Vanguard’s CEO on the Future of Investment Management


Vanguard, the world’s largest mutual fund company with more than $4 trillion in assets under management, had a smashing 2016. It was the top destination for investors, raking in net inflows of more than $277 billion that crushed its competition, according to a Morningstar report that tracks U.S. mutual fund and exchange-traded fund asset flows.

Investors also validated Vanguard’s core belief in index funds, injecting a record $505 billion into all passive funds — with half going to the company, the report said. Meanwhile, the typically costlier actively managed funds saw an exodus of $340 billion overall, widening the gap between active and passive funds.

Are actively managed funds — those led by managers who choose where to invest — on the way out? Vanguard CEO Bill McNabb does not think so. “The death of active may be overstated,” he said during a keynote speech at Wharton’s annual Rodney L. White Center for Financial Research Conference on Financial Decisions and Asset Markets. But he does see major shifts in the industry that call for a new way to do business. “The change in the economics of the investment management business is pretty profound.”

The numbers tell a grim story: From 2007 to 2016, the number of actively managed U.S. equity or stock funds fell to 2,223 from 4,351 — a survival rate of 51%. And a whopping 80% of active funds underperformed their market benchmark in the same period. Actively managed U.S. fixed income funds, those investing in bonds and other debt, also did similarly dismally. “This is not a positive thing for the industry,” McNabb said. “I view it as experimenting with other people’s money in many cases, which I don’t think is the right way to run a business.”

Even actively managed funds that do well tend to turn in uneven performances. McNabb noted that of 275 successful funds whose performances were tracked between 1998 and 2012, 97% of them underperform in at least five years in a 10-year stretch. Making matters worse is that tracked returns are generally better than what ordinary investors actually make in their portfolios.

Funds’ returns assume the money stays put. In practice, people who cannot stomach market volatility tend to move out of the fund too soon and move back too late, or sell low and buy high. Citing Morningstar figures, McNabb said investors’ actual returns are 1.5% to 2% lower than the fund’s posted performance.

The Shift to Passive Investing

McNabb traced the start of the major shift from active to passive — funds that invest in an index such as the S&P 500, for example — to the dot-com bust of 2000 to 2002. In the years before the market collapsed, investors found it easy to make money if they invested heavily in tech stocks. “If you’re overweight in tech, you’re a hero,” he said. Growth managers loaded up on expensive dot-com stocks, betting on fast-rising startups, while value managers, whose job is to look for bargains with potential, forgot their core values and jumped into the expensive tech sector as well.

The result was a “trainwreck” as the dot-com boom turned into a bust, McNabb said. “Investors were really disappointed. People thought that by having an actual manager [manage their funds] they would do a little better. They actually did worse in most cases.” This experience not only changed investors’ attitudes, he believed, but also altered the way advice was given to ordinary investors. Financial advisers, who typically charge commissions, are shifting their compensation to a fee based on the percentage of assets. In 2000, 15% of advisers used asset-based compensation. Today, nearly 70% of them do it, McNabb said.

What also changed was the realization by the industry that fund costs are important when it comes to maximizing an investor’s returns. “Total costs became much more important in their value proposition to their clients,” McNabb said.

The industry saw the power of asset allocation over stock picking as well. How an investor divides funds into different investment buckets accounts for 85% to 90% of performance. Brokers used to give their clients a list of the best stocks or funds to put their money in, but the ability of money managers overall to pick securities was not consistently great, he said. “It began to be apparent to them that was a losing proposition to the client.”

Financial advisers began to pivot toward creating a portfolio for clients that followed an asset allocation model that was well balanced, diversified and fits their long-term goals, McNabb said. They also steered people towards low-cost funds to enhance client returns. He said funds with expense ratios, or annual fees, in the lowest quartile attracted $611 billion over the last 15 years while those in the top three highest quartiles lost $549 billion.

Advisers’ emphasis on asset allocation and low-cost funds “has been more the driver to indexing” than any academic research or marketing by Vanguard, he said. “I’ve never seen a marketplace move as quickly as this in my lifetime.” Not even the father of index funds, Vanguard founder Jack Bogle, had that kind of clout.

Robo and Personal Adviser Hybrid

But active management must change the way it does business if it wants to thrive, and McNabb offers a playbook. (Vanguard is known for its index funds but it also has actively managed funds.) Over 10 years, around 90% of Vanguard’s active fixed income funds and 83% of active equity funds have beaten their peers. “The reason for that has a lot to do with cost,” McNabb said. “Our active managers start out with large cost advantages.”

Vanguard’s analysis shows that the performance of traditional active equity funds is equally due to cost and the manager’s skill. Vanguard’s expense ratio is 0.37% for its average active equity fund, compared with 1.11% for the industry. In its active fixed income funds, Vanguard charges 0.17% to the industry’s 0.81%. “If you’re going to describe a playbook on the active side going forward, I think [low cost] is going to be part of the playbook,” McNabb said.

In particular, McNabb sees advisory fees falling. “I don’t think it’s going to be possible for advisers to keep an 80, 100, 120 basis point fee for providing investment advice going forward,” he said. Exacerbating matters is that finding good returns is also harder today due to the “professionalization” of the market, he added.

“If you’re going to describe a playbook on the active side going forward, I think [low cost] is going to be part of the playbook.”–Bill McNabb, Vanguard CEO

McNabb pointed out that in 1963, there were 284 chartered financial analyst (CFA) candidates and more than 80% of investor funds were not professionally managed. Today, there are nearly 178,000 CFAs and 68% of investor funds are in professional hands. That means there are more experts looking for investment opportunities, making it harder for anyone to gain an edge.

In 2015, Vanguard began offering low-cost financial advice to retail, or ordinary, investors through Vanguard Personal Advisor Services. It charges 0.3% of assets, which McNabb said was possible after combining advice dispersed by humans with “robo-advisors,” algorithms that tell investors how to allocate their money depending on their target return, risk tolerance and other factors. The advisory service has attracted $70 billion in assets.

McNabb sees low cost as the wave of the future. “The average retail investor will be paying less on product and advice in a low interest rate environment — that’s actually going to be powerful and important going forward.” The down side is it will be “disruptive for providers and people who don’t see it coming or don’t take it into account in their strategic thinking.”

McNabb expects investors to continue to move into index funds — and there is still plenty of room in this market for passive to grow. He pointed out that index funds comprise just 13% of U.S. equity funds and 4% of U.S. fixed income funds. Globally, the figures are 15% and 5% of trading volume, respectively.

However, one conference participant questioned the wisdom of having much more money going into index funds. “If there’s too much indexing you can imagine the market becoming inefficient” because the research and resources underlying active investing will diminish, thereby reducing the assimilation of information into securities prices. Though a legitimate concern, the fact that active currently represents 85% to 87% of all funds indicates the markets are nowhere near the tipping point.

Financial Institutions, QE and Dodd-Frank

Following McNabb’s speech, a distinguished panel of academics and practitioners convened for a round table discussion on the financial markets and institutions post-financial crisis. The panel included McNabb, Nobel Laureate Tom Sargent (professor at the NYU Stern School of Business), Doug Diamond (professor at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business) and Tony Santomero (member of Citi’s board of directors, past president of the Philadelphia Federal Reserve and emeritus Wharton faculty). Scott Richard, Wharton practice professor of finance, moderated. (Except for McNabb, they requested no attribution for their published comments.)

On a macro level, the panel said, the market has changed since the financial crisis. The Federal Reserve has bought up troubled mortgage securities and pumped money into the system in bouts of quantitative easing (QE), which is largely uncharted territory.

Before 2008, there was an interest rate target entrusted to open market operations by the trading desk at the New York Federal Reserve Bank, which retained “full control of the quantity or monetary base” to make the transactions, one panelist said. The Fed manipulated quantity to control prices.

“What will happen if banks and the public lost confidence in the central bank’s ability to keep inflation under control … ? With the tools the Fed has right now, there will be a lot of inflation.” –Conference Panelist

After QE, “the monetary base is many times what it has been, so there’s space for huge excess returns,” he continued. As a result of the crisis, the Fed “acquired a vast new tool — setting interest rates on reserves. That’s a fiscal tool.” The idea was that interest rates on reserves will “act as a floor on the interest rate on the interbank market so in the best case scenario, this excess monetary base is not needed but kept at the central bank.”

However, such actions have “monetary implications,” the panelist added. “What will happen if banks and the public lost confidence in the central bank’s ability to keep inflation under control and started to use those reserves, and cash in those reserves? With the tools the Fed has right now, there will be a lot of inflation. There will be a run to big inflation.

“Is this far-fetched? I don’t think so,” he continued, pointing to the 1920s German hyperinflationary period in which Germany’s central bank printed money not only to finance expenditures — this was a small part of it — but was “paying interest rates at a very low level.” He based his comments on the findings of the research paper, “Speculative Runs on Interest Rate Pegs.”

But another participant on the panel pointed out that the Fed’s holdings are offset by positions in bonds, and returns are given to the U.S. Treasury. “It’s a tricky process,” he conceded. “I’m not sure how that washes out. … Banks are putting their money into the central bank, the central bank is financing its long-term bond positions and the profit is reverting back as part of the Treasury’s budget.” But he wished the Fed would divest of these securities more quickly, down to $1 trillion from the current $3.5 trillion. “At the moment, no one seems to want to worry about it.”

Another impact of the distortion of the capital markets is that investors, whether sophisticated or not, “moved up the yield curve and up the risk spectrum” in an environment of zero interest rates on money market funds as they chased higher returns, one panelist said. “If you look at high yield bonds, they are probably the most overvalued I’ve seen in 10 years. … [Investors] have taken in more risk than they really understand.”

The government’s attempt at normalizing the markets included creating more regulations to prevent future crises. The fiduciary rule, which the Trump administration is reviewing to possibly rescind, would require financial advisers to have their clients’ best interest at heart when recommending investments, taking into account the level of commissions they have to pay. Without the fiduciary rule, advisers can put clients into higher-commission investments as long as they are roughly appropriate to their needs.

McNabb said this rule “should survive” even though some of its stipulations could be improved. “Net net, I think it’s a good thing for the industry. I hope it doesn’t get rolled back. The spirit of the rule is correct.” But one change he would like to see is a “harmonization” of the definition of fiduciary duty, which is different for two regulators: the Securities and Exchange Commission and the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority.

As for the Dodd-Frank act, put in place after the financial crisis to beef up stability, McNabb said it added 700 new rules with which Vanguard has had to comply. “We’re only halfway through implementation.” However, he believes that its stipulation to increase a bank’s capital “is not a bad thing. I think it made the system safer.” As for the Financial Stability Oversight Council, or FSOC, which was established by Dodd-Frank to identify and monitor financial systemic risks, McNabb would like to see it have “somebody to whom it is accountable.”

Another panelist commented that “overall, I like Dodd-Frank.” If the question is whether to keep it or repeal it, he would keep it. However, he is not a fan of the Volcker rule, part of Dodd-Frank and named after former Fed chairman Paul Volcker. It would restrict banks from making certain speculative investments and engaging in some types of proprietary trading. Instead of this rule, “capital requirements are a much better way to go.”

However, there is a danger of regulatory overreach. “The market’s much more vulnerable than it was before. Part of this is the grand overstatement that ‘we’re going to eliminate too big to fails.’ Next time we have a financial crisis, the government will do nothing but will allow everyone to collapse,” a panelist said.

“We now have an industry that used to run itself but now is run by a set of rules imposed upon it by regulators — everything from can they pay a dividend and how much, what is the structure of their asset portfolio, what is the structure of their liability portfolio, what are the kinds of assets they can put on their balance sheet,” he continued. “These are extraordinary things.”

“Do we need safe institutions? To be sure. Do we need more capital from where we started? To be sure,” he added. “How you revert that to a private sector industry that is subject to oversight from what is now a private sector industry that is directed by Washington is a very complex problem and one that neither the right or the left has articulated an appropriate strategy for. I think the solution is somewhere in between.”


The White House

The Trump presidency is in a hole

And that is bad for America—and the world

DONALD TRUMP won the White House on the promise that government is easy. Unlike his Democratic opponent, whose career had been devoted to politics, Mr Trump stood as a businessman who could Get Things Done. Enough voters decided that boasting, mocking, lying and grabbing women were secondary. Some Trump fans even saw them as the credentials of an authentic, swamp-draining saviour.

After 70 days in office, however, Mr Trump is stuck in the sand. A health-care bill promised as one of his “first acts” suffered a humiliating collapse in the—Republican-controlled—Congress.

His repeated attempts to draft curbs on travel to America from some Muslim countries are being blocked by the courts. And suspicions that his campaign collaborated with Russia have cost him his national security adviser and look likely to dog his administration. Voters are not impressed. No other president so early in his first term has suffered such low approval ratings.
 
It is tempting to feel relief that the Trump presidency is a mess. For those who doubt much of his agenda and worry about his lack of respect for institutions, perhaps the best hope is that he accomplishes little. That logic is beguiling, but wrong. After years of gridlock, Washington has work to do. The forthcoming summit with Xi Jinping, China’s president, shows how America is still the indispensable nation. A weak president can be dangerous—picture a trade war, a crisis in the Baltics or conflict on the Korean peninsula.

The business of government
 
Mr Trump is hardly the first tycoon to discover that business and politics work by different rules. If you fall out over a property deal, you can always find another sucker. In politics you cannot walk away so easily. Even if Mr Trump now despises the Republican factions that dared defy him over health care, Congress is the only place he can go to pass legislation.

The nature of political power is different, too. As owner and CEO of his business, Mr Trump had absolute control. The constitution sets out to block would-be autocrats. Where Mr Trump has acted appropriately—as with his nomination of a principled, conservative jurist to fill a Supreme Court vacancy—he deserves to prevail. But when the courts question the legality of his travel order they are only doing their job. Likewise, the Republican failure to muster a majority over health-care reflects not just divisions between the party’s moderates and hardliners, but also the defects of a bill that, by the end, would have led to worse protection, or none, for tens of millions of Americans without saving taxpayers much money.

Far from taking Washington by storm, America’s CEO is out of his depth. The art of political compromise is new to him. He blurs his own interests and the interests of the nation. The scrutiny of office grates. He chafes under the limitations of being the most powerful man in the world. You have only to follow his incontinent stream of tweets to grasp Mr Trump’s paranoia and vanity: the press lies about him; the election result fraudulently omitted millions of votes for him; the intelligence services are disloyal; his predecessor tapped his phones. It’s neither pretty nor presidential.

That the main victim of these slurs has so far been the tweeter-in-chief himself is testament to the strength of American democracy. But institutions can erode, and the country is wretchedly divided.

Unless Mr Trump changes course, the harm risks spreading. The next test will be the budget. If the Republican Party cannot pass a stop-gap measure, the government will start to shut down on April 29th. Recent jitters in the markets are a sign that investors are counting on Mr Trump and his party to pass legislation.

More than anything, they are looking for tax reform and an infrastructure plan. There is vast scope to make fiscal policy more efficient and fairer. American firms face high tax rates and have a disincentive to repatriate profits. Personal taxes are a labyrinth of privileges and loopholes, most of which benefit the well-off. Likewise, the country’s cramped airports and potholed highways are a drain on productivity. Sure enough, Mr Trump has let it be known that he now wants to tackle tax. And, in a bid to win support from Democrats, he may deal with infrastructure at the same time.

Yet the politics of tax reform are as treacherous as the politics of health care, and not only because they will generate ferocious lobbying. Most Republican plans are shockingly regressive, despite Mr Trump’s blue-collar base. To win even a modest reform, Mr Trump and his team will have to show a mastery of detail and coalition-building that has so far eluded them. If Mr Trump’s popularity falls further, the job of winning over fractious Republicans will only become harder.

Were he frustrated in Congress, the president would surely fall back on areas where he has a free hand. He has already made full-throated use of executive orders and promises to harness the bureaucracy to force through his agenda. In theory he could deregulate parts of the economy, such as finance, where the hand of government is sometimes too heavy. Yet his executive orders so far have been crudely theatrical—as with this week’s repeal of Barack Obama’s environmental rules, which will not lead to the renaissance of mining jobs that he has disingenuously promised coal country. It is the same with trade. Mr Trump could work through the World Trade Organisation to open markets.

More probably, the economic nationalists on his team will have the upper hand. If so, America will take a bilateral approach, trade protection will grow and foreign policy will become more confrontational.

The character question
 
The Americans who voted for Mr Trump either overlooked his bombast, or they saw in him a tycoon with the self-belief to transform Washington. Although this presidency is still young, that already seems an error of judgment. His policies, from health-care reform to immigration, have been poor—they do not even pass the narrow test that they benefit Trump voters. Most worrying for America and the world is how fast the businessman in the Oval Office is proving unfit for the job.


Trump the Ideologue?

Mark Leonard
. Donald Trump meeting


LONDON – Historians may come to see the American actor Alec Baldwin as US President Donald Trump’s most useful ally. Baldwin’s frequent and widely viewed impersonations of Trump on the comedy show “Saturday Night Live” turn Trumpism into a farce, blinding the president’s political opponents to the seriousness of his ideology.
 
Of course, politicians are parodied all the time. But with Trump, there is already a tendency not to take his politics seriously. The form of those politics – unhinged tweet-storms, bald-faced lies, racist and misogynistic pronouncements, and blatant nepotism – is so bizarre and repugnant to the bureaucratic class that it can overshadow the substance.
 
Even those who seem to take Trump seriously are failing to get to the root of Trumpism. Democrats are so infuriated by his misogyny and xenophobia that they fail to understand how he connects with many of their former supporters. As for establishment Republicans, they are so keen to have a “Republican” in office implementing traditional conservative policies – such as deregulation and tax cuts – that they overlook the elements of his agenda that upend their orthodoxies.
 
Part of the problem may be that Trump has come out on both sides of most major debates, championing a brand of politics that privileges intensity over consistency. This may cause Trump-watchers to dismiss attempts to establish an ideological foundation for Trumpism – such as Julius Krein’s new journal American Affairs – as hopelessly oxymoronic. But the fact that Trump is no ideologue does not mean he cannot be a conduit for a new ideology.
 
The British political establishment learned this lesson the hard way. For years, conservatives and liberals alike underestimated Thatcherism. They failed to see that behind Margaret Thatcher’s blonde hair and shrill voice was a revolutionary politics that reflected and accelerated fundamental social and economic changes.
 
Thatcher, like Trump, was no philosopher. But she didn’t have to be. She merely had to attract people capable of refining the ideology and policy program that would eventually bear her name. And that is precisely what she did.
 
Apart from those ideologues, the first to grasp the significance of Thatcher’s political project were on the far left: the magazine Marxism Today coined the term “Thatcherism” in 1979. These left-wing figures saw what those in the mainstream didn’t: Thatcher’s fundamental challenge to the economic and social structures that had been widely accepted since World War II.
 
An editor of that magazine, Martin Jacques, who did as much as anyone at the time to provide a theoretical understanding of Thatcherism, recently explained to me why its significance was so often overlooked. “Political analysis at that time was very psephological and institutional,” he said. With its focus on “the performance of political parties,” he explained, it missed “the deeper changes across society.”
 
There are powerful parallels between the late 1970s and the present. Just as Thatcher recognized growing dissatisfaction with the old order and gave voice to ideas that had been languishing on the margins, Trump has acknowledged and, to some extent, vindicated the anguish and anger of a large segment of the working class who are fed up with long-established systems.
 
Also like Thatcher, Trump has attracted ideologues ready and willing to define Trumpism for him. Front and center is Stephen Bannon, the former executive chairman of Breitbart News, the ultra-nationalist home of the racist alt-right, who now serves as Trump’s chief strategist.
 
Speaking at the Conservative Political Action Conference, Bannon defined Trumpism in terms of national security and sovereignty, economic nationalism, and the “deconstruction of the administrative state.” As he put it, “[W]e’re a nation with an economy. Not an economy just in some global marketplace with open borders.”
 
This reflects a fundamental conflict between Thatcherism and Trumpism: the latter aims to sweep away the neoliberal consensus of unregulated markets, privatization, free trade, and immigration that comprised the former. But, even if the ideas are different, the tactics are the same.
 
To consolidate support, Thatcher would go head-to-head with carefully selected enemies – from British miners to Argentina’s president, General Leopoldo Galtieri, to the bureaucrats in Brussels.
 
Similarly, as the Hudson Institute’s Craig Kennedy recently told me, “Bannon wants to radicalize the anti-Trump liberals into fighting for causes which alienate them from mainstream America.” Every time Trump’s opponents march for women, Muslims, or sexual minorities, they fortify Trump’s core support base.
 
Jacques argues that the British Labour Party’s failure fully to come to terms with Thatcherism is the main reason it spent almost two decades in the political wilderness. He believes that Prime Minister Tony Blair was the first leader to recognize Thatcherism for what it was: a new ideology that upended long-held rules and assumptions. But, Jacques asserts, Blair merely adjusted to the new ideology, rather than attempting to change it.
 
None of this bodes well for Trump’s opponents, who are still a long way from recognizing the ideological implications of his presidency. Indeed, they remain so distracted by Trump’s apparent lack of leadership skill and even mental capacity – which, to be sure, cannot compare to that displayed by Thatcher – that they have yet to grasp the depth of the divisions and neuroses that Trump has exposed.
 
It might be cathartic to call Trump an idiot, to laugh at his misspelled tweets and taped-up tie, but the implications of his presidency are serious. If Trump’s progressive opponents fail to engage seriously with the forces that Trump’s victory reflected and reinforced – in particular, the backlash against neoliberalism – not even impeachment will be enough to put the Trumpian genie back in its bottle.
 
 


China Warns of ‘Storm Clouds Gathering’ in U.S.-North Korea Standoff

By GERRY MULLANY, CHRIS BUCKLEY and DAVID E. SANGER
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A portrait of Kim Il-sung, the founding leader of North Korea, was carried during a parade in Pyongyang on Saturday. Credit KRT, via Associated Press


HONG KONG — China warned on Friday that tensions on the Korean Peninsula could spin out of control, as North Korea said it could test a nuclear weapon at any time and a United States naval group neared the peninsula — an American effort to sow doubt in Pyongyang over how President Trump might respond.

“The United States and South Korea and North Korea are engaging in tit for tat, with swords drawn and bows bent, and there have been storm clouds gathering,” China’s foreign minister, Wang Yi, said in Beijing, according to Xinhua, the state news agency.

“If they let war break out on the peninsula, they must shoulder that historical culpability and pay the corresponding price for this,” Mr. Wang said.

The comments were unusually blunt from China, which has been trying to steer between the Trump administration’s demands for it to do more to stop North Korea’s nuclear weapons program and its longstanding reluctance to risk a rupture with the North. The remarks also reflected, American experts said, an effort by the Chinese to throw responsibility for what happens back on Washington, after Mr. Trump declared, in several Twitter messages, that it was up to the Chinese to contain their neighbor and sometime partner.

In a telephone conversation with Mr. Trump on Wednesday, China’s president, Xi Jinping, also called for restraint. But behind the scenes, officials said, Mr. Trump and Mr. Xi had reached some preliminary understandings, during their meeting at the president’s Mar-a-Lago resort a week ago, about what the Chinese might do to change the behavior of the North’s leader, Kim Jong-un.
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Portraits of Kim Il-sung, left, and Kim Jong-il, the first two leaders of North Korea, in Pyongyang, the capital, on Thursday. Kim Il-sung’s birthday is on Saturday, an occasion often marked by shows of military might. Credit Ed Jones/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images


According to officials who have seen notes of the conversations, the Chinese have agreed to crack down on their second-tier banks that have helped finance the North’s trade. But it is unclear what that crackdown would look like: While much has been made by Mr. Trump about North Korean “boats” of coal that have been turned away by China, the most recent statistics show a significant increase in overall trade between the two countries.

American officials contend that the two countries have also agreed to share some intelligence — a highly unusual step — about suspected North Korean shipments of arms and other illicit goods. That would improve the chances that those shipments can be intercepted, perhaps when they make port calls. The Bush administration began such a program, called the Proliferation Security Initiative, more than a decade ago, but attention to it has waxed and waned.

The North Korean military issued a statement on Friday threatening to attack major American military bases in South Korea, as well as the presidential Blue House, warning that it could annihilate those targets “within minutes.”

Administration officials flatly denied a report on NBC News that the United States was planning for a pre-emptive strike ahead of any nuclear test. It was unclear what American forces would strike, and the nuclear test site where the North has conducted its five previous tests would make a hard-to-hit target. Moreover, they noted, Vice President Mike Pence is scheduled to visit Seoul this weekend, and it is almost impossible to imagine a strike occurring while he was consulting with the South’s acting president about how to respond to the crisis.

Even if a nuclear test occurs this weekend or in coming weeks, officials say, the response is likely to be diplomatic, with a ramping up of economic pressure and the deployment of more military assets. A carrier group, led by the aircraft carrier Carl Vinson, is headed to the waters off the peninsula. It includes Aegis cruisers with antimissile ability.

That is notable because administration officials say they are more concerned about a test of an intercontinental ballistic missile that could reach the United States — a feat the North has never come close to accomplishing — than another nuclear test. According to one official, it’s the combination of a missile and a warhead that is most worrisome.

The official, and others cited in this article, asked for anonymity to discuss a matter of national security.

The North, for its part, issued a statement that denounced what it called the Trump administration’s “maniacal military provocations,” including the deployment of the carrier group.

“Nothing will be more foolish if the United States thinks it can deal with us the way it treated Iraq and Libya, miserable victims of its aggression, and Syria, which did not respond immediately even after it was attacked,” a spokesman for the general staff of the North’s People’s Army said in a statement carried by Pyongyang’s official Korean Central News Agency.

North Korea’s vice foreign minister, Han Song-ryol, said on Friday that the United States was “becoming more vicious and aggressive” under Mr. Trump and that “we will go to war if they choose.”



A preflight operations check on the United States aircraft carrier Carl Vinson in the South China Sea last week. The carrier, along with other warships, neared the Korean Peninsula this week. Credit Matt Brown/U.S. Navy, via Getty Images


Mr. Han told The Associated Press that whether North Korea holds another nuclear test would be “something that our headquarters decides.” But he added an ominous coda: “At a time and at a place where the headquarters deems necessary, it will take place.”

The speculation about an imminent underground detonation arises from satellite photographs that show the test site is fully prepared, and that holes into the site have been plugged, usually a last step to contain radiation. But at times the North, knowing it is under space surveillance, has readied the site but waited to conduct the test.

On Saturday, with Kim Jong-un watching from a raised platform, North Korea began a military parade in central Pyongyang to celebrate the 105th anniversary of the birth of his grandfather, Kim Il-sung, the North’s founding president. The North sometimes uses such occasions to show off its military advances.

Japan is clearly examining worst-case scenarios.

The Japanese news media reported that the government’s National Security Council had been discussing the possible evacuation of an estimated 57,000 Japanese citizens in South Korea, should war break out. “We will take all necessary steps to protect our people’s lives and assets,” said Yoshihide Suga, Japan’s chief cabinet secretary. The Kyodo News agency said the council was concerned about the possibility of North Korean refugees arriving in boats on its shores.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe expressed concern on Thursday that North Korea could have the ability to deliver missiles equipped with sarin, the nerve agent whose recent use against civilians in Syria prompted Mr. Trump to order a missile strike there.

Russia, another neighbor of North Korea, echoed China on Friday in urging all parties to exercise caution. A Kremlin spokesman, Dmitri S. Peskov, called on “all the countries to refrain from any actions that could amount to provocative steps,” Reuters reported.

In a phone call on Friday between the Russian foreign minister, Sergey V. Lavrov, and his Chinese counterpart, Mr. Wang, both said they would try to revive talks over North Korea, according to the Chinese Foreign Ministry.

In South Korea, whose people have lived through saber-rattling involving the North for decades, there were few signs of panic. Nonetheless, the South Korean Foreign Ministry warned on Friday that if the North conducted another nuclear test or launched an intercontinental ballistic missile, it would suffer an “unbearably strong punishment.” All the major candidates in the presidential election set for next month have called on the United States not to do anything that might initiate war on the peninsula without first seeking the consent of South Korea, its military ally.

In his remarks in Beijing, Mr. Wang said there was still hope for renewed negotiations with North Korea on its weapons program. “There can also be flexibility about the form of renewed talks,” he said.

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, visiting Seoul in March, said the United States would not negotiate with the North unless it first gave up both its nuclear and missile programs. That was essentially a rejection of talks, since the purpose of the negotiation would be to end those programs. But the North has said it will never surrender what it calls its “deterrent” against American aggression, and President Barack Obama never engaged in prolonged discussions out of concern the North was just playing for time.

The Chinese made much of their announcement two months ago that they were suspending coal imports from North Korea. But while those shipments seem to have dried up, Chinese overall trade rose 37.4 percent in the first quarter of 2017, compared with the same period in 2016.

Chinese news outlets reported on Friday that Air China, the country’s main international airline, would suspend flights to Pyongyang starting on Monday, leaving only Air Koryo of North Korea operating regular flights between Pyongyang and Beijing or other Chinese cities.

The move appeared to have been in the works for some time; NK News, a website about North Korea, reported last month that the suspension was likely, saying that Air China’s services were underused and that its flights were often canceled.

Later, Air China issued a statement saying that it had not entirely abandoned the route from Beijing to Pyongyang, and would arrange flights if there was enough demand.


Extremism and Counter-Messaging

The West has to fight radicals on both the military and ideological battlefield.

By Kamran Bokhari


International military efforts against the Islamic State are showing signs of progress – even if at a snail’s pace. However, the anti-IS coalition is not winning the far more significant struggle against the jihadist narrative, despite the tremendous amount of resources being deployed in building counter-narratives. The problem is not resource availability but rather political disagreements between the forces fighting IS. These disagreements are unlikely to be resolved anytime soon.

Earlier this week, I attended a conference organized by George Washington University’s Program on Extremism. The event brought together senior U.S., European and Middle Eastern officials, executives from Facebook and Google, academics and journalists to discuss the challenge of countering online radicalization and extremism. Several topics were addressed, including technological innovation, encryption and censorship. The central topic, however, was counter-messaging, which remains an Achilles’ heel for those aiming to fight jihadism.
Spanish police arrest an 18-year-old Moroccan woman suspected of recruiting other women via the internet to the jihadist group Islamic State, in Gandia on Sept. 5, 2015. JOSE JORDAN/AFP/Getty Images
 
The concept of counter-messaging has gained more attention since the 9/11 attacks, as it is increasingly clear that military power alone is insufficient to defeat jihadism. Islamist terrorist entities are a manifestation of a much deeper problem – the proliferation of religious extremism and radicalism in Muslim-majority countries and the West. This extremism has produced different types of violent Islamist actors, who subscribe to a variety of radical views. The formation of the Islamic State out of al-Qaida is but one example.

Simply keeping up with the growing complexity of this landscape is a massive undertaking. None of this, however, compares with the Herculean task of trying to confront the ideologies that motivate jihadism to stop people from becoming radicalized and carrying out attacks. Extremism and radicalism are often recognized only when attacks take place. However, extremist ideas continue to attract and inspire people even when violent acts are not committed. Aiding the flow of these ideas and, with it, the spread of jihadism is the same technology that we use in our everyday lives.

Though designed as a means to enable the free flow of information in real time, the internet ironically sustains the engine of terrorism and insurgency. This is because Islamist radicals spend a great deal of time using it to recruit, preach, spread their message and communicate how to carry out attacks. A casual examination of jihadist videos, among other material, is enough to underscore the extent to which jihadists have exploited this technology to develop sophisticated psychological operations, as is evidenced by a BBC report that IS videos have improved in quality. While ungoverned spaces in the Middle East and elsewhere continue to act as staging grounds for jihadist activity, a great deal of radicalization actually takes place online.

Therefore, as we engage this enemy through conventional military means, it also has to be confronted in cyberspace. Success in this virtual battlespace is a function of our ability to prevent jihadist actors from recruiting individuals. The physical battlespace is where a combatant picks up a weapon, whereas the virtual battlespace is where the civilian becomes a combatant in their mind. In this virtual battlespace, the enemy targets individuals who are susceptible to radical ideas. Thus, the weapon of the enemy is a message, which must be destroyed with a counter-message.

Both messaging and counter-messaging consist of two parts: the means of dissemination and the content that is being disseminated. In terms of the former, the United States and its allies have the best capabilities on the planet. They can produce high-quality counter-messaging material and spread it through social media platforms. However, while they have strong technological capabilities, they have not been able to provide an inspiring counter-message, and this is why the United States is unable to compete with jihadists.

This situation is akin to having the best delivery system without the required payload. The warhead here is a narrative that can help in efforts to deconstruct the jihadist narrative. Jihadists don’t have to make their own delivery systems – they can just use technologies produced in the West. Their edge is that they have a message – an area in which their opponents remain weak.

Since the narrative is a religious one, it is only natural that the United States, a largely non-Muslim, secular republic, cannot offer a counter-narrative. This issue is even more problematic because adherents of this religion are themselves having a hard time countering the jihadist narrative. Radicals and extremists have a better command over religious texts and are more persuasive and effective in communicating their religious messages than those we call (for lack of a better term) moderates.

And this is where the problem becomes even bigger. While numerous types of radicals and extremists exist, their underlying narrative is the same. They argue that the solution to the world’s problems is the establishment of Shariah. Meanwhile, many moderates do not share the same view of what moderate Islam means. More importantly, moderates do not have a coherent counter-narrative that the masses can comfortably relate to and believe is authentic and legitimate.

The situation gets further compounded when the West gets involved in this fray. The West naturally prefers to partner with actors it can relate to. Usually, these are secular, liberal individuals and groups. But they are a commodity in short supply in Muslim communities around the world.

The West’s attempts at counter-messaging are also unsuccessful because many view these attempts with suspicion. Even religious leaders who enjoy support among the masses risk undermining their credibility if they participate in a counter-messaging exercise. By no means are we saying that there is no way to square this circle. But unless we find a way around this predicament, counter-messaging is unlikely to work, and we will run around in circles between a host of moderates and extremists. This issue is more important than ever because there are signs that IS and others will seek to further exploit these means in the future after losing territory. And right now, there is no good defense ready to meet them on this new battlefield.