Saturday 26 June 2010


** Burger-nomics ** 21st-25th June
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There are of course serious events taking place this week where world leaders gather to discuss the still stubbornly bad economy. They desperately seek a resolution that will ensure the viability of the current banking system and permit trust in sovereign debt for some years to come. The “Golden Rule” here? Well, he who has the gold - makes the rules. Watch for a number of well-sounding-bites-of-wisdom from the opposing US and Chinese delegations as the G8 followed by the G20 (wouldn’t want the others feeling left out now would we?) sit in Canada – my personal favourite this week “The economy is like water. Water does not boil at 99 degrees, but one extra centigrade can make a lot of difference” – classic stuff from China’s Confucius pedigree . Who says economics is not mired in science huh?

Our favourite scene of the geopolitical week? Easy come on! What better photo-op than Obama munching on a burger with Medvedev whilst sharing a portion of fries at “Ruth’s Hell Burger”? I’m sure there are many ways to break-the-ice between two leaders of quite-large nuclear arsenals (still pointed at one another) but here’s hoping Obama’s method doesn’t backfire with a nasty case of meat-poisoning. Lucky for Obama that they weren’t ordering a burger in Dubai from the always reliable waiting-staff, or they may have ended up with a resplendent specimen adorned with all the necessary trimmings but missing one vital ingredient – the patty itself! Yep, it recently did happen in one of Dubai’s swankier hotels, seriously. Obama’s critics will no doubt point to a soft-approach, fretting about concessions being made and the US appearing “weak” but others will agree that Obama’s personality is continuing to show the US is maturing as a super-power and recognising the importance of avoiding past mistakes that have proven costly and destructive. An open-minded-manner in approaching geopolitics must be a better way of doing things.

Even more impressive than the records broken at Wimbledon - with the longest match in history having been battled out over an incredible 70-68 games in the final set over a muscle-aching 12 hours - was the fact that not a single drop of rain managed to find its way onto any of the courts as the sun-shone down on a wonderfully dry collection of strawberry munching spectators. Some of the fun will have been dented by the UK’s announcement of a hike in VAT by 2.5% to 20% - less cream on top of those strawberries next year. Another surprise for England was of course their football team’s ability (term used loosely) to finally put some effort behind their professed “love-for-the-game” and string together one-or-two passes to bring about a goal. France’s failure to proceed to the knock-out stages was well deserved (karma can be a cruel mistress – just ask Thierry Henry’s hand) and the Bafana-Bafana brigade were able to achieve little more than an outpouring of supporter empathy by having the ignominious honour of being the first host nation to fail to make it to the second round. The fun in the world cup is really just getting going, and true political rivalries will now come into play with matches such as England vs Germany bringing out the worst in the British (and German to be honest) press. Some colourful headlines surely being read right now. Will Cameron and Merkel even shake hands at the end of the G20 or will they simply swap shirts? – ewwww, come to think of it, please just shake hands Angela.

China’s Move...
Currency markets have not exactly continued to jump up-and-down-with-joy after what seemed like an earth-shattering decision to allow a strengthening of the Renminbi. Initial euphoria at the top-of-the-week swiftly turned as dry as an over-cooked Chinese stir-fry – within 48 hours to be precise. As with most China official department announcements, the importance of last week’s significant financial alteration is only perceived by listening to what was not said. No clear direction or level was mentioned, and only an ambiguous desire to maintain “stability” of the strengthening economy’s path-to-success and possible transformation to a consumer society touted.

The move was of course timed to coincide with the aforementioned G20, but those more savvy investors and China-watchers out-there had known about the decision for some weeks. The real effect was a reinforcement of China’s assertion that she, and only she, will make such strategic decisions and will do so outside of the intense (and often economically unwarranted) pressure of the more protectionist US law-makers out there. Bowing to what many within China view as a currently beleaguered and dramatically tarnished corrupt-capitalist system, as opposed to China’s carefully controlled capitalist-ish-state, is not an option for the People’s Party. It did always say that it would do what was necessary at a time that it considered correct, so far there has been no deviation from this stated course.

The problem is that there are those in the US that really do believe all their woes stem from China’s cheap-manufacturing sector. How silly the media can be, but even worse is how utterly gullible a collection of people can be with minimal influence and exertion of nationalistic stereo-typical grievances – a mere five minutes of research on the subject by those very individuals seemingly against anything Chinese, would elicit an understanding of how intertwined the two economies are and just how exactly the US consumer has been able to purchase all those really necessary extra TVs-for-their-cars’-back-seats, not to mention the home-barbeques large-enough to cook for the entire USA football squad. The move by China is the first positioning of the chess-pieces for the longer-term plan.

China approaches policy with an exceptionally long-term (election-worry free) outlook. In fact, spend any time talking with those involved in the financial markets across Hong Kong and they will display a belief that developed capitalist nations execute policy based on short-term crowd-pleasing necessity, whilst those without the need to pander to lobby-groups and ensure a maximum number of votes, think more altruistically. Now, discussing whether a control-state-economy is really acting in the best interests of its people at all times takes us to a whole other conversation, but the crux of the issue is that China’s authorities are doing what they have planned all-along – crucially, the currency move will not only placate and quieten some of the more educated masses out there but begin the training of China’s own banks with the skills required to manage a truly floating currency – i.e. teaching the banks how to trade FX and deal with the consequences of an introduction of a number of new policy levers, not least interest rates. So the whole exercise is a training issue. One which the world needs more than many understand. Without a stable China over the next few difficult years, the rest of the developed world will have a much tougher time trying to rebalance their grotesquely inflated trade deficits.

Dead and loving it...
More impressive than the news this week of one million Chinese millionaires now spending merrily through a supposed equal-income communist system ,was that the prize for the largest generation of wealth (in one year) must be awarded to someone that had in fact been dead the entire time – that’s right, the white-gloved genius of pop music - and more controversial than those caught siphoning off oil from the US Gulf Coast to sell on as “diluted-Gasoline” – Michael Jackson himself. Sales of his albums and surrounding paraphernalia generated almost a $1bn in profit since his sad demise. Now that is what you call making money in your (rather permanent) sleep. Second highest revenue-generating “dead” musician? Many still eagerly await his messianic return. Elvis of course. He would have definitely known where Obama can munch on the best burgers to his heart-exploding content!

Thursday 17 June 2010

Fine lines

** Fine lines ** Thursday 17th June
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After what started as a rather boring competition, the world cup’s football extravaganza - please DO NOT call it “soccer” all you US-educated-Superbowl-loving fans - has suddenly turned into a semblance of the quality normally demanded of such a talented (and well-paid) collection of players. The steady build-up to the faster-paced tempo and more fulfilling match-watching has been similar to recent market activity around the globe. We had a disastrous opening gambit to June, but just as the investor-base realised Europe was not going to disappear in an eruption of fiscal mismanagement even more spectacular than the fireworks display that felled Pompeii a few thousand years ago (AD 79 - fact), valuations have once again looked attractive to those fortunate enough to have sold earlier in the year (April would have been a good time for that) and are now able to re-enter the market with vigour ahead of the understandable desire to switch those annoying screens off (any excuse) and head out to the summer beaches. One positive aspect of all Europe’s woes – the yachts and villas available for rent in some of the more desirable Mediterranean locations are thankfully affordable – is there a whiff of conspiratorial short-selling pressure on Spanish sovereign debt just as Marbella’s normally exorbitant five-star resorts gear up for the July-onslaught? You smart hedge-funders you – your secret is safe with me.

Axe-ing the Evil
What is it with the Iranian leadership and their ability to irritate the entire world? They are not even playing in the world cup and are still the most talked about member of the axis of evil – even those plucky-in-defence North Koreans elicited a wry smile a few days ago, from both ardent opponents to the “axis” and members of the “anti-US-hegemony” fan-base. There is very little to laugh about the latest round of economic sanctions imposed upon Iran though, bringing further undue hardships on her people, in addition to a recent re-flaring of the aggressive rhetoric from both sides. We all know Obama wants a diplomatic solution, but I think we also all know that Obama will end-up using the mightiest military force ever known to man – whether directly or indirectly (more on that below) – to ensure a end to the threatening situation that the American people, and its regional allies, will be content with.

Iran even has a role to play in the current debate enraging the oil-rich Gulf – no, not Persian-Gulf but the US Gulf-Coast – quickly turning from a picturesque to “take-a-picture-of-me-swimming-in-this-viscous-black-gold” collection of beaches, as thousands and thousands of barrels of oil continue to spew from the depths of its waters. Despite the best efforts of the firm seemingly blamed for the entire disaster, The Petroleum Company For The Former Empire of The Nations Of Great Britain – no wait, sorry, that’s not the correct name, that must have been overheard when Fox News was accidentally switched on in the background, we do of course mean the Anglo-Persian Oil Exploration Firm That Made Millions For The UK – no sorry, wrong one again, we are talking of the re-branded BP here aren’t we? Yes, just plain and simple BP, that’s the British company we wanted. Darn, mistaken once more, there is no British in BP. So it’s just BP. Whatever it’s called, watching the BP Chairman being grilled by congress is another expression of what has seemingly become a US national-pastime: venting emotional anger on prime-time TV and almost brining to tears the very captains-of-industry purposefully created by the most capitalist of capitalist systems in the world.

Crossing the line...
Hmm, all this fuss about whether or not Obama has paid enough attention to the issue - undoubtedly an eco-disaster - and is doing enough to “punish” the evil BP, has detracted from a glaringly obvious and frustratingly misdirected wonder of media creativity – that the original miscreant of the accident that led to the spill was indeed the US owned, managed and staffed Trans-Ocean. Wait, it gets better. Who was BP working for and under contract to when operating what had only months before been heralded as a wonderful new deep-drilling technology? Yep, you guessed it, another immensely US-centric firm and in fact the original soccer-watching-Superbowl-loving-gas-guzzling-provider, Halliburton itself! The whole thing smacks of foul-oil-tasting-irony.

If the US was not so hell-bent on drilling its very lands in the most dangerous circumstances known to man, driven by an ever-greedy and desperate desire to devour every drip of oil possible to ensure a continuation of their glutinous way of life, this entire saga would not have transpired in the first place. Sorry, but you cannot push people to the very limits of human technology for your own pronounced desires only to fully blame and loudly berate when something goes wrong – especially when the risks were clearly understood and sanctioned by the highest authorities in the land at the time. If Obama’s White House is really trying to hurt his preceding administration’s corporate affiliate, he should lay-off the BP bashing (significantly now also owned by US investors by the way) and turn some of his ire closer to home.

Reading in-between the lines
What also caught my eye this week was the little distributed story of Saudi Arabia apparently acquiescing to Israel’s request to fly-through a narrow corridor to allow an attack on Iran’s (suspected) nuclear reactors. This is typical of the Middle East. Rather than focus on pressuring Iran themselves through a number theoretical regional capabilities and pressure points (access to banking facilities, assistance with oil refining etc.), the flammable Pandora’s box has been dusted-off and placed in front of the eager-to-open hands of the Israelis.

Allow us to investigate: the Middle East, controlling almost 3/5 of the world’s known oil supplies, is unable to deal with one of its own trouble-making neighbours. What does it do instead? Does it request assistance from one of the more neutrally inclined powers to facilitate the removal of such threat? If you thought “yes” for even a moment then, my Arabian-watching friends, you clearly have not read enough about Middle Eastern history and the seemingly self-destructive desire to consistently strike the wrong strategic decision at the absolute crucial moment. The single most problematic choice is opted for – an implicit agreement to turn-a-blind-eye (presumably busy cheering Germany in the World Cup) as the, US-supplied, Israeli air force (used to be US-trained, now they train the US – who trains the Saudi’s?) streak through a narrow flight path provided at the top of the Saudi Kingdom’s airspace to provide a direct enough bomb-run for a debilitating blow to Tehran’s nuclear programme. That’s the plan at least.

The reality is no doubt far more complicated and the conclusion and ripple effects a further several-hundred times over. US-trained Israeli warplanes screeching across the Gulf skies, on their sight-seeing trip to Iran that should end with a bang, will naturally irritate the famed Arab-street. Surely the leadership across the region anticipates this. Maybe that’s why the “rumours” that made up the story were not more widely distributed and made a swift exit from the journalistic editorial commentary.

So as we enter the weekend, a few things to contemplate on and discuss amongst yourselves. Surely important questions will be raised across many a dinner-table. Or then again, maybe most will simply hold aloft a few beers as they cheer their favourite football team and ask deeply insightful questions that strike hard at the very heart of those vital life-changing issues – “is the ref blind or what?!”


Hani Kobrossi

Monday 14 June 2010

Who’s World-Cup is it anyway?

** Who’s World-Cup is it anyway? ** Monday 14th June
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It sometimes takes an immovable object to block an unstoppable force.

My recent gallivanting around the globe was felled by a rather nasty, not-to-mention-excruciatingly-painful (not that I’m looking for any sympathy of course) wound that will suffice in its description as simply making the finding of a comfortable seating position nigh on impossible – come to think of it, just being able to sit would be a good start!

And so it is, that after a near a 4-mth silence, a slicing review of current affairs and cynicism on future development seems ripe for a return. How have you all survived not knowing anything about crucial daily geopolitical matters?..such as the latest Gold/Oil/$£/Global market prices, Abu Dhabi/Dubai melodramas, Berlusconi’s dastardly love-affairs, whether or not the Baltic Dry Index really has any baring whatsoever on global trading levels and when exactly is it again that the Chinese will rule the world?, not to mention healthy and heartening servings of humour-infused observations. No, I’m not talking about the online version of the (still free for now, pheww, unlike the move by ‘The Times’), but the satisfaction that originates only from informed-free-and-open discussion of those matters that count.

With all that has happened in the interim of the last piece and today’s wonderful orgy-like-ambience-of-daily-world-cup-matches, one can be excused for skipping over the immense amount of tantalising material out there: UK coalition governments doomed to fail, Greek kebab-busting-debts seemingly capable of dooming the Euro alongside with it, sinking of Korean ships at the hands of the ‘it-wasn’t-me-North-Koreans’, peaceful Thai protesters beaten into submission, violent earthquakes ravaging Latin American lands, 3D TV all of a sudden becoming a must-have all because of some blue characters running around a colourful 3D-World (unfortunately my prediction did not win the best-film Oscar as predicted in the end-of-year piece), US and global markets finally realising that you can fool some of the people all of the time but only buy-all-of-the-people-and-keep-global-markets-rising-with-huge-amounts-of-government-spending-and-ridiculously-low-interest-rates for only, well...oh..about a year.

Yep, March 2009 to March 2010 was good fun guys and gals, but reality can be a real stinker. Performance of global markets since March 2010? Everyone out there will know just how bad it’s been since we last inspected the health of global returns. And how can justice be served for not mentioning anything about the theatre surrounding Apple and the runaway success of the iPad (no, this isn’t being written on one - can’t seem to get the hang of the touch-screen and lack of ‘old-fashioned’ keyboard-feedback) or more entertainingly the saga of the ‘stolen’ iPhone..or the failing iPhone at its new launch – seriously though, why is the world so impressed with two-way video calling when it was available over 5-years ago on any number of Nokia’s?? Incredible branding/marketing/design/stupidity/near-religious-followers, that’s why.

With so much already written in the elapsed time of our last communiqué (that’s what travel will do to you, broadens the vocabulaire), why even bother pointing out the oil-spill of environmental-disaster-proportions that has strained US/UK relations (Obama still the man, but going a little too far in pandering to public outrage against BP when it was in fact an outsourced-to US-owned firm that suffered the tragic accident in the first-place). Indeed, some suspect a coating of aforementioned gulf-coast-oil on the very same football that brought-about the horrendous fumble of an easy-save from the England goalkeeper in the recent world-cup match against the US

Speaking of near-religious followers, the World-Cup is of course amongst us – just in case you had not noticed since you were living in some remote lost-tribal village alongside the Iguacu falls....or a woman. Oooohhhh..that must have incensed quite a few out there. But come on. The truth is there are many of the female variety out there who abruptly transform into die-hard football fans every four years without ever acknowledging the rules of the game, or even brandishing themselves with the very basic knowledge of historic rivalries, individual talents or the offside-rule (the what? Yeah exactly...just please don’t ask me please to explain). Male football fans are quite similar all-around the world. Female fans, despite great appreciation for the efforts made to fit into tightly-hugging football shirts and shorts (especially the eye-catchingly awesome yellow of Brazil, and the mysteriously shapely blue of Argentina) certainly are not all the same.

Currently residing in the Middle East - despite having spent little time here in the last few months - and most recently having travelled to the most feminine-ruled of cities in the world (Beirut for the unfamiliar), an number of telling observations of the female football ‘fan’ have been made. First, there is no such thing as a true Middle-Eastern world-cup fan. Man or woman. This of course arises from the fact that there is very seldom a Middle Eastern football team in the competition (unless you really want to count Algeria – many prefer not to) or the off-occasion where the Saudis were able to beat (read: bribe) enough teams within their qualifying group to make it through. The fact is Middle Eastern football teams just aren’t very good. Why do you think Qatar want to host the 2022 World Cup so bad? Not to have the honour of staging the competition but just to be able to finally play in the sacred thing through the automatic slot they receive!

So it goes that each individual, from the young to the old, male and female, pledge allegiance to their favoured-adopted side long before the first tackle has been lunged (going for the ball of course) or Vuvuzela has been annoyingly blown for hours and hours and hours (and hours) on end – did we mention how annoying the Vuvuzela’s ‘sound’ is? The favourites around this part of the world: Germany and Brazil (Italy and Argentina equal third). Now, Brazil being a favourite is understandable and acceptable. Brazil are incredible. They have won more world-cups than any other nation. They play more attractive, innovative and skilfully-impressive football than any other nation on earth, and they have those wonderfully attired Brazilian supporters that camera men love to focus on at every opportunity (it’s the yellow again). It is easy to understand why the likes of UAE nationals, Qataris, Kuwaitis and even those in Yemen with TVs (and the expensive Al Jazeera world-cup package) are prone to cheer for such a team filled with pedigree and talent.

Even supporting Italy and Argentina is equally digestible. Both play exquisite football and have a history of winning (noticing a trend amongst the Middle Eastern choices by any chance? Yep – glory hunters). Both have that extra ummph in their game and their national supporters and icons, stylish and aspiring, are worthy of note (even Berlusconi). BUT Gerrrrrmany....Germany?? Zeee Germans?? Why on earth would any sane individual who was not actual born in Germany, married to a German, employed by a German firm and being forced to watch football in his German boss’s Miele-designed kitchen, want to knowingly and willingly chant, cheer and sing for so dull a team (please note, Sunday’s performance against Australia did not serve to support this already though-out piece...not helpful).

Apart from having won the competition a frustratingly large number of times, always making it to either the semis or even the final, there is no justification as a football-fan-outsider to shout for the Germans. They always, always play the most insipid brand of football out there (again...last night...not helping..oops), always leave you wishing you had not watched the match you just did watch, and apart from some damn good draft beer have very little to offer in way of cultural entertainment – no, the female supporters clad in the national kit do not look that good. Middle Eastern supporters have a choice of any team they would like to pledge allegiance to, and in a rare occasion indeed, it is the competition of a sport where the US is not the most powerful force by any means – so the problem of a knee-jerk reaction to simply vie for whatever team is playing against the ‘great devil’ (even as they munch on their Big Mac after finishing off the last episode of Lost and having just driven home in their Escalade) is out of the way.

So what must the reason be? It can only be the glory-hunter in the Middle Eastern supporter that would cause one to reach so low into the attractive-talent-bag of international football (ask a more fundamentalist-inclined Iranian though and you might get a different, WW2 themed-answer – not nice) The desire to feel a part of the competition for as long as possible may also have something to do with it. You can understand why a young UAE national would like to remain a part of the festivities when Claus is sat beside him in class grinning and basking in the glory of another win on penalties against England (please NOT again) long after Algeria have been kicked out at the group stage - a happy-desert-camper he will not be,

This is certainly expressed in Lebanon’s scintillating Beirut. Strangely for a people and country that normally revels in being compared to either the Italian or French (not to mention having been a French-ruled mandate for over a quarter of a century), Germany is again the team of choice if the prolific display of horizontally striped black, red and yellow flags is anything to go by.

The female supporters there look forward to the endless displays of football almost as much as the ‘males’ (in quotation marks for a reason) – where else can they, in skimpy-attire attributed to a tight-fitting football shirt (‘it shrunk when the maid washed it’), cavort and taunt a captive audience with a guaranteed male dominant percentage for weeks on end, edging closer and closer during the matches to their own idea of a stunning goal?

To ensure success, a team with a historically proven ability to remain in the competition until the later stages is essential. It actually suits both the men and the women, and an unwritten understanding of unflappable support for Germany engulfs once every four years. A few brave souls will give-in to sense and bravely hoist Argentinean or Brazilian flags, but if you are single and looking to have the biggest football-barbeque on the block you already know which powerful European-industrial-nation you are supporting.

So the stage has been set. The adopted teams spoken for and some already victoriously supported. Whichever team you are following, and for whatever reason - yes, you ‘girl-fans’ out there, we’re onto you but we love having (some of) you around regardless, the next few weeks will elicit multiple expressions of emotion, yells of joy and screams of angst - please not England again in penalties.

Only one thing is for sure, you will all be infinitely-more-comfortably-seated on your sofas than myself.


Hani Kobrossi