But there is a twist: this time the action centres around retail investors betting against hedge funds who are in turn betting against companies by shorting their shares. Whatever the motive of the eggers-on (profit? Subversion? Who knows) the resulting febrility has created ripples against a backdrop of many stock markets which despite the pandemic were recently nudging all-time highs.
Meanwhile, the Federal Reserve met on Wednesday for its regular policy meeting. Chairman Powell maintained policy with no changes, completely as expected. The tone of the statement was subdued, indicating that while the vaccines provide the key to unlocking recovery beyond Covid, the roll-out is slow and is delaying the rate at which vulnerable sectors, particularly travel, hospitality and retail, can re-open and pick themselves up. Having last year shifted the inflation target from 2% nominal to 2% average, and giving an official nod to near-term volatility in prices but still being sceptical of longer-term structural inflation, his main priority is creating an environment to return to full employment with the immediate target of getting unemployment back below 5%. He reiterated his support for Biden’s programme of support while simultaneously implying that those among his Federal Reserve colleagues who see enduring excess inflationary pressures from government spending are chasing ghosts where none exists.
In Europe, the EU’s embarrassing and unnecessary public carpeting of the CEO of AstraZeneca reveals all the shortcomings of the EU as a protectionist bloc sinking under its own bureaucracy. That major global pharma companies such as AstraZeneca and Pfizer, working with academics, have achieved miracles of science and medicine in producing efficacious vaccines against Covid in under 10 months when normally the lead-time would be measured in years is apparently irrelevant. The EU has placed a contract for supplies (three months after the UK, but let that pass), it wants it honoured and it wants it NOW and if that means the UK contract being disrupted, so be it. The fact that the Oxford/ AstraZeneca vaccine has not even been licensed by the EU medical safety authorities is beside the point.
As European populations become restless about the imposition of further restrictions (the Netherlands, whose government has just resigned, has had to impose a national curfew to contain anti-lockdown riots this week; France too has imposed a curfew, while Belgium, Portugal and Germany have either tightened or extended restrictions) and the EU’s vaccination programme significantly lags other developed countries, the only response in Brussels to its own shortcomings is to lash out at anyone else it can find: step forward AstraZeneca. In a similar vein, not a single euro cent of the €750bn EU Covid-recovery programme (hailed as the EU’s ‘New Dawn’ after 5 days of fractious argument last July) has yet been disbursed; who’s fault could that be?
On the geopolitical front, it may have come as a surprise that Boris was the first western leader to be called by President Biden, especially given their previous mutual antipathies. But this is realpolitik at work. Boris has firmly distanced himself from Trump and has made the appropriate diplomatic cooing noises towards the new administration. From Biden’s point of view, while he might not like Brexit, the all-important Irish border question is resolved entirely to America’s satisfaction; but while trying to build a unified western position to contain China (supported by the UK), and having ‘reached out’ to Europe with the intention of rebuilding bridges, he has just been very publicly cold-shouldered by the EU in its alignment with China in signing its new investment agreement. In that context, the Biden/Boris rapprochement is rather less surprising.
If China has been adroit in splitting not only western alliances but also disintermediating US influence in Asia with the catchily entitled Regional Economic Comprehensive Partnership driving Japan, South Korea and Indonesia more in to Beijing’s orbit, President Xi’s appearance at ‘Virtual Davos’ this week exactly four years after his last (indeed China’s first ever) was no coincidence, exquisitely timed a week after a new US president takes office to show who is really taking global leadership. Xi’s brazenness was extraordinary. China is a paragon of virtue, an unequivocal upholder of ‘international law, opposed to the law of the jungle’; it won’t ‘bend the laws as it sees fit’; it wants to ‘build a beautiful world’. If that is the official version of the truth there are many who might have very different opinions, foremost among them Joe Biden. The US/China cold war is nowhere near thawing.
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