When the world’s major central bankers get together, as they did at the Fed conference in Washington this weekend, ironies abound. Off to the side, Turkey had just floated a plan to get its people to turn in their physical gold in exchange for “certificates,” a first if still voluntary step in what may become a process of gold confiscation. In the background: the Fed, which had promised to keep interest rates at record lows through 2014, come hell or high water, after having purchased $2.3 trillion in bonds. In the foreground: the money printers of Japan and Europe.
Tokyo, May 1996. At the immigration office in Otemachi, I’m asked to write my request in English on a piece of paper and submit it. After a wait, I’m directed to an office. A middle-aged white woman with puffy cheeks and a gray-blond perm thrones behind a desk.
“So, you want to stay in Japan longer,” she says with an icy British accent.
With the European Union going into recession possibly, with the US growing, but not enough, with China booming, or crashing, and with Japan languishing, the worldwide economic picture is confusing, and debt crises have been swept under the rug by voluminous money-printing. But there is one economic indicator that is particularly … tasty and, if consumed in quantity, more vertigo-inducing than all the Eurozone bailout mechanisms: wine.
We’ve seen photos of apartment buildings and neighborhoods, lavishly laid out with avenues and shopping centers where the only missing element was human life. And we raised our eyebrows at the revolts in front of real-estate offices when prices crashed. And we marveled at booming luxury car sales or the blistering stock market that blew up. Now they have another hot investment. And they pushed the US into second place, again.
Europe with its relatively affluent population of 500 million has turned into a nightmare for the auto industry. And the R-word—restructuring—unpalatable and almost illegal as it is in Europe, is being bandied about, this time by Fiat-Chrysler CEO Sergio Marchionne, who, as President of the European Automobile Manufacturers’ Association, spoke for all EU automakers. It was a dire warning and a cry for help.
Tuition at the California State University will be double of what it was in 2007-08. But it’s still not enough. Now CSU threatened taxpayers and prospective students with stunning enrollment cutbacks, unless—this smells of extortion—it gets its tax increases on the ballot and passed. University of California is also jacking up tuition and cutting enrollment. And yet, a lavish multi-billion-dollar building boom continues on campuses around the state.
The latest success—I suppose you could call it that, at least for those involved on the financial end—was the Kiekert deal last week. The company was founded in 1857 near Düsseldorf, Germany, and became the largest manufacturer of automotive door-lock systems. Its customers are GM, Ford, VW, BMW, and other automakers around the world. But now a Chinese company bought Kiekert, the sign of a sea change.
Tokyo, May 1996. My relationship with her exhibits all the characteristics of the one-sided trade relationship between the US and Japan. I pay a fortune to be in her country. Though I’m learning Japanese, she refuses to speak it with me. She has seen every aspect of my life in Japan. But I’m not allowed near her house, and her parents don’t know I exist. I haven’t met any of her friends, don’t even know their names.
New revelations seeped out about the control Japan’s nuclear industry had over regulators. In 2006, the Nuclear Safety Commission studied the enlargement of disaster-mitigation zones. But the Economics Ministry put an end to it, worried that it ”could cause social unrest and increase popular anxiety.” Five years later, after the preventable meltdowns at the Fukushima power plant, the people paid the price.
Inflation pervades every aspect of our lives, from skyrocketing gasoline to rents to well, corruption. But inflation in the cost of under-the-table payments is notoriously difficult to measure, and so it’s not included in any of the indices. But in Germany, which is historically paranoid, and rightfully so, about inflation, after two wipe-outs in one generation, there’s progress: inflation in the cost of corruption can now be estimated.