The Week That Was: Consummations of Tomfoolery

The week 27-31 March in history has had its share of big news, good and (mostly, as is the nature of news) bad, such as:-
– the appalling two-747s plane crash in Tenerife in 1977
– the uplifting Israeli-Egyptian peace accord of 1979
– the shocking shooting of Ronald Reagan in 1981
– the (good or bad? Discuss….Non-smoking MM says bad) total ban on smoking in pubs in Ireland in 2004, the first country to enact such a sweeping ban.

This week in 2017 also has some, and MM here mentions two that irk him:-

* Donald Trump’s rescinding of Obama’s Clean Power Plan. How sad. Coal has been in long term decline anyway, even without considering these Obama rules. For Trump to cancel it while standing in front of a bunch of duped coal miners is yet more cynical, populist nonsense from the huckster who occupies the White House. By cancelling the Obama plan, the US is left with no credible strategy to conform with the Paris Agreement. The success of the latter in keeping global temperature rises under two degrees depends on moral, cajoling leadership from major countries. The mighty US suddenly being a back-of-the-class recalcitrant rather than a global thought leader really hurts in this respect.

As for Vietnam, sweet words here and there from the government about wanting to reduce the coal share in power generation as yet have not been confirmed by any change to its power development plan. That plan calls for a nearly six-times jump in coal-fired power capacity in the 16 years to 2030, raising the coal-fired share in total power generation from 28% to 43%. We can’t mince our words here: Vietnam is purely in lip-service mode, as yet, with regard to COP21. Its lack of action so far suggests that it is content to skulk in the shadows and let bigger, richer countries worry about the world. A “tragedy of the commons” indeed.

On a separate but related environmental point, MM has recently downloaded an app called Airvisual. A recent visit to choked Hanoi prompted this interest. Here are the current PM2.5 (a class one carcinogen) readings (at the time of writing) for a random variety of global cities, from highest to lowest: Beijing 182, Hanoi 173, Delhi 114, Bangkok 78, Oxford 64, Zurich 58, Saigon 53, London 53, Austin 35, Scranton 27, Danang 7. Hanoi is in the “unhealthy” category (under 50 is “good”), and MM could feel it when he was there two weeks ago. Saigon is clearly much, much better. Expats with children moving to Vietnam, or for that matter Hanoians who can: choose Saigon (or Danang, rather less realistically). Your kids will thank you for it.

* Theresa May’s Article 50 notification. Unless you don’t really care much about the size of the overall UK economy, and prioritise a quaint notion of sovereignty over “money”, it really is very difficult to cogently argue that leaving the EU is going to be good for Britain. The nonsense spouted by Trump and some Brexiters about “losers from trade and openness” has a really simple response: your own government’s job is to soften inequalities and solve public service deficiencies in society. Hurting trade and openness will simply reduce the size of the national economic pie, surely unhelpful to achieving this duty. Britain’s government taxes and spends, give or take, 40% of the economy, while the nation’s net contribution to the EU budget is 100 times less (0.4% of UK GDP). The English may observe that Nicola Sturgeon habitually gets away with covering up her own party’s governing inadequacies in Scotland by carping at Westminster; some of them forget that the same trick is being propagated in spades by English blamers of Brussels.

Perhaps a sensible acid test to settle the argument of leaving’s effect on the UK economy is this: Compare real-terms UK GDP per capita growth (in dollars or pounds, whichever) relative to the world’s (or the EU’s) rate in the period 2006-16 with the same during 2017-27. MM is taking the other side of all bets that say the latter ratio will be able to match/exceed the former.

As for Vietnam, it knows all about trade boosting the economy. Exports plus imports equal about 175% of GDP, making it a very open economy. Exports and imports have both started 2017 strongly, up 15% and 25% (or 13% and 22%, depending on the data source) YoY respectively at last count. TPP is gone – a real pity for Vietnam, as it would have been an important cudgel to further liberal economic reform (and a real pity for the US, who needlessly and stupidly surrenders the game to China). But the ASEAN Economic Community is at least heading in the right direction of free trade (albeit with plenty of exceptions). RCEP (the China-led deal) might get somewhere in the end. And TPP ex-US is still a mooted possibility to be welcomed.

Trump on power generation and Britain’s letter to Brussels: two consummations of tomfoolery in the week that was…


Mekong Man

ESG: Extra Speedy Gallop towards the centre stage of the investment world

The European Union has earlier this month passed a directive concerning pension funds called “Institutions for Occupational Retirement Provision II”. It requires all pension funds – some EUR 2.5-3 trillion of assets – to include environmental, social, and governance risks and policies into their investment strategies, giving them the same level of attention as liquidity, operational and asset considerations. This ESG focus specifically includes climate change, resource use, and stranded assets as factors for attention. EU member states have 18 months to codify the new rules into national law, so this should be in effect by the second half of 2018.

This marks another advance in the global rise of sustainable investing. As of year-end 2015, over 20% of US professionally managed funds – some USD 9 trillion – was invested according to sustainable, responsible, or impact strategies.

Last year, a Deutsche Bank/Hamburg University meta-analysis of over 2000 empirical studies found that the majority of the time, there is a positive correlation between ESG standards and corporate financial performance. So there is growing evidence that such criteria are consistent with the traditional fiduciary duty of maximising risk-adjusted returns.

The challenge for investors and analysts is to become as familiar with ESG criteria as they are with financial parameters like ROE and EV/EBITDA. The process is ongoing. Like electric cars, it is coming into the mainstream faster than most would have thought just a few years ago. Funds focused on Vietnam would be well advised to be at the vanguard of this global trend.


Mekong Man & Ezra Vontobel