Assault on Europe
Donald Trump and the New World Order
The inauguration of Donald Trump heralds the arrival of a new world order. The West is weaker than ever before and rising American nationalism poses a threat both to Germany's economy and the European Unión.
When trying to answer the question as to who has the say in the European Union, it's easy to get confused. The European Council, the European Commission, the member states: Even those who know the EU well don't often know who has the last word in Brussels disputes. The confusion isn't new. Former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger famously wondered: "Who do I call if I want to call Europe?"
Today, a new president is moving into the White House and one thing is already clear: Telephone calls between Washington and Brussels won't get any easier. "I spoke to the head of the European Union, very fine gentleman called me up," Donald Trump said this week in a joint interview with the German tabloid Bild and the Times of London. When asked if it was Jean-Claude Juncker, the president of the European Commission, Trump responded: "Yes, ah, to congratulate me on what happened with respect to the election."
Except, the fine gentleman Mr. Juncker wasn't the fine gentleman Mr. Juncker. It was Donald Tusk, the president of the European Council, the powerful body representing the leaders of the EU member states. A former Polish prime minister, Tusk chatted with the future U.S. president for about 10 minutes, but Trump was apparently able to remember neither his name nor his arguments. The European Union, he said in the interview, is "basically a vehicle for Germany," adding that "I believe others will leave," as Britain plans to do.
For more than 60 years, the U.S. has promoted European unity. The country introduced the Marshall Plan, it supported the single European market and backed Europe's eastward expansion following the collapse of the Iron Curtain. But now, a man is entering the White House who is counting on the disintegration of the EU. He would rather negotiate with each country individually, believing that will be more beneficial for America.
A real estate magnate is now the most powerful man in the world and it looks as though he plans to run his administration as though the U.S. were a vast real estate conglomerate. He is after lucrative deals, and those who can't keep up in the competition for the most profitable contracts will be left behind.
Concepts like human rights and the protection of minorities are not part of his vocabulary. His only goal is America's profitability, particularly in global trade, which he sees as a brutal fight for survival and not, as had been normal for his Republican Party, as a peaceful exchange with benefits for both sides. The concept of "win-win" is not one his team adheres to.
The situation could hardly be worse for German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Soon, the EU will be forced to make do without the United Kingdom, the bloc's second-largest economy; right-wing populists are on the advance in Europe; and now Trump is at the helm in the U.S., a man who said in his interview this week that the German chancellor had "made a catastrophic mistake." It would be difficult to formulate a challenge more directly than that.
Can Merkel's Europe now hold together? Can she become a worthy adversary to Trump in the approaching conflicts over trade regulations, international agreements and the liberal legal and economic order that has been so important to the United States for the last six decades?
That which had seemed inconceivable just a short time ago now appears to be a foregone conclusion: A new era is beginning, one in which the certainties that have held true for decades are suddenly no longer valued. They are suddenly vulnerable.
For the most part, that is because the 45th president of the United States of America is simply not interested in the world order that has developed since 1945. He is just as disinterested in the trans-Atlantic partnership and the long-cultivated alliances with Western allies.
An Epochal Shift
For Trump, there is no such thing as friendships and alliances. He is not focused on morals; he is not concerned with dividing the world into good and evil; he does not see the use in unselfishly providing protection to allies, as the U.S. has done for decades with it soldiers stationed in Europe.
"America first" is his slogan, one which helped him win the election. It is the same promise British Prime Minister Theresa May has made to her voters: "Britain first." And Marine Le Pen, head of the French right-wing populist party Front National, is using a similar slogan in that country's ongoing presidential election campaign: "La France d'abord." What, though, will the world look like when there are no longer any grand, binding values and goals? A world in which each country is only looking out for itself?
Most dangerous, it seems, is Donald Trump's deep ignorance of the Western community of values that has developed since World War II. History is not something that concerns him. As such, he feels no obligation to it. NATO? Obsolete. The World Trade Organization? "A disaster."
The new president feels absolutely no sentimentality when it comes to the alliances that arose out of the rubble of World War II. Like no other president before him, he is prepared to call them into question and even, apparently, to bring them to an end. Plus, Trump has no taboos. On the contrary: He loves to break them, he loves to provoke.´
The result is that Europe finds itself on the eve of an epochal shift of the kind it hasn't seen since the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Eastern Bloc. Is this the end of the West as we know it, as former German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer warned a month ago? U.S. historian Anne Applebaum told SPIEGEL in an interview this week that she expects a historical change of course.
"The world order that we've known since the end of the Cold War has been radically transformed," she says.
Russia's annexation of Crimea was the first indication that the global order that we had enjoyed for 25 years was under threat -- and the world simply stood by and watched. Apart from a couple of sanctions, U.S. President Barack Obama left the problem to the Europeans.
Even then, America was no longer interested in overseas autocrats like Bashar Assad and Vladimir Putin.
Europe's Loss, Russia's and China's Gain
The new president will likely continue the process that began under his predecessor: America's withdrawal from global politics. Just that the incoming president is expected to formulate that withdrawal more clearly than Obama did. Trump has pledged to carry out a relentless fight against Islamic State, but otherwise he is an avowed isolationist, intending to stay out of other global conflicts.
In the fight against terrorism, the new president would seem to be leaning toward a close alliance with Russia. A weak, perhaps disintegrating Europe wedged in between the two great powers U.S.A. and Russia, whose presidents get along better than most of their predecessors:
For Europe, such a scenario would be the largest foreign and security policy challenge since World War II. For the last 70 years, Europe could depend on having America at its side. Now, this is no longer a certainty.
The power vacuum that America's withdrawal is creating is particularly welcome to two countries: China and Russia. For the leadership in Beijing, the collapse of the old world order is akin to an act of God: America, China's last rival on its path to becoming a superpower, is pulling back. Never before have the prospects been as good for the realization of the "Chinese Dream," which Xi Jinping has made the slogan of his presidency.
Xi spoke of his global vision this week in Davos, at the annual gathering of the world's economic and financial elite. The rules of international cooperation, he said, must be changed. Beijing isn't happy with Western dominance of global organizations such as the United Nations, the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. China, with its population of 1.3 billion and significant economic strength, sees itself as an alternative. Beijing, Xi said, is prepared to take on more responsibility: "History is created by the brave."
Are we headed for a world in which China -- an authoritarian state in which the Communist Party leadership has a firm grip over the economy, controls the media and censors the internet -- dominates the new global order? Will the 21st century see the realization of Aldous Huxley's "Brave New World" or George Orwell's "1984," the most dystopian visions of the 20th century?
Might Makes Right
For the moment, that seems farfetched. But from Moscow's perspective, new commonalities with the U.S. are emerging. Even before his inauguration, Donald Trump presented the Russian leadership with a significant gift: He branded NATO obsolete and called into question the alliance's principle of collective defense. Things could hardly be going better for Moscow.
Maintaining control over Russia's immediate vicinity is one of the country's core interests while NATO's eastward expansion is seen as a traumatic infringement of that claim. Putin has finally found an ally, in Washington of all places, in his battle against a world order that he has long attacked as being unipolar and unjust. Like Trump, Putin would like a world free of the West's constant moralizing, a world in which might makes right.
The two leaders are also bound by their skepticism of the EU. But there is one significant difference:
In contrast to Trump, Moscow would like to keep the United Nations as a foundation of global order.
UN headquarters in New York is one of the few places where Russia, thanks to its permanent Security Council seat and accompanying veto, can negotiate at eye level with the West and block important decisions, as it did most recently in the Syrian conflict. Everything else can more or less be negotiated with Donald Trump, from Russia's interests in Crimea to America's interests in Syria.
Still, Russia has no illusions: Trump will not determine the direction of U.S. foreign policy on his own. He requires Congressional approval. And Putin's experience with Trump's two predecessors, George W. Bush and Barack Obama, have shown him that initial amicability can soon turn frosty.
As such, the world is left trying to figure out how power will be divvied up in the Trump administration. Will he leave foreign policy to the diplomatic establishment of the Republican Party?
Will he be able to count on Congressional support?
A Foreign World
In an effort to find out, emissaries from the government in Berlin began trying to establish initial contacts with the Trump team not long ago. It was like a trip to a foreign world.
Peter Wittig is one of Germany's most experienced diplomats, having served in the country's Foreign Ministry for the last 35 years. He has served as Germany's ambassador in Lebanon and Cyprus and has sat down across from myriad negotiating partners. But the diplomat has seldom experienced the kind of overblown self-confidence that he has seen in recent months.
He has held several meetings with Trump's son-in-law Jared Kushner, both before and after the election. At their first encounter in spring 2015, it was the Germans who wanted to know more about Trump's plans, with a friendly and reserved Kushner taking careful notes.
But the more often the two met, the more demanding Kushner became, say Berlin diplomatic sources who have read Wittig's meeting reports. The last meeting in New York in December culminated in Kushner's curt question: "What can you do for us?"
Government officials in Berlin speak of an "astounding mixture of arrogance and naiveté" when discussing the conversations they have had with counterparts in the incoming administration. Shortly before Christmas, Merkel's foreign policy adviser Christoph Heusgen traveled to the U.S. for talks with Michael Flynn, tapped by Trump as national security adviser.
Around one year ago, Flynn was a paid speaker at an anniversary party for RT, the Russian propaganda broadcaster.
Heusgen's first impression of Flynn was sobering. At a conference of conservative parliamentarians in Berlin on Wednesday, Heusgen said that some members of the incoming administration "don't have an exhaustive understanding" regarding "certain problems facing the EU and their backgrounds." In other words: The new president's team doesn't have a clue about Europe.
Berlin diplomats still hope that the level-headed foreign policy espoused by cabinet appointees such as future defense secretary James Mattis and future secretary of state Rex Tillerson will hold sway. But nobody thinks that Trump will transform into a passionate defender of the Western alliance. In the campaign, the new U.S. president claimed that he was a "fan" of NATO. But at the same time, he warned Germany that European alliance members would have to increase their financial contributions. At Davos this week, Trump adviser Anthony Scaramucci said that the postwar world order was no longer suitable for the challenges of the 21st century.
America's Greatest Adversaries: Japan and West Germany
That is particularly true when it comes to trade policy, which Trump has for decades seen as a conspiracy against America. For the past several weeks, a March 1990 issue of Playboy magazine has been making the rounds in Merkel's Chancellery. The cover shows a long-haired brunette covered in a black tuxedo jacket next to a slim 40-something: Donald Trump. Inside is a long interview with Trump, in which he talks about what he sees as America's most dangerous adversaries. He doesn't mention Russia or Red China, but Japan and West Germany, countries that he said had robbed the U.S. of its self-esteem. "Their products are better because they have so much subsidy," he said, while America is ensuring that those countries aren't "wiped off the face of the earth in about 15 minutes." He concludes his point by saying: "Our 'allies' are making billions screwing us."
Merkel's staff is convinced that his views haven't changed. Trump's newly formed National Trade Council is to be led by economist Peter Navarro, an avowed opponent of Beijing's "stranglehold" -- which he illustrated in his documentary film "Death by China" with an animation of a Chinese knife being stabbed into a map of the United States. Robert Lighthizer, Trump's designated trade representative, has long been known in Washington circles as a passionate protectionist who misses no opportunity to insist that World Trade Organization rules are "not religious obligations."
Trump adviser Kushner is likewise consumed by the issue of imports to the U.S. and the consequences for American jobs. In a meeting with the German emissary Wittig, he said that the Trump team looked at statistics showing which countries export more to the U.S. than they import. In first place is China, followed by Japan and then Germany. Kushner's message was clear: The situation must change.
Merkel's staff has become certain that conflicts with the new U.S. administration will primarily be focused on two policy areas: foreign trade and relations with Russia. The decisive question is: Can Merkel rely on European backing?
Europe's Last Toast?
It has been conceived as a huge birthday celebration this March in Rome, replete with an anniversary summit and a celebratory statement. The EU intends to celebrate the 60th anniversary of its founding treaties with the pathos we have come to expect from the bloc. But the ceremony is also seen as a message to Trump.
After the in-coming president made clear this week that he believes the EU has outlived its usefulness, it wasn't long before European leaders closed ranks. Europe must "stand together," intoned German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier. Europe, French President François Hollande groused earlier this week, "does not need outside advice to tell it what to do." Meanwhile, European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker admonished Trump not to abandon the trans-Atlantic alliance. "Together, we need to tackle climate change and migration together, fight terrorism with united forces and conquer globalization and its social consequences," he said. But he expects "that it will take a few months until the American president discovers the abundant finer points of Europe."
There are many, though, who believe that the toasts given in Rome this March could be among the last ones for the EU. The number of skeptics has grown even larger since it became clear that Trump would be moving into the White House.
The incoming U.S. president has always viewed the EU as an alliance aimed at weakening America's economy. Now he sees an opportunity to get rid of an unwanted competitor. Officials in Brussels are concerned that one of Trump's foreign policy goals may be that of dividing the EU -- in areas like the environment and energy policy, for example, but particularly in its relationship with Russia.
Trump has made clear that he plans to scrap the hardline taken against the Kremlin by his predecessor. He has also placed a question mark over the future of sanctions against Russia imposed by the West in the course of the Ukraine crisis. In his interview with Bild and the Times this week, Trump said of Merkel and Putin: "I start off trusting both, but let's see how long that lasts. It may not last long at all."
It is a horrifying statement: Merkel needs Washington's support in order to maintain her clear position toward Moscow. A number of EU countries would already prefer to lift most of the sanctions. Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán has outed himself on several occasions as a friend of Russia -- and as an admirer of the new U.S. president, as well. "What a wonderful world," he said following Trump's election. "This also shows that democracy is creative and innovative."
A unanimous vote is required to extend the sanctions. So far, Merkel has been able to achieve consensus in large part because she enjoyed the full support of the American government. "If Trump opposes the sanctions, then Europe will no longer hold together on the issue," says one member of Merkel's cabinet.
European capitals, led by Italy, Hungary and Austria, are already calling for a loosening of some of the punitive measures. Austrian Foreign Minister Sebastian Kurz recently told SPIEGEL in an interview that we need to move away from a punitive system and towards one of "incentive."
A Great Threat to Europe
If Trump sticks with his positions, it is the chancellor's view that Europe could be facing a great threat. Putin could even see himself emboldened to the point he might try to destabilize the Baltic states, without fear of any resistance from the Americans. "Trump's messages about NATO could lead to a situation in which Putin says to himself, 'Let's give it a shot!'" warns Elmar Brok, a confidant of Merkel's. Brok is also a member of the Foreign Affairs Committee in the European Parliament.
Moscow is the first trump card Trump has at his disposal to place Brussels under pressure. The second is London. Barack Obama tried to make it clear to the British that they would be placed at the back of the line when it came to any free trade agreement with the United States if they voted in favor of Brexit. Trump, however, has said he wants to expedite negotiations of a trade treaty with Britain.
That has been a boost to London's self-confidence as it seeks to establish its Brexit negotiating positions. In her speech on Tuesday laying out her roadmap for Brexit, British Prime Minister Theresa May said her government wouldn't even strive to remain part of the EU's single market. The new tune coming from the other side of the English Channel these days is no longer "Brexit means Brexit," but "Brexit means exit." "Trump has strengthened the Brits' negotiating hand," says Markus Ferber, a member of the conservative Christian Social Union, the Bavarian sister party to Merkel's CDU, and of the Economic and Monetary Affairs Committee in European Parliament. "If Clinton had become president, at least we might have got a soft Brexit in the best-case scenario," says Jo Leinen, a member of the center-left Social Democrats who has long been involved in foreign policy affairs in the European Parliament.
So far, the 27 other EU member states have managed to maintain a unified position over their break-away member. Indeed, one diplomat with Britain's Foreign Office says that May's announcement she would not seek a model based on single market memberships like those enjoyed in Switzerland and Norway is a reaction to the tough position taken by the EU. At the same time, it also means that Britain will be removing itself even further from Europe. This coming Monday, EU foreign ministers wanted to back a new Middle East initiative proposed by the French, but British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson blocked the text, secure in the knowledge that Trump wasn't a fan of the proposal either.
There is little doubt that some European politicians will use Trump's inauguration as an occasion to further drive discord within the EU. Should the bloc continue to pursue an ever-closer union? What are the correct fiscal policies? Right now, there are few policies over which Europe isn't divided. Speaking in Davos this week, Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte said, "too many countries are not doing what was promised -- implementing reforms -- particularly in the south of Europe they are not doing that. That is creating a fundamental distrust within Europe and particularly between the north and the south." Fellow panelist Martin Schulz of Germany, who recently left his post as president of the European Parliament, retorted that individual countries needed to stop "giving lessons to other nations" and that pressure should come from the community institutions rather than a handful of countries like Germany or the Netherlands.
'Too Much Time with Nigel Farage'
People in Brussels are plenty familiar with the tones being struck by the new U.S. president, but they are used to hearing them from a much different person. "Trump has spent too much time drinking coffee with Nigel Farage," says Alexander Graf Lambsdorff, a foreign policy expert with the business-friendly Free Democratic Party in the European Parliament. Farage, the former leader of UKIP, the party that gave birth to the Brexit movement, accompanied Trump at times during the presidential election campaign and the president-elect has repeatedly expressed his admiration for the British politician ("he's a great guy, very good guy, very supportive. He was one of the earliest people that said Trump was gonna win.").
As with other European right-wing populists, Farage is rejoicing in Trump's victory. In March, the Islamophobic Party for Freedom, led by EU-opponent Geert Wilders, could become the biggest force in parliament in the Netherlands. In May, Front National head Marine Le Pen is likely to make it into the second round of voting in the French presidential election. Will Trump jump in to promote the populists with the help of the Russian intelligence agencies' trolls? "Russia is very stealthily undermining the EU," says Arne Lietz, an SPD member of the European Parliament who is also on the Foreign Affairs Committee. "But Trump is doing it on Twitter."
Targeting Europe's Economy
The campaign against Brussels being waged by the incoming U.S. president is not just focused on politics. Trump's actual target is Europe's economy. "I'd throw a tax on every Mercedes-Benz rolling into this country and on all Japanese products," he told Playboy magazine 25 years ago. "And we'd have wonderful allies again."
Hansa Studios, where David Bowie and U2 recorded legendary albums, is one of the most glamorous event locations in Berlin. A week ago, it was packed with entrepreneurs, executives and industry officials attending the new year's reception of the Committee on Eastern European Economic Relations (comprised of leading German business and industry organizations). The hosts served finger foods and sparkling wine and the event featured Markus Kerber, the director-general of the powerful Federation of German Industries (BDI), as its keynote speaker.
Kerber could have dedicated his speech to successes in the German economy, about record exports, full order books or the high level of employment. But instead he bleakly warned of "changing times in international economic policies." Kerber didn't mention anybody by name, but everyone knew who he was referring to: Trump and all the anti-globalization politicians who, with their "nationalist industrial policies," are threatening to trigger a trade war between the U.S. and China. If that were to happen, "considerable declines in economic value creation and employment within a very short period of time" could be expected, particularly in export-driven countries like Germany. "Our prosperity is at risk," Kerber warned, "more than at any other time in the past 60 years."
And yet, the markets have been celebrating a Trump-fueled boom for weeks now. After all, international trade is currently in full blossom, not least between Germany and the U.S. American companies are investing more heavily than ever before in Germany, with that volume climbing by a rapid 113 percent in 2015 compared to the previous year. Some of the biggest companies in America are expanding their presences in Germany, including General Electric, Facebook and IBM.
Information technology equipment supplier Cisco wants to invest a half-billion dollars in Germany.
German companies, for their part, are even more active in the U.S. German companies conduct more trade with the United States than with any other country. In 2015, the U.S. surpassed France as Germany's biggest export market. It's a development that has been fueled by the robust U.S. economy and a euro that has recently been relatively weak to the dollar, making German goods less expensive.
Gaping Trade Imbalance
What frustrates Trump about this state of affairs is that Germany profits far more from this positive development in trans-Atlantic trade than the U.S. does. In 2015, German companies delivered goods valuing close to 114 billion euro across the Atlantic, whereas the Americans only exported goods worth around 60 billion euros to Germany. Even the successes of America's digital economy are failing to offset this huge imbalance.
The Obama administration had already been eyeing the deficit in trans-Atlantic trade with suspicion, and Trump is likely to actually do something about it. Washington's new economic policy mantra is that those who want to sell in America also have to manufacture there -- otherwise they will face punitive tariffs or special taxes. "Donald Trump is a risk for the German business model," warns Michael Hüther, head of the influential Cologne Institute for Economic Research (IWK).
In a 2014 report, the consulting giant McKinsey found that no other national economy is as globally interconnected as Germany's - but also that few others were as dependent on exports.
In 2015, German industry exported goods valuing 1.194 trillion euros all around the world. But the country only imported 949 billion euros worth of goods.
Germany has had a surplus in its trade balance for decades now. This is the product of German industrial giants, but even more so of the large number of highly specialized, high-tech small- and medium-sized businesses that are dependent on open markets. They now fear that Trump won't just be talk when it comes to protectionism and that he will set the country on a new course. They say he has the legal means for doing so.
The U.S. Congress has granted the president trade promotion authority until at least 2018, when it comes up for renewal. That means that Trump has broad freedoms to negotiate free trade agreements.
Or to put an end to them. And that end could come quickly: The U.S. must provide only six months advance notice, for example, to back out of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), which regulates the free trade of good between the U.S., Mexico and Canada.
High on the List
The Trade Act of 1974 is another tool at his disposal. It allows the president to impose tariffs of up to 15 percent for as long as 150 days on countries that accumulate large current account surpluses.
Germany is high on that list, with the country's over-dependency on exports long having been a source of repeated criticism. And it's not just that Germany exports more than it imports, it also owns more foreign debt than it borrows from abroad. That money is then used for consumption and investment outside of Germany rather than inside the country.
Many international politicians and academics have called on Germany to reduce these surpluses -- and some industries, such as carmakers, have even heeded these calls. Instead of exporting vehicles, they now make them on-site. The industry has been building more vehicles abroad than inside Germany since 2010. Mercedes-Benz, BMW and Volkswagen have built several factories in the biggest markets of the world, including in China and the U.S. They didn't want to become dependent on exporting from Germany because of the hurdles presented by potential tariffs or disadvantageous currency fluctuations.
BMW expanded its production facility in Spartanburg, South Carolina while Mercedes-Benz did the same in Tuscaloosa and Volkswagen in Chattanooga. In doing so, the German companies created thousands of jobs in the structurally weak southeastern United States and earned praise from American politicians, including many from the Republican Party.
But then Daimler and the rest fell into the Mexico trap. The country lured them south with low wages and free access to the U.S. market by way of NAFTA. Late last year, Audi moved the production of its Q5 SUV to a newly constructed factory in San José Chiapa. BMW and Daimler have just begun construction of a factory in Mexico and Volkswagen produces more than 450,000 vehicles in Puebla.
An import duty would hit different German manufacturers in different ways. The losses would be especially steep for Volkswagen. The brand exports its Jetta, Beetle and Golf models from its Mexican factory into the U.S. A tariff of 35 percent would make those cars hard to sell.
'The German Prosperity Model Would Fail'
It is, in short, clear that if Trump does what he indicated he would, Germany and Europe would be especially hard hit. If there are no more "reliable frameworks," BDI manager Kerber says, "the German prosperity model would fail."
During her tenure, Angela Merkel has seen a fair number of crises. About 10 years ago, Lehman Brothers collapsed in the US and the global economy was on the verge of collapse. Seven years later, Greek debt brought the European common currency to the brink of disintegration. Then came the refugee crisis, which threatened to cost the chancellor the support of her own party.
This year, she is once again standing for re-election, if she wins, there is reason to believe that the Trump presidency will be her greatest challenge yet. How should she deal with a man who seems unconcerned about the possibility of the EU disintegrating and who threatened the German export industry with tariffs before he even took office? How should she react when Germany's most important ally questions decades-old relationships?
Merkel being Merkel, her first reaction has been: "Let's wait and see. One Wednesday, she and her cabinet agreed to react to possible Trump provocations with demonstrative restraint. Afterwards, a stone-faced Merkel went before the press and said the task now was to "find a new understanding" with the American government. She sounded like she was announcing disarmament negotiations with North Korea.
At the same time, though, Chancellery staff hasn't yet given up hope that Trump could find his way to a halfway moderate position. Stephen Hadley, former security advisor to ex-President George W. Bush, also believes that is a possibility. Hadley is an advisor to Rex Tillerson, the incoming secretary of state. In a conversation with Heusgen on Wednesday, Hadley said that Merkel should come to Washington as soon as possible, adding that Trump would listen to her.
But will he be prepared to receive her soon? Heusgen told Flynn during his visit that the chancellor was ready to travel to Washington on short notice. But so far there hasn't been an answer from Trump. Chancellery staffers are hoping for a face-to-face between the two leaders in spring at the latest.
Furthermore, hope that the Republican establishment might still rein in the president has not yet entirely disappeared. Many in the Chancellery have reactivated old contacts to Republicans, such as former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. Merkel is placing her hopes on the skepticism many Congressional Republicans have for Russia and on the party's free-trade reflexes.
The first opportunity to meet representatives of the new American administration will be in February at the Munich Security Conference. Twenty members of Congress are scheduled to attend, as is James Mattis, Trump's designated defense secretary. The incoming president's pick for secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, is expected to attend the meeting of G-20 foreign ministers in Bonn the day before. He too might come to Munich, as might vice president-elect Mike Pence. Peter Thiel, the only significant Silicon Valley figure to support Trump in the election, has also given a firm yes. Chancellor Merkel has not yet indicated whether she will take part.
"My advice would be to stay calm," says Heusgen. Still, it's clear that Merkel desperately needs a plan for how she should react to the challenge of Trump's presidency. In Europe, the time for merely talking about community has passed: It's time for a plan that combines an unavoidable deepening of foreign and security policies with greater national autonomy in other political areas. The Euro Zone needs a common economic policy, for example, with a budget and finance minister of its own. And Merkel needs to think about what long-term position she should take on trade balance surpluses.
Germany's export strength is a trademark of its economy, but it is also a significant nuisance to the country's European partners and a target for Trump's protectionist rhetoric. Demands for Germany to increase domestic demand will only grow.
More than anything, though, Germany needs to try as best it can to stand up for the values that Trump is openly questioning. If Merkel stays strong on those issues, it will become more difficult for the new strongman in the White House to carry out his attacks on the liberal order at home.
Trump is the end of the world as we know it -- that much is clear. Or, as the Economist recently wrote: "Things could get much worse."
By Christian Esch, Martin Hesse, Alexander Jung, Peter Müller, Ralf Neukirch, Britta Sandberg, Michael Sauga, Christoph Schult, Holger Stark and Bernhard Zand
Industrial policies mean cosseting losers as well as picking winners
Dawn of the living dead: zombie companies get a new lease on life
EQUITY markets have shrugged off the Brexit and Trump votes. Indices in London and New York have reached new highs. But individual stocks and industries have had the odd wobble, not least when they have been the subject of a hostile tweet from the incoming president.
“You’ve been fired at” may turn out to be a dominant meme of the next four years.
Indeed, what seems to be emerging on both sides of the Atlantic is a new version of industrial policy, in which Brexit negotiations, tax laws and trade talks are used as a way to favour some industries and punish others. And that ought to be cause for real investor concern.
The standard criticism of industrial policy is that it is all about “picking winners”. But the real problem is that it is more about protecting the position of established corporations—cosseting losers, in other words.
Which companies are most likely to get protected? The obvious answer is incumbent groups that possess lobbying clout. Many companies have expressed concern about Brexit, but it is to Nissan, a Japanese car giant, that the British government has made an undisclosed commitment. Startups are unlikely to be afforded the same courtesy. The danger is that this cements in place the existing structure of the corporate sector and prevents the emergence of more efficient firms that can drive forward productivity improvements. This has been called the “zombie company” phenomenon.
A new paper* from the OECD finds a link between the proportion of zombie firms surviving in an economy and declining productivity. Specifically, a 3.5% increase in the zombie share is associated with a 1.2% decline in labour productivity across industries.
The paper defines zombie firms as those aged ten years or older with an interest-coverage ratio (the ratio of operating income to interest expenses) of less than one in each of the preceding three years.
In a harsher age, their creditors might have finished them off. But today the zombies shuffle on, discouraging more efficient firms from investing and making it harder for rivals to earn increased profits and gain market share. Worse still, the decline in new business formation may be partly caused by the suffocating impact of zombies.
Europe, for example, often gets criticised for its economic inflexibility—particularly in the labour market, where the difficulty of firing workers makes companies reluctant to hire them in the first place. But the OECD study suggests that the problem of corporate ossification may be even more widespread.
The issue may also help to explain why the productivity performance of the global economy has been so disappointing. Figures released by the US Conference Board, a research group, earlier this month showed that total factor productivity (TFP) globally fell in 2015 and had been flat in the previous two years. (TFP is that element of growth that cannot be explained by the use of increased labour or capital.)
The new versions of industrial policy are likely only to exacerbate this problem. They look worryingly like the “Latin American” model of the 1960s and 1970s (ie, an import-substitution policy). If a company makes an investment decision on the back of a tax break or a threatening presidential tweet, then it is probably not making the most efficient use of its capital. It may seem like good news in the short term for the workers who keep their jobs. But it is not good in the long run.
The companies they work for will be less competitive in international markets; and, as consumers, workers will either pay higher prices or buy inferior goods. Instead of an inflexible labour market, you get an inflexible corporate market.
It all adds up to a double problem for equity investors. For now the market may be benefiting from a couple of sugar highs: in Britain, the impact of a falling pound on the overseas earnings of multinationals; and in America, the hopes for fiscal stimulus and lower corporate taxes. But in the long run, a more interventionist government policy is likely both to weigh on economic growth and to make equities riskier. Who knows, after all, which sectors will fall out of favour?
Imagine the reaction of investors if left-wing leaders were in charge. If President Bernie Sanders were berating American companies on Twitter, or Jeremy Corbyn was pledging unquantified British government support to manufacturers, markets would be plunging.
* “The Walking Dead: Zombie Firms and Productivity Performance in OECD Countries” by Mûge Adalet McGowan, Dan Andrews and Valentine Millot
“Zombie” Apocalypse in the West?
Extreme Optimism Confirms A Short-Term Top In The Markets
Since the US Presidential elections, the SPX has risen from 2139.6 on November 8th, 2016 to 2271.7 on December 13th , 2016 which constitutes a rise of 6.17% within just over a month.
The rise has been fueled by the expectations of tax cuts and enormous fiscal spending intended to boost inflation. In turn, the FED is most likely to raise rates at a quicker pace, which has sent the US Dollar Index to 13-year highs.
With this in the background, almost everyone who invests have all gone long in hopes that the markets will continue to rally. After all, there are many who have forecasted lofty targets of 3000 and above on the SPX for this year. This extreme optimism has led to the markets being skewed on the long side.
Evidence Of This Extreme OptimismAnother proof of point of this extreme confidence is shown in the double digit +10 score in the Gallup’s US Economic Confidence Index, which is not only at the highest level since the index started in 2008. However, it is also the first time that the index has hit double digits, which were in the negative only a few months ago.
Similarly, the Rydex Fund data proves that the mutual fund traders have abandoned the short side of the fund and are getting aggressively long.
Currently, the bearish fund assets are at their lowest level. For every $1 invested in the bearish fund, the bullish fund has attracted $20 worth of investments.
The last time that this happened was at the end of 2015, after which the markets went through a sharp correction period during the first two months of 2016. Rydex funds are a fantastic gauge on what the average market participant is doing and feeling – Contrarian Indicator!
Considering the timing and the cyclical nature of the markets, I believe that a similar pattern will play out sometime during the second half of 2017.
For this, we need to see whether the bullishness is by the smart money or by the dumb money.
The smart money is playing it safe, whereas, the dumb money is close to the highest level of bullishness that it has experienced in over a year.
The VIX chart below indicates that the markets are not adequately protected on the downside.
The charts indicate how the markets are skewed towards excessive optimism.
What this means is that when everyone has already invested, in the markets, and there are no buyers left, the markets will turn and turn down sharply. I believe this will start within the second half of 2017.
There will be a quick rush to exit and consequently this will lead to a sharp fall in the index. All the money which will leave the equity markets must find another ‘asset class’ in which to invest.
The money will flow into the beaten down ‘safe havens’ of bonds and gold.
Hence, both TLT and GLD should see a sharp rebound in 2017…just as we expected in our December Gold Marmet Forecast.
I am not calling for a major top in the market yet as Trump “Trumped” the bear market that was starting. However, a short-term top is likely, which is almost certain to shake out a number of bulls.
The correction in stocks and the rally in GLD and TLT most likely will surprise many
The next year will offer many such opportunities to make profits. To be sure I will let you know in advance whenever the trend is about to change for both swing trading and our long-term investment portfolio.
Comparing the 1930s and Today, Part I
Editor's note: This weekend, we're featuring a must-read essay from Casey Research founder Doug Casey. Doug says "The Greater Depression" has started…but most people don't know it because they can neither confront the thought nor understand the differences between this one and the last.
By Doug Casey, founder, Casey Research
You've heard the axiom "History repeats itself." It does, but never in exactly the same way. To apply the lessons of the past, we must understand the differences of the present.
During the American Revolution, the British came prepared to fight a successful war—but against a European army. Their formations, which gave them devastating firepower, and their red coats, which emphasized their numbers, proved the exact opposite of the tactics needed to fight a guerrilla war.
Before World War I, generals still saw the cavalry as the flower of their armies. Of course, the horse soldiers proved worse than useless in the trenches.
Before World War II, in anticipation of a German attack, the French built the "impenetrable" Maginot Line. History repeated itself and the attack came, but not in the way they expected.
Their preparations were useless because the Germans didn't attempt to penetrate it; they simply went around it, and France was defeated.
The generals don't prepare for the last war out of perversity or stupidity, but rather because past experience is all they have to go by. Most of them simply don't know how to interpret that experience. They are correct in preparing for another war but wrong in relying upon what worked in the last one.
Investors, unfortunately, seem to make the same mistakes in marshaling their resources as do the generals. If the last 30 years have been prosperous, they base their actions on more prosperity. Talk of a depression isn't real to them because things are, in fact, so different from the 1930s. To most people, a depression means '30s-style conditions, and since they don't see that, they can't imagine a depression. That's because they know what the last depression was like, but they don't know what one is. It's hard to visualize something you don't understand.
Some of them who are a bit more clever might see an end to prosperity and the start of a depression but—although they're going to be a lot better off than most—they're probably looking for this depression to be like the last one.
Although nobody can predict with absolute certainty what this depression will be like, you can be fairly well-assured it won't be an instant replay of the last one. But just because things will be different doesn't mean you have to be taken by surprise.
To define the likely differences between this depression and the last one, it's helpful to compare the situation today to that in the early 1930s. The results aren't very reassuring.
Banks, insurance companies, and big corporations went under on a major scale. Institutions suffered the consequences of past mistakes, and there was no financial safety net to catch them as they fell. Mistakes were liquidated and only the prepared and efficient survived.
The world’s financial institutions are in even worse shape than the last time, but now business ethics have changed and everyone expects the government to "step in." Laws are already in place that not only allow but require government intervention in many instances. This time, mistakes will be compounded, and the strong, productive, and efficient will be forced to subsidize the weak, unproductive, and inefficient. It's ironic that businesses were bankrupted in the last depression because the prices of their products fell too low; this time, it'll be because they went too high.
If a man lost his job, he had to find another one as quickly as possible simply to keep from going hungry. A lot of other men in the same position competed desperately for what work was available, and an employer could hire those same men for much lower wages and expect them to work harder than what was the case before the depression. As a result, the men could get jobs and the employer could stay in business.
The average man first has months of unemployment insurance; after that, he can go on welfare if he can't find "suitable work." Instead of taking whatever work is available, especially if it means that a white collar worker has to get his hands dirty, many will go on welfare. This will decrease the production of new wealth and delay the recovery. The worker no longer has to worry about some entrepreneur exploiting (i.e., employing) him at what he considers an unfair wage because the minimum wage laws, among others, precludes that possibility today. As a result, men stay unemployed and employers will go out of business.
If hard times really put a man down and out, he had little recourse but to rely on his family, friends, or local social and church group. There was quite a bit of opprobrium attached to that, and it was only a last resort. The breadlines set up by various government bodies were largely cosmetic measures to soothe the more terror-prone among the voting populace. People made do because they had to, and that meant radically reducing their standards of living and taking any job available at any wage.
There were very, very few people on welfare during the last depression.
It's hard to say how those who are still working are going to support those who aren't in this depression. Even in the U.S., 50% of the country is already on some form of welfare. But food stamps, aid to families with dependent children, Social Security, and local programs are already collapsing in prosperous times. And when the tidal wave hits, they'll be totally overwhelmed. There aren't going to be any breadlines because people who would be standing in them are going to be shopping in local supermarkets just like people who earned their money.
Perhaps the most dangerous aspect of it is that people in general have come to think that these programs can just magically make wealth appear, and they expect them to be there, while a whole class of people have grown up never learning to survive without them. It's ironic, yet predictable, that the programs that were supposed to help those who "need" them will serve to devastate those very people.
Most economies have been fairly heavily regulated since the early 1900s, and those regulations caused distortions that added to the severity of the last depression. Rather than allow the economy to liquidate, in the case of the U.S., the Roosevelt regime added many, many more regulations—fixing prices, wages, and the manner of doing business in a static form. It was largely because of these regulations that the depression lingered on until the end of World War II, which "saved" the economy only through its massive reinflation of the currency. Had the government abolished most controls then in existence, instead of creating new ones, the depression would have been less severe and much shorter.
The scores of new agencies set up since the last depression have created far more severe distortions in the ways people relate than those of 80 years ago; the potential adjustment needed is proportionately greater. Unless government restrictions and controls on wages, working conditions, energy consumption, safety, and such are removed, a dramatic economic turnaround during the Greater Depression will be impossible.
The income tax was new to the U.S. in 1913, and by 1929, although it took a maximum 23.1% bite, that was only at the $1 million level. The average family’s income then was $2,335, and that put average families in the 1/10th of 1 percent bracket. And there was still no Social Security tax, no state income tax, no sales tax, and no estate tax. Furthermore, most people in the country didn't even pay the income tax because they earned less than the legal minimum or they didn't bother filing. The government, therefore, had immense untapped sources of revenue to draw upon to fund its schemes to "cure" the depression. Roosevelt was able to raise the average income tax from 1.35% to 16.56% during his tenure—an increase of 1,100%.
Everyone now pays an income tax in addition to all the other taxes. In most Western countries, the total of direct and indirect taxes is over 50%. For that reason, it seems unlikely that direct taxes will go much higher. But inflation is constantly driving everyone into higher brackets and will have the same effect. A person has had to increase his or her income faster than inflation to compensate for taxes. Whatever taxes a man does pay will reduce his standard of living by just that much, and it's reasonable to expect tax evasion and the underground economy to boom in response. That will cushion the severity of the depression somewhat while it serves to help change the philosophical orientation of society.
Comparing the 1930s and Today, Part II
By Doug Casey, founder, Casey Research
Prices dropped radically because billions of dollars of inflationary currency were wiped out through the stock market crash, bond defaults, and bank failures. The government, however, somehow equated the high prices of the inflationary '20s with prosperity and attempted to prevent a fall in prices by such things as slaughtering livestock, dumping milk in the gutter, and enacting price supports. Since the collapse wiped out money faster than it could be created, the government felt the destruction of real wealth was a more effective way to raise prices. In other words, if you can't increase the supply of money, decrease the supply of goods.
Nonetheless, the 1930s depression was a deflationary collapse, a time when currency became worth more and prices dropped. This is probably the most confusing thing to most Americans since they assume—as a result of that experience—that "depression" means "deﬂation." It's also perhaps the biggest single difference between this depression and the last one.
Prices could drop, as they did the last time, but the amount of power the government now has over the economy is far greater than what was the case 80 years ago. Instead of letting the economy cleanse itself by allowing the ﬁnancial markets to collapse, governments will probably bail out insolvent banks, create mortgages wholesale to prop up real estate, and central banks will buy bonds to keep their prices from plummeting. All of these actions mean that the total money supply will grow enormously. Trillions will be created to avoid deﬂation. If you ﬁnd men selling apples on street corners, it won't be for 5 cents apiece, but $5 apiece. But there won't be a lot of apple sellers because of welfare, nor will there be a lot of apples because of price controls.
Consumer prices will probably skyrocket as a result, and the country will have an inﬂationary depression. Unlike the 1930s, when people who held dollars were king, by the end of the Greater Depression, people with dollars will be wiped out.
The world was largely rural or small-town. Communications were slow, but people tended to trust the media. The government exercised considerable moral suasion, and people tended to support it. The business of the country was business, as Calvin Coolidge said, and men who created wealth were esteemed. All told, if you were going to have a depression, it was a rather stable environment for it; despite that, however, there were still plenty of riots, marches, and general disorder.
The country is now urban and suburban, and although communications are rapid, there's little interpersonal contact. The media are suspect. The government is seen more as an adversary or an imperial ruler than an arbitrator accepted by a consensus of concerned citizens. Businessmen are viewed as unscrupulous predators who take advantage of anyone weak enough to be exploited.
A major financial smashup in today's atmosphere could do a lot more than wipe out a few naives in the stock market and unemploy some workers, as occurred in the '30s; some sectors of society are now time bombs. It's hard to say, for instance, what third- and fourth-generation welfare recipients are going to do when the going gets really tough.
THE WAY PEOPLE WORK
Relatively slow transportation and communication localized economic conditions. The U.S. itself was somewhat insulated from the rest of the world, and parts of the U.S. were fairly self-contained. Workers were mostly involved in basic agriculture and industry, creating widgets and other tangible items. There wasn't a great deal of specialization, and that made it easier for someone to move laterally from one occupation into the next, without extensive retraining, since people were more able to produce the basics of life on their own. Most women never joined the workforce, and the wife in a marriage acted as a "backup" system should the husband lose his job.
The whole world is interdependent, and a war in the Middle East or a revolution in Africa can have a direct and immediate effect on a barber in Chicago or Krakow. Since the whole economy is centrally controlled from Washington, a mistake there can be a national disaster.
People generally aren’t in a position to roll with the punches as more than half the people in the country belong to what is known as the "service economy." That means, in most cases, they're better equipped to shuffle papers than make widgets. Even "necessary" services are often terminated when times get hard. Specialization is part of what an advanced industrial economy is all about, but if the economic order changes radically, it can prove a liability.
THE FINANCIAL MARKETS
The last depression is identified with the collapse of the stock market, which lost over 90% of its value from 1929 to 1933. A secure bond was the best possible investment as interest rates dropped radically. Commodities plummeted, reducing millions of farmers to near subsistence levels. Since most real estate was owned outright and taxes were low, a drop in price didn't make a lot of difference unless you had to sell. Land prices plummeted, but since people bought it to use, not unload to a greater fool, they didn't usually have to sell.
This time, stocks—and especially commodities—are likely to explode on the upside as people panic into them to get out of depreciating dollars in general and bonds in particular. Real estate will be—next to bonds—the most devastated single area of the economy because no one will lend money long term. And real estate is built on the mortgage market, which will vanish.
Everybody who invests in this depression thinking that it will turn out like the last one will be very unhappy with the results. Being aware of the differences between the last depression and this one makes it a lot easier to position yourself to minimize losses and maximize profits.
So much for the differences. The crucial, obvious, and most important similarity, however, is that most people's standard of living will fall dramatically.
The Greater Depression has started. Most people don't know it because they can neither confront the thought nor understand the differences between this one and the last.
As a climax approaches, many of the things that you've built your life around in the past are going to change and change radically. The ability to adjust to new conditions is the sign of a psychologically healthy person.
Look for the opportunity side of the crisis. The Chinese symbol for "crisis" is a combination of two other symbols—one for danger and one for opportunity.
The dangers that society will face in the years ahead are regrettable, but there's no point in allowing anxiety, frustration, or apathy to overcome you. Face the future with courage, curiosity, and optimism rather than fear. You can be a winner, and if you plan carefully, you will be. The great period of change will give you a chance to regain control of your destiny.
And that in itself is the single most important thing in life. This depression can give you that opportunity; it's one of the many ways the Greater Depression can be a very good thing for both you as an individual and society as a whole.
Les doy cordialmente la bienvenida a este Blog informativo con artículos, análisis y comentarios de publicaciones especializadas y especialmente seleccionadas, principalmente sobre temas económicos, financieros y políticos de actualidad, que esperamos y deseamos, sean de su máximo interés, utilidad y conveniencia.
Pensamos que solo comprendiendo cabalmente el presente, es que podemos proyectarnos acertadamente hacia el futuro.
Gonzalo Raffo de Lavalle
Las convicciones son mas peligrosos enemigos de la verdad que las mentiras.
Quien conoce su ignorancia revela la mas profunda sabiduría. Quien ignora su ignorancia vive en la mas profunda ilusión.
“There are decades when nothing happens and there are weeks when decades happen.”
Vladimir Ilyich Lenin
You only find out who is swimming naked when the tide goes out.
No soy alguien que sabe, sino alguien que busca.
Only Gold is money. Everything else is debt.
Las grandes almas tienen voluntades; las débiles tan solo deseos.
Quien no lo ha dado todo no ha dado nada.
History repeats itself, first as tragedy, second as farce.
We are travelers on a cosmic journey, stardust, swirling and dancing in the eddies and whirlpools of infinity. Life is eternal. We have stopped for a moment to encounter each other, to meet, to love, to share.This is a precious moment. It is a little parenthesis in eternity.
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