If we were to ask what the most dangerous weapons were for humanity in the 21st century, the answer would definitely include nuclear, chemical and biological elements. The concept of nuclear deterrence was initially created in the 1960s to prevent humankind from making foolish decisions and has become quite a necessary concept. Ironically speaking, if you took out a loan and owe $100,000 to the bank, then this is your problem, but if you owe a bank $10 million and cannot pay it, then it becomes the bank's problem. As much as we hate weapons of mass destruction, they are a bizarre utopia that forces arrogant and stubborn leaders, putschist dictators and the arms lobby to somehow sit at the negotiating table and find common ground during times of tensions.
Philosophers talk about the most basic and determinant features of humankind with regard to the meaning and comprehension capacity of ideas. No matter how much we struggle to accept it, the most primitive and unspoiled triggering urge of the humankind is fear. And this fear allows all societies formed under nation-states to ensure a single action: protect what you have and increase it if there is an opportunity.
As we are experiencing the reflections of this principle, Wuhan, a city in which 99% of the world population has never heard of before, struck us with deep fear over the new coronavirus. A virus does not slow an economy down by itself; however, the fear it produces of it spreading around the world, of our assets being confiscated or losing their value may further damage world economies under the scope of the U.S.-China trade tension, Brexit and the EU deadlock and the U.S.-Russia-Middle East equation. Let us see how the world economy works, without going into much detail, as we discover how fear is the actual virus.
Since 1980, world economies have been functioning on a cycle involving the capital obtained from cheap labor production in Asia being priced in London and New York. China, which has been questioning this cycle since 2005, started taking new steps with South Korea, Japan and Singapore to make sure that the capital stays in Asia by strengthening their capital markets. Setting aside cumulated capital for research and development activities, corporations started taking advantage of the West's advanced technology and became a part of the "low cost-high revenue" equation. It was precisely after this breakdown that the West-East war became more rigid than ever and came to be known as the U.S.-China trade wars of 2019. Unable to escape the economic tsunami regardless of their efforts, Western multinationals started to slowly gain ground in critical Asian cities including Shanghai, Taipei, Singapore and Chiang Mai, unbeknownst places two decades ago that have now become financial fortresses. Eastern Asia has the most billionaires in the world, and the most luxurious cars are sold in Shanghai and China, which have become the wretched nouveau rich. Their endless consumption naturally whets the luxury consumer brands' sector.
Versace, Hermes and Gucci, which refrained from opening shops in European metropolises, lined up to open new shops in Beijing, where Chinese customers roam with suitcases filled with money. The global brands that successfully reached their targets in China, of course then headed to India and Vietnam. The middle class of the past is now stampeding to buy $3,000 purses with the money they earn from laborers who work for less than $5 a day.
According to a survey by global management consulting company Bain&Company, Chinese shoppers boosted their luxury spending by 26% to 30 billion euros ($32.41 billion). This figure rose 4% to 24 billion euros in Japan and luxury consumption rose 6%, reaching 42 billion euros throughout Asia, reaching a total volume of 96 billion euros in the region. I think this data is an indicator of where the world is headed considering the fact that luxury consumption in the world has recently regressed to around 6%. We can assume the U.S. and continental Europe have similar figures. The savings called capital is not just about financial activities but is a concept that is directly related to the secure climate, legal framework and capital friendly economic policies. It would be out of the question to think that an organic structure that does not question where the money comes from, keeps silent in the face of cryptocurrency activities and that establishes and sustains blockchain applications would not be able to grow.
It was precisely in the middle of this transformation when everybody was saying "the West lost the arm wrestling," and pages and pages of Ph.D. theses and essays were being written on the post-2030 Asia that the virus wreaked havoc on, shuffling the cards again. Chinese manufacturers who felt the anger of the U.S. have halted their production for two weeks. For how much longer small and medium-sized enterprises, whose cash-flow balance was affected after the virus, will be able to bear with the situation is still up in the air. It seems quite difficult for these firms to remain afloat as their stock balance was significantly affected and their cash balance does not seem like it will pick up anytime soon. Likewise, the public's sensitivities toward societal incidents will increase as a result of the potential surge in the number of unemployed following the closure of some companies. We also need to highlight that there has been an especially high degree of opposition throughout the world about electronic and poor quality consumer products. From what we can see on local dailies, the Beijing administration is brooding on the supply chain problems faced by giants like Alibaba and Tescent, which are cumulatively increasing. As international chains like IKEA and Starbucks close their shops in China, South Korean Hyundai announced that it paused production in Chinese plants due to a shortage of components. China, which is a significant supplier in the global motor and electronic sectors, will also lead to a rise in global inflation because of potential problems involving demand. Meanwhile, the restlessness about what is going on has reached its limits in Russia and the Middle East. The drop in Brent oil prices hit the 15% level in the past two weeks.
To sum it up, who seems to be the most affected by the ongoing crisis? Asian economies take the first place, while Iran and Russia are second, followed by Germany whose supply chain comes from Asia, followed by Italy and Austria. Everyone who directly or indirectly had problems with the U.S. in the past three years seems to be unhappy, numb and hopeless about the future. There is certainly a winner and a loser following such incidents. The crowds that missed quietness among the 25 million population in Shanghai are now under a curfew, do not dare step foot outside and spend time with their families. But what would happen if they were unable to leave their homes for 270 days?
The answer is clear: America first!
* Ph.D. researcher in Private Company Economic Research Department MENA at Swiss Business School
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