded the necessary handoff to fiscal policy and structural reforms.

Instead, the Fed pivoted to using experimental measures to buy time for the US economy until the political environment became more constructive for pro-growth policies. Interest rates were floored at zero, and the Fed expanded its non-commercial involvement in financial markets, buying a record amount of bonds through its quantitative-easing (QE) programs.

This policy pivot was, in the eyes of most central bankers, born of necessity, not choice. And it was far from perfect.

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The US Economy’s Dirty Secret

The US Economy’s Dirty Secret

Relatively strong US growth amid sluggishness elsewhere is not what economics textbooks would predict. But persistently low interest rates and weak inflation bring multiple benefits to American firms and consumers, while the adverse impact of the global slowdown on US exports should not be overstated.

SAN DIEGO – There is a dirty little secret in economics today: the United States has benefited – and continues to benefit – from the global slump. The US economy is humming along, even while protesters in the United Kingdom hurl milkshakes at Brexiteers, French President Emmanuel Macron confronts nihilist yellow-vested marchers, and Chinese tech firms such as Huawei fear being frozen out of foreign markets.

Last year, the US economy grew by 2.9%, while the eurozone expanded by just 1.8%, giving President Donald Trump even more confidence in his confrontational style. But relatively strong US growth amid sluggishness elsewhere is not what economics textbooks would predict. Whatever happened to the tightly integrated world economy that the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank have been advocating – and more recently extolling – since World War II?

The US economy is in a temporary but potent phase in which weakness abroad lifts spirits at home. But this economic euphoria has nothing to do with Trump-era spite and malice, and much to do with interest rates.

Borrowing costs are currently lower than at any time since the founding of the US Federal Reserve in 1913, or in the UK’s case since the Bank of England was established in 1694. The ten-year US Treasury bond is yielding about 2.123%, and in April, the streaming service Netflix issued junk bonds at a rate of just 5.4%.

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Time for a True Global Currency

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Time for a True Global Currency

The International Monetary Fund’s global reserve asset, the Special Drawing Right, is one of the most underused instruments of multilateral cooperation. Turning it into a true global currency would yield several benefits for the global economy and the international monetary system.

NEW YORK – This year, the world commemorates the anniversaries of two key events in the development of the global monetary system. The first is the creation of the International Monetary Fund at the Bretton Woods conference 75 years ago. The second is the advent, 50 years ago, of the Special Drawing Right (SDR), the IMF’s global reserve asset.

When it introduced the SDR, the Fund hoped to make it “the principal reserve asset in the international monetary system.” This remains an unfulfilled ambition; indeed, the SDR is one of the most underused instruments of international cooperation. Nonetheless, better late than never: turning the SDR into a true global currency would yield several benefits for the world’s economy and monetary system.

The idea of a global currency is not new. Prior to the Bretton Woods negotiations, John Maynard Keynes suggested the “bancor” as the unit of account of his proposed International Clearing Union. In the 1960s, under the leadership of the Belgian-American economist Robert Triffin, other proposals emerged to address the growing problems created by the dual dollar-gold system that had been established at Bretton Woods. The system finally collapsed in 1971. As a result of those discussions, the IMF approved the SDR in 1967, and included it in its Articles of Agreement two years later. 

Although the IMF’s issuance of SDRs resembles the creation of national money by central banks, the SDR fulfills only some of the functions of money. True, SDRs are a reserve asset, and thus a store of value. They are also the IMF’s unit of account.

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The Sorry State of the World Economy

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The Sorry State of the World Economy

Data released in January paint a bleak picture of advanced-economy prospects. Even if some emerging economies – which face serious challenges of their own – manage to pick up some of the slack, the world economy will remain encumbered by the combination of economic interconnectedness and political balkanization.

NEW YORK – January is traditionally a time for assessing the developments of the previous year, in order to anticipate what the new one has in store. Unfortunately, even though we may be at a turning point for the better politically, the data that have emerged in the last month do not paint a promising picture of the global economy’s short-term prospects.

The tone was set early in the month by the World Bank’s Global Economic Prospects, along with the accompanying articles. The report paints a picture as bleak as its subtitle – “Darkening Skies” – and cuts the growth forecast for the advanced economies in 2020 to 1.6% (down from 2.2% in 2018).

Moreover, last week, the European Central Bank sounded the alarm over the eurozone economy. Between the prospect of a disorderly Brexit and rising protectionism, exemplified by the trade war between the United States and China, Europe is subject to increasing uncertainty.

Making matters worse, Germany is facing a growth slowdown. According to its own official data, the economy contracted by 0.2% in the third quarter of 2018, while the Purchasing Managers Index for manufacturing sank to 49.9 – a four-year low. Given Germany’s role as the backbone of the eurozone economy, its economic struggles are likely to cascade beyond its borders.

This is particularly problematic, because, after more than a decade of fighting crisis and recession, the advanced economies have depleted their ammunition for countering a slowdown. With the ECB’s benchmark interest rate at zero, there is little room for a cut.

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Olduvai IV: Courage
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Olduvai II: Exodus
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