MacroView: Newton, Physics And The Market Bubble 

Lance Roberts


Historically, all market crashes have been the result of things unrelated to valuation levels.

Issues such as liquidity, government actions, monetary policy mistakes, recessions, or inflationary spikes are the culprits that trigger the "reversion in sentiment."

The financial markets always adapt to the cause of the previous "fatal crash."

Unfortunately, that adaptation won't prevent the next one. 

I have previously discussed the importance of understanding how "physics" plays a crucial role in the stock market. As Sir Isaac Newton once discovered, "what goes up, must come down."

Andy Kessler, via the Wall Street Journal, recently discussed a similar point with respect to the momentum in stock prices. To wit:

"Does this sound familiar: Smart guy owns stock in March at $200, sells it in June at around $600, but then buys it back in July and August for between $900 and $1,000. By September it's back at $200. Ouch. Tesla this year? Yahoo in 2000? Nope. That was Sir Isaac Newton getting pulled into the great momentum trade of the South Sea Co., which cratered 300 years ago this month. He lost the equivalent of more than $3 million today. Newton, whose second law of motion is about the momentum of a body equaling the force acting on it, didn't know that works for stocks too."

To understand what happened to the South Sea Corporation, you need a bit of history.

The South Sea History

In 1720, in return for a loan of £7 million to finance the war against France, the House of Lords passed the South Sea Bill, which allowed the South Sea Company a monopoly in trade with South America.

England was already a financial disaster and was struggling to finance its war with France. As debts mounted, England needed a solution to stay afloat. The scheme was that in exchange for exclusive trading rights, the South Sea Company would underwrite the English National Debt. At that time, the debt stood at £30 million and carried a 5% interest coupon from the government. The South Sea company converted the government debt into its own shares. It would collect the interest from the government and then pass it on to its shareholders.

Interesting Absurdities

At the time, England was in the midst of rampant market speculation. As soon as the South Sea Company concluded its deal with Parliament, the shares surged to more than 10 times their value. As South Sea Company shares bubbled up to incredible new heights, numerous other joint-stock companies IPO'd to take advantage of the booming investor demand for speculative investments.

Many of these new companies made outrageous, and often fraudulent, claims about their business ventures for the purpose of raising capital and boosting share prices. Here are some examples of these companies' business proposals (History House, 1997):

  • Supplying the town of Deal with fresh water.
  • Trading in hair.
  • Assuring of seamen's wages.
  • Importing pitch and tar, and other naval stores, from North Britain and America.
  • Insuring of horses.
  • Improving the art of making soap.
  • Improving gardens.
  • The insuring and increasing children's fortunes.
  • A wheel for perpetual motion.
  • Importing walnut-trees from Virginia.
  • The making of rape-oil.
  • Paying pensions to widows and others, at a small discount.
  • Making iron with pit coal.
  • Transmutation of quicksilver into a malleable fine metal.
  • For carrying on an undertaking of great advantage; but nobody to know what it is.

A Speculative Mania

However, in the midst of the "mania," things like valuation, revenue, or even viable business models didn't matter. It was the "Fear Of Missing Out," which sucked investors into the fray without regard for the underlying risk.

Though South Sea Company shares were skyrocketing, the company's profitability was mediocre at best, despite abundant promises of future growth by company directors.

The eventual selloff in company shares was exacerbated by a previous plan of lending investors money to buy its shares. This "margin loan" meant that many shareholders had to sell their shares to cover the plan's first installment of payments.

As South Sea Company and other "bubble" company share prices imploded, speculators who had purchased shares on credit went bankrupt. The popping of the South Sea Bubble then resulted in a contagion that spread across Europe.

Newton's Folly

Sir Isaac Newton, the brilliant mathematician, was an early investor in South Sea Corporation. Newton quickly made a lot of money and recognized the early stages of a speculative mania. Knowing that it would eventually end badly, he liquidated his stake at a large profit.

However, after he exited, South Sea stock experienced one of the most legendary rises in history. As the bubble kept inflating, Newton allowed his emotions to overtake his previous logic and he jumped back into the shares. Unfortunately, it was near the peak.

It is noteworthy that once Newton decided to go back into South Sea stock, he moved essentially all his financial assets into it. In general, Newton was intimately familiar with commodities and finance. As Master of the Mint, his post required him to make many decisions that depended on market prices and conditions.

The story of Newton's losses in the South Sea Bubble has become one of the most famous in popular finance literature. While surveying his losses, Newton allegedly said that he could "calculate the motions of the heavenly bodies, but not the madness of people."

History Never Repeats, But It Rhymes

Throughout financial history, markets have evolved from one speculative "bubble," to bust, to the next with each one being believed "it was different this time."

The slides below are from a presentation I made to a large mutual fund company.

Some common denominators between all previous bubbles and now.

The table below shows a listing of assets classes that have experienced bubbles throughout history, with the ones related to the current environment highlighted in yellow.

It is not hard to see the similarities between today and the previous market bubbles in history. Investors are currently chasing "new technology" stocks from Zoom (NASDAQ:ZM) to Tesla (NASDAQ:TSLA), piling into speculative call options, and piling into leverage. What could possibly go wrong?

Oh, by the way, the slides above are from a 2008 presentation just one month before the Lehman crisis.

The point here is that speculative cycles are always the same.

The Speculative Cycle

Charles Kindleberger suggested that speculative manias typically commence with a "displacement" which excites speculative interest. The displacement may come from either an entirely new object of investment (IPO) or from increased profitability of established investments.

The speculation is then reinforced by a "positive feedback" loop from rising prices, which ultimately induces "inexperienced investors" to enter the market. As the positive feedback loop continues, and the "euphoria" increases, retail investors then begin to "leverage" their risk in the market as "rationality" weakens.

The full cycle is shown below:

During the course of the mania, speculation becomes more diffused and spreads to different asset classes. New companies are floated to take advantage of the euphoria, and investors leverage their gains using derivatives, stock loans, and leveraged instruments.

As the mania leads to complacency, fraud and manipulation enter the marketplace. Eventually, the market crashes and speculators are wiped out. The government and regulators react by passing new laws and legislations to ensure the previous events never happen again.

The Latest Mania

Let's go back to Andy for a moment:

"When bull markets get going, investors come out of the woodwork to pile in. These momentum investors - I call them momos - figure if a stock is going up, it will keep going up. But usually, there is some source of hot air inflating stocks: either a structural anomaly that fools investors into thinking ever-rising stock prices are real or a source of capital that buys, buys, buys-proverbial 'dumb money.' Think of it as a giant fireplace bellows, an accordion-like contraption that pumps in fresh oxygen to keep flames growing." - Andy Kessler

We have seen these manias repeat throughout history:

  • In 1929 you could buy stocks with as little as a 5% down payment.
  • The 1960s and '70s had the Nifty Fifty bubble.
  • In 1987 it was a rising dollar, portfolio insurance, and major investments by the Japanese into U.S. real estate.
  • In 2000, it was the new paradigm of the internet and the influx of new online trading firms like E*Trade creating liquidity issues in Nasdaq stocks. Additionally, record numbers of companies were being brought public by Wall Street to fill investor demand.
  • In 2008, subprime mortgages, low interest rates, and lax lending policies, combined with a litany of derivative products inflated massive bubbles in debt instruments.

In 2020?

What about today? 

Look back at the chart of the South Sea Company above. 

Now, the one below.

See any similarities?

Yes, that's Tesla

However, you can't solely blame the Federal Reserve as noted by Andy:

"Most simply blame the Federal Reserve-especially today, with its zero-interest-rate policy-for pumping the hot air that gets the momos going. Fair enough, but that's only part of the story. Long market runs have always allured investors who figure they're smart to jump in, even if it's late.

Everyone forgets the adage, 'Don't mistake brains for a bull market.'"

This Time Is Different

As stated, while no two financial manias are ever alike, the end results are always the same.

Are there any similarities in today's market? You decide.

"From SPACs, or special purpose acquisition companies, which are modern-day blind pools that often don't end well. Today's momos also chase stock splits, which mean nothing for a company's actual value. Same for a new listing in indexes like the S&P 500. Isaac Newton could explain the math." - Andy Kessler

You get the idea. But one of the tell-tale indications is the speculative chase of "zombie" companies which are only still alive primarily due to the Federal Reserve's interventions.

Fixing The Cause Of The Crash

Historically, all market crashes have been the result of things unrelated to valuation levels. Issues such as liquidity, government actions, monetary policy mistakes, recessions, or inflationary spikes are the culprits that trigger the "reversion in sentiment."

Importantly, the "bubbles" and "busts" are never the same.

I previously quoted Bob Bronson on this point:

"It can be most reasonably assumed that markets are efficient enough that every bubble is significantly different than the previous one. A new bubble will always be different from the previous one(s). Such is since investors will only bid prices to extreme overvaluation levels if they are sure it is not repeating what led to the previous bubbles. Comparing the current extreme overvaluation to the dotcom is intellectually silly.

I would argue that when comparisons to previous bubbles become most popular, it's a reliable timing marker of the top in a current bubble. As an analogy, no matter how thoroughly a fatal car crash is studied, there will still be other fatal car crashes. Such is true even if we avoid all previous accident-causing mistakes."

Comparing the current market to any previous period in the market is rather pointless. The current market is not like 1995, 1999, or 2007? Valuations, economics, drivers, etc. are all different from cycle to the next.

Most importantly, however, the financial markets always adapt to the cause of the previous "fatal crash."

Unfortunately, that adaptation won't prevent the next one.

Yes, this time is different.

"Like all bubbles, it ends when the money runs out." - Andy Kessler

What the Loss of Ruth Bader Ginsburg Means for the Supreme Court

If President Trump gets to appoint a new Justice to the Court, the conservative takeover will last for a generation


WASHINGTON, DC - AUGUST 30: Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, celebrating her 20th anniversary on the bench, is photographed in the West conference room at the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington, D.C., on Friday, August 30, 2013. (Photo by Nikki Kahn/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

This is hard. The country lost one of its all-time greats tonight. A woman who dedicated almost every second of her professional life to making this country better, more just, more equal. 

She worked until the very end. And on her death bed, she dictated to her granddaughter the following: “My most fervent wish is that I will not be replaced until a new president is installed.”

Why would she say this as her dying wish? 

Because she knew exactly what a Trump replacement Justice would mean — a conservative majority on the Supreme Court for decades; a rollback of women’s rights; the end of nationwide legal abortion; turning back the clock to the pre-civil rights era in anti-discrimination law; open season on election interference and voter suppression. 

The list could go on and on, but it boils down to one basic thing — a new Trump appointee would mean the Court will likely destroy everything Ruth Bader Ginsburg worked for in her lifetime.

Let’s start with the obvious — abortion. Earlier this summer, the Supreme Court voted to strike down a Louisiana abortion restriction by a vote of 5-4. But five Justices, including Chief Justice Roberts who had joined the Court’s four liberals (including Justice Ginsburg) in striking down the law, expressed serious doubts about protecting abortion in future cases. Both of President Trump’s appointments to the Court — Bret Kavanaugh and Neil Gorsuch — voted to uphold the law.

The Republicans have been salivating over replacing Ginsburg for just this reason — with a new Trump Justice who would presumably oppose abortion rights, there would be six votes against abortion on the Supreme Court. This would give wiggle room for one of those Justices, possibly Chief Justice Roberts, to defect on the ultimate issue of the fate of Roe v. Wade. 

It’s hard to imagine any other defections though — Justices Thomas and Alito are surefire votes against Roe. And in this summer’s case, Justice Gorsuch cast serious doubt on any abortion protective rulings, as did Justice Kavanaugh, despite what Senator Susan Collins says he told her during his confirmation hearings.

In other words, with a sixth conservative Justice on the Supreme Court, overturning Roe isn’t as certain as the sun rising in the east in the morning … but it’s pretty damn close.

Beyond abortion, a new Trump appointee would be devastating for civil rights. There would be a sixth vote for religious and moral exemptions from general laws, including anti-discrimination laws. There would be a sixth vote against protecting LGBT people under the Constitution. There would be a sixth vote against affirmative action. 

There would be a sixth vote for saying that sex discrimination under the Constitution isn’t protected because the authors of the Fourteenth Amendment were only thinking about race. These rulings would have vast impact for women, people of color, LGBT folks, people with disabilities, the elderly, the indigent, veterans, and more. And the impact would be in almost every walk of life — employment, housing, education, government services, just to name a few.

To be clear, none of these are as certain as Trump tweeting white supremacist memes. It’s possible that the two conservatives who joined the four liberals this summer to protect LGBT people under anti-discrimination law would continue to further LGBT rights, even with a new Trump appointee. But, it’s really hard to see that with a sixth conservative on the Court. 

It’s much more likely that a six-Justice conservative majority would either stick together on a reliable basis or have just one defector, providing a consistent conservative majority in almost every case.

And there’s more! Healthcare is also at stake. The Chief Justice has twice provided the fifth vote to uphold Obamacare at the Supreme Court. But the law’s fate is once again before the Court, with oral argument on a new challenge scheduled for November 10. 

If that case is heard with just eight Justices, the Chief joining the remaining three liberals would result in the law being struck down, because it would affirm the lower court ruling (which found the law unconstitutional). Or, the case will be re-scheduled and re-heard when there is the new Trump Justice, which would once again give the conservatives a likely majority to strike the law down, a conservative dream for years.

For those who remember the election of 2000, with the Supreme Court having to intervene in the notorious Bush v. Gore ruling, a new Trump Justice could tilt the Court in Trump’s favor come election season. With all the doubt the President is casting on the election already, barring a Biden landslide, many people think the outcome of the election could be determined by the Supreme Court.

When Ginsburg was on the Court, there was hope that Chief Justice Roberts would rise above partisanship and vote with the four liberals to protect the integrity of the election and thwart any Trump election shenanigans. 

But, if Ginsburg is replaced by a Trump conservative by the time election cases make their way to the Court, the Court would almost certainly rule in Trump’s favor, whatever the claims. Justices Thomas and Alito almost always tow the Republican party line, and three other Justices would owe their spot on the Court to Trump. 

It’s hard to imagine five votes for Trump wouldn’t be a foregone conclusion.

There are so many more issues at stake here — the environment, economic regulation, criminal justice protections, the death penalty. Basically every issue in American life eventually winds up before the Supreme Court. Make no mistake, before tonight, we had one of the most conservative Courts ever in this country’s history. But even with this ultra-conservative Court, there were still big liberal surprises this past year.

After Friday night, though, if President Trump gets to appoint a new Justice to the Court, liberal surprises will be another victim of the doom that is 2020. And given the age of the conservatives on the Court, it will be decades before liberals have hope to get any more surprises, let alone ever control the Court again.

Not all hope is lost though. As I’m writing this, Senators Murkowski and Collins have indicated they would not vote to confirm a Trump nominee unless he wins re-election. And Senator Grassley has previously indicated that he wouldn’t either. On the other hand, Senate Leader Mitch McConnell has put out a statement vowing to have a floor vote for a new Trump Justice.

So Justice Ginsburg’s dying wish is now in the hands of the small number of remaining Senate Republican “moderates.” If four of them join the 47 Democrats in opposing a Trump nominee, Justice Ginsburg will get her dying wish. If not, almost everything she worked for in her career is sure to be swept away in the coming years.

The Coming Global Technology Fracture

Today's international trade regime was not designed for a world of data, software, and artificial intelligence. Already under severe pressure from China’s rise and the backlash against hyper-globalization, it is utterly inadequate to face the three main challenges these new technologies pose.

Dani Rodrik

rodrik176_ANDREW HARNIKPOOLAFP via Getty Images_pompeoUShuawei

CAMBRIDGE – The international trade regime we now have, expressed in the rules of the World Trade Organization and other agreements, is not of this world. It was designed for a world of cars, steel, and textiles, not one of data, software, and artificial intelligence. Already under severe pressure from China’s rise and the backlash against hyper-globalization, it is utterly inadequate to face the three main challenges these new technologies pose.

First, there is geopolitics and national security. Digital technologies allow foreign powers to hack industrial networks, conduct cyber-espionage, and manipulate social media. Russia has been accused of interfering in elections in the United States and other Western countries through fake news sites and the manipulation of social media. The US government has cracked down on the Chinese giant Huawei because of fears that the company’s links to the Chinese government make its telecoms equipment a security threat.

Second, there are concerns about individual privacy. Internet platforms are able to collect huge amounts of data on what people do online and off, and some countries have stricter rules than others to regulate what they can do with it. The European Union, for example, has enacted fines for companies that fail to protect the EU residents’ data.

Third, there is economics. New technologies give a competitive edge to large companies that can accumulate enormous global market power. Economies of scale and scope and network effects produce winner-take-all outcomes, and mercantilist policies and other government practices can result in some firms having what looks like an unfair advantage. For example, state surveillance has allowed Chinese firms to accumulate huge amounts of data, which in turn has enabled them to corner the global facial recognition market.

A common response to these challenges is to call for greater international coordination and global rules. Transnational regulatory cooperation and anti-trust policies could produce new standards and enforcement mechanisms. Even where a truly global approach is not possible – because authoritarian and democratic countries have deep disagreements about privacy, for example – it is still possible for democracies to cooperate among themselves and develop joint rules.

The benefits of common rules are clear. In their absence, practices such as data localization, local cloud requirements, and discrimination in favor of national champions create economic inefficiencies insofar as they segment national markets. They reduce the gains from trade and prevent companies from reaping the benefits of scale. And governments face the constant threat that their regulations will be undermined by companies operating from jurisdictions with laxer rules.

But in a world where countries have different preferences, global rules – even when they are feasible – are inefficient in a broader sense. Any global order must balance the gains from trade (maximized when regulations are harmonized) against the gains from regulatory diversity (maximized when each national government is entirely free to do what it wants). If hyper-globalization has already proved brittle, it is in part because policymakers prioritized the gains from trade over the benefits of regulatory diversity. This mistake should not be repeated with new technologies.

In fact, the principles that should guide our thinking on new technologies are no different from those for traditional domains. Countries may devise their own regulatory standards and define their own national security requirements. They may do what is required to defend these standards and their national security, including through trade and investment restrictions. But they have no right to internationalize their standards and try to impose their regulations on other countries.

Consider how these principles would apply to Huawei. The US government has prevented Huawei from acquiring American companies, restricted its operations in the US, launched legal proceedings against its senior management, pressured foreign governments not to work with it, and, most recently, banned US companies from selling chips to Huawei’s supply chain anywhere in the world.

There is little evidence that Huawei has engaged in spying on behalf of the Chinese government. But that does not mean that it will not do so in the future. Western technical experts who have examined Huawei’s code have been unable to rule out the possibility. The opacity of corporate practices in China could well obscure Huawei’s links to the Chinese government.1

Under these circumstances, there is a plausible national security argument for the US – or any other country – to restrict Huawei’s operations within its own borders. Other countries, including China, are not in a position to second-guess this decision.

The export ban on US companies, however, is harder to justify on national security grounds than the ban on Huawei’s US-based operations. If Huawei’s operations in third countries pose a security risk to those countries, their governments are in the best position to assess the risks and decide whether a shutdown is appropriate.

Moreover, the US ban confronts other countries with severe economic repercussions. It creates significant adverse effects for national telecoms companies like BT, Deutsche Telekom, Swisscom, and others in no fewer than 170 countries that rely on Huawei’s kits and hardware. Perhaps worst hit are poor countries in Africa that are overwhelmingly dependent on the company’s cheaper equipment.

In short, the US is free to close its market to Huawei. But US efforts to internationalize its domestic crackdown lack legitimacy.

The Huawei case is a harbinger of a world in which national security, privacy, and economics will interact in complicated ways. Global governance and multilateralism will often fail, for both good and bad reasons.

The best we can expect is a regulatory patchwork, based on clear ground rules that help empower countries to pursue their core national interests without exporting their problems to others. Either we design this patchwork ourselves, or we will end up, willy-nilly, with a messy, less efficient, and more dangerous version.

Dani Rodrik, Professor of International Political Economy at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, is the author of Straight Talk on Trade: Ideas for a Sane World Economy.

Eternal Brexit

By: George Friedman

In 2016, the British government called for a referendum on whether the United Kingdom should remain a member of the European Union. The British people voted to leave. Since then, there has been a struggle in Britain to reverse the decision and a struggle between Britain and the EU on the terms of the departure.

It’s now 2020, and the process still isn’t finished. Given that the EU is based merely on a treaty – not a federation – sovereignty is a matter for individual states, not the “government” in Brussels. Treaties are arrangements between nations, not a merger of nations, and therefore are reversible.

Since we are about to see a new and presumably final round of negotiations on the divorce, with the EU now calling for a rapid resolution, even as the Irish question is now the blocker, the real issue is how this matter has dragged on so long. To anyone who has been divorced or seen one, it makes sense: Divorces are almost always filled with rage, recrimination, desires to inflict pain and sometimes the desire that the old affection be resurrected.

The children are made pawns. Friends must choose sides. The difference, of course, is that Britain’s relationship to the EU is simply a matter of national interest and not the result of a love affair. Britain and the EU lived together when they had to, but they never married. And so the lawyers continue to meet as each side creates more barriers to an amiable disengagement.

The first barrier to the separation was within Britain. The technocratic classes and the financial community took it for granted that Brexit would be rejected by the voters. When it wasn’t, they had two choices: face the fact that they had misunderstood their country, or label the vote flawed and the result of ignorance on the part of those who voted for withdrawal.

Naturally they chose the latter, a decision that is primarily responsible for Brexit’s delay. If the ignorant voted for Brexit, all they needed was a little education in the error of their ways, or so the thinking went. The best strategy, then, was to delay Brexit and persuade the country that Brexit would be catastrophic so that the government could reverse the vote.

The problem was that the technocracy and the financial community were confusing their interests with those of the country as a whole. Free trade had benefitted many, but it had also left the industrial classes struggling as low-wage countries had access to the British market. The result was a near depression in the industrial heartland of Britain.

As in other countries, those who benefitted from free trade were either indifferent or mostly ignorant of the price others were paying. They never imagined they would lose the referendum, but then they didn’t know how many unemployed industrial workers there were.

A second barrier concerned national sovereignty, particularly on immigration. The enlightened elite felt a moral obligation to help immigrants. They were in lockstep with the elite of the European continent on this. Of course, the immigrants would not be living with the elites in their neighborhoods.

Immigrants live in low-cost housing, the same kind that the industrial class has lived in since its decline. The idea that immigration could not be blocked under EU rules meant not only a loss of national sovereignty but a burden to be uniquely carried by those who have lost the most.

The irony was that, historically, the political factions that championed the interests of the industrial working class and were hostile to the financial elite found themselves with the opposite stance: The industrial working class was now perceived as reactionary and racist, while the financial and technocratic elite was seen as enlightened.

If opposition to Brexit was enlightened, then the vote could be reversed once the rest of the country understood as much. Hence the strategy to reverse the vote and reaffirm British commitment to the EU. This continued until the election of Boris Johnson settled the question.

The EU, meanwhile, did what it could to make Brexit unpalatable with a two-pronged approach. The first was to make it appear that Brexit would be financially catastrophic for Britain and relatively inconsequential to the EU. The second prong was to make the negotiations as difficult as possible, setting terms as onerous as possible and difficult for Britain to accept.

The irony was that if Brexit was of so little concern to the EU as it portrayed, then the seemingly inflexible stance it took made no sense. In truth, losing free access to the second-largest economy in Europe was enormously important, and bargaining positions notwithstanding, some accommodation was essential.

The driving force in this strategy was an implicit alliance between anti-Brexit Britons and the EU. Both badly wanted to keep Britain in the EU, and the actions of each were meant to help the other. A rigid negotiating position by Brussels made a manageable Brexit seem impossible, and might strengthen the hand of anti-Brexit British. At the same time, the constant maneuvers to reverse Brexit strengthened Brussels’ hand since they were dealing with what might be a declining faction in Britain. Together, these two factions might break the back of Brexit.

The strategy failed, of course, because neither faction could recognize or concern itself with the price the British industrial class was paying. Both expected this class to weaken, but in fact, the faction remained intact and even attracted others. The lower class movements, labeled right wing by the elite, became more powerful and more extreme. The British problem became the European problem, same as it ever was.

We are now entering what seems to be the final phase. Brussels appears to be bitter at how long the process has taken, and the chief EU negotiator, who had been threatening and unrelenting in his negotiating strategy, appears to have been removed from his position. In other words, the EU is no longer the issue. Once Britain had decided to leave, there was nothing the EU could do except delay.

The issue now is the historical British issue: Ireland. Ireland is in the EU and will stay. It wants free trade with Northern Ireland. Northern Ireland is part of the U.K. and therefore will leave the EU. The EU cannot permit free trade between an EU member and a part of Britain since that will turn into free trade with England, which is not nearly as much a problem for Ireland or Britain as it is for the EU. The EU is balking, and Britain is leaving. That may reignite the political conflict in Northern Ireland.

Marriages are wonderful things. Divorces are agonizing things for all involved. This is particularly relevant when the couple has merged as completely as a good marriage requires. The lesson for nations is that all alliances end in divorce. And the more focused and limited, the less agonizing the inevitable is. In a marriage, all are one, or should be.

In a political arrangement that is never the case. It’s nothing more than nations pursuing their national interest. Until death do us part does not apply to nation-states.

No gloves, no masks: Venezuela’s exposed health workers

Medics are dying in large numbers from Covid-19 as they work with minimal protective equipment

Vanessa Silva in Caracas and Gideon Long in Bogotá

A cancer patient at the Luis Razetti Oncology hospital in Caracas. The hospital stopped admitting new cancer patients at the start of the lockdown in March to curb the spread of coronavirus © AP

José Manuel Olivares begins his press conference with a roll call, reading the names of the Venezuelan health workers who have died from coronavirus. It takes him a while. There are 115 people on his fast-expanding list.

The dead include nurses from the western state of Zulia and from Delta Amacuro at the mouth of the Orinoco river; doctors from the coastal state of Vargas and from Apure, in the southern jungle; biomedics, radiologists and pulmonologists; a gastroenterologist from the eastern state of Monagas, drafted in to help his colleagues.

“These are doctors who will never again make a diagnosis, nurses who will never again administer medicine,” said Dr Olivares, a member of congress who is in Bogotá having fled Venezuela in 2018. “They are Venezuelans who are no longer with us and [President] Nicolás Maduro is to blame for that, having destroyed the health system.”

According to the Pan American Health Organization, in Latin America alone, 570,000 medics have contracted Covid-19 and 2,500 have died. “They are working under more stressful conditions than any of us could imagine,” Carissa Etienne, Paho’s director, told reporters recently.

But while medics in most countries can count on at least basic personal protective equipment, doctors and nurses in Venezuela often work with the bare minimum. 

Mauro Zambrano, a health worker and union leader, says that of the 16 hospitals he monitors in Caracas, nine have no masks or gloves and seven no clean water. Most have no bleach and none has disinfectant or soap.

A doctor at a hospital in the west of Caracas, speaking to the Financial Times on condition of anonymity, said his clinic has had to improvise throughout the pandemic. “Everyone has to bring their own gel and protective equipment,” he said.

Protective gloves dry in the sun at a hospital in Caracas © Bloomberg

Medical staff have also been persecuted.

In April, Andrea Sayago, a bioanalyst in the state of Trujillo, carried out tests on the first patient diagnosed with Covid-19 at her hospital. She alerted colleagues via WhatsApp. The next day, according to her lawyers, hospital directors pressured her to resign, saying her message amounted to “terrorism”.

She quit, only to be arrested by Venezuela’s intelligence service, the Sebin. Her lawyers say they held her for two days. Five months later, she is still under house arrest. She told the FT via WhatsApp that she could not comment on her case because it was before the courts.

“In Venezuela today, you can’t even share a private message criticising the Maduro government via WhatsApp without fear of being prosecuted,” said José Miguel Vivanco, director of Human Rights Watch Americas.

City crew disinfect a wall with a mural of former president Hugo Chávez in the Petare neighbourhood of Caracas © Bloomberg

The Maduro government says the pandemic is under control.

It has registered 52,000 cases in a country of 29m people, and a barely credible death toll of 420. That is 14 deaths per million people, far lower than in any other big Latin American nation. In Colombia the figure is 404 per million, in Brazil 586 and in Peru 890.

The regime says it has carried out 1.8m tests for Covid-19. What it fails to say is that almost all are rapid tests, not the more reliable molecular (PCR) tests that most countries use for their official figures. Only two laboratories in Venezuela are authorised to process PCR tests. Colombia has 81. Chile and Argentina have more than 100 each.

“In order to manipulate the figures, the regime has centralised PCR testing, and that’s the only test that’s worth considering for serious diagnosis,” said Ricardo Alfonzo, a surgeon in Caracas. “The rapid test is no good for diagnosis, it’s only useful for patient follow-up.”

Dr Alfonzo, who treats cancer patients, recalled the situation in his hospital as cases started to rise. “There were no beds, either in intensive care or on ordinary wards,” he said. “They were treating people in chairs.”

He himself was infected with the virus and spent 10 days in hospital. “My PCR test result came back yesterday,” said the robust 69-year-old. “It took three weeks! I’ve already recovered!”

Tackling the pandemic in these conditions has taken its toll.

“I feel drained, physically, mentally and emotionally,” said Karina Suárez, a 28-year-old doctor in the western state of Táchira. “I’ve watched three of my patients die without being able to do anything.”

No one knows how many people have died from coronavirus in Venezuela, and no one will. Mr Olivares said he had logged nearly 800 deaths — twice the official figure, but he said the true number could easily be two or three times higher.

Six senior government figures have had Covid-19, suggesting that at least among the Socialist party elite it is widespread. One, Caracas governor Darío Vivas, died of it.

But as in so many other areas of life in Venezuela, reliable data are scarce. The government did not respond to the FT’s requests for information.

As the pandemic continues to reap its toll, heartbreaking stories are told of relatives and friends who have died and who might have been saved had the health system been in better shape.

Dr Suárez recalled a case where she was treating a patient on one floor while a ventilator was available on another. The hospital lift was broken. She was unable to bring the ventilator downstairs or take the bed-bound patient upstairs.

“We just had to stay with him while he died,” she said. “These are the things that get to you.”