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Wednesday, November 26, 2008

SOFA shaping to give a kick in the pants? 

While we obsess over VATS VAT, over in Iraq their Parliament is shaping up to vote on the Status Of Forces Agreement. It is SOFA that gives the USA (and our own armed forces) legitimacy to operate in Iraq. The vote has now been postponed ( as at 26 Nov 2008) to Thursday 27th. And even if signed it now looks as if it is subject to confirmation by a national referendum in 2009.

According to Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki if Parliament does not ratify the agreement then there is no alternative plan on hold to permit US forces to remain – they (and we) must withdraw from Iraq immediately. Having gone down the negotiations on the SOFA route it is no longer possible for the USA to go to the Security Council for a renewed International Mandate.

This could be interesting as UK troops hold the southern areas that the US forces need to pass through to possible Gulf Coast evacuation points.

Should we be making ready for sudden military ructions?

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Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Celebrating Pittsburgh 

One of the oddities of a family with refugee roots is the complexity of global connections. Part of my family settled in Pittsburgh, a city for which I have bitter chocolate feelings (I like it but not as an exclusive diet) so the 250th anniversary celebrations of the founding of the western Pennsylvania city is worth a cheer here.

Pittsburgh celebrates itself as a liveable city and its true its city centre (aka Downtown) is more alive than some other US places… here’s a link to the history of the city on Three Rivers (the Monongahela, the Allegheny and the Ohio)*

And now you know why I back the Steelers and the Pirates and the Penguins.

*Curiously enough another splinter of my family settled in Lyons (France) which has a similar topography to Pittsburgh and slightly tongue in cheek claims to be watered by Three Rivers – The Rhone, the Saone and the ‘Beajolaise’.

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Monday, November 24, 2008

Story of a picture or why goodbye to Bush will be such a relief. 

When he became President George W. Bush selected a painting to hang in the Oval Office entitled “A Charge To Keep”. He tells visitors that it depicts the Methodist Circuit Riders, who in the 19th spread the Good Word across the Alleghenies.

But he is mistaken. It actually shows a horse thief fleeing a lynch mob.

This for me sums up the disconnect between reality and what goes on in the presidential head. Roll on 20th January 2009 when we will at least get a different picture on the wall and hopefully a president who does not suffer from the Tolstoy Syndrome.

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Thursday, November 20, 2008

US health debate that will impact on us all. 

It is looking more and more certain that the new US administration will make a big push on health reform in 2009. This will be a huge domestic debate in the USA that will have big international repercussions. Our own dear NHS will certainly figure in this debate as an inspiration or bogey as participants choose. So it might be well worth our while to keep in touch with what is going on.

Who know we might learn something – pick up ideas for change or perhaps even learn to appreciate more what we have got.

According to the Boston Globe

Senator Edward M. Kennedy, who made clear that universal healthcare is his top priority when he returned to work Monday in the Senate, announced today that three working groups of the committee he heads will explore key issues.
One group, led by Senator Tom Harkin of Iowa, will work on prevention and public health. Another led by Senator Barbara Mikulski of Maryland will work on improvements in the quality of care. And the third, led by Senator Hillary Clinton of New York, will work on insurance coverage.


The emphasis seems to be on a big push not only from the incoming White House but from Congress as well, in order to prepare the ground thoroughly for radical reform that will get enacted and survive.


An example of this is the Nov 13 2008 issue of the
New England Journal of Medicine which has a long section devoted to primary health care, including a comparative study of the situation in the USA and the UK.

One of the
cited studies makes the point that Britons tend to have superior health to US residents in an equivalent social and economic bracket. In other words the sector of the US population that has almost universal comprehensive health insurance still fares worse in terms of health outcomes than their UK economic counterparts. A possible implication is that the NHS primary care approach has direct health outcome advantages over and above simple access to available health resources.

The US population in late middle age is less healthy than the equivalent British population for diabetes, hypertension, heart disease, myocardial infarction, stroke, lung disease, and cancer. Within each country, there exists a pronounced negative socioeconomic status (SES) gradient with self-reported disease so that health disparities are largest at the bottom of the education or income variants of the SES hierarchy. This conclusion is generally robust to control for a standard set of behavioral risk factors, including smoking, overweight, obesity, and alcohol drinking, which explain very little of these health differences. ….In many diseases, the top of the SES distribution is less healthy in the United States as well.
Banks et al
Journal of the American Medical Association vol 295 No. 17 May 3 2006


Something we are doing right to be protected and nurtured?

Direct international impacts? Well, one consequence of a shift from the employer-funded insurance model in the USA would be an increase in competitiveness for US industry which would no longer have to factor health costs into its prices in the direct way it does at this moment. So US industry would be better able to compete in our markets. Another would be to change the financial position of the pharmaceutical industry which might find the USA a less receptive market for price maximisation. Will they try to recoup elsewhere?



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Thursday, November 13, 2008

Massive collapse in shipping market 

The Baltic Dry Index is not something to do with temperance movements in Lithuania – it is the measure of the cost of moving cargo around the world by sea. And it has collapsed by over 90% since May 2008. This is a measure of the downturn in world trade in raw materials, and an indication of the seriousness of the squeeze on the ‘Real Economy’ in the goods that can be produced from these raw materials.

Put simply, the cost of shipping has dropped through the floor. Sending a tonne of iron ore from Brazil to China in early June would have set you back more than $100 (£62) per tonne, or around $15m per voyage. But freight rates have now dropped to only slightly over $10 per tonne, or just $1.5m for the 70-90 day journey.

As if that wasn't dramatic enough, the drop in daily charter rates is even sharper. At the peak of the market, a 170,000-tonne Capesize bulk carrier was hired out at the eye-watering daily rate of $234,000. At the beginning of this week, it was $5,611 – a fall of nearly 98 per cent.
Peter Kerr-Dineen, chairman of Howe Robinson shipbrokers, said: "The scale of change in rate is utterly staggering – the market has come down from super-boom territory to pretty close to bust, effectively in two months."
Independent 6 November 2008


(Capesize means a ship that cannot pass the Suez or Panama canals)

And why is this important?


The wheels of international shipping are greased with "letters of credit" issued to buyers of bulk cargo by their banks. These guarantee the value of the shipment once it is in transit but before it is delivered. The problem is that the credit crunch, with the resulting liquidity problems in the international banking sector, is taking its toll on the availability of these entirely routine instruments. "We have the hugely worrying and unprecedented development where there are perfectly creditworthy shippers and receivers unable to open perfectly standard letters of credit," Mr Kerr-Dineen said.
Cargos are sitting on docksides because the finance is not available to ship them, with the gravest implications for the future. "This is a nuclear bomb in the freight market, and in world trade," Mr Kerr-Dineen said. "Liquidity has to return because if there is insufficient money to provide standard finance, world trade will be sharply cut back and economic growth will implode."

This will impact on the import of food into the UK, amongst other consequences.
Discussed further in a blog on the Independent by Jeremy Warner.

Note that this discussion illustrates cases where hedge funding is a good thing, allowing risk sharing and freeing up commerce – the credit crunch has frozen Hedging operations which is why there are problems.

Not nice.

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Saturday, November 08, 2008

Ultimate in sagacious lucky escapes 

Thanks to the diligence of the Daily Telegraph (Barack Obama: the 50 facts you might not know) we are aware that the President-Elect (1) has visited the UK at least once. Specifically “He visited Wokingham, Berks, in 1996 for the stag party of his half-sister's fiancé, but left when a stripper arrived”.

Would his candidacy have survived a YouTube moment of that event if he hadn’t in fact left? We can only wonder at his forward campaign planning.

And yes I did notice Obama is left-handed. So I believe is Senator McCain, or so I surmised from seeing how they took notes at one of their debates.

I also note that he has read all the Harry Potter books (‘Accio Presidency’ would explains a lot!). And that his favourite TV show is ‘The Wire’ which plug, if it encourages more people to dig out the DVDs of this neglected masterpiece, could help focus minds soberly on the immense domestic problems that still swirl in racial currents in the USA.

(1) Obama is of course constitutionally not yet the President-Elect. That legal status only comes after the ‘meeting’ of the Electoral College in early December. For a people allegedly in thrall to the worship of an Ancestral Document the Usa-eans can be brutally pragmatic where prime time play is concerned.

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Obama is of course constitutionally not yet the President-Elect. That legal status only comes after the ‘meeting’ of the Electoral College in early December.

I made that point to the gf the other day and got called a pedant! I think he should be called the President-presumptive.
 
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