Malaysia must retool education, skills to adapt to knowledge economy

KUALA LUMPUR: Malaysia needs to reinvent its education system to adapt to the knowledge economy, which has led to a sharp reduction in unskilled jobs and spike in demand for data analysts.

Tan Sri Andrew Sheng, Distinguished Fellow of Asia Global Institute, University of Hong Kong, said Malaysia needs to retool its education and skills, and experiment across the spectrum, in positioning itself in the new economy.

“Formal education is outdated because of the speed of new knowledge. Companies do not spend on ‘on the job’ training, because of cost cuts and staff turnover,” he said during his presentation at the NCCIM Economic Forum 2017 yesterday.

Between 2007 and 2015, the loss of unskilled jobs was 55% relative to other jobs while demand for data analysts over the last five years has increased 372%.

In the global supply chain, old economy companies are quickly losing their edge as digitisation moves faster than physical goods while unskilled jobs will be quickly replaced by robotics due to the fast adoption of artificial intelligence (AI).

“Moving up the global value chain is about moving up knowledge intensity. If you don’t get smarter you won’t get the business.

“We are already plugged into the global value chain. We are very successful in that area but we cannot stay where we are. Remaining still is no longer an option. We need to move from tasks to value added growth to high value added production. In order to do that, we need to learn to learn.”

Sheng said the Malaysian economy is doing well but faces many challenges, including subdued energy prices, growing trade protectionism, geopolitical tensions and is still very reliant on foreign labour.

“Are we ready for the new economy? The way trade is growing is phenomenal but the new economy’s challenges are great and very complicated politically because technology is great for us as it gives us whatever we want but at the cost of our jobs,” he said.

When education fails to keep pace with technology, the result is inequality, populism and major political upheaval.

“What the new economy tells us is that robotics or AI (artificial intelligence) calls for Education 4.0, which means that we have to learn for life,” he said.

Sheng noted that Malaysia has successfully moved quietly into education services, medical tourism, higher quality foods, all through upgrading skills, branding and marketing.

“But formal education has become bureaucratised, whereas we are not spending enough on upgrading our labour force, prefering to hire imported labour,” he said.

Although Malaysia cannot compete in terms of scale and speed, especially against giants such as China, it can compete in terms of scope with strength in diversity, soft skills and adaptability.

“We are winners … but have we got the mindset?” Sheng questioned.

He said Malaysia must upgrade its physical technology through research and development, harness its unique social technology and digitise its business model in order to create wealth.

While the government can help, he added, true success comes from community self-help irrespective of race or creed, and retired baby boomers who have wealth of experience must mentor the youth to start thinking about the new economy.

Eva Yeong,
Related Links:

 Andrew Sheng – Institute for New Economic Thinking

Andrew Sheng
is a distinguished fellow at Fung Global Institute, chief adviser …
member of Khazanah Nasional Berhad, the sovereign wealth fund of Malaysia.

MALAYSIA should leverage on social technology, which is its true strength, … Tan Sri Andrew Sheng, who is a distinguished fellow at Asia Global Institute, … the new economy as it involves lifelong learning to adapt, innovate and create. … To enhance the skills of the civil service, he pointed out Singapore’s …

Andrew Sheng – Project Syndicate

Andrew Sheng, Distinguished Fellow of the Asia Global Institute at the University of Hong Kong and a member of the UNEP Advisory Council on Sustainable …

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The Age of Uncertainty

We are entering the age of dealing with unknown unknowns – as Brexit and Turkey’s failed coup show

The dark future of Europe

THE Age of Uncertainty is a book and BBC series by the late Harvard economist John Kenneth Galbraith, produced in 1977, about how we have moved from the age of certainty in 19th century economic thought to a present that is full of unknowns.

I still remember asking my economics professor what he thought of Galbraith, one of the most widely read economists and social commentator of his time. His answer was that Galbraith’s version of economics was too eclectic and wide-ranging. It was not where mainstream economics – pumped up by the promise of quantitative models and mathematics – was going.

Forty years later, it is likely that Galbraith’s vision of the future was more prescient than that of Milton Friedman, the leading light of free market economics – which promised more than it could deliver. The utopia of free markets, where rational man would deliver the most efficient public good from individual greed turned out to be exactly the opposite – the greatest social inequities with grave uncertainties of the future. Galbraith said, “wealth is the relentless enemy of understanding”. Perhaps he meant that poverty and necessity was the driver of change, if not of revolution.

The economics profession was always slightly confused over the difference between risk and uncertainty, as if the former included the latter. The economist Frank Knight (they don’t make economists like that anymore) clarified the difference as follows – risk is measurable and uncertainty is not. Quantitative economists then defined risk as measurable volatility – the amount that a variable like price fluctuated around its historical average.

The bell-shaped statistical curve that forms the conventional risk model used widely in economics assumes that there is 95% probability that fluctuations of price would be two standard deviations from the average or mean.

For non-technically minded, a standard deviation is a measure of the variance or dispersion around the mean, meaning that a “normal” fluctuation would be less than two; so if the standard deviation is say 5%, we would not expect more than 10% price fluctuation 95% of the time.

Events like Brexit shock us because the event gave rise to huge uncertainties over the future. Most experts did not expect Brexit – the variance was more than the normal. It was a reversal of a British decision to join the European Union, a five or more standard deviation event – in which the decision is a 180 degree turn. The conventional risk management models, which are essentially linear models that say that going forward or sequentially, the projected risk is up or down, simply did not factor in a reversal of decision.

In other words, we have moved from an age of risk to an age of uncertainty – where we are dealing with unknown unknowns.

There are of course different categories of unknowns – known unknowns (things that we know that we do not know), calculable unknowns (which we can estimate or know something about through Big Data) and the last, we simply do not know what we may never know.

Big Data is the fashionable phrase for churning lots of data to find out where there are correlations. The cost of big computing power is coming down but you would still have to have big databases to access that information or prediction. Most individuals like you and me would simply have to use our instincts or rely on experts to make that prediction or decision. Brexit told us that many experts are simply wrong. Experts are those who can convincingly explain why they are wrong, but they may not be better in predicting the future than monkeys throwing darts.

Five factors

There are five current factors that add up to considerable uncertainty – geopolitics, climate change, technology, unconventional monetary policy and creative destruction.

First, Brexit and the Turkish coup are geo-political events that change the course of history. In its latest forecasts on the world economy, the IMF has called Brexit “the spanner in the works” that may slow growth further. But Brexit was a decision made because the British are concerned more about immigration than nickels and dimes from Brussels. This is connected to the second factor, climate change.

Global warming is the second major unknown, because we are already feeling the impact of warmer weather, unpredictable storms and droughts. Historically, dynastic collapses have been associated with major climate change, such as the droughts that caused the disappearance of the Angkor Wat and Mayan cultures. Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, Sudan and all are failing states because they are water-stressed. If North Africa and the Middle East continue to face major water-stress and social upheaval, expect more than 1 million refugees to flood northwards to Europe where it is cooller and welfare benefits are better.

The third disruptor is technology, which brings wondrous new inventions like bio-technology, Internet and robotics, but also concerns such as loss of jobs and genetic accidents.

Fourthly, unconventional monetary policy has already breached the theoretical boundaries of negative interest rates, where no one, least of all the central bankers that push on this piece of string, fully appreciate how negative interest rates is destroying the business model of finance, from banks to asset managers.

Last but not least, the Austrian economist Schumpeter lauded innovation and entrepreneurship as the engine of capitalism, through what he called creative destruction. We all support innovation, but change always bring about losses to the status quo. Technology disrupts traditional industries, and those disappearing industries will create loss in jobs, large non-performing loans and assets that will have no value.

Change is not always a zero-sum game, where one person’s gain is another’s loss. It is good when it is a win-win game; but with lack of leadership, it can easily deteriorate into a lose-lose game. That is the scary side of unknown unknowns.

I shall elaborate on how ancient Asians coped with change in the next article.

By Tan Sri Andrew Sheng

Tan Sri Andrew Sheng writes on global issues from an Asian perspective.

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The global mahjong winner’s curse

There is grave concern that the world economy is slipping into what Harvard professor and former US Treasury Secretary Larry Summers calls the global secular deflation. In simple terms, growth has slowed without inflation, despite exceptionally stimulative monetary policy. Larry’s view is that the advanced countries can use fiscal policy to stimulate growth, using massive investments in infrastructure. If needs be, this can be financed by central banks.

Central bank financing fiscal deficits is technically called “helicopter money”, named by the late monetarist economist Milton Friedman as the central bank pushing money out of the helicopter. Strict monetarism thinks that this would cause inflation.

The simple reason why the world is moving into secular deflation is that the largest economies are all slowing for a variety of reasons. Unconventional monetary policy applied since the 2007 crisis has brought central bank interest rates to zero or negative terms in economies accounting for 60% of world GDP.

Most economists blame current slow growth to “lack of aggregate demand” or “excess of aggregate production”. The rich countries are mostly aging and already heavily burdened with debt, so they cannot consume more. After the 2007 global financial crisis, the emerging market economies have slowed down, as demand for their exports have slowed. We are in a vicious circle where global trade growth is now slower than GDP growth, because the US economy is no longer the consumption engine of last resort. China, which has been a huge consumer of commodities, has slowed. Japanese growth has been flat due to an aging population. European growth has not recovered, partly because the leading economy, Germany, calls for austerity by its southern partners.

The Brexit shock threatens to weaken global confidence and send growth down another notch.

Former Bank of England Governor Lord Mervyn King famously called the global monetary order a game of sodoku, in which national current accounts in the balance of payments add up to a zero sum game. This is because in the global trade game, one country’s current account deficit is another country’s surplus. In the past, if the US runs larger and larger current account deficits, world growth is stimulated because everyone wants to hold dollars and has been willing to supply the US with all manners of consumer goods. This has been called an “exorbitant privilege” for the dollar.

The present global monetary order or non-order is a result of the 1971 US dollar de-link from gold, which gave rise to a phase of floating exchange rates and rising capital flows, which some people call Bretton Woods II. The old order, set at the Bretton Wood Conference of 1944, centered around a system of global fixed exchange rates, based on the US dollar link with gold price at US$35 to one ounce of gold.

But flexible exchange rates has resulted in a system where everyone seems to be devaluing their way out of trouble. Has the global secular deflation something to do with Bretton Woods II?

My answer must be yes. The reason lies in what I call, instead of sodoku, the mahjong winner’s curse. The Chinese game of mahjong has four players with a limited number of chips. If one player is the persistent winner, he or she ends up with all the chips and the game stops. Since the global game of trade cannot stop, the winner has both an exorbitant privilege (of being funded by the others) and an exorbitant curse (of bearing the loss if the others won’t or refuse to pay). To keep the game going, the winner has to give or lend the chips back to the other players, who play with the hope of winning the next round.

Indeed, if the winner is generous, the game can be made bigger, because the winner can issue more chips (defined as a reserve currency), which the others are more than willing to borrow and play.

The current world situation is that the Winners are the four reserve currency countries, the dollar, euro, yen and sterling, all of which have interest rates near zero or even negative. Until recently, the Winners blame China and the oil producing countries as having too high current account surpluses. But recently, after the huge European cutback in expenditure, Europe as a whole is the world’s largest current account surplus group of nearly 5% of GDP.

Herein lies the winner’s curse. The emerging markets should be able to stimulate global growth, but are unwilling to run larger current account deficits because they cannot get financing. The richer economies can stimulate global growth, but they are unwilling to do so, because they either feel that they already have too much debt or because they worry that stimulus would lead to inflation.

However, reserve currency countries have an advantage. As long as they are willing to run current account deficits, there will be little inflation because the world economy has huge excess capacity and surplus savings. If emerging markets run higher current account deficits, they will have to depreciate, which is exactly what Brazil, South Africa and others have done.

The winner’s curse is that if Europe is now unwilling to reflate and spend, the world will continue to slow. Indeed, in a world of greater geo-political risks, money is fleeing to the US dollar and the yen, causing both to appreciate.

What these capital flows into the reserve currencies when their interest rate is zero and they are unable to reflate imply is that the dollar and yen play the deflationary role of gold in the 1930s. As more and more mahjong players hold gold and don’t spend, the world global trade and growth game slows further. The mahjong winner’s curse requires the winners to stimulate and spend, bearing higher credit risks. That’s the privilege and responsibility of winners in the global game. If not, look out for more global secular deflation.

By Tan Sri Andrew Sheng who writes on global issues from an Asian perspective.

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Dealing with the new abnormal negative interest rate policies with exceptional high debt

Negative rates: ECB president Mario Draghi at the Brussels Economic Forum on Thursday. The ECB and Bank of Japan are already experimenting with negative interest rate policies. – Reuters
HOW can this be normal?

Twenty-nine countries with roughly 60% of the world’s GDP have monetary policy rates of less than 1% per annum. The world is awash with debt, with sovereign, corporate and household debt of over US$230 trillion or roughly three times world GDP.

To finance their large debt and deal with deflation, both the European Central Bank (ECB) and Bank of Japan are already experimenting with negative interest rate policies (NIRP). If these do not work, look out for helicopter money, which means central bank funding of even larger fiscal deficits.

Either way, at near zero interest rates, the business model of banks, insurers and fund managers are broken. Deutschebank’s CEO has recently warned that European bank profits will struggle more as negative interest rates play into deposit rates. No wonder bank shares are trading below book value.

The problem with the current economic analysis is that no one can ascertain whether exceptionally low interest is a symptom or a cause of deep chronic malaise. Exceptionally high debt burden can only be financed by exceptionally low interest rates. The Fed now feels confident enough to raise interest rates, which means that the US asset bubbles will begin to deflate, spelling trouble to those who borrow too much in US dollars, which would include a number of emerging markets.

As Nomura chief economist Richard Koo asserts, the world has followed Japan into a balance sheet recession, with the corporate sector refusing to invest and consumer/savers too worried about outcomes to spend. The solution to a balance sheet (imbalanced) story is to re-write the balance sheet, which most democratic government cannot do without a financial crisis. 

Like Japan, China’s dilemma is an internal debt issue of left hand owing the right hand, since both countries are net lenders to the world. This means that foreigners cannot trigger a crisis by withdrawing funds. The Chinese national balance sheet is also almost unique because the financial system is largely state-owned lending mostly (about two thirds) to state-owned enterprises or local governments. The Chinese household sector is also lowly geared, with most debt in residential mortgages and even these were bought (until recently) with relatively high equity cushions.

Unlike the US federal government which had a net liability of US$11 trillion or 67% of GDP at the end of 2013, the Chinese central government had net assets of US$4 trillion or 42% of GDP. Chinese local governments had net assets of a further US$11 trillion or 123% of GDP, compared to US local government net assets of 45% of GDP. Local governments hold more assets than central or federal government because most state land and buildings belong to provincial or local authorities.

Thus, unlike the US where households own 95% of net assets in the country, Chinese households own roughly half of national net assets, with the corporate sector (at least half of which is state-owned) owning roughly 30% and the state the balance. In total, the Chinese state owns roughly one-third of the net assets within the country, compared to net 4% for the US federal and state governments.

Sceptics would argue that Chinese statistics are overstated, but even if the Chinese state net assets are halved in value (because land valuation is complicated), there would be at least US$7.5 trillion of state net assets (net of liabilities) or 82% of GDP to deal with any contingencies.

Furthermore, unlike the Fed, ECB or Bank of Japan, the People’s Bank of China derives its monetary power mostly from very high levels of statutory reserves on the banking system, which is equivalent to forced savings to finance its foreign exchange reserves of US$3.2 trillion. Thus, the central bank has more room than other central banks to deal with domestic liquidity issues.

What can be done with this high level of state net assets, which is in essence public wealth? My crude estimate is that if the rate of return on such assets can be improved by 1% under professional management, GDP could be increased by at least 1.5 percentage points (1% on 165% of GDP of net state assets).

How can this re-writing of the balance sheet be achieved? There are two possibilities. One is to allow local governments to use their net assets to deleverage their own local government debt and their own state-owned enterprise debt. This could be achieved through professionally managed provincial level asset management/debt restructuring companies.

The second method is inject some of the state net assets into the national and provincial social security funds as a form of returning state assets to the public. People tend to forget that other than the painful restructuring of state-owned enterprises in the late 1990s, which led to the creation of China’s global supply chain, the single largest measure to create Chinese household wealth was the selling of residential property at below market prices to civil servants.

The size of the wealth transfer was never officially calculated, but it paved the way for boosting of domestic consumption by giving many households the beginnings of household security.

The injection of state assets into national and social security funds was not achieved in the 1990s, because the state of provincial social security fund accounting was not ready. But if China wants to boost domestic consumption and improve healthcare and social security, now is the time to use state assets to inject into such funds.

At the end of 2014, Chinese social security fund assets amounted to 4 trillion yuan, compared with central government net assets of 27 trillion yuan (Chinese Academy of Social Science data, 2015). Hence, the injection of state assets (including injection by provincial and local government) into social security funds as a form of stimulus to domestic consumption and more professional management of public wealth is clearly an affordable policy option.

In sum, at the individual borrower level, there is no doubt an ever increasing leverage ratio in China is not sustainable. But the big picture situation is manageable. If the policy objective is to improve overall productivity (and GDP growth) by improving the output of public assets, the timing is now.

By Tan Sri Andrew Sheng who is Distinguished Fellow, Asia Global Institute, University of Hong Kong.


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Beware when elephants Trump-et! Trump victory a major global risk

Collective and mutual understanding needed to get out of oncoming global deflation


Rajan: ‘We can no longer ignore the elephant in the room, either theoretically or practically. – Bloomberg

SPRING is the time for conferences. I was lucky to join two excellent conferences last week. One was in Singapore organised by the Nanyang Technological University Para Limes Institute on “Silent Transformations”, followed by another on “Advancing Asia – Investing for the Future”, organised by the IMF and the Ministry of Finance, India in New Delhi.

Para Limes ( is an institute dedicated to complexity studies – the idea that we cannot see the world from partial analysis, but must take into consideration the interconnected complex whole.

Professor Geoffrey West, former President of the Sante Fe Institute (the first of the complexity institutes founded out of the scientists that participated in the Los Alamos nuclear programme) and a leading thinker on growth, innovation and urban life, delivered a brilliant view on the sustainability of present growth models.

Modern life and culture is increasingly urban, because the larger the city, the more efficient the usage of energy and resources, but there are costs in terms of pollution, crowding and spillovers.

In other words, growth accelerates exponentially until the economy reaches maturity and slows down, and if there is no longer innovation and change, growth can even become negative.

Life follows an S-curve (sigmoid for the technically-minded), and therefore growth can only be sustained with continued innovation and reform – exactly what the Chinese are attempting.

West’s ideas resonated with me during the “Advancing Asia” conference, where the future of India became a major theme within the Asian growth story.

India is today one of the youngest (demographic labour force) growth stories, today the fastest growing and by 2050 the largest population in the world.

Without doubt, the Indians intend to use 21st technology to leapfrog traditional forms of growth, including development through knowledge and services, and less through manufacturing, currently dominated by East Asia. In contrast, the Chinese economy, currently the world’s number 2, is slowing and also aging.

In Beijing, the world sighed with relief as the Chinese Premier Li Keqiang committed to steady growth, stability in the RMB and continuous reform.

As oil prices seemed to stabilise at around US$40 per barrel and the Fed committed to slower interest rate adjustments, financial markets actually turned back upwards.

The Delhi conference was marked by extremely high quality debate on the future of growth models.

The key question before us is whether Asia, as one of the fastest growth regions, can overcome the global debt deflation. There is an existential question that the West (advanced countries including Japan) is unwilling to address.

Reserve Bank of India Governor Raghuram Rajan, arguably one of the most thoughtful of central bank governors, posed the question as the “elephant in the room” – a big issue that is right in front of us, but none of us want to address.

The basic question is why current growth is slowing and what policies can we adopt to get out of this debt deflation trap.

The advanced countries refuse to adopt fiscal expansion, because of internal politics and the growing debt overhang. Increasingly, they use quantitative easing (QE) or unconventional monetary policy to try and expand aggregate demand.

The trouble is that QE is outliving its usefulness, but has very negative spillovers on emerging markets, such as volatile capital flows, declining trade and lack of long-term investments.

The unspoken policy conundrum is that advanced countries refuse to admit that these spillovers matter.

Firstly, these spillovers are notoriously difficult to measure accurately. Secondly, central banks owe their allegiance to domestic authorities and would ignore pleas by neighbours or foreigners.

Thirdly, no one wants to admit that QE basically amounts to currency depreciation, which then forces emerging markets to also devalue in order to maintain their competitiveness.

Governor Rajan’s view is that we can no longer ignore the elephant in the room, either theoretically or practically.

If we continue to do so, the whole system could degenerate into a global deflation or worse.

Hence, he argued cogently for the beginnings of a conversation on how to grow stably and sustainably together, namely a consistent and legitimate set of international monetary rules.

The Delhi conference laid out the fundamental dilemmas in today’s growth trap. Monetary and fiscal policies are conducted through national agendas, which have spillovers onto others, but these policies do not add up in a global system.

Both the theoretical and geopolitical framework are partial, interactive and contradictory, because what is right for a single country can be wrong for the system as a whole.

Partial views are like blind men trying to describe an elephant. None of them get it right.

But partial or silo views end up with individual action or non-action that may be collectively wrong. For example, former Fed Chairman Dr Bernanke famously argued in 2005 that the US lost monetary control because of excess savings by the emerging markets.

From a system point of view, this is like an elephant complaining that it has become fat because the grass is growing too much. The grass grows because the elephant’s piss and poo fertilises the plain, whereas the gas emitted increases carbon as a spillover. Indeed, if there is too much liquidity provided, some of the smaller animals get drowned.

The yuan faces a similar dilemma. If it devalues, temporarily Chinese trade will recover, but if everyone devalues at the same rate, there will be no advantage.

However, China will have to undergo even more painful deflation with a stable exchange rate against the US dollar.

Because of China’s size, many of its trading partners could be hurt if China slows further.

Collectively, the current global monetary rules do not acknowledge a collective action to help make such adjustments more smoothly.

There is an old African and Asian saying that when elephants fight, the grass gets trampled.

The grass gets trampled even when elephants are dancing. We need collective and mutual understanding to get out of the oncoming global deflation.

But leadership and statesmanship are scarce when the dark clouds loom. For the next year or so, electioneering and partisan views will trump moderation and mutual understanding.

When bull elephants like Trump trumpet their charge, beware of global consequences.

By Andrew Sheng

Tan Sri Andrew Sheng writes on global issues from Asian perspective.


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Trump victory a major global risk: EIU


Short-sighted: Trump’s unpredictable foreign policy policy is making many observers nervous – AFP


LONDON: The prospect of Donald Trump winning the US presidency represents a global threat on a par with militancy destabilising the world economy, according to British research group EIU.

In the latest version of its Global Risk assessment, the Economist Intelligence Unit ranked victory for the Republican front-runner at 12 on an index where the current top threat is a Chinese economic “hard landing” rated 20.

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Justifying the threat level, the EIU highlighted the tycoon’s alienation towards China as well as his comments on extremism, saying a proposal to stop Muslims from entering the United States would be a “potent recruitment tool for militant groups”.

It also raised the spectre of a trade war under a Trump presidency and pointed out that his policies “tend to be prone to constant revision”.

“He has been exceptionally hostile towards free trade, including notably NAFTA (the North American Free Trade Agreement), and has repeatedly labelled China as a ‘currency manipulator’.” it said.

“He has also taken an exceptionally right-wing stance on the Middle East and terrorism, including, among other things, advocating the killing of families of terrorists and launching a land incursion into Syria to wipe out IS (and acquire its oil).”

By comparison it gave a possible armed clash in the South China Sea an eight — the same as the threat posed by Britain leaving the European Union — and ranked an emerging market debt crisis at 16.

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A Trump victory, it said, would at least scupper the Trans-Pacific Partnership between the US and 11 other American and Asian states signed in February, while “his hostile attitude to free trade, and alienation of Mexico and China in particular, could escalate rapidly into a trade war.”

“There are risks to this forecast, especially in the event of a terrorist attack on US soil or a sudden economic downturn,” it added.

However, the organisation said it did not expect Trump to defeat his most likely Democratic opponent, Hillary Clinton, in an election and pointed out that Congress would likely block some of his more radical proposals if he won November’s election.

Rated at 12 alongside the prospect of a Trump presidency was the threat of Islamic State, which the EIU said risked ending a five-year bull run on US and European stock markets if terrorist attacks escalated.

The break-up of the eurozone following a Greek exit from the bloc was rated 15, while the prospect of a new “cold war” fuelled by Russian interventions in Ukraine and Syria was put at 16.- AFP

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