Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Coming Soon: A Post-American World

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I was watching the CBS Early Show Sunday when one of our favorites, Fareed Zakaria, popped across the screen - hence I was forced to pay attention. I cannot bring the video over and in fact I don't see any video on the CBS website but I'll bring over some of the text. We highlighted Zakaria back in May [May 4: Weekend Reading] and if you are into the "big picture" there is a video and a series of links on his book - basically it argues not so much on the demise of America as much as the "rise of the rest". While, in current trajectory and with total lack of leadership and urgency I am a lot more worried about America than he is, I can see an ultimate end game where the rise of the rest actually helps buoy America instead of the vice versa condition we've had for the past 50+ years.

When we worry about the U.S. it's not so much the "End of Days" scenario but simply a parallel to Roman Empire, or British Empire - they are still around; but the prominence and wide swath of power/control diminished. I envision the same here - and no it won't happen in 1 year, or 2 years but it's BEEN happening slowly but surely - I call it erosion. Bluedog's blog reports we have troops in 147 countries and 10 territories. Why? There were not even that many countries in the Olympics. We're doing this with what money? The US spends more on military then the next 45 countries combined. Etc. Staggering stuff that we never "hear" about. But "someone(s)" are making a ton of money off this.

Just from my readings and TV viewings I simply see a complete lack of belief that not only is any erosion happening but even that it COULD happen to the "greatest nation on Earth". Luckily the people inside said nation have a lot of positives to offer, but at this point it is almost like we have to fight government and in fact a lot of big business and their interests to get in the right direction. National vision or leadership is kaput. These systematic bubbles that are "redistributing income" are wiping out normal average people via purported "100 year events" now on a 7-8 year cycle are just 1 example of many. In the end it's just a great transfer of wealth and moving the country more similar to a 3rd world country where wealth is increasingly congregated in fewer and fewer hands; that used to be ok when a rising tide lifted all boats but the past decade (and it has nothing to do with any 1 political party) has sharply reversed that trend. And I don't see it changing with any scenarios I can build out for the next 5-15 years. Not with our entitlement costs skyrocketing and great swathes of people in their 40s, 50s now buried under multiple bubbles - aka wealth destruction - during their prime earning years. As for the country as a whole, as Buffet says - we are like a big farming land owner - who needs to sell off X amount of acres every year to help us pay for the rest. But one day we run out of land.
  • Consider the Olympic Games a giant exclamation point … a fanfare announcing a message from the Chinese. They're putting the world on notice, that they are players playing to win, and not just Olympic gold. They want you to know that China is a power to be reckoned with, and proud of it, that it's bearing down on the United States … fast.
  • "The implications are that China will be the commercial leader of the world," Albert Keidel, an expert on China's economy, told Teichner. "It will also deserve and demand leadership in global institutions." Keidel is the author of a startling new study for the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, "China's Economic Rise: Fact And Fiction."
  • "We can model the economy and show that by 2035, it (China) will be as big, if not bigger than the United States' economy will be at that time, and by the middle of the century it will be twice the size of the U.S. economy at that time," Keidel said. "That's staggering," Teichner said. "That's conservative," Keidel said.
  • So where will that leave the United States? Are we slipping? Are we reaching some inevitable tipping point that will change the world as we know it? Is the golden age of America coming to an end?
  • Fareed Zakaria, editor of Newsweek International, said, "What's happening right now is, the world is moving beyond America. The future is, in many ways, being shaped in distant places by foreign people."
  • "That's a big shift from a world in which America was at the center economically, financially, culturally, militarily, politically, to a world in which there are more centers and many forces, from India to China to Brazil to South Africa that have to be taken into account," Zakaria said.
  • "This is not happening because America is failing or declining," Zakaria said. "It's happening because the rest are rising, and it's happening because the natives have gotten good at capitalism."
  • Alan Wolff, an international trade lawyer and former U.S. trade negotiator who specializes in china, said we're not used to foreign competition. Coming out of World War II, we had a lot of breathing space; the rest of the world's economies were devastated, "but they're catching up," Wolff said.
  • "Worldwide, 179 countries are growing faster than we are. As our manufacturing jobs have moved offshore, the United States has counted on innovation to keep its edge, but how much longer will that be possible?"
  • Take the iPhone. The idea, the genius, was American. But the phones themselves are made in China, where the government is determined that the next generation of geniuses will be Chinese.
  • "Actually, that's a stated national policy," Wolff said. "They have a medium- and long-term science and technology policy, 2006-2020, and in that policy one of the statements, one of the parts is to establish global brands, with indigenous technology, with Chinese technology behind those brands."
  • Michael Jemal is president and CEO of Haier America, told Teicher that innovation and having its own patents is the "life blood" for Haier. "Haier applies for two patents every single day, every day of the year. In fact, it's more than that." Never heard of Haier America? Just wait. Right now, Chinese-owned Haier is trying to buy GE's appliance division When it entered the U.S. market nine years ago, the company sold three products. Now it sells 3,000. You name it, Haier makes it, everything from little dorm refrigerators to air conditioners, washing machines to flat screen TVs.
  • "Haier is the number one brand in China," Jemal said. "In asia, we're in the top ten. The objective here in the U.S. is also to build a market share, to be in the top three in the U.S."
  • The 600-plus foreign companies operating in South Carolina account for 1 out of 5 manufacturing jobs. They employ nearly two hundred thousand workers.
  • Wolff said the president and Congress must face the new reality of global competition. "We need to change our tax policies, change our immigration policy. We made the U.S. a magnet, an attractive place for the best and the brightest in the world, and we frustrate that by saying, 'You get a Ph.D. here and that doesn't matter. Right now, we're throwing you out.' That's very self-destructive behavior."
  • "We save too little, we consume too much, we borrow too much from the rest of the world, we use energy in a profligate and wasteful fashion," said Zakaria. He says the U.S. must change its ways, and soon, if we want to hang on to the wealth and influence we have.
  • "I think that our window for policy change is very short," he said. "I think if we don't, in the next few years, four, five years, make the necessary adjustments, what you'll see is something that looks a little like the trajectory of the British empire in the 20th century. It's not that Britain collapsed, it's that it just slowly faded away in significance, in power and wealth."
  • But Zakaria worries that one day historians will write about how the United States globalized the world, but forgot to globalize itself.
These "big picture" themes are a lot of what shape my long term investing themes - granted none of it matters in this current era, but one day it will matter again. And if China has "slow growth" (of 7%) next year or coal stocks are garbage because crude oil is down 20%, the US centric investor can do what he does. But we live in what I believe to be an inward looking society that really is missing a lot of what is going on in the world. So we'll continue to report on it, because not only are "they" not going away, but "they" are growing in strength and independence as time goes on... why we are busy fighting over national gas tax holidays. "They" are very hungry - sort of like the Greatest Generation here in the U.S. While many of "us" work very hard to keep up (with the Joneses), at the national level and in aggregate I believe we've grown complacent. There really is a global competition going on and we don't seem to realize that. When I think that is too harsh an indictment I just review these sort of items - [Feb 23: Two Million Minutes - a Global Examination] which follows the High School life (and preparation for the global world) of students in America vs India vs China. It is eye opening and worrying. I guess we'll find out how it all turns out by 2050 ;)

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