Tokyo, June 1996. Satoru-san is already at the izakaya near Mita Station when I get there, and I’m early. Despite the swelter, he’s unflinchingly dapper in his charcoal blazer, gray shirt, and silver tie. “I’m sorry I’m early,” he says, perhaps his standard greeting when he isn’t late, which he probably never is. “I benefit from my freedom. My wife doesn’t allow me to drink. Like many Japanese, I lack the enzyme that breaks down alcohol.”
On Thursday, rumors that Greece would have a government goosed the stock markets in Europe. While everybody was out to lunch in Frankfurt, the DAX ran up 110 points. In Athens, the ATHEX, which appears to be on a multi-year trajectory toward zero, jumped 4.2%. But on Friday, when it became clear that the rumor was just a rumor, the index resumed its downward trajectory. And Greeks went to bed without a new government.
Originally, François Hollande planned on visiting Germany on May 16, the day after becoming President of France, to meet with Chancellor Angela Merkel for some barbed-wire fence-mending. But now he pushed it up to May 15, the earliest second possible. At midnight, President Nicolas Sarkozy will hand him the keys to the Élysée Palace, while Merkel will be putting on lipstick for her dinner with him. And the flip-flopping has already started.
In Japan, people who are old enough to have lived it as adults still reminisce about the bubble that blew up in 1989 when the Nikkei almost hit 40,000 (now 9,045) and when the sky-high prices of real estate could only go up further. The slide from top to reality has been brutal, and a lot of people lost their shirts. But there has been one investment that has worked out phenomenally well for the otherwise hapless Japanese investor: Gold.
There are certainly some topics that Japan can lecture France on, for example standing in line. In Japan, a line is a display of communal discipline. In France, a line is something to be worked actively. Japan can also lecture France on designing and making cars and electronics. But the topic that Japan—fiscally the most undisciplined country in the developed world—can’t include in its sermon to France is fiscal discipline. And yet….
Europe greeted with excitement—or exasperation—the arrival of the “President of Growth,” François Hollande. And outgoing President Nicolas Sarkozy confirmed that he’d quit politics. He complained about journalists dogging him. “I’m spied on,” he said (ironically). “I hope they will leave me alone.” But that’s precisely what they won’t do because, on May 15, he’ll lose his immunity that has protected him against a ton of malodorous allegations.
Tokyo, June 1996. Ji is the word for “hemorrhoid.” I looked it up. The sound is identical to chi, “blood,” and only the Japanese can distinguish them. My problem is I’ve run out of hemorrhoid ointment. A wiry lady in a lab coat, the only person in the small pharmacy, greets me apprehensively. I greet her in my best Japanese. “I’m sorry to trouble you,” I add, a fixed expression used in front of a question. It comes out smoothly, and I feel more confident. Her apprehension grows.
Before retiring from Congress, Rep. Ron Paul, Chairman of the House Financial Services Subcommittee on Domestic Monetary Policy and Technology, slugs at the Fed one more time: Tuesday, his committee weighs six bills to reform or abolish the Fed which “continues to reward Wall Street banks while destroying the dollar’s purchasing power and driving up the cost of living for average Americans,” he said.
“There are certain misconceptions that worry me: for instance, the misconception that whatever happens, we are not going to leave the euro,” said Evangelos Venizelos, former Finance Minister and president of the socialist Pasok party. But outraged Greeks are searching for alternatives, and on Sunday, they’ll get to vent their anger at the political elite.
The fourth warmest winter on record, which curtailed the use of natural gas for heating, coincided with record production of natural gas. Storage facilities, filled to record levels for this time of the year, may soon reach capacity, forcing the industry to flare excess gas. This, doom-and-gloom theorists go, will force the price of gas to zero in the US. The point of maximum pain. But there’s a monumental shift, and demand is spiking.