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Beyond Greece, Eurozone Has Other Achilles’ Heels

April 29, 2010 14 comments

By Marquis Codjia

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The current brouhaha over Greece’s budgetary mischance and its alleged adverse effects on Europe are an epochal episode in the history of the emergent European economic zone, but these are not the decisive areas where decision-makers, including political leaders and financial markets participants, should pay heed.

Greece’s debt pains would ultimately be resolved, because Eurozone behemoth Germany will strategically come in line with its continental peers; also, supranational channels – such as the European Central Bank and the IMF – will be coerced into using their balance sheets to provide liquidity to cash-strapped Hellenes.

The real fear presently is contagion – avoiding that the ambient financial pandemonium metastasizes into other economically comatose countries within the union. If any of these countries, clustered under the unflattering acronym of P.I.G.S. (Portugal, Italy, Greece, Spain), is downgraded by rating agencies – as was recently the case for Spain and Portugal who lost a few notches, the potential bailout costs and risk premia will rise stratospherically.

Eurozone leaders should swiftly settle Greece’s problems because of perception risks. No doubt the country is a financial and geostrategic dwarf (2% of Eurozone GDP and no major federal institution headquartered). Plus, other ‘weakest links’ such as Spain and Italy possess far greater self-financing capacities and have a different debt structure (domestically held vs. 95% of Greek debt held by foreigners). Notwithstanding, if trans-European perception is that Eurozone will not show geo-economic solidarity vis-à-vis its members in times of uncertainty, then the concept of political union loses its relevancy, and economic agents, including financial markets, will certainly reflect their despondency by driving the single currency lower.

Broadly, other systemic inefficiencies continue to thwart progress within the Eurozone.

First is the lack of a clear political structure in the federation. European leaders, particularly those from prominent countries (UK, Germany, France), seem at this point more content with a federal hierarchy replete with political figures (preferably from minor countries) who pose no leadership threat to them, and a plethora of bureaucratic institutions filled with functionaries picked on an unwritten pro-rata rule to satisfy member states. This strategic stance of an elusive political union grounded in an economic zone is antithetical to the very concept of federation that subtended the initial EU agreement.

To illustrate this, let’s consider a simple example: whom would current U.S. President Barack Obama or China Premier Wen Jiabao negotiate a strategic partnership with if either leader needs a European counterpart? Would they call upon the current President of the European Commission José Manuel Durão Barroso? Or the current President of the European Council Herman Van Rompuy? Or the current (6-month rotating) President of the Council of the European Union José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero? Or EU heavyweights French President Nicolas Sarkozy or German Chancellor Angela Merkel? Or a combination of all of these leaders?

Second, the lack of a clear, single political leadership begets an absence of a uniform socio-economic agenda in the union. It seems as though European leaders want the pros of economic integration, but abhor its cons altogether without attempting to minimize or obliterate them. EU citizens must define what the Eurozone stands for: is it a free-trade area, similar to NAFTA (North American Free Trade Agreement) or ECOWAS (Economic Community of West African States), where partner countries retain their political, economic and social independence, and can compete against each other? Or is it a political and economic union steered by broadly uniform national social policies, similarly to a single country? Or is it, rather, something in between, or neither?

Third, European Central Bank’s powers must be broadened beyond price stability. Unlike the U.S. Fed, the bank’s only primary mandate at the moment is to keep inflation low, with other objectives subordinate to it. The ECB should intervene further in the regional economy, and help avoid systemic disequilibria if need be. In sum, the institution should be allowed to use its gigantic reserves to calm jittery markets in times of uncertainty, among other roles.

Fourth, Eurozone membership should be reviewed; this includes not only the admission process, but also membership conditions and stipulations for exclusion. Understandably, the political undertones of this process call for some diplomatic verbiage, but overall, countries seeking membership in the privileged “Club Euro” must meet stringent criteria, and such criteria should be thoroughly enforced. The current Stability and Growth Pact, which aims to limit budget deficits and debts, is a good start but the ineffective control scheme around it permitted the kind of statistical fraud that Greece authored when seeking admission nearly a decade ago. In sum, sound economic fundamentals and strict governance rule, in addition to geography, should be the rationale for co-opting new members into the Eurozone.

Finally, the EU enlargement process should pay special attention to two key dossiers: U.K. and Turkey. The argument here is not in favor of a quick admission (in Turkey’s case), but for a clearer acceptance framework, more effective than the current 31-chapter “Acquis Process”.

Both dossiers are complex and politically charged, but their quick resolution will do more good than harm to the EU. Turkey has many woes (human rights concerns, Cyprus dispute, perception of Islamism despite the country’s secularism, business regulation, etc.), but its advantages are also interesting. It is 16th largest GDP in the world – per IMF’s 2009 ranking, outpaced in the Eurozone only by Germany, U.K., France, Italy and Spain. This means that, out of the current 27 EU members, it ranks 6th on GDP measurement. The country is geographically larger than any EU member and its ca. 73 million citizens are outnumbered only by Germany’s ca. 82 million; this may open up potential new markets for growth-seeking EU businesses. Politically, Ankara is an important geostrategic ally of the West and a member of such key organizations as G-20, OECD and NATO.

As for the U.K., a current EU member that opted out of the Eurozone, its Labor Party-led government defined in the late 1990s five economic tests that must be met prior to adopting the Euro as national currency, either via parliamentary ratification or referendum. Euro adoption remains a domestic hot button issue and thus may not be addressed for many years. But, it’d be interesting to see how politicians and business leaders will react once the euro reaches parity with, or gradually outpaces, the pound sterling. So far, the euro has risen 65% vs. the pound, from a low of 57 cents in 2000 to 94 cents a decade later, briefly nearing parity late in 2008 (.98 in December 2008).

Did The Bank Bailout Work?

March 18, 2010 63 comments

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By Marquis Codjia

A few months ago, the crumbling global economy was atop the agenda of many G20 leaders. Social unrest, banking sector meltdown, global growth conundrum, and stock market yo-yos were the main discussion topics among the planetary leadership.

Governments the world over addressed the most imperative issue, the banking pandemonium, with massive cash inflows into a sector that hitherto epitomized capitalism at its best (and worst), with a modus operandi more akin to central intervention in communist economies.

The global tab ranges from 4 to 5 trillion US dollars according to the most optimistic estimates, but the overall costs may run higher in the future.

The financial rescue of the ailing banking sector, in principle, was the right course of action and various experts across the political spectrum saw eye to eye on its criticality, including the staunchest free-market theorizers who routinely treat as leftist energumens out of the antediluvian era those who dare buck conventional wisdom regarding the role of government in social economics.

It was flummoxing, however, to observe how lenient authorities were vis-à-vis banks throughout the bailout process on top of the very favorable terms under which funds were disbursed. Hence, financial institutions that benefited from state largesse were able to quickly use monies received to regain profitability and reimburse their respective governments.

Other parts of the economy didn’t experience so swift a recovery. Unemployment is still high; the mortgage sector is still in a shambles. Banks have been reluctant to lend, creating an underperforming productive sector and a lethargic private consumption. The stock market may be up but, debatably, the “real economy” is still down.

Banks played a crucial role in the current economic malaise, but anti-bailout commentators were wrong to vilify them and to affirm that such guilt should have precluded public rescue. Financial intermediaries are an epochal pillar of our post-modern economies, and it would have been socio-economically ruinous and politically unpalatable to let them sink.

Admittedly, a majority of banks are today more cash awash and profitable than a year ago albeit some pockets of the industry are still comatose owing to the liquidity hemorrhage that has devastated them since the recession erupted.

Regrettably, nothing has changed. These institutions are resorting again to the erstwhile practices that wrought havoc to the economy in the first place, under the aegis of a regulatory body eerily blind, deaf and tongue-tied.

Banks, evidently, should be encouraged to pursue and make profits as any private concern. But when such a financial quest comes at the expense of an entire system or poses a systemic threat to the productive sector of the economy, the argument in favor of tougher regulation becomes of preeminent import.

Companies need to utilize hedging for exposure control; yet, speculators lately seem to use derivatives to bet against their very benefactors. Although outrageous to vast swaths of the populace, such practices are explicable if one considers that the speculating camp only furthers private interests of elites (their investors) who seldom factor morality into the profitability equation.

Case in point: Greece. The Hellenic government bailed out its banking sector with billions of dollars only to see their country downgraded a few months later because of a perceived default risk.

At this moment, elected officials and central bankers should ponder the following question: did the bailout work? Or, stated differently, did the mammoth cash infusion into banks and the associated supplemental initiatives reach the initial goals?

Seasoned economists and social scientists will grapple amply with issues regarding program effectiveness and efficiency in the future, but prominent experts currently believe the answers to such interrogations are negative. George Mason University economist Peter Boettke posited that bank bailouts have created a “cycle of debt, deficits and government expansion” that in the end “will be economically crippling” to major economies, whereas Barry Ritholtz, famed author of Bailout Nation and CEO of research firm FusionIQ, thinks the rescue programs could have been conducted better.

It can be argued that the initial rescue phase of the bailout program was effectual in that it helped avert a domestic and global banking hubbub. But, contrary to popular credence, that was the easiest part. The courageous headship of political leaders and regulators cannot be underrated in the process, but it is indisputably far facile for a powerful central bank, like the US Federal Reserve, to make journal entries to the credit of targeted institutions and replenish their corporate coffers via the much celebrated “quantitative easing”.

The Fed, just like other G8 central banks, is in an enviable position because it can create money ‘out of nothing’ by increasing the credit in its own bank account. Ask current Greek Central Bank governor George Provopoulous whether he’d like to have such latitude.

Regulation is where actual political bravery need be shown from authorities, and so far the lack of sweeping reforms in the financial sector may obliterate the latter’s plodding recovery.

At present, there are five distinct reasons explicating the mediocre results obtained so far from the bailout scheme.

First, the much needed financial overhaul is taking longer to move up the legislative ladder and reach US President Barack Obama’s desk because not only financial lobbies – such as the über-powerful American Bankers Association – are exerting strong pressure,  the political agenda is also crowded out with the pressing healthcare reform and the geostrategic concerns linked to conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq.

The fact that Senate Banking chief Chris Dodd, D-Conn., wants to introduce reform in the sector will probably change little in the short-term.

Second, President Obama’s own senior level financial staff is composed of former Wall Street alumni and lobbyists, and many skeptics are incredulous that a clique so tied to financial interests can spearhead true reforms in an industry that was previously munificent to them.

The next two factors are endogenous to the banking industry. One is the past experience of regulation and deregulation cycles that usually make laws dissipate over time, and the other stems from the idiosyncratic ability of financial engineers and investment bankers to design new products and techniques to counter existing laws.

Finally, the regulatory endeavor should be global in scope, and the present lack of geographic cooperation and the practical difficulty to track systemic risk within the industry are currently handicapping further advances.

From Wall Street to Dubai – The Lucrative Idiosyncrasies of Islamic Banking

March 4, 2010 59 comments

Religious limitations within Islamic jurisprudence have kept Islamic banks more cash awash than their risk-taking Western counterparts after the recent economic hubbub, but gradual reforms need to take place for the industry as a whole to experience a structurally sustained positive growth in the future.

By Marquis Codjia

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A supranational symposium of key financial players took place recently (March 2nd and 3rd, 2010) at the posh King Hussein Bin Talal Convention Center on the shores of the Dead Sea, circa 25 miles southwest from Amman, Jordan.

The event received trifling media interest from major western news outlets; however, behemoths in the global banking industry were closely eyeing pivotal decisions that may be announced in the final communiqué.

They were right to do so.

The gathering, the first Islamic Finance and Investment Forum for the Middle East, occurred in economically healthy and politically stable Jordan – a prominent ally of the West in a geostrategically susceptible region, – which enjoys the highest quality of life in the Middle East and North Africa Region, according to the 2010 Quality of Life Index prepared by International Living Magazine.

Another essential factor to heed lies in the fact that participants were among the crème de la crème of the Islamic financial marketplace, a group of over 350 bankers and experts from 15 countries that are spearheading transformational shifts in an economic sector likely to experience solid growth in the foreseeable future.

A bird’s eye view of Islamic banking is utile to fathom the industry’s core dynamics.

Islamic banking – and to a larger extent, Islamic finance – is deeply rooted in Islamic economics and quintessentially governed by Sharia, a legislative corpus that encapsulates the religious precepts of Islam.

Sharia or its financial section known as Fiqh al-Muamalat (Islamic rules on transactions) allows financial intermediaries to engage in any form of economic activity so long as they don’t charge interest (Riba) and shun businesses implicated in forbidden (Haraam) undertakings.

Sharia strongly furthers risk sharing among investors and economic transactions collateralized by tangible assets such as land or machinery but outlaw derivative financial instruments.

A derivative instrument is a product that derives its value from other financial instruments (known as the underlying), events or conditions. It is mostly utilized for hedging risk or speculating for profit. The recent turmoil in global capital markets and the ensuing socio-economic pandemonium owe much of their existence to a type of derivative called Credit Default Swap (CDS).

Viewpoints alien to the Muslim world may find Sharia restrictions deleterious for sustained economic development because what Muslim jurisprudence defines as vice (gambling, adult filmography, alcohol, etc.) not only plays a vital role in many countries’ GDPs but is also an arguable social and temporal concept.     

Notwithstanding, a plethora of observers now contend that constraints within Islamic finance have successfully shielded Sharia-compliant institutions from the recent economic meltdown while keeping their coffers cash awash.

Several factors support a potential Islamic finance boom, including skyrocketing deposits from denizens of oil-rich populated countries, numerous infrastructure projects and the emergence of a large middle class.

UK-based International Financial Services London estimates that Sharia-abiding assets have grown by 35% to $951 billion between 2007 and 2008, even though the industry “paused for breath” in 2009 amid the ongoing economic lethargy.

According to Mohammad Abu Hammour, Jordan’s minister of finance, the Islamic banking sector witnesses an annual growth rate of 10-15 % and there are currently over 300 Islamic banks in more than 50 countries, with large concentrations noted in Iran, Saudi Arabia and Malaysia.

Most of those banks and financial intermediaries are owned by native shareholders but growing swaths of the Islamic banking sphere are being populated by specialized sections of “ordinary” full-service Western banks.

HSBC Amanah, the Islamic finance arm of HSBC, is an illustration of that trend.

Islamic banking is highly profitable and the heightened foreign interest conspicuously corroborates the notion that the industry is bound to expand once emerging nations within the Muslim world are willing and able to use their gigantic cash reserves to structurally develop core sectors of their economies.

Nonetheless, many pending issues are still crippling the Islamic finance sector and prevent it from exceeding the 1% share it currently holds in global banking business.

The first relates to the need for Islamic banks to devise risk-hedging strategies – especially those engaging in cross-currency transactions – and instruments that are compliant with regulatory precepts. Specialists within the industry have to be creative because derivatives, a major hedging tool, are prohibited by Sharia. Progress in that area is still timid.

Second, Islamic scholars need to devise and inculcate a homogenous body of legislation to financial agents to avoid asymmetric disadvantage in the marketplace. The immensity of such a task cannot be underrated because Islam has multiple schools of thought and divergent interpretations of certain religious precepts can often turn out to be insurmountable stumbling blocks.

Sunni Islam is the largest branch of Islam with at least 85% of the world’s 1.5 billion Muslims although the endogenous variety of schools of thoughts often creates a diversity of views.

If a bank located in Sunni Saudi Arabia finds itself at a regulatory disadvantage versus an Iranian bank ruled by the precepts of Shiite Islam or a financial institution in Kharijite Oman, then evidently fundamental market disequilibria will emerge.

Third, the sector needs to harmonize practices to grow. Uniformity is needed not only in regulatory oversight but also in accounting and risk standards, both internally (within the Islamic world) and externally (vis-à-vis Western or other regional financial zones). A practical example will be to seek compliance with I.F.R.S. (International Financial Reporting Standards) and Basel II Banking Accords.

Finally, Islamic banks will need to engage in a sophisticated, well-targeted communication campaign aimed at educating skeptical U.S. and E.U. regulators (primarily), as well as prospective clients in the Western hemisphere. This effort will be pivotal in shifting public perception of the quality and positioning of their products and services and in expunging the stigma that erstwhile (and current) geopolitical happenings may have placed on the “Islamic brand”.


Dr. Abu Ameenah Bilal Philips on Interest and Islamic Banking

Competitive Asymmetry vs. Corporate Strategy: The Perilous Nexus in a Treacherous Chasm

February 19, 2010 64 comments

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by Marquis Codjia



In the past, corporate strategists sought to maximize overall firm profitability by devising the best modus operandi that will help achieve results efficiently and effectively. Such a strategy routinely took advantage of the endogenous analogies of a homogenous market or geographic zone, such as culture, regulatory landscape, uniformity in fiscal or monetary policies, and socio-political affinity.

This system of similarities was observed in North America between Canada and the United States, in Western Europe prior to the Schengen Accords that led to higher economic integration within the European federation, and Japan within its Asian economic and geopolitical fiefdom. It has proven very fruitful for many a company because the strategic proximity afforded them lower implementation costs and higher profitability.

Nowadays, globalization along with its cohort of uncertainties is rebalancing the economic landscape and swinging the strategic pendulum in unlikely whereabouts. Globalization forces companies to review their tactical practices because of inherent execution difficulties in cross-cultural environments.

Tactics ought not to be mixed up with strategy. The former deals with detailed maneuvers to achieve aims set by the latter.

The need to control and instill a grain of homogeneity in the global marketplace has forced Western governments – mainly – to found organizations that will promote anti-protectionist measures and greater legislative coordination in world’s business. World Trade Organizations (WTC), North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), and Eurozone are examples of such institutions or zones.

Though these international bodies have help catapult capitalistic free-trade as the preferred ethos, they have proven ineffective at creating a common economic environment in which corporations can engineer the same strategy to achieve their goals across geographical zones or markets.

This failure is due to the complex continuum of events taking place daily in the global arena that forces corporate leaders to include new factors in their strategy matrices.

A strategy matrix indicates how effectively a business entity can achieve profitability by juxtaposing such factors as store location, operating procedures, goods/services offered, pricing tactics, store atmosphere and customer services, and promotional methods.

New factors to be added to the mix are diverse and intricate; hence, an exhaustive analytical list cannot be within the purview of this paper. Some emerging trends relate to online marketing, higher government intervention, shareholder activism, military deals with domestic or foreign vendors, terrorism and war effects, and intellectual property theft.

Business leaders usually lump some of these issues in several corporate functions: risk management, government relations, regulatory, marketing, human resources, etc., and address them at higher echelons only when their magnitude dictates executive decision-making.

This approach is erroneous because it fails to recognize the systemic pedigree of corporate strategy and the notion that it must include all risks and objectives across the organization to be successful. The threats cited earlier are complex and diverse, and they usually change market equilibria by permitting, for instance, small firms to compete against larger rivals in markets they once couldn’t have penetrated.

This is the reason why I ascribe the concept of “competitive asymmetry” to this new phenomenon.

Numerous news headlines illustrate competitive asymmetry in the market. Western luxury brands are nowadays faced with fierce competition from “made in China” faked items, while American pharmaceutical mammoths like Pfizer and Johnson & Johnson observe powerlessly patent-protected pills being fraudulently transformed into generics in India. Another example is activist investor Carl Icahn confronting Time Warner’s management and demanding a change in corporate strategy or organizational structure (segment divestiture, merger, acquisition, etc.).

Other instances include Boeing filing a contract protest with the US Government Accountability Office after it lost a military deal to Northrop Grumman Corp and Europe’s EADS or fast-food giant McDonald losing an eight-year trademark battle to stop Malaysian Indian McCurry Restaurant from using the “Mc” trademark.

These trends are obviously deleterious for most firms within the western hemisphere because that asymmetric rivalry deprives them of the profits their R&D investment must have normally secured over a large time span. The threat is coming principally from emerging and underdeveloped countries because now mature European, American and Japanese markets no longer offer maximal growth prospects and enjoy a legal environment that disincentivizes intellectual property malpractice.

Major companies cannot underestimate the criticality of these emerging trends because they not only stand to lose market share at home but also see their profits eroded in those international markets where growth rates are healthier.

I’ll end with some geoeconomics questions: how will Google’s recent infuriation at China affect the firm’s country strategy given that the current 300 million Chinese computer users constitute a less ignorable niche? What about its overall Asia strategy? Will business prevail over politics? Will Google’s potential exit from the Chinese market propel rival Baidu to domestic and global supremacy? How will that affect the firm strategy with respect to launching other products in a country with 1.3 billion customers? How will this affect Google’s overall profit line?

Germany and its Greek dilemma

February 10, 2010 7 comments

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The general mood at 1, Willy-Brandt-Straße in Berlin was tense lately. The German chancellery’s headquarters, one of the world’s largest executive buildings – 8 times the size of the White House – is filled with an army of thousands of civil servants, mainly preoccupied with pending domestic issues, from unemployment and economic growth to fiscal fraud enforcement.

However, the question which worries Angela Merkel, the German Chancellor, and her close advisers more is the financial chaos in Greece and its consequences for the Eurozone.

Considering the solidity of its economic fundamentals, its excellent score with credit rating agencies, and a discipline in the management of its federal budget akin to the precepts of the best Wehrmacht strategists, Germany was able to resist the deleterious effects of the crisis better than other European counterparts.

Berlin is not only Europe’s superpower by many standards; it remains the continent’s fundamental economic engine. This position poses Germany a dilemma because its interdependence with other countries within the Union (export-based economy) and the absence of tariffs (Schengen Accords) force it to lend a hand to its neighbors.

In short, Germany must engineer a Marshall plan to enliven the weakest links in the federation’s economic chain if it does not want to be a collateral victim in the long term.

Angela Merkel and federal Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble remained for a long time unwilling to help weakened economies within the Union because they suspected that some nations use Europe as a conduit to vent their domestic troubles.

The lack of trust explains Berlin’s reticence to use the European Central Bank and the Bundesbank as principal bailout sources, preferring the IMF and other transnational channels so that financial risks can be spread over a larger spectrum of investors and countries.

German analysts and financial markets emphasize that Greece has not been a model of economic management of late. Far from being a geostrategic dwarf like Iceland, Greece is a solid economy (primarily based on tourism and the maritime sector) ranked 26th on the IMF list (Country GDP in 2009).

But the surreal fact remains that the country, currently under the premiership of American-born Geórgios Papandréou, was found guilty of statistical fraud when it applied for EU membership.

Greek leaders must tackle seriously current public deficit and debt payment problems, and upcoming fiscal tightening measures will only increase social unrest.

Other countries within the Old Continent, currently grouped under the less flattering P.I.G.S. acronym, have a similar prognosis. They are Portugal, Italy, (Greece), and Spain and have economies hard hit by the real-estate crisis, a climbing unemployment rate, a fall in industrial productivity and scores of outsourcing decisions by private firms.

European leaders will undoubtedly react to avoid a domino effect potentially deleterious for the rest of Europe. Many options are available to them, including a direct ECB assistance to Greece, a partial repurchase of Greek debt by the central bank, subsidies from transnational institutions like the IMF, and an increase in protectionist measures to stop the socio-economic crisis (e.g.: shoe war with China).