Phnom Penh, Cambodia – US President Joe Biden’s arrival in Seoul on Friday marks not only the start of his first visit while in office to South Korea and Japan, but the beginnings of an economic initiative aimed at deepening United States ties across Asia.
Though many of the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework’s details have yet to be finalised, the Biden administration has made one point clear – the plan is not a traditional trade agreement that will lower tariffs or otherwise open access to US markets, but a partnership for promoting common economic standards.
While many of China’s regional neighbours share Washington’s concerns about the burgeoning superpower’s ambitions, the IPEF’s lack of clear trade provisions could make it an uninspiring prospect for potential members, especially in Southeast Asia.
“You can sense the frustration for developing, trade-reliant countries,” Calvin Cheng, a senior analyst of economics, trade and regional integration at Malaysia’s Institute of Strategic and International Studies, told Al Jazeera. “There’s always talk about engaging Asia, the idea, but what exactly is it – and what are the incentives for developing countries to take up standards that are being imposed on them by richer, developed countries?”
Since announcing the IPEF in October, the Biden administration has characterised the initiative as a way of promoting common standards under the pillars of fair and resilient trade; supply chain resilience; infrastructure, clean energy, and decarbonisation; and tax and anti-corruption.
A fact sheet distributed by the White House in February describes the framework as part of a wider push to “restore American leadership” in the region by engaging with partners there to “meet urgent challenges, from competition with China to climate change to the pandemic”.
Nevertheless, Biden’s decision not to pursue a major trade deal harks back to the protectionist leanings of former US President Donald Trump, and, in particular, his administration’s abrupt pullout from the landmark Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP).
Trump, whose antipathy towards traditional alliances sparked anxiety in many Asian countries, scuttled that agreement in 2017 despite sharing the deal’s aims of countering expanding Chinese economic influence.
But even without clear benefits to boost trade, Asian leaders have, for the most part, reacted favourably to the prospect of renewed US engagement in Asia.
Longtime allies Japan and South Korea are expected to be among the first to engage with the IPEF, as are Singapore and the Philippines.
From Vietnam, Prime Minister Pham Minh Chinh said at the recent US-ASEAN summit that Vietnam “would like to work with the US to realise the four pillars of that initiative”.
However, he added that Vietnam needed more time to study the framework, as well as to see more “concrete details”.
Thailand has also demonstrated interest, while leaders in Indonesia and India have yet to take a clear position.
Huynh Tam Sang, a lecturer of international relations at the University of Social Sciences and Humanities in Ho Chi Minh City, said Hanoi wished to avoid antagonising either the US or China – a common position for Southeast Asian states attempting to stay clear of great power struggles while avoiding being dominated by their northern neighbour.
“The Vietnamese government has been rather prudent not to showcase any intentions to join the IPEF or not, though I think there are many benefits to joining,” Sang told Al Jazeera, listing clean energy and reliable supply chains as common interests.
Sang said, however, that other standards, such as those related to taxes and anti-corruption efforts, could be a step too far for the Vietnamese government.
“I think Vietnam could be really reluctant to join that pillar for fear of the US intervening in Vietnam’s domestic politics,” he said.
“The anti-corruption campaign is definitely going on, but many Vietnamese are very sceptical of this view of cooperation, especially with the US when the Biden administration has prioritised democratic values when fostering ties with regional countries.”
Such concerns could undercut the renewed US engagement, particularly when China has made a point to engage in trade without such values-based strings attached. The Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), a free trade deal that went into effect at the start of this year, is a testament to that hands-off approach to some observers.
China played a key role in negotiating the RCEP, which also includes Japan and South Korea, plus all 10 of the ASEAN member-states – Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam – as well as Australia and New Zealand.
In total, the RCEP covers some 2.3 billion people and an estimated 30 percent of the global economy. The partnership is widely seen as being more focused on promoting trade by removing tariffs and red tape, with a less holistic approach to raising economic standards than the TPP or its successor, the reassembled Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP).
Cheng described the CPTPP, of which the US is not a member, as the “gold standard” for trade deals in the region, noting its commitment to expanded trade access as well as provisions to safeguard labour rights, promote transparency and address environmental issues and climate change.
“So the IPEF is pretty much that, but taking out the trade deal aspect of it, leaving just the standards,” he said.
It remains to be seen how far the standards-only method will go in terms of winning acceptance across Asia.
Already, Malaysian Prime Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob and international trade minister Azmin Ali have said the US should take a more comprehensive approach.
Ali described the framework proposal in an interview with Reuters as a “good beginning for us to engage on various issues” and said Malaysia would decide which IPEF pillars it would consider joining. At the same time, he made clear the IPEF was not a replacement for the more-comprehensive TPP.
Some of the most straightforward public criticism of the new framework on that front has come from prominent former ministers in Japan, one of the region’s most steadfast US allies.
Earlier this month, former foreign minister Taro Kono and former justice minister Takashi Yamashita spoke at an event in Washington of the new framework’s lack of hard commitments, an aspect they found glaring in the context of the abrupt collapse of the TPP. In their comments, the two maintained the IPEF would only serve to undermine the CPTPP.
“Now the Biden administration is talking about the Indo-Pacific Economic whatever, I would say forget about it,” Kono said.
Hiroaki Watanabe, a professor of international relations at Ritsumeikan University in Kyoto, said the US withdrawal from the TPP had undermined Japanese perceptions of the IPEF’s stability. Though Biden may promote his framework while in power, Watanabe said, there was no guarantee the next president would.
“Right now, it’s the Biden administration, but we don’t know what will come next – it could even be Trump again,” Watanabe told Al Jazeera.
“From a non-American perspective, it’s really difficult to believe what America is saying when it says it wants to commit itself to these plans,” Watanabe added. “There are many challenges to the logistics of this, and then the US may just throw away the kind of commitment as measured by the IPEF in the future. Practically, it’s not meaningless, but it’s not significant either.”
Britain's Battered Economy Is Sliding Toward a Breaking Point – BNN
(Bloomberg) — Britain under Prime Minister Boris Johnson is running into the biggest headwinds it’s faced since the 1970s, heaping pain on an economy still reeling from Brexit and the pandemic.
After suffering from unprecedented shocks in recent years, the nation is succumbing to more intractable problems marked by plodding growth, surging inflation and a series of damaging strikes.
The result is a plunge in consumer confidence that analysts warn may lead to a recession. Railway workers walked off the job in anger that their living standards are slipping, and teachers, doctors and barristers may be next.
The malaise is a far cry from the boom and “cool Britannia” reputation that Tony Blair’s government enjoyed through the early part of this century.
The headline figures make grim reading. The economy is on track to shrink in the second quarter, raising the possibility that the UK is already in a recession. Even when the outlook appeared brighter, officials estimated that growth would settle at a below-par 1.8% a year, with no end in sight to the feeble productivity that has blighted the country for over a decade.
While growth is on track to lag most major economies next year, inflation is also on the rise. Consumer prices surged by 9.1% in the year through May, the most for 40 years.
The Bank of England expects inflation to accelerate again when energy bills are allowed to rise in the autumn, reaching more than 11%.
It’s a blow for the UK, which led the world in growth after the pandemic, and recalls the dark days of the 1960s and 1970s when commentators and politicians identified Britain as the “sick man of Europe” because of its performance.
Those figures overshadow deeper structural problems hobbling the UK. Chief among them is productivity growth, which slowed to a crawl after the financial crisis in 2008 and 2009. Only Italy put in a worse performance.
How much a worker can produce is important because it drives the long-term potential of the economy. Low productivity limits the pace at which output can grow and depresses wage packets. Real wages took years to recover to their 2007 levels after the financial crash.
An hour of work in the UK generates around $60, according to the OECD. The figure is over $70 in the US and about $67 in France and Germany. Economists and policy makers debate the causes of the malaise but say that fixing it is crucial if Britain is to get out of the slow lane.
The gaps in performance within the UK are equally stark, with London consistently outpeforming other regions, in part due to the concentration of financial services in the capital city. Johnson came to to power in 2019 on a pledge to “level up” poorer parts of the country, but there are few signs that the policy is working.
One explanation for the productivity gap is a lack of investment. British companies spend less on things like plant, machinery and technology than those in most other major economies.
Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak says the tax system is one of the problems and is working on a way to improve allowances companies can claim for making investments.
Brexit uncertainty also seems to have unsettled executives, with investment flat-lining since the 2016 public vote to leave the European Union. Had they continued to spend as they did before the referendum, investment would be around 60% higher today.
Life outside the EU has also had an impact on trade as importers and exporters contend with higher trade barriers. Despite a sharp fall in the pound since the vote, there is little evidence to suggest the external sector has benefited from increased competitiveness.
Analysis by Bloomberg Economics shows the UK lagged behind the trade performance of other big nations before the pandemic, and has failed to fully share in the global trade rebound since then.
What Bloomberg Economics Says:
“It’s been six years since the UK voted to leave the European Union and more than one since it established a new relationship with its main trading partner. From a 16% devaluation of the pound to an eye-watering slide in trade and investment, Brexit’s impact is plain to see. The data have only reinforced our view that life outside of the EU would leave the UK worse off.”
–Ana Luis Andrade, Bloomberg Economics. Click for the INSIGHT.
The housing market is another constraint. Prices have risen almost without break since 1995, straining affordabilty for first-time buyers. Properties are in short supply in places like London that’s long been the engine driving the national economy.
The expense and difficulty of moving limit labor mobility, depriving companies and public services of key workers, and leave consumers channeling more wealth into the property market than their peers abroad.
Housing is the most visible drain on consumers, but wages are lagging too. Real wages adjusted for inflation are now falling at the fastest pace in 20 years. In 2019, wages in the UK trailed far behind those in the US and Canada.
Workers are rebelling, with rail unions embroiled in the biggest work stoppage since 1989 and teachers, doctors and barristers are threatening to walk off the job.
The strife recalls the 1970s, when Harold Wilson’s Labour government put industry on a three-day week because of an energy crisis and strikes by coal miners.
©2022 Bloomberg L.P.
Key Indicator Shows China’s Economy Set For Further Slump – Forbes
Just when you thought China might be back on track, a key economic indicators suggests the opposite is coming down the pike.
Recently the price of iron-ore slumped, indicating that demand for this key ingredient in steel making is slipping as well. Recently one metric ton of the or would fetch $116, down more than 25% from almost $160 in early March, according to data from TradingEconomics. That’s quite a tumble.
As the largest maker of steel, China is also by far the largest buyer of iron-ore, and so when prices are slipping it strongly suggests that China isn’t buying as much iron-ore as it normally does. In 2020, the communist country produced 57% of all steel or around 1.1 billion tons, according to World Steel Association data. No other country comes close.
Typically when China’s steel production falls then its economy stalls. We saw this back in mid 2015 when its output of the metal dropped for the first time in more than three decades. The resulting fallout came in August when the Chinese stock market took a tumble and shook other securities markets around the globe.
The question now is what will happen next in China. Likely there’ll be further softness in the economy. If the the price of iron-ore remains soft or even falls further then its a clear sign that China isn’t planning on its usual output of steel.
That matters because steel has long been the lifeblood of that country’s economy. Teh huge real estate construction that has happened over the past two decades required steel for building skyscrapers, factories and dwellings across the massive Asian country. Steel has also been needed as feedstock for the country’s huge manufacturing industry which produces key components for automobiles across the globe.
What’s shocking here is that while China is in midst of undoing some of its recent COVID-19-related lockdowns that brought vast swathes of the communist country to an economic standstill. If those locked-down cities were now getting back to work, then why aren’t we seeing signs of an industrial resurgence?
So far, that’s not clear. If things were getting back to any form of normal then we should see demand for iron-ore creep up and along with it the prices of the mineral should rally. Investors in Chinese stocks or even those listed in Hong Kong should remain cautious until we see evidence of a real recovery.
China's Economy Improves in June From Lockdown-Induced Slump – BNN
(Bloomberg) — China’s economy showed some improvement in June as Covid restrictions were gradually eased, although the recovery remains muted.
That’s the outlook based on Bloomberg’s aggregate index of eight early indicators for this month. The overall gauge returned to the neutral level after deteriorating for two straight months.
Economic activity picked up in June after financial hub Shanghai lifted its lockdown, allowing businesses to restart and most residents to leave their homes. That can be seen in a rebound in small business confidence, which started growing again after contracting for two months.
A survey of more than 500 smaller firms showed that “demand and production recovered strongly among manufacturing,” and export-oriented smaller firms outperformed, according to Hunter Chan and Ding Shuang, economists at Standard Chartered Plc.
However, “the manufacturing recovery was more significant than services,” they said. Contact-intensive industries such as retail and catering continued to be a drag, while real estate, transport and information technology reported an acceleration in activity and construction jumped.
Rising activity isn’t translating into higher demand for some building materials yet. More steel plants have been idled and inventory levels at major Chinese steel mills have climbed 10.7% in mid-June from earlier in the month, and are about 82% higher than the start of this year. Stocks of steel rebar, which is used in construction, rose slightly in June.
Beijing has pledged to boost policy measures to support growth, with President Xi Jinping saying last week China would strive to meet its goals for the year. Stocks were up for a fourth week on optimism of stimulus and as lockdowns ended, with foreign inflows rising.
However, the housing sector continued to be a drag on the economy. Property sales declined in the first three weeks of June in the top four cities in China, even though sales in Shanghai last week had mostly recovered to the level before the lockdown.
An official index that tracks apartment and home sales has now declined for 11 straight months — a record since China created a private property market in the 1990s. The slump likely continued into June, with weekly sales in the top 50 cities contracting from the level last year.
Read more: China’s Property Slump Is a Bigger Threat Than Its Lockdowns
The car market is making a gradually recovery after the lockdowns. Based on sales in the first two weeks of this month, more cars were sold in June than the same period in 2021. Sales fell in the past three months as Covid restrictions caused car plants and dealerships to shut and also prevented people across the country from leaving their homes to go shopping.
Total retail sales also dropped in that period, with the economies of Beijing and Shanghai the worst hit.
The recovery in the services industry will likely take longer than for goods. Consumers are still unwilling or unable to go out as much as before since China’s strict Covid Zero policy means they face being quarantined for weeks if they’ve been in the same location as a positive case.
The restrictions and factory closures of the past months have also curbed the incomes of many businesses and workers, even if they weren’t locked down.
Read more: Even Without a Lockdown, Beijing’s Economy Struggled in May
The export sector likely supported demand in June, as companies ramped up shipments that had been delayed and ports worked to clear the backlog of containers. Although South Korean exports in the first 20 days of the month fell for the first time in more than a year, that was largely because of fewer working days this year than last.
The daily average value of Korean shipments rose 11% in the period from the same time in 2021. Exports have been a strong driver for China’s economy and the strong growth continues to defy predictions that they would slow markedly or start to fall.
Read more: Metals Haven’t Crashed This Hard Since the Great Recession
The outlook for those shipments in the rest of this year depends on whether rising concerns about a global recession are correct or not. The price of copper had its steepest weekly loss in a year last week as global recession fears mounted, damping the outlook for demand and battering commodities from oil to metals. The metal used in wires and cables extended its weekly loss to 7%, with prices hitting the lowest level since February last year following disappointing US business activity data that included an abrupt cooling in manufacturing.
Bloomberg Economics generates the overall activity reading by aggregating a three-month weighted average of the monthly changes of eight indicators, which are based on business surveys or market prices.
- Major onshore stocks – CSI 300 index of A-share stocks listed in Shanghai or Shenzhen (through market close on 25th of the month).
- Total floor area of home sales in China’s four Tier-1 cities (Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou and Shenzhen).
- Inventory of steel rebar, used for reinforcing in construction (in 10,000 metric tons). Falling inventory is a sign of rising demand.
- Copper prices – Spot price for refined copper in Shanghai market (yuan/metric ton).
- South Korean exports – South Korean exports in the first 20 days of each month (year-on-year change).
- Factory inflation tracker – Bloomberg Economics-created tracker for Chinese producer prices (year-on-year change).
- Small and medium-sized business confidence – Survey of companies conducted by Standard Chartered.
- Passenger car sales – Monthly result calculated from the weekly average sales data released by the China Passenger Car Association.
©2022 Bloomberg L.P.
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