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Global Thoughts — 2008 Predictions — 12 January 2008

Reviewing my 2007 predictions, some of them were great and some totally sucked. You can re-read them and see for yourself. 

Ivan’s Predictions for 2007 3 January 2007

I didn’t know of this guy Sarkozy in France a year ago and the rather sickly Ayatollah Khameini in Iran didn’t die. Musharraf didn’t get knocked off; instead, he made sure everyone else got knocked off or kicked out for as long as possible. Anyway, let’s look ahead.

Middle East — This is the year Marwan Barghouti gets out of prison unless Abbas personally wants this potential rival kept there. But Abbas says he doesn’t want to remain in his job past another year so it makes sense that this guy lets loose. Olmert is talking seriously with the Syrians; don’t know what’s coming of it but relations have definitely improved behind the scenes. Assad has nothing going for him in his lifetime except to be a trapped ruler of a useless country with no legacy unless he gets with the program and makes peace with the Israelis, and I think he knows it. Olmert really wants to make deals with the Arabs and interestingly nobody in Israel that matters is outright opposing him. Jerusalem and the holy sites are on the table, right of return is not on the table but everybody knows that anyway, and territorial swaps are a given. Iran is a problem that the Israelis think they can deal with militarily and they are working around the clock preparing and I think it’s a safe guess that the Americans are playing the good cop with Iran right now trying to see if they can secure a deal because playing bad cop strengthens the hardliners in that country even though Ahmadinejad’s rule has been a disaster for the country’s economy. Also, there are domestic elections in March and it strengthens moderate elements in that country if the hardliners can’t campaign against the US bogeyman militarily threatening the country. That explains the National Intelligence Estimate leak in November and the moves by the Sunni states to seek a detente with Iran but beneath the surface they are scared to death of Iran’s nuclear plans. In the case of Egypt, talk of normalization of relations with Iran is simply a play to get the US to treat Egypt better. If after the elections nothing happens good, I expect military action in the 2nd or 3rd quarter of 2008. Lebanon has as expected mulled along with nothing happening; Hizbullah holds a veto but has to be careful how far to push the envelope. The army chief is a good choice to be president and the country’s army has regained a good amount of national respect. Saudi’s new king impresses me and I expect better times ahead for that country. Iraq is an interesting situation — the Americans are turning the corner here because for whatever reason the Sunni leadership realized that it would be better in the long run to pair up with the Americans and the other Sunni nations in the region and be constructive instead of simply trying to knock off the Shiites and the Americans and basically take on the entire world. The Americans will try in the coming year or two to move out of the cities and into bases along the periphery which is what I’ve been advocating. They are trying to reach a detente with the Iranians to allow the Sunnis and Shiites in Iraq to figure out how to get along in a united Iraq. The Turks have shown that they will lean on the Kurds to get them to play ball as well. The various Sunni states in the region are learning to get along with each other against Iran. Qatar muzzled Al-Jazeera after years of using it as a prick against the Saudis because they know at the end of the days that their lot is closer to Saudi Arabia than to Iran. Jordan keeps a low profile; Bush didn’t visit there. Probably best for Jordan. Inside Israel, Olmert is very strong and Barak is not going to resign from the government. Barak should just keep doing what he’s doing and some day he’ll be the next prime minister unless some superstar emerges or he screws up. Polls still show Netanyahu beating out Barak if elections were held now, so Barak has no reason to bring down the government and lose an election. People inside power like Olmert because he’s a clubhouse player and works assiduously to keep everyone happy so that they will not spend their time looking to make life hard for him. The biggest change I’ve noticed in the Palestinian camp is that people are talking less of a 2-state solution and more about a generalized autonomy within Israel. They are realizing that they can get independence but might wind up doing nothing with it but fighting themselves and that they will be at the mercy of Israel and that 2 other things are true: The Arabs around them don’t like them and have nothing to offer because their economies are poor; the Israelis have a winning economy. So if you can’t beat them, join them. This means that my friend Oded who has been saying this for 20 years now is probably going to be proven right. We are probably looking at a long-term truce with Hamas with no peace treaty in Gaza and  some sort of arrangement between the Palestinians and Israelis that calls for something like a neutered state and some kind of non-belligerent situation that involves a high degree of autonomy within Israel. Gaza will go along with this if and when the West Bank does because they will be left out in the cold otherwise. The question is whether or not the Israelis think they have to keep the Arabs out of Israel in order to achieve this. If you think the Separation Wall is what keeps Israel safe, the answer is yes. If you think that the main reason this past year had the fewest terrorist attacks inside Israel because the Israelis prevented them, the answer is yes. If you think the reason is that the Arabs aren’t trying as much, the answer is no. The answer to me is a combination of the above. The Arabs are not trying as much from certain areas, and in other areas the Israelis are actively preventing them from succeeding. So the answer is that autonomy is ultimately the right way to go, but that it may have to come in stages as various portions of the Palestinian community learn to get with the program. Remember that as soon as the Syrians and Iranians agree to a peace with the Israelis, the Hamas in the South and the Hizbullah in the North goes out of business. So it’s a package deal all around.

Subcontinent and Asia — Pakistan’s Musharraf has things under control in a certain sense but the new army chief may want to push him out this year and run things himself. He is not a person that people tend to dislike. Bhutto to me was an overrated person who was a lousy prime minister a decade ago; her death is no loss to Pakistan and her party is a family fiefdom. They could have nominated a dog and it would be the next prime minister. The army is still the nation’s best bet, especially since the nuclear button has to be kept under control. Afghanistan seems to be working out in some areas and stagnated in others; the jihadist war seems to be more and more confined to Pakistan and Afghanistan as Al-Qaida seems to be contained in other places such as Iraq and ineffectual in other places such as Europe. The indications are that the US is preparing with Pakistan to try to go in for the kill this year in Pakistan and this might be the year we see the end of Bin Laden and Mullah Omar. India is focused on its economy as it should be. Its stock market is overvalued and it is the country’s top priority not to have it crash. Japan tries out yet another new prime minister and China continues to do its thing very well and lays low to ride out the Olympics. It does its best by making trade deals with various countries that offer commodities especially in Africa, giving aid with no strings attached and keeping out of military conflicts so as not to drain its economy. It is also building pipelines to bring the ‘Stan countries with their oil and gas into its orbit as suppliers. This is very threatening to Russia. I was surprised at North Korea this year; I didn’t expect Condi Rice to beat out Cheney in the area of foreign policy and get the Administration to pursue a more nuanced approach to intractable problems. North Korea is moving along in the right direction. It is trying to secure its long-term future by being more like China than East Germany and it has every probability of succeeding, least of all because South Korea doesn’t want to absorb an economic basket case like West Germany did. I continue to invest in the economies of Australia, Malaysia, Hong Kong and Singapore and believe these are the best bets for stability in the years ahead.

Africa, Latin America and Europe — Africa? Mugabe is still there in Zimbabwe and basically the only thing that matters is that China is all over the place doing deals. Their embassy in Lisbon Portugal is huge and that’s their base for Africa. It’s just one swamp of corruption and except for Bill Gates trying to cut down malaria it doesn’t seem a hopeful place. Even Oprah couldn’t manage to open a school there without someone abusing the girls. Angola is not on my radar but I understand it’s a spot on the continent that is working as it produces lots more oil.  Latin America is not turning out as admiring as Venezuela’s Chavez would have hoped. Even with the high oil price out there, he has peaked. Brazil continues to do right with its economy and Argentina’s Kirchner made some bad moves that will keep that county second-rate to its neighbors unless his wife reverses them. I haven’t been to Mexico yet; my friend there tells me it’s not safe. But the new president of that country seems to be making great strides in achieving real reform in that country. If that continues, I expect that I should find it useful to visit.  In Europe, Gordon Brown has no choice but to lay low and do things right if he wants to remain in his chair because he will only survive if he can show competency. France’s Sarkozy is shifting gears as he realizes that he cannot succeed in his original agenda but could succeed in adopting more of the socialist agenda. I don’t know if anyone can turn France around. To the extent that he can’t, Germany will take the lead in Europe so it is France’s loss if they don’t follow Sarkozy. Austria is a quiet giant that has been a good performer. Russia’s Putin is very much in power even if he’s behind the scenes and everybody seems satisfied to keep it that way. I’d vote for him. Even though he looks like a dictator, he does have to keep various interests balanced and that’s probably why the new guy is the consensus choice. He doesn’t really represent any particular faction and therefore is amenable to all of them. Russia has done well under him but too much of his success is owed to the high price of oil. It is a country that has problems, mostly of its own making. Europe is learning to get away from Russian gas blackmail by creating new pipelines and dealing with countries such as Libya. China is making moves on the ‘Stans to move those countries into its orbit and one should keep an eye on Kazakstan to see which way the wind blows. If Kosovo gains independence, it is a sure-fire blow to Russia keeping its various clients in line.

Economics and Markets —  I think the Euro this year will ultimately lose ground against the dollar in the sense that the dollar’s fall will continue for awhile but then stabilize. Oil will drop in price significantly despite a temporary surge in the event of a military strike against Iran (which if done by Israel instead of the US will have very little effect on the oil market) — the fundamentals are going against a high price of oil and it is only a matter of time before exploration of alternative fuel sources becomes more cost-efficient. It is said that there is as much oil in Canada as Saudi Arabia if only it becomes more cost-efficient to extract it. Brazil has made great strides this year in reducing the cost of producing ethanol. Global demand will decrease this year due to recession and this will greatly affect the price of oil. Right now the thing keeping the price up is fear of hot spots and speculation by traders; a good number of the hot spots such as Nigeria, piracy and Al Qaida seem to be increasingly under control.. China is responsible for a third of the rising demand globally but China itself is a not a major importer of oil as a percentage of the total demand, so its effect on demand is exaggerated. The US will be in recession this year mainly due to the housing market and the default in credit card debts that are sure to come, but US companies will continue to be profitable because many of them make more profits abroad than in the US and the rest of the world is doing pretty well. This will keep performance good; US interest rates down and the US dollar will still be relatively weak and this will keep exports up and add to the good performance of US companies for shareholders. The real estate market will drop further and it may be several more years before the full extent of the drop in values is reached or that such drop will be felt in markets such as Manhattan. The big story in the US is all these foreign governments via investment funds that are buying up American companies in strategic areas, such as Citibank, Merrill Lynch and Dow Chemical. The Arabs are being smarter than they were 30 years ago when they bought pink elephants or the Japanese when they bought real estate. The Americans will wake up someday and notice they sold a good number of assets out to have the Arabs and Chinese bail us out of our current recession for their own good reasons (ie: the Arabs want to keep us as customers which is a hard thing to do if the world goes into recession). For that reason, the US Dollar remains the world’s currency of choice; the Euro is a good currency to ride in today’s markets but the Dollar is still the reserve currency on which the world runs.

US Presidential Race — If it were between Hillary Clinton and John McCain, I’d vote for McCain because at least with McCain you know what he believes and what you’re getting and you have to give him credit for sticking with the Iraq surge policy when everyone thought it was a loser and being proven generally correct; that really is the essence of leadership (and I have to say at this point that history is likely to be kinder to George Bush than expected because overall over the past 8 years the war against Al-Qaida is being slowly won and he shifted gears on foreign policy and he is scoring successes). You’ll never know with Hillary what you’re getting till she’s in office and switches positions several times afterward as the polls come out each quarter. McCain is a mercurial guy who is subject to self-destruction; Hillary is much more disciplined. Bloomberg is in the final stages of deciding if he should run; he commissioned very sophisticated polling right down to every zip code in the country and he has been collecting this data for half a year. I would prefer Bloomberg to all of them. Obama would be a great secretary of state for America but I don’t see him as a viable president without more experience. In New Hampshire as people saw him compared in debates to other candidates he lost support, as well among the college students who were originally attracted to him and the younger voters are generally the least reliable to actually be registered and to vote. I don’t see him winning in the long term. I expect Giuliani to fade over the next month with poorer than expected results, partially because he has no momentum from the early primaries and people won’t take him seriously as a result.

Pleasures of Life — Travel has become more expensive as 9/11 recedes. Air traffic in the US is improving as everyone got so fed up last summer and as airlines lower capacity in part due to the high cost of oil. Heathrow just got rid of its one-bag carryon rule in an indication that the water is warm. Might as well after being rated the #1 worst airport in the world by business travelers.

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