Title: Bitcoin’s a Bit Player, But Digital Currencies Are Coming
Approx. Reading Time: 8 minutes
Author: Simon Tilford
Bitcoin is not about to challenge established currencies and is a poor store of value to boot. However, central banks are right to worry about tech giants such as Amazon or Facebook issuing their own private digital currencies. They are all but certain to preempt this by introducing central bank digital currencies (CBDCs) and obstructing the spread of private ones.
Simon Tilford argues that while CBDCs will have various advantages, they will also concentrate unprecedented power in the hands of central banks (and by extension states). While democracies should be able to ensure accountability and privacy, the introduction of a Chinese CBDC will further hinder attempts to limit the power of the Chinese authorities.Read Essay
Title: To Burst or Not To Burst
Approx. Reading Time: 10 minutes
Author: Simon Tilford
Financial markets are in a bubble. Valuations are out of kilter with economic reality and risk. However, past examples provide few clues as to when the market will crash, because this bubble is different – it is happening at a time of economic gloom rather than rapid growth.
Simon Tilford argues that bringing valuations back into line with fundamentals without a major bust will not be easy. Governments will have to address the underlying reasons for weak growth and excessively low inflation. Failure to do so and central banks will have no option but to pump yet more liquidity into the system, postponing but increasing the severity of the eventual day of reckoning.Read Essay
One of the lessons of the Covid-19 crisis is that, faced with international crises, national leaders turn inward to protect domestic security. The ideals of multilateralism may give way to ‘Walled Gardens’, a scenario in which only the existential risks of biosphere collapse bring the world together.
Cyberwar is endemic. Attacks on the US in late 2020 illustrate that basic infrastructure, nuclear installations and weapons systems are fragile. The risks of miscalculation and misjudgement are pervasive and poorly understood.
Why, when we face catatrophic destruction of species and ecosystems, are we still failing to grasp the urgency and magnitude of the problem? There are signs that COVID-19 is inspiring renewed efforts, but will they be enough?
The finance, pensions and insurance sectors have long relied on data and mathematical models to justify decisions. Risk is traded, based on projected returns. In this essay Peter Kingsley explores how in ‘edge of chaos’ environments, these culturally defined value models break down.
Title: Climate Action: glass half empty or half full?
Approx. Reading Time: 9 minutes
Author: Simon Tilford
Victory for Jo Biden and China’s announcement of a net zero target by 2060 are seen by many as game-changers. Simon Tilford argues that this is misplaced.
The ‘climate agreement’ between the US, China and Europe that the world needs will remain out of reach. Without it, market forces can only achieve so much. As carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere continue to rise, governments will start to panic. At this point, achieving strongly negative emissions will require both technological breakthroughs and fundamental shifts in how we live. Countries will also need to work together to drive rapid diffusion of these technologies and practices.Read Essay
Title: The New Biden Presidency: Facing Big Challenges in a Divided America
Approx. Reading Time: 15 minutes
Author: Mathew Burrows
Many people at home and abroad are breathing a sigh of relief with the election of Joe Biden. Mat Burrows argues that the new administration faces multiple challenges in an America deeply divided along urban/rural lines and by levels of education. While the new president has had the reputation of hammering out compromises with Republicans, he has inherited a poisoned chalice, not least combatting COVID-19 and vaccine distribution. He will come under pressure from within his own party for even more ambition on climate change and the test of the mid-term elections.Read Essay
Title: The Futures of Migration
Approx. Reading Time: 12 minutes
Author: Philippe Legrain
The future is uncertain and the flow of people particularly so. Trends can shift unexpectedly. ‘Weak signals’ of future change may flare up – or fade. Though the impact of ‘wild cards’ such as pandemics is quite predictable, their precise nature, timing and systemic repercussions are much less so.
Philippe Legrain argues that while the dynamics of future migration patterns may be uncertain, they are likely to be shaped by at least eight big factors: demography, economic disparities, geography, technology, conflict, climate change, politics and government policy. Whether the world ends up in a high-migration scenario or a low-migration one depends largely on the complex interactions between those factors – and especially on government policy.Read Essay
Title: The Great Acceleration: taxing machines and automation
Approx. Reading Time: 9 minutes
Author: Ryan Abbott
Fears that mass automation might drive unemployment and converge with low labour mobility have haunted policymakers for more than a decade. COVID-19 is driving ‘The Great Acceleration’: businesses have greater incentives than ever to exploit big data, artificial intelligence and robotics. There is a problem: state tax systems encourage investment in machines, rather than people. At the same time, pressures to raise taxes and deliver safety nets are growing. Ryan Abbott explores a possible win-win: inventive changes in tax systems, creating neutrality between people and AI.Read Essay
Competition for water is intensifying thanks to rapid population growth, climate change, ever more water-intensive food production, unchecked industrial use and failure to nurture natural water ecosystems. Conflict is inevitable, including between China and India. Simon Tilford argues that the only solution is to transform how we think about and use water.
Models are not reality. They are sometimes used as anchors, sometimes ignored by decision makers. Judgement in uncertainty is more about cultural context, the imagined futures of protagonists and the stories they tell. This short essay, by Peter Kingsley, from December 2017, is more relevant than ever, as political leaders struggle in an ‘age of chaos’.
Action to reduce emissions has momentum amongst world leaders, but there is little evidence of planning for the worst-case scenario—the defining feature of resilience. ‘Net Zero’ is not enough. Peter Kingsley argues that even with exponential rates of adoption of existing technologies, much depends on new inventions.
Disinformation is a threat to national security, public health and urgent action on global warming. Unfortunately, policymakers have to meet the dual challenge of countering public fears and deception as well as dealing with the real world.
A single, rarely explicit narrative has underpinned scientific and political dialogues about the global climate over the last thirty years: that by reducing carbon emissions, temperatures come under control. It may be flawed.
Simon Tilford argues that although China has so far confounded Western sceptics of its development model, there is plenty to be concerned about.
Could diverging economic performance within the euro zone as a result of the varying impact of COVID-19 (and different degrees of fiscal capacity) split the currency union?
COVID-19 may have blurred the picture about bio-engineered pandemics, one of the primary systemic risks facing humanity.
Simon Tilford explores the impact of unprecedented public spending and central bank stimulus on the emerging macroeconomic environment. While higher public debt does pose a problem, structurally weak demand and inflation pose a bigger one, making the current policy activism the lesser of two evils.
“A nuclear weapon catastrophe must be one of the most underestimated existential risks in the world”. The consequences, as Sir Adam Thomson explains, are so vast that they are numbing and unimaginable.
There is growing competition amongst world leaders to demonstrate their commitments to both reducing carbon emissions and dealing with the biodiversity crisis. Activist pressure may be beginning to tell on political leaders.
Simon Tilford explores the EU-Chinese trade relationship—the world’s biggest. Uneasy partnership is giving way to distrust. Will it inevitably go the way of US-Chinese relations? If so, what would the consequences be?