From trade war to global anarchy?


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The arrest of a top Huawei executive may spark a conflict that could cripple America’s rival and unleash chaos in the world order.

WE shouldn’t be misled into thinking that the “trade war” between the United States and China is being resolved following their presidents’ recent meeting.

Instead, President Donald Trump is taking the conflict way beyond tariffs into many other areas in a comprehensive attempt to stop or slow down China’s economic development. This has implications not only for China and countries like Malaysia, which are integrated into the Chinese production chains.

The evolving conflict spells the end of the Western countries’ belief in the win-win benefits of trade and investment liberalisation. It accompanies the emergence of an alternative view that China and some other countries are not partners after all but rivals that must be checked.

Just as Trump and China Presi­dent Xi Jinping were sitting down for dinner on the sidelines of the G20 summit to thrash out a “truce” to their tariff war, the Canadian authorities were arresting the daughter of the owner of Huawei, China’s giant technology company whose smartphone sales are now bigger than that of Apple’s iPhone and second globally only to Samsung phones.

Huawei chief financial officer Meng Wanzhou was in transit at Vancouver airport when she was detained at the request of the US on the grounds that her company violated US sanctions against Iran years ago. Only after many days was she released on bail, and she has to wear an electronic tracker.

The Chinese government called the action “very nasty” and Chinese citizens are outraged. It would be equivalent to China arresting Melinda Gates, co-head of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, for alleged violation of China’s regulations on healthcare. In the whole Western world, there would have been a tremendous outcry and threats of very dire consequences.

Yet the Chinese are supposed to accept Meng’s arrest as a routine matter that is unrelated to the trade war. It cannot be sheer coincidence that years after the alleged crime, the arrest took place at the exact hour that Xi was having dinner with Trump to work out a truce.

The incident reminds us of the US accusation against another Chinese tech leader, ZTE Corp, in 2017 of breaking the same sanctions. A ban was imposed on ZTE from buying telecom chips from US company Qulcomm, which paralysed the company for weeks. Only much later was a political deal struck, with ZTE paying a fine before resuming production.

With China, Trump is concerned not so much with his country’s big trade deficit, but more with the threat to America’s global supremacy.

Suspicions over China’s global ambitions became certainty in the fevered minds of Trump and his hawkish advisers when Xi moved from the rhetoric of the Chinese dream to the concrete industrial plan of Made in China 2025.

This was to get Chinese firms to be world leaders in 10 high-tech sectors, including artificial intelligence, robotics, semiconductors, electric cars and aerospace.

Alarmed by the prospect of Chin­ese domination of the commanding industries of the future, Trump has been countering the ways by which China is developing its world-class companies. This is through trade, investments, subsidies and support, and acquisition of technologies and intellectual property.

The extra tariffs are meant to inhi­bit Chinese exports. The new Export Control Reform Act increa­ses powers to regulate US exports of emerging and foundational technologies of importance to national security, and can be used to ban sales of components and technologies to China.

To prevent Chinese companies from buying into US companies (and acquiring their technologies), the review powers of the US Com­mittee on Foreign Investment have been strengthened.

Last month, new national security rules were passed to allow review of small minority investments into sensitive US technologies, including biotechnology, nanotechnology and wireless communications equipment. The aim is to hinder Chinese firms from buying even small stakes in US tech start-ups.

The US has also been blocking attempts by Chinese firms to take over or buy controlling stakes in US companies, also on national security grounds. For example, the same com­mittee recently refused to app­rove a US$1.2bil (RM5bil) deal bet­ween Money Gram, a US money transfer company, and Ant Financial, a Chin­ese electronic payment company.

European countries and Australia are also increasingly restricting Chinese companies from investing in or taking over domestic firms.

Moreover, the US has banned the use of Huawei’s 5G-related equipment, with Australia and New Zealand following suit.

US officials have also been touring Europe to warn against choosing Huawei equipment, leading to growing concerns over the risk of Chinese spying and the security of 5G networks that use Huawei technology.

When slapping extra tariffs on Chinese products, Trump accused China of intellectual property theft and forced technology transfer.

The US actions cited national security grounds or used the unilateral Section 301 of its domestic trade law. Most World Trade Organ­isation (WTO) law experts view these actions to be a violation of various WTO laws.

Many countries have taken cases against the US in the WTO.

Perhaps feeling that the WTO rules constrain several of its planned actions, the US has moved to cripple the organisation’s dispute settlement system by blocking its appellate body from adding new members.

By the end of 2019, that body will not have enough members left and the WTO will become ineffective as it loses its strongest function.

There would be no more formal way within the multilateral trade system to legally challenge the US actions against China or other countries. Or for any country to challenge the actions of another. The system would break down.

Then the global trade order would slip from rules-based to each country for itself. America first, France first, Britain first, are already in vogue, and many others will follow suit.

The trade war that started with some aluminium and steel may thus snowball into a world of anarchy, where only might prevails.

It is an awful scenario, but not an unrealistic one to ponder upon as 2018 draws to a close.

It is not too late to halt this trend, but something has to give or change drastically in the US, if we are to have even a small chance to avoid disaster.

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Global Trends  by martin khor

Martin Khor is adviser of the Third World Network. The views expressed here are entirely his own.

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Tariff war threatens world trading system


TODAY marks another milestone in the escalating global trade war that threatens to shake the foundations of the world trading system and cause economic uncertainty at a time of financial fragility. It’s an altogether bad development that adds more gloom to global economic prospects.

Last week, the United States announced it would slap an additional 10% tariff on US$200bil worth of imports from China. Hours later, China said it would put 5% to 10% extra tariffs on US$60bil of imports from the US.

Both sets of tariff increases come into effect today. But that’s not all.

The US also said it would raise the extra tariffs on the US$200bil of imports from 10% now to 25% at the end of the year. And if China retaliates (which it now has), the US might slap higher tariffs on yet another US$267bil of Chinese imports.

This comes on top of tariffs on an initial US$50bil worth of imports that the US had placed on Chinese imports a few months ago, and equivalent tariffs on US$50bil on US imports that China imposed as retaliation.

And even before that, the US had put extra tariffs on steel and aluminium imports from all countries, except a few that were exempted for the time being.

The US is also threatening to put tariffs on imported auto vehicles and parts, including those from Europe. That is on hold because of a bilateral deal reached, but could be re-ignited if President Donald Trump is not satisfied with Euro­pean behaviour.

The US itself is experiencing negative effects of this trade war. The prices of the initial US$50bil of imported Chinese products have started to go up in the US, raising costs for both consumers and producers.

The Chinese are similarly affected. Exports of both countries are also bound to decline, and this will eventually affect their overall economic growth.

There will be collateral effects on other countries. In Asia, those that are integrated in the global supply chain will find less demand for their exports of components to China. The effect on Malaysia is projected by analysts to be around 0.4 to 0.7 percentage point of GNP in 2019.

This could be offset by positive effects. Some companies producing in China are considering relocating to other countries, including Malaysia, to escape the US’ punitive tariffs. And some Malaysian products may become cheaper than Chinese products, which will now attract extra duties.

But it is likely that the bad effects will outweigh any such good effects, at least in the short run.

It is clear that the US is to blame for the trade war. Its unilateral actions are against the spirit and rules of the trading system, and have in fact undermined its legitimacy and viability.

The steel and aluminium tariffs were imposed under the US security clause of its domestic trade law, while the other tariff increases are under Section 301 of the trade law. The US actions are against various World Trade Organisation (WTO) rules.

Challenges to the US unilateral measures have been taken by China and other countries at the WTO. If the US is found in violation, which is quite likely, it has to stop its actions or face retaliation: the countries that win the cases heard by the WTO panels of experts are allowed to impose equivalent tariffs on US products.

However, the US has engineered a crisis in the WTO’s dispute settlement system so that soon the outcome of successful cases against it cannot be implemented.

This is because the US is now paralysing the WTO’s Appellate Body by refusing to allow new members of the body to be appointed to replace those retiring. Soon there will be only three members left, out of a full body of seven. Two more will be retiring in January 2019. A minimum of three members is needed to sit on a case.

Thus, if a lower-level panel rules against the US’ unilateral actions, and the US lodges an appeal that cannot be heard because there are not enough appellate body members, the panel decision cannot be enforced.

This would make the WTO quite a toothless organisation. There would be no legal remedy to enforce penalties for breaking the WTO laws. Countries that impose unilateral tariff increases can get away with it. In turn, other countries would also do the same.

The rules-based trade system is already starting to break down. We are now seeing blatant protectionism by the US and retaliation by affected countries. Within months, the trade war could spread, with the law of the jungle becoming more prominent.

Tears will not be shed in the developing countries if some rules cannot be upheld anymore, such as the WTO’s TRIPS agreement on intellectual property. The free trade economist Jagdish Bhagwati has said the TRIPS treaty does not belong in the WTO.

But what all members like about the WTO is its role in ensuring the predictability that their exports can sell in the markets of its members, with tariffs at rates agreed to at the WTO.

If that predictability is lost, then there can be a lot of uncertainty, as one country after another can unilaterally impose extra tariffs on other countries, which may then trigger retaliation.

This breakdown of the trading system may be the more serious effect of what started as a US-initiated trade war.

Trump may not care what happens to the system, as he has said many times that the WTO is a terrible organisation that the US should leave. And his recent actions, in fact, seem calculated to undermine, if not destroy it.

It is a new world we are looking at, in a scenario that would not have appeared possible a year or even months ago.

Policy makers, companies, analysts and the public should ponder about this, even as they follow the details of the tit-for-tat trade war that the US is waging against China and other countries.

Martin Khor is adviser of the Third World Network. The views expressed here are entirely his own.

Credit: Global Trend by Martin Khor

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We also hope that the Chinese public gets to know the causes and effects of the event and the steadiness of the Chinese government’s policies. No matter how long China-US trade conflicts last, China is doing what it should. China is honest and principled and a major trade power with intensive strengths. No one can take us down.

US hysterical in blocking sci-tech exchanges

The US is anxious about its temporary gains and losses. One minute it wants Sino-US exchanges, but the next it worries China is taking advantage. Its relevant policies are bound to change all the time. Its latest decision is like the trade war. Washington’s purpose is to drag Beijing down, but it will mostly hurt itself.

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Be ready – financial crisis is near


Prepare Now for the Next Financial Crisis

THE financial crisis affecting developing countries arrived in full-scale fashion in our region last week when the Indonesian economy experienced shocks reminiscent of the Asian crisis 20 years ago.

With the crisis coming so close to home, it is time to contemplate what may unfold in the near future and list measures to respond to each scenario, so that we are not taken by surprise.

The agreement reached with Singa­pore to postpone construction of the Kuala Lumpur-Singapore high-speed rail (HSR) project until end-May 2020 (with Malaysia paying S$15mil [RM45.1mil] in cost) was an achievement. It allows us a gap of two years before having to meet the mega project’s large expenses.

The next couple of years will be crucial, as the country will be in the midst of managing the “perfect storm” of servicing the trillion-ringgit government debt and preventing the government deficit from ballooning, while facing the challenges of the emerging global financial crisis.

In this tight situation, every billion ringgit counts; indeed every single ringgit counts.

As more discoveries are made of missing money, whether due to the 1MDB scandal or unpaid tax refunds, there is increasing pressure to save money and cut costs to avoid wider deficits.

So the HSR’s two-year deferment helps a lot. It may be like kicking the can down the street, but hopefully, the situation will improve by the end of the two years to allow the can to be picked up, especially if during the period, ways are found to cut the overall cost of the project.

Other projects too have to be scrutinised. Besides the East Coast Rail Link and Trans Sabah gas pipeline projects, there are many other projects whose costs have to be examined, and whose implementation can be postponed or cancelled.

Besides the scourge of overpricing and kickbacks, there is the over-riding concern that a financial crisis has to be averted.

Indonesia’s Energy Minister last week announced that energy projects worth US$25bil (RM103.64bil) and representing half of President Joko Widodo’s grand electricity programme, would be postponed or restructured. This is to save US$8bil (RM33.1bil) to US$10bil (rm41.45bil) on imports for the projects.

Indonesia is also raising tariffs to 10% on over 1,000 goods in a move to reduce the import bill.

These are some measures the country is forced to take as its economy enters full crisis mode. It could even face a meltdown of the 1998-99 scale. The rupiah fell to almost 15,000 per US dollar, the lowest point since the 1998 crisis.

Indonesia is vulnerable to a financial crisis due to its dual deficits (in the current account and government budget), large external debt and high foreign ownership of equity and government bonds.

Indonesia is caught in a vicious cycle, which is typical when financially liberalised countries follow orthodox fire-fighting policies. When the markets perceive that the external reserves could be insufficient to pay for imports, service debts and absorb potential capital outflows, the currency depreciates.

The perception sparks a self-fulfilling prophecy. The fall in currency makes it more difficult for the government and companies to service foreign loans, and also prompts investors to pull out their money.

In such a situation, the government raises the interest rate to incentivise investors to retain their money in the country. Indonesian interest rates have risen by 1.25 percentage points since May.

However, the side effect is that homebuyers and companies find it more difficult to service their mortgage and business loans. Credit slows down, and so does the economy. This in turn causes the currency to drop further, prompting more rounds of interest rate increases, which lead to loan defaults and bankruptcies.

The economy goes into recession, leading to more capital outflows, including by local people. The currency drops again, recession deepens, and the cycle continues.

Indonesia is still at the start of this cycle. Hopefully it will find the policy tools, including unorthodox ones that work, to avoid a long stay in the spiral. But Indonesia is by no means alone. Argentina and Turkey are deep in their crises, and more and more countries are suffering the contagion effect, including South Africa, India, Iran and the Philippines.

Following the 2008-09 global financial crisis that especially hit the United States and Europe, many hundreds of billions of dollars rushed to emerging markets, including Malaysia, in search of higher yields. The liquidity was created by quantitative easing (government pumping money into the banking system) and low interest rates in the US and Europe.

Now the funds are leaving the emerging economies and returning to the US. This is due to the US policy reversing to quantitative tightening, the rise in its interest rates, and fears of an emerging market crisis and a worsening trade war.

Developing countries vulnerable to currency decline, a pull-out of funds and a crisis are those with significant current account deficits, government budget deficits and debts; low foreign reserves; large external debt; and high foreign ownership of local bonds and equities.

Malaysia is so far safe but it is wise not to be complacent. It is not easy to escape contagion once it spreads.

A few warning signs have appeared, such as a narrowing of the current account surplus and significant portfolio investment outflows (both in the second quarter), and a weakening of the ringgit, besides the larger than previously reported government debt and the need to prevent the budget deficit from increasing.

The old Scout motto, “Be Prepared”, comes in handy at times like this. It is good to prepare now for any eventuality, so as to avoid being caught by surprise.

Credit: Martin Khor Global Trends The Staronline

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Trade war’s twrist: US and EU gang up deal against developing countrries?


IN the past few days, there has been a new twist to the global trade war. The United States, which had threatened to impose a 25% additional tariff on European cars, made a deal with the European Union.

US President Donald Trump suspended the automobile tariff plan and may exempt the EU from the earlier US tariffs on aluminium and steel.

In exchange, the EU countries will buy more soybean and energy products from the US, and the two giants will work to eliminate tariffs and subsidies in all industrial pro­ducts traded between them.

Trump and European Commis­sion president Jean-Claude Juncker also agreed to work to reform the World Trade Organisation (WTO), and to tackle China’s market abuse, according to a Reuters report.
“If it holds, the US-EU pact could allow both to focus on China, whose economic rise threatens both,” added the report.

Trump’s economic advisor Larry Kudlow said that, “US and EU will be allied in the fight against China, which has broken the world trading system, in effect”.

Thus, the US-EU deal appears to be both good and bad news. Good because there is a cooling off on one front of the global trade war. Bad because the traditional Western allies may gang up to attack not only China but also the rest of the developing countries.

The US and EU may now jointly pressurise China on various issues. A bigger aim is to hinder China from its Made in China 2025 plan to upgrade its domestic industry in 10 high-tech areas including robotics, autonomous and electric cars, artificial intelligence, biotech and aviation. They do not want Chinese firms to emerge as world-class cham­pions that rival American and European companies.

The US, EU and Japan last December signed an understanding to jointly act against China on trade issues, including steel overcapacity, technology transfer, and the role of subsidies, state financing and state-owned enterprises.

Over the years, the EU has turned to some developing countries as potential allies when it has a conflict with the US but eventually it strikes a deal with the US and then the two Western powers unite and take aim at the developing countries.

This famously happened in the early 2001-2003, when the EU fought the US in the WTO over agriculture subsidies. Then they reached an understanding to protect their own subsidies while pressurising developing countries to open up their agricultural markets.

Today, developed countries continue to spend many hundreds of billions of dollars in subsidies, as well as maintain high tariffs, to keep their farms in business.

The US and EU also flood the world market with their artificially cheapened farm goods, while insisting that developing and poor countries open their markets through lower tariffs for both agricultural and industrial products. This hypocritical practice is at the heart of the imbalances and inequities of the world trading system.

Now, as part of their deal, the US and EU seem to want to continue maintaining double standards. They agreed to cut indus­trial tariffs and subsidies to zero, but to leave alone their agriculture tariffs and subsidies.

Moreover, they agreed to work on reforming the WTO, without spelling out what this means. At the WTO, the US and EU have recently moved to change the way the system has differentiated between developed and developing countries.

Recognising the weaknesses of developing countries, the WTO long ago adopted the principle of special and differential treatment (SDT) for developing countries.

Under this principle, in talks to cut tariffs, developed countries have to cut by a higher percentage than developing countries, and the least developed countries (LDCs) need not reduce tariffs at all. In various rules, developing countries and especially LDCs are mandated to take on less obligations.

However, the developed countries are now challenging the SDT principle.

“Developing and least-developed countries are facing the worst crisis yet at the WTO due to the sustained assault by the US along with the EU and Japan,” according Ravi Kanth in the Geneva-based South-North Development Monitor (SUNS) on July 4.

“Using Trump’s aggressive trade demands as a pretext, some major developed countries such as the EU and Japan have been attempting to deny the SDT flexibilities to deve­loping countries,” SUNS added, quoting a trade envoy from a major developing country.

“The entire system of the WTO is under threat following the Trump administration’s trade initiatives based on reciprocal market access as well as the attempt to foist plurilateral outcomes without multila­teral consensus, and intensified moves to undermine the SDT flexibilities by industrialised countries, particularly the EU.”

Meanwhile, the US actions of unilaterally raising tariffs on alumi­nium and steel, and on US$250bil (RM1 trillion) of Chinese products, violate the WTO’s main principles, threatening the creditability and viability of the organisation itself.

But Trump is not worried or sorry at all. At the beginning of July, he said: “The WTO has treated the United States very badly and I hope they change their ways. They have been treating us very badly for many years, many years and that’s why we were at a big disadvantage with the WTO.”

Said the SUNS article, “In short, the developing and least-developed countries face the prospect of their hard won SDT flexibilities being taken away once and for all to ensure the US stayed at the WTO.”

When the US and EU were locked in a big conflict over auto tariffs, the main enemy of the EU, China and other countries would have been the US.

Now the EU and US have agreed to “reform the WTO” as part of their bilateral deal. It is likely that such an initiative would attempt to reduce the rights of the developing countries, and even to entirely remove the principle of special treatment or even the status of “developing countries” in the WTO.

The trade war could thus have huge collateral damage. All the more reason for the developing countries’ political leaders to pay close attention to what is happening in the trade negotiating and policy­-making arena.

Global Trend by Martin Khor

Martin Khor is advisor of the Third World Network. The views expressed here are entirely his own.
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Did Trump just launch a trade war?


LAST Thursday, US President Do­­­nald Trump signed a proclamation to raise tariffs for steel by 25% and for aluminium by 10%.

It sent shockwaves across the world not only because of the losses to metal exporters, but due to what it may signify – the start of a global trade war that will cause economic disruption and may damage, if not destroy, the multilateral trade system.

The United States, joined by Europe, has been the anchor of the global free trade system since the end of World War II. In practice, this rhetoric of free trade was hypocritical because the West continues to have very high protection of their agriculture sector, which cannot compete with those of many developing countries.

Moreover, the developed countries champion high intellectual property rights standards through an agreement in the World Trade Organisation (WTO), under which their companies create monopolies, set high prices and make excessive profits. This is against the free competition touted by free-trade advocates.

In manufacturing and metals, the developed countries have pressed the others to join them in cutting or removing tariffs and to expand trade, through negotiations in the WTO and its predecessor, the GATT (General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade).

They have argued that poorer countries can best grow richer by cutting their tariffs, thus benefiting consumers and forcing their producers to become more efficient.

Trump’s move upends the ideology of free trade. According to his America First philosophy, if cheaper imports displaced local steel and aluminium producers, these imports must be stopped because a country must make its own key products.

Since the US has been the flag-bearer of the free-trade religion, this has profound effects on other countries. If the leader has changed its mind and now believes in openly protecting its industries, so too can other countries. The basis for liberal trade is destroyed and the old rationale for protectionism is revived.

The WTO rules allow countries adversely affected by imports to take certain measures, but they have to prove that the producers of exporting countries unfairly receive subsidies or set lower prices for their exports. Or they can take “safeguard” measures of raising tariffs but only for a limited period to help affected local producers to adjust.

Trump however made use of a little-used national security clause (Section 232) in the US trade laws to justify his big jump in steel and aluminium tariffs. The clause allows the President to take trade action to defend security. The WTO also has a security exception in GATT Article XXI.

But what constitutes national security is not clearly spelt out either in the US or the WTO laws, and countries can abuse this clause.

The Trump administration tried to justify invoking the security factor by saying steel and aluminium are needed to make weapons of war. But this was undercut by giving exemptions from the increased duties to Canada and Mexico due to their membership of Nafta, the North American Free Trade Agree­ment that includes the US. The exemptions for reasons unrelated to security exposes the security rationale as fake.

Other countries are angry and preparing to retaliate. The European Union has drawn up a list of American products on which its member countries will raise tariffs. China warned it would make an appropriate and necessary res­ponse.

At the WTO General Council on March 8, the US action was attacked. Many countries condemned the unilateral move and the use of the national security rationale. Canada said the security issue “may be opening a Pandora’s box we would not be able to close”.

Brazil expressed deep concern about an elastic or broad application of the national security exception. India said the national security exception under GATT should not be misused and unilateral measures have no place in the trade system. China argued that the over-protected domestic industry would never be able to solve its problems through protectionism.

Many WTO member states will most likely take the US to a dispute panel, and the outcome will have strong consequences. If the panel rules for the US, then other countries will view the decision as permission for all countries to take protectionist measures on the grounds of security.

If the decision goes against the US, it will strengthen the anti-liberal trade faction and tendency in the Trump administration to ignore or even leave the WTO.

Malaysia will be affected by the new tariffs as it exports 96,000 tonnes of steel to the US. But this is small compared to how much steel we import.

The bigger blow to us is the US measure in January to slap up to 30% tariffs on solar cells and panels. Malaysia is the largest photovoltaic cells exporter to the US, with a market share of 30%. The tariff increase will have a big impact on the solar industry, a solar company chief was quoted as saying last month.

The next big protectionist move from the US may come in a few weeks when Trump decides what action, if any, to take against China after considering a Commerce Department report on China’s trade and intellectual property practices.

If strong action against China is announced, China can be expected to take strong retaliatory action.

That may escalate the trade war that is already under way.

Martin Khor is executive director of the South Centre. The views expressed here are entirely his own.

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Critical trends to watch in 2018


There are many issues on a fast and slow boil and some of them could reach a tipping point in the new year

ANOTHER new year has dawned, and it’s time to preview what to expect in 2018.

The most obvious topic would be to anticipate how Donald Trump, the most unorthodox of American presidents, would continue to upset the world order. But more about that later.

Just as importantly as politics, we are now in the midst of several social trends that have important long-term effects. Some are on the verge of reaching a tipping point, where a trend becomes a critical and sometimes irreversible event. We may see some of that in 2018.

Who would have expected that 2017 would end with such an upsurge of the movement against sexual harassment? Like a tidal wave it swept away Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein, film star Kevin Spacey, TV interviewer Charlie Rose and many other icons.

The #MeToo movement took years to gather steam, with the 1991 Anita Hill testimony against then US Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas being a trailblazer. It paved the way over many years for other women to speak up until the tipping point was reached. So, in 2018, expect the momentum to continue, and in more countries.

Another issue that has been brewing is the rapid growth and effects of digital technology. Those enjoying the benefits of the smartphone, Google search, WhatsApp, Uber and online shopping usually sing its praises.

But the “Fourth Industrial Revolution” is like Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. It has many benefits but also serious downsides, and the debate is now picking up.

First, automation with artificial intelligence can make many jobs redundant. Uber displaced taxis, and will soon displace its drivers with driver-less cars.

The global alarm over job losses is resonating at home. An International Labour Organisation report warning that 54% of jobs in Malaysia are at high risk of being displaced by technology in the next 20 years was cited by Khazanah Research Institute in its own study last April. TalentCorp has estimated that 43% of jobs in Malaysia may potentially be lost to automation.

Second is a recent chorus of warnings, including by some of digital technology’s creators, that addiction and frequent use of the smartphone are making humans less intelligent and socially deficient.

Third is the loss of privacy as personal data collected from Internet use is collected by tech companies like Facebook and sold to advertisers.

Fourth is the threat of cyber-fraud and cyber-warfare as data from hacked devices can be used to empty bank accounts, steal information from governments and companies, and as part of warfare.

Fifth is the worsening of inequality and the digital divide as those countries and people with little access to digital devices, including small businesses, will be left behind.

The usual response to these points is that people and governments must be prepared to get the benefits and counter the ill effects. For example, laid-off workers should be retrained, companies taught to use e-commerce, and a tax can be imposed on using robots (an idea supported by Bill Gates).

But the technologies are moving ahead faster than policy makers’ capacity to keep track and come up with policies and regulations. Expect this debate to move from conference rooms to the public arena in 2018, as more technologies are introduced and more effects become evident.

On climate change, scientists frustrated by the lack of action will continue to raise the alarm that the situation is far worse than earlier predicted.

In fact, the tipping point may well have been reached already. On Dec 20, the United Nations stated that the Arctic has been forever changed by the rapidly warming climate. The Arctic continued in 2017 to warm at double the rate of the global temperature increase, resulting in the loss of sea ice.

These past three years have been the warmest on record. The target of limiting temperature rise to 2°C above pre-industrial levels, a benchmark just two years ago by the UN’s top scientific climate panel and the Paris Agreement, seems outdated and a new target of 1.5°C could be adopted in 2018.

But it is much harder to meet this new target. Will political leaders and the public rise to the challenge, or will 2018 see a wider disconnect between what needs to be done, and a lack of the needed urgent response?

Another issue reaching tipping point is the continuing rise of antibiotic resistance, with bacteria mutating to render antibiotics increasingly ineffective to treat many diseases. There are global and national efforts to contain this crisis, but not enough, and there is little time left to act before millions die from once-treatable ailments.

Finally, back to Trump. His style and policies have been disruptive to the domestic and global order, but last year he seemed unconcerned about criticisms on this. So we can expect more of the same or even more shocking measures in 2018.

Opposition to his policies from foreign countries will not count for much. But there are many in the American establishment who consider him a threat to the American system.

Will 2018 see the opposition reach a tipping point to make a significant difference? It looks unlikely. But like many other things in 2018, nothing is reliably predictable.

Global Trends by martin khor

Martin Khor is executive director of the South Centre. The views expressed here are entirely his own.
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The Asian financial crisis – 20 years later




East Asian Economies Remain Diverse

 

It is useful to reflect on whether lessons have been learnt and if the countries are vulnerable to new crises.

IT’S been 20 years since the Asian financial crisis struck in July 1997. Since then, there has been an even bigger global financial crisis, starting in 2008. Will there be another crisis?

The Asian crisis began when speculators brought down the Thai baht. Within months, the currencies of Indonesia, South Korea and Malaysia were also affected. The East Asian Miracle turned into an Asian Financial Nightmare.

Despite the affected countries receiving only praise before the crisis, weaknesses had built up, including current account deficits, low foreign reserves and high external debt.

In particular, the countries had recently liberalised their financial system in line with international advice. This enabled local private companies to freely borrow from abroad, mainly in US dollars. Companies and banks in Korea, Indonesia and Thailand had in each country rapidly accumulated over a hundred billion dollars of external loans. This was the Achilles heel that led their countries to crisis.

These weaknesses made the countries ripe for speculators to bet against their currencies. When the governments used up their reserves in a vain attempt to stem the currency fall, three of the countries ran out of foreign exchange.

They went to the International Monetary Fund (IMF) for bailout loans that carried draconian conditions that worsened their economic situation.

Malaysia was fortunate. It did not seek IMF loans. The foreign reserves had become dangerously low but were just about adequate. If the ringgit had fallen a bit further, the danger line would have been breached.

After a year of self-imposed austerity measures, Malaysia dramatically switched course and introduced a set of unorthodox policies.

These included pegging the ringgit to the dollar, selective capital controls to prevent short-term funds from exiting, lowering interest rates, increasing government spending and rescuing failing companies and banks.

This was the opposite of orthodoxy and the IMF policies. The global establishment predicted the sure collapse of the Malaysian economy.

But surprisingly, the economy recovered even faster and with fewer losses than the other countries. Today, the Malaysian measures are often cited as a successful anti-crisis strategy.

The IMF itself has changed a little. It now includes some capital controls as part of legitimate policy measures.

The Asian countries, vowing never to go to the IMF again, built up strong current account surpluses and foreign reserves to protect against bad years and keep off speculators. The economies recovered, but never back to the spectacular 7% to 10% pre-crisis growth rates.

Then in 2008, the global financial crisis erupted with the United States as its epicentre. The tip of the iceberg was the collapse of Lehman Brothers and the massive loans given out to non-credit-worthy house-buyers.

The underlying cause was the deregulation of US finance and the freedom with which financial institutions could devise all kinds of manipulative schemes and “financial products” to draw in unsuspecting customers. They made billions of dollars but the house of cards came tumbling down.

To fight the crisis, the US, under President Barack Obama, embarked first on expanding government spending and then on financial policies of near-zero interest rates and “quantitative easing”, with the Federal Reserve pumping trillions of dollars into the US banks.

It was hoped the cheap credit would get consumers and businesses to spend and lift the economy. But instead, a significant portion of the trillions went via investors into speculative activities, including abroad to emerging economies.

Europe, on the verge of recession, followed the US with near zero interest rates and large quantitative easing, with limited results.

The US-Europe financial crisis affected Asian countries in a limited way through declines in export growth and commodity prices. The large foreign reserves built up after the Asian crisis, plus the current account surplus situation, acted as buffers against external debt problems and kept speculators at bay.

Just as important, hundreds of billions of funds from the US and Europe poured into Asia yearly in search of higher yields. These massive capital inflows helped to boost Asian countries’ growth, but could cause their own problems.

First, they led to asset bubbles or rapid price increases of houses and the stock markets, and the bubbles may burst when they are over-ripe.

Second, many of the portfolio investors are short-term funds looking for quick profit, and they can be expected to leave when conditions change.

Third, the countries receiving capital inflows become vulnerable to financial volatility and economic instability.

If and when investors pull some or a lot of their money out, there may be price declines, inadequate replenishment of bonds, and a fall in the levels of currency and foreign reserves.

A few countries may face a new financial crisis.

A new vulnerability in many emerging economies is the rapid build-up of external debt in the form of bonds denominated in the local currency.

The Asian crisis two decades ago taught that over-borrowing in foreign currency can create difficulties in debt repayment should the local currency level fall.

To avoid this, many countries sold bonds denominated in the local currency to foreign investors.

However, if the bonds held by foreigners are large in value, the country will still be vulnerable to the effects of a withdrawal.

As an example, almost half of Malaysian government securities, denominated in ringgit, are held by foreigners.

Though the country does not face the risk of having to pay more in ringgit if there is a fall in the local currency, it may have other difficulties if foreigners withdraw their bonds.

What is the state of the world economy, what are the chances of a new financial crisis, and how would the Asian countries like Malaysia fare?

These are big and relevant questions to ponder 20 years after the start of the Asian crisis and nine years after the global crisis.

But we will have to consider them in another article.

By Martin Khor Global Trend

Martin Khor (director@southcentre.org) is executive director of the South Centre. The views expressed here are entirely his own.
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