Friday 30 April 2021

Inflation Ahoy (?)

Ever since QE was invented, some folks have been predicting inflation and others deflation.  Anyhow, back in January I commented (BTL here) that energy prices were stirring, led by gas and the Far East's insatiable demand for LNG cargos that would otherwise be available for Europe.  

A very mild March dampened this down a bit, but it's roaring away now, to the extent that this week, forward prices for this coming summer in Europe are only a fraction below forwards for next winter.  You might guess that is quite unusual for a very seasonal commodity like gas.  You'd be right: it's really remarkable.  (BTW, the fact that next winter's price is relatively low doesn't represent any kind of comfort that easier times are ahead.  Say after me: "a forward curve is not a forecast ...")

What's going on?  (a) Absolute demand, especially in the east; (b) Russia / Gazprom is playing silly-buggers, holding back supply capacity they could easily fill.  Why?  Because the are reminding the Germans, none too subtly, of where their energy comes from, pressuring them to resist US sanctions on Nord Stream 2.

The prices of oil, coal and carbon allowances are steaming ahead, too (and therefore electricity).  Is this destined to continue?  Well, Russian tantrums come and go, so the parochial matter of European gas supply can ease at the drop of a hat.  And the dreadful situation in India suggests that Covid may yet bring GDP-wrecking times ahead, offsetting the strong Asian bounceback from a year ago.  So who knows?

But when Biden's trillions start hitting the economy, on top of China's regular growth, the demand for steel and concrete (and copper, and ...) should boom.  Covid vs Concrete ... who knows?  You thoughts invited below -


Wednesday 28 April 2021

Pandemenomics for UK plc

Quite a bumpy set of results out from major UK companies today. Big banks like Lloyds Bank and HSBC have returned to strong profits already. Plenty of transactions for them, a buoyant housing market and growing business sector have helped them. Additionally, as I wrote here a couple of weeks ago, there is no recession likely now for a long time, so they have been able to reduce provisions for bad debts. 

On the other hand, Dixons has closed all of its airport shops. What am I going to do when bored at the airport if not look at the over-priced electronics and gadgets for a few minutes? This is due to both Brexit, with the UK ending airside tax breaks and also the pandemic with passenger numbers likely to be low for a long time to come. 

Sainsbury's has chosen a kitchen sink moment too (this is when the CEO decides to out all bad news at once with an excuse, such that they can do better in future and earn their options then). The excuse is covid but how the only shops to stay open in Covid lost money is beyond me. My local Sainsbury's has been heaving with people all the time. The truth must be that the internal re-organisation has been less successful and cost more / saved less than thought by some margin - but covid is a better excuse to use to try to bamboozle investors. 

it is good to see the banks joining in the profit making and seeing happy days ahead - these days banks are very conservative so that is a strong position to take. On the other hand, Dixons shows and example of how airports are going to look very different in the future, this scarring will be very deep in the travel sector and maybe will take a decade to repair. 

Monday 26 April 2021

Greensill: Actually, The Treasury Done OK (Eventually)

Reading what is, presumably, only the first batch of Cameron messages we're to be regaled with, I'd say his email approaches to various players within Whitehall were succinct, eminently plausible-sounding, and all-in-all really quite adroit, given the mission he was set on to accomplish.  We'd probably expect nothing less.

In all the covid-chaos of the time when really big bad, panicky decisions were being made on an industrial scale, I'd further say that it was a bloody miracle he didn't get his way.  Not least, when you consider the dodgy vehicles that were being ushered into the 'VIP Lanes', left right and centre.

Let us now launch into pure inference.  It seems such a bloody miracle, one then has to suspect the Treasury had already got Greensill's number in no uncertain terms (eventually, after years of over-indulgence).  If that's right, we may be mightily glad of it.  Would that informed official skepticism always thus prevailed.

As regards Cameron, if this account is even vaguely true then he really has prostituted himself.  (To get one over on Osborne and the Blairs ..?)  Plenty of people aren't remotely surprised, but I rather am.  Getting naive in my old age.  


Sunday 25 April 2021

Desert Storm (7) - FOB Cobra: Land War Begins

At the end of February 1991, after a month of intense and purposeful air activity of the shooting kind, Desert Storm moved into the decisive land engagement that Saddam Hussein had already tagged "the mother of all battles".  He directed what was probably the fourth largest army in the world at the time, and without doubt the most recently combat-experienced.  The Coalition, so carefully assembled by George Bush Snr, fielded ground forces adequate to the challenge, in what promised to be the biggest tank battle since the Kursk salient in 1943.  Hotter weather was on its way: there was a serious imperative to get on with the job.  You'll find no shortage of accounts of what followed, from border skirmishes and the French advance on the left flank, through the retaking of Kuwait, to the final halt on the road to Damascus, 100 hours of fighting later: but I want to concentrate on a fascinating element of the first phase of the main assault that well illustrates the high quality of the Coalition generalship.

One of many big problems faced by the Coalition was always going to be logistics.  The distances and desert going involved; the ultra fuel-hungry nature of the heavy M-1 and Challenger tanks; the allies' determination to use artillery to the full; the huge quantities of drinking water needed in the desert; and the anticipated (indeed, necessary) rapid rate of advance - all spoke to a critical logistics dependency, as is often the case for swiftly advancing armies.  How to ensure this was managed successfully?

The answer was an imaginative piece of logistical genius that probably only the Americans are capable of (though below we'll consider a British precedent).  Instead of having logistics trying to catch up with the front line, it was decided to have the leading armoured units fight their way towards already-established logistics bases behind enemy lines, deep in the Iraqi desert.  This was particularly relevant for the wide left hook on the western flank, where the distances for advancing forces would be greatest.  The first of these, Forward Operating Base Cobra some 80 miles into Iraq, was to be established on G-Day itself, 24 February, by the legendary 101st Airborne Division - all made possible, of course, by accurate prior air reconnaisance and a very substantial fleet of attack and transport helicopters.

They deployed in the biggest heliborne assault ever mounted, against a carefully chosen, lightly-defended Iraqi location.  Not only was the resulting FOB Cobra a logistics base for following units, it was a jumping-off point for further bases set up even deeper into Iraqi territory over the following three days.  The concept was excellent in design, and successful in execution.

You can read about it here and (in a soldier's rather deficient English prose) here - and of course much more besides that you'll find for yourself on the www.

Is there any precedent for such a strategy?  Well, airborne forces were of course used several times to capture bridgeheads in WW2, not least on D-Day itself and, perhaps with greater similarity in Market Garden later the same year.   That latter plan was to establish a fighting base behind enemy lines towards which armoured forces would fight.  But even if Market Garden had worked out as planned, there wouldn't have been any pre-arranged supplies waiting for Guards Armoured when (if) they'd arrived at Arnhem.

However, students of the Peninsular War might identify an early C19th parallel.  For some time Wellington operated from secure bases in Portugal, with relatively straightforward replenishment by sea.  In 1812 he won the critical battle of Salamanca, followed by some messing around before winter set in.  As the 1813 campaigning season commenced, he pretty much had the French in reverse gear; but his lines of logistics were inevitably going to be strained significantly if he intended to clear the French from Spain entirely.  Which he did.  The French, by contrast, enjoyed interior lines of communication, as retreating armies generally do

Always one to think things through ahead of time, Wellington's strategy was masterly.  As part of a specific diversion campaign along the north coast of Spain and the French coast on the Bay of Biscay, the Royal Navy captured Santander on the north coast, then opened up Bilbao.  For the decisive battle at Vitoria (in the north east of Spain), by using Santander as FOB his overland lines of logistics were 400 miles shorter than had he continued to be supplied from Portugal.  (The sea passage from Britain was 400 miles shorter, too.)  A prototype FOB Cobra.

He didn't have helicopters, though ...



Footnote: for those whose attention tends to wander, this is Gulf War ONE we are talking about.  1991.  Bush Senior.   John Major as PM ...  OK?

Thursday 22 April 2021

Vaccination vacation

 Had the AZ vaccine yesterday, knocked me sideways this thing. Hopefully back up to speed in a few days. 

Wednesday 21 April 2021

The Eton Lobbying Song

Jolly scapegoating weather
Lobbying is a breeze!
My Greensill chums are clever
I’m raking in serious fees
And I’ll do whatever -
Just whatever I jolly-well please!
You can call me whatever
But don’t call my lobbying ‘sleaze’ ...

I can accept without rancour
That Boris is PM (- how?!)
But I’m a tremendous banker
Kiss my arse and bow!
And I know you all secretly hanker
For the job I am doing now
So go and sling your anchor
If you're looking to stir up a row

Everyone fills their faces
As soon as they leave Whitehall  
Kicking over the traces
Revolving doors and all
With our contacts in high places
(I’m just giving Rishi a call)
Yes, Downing Street clout is a basis
For having an absolute ball!

Twenty years on, whoever
Writes up the history books
Will sully our names forever
As shameless, insatiable crooks
Yes our names are blackened forever
And they’re calling us merchants of sleaze
And we’ll all swing together
From the lamp-posts and from the trees !


Monday 19 April 2021

US exporting socialism to Europe: Super League

 I recall a post in the distant past where I discussed how socialist US sports are. For those that don't know, Capitalism has not role to play in US pro sports. This is a huge feature that the announcement by some of Europe's biggest football clubs to create a new league is driven. Three of the four Clubs who are leading the breakaway are UK clubs owned by US sports billionaires. 

In the US, the players are groomed at Universities for free until their early twenties, there are no Academies. From the age of graduation, players go into a 'draft' and are signed by the Professional clubs. The Pro clubs are a closed shop and allocate draft picks in reverse order from how they finished in the league the season before. So if you are bad, you get a bunch of free picks for the best young talent the next year. 

More importantly, all the US major leagues are closed. If teams are added, it is because a rich commercial group has applied and the league has agreed to expand. There is no relegation and no 'pyramid' like we have in Europe. If you have a bad year and finish last, oh well, there is always next year and you can re-stock with better players for free. 

This has a huge advantage of protecting the investment of those who put money into buying a club. The revenues are shared out and fixed and you can't have any bad years. In the US the only people who lose out are cities where the sports teams leave once the tax breaks end and there is a better TV deal to be had elsewhere - St Louis Rams moving to Los Angeles is a good recent example. 

So should socialism succeed in Europe? I really hope not, if anything the change should be the other way with the cabal or unions and owners in the US being challenged by new entrants. When the money men are in charge, all the fun will be drained away for good. 

Maybe this will be a good story to show socialism is a pure evil, doubly so when practiced by billionaires!

Saturday 17 April 2021

The Special Forces Fallacy

Michael Portillo wasn't the only politician to harbour misconceptions and delusions about the special forces.

Yes, there are certain missions for which only special forces are suitable.  Yes, they can sometimes achieve seeming miracles.  Yes, we'd be a lot the worse for not having highly capable units of this kind.  Yes, we Brits do it rather well.  And, yes, since 1989 the proportion has risen of whatever it is we expect to achieve with armed might, that will be assigned to such troops. 

But no, categorically no, you cannot have armed forces essentially comprised of nothing else, which is what the government appears to imagine, with plans for big reductions in army numbers and conversion of some of the remaining line infantry regiments to "Ranger" forces, with silly American "elite" connotations.  When everyone's special, then nobody is.

And there's a bigger, deep-running problem.  To man a single regiment of SAS, you need thousands of very good "ordinary" soldiers aspiring to join them, training hard to be able just to apply to join them, actually applying to join them - and then, mostly, failing.  To be able to have an elite with such high standards, you must first have a big enough pool of proven, pretty high-standard talent to draw upon.

I don't know what is the critical mass of soldiery to produce, by distillation, what we need by way of special forces.  But diminish the army far enough, and we won't have it.

Enough of random and destructive penny-pinching.   Read yer history**: sell or scrap yer bloody aircraft carriers (before the Chinese do it for you one sunny afternoon in Far Eastern waters): and rebuild & re-equip the forces to a balanced and realistic standard ... at critical mass.



** The Prince of Wales   ...   for pity's sake!

Wednesday 14 April 2021

Cameron & Greensill: and another question ...

Gotta laugh at Cameron falling into his own "lobbying will be the next big scandal" pit - and through sheer greed, too.  The arrogance and entitlement-assumptions of Blair and Cameron know few boundaries.

To me, there's a question as yet unvoiced, which might usefully occupy the enquiry:

  • Cameron did not expect to lose the 2016 Referendum, nor the 2015 GE, and thus to be in the wilderness looking for wonga as early as turned out to be the case.  So: why was he bending over backwards for Greensill way back (2011-2012) in his first administration?  Very long-term planning on his part?  or Someone Else in that government spotting the main chance for themselves? 

Mercifully, Britain is not corrupt au fond: Rafael Behr correctly assesses matters here.  (I've worked in Russia ...)  But it's a slipperly slope.


Monday 12 April 2021

Lockdown ends and with it threat of recession for a while to come

The great reckoning will come, too much debt, too much government profligacy and not a lot more that can be done to raise taxes anymore. The UK will not escape another decade of 'austerity' in the 2020's, notably as more and more money is piled into the NHS with less and less of a success due to the law of diminishing returns. 

However today is a happy day, as we wait to go for lunch outdoors in the snow, the economy is finally opening up after a very long winter hibernation. Only foreign travel of the big industries will now be still a moribund outlier. 

The FTSE has performed less well than many of the world indexes - the UK media has a part to play here in the unabated portrayal of the UK as the worst place in the world last year to be avoided at all costs. The quick roll out of vaccines have changed the tune and along with the USA we are likely to have the strongest economic re-bound this year. 

Lots of savings have been gathered up, fewer jobs lost than thought and soon maybe a million more jobs will be created in the newly re-opened up service industries. The only blot of the horizon must be the threat of inflation and rising interest rates, but as I have discussed before, with the BOE owning so many Government bonds there are plenty of macro-tools available to stave off inflation. Plus, with other parts of the world still in the grasp of the virus, there won't be global supply shortages for a while any worse than there are now.

So happy days ahead for a the summer at the very least - maybe a horrid variant may come back to haunt us, but even then it won't escape the vaccine that quickly. 

Saturday 10 April 2021

Prince Philip - what a man

Sometimes there are people with apparently controversial sides who, when they depart, turn out to be universally loved (sometimes parochially, sometimes globally), greatly lamented and badly missed, the controversies completely brushed aside.  David Bowie, Peter Cook, Paul Foot ...  the list goes on, and evidently includes Prince Philip.

Since it is clearly shameless obituary name-dropping week, I will give you my personal micro-story.

Prince Philip was Colonel in Chief of my army corps, in which role I met him several times as any soldier does.  We commemorate a particular anniversary every 25 years and, supportive and active as ever, he presided over the celebration that fell in the 1990s, when he would have been in his 70s.  He congratulated us all on the foregoing quarter-century, wished us well for the next occasion 25 years hence, and concluded with the words: "... but I can tell you one thing - I shan't be there to celebrate it with you!".

Well, he was - and he did. 

What a man.


Thursday 8 April 2021

A history of Ireland - 2031

 Who would have thought things could go so wrong so fast for the Emerald Isle. Ever since the accession to the EU and the free money topped with a low tax base has seen it the 'Celtic Tiger' grow very quickly since the 1980's.

The 2008 financial crash, felt so badly at the time, left only a small long-term scar in the property market. 

However, Brexit can be seen as the real game-changer. No fault of the Irish, but their pesky neighbours left the EU at the same time as the Corona virus brought the world leaders together, even more so than climate change action had already been doing. 

Initially, there were upsides to Brexit. Funds left the City of London for Dublin, which competed more with Luxembourg. The EU was generous in settlements with the Irish, keen not to have them follow the British example. 

But the destruction of the Good Friday accord, which both Dublin and Brussels had long felt was a key block to Brexit, brought a sea of woe to the islands. 

Nationalists demanded a border poll over what were minor points of economic friction caused by the new border that the EU insisted on to annoy the UK and to stick slavishly to it 'free market' policy. The border poll was close, but the appeal of the EU, distance from London and perceived benefits of being a united Isle won a close poll in 2024. 

The Unionists were of course furious. They found backing too in the UK, dismayed at what the Government had long told the public was a conspriacy to break-up the Country by the EU as revenge for Brexit. The long fall-out with the EU over the corona virus vaccines debacle lived long in the memory and the anti-EU English in particular were soon happy to gather in pubs and meeting halls to provide funds for their exiled Unionist bretheren. 

So for the late 2020's we saw the return of the troubles, this time fed by UK nationalists emboldening provo terror. The Irish state was not prepared and this time there was no British armed forces or MI6 to help defeat the uprising. Whilst returning to the UK remained unpopular, demands for statehood remain strong to this day and the rise of car-bombings in Dublin has turned the old republicans strongly against the protestants - division over identity is worse than ever and sectarianism lives again. 

Of course, all of this has been overshadowed by the new world order post Covid -19 which since 2022 has seen minimum tax rates force Ireland to raise its corporate taxes to 20%. Now the pressure is on to raise them further. With each rise, the fake HQ's in Dublin of the US tech companies shrink, moving to the UK or mainland Europe or even disappearing altogether with Tech corporates run from their San Francisco HQ's direct. The Irish financial services industry has suffered the same fate, losing business to London and Luxembourg. With less money to go around, the Celtic Tiger economy has stalled just as the money is needed for security and policing as never before. 

The EU has proven a false friend too. Ireland is one of the richer states, with Eastern Europe still suffering after the virus episode, there are no big allocations for Ireland. Indeed, many EU leaders are highly critical of the crackdown's in Belfast and Londonderry post the border poll and have put huge pressure on the Irish Government to back down.

But backdown to where? There is no sunny uplands to view from this point. The Island is one country but dis-united and the economy struggling and still cut off from Europe. The only way forward is to press on with integration, repressing the orangemen until time heals the wound of the border poll and the economy and people adjust to the falling GDP. Perhaps the emmigration now rampant again will see the worst of the troublemakers decamp to Glasgow and Liverpool.  

Tuesday 6 April 2021

Farewell Cheryl Gillan - an unusual politician

I had rather lost touch with Cheryl Gillan of late, but a number of years ago we were all good family friends and in contact quite a lot.  She was a great lady, and not at all how you'd tend to pigeon-hole a Tory woman Cabinet minister.

First of all, though obviously a good politician in very many ways - and canny with it** - she was not (how shall we put this) any kind of ideologue.  In fact, I can't recall her offering a political opinion, ever.  But, quite genuinely, that's no fatal criticism for someone representing a nice county seat on behalf of the distinctly non-doctrinaire Conservative Party.  And for a Cabinet Minister?  Well, she was David Cameron's neighbour. 

Here's a story that I'm pretty sure she wouldn't object to being told.  We were once on a delegation overseas, and a young lady of our number had been getting steadily more annoying as the days went on.  Eventually one evening, Cheryl came up to a few of us chaps who were supping our drinks in the hotel bar, and said:  "The trouble with that girl is   ...   So - which of you young blades is going upstairs to give her a good seeing-to?!"

A Grande Dame - and a grand dame.



** e.g., she very craftily bagged the best corner office in Portcullis House when it first opened - a magnificent view of Westminster & the Thames.  To her, that was politics!

Saturday 3 April 2021

Joe Biden's Trillions - just look where they're going!

For 18 months now I have been banging on about how "net zero carbon" has gone 100% mainstream in business and banking, it having been declared that "adaptation" and "resilience" count as Green, plus - from the lefties - that the whole thing must include a "Just Transition", a.k.a Jobs Before Anything Else.  Heck, that includes new roads, new dams, new irrigation systems, new sea-walls ... even the most traditional steel-'n'-concrete merchants get to play!  And the Unions!

So now, let's take a look at Joe Biden's trillions

The proposal would: put $621 billion into transportation infrastructure such as bridges, roads, public transit, ports, airports and electric vehicle development;  direct $400 billion to care for elderly and disabled Americans; inject more than $300 billion into improving drinking-water infrastructure, expanding broadband access and upgrading electric grids; put more than $300 billion into building and retrofitting affordable housing, along with constructing and upgrading schools;  invest $580 billion in American manufacturing, research and development and job training efforts 

Yup: steel-'n'-concrete.  There's a constant, plaintive strand of "but ... most of this post-covid growth-package stuff isn't properly Green ..." to be heard from various quarters: but it's rather drowned out by the sound of thundering hooves, both capitalist and workerist.  Ain't that the way of the world?

Have a great Easter!