Geo-Politics

 

London Skyline for Christopher Jackson's Blog, The View From Lawrence Street

It was probably inevitable, but the crisis engulfing Facebook is one of the most embarrassing examples of Silicon valleys hubris in the last two decades.

A company that specialises in connecting people, an exercise that requires people to trust the platform as a place to share content, has managed to simultaneously violate that trust and act totally surprised in doing so. When Facebook was first created it was a place for university students to share stories, an occasional photo and talk to friends when they couldn’t afford to call abroad. Today it is a business platform for multinational corporates, a virtual monopoly in the global social media world (excluding the great digital firewalls of China and Russia), as well as the largest surveillance mechanism ever created by man. If the apocryphal tales that Facebook was created by the CIA ever become more than conspiracy theories, I would take the agents out for a beer. It’s hard to imagine them being more successful in manipulating billions of people to hand over the most intimate details of their life than Facebook.

But what do we do about it? Facebook IS the only platform where everyone can find a friend, family member or old classmate from their school days. It also owns Whatsapp, Instagram and nearly brought out Snapchat (before deciding it was cheaper just to copy all of their ideas into Instagram instead). Indeed, the monopoly is alive and very well in the social media space. So much for a dynamic and free market that internet radicals long predicted.

The issue with Facebook is that it has transcended its role as a tech company and become a global public good, much in the way that GPS, SWIFT and Wikipedia have done. This conflict between its corporate needs and Facebooks public nature is at the heart of the conundrum that is threatening Facebooks future role as the global sharing platform.

There may come a time where individuals lose their inhibitions and learn to accept the flawed nature of humanity, such that the embarrassing university photos and awkward Facebook status of one young activist days become nothing more than a source of amusement. But we are not there yet.

In the interim the most radical solution may yet be the one true way to ensure the eternal legacy of Zuckerberg’s creation: turn the company into a global charity with an international non-partisan board. Such a solution has long been muted for Twitter, another social media company that serves a clear public good, but unlike Facebook has lacked the will (some would say ability) to extract the financial gains necessary to ever become commercially viable.

A world where Facebook becomes a utility like Verizon or a charity like Wikipedia is hardly likely to thrill investors and tech entrepreneurs. Then again, few people who change the world ever live to see the real fruits of their efforts.

If Zuckerberg is serious about fixing Facebook he needs to find a way to square the circle between regaining user trust and generating the returns expected by Wall Street.

For a man more concerned about his public appearance than his bank account, Mr Zuckerberg could do worse than consider what Facebook would look like if it became a true global public good rather than a Wall Street darling. The clock is ticking and the users are leaving.

Your move Mr Zuckerberg.

 

 

Christopher Jackson The View from Lawrence Street

 

Christopher Jackson graduated from York University with a 1st Class Honours Degree in Politics with International Relations, BA and is a graduate of Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and currently works on financing and developing renewable energy projects.

Click HERE to read Christopher’s impressive curriculum vitae on Linkedin.com

 

London Skyline for Christopher Jackson's Blog, The View From Lawrence StreetOn the 5th of February 2018, the Dow Jones witnessed its largest one-day point decline in its 120-year history. In total, the 30 largest US listed companies from across the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE) and the National Association of Securities Dealers Automated Quotations (NASDAQ) dropped 4.6%, a percentage decline not seen since the eurozone crisis in August 2011. Nor was the Dow alone.

As investors across the world saw the roaring US stock market come to a violent halt, stock markets in Asia and Europe started to collapse as well.

Why? What went so badly wrong that the world suddenly lost its cool and within a week almost all global indices had fallen by 6%-12%?

Most of the news for 2018 actually looked pretty great.

The IMF had upgraded global growth forecasts for 2017, 2018 and 2019, while claiming that the world was about to witness the “‘broadest’ upsurge in global growth since 2010”. Global Mergers & Acquisition activity was at its highest since the dot.com boom over 17 years ago, the eurozone grew at its fastest rate in a decade and manufacturing growth has exploded across the US, Europe and the UK.

Given these factors, many retail investors and ordinary people reasonably asked the question: “Why did everything collapse and what should I do with my money now”? In an attempt to answer the first part, we have to begin with separating the event itself (the stock market collapse), and the reasons behind the crash (the fundamentals).

There are many different and authoritative views on this issue, including a very easy and concise piece by Bloomberg available here. My take is below:

With interest rates at record lows, the stock-market continuing to grow at breakneck speed and the global economy expanding, people have thrown caution to the wind and invested in the stock markets. In fact, January 2018 witnessed record levels of investment in the stock-market, as confidence took over and people from all walks of life began to invest. This is where the problem started.

Everyone in the stock market had been waiting for a fall. But knowing when it would come had been a significant challenge. If investors left too early, they would be potentially giving up the chance to make more money. If they left too late, they may lose everything. On January 29th and 30th, the first investors lost their calm and pocketed their gains and as January came to a close, the US stock market saw two days of consecutive decline and its largest fall since May 2017 (a small blip in comparison to what would happen later).

But why were the professional investors sceptical of the market? Here again we must return to expectations.

The aim of a professional investor is to generate returns that exceed what could be earned by investing in a risk-free asset. In simple terms “risk free” usually means bank deposits and the bonds of the worlds most financial secure markets (US, UK, Switzerland, German). The reason they are “risk free” is because most bank deposits are covered by insurance and because these governments are considered financially prudent enough to guarantee that any money owed to investors will always be repaid. Naturally this sounds like a great deal for investors. Put your money into a bond and earn a guaranteed amount of interest. What is not to like? Well the problem is that after the financial crisis too many investors thought that this was a good idea and so as the demand for bonds increased, their price increased. To cut a long story short, when the price of a bond increases the interest (read return) gets smaller. This is where the problem started.

Risk free bonds are the benchmark for professional investors. The expectation is to beat the risk free rate and the more risk the investor is asked to take, the bigger the return they expect (over the risk free rate). But if the risk free rate is extremely low, then risky investments can look increasingly attractive if investors cannot reach their target return through traditional investments. Pension funds are an excellent example of this. Prior to 2008 a pension fund would expect to pay 3% of all its funds under management out to its retirees every year. Therefore, as long as the pension fund could earn over 3% the fund would meet its obligations. Conveniently several types of government bond from the UK, USA and across leading economies were paying around 5% prior to 2008, allowing pension funds to make a 2% profit and meet all of their commitments, with minimal risk. But the financial crisis and ultra-low interest rates changed everything.

 As interest rates dropped to nearly 0% (in some cases negative), investors like pension funds, were forced to find other ways to generate their returns and so they piled into property, real assets (gold, oil, etc) and stocks. Accordingly, the stock market exploded. It didn’t matter that a company was now generating 3% return a year (compared to 5%) because its share price had risen. The alternative was a 1% government bond.

So back to 2018, the key question for investors was this: when would interest rates rise sufficiently that large money managers would sell their stocks? After all, if the interest rate rises then the return from the stock must price in tandem at every step. But that cannot happen forever.

So the magic number was 3%. Specifically, investors began to believe that rising wage inflation in the US at the end of January would increase the interest rate on US ten-year debt to 3%. If inflation was high, the US Federal Reserve would increase rates and money managers would sell their stocks. In Germany the same thing happened when the largest German workers union negotiated an inflation busting pay rise in February, leading to significant stock market declines in the US stock market (the 2nd worst performer after the Dow Jones).

What next?

The financial markets have broadly calmed following their collapse at the start of the month, but the truce remains uneasy. It is clear that investors remain extremely uncertain whether the sharp decline in share prices remains the only price “correction” that we shall see for the year, or if it is merely an early warnings tremor before a larger financial earthquake later in the year. On this question, expert opinion is fiercely divided.

However, for people interested in following the stock market closely its worth looking at whether any of the large companies, famously called “Unicorns” choose to finally go public this year. Traditionally private companies go public when they believe that valuations are at record highs, not when they believe that there is space to grow. So if you see AirBnB, Uber or even Spotify go public, then maybe consider putting some more cash in the bank and out of the stock market.

Important disclaimer here: This piece merely reflects the views of the author and should not be considered as financial guidance or advice.

London Skyline for Christopher Jackson's Blog, The View From Lawrence StreetGiven the volume of news in 2017, finding a common theme to make sense of the noise has proven challenging. However, as we start 2018, there is an argument to say that 2017 was defined by the actions of the world’s Central Banks.

After years of unconventional monetary policy, the actions of the Federal Reserve, the Bank of Japan, the Bank of England, and the EBC have begun to deliver results. The spectre of deflation has been defeated and inflation appears to be increasing across the world’s major developed economies. Economic growth has picked up in the Eurozone and Japan, while emerging markets have survived the first few US interest rate hikes without causing a collapse. But just as the achievements of these policies have been recognised, so have the costs.

As central bankers discouraged saving by reducing interest rates close to zero, investors were forced into equities and real assets. This led to a surge in global property prices and record levels of investment in global start-ups, crypto-currencies, and passive indexes. Rising property prices have led to bans on second homes across developed economies from New Zealand to Western Canada, and clamouring calls for a ban in London. In many developed economies, the average property price is now well beyond the 4x annual salary against which banks will provide loans, forcing a greater proportion of people to rent than ever before.

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London Skyline for Christopher Jackson's Blog, The View From Lawrence Street

 

The world’s largest free trade deal fundamentally re-shaped the future of Transportation – and no one noticed.

In December of 2017, the EU and Japan announced that they had agreed the terms of a vast international free trade deal. The deal, still subject to final approvals in the EU and from the Japanese diet, will create a combined economic free trade area of 600mn people worth 30% of GDP. But while the focus has been on the changes to agriculture, sustainability and regulatory alignment, a key provision has slipped almost unnoticed from the public eye. A regulatory drawbridge for hydrogen vehicles has been created.

In one of the most startling changes, barely noticed by the press, the EU have been allowed to sell hydrogen cars straight into the Japanese market, bypassing stringent legislation for Japanese specialist steel and labelling standards. In addition, the EU has agreed that “Furthermore, EU manufacturers that are not yet as far advanced in the development of this technology of the future can, thanks to the specific and much lighter conditions, import hydrogen fueled cars for testing and validation purposes and use the Japanese infrastructure of hydrogen filling stations to fine-tune their cars.”

Why does this matter? It matters because (arguably) the world’s most technologically advanced nation has bet big that the future of transportation will be Hydrogen and it is now luring all the world’s largest automakers to build out their R&D and manufacturing within Japan.

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London Skyline for Christopher Jackson's Blog, The View From Lawrence Street

Despite 7 years of stagnant economic growth in Europe, austerity in Britain and growing inequality in the US, the political left has never looked weaker. That is a problem. All good political systems require competition of ideas to help both sides refine and improve the policies which they offer their electorates. In the founding of any democracy it is widely acknowledged that a failure to create two equal political parties, who can act as counterweights to one another, is essential. Some even believe that if the Russian Communist party had split into two parties in 1990, one moderate and the other traditionalist, it would have fundamentally changed the trajectory of Russian democracy.

But why are the political left so weak? The answer is that they are focusing on all the wrong issues. LGTBQQ rights, climate change, religious tolerance and gender equality are important issues in making our world a better place. But they are not the reason why people decide to vote for one party or another at the ballot box. Hillary Clinton did not lose because every Trump voter is a climate-denier, racist, misogynistic homophobe who wishes to punishes poor people. Though there were likely many of those too. But the reality is that people vote for bread and butter issues and as Bill Clinton once famously quipped, it’s often about “the economy stupid”.

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London Skyline for Christopher Jackson's Blog, The View From Lawrence Street

The Conservative party today lies in tatters. A leader that has lost the support of the public and her party. A party that is seen as out of touch, ruthless and clueless by the British public and nations afar. A government that has no vision and an opponent that offers hope, change and momentum. A momentum towards a past that the Conservative party and its leaders have spent nearly 40 years fighting. Perhaps the only saving grace is that the Conservative party is not alone in its struggles.

Today we see in America, in France, in Italy and across the Western World, that the old political systems and their parties are collapsing. Some are being replaced by new liberal structures. Many are not. During the Cold War the terms of debate were clear and the enemy was clearer. With the end of the Cold War, liberal parties rejoiced in their hard one victory. But they got complacent. They ignored the people and they forgot that Liberalism is not a finite end in and of itself. Rather, it is a mechanism for helping those who govern to make choices for the future. But there was no plan for the future. No dream end game or envisaged utopia. In short, they forgot the most human of all things. They forgot that people need hope of a brighter and better tomorrow.

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London Skyline for Christopher Jackson's Blog, The View From Lawrence StreetThe election today represents a reversion to the mean for British politics. For the first time since 1992, the voters of the UK face a clear choice between Labour and Conservatives. For many this is unsettling. My generation grew up with the Centre Ground. A place where limited ideologies existed and variations between the parties were driven more by local issues and individual biases than existential differences in party governing ideologies. This is how the awfully phrased “millennials” think of politics. A choice between technocratic governments with different faces. Until today.

Today ideology is back, and as I have written before, this has been a shot in the arm for the health of UK democracy. The Brexit referendum marked the first nationwide turnout above 70% in 30 years and repeated polling suggests that the 18-24yr old turnout will be a record 60% or better. But with ideology and passion comes clear winners and clear losers. In part that is why this election is so much harder than those before. There is a trade-off and whoever wins the election will change the face of Britain.

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London Skyline for Christopher Jackson's Blog, The View From Lawrence Street

It may have been long overdue (like the pun there?), but the UK Prime Minister’s decision to call a general election this morning was a piece of political masterclass and a bold, calculated gamble.

By calling a general election Theresa May is attempting to resolve several major headaches at once, assuming that she is successful: Firstly, the move creates political certainty in the UK at a time where it is sorely needed. Secondly, the move will end questions around the Theresa May’s political support within the party itself and lastly it will strengthen the UK’s negotiating hand with the EU.

If the Conservatives win (especially by an increased margin), then Theresa May will have a clear mandate for her Brexit negotiation strategy. This will give investors, businesses and political leaders a greater sense of what the UK will choose to prioritise and a clearer idea of which figures will manage the UK’s transition from a full EU member state to an independent nation. Assuming that the PM will stay for a full five-year term, the Conservatives would govern until 2022, giving them the ability to handle the transition after Brexit as well and a chance to resolve any outstanding issues with EU members, the WTO and Scotland.
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London Skyline for Christopher Jackson's Blog, The View From Lawrence Street

Since I have been able to talk and read I have always had opinions, but I have always been inspired by listening to others and learning anything and everything I can get my hands on. I don’t know why I felt that writings these opinions, often tempered with good arguments and advice from friends, was something I should do, but we all have our thoughts and ideas so here are a few of mine.

I hope you enjoy……….

For about twenty years it seemed as though life was simpler. The European continent largely avoided any major wars, prosperity recovered after a series of economic challenges, the world become more multicultural, and technological innovations flourished. However, even then the signs of future challenges were clear. New ideas about how society should function were gaining popularity and nation states worried that their culture and identity were under threat by malign foreign influences.

If any of this sounds familiar, it shouldn’t. This was 1820-1840.

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London Skyline for Christopher Jackson's Blog, The View From Lawrence Street

Since I have been able to talk and read I have always had opinions, but I have always been inspired by listening to others and learning anything and everything I can get my hands on. I don’t know why I felt that writings these opinions, often tempered with good arguments and advice from friends, was something I should do, but we all have our thoughts and ideas so here are a few of mine.

I hope you enjoy……….

Given the timing of Prime Minister May’s speech on BREXIT and general anxiousness about what may happen next, I have attempted to summarise and analyse the insights I have gleamed on the process over the last year below.

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