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Sunday, April 26, 2009

Leverage: The Genesis of the Global Financial Turmoil

Credit, the lifeblood of capitalism, is now virtually non-existent. A lack of credit affects businesses from high tech giants to stay-home-moms to all manner of consumers. With credit unavailable, economic paralysis ensues, and conditions just get worse and worse.

In the most severe recession since World War II, the global economy is projected to shrink by 1.3 percent in 2009, with a slow recovery expected to take hold next year, according to the IMF’s April World Economic Outlook.

Without naming countries, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the IMF's managing director said, “obviously the crisis comes from an important regulatory and supervisory failure in advanced countries . . . and a failure in market discipline mechanisms."

At the heart of the global financial crisis is the American housing bubble. This bubble has impelled an historic crisis of capitalism. So we think.

In an expanding bubble, belief or confidence in the profit potential was indomitable. Everybody was winning borrowers and lenders, brokers and investors, home flippers, home builders and home buyers, credit-rating agencies and bond salesmen, appraisers, realtors and municipalities, and, far from least, politicians.

The credit performance of mortgage loans was good, with very low delinquencies, defaults, and losses. More debt seemed better. House prices could never come down. Did anybody believe that? The bubble was out of control. The United States is now two and a half years into the deflation of the housing bubble with accompanying defaults, foreclosures, and massive losses to lenders and borrowers, as well as home builders and investors.

This is a monumental crisis, one that will have deep, long and complex consequences. Many theories will be advanced to explain how we got here. One theory that I find most persuasive is by Simon Johnson in an essay titled “The Quiet Coup” in The Atlantic.

Johnson examines the rising power of corporate profits between 1973 and this decade. He observes that domestic corporate profits rose from 16 percent in the 70s and 80s to 20-30 percent in the 90s to a record 41 percent in this decade.

Wall Street was awash with money. Wall Street's political power soared. Wall Street and Washington merged. Enabling legislation was designed to enhance freedom and power of corporate finance. Regulations separating commercial and investment banking were repealed. There were major increases in the amount of leverage allowed to investment banks.

Given that in the buildup to the recent global economic meltdown hedge funds had been leveraging their deals by ratios of 30-to-1 i.e. borrowing $30 for every $1 of their own that they put in. It must seem obvious that massive leverage was a major driver of the financial turmoil.

Stefan Thurner, an econophysicist and director of the complex systems research group at the Medical University of Vienna, Austria, and colleagues say their model shows that many of the distinctive statistical properties of financial markets emerge together as rates of leverage climb.

The lure of the Gaussian function- a bell curve that gives little probability to large swings (risk)-gave finance whizzes the illusion that they could accurately calculate risks. But high leverages increased the likelihood of large swings than most bankers understood. In reality, the distribution has “fat tails” that make large swings possible. Thurner and colleagues have developed an “agent-based model” of a market. In their model, if they forbade leverage, the market behaved largely as classical economics would predict.

In a Wall Street Journal article titled “Is This the End of Capitalism?” Daniel Henninger thinks the crisis has less to do with capitalism than with psychosis, a mental dis-ease that dispossess bankers, borrowers and regulators of their capacity to meet life's everyday demands. For sensible bankers, that includes due diligence and risk management.

Capitalism did not torpedo the U.S. economy. Overbuilt housing did. Overbuilt housing tanked the economies of the U.K. and Ireland and Spain. If little else, we've learned that artificially cheap housing sets loose limitless moral hazard.

Two signal events in history are shaping the politics of the current economic crisis: the Great Depression, Reaganomics/Thatcherism.

The Great Depression touched off a raging tension between public and private sectors over who determines the course of a nation’s economy. After 50 years of public sector dominance, Reagan's presidency tipped the scales in favour of free-market enterprise.

The Great Recession of 2009 is a chance for the public sector to control the agenda and reinstate public-sector power. And President Obama recognizes that his administration has a responsibility to “create rules that punish shortcuts” on Wall Street.

It is disappointing that rather than fixing just what the mortgage crisis broke, the G-20 suddenly became a musing on the "future of capitalism."

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Collapse: Why the World Must Not Ignore Eastern Africa

One of the most difficult, almost counterintuitive things for most people to do is to anticipate sudden change or Collapse in the words of Jared Diamond. For most of us alive today, the idea that civilization could disintegrate is simply inconceivable.

What evidence could make us sit up, listen up and heed a warning so dreadful? We are so confident in our ability to conquer and triumph over catastrophe that we most certainly will dismiss any evidence with a wave of the hand or a snooty chuckle.

I have followed regional and global population, economic, food supply, water, land degradation trends and their feedbacks. The singular and interactive effects and feedback of these trends coupled with the ramifications they portend point to a perilous collapse of ecosystems, political sovereignty and societal order. We can no longer dismiss the possibility that localized or global shortages of fertile topsoil, water, food and obviously financial credit, could bring down the global civilization.

My sense is that rapid population growth, emerging and re-emerging infectious diseases, persistent poverty, depletion of topsoils, water shortages, rising temperatures, food scarcity constitute irrefutable vital signals of a planet in peril and imminent collapse of global civilization. A precursor to collapse is the increasing spectre of “failed states”, especially in poor countries of the South.

States fail when the sovereign authority can no longer provide food security, personal safety and security, basic social services, fundamental rights and freedoms for its citizens. Failed states often cede, involuntarily, their monopoly of territory, power, law and order to bandits and militias.

From a global security perspective, failed states pose a singular threat to global sustainability and survival. Failed states can serve as deadly epicenters of terrorism, disease, illicit drugs, weapons, refugees and more recently piracy. Somalia has become a haven for pirates. Afghanistan is a leading source of terrorists and narcotics. Pakistan and Somalia are becoming an active cell for Al-Qaeda and a frontier for Islamic fundamentalism.

The influx of Somali refugees into neighboring Kenya, the Islands of Pemba, Zanzibar and Dar-es-Salaam will most certainly turn the Eastern Coast of Africa into the most virulent axis of illicit drugs, money laundering and weapons proliferation. The drought in the Horn of Africa, the collapse of the livestock economy, piracy, famine, the political impasse and weakening state authority in Kenya will have serious implications for political and social stability of the Horn of Africa and the Great Lakes Region.

A formidable risk factor for social anarchy and possible collapse is the youth bulge. When 15 to 29-year-olds make up 20 per cent or more of the population, a society shows a "youth bulge," in the words of Gary Fuller, director of population studies at the University of Hawaii.

Political scientist Samuel Huntington, author of The Clash of Civilizations, has argued that this huge reservoir of young men aged 15-30 provides a natural pool of instability and violence directed both internally.

A society with an overflow of young men simply can't reward such a large number of "sons" with enough respectability, goes the theory. So they find ways to earn a standing. They wage war to earn war heroism. Or they simply use an “ideology” that turns arson, violence and even death into an achievement - into “honour.”

The vast majority of recruits in civil strife are young men, most of them out of school and out of work. It is a formula that hardly varies, whether in the scattered hideouts of Al Qaeda in the deserts of Iraq or the mountains of Afghanistan, on the Kenya-Uganda railway line or in the killing fields of Kirinyaga and Nyeri or the pirates on board the Maersk Alabama or the marching armies of the Lord’s Resistance Army.

As a preacher from Atlanta said “injustice any where is a threat to justice everywhere”. The survival of global civilization relies on a functional network of ecologically, economically, politically healthy and collaborative societies and nation-states.

This is a pre-requisite to dealing with Al-Qaeda, sorting out Kenya and Somalia, containing the deadly swine flu in Mexico, resolving the global economic crisis and reaching consensus on dealing with global climate change.

Goal of eliminating malaria in sight: experts

Alex Awiti ( has sent you this article.
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Goal of eliminating malaria in sight: experts
Fri Apr 24 15:18:02 UTC 2009

* Efforts bring goal of eradicating malaria within sight

* Disease still infects 500 million a year, kills 1 million

* Vaccine tests starting shortly

By Jonathan Lynn

GENEVA (Reuters) - Fresh efforts and funding to tackle malaria in recent years have brought the goal of eradicating the deadly disease within sight, health experts said on Friday.

Wiping out malaria worldwide could take decades but many countries where it is endemic are on the brink of eliminating the disease, which infects up to 500 million people a year and kills nearly one million worldwide, they said.

"The vision of achieving elimination in a number of countries is certainly in sight," said Rifat Atun, strategy director at the Global Fund to fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, an international financing institution.

Most malaria victims are children under the age of five and pregnant women. Roughly 90 percent of fatalities are in Africa, where malaria accounts for one in five childhood deaths.

The goal of eradicating malaria, caused by a parasite transmitted in mosquito bites, could take until 2050 or 2060, said Richard Feachem, chairman of the Malaria Elimination Group.

But it is now endemic in only about half the world's countries after being eliminated from others such as Canada and Finland since 1945, he told a news conference, launching two reports by the group for policymakers and health specialists.


One report focuses on destroying malaria in countries such as Mexico, South Africa and China on the margins of the tropical areas where it is endemic.

Feachem said the strategy was aggressive control in the heartland to reduce infection and death, elimination country by country from the margins, and research into drugs, vaccines and insecticides.

He said countries could learn from tough rules imposed in Singapore. The tropical city state makes it illegal for construction companies to allow malaria-bearing mosquitoes to breed on building sites and makes individuals responsible for preventing stagnant water gathering in their homes.

"In a country where the legislative and political environment permits it ... legislation can play an important role, requiring householders to do certain things," he said.

The fight against malaria takes several forms -- spraying bednets and homes to deter mosquitoes, using drugs to treat infected people and finding a vaccine to prevent infection.

Such treatments are brought to people in the world's poorest countries by international organizations and private groups such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, buying drugs from pharmaceutical companies at preferential prices.

Some of these methods are controversial. The pesticide DDT has saved millions of lives from malaria, but concerns that its intensive use in agriculture could spread cancer led to its being banned in many countries for farming.

New medical treatments such as a drug developed by Swiss pharmaceuticals company Novartis using artemisinin, a compound derived from a herb used in Chinese traditional medicine, are driving down deaths and infections, said Chris Hentschel of the Medicines for Malaria Venture.

The treatment, administered to 57 million people last year, saved half a million lives last year. About 50 new drug projects are in the pipeline, Hentschel said.

GlaxoSmithKline is about to start clinical trials of a vaccine in a test involving 16,000 children in seven African countries, which could reach the market within three years, the world's second-largest drugmaker said.

(For more on the Malaria Elimination Group and its reports go to )

(For full Reuters Africa coverage and to have your say on the top issues, visit )

(Additional reporting by Ben Hirschler in London; Editing by Stephanie Nebehay)

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World Bank triples funds for healthcare amid crisis

Sat Apr 25, 2009 10:52am EDT
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The World Bank is set to triple healthcare spending in developing countries to $3.1 billion this year amid signs governments are cutting funding in the midst of a global economic crisis.

A new World Bank report said it would increase its healthcare funding from $1 billion last year, with evidence already that some governments are facing difficulties in affording HIV/AIDS drug therapies.

Preliminary findings from a March 2009 World Bank survey in 69 countries, which offer treatment to 3.4 million people on anti-retroviral treatment, shows that eight countries now face shortages of anti-retroviral drugs or other disruptions to AIDS treatment.

Some 22 countries in Africa, the Caribbean, Europe and Central Asia, and Asia and Pacific are likely to have difficulties in providing anti-retroviral drugs over the course of the year.

HIV/AIDS prevention programs are also in jeopardy, with some 34 countries, representing 75 percent of people living with HIV, feeling an impact on prevention programs that target high-risk groups, including sex workers and drug users.

The World Bank also said it was doubling financing for health education this year to $4.09 billion.

The Bank's announcement comes amid an outbreak of a deadly swine flu in Mexico and the United States, which on top of a recession could be devastating to developing economies.

The World Bank this week said it was boosting investment in countries' social protection programs to $12 billion for 2009-10, including for so-called targeted assistance that offers poor families cash in return for sending kids to school and to mothers who take their children for regular checkups.

(Reporting by Lesley Wroughton; Editing by Andrea Ricci)

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Time to end the multigenerational Ponzi scheme

By Kim Stanley Robinson

"Capitalism evolved out of feudalism. Although the basis of power has changed from land to money and the system has become more mobile, the distribution of power and wealth has not changed that much. It’s still a hierarchical power structure, it was not designed with ecological sustainability in mind, and it won’t achieve that as it is currently constituted.
The main reason I believe capitalism is not up to the challenge is that it improperly and systemically undervalues the future. I’ll give two illustrations of this. First, our commodities and our carbon burning are almost universally underpriced, so we charge less for them than they cost. When this is done deliberately to kill off an economic competitor, it’s called predatory dumping; you could say that the victims of our predation are the generations to come, which are at a decided disadvantage in any competition with the present.

Second, the promise of capitalism was always that of class mobility—the idea that a working-class family could bootstrap their children into the middle class. With the right policies, over time, the whole world could do the same. There’s a problem with this, though. For everyone on Earth to live at Western levels of consumption, we would need two or three Earths. Looking at it this way, capitalism has become a kind of multigenerational Ponzi scheme, in which future generations are left holding the empty bag.

You could say we are that moment now. Half of the world’s people live on less than $2 a day, and yet the depletion of resources and environmental degradation mean they can never hope to rise to the level of affluent Westerners, who consume about 30 times as much in resources as they do. So this is now a false promise. The poorest three billion on Earth are being cheated if we pretend that the promise is still possible. The global population therefore exists in a kind of pyramid structure, with a horizontal line marking an adequate standard of living that is set about halfway down the pyramid.

The goal of world civilization should be the creation of something more like an oval on its side, resting on the line of adequacy. This may seem to be veering the discussion away from questions of climate to questions of social justice, but it is not; the two are intimately related. It turns out that the top and bottom ends of our global social pyramid are the two sectors that are by far the most carbon intensive and environmentally destructive, the poorest by way of deforestation and topsoil loss, the richest by way of hyperconsumption. The oval resting sideways on the line of adequacy is the best social shape for the climate.

This doubling of benefits when justice and sustainability are both considered is not unique. Another example: world population growth, which stands at about 75 million people a year, needs to slow down. What stabilizes population growth best? The full exercise of women’s rights. There is a direct correlation between population stabilization in nations and the degree to which women enjoy full human rights. So here is another area in which justice becomes a kind of climate change technology. Whenever we discuss climate change, these social and economic paradigm shifts must be part of the discussion.
Given this analysis, what are my suggestions?
• Believe in science.
• Believe in government, remembering always that it is of the people, by the people, and for the people, and crucial in the current situation.
• Support a really strong follow-up to the Kyoto Protocol.
• Institute carbon cap-and-trade systems.
• Impose a carbon tax designed to charge for the real costs of burning carbon.
• Follow the full “Green New Deal” program now coming together in discussions by the Obama administration.
• Structure global economic policy to reward rapid transitions from carbon-burning to carbon-neutral technologies.
• Support the full slate of human rights everywhere, even in countries that claim such justice is not part of their tradition.
• Support global universal education as part of human-rights advocacy.
• Dispense with all magical, talismanic phrases such as “free markets” and promote a larger systems analysis that is more empirical, without fundamentalist biases.
• Encourage all business schools to include foundational classes in ecology, environmental economics, biology, and history.
• Start programs at these same schools in postcapitalist studies.

Does the word postcapitalism look odd to you? It should, because you hardly ever see it. We have a blank spot in our vision of the future. Perhaps we think that history has somehow gone away. In fact, history is with us now more than ever, because we are at a crux in the human story. Choosing not to study a successor system to capitalism is an example of another kind of denial, an ostrich failure on the part of the field of economics and of business schools, I think, but it’s really all of us together, a social aporia or fear. We have persistently ignored and devalued the future—as if our actions are not creating that future for our children, as if things never change. But everything evolves. With a catastrophe bearing down on us, we need to evolve at nearly revolutionary speed. So some study of what could improve and replace our society’s current structure and systems is in order. If we don’t take such steps, the consequences will be intolerable. On the other hand, successfully dealing with this situation could lead to a sustainable civilization that would be truly exciting in its human potential."

My sense is that this is very thoughtful.

I have no problems with capitalism as way to link resources and human ingenuity to produce good and services. Consider the expansion of knowledge and technology that has led to great advances in medicine. The reason we are in deep trouble today is because of the way we choose to measure outcomes of good and services. We should depart from GDP and consider using Net Domestic Product (NDP). So this way we account for the deterioration of ecosystem services such as clean air, fertile soils, clean water, and biodiversity. We must now begin to grapple with measuring the real demand of domestic growth and expansion of the so called wellbeing on national and global ecological resources. We must get the accounting right or we will destroy irretrievably, the production base.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Go Barack!

Seeing Barack Obama on the Thames and on the Rhine, the feeling around the world is clear. We are green with envy.

The results of Obama’s domestic economic policy do not look good at this point in time. Unemployment is at its highest in twenty five years. There is no guarantee that his economic policies will change the gloomy outlook any time soon. Here in Kenya as in many parts of the world things, economically speaking are really tough. Millions are hungry and without employment. Pastoralists are loosing livestock and a livelihood.

But we are envious because in spite of the great pain and distress of tough times, Americans are so proud of their president. Kenyans feel let down and short changed by the political leadership. What is worse, I have the feeling that Americans have faith in Barack Obama. I would love to feel the same way about Mr. Kibaki, Mr. Odinga, the Mayor of Nairobi and my member of parliament.

I suspect that the political leadership in Kenya feels even more envious than I do. I bet they are wondering why they are not universally loved as well as Barack Obama is loved. Some of our politicians have even claimed that they are related to Mr. Obama. Some have even proclaimed “Yes We Can”. But others have suggested that the honey moon will soon be over. And that Mr. Obama is overrated.

Envy is a complex passion. It engenders both love and hate. Some Kenyans hate Barack Obama because of his Luo connections. For some politicians from Luo community, Obama meteoric rise has diminished their place and messiah status. These leaders feel that too many Luo people adore Obama, and with too much ardor, at their expense.

Overall, the optimism and jubilation that the majority of Kenyan people felt during Barack Obama’s presidential campaign, election and inauguration have is undiminished.

We had a chance to appreciate Mr. Obama’s political skills, charisma and charm with world leaders at the G-20 summit and with Europe at the NATO celebrations. This new demeanor of America came almost as a surprise. We had grown accustomed with the ways of exclusion-for us or against us-and posturing of the Bush years.


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