|Perspectives - Quick Takes on 2012|
It's a new year, but familiar challenges crowd the world stage. On the economic front, there are several pressing concerns: the European debt crisis, sluggish growth in the US, and what slowing growth in China might mean for the international system. Transitions from authoritarian regimes continue in the wake of the "Arab Spring" and will drive new realities for years to come. Presidential elections in Russia, France, Mexico and the US will be watched closely because of each country's impact beyond their borders. And fresh worries are mounting over some of the world's more unpredictable regimes, including Iran, North Korea and Venezuela.
Here are my "quick takes" on where we are and what's ahead, along with links to pieces that helped form the basis for some of the opinions that I'd like to share with you.
Europe's Debt Crisis
The European sovereign debt crisis remains a major preoccupation, as underscored by Standard & Poor's recent credit downgrade of France and other European nations. Germany and France have spearheaded the effort to deal with the emergency, which has consistently rattled world financial markets in recent months. But reaching agreement on key issues has proved elusive and there's continued fear that the crisis will worsen and, if it does, what it will mean for Europe's larger economies and for the rest of the world, particularly its closest ally, the U.S.
A recent analysis from the Council on Foreign Relations provides an overview of what's at stake, along with many insightful links worth checking out. Also worth exploring is this Deep Dive on the European crisis, a special joint project by Foreign Policy and The Brookings Institution. And this recent piece from Forbes details some of the complexities involved in managing the crisis.
The US Economy and the Presidential Election
Economic risks cloud the horizon and many Americans feel insecure about their economic prospects. Scott Winship, a fellow at the Brookings Institution, has written a thoughtful piece about the realities we face. It's lengthy and I don't necessarily agree with all of his points, but his argument is thought provoking and certainly warrants attention.
One thing for certain is that the economy will be a central issue in the presidential election. There've been some recent glimmers of hope that the economy is at last improving. Unemployment fell to 8.5 percent in December, the lowest rate in three years, and the economy showed a net gain of more than 100,000 jobs for the sixth consecutive month. Consumer confidence is up and factories have increased production. But even the best-case scenarios for the year ahead predict only modest growth and little improvement in the unemployment rate.
I recently received John Mauldin's newsletter "Outside the Box" in which he recommends the "Quarterly Review and Outlook" from Hoisington Investment Management. I've always found Mr. Maudlin's insights and analyses to be among the very best, and when he says something's worth reading, it is.
I've also read several articles recently that delve into how the economy is likely to affect the outcome of the US presidential election. Links to a couple of good overviews on the topic can be found here, for a piece by Robert Samuelson of the Washington Post, or here, for reporting by The Christian Science Monitor.
In spite of a generally well received State of the Union Address, President Obama is not currently poised to enjoy the usual advantages of an incumbent in an election year. His low approval ratings, the state of the economy and overall concern about the direction of the country underscore his potential vulnerability. On the Republican side, with three contests so far yielding three different winners, the race has defied expectations. Mitt Romney remains a "strong, though no longer prohibitive, favorite," as Larry Sabato observed in his South Carolina wrap-up. Whoever the Republican nominee, (and we may not know until March, or even later) the challenge will be to unite the party behind his candidacy, as this recent piece from CBS News emphasizes.
Though the political field is close to being set, there is a lot of volatility in the electorate, reflecting, primarily, Americans' uncertainties about the economy. But this much is clear: we're in for a heck of a ride all the way to November.
More Transitions Ahead
THE story of 2011 was undoubtedly the wave of popular protests that rocked the Middle East. As the evolution of these movements and their aftereffects continue in 2012, the world's major powers, its rising powers, and virtually everyone else will be closely tracking their development-and potential spread. The Council on Foreign Relations provides this Issue Guide that makes available a range of background materials and expert analyses on the central issues facing the Arab world one year after the civilian uprisings began.
Though Iran was not directly impacted by the popular unrest that swept the region, analysts view the Arab Spring as profoundly influencing the country's recent behavior. Tensions between Iran and the West are escalating over the country's nuclear program and its threats to close the strategic Strait of Hormuz in response to toughening economic sanctions. President Ahmadinejad's recent Latin American tour (visits to Cuba, Ecuador, Nicaragua and Venezuela) was part and parcel of this brinkmanship, as this article from the Council of the Americas makes clear.
The Middle East is not the only region where economic, social, and political tensions are heightening. George Friedman, who heads the global intelligence firm Stratfor, writes in his Annual Forecast that we are in the midst of a "generational shift in the way the world works." I always find Dr. Friedman's analyses to be thought-provoking and would recommend this one as particularly worthwhile.
Some evidence of this shift might be the rising stature of Latin America on the international stage. In her blog LatinIntelligence, Shannon O'Neill (of Columbia University and the Council on Foreign Relations) discusses this development, noting that Mexico will host the annual G20 summit in June and Brazil will host the 2012 Earth Summit, or Rio +20.
The region will also see two important presidential elections this year. It will be against a background of admirable macroeconomic stability that Mexicans go to the polls to elect a new president in July. Security challenges and the impact of the drug cartels remain concerns. But three vigorous parties will contest the election and the country will continue on a democratic course. For a scholarly view of Mexico, you can find the Wilson Institute's Andrew Selee's perspective here.
Venezuela, in contrast, is experiencing stagnation, high inflation and shortages on the economic front while rising crime and corruption exact a toll on society. Hugo Chávez, seeking to remain in the office he's held since 1999, faces challenges of health as well as waning popularity. In his third presidential election bid he faces a resurgent opposition that may unite behind a single candidate. For analysis from J.P. Morgan, click here. Whether Chávez' health will allow him to campaign vigorously is at this point an unknown, though his 9-hour speech last week underscores the strength of his will, if nothing else. Also unknown, as The Economist points out in this 2012 survey of the region, is if he is defeated-assuming the vote count is clean-will he go quietly
There's a great deal of flux in the world right now and that leads to uncertainty on many fronts. Yet, those of you who know me and have read my newsletters will appreciate the fact that I remain very bullish on Latin America, particularly Mexico.
I hope, as you look south to these markets, you'll feel free to contact me at my office with White & Case in Mexico City. If you find yourself in the DF, it would be great to see you.
And, on a lighter note, for the past decade, I've enjoyed living and working here in Mexico. If you're planning business or personal travel this way, I'd recommend "Three Perfect Days" in Mexico City, a great guide to help get a real sense of all this extraordinary place has to offer.
Jan. 26, 2012