Scenes from a year-end visit to Tampa/St. Petersburg, Florida.
For a few days this month, I was on a personal hideaway sitting in a villa in St. Barth in the Caribbean and the TV offered Fox News and the CNN domestic feed. It is amazing how banal the issues being discussed by America are; the channels all cover the same thing and hype it to the stratosphere because they feel they literally have nothing else to offer of interest. During my trip, an example of the haranguing was whether Obama’s team answered enough questions concerning any contact any of them might have had with the Governor of Illinois who was arrested for trying to sell Obama’s senate seat. Put to the side the fact that Obama made a press conference explaining that he had reviewed the issue and found nothing but that he was withholding his final report for one week at the request of the attorney general which should have shut this issue down for a bit. One afternoon it was the countdown to the federal interest rate cut and you have this whole panel of experts sitting there on CNN reading the press release announcing the rate cut trying to ascertain its meaning — “Have you ever seen such a thing, it’s unprecedented, it is very complicated…” like they’ve never seen a ½ point rate cut before and now they are going to spend the rest of the afternoon figuring this out and explaining it to the rest of us. What America watches for its news is in no way comparable to something like BBC World and for whatever reason nobody wants to carry the channel. I’ve written to the head of programming for Time Warner and will let you know what he advises.
For travel notes regarding St. Barts in the Caribbean as well as a list of Ivan’s Favourite Hideaways Around the World, go to http://globalthoughts.com/hideaways.html.
Our family headed out to Tampa / St. Petersburg, Florida over Christmas weekend to the Tradewinds Resort, a really great place for families to hang out on a beautiful beach on the west coast of Florida. Tampa is an easy place to fly to, the area is pleasant, there are good restaurants and the resort was reasonably priced and they didn’t nickel and dime you, family friendly and had a good number of activities such as a trampoline, water slide, minigolf, paddleboats, pirate show, movies at the pool, ocean buggies and a kiddie camp you could drop in on throughout the day. This was a better than expected destination. I found it through a book called 100 Best Family Resorts in North America and it has really given us some good hints. A few hints: The Don Cesar Hotel on St. Petersburg beach has a great dining room; stay on the beach and not in town at a place like the Renaissance Vinoy, and if you are in town at the Baywalk mall, the pizza right on the square is real good Italian stuff. I reviewed the resort on Trip Advisor and you could find more details I wrote about this property on that site.
Usually, when the ball comes down over Times Square, there is that feeling of optimism toward the New Year. Not this year. I don’t have the expectation that it will be good; the question is mainly how bad. I do think that overall things will begin to recover in 2009 but we may not notice it until 2010.
Reviewing predictions made a year ago, some were totally right (ie: the price of oil would go down a lot) and some were totally wrong (the Gaza ceasefire would remain in place long term and I didn’t think the whole world would suffer together in such a deep economic recession). You are welcome to see how I did
So here goes this year.
US — Sunday’s NY Times op-ed page on 4 January carried a 2 page article which must have been so well written that the editors gave all that space to it. It says in a clear way that just about everything the US Government and industry has done so far isn’t going to solve any of the problems facing the economy or the financial industry. It is in the required reading bin and it is no surprise. I essentially made this point last month but now I can explain why after reading this article. See The End of the Financial World as We Know It by Michael Lewis and David Einhorn.
If Obama’s team changes direction, we have a chance. I expect that financial stimulus will be passed, particularly since they have been smart enough to put a large tax cut around it to get the Republicans on board. The tax cut would be twice as large as what Bush did a few years ago but even so it is small potatoes in terms of what it will mean to the average person except that spread among so many people it will cost a lot — I think it is wasted money that will be absorbed into bank accounts rather than produce any result. If the stimulus package is crafted to actually stimulate the economy rather than the districts of influential congresspeople, we should see results in a year. We know from experience that anything Government does takes a year before you see the results. I have written though that changing market psychology matters too; if people don’t feel like spending money, all the other stuff won’t work. I don’t know if the package will deal with this issue. So I really don’t know what will happen here; we have to see what they actually do in terms of trying to solve the problem. Right now, we do know that people still don’t know what to expect and trust has not been restored to the lending community or to the marketplace, and this uncertainty is preventing any recovery in the financial markets. I am hopeful that real estate in Manhattan will become affordable this year; distress selling has not yet occurred. The rest of the country should reach its low this year. History shows that the bottom in the Manhattan property market will take a few more years to be reached; perhaps the cycle will be accelerated this time — I hope more than I know. Right now there are good sales in the department stores and the cost of going on vacation is going down. The airlines still charge crazy change and cancellation fees and this has definitely impacted on our family travel plans for 2009. We simply aren’t booking as many trips involving airplanes and I have more rental car coupons coming in than I can keep in a drawer. And we are going to cheaper destinations which are really hurting and therefore making offers we can’t refuse and constantly rechecking trips we have booked to see if the price has gone down (and it usually does). Funny thing about American cars — some of them are rather good (we just drove a really cute Chevrolet car over the Christmas break) and GM has under its leader made significant changes. Still, I expect Chevrolet to be folded into some other company this year.
The vacation and department store thing is important because in more ways than one, those with money to spend will benefit in this recession. One reason the rich get richer and the poor get poorer is that the US is terrible in offering real solutions to real problems. Here is a perfect example:
Today I had the challenge of dealing with an employee who just found out he needs about 10k worth of dental work over the next year or two. The US Government created a Health Savings Account to help people put away money tax free for catastrophic health care or expenses not picked up by insurance. Sounds good so far. Problem is that the HSA’s can only be connected to a qualifying insurance policy, meaning an insurance policy that has a deductible of at least $1,250 a year. A deductible is what you pay before insurance promises to come in and pay off the rest. Our employees and most Americans are on what are known as HMO insurance plans that effectively cover you for certain types of treatments within a network of doctors and don’t cover you at all outside the network or for uncovered types of treatments. Dental is usually not covered and dental plans offer limited coverage but dental problems have a nasty habit of becoming large uncovered expenses. However, if you are in an HMO plan and insurance will not pay anything out of network or dental, there is no reason to think about a deductible because as I just said HMO insurance will not pay anything out of network. So basically anyone in a true HMO plan will never be able to have an HSA. And anybody who could afford an insurance plan with a deductible (they usually cost twice as much as an HMO plan), would find that an HSA only allows a person to put in about $3,000 a year toward the HSA — a very small amount if something actually needs to be paid for outside of insurance. My employee is totally screwed under such a system. HSA accounts are basically designed for people without any money who won’t spend any money because those with some money who would have to spend more money won’t find it useful. This is a perfect example of the ridiculous solutions Government offers in the US.
Now the way you get around it is this — there are executive compensation and incentive plans that allow a company to pay in money knowing certain people will have various medical expenses during a given year. You can create a specific class of people to be covered by this plan and you can choose which people will be covered and to what extent. The company that employs you deducts the expenses which we will call premiums. The “insurance company” pays out your claims against the premiums you paid in. The benefits paid out are not taxable to you as income. The insurance company takes a small fee for doing the administrative work. This is a great deal because if you had paid these fees yourself you would have been paying them with after tax dollars since the tax deduction for health expenses is only allowed beyond the first 7.5% of your adjusted gross income (meaning that if you made 150k a year, the first 11k of health expenses would not be deductible — or 22k would be non-deductible if you made 300k a year). The company takes a deduction and you don’t get income. A great way to divert money you would otherwise be paid, eh? So again, the rich get richer because the only person that would conceivably use such a service is someone who makes enough money to care to benefit from the tax dodge and who could in the first place afford to pay for the health care. And you have to be pretty savvy and hooked in to find out about such schemes too. But for the Everyman in this country who comes up with a 10k disaster he gets wiped out because neither the insurance system nor the government savings plans is equipped to deal with his problem.
Israel-Gaza — Obviously the top story today is Israel and Gaza. I assume that Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia told Israel that they would cover its ass as long as (1) there were no TV pictures coming out of Gaza and (2) the Israelis make sure they win. Once any of these items are no longer true, that acquiescence will evaporate and the shelling of that UN school is the perfect example. The Israelis seem to have learned from 2006; they are being more ambiguous about their objectives; not shying away from using ground troops and hitting whatever targets are causing them to be threatened before taking it in the face, even if under previous rules of warfare these targets would have been spared; and they are keeping the area a closed military zone leaving people to watch talking heads in a studio or in a parking lot. They have spent 2 years training for this mission and presumably know what they are doing with much more ground and electronic intelligence than they had about Hizbullah in Lebanon; I read a quote in the NY Times from a Palestinian either in Gaza or in Egypt that said that the Israelis seem to know which tunnels carry food and which ones arms, and they know which tunnels they want to blow up. I am told that they fire lasers onto houses which then send a signal to a helicopter which then sends a missile to the house. This way they don’t have to enter a booby-trapped house and endanger themselves without good cause. This is rather clever 21st century warfare to counter an opposition that has like never before brought warfare into urban areas and that hides behind civilian shields. I understand that a Fatah website writes that top Hamas commanders have been fleeing into Egypt and that their underlings have been refusing their orders. I don’t have the feeling that the Arabs will buy into the heroics of Hamas when this all over given the fact that the Israelis are not falling into the traps laid for them. On a larger scale, the Arab regimes are keeping their streets quiet and the Israelis are using live ammunition to suppress demonstrations on the West Bank making it clear that previous rules of the game are suspended. They hesitated before going into stage 3 of the operation but now they are on the outskirts of Gaza City and I imagine they will be going after the tunnels in Rafah and along the Egyptian border if they are convinced the Egyptians are not willing to do it themselves and talks in this regard between Gilad Sher and Omar Suleiman fail to fix this issue with the Egyptians doing it — perhaps the Egyptians would rather the Israelis do it.
The bigger picture here is that the moderate Arab states obviously want the Israelis to put Hamas and Iran, by extension, in its place. It has to tell you something that Egypt won’t even let doctors or reporters enter Gaza. The scathing criticism I have been reading of Egyptian and PA officials regarding Hamas and Iran is stuff I never thought I would see in print. The peace process is frozen with the status quo; Abbas doesn’t have the standing to deliver Gaza or take it over, and the Israelis are fed up with their breached borders and are about to return Bibi Netanyahu to the prime ministership unless the center-left regains the initiative and shows that they can guarantee security and deter the fundamentalist veto. Another ceasefire that results in a multi-national committee of observers that serves up excuses while militias rearm which has been the case in Lebanon just won’t cut it anymore. Everybody knows that what is now happening in Gaza is going to happen in Lebanon unless Hizbullah moves beyond being an armed resistance faction within a state. I don’t know if Israel is hoping Hizbullah opens up a northern front and gives it the excuse to deal with this now, under the assumption that Gaza would have been an easier job to deal with a year ago before Hamas used the ceasefire to rearm as it did this past year. What I am told is that they don’t want two fights at once but that they have the resources to do it and won’t shy away if the Hizbullah gives them the excuse. My expectation is that the Hizbullah knows it got its pants beat militarily in 2006 and Iran has no interest in losing its assets that it is currently building in Lebanon now and that is probably why the Iranians are taking such pains to keep Hizbullah out of this round.
Past experience is that the Israelis will fight to stalemate and claim victory; Hamas will survive and declare victory and the Arab street will accept the Hamas version. Abbas’s crew have no chance of retaking Gaza (certainly not if it looks like the Israelis put them there) and the Israelis don’t want to be left holding Gaza; the Egyptians don’t want it either. Presumably nobody wants to be responsible for the upkeep of over a million refugees living in camps in a city half the size of Detroit. It would make sense to me that Egypt take over that area; Hamas in Gaza represents a long-term threat to Egypt more so than Israel from that staging ground for its version of the Islamic Brotherhood and its ability to plant terrorist attacks in the Sinai which disrupt Egypt’s economy. 2009 depends totally on what kind of outcome there is in Gaza; if the Israelis exceed expectations or not with the current military campaign. Does Hizbullah provide the Israelis an excuse to go back into Lebanon? What kind of reshuffling of the deck does all this do to drive the Syrian track or to get Iran to modify its behavior? At this time, it is impossible to predict, but I would suffice to say that the clearer the Israeli victory in Gaza, the more things will be possible and that if it fails the moderates will be in no position to trust Israel or to be in the mood to deal with it after it went out on a limb to support its actions in Gaza. They are telling Israel straight out that they want Hamas toppled; if a peace agreement legitimizes Hamas rule, it will have the effect of making those that negotiated with Israel rather than fought against Israel look like quislings. It is a tall order and it may be more than the Israelis could ever deliver. What we do know is that under the radar things have changed in the West Bank. Abbas has a good prime minister Fayyad that is implementing solutions and the Israelis have responded in kind opening things up on the ground. There is room for understandings to be reached and implemented once everybody comes to the realization that the momentum is not with the factions advocating continued armed resistance against a paper tiger that has lost its way and will to fight.
I hate predicting smack in the middle of a military operation that will end soon, but if you force me to predict the Israeli-Palestinian arena for 2009, I will say that Israel fights like hell in Gaza and accomplishes something but a militarily-neutered Hamas still winds up controlling sovereignty and declares victory. The world buys it even though the Israelis know that they beat them but since Hamas survived, the present government gets voted out. If Mubarak gives Israel a clear promise to seal the southern border where the smuggling is going on, the peace has a chance of holding. Otherwise, it may end with the Israelis holding part of the southern Gaza strip and hundreds if not thousands of Rafah refugees running into Egypt. The Israelis are mindful that nobody around them wants Hamas to be able to say they are in charge of Gaza and that the world is giving them de facto recognition as the ruling party, even though the Israelis might not care if Hamas is in control as long as they are contained because with the southern border under control, Gaza is surrounded — right now, that southern border is their escape from being surrounded. But under this scenario, Bibi Netanyahu takes over the prime ministership and nothing changes for the rest of 2009. I think it is a virtually impossible game to win except to keep replaying it every once in awhile; I don’t see how the Israelis can knock Hamas out of the Gaza box without taking the place over itself, which is something it clearly doesn’t want to do. Perhaps Gaza gets fed up with Hamas and invites the PA back. I dunno but what I see in print today are Egyptian and PA officials stating that the Palestinians in Gaza have been taken over by Iran that has told Hamas that if it agrees to a ceasefire put forth by Egypt, they will stop funding it. As I have written before, the Palestinians under Hamas have given their destiny to be pawns in Iran’s bid for influence in the world and for being a chess piece in its nuclear program. Only they can figure out that they should free themselves from this embrace; the Syrians realize they are losing their independence and Lebanon is as well — but will the Americans help these parties make the break?
Iran faces military action under a Netanyahu government if it does not make concrete concessions, particularly if you believe the Iranians are 8 months away from reaching critical mass on their nuclear weapons program when they will be able to throw out the inspectors without fear of retaliation and blackmail the world into accepting their fait acompli. One outcome of this Gaza operation may be the Israeli air force regaining the trust of the Americans who refused to support a bombing of Iran earlier this year, partially because they were not impressed with their professionalism in 2006. This time around, the military is getting high marks for its execution from military observers. Depending on world conditions, Netanyahu might deal with Syria (he had a draft agreement with them in his desk last time he was prime minister) but not with the Palestinians toward any kind of final status agreement although de facto understandings in the West Bank would continue as they have been designed by Olmert. This indictment of Bibi’s prospects is dimmed if in fact he forms a strong national unity with Labor and does not have to rely on his right flank, which is what usually brings down Likud governments. The above is also the answer if Tzippy Livni or Ehud Barak become prime minister except that Livni’s government would be expected to be weak and indecisive. Barak might have rehabilitated his image if this war goes well and might again be electable although he and Livni have no friends and this ultimately cannot help in a small clubby democracy which is Israel. I can’t tell if Livni is gaining from this war, but she does not seem to be impressive in this campaign so far beyond just talking tough all over the place. It won’t help her if the war ends inconclusively because by putting herself out so much as the tough guy, she will look weak if the results aren’t strong. I don’t see Barak getting much political mileage out of this war even if it is a decisive win, something that I don’t see happening, even if it happens, as I have stated above.
I think the end of the battle will come a few days after Obama takes office; the Egyptians and Israelis will want to make him look good, both because they need his good graces and also to be able to show the world that he can deliver peace so that people will trust America more as an agent of peace because both sides need for the players to see Obama and America as part of the solution so that he can help nudge the players to make peace. It makes more sense to have Obama deliver the goods than Bush; I am told Mubarak can’t stand Bush and has no interest in giving him any favors, and the Israelis are more keen to curry favor with the new guy coming into the office.
Let’s finish this by focusing on the very first point I made. The Big Picture: Strip away Hamas in Gaza and Hizbullah in Lebanon. What is left is that Israel and the PA have basically agreed on the terms of land swaps, General Dayton from the US has trained over 1,000 PA police-people and you don’t hear anymore about strongmen like Rajoub or Dahlan and they are training more, Fayyad is the prime minister and is not corrupt and doesn’t deal with people who are, and he is doing lots of projects that are raising the standard of living in the territories. PA Policemen now patrol Jenin, Nablus, Hebron and basically everything that counts. Israel has been opening up the checkpoints gradually. Bethlehem’s hotel sold out this year for Christmas for the first time since 1999. The PA and the Israelis agree that the IDF needs to remain at certain points on the West Bank to guarantee security. What basically remains is to draw up a formal agreement reflecting borders and a timetable for implementation, but the terms are there. The Israelis and Palestinians on the West Bank are de facto implementing what Oslo never did and the two sides are closer than ever to peace and the West Bank is moving closer to normalcy. All that remains is for Gazans to want the same and to see if they can get into the mindset that the PA could be part of the solution since Hamas will never stand for normalcy — unless they change. Get the Iranian veto out of the way as in Gaza and Southern Lebanon, and the Syrians are also quite willing to sign because they want their independence back again and so do the Lebanese and they need an economy now that oil is at $40 and the Iranians no longer have the ability to prop them up. So in a way, this is a war for all the marbles. The Iranians refuse to let up, because this is the remaining roadblock along the roadmap and they know it. The other Arabs know it too, and that’s why those in the know support this campaign.
Iraq looks like it is on track to settle out during 2009; the Americans will gradually withdraw and the Iraqis will get their house in order among themselves. The Iranians will cooperate as much as necessary to get the Americans to leave and then hope to muscle for advantage when the coast is clear. Saudi Arabia might well be up for a new king this year, the health of the current one in doubt. Too bad; I liked him. This will also be a year that there are changes in Iran’s leadership, such as the president and perhaps the country’s spiritual leader who is supposedly not in great health, although I predicted this a year ago and Khameini is still around..
Europe and Russia — I expect a certain amount of stability. Even though Merkel has been disappointing in terms of exerting leadership, she will probably remain at her post. Gordon Brown is in place owing to a lousy opposition and Sarkozy seems more serious this past year and did a pretty good job of achieving his objectives in the EEC Chairmanship. Ukraine is a bellweather country that is on the verge of being a failed nation-state but I see it as within Russia’s sphere of influence and have yet to be convinced it is a problem we should deal with internally. I would rather grant Russia its sphere, get the Europeans to stop having hissy fits over the nuclearization of Europe with more nuclear bases which I don’t see as truly necessary at this point, and have the Russians back off in other parts of the world such as Iran. NATO is a paper tiger and I see no use to sticking it in Russia’s face when we have no intention of standing behind it. Russia’s new president is a bit quirky to me — he keeps making loud noises as Obama prepares to take office needlessly pissing off the Americans especially as Russia’s leverage in the world decreases given the lower price of oil and the fact that Russia has to take all its reserves to bail out its companies, for which at least the government is increasing its ownership. To no avail — it is a loser economy and they will own more of less because nobody wants to invest in anything in that country under its increasingly authoritarian system.
Latin America — Mexico is, I am told, a place where organized crime has been broken up to the extent that people no longer know who they have to pay off to get what. This is the source of instability in that country. Government tried to fix things by breaking up the major syndicates and wound up with a thousand little pieces out of sync instead. Brazil has taken a major hit due to the credit crunch and depressed commodities but it is best poised to recover since it has so much going for it. Lulu may well spend the next year holding the line which is too bad since he could otherwise be marking true reforms for the country. Venezuela will be a tough place for Chavez to hang on this year, but is there anybody out there to replace him? Most of the Cuban embargo will be lifted, but not in the first months of Obama’s presidency. Guantanamo will be closed and other countries will take in some of the prisoners.
Asian Subcontinent — Afghanistan will be a problem for as long as Karzai remains the president; he is corrupt and the country has no respect in the world, least of all among its own people. Sending troops in there is good money after bad, but probably necessary unless the Saudis can bring the Taliban to the table. That may be more wishful thinking. The betting is that India goes to war against Pakistan and I thought they would have by now. It would not be nice for them to do this right after Obama takes over the presidency; it would be a major diversion. It’s bad for business and they don’t have a lot of money right now; maybe that matters if the Indian business community has a voice. Obama is presumably happy the Israelis went for Gaza now and is hoping they will finish in the next few weeks so that he will not have to walk into a war in progress — he thus really doesn’t need to have this replaced with an India-Pakistan blowup. The important point is probably that Pakistan has been trying to make nice with India as best as conditions will allow and the Indians are weighing the relative advantages of taking down the present Pakistani chief of state. The Indians will certainly be able to emerge victorious from whatever military scheme they wish to entertain and it will help that they will be able to declare the goals of the campaign and say they met them. A friend of mine says that Holbrooke is an excellent Obama appointment to deal with Pakistan.
Asia and Dubai / Commodities — Singapore is on track to have the worst performing economy in the region this year. They are at the mercy of world trade. Dubai is in a similar situation and hotel occupancy has dropped by over 25% this December over last. Real estate values plummeted. Dubai is being hit by the credit crunch since it is so leveraged; Abu Dhabi sits in the wings waiting to pounce and pick up pieces on the cheap without looking like a vulture. One thing we all know for sure from this past year is that the whole world is in this together; there is no insulation from the US and that the US Dollar is ultimately the currency of safety. The British pound and the Swiss franc are vulnerable because the central bank reserves are just not up to the task to stand behind their economies. Japan is a quiet player in all this. China could make lots of trouble and disrupt the rest of the world if it decides it has no choice but to screw the rest of the world in order to satisfy its domestic concerns (ie: build millions of cars to keep its people busy) and it could have to divert more of its money inward which would make it harder for it to buy up all the US debt. North Korea expects a change of leadership this year and China is best poised to deal with this and wants to make sure it likes the country bordering it. Australia will hopefully recover although it is not in a good way with the commodities going against it. Commodities will recover though — food will go up again since the credit crunch cut into production. Oil will recover in the long term as alternative explorations cease yet again, but in the short term it will remain cheap because the demand simply isn’t there even if production is cut and emerging economies cut subsidies.
Madoff — Gotta admit it took talent to fool so many people and fend off so many regulators for so many years although I suspect that a well-placed marriage to a high-level regulator helped and I don’t believe that his sons didn’t know what was going on before they supposedly turned their dad in to the authorities. I rather suspect he arranged to have his sons sacrifice him in return for their futures and I expect the US prosecutors will need him to assist them in figuring out what he actually did all these years. $50 billion is a lot of money dwarfing many other such schemes throughout history. Unfortunately, many charities are hurting and there are ripple effects across Jewish philanthropy. However, it is not as catastrophic as the hype appears. Other charities are extending loans to foundations which lost their shirts enabling them to continue their work while they seek to raise replacement capital. Unfortunately, Madoff is this generation’s Christmas gift to those who will use this episode to tell the world about all kinds of bad things Jewish and money. Most people did not know of his existence before last month and many people did not even know they had invested with him. The real crime in all this is that too many people were managing other people’s money and were being entrusted due to their supposed good judgment; the problem in the money-managing world was that too many people who taking fees for using judgment that they in fact were not using. They were going around like a herd and basically claiming ignorance and reliance on all sorts of investment advisors supervising investment managers who were doing the investing. Many charities lost a good chunk of their endowments. I have a scholarship fund with the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society and I was told that 30% of my fund was lost to the market this year. They told me that they had 9 teams of investment advisors and managers owning several thousand different equities. I asked them why didn’t they themselves look to set rules for these people and suggested that one such rule might be that any stock that goes down 10% you sell so that you know you never lose more than 10% on any one investment. It’s a rule that makes sense at home — why not for organizations supervising scholarship funds? I expect that after this earthquake in the philanthropic community, people will exercise more independent judgment instead of laying responsibility off to teams of professionals and they will insist on more diversification of risk and verifications of investment activity. Also, people will not be as cliquish and go into investments just because others are doing so and it seems the fashionable thing to do.
A Special Treat….
Today I attended a 4 hour workshop headed by one of the best analysts I know on Israel-Arab issues, David Maawaakovsky (intentionally mis-spelled). I agreed not to quote him by name but if go back to my latest postings page, you’ll see the link to makowky and you’ll find the notes. https://globalthoughts.com/notes-from-david-makowky-workshop-january-2009/