EN United States Institutional
Macroeconomic & Geopolitical

Coming Apart at the Seams?

7 April 2019 - 3 min read

If investors welcome rules and predictability, there has actually been some good news from the United States amid the recent flurry of headlines. But before you get too excited, the rest of the world political order still seems to be coming apart at the seams.

“If the wheels turned smoothly for once in Washington, there were unmistakable signs elsewhere that the postwar global order continues to unravel under fresh political and economic currents.”

If investors welcome rules and predictability, there has actually been some good news from the United States amid the recent flurry of headlines. But before you get too excited, the rest of the world political order still seems to be coming apart at the seams.

In America, at least, markets barely reacted when Special Counsel Robert Mueller released the principal findings of his investigation into links between the Russian government and the Trump campaign. This was in part because investors are not expecting significant economic policy from Washington before the next election—no highly anticipated tax cut or infrastructure program that would have been derailed by impeachment proceedings.

Regardless of your political views, however, the only news more welcome than the fact that the U.S. president is not a Russian agent is that the system worked. A prosecutor of high integrity conducted a thorough investigation without apparent political interference and concluded that charges were unwarranted.

Questions remain about the campaign’s contacts with Russia and the president’s puzzling soft spot for Vladimir Putin. But America’s polarized political circles will likely turn their attention to policy battles over health care and gun laws.

If the wheels turned smoothly for once in Washington, there were unmistakable signs elsewhere that the postwar global order continues to unravel under fresh political and economic strains.

Even as the United States dispatched a senior delegation to Beijing for the next skirmish in its trade war, Chinese President Xi Jinping conducted a triumphal tour through Europe that exposed the widening rift between trans-Atlantic allies. If the U.S. has designated China as its chief geopolitical rival, it appears to be going into battle without any help.

“While the United States increasingly sees China as a geostrategic rival, Europeans tend to see a bucket of money.”

Xi chalked up a major political win with Italy’s participation in the Belt and Road Initiative, scoring the participationof a G-7 country in China’s effort to stretch its economic and political footprint into Europe and Africa. China will beinvesting in key Italian ports—Trieste, Genoa and Palermo, following similar investments in Piraeus, Greece.

Then the leader of the world’s second-largest country and second-largest economy stopped in Monaco—yes,

Monaco!—to draw attention to the tiny principality’s agreement to build a 5G telecommunications network with China’s controversial Huawei. The United States has encouraged Europe to avoid Huawei based on security concerns, clearly with mixed success.

From there, it was on to Paris, where Xi was greeted by pomp and parades and a meeting with President Emmanuel Macron, Germany’s Angela Merkel and the European Commission’s Jean-Claude Juncker. There were concerns uttered about economic rivalry and human rights records, but there were also large contracts signed, including for €30 billion in Airbus planes.

Many Europeans share America’s concerns around China’s limited market access, weak intellectual property protection and state subsidies to industrial champions. Some are also wary of Huawei. Yet, while the United States increasingly sees China as a geostrategic rival, Europeans tend to see a bucket of mone—mainly a bilateral trade and investment partner. On top of recent rifts with Europe over Iran, climate policy and NATO, watch for differences on China to grow more difficult.

Elsewhere in the global political order, America’s chief postwar ally and closest friend appeared headed for an extended period of geopolitical irrelevance. The Brexit drama sailed merrily past its original March 28 deadline with little sense of what might happen before April 12, when Europe has asked for a “final” decision. The possibility of a chaotic “hard” departure remained low, but it seemed increasingly clear to investors that uncertainty will linger for months—or years. Even a magical approval of Prime Minister Theresa May’s version of Brexit involves an uncertain future and extended transition period around tariffs, regulations and the movement of people and goods. Stockpiling against the possibility of a chaotic hard Brexit will continue; investment plans will be postponed indefinitely.

The world’s geopolitical plates shifted elsewhere, too.

Russian military aircraft were dispatched to bolster Nicolas Maduro’s teetering regime in Venezuela, sounding some echoes of 1962 and the Cuban Missile Crisis. Tensions continue to mount between India and Pakistan following Delhi’s test of an anti-satellite missile. Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu cut short his trip to Washington after the firing of a rocket from Gaza.

The immediacy of shocking political headlines tend to disrupt markets only briefly until investors realize their discounted cash flows are still more or less intact. What is harder to gauge over time, however, are the gradual but unmistakable shifts in the global political order.

Beneath the headlines, there are deeper questions to explore: What are the consequences of a Europe more aligned with China than the United States? Can London remain a global financial center amid extended political disruption? Will the volatile conflicts that appear contained suddenly spread? Perhaps most important for the world’s reserve currency, will America’s political institutions continue to work as the country heads into an electoral season of unprecedented polarization?

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