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Ian Bremmer- Hedging Political Instability for Insight and Profit

My colleague Scott Lichtman took notes on Ian Bremmer’s talk Monday night at this past week’s World Hedge Funds Summit . Dr. Bremmer’s prediction that Rumsfeld would resign proved accurate within 48 hours.

Ian Bremmer, President of Eurasia Group, and author of The J-Curve: A New Way to Understand Why Nations Rise and Fall, spoke about understanding the stability of political regimes and how investors can pick the right countries/regions, sectors, and investment strategies to make the most of this analysis.

Opening question: Why is Iran a much greater risk to the world economy than North Korea? What does China take from the US during business negotiations that Russia doesn’t?

These questions are addressed through his theory of the “J-Curve”. Imagine a graph with Societal Openness on the Y axis and National Stability on the x axis.

The graph line starts high on the left as very closed nations are very stable, plunges downward moving right as nations that attempt small become much less stable quickly, then gradually rises towards greater stability as open policies such as rule of law, freedom of press and democratic voting proceed.

 Think of the Nike swoosh with the tail opening on the right or a check mark with a rounded bottom.

Iraq, on the upper left, was stable under Hussein’s closed (oppressive) regime policies, in terms of impact on the economic markets. The direction of shifts in the J-curve has implications for the size, type and duration of investments in a given country.

 Some of this is common sense, but Bremmer’s knowledge of the political environment, layered on the J-curve analysis, makes for very worthwhile food for thought.

See more below on China (and role in Africa), India, North Korea/Japan, Russia and oil, and the US elections.

North Korea: The j-curve tells us that regimes like this naturally rebound to maximum closed’ status. Open democracy is far too risky for the regime to ever consider, so trying to isolate the country through sanctions actually is a reward for Kim Jong-Il. They’re calculating their position alerting the world ahead of a nuclear test, so that the US and China could coordinate positions, with China’s interest in maintaining status quo to gradually ascend as regional superpower, damping any real sanctions.

The worst case for Korea is if Japan and China agree and N. Korea can’t play them off each other. Japan may become the Israel of Asia’ close US ties, longstanding differences with its neighbors, nuclear capable . If Japanese and Chinese economies slow and their governments want to bolster popular support through rhetoric, watch out for potential sea-based military conflict. But it’s most likely that those economics grow and N. Korea is relatively harmless – all the government really wants is money and self-preservation. (and cigars and brandy)

China: In China, the pro-growth politicans are out. That’s not a problem, because for 5 years there has been gridlock on any issue like IP protection or foreign investment in assets. With a more conservative government in place, they can actually afford to make a few accommodations in these areas that will keep relations stable with the US.

Bremmer predicts a worsening situation in ’08, at the time of the Olympics in Beijing. “Scheduling it in 08 was a mistake.” That’s in the middle of a US election, when congressman will use the high profile event to put pressure on trade and human rights issues. While the Chinese will do their best to focus on a smooth Olympic event with an agenda on Tibet, free press, the Shanghai faction will attempt to make noise or worse. There’s a 20-40% probability of a modest shock occurrence during the event. Compare the Atlanta Olympics.

China is taking maximalist investment positions in unstable countries. Chinese is being taught as second language in African schools. 2 months ago in Zambia elections, a candidate promised he would recognize Taiwan as a nation. That even being an issue shows a lot of anger about China investing in copper, being close to dictatorial local governments, smashing trade unions, etc. China is starting to control commodities sources.

One offsetting factor for the decline in US influence is Bill Gates and the Gates Foundation, which has more influence in certain failed countries than the US and many European nations. “Bufffett’s donation to the Gates Foundation was some of the best foreign policy news I’ve heard.”

India: A great environment for the top 2% of the population, which makes a case for investing in luxury products. But will they gain a solid middle class? Bremmer thinks most pundits are too optimistic and we’ll see slower than expected growth in metrics like purchase of cars.

Russia: Relations with the US are in their worse state since Kosovo. The government is going after the metals, telecom, auto, aviation industries anything they perceive as strategic. If you are working or investing in a strategic sector and not aligned with Putin, you are in trouble.

Russia has a rising middle class, even in Siberia. If you’re part of this market consumer brands, high-end services, corporate office building then you’re making money.

Russia feels humiliated about zero sum game with West in last 10 years. Under Clinton, we created an oil pipeline from the Caspian Sea to Europe bypassing Russia. Russia lost control over Georgia and the Ukraine, now they’ve gotten the Ukraine back and are trying to get Georgia back. If that happens, the trans-border oil pipeline contract will be renegotiated.

The good part about investing in Russia is they just want to rip you off monetarily. In contrast, in China they want to take your intellectual property, then compete with you.

Russia sees Iran as a useful geopolitical hedge against US in the region. China sees it as a problem to be contained.

Eastern Europe: looks good/stable. Romania/Bulgaria are relatively closed and hard to invest in, but their P/Es are cheap compared to other Eastern European countries.

Iran He predicted some sanctions will pass unanimously. The markets won’t react immediately. Somewhere in 2007 it will get ugly. Iran has open press, young activists, which puts it on the volatile part of the j-curve. It benefits them to focus their population on the nuclear confrontation with West. Sanctions help them. But military action by Israel wouldn’t help him (stability-wise).

We have 18 months until the point of no return, when Iran can make nuclear weapons on their own, then 3 years until weapons are readily transportable, according to intelligence in US & Israel. Similar in Britain.

If moderates gain ground, then maybe political actions from the West will make a difference. But oil prices are too strong, which makes the closed society more stable. Israel will likely choose to attack Iran if it comes down to a close-range nuclear threat.

US elections: Bremmer predicted the elections’ impact, noting “Elections are tomorrow, so I get the chance to be wrong immediately.”

He predicted Rumsfeld and/or Cheney stepping down, Cheney ostensibly for health reasons.

 This would allow the GOP to insert a fresh VP that could gain national prominence and become a momentum leader for the presidential race in ’08, saving the GOP from a wide-open (unstable) race.

McCain is a front runner but is having good and bad days now (even for a President, he’s relatively old at 72).

 It’s very likely that neo-isolationism will pick up on many fronts you’ll see it in trade protectionism, reactions to offshoring job losses, and immigration restrictions.

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