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发表于15:53 | 阅读全文 | 评论 6 | 编辑 | 分享 0美国国债:收益率2009-06-03Buttonwood

Not so risk-free
May 28th 2009
From The Economist print edition

There are questions about the long-term appeal of American Treasury bonds

LIKE London buses, big events in America’s Treasury market all seem to come at once. In a week when the Treasury auctioned more than $100 billion of notes and bonds, ten-year Treasury yields surged to their highest level in six months, despite a buy-back offer by the Federal Reserve. That will raise the cost of finance for companies and homeowners.


All this activity was inevitable once the authorities decided to combine a huge fiscal deficit with quantitative easing (expansion of the money supply). It has been accompanied by a sharp rise in the gap between short and long rates. The ten-year yield has risen from 2.08% on December 18th to 3.70% on May 27th.


Some of that rise in yields is undoubtedly due to investors switching back into shares on hopes that the global recession might end next year. But there have also been concerns about America’s long-term financial health. On May 27th Moody’s said it had no plans to reduce America’s coveted AAA debt rating. But on the same day John Taylor, a professor at Stanford University and the creator of the Taylor rule on monetary policy, wrote in the Financial Times that the American government “is now the most serious source of systemic risk.”

收益率上涨的从某种程度上说是令人猝不及防的,因为投资者在寄希望于全球大萧条会在明年年底结束的基础上将投资转回了股票市场。但是同样也存在着对美国长期财政健康度的担心。5月27号,Moody’s称他们还没有将美国的AAA级评级下调的计划。在同一天,身为斯坦福大学教授同时也是货币政策上泰勒定律创建者的John Taylor在财经周刊上撰文称:美国政府现在处在最严重的系统风险的萌芽阶段。

On the surface, the worries seem odd. Is America likely to default on its obligations? No. To put it another way, if the world ever got into a state where America did prove unable to pay, lots of other assets would have defaulted first. Even though the American budget position is deteriorating rapidly, it is still a lot healthier than that of either Italy or Japan. Both countries have been carrying debt/GDP ratios of more than 100% for years without suffering a meltdown.

从表面来看,这种担心让人觉得可笑。美国有可能会不履行自己的责任吗?不会的,从另外一个角度看,如果世界陷入了一种连美国都被证实如法偿还债务的境地的话,会有大量的资产在此之前就首先被拖欠了。尽管美国的债务情况在逐渐恶化,但他仍然要比意大利或是日本的债务状况健康的多。几年来,意大利和日本的债务 – GDP比率都维持在大于100%的水平却没有彻底垮台。

Government bonds are generally regarded as risk-free in their home countries, because the government has the power to tax and to print money. Since America is the world’s largest economy, has the most liquid financial markets and operates the world’s premier reserve currency, the Treasury bond has been seen as the global risk-free asset.


But that status implicitly rests on the belief that the American government will not exploit its advantages to the full. The same fiscal and monetary policies that seem appealing as a way of addressing domestic economic weakness also reduce the appeal of its debt to foreign investors.


America does not formally need to default to penalise its creditors; it can simply let its currency decline. Short-dated Treasury bonds (those with a maturity of one-to-three years) have returned a healthy 18% in dollar terms over the last three years. But when translated into Chinese yuan that return dwindles to just 0.3%.


History is full of examples of sovereign nations failing to pay their overseas creditors in full. When push comes to shove, governments are unwilling to impose the required level of austerity on their voters. This happened in the 1920s Weimar Republic, which opted for hyperinflation rather than paying the reparations bill, and in 1930s Britain, which abandoned the gold standard in the face of the Depression. (Note the results of the recent referendums in California, where voters rejected all budget-balancing proposals.)


In countries that are frequent offenders, including those in Latin America, foreign creditors have in the past demanded that government debt be denominated in a foreign currency. America has been able to borrow in dollars. However, for foreign investors, that means Treasury bonds are not risk-free at all.


Even domestic investors might reflect on the potential for inflation to erode the real value of their holdings. Inflation-adjusted, the capital value of Treasury bonds fell by more than five-sixths between 1962 and 1981.

Inflation-linked government bonds ought thus to be a more appropriate risk-free asset than conventional bonds. Foreign investors might calculate that, over the long run, a dollar decline would be matched by higher inflation, for which they would be compensated. However, the index-linked market is a lot less liquid than that for conventional debt. And cynics might wonder whether governments will really meet their obligations when faced with runaway inflation, rather than finding a way to “redefine” the statistics.


So what might replace Treasury bonds as the global risk-free asset? Some would opt for gold, although it pays no yield and its nominal value is highly volatile. China has no asset that seems appropriate. What about German government bonds? Fiscal policy is relatively prudent and the European Central Bank seems far more committed to fighting inflation and maintaining a stable currency than other monetary authorities.


发表于13:17 | 阅读全文 | 评论 0 | 编辑 | 分享 0奥巴马:午夜凶铃2009-06-03Lexington

Tough enough?
May 28th 2009
From The Economist print edition

Barack Obama must pass the telephone test

Illustration by KAL

FIFTEEN months ago, at the height of the battle for the Democratic nomination, Hillary Clinton unleashed her most powerful weapon, a telephone call. “It’s 3am and your children are safe and asleep,” a voice intoned. “But there’s a phone in the White House and it’s ringing. Something is happening in the world.” Barack Obama might be able to give a pretty speech. But was he “tested and ready to lead in a dangerous world”?

十五个月之前,民主党提名的斗争进行到白热化时,希拉里?克林顿使出了她的杀手锏--“午夜凶铃”。“凌晨三点钟,当你的孩子们都安全地熟睡时”一个声音吟诵道“但是白宫里面的一个电话机正在铃声大作。世界上又出事了。”奥巴马也许又要做一个漂亮的演说。但是他是否“经过考验并准备好来引领一个危险的世界 ”?

The telephone has been ringing off the hook of late, as hostile governments tweak the new administration, to see what it is made of, and Republican politicians raise doubts about Mr Obama’s national-defence credentials. On Memorial Day North Korea tested a nuclear bomb, following up with a few ballistic missiles for good measure. (The North Koreans were kind enough to give the administration a heads-up, in case the Mr Magoos of the intelligence establishment missed the fireworks.) On May 21st Dick Cheney delivered a televised speech accusing the administration of unravelling “some of the very policies that have kept our people safe since 9/11”. The day before that, the Iranians tested long-range missiles.


All this has put Mrs Clinton’s question from last February back at the heart of American politics. Conservative websites are buzzing with comparisons between Mr Obama and Jimmy Carter. “Jimmy Carter took a little over three years to create the image of the US as a confused and soft power,” argues Bahukutumbi Raman on Forbes.com. “Obama is bidding fair to create that image even in his first year in office.” Some Democrats are also whispering that they are worried about the comparison. Mr Carter’s weakness on foreign policy locked the Democratic Party out of the White House for over a decade. Mr Obama needs to prove that he is capable of doing the “daddy things” (defending the country) as well as the “mommy things” (appointing empathetic Supreme Court justices).


How much truth is there that Mr Obama is flunking the telephone test? The problem with North Korea is that it is not a fair test of anything. It is easy to mock the finger-wagging from Susan Rice, Mr Obama’s ambassador to the United Nations, about violations of international law, as the perfect example of pusillanimous liberalism.


But where would “toughness” get America? It would be hard to make the Hermit Kingdom any more isolated than it already is. Cutting off American aid would produce mass starvation without depriving the ruling elite of its luxuries. It might also risk destabilising a country that has many thousands of artillery pieces and rockets aimed at Seoul. George Bush tried toughness, including branding North Korea a member of the “axis of evil”, before returning to softer policies.


Mr Cheney’s critique of Mr Obama’s naiveté is a much fairer test than Kim Jong Il’s fireworks. But in fact Mr Obama passes the Cheney test fairly well, providing a well-calibrated combination of toughness and strategic innovation. He may have made a lot of noise about talking to America’s enemies. He may have abandoned Bush-era phrases such as “the war on terror”. But he has done little to unwind that war.


He has embraced Mr Bush’s policy of gradually withdrawing combat troops from Iraq. He has increased the number of troops in Afghanistan by around 20,000. He has also stepped up drone attacks on what the American army calls the “Af-Pak” region. Far from abandoning the war on terror, Mr Obama is shifting its central front from Iraq to Afghanistan, and doing what he can to sell it better. That hardly counts as naive doveishness.

他接受了布什逐步从伊拉克撤出野战部队的政策。他已经把在阿富汗的部队增加到20000人。他也派遣无人侦察机去那些被美国军队称之为“Af-Park” 的地区。奥巴马远远不是放弃了反恐战争,而是将战争的中心前线从伊拉克转到阿富汗,并且做那些他能够做的更好的事情。这很难算所“天真的鸽派”

Mr Cheney concentrated his heaviest rhetorical fire on Mr Obama’s opposition to “enhanced interrogation”. But such opposition is hardly a sign of wimpishness. Large numbers of military and former military officers, including David Petraeus, the head of Central Command, and John McCain, a man who was brutally tortured by the North Vietnamese, have come out strongly against practices such as waterboarding, for both practical and moral reasons. The information that such techniques produce is often tainted, and the damage that they do to America’s image around the world is immense.


Living with Mr Kim

Still, it would be wrong to imply that Mr Obama has passed the telephone test with flying colours. The president is paying the price for raising expectations about the power of diplomacy to absurd heights. So far Mr Obama’s charm offensive has produced plenty of warm words but few practical concessions. The Europeans have refused to stimulate their economies as much as America would like, or to send a significant number of troops to Afghanistan. Iran has become even noisier about its desire to go on enriching uranium. Mr Obama is now finding out, as the Bush administration did before him, that some regimes are not susceptible to American policies, hard or soft, wise or dumb.


Mr Obama is also guilty of doing too little to prepare for life with North Korea. The administration has paid remarkably little attention to the country. Mr Obama’s special representative for North Korean policy has retained his job as a university administrator. The top East Asia specialist at the State Department has still not been confirmed, though that has more to do with the Senate’s sloth than with Mr Obama’s negligence.


The administration has pulled off a short-term coup by shifting public attention from North Korea to the Supreme Court, at least for a while. But Mr Kim and his kind will not disappear. Mr Obama needs to fill the gaps in his administration as quickly as possible. He also needs to lower expectations about what can be achieved by replacing one American president with another. The 3am call is still the one that can make or break a presidency.


发表于13:15 | 阅读全文 | 评论 0 | 编辑 | 分享 0深海宝藏:高品位矿石2009-05-27Seabed mining

The unplumbed riches of the deep

From The Economist print edition

And why they’ll wait a while longer before being disturbed

Click to enlarge:

IN TEENSPEAK, if a star such as Madonna or J.Lo is huge, that is a reference not to her size but to her popularity. Similarly, in the world of seabed geology, if a sulphide deposit is massive, it is not necessarily big, but formless and rich in metals. As it happens, seafloor massive sulphides are also huge—at least they were until recently. The collapse in commodity prices last year has diminished them a bit, but many expect their popularity to recover.


The excitement arose because oceanographers had started to find these mineral-rich deposits on the network of submerged mountain ranges that run along the seabed between continents (see map). Such ridges occur where the great plates of the Earth’s crust are spreading apart, and the seafloor holds formations of hot, volcanic rock.


Ever since the dredges of HMS Challenger on her voyage of scientific discovery in the 1870s brought up from the depths “immense numbers of more or less circular nodules”, it has been known that lots of minerals lie on the seabed. However, most of these plum-sized objects—known as manganese nodules, though they contain several other metals—are several kilometres deep. Russia mines some in territorial waters in the Gulf of Finland and several other countries hold exploration licences, but bringing them to the surface has never become economic.


In the 1960s, however, mineral deposits of a different kind were found in the Red Sea, where the spreading seafloor impels the slow separation of Africa and Arabia. A similar stretching takes place wherever two tectonic plates move apart, for example, in the Galápagos Rift off Ecuador, and it was here in 1977 that the first deep-sea hydrothermal vents were discovered. These vents form above cracks in volcanic areas of the ocean floor through which seawater seeps, there to be heated by hot, sometimes molten rock. The water dissolves minerals deep in the Earth’s crust before rising like a geyser from the seafloor at temperatures of up to 400°C.


This mineral-laden fluid, if it is rich in iron and sulphur, emerges to create a plume of black “smoke”, from which, when it meets cold bottom water, the minerals are precipitated. Tall chimneys form, growing up to six metres (20 feet) a year, and around them live strange creatures: giant tubeworms, for instance, with neither mouth nor stomach nor anus, that live on microbes whose energy derives not from the sun but from chemical compounds in the fluids from the crust. Over time the chimneys collapse, creating the deposits of high-grade massive sulphides that so excite the deep-sea miners.


Hydrothermal vents of this kind are found roughly every 100km (54 nautical miles) along the 65,000km or so of mid-ocean ridge. They are also found in volcanic “back-arc” basins behind ocean trenches, where one tectonic plate is sliding beneath another. Many of these basins are in the western Pacific, part of a great “ring of fire” that runs in a horseshoe from New Zealand north through Indonesia, the Philippines and Japan, eastward through the Aleutian islands and then south along the Pacific coast of North and South America, encompassing most of the world’s active and dormant volcanoes.


High-grade stuff, just sitting there

One reason massive-sulphide formations beguile miners is that the metals they contain—notably copper, gold, zinc and silver—are highly concentrated. Another is that they are often big, 200 metres wide and long, tens of metres thick, and may contain several million tonnes of ore. All lie on the surface of the seabed, and many are only 1-2km below water level.


At that depth technology developed for the offshore oil industry can nowadays be employed for mining. In particular, the deep-water pumps and suction pipes developed to bring subsea oil up to the surface can be used in the riser pipes needed to bring minerals (mixed with water) up from a massive-sulphide mine. The oil industry has also developed remotely-operated vehicles to make trenches for seabed pipelines, which can be adapted for cutting ore, even though it may lie much deeper, at, say, 1.5km down. In general the technology in the machines needed to carry out deep-water mining is no longer exotic. Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution has a vehicle that can reach depths of 11km.


Apart from the Russians, the only company mining the seabed at present is De Beers, which gathers diamonds off the coasts of Namibia and South Africa. These gem-quality stones were once carried down the Orange river and have since been swept up the coast, some even borne ashore by tide and wind. But they lie only about 100 metres down, so scooping them up is fairly simple.


Two other companies have shown serious interest in seabed mining. One is Neptune Minerals, an Australian-based company that applied for a mining licence in 2008 for two deposits in about 1,250 metres of water near the Kermadec islands off New Zealand. It has also been granted exploration licences in territorial waters off Papua New Guinea, the Federated States of Micronesia and Vanuatu. But it is nowhere near mining commercially. The other company is Nautilus Minerals, a Canadian firm whose Solwara 1 project in Papua New Guinea’s territorial waters contains 60,000-100,000 tonnes of copper, and gold too. It was due to start production next year, but most operations are now on hold.

另外两家公司对海底矿产显出浓厚的兴趣。在2008年,澳大利亚矿业公司,在离新西兰不远的克马德克群岛群岛附近水下1250米的地方,申请了两处采矿证。在巴布亚新几内亚领海附近的密克罗西亚联邦和瓦努阿图,Neptune已经取得探矿证。但在经济上没有一处值得开采。另一家是加拿大Nautilus 矿业公司,它在巴布亚新几内亚领海的索瓦拉一号工程蕴藏6万到10万吨铜和一些金。预期明年开始投产,但现在大多数运作近乎停滞。


Smoke without fire—just copper, zinc, gold and silver, and creatures unimaginable

The big mining companies have been watching these two ventures with interest. Anglo American, one of the biggest, has an 11% holding in Nautilus (and 45% in De Beers), chiefly, it says, to keep abreast of the possibilities of seabed mining. But Chris Carlon of Anglo is emphatic that the world’s mining industry is not yet eager to tackle the deep ocean. For a start, there is a glut of copper, the metal that probably has to cover the cost of any massive-sulphide mine, leaving gold or some other more valuable metal to provide the profit. Last year the industry produced 360,000 tonnes of copper that turned out to be unwanted. Second, plenty of land-based deposits still remain to be exploited. Anglo American alone produces on land as much copper as the likely output of 100 massive-sulphide mines. As for gold, a tonne of old mobile phones contains about three times as much of it as a tonne of typical ore, even though recovery may be problematic.


Moreover, mining companies much prefer the known difficulties of operating on land to those of operating on the seabed. The risks of working in a place where volcanic activity seems to have stopped but may suddenly resume are uncertain. So indeed are the possible obligations to repair the underwater environment: no legal codes are yet in place for deep-sea mining. That helps to explain why the only places in which companies have dipped more than a toe in the water are in exclusive economic zones, which are not just shallower than many parts of the distant ocean but also within the legal ambit of a national authority.


Seafloor mining beyond countries’ territorial waters is regulated by the International Seabed Authority, set up under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. So far it has issued only eight licences, all for exploration, not production, all for nodules, not massive-sulphide deposits, and all to governmental or quasi-governmental agencies (of China, France, Germany, India, Japan, Russia, South Korea and an east European consortium). No wonder. Commercial miners want both a clear title to their holding and exclusive rights to exploit it. They also have to answer to shareholders.


One day, however, deep-sea mining will surely start to look commercially attractive again. At present China and Russia are the two countries most interested in massive sulphides, followed by India and South Korea. Russia, which has been grubbing around on the seabed for years, knows exactly what it wants and where: it has found four massive-sulphide deposits of over 10m tonnes each in the past four years, all on the Mid-Atlantic Ridge. China is less sure of what it is after, but has become interested in the southern Indian Ocean, as well as the zone in the North Pacific where most of the manganese-nodule licences have been granted. While China makes up its mind, it is blocking all decision-making at the International Seabed Authority, which was due to issue legal, environmental and revenue-sharing regulations about mining in international waters this month but is unlikely to do so. Fortunately, no miners are in a hurry to get started—and massive sulphides, unlike huge rock stars, can wait.


发表于15:03 | 阅读全文 | 评论 2 | 编辑 | 分享 0中国和阿拉伯人在国外囤地2009-05-27Land deals in Africa and Asia

Cornering foreign fields
May 21st 2009
From The Economist print edition

The Chinese and Arabs are buying poor countries’ farms on a colossal scale. Be wary of the results

Illustration by Claudio Munoz

OVER the past two years, as much as 20m hectares of farmland—an area as big as France’s sprawling farmland and worth $20 billion-30 billion—has been quietly handed over to capital-exporting countries such as Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and China. They buy or lease millions of acres, grow staple crops or biofuels on it, and ship them home. The countries doing the selling are some of the world’s poorest and least stable ones: Sudan, Ethiopia, Congo, Pakistan. Usually, when foreigners show up in these places, it is with aid, pity and lectures (or, in one instance, arrest warrants for war crimes). It must make a nice change to find their farms, so often sources of failure and famine, objects of commercial interest instead.


Yet while governments celebrate these investments, the rest of the world might reasonably ask why, if the deals are so good, one of the biggest of them helped cause the overthrow of the government that signed it—the one in Madagascar. Will this new scramble for Africa and Asia really reduce malnutrition, as its supporters say? Or are critics right that these are “land grabs”, “neocolonialist” rip-offs, different from 19th-century colonialism only because they involve different land-grabbers and enrich different local elites?


Protectionism or efficiency? 保护主义还是效率?

It would be graceless to write off in advance foreign investment in some of the most miserable places on earth. The potential benefits of new seeds, drip-feed irrigation and farm credit are vast. Most other things seem to have failed African agriculture—domestic investment, foreign aid, international loans—so it is worth trying something new. Bear in mind, too, that worldwide economic efficiency will rise if (as is happening) Saudi Arabia abandons mind-bogglingly expensive wheat farms in the desert and buys up land in east Africa.


Yet these advantages cannot quell a nagging unease. For a start, most deals are shrouded in mystery—rarely a good sign, especially in countries riddled with corruption. One politician in Cambodia complains that a contract to lease thousands of acres of rice contains fewer details than you would find in a house-rental agreement. Secrecy makes it impossible to know whether farms are really getting more efficient or whether the deals are done mainly to line politicians’ pockets.


Next, most of these deals are government-to-government. This raises awkward questions. Foreign investment helps countries not only by applying new technology but also by reorganising the way people work and by keeping an eye on costs. Few governments do this well, corrupt ones least of all. One of the biggest problems of large-scale commercial farming in poor countries is that well-connected farmers find it more profitable to seek special favours than to farm. These deals may exacerbate that problem. Worse, the impetus for many of them has not been profit-seeking by those who want to turn around failing farms. Rather, it has been alarm at rising food prices and export bans. Protectionism, not efficiency, has been the driving force. It would be better to liberalise food markets and boost trade than encourage further land grabs.


Third, there are serious doubts about whether countries acquiring land are paying the true cost of it. Host governments usually claim the farmland they offer is vacant, state-owned property. That is often untrue. It may well support smallholders who have farmed it for generations. They have no title, only customary rights. Deals that push them off their land or override customary rights cannot be justified. International bodies, such as the African Union, are drawing up codes of conduct to limit such abuses. They are sorely needed.


Even then, land deals will never help the poor as much as freer trade and stronger property rights. But if the deals eventually raised yields, spread technology and created jobs, that would at least be some cause for celebration. At the moment too many seem designed to benefit local elites more than local farmers; they use foreign labour and export most of their production, harming local food markets. Until they show otherwise, a dose of scepticism should be mixed with the premature hopes that the land deals have engendered.


发表于15:00 | 阅读全文 | 评论 0 | 编辑 | 分享 0

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