Archive for year: 2016

E-sports, Threatened Korean Pop Stars and Who is Buying our Houses

International Need to Know is prone to contrarianism, of which we are not necessarily proud–it is a vice like any other, occasionally useful and entertaining but also easily bent to mischief. So as we witness this summer of discontent with violence both real and rhetorical pounding us from every direction, our natural inclination is to see the blue skies, hear the birds chirping and taste the good times. After all, despite all the bad news the all-consuming media presents every hour of the day, by many measures, we live in one of the most peaceful times in human history. Populations are healthier. People around the world are more prosperous. Crime is down to near historic lows. So I read with interest (beware: it contains strong off-color language) an explanation of why we feel like the world seems doomed even as we live in relatively good times. But neither misanthropy or optimism prevented us from examining the emergence of Esports* around the world, the threat against Korean pop stars, and who around the world are buying up our houses. It’s this week’s International Need to Know, your clear eyed, full hearted, can’t lose look at our Friday Night Lights world.

Without further ado, here’s what you need to know.

Be a Good eSport*

Even as Russian swimmers down their Olympic sorrows in straight vodka rather than their usual THG-laced cocktails, we saw an article about the Brazilian soccer player Wendell Lira retiring to play videogame soccer. This led us to wonder about the rise of E-sports and how long the Olympics, full of corruption and polluted waters, will be larger than the E-variety. There are now close to 200 million regular viewers of Esports around the world and viewership is increasing at a rapid rate each year. The top esport players earn more than $1 million per year (we hear the sound of INTN readers rushing to buy Xboxes). So where are the largest centers of E-Sports? Lo and behold, they are not dissimilar to which countries will win the most medals over the next two weeks. Thumbs and screens are gaining on the javelin. Below are the top ten Esport countries compared to the top countries likely to win Olympic medals:

China Pops K-Pop

Analysts and experts continue to worry about the tensions in Asia between China and its neighboring countries, whether over the South China Sea disputes or military realignments. It’s one thing when these tensions could spill over into military action or endanger merchandise trade, but have things gone too far when K-pop stars in Korea are at risk? The Hollywood Reporter informs us that China is retaliating against Korea’s decision to deploy a U.S.-made missile defense system by banning K-pop stars from appearing on Chinese television. “According to two sources cited by the South China Morning Post, China’s national media regulator informed TV stations in Guangdong Province that TV shows featuring South Korean pop stars would not be granted approval to air ‘in the near future.'” Markets are betting on Chinese retaliation as “shares in South Korean entertainment companies took a dive Tuesday.” In case you don’t know, Korean pop music and TV dramas are very popular in China. But Gangnam Style might be going out of style in China, or at least among its leaders.

Whose Buying Your House?

The worldwide headquarters of INTN is in Seattle, a place that has seen rapid increases in housing prices over the last few years. Traditionally Seattleites curse the hated Californians for moving up to the Pacific Northwest and spoiling our pristine area with their, well, evil California-ness, including driving up our housing costs. But recently Seattleites also worry about Chinese driving up the cost of residential real estate. So we ask which international populations are buying houses in the United States? The National Association of Realtors tell us to Blame Canada, at least until last year when Chinese did indeed surpass Canadian buyers as the largest foreign buyers of residential real estate. That trend continues so far in 2016. The top five states attracting international buyers are Florida, California, Texas, Arizona, and New York. Washington is the fourth-largest destination of foreign buyers from China so we may be able to credit (blame?) Chinese at least for a little bit of the rise in our property’s value.  By the way, half of foreign buyer purchases were made using all cash.


*Is it “eSports” or “esports” or “E-sports”? We dove down some deep, dark Internet holes to find out, including a long and rancorous Reddit thread (what’s more amusing [and dispiriting] than watching people cruelly insult others for how they spell a word that didn’t even exist a decade ago?), and we could find no consensus. Clearly the UN Security Council needs to take this up at its next meeting in October.

China Peak Coal, Slow Crawling Europe and Where the Under 20’s are

We were absent last week from our INTN responsibilities, traveling to NYC where we visited with family, friends and the tour guides of the modest but cool Louis Armstrong house in Queens. We also saw Ken Griffey, Jr. take his rightful place among the greats of Cooperstown. So we missed most of the chatter of the two political conventions but heard enough to be reminded that rhetoric is unfortunately like food: what tastes good and makes us feel better is rarely good for us.* Sad but true we live in a world where broccoli is better for you than ice cream. Nonetheless, we offer a bit of both as we examine whether China has reached peak coal usage, ponder the EU’s weak economic recovery and track down where those under 20 live. It’s this week’s International Need to Know, providing tasty bones of information in the dog days of summer.

But one more ado, before we jump in, our friend, six-year-old Maya Gladhart was recently diagnosed with kidney cancer. She is as brave a girl as you would want to know, who after having her kidney removed is now facing months of chemotherapy. Fortunately her cancer is eminently treatable and we know she will beat it, but there is also a financial toll that is affecting her wonderful and courageous parents, Pete and Jackie. A You Caring account has been set up and should any of our dear readers like to contribute to help Maya, Pete and Jackie, please do so. Here’s the link to help Maya.

Now, and finally without further ado, here’s what you need to know.

China Peak Coal?

A few months ago” href=”” target=”_self”>A few months ago, we noted that peak oil (usage) is imminent. But forget about black gold, coal usage appears to be peaking too with some claiming peak coal usage in China is already here. After rapidly increasing for over a decade, in 2014 coal usage in China dropped 2.9% and in 2015 by 3.6%. Is this just another underlying sign that China’s economy is not really growing at the rates its leaders claim? Or, is something else going on? According to that great summer beach read,Nature Geoscience,Slowing GDP growth, a structural shift away from heavy industry, and more proactive policies on air pollution and clean energy have caused China’s coal use to peak. It seems that economic growth has decoupled from growth in coal consumption.” Up until 2014, China’s GDP growth rate and power consumption had a 1-1 relationship. But in 2014, China claimed GDP growth of 7.4% while power demand grew by only  3.8%. Again, this may be an indication that China GDP growth is like my belief each year that the Seattle Mariners will finally make the playoffs–a bit rosy and optimistic. Regardless of the reasons why, China, which represents half of global coal consumption, is a big reason why world consumption of Santa’s favorite gift for bad kids has stalled too. Coal consumption decreased by 0.9% in 2015 after averaging 4.2% annual growth for the ten years before that. Just as with China, lower coal usage may be a sign of worldwide economic stagnation. But if so, this economic malaise could be a bridge of despair to a cleaner land by providing time for the exponentially increasing use of solar to further dampen the use of coal. We may not be at peak coal yet, but there’s a good chance within a decade we will be.


The EU’s Slow Crawl

Speaking of slow economies, the EU continues to lag behind the other democratic market economies of the OECD (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development) as you can see in the chart below. Back in 2007, the EU was already behind in terms of the percentage of the population of 15-74 year olds working. Over the last nine years, the gap has increased. In the OECD as a whole, the percentage of that age bracket working has finally reached the 2007 pre-financial crisis level. In fact, Germany and Chile are above the pre-crisis level as is Turkey (although with all the teachers, judges and journalists now out of work thanks to the purges of Erdogan, their employment percentage is surely decreasing!). For much of the rest of the EU, however, tough times remain, including and especially in Greece, Italy, Ireland and Spain, who are all still below pre-financial crisis levels. The Brexit vote and other fracturing events in the EU take place in a context of continued economic difficulties. The fracture is a symptom of a long-standing more challenging disease–whether Europe can heal itself is a huge question for the world economy.


Follow the Young

We’ll admit to having a bit of an obsession with demographics, but there are worse obsessions to have and we’re fairly certain we will not end up in jail or rehab over this one. Nonetheless, we are compelled to inform you of where the under 20-year-old set lives. We’ve noted before that Africa has the youngest demographics. According to the World Bank, in 40 of Africa’s 54 countries, over half the population is under the age of 20.  In Niger, remarkably over 60 percent of the population is under the age of 20. The United States has more people (25.4%) too young to drink than China (23%). France has the most south-of-20 people in Europe, a continent full of aging demographics. Japan, of course, has the fewest under 20s overall, though Germany is not far behind.  Overall, a third of the world’s population is under the age of 20. Follow the young people if you want to understand our future for economics, violence (at least in terms of young men) and good times.


*Although at least one speech we saw was a full, balanced, nutritional meal. To find out which, you will have to buy us a beer, a fine companion to such meals.

If you have a spare moment and dime, don’t forget to help Maya and her family. Donate here. 


Minding Britain’s Productivity Gap, China Bulls, Vietnam Test Takers

Note: INTN is gone next Thursday, July 21. We’ll be back Thursday, July 28 with everything international you need to know.

Yesterday I had the opportunity to speak with a group of aspiring young entrepreneurs from Mexico. When asked why they want to be entrepreneurs, some answered money, others said they wanted control while several expressed the desire to be creators. But nearly all also said they want to improve Mexico and the world. Much recent news has focused on doom and despair but if this talented group is any indication, the future is in good hands. But even as we get caught up in our own entrepreneurial dreams (an artisanal bialy shop in Seattle), we mind Britain’s productivity gap, welcome China bulls and wonder at the educational prowess of Vietnam. It’s this week’s International Need to Know, which although next week will be distracted and unpublished due to a trip to NYC, this week is loyal like a cat at Ten Downing Street shedding key data about our world you’ll need to vacuum up.

Without further ado, here’s what you need to know.

Mind the Gap: Britain’s Lousy Workers
Those good for nothing Europeans that just over 50% of British voters recently elected to flee–they may want to say good riddance to the unproductive workers of Britain. Via the always intriguingMarginal Revolution, we learn that British worker productivity lags far behind the rest of the G-7 countries and behind many other EU countries as well. Britain is not even in the same soccer, er, football stadium as Germany and France and is even behind Italy. It’s also behind Spain, Belgium, the Netherlands and Ireland. There are some positive results, however, when looking at subsectors. In manufacturing, “UK output per hour is estimated to be above that of Italy, and UK output per worker is a little higher than equivalent estimates for Germany and France.” But overall, and including Britain’s vaunted finance sector, the country’s productivity lags far behind. Even as the EU needs to make changes to its structure and policies, the UK might want to gaze into the reform mirror itself. It could use a good comb and wash.


China’s Shoppers
China’s bears bullied their way into this space a few weeks ago but it’s time for the bulls to have their time in our China shop, as we delicately examine new numbers on the size of China’s middle class, wealthy cities and online shoppers. China’s middle class is large as in over 100 million people large. Much of this middle class is huddled in China’s big cities. We’ve noted in the past that China’s demographics are aging at a rate faster than America’s, but its urbanites are relatively young with half the population of China’s big cities under the age of 35. If we look at the wealthiest cities, our old friend Shenzhen comes in first, as you see in the chart below. Shanghai surprisingly is far down the list. Shenzhen, of course, is where Tencent is headquartered which createdWeChat a sort of combination of texting, Facebook and Netflix. Tencent and other online companies are profiting from Chinese online spending. From Next Big Future, we learn that “online shopping in China accounts for 16 percent, or $672 billion, of all spending — and about half of that takes place on mobile.”  In the U.S., by comparison, online sales account for about 8% of retail spending. China’s got problems (which we’ll return to soon) but absent a crash, its consumers will continue to beckon companies who want to sell to a large number of hungry buyers.


Vietnam is Good at Tests

As we discussed earlier this year, Vietnam is young, dynamic, larger than you think and embraces trade. They also, it turns out, are good test takers. According to the international education organization, RISE, “Vietnam school children score over 100 points better on comparable tests than the average for low-income countries.” In the chart below, you see Vietnam in all its outlier glory hovering very near high income countries like the United States and Canada and well above low income countries from Peru to India to the Philippines. Vietnam’s children score better on tests than other low income countries from a young age and with each resulting year in school, the gap grows. RISE wanted to know why this was the case. What are Vietnam’s schools doing that is creating such great educational productivity results?  A World Bank study, that should have been titled, “We’re Not Sure,” found that part, but not all of Vietnam’s achievement is a result of higher level of access to pre-school and investment in school infrastructure. The study also claims there are cultural factors involved, including students skipping fewer classes and “teachers appear to benefit from closer supervision of their work by the school principal.” Don’t ever mess with a Vietnamese principal. Do keep an eye on an economy with young demographics and a strong educational system.


Reminder: There will be no International Need to Know next Thursday, July 21,due to a trip to the Big Apple, but we’ll be back July 28th bringing wit and wisdom from the four boroughs of NYC and beyond.      

Italian Bank Shots, Economic Rankings and Megacities

Recently, in the midst of all the news of people trying to separate themselves from each other, whether in the recent UK election, current shenanigans in the United States, violent attacks in Turkey, Saudi Arabia and elsewhere, we were reminded that the world is more connected than ever before. A cinematographer in Tehran liked the Facebook page of a short film we made a few years ago with our friend, Michael Williams, called Please Hold. It’s a short (only 7 minutes) dark comedy about customer service. So even as the world is seemingly yelling collectively, “Get off my lawn,” it’s good to remember that we are all–including Iranians–united in our frustration with technical support. But even being caught up in such idealism, we are not distracted from warning bank shots in Italy, changes in countries’ economic status and locating the world’s megacities. It’s this week’s International Need to Know, driving far better than a Tesla down the international road of knowledge and information.

Without further ado, here’s what you need to know.

Italy’s Bank Shot

Early this year we noted the high rate of nonperforming loans in Italy. In the large turbulent wake of Brexit, as everyone waits for the next British made footwear to drop, markets and pundits are paying more attention to Italy’s challenges. In the chart below, we see that the non-performing loan rate in Italy is up to 17% (only surpassed by Greece, which at this point we should probably rename “Yikes”*). Italy is the third-largest economy in Europe, but it has not seen GDP growth rates above 2% since the 1980s. Italy is also a great illustration of the world’s aging demographics which we’ve referred to in this space. The median age in Italy is 45. Over a fifth of Italians are now senior citizens which is a higher percentage than in that mecca of retirees, Florida. You could turn Italy into a Disneyworld theme park for the movie, Cocoon. Earlier this week, Italy’s regulators banned short selling on Italy’s third-largest bank, Banca Monte dei Paschi Siena, whose stock has fallen, oh, uh, well, 99% from its 2007 highs. The EU Commission, which in the past was hardline on Italy and its banks, is now allowing the Italian government to use guarantees of up to $150 billion for short term liquidity support. Brexit, as we suspected last week, is forcing the EU to change. But regardless of what the UK does, the EU has deep ongoing structural challenges that have to be addressed to deal with its deep ongoing economic challenges. The problems in Italy are not new. New pressure to do something about them is. The race is on.


*As in: “If you go to Yikes, you should really check out the Parthenon.”

Moving on Up (and Down)

Every July, the World Bank revises its classification of world’s economies based on estimates of gross national income (GNI) per capita.  The categories for countries are low income; lower middle income; upper middle-income and high income. This year a number of countries moved into higher categories with Cambodia going from Low to Lower Middle, and Georgia from Lower Middle to Upper Middle. But two countries, like English Premiere Football clubs relegated to a lower division, fell from High Income status to Upper Middle:  Russia and Venezuela. We look forward to Putin and Maduro taking the walk of shame.



Meet Me in the City

As you’ve probably read, the world is urbanizing at a rapid rate. Everyone it seems wants to live in big cities, even as it turns out, Kevin Durant.  We wonder if 100 years hence, should our planet still be spinning reliably on its axis, whether great swathes of the world’s countrysides will return to their previous natural state as humanity huddles in tiny pods (save the lucky few in their penthouses and stray mansions) in huge megacities. While we wait to find out, we note that most of the current megacities in the world are located in Asia. In the UN graph below, Tokyo is listed at number one, followed by Delhi and Shanghai. America barely makes the top ten, with New York (where we’re headed in a few weeks) coming in at number 9. Africa is urbanizing faster than anywhere else in the world and if that trend continues, will soon dominate the top 20. That may, or may not, be good for elephants, rhinos and other endangered animals.


The Ironies of Brexit, A New Banking Sheriff and U.S.-China Popularity

This week we celebrate the 88th anniversary of the recording of West End Blues by Louis Armstrong and His Hot Five who blew, drummed and scatted with perfection on June 28, 1928. One music critic called it “the greatest record ever made during the 20th century.” In a week filled with hyperbole every bit as hyper as that statement and bursting with legions singing the blues over recent events in the UK and elsewhere*, we celebrate by looking at the compounding ironies of the Brexit vote, peek at another underreported change in our global order and determine whether the US or China is more popular around the world. It’s this week’s International Need to Know, an opening cadenza followed by bars and measures of international knowledge delivered to you each and every week.

Without further ado, here’s what you need to know.

A Towering Inferno of Irony

There has been much reaction to the Brexit vote last week, including some overreaction. We were surprised by the result having speculated in this very spot two weeks ago that the election might be similar to Scotland’s recent independence vote: lots of talk but in the end people deciding to stay. We are not surprised by overreaction to the event. Markets don’t like surprise and love to chew the scenery like an overwrought William Shatner scene. Brexit, if it ultimately happens, is likely a net negative for the UK, but for the world as a whole it is not a catastrophe unless, as we also worried about two weeks ago, it leads to further exits. Brexit at the least is a wonderful portal into a world towering in contradictions built upon beams and rebar of irony.

      • The British Pound took a pounding right after the vote which raised alarms and tremendous concern around the world. But a traditional remedy for economic difficulties is to devalue your currency, making it easier to export and create jobs in the exporting industries. Ironically, the inability of distressed members to devalue has been a major flaw of the EU. In a rational world, countries such as Greece, Portugal and Italy would have seen their currencies devalued after they went into economic crisis seven years ago, allowing them to rebalance their economies by making it easier to export. Maybe the British were smart to leave a consortium with such flaws, right?  Except, of course, that the UK while part of the EU, is not part of the Euro currency zone.
      • Anti-EU groups in the Netherlands, France, Austria and Italy are licking their chops at the opportunity to hold similar exit elections in their countries. Two weeks ago we speculated at such possibilities and it is by far the biggest worry of the Brexit result. And yet, upon reflection, Brexit could end up making such further exits less likely if things continue to go badly in the UK as a result of the election. If the UK economy is indeed badly affected and if Scotland separates and Northern Ireland unites with Ireland (additional ironies for the irony pudding that is Brexit), won’t other countries be scared off from taking similar exit actions? Perhaps the best thing that can happen for the EU staying together is for the UK to head into catastrophe. Come on, Brits, we must all make our sacrifices for the good of the world.
      • And yet, the EU is badly in need of reform. It cannot succeed as a currency union without instituting a fiscal union. It is also not particularly democratic which leads to our last irony (at least of those that can fit in this space). We must hope the overabundance of direct democracy–a majority referendum taking place on a complicated question of remaining or leaving the EU may not have been the best idea–will lead to democratic reforms of the EU. Perhaps it will take too much democracy harming the UK to bring better democracy to the EU, or at least what’s left of it.

A New Development Bank Sherriff

It would be easy to forget amongst all the hub and bub of crazy world activities that China’s President Xi Jinping announced two years ago that China was establishing an Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), no longer satisfied at playing second (third? fourth?) fiddle at the World Bank and other such institutions. Last Friday, the AIIB approved its first investments, totaling $509 million in four projects. Rather than competing with existing development banks, however, it is cooperating with them. Three of the four projects are co-financed with the World Bank, the Asian Development Bank, the United Kingdom Department for International Development and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development. The projects are power grid upgrades in Bangladesh, slum renovation in Indonesia and highway construction in Pakistan and Tajikistan. AIIB has 57 founding member countries and $100 billion in committed capital. AIIB plans to invest $1.2 billion this year. The way the world is organized changed a lot this week, in ways both noticed and not.

A Popularity Contest

Every country has its good points and attributes that we may wish were different. This is true even of the two largest economies in the world, China and the United States. However, amongstcountries polled by the Pew Center, the US would receive many more invites to the prom. Other than some strange grudge Greece has against America (maybe they mistakenly think Angela Merkel is president), the US has much stronger favorability numbers than China. Unsurprisingly, China is least popular in Japan. There is an age gap in views of China with younger people far more likely to have a favorable view of China than oldsters. This is especially true in the US, Canada, France, the Netherlands, Poland, Spain and the UK. Pew notes that in Spain, for example, “42% of Spanish respondents ages 18 to 34 give China positive marks, compared with 32% of people ages 35 to 49 and just 17% of those 50 and older.” To bring this full circle, we saw this same age gap in the Brexit vote, where young people voted overwhelmingly to remain in the EU. The world will be very different decades from now when the over 50 set is gone. But already the young see a different world than their elders do.


 *Istanbul is one of our favorite cities, full of wonderful sights, food and people. We send our condolences and best wishes after the latest terror attack there and hope for better times and political reforms in that now troubled country. 

Venezuela, Smart Companies and Cheap Places to Drink Beer

Over three thousand years ago, ancient Babylonian shippers paid an additional fee to merchants so that they would be compensated should their shipment be stolen or lost at sea. and thus, insurance was created. An ancient papyrus scroll was recently discovered detailing a shipper’s complaint about the merchant’s stinginess in providing said compensation. Today, in the 21st century, International Need to Know is learning the same painful lesson that the insurance industry is not our planet’s most helpful, honest or fair business sector as we continue to deal with the aftermath of a human driver (we need self-driving cars!) running a red light and totaling our internal combustion steed. A certain insurance company should really replace their gecko logo with a snake. But we move forward nonetheless, whether by foot, pen, bike or pixel to explain oil is not the problem in Venezuela, explore where the smart companies are and tell you where you can find a cheap beer in this world. It’s this week’s International Need to Know, like an ancient Babylonian exploring the uncharted seas of world

Without further ado, here’s what you need to know.

Oil is Not the Lubricant for Venezuela’s Problems

Here at International Need to Know’s worldwide headquarters, our house is not made of glass.  So we do not mean to pick on anyone, but when we keep reading that Venezuela’s problems are due to continuing low oil prices, we can’t help but grab a small stone from our analytical quarry and at least lightly toss it at those making such misleading claims. The Skimm, a fine and enjoyable read, is but one example of those making this misleading assertion. In their daily email update they write that low oil prices are “good for your gas bill, very bad for Venezuela’s economy.” Yes, the decline in the price of oil certainly affected Venezuela’s economy. But the fall in the price of black gold affects all oil producers, from Saudi Arabia to Nigeria to Norway. However, only one oil producing country has completely empty shelves, the looming threat of starvation, power outages, deteriorating water conditions and the specter of chaos–Venezuela. The reason Venezuela is in these straits is not because of oil but because of misguided economic policies. From a convoluted currency system meant to encourage food imports but accomplishing the exact opposite, to instituting price controls to the government taking control over everything from soda making to supermarkets to food production, they have distorted and screwed up their economy. Venezuela’s current catastrophe is rooted in these and other misguided policies, not in low oil prices. The lower price of oil opened a view into the empty shelves of Venezuelan government thinking but it is not the cause of the country’s problems.

Where are the Smart Companies?

Not too long ago, we worried about the slow down in productivity growth all over the world. MIT’s Technology Review is also concerned, so much so that they went in search of the “smartest companies” in the world, compiling a list of the 50 smartest of the smart (see list below). By “smart,” MIT means companies that combine “innovative technology with an effective business model.” For our purposes we note that 64% of the companies on MIT’s list are based in the United States. In examining the smaller list of international businesses, we see that China has five companies on the list, validating our assertion that China does not get the credit it deserves for being innovative.* It’s slim pickings after China with both the UK and Japan having 3 companies on the list and Israel with 2.

*Though we admit that all five of the Chinese companies are businesses that took ideas from U.S. companies (Google, Amazon, etc) and recreated them in China with all the government protection that entails.

Most Expensive Cities for Expats

Not too long ago we spoke with a CEO of a Canadian company who complained about Americans saying they were going to flee to Canada if a certain one of our presidential candidates somehow was elected. The CEO’s complaint was that Americans felt they could just waltz into Canada as if we owned the place without worrying about Canadian immigration laws. For those Americans wishing to leave their country for reasons political or otherwise, they may want to study the chart below showing the most expensive cities in the world for expats. The actuarial/benefits company, Mercer, priced 200 items in 375 cities and determined that Hong Kong is the most expensive city in the world for expats. Illustrating how the world has changed over the last two decades, Asian cities dominate the top ten. We’re not sure what it says about INTN, but we have spent time in many of the 10 cheapest cities for expats, and wager we know how to find a cheap beer in cities expensive, cheap or otherwise.

Most and Least Expensive Cities for Expats


China Bears, Brexit and Positive Workers

International Need to Know recently stated to someone that by the time we need to purchase a new car, self-driving vehicles will be ubiquitous and with the rise of car sharing platforms we may never need to buy an automobile again. But, the future has a way of making fun of us, and certainly the driver who ran the red light on Sunday and barreled right into our car, mocked our visions of the future. But not even being slightly wounded by a reckless driver nor the trials and tribulations of buying a new car and dealing with insurance companies keep us from fending off Chinese bears, worrying about Brexits and examining where the happy workers are. It’s this week’s International Need to Know, your fully autonomous purveyor of crucial international information.

Without further ado, here’s what you need to know.

Shooh, bears, shooh

Okay everybody, gather around the campfire–we’re going to tell you a story about…wait, get out of here China bears. Come on, get away from our garbage–Well, I guess we’re going to have to address these rude China bears who came crashing into International Need to Know’s pristine global campground. They are definitely out there spewing out various troubling data about China’s economy. Even the IMF has gotten into the act with concerns about the level of corporate debt in China, which is now 145% of GDP, a very high level indeed. The IMF’s first deputy managing director (just how many deputy managers are there at the IMF? We’re angling for the fourth deputy assistant managing director position) David Lipton said in a speech in Shenzhen earlier this week that corporate debt “…is a key fault line in the Chinese economy . . . And it is important that China tackles it soon.” Lipton notes that this is mostly a state-owned enterprise (SOE) problem with SOE’s accounting for 55 percent of corporate debt, far greater than their 22 percent share of economic output. He further notes that these SOE’s “are also far less profitable than private enterprises.” But it’s not just corporate debt that has the bears riled up. As you see below, China is facing its worst job outlook since the Manpower Group began its surveys in 2005. The China Bears also point out that private investment is now below 4 percent (see 2nd chart below). Of course, public investment has spiked in recent months, but this has the bears worried too since they believe China can’t continue to prime the credit pumps to grow GDP as they have in the past. Certainly China continues to pile money into infrastructure, spending more than the U.S. and Europe combined, but that’s partly a function of underinvestment by the U.S. and Europe. And, of course, others probably think this is smart Keynesian policy in times of an economic slowdown. China’s economy has slowed down and is unlikely to grow at its previous rates. But, at least as of yet, it is not crashing and there is still lots of robust economic activity and economic transition occurring along with its deep challenges. So, we welcome bears to our garbage and may even share some of our food and drink, but we’re not prepared to cede the entire campground to them yet.



Exit Stage…?

A week from today, the good people of the United Kingdom will vote on whether to exit the EU. As we write, the polls show those wanting to leave are in the lead. But we wonder if this will be similar to the Scotland separation election in 2014, where the polls indicated a toss up, but when it came time to pull the lever, voters found it difficult to vote “see ya later”. That being said, there’s a real chance that next week’s INTN will be delivered in a different world, one in which the EU is smaller. An even larger worry than the UK leaving is that their exit could set the stage for additional departures. A new Pew Center poll finds that 61% of the French have a negative view of the EU. That doesn’t mean, of course, that the French will vote to leave the EU. They may just want the EU to be reformed. In fact, one hopes the lesson learned, no matter which way the UK votes, is that the EU needs to reform itself, politically and in how it is structured economically. It is unfortunate that as the world in some ways is becoming more splintered institutionally, we live in an age of more and more transnational issues: climate change, global health challenges like the Zika virus, terrorism, Justin Bieber world tours and more. Perhaps the current institutions and transnational infrastructure are not fit to address these problems. But the answer should be to develop an infrastructure that will, not merely tearing down the ones we have.


Happy Workers

If you’re a tyrannical boss looking for where you can have maximum negative impact, move to India and run a company. That’s where we find the most employees who feel positive about their work. In fact, according to, in India 88% of employees feel positive about their work. The other 12% are more than likely customer service representatives for Comcast. Mexico comes in second and the US of A is third in percentage of positive feeling workers. On the other hand, more than half of Japanese employees do not feel positive about their work. While contemplating how you feel about your labors, examine the full list below.


India’s Fertility Rates, Trouble for Commodity Exporters and Mean Tourists

Not too long after eating shrimp and grits this week, we saw that obesity rates are again up in the United States. But bigger news than how large Americans are is that you can now access thearchives of International Need to Know at the Gittes Global website. So skip that donut (beignets are better anyway) and peruse the wit and wisdom of INTN at your leisure. But even the launch of a new website did not prevent us from examining Indian fertility rates, what the fall in commodity prices has done to exporters and where the meanest tourists are. It’s this week’s International Need to Know, providing all the international news that fits in our expanded waist band.

Without further ado, here’s what you need to know.

The Turning of the Indian Screw

India is large. It is the second most populous nation in the world, trailing China by only 40 million people. We’ve pointed out that the world’s working-age population is getting smaller except in Africa and India. But things are changing in India. The total fertility rate (TFR) is now atreplacement level of 2.3 (in developed countries replacement level is 2.1 but India’s higher infant mortality rate and skewed gender ratio makes 2.3 replacement level).  In rural areas TFR is 2.5 but in the urban parts of India, TFR is down to 1.8.  Since India continues to urbanize, it is likely that soon India will be below replacement level which means over time we will see the graying of India just as Grecian Formula is being dabbed on so many other parts of the world. This won’t happen for a few years but when it does it will have the same slowing impact on GDP as it has in other parts of the world. It likely also implies that the world’s population, which the UN currently predicts to peak at 11.2 billion by the end of the century (how many sentient robots will there be by then? Will the UN keep track of robotic demographics? Will they have a seat at the Security Council table?), will peak at a lower level. For the next 25 years or so India’s population will continue to grow because death rates are falling which compensates for falling birth rates, but that larger population will skew older. This will be beneficial in some ways and present challenges in others. Demography is, if not destiny, certainly a helpful, enlightening guide.

Commodities and Exports

The drop in commodity prices has affected economies all over the world, but its most devastating effects have been on large commodity exporters. As you see in the chart below, commodity exporters’ GDP growth rates have trended down the last two years right in line with the decline in commodity prices. This has led to credit growth in commodity exporting markets. According to the World Bank, “…credit growth in commodity-exporting EMDE (EMDE is World Bank speak for “emerging markets and developing economies”) has been rapid, near the pace and levels of credit-to-GDP ratios associated with past credit booms.” The implication is that this credit boom could lead to a credit bust if credit growth continues unabated.  All of this, of course, is connected to decreasing demand in China. China’s economic transition and whether other emerging markets pick up the growth slack, will have profound impacts on other countries’ economies. Will the policy reactions to decreased commodity prices lead to financial crisis in a host of commodity exporting countries? We ponder the question while enjoying a cheap bowl of Cheerios.


Mean Tourists

We all know ugly tourists. In the 1950s Americans were accused of being ugly tourists, later it was Germans and then Japanese and recently it is the Chinese being so accused. It comes with the territory of becoming a prosperous country whose citizens start traveling the world, bringing their cultural peccadillos with them.  But who are the meanest tourists? dives into the data to tell us that Koreans are. South, not North (presumably North Koreans are not doing too much touring). The good folks at Priceonomics looked at data of online reviews of tourism and travel activities and found Koreans were more likely than other nationalities to post bad reviews. Of course, even Koreans were fairly positive overall with only 18% of their reviews of tourism activities being unfavorable. If you have an Airbnb rental, run a museum or some other tourist attraction, lure in the apparently easy-to-please Czechs, they give the most favorable reviews.


China’s Clean Energy Strides, Lazy Workers (?) and Where Smoking is Hot

This week International Need to Know attended a discussion regarding International Conflict on a Cyber Battlefield featuring the author Adam Segal. There was much angst expressed in the audience at the vulnerabilities in our computer systems and how at risk we are to being hacked. We would give you more details but it was an off-the record discussion. Of course, our smartphones were probably hacked and the discussion immediately leaked to But even as we madly strengthen our passwords and ponder how to convince Peter Thiel to fund our lawsuit against David Stern, we still examine clean energy strides in China, worry about why people don’t get anything done at work anymore, and eye where cigarette smoking is hot. It’s this week’s International Need to Know, the weekly newsletter that knocks down three pointers on important information around the world.

Without further ado, here’s what you need to know.

China Carbon Dating

China bears continue to circle our campsite but we ward them off for at least one more week as we look at CO2 emissions in China, with the caveat that there is a bear component to it. You may remember, if you pay attention to such things (which is our job here at INTN) that back in 2014, China announced “ambitious” carbon emission reduction targets. In fact, their aim was to limit coal growth use to 3% per year. They so far are easily achieving that goal with coal use actually decreasing in the last year. Now we can definitely view this as another underlying sign that China’s economy is slowing down and not growing at the alleged 6.7% growth rate (back bears, back!). But, there are also signs that growth in renewable energy is also playing a big part. In the graph below you can see non-fossil fuel energy sources (solar and wind mostly) are growing. You won’t be surprised that we believe the dotted projection line is underestimating the future growth of these energy sources as solar installations are growing at an exponential rate. The current total installed capacity of wind and solar reached 180GW in 2015 (the target was 140GW) .Even current installation rates mean that the existing 2020 target of 300GW will be reached by mid-2018, and you can bet that installation rates will increase over the next two years (go ahead, book your flight to Vegas). China also aims to have coal’s share of energy use fall to 62% by 2020. It’s already down to 63%, falling 1% every year since 2010, so the 62% target is likely to be reached before the 2020 goal. The energy world is changing faster than most realize, including in the world’s largest polluter.

Stop Looking at Facebook and WeChat

There are two ways to increase GDP. One is for your working-age population to increase so there are more people working and producing more goods and services. The second is for those workers to produce more than they previously did thanks to improved technology and business processes. As we noted in this space last month, for most countries, other than Africa and India, the working age population is decreasing or about to decrease. So that leaves increasing productivity as the way our world will boost GDP growth rates. Unfortunately, productivity growth rates are increasing at a much smaller rate than usual. There’s been lots of talk lately about U.S. productivity rates lagging but it’s not just in America. The whole world is experiencing a productivity slowdown. As you see in the OECD chart below, productivity is increasing at a slower rate in Japan, Korea, Germany and the UK, not just in the United States.  Automation may change that in future years, with good consequences for GDP but perhaps bad consequences otherwise, at least in the short run.  But the question is what has been going on the last decade that has so reduced productivity gains? Have the technology advances in recent years been ones that do not boost productivity unlike in previous decades?  If economists weren’t so busy watching cat videos on the Internet maybe we’d know the answer.

Where is Smoking Hot?

One of modern’s life’s great pleasures is being able to go to a bar or a concert and not have to come home smelling like cigarette smoke. I once half-joked during the anti-smoking law debates that I’d rather the person at the table next to me in a restaurant was shooting up heroin rather than smoking a cigarette–the former doesn’t particularly affect me but the latter’s second hand smoke certainly does. But, there are still more than 1 billion smokers in the world, the majority of them men.  And, in 27 countries, smoking is actually on the increase. They are mostly countries in the Middle East and Africa. Take a deep, clean breath and see the full list below.

African Lions, Vietnam Loves Trade & The Straddle Bus

In 1977, when International Need to Know was but a mere lad, we attended the first Seattle Mariners baseball game ever in the concrete confines of the Kingdome. The Mariners lost that night and for much of the last 40 years have continued to lose in ways both conventional and confounding. So we are unaccustomed to the flurry of success in the first fourth of this season, including the barrage of runs last night and the walk-off home run the night before. But even adrift in a sea of victory, we still have enough wits about us to anticipate the roar of African Lions, chuckle at Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders’ worst nightmare and gaze with wonder at the latest innovation coming out of China. It’s this week’s International Need to Know, the weekly newsletter that even while looking in its basement for stray millennials, provides key information about the world for people of all ages.

Without further ado, here’s what you need to know.

African Lions

We recently wondered in this space about Africa becoming a prime location for textiles.  Africa is generally ignored in the news unless the subject is disease, corruption or war.  And yet, Africa is large and diverse. And it’s been growing. After East Asia, it is the second-fastest growing economic region in the world.  On current trends, Africa will grow 3.7% this year. The African Development Bank tells us that growth rates in Africa rose on average by 2% during the 1980-90s but by 5% in 2001-14.The growth rate has slowed a bit in the last year and a half due to commodity-reliant African countries being hit by the fall in commodity prices, but the growth rate is still above other regions. The growth is highest in East Africa followed by West Africa and Central Africa. We all know about the urbanization taking place in China and other parts of Asia, but the same thing is happening in Africa, only faster (but so far without the robust infrastructure). Since 1995, the population living in cities in Africa has doubled. African countries have lots of challenges going forward but those that build out infrastructure, institute economic reforms and provide strong education, could become African Lions like the Asian Tigers of yesteryear.

Trump and Sanders Worst Nightmare

Everyone knows the quote about history repeating itself (or if you don’t, you’re doomed to hear it again). Far less known is the notion that history likes to paint mustaches on us when we’re asleep.*  And, Vietnam offers a great example of it. President Obama is in Vietnam as we write, 40 years or so after America exited a war to stop Communism from spreading across southeast Asia. But, look at the poll below. Over 90 percent of Vietnamese say “most people are better off in a free market economy.” An equal number say trade is good. And 75 percent of the population have favorable views of the United States. Of course, the vast majority of Vietnamese were born after the U.S.-Vietnam war ended (go to Vietnam and ask about the war and they will ask, “which one?” There have been a number before and since the U.S. war). Nearly 70 percent of Vietnamese are under the age of 35. And with low labor costs, Vietnam stands to gain in world trade. When I was last in Vietnam, it was remarkable how many of the business people were counting on the Trans Pacific Partnership trade agreement to improve their economy. So, there’s reasons why Vietnamese are so market, trade and American friendly. Even so, the poll results are interesting and perhaps not so predictable from an Embassy rooftop in 1975.  

The Straddle Bus!>

We’ve given China bears lots of space in recent INTN editions but China is complicated and as we noted a number of months ago, it is an innovative place despite stereotypes to the contrary. So we focus this week on one of those cool innovations, the Straddle Bus. The idea was first broached in Shenzhen (one of the most entrepreneurial areas of China) a few years ago and now a Beijing company has picked up the baton and is building a life-sized model for Changzhou. They expect to start testing it this summer. Essentially the straddle bus “will run along a fixed route, and its passenger compartment spans the width of two traffic lanes.” Cars will be able to drive underneath it, thus alleviating traffic congestion. Passengers will load onto the bus at designated elevator stations. It will have a capacity of 1200 passengers, again reminding us of the scale of China. The engineers claim the costs are 16% of the cost of building a subway. Regardless, it’s very cool. Check out the video demonstration.