Tag Archives: Politics

Mexican congressman to colleagues: “Privatize This”

So, as you may or may not have heard, Mexican Congress has just passed some rather historic oil reforms, much to the consternation of a lot of people. Herein, one congressman’s protest at the lack of transparency surrounding this historic occasion (with thanks to @NetasMX):

2013.12.MX oil reforms

Irrational exuberance continues plaguing Bitcoin

2013.12.IgnoranceBank of America has now initiated coverage of bitcoin and puts a fair value price target at US$1,300, which depending on your view, either validates or discredits the digital currency. Personally, I have no skin in this game, I appreciate and am fascinated by the theoretical construct, but am put off by the breathlessly brainless hype surrounding it and one doesn’t have to look far to see bitcoin’s limitations.

With that said now, the BoA report link is here, and as far as I’m concerned, the most important stuff comes in at page 6, in the section entitled, “How to assess Bitcoin’s fair value?”

I admit up front I have yet to come up with a viable answer to this question, but if I may say so, I am expert at recognizing bullshit when I see it. And BoA analysts make what even they concede are very big assumptions here, but if you know the assumptions are “big” (read: unrealistic), then why bother going on about it in the first place?

Anyway, taking this piece by piece, some of the outlandish assumptions that lead to a “fair value” price of $1,300, as far as bitcoin’s value as a medium of exchange:

Given the assumption that Bitcoin will grow to account for the payment of 10% of all on-line shopping, this would suggest that US households would want to have a balance of $1bn worth of Bitcoins.

…given bitcoin’s famous finite supply cap at 21 million units, the math here isn’t quite doing it for me.

What about for the whole world? US GDP is about 20% of World GDP. If we were to assume the same degrees of penetration of e-commerce for the rest of the world and that spending by households outside the US has the same velocity, we get to $5bn worth of Bitcoins for the total desired cash/noncash balance of global on-line shopping.

…sure, but both of those assumptions are not just wrong but shockingly ignorant about how the world outside the United States operates. I don’t need to spell this one out further, do I?

In addition to its role as a mean for payment for on-line commerce, Bitcoin can be used for transfer of money (e.g. immigrant worker in the US sending remittances back home).

…the average immigrant worker in the US sending remittances back home is a) Latin American, and b) traditionally very distrustful of all financial mechanisms or intermediaries that are not cash; further, this average immigrant worker would require a level of facility with the internet that various studies simply do not bear out.

Western Union, MoneyGram, and Euronet are the three top players in the money transfer industry (with about 20% of the total market share). Let’s assume that Bitcoin becomes one of the top three players in this industry.

…actually, let’s not, for all kinds of practical reasons. See previous two rebuttals to begin with.

A thought just occurred to me: maybe this is a practical joke — like the Onion!

As far as bitcoin somehow serving as a store of value, the entire discussion here appears LSD-induced, with the following statement perhaps being the biggest whopper:

If we were to assume that Bitcoin were to eventually acquire the reputation of silver (which is an extremely ambitious assumption), this suggests that Bitcoin market capitalization for its role as a store of value could reach $5bn.

WHAT?

This is the metaphorical equivalent of saying that assuming gravity were one-tenth its current force, I could leap tall buildings in a single bound…and then going on to design a workout routine that does indeed involve me leaping tall buildings in a single bound.

Someone’s living in unreality and I’m pretty sure it’s not me. 

The ongoing challenge of assessing Frontier Markets political risk

2013.12 Frontier Markets Political RiskI’m generalizing it, but frontier markets political risk is my main takeaway after reading through Clear Path Analysis’ just-released Investing in Frontier Markets 2013.

And if that doesn’t get you excited, don’t let that deter you from looking further as there’s a lot of other stuff in there that I’m totally glossing over.

Some highlights:

Asked what kind of investors are mostly interested in frontier markets and how they’re using the exposure, Yvonne Bakkum of FMO Investment Management had this to say:

“We are talking about a diversified African private equity proposition to U.S. institutional investors, and it strikes me that we hardly have to explain the Africa story to them. They seem very well aware of the fundamental attractiveness of Africa as an investment destination but, are still studying the best way to access that opportunity. What type of asset class, should they go through public markets or private equity and if so should they select funds themselves or use a fund of funds vehicle? These are the types of questions being asked but in most cases the interest still needs to translate into actual commitments. Some African institutions haven’t decided as to whether they should invest and there we see an interesting discrepancy between the investment professionals and their boards of trustees. Trustees tend to be more cautious and want to start with BRICs because they are the more advanced emerging markets or the ones closer to home, such as Latin America. This means that you don’t always get everybody aligned simultaneously.”

Oliver Bell, portfolio manager of Africa and Middle East strategy for T. Rowe Price wound up having a lot to say about East Africa, among which was this nugget on the key risks in investing in African markets:

“The key risk still remains around the politics and the economics but the two are quite strongly linked. The first risk is when you get a change of government. 50 of these countries have had elections in the last three years so we are no longer talking about despotic dictators – this has become a relatively democratic continent. The key risk is that if the opposition wins an election does power get handed over peacefully? We’ve just seen a transition of power in Kenya for example which was peaceful but five years ago the election transition was very brutal. The more times you go through the peaceful transition, the more entrenched the democracy becomes. In Ghana we’ve seen the handover of power peacefully a few times so you get the sense that democracy is now deeply rooted in their society.

Related to the politics is the economic fallout that can occur in the run up to elections, because you tend to find that the incumbents spend aggressively to ingratiate themselves with the electorate. The targets go out of the window leading to a larger fiscal deficit, which can lead to currency weakness and hence inflation. This knock-on effect usually corrects itself the year after an election but it remains one of those things that you need to be very aware of when investing in Africa. One other risk at the stock level that we assess, when considering an investment in a company, is whether there are any political connections that the company is benefitting from, as this is not sustainable in the long term, given that the politics can change quickly.”

And finally, Richard Fox, Fitch’s Head of Middle East and Africa Sovereigns, had this to say about MENA political risk:

“Political risk is a fact of life but it varies from country to country. And it doesn’t necessarily mean a country is off limits to investors. Going back to where we started, the World Bank Governance Indicators would put a country like Nigeria or Lebanon very low down on the political risk spectrum. Nevertheless, these countries have a track record of foreign investment receiving very good returns. Just because political risk is high doesn’t mean that people will not put their money there…

… You can have volatile political developments but this does not mean that they automatically affect financial markets. Despite the political ups and downs of Lebanon, including war, there has never been a default and people are allowed to withdraw their money freely which has worked very much in Lebanon’s favour. Environments can be very risky but if you have investors aware of and happy to take those risks then it isn’t really an issue. In most cases, risks can be priced.”

The Ties That Bind Russia

2013.12.03.leninIn keeping with the just-released 2013 Transparency International Corruption Perceptions Index, I’m always in the market for new ways to describe the obstacles one encounters when trying to get things done in developing countries.

Enter this very enlightening piece from Peter Pomerantsev in the London Review of Books. The premise is what Russians refer to as the “Sistema”:

There are any number of paths and initiations into sistema, the liquid mass of networks, corruptions and evasions – elusive yet instantly recognisable to members – which has ordered the politics and social psychology of Russian civilisation since tsarist times.

And here’s the super gut punch:

This is the genius of sistema: even if you manage to avoid the draft, you, your mother and your family have become part of the network of bribery, fear, simulation and dissimulation. You have learned to become an actor playing different roles in relation to the state, the great intruder you wish to avoid or outwit or simply buy off. You are already semi-legal, a transgressor, but that’s fine for sistema: as long as you only simulate, you will never do anything real, you will always look for compromise and you will feel just the right amount of discomfort. You are now part of the system. If a year in the army is the overt process that binds young Russians to the nation, a far more powerful induction comes with the rituals of avoiding military service.

Read the rest here.

And if you read carefully, you’ll see a discussion of rules and laws that harks back to the very first thing I wrote on this blog, here.

The First Rule Of Fighting Narcos: You Do Not Talk About Fighting Narcos

Regular readers know it isn’t very often that I re-publish in full something from elsewhere, but this is too important and I have no doubt that the majority of you are not in the habit of reading the Dallas Morning News with any regularity.

Alejandro Hope, who blogs here, tweets here, and works here, had the following op-ed in the Dallas Morning News at the end of last week which should not be missed and which would not be fair to simply excerpt here since every sentence matters. The long and short of it, which David Agren first touched on here, is built on the premise of not talking about drug war-related murders as part of a multi-prong public relations strategy.

If that sounds vaguely familiar, allow me to refresh your memory with this:

You think I’m joking? Read on:

Alejandro Hope: In Mexico, obfuscating crime numbers

Two months ago, a gunbattle erupted between rival drug gangs in Reynosa, Mexico, right across the border from McAllen. The shootout lasted several hours, killing as many as 40 people, according to a newspaper on the U.S. side of the border. Even in Mexico, scarred by seven years of relentless violence, this was big news.

But not big enough to make headlines in Mexican media. With some exceptions, coverage of the Reynosa firefight was scanty. Mostly, newspapers buried it in the police section, while TV and radio news shows virtually ignored it. Social networks were abuzz with information, but almost none was picked up by media outlets.
This was not an isolated shutdown. As a result of threats and violence from criminal gangs, many local news organizations in Mexico have long limited their reporting on the drug war. Now the practice has extended to the national media.

According to a recent report from the Observatory of Violence in the Media, an independent watchdog group, coverage of organized crime and violence in the Mexico City press took a dive during the first three months in office of President Enrique Peña Nieto: The use of the words homicide, narcotrafficking and cartel declined by half from the year before. Similar results were found for TV and radio.

The national media pullback is not the product of intimidation by criminal gangs; it is a response to government policy. Since Peña Nieto took office in December, his administration has made every effort to keep violence out of the limelight. This has not been a heavy-handed operation. Some journalists and outlets may have been pressured; most have not. Rather, the government has tried, successfully, to shroud the issue in silence and confusion.

Some of the administration’s new policies have been positive: For instance, alleged drug gang members are no longer paraded in front of the media, which had been an almost daily ritual while Felipe Calderón was president, one long condemned by human rights groups.

However, other practices are more questionable. According to official sources, 52 top or midlevel operatives of the various drug gangs have been arrested or taken down since December. No one outside government knows their names or any details about their so-called neutralization. All information flows are tightly controlled by a greatly empowered Interior Ministry. The fog of war has thickened.

Most troubling, there is a policy of deliberate obfuscation on crime data. A number of government agencies jointly produce a monthly report on the security situation. According to the latest release, homicides declined from December through April by 14 percent from the same period a year earlier, and by 18 percent compared with the final months of the previous government.

Those numbers are highly problematic. First, they do not refer to total homicides, but to so-called organized-crime-related homicides. The practice of singling out drug gang hits from run-of-the-mill murders — begun by, and later suspended for public consumption under, Calderón — is deeply flawed. Including or excluding an incident is an inferential process, not the result of sound police investigation. If a homicide meets a set of arbitrary criteria, it is counted as organized-crime-related, no further questions asked.

Nor do the data meet consistency standards. Total homicides, as reported by state law enforcement agencies, have declined at a much slower pace. If the government’s numbers are correct, then, by implication, other types of murder must be increasing. Has there been a rise in domestic violence or bar fights? Unlikely. A far better explanation is a change in the criteria for defining a homicide as organized-crime-related.

Second, homicides have indeed gone down from the 2011 peak. But the drop happened before Peña Nieto took office Dec. 1. After 18 months of decline, the curve flattened in late 2012. Last month, Mexico recorded an average of 50 homicides a day — the same number as in October and every month since, plus or minus 4 percent. The rapid decline reported by Mexican authorities is a statistical artifice.

Mexico still faces serious security challenges. The situation has improved somewhat since 2011, but the amount of violence remains staggering. With one-third the population of the U.S., Mexico has 50 percent more homicides. A meaningful reduction in crime will take many years and many reforms. But the task is made even more difficult when public debate and oversight are inhibited by the absence of reliable information.

The Peña Nieto administration wants, legitimately, to change the narrative about Mexico, both at home and abroad. But the best way to improve the country’s image is by changing its reality, not shutting down information flows, fudging numbers and pretending that violence can be willed out of existence.

Alejandro Hope is director of security policy at IMCO, a Mexico City-based think tank. His email address is alejandro.hope@imco.org.mx. Follow him on Twitter at @ahope71.

Plain English: It’s Not What You Say, It’s What People Hear

This video stands to have an immediate impact on your income if you have anything to do with politics, journalism, public relations, branding, marketing or communications of any kind.

This video stands to have an ancillary impact on your income if you were not included in any of the above professions.

Note that the impact is not zero for anyone.

To wit:

“Any of you in corporate America who use the word, ‘brand’, please stop. Now. And don’t use that word again. Because brand is people like me creating words that have no meaning, trying to sell things that people probably don’t need and trying to explain things that aren’t important. Brand is cheap, brand is fake. Trust is everything, trust is real.”

“The rule of expectations is probably the most important when it comes to business or politics, which is that it is better for people to expect less and get more than it is for them to expect more and get less.”

Those are just two examples of what’s in there.

The speaker is Frank Luntz, an occasional contributor to Fox News. If you have a problem with that data point, consider that his advice and research is applicable across the political divide.

And now I’m gonna drop an even bigger BUT on you: it’s an hour long. Suck it up. Today’s Friday. Consider it an hour you won’t spend watching [insert latest trendy TV hit show here].

Trust me, this’ll have a far bigger impact on your bottom line.

The source link is here.

Charts Of The Day: Economic Potential In MENA

The most recent Milken Global Conference in Los Angeles featured a panel entitled, “Two, Three, Many Middle Easts: A Region’s Economic Prospects”, whose commentary is really only for the hard core MENA geeks, but I thought these charts were worth drawing attention to:

This one was the leader, showing average real GDP per capita from 1980 to 2000:

MENA Economic Development Variation 1

Here we have slides showing variation in GDP per capita across the Middle East and North Africa since 2001. Notice the y-axis scale difference between the Gulf states in the rightmost chart versus North Africa and “core” Middle East:

MENA Economic Development Variation 2

An approximate comparison of just how miniscule FDI flows to the region relative to the world:

MENA Economic Development Variation 3

Of the FDI that does go to the region, we shouldn’t be surprised to find more of it going to the oil producers than to the non-oil producers:

MENA Economic Development Variation 4

And yet expected GDP growth for the coming few years is expected to be mostly uniform:

MENA Economic Development Variation 5

Finally, intra-regional FDI against total FDI to the region:

MENA Economic Development Variation 6

The link to the full hour panel discussion is here and embedded below. If MENA development is your gig, I guarantee there’s something in there for everyone, from diplomats to venture capitalists and anyone in between. For my time, by far the best bang for the buck commentary comes from Chris Schroeder, who starts speaking at approximately minute 36. This man talks way too fast for me to transcribe or bother quoting any of it, but suffice it to say he depicts in words far more illustrious than any of these charts the economic potential the Arab World possesses.

The Latin America “Middle Class” Cliche: Why It Doesn’t Work And How To Fix It

If we wanted to go totally meta with this, we could talk about how people’s shrinking attention spans preclude meaningful conversation and understanding about subjects too complex to be crunched into 140 characters or even 1,200 words.

Seriously, how many slice of life stories do we really need to read about Manuel the carpenter/mechanic/cab driver in Toluca/Cali/San Jose who just paid for a new dishwasher in monthly installments with remittances sent from his 1/3/7 relatives in the US ?

Enter, unexpectedly, the World Economic Forum on Latin America, which just wrapped in Peru the week before last. I never expected a WEF gathering to nail it, but nail it they did in a panel entitled, “Unleashing the Power of the Middle Class“, whose commentary I promise you is far more compelling than the session title.

I don’t blame anyone for not having an hour to sit through this (that’s what I’m here for), so what we have here instead are two of the smartest things I’ve heard anyone say about the so-called “middle class” of Latin America since I don’t know when:

At about 16:00, Marcelo Cortes Neri, Brazil’s Minister of Strategic Affairs:

Just one small point with respect to this in terms of definition. I think when we talk about middle class, we talk very much about US or European definitions, where you have two cars, two dogs, two kids and I don’t think this is a good definition in my opinion.

I think we are having two kids which is important, gives you sustainability, but I think if we look at the US and Europe, we will see ourselves as poor–they are the richest in the world–so I am very much in line with the Minister’s idea, we have to look within our communities and countries, and I think if we do that, the world here…because Latin America actually in terms of its income and its very high inequality, but this is a very good picture of the world, so I don’t think we should import definitions from developed countries, otherwise we are not going to see ourselves moving; we are going from someone whose income changed from $1,000 to $2,000, and you look up, you say well nothing changed in this guy’s life, but there’s a revolution going on.

One last point: I think it would be very tough to respond to the aspirations of the Latin American middle class because we have very high aspirations. Latin Americans are very positive toward their future, it’s more…if you are controlling for income, nobody is more optimistic to the future than Latin Americans. So this is tough.

I’ve been saying this in some way or another for years now, but Minister Neri actually put it in far more eloquent language.

The second comment, which comes at 30:00, is Augusto de la Torre (no relation to yours truly) Chief Economist, Latin America and the Caribbean, World Bank. And disregarding the aforementioned inappropriateness of the phrase “middle class”, what he has to say could not be more true:

I’d like to add a dimension which we highlight in our report. We are excited about the growth of the middle class because people have a better life. But we are also excited because we believe deep down that the bigger middle class will make for better societies. So there is this correct perception that the middle class is associated with citizenry. That middle class people are more educated, they have better jobs, they have a better understanding of what the common good is, and they can push for better institutions, they can reduce the levels of corruption, monitor the government so they can produce better education, etc.

So we did some exercises on this and we found it is not so simple. When we look at the world as a whole and you do the statistics, you do find very good positive associations. Countries that have larger middle classes have lower corruption, better institutions, better government spending, quality, freer markets, better property rights. So these associations are what inspire us. But we have also found, and this is the troublesome part, that the Latin American middle class does not seem to be opting into a better social contract. In fact, what we found was evidence that the middle class in Latin America has a tendency to opt out of the social contract.

Let me give you a couple examples to explain what I mean. The moment a Latin American household becomes a middle class household, the first thing they do is take their kids out of public schools and put them in private schools. They no longer are concerned about the quality of public education as a result. You go to the Dominican Republic, the moment you are a middle class family, you buy your own electricity generator, because you don’t want to trust public electricity services. So once you have your generator, you don’t care about the quality of the public good of energy.

Or when you become a middle class in many Latin American cities, you try to buy a house in gated communities, they have walls, they have private security, because you’d rather not rely on the public police. So you could end up in a bad equilibrium.

So rather than what you would expect, which is a middle class which contributes to better institutions, more public goods, more cohesive society, better citizens, you may end up with a middle class that opts out and finds private ways of solving their own problems. And their interests may diverge from the public good.

Now let’s close this by going back  to the meta. It seems to me that so many people are so desperate for certainty that they resort to the flimsiest of evidence and the sloppiest of explanations to lean on for decision making. In short, sounding like you know what you’re talking about has in some ways become more significant than actually knowing what you’re talking about. And the pithier you sound, the more you’ll be quoted,  and the more you’ll be recognized, which just goes around and around until you wind up with some signalling phrase like “Latin America’s growing middle class” which really, when you get right down to it,  has absolutely zero meaning.

Map Of The Day: Mexico Drug War Update

The Washington Post published this the other day:

Mexico Drug War Cartel Map

Accompanying it is a rather lengthy article (here), not to be missed, detailing the evolving intelligence challenges since Enrique Peña Nieto took office.

Also not to be missed is David Agren reporting in USA Today on the Peña Nieto Administration’s apparent new strategy which can be essentially summed as: “If we stop talking about the murders, that must mean they’re not happening anymore.”

Do not be fooled.

 

Chart Of The Day: How 37 Banks Merged Into 4

Thanks to Alan Haggard, we have this quite striking chart today:

How 37 banks merged into 4

Chart of the Day: Mexicans More Efficient Than Americans In Gun Murders

Business Insider, which I generally consider to be the equivalent of People Magazine for business, actually has an interesting presentation on gun ownership in the US. I haven’t had a chance, nor will I, to verify the many claims this presentation makes, but I thought the following chart was striking. If true, this implies Mexico has more murders per capita than the US with just 20% as many guns:

Gun deaths versus gun ownership

Full presentation begins here.

Assessing Televisa’s Political Risk in Mexico

Televisa Since Dec 1Mexico watchers up to date on the landmark reforms underway in Mexico can skip straight down to the section below where the block quotes begin.

For the rest of you not up to speed, the Mexican government is getting ready to put most of the new non-oil reforms up for a vote quite soon. The Economist has a pretty good recent summary here, and if you have more time I would highly recommend checking out extensive coverage of the annual Americas Society / Council of the Americas event just closed in Mexico City here.

And for those of you new to Diverging Markets, let me sum up my basic attitude toward the Peña Nieto Administration as being what I call “optimistic distrust.” This means that I have no ideological or financial stake in any of this (though I’m still waiting for the right moment to short iShares’ Mexico ETF), but given what I know of Mexican political history and Mexican society I am highly skeptical about a lot of the big reform promises made thus far for reasons repeated throughout here; at the same time, given that I spend more time in Mexico than anywhere else, I would absolutely welcome having my skepticism proven wrong. But the caveat here as always is that Mexican leadership has become increasingly adept at telling foreign investors what they want to hear and the Peña Nieto Administration in particular has proven itself quite remarkable in this capacity. Put another way, don’t believe everything you read about this country.

Now let’s get to Televisa. The chart above shows this stock’s performance since  Peña Nieto took office on December 1 last year, and its movement in the past week is not encouraging. One of the reasons is likely a disclosure Televisa recently made to the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission in a form that was previously unknown to me, called form 20-F. According to Investopedia, this is a form meant for foreign companies who list American Depositary Receipts in U.S. markets. The entirety of Televisa’s recent 20-F is worth reading, but in particular the “Risk Factors” section under Item 3, which is chock full of warnings.

Here’s a slice of it from the bottom of page 9 to get everyone’s juices flowing:

Continue reading

Taxation With Representation, By Mustafa Mond

I am pleased to present a new guest contributor today, who goes by the tag of Mustafa Mond, presumably inspired by Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World.

In recognition of today as that annual rite of American citizenship–Tax Day–Mr. Mond has graciously offered us a piece of his mind.

Ladies and Gentlemen, Mustafa Mond: 

Democracy-Taxation-With-Representation-Mustafa-Mond

The first person to correctly identify all the references here will receive a prize to be determined at a future date.

A Diplomatic Way Of Saying A BRICS Development Bank Is A Stupid Idea

Dani Rodrik has this in Project Syndicate today:

It can be cause only for celebration that the world’s largest developing economies are regularly talking to each other and establishing common initiatives. Nonetheless, it is disappointing that they have chosen to focus on infrastructure finance as their first major area of collaboration.

This approach represents a 1950’s view of economic development, which has long been superseded by a more variegated perspective that recognizes a multiplicity of constraints – everything from poor governance to market failures – of varying importance in different countries. One might even say that today’s global economy suffers from too much, rather than too little, cross-border finance.

What the world needs from the BRICS is not another development bank, but greater leadership on today’s great global issues. The BRICS countries are home to around half of the world’s population and the bulk of unexploited economic potential. If the international community fails to confront its most serious challenges – from the need for a sound global economic architecture to addressing climate change – they are the ones that will pay the highest price.

Yet these countries have so far played a rather unimaginative and timid role in international forums such as the G-20 or the World Trade Organization. When they have asserted themselves, it has been largely in pursuit of narrow national interests. Do they really have nothing new to offer?

Read the rest here.

A Brief Review Of The Biggest Obstacles Facing Mexico’s Moment

2013.04.08.Pemex statsHuge kudos are in order for the FT’s Adam Thomson for finally coming around to spelling out the all-uphill battle Pemex faces. Kudos so huge, in fact, that I’m willing to forget all about this pandering portrayal of Mexico as “Aztec Tiger” at the beginning of the year. Some numbers from “Rusty wheels of Pemex require much oiling” that should give any go-go-pro-Mexico cheerleader pause:

  • Although Pemex reported sales last year of about 1.6 trillion pesos ($130bn), only exploration and production, one of its four subsidiaries, regularly turns a profit: 95.5bn pesos last year. Its other three subsidiaries racked up a combined net loss of 111.6bn pesos – about the same as the entire government budget of Bolivia.
  • Of the three lossmaking subsidiaries, the worst offender is Pemex Refining, which last year posted net losses of 100.5bn pesos. That helped increase the company’s net debt, which in December stood at $51.4bn, about 29 per cent higher than in 2008, though it has fallen as a percentage of revenues over the past three years.
  • Pemex pays the fourth-highest tax rate in a sample of 15 oil-producing nations, including the UK, Iraq, Venezuela and Norway. Little wonder the company provides more than one-third of the federal government’s revenue.
  • Mexico’s state oil company is woefully inefficient. The refining subsidiary accounts for about 40,000 of the company’s roughly 150,000 employees and the average workforce at a Pemex refinery is three times that of one with comparable output abroad. Refining capacity has not increased in years and Mexico today imports almost half of its gasoline needs.
  • Pension liabilities were a staggering $52.3bn at the end of 2011, only 8 per cent of which are funded, and with total contractual obligations standing at $141bn.
  • Contractual rigidities leave about 11,000 Pemex workers receiving salaries without actually having any work to do.
  • As the headcount swells – it has increased more than 10 per cent since 2001 – Pemex’s production figures have crumbled and today stand at less than 2.6m barrels a day compared with about 3.4m in 2004.

If the Peña Nieto Administration comes up with a way to fix this — and that’s HUGE if — you can be sure it will not happen without some well-positioned person behind some closed door to take a little extra for himself.

Related reading: I never thought I’d find myself in so much agreement with Counterpunch, but those looking for current run-down of all the other, non-Pemex reasons to be skeptical of the Aztec Tiger are strongly advised to read in full Paul Imison’s latest here.

What Central Bank FX Reserves Really Tell Us

The New York Fed has just published what is absolutely mandatory reading for anyone with a stake in the foreign exchange market. It’s a 10-page pdf entitled, “Do Industrialized Countries Hold the Right Foreign Exchange Reserves?” and is one of those rare documents whose entire text is quotable, making excerpting rather difficult, but I’ll try to keep it short. The abstract provides a pretty good summary:

That central banks should hold foreign currency reserves is a key tenet of the post–Bretton Woods international financial order. But recent growth in the reserve balances of industrialized countries raises questions about what level and composition of reserves are “right” for these countries. A look at the rationale for reserves and the reserve practices of select countries suggests that large balances may not be needed to maintain an effective exchange rate policy over the medium and long term. Moreover, countries may incur an opportunity cost by holding funds in currency and asset portfolios that, while highly liquid, produce relatively low rates of return.

And this, from the opening paragraph, is also worth drawing attention to:

To date, the foreign exchange reserves of major industrialized economies have received relatively little attention in public policy circles, with few questions posed regarding their optimal size, composition, and use. Instead, discussion of foreign exchange reserves tends to center on the large holdings of emerging market countries—including China, whose reserves reached about $3 trillion in mid-2012. Foreign currency reserves are also overshadowed in public discussion by the much larger external imbalances that countries amass in the form of trade deficits and surpluses.

The key element here is that this paper only looks at the US, the UK, Switzerland, Japan, Canada, and the euro area, and rightly so as these are the big fish of the global FX market. The brief mention of emerging market countries’ holdings highlights what’s implied in the debate but rarely stated explicitly, so allow me to do so now:

Continue reading

Video Of The Day: A Real Journalist Questions A Real Banker

This has become such a rarity, you really need to just put aside five minutes to watch this:

Che Misterio On Argentina’s Summer Of Discontent

2012.10.18.Che MisterioLadies and Gentlemen, Che Misterio:

Argentina Lumbers On

By Che Misterio

Evidence mounts that Argentines will do whatever possible to leave the country and earn in hard-currency – even head the Catholic Church, if necessary.

As is customary when a financial crisis looms in this country, the government ups the rhetoric regarding the Falklands. The day before Bergoglio was elected Pope, a referendum on the Falklands could hardly have been clearer: of 1,518 votes cast, 1,513 voted in favor of remaining British, 2 were unable to successfully fill out what could not have been a particularly complex voting slip, and 3 voted in favor of becoming Argentine. Who were those three? I’d love to meet them. I barely follow British politics and the entire EU seems to be in a mess currently, but really – would anyone actually choose to be governed by the Kirchner government if they had a choice?

Argentina’s problems would apparently vanish if only they had those scraps of land some 500km off the coast, despite most of Patagonia remaining a vast unexploited expanse of nothingness. Sure, the islands are financially self-sufficient and they boast an enviably high GDP per capita which exceeds even that of Norway, with full-employment. But would this continue under Argentine management? The rest of the country’s economic performance does is not reassuring.

If a referendum were to be conducted today in Argentina asking voters to choose between being governed by the current Kirchner government or the British, I wonder if it would be quite as overwhelming as the 99.8% seen on the Islands?

Meanwhile, the US dollar hit a new landmark – 8 to 1 on the black market. In fact, I am not sure it can really be called the black market, as barely anyone is using the other market, which still doggedly insists the rate is a smidge more than 5 to 1. Admittedly almost no one is allowed to buy dollars at this rate, and no one remotely astute is selling at this rate, so there’s little harm fabricating the rate for a non-existent market.

The state petrol supplier, YPF, seems to prefer cash, as the debit and credit card machines seem perpetually “out of order”. Even the airlines now accept cash. Flights are actually quite cheap for those with dollars able to pay in pesos via a quick visit to the money-changer. A recent article suggests US$1 million a day is fleeing across the border to Uruguay, and there are no more safety deposit boxes left in Colonia, just across the river from Buenos Aires.

Rumors of an imminent devaluation appear unfounded. Kirchner’s new BFF, Deputy Economy Minister Axel Kicillof, is said to be flirting with the idea of multiple exchange rates, another tried, tested and doomed strategy to manage (or manipulate) a currency. Inflation continues its relentless erosion of value for all local currency assets, with the exception of four supermarkets who have been enjoying price controls, a privilege which will end in April. Watch for a surge in purchases on April 30th and a spike in prices on May 1st.

Supermarket trolley-arbitrage: only in Argentina.

[Ed. note: You’ll notice a new tag, entitled, “Guest Writing.” Here is where you’ll find all guest articles.]

InfoGraph of the Day: Chinese Companies and Risk in Africa

This is really impressive and makes me really rethink my previous notions of a political risk framework, particularly in the context of Africa. No more preface necessary:

2013.03.14.China risk in Africa

Sourced from Africa-Asia Confidential.

Know Your Audience, China-Africa Edition

2013.03.07.Fitch-net-FDI-inflows-sub-Sarahan-AfricaThis has been building for a long time. The latest is this CNN interview with Dambisa Moyo, she of “Dead Aid” fame, entitled, “China Can Transform Africa“. A couple of comments caught my eye:

“Ultimately, the responsibility of how China engages in Africa is really at the domain of the African governments. We would not be worried about the risks of neo-colonialism or abuse, environmental abuse and labor issues, if we trusted the African governments to do the right thing.”

“I’m an eternal optimist. I’m probably the wrong person to ask, because I do believe that the structural and fundamental structures of Africa right now are poised for a very good few decades. If you look at an economy through the lens of capital, which is basically money; labor, which is basically how many people do you have and what skills do they have; and productivity, which is just, how efficiently they use capital and labor, the trend is very clearly in favor of Africa.”

I don’t disagree with anything in this statement or really anything else Moyo says in the interview. What occurs to me though is the big “IF” that is buried in there: “…if we trusted the African governments to do the right thing.” Moyo objects to the broad characterization of Africa as a giant war zone replete with disease and hopelessness and corrupt dictators, and I object to that too. But the bottom line remains that so much of forward development, not just in Africa, but Latin America too, hinges on trusting governments to do the right thing. Maybe this is a glass half-empty/half-full debate, but I personally don’t think we need any more evidence of governments being unable to do the right thing, whether in Africa, Latin America, the US, Europe or really anywhere.

Actually, elsewhere on the CNN website, this is a pretty realistic breakdown of the continent.

Related to this, Bill Clinton was apparently in Nigeria recently to give a speech about the challenges Nigeria faces. Some quotes from that story:

Continue reading