The Good, the Bad, and the (Really) Revolutionary

July 2, 2013 Leave a comment

I have three “trends” or situations I would like to raise and discuss briefly today. They are not inter-related in any direct sense, are of relevance to different people, and have very different consequences, so each should be considered separately. I will not go into a great deal of detail on any one of them at this point, but as time allows, I will expand on them in days to come.

1) The first is positive and relates to investing in “emerging” and “frontier” economies, as opposed to “advanced” economies. Those terms are amusing and clearly created by people in what I call the Old World of the North Atlantic. “Advanced” means nations where North Atlantic investors live, even if it includes many nations up to their eyeballs in debt and with little to show for it in terms of economic growth. “Emerging” refers to those other nations whose stock markets are big enough for the “advanced” folks to regularly trade. “Frontier” refers to nations whose stock markets are too small to be traded by the “big guys” in investment, but where there has been substantial growth and the potential for much more.

The least well-understood of any of these nations are the frontier economies. With the occasional exception, Mark Mobius of Franklin Templeton comes to mind, most of the “big names” in investment advice simply know little or nothing about these markets. They might visit one or more for a brief time, but reading their commentary on frontier markets in which I have lived and/or worked clearly demonstrates how poorly informed they are. I suspect they depend on statistics alone, plus commentaries by others like themselves, to make their judgments, pretty much like an ordinary person. I don’t mean to criticize them unfairly. I understand. They are known as experts in global investing, they are famous, it’s a major source of their income, and they show up constantly at global investment gatherings where they are faced with questions about frontier markets. Naturally, they want to respond and they do their best, but I wouldn’t use them as my investment advisors. Their real knowledge is too shallow.

I live in one of those frontier nations, Panama, and have lived and/or worked professionally as a development advisor in others for more than four decades. They may be aware that Panama’s GDP corrected for inflation has more than doubled in the last decade. They may be aware that it has ranked in the top-ten fastest growing economies in the world for several years now, including last year. They may even be aware that Panama is considered an “upper-middle income” nation sandwiched among low income nations starting from much lower GDP levels, thus making its growth even more impressive.

Fine, but all that does not help much in determining how or in what you might invest. The “global investment experts” are of no more help than anyone else who tries to understand a nation from a great distance and based on very limited, often out-of-date, information. If small outside investors are referred to as “computer jockeys”, the experts are not much better, if at all. For frontier nations, the Internet provides some information, but often very little more than a commercial pitch or advice based on a political agenda, neither of which is sufficient. Yet, it can lead people to believe they know what they are doing when it is clear to resident analysts that they do not. There is a price to pay for that.

I have experienced this directly as I have some land for sale here, but I have had to ignore investors from the North Atlantic. They come convinced they know what to do, based on their “research”, but it becomes rapidly clear that they are total newbies without a clue as to what is actually going on and how to deal with it competently. Worse yet, they don’t take practical advice. They don’t think they need it. Just as frustrating, it takes me an hour or more just to provide the basic background because they are starting from zero or worse. That is too much for them to accept from a seller. I understand that too, but I will not sell to them because I want the area developed successfully as it is where I intend to remain active for years to come. So I focus on people who have experience at least in Latin America and can be brought up to speed fairly quickly. What I have long known from observation, I now know from direct experience.

So what should a smaller investor do who is seriously interested in investing what for him or her is a substantial amount of money in a frontier market? The answer is simple to state, but not so simple to implement. Relocate. Choose your nation, pack your bags, and move. Expect to take at least three years and get to work. This brings me to the trend. This sort of relocation is underway and has been for several years. I discussed it in two articles at Barron’s, one in 2007 and the other in 2011, following our surveys of Americans on their interest in relocation outside their new nation. The 2011 article and survey results can be seen at our website at America Wave as a public service (no ads, no sales, completely free). We have let it sit since we are too busy actually doing what we talk about others thinking of doing, although we are now beginning to add to our Facebook page as time allows.

I see the results all around me. Not only is the expatriate community (not just American, but from many nations) growing here, but their investments are growing too, at least those who live here and invest directly. Many of the most successful are those under 40, some in their early 20′s. Age is not a necessary factor, but the young do tend to stay in more urbanized areas where the demand exists as opposed to retirees who frequently live in rural areas where demand is much harder to find. After my 2007 Barron’s article on this topic, Jay Tolson, then a senior staffer at US News and World Report, wrote one Friday, said he was arriving the coming Monday, and could I set up some interviews with several American entrepreneurs under 35? Totally taken by surprise, I said, sure. When he arrived 72 hours later, I had half a dozen for him to interview and that was before many of today’s young Americans had yet to arrive.

In any case, some of these entrepreneurs (few, if any, with MBAs) have done exceptionally well and for up to a decade. Excellent. It will take awhile, but eventually they will come to the notice of a Mark Mobius or someone else in a similar position and be able to provide experience-based investment advice to others, or they will simply come together and do it themselves. Ten years from now, these folks plus others who are older, but also successful entrepreneurs, will be in much better shape than their age counterparts who sit in New York or London earning good salaries, but who will not be able to compete well in the future. In any case, it is a healthy trend and, at 68 with 46 years of professional experience globally, I am very impressed. Not only by Americans, but by so many expat nationalities who are building their futures here and in other frontier markets. Finally, a trend that works to the advantage of investors everywhere, but one that is almost totally ignored today.

2) – The second is far more important currently to many people. I have already discussed this in detail at an earlier essay, We’ve Got The ‘Population Problem’ Upside Down, so I will not spend much time on it here. In a nutshell, I argue that any “population problem” is much more likely to be related to the growing numbers of retired people living ever-longer lifespans than it is to babies being born. The apparent lack of any serious research on this matter by those who are funded to study population changes is simply unacceptable as it can greatly distort the situation and the “problem” requiring attention, if indeed there is a population problem.

3) The third is the big one, at least for the future, and its consequences are likely to not only be both positive and negative, but quite literally change everything. It is an extremely sensitive topic when raised in regard to the issue that I think to be most important by far. I am referring to “genetic engineering”, a term that might not be pleasing to the ear in years to come.

I was sitting with a woman recently who was especially upset with Monsanto and its genetic engineering of seeds. She is not alone. It’s a very hot topic with many people. I told her that, important though that issue may be, it was nowhere near as important as a related issue, the genetic engineering of human beings. She was completely shocked. The thought had never occurred to her.

The development of all living things, plant and animal, are based on their genetic code, typically known to most of us as DNA and RNA. Every living cell was created on the basis of its genetic code. No one with any real knowledge of this topic has suggested that the DNA of one species can be engineered, but another cannot. If we can have genetically-modified seed corn, we have genetically-modified humans.

The life-saving and life-enhancing benefits of this are frequently discussed and rightly so. Millions of people, perhaps billions eventually, will owe a great deal to this new field of genetics. But as is true of all human endeavors, there will be a downside right along with the upside.

Here’s a question. To what extent is human behavior genetically determined? This question is being researched by scientists all over the world. The research is necessarily in its “early stages”, but the direction is obvious, as is the question. It is important to know, so we are determined to know. One unintended “victim” of this scientific inquiry may turn out to be our concept of “free will”. Every time science finds another clue that genetics impacts our behavior, free will becomes a little more limited. Will we get to a point where little or nothing is left to our traditional concept of free will? Will we have to give that concept up, as we have so many others over past centuries? Talk about an existential crisis!

This issue is not unknown, but it is rarely discussed in the general media, or even in future-oriented publications. Recently however, McKinsey & Company published a 176-page report, Disruptive technologies: Advances that will transform life, business, and the global economy, which discusses twelve of these technologies, including “Next-generation genomics”.

It discusses the many positive benefits that can flow from this new field, but mentions the uncomfortable, if briefly. They say, “This could lead to novel disease treatments and new types of genetically engineered products (such as genetically engineered biofuels), while enabling the nascent field of synthetic biology—designing DNA from scratch to produce desired traits. (my emphasis).

Elsewhere, it adds that one company “…is working on developing the biological equivalent of a high-level programming language with the goal of enabling large-scale production of synthetically engineered organisms.”

Its final paragraph on this topic is clearly relevant. “Ever since the creation of Dolly the sheep in 1996 proved that cloning is possible, genetic engineering has inspired both visions of a better world and concerns about the risks of such advances. Recently, scientists revealed that they have successfully inserted mitochondrial DNA into the egg cells of women who have had trouble conceiving. The procedure has been used in 30 successful pregnancies, producing babies with genes from the child’s two biological parents and the mitochondrial DNA donor; in effect, these children have three biological parents. This particular modification was performed to aid in conception, but it could also represent the first step on the path to manipulating human DNA to produce babies with “desirable” traits.” (again, my emphasis)

This is an excellent overview of twelve important “disruptive technologies” written to inform their clients and the public on important issues. What I share above is definitely taken out of context, but not unfairly so in my opinion. I encourage you to read the full report yourself. And I salute McKinsey & Company for being frank and raising the uncomfortable along with the comfortable potential results.

My purpose in raising these three topics is not to provoke fear or pleasure or any other emotion, but to provoke thought. The big break-throughs, crises, events that bring on a cascade of other events, and so forth may seem to “suddenly” occur, but in truth, they unfold over time. Only our perception of them changes suddenly, and that because we simply did not notice them in their early stages. I am exactly the same as anyone else. I have to have them brought to my attention by someone or something. The first two above come from decades of personal professional experience. The last results from my long-time interest in the research underlying terms like “genetic engineering” and “gene therapy”.

So with that in mind, I offer these three trends to you for your consideration.

——-

I write when time and spirit allow. If you wish to be notified of new posts, just enter your email address at the upper-right of this page. I have no use for email addresses. I already have too many in my “address book”. Rest assured, yours will be kept private.

The global crisis summed up in a single word

May 23, 2013 Leave a comment

It has been seven months since I last posted here and most of you have probably decided I passed away, fell off the edge of the earth, or some such fate. But there has been a reason, a very simple reason.

I am going to do something a bit odd. I am going to return to a commentary I wrote here two and a half years ago in October of 2010. It was the very first post to this blog. But instead of just providing a link to that earlier commentary, I am going to present it here again and in full. Although it is dated, the election it refers to is gone and has been superseded by yet another, I can’t say that I feel any differently today than I did then, except more strongly. Two and a half years and I can add this. I am fed up. That commentary isn’t long, so before I add a few additional comments, here it is.

Two Tea Parties?
October 4, 2010

Two Tea Parties in less than three years. Who predicted that? Two, you say? Yes, I would argue that the first Tea Party was the movement that brought Barack Obama to the Presidency. To avoid confusion, let’s call the first Tea Party, the Obama Party, and consider the parallels.

  • Both can be considered “grassroots” movements.

  • Both reject the traditional leaders of a major party.

  • Both can legitimately claim to be fully “insurgent movements”, surging against not only a party establishment, but against the opposition as well and simultaneously.

  • Both offer ill-defined slogans, allowing each to be many things to many people. How does “Yes We Can!” differ from “I Want My Country Back!” in substance? Yes we can…what? And what do you mean by “my country”?

  • Both began with a tabula rasa on which their supporters could write what they like, while avoiding their internal differences prior to holding power.

  • Both demonize their opposition and canonize themselves.

There are differences. The Obama Party is focused on a single personality. Sarah Palin may aspire to the same position with the Tea Party, but she still has much more to accomplish before she can claim that. And of course, the Obama Party won real power, not just some party primaries, while the Tea Party awaits the November results. The Obama Party’s tabula rasa has now been written on, indelibly, while the Tea Party’s remains covered with the chalk scrawls of millions.

There is one remaining major difference. The Obama Party won power, but lost its way. Disappointment and confusion have replaced inspiration and a call to action. Will the same occur should the Tea Party and its supporters feel they have won in November, only to feel they have lost their way a few months later?

It is no surprise that during a time of national crisis, an insurgency challenges incumbency. But I suggest the Obama Party is not yet truly an incumbent party, but rather a failed insurgency. In effect, a new insurgency faces a failed insurgency and should it fail as well, what do we have left?

At times of great financial distress threatening the futures of tens of millions of Americans, great leaders have risen. You know that Franklin Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan were great leaders because both could claim majority support of the public when they needed it, despite a minority that saw each as a grave danger to the republic. With the circumstances they both faced, damaging deflation for Roosevelt and damaging inflation for Reagan, both may have been extremely controversial figures, but no one could deny that both led. You did not have to ask “Who’s in charge?” It was obvious who was in charge. Love him or hate him, he was a leader.

The greatest potential threat facing this United States today is not poor leadership, but no leadership. No one is in charge. We deserve better than that.

32 months later, here I sit, fed up and disgusted. There is only one small, mean, pathetic “comfort” left. It is worse in Europe. I read today of riots in Sweden. Riots in Sweden?! That is beyond “sad”. I don’t have a good word for it, just bad ones that I will keep to myself. In any case, that is no excuse for the United States of America. But it does help me explain my point today.

I have spent 46 years of my adult life (I am 68) working in one sector of economic development or another in nations all over this earth, sometimes living in them for extended periods of time as I do now. In decades past, the US was in the center ring of the human circus. Sometimes it was amazing, sometimes it was not, but most of the time there was no doubt in my mind that it was the class act, the center of envy and attention for good reason. Today, it it is in a smaller ring, off to one side, seemingly intent on ending up as a sorry excuse for a sideshow outside the Big Tent.

I do not care if you call yourself a Republican, a Democrat, a liberal, a conservative, a Tea Party supporter, a libertarian or whatever other category suits you today. I am as much an Independent as I can be. And I have given up trying to understand which of a dozen versions of “liberal” or “conservative” is worth supporting, none of them are sufficiently convincing, so I have no choice but to be a “moderate”, despite the difficulty of defining that term. Above all those insufficient labels, I stick to the one that is the most important. I am an American.

For decades, I sat on the “American” side of the table in nations in Africa, the Middle East, Latin America, and Asia and worked with people of every religion, ideology, and sensibility to help them understand the global system that America had done so much to create. I worked in many disciplines from agriculture to to nutrition and public health to business development and more. In those days, you had to be a “Jack of all trades” to deal with the multiple problems these “developing nations” faced as they struggled to adapt. I stressed two fundamental concepts – financial responsibility and managerial competency. That is what I represented. Many of these nations are now referred to as “emerging markets” and “frontier markets”. They caught on. They adapted. They are the centers of growth today.

Now I sit on the other side of the table in just one of the many frontier markets. I am an American citizen and have every intention of remaining one, but Panama is where I call “home” today and happily so. Now I look across the table and what I have seen for the nearly six years since the term, “sub-prime” (aka, “high risk”), hit the global headlines? I see financial irresponsibility followed by managerial incompetency.

This may upset you, but you can only imagine how much it upsets me. I am so happy to see some of the nations where I once worked make substantial, year on year, progress. If I had some tiny part (and it would be tiny, I harbor no illusions) in their progress, than it brings me satisfaction. Through good times and bad, I had faith they would rise up economically, socially, and politically, and they have. But it never occurred to me through all those decades that both sides of the North Atlantic would go to such great lengths to tear up the very rule book they wrote and bring themselves down.

I will pull back now from focusing on the US and include all of the North Atlantic, both sides of the Big Pond. I have no time to demonize. I will leave that up to the screamers and shouters up north. I have worked in nations with real dictators, both civilian and military, as well as one-party nations that hid their authoritarianism behind a distorted image of democracy. Much as some in the north may disagree, I assure you that the men and women elected to lead nations on both sides of the North Atlantic today are nowhere near as bad as they could be.

But they are also nowhere near as good as they should be, given the gravity of the global situation that seems only to become ever more grave and ever more threatening to themselves and everyone else on the planet each week, each month, year after year after year.

No, they are not as bad as they could be nor as good as they certainly should be as leaders. They represent something in-between. They represent mediocrity.

So there you have it, the global crisis summed up in a single word. These “leaders” do not deserve to be called the best or the worst, just plain mediocre will do. Really awful leadership can kill a nation’s future like a gun to the head. Mediocrity kills by slow, agonizing strangulation.

Will this be followed by more at Future Brief? I make no promises. I am not sure anyone is listening anyhow, but I do feel a responsibility to add more than just criticism. Time will tell.

For the moment, I will end this commentary as I ended my very first at Future Brief. although it now truly qualifies as understatement.

We deserve better than that.

——-

I write when time and spirit allow. If you wish to be notified of new posts, just enter your email address at the upper-right of this page. I have no use for email addresses. I already have too many in my “address book”. Rest assured, yours will be kept private.

Investing Inside Frontier Markets

November 27, 2012 1 comment

In a past commentary, I discussed a redefinition of three related terms: the First, Second, and Third Worlds. The old definitions reflected a reality of the 20th century, but fail to reflect the reality of the second decade of the 21st century. If, as so many agree, we need “outside the box” thinking to deal successfully with today’s world, then we must begin by re-examining the terminology we employ when it remains in common use, but is no longer useful.

I want to expand on that theme today. However, terminology again needs redefinition. In this case, I am concerned with three newer terms: Developed Markets (DMs), Emerging Markets (EMs), and Frontier Markets (FMs). At first glance, these may appear to be simply replacements for the three “Worlds.” To the extent they are used in this fashion, they are simply a new coat of paint on an old shack. They have one value however: They allow people in North America and Europe to continue to think of themselves as superior.

The term Developed Market is certainly misleading. Like its predecessor, “developed nation,” it implies finality. There is nothing more to do. The nation is developed. What more can it be? The hubris is obvious. At least in one respect, the DMs are indeed developed. They have developed huge debts. They have combined these huge debts with a lack of domestic consensus, a failure to forthrightly confront their debt recessions, a dependency on central banks for anything approaching real action, a failure to identify a common goal allowing for a common DM response, and the resulting weak domestic and international leadership.

Seen from outside, they are sad at best, pathetic at worst. We are now entering our sixth year since public awareness of another term, “sub-prime,” and the beginning of a crisis first felt in the US mortgage sector that spread to engulf the North Atlantic. As the years pass with one promise of near- or mid-term recovery after another failing to be realized, their embarrassment becomes humiliation, whether they have the good sense to realize that or not.

Europe has taken this to an extreme that would have bordered on pulp fiction a decade ago. It is painful to watch. It is beyond melodrama. It is a tragedy unfolding before us today. There is nothing any of us outside Europe can do about it, with one possible exception for investors. Trading stocks and the euro on the basis of this week’s official announcement of progress is no way to earn a living if you want to sleep at night. I think it is best to simply step aside and wait for whatever results are delivered. Until then, it is a gambling den for those foolish enough to think they can predict an unpredictable future and who, as a result, serve Lady Luck.

The US, as many have noted, looks good only in comparison to Europe. It also has a big plus in the exploitation of shale oil that is already having a substantial positive economic impact, one that will likely grow throughout this decade. But Americans have one problem very much in common with the European Union and the eurozone. The nation is divided and has been for at least a decade. I believe the similarities between George W. Bush’s policies and those of Barack Obama are several, but there is one similarity that is especially striking and based on hard fact.

Both presidents were in serious trouble when they ran for reelection and their oppositions launched something skin to a “holy crusade ” in an attempt to defeat them. Both were reelected. But the really striking similarity is seen in the popular vote. George W. Bush received 50.74% of the popular vote. Barack Obama received 50.85% of the popular vote. Both presidents overcame serious obstacles to win reelection and both succeeded, but neither received a mandate for change. They were simply given permission to try again, and barely so at that. Lady Luck has her hands full.

I won’t belabor the EMs. My prior commentary regarding the “New Second World” will suffice. In brief, these are large nations with large populations and large potential, but also with large problems. Their primary challenges are to deal with domestic pressures for more, more, more, while dealing with pressure from the DMs. In their all-absorbing desperation to survive the crisis they have created for themselves, the DMs will tend to drag the EMs down with them. But for today, an additional suggestion I would make is to be the first in your neighborhood to understand that “emerging” is the wrong word. They have emerged. Deal with it.

This brings me to the Frontier Markets. These are the nations where investing is most difficult. Many of their stock markets are too small, too illiquid, and too rarely followed to be of any use to DM investors whose “trading floor” is their computer monitor. Their companies that do trade locally are too small. In my new home nation, Panama, the local stock likely to draw attention from the DMs is COPA Airlines (NYSE:CPA), a rapidly-growing and very profitable regional airline, but you can trade COPA on the NYSE. Everything else gets ignored.

And yet, there is a lot of money being made now and yet to be made in many FMs that make them as attractive or more attractive than the EMs or DMs. Some people think that FMs are dirt-poor by definition. Wrong. In Panama, our 2011 per capita GDP (PPP) was $14,100. Brazil? $11,800. China? $8,400. India? $3,700. Only Russia leads us ($16,700) and, you can definitely trust me on this, no one in Panama is interested in trading economies or our young, modestly growing population with their aging, declining population, among many other things. Our continued double-digit GDP growth rate doesn’t hurt either. Panama may be better off than many FMs, but it is not alone. From Mongolia to Sri Lanka, there are many options and they are bustling.

So how do you invest in FMs for maximum return? You don’t. You invest inside an FM of your choice. You research, you visit, you choose, you move, you live where you will invest. If you are not part of the first wave, you can be part of the second and learn off the first. As I mentioned in my last commentary, my firm’s surveys clearly indicate that you will not be alone as far as relocation is concerned. However, if you are a real investor, you will still be in a small minority and the potential can be far greater than in the DMs or EMs. But it is not a walk in the park.

This requires real work. If trading on a monitor is your sole approach to investing, this is not going to work for you. If your time frame for making the big bucks is measured in weeks or months, best to stay at home. If you can look out at least three years, preferably more, you greatly increase the odds of success. You are not there for the weather or the cost of living, you are there to personally research, visit, and inspect potential investments and still be there afterwards to monitor their progress. You are there to live and profit, but you have to contribute. For their sake and everyone else’s, armchair analysts should remain firmly rooted to their armchairs.

There are certainly risks involved in investing inside FMs, but if you think you live in a risk-free environment now, think again. And the risks are declining as many FMs grow. The really good news is that with the profound ignorance or, at best, out-dated 20th century understanding of the FMs on the part of so many in the DMs, the competition is nowhere near as severe as in the DMs and EMs. As a result, the odds of an excellent return on investment are declining more slowly.

That’s another way of saying that if very few of you decide to seriously consider this approach, I will shed no tears. The fewer who follow this advice, the greater the rewards for those of us who do. But if it sounds intriguing enough to act on, you’re welcome to join us.

e pluribus, plures

November 7, 2012 Leave a comment

The more things change.

I think George Friedman of Stratfor summed it up well in his paid-subscription newsletter of this morning.

The United States held elections last night, and nothing changed. Barack Obama remains president. The Democrats remain in control of the Senate with a non-filibuster-proof majority. The Republicans remain in control of the House of Representatives.

The national political dynamic has resulted in an extended immobilization of the government. With the House — a body where party discipline is the norm — under Republican control, passing legislation will be difficult and require compromise. Since the Senate is in Democratic hands, the probability of it overriding any unilateral administrative actions is small. Nevertheless, Obama does not have enough congressional support for dramatic new initiatives, and getting appointments through the Senate that Republicans oppose will be difficult.

There is a quote often attributed to Thomas Jefferson: “That government is best which governs the least because its people discipline themselves.” I am not sure that the current political climate is what was meant by the people disciplining themselves, but it is clear that the people have imposed profound limits on this government. Its ability to continue what is already being done has not been curbed, but its ability to do much that is new has been blocked.

It’s hard to add to that. All I can say is that the future is unpredictable. Friedman’s forecast is very reasonable, but as he also says, I have argued that presidents do not make strategies but that those strategies are imposed on them by reality. The US can no more unilaterally determine the future than any other nation. Thus reality may lead to a different outcome in the next couple years, but we have no choice. We must wait for future reality to disclose itself.

From E pluribus, unum (From many, one) to E pluribus, plures (From many, many)

The election is perfectly in line with the last decade of American politics. We are an intensely and all-but-equally divided nation. As Friedman suggests above, we are likely to remain that way until such time as we cannot, for reasons beyond our control. The major American parties are, as always, coalitions of disparate groups with disparate goals. Just as the Republicans have disputes between social conservatives and libertarians, the Democrats will have their disputes between environmentalists and trade unions, as one example. The process of extracting oil from shale (fracking) is one of those issues where Democrats may find unity difficult.

Whatever, the party names mean little today, as has been true for a very long time, but the other popular labels, liberal and conservative, are also more and more dysfunctional. All these labels are easy to define in glittering generalities, but difficult to define in practice.

The US will eventually work itself through this period, although there is no guarantee that the results will be useful. The parties may slowly redefine themselves internally, or decline and perhaps the two major parties of the future will be the Libertarians and the Greens. But that would leave no room for the social conservatives, among others, so multiple parties may contest. I don’t know, but it will make for interesting theater at the least, a rebirth of a national consensus at the most. But getting from here to there, wherever “there” ends up being, will not be an easy task.

Despite so many narrow margins yesterday, there was one solid victory. The status quo is alive and well. There will be no court cases or recounts to trouble us. We can get on with it, whatever that may mean.

——-

I write when time allows, about once a week, perhaps twice. If you wish to be notified of new posts, just enter your email address at the upper-right of this page. I have no use for email addresses. I already have too many in my “address book”. Rest assured, yours will be kept private.

The rear-view mirror

November 6, 2012 Leave a comment

I have been silent here for two reasons – the US elections and Hurricane Sandy. The majority of my readers are Americans and they have been tied into knots by these two events. Sandy is now history and, by this evening, the election will be history. The results may not be known, depending on how close it is and the importance of absentee ballots, but the election, itself, will be history. Thank god for small favors.

Anyone who knows me at all well also knows that I do not believe in “predicting” the future. That is, pretending I know the outcome of some process, currently unfolding or expected to unfold, with any specificity. I believe the best humans can do is “forecast” the future. That is, guessing what the future holds, but accepting that there are a variety of possible outcomes and that your guess is just your best estimate of a probability. Predictions as I define them in this case are relatively exact and definite as presented, forecasts are relatively general and changeable as presented. Predictions tell us what will be. Forecasts tell us what might be.

Who will win? I don’t know. Do I have any forecast? Yes, I think the probability is reasonably high that we will look back on this as the last election of the 20th century. However, it may take another one or two or more. Simply put, Americans are used to “us” and “them”. We can’t decide who “them” is at the moment. We are still recovering from the loss of the Soviet Union. We are still searching for the “common enemy” who will bring us together. When all is said and one, perhaps we will end up agreeing with Walt Kelly’s cartoon character, Pogo, talking to his friend Porky Pine more than 40 years ago in the cartoon below. A comment on the physical environment may serve as a comment on the political environment as well.

Pogo days, we have met the enemy and he is us.

This election is mired in the Boomer memories of the 60′s (liberals) and the 80′s (conservatives). Unfortunately for them, both decades are history and will not be repeated. The first election of the 21st century will be the one where the focus is clearly on the future, not the past. As long as we are fearful of the future, Marshall Mcluhan summed up our problem a few decades ago when he wrote, “We look at the present through a rear-view mirror”. That’s no way to drive a car and no way to run a nation.

And so it is that my fellow Americans are voting today as I write. Although several million voted in advance as is allowed and their votes could easily be critical, the great majority will vote today. They will choose between two “major” party candidates and several “minor” party candidates. With regard to the latter, this may be the year the Libertarians and/or the Greens finally break the million-vote mark.

No predictions, but I do have a hope. I hope the winner will win decisively so we are spared another “2000 election” and will know the winner tomorrow. I don’t think it’s too much to ask, but it may be too much to hope for. We will soon see.

Once the initial wailing, rending of garments, and gnashing of teeth of the losers has died down (another hope), I will be back with more to share.

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I write when time allows, about once a week, perhaps twice. If you wish to be notified of new posts, just enter your email address at the upper-right of this page. I have no use for email addresses. I already have too many in my “address book”. Rest assured, yours will be kept private.

Two more things to consider when relocating

October 11, 2012 Leave a comment

I wrote recently of a “tip”, a suggestion, to consider when choosing a nation for relocation. Here are two more. As always, keep in mind that these are my personal preferences and may not be relevant to you, but I think they are at least worthy of consideration when you set out to relocate outside your home nation.

Civil Wars – I mean civil wars that led to many deaths and usually years before ending. In such a nation, I prefer that it be 40 (even better, 50) years since the ending of the civil war. Why?

Most civil wars are fought by young men, often in their late teens and twenties. Let’s use 20 as an example for one individual. Ten or twenty or thirty years later, you are 30 or 40 or 50. Yes, the civil war is long over, but the memories may never be over. To have seen your best friend shot and killed before your eyes or your father taken away by armed men, never to be heard from again, is a traumatic event. You never forget that and it can be very, very difficult, if not impossible, to forgive that. Now you are middle-aged and you are able to work with someone who you know was on the “other side back then” in a professional and superficially friendly manner, but can you ever trust him?

In societies where this is the case, this factor can be very significant, although “hidden” to the eyes of a foreigner. Because it is so heavily charged with emotion, it can pervert relationships and lead to very unpleasant results if you accidentally say or do the “wrong thing” innocently.

In choosing business partners, should that be the case, this can be an important factor. You may have an excellent personal relationship with each of two other local people and decide to bring them together to work with you on a project. You need to be sensitive to their backgrounds and personal histories. Just because they get along fine with you is no indication they will be able to get along well with each other.

That’s on an indivudal level, but it can happen on a societal level as well. A political issue that seems pretty ordinary to you may lead to some very powerful conflict around you. This may be an issue that somehow reminds the society of one of the reasons they had a civil war in the first place. This is another very good reason to steer clear entirely of local and national politics. It’s good to do that under all circumstance to the extent possible, but especially so of nations that have torn themselves apart in war.

I sympathize with these folks. I have had middle-aged professionals reduced to tears as they described the horrors they witnessed during “the war” and it is a moving experience. However, sympathize as I do, I still prefer societies where this is not likely to be an issue. Forty or fifty years later, “the war” is still a primary issue for some, but now they are old enough to be moving aside and younger generations, even though they have heard the stories, are far more likely to assign all that to history and deal with each other directly in a far more constructive manner, and you too, indirectly.

Left/Right – I prefer nations that do not have a “far left” and a “far right” that are substantial in size, well-funded, highly vocal, and in perpetual conflict. In those societies, serious political conflict is a given factor, day and night. Since I only live in democracies (I have had my fill of military governments, one-party states, and the like), there is the real possibility that an election will lead to a near-complete reversal in domestic and foreign policies. This can cause endless problems for everyone as they struggle to keep track of what is allowed and what is not allowed. Plus the continuous barrage of extremist insults from both sides can leave many people frozen into inaction, fearing that one or the other group will gain power and suddenly change the rules of the game.

This can be especially a problem for “foreigners” like you and me. In domestic politics, foreigners are much easier and safer targets than local people who vote. In the 24 hours of an Election Day, you can go from being a welcome addition to their nation to something akin to the spawn of Satan! That legal agreement you signed last year can be torn up, now that a new government is in power. And people who treated you as a friend may suddenly be very distant or worse. This is one more thing that I have experienced and can do without. I can handle it (I had no choice on some professional assignments) for a short period, but I am talking about my new home and that is an entirely different story. It is an extreme example of the old saying about New York City, “It’s a great place to visit, but I wouldn’t want to live there.”

That covers two of the “political” issues that concern me in choosing a nation for relocation. In my next post, I will discuss the importance of employment – both the employment situation for the local people and the employment situation for you. They are not one and the same, obviously, but you may be surprised that your situation is not necessarily the most important to successful relocation.

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I write when time allows, about once a week, perhaps twice. If you wish to be notified of new posts, just enter your email address at the upper-right of this page. I have no use for email addresses. I already have too many in my “address book”. Rest assured, yours will be kept private.

Decouple Yourself in the New Third World

October 10, 2012 Leave a comment

In times past, I have discussed the subject of “decoupling” in reference to economies and financial markets. I want to discuss decoupling again, but in a very different context. I want to encourage you to consider “decoupling” your life, at least in part.

For four and a half decades, I have lived and/or worked outside the US in a few dozen nations that were among those called the “Third World” in the past. I am old enough to remember when that term first came into use some 50 years ago. Meant to describe a host of new nations being created as European colonial empires crumbled, and whose support for either side of the Cold War (the First and Second Worlds of their day) was undetermined, it has become a slur. No one compliments a nation by calling it Third World. It is an insult and seen as one by those who live in those nations. It is also inaccurate.

I have spent a great deal of time over recent years trying to help people get away from using that outdated term. But I will take a different approach today. I will suggest a new definition for “Third World.” For the sake of this essay, let’s call it the New Third World. But if there are three, what about the other two? How are they to be defined?

The New First World is made up of those nations that used to be the primary global power centers in nearly all respects, basically the US and Europe. Let’s look at each.

The Europe of the late 20th century strove to return to its position in the 19th century and failed. It had to play second fiddle to the US. The Europe of the second decade of the 21st century longs to return to the Europe of the late 20th century. It is failing and will fail. Perhaps the single most important factor in determining Europe’s future is to never forget that it is made up of democracies. Its future will not be determined by people with names like Merkel, Rajoy, Napolitano, and so forth. It will be determined by people whose names are unknown to us, but who are very much aware of what is happening in their nations. Toss in an EU that requires unanimity to take any serious action and a eurozone designed for failure and you have a genuine disaster unfolding. Yes, the new Europe will eventually appear, but the process of getting “there” from “here” is not going to be pretty. It’s going to be very painful and it will take years, perhaps a generation.

The US is in serious trouble too. One big thing it has in its favor is that it’s not Europe. However, its political leadership for some years has been a lesson in mediocrity, neither as good as it should be nor as bad as it could be. Mediocrity is not good enough to deal with the continually-growing financial crisis in a nation almost evenly divided between two “sides” that spend almost all their time shouting insults at their opponents, but little time creating solutions. The level of political discourse in the US is worse than sad. Yes, the new US will eventually appear, but the process of getting “there” from “here” is not going to be pretty. It’s going to be very painful and it will take years, perhaps a generation.

I am a citizen of the United States of America and still very proud to be one. Likewise, I am of European heritage of many generations past, but very fond of Europe and my friends there. I spent nearly all my adult professional life as an advisor to nations of the old Third World, more than 40 of them. Two fundamentals of my work were to stress the importance of financial responsibility and managerial competency, the positive benefits of both clearly demonstrated by the North Atlantic “First World” system I represented.

Today, the tables have turned and these so-called “advanced economies” are now excellent examples of financial irresponsibility and managerial incompetency with regard to their own affairs. The New First World is “first” in all the wrong ways. If I wanted to waste my time (and I have done that more than once in recent years), I would agonize over this situation and allow it to block my own personal and professional growth, but enough is enough. That is over.

The New Second World has nothing to do with the old Soviet Union. It is made up of the BRICs and perhaps the CIVETs and other acronyms that are in use to group nations with relative large domestic markets, whose financial markets are large enough to attract money from the New First World, who have above-average growth rates, but who also have one potentially fatal problem. They may be too intimately associated with the New First World. They have a real challenge. They need to decouple from the North Atlantic’s crisis without causing their own crisis, but it’s tough when you are so tightly bound to the New First World’s investment community, as well as its commercial markets. Their problem is that they are the center of too much attention from the very nations that are in the greatest trouble. Theirs is a “co-dependency” problem and dealing with it successfully is not going to be easy. They need to decouple partially without decoupling too much. If they can pull it off, they will teach us all a lesson in managerial competency.

The New Third World is where I live and work. These nations are also tied to the rest of the global community, but not to the extent of the New Second World, in great part because they are often ignored or dismissed by the very people with problems with money and management. They are too small for blessings like program trading or hedge funds or derivatives. Many are experiencing dramatic growth of their own and visiting one after an absence of even five years can be a real surprise. Ten years later and it can easily be a shock to see how much has changed.

They have risks, but so do the other two Worlds, to put it mildly. But they have great opportunities too. As I look through the list of nations and their real GDP growth rates in 2011, I find those whose claim to such fame is associated with growth from a tiny base and very likely due to a short-term situation, but there are many others too. Three that I focus on are Mongolia (ranked second), Ghana (fourth), and Panama (sixth), where I live. There are plenty of others too, sometimes referred to as “frontier markets” (thank you, Mark Mobius) to differentiate them from “emerging markets”, our friends in the New Second World.

These nations can be very, very different and they each have to be looked at separately. It is foolish to generalize in most respects. But they do have one thing in common that makes them much more fun to live in than the other two Worlds. People in these nations do not look to the future with outright fear (the New First World) or anxiety (the New Second World), but with enthusiasm. These are not “one-year growth wonders.” You can tear any nation down (look what we’re doing to our own home nations), but if you look at them carefully, you see a pattern of growth over several years and good reasons for it.

But that isn’t the most important point in my experience. I can’t express in words the value in working with people who are positive about their future and their nation’s future. The difference is huge. Yes, we have expatriates from other nations, typically from the New First World, who still have got one foot in the “old country,” carry their anger and angst with them as extra baggage when they come, live on the surface of their new home, and sit and whine. They can be noisy, but they are definitely in the minority. Life can be challenging in a new nation, wherever it is, but if you are up to the challenge, flexible, and adaptable, the door opens on endless possibilities.

But you cannot share in these opportunities sitting in front of a computer monitor in a New First World nation. You have to move there, learn, grow, and work your butt off. There are no guarantees and your nationality isn’t going to grant you any special attention, except maybe a little sympathy if you look for it. Nonetheless, the pay-off on your investment of your life, not just your money, can be much greater than anything you can hope for in the other two Worlds.

Yes, there are the other ones, the dysfunctional nations (Somalia and North Korea come to mind) and those who have great potential, but spend most of their time shooting themselves in the foot or worse (Venezuela and Zimbabwe come to mind). But these nations are fewer in number than ever before and, let’s be frank, the dysfunctional aren’t terribly important to the rest of us, other than occasionally threatening violence, and the foot-shooters can always turn the corner and join those growing and benefiting from that growth..

I am a citizen of the United States of America and intend to remain one for the rest of my life, regardless of where I reside. I can still express my opinions in my home nation, as I am doing right now and as I do frequently. I can still vote and do, if I have someone I think is worth voting for. I can certainly keep as up-to-date as anyone on global markets, politics, etc. And I can remain in regular touch with those I love and those I work with outside my current nation of residence easily and cheaply.

But I don’t have to live there to do it. I have great confidence that my fellow Americans and our European cousins will eventually climb out of the pit they have dug for themselves. And I am happy for the New Second World and wish it the best as it struggles to maintain growth in the midst of all the confusion of its “partners” in the New First World. But decades of experience have taught me to ignore size and focus on quality, to seek a home where people look forward to a better future, not backward to the “good old days” that will never, can never, return.

What you do with your life is entirely your business, of course. It is of no significance to me. The majority of you will probably have no interest in living anywhere other than where you do now. Fine, but I’m not really writing to you. I am writing to those who have given or will give relocation to another nation some thought. Keep this New Third World, these Frontier Markets, very much in mind. If you have the resources, get out there and visit them.

Ultimately, if your life is being turned upside-down and inside-out by the constant tension and mindless shouting surrounding you now, consider decoupling your life from what it is that causes you pain and unhappiness. If you want to invest and you are willing to really work at it yourself, rather than try to make some money off what others are doing, you may be surprised to find that you are happier and more successful in the New Third World than you can hope to be now in the US or Europe. At the very least, you can enjoy life and actually have fun while investing.

But if so, don’t just keep putting it off. The New Third World is like any world. It isn’t going to wait for you. It’s too busy growing.

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