Posts Tagged ‘Japan’

A good car while it lasted

January 2, 2019

Subaru passing

Parked up and went for a walk on the beach on the Isle of Wight after Christmas. When we came back the car was not quite as we left it. There had been a small fire in the engine, of which there was no sign when we set off. The fire brigade, who kindly turned up while we were walking on the beach and wondering where all the black smoke was coming from, said it is not the first time they have seen this.

I had wanted to get rid of the car for some time, as I almost never use it. My wife is less pleased. Still, when it is time to go it is time to go, and I like to think that the Subaru’s soul is now in car heaven.

This post really isn’t about development, but I am hoping it might encourage me to start blogging again.


On the road

June 17, 2013

The longest trip I ever made away from the family. Three-and-a-half weeks including Astana.

From there I arrived in Beijing. Domingo Cavallo sitting in the seat next door except I didn’t recognise him. We shared a cab into town and had a nice chat.

Various talks in Beijing, but also desperately trying not to stop to smell the rose(s) and get on with my research. The revelation of this trip was Line 6, newly opened, of the Beijing Underground. What a line. It connects, on a straight, east-west route, the greedy gweilos of Chaoyang district and the paranoid, pipe-hitting, nationalistic politicians and bureaucrats in the Beihai North and Chegongzhuang areas. Plus it ends up in IT-land Haidian. It’s the golden line of money and power, with the fastest trains to match. Well built.

Beijing subway

Tianjin was easy on the 300kmh train. Back in the day I was pulled over on the expressway doing 160kmh. You are the fastest today, said the policeman. ??, I replied. He popped the fine in a briefcase, heaving with cash. Still took 2 hours door to door. The train is 30 mins. Then an interesting factory manager. Minimum wage in Tianjin this year is Rmb1,800. Ouch.

Then 5 hours on the high-speed to Shanghai. I never liked the place, but this time, for the first time, they charmed me. The urban planning is just better than Beijing. The people are calmer, less bullshitty than they were. Beautiful dinner with friends. Small dogs. I am still obsessed with where all the dog shit goes. They say no owner cleans up after the pooches. It’s the waidi ren, the peasant slave labour, that just picks up the shit early in the morning while Shanghai is dozing.

No high-speed to Guangdong yet, so took the sleeper. Beers in the dining carriage with a businessman who told a story you just could not make up. It’s like they just want to write the next book for you, take the weight… We trade numbers. A Burmese-Chinese returnee who can’t speak Chinese and a Shanghainese too.

In Guangdong I have to go to Zhongshan, near Zhuhai, to see a rather smart company. Seems to me a lovely place, not visited in 15 years. Taxi driver says street crime is on the rise. But I think the people are great, open, smiling at the gweilo.

Then across the border for a weekend on Coloane, at Pousada de Coloane. Sunday lunch at Fernando’s, my favourite anywhere. You never could book. However they have introduced a piece of paper on which you write your name after 12.30, when restaurant already full, and they use this to determine who at the bar is next. Even Portugal is making progress. I lament the changed shape of the Vinho Verde bottle.

Hong Kong is a whirr of money pigs and talks. In the midst I am drinking ??in the FCC when a svelte young colonial strides in. It is Hemlock. I hardly know him. Convex chest, unhunched shoulders, a smile… He tells me, apologetically, that he has ‘a girlfriend, almost half my age…’ Wonders will never frickin’ cease. Of course he still shoves a plate of noodles in his face at 11am. But Thus Spake Zarathustra just came to a movie theatre near you.

All in all, a lovely trip. Problem is that in the whole month only Bowring tries to really nail me, with a question at the FCC. God bless. It is one of the points that Charlie Munger lists in his guide to gentle informational murder. They just don’t challenge you. And yet without the struggle, we cannot progress.

Finally, I get home. And the wife tells me to stop swearing so much. Gravity, at last.


Some media stuff:

Pilling on Indian IT after a chat

Marginal Revolution likes the book. And is probably right that neither beach reader nor academic reader will be happy.

Tom Holland on the book.

Jake Van der Kamp responds to Tom Holland in the SCMP, except without reading the book. This is staggeringly lazy. File under Howard Davies. And I have often quite liked Van der Kamp’s stuff. But this thin, indolent drivel is a pretty good guide to why so many millions remain poor. How can anyone serious pass judgement on something they have not read? It is a book about stages, that takes in your view, Mr Van der Kamp, and the other one. Separately, and somewhat pedantically, ‘fulsome’ does not mean ‘full of’. It means ‘insincere’.

And now Holland responds. His main point is valid. I said at the beginning (and end) of How Asia Works that this is a book about economic development. Real development is also about social and political development. But I was not willing or capable to try to put the other parts of the equation in the same book. It would be too complex. And people would not absorb the basic message about economics. The next book will deal with the institutional stuff.

RTHK on the book. I had to download a plug-in to run this, but assume the average reader is more tech savvy than I. Trick is to do all this and then hit the play button to start the show. But first go to ‘Select segr’ and choose the 11.05 slot. With Phil Whelan. That is where the interview is. Very clunky stuff. But listenable if you get there. ACTUALLY… just did this again a slightly different way. Went here. Then just scrolled down the page and hit the button next to ‘Joe Studwell — How Asia Works’. Took a couple of secs to load up, but then fine.

Podcast interview by the Economist Intelligence Unit in Hong Kong. It was the end of the day. I am more tired than at RTHK, but still a decent chat.

Amcham in Beijing. The podcast should be here.

More to come when I remember what it was.

Banking the Sopranos

August 2, 2011













For some time I have been meaning to take a look at the structure of Italy’s public debt, and finally I did it. Let me assure you that the picture is every bit as ugly as one could imagine. I don’t mean the scale of the debt, which is known to almost every one. I mean the fact that Johnny Foreigner is totally, utterly on the hook. If this family goes down, we go down with them.

For the record, Italian public debt is currently around 124 percent of gross domestic product. Historically, this debt is the product of large, recurrent government deficits beginning in the 1970s. Over time, the debt load was compounded by the legendary ‘cunning’ (known in some cultures as ‘childishness’) of Italian politicians, manifested in manoeuvres like racking up the highest pension liabilities as a share of GDP in Europe — because it falls to another government, down the line, to pay the bill. So vote buying of one kind or another and a general willingness to mortgage the country’s future produced a large public sector liability.

Next, because of Italy’s history of relatively high inflation, governments were only able to sell their debt by offering short maturities. The buyers of Italian bonds commonly insisted on stuff of less than three years’ maturity. As of this year, Italy has about Euro500 billion of debt — around one-third of GDP — coming due in the next 36 months, compared with the equivalent of less than one-fifth of GDP coming due in that period in Spain. Even Greece has a lower share of GDP coming due in the next three years than Italy. (See the charts below. Note that these data are already a year out of date — they are the most recent I could quickly obtain. As each of the countries rolls more debt over into future liabilities, the bars to the right will rise quickly…)

Before one freaks out about these numbers, you have to remember that debt is really an issue of capacity to pay. Greece has no capacity to pay, which is why the market has already written it off. Until recently, the market said Spain had less capacity to pay than Italy. But now Mr Market is re-thinking.

There is good reason to do so. Spain has an Anglo-Saxon problem. Its banks are bust because of excessive real estate lending — a private-sector debt problem. The solution, sooner or later, will be bank nationalisation followed by a fattening of bank spreads in a less competitive banking system. The raising of the spread between deposit and loan rates quietly socialises the cost of the bail-out without a full-scale political confrontation about who is responsible for the cock-up and who must pay (the people my Etonian banker friend calls ‘the great unwashed’). This is what is already happening in the US and UK. Real estate prices deflate and banks use fat margins on current business to offset losses on their historic mortgage books. It is a long and painful process, but ultimately the mechanism to pay for the banks’ greed and misadventure is relatively easy to put in place.

Italy is a different story. Its debt problem does not stem from a real estate bubble and banking excess. The banking system already restrains competition and banks have traditionally made good margin from lending conservatively. The problem of the Italian banks is instead that — partly as a quid pro quo for a protected, high-margin banking sector — they have been the domestic buyer of first resort of government debt. Domestic financial institutions hold the overwhelming majority of Italian-owned Italian government debt. Put another way, government has been bribing the population to acquiesces in its incompetence and inefficiency, and the banks have provided the funds to allow this to happen. It is a public debt problem, but the banks are are the private sector symptom of it. This is why the shares of Italian banks are getting hammered as the debt crisis deepens.

If you want a non-technical Italian analogy, the situation is as if Paulie Gualtieri had started a bank. The main business of Paulie’s bank is lending money to Tony Soprano so that Tony can buy Porsche Cayennes for Carmela, which keeps their troubled marriage from falling apart. This is a pragmatic arrangement, and Paulie and Tony regard it as very cunning. Of course, Paulie’s bank eventually runs into trouble. When this happens, there is no automatic mechanism to socialise the losses. Instead, Paulie and Tony have to go out on the street and raise new funds by ‘cracking heads’.

Unfortunately, this is where the analogy breaks down. Silvio Berlusconi may be hewn from the same moral block as Paulie Gualtieri and Tony Soprano, but he does not have the same resources in terms of soldiers on the street. Washed and unwashed alike lack ‘respect’ for Sil and his degraded lifestyle (some of them hark back to the days of the legendary capo Bennie Muss, but that ship has sailed…).   Sil’s ‘family’ has been paring expenditure for several years since the global financial crisis broke. But his real problem is that the Italian economy has expanded an average of only 0.2 per cent a year since 2001. And the latest industry surveys suggest the economy is perilously close to contraction this year.

Put simply, there may not be enough money on the street for Sil to shake down, even if he had the wherewithall to do it. Mr Market knows this, and has pushed the price of Italian debt due for roll-over to more than 6 percent. When Greece, Ireland and Portugal exceeded a  7 percent cost of new debt, their bonds started to be sold off so heavily — because people no longer believed that they could be repaid — that bail-outs became inevitable. Italy may entering that arena and the symptom, as mentioned, is that Italian bank stocks are in precipitous decline. (Some of the more obvious investment advice today is: Short. European. Financial. Stocks.)

At this point, I know what you are thinking: the Sopranos had this coming. They’ve been taking the piss for years and, frankly, we’ve got bigger problems of our own to worry about.

Except that I am not sure that we do have bigger problems to worry about…

It is true that Italian banks hold most of the domestic share of Italian public debt. (Ordinary Italians have been far too sensible to load up on this toxic dross, despite any number of government schemes — mostly tax breaks — to encourage them to do so. The public holds only about 15 percent of Italian debt.)

However, apart from that held by Italian financial institutions, there is another vast chunk of Italian state bonds held by a different mob of wholly amoral financiers — foreign banks. Get this: approximately 900 billion euros of Soprano paper has been sold to foreign institutions, most of which represent a liability — if they go bust — to north European taxpayers.

Nine hundred billion euros is not some Greek, Irish or Portuguese morning after; it is a colossal, gob-smacking liability that means the Sopranos can probably make the rest of Europe jump through whatever hoops of fire they fancy. The line that Tony once used on Carmela is the one that Sil will likely use on the ECB: ‘Who knows more about extortion, me or you?’















Take a look at the aggregate numbers, displayed on top of the bars below, comparing debt due for roll over in Italy versus Spain….   (Greece, further down, is like discovering your kids failed to pay for half a dozen ice creams.)

2009 2011        
Japan 218.6 231.9 245.6
Italy 115.1 123.5 128.5
Greece 113.4 126.8
Belgium 97.9 104.9
United States 84.8 97.7 108.2
France 77.4 86.6 92.6
United Kingdom 72.9 89.3 98.3
Germany 72.5 87.8 89.3
Ireland 64.5 87.9
Spain 55.2 66.9
Sources: European Commission, IMF, OECD.

Don’t let Japan, in the table above showing public debt as a share of GDP, make you feel better about Italy. Japan is a qualitatively different story because almost all its ridiculously large debt is financed by domestic borrowing. Indeed the willingness of the Japanese to pay for the debt at close to zero interest is what allows it to be so big. Italy, by contrast, plans to have its debt and then have foreigners pay for it. (The last column in the table above represents forecasts for 2014… for some reason the date will not reproduce.)

The thought to keep me awake at night:

In order to get out of jail, one Carnegie Endowment economist reckons Italy needs to achieve a primary budget balance (before interest payments) of PLUS-4 percent of GDP and cut real wages by at least six percent (to restore some competitiveness). Is this likely? After Italy joined the Euro in 1999, its borrowing costs were cut from a peak of 10 percent of government revenue before the Euro to under 5 percent because Italy was temporarily afforded German interest rates. This provided an extraordinary one-off opportunity to reduce public borrowing. What happened? Over the next 10 years, Greece cut public borrowing by more than Italy.

Also worth a look:

This recent European Commission study shows that, from 1998 to 2008, exports of goods and services grew more slowly in Italy than in any other member country.

I post this, log on to the FT, and discover this is the lead story (subscription needed).

Lost in translation

November 17, 2009

A four-state research trip begins at Fiumincino in Rome, where on a Sunday afternoon the worst chaos I have seen in the Italian capital’s airport reigns. Hundreds of people are crammed into the main security area, a single incoherent mass that takes an hour to pass through the security check. Amid the crush, a British genius yells ‘You need to open more channels’ as if he is the only person in the room that this has occurred to. One guesses the airport cannot find enough people to work on a Sunday afternoon, despite an economy shrinking five percent this year. A couple of Italians lose control completely, screaming like lunatics at the security staff; one of them continues in the same vein at a policeman who appears on the scene.

My Air China flight is delayed a couple of hours because it has been snowing in Beijing, so I can afford to be more patient than some; eventually I get to the gate. Seated in economy I dread a sleepless night travelling east, followed by the jetlag from hell. But soon after take-off I doze off and sleep better and longer than I often do when given a business class seat-bed for a speaking engagement.

The reason for my plane’s delay is snow in Beijing – where I am going first – which closed the airport for half a day. The BBC reports this is due to ‘cloud seeding’, a technique developed in the United States but popularised in China. It involves using airplanes or small rockets to seed clouds with silver idodide that induces rain. You cannot make extra rain like this, as I understand it, but you can make rain fall in places other than where it might fall naturally. The Beijing area is perennially short of water. According to media reports, Chinese meteorologists failed to calculate that wind and temperature conditions on this occasion would cause precipitation in the form of snow. The same thing is said to have occurred in February.

It is a brief, one-night stop in Beijing. On both occasions that I pass through the airport, for landing and for taking off to Tokyo, I have a good look out of the window at the Beijing area. Stories continue to be published in the press that pollution has improved. But all I see looking out of plane windows is a cigarette-smoke yellow haze that sits like an inverted shallow bowl over the city area. A pollution report published by the US embassy in Beijing suggests that the pollution story depends on which pollutants you choose to measure; it focuses on fine particles and tells a less sanguine tale than the official Chinese one.

And so to Japan, where I am ever-more struck by just how little English people speak, even in big cities. I am headed out to the countryside to look at the history of land reform, in what promises to be a supercharged, bucolic version of Lost in Translation, minus Scarlet Johansson.

On the upside, I can read about a quarter of the characters I see in Japan, because they come from Chinese. On the downside, I manage to leave my ‘Survival Japanese’ phrasebook at the friend’s house in Tokyo where I stay the first night.

The car I hire in suburban Tokyo has satellite navigation, but only in Japanese. The one real break I get is that before driving out of Tokyo I manage to enter a marker in the navigation system at the place I am staying. If not, I doubt I would ever have returned.

As much as any place I have been, Tokyo has to be seen to be believed. The vast majority of this vast city is low-rise, clap-board style houses reached by narrow (perhaps six metre wide) lanes which, in my experience, are never cul-de-sacs. These lanes, which are all demarcated with white lines that set aside a little of the precious space on either side for pedestrians and cyclists, go on and on and on.

To prove the point, I leave Tokyo by randomly weaving – following a general north-west trajectory shown on the navigation system – and drive for more than two hours through the lanes until I have had enough and switch to a bigger road. Every so often I come across a market, a school, a group of small one-room restaurants and bars, or a railway line. The more central parts of Tokyo are charming. But the sprawl that connects Tokyo with a series of what claim to be separate towns and cities (you only know it from the names) is ugly and unpleasant. I had not realised before how much Japan has succumbed to the American acceptance of acres of malls, discount stores, fast food restaurants and car showrooms along every significant highway in the country. This has brutalised large swathes of a naturally very beautiful place.

Still, driving into the central mountain range of Honshu island, I eventually reach hills too steep for development. This is where the forest land that covers so much of Japan begins. And it is very attractive forest, comprised of many different tree species, part evergreen and part deciduous. At this time of year the colours are phenomenal. I stay a night in Chichibu, epicentre of a large-scale nineteenth century peasant revolt, and then head across to Niigata on the west coast, an area famed for Japan’s best rice (and hence sake). It is here that a small number of pre-Second World War landlord houses I want to look at are preserved.

Niigata City itself is a reasonably attractive place, easy to navigate, and with excellent food. It comes as a shock that three hours on the expressway through the mountains to get there costs Euro50 in tolls.

The lack of English thing isn’t getting any better. There are shops I go into where the staff appears to have not a single word of English among it. I wander out again, empty-handed. I stay in quite a reasonable hotel, but the English there is up to very little. Eventually I find a woman in the back office who speaks enough English to help me programme the navigation system to find the farms I want to see. I don’t think I have ever felt so cut off from people around me in a place I have visited. They are very friendly and polite. We just cannot communicate.

After a couple of days it is time to head back to Tokyo. Getting to the capital is easy enough. Getting across the capital to my friend’s house is where the navigation system marker turns out to be critical. On a Sunday evening I am led by the machine through a maze of flyovers, tunnels, and complex intersections that would have seen me make a dozen mistakes or more trying to follow a map. Even with the satellite system, I get back after five or six hours in the car remembering why I have come to loathe driving: it is all wasted time; you can’t do anything while you are controlling a car.

Next day I fly to Taipei, stay in a grotty airport hotel, and go back to the airport for an early connection to Manila. There I switch to a local flight to Bacolod, the capital Negros Occidental, a place that has been dubbed ‘Sugarlandia’. In the 19th century it was turned into a sugar estate monoculture by European and American families and has remained pretty much that.

As the plane descends, you can already see multiple fires where farmers are burning off the residue in fields where sugar cane has been cut. There is sugar everywhere, even around the airport. November is part of the cutting season and every road seems to have one or more big trucks piled high with brown cane heading towards the nearest Central, as the sugar refineries are known.

I spend three days trying to understand why the land reform programme introduced after the 1986 flight of Ferdinand Marcos has failed to change the lives of most farmers here. Many landlords have found ways to hang on to their estates – the biggest local player is Eduardo ‘Danding’ Cojuangco, perhaps Marcos’s number one crony, who has never been brought to book – while farmers who have obtained plots have often ended up selling them because of debts to usurers. They then become estate workers again earning, at current exchange rates, about US$2 a day. With the help of some well-informed contacts, I manage to visit land reform cooperatives that are being somewhat more successful. We travel into deep countryside that is as stunningly beautiful as it is poor.

Then it is time for a stopover in Manila so that I can obtain a difficult-to-come-by book, a recent biography of Danding Cojuangco. Reading this on the plane home, I am pleased to note a striking parallel between the late Filipino fantasist duce Ferdinand Marcos and current Italian fantasist duce Silvio Berlusconi.

It seems that not only was the latter embarrassed by secret recordings of his pillow talk. Back in 1972, just before Ferdy plunged the Philippines into more than a decade of martial law, recordings of his bedroom exchanges with a B-movie actress called Dovie Beams (who had been making a movie in the Philippines) began to circulate in Manila. The tape, recorded by the actress before she fled the country, featured Ferdy moaning, singing his favourite folk songs, and begging for oral sex. The University of the Philippines radio station took to playing the recordings over and over. Ferdy, as was his standard refrain, said the whole thing was a communist conspiracy and sought to have various journalists jailed. Now where else have we heard and seen that?