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China v America; A new kind of cold war

 

 

 

 

Source: The Economist magazine.

FIGHTING OVER trade is not the half of it. The United States and China are contesting every domain, from semiconductors to submarines and from blockbuster films to lunar exploration. The two superpowers used to seek a win-win world. Today winning seems to involve the other lot’s defeat—a collapse that permanently subordinates China to the American order; or a humbled America that retreats from the western Pacific. It is a new kind of cold war that could leave no winners at all.

As our special report in this week’s issue explains, superpower relations have soured. America complains that China is cheating its way to the top by stealing technology, and that by muscling into the South China Sea and bullying democracies like Canada and Sweden it is becoming a threat to global peace. China is caught between the dream of regaining its rightful place in Asia and the fear that tired, jealous America will block its rise because it cannot accept its own decline.

The temptation is to shut China out, as America successfully shut out the Soviet Union—not just Huawei, which supplies 5G telecoms kit and was this week blocked by a pair of orders, but almost all Chinese technology. Yet, with China, that risks bringing about the very ruin policymakers are seeking to avoid. Global supply chains can be made to bypass China, but only at huge cost. In nominal terms Soviet-American trade in the late 1980s was $2bn a year; trade between America and China is now $2bn a day. In crucial technologies such as chipmaking and 5G, it is hard to say where commerce ends and national security begins. The economies of America’s allies in Asia and Europe depend on trade with China. Only an unambiguous threat could persuade them to cut their links with it.

It would be just as unwise for America to sit back. No law of physics says that quantum computing, artificial intelligence and other technologies must be cracked by scientists who are free to vote. Even if dictatorships tend to be more brittle than democracies, President Xi Jinping has reasserted party control and begun to project Chinese power around the world. Partly because of this, one of the very few beliefs which unite Republicans and Democrats is that America must act against China. But how?

For a start America needs to stop undermining its own strengths and build on them instead. Given that migrants are vital to innovation, the Trump administration’s hurdles to legal immigration are self-defeating. So are its frequent denigration of any science that does not suit its agenda and its attempts to cut science funding (reversed by Congress, fortunately).

Another of those strengths lies in America’s alliances and the institutions and norms it set up after the second world war. Team Trump has rubbished norms instead of buttressing institutions and attacked the European Union and Japan over trade rather than working with them to press China to change. American hard power in Asia reassures its allies, but President Donald Trump tends to ignore how soft power cements alliances, too. Rather than cast doubt on the rule of law at home and bargain over the extradition of a Huawei executive from Canada, he should be pointing to the surveillance state China has erected against the Uighur minority in the western province of Xinjiang.

Read the complete article on The Economist magazine site here.

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Online Biology Wordsearch Puzzle. Easy

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The future of housing looks nothing like today’s

When Lisa Cini and her husband, kids, and rescue dog moved in with her parents and grandmother a few years ago, the Ohio-based architect pored over the design of her 94-year-old grandma’s bedroom “apartment.” An Alzheimer’s diagnosis made security and mobility important, but her ideas went beyond extra locks and grab-bars; she felt it was crucial that she have her own living room within the family home.

“It’s interesting, when we’re younger and full of life, when we’re just doing life so hard, we have to find time to sleep. But when we get old, when we’re slowing down so much, we have to work to find ways to do more life and less sleep,” Cini recalls in her book about living with four generations under one roof. Designing a separate living room gave her grandma a space to hang out, engage, and entertain visitors outside of her bedroom, a subtle but important distinction. “Her living room really helps her keep living life,” Cini observes.

Cini’s situation–four generations under one roof–was an unusual one, compared to the way most Americans have lived over the past century, when socioeconomic forces have made it normal for Americans to live as nuclear families, in contrast to the last few thousand years of human history.

But for complex reasons that still puzzle researchers, multigenerational households are now on the rise once more. As many as 41% of Americans buying a home are considering accommodating an elderly parent or an adult child, according to a survey conducted by John Burns Real Estate Consulting. Living with your parents (or your adult children) has plenty of potential benefits–everyone tends to save money, it can potentially benefit health outcomes, and you get to spend more time together.

The emphasis on physical and financial independence at every stage of adulthood has high incurred costs, though. The first is the massive accumulation of capital, from money to land to natural resources to labor, necessary to supply the cars, airports, fuel, roads, land, and housing for a country of 327 million people who want to live conspicuously apart.

The second is social isolation. The idea that it’s normal for each nuclear family to own a single-family home, connected to other people only by cars, is actually “radical,” as architect and cohousing development consultant Katie McCamant puts it. “It’s held up this great dream that not only Americans should strive so hard for, but the whole rest of the world looks to as a model now,” she says. “There’s been so much emphasis on independence and on privacy that we really designed community right out of our lives without knowing it.”

In short, for complex economic, social, and cultural reasons, what constitutes “normal” housing for seniors in America is changing. Culture may also play a role. “I think there’s a tighter connection just generationally between young adults and their parents,” says Chris Porter, an analyst at John Burns Real Estate Consulting who tracks housing trends. That closeness is influencing the senior housing market, as well as the way senior-focused housing is marketed. “We’re seeing the golf course as less of an amenity these days for senior housing,” says Porter, who has worked with several developers to redevelop golf courses as housing. “The real amenity for seniors is being near their kids and grandkids. I think that comes back to that connection between the boomers and their kids.”

Cini’s grandmother passed last year, and looking back, she has a few things she would do differently. Some have to do with small quality-of-life details: She wishes she would have added heated flooring to her grandma’s bathroom and a light under every stair. Others underline the challenges of designing for four generations with different expectations about technology. Even though she and her husband could control their Philips Hue lights from their phones, her dad missed the light switch. “It’s still about choice. I think we forget that that should be an option,” she says.

According to research by the AARP, almost 90% of seniors want to remain in their own homes as they age, also known as aging in place. That can be complex. For a multitude of reasons, living with your adult children, if you have them, isn’t always an option. Caregivers are increasingly hard to come by, and not all homes are designed for aging bodies.

There are other, subtle problems that aging in place can create, as the architect Katie McCamant points out. “What I hear a lot is when people first retire, they often say, ‘I’ve never been busier. I’m involved in all these clubs and these groups and doing this and that and volunteering there,’” she says. But all that activity usually depends entirely on the ability to drive. Take that away, and aging in place gets more complex. “You find out that my connection to all these things I’m so busy with is my car. And if I can’t drive, I’m totally cut off.”

Read the complete article on Fast Company here.

The US-China trading relationship will be fraught for years to come

China is happy to buy more American goods, including soyabeans and shale gas, in an effort to cut the bilateral trade deficit, a goal which is economically pointless but close to Mr Trump’s heart. It is willing to relax rules that prevent American firms from controlling their operations in China and to crack down on Chinese firms’ rampant theft of intellectual property. Any deal will also include promises to limit the government’s role in the economy.

The trouble is that it is unlikely—whatever the Oval Office claims—that a signed piece of paper will do much to shift China’s model away from state capitalism. Its vast subsidies for producers will survive. Promises that state-owned companies will be curbed should be taken with a pinch of salt. In any case the government will continue to allocate capital through a state-run banking system with $38trn of assets. Attempts to bind China by requiring it to enact market-friendly legislation are unlikely to work given that the Communist Party is above the law. Almost all companies, including the privately owned tech stars, will continue to have party cells that wield back-room influence. And as China Inc becomes even more technologically sophisticated and expands abroad, tensions over its motives will intensify.

At some point this year Mr Trump and Xi Jinping, his Chinese counterpart, could well proclaim a new era in superpower relations from the White House lawn. If so, don’t believe what you hear. The lesson of the past decade is that stable trade relations between countries require them to have much in common—including a shared sense of how commerce should work and a commitment to enforcing rules. The world now features two superpowers with opposing economic visions, growing geopolitical rivalry and deep mutual suspicion. Regardless of whether today’s trade war is settled, that is not about to change.

Source: The Economist Magazine.

Australian $50 note typo: spelling mistake printed 46 million times

bank note mistake

The Reserve Bank has confirmed a spelling mistake has been made on 46 million new Australian $50 notes. The typo misspells the word ‘responsibility’. Photograph: Daniel Pockett/AAP

 

 

 

 

 

 

The “new and improved” $50 banknote was rolled out in October last year, with a host of new technologies designed to improve accessibility and prevent counterfeiting.

But the yellow note also contains a typo that misspells the word “responsibility”.

The note features the Indigenous writer and inventor David Unaipon on one side, and Edith Cowan, Australia’s first female member of parliament, on the other – as it has since 1995.

The RBA has printed “micro-text” on the note with excerpts of Unaipon’s book, Legendary Tales of the Australian Aborigines, and Cowan’s first speech to parliament.

The small error occurred on Cowan’s side, in the text of her speech.

“It is a great responsibilty [sic] to be the only woman here, and I want to emphasise the necessity which exists for other women being here,” it says.

On Thursday, an RBA spokeswoman said the bank was “aware of it and the spelling will be corrected at the next print run”.

Read the complete article on The Guardian here.

Huawei CFO seeks halt to extradition after Trump comments

Meng Wanzhou, 47, who faces charges related to Iran sanctions violations, was appearing at a Vancouver courthouse on Wednesday to set a timetable for her upcoming extradition hearing.

“The criminal case against Miss Meng is based on allegations that are simply untrue,” her spokesman Benjamin Howes said outside, telling reporters she would apply for a stay of the proceedings.

He alleged that “political factors” were behind her arrest and said her rights had been violated.

Her lawyers claimed comments by Trump, who said the charges could be dropped if that would help China trade talks, showed the case was politically motivated.

Huawei said in a statement on Wednesday that the criminal case against Meng was “guided by political considerations and tactics, not by the rule of law”.

Read the complete article on The Guardian newspaper here.

Trump’s Advisors

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Crossword Puzzle 5

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1. Channelselector position
2. Water park recreation
3. Smeltery
4. Meter connection 7,4
5. Petcock
6. Aviator's guide

Online German Wordsearch puzzle – medium difficulty

 

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5G signal could jam weather forecasting satellites

“The way 5G is being introduced could seriously compromise our ability to forecast major storms,” said Tony McNally of the European Centre for Medium-Range Weather Forecasts in Reading. “In the end it could make the difference between life and death. We are very concerned about this.”

The crisis facing the world’s meteorologists stems from the fact that the radio frequencies the new 5G networks will use could contaminate critical Earth observations made by weather satellites.

Instruments on board the satellites peer down into the atmosphere and study variables such as water vapour, rain, snow, cloud cover and ice content – all crucial factors that influence our weather.

One example is the 23.8 gigahertz (GHz) frequency. Water vapour emits a faint signal at this specific natural wavelength, and this data is monitored and measured by weather satellites. Forecasters then use this information to work out how a storm or weather system is likely to develop.

“Such data is critical to our ability to make forecasts,” said Niels Bormann, also of the Reading weather centre. “They are a unique natural resource, and if we lose this capability, weather forecasts will get significantly worse.”

The urgency of the problem is underlined by the fact that US Federal Communications Commission and similar agencies in other countries have already started to auction off frequencies close to the 23.8 GHz frequency to future 5G network providers. In addition, other bands that are used to probe our weather include the 36-37 GHz band, which is used to study rain and snow; the 50 GHz band, which is used to measure atmospheric temperature; and the 86-92 Ghz band, which helps to analyse cloud and ice.

All these contain sections of waveband that are being auctioned off in the US. It remains to be seen if other nations will follow suit and sell these frequencies in their own countries over coming months.

“The more we lose, the greater the impact will be,” states meteorologist Jordan Gerth, of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, in the current issue of Nature. “This is a global problem.”

You may read the full article in The Guardian newspaper here.

How America’s oldest gun maker went bankrupt.


A Remington assembly room in 1917. Bettmann/Getty Images

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The news spread around Huntsville, Ala., in the winter of 2014. Remington, the country’s oldest gun maker, had decided to expand from its historic home in upstate New York to a gigantic former Chrysler factory near the airport. Workers at the new plant, the company said, would earn a minimum average of $19.50 an hour assembling shotguns, pistols, hunting rifles and AR-15-style semiautomatics. The city’s mayor wrote in a newspaper column that he was thrilled that Remington’s quest for a new factory space had ended in Huntsville. He calculated the typical annual salary as $42,500.

Doors opened in spring 2015. News from the inside was scarce, but this was more or less to be expected. Workers in the gun industry endure a special kind of scrutiny, like metal detectors at the exits and visits to their homes from A.T.F. agents looking for weapons that have gone missing. When Remington forbade employees to speak to outsiders about their jobs or fired a person who removed a smartphone from his pocket in the vicinity of the line, the explanation was assumed to be that the company was protecting its secrets, including the pace of its production. “Those assault rifles,” one employee told me, “they couldn’t make them fast enough.” That year, Remington earned $191 million in gross profit on $809 million of revenue.

At the top of the employees’ checks, the name “Remington Arms” was printed, along with the address of the company’s new facility at 1816 Remington Circle SW in Huntsville. But this was somewhat misleading. While the guns were still stamped with the thick-footed Remington R, the company no longer existed as a fully independent entity. Seven years before Remington came to Huntsville, it was purchased, at a relative bargain, by a private-equity firm that controlled tens of billions of dollars from its offices in Manhattan.

The firm, Cerberus Capital Management, takes its name from the three-headed, dragon-tailed dog who, in Greek mythology, stands guard at the gates of Hades.

When Cerberus bought Remington in 2007, the world was hurtling through the greatest rush of private-equity acquisitions in history. From 2002 to the crash in 2008, hundreds of billions of dollars a year were deployed in private-equity deals by firms like Cerberus, KKR and Blackstone. After the crash briefly interrupted its momentum, the industry came back in force. The United States government was responding to the crisis by lowering borrowing costs to kick-start the economy. For private-equity firms, the access to cheap debt was a gift: It allowed them to purchase a long list of targets, then borrow more money using those targets as collateral. During the recovery, private-equity firms made an average of one trillion dollars’ worth of acquisitions every year. In 2017 there were a record 9,500 deals. By 2019, according to the consulting firm McKinsey, the industry controlled $3.4 trillion in assets globally. If private equity were a country, it would be the fifth-largest economy on earth, beating India, Britain and France.

Across the negotiating table sat Battle, the head of the Chamber of Commerce and the state’s economic-development director. They flipped their cards one by one. The governor’s office would give Remington a significant abatement of their income tax for 10 years. The Tennessee Valley Authority would provide discounted electricity. Alabama Industrial Development Training, a state agency, would train Remington’s workers free, as it had done for 800,000 others at big-name companies in Alabama, like Boeing, Raytheon and Mercedes.

Then Battle flipped the fourth ace: He agreed to purchase and renovate the former Chrysler factory in Huntsville for $12.5 million and give it to Remington rent-free. Press could scarcely believe his good fortune. “It is hard to think of a deal that is better than the Remington deal from the perspective of the company,” he told me. “And I’ve done easily 200.”

There was, however, a hidden, vaguely mysterious quirk of the company’s finances. In 2012, more or less in the middle of the best climate for gun makers in a generation, America’s oldest continually operating manufacturer abruptly, and for no easily discernible reason, borrowed hundreds of millions of dollars. When the company came to Alabama, it owed $828 million to its creditors. While this number, compared with the company’s earnings, represented a comfortable ratio on the balance sheet, it was nonetheless curious. The debt could conceivably have been explained by the cost of opening a new factory were it not for the fact that Remington got its factory free.

Last fall, a former Remington executive, who asked that his name not be used for fear of a backlash, opened the door to his house in Huntsville and beckoned me into his study, where we sat on either side of a fireplace.

He was hired, the executive explained, as the plant was coming online, and he was tasked with wrangling together some scattered acquisitions. The business was, according to him, “in shambles.” It seemed that the companies Cerberus had moved to Alabama had been “bought and forgot.” He explained that he was “a realist” about business, a game in which not everyone gets “a shiny rose at the end,” but even so he sensed that something had gone deeply wrong. Executives were fired at a fast clip. Line employees came and went. Parts piled up on the factory floor. Most worrying, Cerberus, which was trying to integrate disparate brands — the father-son pastoralism of Remington with the urban-militia aesthetic of AAC, for instance — seemed to him miserly when it came to marketing. “The decisions were all about: Where can I save another dime?” he told me.

I went back and reread Remington’s public filings. It was obvious when the debt appeared, in 2012. What wasn’t clear was where the money went. I showed the filings to a professor of finance. He said it looked as if Cerberus had wound up in debt to itself. “Seems like they did something stupid,” he said. “But that can’t be right, because they’re not stupid.”

In order to buy Remington, Cerberus, as most private-equity firms would, created a new entity, a holding company. Instead of Cerberus buying a gun company, Cerberus put money into the holding company, and the holding company bought Remington. The entities were related but — and this was crucial — each could borrow money independently. In 2010, Cerberus had the holding company borrow $225 million from an undisclosed group of lenders, most likely hedge funds. Because this loan was risky — the lenders would be paid only if Remington made a lot of money or was sold — the holding company offered a generous interest rate of around 11 percent, much higher than a typical corporate loan. When the interest payments were due, the holding company paid them not in cash but with paid-in-kind notes, that is, with more debt. These are known as PIK notes.

The holding company now had $225 million in borrowed cash. Cerberus, meanwhile, owned most of the shares of the holding company’s stock, basically slips of paper they acquired when they created the holding company. The handoff happened next: The holding company spent most of the $225 million buying back its own stock, effectively transferring all the borrowed cash to Cerberus. Cerberus would keep that money no matter what. Meanwhile Remington continued rolling along as though nothing had happened, because Remington itself was not responsible for the holding company’s debt. Remington was just an “operating company” that the holding company owned, something that allowed the holding company to borrow money, the way you would take a necklace to a pawnshop. These were garden-variety maneuvers in a private-equity buyout. In the trade, this is called “financial engineering.” People get degrees in it.

In April 2012, Cerberus did something fateful, which probably seemed smart at the time. It had Remington borrow hundreds of millions of dollars and use it to buy the holding company’s debt, effectively transferring responsibility for the principal and the interest payments onto Remington. America’s oldest gun company now owed the money that Cerberus had used to pay itself back for having bought the company in the first place.

But there was a catch. Because the operating company borrowed the money with a normal loan — and not with PIK notes — interest payments were required in cash. Suddenly Remington was carrying hundreds of millions of dollars in debt that, if it could not be paid, would cause the business to go bankrupt.

After the 2016 election, researchers at Cerberus saw an omen in their data. Applications through the National Instant Criminal Background Check System, which are known as “NIC checks,” were dropping by double-digit percentages. A plunge in NIC checks foreshadows a corresponding plunge in gun sales, which is what happened in the months that followed. Remington’s profit slid toward zero. The debt, meanwhile, was racing upward, like a flame licking a fuse.

For Cerberus’s executives, the predicament was like being bitten by a trusted pet. Cerberus has a habit of hiring power brokers from the United States government, many of them prominent Republicans. The former vice president Dan Quayle became chairman of Cerberus Global Investments in 1999; the former Treasury secretary John W. Snow joined Cerberus seven years later. The Republican donor William Richter is a founder. Since May 2018, Feinberg has been a member of Trump’s Intelligence Advisory Board, an independent entity created to advise the president on national-security matters. But if Obama was the best, Trump was proving to be the worst gun salesman of all time.

Remington executives arranged a meeting with their creditors. They calmly explained the situation. Remington had been loaded with debt; now it couldn’t pay the interest. After listening politely, the banks made a proposal: They would exchange the money they were owed for an ownership stake in Remington, a so-called Chapter 11 bankruptcy or “debt-for-equity swap.” This arrangement would allow Remington to stay running, albeit under distant ownership, until a plan could be drawn up for its future, such as a sale or a liquidation of assets.

In March, Remington announced that it would lay off about 200 employees between its Ilion and Huntsville factories. Shortly after that, the state of Alabama, in a routine payroll audit, found that Remington had missed its hiring targets: Only 450 people were working at the plant at the beginning of 2018, as opposed to the 680 promised in the development agreement. In response, the county and state revoked a number of their tax incentives and demanded the return of $500,000. Remington, not Cerberus, will be responsible for the sum. By the time the state finished its audit, the private-equity firm had long since exited the scene.

Read the complete article on the New York Times here.

Online Crossword Puzzle 5

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1. Firstrate
2. Type of cheese
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6. Destiny
7. Sylvester, to Tweety
8. Crooked