Category Archives: geoeconomics

Genetically Modified Crops in Africa: opponents

According to the acting director, Andrew Kigundu,  of Uganda’s National Agricultural Research Organisation (NARO): “The idea of work on genetically engineered bananas is a result of many years of testing of Banana production.” The experiments started in 2005 and work is still ongoing to improve on the content of the fruit and resistance to parasites….The East African country is the first African country to turn toward GM to improve its production of bananas. An option which should make the country remain the first producer in the world .

The adoption of restrictive policies across Africa has been pursued under the pretext of protecting the environment and human health. So far there has been little evidence to support draconian biosafety rules. It is important that the risks of new products be assessed. But the restrictions should proportionate and consistent with needs of different countries.

Africa’s needs are different from those of the EU. There are certain uniquely African problems where GM should be considered as an option.   The Xanthomonas banana wilt bacterial disease causes early ripening and discoloration of bananas, a staple crop for Uganda. This costs the Great Lakes region nearly US $500m annually in losses. There is no treatment for the disease, which continues to undermine food security.  Ugandan scientists at Kawanda Agricultural Research Institute have developed a GM approach but their efforts to further their research in the technology are hampered by opposition to it. Those opposed to the technology advocate the adoption of an EU biosafety approach that would effectively stall the adoption of the technology. In fact, some of opponents using scare tactics against the technology are EU-based non-governmental organizations.

Genetically modified bananas solve Uganda’s productivity problems, AllAfricanews, May 24, 2016; See also Excerpt FromHow the EU starves Africa into submission,” by Calestous Juma, a professor of the practice of international development at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government:  “EU policy undermines African agricultural innovation …in the field of genetically modified (GM) crops. The EU exercises its right not to cultivate transgenic crops but only to import them as animal feed. However, its export of restrictive policies on GM crops has negatively affected Africa.”

The Internet Was Never Open

Rarely has a manifesto been so wrong. “A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace”, written 20 years ago by John Perry Barlow, a digital civil-libertarian, begins thus: “Governments of the Industrial World, you weary giants of flesh and steel, I come from Cyberspace, the new home of Mind. On behalf of the future, I ask you of the past to leave us alone. You are not welcome among us. You have no sovereignty where we gather.”

At the turn of the century, it seemed as though this techno-Utopian vision of the world could indeed be a reality. It didn’t last… Autocratic governments around the world…have invested in online-surveillance gear. Filtering systems restrict access: to porn in Britain, to Facebook and Google in China, to dissent in Russia.

Competing operating systems and networks offer inducements to keep their users within the fold, consolidating their power. Their algorithms personalise the web so that no two people get the same search results or social media feeds, betraying the idea of a digital commons. Five companies account for nearly two-thirds of revenue from advertising, the dominant business model of the web.

The open internet accounts for barely 20% of the entire web. The rest of it is hidden away in unsearchable “walled gardens” such as Facebook, whose algorithms are opaque, or on the “dark web”, a shady parallel world wide web. Data gathered from the activities of internet users are being concentrated in fewer hands. And big hands they are too. BCG, a consultancy, reckons that the internet will account for 5.3% of GDP of the world’s 20 big economies this year, or $4.2 trillion.

How did this come to pass? The simple reply is that the free, open, democratic internet dreamed up by the optimists of Silicon Valley was never more than a brief interlude. The more nuanced answer is that the open internet never really existed.

[T]e internet, it was developed “by the US military to serve US military purposes”… The decentralised, packet-based system of communication that forms the basis of the internet originated in America’s need to withstand a massive attack on its soil. Even the much-ballyhooed Silicon Valley model of venture capital as a way to place bets on risky new businesses has military origins.

In the 1980s the American military began to lose interest in the internet…. The time had come for the hackers and geeks who had been experimenting with early computers and phone lines.  Today they are the giants. Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon and Microsoft—together with some telecoms operators—help set policy in Europe and America on everything from privacy rights and copyright law to child protection and national security. As these companies grow more powerful, the state is pushing back…

The other big risk is that the tension between states and companies resolves into a symbiotic relationship. A leaked e-mail shows a Google executive communicating with Hillary Clinton’s state department about an online tool that would be “important in encouraging more [Syrians] to defect and giving confidence to the opposition.”+++ If technology firms with global reach quietly promote the foreign-policy interests of one country, that can only increase suspicion and accelerate the fracturing of the web into regional internets….

Mr Malcomson describes the internet as a “global private marketplace built on a government platform, not unlike the global airport system”.

Excerpts from Evolution of the internet: Growing up, Economist, Mar. 26, 2016

+++The email said Google would be “partnering with Al Jazeera” who would take “primary ownership” of the tool, maintaining it and publicizing it in Syria.  It was eventually published by Al Jazeera in English and Arabic.

How to Stop the Expoitation of Internet Users

Data breaches at Facebook and Google—and along with Amazon, those firms’ online dominance—crest a growing wave of anxiety around the internet’s evolving structure and its impact on humanity…The runaway success of a few startups has created new, proprietized one-stop platforms. Many people are not really using the web at all, but rather flitting among a small handful of totalizing apps like Facebook and Google. And those application-layer providers have dabbled in providing physical-layer internet access. Facebook’s Free Basics program has been one of several experiments that use broadband data cap exceptions to promote some sites and services over others.

What to do? Columbia University law professor Tim Wu has called upon regulators to break up giants like Facebook, but more subtle interventions should be tried first…Firms that do leverage users’ data should be “information fiduciaries,” obliged to use what they learn in ways that reflect a loyalty to users’ interests…The internet was designed to be resilient and flexible, without need for drastic intervention. But its trends toward centralization, and exploitation of its users, call for action

Excerpts from Jonathan Zittrain, Fixing the internet, Science, Nov. 23, 2018

American Oligarchs

Warren Buffett, the 21st century’s best-known investor, extols firms that have a “moat” around them—a barrier that offers stability and pricing power.One way American firms have improved their moats in recent times is through creeping consolidation. The Economist has divided the economy into 900-odd sectors covered by America’s five-yearly economic census. Two-thirds of them became more concentrated between 1997 and 2012 (see charts 2 and 3). The weighted average share of the top four firms in each sector has risen from 26% to 32%…

These data make it possible to distinguish between sectors of the economy that are fragmented, concentrated or oligopolistic, and to look at how revenues have fared in each case. Revenues in fragmented industries—those in which the biggest four firms together control less than a third of the market—dropped from 72% of the total in 1997 to 58% in 2012. Concentrated industries, in which the top four firms control between a third and two-thirds of the market, have seen their share of revenues rise from 24% to 33%. And just under a tenth of the activity takes place in industries in which the top four firms control two-thirds or more of sales. This oligopolistic corner of the economy includes niche concerns—dog food, batteries and coffins—but also telecoms, pharmacies and credit cards.

The ability of big firms to influence and navigate an ever-expanding rule book may explain why the rate of small-company creation in America is close to its lowest mark since the 1970s … Small firms normally lack both the working capital needed to deal with red tape and long court cases, and the lobbying power that would bend rules to their purposes….

Another factor that may have made profits stickier is the growing clout of giant institutional shareholders such as BlackRock, State Street and Capital Group. Together they own 10-20% of most American companies, including ones that compete with each other. Claims that they rig things seem far-fetched, particularly since many of these funds are index trackers; their decisions as to what to buy and sell are made for them. But they may well set the tone, for example by demanding that chief executives remain disciplined about pricing and restraining investment in new capacity. The overall effect could mute competition.

The cable television industry has become more tightly controlled, and many Americans rely on a monopoly provider; prices have risen at twice the rate of inflation over the past five years. Consolidation in one of Mr Buffett’s favourite industries, railroads, has seen freight prices rise by 40% in real terms and returns on capital almost double since 2004. The proposed merger of Dow Chemical and DuPont, announced last December, illustrates the trend to concentration. //

Roughly another quarter of abnormal profits comes from the health-care industry, where a cohort of pharmaceutical and medical-equipment firms make aggregate returns on capital of 20-50%. The industry is riddled with special interests and is governed by patent rules that allow firms temporary monopolies on innovative new drugs and inventions. Much of health-care purchasing in America is ultimately controlled by insurance firms. Four of the largest, Anthem, Cigna, Aetna and Humana, are planning to merge into two larger firms.

The rest of the abnormal profits are to be found in the technology sector, where firms such as Google and Facebook enjoy market shares of 40% or more

But many of these arguments can be spun the other way. Alphabet, Facebook and Amazon are not being valued by investors as if they are high risk, but as if their market shares are sustainable and their network effects and accumulation of data will eventually allow them to reap monopoly-style profits. (Alphabet is now among the biggest lobbyists of any firm, spending $17m last year.)…

Perhaps antitrust regulators will act, forcing profits down. The relevant responsibilities are mostly divided between the Department of Justice (DoJ) and the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), although some …[But]Lots of important subjects are beyond their purview. They cannot consider whether the length and security of patents is excessive in an age when intellectual property is so important. They may not dwell deeply on whether the business model of large technology platforms such as Google has a long-term dependence on the monopoly rents that could come from its vast and irreproducible stash of data. They can only touch upon whether outlandishly large institutional shareholders with positions in almost all firms can implicitly guide them not to compete head on; or on why small firms seem to be struggling. Their purpose is to police illegal conduct, not reimagine the world. They lack scope.

Nowhere has the alternative approach been articulated. It would aim to unleash a burst of competition to shake up the comfortable incumbents of America Inc. It would involve a serious effort to remove the red tape and occupational-licensing schemes that strangle small businesses and deter new entrants. It would examine a loosening of the rules that give too much protection to some intellectual-property rights. It would involve more active, albeit cruder, antitrust actions. It would start a more serious conversation about whether it makes sense to have most of the country’s data in the hands of a few very large firms. It would revisit the entire issue of corporate lobbying, which has become a key mechanism by which incumbent firms protect themselves.

Excerpts from Too Much of a Good Thing, Economist, Mar. 26, 2016, at 23

The Sanctions Busters: Germany and France

The steps by Europe’s most powerful countries are part of their campaign to salvage the 2015 Iran nuclear deal after President Trump withdrew the U.S. in May. Their goal is to help European companies continue some business activity with Iran despite sweeping new U.S. sanctions on the country and any company that does business with it.

France or Germany will host the corporation that would handle the payments channel, the diplomats said. If France hosts it, a German official will head the corporation and vice versa. Both countries will help fund the corporation.  The payments channel, known as a special purpose vehicle, or SPV, would use a system of credits to facilitate compensation for goods traded between Iran and Europe—allowing some trade to proceed without the need for European commercial banks to make or receive payments to Iran.

U.S. pressure on Austria and Luxembourg recently prompted those countries to reject European Union requests to host it, raising the prospect that the initiative might collapse, the diplomats said.  The company would be owned directly by participating European governments—an arrangement intended to dissuade the U.S. from directly targeting it with sanctions, diplomats said.

Laurence Norman , France and Germany Step In to Circumvent Iran Sanctions, WSJ, Nov. 26, 2018

New Cold War over the Pacific

Australia said it would establish a development fund and offer Pacific island nations more than $2 billion for infrastructure projects while bolstering military cooperation, as U.S. allies take a more assertive stance against China in the region. Also Thursday, Australia said it would open new diplomatic posts across the Pacific, while New Zealand announced new funding to boost cultural engagement with small Pacific states.

The U.S. and its allies are increasingly coordinating to counter what officials in Washington and elsewhere see as Beijing’s attempts to gain influence over smaller nations through infrastructure loans under its Belt and Road initiative. Last month President Trump signed the Build Act, which expands American development financing for private companies to up to $60 billion….

Beijing, which says its goal is to help Pacific countries achieve peace, stability and prosperity, has urged other countries to “discard the Cold War mentality” and view its relations with Pacific states in an objective way.But old Western allies are concerned about its intentions toward impoverished island nations whose strategic value outstrips their size and wealth.  The U.K. recently announced three new diplomatic posts in the Pacific, while France gained a de facto seat in a key regional group—the Pacific Islands Forum—when its Pacific territories joined…

In September 2018, a senior U.S. official said the U.S., along with Japan and Australia, is vying to build an internet network in Papua New Guinea to block a Chinese telecom company.

Exceprts from U.S. Allies Vie With China to Make Pacific Island Friends, WSJ, Nov. 8, 2018 Continue reading

Military Bunkers for the Rich

Deep in the Swiss Alps, next to an old airstrip suitable for landing Gulfstream and Falcon jets, is a vast bunker that holds what may be one of the world’s largest stashes of gold. The entrance, protected by a guard in a bulletproof vest, is a small metal door set into a granite mountain face at the end of a narrow country lane. Behind two farther doors sits a 3.5-ton metal portal that opens only after a code is entered and an iris scan and a facial-recognition screen are performed. A maze of tunnels once used by Swiss armed forces lies within.

The owner of this gold vault wants to remain anonymous for fear of compromising security, and he worries that even disclosing the name of his company might lead thieves his way…

Demand for gold storage has risen since the 2008 financial crisis. Many of the wealthy see owning gold as a hedge against the insecurity of banks and a reasonable investment at a time when markets are volatile and bank accounts and low-risk bonds pay almost no yield. It may also be a way to avoid the increasing scrutiny of tax authorities. In high-profile cases, U.S., French, and German prosecutors have gone after citizens of those countries with undeclared Swiss bank accounts.

Swiss storage operations such as these don’t have the same obligation that Swiss banks do to report suspicious transactions to federal regulators. Americans aren’t required under the U.S. Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act to declare gold stored outside financial institutions.
Of the roughly 1,000 former military bunkers still in existence across Switzerland, a few hundred have been sold in recent years, and about 10 are now storage sites holding gold as well as computer data, according to the Swiss defense department.

Few match the opulence of the airstrip setup, whose owner claims to run the largest store of gold for private clients—and the seventh-largest gold vault in the world. Near the runway sits the VIP lounge and a pair of luxurious apartments for clients. The walls of the apartments are lined with aged wood from Polish barns. South African quartzite was chosen for the floors to match the faded gray timber, and the amenities—bathroom mirror, TV screens—can retract into the ceiling, counter, or wall. The owner offers a place for clients to sleep and eat, because “many do not want to leave a paper trail of credit card receipts and passports” at hotels and restaurants…

Some miles away, Dolf Wipfli, the founder and chief executive officer of a different company, Swiss Data Safe, is one of the few operators willing to be interviewed about his business. The gold Swiss Data Safe stores for clients is kept in a mountainside bunker outside the hamlet of Amsteg.

Excerpts from Secret Alpine Gold Vaults Are the New Swiss Bank Accounts, Bloomberg, Sept. 30, 2016