Giovanni Battista Tiepolo Allegory of the Planets and Continents 1752
Who ever called these things smart?
There is much we can learn from the ancient traditions of Winterval, each culture’s festive myths and rituals being equally valid, and equally instructive, irrespective of their veracity or worth. Upon the solstice night in Latveria, for example, Pappy Puffklap leaves a dried clump of donkey excrement on the breakfast table of each home. Is this so very different from the wise kings bringing the infant Christ sealed flagons of foul-smelling gas, the divine in harmony with the physical at its most pungent? There is only really one story this Christmas. The snow that decorates your cards will soon be a half-remembered folk myth. The arctic ice sheet is melting from underneath as well as above now. Did you notice, or were you grime-dancing to Man’s Not Hot at an office Christmas party, the annual arse-photocopier roped off with “police line do not cross” tape, management confused by the exact nature of their legal responsibilities to staff buttocks in the current social recalibrations?
My own Christmas sounds a note of doom. So far, I have escaped ownership of a smartphone or a tablet. With a deserved sense of superiority, I have watched the rest of you degenerate into being no-attention-span zombie scum, fixated on trivial fruit-based games and the capture of invisible Japanese imps, entirely unaware of the geography of your own surroundings, info-pigs gobbling bites of fake news headfirst from shiny troughs 24 hours a day, while our decaying planet performs its last few million fatal, and yet still beautiful, rotations before you. The screens of the iPhones of proud parents, their heads respectfully bowed, displayed pages from Facebook and Twitter. But now I must become one of you. Having abandoned paper letters, and now declaring even email obsolete, my nine-year-old daughter’s school has told me I need an iPhone to receive any administrative communication.
And so, with a heavy heart, I have asked for one for Christmas, a shire horse begging for harness, a hamster requesting its own torturous wheel, Robert Lindsay asking for another series of My Family. But perhaps, like Jesus renouncing his divinity to become a mortal, finally owning an iPhone will help me to understand Observer readers, and the trivial concerns and inundations of ignorance that drive you in your futile lives. Beneath a powerful enough microscope, even a cluster of wriggling threadworm can be beautiful. I accepted my iPhone destiny on the morning of last Wednesday, but by the afternoon I wanted to renounce it. I attended the carol service of my niece’s nursery school. Upon each carved pew, the screens of the iPhones of proud parents, their heads respectfully bowed, displayed pages from Facebook and Twitter, and twinkled throughout the ancient religious ritual like the stars that led the wise men to the very cradle of Christ.
As the lights dimmed and the candles flared up for a beautiful choral arrangement of the Coventry Carol, the assembled infant singers could look up and see that many of the grownups in the room, their lowered faces lit beatifically from below by the Caravaggio glow of their iPhone screens, were not the slightest fucking bit interested in them or their stupid fucking song.
The biggest cryptocurrencies resumed their decline on Sunday, failing to reverse a selloff that began when bitcoin’s unprecedented rally fell short of breaking above $20,000. A rebound on Saturday fizzled in the afternoon and traders turned pessimistic again, driving bitcoin down 13% in the past 24 hours. The drop among the 10 largest digital coins, ranging as much as 17% for iota, brings more end-of-year weakness to a market that just had its worst four-day tumble since 2015. “The West is what’s causing this selloff,” said Mati Greenspan, senior market analyst at Tel Aviv-based online broker eToro, pointing to increased trading in dollars and less in yen. The recent cryptocurrency rally was so steep that investors were prone to take money off the table going into the Christmas holiday season, he said.
The retrenchment isn’t typical for cryptos, which often snap back after a few losing sessions. The last time bitcoin dropped for five successive weekdays was September and, before that, July. While the market has been volatile for most of this year, the rapid run-up has made the recent selloff sting more for digital coin enthusiasts. Traders have knocked about $160 billion in market value off the biggest cryptocurrencies in about three days, according to CoinMarketCap data. The tumble coincided with several warnings in the past week from financial authorities about elevated risk in holding digital coins. “The crypto market went to astronomical highs, so it’s got to come back to reality,” Greenspan said. “Something that goes up 150% in less than a month is probably going to have double-digit retracement.”
Bitcoin was at $13,367 as of 5 p.m. New York time. That’s almost one-third off its record high of $19,511, based on prices compiled by Bloomberg. Ethereum, the No. 2 cryptocurrency by market value, dropped about 12% in the past 24 hours, to $663.77, CoinMarketCap data show. While “nascent blockchain-based cryptocurrencies are rapidly entering mainstream finance,” some of the second-generation digital coins have a better outlook than bitcoin, Bloomberg Intelligence analyst Mike McGlone wrote in comments published Sunday. The whole group is akin to internet-based companies a few decades ago and exchange-traded funds more recently, he said. “Bitcoin is the crypto benchmark, but not the best representation of the technology,” McGlone wrote. Altcoins “should continue to gain on bitcoin, which has flaws and where futures can be shorted,” he said.
it’s always possible to imagine things getting better.
The world of cryptocurrencies is one of the most divisive topics in finance right now. On the one hand, figures like J.P. Morgan CEO Jamie Dimon have called it a “fraud” and dubbed those trading it “stupid.” On the other hand, there are those who see cryptocurrencies as one of the most revolutionary forces in finance. But amid the debate, there are a lot of people asking how to value this stuff and why bitcoin has traded nearly as high as $20,000. The answer right now is simple: There are no fundamentals. Even Robert Shiller, who won the Nobel Prize in 2013 for assessing asset prices, recently remarked that the value of bitcoin is “exceptionally ambiguous.” There’s no doubt that there is immense amount of speculation in the cryptocurrency market.
But when the bubble bursts and the hype dies down, that is where we may find value and it all comes down to the use cases for the different coins on the market. When bitcoin was created in 2009, the aim was to be an electronic cross-border payments system. The problem now is that bitcoin transactions are at record highs with faster traditional payment systems actually proving a better means. It’s hard to say bitcoin has an inherent value beyond the belief of the people trading it. But as many have said, it could become “digital gold,” in which case the price is likely to go higher. But looking forward, it’s highly likely that other digital tokens could surpass bitcoin because of their utility. Take a look at Ethereum. The company bills itself as a blockchain platform for others to build apps on.
Blockchain is the underlying technology behind bitcoin and acts as a decentralized ledger of transactions. But its uses span far beyond bitcoin. Ethereum has its own blockchain which companies like Microsoft and J.P. Morgan are experimenting with. Ethereum is specifically designed for so-called “smart contracts” which are pieces of software that execute a contract once certain conditions are met by all parties involved. This removes the need for complex paperwork and errors. Ripple is another blockchain company that is working on cross-border payments across different currencies in seconds. The digital coin created by the company called XRP, acts as a bridging currency to help facilitate transactions. Both Ethereum and Ripple have seen stunning rallies this year, but both are in the early stages of their experiments. But in the future, valuing them could be easier. For example, if Ripple began to process a fraction of the trillions of dollars that is transacted across borders, we could start to put a price on one XRP.
Let smaller units fail. That’s a nice idea, but how does it square with central control?
China needs to let local governments take responsibility for their finances, including allowing bankruptcies, as part of an effort to defuse their debt risks, a central bank official wrote on Monday. Central government control of the scale of local government bonds should be eliminated, while responsibility to issue and repay bonds should be held by the city or county that will actually use the funds, Xu Zhong, head of the People’s Bank of China’s research bureau, wrote in a an editorial on the financial news website Yicai. “Eliminate central government control on the scale of local government bond issues, expand the scale of local government debt issues,” Xu wrote. “Whether (bonds) can be issued, and at what price, must be examined and screened by the financial markets. There does not need to be worry about local governments chaotically issuing debt.”
China’s top leadership decided at a meeting this week to take concrete measures to strengthen the regulation of local government debt next year as policymakers look to rein in a massive debt pile and reduce financial risks facing the economy. The government needs to clarify responsibility as it explores a bankruptcy system for local governments, Xu wrote, as there is still an expectation that the central government will bail out those that run into fiscal problems. “China must have an example like the bankruptcy in Detroit. Only if we allow local state-owned firms and governments to go bankrupt will investors believe the central government will break the implicit guarantee,” Xu wrote, adding that social services should be maintained.
The United States city of Detroit filed the largest-ever municipal bankruptcy in July 2013, with $18 billion of debt. Xu also said that China should dismantle the hukou system of internal migration control, as free movement of people promoted equal access to public services and helped resolve imbalances in finances. In a report published on Saturday, China’s National Audit Office said China should dispel the “illusion” that the central government will pick up the bill for local government debt. But China should also increase the limit for local government debt as general government debt is primarily used for poverty relief spending, while also controlling spending on new projects.
Xi still has a huge reserves problem. The US tax bill and the Fed keep on making it bigger.
China has followed up earlier restrictions on outbound investment with new regulations on foreign investment by private firms. The 36-point code of conduct for private firms seeks to ensure that overseas deals are rational and legal. This is part of an effort to regulate outbound investment, which had been strongly encouraged between 2012 and 2016, in order to reduce risks. The National Development and Reform Commission, along with four other agencies, released rules that require private enterprises to invest in overseas deals that are genuine and not meant to be used for transferring assets abroad or for money laundering. Private firms are now required to report investment plans to the government, and to seek approval if the investments involve sensitive countries or industries.
Investment in projects that fit within the scope of the One Belt One Road endeavor is strongly encouraged. Outbound investment reached $170 billion in 2016, but was curtailed at the end of 2016 as yuan depreciation pressures mounted. At that time, authorities cracked down upon companies with fraudulent or “irrational” foreign investment. In addition, this past August, specific categories were created to specify banned, restricted, and encouraged overseas investment industries for mergers and acquisitions. As a result, this year saw a decline in the value of outbound direct investment, dropping 42% year-on-year in the first three quarters of this year. The new measures imposed on private firms will further reduce capital outflows and debt used to finance overseas deals.
A code of conduct for state owned enterprises investing abroad will soon be published, as China’s government attempts to make sure that capital leaving the country is being invested in sound assets. These regulations have become necessary due to China’s struggle to reduce its debt load and due to the threat of currency depreciation. While the former represents a clear and present threat to financial stability, the latter has largely disappeared from the picture but apparently remains on the radar of government officials. Debt-fueled overseas acquisitions impose a drag on the economy, which contains high levels of corporate debt already. Acquisitions that are funded by debt must ensure that overseas investments are productive, so that firms can repay the debt in a timely manner.
How much does such a target really matter?
China is likely to set its 2018 money growth target at an all-time low of around 9% to curb debt risks and contain asset bubbles, the official China Daily reported on Monday, citing economists involved in high-level policy discussions. Financial risks have become the biggest threat to the country’s economic stability in the medium and long term, the China Daily said. In the past year, deleveraging efforts in the financial system have pushed broad M2 money supply growth to its lowest since records began in 1996. In November, M2 expanded 9.1% from a year earlier, below the government’s full-year target of around 12%. The central bank has said slowing M2 growth could be a “new normal” as the government cracks down on riskier banking activities. In the past decade, the government has set its annual M2 targets between 12% and 17%.
Homes are no longer places to line in, and stores are not building blocks of a society anymore. Everything is captive to speculation.
Walk down almost any major New York street – say Fifth Avenue near Trump Tower, or Madison Avenue from midtown to the Upper East Side. Perhaps venture down Canal Street, or into the West Village around Bleecker, and some of the most expensive retail areas in the world are blitzed with vacant storefronts. The famed Lincoln Plaza Cinemas on the Upper West Side announced earlier this week that it is closing next month. A blow to the city’s cinephiles, certainly, but also a sign of the effects that rapid gentrification, coupled with technological innovation, are having on the city. Over the past several years, thousands of small retailers have closed, replaced by national chains. When they, too, fail, the stores lie vacant, and landlords, often institutional investors, are unwilling to drop rents.
A recent survey by New York councilmember Helen Rosenthal found 12% of stores on one stretch of the Upper West Side is unoccupied and ‘for lease’. The picture is repeated nationally. In October, the US surpassed the previous record for store closings, set after the 2008 financial crisis. The common refrain is that the devastation is the product of a profound shift in consumption to online, with Amazon frequently identified as the leading culprit. But this is maybe an over-simplification. “It’s not Amazon, it’s rent,” says Jeremiah Moss, author of the website and book Vanishing New York. “Over the decades, small businesses weathered the New York of the 70s with it near-bankruptcy and high crime. Businesses could survive the internet, but they need a reasonable rent to do that.”
Part of the problem is the changing make-up of New York landlords. Many are no longer mom-and-pop operations, but institutional investors and hedge funds that are unwilling to drop rents to match retail conditions. “They are running small businesses out of the city and replacing them with chain stores and temporary luxury businesses,” says Moss. In addition, he says, banks will devalue a property if it’s occupied by a small business, and increase it for a chain store. “There’s benefit to waiting for chain stores. If you are a hedge fund manager running a portfolio you leave it empty and take a write-off.” New York is famously a city of what author EB White called “tiny neighborhood units” is his classic 1949 essay Here is New York. White observed “that many a New Yorker spends a lifetime within the confines of an area smaller than a country village”.
And they have the most powerful lobbyists. Case closed.
Last year, three of the world’s largest meat companies – JBS, Cargill, and Tyson Foods – emitted more greenhouse gases than France, and nearly as much as some big oil companies. And yet, while energy giants like Exxon and Shell have drawn fire for their role in fueling climate change, the corporate meat and dairy industries have largely avoided scrutiny. If we are to avert environmental disaster, this double standard must change. To bring attention to this issue, the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, GRAIN, and Germany’s Heinrich Böll Foundation recently teamed up to study the “supersized climate footprint” of the global livestock trade. What we found was shocking. In 2016, the world’s 20 largest meat and dairy companies emitted more greenhouse gases than Germany. If these companies were a country, they would be the world’s seventh-largest emitter.
Obviously, mitigating climate change will require tackling emissions from the meat and dairy industries. The question is how. Around the world, meat and dairy companies have become politically powerful entities. The recent corruption-related arrests of two JBS executives, the brothers Joesley and Wesley Batista, pulled back the curtain on corruption in the industry. JBS is the largest meat processor in the world, earning nearly $20 billion more in 2016 than its closest rival, Tyson Foods. But JBS achieved its position with assistance from the Brazilian Development Bank, and apparently, by bribing more than 1,800 politicians. It is no wonder, then, that greenhouse-gas emissions are low on the company’s list of priorities. In 2016, JBS, Tyson and Cargill emitted 484 million tons of climate-changing gases, 46 million tons more than BP, the British energy giant.
Meat and dairy industry insiders push hard for pro-production policies, often at the expense of environmental and public health. From seeking to block reductions in nitrous oxide and methane emissions, to circumventing obligations to reduce air, water, and soil pollution, they have managed to increase profits while dumping pollution costs on the public. One consequence, among many, is that livestock production now accounts for nearly 15% of global greenhouse-gas emissions. That is a bigger share than the world’s entire transportation sector. Moreover, much of the growth in meat and dairy production in the coming decades is expected to come from the industrial model. If this growth conforms to the pace projected by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, our ability to keep temperatures from rising to apocalyptic levels will be severely undermined.
Wait a minute, that’s what I said.
Pope Francis has likened the journey of Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem to the migrations of millions of people today who are forced to leave homelands for a better life, or just for survival, and he expressed hope that no one will feel “there is no room for them on this Earth”. Francis celebrated Christmas vigil mass on Sunday in the splendour of St Peter’s Basilica, telling the faithful that the “simple story” of Jesus’ birth in a manger changed “our history forever. Everything that night became a source of hope.” Noting that Mary and Joseph arrived in a land “where there was no place for them”, Francis drew parallels with today. “So many other footsteps are hidden in the footsteps of Joseph and Mary,” he said in his homily.
“We see the tracks of entire families forced to set out in our own day. We see the tracks of millions of persons who do not choose to go away but, driven from their land, leave behind their dear ones.” Francis has made concern for economic migrants, war refugees and others on society’s margins a central plank of his papacy. He said God is present in “the unwelcomed visitor, often unrecognisable, who walks through our cities and our neighbourhoods, who travels on our buses and knocks on our door”. That perception of God should develop into “new forms of relationship, in which none have to feel that there is no room for them on this Earth”, he said.
Tsipras has lost control of the issue.
Pressure on the leftist-led government from the migration crisis is growing as it is faced with mounting tension at island hot spots, criticism from inside the ruling SYRIZA party, and uncertainty over calls to readjust the EU deal with Turkey. Under the deal signed by the EU and Ankara in March 2016, all new irregular migrants crossing from Turkey to Greek islands are supposed to be returned to Turkey. However, during a meeting with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker and Bulgarian Prime Minister Boiko Borisov earlier in December, Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras requested that Turkey also accept migrant returns from the mainland in order to ease overcrowding at camps.
Sources said Merkel avoided endorsing the Greek proposal which essentially violates the core of the EU-Turkey deal. Rather, the same sources said, Merkel stressed the need to bolster the presence of EU border agency Frontex along the Greek-Bulgarian border to safeguard the so-called Balkan route. Although officials in Athens have suggested that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan acceded to the request during his recent visit to Greece, the issue has been deferred to ministerial-level deliberations. Migration Minister Yiannis Mouzalas visited Ankara on Thursday for talks, as Foreign Minister Nikos Kotzias appeared skeptical whether Erdogan had the political will to go the extra mile.
Meanwhile, as island reception centers are bursting at the seams and pressure from SYRIZA officials is intensifying, the government has already green-lighted transfers of asylum seekers who it claims are minors or disabled. Speaking to party officials, Tsipras vowed that asylum seekers past the first stage of their application process would be relocated to the mainland. Government officials, on the other hand, offered reassurances over a recent proposal by European Council President Donald Tusk for the abolition of mandatory quotas on relocating refugees across the EU. The proposal is set to be discussed at an EU summit in June but administration officials say too many states are opposed to it.